A good, homely pudding needs a good, homely name. We have crumbles – the equivalent of the American ‘crisp’, though a crisp topping usually contains oats whereas a British crumble needs just fat, flour and sugar – but we can’t compete with the cosy family gathering of the ‘slump’, ‘grunt’, ‘pandowdy’, ‘cobbler’, ‘buckle’ and ‘brown betty’.
There may not be agreement on what each of these is (investigating the cobbler is as frightening as talking to Irish cooks about what an Irish stew should contain), as the names are used and understood differently depending on region, but what they all offer is a perfect pudding for this time of year. They are ‘throw it together’ puddings – a batter or crust with fruit above or below that extends the sweetness of summer, can transform less-than-perfect produce and welcomes the new season’s fruits, too.
American pastry chef Nicole Rucker, author of Dappled: Baking Recipes for Fruit Lovers, says these puddings were more of a symbol of American bounty during her childhood than a reality. ‘I grew up with peach cobbler and apple crisp, but not homemade versions.
They were a TV dinner found in the frozen section of the supermarket.’ These puddings are now enjoying a comeback because, she says, ‘people are bowled over by their simplicity, plus they just hit the right notes – a mixture of sweet, tart, salt and fat. They’re beautiful, too, oozing fruit juice.’
So, what are they and which of them is worth stealing for the British kitchen? A buckle is, to us, the most like a cake and the least like a pudding. It uses cake batter, is cooked in a tin and contains fresh fruit with a streusel topping. It gets its name supposedly because it ‘buckles’ as it cooks, and though I’m not convinced by that, you should take the recipe here – amended from one by US chef Cory Schreiber – and commit it to memory as it’s one of the best things you’ll ever make.
I’ve suggested apricots and raspberries but you can make it with plums, peaches, blueberries and blackberries as well. If you’re interested in upping your American fruit pudding game, the best book is Schreiber’s Rustic Fruit Desserts: Crumbles, Buckles, Cobblers, Pandowdies and More.
A grunt, or slump, which hales from New England, is a pudding of dumplings steamed on top of fruit in a covered pot. It’s so-called because, as the fruit bubbles, it makes a grunting sound (and looks as if it’s slumping).
A similar kind of dough – what we call a scone topping but the Americans call biscuit – is often used to make a cobbler, perhaps the most argued-over US pudding.
In John Russell Bartlett’s Dictionary of Americanisms (1859), a cobbler is described as ‘a sort of pie, baked in a pot lined with dough of great thickness, upon which the fruit is placed’. Other books of the time suggest that it’s usually made from peaches and that the fruit is baked whole, pits and all.
Leap forward to Irma Rombauer’s All New, All Purpose Joy of Cooking (my copy dates from 1997) and cobbler is described as a pudding that can be made with pastry, biscuit dough, breadcrumbs, cake batter or a crumble topping, the fruit cooked under, over or inside layers, thus not helping at all. Being British and Irish, I have no right to enter the fray, but in years of cooking these puddings, a cobbler, to me, has most often been fruit topped with a scone dough and baked.
If I bash the dough as it cooks, to allow the fruit juice to bubble through the cracks, the dish becomes a pandowdy. But whatever you call them, these puddings will take you from autumn right through to next summer’s stone fruit and are perfect for Sunday night suppers. Make the buckle immediately.