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Monday, July 21, 2008

Healthier Fruit Crisp Topping (with a hint of ginger!)

There is perhaps no dessert more perfect for summer than a seasonal fresh fruit cobbler or pie. My husband is a fresh fruit dessert fanatic. There is no quicker way to that man's heart than to surprise him with a pie or cobbler made from fresh seasonal fruit. And if you buy seasonal fruits at the peak of their ripeness, the fruit itself has almost all the succulent sweetness you need, with very little extra sugar for the filling, and that makes for a great, natural, healthy dessert. Which just leaves us with that perennial problem: how to top it?

Some days are days just made for pie, and on those days we'll splurge for the indulgence of two buttery crusts encasing flavorful fruit. But on most days I reach for the healthier option of topping the fruit with a crisp topping. Now I've taken the traditional crisp topping up a notch to maximize its healthy elements with oats, fiber and flax and kick up the flavor with some mouthwatering ginger.

I was originally going to call this post "ginger Cabernet rhubarb crisp" but upon reflection, I realized that the really exciting thing about the recipe was that the crisp topping: loaded with healthy oats and flax with a tantalizing hint of fresh ginger. And as I was chewing this fabulous topping over, literally, I found myself thinking that there really isn't a fruit that gets made into cobbler or pie that doesn't shine when paired with ginger. Peaches? yes. Rhubarb? Uh-huh. Strawberry? You betcha.

Some crisp toppings are quite heavy on the butter, but I'm not convinced that in this particular dessert, butter really plays a significantly distinctive role. Sometimes it is a worthy indulgence, but (in my opinion) not here. Similarly, some crisp toppings rely on nuts for added crunch. I prefer to only use high-fat nuts where you can really taste their contribution. Unless you use quite a few, I generally feel that the true taste of the nuts usually gets lost amid the fruit and sweet and oat of a crisp. But if you like nuts and aren't too worried about your waist-line, you can certainly add a few in here as well. But one of the beauties of this topping is that it has half the calories and almost a third of the fat of traditional crisp toppings.

Continue on for a brief historical and informational discussion on the differences among crisp, crumble and cobbler, or skip to the recipe.

To crisp or to crumble, that is the question

Many posts on variants of crust-topped fruit desserts begin with some semantic dancing around the idea of "cobbler" "crisp" and "crumble," that usually amounts to people claiming they are all the same thing. I'd like to be a little radical and suggest that we don't really need three different words to describe the same thing, and that those differences are not really wholly the result of regional differences in language talking about the same food.

Cobblers are generally more biscuit-like, and contain a larger topping to fruit ratio than either of its cousins. The terms "crisp" and "crumble" originally have distinctly different origins. Crumbles originated in Britain during WWII in response to rationing that made ingredients for pastry crust too scarce to make traditional pies. A little female ingenuity gave birth to the common crumble. By contrast, crisps are generally thought to be an American invention that first appears in the cooking canon in 1924. Typically associated with apples, crisp can never the less be made with any fruits.

I would like to suggest that we use the vocabulary we have at our disposal to make a meaningful distinction within the world of fruit desserts: the topping. Because the world of toppings for fruit desserts can be fairly neatly divided into two. First there are those that are primarily oat-based, include no leavening agent, and bake up to be somewhat crunchy. On the other hand, there are a class of toppings that are primarily flour based and include leavening agents, so they poof up as they bake into an almost strudel-like consistency that resembles fluffy round pebbles. Because the oat-based toppings are, well, crisp, and the flour/leavening toppings resemble crumbled pebbles, I would like to propose that we call them by that distinction. Seems logical enough eh? So spread the word: "major lexicographical problem of fruit desserts solved!" Let's just see if it catches on...

Healthier Fruit Crisp Topping

By The Skinny Gourmet (E. McDonnell)

3 tablespoons sugar
1.5-2 inches fresh ginger, peeled
1/2 cup oats plus 2 Tbsp
2 Tbsp raw wheat bran
3 tsp ground flax seed
1 Tbsp all purpose flour
pinch cloves
dash cinnamon
2 Tbsp melted butter

There are two approaches to the ginger, depending on how much you like the taste of ginger:
  • If you prefer a more subtle ginger taste, add the fresh ginger in two or three large hunks into a small bowl with the sugar and "muddle" the ginger into the sugar. once you have the flavor fairly well distributed into the sugar (it will be fragrant), remove the large chunks, brushing off as much sugar as is possible. Discard the chunks of ginger and continue the recipe using the sugar.
  • If you like a slightly more pronounced ginger taste, chop the ginger into finer pieces. You can either manually muddle the ginger into the sugar or you can process the ginger and the sugar together in a small capacity food processor. Either way, it is done when the ginger mostly disappears and there are no more large visible chunks.

