Forget Pie, Love Apple Crisp: How to Make the Perfect Crumb Topping

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Easier than pie—and if I dare say it, tastier, too. [Photographs: Vicky Wasik]

Get the Recipe

Pie is great. Go ahead, you make it.

Me, I'll be here with crisp, and I'm asking you to join me.

When it comes to baked fruit dessert, pie has a way of hogging the spotlight. And I get it. The buttery, flaky crust. The meticulous construction. The ample—ample—American tradition behind it all. This is all very nice.

Yet pie is also, even for the seasoned baker, a chore to make. (Okay, I'll be friendly and call it "involved.") There is dough to make (but not over-mix!) and roll (but not too much!) and blind bake (with beans or pie weights!) and shape (you better nail that rustic almost-perfect shape!). Pie is great. But even with our Easy Pie Crust recipe, Pie is a pain in the tuchis.

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Now what do we want from our fruit desserts? I want fruit, front and center, and plenty of it. I want butter. I want crackle and crunch. And I want a hint of spice, just enough umph to make the fruit taste even more like itself.

Crisp does it all. In a fraction of the time it takes to make pie, with an even smaller fraction of the work. There's more fruit, more flavor and texture in the buttery-carby layer of good stuff, and you can begin making one from scratch and have dessert ready in an hour. Show me a pie crust that offers you the same courtesy.

So let's make some crisp.

In Search of the Perfect Crisp Topping

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In the sordid world of fruit dessert taxonomy, crisp is a distinct entity from cobblers, crunches, and crumbles. Cobblers rely on some kind of dough. Crumbles call specifically for oats. Crunch prefers bread crumbs.

But crisp—crisp can use nuts, and that's where things get interesting. Because nothing complements fruit like toasted nuts. (Yes, butter too. That's a given.)

For years I've relied on a wonderful crisp template from one of the best chefs I know: Suzanne Drexhage, who's put in plenty of time at Berkeley's Chez Panisse and now helms the kitchen of Bartavelle cafe and wine bar.

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Suzanne's crisp topping relies on pecans (the best nut), lemon zest, and plenty of salt for a balance of toasted and light flavors that do wonders for all kinds of fruit, but especially apples. You build it in a food processor and it's ready to bake in mere minutes. As with all genius techniques, it's versatile: the only crisp topping you'll ever need.

Over the years I've taken liberties with her recipe, making it more and more my own, but I never tested it in a particularly rigorous way. I figured it was finally time to break the topping down, element by element, and see how to make it the best damned crisp topping it can possibly be. Let's take a look.

The Nuts

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When it comes to deep, toasted flavor and satisfying crunch, no good 'ol American nut matches pecans. There's not much to figure out here, except that whole pecan halves are generally preferable to chopped-up bits (the former stay fresh longer), and whether or not you should both toasting the nuts before baking.

You should. Toasted pecans—which you can do in the the oven while it pre-heats—have an incomparable depth of flavor. The crisp tastes fine without toasting pecans first, but this one step helps them announce themselves in the final product.

The Butter

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Is there any difference between plain American unsalted butter and the higher fat, slightly tangy taste of fancy European butter?

I baked up two batches of crisp and let [blind] tasters tell me. The verdict? Our recipe guru Daniel definitely preferred the crisp made with Plugra butter (a standard-bearer of the European set), but others were less sure of the differences. I'd say fancier butter adds a small bonus of flavor to your crisp. If you love your butter and don't mind spending the extra cash, go for it and gild the lily. But if you'd rather save the good stuff for spreading on toast, the crisp won't turn out worse for wear.

The Sugar

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There's a dozen sugar varieties you could try out for crisp, but in major supermarkets you have four choices: plain white, light brown, dark brown, and (the bougie option) raw. Raw sugar, also called "turbinado," is a coarse, crystalline ingredient that's less refined than white or brown sugar. Its molasses impurities give it a delicate toffee-caramel flavor that I love in desserts for a subtle dose of depth. (Brown sugar is actually made by dosing refined white sugar with molasses.)

What sugar is best for crisp? White sugar produces a bland, toothachingly sweet topping. Brown sugar—light and dark—fare better, but pile on strong tangy molasses notes that I think distract from the fruit underneath. Raw sugar offers what I'd consider the best balance of unrefined complexity and clean flavor—it supports the fruit without overwhelming it.

Though I'd be remiss to not mention that several of the Serious Eats tasting panel preferred light brown sugar to the raw stuff: they just dug the rich, intense holiday flavor it brought to the apples. I disagree with them, but if you want that darker flavor in your crisp, feel free to substitute an equal amount of brown sugar in this recipe.

