Celebrating summer with crisps and crumbles

Gardens and farms are overflowing with enticing produce - sweet melons, juicy peaches, flavorful apricots and wonderful sweet-tart raspberries.

apricots 88 (photo credit: )
apricots 88
(photo credit: )
Some people wonder why there are no major Jewish holidays in the summertime, yet our calendar was sensibly designed. In this warm season, nature provides us with its own feast. Gardens and farms are overflowing with enticing produce - sweet melons, juicy peaches, flavorful apricots and wonderful sweet-tart raspberries. These luscious treasures of summer are delightful on their own, but people who love baking - and their families - want to also taste them in treats like fruit tarts, pies and cakes. However, the warm weather, which makes possible this wealth of produce, makes many of us feel like relaxing. We'd rather spend more time sitting on the porch, near the pool or at the beach rather than standing in a hot kitchen, making dough, rolling it out and baking it in the oven. My dear Jerusalemite friend Ronnie Venezia, baker extraordinaire, comes to the rescue with a fabulous recipe in her just-published book, Great Cakes and Desserts (Hebrew, Yediot Aharonot/ Hemed Books, 2006). Ronnie uses sweet summer fruit to create a delicious nectarine and berry crisp. There's no complicated dough to make or roll out. You don't even need a mixer. You just crumble some ingredients together in a bowl and sprinkle the mixture over cut fruit, then bake the dessert. Topped with vanilla ice cream, it's a perfect warm-weather treat. Ronnie notes that this type of dessert is very popular in the US due to its ease of preparation and the fact that it is low in calories, and because its homey aroma reminds people of their mother's kitchens. In her version of this American classic, the topping is spiced with cinnamon, nutmeg and allspice, enriched with pecans, and gains an interesting texture and a healthy touch from the addition of oats. She makes a similar dessert from apples called a crumble, for which the fruit is blanketed generously with a simpler buttery topping made without oats or nuts. It, too, is an American favorite. Lisa Yockelson, author of Cobblers, Crisps and Deep-Dish Pies (HarperCollins, 1995), explained the dessert's name and appeal: "a fruit crisp gets its name from that crumbly mixture of flour, nuts, sugar and butter that bakes into a crunchy cover over a few inches of fruit... On baking, the top of the dessert will be golden and firm, and the fruit tender and bubbling." She likes a walnut topping with apples, pears, plums or blackberries, prefers pecans with blueberries, and finds almonds or macadamia nuts complement apricots, peaches and cherries. Her pear crisp is flavored with bourbon, her plum crisp with dark rum and her apple pear crisp with preserved ginger. Vanilla-flavored yogurt mixed with honey is one of her favorite accompaniments. Another friend of mine, Linda Zimmerman, author of Cobblers, Crumbles, and Crisps, and Other Old-Fashioned Fruit Desserts (with Peggy Mellody, Clarkson Potter, 1991), feels that these early American fruit desserts are much easier to make than pie. One of her favorites is apple cheddar crumble, with tart apples and golden raisins in the filling and a pecan topping enriched with shredded sharp cheddar cheese. Jim Dodge, the author of Baking with Jim Dodge (with Elaine Ratner, Simon & Schuster, 1991), wrote that these "very American desserts could have developed only in a land of plenty. They are great favorites among cooks who are blessed with fruit trees or berry bushes... and more fresh fruit than they know what to do with." He tops his pineapple crisp with a mixture of butter, flour and brown sugar, and serves the dessert with a white chocolate sauce flavored with cream and rum. Although these desserts require baking, you can put them in the oven during the cooler evenings, then warm them briefly before serving. For really hot days I sometimes make a "cheaters" fruit crisp by heating sliced fruit for a few minutes with a little sugar and butter in a skillet or in a dish in the microwave, then, instead of making a topping, I serve it sprinkled with granola and crowned with scoops of ice cream. RONNIE VENEZIA'S NECTARINE AND BERRY CRISP This tasty dessert is from Ronnie's new book. Serve it with ice cream or whipped cream, as Ronnie recommends, or with vanilla yogurt. - 6-8 servings For Crumble Topping: 1⁄3 cup light brown sugar 1⁄3 cup white sugar 2⁄3 cup flour 1⁄3 cup rolled oats (dry oatmeal) 1⁄2 tsp. cinnamon 1⁄4 tsp. ground nutmeg 1⁄4 tsp. allspice 75 gr. cool butter, softened slightly and cut in small cubes 1⁄2 cup (50 gr.) pecans, chopped finely Filling: 1⁄3 cup sugar 2 Tbsp. cornstarch 1⁄4 tsp. cinnamon 1⁄4 tsp. nutmeg 750 gr. nectarines, cut in thick slices 11⁄2 cups mixed fresh berries (or frozen, not thawed) 2 tsp. fresh lemon juice 1 tsp. grated lemon zest 30 gr. butter, melted, lukewarm Deep pyrex dish (square or oval) 25 x 22 cm, greased To prepare the topping: 1. In a medium bowl, mix both types of sugar, the oatmeal and the spices. Add the butter cubes and rub with your hands to obtain small crumbs of dough. Add the pecans and mix. To prepare the crisp: 2. Heat the oven to medium-high (190C). In a small bowl, mix the sugar with the cornstarch, cinnamon and nutmeg until blended. 3. In a large bowl, mix the nectarines with the berries, lemon juice, lemon zest and sugar mixture. 4. Transfer the fruit to the baking dish and pour the melted butter over it. Scatter the crumble dough over the top. 5. Bake about 35 minutes until the topping is golden, the fruit is bubbling and the point of a knife easily pierces it. Cool in the baking dish on a rack. Serve warm with a scoop of vanilla ice cream, or with whipped cream. Faye Levy is the author of Fresh from France: Dessert Sensations (Dutton).