One of the best things about summer is the steady stream of lush, ripe fruit and berries it brings. They're delightful when eaten as a fresh treat, but even more so when they're baked into a dessert. Depending on your personal preference -- or your grandmother's -- that dessert might be a pie, a cobbler or one of their many close kin. The distinctions between them can be hazy at times, and rely in large part on where you grew up, but they do exist.
One way to differentiate between pie and cobbler is through the crust. Pies are encased in pastry, either just on the bottom or on both top and bottom. Cobblers, on the other hand, are simply topped with some sort of baked pastry or dough. Aside from that fundamental distinction, both pies and cobblers are infinitely variable.
Pies are typically baked in a simple crust made from fat, flour and water, though your own family recipe might include eggs, vinegar or other ingredients. Most pies are baked in a pie pan, a round dish with sloping sides.
Roll your pastry to a thin disc large enough to fill the pan; fill it with your favorite fruit, and the result -- once baked -- is a pie. You may choose to top the pie with a second crust, but that's entirely optional.
Some bakers like to use fresh summer fruit or berries in a simplified, rustic pie usually known by its French name, galette. You don't need a pie pan for a galette. Instead, you place your sheet of rolled dough on a baking sheet, mound the fruit in the middle, and then fold the edges of the dough around it roughly to encase the fruit and its juices. They're less fussy than regular pies, and quicker to assemble.
Cobblers have one crust, and it goes on top. Fill your favorite baking dish with fruit, put a crust over it, and you're good to go. That part is universally accepted, but your choice of crust sparks a whole different discussion.
- Some bakers simply use a sheet of pie crust, perhaps rolled a little more thickly than it would be for a pie.
- Others use some form of biscuit dough, either rolled and cut or simply dropped on top of the fruit from a large spoon.
- Yet another tradition calls for a wet, cake-like batter to be poured over the fruit, baking to a golden finish on top but soft and rich with juice underneath. For convenience-minded bakers, that type of crust is now often made with a boxed cake mix.
Which crust you choose is a matter of regional or even personal preference, but they're all perfectly valid options. Use what you have, and don't worry about it. Cobblers have always been a rustic dessert, and using what you've got is a fundamental part of the country-kitchen ethos. That's why cobblers have so many cousins, with so many names.
Crisps, crumbles and betties replace the crust with a loose topping of crumbs. Grunts and slumps keep the biscuit dough, but simmer the dessert on a stove top as a sort of fruit-and-dumplings dish. They're all easy, and all delicious.
One thing cobblers and fruit pies have in common is fresh fruit or berries, and lots of it. How you prepare that fruit is up to you. For a cobbler, it's usually enough to peel the fruit and chop or slice it; then toss it with a bit of sugar and a starch-based thickener. How much thickener you use is largely a matter of preference. The sugar and fruit juice form a syrup naturally as the cobbler bakes, and it will always absorb some starch from the crust on top. And because the crust is on top, it won't become soggy.
With pies, thickening the filling is more important. An overly juicy pie inevitably soaks through the bottom crust, leaving it soggy, unappealing, and hard to cut and serve. If you opt to put fruit directly into your pie crust, toss it first with tapioca flour, cornstarch or quick-setting "instant" flour. For berries and really juicy fruit, it's sometimes best to prepare the filling ahead of time. Cook the fruit lightly until it gives up some of its juices, and then strain out the juice and thicken it separately in a small saucepan. Once it's cooled, stir the fruit back in. Be sure to cool or chill the filling before adding it to your pie, because if it's still warm it will soften the crust and undo your extra work.