Thursday, August 27, 2009

Battle of the Cornmeal Biscuit Cobblers!

This post has been a year in the making as last year I came upon two different recipes for fruit cobblers, one in the Washington Post and the other in Gourmet. Both are delicious and simple, my two main criteria for nearly any recipe I'm willing to try. I like these recipes because they're about technique and because they are both made with a cornmeal biscuit topping, which seems especially appropriate for spring and summer desserts.

Gourmet's cobbler above, Washington Post's below

I say these recipes are about technique because once you decide which type of biscuit topping you prefer--either drop biscuits or cut biscuits--you can put any sort of fruit combination underneath and just keep the proportion of fruit and sugar the same. If cooking stone fruit, I'd recommend the cut biscuit recipe technique as the fruit cooks a bit before you add the biscuit topping. Then add the biscuit topping of your choice and 30 minutes later you're golden. If cooking very ripe fruit, berries, and/or rhubarb, I'd follow the drop biscuit recipe technique and just cook the fruit and the biscuit topping of your choice all at the same time. In either case just make sure that the fruit is cooked and tender--but not overcooked--and the biscuit topping is a nice, golden brown.

Both dishes are impressive and simple, but I must say that the cut biscuit cobbler makes a slightly more attractive presentation than the rustic presentation of the drop biscuit cobbler. So if you want to be a rock star at the next neighborhood picnic, for a marginal additional effort, I would make the Gourmet recipe--as I did last year when I first made this dessert for a family picnic and my aunt couldn't believe that I'd made it! Puh-lease! My partner's family was also impressed this past weekend when we brought out our contribution to his family's picnic (where we also brought a delicious apple and fennel coleslaw with dill, but that's for another post). However, if you want to whip up something quick for surprise dinner guests, the drop biscuit recipe will more than satisfy, even if you use frozen fruit, I promise!

Whenever I make biscuits, I always use buttermilk or yogurt as the liquid component and add a half teaspoon of baking soda to the dry ingredients. The cut biscuit recipe calls for heavy cream, which would doubtless add richness, but you can reduce the calories and still maintain flavor by using buttermilk or yogurt. Vanilla or honey yogurt would even work here. The baking soda reacts immediately with acid in the buttermilk or yogurt, and the baking powder acts in the heat of the oven to aerate the biscuit, muffin, cornbread, etc. So adding baking soda and extra acid makes the leavening "double acting," and who doesn't want their baked goods to rise nicely? Of course baking powder is actually one part baking soda, one part corn starch, and two parts cream of tartar, which acts as the acid.

So I'm going to attempt to show here the two recipes, first the toppings and then the fruit portion and then the instructions. Hopefully it won't be too confusing. Needless to say, fresh whipped cream, creme fraiche, or vanilla ice cream are obvious accompaniments to this delicious dessert!

Fruit Cobbler with Corn Bread Crust

Adapted from Corn Bread-Crusted Strawberry and Rhubarb Cobbler, by Stephanie Witt Sedgwick from The Washington Post, May 7, 2008 and Stone Fruit Cobbler, by Lillian Chou from Gourmet, June 2008.

Drop Biscuit Topping:

  • 1 cup cornmeal
  • 1 cup flour
  • 3 tablespoons sugar
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder [plus 1/2 teaspoon baking soda]
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup low-fat or regular buttermilk [or yogurt]
  • 1 large egg, lightly beaten
  • 4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, melted and cooled
Cut Biscuit Topping:
  • 1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 cup cornmeal (not stone-ground)
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder [plus 1/2 teaspoon baking soda]
  • Rounded 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 2 tablespoons cold unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
  • 1 cup plus 1 tablespoon heavy cream, divided [I used 1 cup of yogurt, plus 1 tablespoon half and half]
  • 2 teaspoon sugar
If making the cut biscuit topping, especially with stone fruit that will be pre-cooked without the topping, I would make the biscuits first and refrigerate them on a plate so that the dough can rest and the butter can harden after handling. As the butter melts in the oven, steam will form small pockets that will help the biscuits rise. Otherwise for the drop biscuit recipe, I would cut up the fruit first and add the sugar to get it dissolved and the sugary syrup forming with the fruit.

For both biscuit recipes:
Whisk together the cornmeal, flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, and salt in a medium bowl, mixing well.

For the cut biscuits:
Blend in the butter with your fingertips or a pastry blender until mixture resembles coarse meal. Add 1 cup of buttermilk [or cream] and stir just until a ball of dough forms. Turn out dough onto a lightly floured surface and lightly dust with flour, then roll out with a floured rolling pin into a 1/2-inch-thick round (about 10 inches in diameter). Cut out biscuits with lightly floured cutter. If necessary, gather scraps and re-roll once, then cut out more biscuits.

For the drop biscuits:
Whisk together the buttermilk, egg, and melted butter in a large measuring cup. Add to the cornmeal mixture and stir just until combined to form a thick batter.

