Monday, November 05, 2012

Potluck Experiments: Blackberry Cobbler

Once a month, I meet up with a group of friends to play games and have a potluck.  It's perfect because I get to try out new games that I would never have heard of otherwise and I get to inflict any new baking experiments on a pre-arranged group of people and demand constructive criticism.  It's the best kind of two-in-one: fun for me, arranged by somebody else.

I always end up making more than one recipe because I can't choose just one thing to bake.  There usually isn't any link between the various recipes except that I thought that they sounded interesting.  We had another gaming potluck last Saturday, and since the weather has gotten cold and we had just been through a hurricane, I thought that blueberry cobbler would be a good dessert choice.

The definition of a cobbler is very broad: some kind of filling in a baking dish covered with a topping that is not crumbled (pie crust, biscuits, or batter).  Cobblers never have a bottom crust like pies do.  Although most people think that cobblers are an old European or British dessert, cobblers originated in the US as an alternative to pies and puddings.  There are lots and lots of regional differences and names for cobblers, most of which I'd never heard of before googling "cobblers" (grunt, slump, buckle, sonker, and pan dowdy's).  A Brown Betty is technically a cobbler because it doesn't have a bottom crust.  A crumble is like a cobbler but it uses oatmeal in the crust instead.

My mother would occasionally make a cobbler in the winter and tell us how great is was to have a nice hot cobbler when it's cold.  But we grew up in San Francisco, where it gets chilly instead of cold, so I never really understood what she meant.  The first time I had a hot cobbler for dessert in the middle of a Chicago winter made it all clear.

Although apple cobblers and peach cobblers are popular, I associate cobbler with blueberries.  As far as I know, there is no one type of fruit that is more popular for a cobbler than any other and this link with blueberries is probably just left over from my childhood.

So when I realized that I was going to a potluck less than a week after Hurricane Sandy (which is also when the temperature dropped from the 70's to the 40's - thanks, Mother Nature!), I immediately thought of a blueberry cobbler.  This was also a good idea because we found out that the furnace was broken during the hurricane and we didn't (and still don't) have any heat for the house.  I was not adverse to the idea of spending hours in the kitchen with the oven on.

The biggest problem with baking cobblers is that the top portion and the fruit portion bake at different speeds.  It's easy to under-bake the fruit part in an effort not to burn the crust, or to end up with lovely bubbly fruit but a charred top.  The crust also has a tendency to absorb the liquids released by the fruit mixture and get really soggy.  Although I really like a soggy cobbler crust, most people don't.

Not surprisingly, there are millions of cobbler recipes on the internet.  I don't remember how I found this recipe, most likely by clicking on various links at some point when I was bored during a training seminar at work.  The recipe can be read on but it really comes from America's Test Kitchen.  You can read their description of the recipe and see pictures but the actual recipe is behind a login.

This recipe parbakes the biscuit topping and the fruit separately, and then combines them for the last timed bake.  Parbaking means that you bake some part of the recipe separately from everything else for the purpose of just baking it enough to acquire a certain texture or to stay separate when baked with the rest of the recipe.  By parbaking the biscuits, they get a brown surface on their bottom which means that they don't absorb as much liquid.  By parbaking the fruit, you don't end up overbaking the biscuits.

I couldn't find blueberries so I used blackberries instead, and it turned out great.  I would use this type of parbaking for other fruits that have a lot of liquids when making a cobbler.  Harder fruits like apples don't have the problem of releasing so much liquid, but berry fruits can release up to a cup of liquids when baking.

Tips: you can choose your own spices in this cobbler recipe because they are added to the fruit before baking.  I used cinnamon and cloves since it's winter, but you can use other flavors like lemon zest, cardamom, or anything that you think goes well with the fruit filling.

It's important to use good quality fruit in a cobbler because that's where the taste comes from.  You can't use up older, halfway bad fruit in a cobbler unless it's harder fruit like apples.  Don't use overripe berries.

