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 that 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 ran through my usual repertoire, 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 underneath the cast iron skillet containing the buckle, moving the skillet around as necessary so that 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 much good stuff is available. Blueberries are traditional. Sour cherries (pitted, of course) are also great. Italian plums, pitted and quartered, would also 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 ready to come out of the oven. 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.