I have recently been alarmed to learn of the indiscriminateness with which the general public uses the term “cobbler.” I partially blame Paula Deen, whose ostensible cobbler recipe is the top result when you Google “peach cobbler.” Deen’s recipe is a buckle in disguise: She calls for spooning cooked peaches on top of a thin cake batter and then baking until the batter rises above the fruit.
But Deen is not the only offender: Southern Living, doing its best BuzzFeed impression, offers us “14 Crazy-Good Fruit Cobblers,” among which are three pandowdy recipes (fruit topped with pie crust), two crisp recipes (fruit topped with streusel), a variation on Deen’s buckle, a fruit bar recipe, and a bloody shortcake recipe.
But, you may ask, wouldn’t a clafoutis by any other name taste as sweet? (That’s fruit baked with a crêpe-like batter, for the record.) Why does it matter?
It matters because words mean things. I do not want to live in a world where common ignorance relegates crisps—a magnificent and important category of dessert in their own right—to another, completely separate category of dessert. It would be a disgrace if buckles, slumps, pandowdies, and other charmingly named, obscure fruit desserts were lost to history because contemporary Americans can’t be bothered to make a distinction between fruit baked with pie crust and fruit steamed with dumplings. There’s an astonishing array of different ways to cook fresh fruit, and calling every fruit dessert a “cobbler” obscures the individuality of each of them. It’s like calling Kind of Blue a Dixieland album because Miles Davis was a jazz musician.
So. what, then, is a cobbler? A cobbler is a dessert consisting of sugared (and often spiced) fruit topped with a sweetened biscuit topping and baked until the fruit is tender and the topping is golden. The bottom part of the topping sinks into the fruit and sops up its flavorful juices, acquiring a dumpling-like texture; the top part undergoes the Maillard reaction and gets brown and firm; the middle part arranges itself into a light, spongy crumb. Meanwhile, the rest of the fruit’s juices mingle with the sugar and whatever thickener you’ve added to it (usually cornstarch or flour) to form a hot, sticky syrup that is best appreciated when juxtaposed with a scoop of vanilla ice cream. The cobbler is, in short, a tremendous dish.
Making the best possible cobbler is mainly a question of selectivity and restraint. By “selectivity,” I mean choosing good, ripe fruit—in this case, peaches. Hard, mealy peaches are definitely better in a cobbler than they are raw, but a cobbler made with mediocre fruit will never be great. (You can use frozen fruit, though it departs from the spirit of cobbler, which, like the other desserts mentioned above, is traditionally a way to make a dent in a bumper crop of fresh fruit.) By “restraint,” I am referring mostly to sugar: The fruit layer should not be a sickeningly sweet concoction indistinguishable from canned peaches; rather, it should be tart and assertive. It needs only a little sugar, and a lot of lemon juice to balance it out. (The filling here is quite a bit more liquid than, say, a fruit pie filling, since you don’t need to worry about a bottom crust going soggy.) The biscuit layer is sweeter than normal biscuits, but it should not be as sweet as cake. (This is where the ice cream comes in, if you have a sweet tooth.)
Restraint is also required with the quantity of topping (which derives from a batter, like drop biscuits, rather than a dough, like rolled biscuits). Raw, the batter will look a little sparse when dolloped on top of the peaches, but it will rise and spread out as it cooks. If you use enough batter to completely cover the fruit, you’ll end up with a cobbler that’s far too bready, more like an upside-down cake.
One final, unusually specific note: In this recipe, a 9-inch square pan means exactly that. If you use an 8-inch square pan, you’ll likely end up with peach syrup gushing over the sides and onto the bottom of your oven (unless you put a baking sheet underneath it).
Yield: 9 to 12 servings
Time: About 1 hour
3 pounds fresh peaches, sliced, or 2 pounds frozen sliced peaches
Juice of 2 lemons
½ cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar
3 tablespoons cornstarch
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
⅛ teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 cup all-purpose flour
1¼ teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon baking soda
3 tablespoons cold unsalted butter
⅔ cup buttermilk
½ teaspoon almond extract
Vanilla ice cream for serving
1. Heat the oven to 375°F. Put the peaches, the lemon juice, 3 tablespoons of the sugar, the cornstarch, the cinnamon, and the nutmeg in a large bowl; toss to combine. Transfer the mixture to a 9-inch square pan and bake for 10 minutes.
2. Meanwhile, combine the flour, 6 tablespoons of the sugar, the baking powder, the salt, and the baking soda in a medium bowl. Add the butter and blend with a pastry cutter or your fingers until the mixture resembles coarse crumbs. Add the buttermilk and almond extract and stir just until combined.
3. Remove the pan from the oven and drop the batter in large, evenly spaced dollops on top of the peaches. Sprinkle the remaining 1 tablespoon sugar over the batter. Continue baking until the topping is golden brown and the peaches are tender, 30 to 35 minutes. Serve warm with vanilla ice cream.