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COOKING FROM HOME | DEVRA FIRST

To everything there is a season

And in New England, it is the season to make pie

Fruit pie baked by Devra First.
Fruit pie baked by Devra First.Devra First/Globe staff

It is a time of transition. The world is reopening for business, may it not be too soon. Restaurants are once again permitted to serve customers on patios and in dining rooms. Some of us are grocery shopping more regularly, wearing masks and with hand sanitizer at the ready. Once-scarce ingredients are a little easier to come by. Although we are still cooking from home, that cooking might look a little simpler with the change of seasons: fewer complicated baking projects, more bright, crisp salads and fish on the grill. Those of us who signed up for CSA shares — out of a desire to support local farmers, be slightly less exploitive global capitalists, and insure ourselves lest the entire food-supply chain collapse (what, was it just me?) — are reaping the rewards. Send help, for I am buried beneath a substantial pile of summer squash, trying to eat my way out.

I don’t believe in a “new normal,” because the old normal wasn’t normal at all, broken and unsustainable in so many ways. In the world of food, the constellation of symptoms has included systemic racism in the dining room and the newsroom, precariously slim margins for restaurants, labor shortages, problematic pay and tipping structures, a vulnerable undocumented workforce, meatpacking plants and large-scale farms that are vectors for disease and mistreatment, food waste and food scarcity in the same breath, hunger for many where there should be hunger for none. There is much more to say, but I’ll leave it at this for now: My hope is that as we rebuild, we work hard to find new models that can also serve as solutions.

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It seems time, too, to transition this newsletter, which was conceived as a way to help us all feed ourselves as that became a necessity and a challenge, and to help bring us together in the face of so much distance. It could be isolating, and I wanted us to feel cooking as a communal activity, a connection and commonality. I hope Cooking From Home has been helpful or entertaining or a little diverting for you; it has certainly been all of those things for me. Many of you have written to me throughout this time, and I have enjoyed developing those relationships (and I probably still owe you an e-mail). Please keep in touch if you’d like.

As I take my leave, we are entering prime fruit season. I’m already nostalgic for strawberries and rhubarb from the farm, perhaps my favorite fruit pairing of them all. I stewed them into a tart-sweet compote I ate by the cold spoonful, as well as over coconut-milk tapioca pudding. Every bite was perfectly satisfying, and then I wanted pie. A dear friend in LA mentioned he had just paid a visit to “pie queen” Nicole Rucker, of Fat + Flour, who wins hearts and minds via Key lime and chocolate chess and cherry apple almond crumble. His purchase: a pie called Stone Fruit Party, an orgiastic medley of peaches, apricots, and white nectarines from local farms (plus a handful of cherries Rucker found in the freezer), bedded beneath a browned butter crumble. I was so envious of that pie, and of California’s ridiculously good fruit, and I couldn’t stop dreaming of it.

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So I made a version myself — lattice crust but the same fruit combination, sourced carefully from the bins at Stop & Shop. It may not have been perfectly ripe California produce, but it was still the best pie I ever made. Now I’ve got blueberries waiting on my counter, waiting for the next. And happily, although I can’t buy one of Rucker’s pies, I can bake one. Last year, she published a cookbook called “Dappled: Baking Recipes for Fruit Lovers.” It’s got recipes for berry buttermilk pie, black and blue pie with brown sugar crumb, July Flame peach pie, and more — plus non-pie temptations like rhubarb tarte tatin, raspberry halva brownies, and a summer pudding stained deep purple with all manner of berries.

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But I think the most useful all-around recipe is not really a recipe at all, but more of a blueprint. It teaches you how to make fruit crisp throughout the year, with whatever ingredients are best at the moment (or the ones you have on hand, an eternal theme of this newsletter). In other words, it is a dessert that embraces transition by its very design. I’ll be making it often in the coming months, and I’ll leave Rucker’s explanation in her words below, so you can too.

Adapted from "Dappled: Baking Recipes for Fruit Lovers," by Nicole Rucker.
Adapted from "Dappled: Baking Recipes for Fruit Lovers," by Nicole Rucker. Alan Gastelum

Fruit crisp

Serves 8

This is a rubric for making crisps and crumbles, those delightful and simple desserts (or breakfasts!) that you can throw together in an hour and a half. The basic architecture of a crisp/crumble is a casserole dish filled with seasoned fruit, and topped with an unleavened mixture of flour, grains, and possibly nuts that have been crumbled together with sugar and fat. With almost endless possibilities for any season, making a crisp is really as easy as knowing the parameters of the humble casserole dessert.

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For the fruit, you want to choose ripe and juicy. It’s a great way to use up bruised or broken fruit. The amount and type of sweetener and spices you use depend on your preferences and the fruit you’re using. The important thing to remember is to sample the fruit before you bake it and decide how much sweetener and spice to use. Too little, and you may be left without a sauce. Too much, and you might miss the fruit flavor altogether. Here is a good place to start:

2 pounds fruit of your choice

1/2 cup (or less depending on sweetness of fruit) sweetener, such as honey, brown sugar, granulated sugar, or maple syrup

1-2 tablespoons flour or cornstarch (less for average ripe fruit and more for very juicy, ripe fruit)

Spices, edible flowers, leaves, or extracts, such as cinnamon, vanilla, nutmeg, saffron, rose, lemon verbena, thyme, ginger, or cardamom

For the crisp or crumble topping, the recipe is just as flexible. You can combine any number of flours, grains, fats, and other add-ins to make your topping. The ingredients in the topping often make their way down into the fruit and sometimes aid in thickening the juices. The fat in the crumble helps to create a velvety sauce with the fruit juices. As a guide, I suggest the following measurements:

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2 cups all-purpose flour, old-fashioned rolled oats, fine-ground cornmeal, or wheat bran (or combination)

1/2 cup chopped nuts of your choice

1 cup unsalted butter, browned butter, olive oil, coconut oil, or lard (room temperature)

1/2 cup white granulated or packed dark brown sugar (or alternative sweetener like coconut sugar)

1 teaspoon kosher salt

1. Position a rack in the center of the oven and heat the oven to 350 degrees. Place a parchment-lined baking sheet on the lower rack of the oven to catch any drips.

2. If you are using large fruits, cut them into smaller chunks or wedges. Remove the cores on apples and pears, if using; peeling is optional. If you’re using berries, use them whole, or maybe cut extra-large strawberries in half.

3. Taste the fruit and decide on your direction. Combine the fruit with the sweetener, thickening agent, and flavorings of your choice. You can mix all of this together in the actual dish you are going to bake in. I use a round 2-quart Pyrex dish with a matching lid (helpful for storing leftovers or bringing the crisp to a party).

4. In a separate bowl, combine the flour and/or grains with the nuts, fat, sugar, and salt. Use a large spoon to incorporate the fat into the dry ingredients until you have something resembling the crashed remains of a sand castle on the beach.

5. Cover the fruit with the topping. Here is one of my only rules for this dessert: Do not smash or pack the topping down. The topping will settle in during baking, and I prefer a topping with a craggy-looking surface and an open structure to allow the fruit and juices to peek through the surface.

6. Bake the crisp until the topping is browned and the juices bubble enthusiastically at the edges, about 45 minutes. (That’s the second rule: Bake the crisp until the juices really flow and bubble.)

7. Serve the crisp warm. It keeps well at room temperature for 1 day. Store any leftovers in the fridge for up to 1 week.

Adapted from “Dappled: Baking Recipes for Fruit Lovers,” by Nicole Rucker.


Devra First can be reached at devra.first@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @devrafirst.