When it comes to baked fruit-and-pastry desserts, the iconic pie isn’t the only game in town. Meet cobbler, the trail-modified innovation that has been the toast of many events—and variations
There is a good chance that the mere mention of this once popular sweet treat would not have any recollection today, apart from the popular nursery rhyme: “cobbler, cobbler, mend my shoe…” Try prefixing an apple, peach or a berry, and there is a smidgen of possibility of it being related to some kind of pudding of yore, unless of course, one has spent a generous slice of life in the armed forces, around club culture where the cobbler was (and is) the pièce de resistance or are a pastry chef. Then the mere suggestion of cobbler brings forth the story of a charming dessert made with fruits and globs of batter that rose from being the “humble pie” of Chuckwagon drivers and soldiers to becoming the toast of many a formal table, including at Thanksgiving. Simply wondrous in its ability to transform with the landscape, the cobbler, says seasoned Chef Avijit Ghosh (Chief Product Development & Operation Officer, Smoor), “is a masterpiece of brilliant thinking, both in its composition and adaptability and its ability to nudge cooks (and pastry chefs) to go beyond the mundane and conventional. In fact, some of the more popular desserts like the crisp, crumble, Apple Betty and even the Dump Cake were somewhere inspired by the success of a cobbler that became the tipping point for interesting dessert combinations and plating.”
“The cobbler,” continues Chef Ghosh, “not only changed the course of dessert making that shifted from being suet-based puddings to those that used butter, cream and fruit puree, but also the way sweet treats were served, which was with cream, compote and, in later years, ice cream. Cobblers, in fact, introduced this trend of quick desserts that could be made with both preserves and local, in-season ingredients, and yet had this balmy taste of home.”
While that versatility gave this modified-on-trail treat its unique appeal and wide popularity, it also helped create its different versions including Apple Betty or, as some Americans will say, Apple Brown Betty—a decadent breakfast staple made with apple where the crumbs are placed in between layers of cooked apples instead of on the top. Such was the popularity of this American version of the cobbler that it remained part of the White House menu during the tenure of Ronald Wilson Reagan. The famous Bismarck (Dutch Babies), Apple Pandowdy and Bird’s Nest Pudding Pie are other memorable versions that were inspired by the 19th-century dessert that gained popularity especially in Europe and America where apples were available through the year—and were the popular natural sweeteners.
But how did the proverbial ship that launched it all get built? Historically, the Oxford Companion to Food dates its inception to 1850. Two other books, Kentucky Housewife and John Russell Bartlett’s Dictionary of Americanisms published in 1839 and 1859, respectively, date it otherwise. While the former cookbook mentions the cobbler recipe as that of a peach pie, the latter defines cobbler as “a sort of pie, baked in a pot lined with dough of great thickness, upon which the fruit is placed; according to the fruit, it is an apple or a peach cobbler.”
Culinary researcher Chef Anurudh Khanna (Multi-property Executive Chef, the Westin Gurgaon and Westin Sohna) thinks differently. While there is no doubt that the invention of cobbler could have been inspired by pie making that has an ancestry far earlier than the cobbler, the dessert itself, he says, “could have been the work of both the tavern cooks and those who travelled with the regiments to different colonies and were responsible for creating food, home-style, and often had to work around lesser-known ingredients or canned food that arrived on the shores as part of the army ration to feed the soldiers at the post.”
It is a point of view that Chef Santosh Rawat (Executive Pastry Chef, JW Marriott Mumbai Sahar) concurs with. Cobblers, he says, “were these makeshift treats created by the regimental cooks who were often requested by homesick soldiers to recreate their beloved pies. Faced with a lack of ingredients, these enterprising culinary hands hand crushed sweet fruits, lavished them with sugar or honey/molasses, butter and then covered them with biscuit pastry or granules before baking them on an open fire. The sloppy style of making soon conferred these treats the nickname, cobbler.”
Despite its almost cobbler’s toolbox-like appearance, the dessert won palates and hearts and soon all the canned fruits, especially peaches and apples, and even the new ones that the British were discovering enroute, were turned into cobblers.
