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Crumble topping makes baked fruit extra special

One of the pleasures of cooking is mastering basic formulas that let you improvise and create free-form dishes on the spur of the moment, without a recipe. When it comes to throwing together a quick dessert, one of the handiest things to know is how to make crumble topping for baked fruit.

Whether it's apple crisp, berry crumble or any other baked dessert with the fruit you have on hand, a crumbly, oaty, sweet, crispy topping is what makes it special. The basic formula for a crumble topping is easy, and it can be switched easily depending on the fruit underneath. Apples in the fall• Add plenty of cinnamon, ginger and nutmeg. Fresh spring berries• Just a hint of ginger or a touch of vanilla.

You can mix in nuts, or not. You can add dried herbs or fresh mint. It's a go-to formula for me; I use it all the time.

Another aspect of this formula's flexibility is that there's room to play with the basic elements, depending on what you have in the cupboard or refrigerator. Once I didn't have enough butter for a proper crispy and crumbly topping, so I moistened it with a little water and it baked into a slightly cakey and soft topping, which, for fresh rhubarb, turned out to be just right.

Experiment until you get the texture you want -- it's nearly impossible to mess this up.

Basic Oat Crumble Topping for Fruit (Crispy Version)

  • 1 12 cup rolled oats
  • 12 cup flour
  • 1 cup firmly packed light-brown sugar
  • Spices such as cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger
  • Pinch of salt
  • 1 cup (two sticks) unsalted butter
  • Nuts, optional

Mix the dry ingredients, and then, cut the butter into pieces and work it genly into the mixed ingredients with your fingers, until it resembles coarse crumbs. Work in the nuts, if using. Sprinkle the fruit with the crumbs evenly. Bake at 375 degrees as directed for the pie or crumble you're making. (Usually bake this topping for about 45 minutes.)

Tops a 9-by-13-inch pan.

Basic Oat Crumble Topping for Fruit (Softer Version)

  • 1 12 cup rolled oats
  • 12 cup flour
  • 12 cup firmly packed light-brown sugar
  • Spices such as cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger
  • Pinch of salt
  • 5 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
  • Water or milk
  • Nuts, optional

Mix the dry ingredients. Stir in the melted butter. Add just enough water or milk so that the mix comes together in loose clumps -- not too wet. Stir in the nuts, if using. Dot the fruit with the mixture evenly and bake at 375 degrees for about 45 minutes.

Tops a 9-by-13-inch pan.

Rhubarb Lavender Crumble

  • Vegetable cooking spray or butter
  • 2 pounds fresh rhubarb, leaves removed and discarded
  • 12 cup sugar
  • 14 cup honey
  • Pinch salt
  • 12 teaspoon dried lavender buds
  • 1 batch of Basic Oat Crumble Topping for Fruit (Softer Version)
  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 34 cup sliced and toasted almonds
  • 14 cup firmly packed brown sugar

Heat the oven to 375 degrees. Prepare a 9-by-13-inch pan by greasing lightly with butter or coating with cooking spray. Cut the rhubarb stalks into small pieces -- about the size of your knuckle. They should be evenly sized. Toss with the sugar, honey and salt. Rub the lavender between your hands, crushing it into the rhubarb. Stir everything and spread evenly in the baking pan.

Spread the crumble topping over the rhubarb. Melt the 2 tablespoons butter, toasted almonds and brown sugar together in the microwave or in a small saucepan, and dot over the crumble topping.

Bake at 375 degrees for 40 to 45 minutes, or until the topping is lightly browned. Let cool for at least 15 minutes, then, serve with whipped cream or ice cream.

Makes a 9-by-13-inch pan of rhubarb crumble.

Makes 4 to 8 servings.

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