Mix the remaining dry ingredients together. Add the sugar to the dry ingredients and mix to combine. Melt the butter and pour over the dry ingredients. Mix to combine. It should resemble coarse sand. (*do not, as I did in the photo above, get so eager about the cool food photo that you add the dry ingredients before adding the butter. It is messy and difficult to undo). If the crisp doesn't hold together, add one more tablespoon of melted butter. If it still isn't thick enough for your tastes, you may add one tablespoon of vanilla yogurt.

Spoon topping evenly over the fruit base of your choice. Bake according to the directions for your fruit crisp recipe, or at 400 degrees for 20-25 minutes.


Sophie said...

We'd like to invite you to participate in our July berry recipe contest. All competitors will be placed on our blogroll, and the winner will receive a fun prize! Please email me,, if you're interested. Feel free to check out our blog for more details. (Click on my name in the message header link to visit our blog. :)

Erin @ The Skinny Gourmet said...

Thanks for the invite sophie. I'll put my brain to some ideas, although it will be tough because technically in the division of household labor, my darling husband is cooking for the rest of July. Perhaps I can wrestle some kitchen time from him.

Anonymous said...

Erin - This looks good. I love healthier versions of anything, and I like the idea of using oats, bran and flax to make this a more complete topping.

Grace said...

cobbler, crisp, crumble. pie. brown betty. whatever--i'll eat it all. but only with vanilla ice cream. :)

Pirouette said...

Yes, a friend of mine did tell me that the true way to a man's heart is through his stomach (he was a guy, of course:). Anytime you want to post male-friendly recipes, let me know. :)

Kirby! said...

yummers! I didn't know it was possible to healthify crisp!

I also wanted to let you know that I nominated you for a Brillante Weblog Award. You can see my site for details, and hopefully nominate seven of your own favorites!

Ma Baker said...

Great idea. Adding the bran and flax is great.
I love how so many of your dessert recipies are healthier versions.

Kim said...

I just tried this with "left-overs"; mango, apple, strawberries and raspberries from the yard. Should have made more! Great recipe, Erin.

Erin @ The Skinny Gourmet said...

Panda: I love healthier everything too! It is one of my big goals for this blog :)

Grace: I agree, a good scoop of vanilla ice cream or yogurt makes any warm crisp that much better

Pirouette: All my recipes are husband tested. I like to think of them all as man-friendly, but of course not all qualify as a direct means to entice.

thanks Kirby

Ma: woo hoo!

Kim: if your back yard provides you those sorts of "leftovers" you can color me jealous.

Kevin said...

I like the sound of this healthy crisp topping. The ginger sounds really good.

Kirsty Girl said...

This topping will be divine over peaches. I love ginger and peach.

Eileen said...

If I want to utilize either ginger syrup or candied ginger (since I have both), how can I modify your fruit crisp topping recipe to use one or both of them?

Eileen said...

Is there any difference between a crisp topping and granola?

Erin said...

Kevin: glad to hear it strikes you

Kirsty: I'm sure you are right that it would be great with peaches. Peach and ginger is a divine pairing

Eileen: I would say that granola is one kind of crisp topping, but many other things also fall into the category. Moreover, I never use granola in crisp toppings I intend to bake, because it has already been baked. So for a quickie topping, you can shake some granola over baked fruit. I prefer doing it myself because you have more control over the taste elements, and because granola is usually prepared in such a way that it is really not all that healthy for you.

As for ginger syrup or candied ginger, my first instinct is to use the candied ginger. Just add a few hunks to a food processor along with the sugar from the recipe and process them together. In this case you will have to use your own taste to determine how much of the candied ginger is right for you. If you like a big ginger taste you might use four as a starting place. if you are more hesitant, I'd start with two ginger pieces and work up from there. I'm leaning away from the syrup not only because I've never used it, but because introducing a liquid is likely to mess with the final consistency more than using the candied solid ginger pieces.

Anonymous said...

I used substitutions based on what was in my house including honey, Earth Balance, almond butter (instead of the flax meal), and oat bran. It came out delicious but very spicy.

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