The recipe says that you will get 8 biscuits when using a 1/4 cup measuring cup.  I got 11 biscuits and ended up using 7 for the topping.  The biscuits are a nice recipe as well.  You can finish baking the rest of the biscuits for several more minutes after the cobbler is done.

The fruit filling will be very sticky due to the sugar added in the recipe and the natural sugars released by the fruit.  You do not want this overflowing your pie pan and burning at the bottom of your oven.  Make sure to follow the instruction about putting the pie pan on a tin-foil covered cookie sheet.  This also makes it easier to get the cobbler in and out of the oven.

You don't want to over mix the biscuit dough when combining the ingredients, so you just want to stir it together until it clumps but not so much that the dough becomes smooth.

Before baking the biscuits, you will top them with cinnamon-sugar.  There will be a lot of sugar but don't worry about putting too much on the top of the biscuits because some of it will melt when the biscuits are baking.

The biscuits will be puffed when you take them out of the oven after parbaking them, and they will deflate a bit while sitting in the cooler kitchen as the fruit is parbaked.  This is normal.

You really do need to wait 10 minutes for the cobbler to cool before cutting it.  The fruit and its liquids will be very hot right after the cobbler comes out of the oven and you can easily burn yourself (and your tongue) if you don't wait.

I like cobbler with whipped cream.  Other people like it with ice cream.  This recipe tastes great all by itself.

This cobbler does not transport well!  The fruit juices will leak over the top of the pie pan if it's tilted.  If you want to bring it somewhere, make sure to carry it flat or you will have sticky fruit juice everywhere.

Blackberry Cobbler
from America's Test Kitchen
6 cups berries or sliced harder fruits (e.g. apples), rinsed
4 teaspoons cornstarch
1/2 to 2/3 cup granulated sugar (add sugar to taste)
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon cloves  

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 cup plus 2 teaspoons granulated sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup buttermilk, chilled
6 tablespoon unsalted butter, melted and slightly cooled
1/8 teaspoon ground cinnamon 


Adjust an oven rack to the middle position and heat the oven to 400 F.

Combine the fruit, cornstarch, sugar, lemon juice, and spices in a large bowl.  Stir until the sugar is incorporated and the fruit is completely covered by the sugar mixture.  Transfer the fruit mixture to a 9-inch pie pan.  Cover the pie pan with tin foil and set on a foil-lined rimmed cookie sheet.

Melt the butter in a small bowl.  Line a second cookie sheet with parchment paper.

Whisk the flour, 1/4 cup of sugar, baking powder, baking soda, and salt together in a large bowl.  In a medium bowl, stir the chilled buttermilk and melted butter together until the butter forms small clumps.  Stir the buttermilk mixture into the flour mixture with a rubber spatula until just incorporated and the dough pulls away from the side of the bowl.

Use a greased 1/4 cup measuring cup to scoop out and drop mound of the biscuit dough onto the parchment-lined cookie sheet.  Space the dough mounds about 1 1/2 inches apart.  You should get at least 8 mounds of dough.

Mix the leftover 2 tablespoons of sugar with the cinnamon and sprinkle the cinnamon-sugar over the tops of the biscuits.  Bake the biscuits until puffed and lightly browned on the bottom, about 10 minutes.  Remove the biscuits from the oven and set aside as you parbake the fruit.

Put the pie pan with the fruit filling on the tin-foil lined cookie sheet.  Bake until the fruit is hot and has released its juices, about 20 to 25 minutes.

Remove the fruit from the oven, uncover it, and stir.  Arrange the biscuits over the top of the fruit, with one biscuit in the center and approximately 7 surrounding it.  The biscuits will be flexible and you can squeeze them as needed to fit into the pie pan.  Bake the cobbler until the biscuits are golden brown and the fruit it bubbling, about 15 minutes.  Rotate the dish halfway through baking.

Let the cobbler cool for 10 minutes before serving. 

The biscuits after being parbaked.  The biscuits that touched while baking pulled apart easily.

Blackberry mixture before parbaking.

Blackberry mixture after parbaking.  The berry juices have been released at this point.

Adding the biscuits to the hot fruit filling.

The finished cobbler.


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