It was the simplicity of making this old-fashioned dessert that earned the cobbler its blue stripes as it went on from becoming this make-shift arrangement for troops on the move to a Sunday feast breakfast that was served like a staggered wedge topped with Crème Chantilly with an option of maple syrup if needed. What worked for the messy dessert was its taste and variation.
“Not just apples, cobbler,” adds Chef Khanna, “opened the whole yard for the pastry chefs to play with when it came to fruit-based or fruit and pastry-based desserts and this led to the creation of one of the sweetest chapters of desserts in English history (and that of the West) as the table was flooded with versions ranging from the fashionable torte to the experimental sonker, grunt, slump, buckles, crisp, croustade and even the crow’s nest pudding. Of course, the home versions were aesthetically more pleasing than the one had in officers’ messes, which remained the classic sloppy pudding that was served tepid with a blob of cream or ice cream.”
As a dessert, the cobbler, says Chef Ghosh, “was revolutionary as it changed the very idea of dessert being only sweet. The different creations thereon, a few of which reached the Viceroy House too, showcased how more than one fruit could be used in a dessert without one overpowering over the other. But its real merit was in the back of the house, where a cobbler, a rather simple looking dessert, became the hallmark of a good pastry chef as it was no more about working with limited means but also being clever with the creation, and showing restraint.”
But its arrival in India wasn’t in the fancy manner but as a quick treat made with limited means in the sparsely provided kitchens of Dak Bungalows. It was here along with the many chicken dishes that the cobbler too found its first footing. Made with canned fruits carried by the women coming to visit their husbands, the cobbler that was still referred to as peach pie then was made in an iron skillet with a pastry, margarine-softened dough forming the top layer along with biscuit crumbs. Cooked first on an open fire and then in an oven, the blackened top layer was often scrapped before serving a portion of the dessert with cream. Even in its earlier iteration, the cobbler remained the “only English meal that was enjoyable.”
By the end of the 19th century, with the British Raj well established, the cobbler too had had its evolutionary journey and was one of the priceless dishes in the menu of first Fort Kochi. The difference, say Chef Rawat, “was not in terms of the fruits that were fresh—the British apples were replaced by those from Shimla and Kashmir—but also in terms of the other ingredients like butter not margarine, sugar not molasses, and spices, especially cinnamon and nutmeg from Ceylon for more flavour punch. The crust too had graduated from the biscuit pellet and batter to a more luxurious, crumbly pastry dough that was seasoned with rind. In fact, the first pastry I learnt for making the cobbler had buttermilk and orange zest that gave the cobbler the feel of a sunny spring morning and a certain fluffiness that adds to the experience.”
By the time it moved out of the colonial corridors of army messes, clubs and gymkhanas and into hotels, there was a new addition to the cobbler—the vanilla ice cream crowned with a sprig of fresh mint leaf. With time and thanks to its evolved versions, cobbler took a backseat by the end of the 1980s only to be revived as part of nostalgia or in Thanksgiving. But when it comes to interesting presentations of desserts, says Chef Khanna, “no other colonial dessert inspires more than a cobbler.”
But what makes a good cobbler? According to Chef Ghosh, “the mark of a delicious, well-done cobbler is all about getting the proportion of fruit, spices and the top crust right. Too much of the filling and it would not cook, too much of batter will leave the batter raw or bready like a upside-down cake. A cobbler done with the right restraint and share of fruit and batter while baking would have the following reaction: while the bottom part of the top crust will slowly sink into the fruit, sopping all the juices and taking on this dumpling-like texture; the top part thanks to the Maillard reaction will take on a nice brown cover that is firm, in effect of which the middle part will attain that light, spongy crumb that provides the initial taste and texture. This dough play ensures that the fruits below are not only cooked but have turned into this hot, sticky syrup that sits in a perfect marriage with a scoop of whipped cream and vanilla ice cream.”
Thus, he concludes, “presenting a tremendous dish of interesting flavour juxtaposition.”
Known for her columns on food anthropology, Chefs’ Retreat and wellness-based experiential tables, Madhulika Dash has also been on the food panel of Masterchef India Season 4, a guest lecturer at IHM, and is currently part of the Odisha government’s culinary council.