My Epic Cobbler Battle!
The answers were not where I expected to find them
Of all the cobblers I’ve ever baked, 65% of them happened over the past few weeks. As I prepared to teach a class for a Cornell alumni group, I researched and tested well over a dozen recipes, with different kinds of fruit, ultimately in pursuit of the perfect peach cobbler.
The first thing I learned in my cobbler research (which is my new favorite kind of research) is that there is apparently a Mason-Dixon line when it comes to cobbler. Southern friends I asked described a peach cobbler as a baked dish where the cakey part and the peachy part are all sort of baked “mushed up together,” as one of them put it. When I asked my Yankee friends (and being one myself, this corresponded to my experience), they said it was a dish where peaches are baked with a biscuit-like topping on top of them. And indeed this “Northern” one is the way I had always known cobbler.
Now, I haven’t (yet!) done an exhaustive research project and trip involving visits to several key states and their most reputed kitchens, as well as the intake of several hundred thousand calories, to find out exactly what the diaspora of cobbler looks like. Where was it born? Where is this north-south dividing line actually drawn? Which version is best, and why? (I am accepting applications for a counterpart on this journey.) For the present, I am going to follow this first set of opinions I’ve collected, and describe cobbler in two ways: “Northern-” and “Southern-” style.
There isn’t much mystery around the northern-style version: you put fruit in a pan and then bake it with bits of biscuit dough strewn on top. The description is essentially the same as the instructions. Merriam Webster describes cobbler as: “a deep-dish fruit dessert with a thick top crust” — seems familiar. This is how I’ve always made and experienced cobbler.
Imagine my surprise, then, when I came across several Southern recipe sources that instructed their bakers to first put some batter in a pan, then top it with fruit. The allegation was that the cake would bake up through, while the fruit baked down in. Enticing. And it sounded like this would result in the “mushed up together” idea my one friend had been pining about.
I took a trip to see my parents early in the testing and research phase of Cobblergate 2020, and my mother handed me a little brown spiral bound notebook she’d found among her mother’s things. Opening it, I saw that it was a combination of handwritten recipes as well as taped-in clippings. This is a classic example of the way my great-grandmother Lena kept her journals. My mom said she suspected — and later confirmed after several rounds of amateur but attentive handwriting analysis — that it was indeed one of Grandma Lena’s recipe journals. I came across two nearly identical recipes in this notebook that interested me greatly: Cherry Pudding, and Berry Pudding. Each consisted of preparing a batter, spreading it in a pan, topping it with fruit, topping that with sugar, and then pouring boiling water over it just before baking. I’ll admit it, this is not something I do very often with baked goods, and it seemed bizarre to me. There was also one instruction, which I would hear echoing throughout my cobbler testing, written so plainly that I heard it in the somewhat stern voice of my great-grandmother even as I read it: “Do not stir.”
These recipes might be called “puddings,” but they read an awful lot like what I came to know as Southern cobbler. It could have been a general use of “pudding” as “dessert,” like our English friends do, although my great-grandmother arrived in 1913 directly from the Netherlands. Who even knows what they called dessert. (There were also several recipes in the notebook for things called “[something] dessert” so all bets are off.)
I quickly worked these recipes into my rounds of testing. I thrust these two “puddings” as well as two peach cobblers — one Southern and one Northern — upon a couple food-friends who came for dinner, for their tasting and analysis. We all tasted quietly, and then compared notes. Each of us had seen the Southern style peach cobbler as the probable winner, and it was the most hotly anticipated. (I don’t know if they knew it at the time, but it had brown butter in it, so it was already front-of-the-pack for me.) We also all expected to like the Northern peach cobbler the least.
The Southern peach cobbler was significantly the least favorite of the four, for all four tasters — we downright disliked it. The Northern peach was the second-favorite. The blue ribbon, by a country mile, was the Berry Pudding. The texture of the cakey part was pleasant and light, and there was enough of it against the fruit that you didn’t feel like you were just eating cake. And there it was, mushed up together with the berries. This melding was especially nice; the two components combined to create a greater whole.
There was something else, here, though, that was the real magic. The parts of the crust that were exposed to the heat of the oven developed a crisp, crackly sheen — clearly the result of this late addition of sugar and boiling water. I was sold. It was time to convert this “Berry Pudding” into a proper peach cobbler. Southern it is. My extremely not-Southern great-grandmother had passed along this Southern cobbler recipe, whether she knew it or not.
