When I found myself nearing the end of an autumn cycling vacation with too many apples to cram into my saddlebags, Betty came to my rescue. I was only vaguely familiar with the retro apple dessert—my aunt Kathy may have served me one once—but I had a sense that it was simply fruit baked with buttered, lightly sweetened bread crumbs and that it offered all the coziness of pie, crisp, and crumble with only a fraction of the effort. Just the thing to cobble together in my tiny rental kitchen.
I chopped a partial loaf of sourdough into crumbs; mixed the crumbs with melted butter; and tossed most of them in a baking dish with chunks of apples (a mix of sweet and tart heirloom varieties) that I’d sweetened with sugar pilfered from the coffee station, my last handful of blackberries for bursts of wine-like acidity, and a dash of salt. After scattering the remaining crumbs over the top, I covered the dish with foil and popped it in the oven; about an hour later, I removed the foil so that the top could crisp.
The tender, tangy fruit topped with its craggy roof of crumbs was bright and buttery—and worth repeating, with a few tweaks. Back home in my fully stocked kitchen, I tried it again with Granny Smith (tart) and Golden Delicious (sweet) apples as well as light brown (instead of granulated) sugar, vanilla, and a dash of nutmeg. The new additions contributed hints of warmth and complexity without distracting from the dessert’s clean, simple character. I also reconsidered the type of bread, since rustic sourdough must be trimmed of its hard crust, and that offended my (and arguably Betty’s) frugal sensibilities. Whizzing slices of soft white sandwich bread in the food processor not only avoided waste but also allowed me to produce evenly buttered, sweetened crumbs in seconds by adding some sugar, salt, and melted butter to the processor bowl.
One Mixture, Two Textures
The two layers of buttered, lightly sweetened bread crumbs sandwiching the fruit are the same, but during baking they take on two different textures. The bottom layer captures the exuded fruit juices, plumping and caramelizing in the oven floor’s heat, while the top layer crisps and browns during the final segment of uncovered baking.
The bread crumbs soaked up the exuded fruit juices during baking, but they didn’t do much to enhance the dessert’s flavor or texture until I found a more strategic way to incorporate them. Rather than simply tossing them with the fruit, I pressed a thick layer of crumbs into the bottom of the baking dish, which coalesced into a softly chewy, caramelized “floor.” Adding a bit more sugar and moving the baking dish onto a lower rack made the layer even more cohesive, like the absorbent bottom crust of a fruit pie. When I uncovered the Betty, I moved it closer to the top of the oven so that the rest of the crumbs, which I’d sprinkled on top of the apples, could crisp.
Reformatted into a triple-decker dessert with tangy fruit sandwiched between layers of texturally distinct crumbs, Betty was back—and better than ever.