Autumn is undoubtedly crunch time, and Yotam Ottolenghi’s riff on the humble crumble – a coconut curry chicken number – includes an ingenious topping. He heats sunflower oil and sliced red chilli, adds mustard seeds and curry leaves, followed by instant porridge oats, chopped roast peanuts, caster sugar and salt, and cooks until lightly coloured. He writes: “The combination of oats and peanuts makes a great, crisp topping; it works on roast veg or spicy seafood.”
Chef and champion of brown food Anna Tobias, whose first solo restaurant, Café Deco, is set to open in London this autumn, suggests a somewhat spongier path. “I would suggest a cobbler; a ratatouille-esque thing.” You don’t, however, need to use all the usual vegetable suspects: “It could be courgettes and tomatoes – basically something that has a bit of slop to it.” For the topping, she switches the sugar from the classic cobbler recipe with cheese – “Cheddar would be nice” – and adds a little polenta for a “crunchy vibe”. She then dollops this on top of the veg and bakes until golden. It’s worth adding a little water to the veg, too, because the topping is “a sponge”.
It’s near impossible to talk crumble and cobbler without namechecking custard, though a savoury version needs some textural assistance, says Tom Adams, chef and co-owner of Coombeshead Farm in Cornwall. “We make a savoury roast garlic custard from very sweet elephant garlic and serve it with slightly dried tomatoes, crunchy breadcrumbs and fresh herbs. It goes very well with roast leeks or aubergines.”
First, make a garlic puree by wrapping four bulbs in foil and roasting in a 160C fan oven until soft, then squeeze out the pulp. Blend 200ml milk, 100ml double cream, 100g garlic puree, one egg, three yolks and salt, then heat in a pan to 60C. “Pour into a mould, wrap in clingfilm, cook in a 140C bain-marie until just wobbly,, then leave to cool and set.”
Tobias looks to Italy and sformato, a soufflé-like mix that she describes as “baked, cheesy custard”. Right now, pumpkin would be the perfect addition. Season the chopped squash, toss in oil and roast in foil (so it doesn’t colour). For a dish that really cossets, serve with lashings of cheese sauce: “A cheat’s version is to heat cream with cheese until it has melted together, but sformato is totally fine on its own or with a green salad.”
When only carbs will do, though, you can’t go far wrong with bread pudding and, for Tobias, savoury inspiration comes from the French peasant dish panade, an “amazing way to use up stale bread”. You can use pretty much whatever ingredients you like, though Tobias favours layering slices of bread, blanched chard, sauteed onions and taleggio, then repeating. She next adds chicken or vegetable stock to cover by two-thirds, then sprinkles with parmesan and bakes until golden. The result? “A pillowy, unctuous, cheesy delight.” And we all need a bit of that right now.