If I was banished to a desert island but could request one food to sustain me until the end of my days, it would be apple crumble. This might be why I wrote ‘dessert island’ just now and had to correct it – sadly, this is not an edible island floating in a sea of custard, although I would enjoy that. If you ask this question to most people, they usually declare their love for something savoury. I haven’t met one other person who would take dessert to a desert island which is just utterly barmy in my opinion. But, an apple, pear and plum crumble with hazelnuts might convince them to forgo the salty and embrace the sweet.
Now and then you’ll came across a child who’s favourite flavour isn’t chocolate or strawberry or bubblegum or whatever blue raspberry is. Instead these peculiar oddities of children become predictable in their own ways. My favourite flavour was apple. Apples had my name written all over their rosy pink cheeks.
My family and I have always had a penchant for the sweet side of life, yet all three of them would definitely take something seasoned with salt and pepper to a desert island. I don’t know where I went wrong in their educations. Anyway, when hovering in front of the glass cabinets at the bakeries we would visit with our parents, my sister and I were predictable.
She would always choose a chocolate éclair and I would hunt out the requisite apple pastry – whether it would be an apple Danish or an apple turnover, it didn’t really matter as long as there was softly-cooked apple involved – ideally cubed apple because that usually meant it was sweeter, like a processed apple jam. Real apple was inessential to child-me. Sugary apple flavouring was the meaning of life.
This apple goo filled Mr Kipling apple pies and was stuffed inside doughnuts. I made an apple smoothie once when I was 11, delighted at the prospect of those sublime sugary appley flavours, then was horrified that it was essentially a glass of mush – someone should have mentioned that apples are hard and tart and don’t blend in a smoothie maker (strangely though apple juice has never been my favourite. Tastes are fickle beasts).
I’ve made numerous appley treats since starting this old blog, and in one case, jarred up a pan full of apple, maple and thyme compote in a recycled crème fraiche jar, forgot to mention it to Gaylord who then found it the next day and threw it all out in horror, believing my precious puree was in fact crème fraiche extremely past its use-by-date. My porridge the next day was a sad lonely sight.
So, yes apples and I have a history. I even used to tell my sister stories about a family of apples who lived in the hold of a cargo ship. I still to this day have a little frisson of excitement just seeing apple and cinnamon flavoured granola. Some may say I have a problem.
Best of all, of course, was apple crumble. It was that homecooked dessert that tasted magical no matter who made it, whether it was my mum or dad or the school lunch ladies who would serve it in an enormous deep-sided tray ready for them to portion up and I would then slather mine with custard from the neighbouring tureen.
Apple crumble doesn’t require many ingredients – say 6 at a push? – yet this school version was so utterly different to the one we ate at home, it might as well have been a different dessert. There are two layers to every crumble – the crisp topping of buttery biscuity crumbs and the fruity bottom. I wonder whether the layer we prefer says anything about each of us as a person, if we can read it like a tarot card or horoscope?
The school crumble was topping-heavy, dense with crispy streusel that would soften from the damp fruit. My parents’ crumbles were always more fruit friendly and would favour apples from our tree. These were cooking apples, ones that softened to puree when cooked and were tongue-curlingly sour to my juvenile tastes, so eating apples were stirred in too as well as spoonfuls of sugar.
I think the fact my parents favoured the fruit was because they had a surplus of apples and had two young children and wanted to keep the doctor at bay. And they knew they were feeding an apple fiend. And school, well they were loading us up on sugar and carbs, weren’t they? An attitude I wholly respect.
Before apples and I run off into the sunset together and make a happy home on that desert island, let me reign it in and focus. Because, while I am the biggest advocate for apple crumble, I can say it is only improved by becoming an apple, pear and plum crumble. And don’t forget it’s a crumble with hazelnuts too. All these harmonious flavours welcome the change of season now it is mid-September, and like rhythmic gymnasts all of them balance together so perfectly that all of their flavour profiles come to the fore.
Apple, Pear and Plum Crumble: the autumnal holy trinity
Last week, my raincoat and I returned to the UK for an unexpected heatwave. The sweltering weather in London as I hauled along my bags and a blazer I didn’t need to bring was not going to deter me from the crumble I was determined to make – as, when in England, one must eat puddings, ideally crumble and custard. If you’re ever in the UK and at a loss for something to do, have a pudding (aka dessert). It’s part of the cultural landscape.
