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Easier Than Pie


About 20 years ago, the story goes, a mysterious dessert appeared on a White House dinner menu: bette brune. It turned out to be plain old apple brown betty under a Frenchified name.

The real surprise is that brown betty would show up on a fancy menu at all. It belongs to a tribe of decidedly informal desserts that have been called spoon pies (they lack a bottom crust--or any bit of real pie crust, in fact--so a pie server isn't much use).

They're comfortable, unpretentious, old-time Yankee dishes, and there's no sophisticating them. Probably for this reason, leading cookbook writers like Fannie Farmer and Mrs. A.S. Lincoln pointedly ignored them at the turn of the century, when these desserts were more common than they are today.

They form an extended family classified according to their toppings. There's the biscuit side of the clan (cobblers, slumps, grunts and pandowdies), the cottage pudding side (buckles and upside-down cakes, which are more like cakes than pies) and their kin, the streusel-topped crisps. And let's not forget dear aunt Betty, who doesn't have a special topping at all.

They originated in New England, which explains why many of them call for Yankee sweetening ingredients like molasses or maple syrup. Several have spread around the country, so we all know about peach cobbler--or think we do. Crisp and some of the others are reasonably familiar. But grunt, slump and buckle have never really left their New England homes and definitely sound like uncouth country cousins.

Until you try some of them, that is. Nothing beats a good berry buckle.


"Cobbler" is one of those words, like "skillet," that sound ineffably warm and homey to us. This may be why so many sins have been committed in its name, such as treating it as just another word for pie.

Southerners are particularly guilty on that score. Some make real cobblers, but a lot have apparently decided that "cobbler" is the name you give pie when it has a peach filling. Mrs. S.R. Dull's classic "Southern Cooking" actually gives a recipe titled "Peach Pie, or Cobbler."

But the South has redeemed itself by coming up with the two-crust cobbler. In this fine invention, you bake half the cobbler until the topping (whether it's a standard pie crust or a real cobbler topping) is done, then you put the rest of the filling and topping on that and cook until the whole thing is done.

Restaurants are more serious sinners. They have been known to serve not only pies but crisps under the name of cobbler. Spago's pastry department seems to believe "cobbler" just means stewed fruit, to which you can do anything you want--sandwich it with shortcake, even top it with shredded filo.

Properly speaking, though, cobbler is fruit baked with spoonfuls of biscuit dough on top. The dough was thought to resemble cobblestones when it rose, hence the name "cobbler." In effect, a cobbler is stew with dumplings, except that the stew is stewed fruit.

It's the most versatile of the spoon pies. The filling can be apples, peaches, cherries, rhubarb, any sort of berry--in short, any fruit that can go into pie. In "The Supper Book," Marion Cunningham gives a recipe for a root vegetable cobbler, though it's not a dessert.

The topping is baking powder biscuit dough, sometimes sweetened and enriched with cream or extra shortening, which turns it into a sort of shortcake. When these richer doughs are used, they're often rolled out like pie crust, rather than being dropped on the fruit like dumplings.

Some cooks put the fruit on top of the biscuit dough and cover the whole thing with water. Magically, the biscuit floats up and envelops the fruit. Another trick that goes back to the 19th century is to set a teacup upside-down in the baking dish before putting in the fruit and the topping. When the cobbler is done, you invert it on a plate and presto--the cup is full of syrup (a lot of cobbler recipes make for a rather liquid fruit layer), which you pass as a sauce.


Pandowdy is the same as cobbler, except that the biscuit dough is always rolled out like a pie crust. When the biscuit is about done, or sometimes right at the start, you break it up or gash it in several places--a process known as "dowdying"--so that the fruit juices can bubble up and make for a crisp, fruit-splashed biscuit crust.

Or at least you're supposed to. A lot of pandowdies are really just cobblers with the rolled-type crust. There are even recipes in which the baking pan is covered with slices of bread dipped in butter, with more bread laid on top of the fruit, making a sort of charlotte. For shame!


A grunt is basically a steamed cobbler. The biscuit topping is often quite thick, and the steaming gives it a moister texture, more like cake than anything remotely resembling biscuits or pie crust, particularly since no browning takes place. Grunts are often served upside-down, which makes them look like cake.

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