Apple Brown Betty is such an old American dessert and one that deserves to be a standout on your dessert table.
Think of Apple Brown Betty as the workhorse of American desserts from the annals of old-style cooking dating back to the mid-1800s. No one has really pinpointed how it got its name. It didn’t come over with the Pilgrims or spring up in any one country kitchens of yore; recipes for the Betty differ regionally, too. Suffice to say that Brown Betty is part of the nucleus of cobblers that include grunts, crisps, crumbles, pandowdies, buckles, slumps and the sonker, a dessert found in North Carolina cookery.
In many ways The Betty most resembles a kind of bread pudding or crisp. But instead of using bread cubes, crumbs are the preferred topping and thickener for the filling.
Since bread crumbs are such a prominent ingredient in the dish, make your own using store bought loaves. You can use any good-quality bread for it, but I particularly like the Scala loaf that’s made by Rosemont Market because it’s a rich brioche-type loaf.
To make your own crumbs (day old bread is best), tear off pieces of the bread and pulse in the food processor until you have the consistency of a roughly crumbed texture. Put the crumbs on a baking sheet and bake at 350 degrees for about 10 minutes, stirring halfway through. Return to the processor and process until desired consistency. It should be fairly fine, though having a few coarse crumbs add texture too.
Some recipes call for mixing the sliced apples with the sugar and spices and putting them into a baking dish topped by buttered crumbs. I prefer stewing the apples for a bit, softening them up slightly, allowing them to bake more evenly. Then a crumb topping of brown sugar, bread crumbs and melted butter becomes your crumb base, with a thin layer of it lining the baking dish before putting in the apples and topping with the final layer of crumbs.
For the filling use a variety of tart, firm apples like Spencer, Crispin, Cortland, Granny Smith and heirloom varieties available now at the farmers’ markets. For the Betty I used an heirloom apple from Apple Creek Farm in Bowdoinham. According to farmer Jake Galle of Apple Creek, they’re not sure of the age of the tree or species but estimate that it’s been on the land for around 100 years. The perfume qualities of the apple contributed to its divine sweet-tart flavors.
Other additions that go into the Betty include golden or dark raisins and grated lemon zest. For spicing, cinnamon, nutmeg and a pinch of cardamom are all you need, the latter being a great flavor booster in most apple desserts.
Apple Brown Betty
Servings: 6 to 8
4 cups (about 2 pounds) apples, peeled, cored and sliced thickly.
1 cup white sugar (or half brown and white sugar)
1/2 cup golden raisins
Zest and juice from 1 medium lemon
1/2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg, or to taste
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
Scant 1/4 cup water
2 1/2 teaspoons cornstarch
2 tablespoons water
1/2 cup light-brown sugar
2 1/2 cups finely ground fresh bread crumbs
5 to 6 tablespoons melted butter
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees; butter an 8-inch square baking dish, preferably glass or cerammic.
Put the apples, sugar, spices, lemon juice and zest into a heavy bottomed pot. Add the water. Bring the mixture to the boil over high heat, stirring frequently.
Meanwhile stir together the corn starch and water to make a slurry and add to the boiling apple mixture. Simmer for 5 minutes, stirring often until thickened and apples have softened somewhat.
Topping. Combine the bread crumbs, brown sugar and melted butter in a medium size mixing bowl. Stir until the crumbs are thoroughly moistened. Add more butter if necessary.
Cover the bottom of the dis with a light sprinkling of the crumb topping. Add the stewed apples and cover the apples completely with prepared crumbs. Affix a piece of foil over the apples and bake for 20 minutes. Remove foil and continue to bake until the crumb topping is golden brown and the filling is bubbling, about 25 minutes. Adjust the times as necessary, covering the top again if the crumbs get too brown in the final baking period and baking until apples are soft and liquid is syrupy and bubbling.
Serve warm with vanilla ice cream or sweetened whipped cream flavored with rum
Note: For a quickly prepared homemade Philadelphia style vanilla ice cream, bring barely to a simmer 1 1/2 cups fresh heavy cream with 75 grams (1/3 cup) sugar, 1 vanilla bean, seeds scraped into cream and pod added. Heat until sugar has dissolved, stirring constantly, and steam rises from the pan. Do not simmer or boil. Allow to cool for 15 minutes and add 1 tablespoon dark rum and 1 teaspoon vanilla extract; then cover and refrigerate at least 4 hours or overnight. Pour through a fine-meshed strainer into an ice cream maker and process according to manufacturer’s instructions. Freeze until firm.
Local ingredients used
Apples, Apple Creek Farm, Tuesday Brunswick Farmer’s Market
Butter, Bissons and Sons, Topsham
Heavy Cream, Beth’s Farm Market
Bread, Rosemont Market