I woke up on yesterday’s bank holiday Monday to the sound of steady rain drip dripping outside my window. I had work to do – reading mostly, and some decision-making around presentations – but I also wanted to spend time in the kitchen. It is warm and cosy in there, particularly on a grey day. (It is best in the early evenings when the sunlight flickers in and, in truth, it is my favourite room in the house. I wrote the Foucault chapter of my thesis sitting at the kitchen table.)
I have been experimenting with buckles this past weekend. I cannot rightly remember how I stumbled across them now – possibly looking to use up summer fruit in a way that is warm and comforting. I think I was reading The New York Times and I stumbled across this video for making a buckle and it felt like the perfect thing to celebrate the late summer (yes I know, what late summer? Although, this morning – the first day of autumn – it is gloriously sunny). And then, if the NYT wasn’t enough, David Lebovitz’s post came through on my email last week and what do you know? He’d made a buckle too. So I decided a buckle was fate. Destiny. Meant to be and all that.
I also decided that, for possibly the first time ever, to do a bit of a review post and bake both the NYT version and David’s version and then tell you all about them. I have struggled to understand exactly what a buckle is – well, to find a more elaborate definition than ‘late summer fruit topped with pastry of some kind and baked’ (which could also describe a cobbler, perhaps a crumble or a crisp, and then it turns out the Americans have names like pandowdy, grunt, betty, boy bait, fools and the like to describe a plethora of fruit/batter desserts that makes the mind just boggle). And the two different versions are slight variations on each other too – David’s has a topping. So what is a buckle?
Apparently, according to Serious Eats, a buckle is named such because it buckles as it cooks. It is a coffee cake* with a streusel topping and as the cake cooks the fruit sinks, causing the streusel to buckle over the cake batter. Rustic Fruit Desserts describes a buckle as a berry-filled cake batter poured into a tin in a single layer, the top of which buckles as it cooks. Martha Stewart describes a buckle as a “cake-like cobbler with a crumble topping”. So sometimes a buckle has a streusel topping and other times not. Perhaps it is simply up to you and your own traditions which recipe you follow? They seem to be most often made with blueberries although I have seen a few recipes for strawberries and others with blackberries too. Martha has a recipe for a plum and nectarine one.
*Coffee cake is not, as I assumed, a cake that contains coffee – like the classic coffee and walnut cake of my childhood. Rather, for Americans, coffee cake refers to a cake that is good eaten with coffee, preferably also easy to hold in the hand. It is what you have on your coffee break…They do also often seem to have streusel toppings.
So with all this confusion and debate, I decided the easiest way to solve the problem was to follow two different sets of instructions (both American) and see what happened. I’ll be honest, I don’t think either of my recipes really ‘buckled’. But the tops did break apart slightly and the second one fell in on itself but I think that was because I took it out too early and had to return it to the oven. I loaded the batters with blueberries and nectarines, two summer fruits which I love but the truth is both buckles taste, and have the texture of, dense cake. David’s one is more crispy at the edges and soft and crumbly in the middle. The NYT one is cake-like with lots of fruit at the base. I can imagine how the NYT version fits into a coffee cake idea, it is easy to slice and hold with your hands. David’s version is more like a dessert, and with cinnamon rather than nutmeg to flavour the batter, I think I prefer it, although if I made it again I would probably reduce the cinnamon slightly.
You can find the recipes from the respective sites linked in above. I made half of David’s recipe and baked it in a small 16cm cake tin. I didn’t make the lemon syrup because I wanted the buckle to mirror the NYT one as much as possible. I made the full recipe for the NYT version, baking it in a 20cm so it was slightly deeper than the other. The NYT recipe calls for 4.5 cups of berries. I used 2 cups of blueberries and 2 large nectarines. David’s recipe only uses 3 cups of blueberries and it did seem to have less of a fruit to cake ratio in the final individual slices.
The ultimate truth is I am not convinced by buckles. I prefer a higher fruit to pastry ratio if I am honest and so I suspect my love for crumbles will not be outdone by these buckles, although they’re kind of fun to talk about. And they’re good to eat – alone with some coffee in the mid-afternoon or with creme fraiche in the evening – if you’re in the mood for a light, fruity cake. Below is a photo series of the making of the buckles.
The New York Times Buckle
David Lebovitz’s buckle