The Brown Betty is one of those homespun desserts you don’t often see anymore, the kind that travels under countless names and is something slightly different to everyone. As much as we like to be definitive these old-fashioned desserts are “folk-food” passed down orally from mother to child and like all folk culture slight variations arise from kitchen to kitchen. It is at its most basic a “warm fruit dessert” perfect for an evening when there isn’t much in the house. It uses old stale breadcrumbs or leftover cake and transforms them with a few added spices and butter into a sweet, simple, but ever-so gratifying dessert.
Brown Betty Emerges
The timeline of the Brown Betty is similar to that of another famous folk-food, the cobbler, both remaining officially undocumented until the 19th century when they began to surface in cookbooks here and there in the late 1800s. Though the British crisp and crumble are clearly similar, the Brown Betty seems to be of American origin, rising in popularity side-by-side with the cobbler around the turn of the century.
The Brown Betty first appears in print in 1864 in the Yale Literary Magazine listed alongside tea, coffee, and pie as things to be given up during physical training.
The famous Fannie Farmer’s Boston Cooking-School Cook Book and the definitive guide to what people were eating in America at the turn of the century, does not contain a recipe for Brown Betty. However, there is a recipe for “scalloped apples” that is virtually identical and by the 1930s edition the name had been changed and the Brown Betty had claimed its rightful place in the annals of gastro-history.
There is speculation as to how the brown Betty got its name, in that first written citation in the Yale Magazine the “b” in brown is not capitalized, but the “b” in Betty is. This has led some historians to believe that Betty was the name of the cook and creator of the recipe and that brown was in reference to her skin color. In the Original Picayune Creole Cook Book (1901) a recipe identical to the Brown Betty traveled under the name “Mulatto’s Pudding” furthering the idea that the sweet-sounding Brown Betty was more a race-based epithet towards its maker than a homey moniker denoting golden-brown bread crumbs.
Homemade desserts like crisps and Brown Bettys are the perfect example of this. They require a little more effort than setting out a bowl of fruit, but not as much as baking a pie, they are simple and unfussy and therein lies their innate appeal.
- 1 ¼ cups stale cake crumbs ground fine
- ⅓ cup dark brown sugar packed
- ¼ cup sugar
- 1½ tsp cinnamon
- ½ tsp all-spice
- ¼ tsp ginger
- 1 pinch ground cloves
- 2-2½ lbs apples peeled, quartered, sliced
- 1 Tbsp lemon juice
- ⅓ cup apple cider
- 4 Tbsp butter cold
Preheat the oven to 375°F and butter a 6×9-inch baking pan or some dish that has approximately a 4-cup capacity.
In a small bowl combine crumbs, sugars, and spices. In another, larger bowl, slice apples and toss with lemon juice.
Returning to our prepared baking dish, spread about 2 Tablespoons of the crumb mixture across the bottom of the pan and top with about half the apples. Pour the cider over all and scatter half the remaining crumbs. Dot with half the butter then top with remaining apples and crumbs and finish with the butter.
Bake until the crumbs have achieved a beautiful golden-brown and the apples have begun to bubble about 35 minutes. Cool briefly on a wire rack and serve warm with vanilla ice cream or freshly whipped cream.