Not only did I make an apple, pear and plum crumble, but I made two. I know, I know, no one likes an overachiever, but the second crumble was because the first just hit the spot.
As the name says, apples, pears and plums (oh my!) were peeled where necessary and chopped then tossed in dark treacly muscovado sugar. This stuff is the mahogany of sugars, molasses in solid form and is so soft it sits like a dark eiderdown over the fruit. All the fruit was squidgy ripe, aside from the apples which would just become mealy. The pears add that touch of sweetness, balancing the tart plums and apples. All of it was macerated in the dark sugar as the crumble topping was made.
In the battle of the crumble layers, I like mine to be fairly even, I like a democratic apple crumble me, so the topping is fairly thick here, enough to give some bite and chew. Crumble topping is essentially crumbled up shortbread biscuits, the ingredients and quantities are identical, but baked over simmering juicy fruit, the topping softens underneath, forming a textural bridge between the buttery softness of the pears, apples and plums and those crunchy hazelnuts.
If you’ve never tried a crumble with hazelnuts, now is the time to do so. In all of my dad’s crumbles, no matter the fruit, you will find a layer of crushed hazelnuts, some kept whole for crunch, under the topping. Crumbles are the greatest desserts for textural ingenuity, you can’t exactly sneak a layer of crunch into a panna cotta as someone might break a tooth. Instead in a crumble there are nooks and crannies to sneak additional treats.
To roast the hazelnuts or not to roast? The beauty of this double apple, pear and plum crumble week meant I could experiment with my hazelnut additions. For one I roasted the hazelnuts, for the other I didn’t bother. And of course, roasting the hazelnuts was far superior. Blanched hazelnuts are fairly insipid, a bit soft and flavourless. Give them a touch of heat from the oven and they are a nutty crunchy knockout, and you can taste them in every bite of stewed fruit.
And finally, if I haven’t convinced you to take a crumble to a desert island by now, then maybe this last trick up my sleeve will help – be merry and eat crumble and custard. Homemade custard is too laborious for its own good, so sunflower-yellow Birds is the only appropriate custard here. Admittedly, none of these photos include custard, instead I ate my second helping with crème fraiche because I was lazy, and yes, I regret that, but this a magnanimous crumble – it tastes delicious with everything, even on its own, cold from the fridge.
So, who here is for the desert island? I hear apple, pear and plum crumble with hazelnuts is on the menu.
Apple, Pear and Plum Crumble with Hazelnuts
- 200 g ripe pears I used conference pears
- 300 g plums stones removed
- 100 g apples I used a mixture of eating and cooking apples
- 2 heaped tbsp muscovado sugar
- 165 g plain flour
- 80 g cold butter cubed
- 80 g sugar caster or golden caster sugar
- 80 g blanched hazelnuts
- Preheat the oven to 180°C/160°C fan/350°F. Start by prepping the fruit – peel the pears and apples and cut them into small bite-size pieces. Unless you're using cooking apples, neither will lose their shapes as they cook, so they need to be small to eat easily. Chop the plums into quarters depending on size and dispose of the stones.
- Put all the fruit in a large bowl and stir in the muscovado sugar. Leave to macerate as you make the topping.
- In a mixing bowl, combine the flour and cold cubed butter – rub the butter into the flour until the mixture resembles coarse bread crumbs. Stir in the sugar.
- Place the hazelnuts on a small baking tray and roast them in the oven for 5 minutes. Check them to see if they are taking colour – if they are golden brown then they are ready, if not return them to the oven for another minute or so. They do not need long to become flavourful.
- Either using a pestle and mortar or on a chopping board with the back of a sharp knife, crush half of the hazelnuts into rough chunks.
- Fill a high-sided baking dish (approx. 20 x 30cm) with the macerated fruit. Top with the hazelnuts then the crumble topping. Place the crumble in the oven and bake for 45 minutes until the topping is lightly golden and the juices are bubbling over. Leave to cool slightly as you make custard! If you're not feeling in the mood for custard (which is surely never?) then it's delicious with crème fraiche or ice cream.