In general, the less attractive a summer dessert, the more I enjoy making and eating it. Messy-looking cobblers and crisps have that combination of crisp pastry and juicy fruit I crave at this time of year. Same goes for rustic free-form crostatas, brown betties and crumbles. None of them would win a beauty contest, but each one is quick and easy and delivers fresh fruit flavor along with some buttery goodness.
So, after I'd run through my usual repertoire by the end of July, I was tempted to try something different but equally homely: a buckle. This dessert is made by mixing vanilla cake batter with fruit and then topping the mixture with streusel crumbs. The sunken fruit and crumb topping combine to give the cake a "buckled" appearance when it emerges from the oven.
According to baking lore, the buckle dates back to Colonial times. Of course, nothing was simple back then. To bake a buckle in the 18th century, the cook first had to build a wood fire and let it burn until it generated hot coals. Then, he or she had to monitor the heat under the cast-iron skillet containing the buckle, moving the skillet around as necessary so the buckle would bake without burning.
Today, making a buckle is much easier. The only difficulty is in deciding what kind of fruit to use when so many varieties are available at farm stands and supermarkets. Blueberries are traditional. Sour cherries (pitted, of course) are also great. Italian plums, pitted and quartered, would work. I've been using a combination of peaches and raspberries, which contribute sweetness and bright acidity to finished cake.
The secret to a good crumb topping is in your fingertips. Use your fingers to blend the butter with some sugar and flour. Then freeze the mixture while you make the cake. Pinch the mixture into small and large crumbs as you scatter them over the batter. The frozen crumbs will hold their shape in the oven, while warmer crumbs might dissolve into a smooth layer.
With so much fruit, it can be difficult to tell when your buckle is done. Use the toothpick test, inserting one into the center of the cake to see if it comes out clean of cake batter. But a little moisture is OK if it is from the bubbling fruit.
PEACH AND RASPBERRY BUCKLE
For the topping
1/3 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
1/2 cup packed light brown sugar
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon salt
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into small pieces and chilled
For the cake
2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 large or 3 small peaches, peeled, pitted and cut into 1/4-inch-thick slices (about 2 cups)
1 cup raspberries, washed and picked over
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
3/4 cup granulated sugar
1 large egg
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1/2 cup milk
1. Make the topping: Combine the flour, brown sugar, granulated sugar, cinnamon and salt in a large bowl. Add the butter and mix with your fingers, pinching the butter pieces, until the mixture looks like coarse meal with some larger crumbs. Place it in the freezer while making the cake batter.
2. Make the cake: Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Spray a 9-inch springform pan with nonstick cooking spray. Whisk together the flour, baking powder and salt in a medium bowl. In another bowl, toss the peaches and raspberries with 1/4 cup of the flour mixture.
3. Cream together the butter and sugar in a large mixing bowl with an electric mixer until light and fluffy. Beat in the egg and vanilla until smooth, scraping down the sides of the bowl once or twice as necessary. Add 1/3 of the remaining flour mixture until incorporated. Add 1/2 of the milk. Repeat, alternating flour and milk and ending with flour. Gently stir the berries and peaches into the batter.
4. Scrape the batter into the prepared pan and smooth into an even layer with a small metal spatula. Squeeze the crumb mixture through your fingertips and onto the top of the cake, forming small and large crumbs in an even layer. Bake 50 minutes to an hour, or until a toothpick inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean of batter (there might be moisture clinging to it from the fruit). Let cool completely in the pan on a wire rack. Run a sharp paring knife around the sides of the pan to loosen the cake before releasing the sides. Slice and serve.
Makes 8 to 10 servings.