Of the email enquiries I’ve received, this one, courtesy of T, stumped me for a moment: “If there was one recipe you feel everyone should know by heart, what would it be?”
When I first read it, it seemed almost impossible for me to narrow it down to just one recipe. This coming from the person who has already told the mister that while I may not have a family [cooking] recipe to pass down to my children, I’ll let them in on my fail-proof butter cake recipe to last them for life. And then there is pavlova, an amazingly simple dessert that never fails to bring glamour to the dessert table with its versatile toppings to suit any occasion. Or the pate brisee recipe which holds the key to endless delectable galettes, tarts and pies.
But having said all that, I know that if there is just one thing that would tide me over any day, it would simply be the trinity of butter, flour and brown sugar.
What’s so special about crumb topping, you ask?
1. It is versatile, and you can practically top anything with it!
It is almost addictive to sprinkle the bowl of crumbly tiny morsels of flour mixture over any of your bakes. Every time I feel like I need to add an extra oomph to a cake or muffin, I know that the crumb topping will not fail me. A simple lemon muffin would probably not get much fanfare, but adorn it with a crumb topping, and you’d have guests discussing about how the tangy lemon base is balanced perfectly with the sweet crumbs. And if I knew any better, I would think that everyone is intrigued, if not a fan of, juxtaposed or complementary textures and tastes in one bite.
2. No waiting time, no special equipment, no fixed recipe. You’re the chef.
As much as there are recipes out there that call for the ingredients to be pulsed using the food processor, I find that the best way to make the topping is simply by using your hands, or fingertips to be exact. It doesn’t even take as much effort as kneading dough, and all you need to do is just rub the butter chunks in until they resemble coarse breadcrumbs. And the best part is that there is no fixed recipe, and you’re in control; quantity and sweetness at your fingertips.
3. You don’t even need to be a baker to pull a crowd-pleasing dessert for the next gathering.
Apples + crumb topping. Pears + crumb topping. Plums + crumb topping. 180C/190C for about 15-30mins. The bigger the dish, the longer the bake. And for good measure, just top it off with a dollop of ice-cream. You’ll have everyone licking their spoons clean.
4. It makes a perfectly good recipe great.
This week saw me baking Dorie Greenspan’s Apple Nut Muffin Cake. She calls it a muffin cake because she was literally preparing muffin batter when her guests arrived, and decided to throw it all into one cake pan. I’ve made slight changes to the recipe; forewent nuts and raisins, used self-raising flour (that was all I had left in the pantry), and whole milk instead of milk + applesauce. And while I am sure that the recipe was perfect by itself, I simply had to throw in a crumb topping.
The cake was definitely reminiscent of a muffin in that it was better served warm fresh out of the oven, or reheated the next morning served with butter or jam. The cake itself wasn’t sweet and had quite a bit of loose crumbs, and that’s where the sweet crumb topping stood its ground and perfectly complemented the nutty oat taste in the cake itself.
Apple Muffin Cake
(adapted from Dorie Greenspan, Baking: From My Home to Yours)
1 cup milk
1 large egg
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 stick (110g) butter, melted and cooled
1 3/4 cups flour
1/2 cup sugar
1 TBSP baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp salt
1/4 cup (packed) light brown sugar
3/4 cup old-fashioned oats
1 apple, cored, peeled & diced
1/2 cup walnuts or pecans (I omitted this)
1/2 cup plump raisins (I omitted this)
- Preheat oven to 200C.
- Use an 8-inch square pan, buttered and floured.
- Whisk together milk, egg, vanilla extract and butter in small bowl.
- In a large bowl, whisk together flour, sugar, baking powder and soda, cinnamon, and salt to combine thoroughly.
- Toss in the brown sugar, making sure there aren’t any lumps by running it through your fingers, then add the oats and whisk the dry ingredients a few more times to mix.
- Switch to a large rubber spatula and stir in the liquid ingredients, stirring just until everything is moistene. DO NOT overmix.
- Gently stir in the apple, nuts and raisins, and scrape the batter into the prepared pan.
- Bake for 30 to 35 minutes, or until the cake is golden brown and a thin knife inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean.
Crumb Topping Recipe
3/4 cup brown sugar
1 cup flour
1/4 cup cold butter, diced
- Mix together the flour and brown sugar in a bowl.
- Rub in the cold butter with your fingertips until it resembles coarse breadcrumbs.
Crumb Topping 101:
- The recipe is really just a guide to the proportions I usually use. Feel free to add more or less of anything, according to your tastes and preferences.
- It is very important that the butter is cold. Don’t leave it out of the fridge.
- If the mixture gets sticky and clumps together instead of looking like breadcrumbs, add in more flour.
- If the mixture looks too fine, add in a bit more butter.
- Final Note: don’t be afraid to taste it. I’m not a cookie dough eater, but I assure you crumb topping can be quite addictive
Previously on FTM:
From The Mailbox: my take on food photography