History on a Plate: The Apple Cobbler

From a trail-modified dessert to the highlight of Thanksgiving in Army Messes and eventually hotels, Chef Santosh Rawat, Executive Pastry Chef JW Marriott Mumbai Sahar, on the ‘beloved innovation of the 1900’

By Madhulika Dash; Photograph & Recipe Courtesy JW Marriott Mumbai Sahar

When renowned humourist, Loretta LaRoche famously said, “Stressed Spelled Backwards is Desserts” in one of her full house stand-ups, little did the stress expert know that her statement was an ode to one of the iconic trailblazing beloved desserts of the 1800’s called the Cobbler.

Often defined as the improvised version of famous Roman pies, Cobblers were these make-shift treats developed by the British cooks, who were frequently asked to make the beloved pie but couldn’t because of the lack of ingredients. Instead, the enterprising culinary hands hand crushed sweet fruits, lavished it with sugar or honey if needed, butter and then covered it with biscuit pastry or granules before baking it on open fire. The sloppy style of making it soon got these treats nicknamed cobbler since they resembled the shoe smith’s box in appearance. That, says Chef Santosh Rawat, “continued till the time canned fruits, especially of peaches and apples, started arriving in most of the colonies and were immediately incorporated into Cobblers because of the familiar taste.”

The simplicity of making the treat – rather assembling it back then, adds Rawat – played a key role inthe dessert earning its blue stripes as it was soon promoted from being a once-a-week affair to a popular breakfast. It was even served like one with a staggered wedge of the cobbler that was topped with Crème Chantilly with an option of maple syrup if needed. Fascinatingly, what the treat didn’t score in terms of looks, it did in terms of taste and in variation as soon English ladies too were creating their own thrown in treat at home which ranged from torte, pandowdy, sonker, grunt, slump, buckles, crisp, croustade, bird’s nest pudding, and crow’s nest pudding. Of course, adds the pastry chef, “the home versions were aesthetically more pleasing than one served to the officers in their messes, which remained a mess-looking treat where the only change was perhaps the fruit, and a latter introduction of the ice cream during summers and special occasions.”

Cobbler’s debut in Indian soil was with the canned variety in the Dak Bungalows. Story has it that the wives traveling to meet their husbands would carry trunks filled with canned fruit, which would be assembled into a cobbler at the various Dak Bungalows they stayed with, and was often called the “only English meal that was enjoyable.” Such was the popularity of this make-shift improvisation that even when the famous pie came to India, cobblers still held its place on the table – even making its debut in Thanksgiving table. Cobbler, which was declared a dessert in Britain and America around the early 19 th century, was one of the few dishes that made it to the official menu of first Fort Kochi and then the Viceroy House. What was different this time was that the cobbler used fresh fruits as well - especially with Indian producing the finest of granny smith apples and the tiny delicious varieties – along with a hint of spiced rum during official get togethers. By the time it moved out of the Colonial corridors of Army Messes, Clubs and Gymkhanas and into hotels, there was a new addition to the cobbler – the Vanilla Ice cream.

Of course, says Chef Rawat, whose first dessert he learnt and fell in love with is the Apple Cobbler, “the basic recipe of Cobbler by then had seen a sea change. While the filling took a more warm, aromatic turn with the addition of nutmeg and cinnamon, especially sourced from Kerala and Sri Lanka; the pastry itself graduated from biscuit pellets to a beautiful crust that was seasoned and flavoured with the best of rinds.”

In fact, continues the dessert specialist, “the first pastry I learnt for making the cobbler had buttermilk and orange zest that gave the cobbler the feel of sunny spring morning and certain fluffiness that adds to the experience.”

A staple of Chef Rawat’s thanksgiving dessert feast each year, the cobbler, he continues, “often is a timeline of my journey as a pastry chefs as well, and has gone from being classic to creative with a loads of elements to one that is simple but has the charm of local fresh ingredients. As a matter of fact all the ingredients are sourced from the local market and if I have to use canned, it is also done in-house.”

So what is the trick of making a great cobbler. “Fresh apples or fruits and keep it seasonal with flavourants,” says the seasoned dessert specialist, who even today loves the good old sugar dusted whipped cream as the perfect finish to a good cobbler.