I have made many a crumble in my life. I would count myself as something of a crumble connoisseur. I cut my teeth on the classics – apple, rhubarb – before graduating into a wild, wonderful world of pineapple, coconut and black pepper, or pear, chocolate and raspberry, or fig, blood orange and hazelnut, even venturing occasionally into savoury variations (tomato, rosemary and cheddar; butternut squash, sage and blue cheese). There is very little that I will not try to crumble, and there is very little that isn’t improved by being smothered in a blanket of butter, sugar and flour, rubbed together into an irresistible nubbly sweetness.
But, having said that, some crumbles are more equal than others. (And, incidentally, there are a few things that really don’t belong in a crumble, and banana is one of them). After years of extensive research, I have come to the important conclusion that the ultimate crumble is made with plums. A plumble, if you will.
Crumbles are always best when the fruit involved is tart. While a pear and chocolate version is a divine thing of beauty, it doesn’t quite have that requisite tang that is needed to balance the butteriness of the topping. There is a reason that the classic crumbles are made with rhubarb or apple – they have the necessary sourness, the wake-up call for your tastebuds that prevents them being completely lulled to sleep by butter and flour. While I love rhubarb deeply and passionately, it can sometimes have an unwelcome stringy texture and a little too much tartness, especially if it’s the green summer variety. Apples can sometimes melt into an unappealing mush if you cook them too much, and you have to choose the right variety.
Plums, however, have a seductive, melting texture that marries perfectly with the crunchy crumble topping. They lack the astringent snap of rhubarb, so don’t need as much sweetening, and they pick up other flavours beautifully – my favourite pairings are honey, orange and star anise. If they are ripe enough, they require no pre-cooking before you add a crumble topping. They have the perfect balance of sweetness and tartness, and cook down into a delightful syrupy, purple-pink mass which looks beautiful against the sandy crumble. Plus, they are available year-round – while you can’t beat beautiful autumnal English plums, in their multiple manifestations and rustic imperfection, even the hard, uniform, purple imported specimens available throughout the year will make an excellent crumble, given enough sugar and spice to brighten them up.
Such plums became the centre of my breakfast this weekend. A jumbled mass of yellow, blushing pink and deep purple fruits were cosseted in honey, star anise, the juice and zest of an orange and some chopped stem ginger, before being topped with my favourite breakfast crumble mixture – jumbo oats, spice and nuts, bound together with a little rapeseed oil, maple syrup and vanilla. It’s a healthier version of the traditional dessert crumble, light and nourishing enough to eat for breakfast (and vegan, too, if you’re so inclined) but deeply satisfying, especially where the crunchy topping sinks down into the juicy, molten fruit. I used hazelnuts, cinnamon and nutmeg in the topping for a warm, nutty crunch against the tart plums. It was bright, fresh, packed with spicy flavour and honeyed sweetness and perfect with a dollop of cold Greek yoghurt and a pot of smoky lapsang tea.
Plum, ginger and hazelnut breakfast crumble (serves 2-4, depending on greed):
- 10 ripe plums, each stoned and cut into 6 slices
- 2 balls of stem ginger in syrup
- Zest and juice of 1 orange
- 2 tbsp honey
- 1 star anise
- 1 tbsp cornflour
- 150g jumbo oats
- 40g spelt flour
- 1 tsp ground cinnamon
- ½ tsp ground nutmeg
- ¼ tsp salt
- Pinch of ground cloves
- 80g hazelnuts, roughly chopped
- 3 tbsp rapeseed oil
- 3 tbsp maple syrup
- 1 tbsp water
- 1 tsp vanilla extract
Pre-heat the oven to 180C. Put the plums in a medium baking dish. Finely chop the stem ginger and add to the plums along with the orange juice and zest, honey, star anise and cornflour. Toss well to mix.
In a medium bowl, mix together the oats, flour, cinnamon, nutmeg, salt, cloves and hazelnuts. In a jug, whisk together the rapeseed oil, maple syrup, water and vanilla. Add this to the oat mixture and stir well to combine.
Tip the oat mixture on top of the plums in the baking dish. Spread it out over the plums and give it a couple of gentle stirs to mix a bit of the oats into the fruit. You want most of it on top, though.
Bake for 40 minutes, until the topping is golden brown and the fruit is bubbling and juicy. Leave to cool for a few minutes before serving with a scoop of Greek yoghurt.