Fruit filling for stone fruit such as plums, nectarines, peaches, or apricots [Gourmet doesn't recommend using fuzzy fruit like apricots or peaches because they should be peeled. Of course they don't have to be peeled if you don't want to]:
  • 3/4 to 1 1/4 cup sugar
  • 1/4 cup all-purpose flour
  • 3 pounds mixed stone fruit, pitted and cut into 1/2-inch-thick wedges (8 cups)
  • 1 tablespoon unsalted butter, melted
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • zest of 1 lemon or lime or half an orange
  • 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
  • 1 pint blueberries or blackberries [optional, but especially delicious with peaches or nectarines]
  • 1/4 teaspoon pure almond extract [optional]
Fruit filling for very ripe stone fruit, rhubarb, and/or berries (such as strawberries or raspberries):
  • 2 to 2 1/2 pounds of fruit cut into 3/4 inch pieces (about 6 to 8 cups)
  • 3/4 to 1 cup sugar, depending on how sweet the fruit is to start with
  • 2 tablespoons cornstarch
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • zest of 1 lemon or lime or half an orange
  • 1/2 teaspoon almond extract [optional as far as I'm concerned]
  • 1 cup to 1 pint of blueberries or blackberries, frozen if necessary [optional, but I just think that dark berries go perfectly with peaches and nectarines]

For both fruit filling recipes:
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Toss together the filling ingredients in a large bowl. Spread out in a 3 quart glass or ceramic baking dish

For the fruit filling for stone fruit such as plums, nectarines, peaches, or apricots:
Bake until just bubbling, 10 to 15 minutes and then follow either of the instructions below for either cut biscuit or drop biscuit topping.

For the rhubarb, berries, and/or very ripe stone fruit:
For the cut biscuit topping, arrange biscuits 1/2 inch apart over the filling. Brush tops with remaining half and half, then sprinkle with sugar. Bake until topping is golden and fruit is bubbling in center, 25 to 30 minutes. Cool about 30 minutes and serve warm.

For the drop biscuit topping, spoon the topping over the fruit; it should not completely cover the fruit. Bake for 30 to 35 minutes, until the topping begins to brown and fruit juices are bubbling at the edges of the cobbler. Transfer the baking dish to a wire rack to cool for 30 minutes and serve warm.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Mark Bittman's Farfalle (or Penne) with Gorgonzola and Cherry Tomatoes

An Italian-American friend of my sister schooled me at Christmas dinner a few years ago: Italians don't eat pasta. Rather than call a dish "pasta with spring vegetables" or "pasta with lemon shrimp" the dish should be identified by the type of noodle, i.e. "farfalle with spring vegetables" or "linguine with lemon shrimp." My brother also works with someone who went off on him when my brother described some dish as "pasta with broccoli" and his co-worker shouted at him, "It's cavatappi with broccoli!" Point taken then! I gladly defer to my Italian-American fellow citizens of New Jersey (I've seen the Real Housewives of NJ)! I think most folks get this with the names of many familiar dishes like linguine with clam sauce, baked ziti, and lasagne. In each of these dishes the noodle defines the dish as much as what accompanies. And besides "pasta" is just Italian for "dough" and that is not what you are making and serving. You're serving a dish that uses a particular noodle that should be named.

Mark Bittman's Farfalle with Gorgonzola and Cherry Tomatoes is an easy dish that can be made winter or summer. Often cherry or grape tomatoes are the only acceptable choice in the winter when other fresh tomatoes are only a summer memory. At the height of summer there are so many colors and varieties of cherry tomatoes that this dish seems perfect for a quick summer supper. As with most recipes, the ingredients can be readily substituted depending on what you may have on hand (feta for the Gorgonzola, watercress or spinach for the arugula, milk for the cream and so on). There's certainly no reason to make this dish the same way twice if you don't want to!

Penne with Gorgonzola and Cherry Tomatoes
Adapted from Mark Bittman's recipe in the New York Times, January 24, 2007
TOTAL TIME 30 minutes
YIELD 6 to 8 servings [or 4 servings if using only 8 ounces of farfalle]


  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 cup half-and-half, cream or milk [I used nonfat milk and added some butter]
  • 1 cup crumbled Gorgonzola or other good blue cheese
  • 1 pound farfalle or other pasta [I used only a half pound of penne]
  • 2 cups arugula trimmed of very thick stems, washed, dried and chopped [I used a bunch of watercress, including the stems]
  • 1 cup cherry or grape tomatoes, cut in half [I used cherry tomatoes from my garden]
  • Freshly grated Parmesan to taste, optional


  1. Bring a large pot of water to a boil and salt it. In a small saucepan gently warm the half-and-half and Gorgonzola just until cheese melts a bit and mixture becomes thick; chunky is O.K. [If using watercress as I did, you might want to stir it into the cheese sauce to soften the stems a bit. Or not; nothing wrong with a bit of crunch.]
  2. When water boils, cook pasta until it is just tender but not mushy. Drain and return to pot over low heat.
  3. Stir in Gorgonzola sauce along with arugula, tomatoes and a healthy dose of black pepper. Stir to combine, taste and add salt, if necessary, then serve immediately, with grated Parmesan if you like.