Brown Butter Spiced Crisp Recipe

Brown Butter Spiced Crisp

Planning the menu for a dinner party is all about being realistic, balancing the different dishes not only in terms of flavor and style, but also in terms of workload. If I opt for a main course that’s a bit elaborate, then I know I won’t have much time or energy to devote to dessert, and the fruit crisp or crumble* is my wildcard choice. (The trifle, too, but we’ll talk about that another day.)

A fruit crisp requires very little work (throw the topping together, cut up some fruit, sprinkle, bake), it is seasonally flexible (you can use whatever fruit is available locally), it is the least time-sensitive item on your list (you can make the topping a couple of days beforehand, bake the crisp on the day of, and reheat just before serving) and, more important, everybody loves a good crisp: it speaks of warmth, comfort and simplicity, and even those who never go for seconds may be caught red-handed, spooning out just a little more from the dish they’re taking back to the kitchen.

This particular recipe is adapted from Claudia Fleming’s dessert book The Last Course, which I mentioned in my Best of 2009 list and is, unfortunately, out of print**.

In the book, the recipe appears as a Spiced Italian Prune Plum Crisp, and I was intrigued by the spiced topping flavored with cinnamon and cardamom, the proportions for which are quite different from my usual crumble formula.

This topping calls for melted butter, rather than cold butter that you’d rub into the dry ingredients. And ever since we decided we didn’t really need a microwave oven, I’ve used one of two methods in such situations: I’ll either piggyback on the preheating oven, as described here, or just, you know, heat it in a saucepan on the stovetop. And when I use the latter method, a miniature knee jerks in my head: butter? melted? in a pan? why not go the extra mile and brown it?

Really, it takes just a few minutes to go from melted butter to beurre noisette, but the benefit is considerable in the depth of flavor it lends to baked goods. (I think of it as using just the right foundation for your skin: few people will be able to pinpoint the source, but everyone will notice the glow.)

I haven’t owned the book long enough for us to have been through plum season together, but the brown-butterized crisp — which I also altered by using hazelnut flour in place of ground walnuts, a bit less sugar, and adding salt and pepper — was a delight on apples, and I think it would be a perfect fit for rhubarb, peaches, apricots and mangoes, in addition to the original plum idea.

A note on cardamom: the recipe as published calls for 1/8 teaspoon ground cardamom, but I prefer to keep whole pods (in a submarine-airtight container, their smell is so pervasive) and grind the seeds as needed in a teeny mortar and pestle I got at a garage sale in my California days.

About the cinnamon I use

I am in love with the fresh cinnamon I order from Cinnamon Hill, a small company that specializes in sourcing and selling the highest-quality, freshest cinnamon from Sri Lanka and Vietnam (ordinary cinnamon usually comes from China or Indonesia). I get whole sticks, and grate them with the beautifully crafted (and highly giftable!) cinnamon grater that Cinnamon Hill has designed. Truly, you don’t know what cinnamon tastes like until you’ve tried freshly harvested, freshly grated, top-grade cinnamon, and it makes an amazing difference in this recipe.


* Some say a crisp becomes a crumble when the topping includes rolled oats; some use the two terms interchangeably. To me, “crisp” has a slightly more elegant ring to it, so I use it when the dessert feels a bit more sophisticated that a good old crumble.

** However much I like the book, I am in no way encouraging you to pay absurd amounts of money for it. You can always look for it at the library, ask around to see if a friend or coworker has a copy, keep an eye out for it when you visit used book shops, and — it’s worth a try — contact the publisher to express your interest in a reprinting.

Brown Butter Spiced Crisp

– 150 grams (1 1/4 cups) flour
– 30 grams (1/3 cup) hazelnut flour, or ground hazelnuts, or ground walnuts, or almond meal
– 120 grams (1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons) unrefined cane sugar
– the seeds from 1 pod green cardamom, finely crushed in a mortar
– 1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon (I use fresh cinnamon from Cinnamon Hill)
– 1/8 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
– a fat pinch sea salt
– 115 grams (1/2 cup) unsalted butter, diced

In a medium mixing bowl, combine all the dry ingredients, from flour to salt, and set aside.

Make the beurre noisette: put the butter in a medium saucepan (not too small, you want a reasonably large surface area), place over medium heat, and watch, swirling the pan every now and then to ensure an even heat distribution. First, the butter will melt. Then, bubbles will form at the surface as the butter simmers and its water content evaporates. The butter “sings” during that phase, emitting a pleasant chirping sound.

A few minutes later, the bubbles will get smaller, and the pitch of the chirping sound will get higher, then stop. At this point, the smell of the butter will change and become distinctly hazelnutty — you can’t miss it, it’s the best thing you’ve ever smelled, and the ambient scent of crêperies in Brittany — as its color becomes bronze and little flecks of butter solids caramelize and turn golden brown at the bottom of the pan.

