I can’t believe we haven’t talked about berry cobbler yet. August 27, and we haven’t talked about berry cobbler. I’ve got to fix that.
For a long time, I didn’t get terribly excited about cobbler. I think you’re either a cobbler person or a crisp person, the same way that you’re either a cake person or a pie person. My mother is a crisp person, and that’s what I grew up eating. I can be swayed by crumbles as well, mostly because they’re often indistinguishable from crisps, and also because crumble is such a nice word for a dessert. It sounds exactly like it tastes. (On a side note: did you know that French speakers pronounce it crum-bell? It’s awesome. I’m pretty sure Crum Bell is related to Tinker Bell, only she dresses a lot frumpier.) But more generally, in the matter of cobbler versus crisp, I lean consistently in the direction of crisp. It’s hard to beat anything involving streusel.
I met my friend Hannah a few years ago, and one day not long after, one completely normal day that was not even remotely near my birthday or any other holiday or special occasion, she gave me a copy of Chez Panisse Desserts. It was a first-edition copy, no less, a hardcover with the original Wayne Thiebaud jacket! I still feel a little faint when I think about it. Hannah didn’t know this at the time, but I had learned about Wayne Thiebaud in high school, and I loved his work so much that I bought a Wayne Thiebaud calendar and a Wayne Thiebaud day planner and spent most of a semester attempting to imitate him, outlining the objects in my paintings with thick, brightly colored strokes, and as a result, making a lot of regrettable artwork that now resides in a landfill somewhere. I loved Wayne Thiebaud. I loved this cookbook.
It had been her grandmother’s, Hannah told me. When Hannah was a kid, she used to spend weekends at her grandmother’s house. Sometimes she would try on her grandmother’s jewelry, and sometimes they would sit on the couch together, Hannah’s head on her grandmother’s lap, watching Julia Child, or Doctor Who, or golf. Hannah tells me that her grandmother would scratch her back as long as she wanted without ever complaining, which, as everybody knows, is the universal sign of a first-rate person. Sometimes the two of them would cook together. Hannah’s grandmother would stand her up at the kitchen counter on an upturned two-gallon bucket and let her help to measure, pour, and stir. Her grandmother had a huge collection of cookbooks, and I think Hannah would like me to put special emphasis on the adjective huge. It was huuuuuge. A few years ago, her grandmother began getting rid of some of her possessions, making her life a little smaller, and she told Hannah that she should take some of the cookbooks. Hannah went through the titles and, naturally, took home a stack of Julia Child books. She also spotted Chez Panisse Desserts, and she thought I might be able to do some good with it. So she took it home, and then she gave it to me. I keep it on the shelf next to the stove, and whenever I see it, I think of Hannah’s grandmother. I will probably never meet her, but I like to think that we know each other now somehow, that we’re connected in some small way. I wonder if she is a cobbler person or a crisp person.
A couple of weeks ago, I had a surplus of berries lying around and felt like baking. I pulled out Chez Panisse Desserts. I opened it up to the berry chapter, and the first recipe was for a simple cobbler. I guess I could have kept looking, poking around for a crisp or a cake or something else, but this cobbler sounded right. It sounded honest, not at all flashy, just a biscuit-like dough enriched with butter and cream, baked over sugared berries. There were no unusual flavorings or spices or flours or grains. I liked that. I liked that it was confident in its simplicity. So I tried it.
I know there are a million recipes out there for cobbler, and that what the world probably wants is some kind of new and different spin on the concept, but that’s not what this recipe is about. It doesn’t reinvent anything, and it’s not going to tie your shoes for you. That’s not what it’s meant to do. It’s meant to be an excellent cobbler, and it is. The topping is both light and rich, the way a good biscuit should be, and the fruit is only gently sweetened, its juices barely bound up with a spoonful of flour. It gets everything right. You could serve it warm with a splash of cold cream, or you could eat it warm with nothing, and the next day, you can stand at the counter and eat it from the pan, the way I did. In return, it made a cobbler person of me.
Lindsey Shere was Chez Panisse’s original pastry chef, and I love her style. She approaches even the simplest desserts with elegance and great precision. This cobbler is a good example of that.
The original version of this recipe calls for boysenberries, blueberries, and raspberries. I make it with roughly 3 cups of blueberries and 1½ cups of raspberries, and I love the flavor that results. I think I’ll be sticking with that combination for a while, although I might be tempted to work in some blackberries. The only berries that don’t work so nicely here are strawberries. The texture gets weird: spongy and slimy, a little reminiscent of a jellyfish. Oh, and if you’re using frozen berries, I recommend thawing them at least partially, or else they take a little longer to cook.
For cobbler dough:
Preheat the oven to 375°F.
Toss the berries with the sugar and flour. Use the larger amount of flour if the berries are very juicy. Set aside.
In a medium bowl, combine the dry ingredients for the cobbler dough. Using your fingers or a pastry blender, cut in the butter until the mixture looks like coarse cornmeal. Add the cream and mix lightly, until the dry ingredients are just moistened. [You can prepare the dry ingredients and butter up to a few days ahead, storing it in the refrigerator. The cream should not be added until you’re ready to bake.]
Put the berry mixture into a 1½-quart baking dish. Scoop up lumps of dough and form into rough patties, 2 to 2½ inches in diameter and about ½ inch thick. I find that the dough is a little sticky, so it helps to moisten my hands with a little water. Arrange the dough patties on top of the berries. Bake for 35 to 40 minutes, or until the topping is set and lightly browned and the berry juices bubble thickly around the edges of the dish.
Serve warm, with cream to pour over.
Note: This cobbler keeps well at room temperature for about two days. (I don’t like to refrigerate it, because the texture of the topping changes.) Rewarm it gently, if you want, before serving.
Yield: 4 to 6 servings