While variants of the basic pudding have existed for hundreds of years, crumble owes its origins to WWII rationing
The end of October brings with it a very literal change, with the clocks going back by an hour, ushering in the darker days of winter and the inevitable gorging on comfort foods to make ourselves feel better. Cosiness and smug snugness, wrapped in woollen blankets and sipping steaming mugs of lapsang, are the homestead goals for the weeks to come, but it’s hard to cultivate a kind of Hibernian hygge, as the Danes are wont to call their own culture of reposing satisfaction, when you’re sharing your living room with a clothes horse about to unleash a horde of black mould to cast even more shadows across your poorly ventilated walls. Cheer up, there’s always crumble to tuck into.
Everyone with an oven can make a crumble, the training wheels of dessert on the path to making a tart – which, admittedly, not everyone can cobble together, although more on cobbling later. In essence, crumble is a basic sweet crumb topping spread, in place of pastry, over stewed fruits gathered in a dish, popular in countries once part of the British Empire, where the sun may never have set but winters still made us people pine for something soothing.
Crumble is, however, a relatively modern invention. Make no mistake, its outlandishly named cousins (Brown Betty, crisp, cobbler, clumps, grunts, slump, and pandowdy) have existed in some form or another for more than 150 years.
Browned Betty, which layers apples and sweetened crumbs, was first mentioned in print in 1864 in the US, while cobbler, which replaces the crumble topping with a dumpling batter dropped haphazardly from above, dates from 1859 and the British American colonial settlers. Grunts hail from Newfoundland, apparently a nod to the noise the stewing fruits make when steam bursts through on the hob. Pandowdy is even stranger, being stewed and spiced apples covered in pastry, which are then smashed and mixed through halfway through the baking process, in a process known to New Englanders as dowdying, soaking up the juices and turning crispy in the process. And slump is the only one to have any kind of literary merit, as a culinary term immortalised by Louisa May Alcott, author of Little Women, who seemingly named the dish after the family home Orchard House, which constantly needed repairs from the day the family moved in.
No recipes for crumble exist until well into the 20th century, when it was most likely conceived of as an answer to rationing during the Second World War. At a time when sugar and flour were luxury items, in lieu of encasing fruit in a pastry wrapping, crumble did the job of sweet shortcrust. Whatever fats were available were mixed with flour and sugar, spread on top in a thin layer and put into the oven for 30 minutes, with no other preparation required and very little emphasis put on neatly extricating the pudding from its dish. That recipe has remained almost entirely identical to this day, although butter has replaced suet or lard.
Perhaps the biggest irony of crumble is that while it was most likely developed to help the war effort in Britain, it most likely drew inspiration from a beloved German recipe. Streusel, from the German streuen (to scatter), is a still commonly found topping on cakes across Germany, Austria and most of central Europe. Usually spiced with cinnamon, streusel contains far less flour than a crumble mix, so it bakes to become a lot crispier, and is spread on top of desserts like colourless, but far more satisfying, hundreds and thousands.
Regardless of which variation you go with, with temperatures dropping, nights getting longer, and flattering layered-clothing options, digging a spoon into a warm and rich crumble is the right way to do things.