Not a baker? Let yourself off the hook for holidays with an apple crisp

  • With a crisp, the secret to success lies in layering flavors inside the fruit filling, while preventing that sweet topping from dominating your dessert.

    With a crisp, the secret to success lies in layering flavors inside the fruit filling, while preventing that sweet topping from dominating your dessert. Courtesy of Annie Overboe

Updated 11/21/2016 10:44 AM

When it comes to Thanksgiving Day desserts, pie always takes center stage giving cakes and cookies the evening off. Few American desserts capture the culinary attention and taste bud interest like a freshly baked homemade pie.

With Thanksgiving dinner providing a captivated audience, I've always been surprised more bakers don't steal the show by offering their signature pie creations. But I understand the challenge: crafting pie dough that easily rolls, and also bakes into tender crust can be daunting. Perhaps the path to pie success lies in taking on the challenge, with small steps.


If you are a novice baker or a seasoned kitchen veteran with limited success baking pies, today's column offers a Thanksgiving dessert recipe to get you started on the path to sweet holiday success.

Such dessert success may seem counterintuitive, but step one is taking an initial pass on making homemade crust. Surprise! Hold off on the store bought pie dough, though. Rather, try your hand at a culinary cousin of the American pie: a fruit crisp. Streusel topping bakes into a hardened shell that visually and tastefully becomes a crust. No dough rolling necessary!

Apple is the fruit of choice for a harvest celebration dessert, and baking the crisp in a large deep skillet visually mimics the round presentation of pie. With a crisp, the secret to success lies in layering flavors inside the fruit filling, while preventing that sweet topping from dominating your dessert.

What makes an apple crisp the perfect dessert for a novice Thanksgiving baker? This recipe is designed to be served warm, alongside cold vanilla ice cream. The fragrant aroma of spiced apples and crunchy crust distracts any notice of a streusel topping or filling that didn't bake evenly. Here, a simple approach to a pie-style recipe crafts a dramatic dessert presentation.

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Time saved on crust preparation means an opportunity to enhance flavors in the fresh apple filling. Traditional methods rely heavily upon sugar and ground cinnamon to sweeten and spice the crisp's fruit. With brown sugar an integral ingredient in the streusel, I looked for another base flavor to keep the sweetness in check.

It's important to remember that sugar plays a dual role in baked apple desserts. In addition to providing sweetness, sugar prevents the sliced fruit from baking into a slurry of apple sauce. I like fresh apple cider for its natural sweetness and as a bonus infuses diverse apple tastes into the filling.

Not wanting the crisp to bake into a soupy disaster, I simmered apple cider into a thickened syrupy reduction. This reduction allowed me to seriously dial down the added sugar needed to sweeten the filling. A small cup light brown sugar offers a caramel background, and cinnamon stick provides that touch of spice.

As the cider cooks into an intensely flavored sauce, I had an interesting idea. I've always wanted to bake an apple crisp with large fruit slices, but extended oven time or high heat would burn the streusel. Precooking the fruit in a cider reduction sauce allowed me to go big on the slice size and pack a large skillet with fragrant apples. Before topping and baking, butter gently softens the cider's sharp notes.


For the streusel topping, pecans and rolled oats provide a good balance to the brown sugar and cinnamon. The crumble toasts into a golden-hued top crust, the perfect partner to deep flavor infused apple slices.

The secret behind serving a warm apple crisp for Thanksgiving dessert lies in oven timing. Prepare the filling and streusel early in the day. Just as the last entree leaves the oven, sprinkle streusel on the skillet of apples and bake during dinner. Serve warm with good quality vanilla ice cream, just when guests are eyeing your table for dessert. Enjoy the holiday!

• Annie Overboe, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, lives in Oakbrook Terrace. Write to her at

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