For the holiday weekend, I took a little trip up to a friends cabin in Western Wisconsin (that’s some of us above, kicking back outside.) On the first night a neighbor – Willie – came over for a visit. We got to talking about cobbler. He asked if I could teach him how to make one like his Grandma made. Sure, I said. Is it more cakey or does it have a biscuit type of crust? He said something about pie crust; it had a pie crust on the top and bottom. Huh? At least that’s what I think he said. There were a lot of strong opinions being thrown about and none of us, besides Willie, thought a cobbler had two crusts. We all call that pie. He left and I didn’t think much of it, doubtful our “lesson” would come to pass.
Well, I was wrong. It took a few days to take on this task because I spent most of the weekend laid low with a combination of bad allergies and a head cold. Every time Willie came over, I was napping and perhaps avoiding him just a little. You see, I was a tad annoyed. During that initial visit, Willie said he didn’t think he had met me before. I said, “Of course we’ve met. I come up every year with these two” [gesturing to my friends.] Willie, looked intently at me for a second or two: “Oh yeah, I’ve met you. You’re the baker, right? You look different. You’ve gained some weight.” Oh. Good. God. Seriously? Did he really just say that? It may have been true [a hazard of my career choices] but C’MON! At this point, I wasn’t eager to show this guy anything except a swift kick to his two gold teeth.
Finally, on Sunday I couldn’t avoid him any longer. I walked around the cabin until I could get a cell signal and googled “cobbler”. Not having a recipe memorized, I needed to do a search and thought this recipe sounded about right. At least that’s what my pal Amanda and I decided – thickened fruit topped with a sweet batter. That’s how her Grandma made it. It couldn’t be put off any longer; I failed to realize how important this was to him. Willie was persistent, almost stalker-like. OK fine. FINE.
So Willie shows up right around dinner-time with blackberries, sugar, flour, vanilla and a big hunk of Wisconsin butter. I start to talk about making a batter and he starts talking about a crust. It’s clear we’re on completely different pages. Our “conversation” went something like this.
Me: “A crust? There’s no pie crust in cobbler. “
Him: “Yes there is. A crust on the bottom, a crust on top and fruit in between.”
Me: “That’s a PIE.”
Him: “No, it’s a cobbler. That’s how my Grandma made it.”
Me: “Well that may be but that’s a PIE.”
Him: “No it’s not. You’re making a Northern cobbler. I want a Southern cobbler.”
Me: “But that’s a pie! A cobbler has a topping that bakes up nubbed or cobbled, hence the name!”
Back and forth, back and forth. We got a little snippy. I think I even threw out the “god dammit I do this for a living!” line. Everyone else scattered amongst the verbal shrapnel. I was sick, tired and rather annoyed. Fat, my ass. Willie was perturbed that I was so unyielding. We bickered with each other – the crabby chubby pastry chef and the gold toothed over cologned southern man.
Then the histamine fog in my head cleared and I thought “Jesus Kathy. Just make the man what he god damn wants and get this over with. If he wants two crusts with a soupy fruit layer in between, then so be it. Worry about semantics later.” I can make a butter pie crust in my sleep so that’s what I did. He was happy, the cabin smelled great and I could go to sleep before my head exploded all over the kitchen. So be it.
But it got me to thinking … what the hell is a cobbler anyway? The more I looked into it, the more confused I became. Cobbler, Crisp, Crumble. Then there’s Grunt, Slump, Pandowny, Buckle, Betty and then good ‘ol Pie. Seriously … what the hell? The more I googled, the more confused I became, a hazard of too much information at your fingertips.
My pal Waffleizer (aka Dan) decided I needed some help (god love him!) and lent me Rustic Fruit Desserts by Cory Schreiber and Julie Richardson. Here’s how they define it: “Cobbler: a deep dish fruit pie. It has a dense pastry on top (usually a sweet cream biscuit crust) and a fruit filling, with no crust beneath. In some versions, the crust completely covers the fruit, while others have a dropped-biscuit topping that leaves some of the fruit exposed.”
Well, wait a minute. That sounds rather limiting, doesn’t it? Like it was written based on a personal viewpoint? I don’t come from a cobbler culture and even I know the definition is larger than this. It was time to dig deeper, ditch the internet and hit the stacks. Out came the experts: Richard Sax (Classic Home Desserts), Greg Patent (Baking in America) and my doyenne of Southern Cooking; Miss Edna Lewis (The Taste of Country Cooking.) Surely they had the answer (and don’t call me Shirley. Oy!)