(Don’t let it cook beyond this stage, or the butter solids will get too dark, eventually burning and turning black and bitter and carcinogenic, in which case you’ll have to strain the brown butter through a fine sieve and sacrifice the flavorful caramelized bits.)

Remove the pan from the heat and immediately pour the brown butter into the dry ingredients. (Likewise, don’t leave the brown butter in the hot pan, or it will continue to cook; see consequences above. If you don’t use it right away as we do here, transfer it to a cool bowl to stop the cooking.)

Using a fork, incorporate the butter just until the mixture turns crumbly; don’t let it form a ball.

If not using immediately, spread on a rimmed cookie sheet and place it in the fridge for 1 hour before transferring to an airtight container (this is to avoid clumping), where it will keep for a few days.

If using immediately, sprinkle over fruit (a generous kilo or 2 1/2 pounds of apples, rhubarb, apricots, peaches, plums…) in a baking dish, and bake in an oven preheated to 190°C (375°F) for 35 to 50 minutes, depending on the type of fruit, until the topping is nicely browned and the fruit is cooked through, and bubbly, if it is a juicy kind of fruit.

Serve warm, with crème fraîche or whipped cream or Greek-style yogurt.

Cooking/baking time: 50 min

  • You’re absolutely right about the depth of flavour added just by browning butter. It’s so savoury and nutty and delicious!

  • you had me at brown butter, and the addition of cardamom & hazelnut flour means I will have to make it sooner rather than later. hopefully i’ll see some good looking pears at the market this weekend!!

  • Mrs Redboots

    It’s always called crumble here; “crisp” is very American. Your recipe looks good – I am often on the lookout for different crumble recipes, but don’t often make it, as had too many “student specials” in my youth – tin of pie filling topped with packet of crumble mix! Yuck. And my mother insists on making rhubarb crumble for my husband, knowing that I dislike rhubarb….

  • Anything with butter in the title has to be good!


  • Sam

    One question–
    Not to be picky, but when you brown the butter, other than flavor, which I know it improves, does it affect any other aspects of the meal. Texture, and so forth.
    Thanks Clotilde!

  • Ooh… crisps are a favorite of mine! I made too many this past fall using the bounty of apples and pears we had.

    I absolutely adore you, your writing, your recipes and your photos, by the way. Your book is a favorite and more recipes than not have been marked “must try!”.

    Your yogurt cake? hands-down favorite cake in our house. I make it all the time.

    thanks for sharing your wisdom.

    xo, Kristin

  • thanks so much for the recipe! I thought all of these kind of toppings had oats in it, which I’m allergic to!

  • Wendy Hutton

    You’re so right about the versatility of fruit with crumble topping. I noticed your remark about keeping cardamom pods fresh. You might be interested to know that the pods, and any seeds that you grind finely yourself, can be kept almost indefinitely in a tiny glass jar in the deep freeze. All my spices go there because storing them at room temperature in a tropical climate is a sure recipe for them to go mouldy in a month or so.

  • I always use my American grandmother’s crisp recipe, which also has melted butter. Next time I’ll brown the butter because it sounds absolutely delicious!

  • All – Thanks for your comments, I’m glad this one appeals to you!

    Kristin – Thanks for your kind words, I’m delighted you’re enjoying the book!

    Wendy – That’s good to know, thanks for the tip!

    Dina – I hadn’t thought of the oat allergy aspect, thanks for pointing it out.

    Mrs Redboots – Interesting thing about the UK/US naming difference. In France, it’s always called a crumble, too.

    Sam – As far as I know, the main textural difference between melted butter and brown butter is the water content. So if you were to substitute brown butter in a pie crust recipe, for instance, you would have to add a bit more liquid to compensate for that.

  • Oh I love this recipe so, and I love the way you differentiate between a cisp and a crumble. Beautiful! Browned butter sounds a bit like clarified butter that I use often abd soemtimes interchangably with white butter. I find it brings out the flavours of dessert beautifully. Living in India, I always have a jar of clarified butter on my shelf.

  • Juliet

    All recipes for an English fruit crumble would contain much less sugar. I’ve only seen additions like oats in recent years and have never tried one containing oats!

    The rubbed in mixture will keep in the fridge for quite some time.

    Love the blog and keep hoping to find a suitable baking container to try the sour dough recipes. Keep up the excellent posts.

  • Estelle

    For crumble, I always use one of Delia Smith trick to make it really crispy : to press it down quite firmly.

    At least you convince me to try brown butter. I was always worried about the health issue…

  • Juliet – I actually lowered the amount of sugar called for in the original recipe. But with 1+ kilo of fruit (to which no further sugar is added) you get 6 to 8 servings out of this amount of topping, so it really doesn’t taste like a very sweet dessert in the end.

    Estelle – That’s right: the health problem is linked to beurre noir (black butter) when the flakes of butter solids start to burn. Before that, no worries!