The Spice

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Lemon zest is a crisp game-changer, adding citrus lightness and fragrance to an otherwise heavy dessert. Don't be shy about it: a whole tablespoon of lemon zest isn't too much.

As for spices, cinnamon and clove are both bossy animals, not what you want for a go-anywhere, do-anything crisp topping. At home, my go-to is mace, a spice that's related to nutmeg but to my mind blows it out of the water. Imagine a cross between nutmeg and coriander, tinged with citrus and cinnamon. Add to that the same nostril-widening properties that nutmeg, mint, and basil share. Then add the complexity of raw sugar. That's mace.

If you can find mace (it's plentiful online), I'd suggest seeking it out. But if you don't want to place an online order just to eat some apple crisp, nutmeg is just peachy: assertive but smart enough not to trample over other ingredients.

But perhaps the most important spice to keep in mind for crisp is salt, and plenty of it. Crisp is sweet business, and if you want to fully taste the fruit, nuts, lemon, butter, sugar, and spice all competing for your attention, you gotta be generous with the salt.

Put it All Together

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Once you've figured out your crisp components, putting it together (unlike a certain other dessert), is a snap. This recipe is easy enough to commit to memory and fast enough, with a food processor's help, to assemble before your kitchen slave helper can finish prepping the fruit.

And I do mean any fruit. It's fall now, so I'm sticking with apples, but peaches, blueberries, rhubarb, plums, nectarines, and more are all totally compatible with this topping.

Measure the Dry Ingredients

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Measure out your pecans and get them toasting. Then weigh your flour and sugar. Yes, weigh—crisp doesn't have to be exact, but all baking is improved by measuring in grams or ounces, not cups or quarts, and a kitchen scale is well worth the small investment.

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Add in your lemon zest, nutmeg, and salt, then transfer the whole mixture to the food processor and pulse it a couple times to combine everything evenly.

Add the Pecans

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Don't bother chopping up your toasted pecans; add them right to the machine and pulse just a couple times so they start to break down. You still have more pulsing to go, so some whole pecan halves right now are exactly what you want.

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This is what you want to see.

Add the Butter

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Cut your chilled butter into small cubes and pulse it in the food processor for just a few seconds, until the mixture starts to come together in a shaggy, mealy mass.

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This is the texture you're looking for: diverse particle sizes but no full cubes of butter. At this stage, you'll get a crisp full of textural contrast but with integrated flavor. Pulse any longer and you risk a sticky dough that'll be too smooth to crackle in the oven.

Once your topping is ready, you can chill it in the fridge or freezer until you're ready to bake. It'll keep in a sealed container for days at full strength.

Prep Your Fruit

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Crisp shouldn't distract you from the fresh, clean flavor of fruit. So go light with your additions. When I'm feeling lazy I'll just add some salt and booze (more on that in a minute) and get baking. But without some alterations, doing so gets you a watery layer of apples swimming in juices. For a tighter fruit layer, add some cornstarch and sugar to bind the juices into a light gel.

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Thanks to Kenji's efforts, we know that Golden Delicious apples turn meaty, not mushy, when baked, and are your best bet for a single apple used for pie or crisp. I stick to Golden Delicious apples...for the most part, but sometimes I'll sneak in a firmer, more tart apple like a Fuji or Jona Gold for just a little contrast. The choice here is yours. Oh, and don't bother peeling—peels add a welcome jolt of tartness and astringency.

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About that booze, though. Nothing amps up the flavor of a crisp like a shot or two of brown liquor. Applejack, bourbon, rye, even Scotch (bear in mind this one adds lots of smoke, too) all play well here, delivering caramel and vanilla notes more than vanilla extract ever could. A light hand with the hooch ensures the crisp won't taste boozy—just better.

Lay on the Topping

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With your fruit prepped, all you need to do now is top it and bake it. For a light, crackly texture in your topping, don't press it deep into the fruit. Just spoon it out, nice and easy, and spread it to the edges of the baking dish in a roughly even layer. Some imperfections are just fine. Remember: we're not making pie. We don't need to look pretty.

Bake It

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Your crisp is done when the topping is sandy, dry, and firm to the touch, without any mushy spots. Once the crisp is ready, do yourself a favor and let it cool for at least 15 minutes before digging in. The juices in the fruit layer need time to settle and the crust will turn even more firm and crackly with time.

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And there you have it. A crumbly, buttery topping full of contrasting flavors and textures, soft fruit, notes of lemon and nutmeg and caramel...yeah, this'll do.

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Pie, you've been swell, but I think we should see other people.