First to Baking in America: Contemporary and Traditional Favorites from From the Past 200 Years. That title alone sounds promising, right? There has to be an answer within these pages! Here’s what the author, Greg Patent, has to say about the subject … Cobbler: “fruit baked under a layer of tender pastry. The pastry is thicker than a piecrust and may be a leavened biscuit dough or a regular pastry dough.” Huh. So biscuits or pastry but nothing about a bottom crust and nothing about a batter. OK, it was a start. Next!
I looked through more books; a lot of recipes but not much explanation. Most authors were in the biscuit, top crust or batter camps and no double crusts whatsoever. Finally, I turned to Richard Sax. Surely he would have some insight, his book alone has 350 classic American recipes! I was right. I should have known to go there first. From Classic Home Desserts: “Much as we might like to be definitive, old-fasioned desserts are ‘folk food’ – people’s food – cooked at home, made with slight variations from kitchen to kitchen, and like all folk culture, the recipes are passed orally from person to person, often never written down. For this reason, definitions are hard to agree upon. I think of a real cobbler as made with biscuit dough, but pie-crust is often used. For me, it’s dough on top, fruit underneath. But plenty of Southern peach cobblers have bottom crusts or two crusts with the fruit in between. Who is to say, in some attempt at academic codification, that these traditional Southern cobblers are not true cobblers?” It was like he was speaking just to me.
His “definition”? Cobbler: “fruit baked with a crust. Most cobblers are made with a top crust of biscuit dough, which can be either a single solid layer or individual biscuits (“cobbles”.) Pastry or bread dough is often substituted, and some cobblers are made with a bottom as well as a top crust.” Well, damn. Thank YOU Mr. Sax!
Finally, I turned to Miss Edna. Sure enough, in The Taste of Country Cooking, is a recipe for Wild Blackberry Cobbler. And it had a top and bottom crust. Well, I’ll be damned. Looks like double crust cobblers are “Southern style”. I didn’t believe Willie but I most certainly believe Miss Edna Lewis.
A few days ago, my friend Calvin put this all into perspective. After describing my double crust cobbler/pie debacle, Calvin says “Oh yeah, he’s talking about black people’s cobbler. Like my Dad’s family in Tennessee makes.” Me: “Uh, what?” Calvin: “That’s how they make cobbler down south. Was the filling kind of soupy?” Me: “Yes.” Calvin: “Yep, that’s how my aunt makes it. Personally, I like the filling drier with a cakey kind of topping like my Mom made. Heeeeyyyyy, do you know how to make that?” Oh man, here we go again. And then he said “By the way, I bet he meant the weight comment as a compliment.” My eyes just about popped out of my head. I don’t even know what to think about that.
So after quite a bit of research, I have a better idea not of what a cobbler is but what a cobbler can be. And there really is no single definitive answer. There are several ways to cobble – you can do a biscuit topping, some sort of pastry or pie crust on top or “go Southern” and double crust it. You can also make a batter version which none of these definitons even gets into. The only definitive thing I can say is that it always, always has fruit in it. How you top it (or bottom it) is entirely up to personal preference and family conviction.
I didn’t take pictures of Willie’s cobbler that day because honestly, I didn’t really care for it. And yeah, mainly because I was annoyed. But over the summer, I’ll do all three versions for you plus explore the world of crisps, crumbles, grunts, slumps, pandownys, buckles, bettys and maybe even a fool or trifle. I’m back working the fruitstand so it’ll be a good excuse to use up some of that bruised fruit. I gotta find some eaters!
So do you have a preference? I’m curious. What’s a cobbler to you? Please comment – I find this all very interesting.
STRESS BAKING THERAPY FACTOR: A MIXED BAG. This was a tough one. On one hand, the whole situation kind of pissed me off. But on the other, I was really intrigued and compelled to find out just exactly what a cobber was. I’m glad I did. The whole process was fascinating and I learned that people have very strong feelings on the subject. Plus I love a dessert like this – warm, juicy, comforting, extremely seasonal. It provokes deep happy feelings in people and brings up warm fuzzy stories about their grandmas. I like that. This has HUGE stress baking potential. Stay tuned.
A note on the photos: Since I haven’t really baked anything on this topic yet (besides that soupy, argument inducing double crust cobbler), I’ve included pics from my weekend of the cabin and barns in the surrounding areas. I really have a thing for barns and rolling green farmland. Having grown up in a desert, I find this landscape particularly beautiful. They’re too pretty not to share.