  • Yvan Vande Velde

    To find a second hand copy of Claudia Fleming with Melissa Clark:”The Last Course: The Desserts of Gramercy Tavern”, use this very good site.


  • One of my favorite ways to serve dessert…I started my blog off with a “crisp” styled fruit dessert. I like the exotic and Scandanavian touch of cardamom.

  • Your post is a welcome and soothing read after a stressful morning of writing. I bought almond flour the other week and forgot to use it in my recipe, so I’ll substitute that for the hazelnut, but will go with pre-bought cardamom – one of my favorite spices. More than anything, I’m looking forward to browning butter for the first time ever.

  • I use both crisp/crumble all the time. I always puts oats in my topping, so I guess technically it’s a crumble? Which reminds me I have some frozen peaches in my freezer that are calling my name!

  • Anjali

    Thank you for sharing this wonderful simple recipe from The Last Course. Brown Butter, Hazelnuts & Black Pepper are all great additions! I will have to make some tonight :)

  • Y

    My mınıature knee saıd somethıng else: If melted butter, why not 2/3 the amount of oil? Nut oil? No cholesterol. What do you think?

  • I love that book, too – I can’t believe it’s out of print!

    Rë: the crumble vs crisp question, I always call it crumble if it has just a simple streusel topping, and oats turn it into crisp.

  • afoodobsession – You’re right, the cinnamon + cardamom flavoring makes it quite Scandinavian.

    Y – Certainly, if cholesterol is a problem, you can substitute the oil of your choice — the cooked topping probably won’t be quite as crisp and the flavor will be different, but it should be good too.

    Carol, Ally and Anjali – Let us know how it turns out!

    Camille – Well then, it appears the crumble/crisp naming game is really not clear cut at all! :)

  • I always have the best luck with with crisps for big gatherings. They disappear within seconds and everyone comes back begging for more. I am really intrigued by this recipe, especially with the hazelnut and the extra punch of spice. I can’t wait to try it with my favorite fruit of all time- the peach!

  • Everyone does love a good crisp! Thank you for the variety in the nut- when I first read hazelnut flour I wonder where to get it, then for some reason the fact that there is more than one option made me feel safe :) I will probably still opt for the hazelnut flour but it’s nice to know that other options are available. I am not a baker- I am almost afraid of flour- but this recipe seems manageable even for someone suffering from baking anxiety.

  • My mortar and pestle is one of my favorite kitchen tools. It really is great for grinding up seeds or nuts. I use it frequently to make a garlic & juniper berry paste that gets mixed with fresh rosemary for a roasted chicken rub.

  • Val

    I just love crumbles! The idea of spicing up the topping and the addition of melted brown butter sounds amazing. I can’t wait to try it out this weekend! :)

  • Love this crisp! the beurre noisette, the lemony note of green cardamom mixed with pepper and cinnamon is to die for :) I’m gonna try it with greek-style yogurt, thanks!

  • Crumble topping keeps for months in the freezer and can be sprinkled straight onto fruit for an almost instant dessert. I usually include oats and add chopped nuts and/or spices at the last minute to ring the changes. I’d never heard it called a crisp, which sounds more like a sort of biscuit.

  • Sounds amazing, cannot wait to try this at home!

  • Great mix of spices you have put toghether there.

  • I like brown butter very much. It makes everything taste better.


  • Hi Clotilde,

    Could you kindly explain whats the difference between a crumble and a Streusel topping?


  • Lucy

    I made this topping for lunch at a friends’ house today. It was easy to put together and the extra zip of flavour from the brown butter was deeelicious.

    For the fruit, I used 1kg of barbie-pink rhubarb and probably added about 7-8 tablespoons of sugar to that. It did produce a LOT of juice so may be worth including a bit of cornflour or something similar to help absorb the copious juices….

  • Mehdi – There is no difference, really: the topping that you sprinkle over fruit for a crumble can be called a streusel topping, and it’s the same sort of mixture as what you’d put on a streusel coffee cake.

    Lucy – Glad you liked the topping! And yes, you’re right, with rhubarb it can be good to toss it with a little cornstarch — a small handful of rolled oats works well to absorb the moisture, too.

  • Browned butter is my favorite – such a great way to enhance the flavor in baked goods and main courses as well!

  • delawaregirl

    I was excited to try this, but found the crisp topping to be really bland even with the browned butter. Unfortunately not one I would try again

  • Delawaregirl – I have to say I’m really surprised it turned out bland, considering all the spices and flavorful ingredients that go into it.

    Can you give us a little more detail about your attempt? Did you use freshly ground cardamom or pre-ground? Was your cinnamon still relatively fresh? Did you choose to use hazelnut flour or powdered almonds or ground walnuts? What type of sugar did you use? And what sort of fruit did you use the crisp on?

  • Sounds delicious! Can’t wait to try it.


  • I was hoping to see a picture with the fruit in it. I do love browned butter. That was a genius idea.

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