“Do not stir.”
In a broader survey of Southern-style recipes, this instruction not to stir came up very often. I found several recipes that instructed me to place melted (or browned) butter in the baking dish first, followed by glops of batter, then fruit, then sugar, then water — with no stirring at any point. One thing stayed very consistent in any recipe with a water-topping: that was never to be stirred with anything.
There were some other tricks I realized along the way: Leave the fruit in large pieces (think mixed-berry sizes). Don’t use too much fruit, or you won’t get enough of that lovely crispy crust, and trust me, you want as much as you can get. Another trick I employed that I’ve tended to do for a long time is to macerate my fruit with sugar, and then drain it before use in the recipe. I did a round of testing for this maceration effect specifically, and I found that this produced the best, brightest peachy flavor. One success I had with the original Berry Pudding was the texture of the fruit; I’d used frozen berries and attributed their success in that test to the fact that they were frozen. How is that the same as maceration? It isn’t, quite, but a chef friend who is either more astute than I or who simply had had more coffee that day, pointed out that maceration and freezing would act similarly in breaking down cell walls and softening the fruit. Makes sense. On top of that, once you strain the fruit you’re left with a divine fruit syrup that’s good for cocktails and lemonades and a host of other things. (Bellinis, anyone?)
After some of the most strenuous (on my waistline) testing that I’ve ever done, I circled around to the recipe below, which I’m just going to call my great-grandmother’s Peach Cobbler. I’ll leave any distinctions about its origins to you. I suspect once you eat it you’ll be more concerned about where it ends up than about where it started.
Recipe #5: Grandma Lena’s Peach Cobbler
For a square 9” x 9” pan; to make it in an 8” square pan, reduce everything by one-third; for a 9” x 13” increase everything by one-third. Preheat oven to 375°F.
- Peaches: 1 lb (about 3 medium), as ripe as you can get ‘em
- Sugar: 1/2 c (3.75 oz)
- Butter: 6 T (3 oz), unsalted
- Flour (AP): 2 c (10 oz)
- Sugar: 1 c (7.5 oz)
- Baking powder: 2 t
- Kosher salt: 1 t (use 1/2 t if using finer / table salt)
- Buttermilk: 1 c (8 oz) (or milk, if you don’t have buttermilk)
- Sugar: 2/3 c (5 oz)
- Water: 3/4 c (6 oz), boiling
- Cut peaches into chunks about the size of blackberries.* You should have about 2 c of prepared fruit. Add 1/2 c of sugar, toss, cover loosely with plastic, and leave at room temperature for 60–90 minutes. Drain through a fine strainer, reserving syrup for another use.
- Gently heat the butter until it is melted but not terribly hot.
- Meanwhile, combine the flour, 1 c sugar, baking powder, and salt, in a mixing bowl.
- Add the buttermilk to the dry ingredients, and then the melted butter. Use a rubber spatula and gently stir / fold until just barely combined. Do not overmix.
- Spread the batter fairly evenly in an ungreased 9” square pan.
- Distribute the fruit over the batter, leaving gaps for the batter to rise up and brown. Press the fruit very lightly so it just adheres to the batter; avoid pressing it down into it.
- Sprinkle 2/3 c sugar somewhat evenly across the fruit. Gently pour in 3/4 c of boiling water.
- “Do not stir.” Immediately place in preheated oven, and bake for 50–60 minutes (longer for larger, shorter for smaller), until there is some nice browning on the crust, some of the fruit can be seen bubbling thickly, and the center is springy and slightly firmed.
- Allow to set for at least 30 minutes before serving. (With vanilla ice cream.)
- I tried several different quantities of fruit, and found that this was the perfect amount; it does not seem like much but it is enough. When I used more fruit it inhibited crust browning.
- You may wish to place a tray beneath your baking pan, to catch any spill-over.
- I am a peach purist: I do not like vanilla, brown sugar, or any spices or flavorings other than mace (and in some applications, certain herbs) with my peaches. I find their flavor easily obscured. If you prefer spice or other flavorings with your peaches, knock yourself out.
- *Speaking of blackberries, try this with blackberries. It’ll be great.