When I was a child, I spotted a lonely box turtle crossing the road in front of my house in the heat of summer. I felt sorry for the turtle, which I named George, so I rescued him and put him in a cardboard box with lettuce, grass and a cupful of water. After a couple of days, I began to feel sorry for George once again. Captivity in a cardboard box is no life for a wild animal, even a slow-moving, stupid, reptilian wild animal. George deserved to roam wild and free. So, I came up with a plan: I would return George to nature, where he so desperately belonged, just like in those uplifting Animal Planet specials where they release the rehabilitated eagle or the orphaned grey wolf. But where?
I could not return him back to the road, where he was destined to be flattened. No, I would return George to the water – his natural environment – where he could swim and romp and frolic with his turtle friends. My mom drove my friends and me over to the Town Creek bridge next to Maddox Middle School, where we all said our sad goodbyes to our dear turtle friend. I patted George’s shell and dropped him into the murky water, where he immediately sank to the bottom and drowned. Oops. What began as a fond farewell took a sudden horrific turn to an inadvertently staged public execution. Poor George. He had a better chance on the road.
You may be wondering why I am telling you this tragic turtle story, and what in the world it has to do with cobbler. That’s a fair question. The truth is, there’s not much of a connection between the two, other than this: when I tell you that I make cobbler about as well as I take care of turtles, I want you understand exactly what I mean. I am terrible at both, and I am humble enough to admit it. Cobbler-making, like turtle-care, seems easy in theory, but one mistake can result in terrible unintended consequences, like a drowned turtle. Or a runny cobbler. Or a burned cobbler. Or a squishy doughy cobbler. Or a sickeningly-sweet cobbler. The only fool-proof cobbler-making method is to have your 92-year-old southern grandmother make it for you – in which case it will be perfect – but not all of us have that luxury. There must be another way.
What makes a good cobbler, then, and why is it so hard to accomplish? I mean, it’s just crust and fruit, right? Not so fast. The ingredient list is simple, but the execution requires careful attention and considerable skill. A truly great cobbler, in my opinion, perfectly balances four elements:
(1) Crust to fruit ratio. I have found that most cobblers contain too much crust and not enough fruit. Striking the perfect balance is not easy. Unless you are a southern lady over the age of 75, you will probably get this wrong, but just do your best.
(2) Sweet to sour ratio. People tend to load up on the sugar and fail to remember that fruits have natural sugars which will sweeten during the cooking process. Remember: berry cobblers are best, because you can take advantage of their natural tartness (blackberries, blueberries, and raspberries, principally). I’m certainly not opposed to the old southern staple peach cobbler, but by all means remember to cut way back on the sugar.
(3) Crisp to squish ratio. As I said, most cobblers contain too much crust, and most crusts out there are predominately squishy and doughy. All cobblers will contain a squishy crust element – it is essential – but the tops of all great cobblers are brown and crisp.
(4) Burned to non-burned ratio. This is a strange one to include, and it is a personal preference, but I believe it is essential. Before baking, my grandmother will sprinkle a bit of sugar on the top crust, which by the end of the cooking process will have caramelized and ever so slightly burned. This is all about adding depth of flavor, folks. Why do we prefer our rib eye steaks well-charred? Because they taste better that way. You get the idea.
As I said, I am terrible at making cobbler. I could work from now until doomsday and not get all of the four elements right. An old-fashioned rolled-out dough, thin-crusted cobbler that addresses all of the four above elements is the best cobbler, but try as I may, something will always be lacking. After some trial and error, though, I have discovered a method that approximates an old-fashioned grandmother-made cobbler, but is easy enough that I can pull it off without my head exploding.
4 cups fruit (blackberries or blueberries, preferably), washed and dried
¾ cup sugar, up to 1 cup if fruit is especially tart
8 tablespoons (1 stick) cold unsalted butter, cut into bits
½ cup all-purpose flour
½ tsp. baking powder
½ tsp. real vanilla extract
1. Heat the oven to 375°. Toss the fruit with ¼ cup to ½ cup sugar (err on the side of less) and spread it in a lightly greased 8-inch square or 9-inch round baking pan.
2. Combine the flour, baking powder, salt, and ½ cup sugar in a food processor and pulse once or twice. Add the butter and process for 10 seconds until the mixture is well blended. By hand, beat in the egg and vanilla.
3. Drop this mixture onto the fruit by tablespoon-fuls; do not spread it out. Make sure there are gaps in between the dough mounds for steam to escape the cooking fruit. Sprinkle the dough mounds with a bit of sugar – not much.
4. Bake until just starting to brown, 35 to 45 minutes. Crank the heat up to 425° the last 5-10 minutes for the top to caramelize, or place under broiler for a couple of minutes toward the end of the cooking process. Serve with any kind of vanilla ice cream other than Blue Bell. Enjoy.
 This basic method is stolen from New York Times food guru Mark Bittman.