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Making the perfect apple brown betty is all about the right ratio of crumb to apple


My grandmother’s recipe was, shall we say, open to interpretation. Sometimes she purposely left things out of the recipes she wrote down so that you would have to come to the source to have the true food experience.

Remember that gateau en cage I mentioned in my last column? The one Julia Child did on her show, "The French Chef," and made it look like anyone could create a Loretta-Young-grand-entrance-worthy confection? It is a cake encased in a delicate sugar cage.

Well, we tried it. Imagine hot sugar being thrown in ribbons from the end of a spoon toward an inverted bowl where, in theory, the delicate, intertwined strands will cool to make a lovely caramel-colored cage. Imagine 6- and 9-year-olds doing this. Strands of sticky sugar in hair, on clothes, counters, appliances, and a little on the bowl. The rickety structure did manage to go over the cake with some coaxing. I have no memory of eating it.

The point is not the gateau, however. It is about the failures that must happen if one is to learn to cook, the misadventures one must endure.

Which brings me to the apple brown betty. My grandmother was a great user-upper of leftovers and her apple brown betty made use of bread ends and other disfigured pieces that were toasted, then layered with apples, cinnamon, sugar and lots of butter. The trick is the right proportion of crumb to apple, or you will be left with something resembling a brick.

My mother once made the family brown betty recipe while my grandmother was visiting our home on Long Island. Perhaps my mother was distracted by having her mother there (if it’s not one thing, it’s your mother …), or just a blip in the cosmic cooking vibe that caused her either to leave something out or badly misjudge the proportions.

The brown betty was a leaden, inedible mass.

We poked at it. We joked about apple-flavored cement. We laughed until we couldn’t catch our breath. My mother said she would crumble it up and put it out in the yard for the birds to eat. My grandmother shouted, “No! You can’t do that to them. If they eat it they won’t be able to fly and they will all die.” Peals of laughter again as my grandmother imitated a waddling bird who had eaten some of the 10-ton brown betty. To this day, the mention of apple brown betty sparks riotous laughter when the family is together.

Here is the recipe. It is easy to see why my mother struggled with the proportions. As usual, my grandmother’s recipe was, shall we say, open to interpretation. Sometimes she purposely left things out of the recipes she wrote down so that you would have to come to the source to have the true food experience.



Grandma’s Recipe

5 apples (Grandma always used Macintosh) grated into strings

1 tablespoon cinnamon

1/2 cup sugar

1 quart of crumbs

My Measured Bake

5 apples of your choice

1 tablespoon cinnamon

1/2 cup sugar

5 to 7 slices of stale bread cut into cubes

Butter for the dish

6 tablespoons butter, divided


Set the oven to 350 degrees and generously (I do mean generously — do not be afraid of butter) butter a 9-by-9-inch square pan.

Toast the bread cubes until brown on a sheet pan in the oven. You can pulse them in a food processor if you would like a finer crumb or just use the cubes as they are.

Grate the apples on the large holes of a box grater or cut them up with or without skin. Baker’s choice.

Mix together the sugar and cinnamon. Melt 4 tablespoons of the butter and mix with the bread crumbs.

Put a layer of apples into the bottom of the pan, followed by a layer of cinnamon sugar followed by a layer of crumbs. Repeat, ending with crumbs on top. Dot the top with the remaining butter.

Bake for 30 minutes.

Some variations include adding a little nutmeg to the sugar and cinnamon or adding some chopped pecans or walnuts to the crumbs.

This is lovely with vanilla ice cream or sitting on your back deck in the late afternoon watching the birds (remember, do not feed it to them).

Ellen Spear is the chief philanthropy officer for Norman Rockwell Museum. When she’s not cooking, she’s hiking.

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