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Robert and Betty's simple apples

Updated: Jul 21, 2021

"The Brown Betty is one of those homespun desserts you don’t often see anymore, the kind that travels under countless names and is something slightly different to everyone." Milk and Honey Bakery

I've been planning our next Zoom cooking class. The main had already been determined - Egyptian lemon chicken from Robert Carrier - a recipe so simple that a complete idiot in the kitchen could make it. It is apparently a favourite of my grandsons and their father suggested it, because of its simplicity. However, this leaves me with a lot of time to fill for my class, because it will only take 5 minutes to prepare, so I have been expanding the menu (Greek lemon potatoes, French buttery garlic beans) with a dessert. Apple crumble was suggested, but they all know how to do that. Surely we can do better thought I.

Simple was the word. I'm succumbing to my son's lack of faith in childish ability. So first of all I checked out Nigel Slater's Real Fast Food but on this occasion he failed me. Mostly I have to say because fruit options are more limited at this time of year and the best suggestions were for currently unavailable fruit. Indeed it was rapidly becoming obvious that apples, maybe pears were the thing. And no - tarte tatin is too tricky I think.

Then I thought to return to Robert Carrier - the author of our main dish - because contrary to what people might think, vast numbers of his recipes are really, really simple. He has a reputation for being flamboyant, over the top, extravagant, but honestly you just have to start turning the pages of his two first books, Great Dishes of the World, and The Robert Carrier Cookbook and you will see how many of those recipes are really very short, not that extravagant - well unless you count butter and cream as extravagant - and very, very simple.

Here are some that I found, but which I rejected for various reasons Chocolate Date Nut Torte - not sure they all like dates - or nuts come to that - but it was even simpler than Claudia Roden's orange cake (but sorry - no picture). American strawberry shortcakes, - well strawberries are not in season, or maybe English treacle tart - this would involve them in making pastry which would take time.

So no, let's stick to apples and see what he has to offer. Well there were a few - Transparent apple slices but not really doable in advance; not to mention variations on apple tarts, but then I saw Brown Betty, which amazingly I have never made, and the decision was made.

Apple brown Betty as it is more often known as is an American dish. Well Carrier was American by birth and upbringing. The picture at the top of the page is a version called New York Apple Betty, and yes there are a multitude of versions.

Time for a brief aside. Having semi-decided on Apple brown Betty, I also thought of Apple Charlotte, and thought for a moment that a snappy title of Betty and Charlotte for this post might be good. Perhaps not that snappy. I wasn't quite sure what an Apple Charlotte was, so went searching and found that it is sort of a Summer pudding but with apples. Which I thought might be a little bit trickier for the grandchildren. Maybe some other time. This is Felicity Cloake's perfect version and it does look quite tempting.

But back to Betty. Who was Betty? Well nobody knows. It is commonly agreed that this is one of those colonial dishes of America that used what was to hand, the recipe for which was just passed down orally over the generations. And maybe a Betty, somewhere along the line, had more chutzpah and somehow managed to get her name attached to it. Or maybe it actually refers to the colour of a cook called Betty:

"the sweet-sounding Brown Betty was more a race-based epithet towards its maker than a homey moniker denoting golden-brown bread crumbs." Milk and Honey Bakery

This theory is reinforced by the fact that there was also a pudding going the rounds called Mulatto's pudding, which was virtually identical. Still you'd have to have a Betty to take the credit wouldn't you? Finally it appears in print:

"The Brown Betty first appears in print in 1864 in the Yale Literary Magazine listed alongside tea, coffee, and pie as things to be given up during physical training." Milk and Honey Bakery

Which implies that it was well-known and had been around for some time. It's just one of those home dishes that makes use of what you've got - lots of apples from your tree, breadcrumbs, sugar and butter.

“There is something touching about the effort to put something together with what precious little is on hand - something beyond strict necessity.” Richard Sax

The version shown here is from the Milk and Honey website, which was my most informative source for origins.

From having now checked out a number of recipes the main variations are as follows:

  • the apples can be chopped or sliced

  • the apples can be layered with the breadcrumbs - and I think they usually are - or the breadcrumbs can be scattered on the top like a crumble

  • the sugar and spices can be mixed with the breadcrumbs or the apples - or even the syrup - which is what Carrier does

  • lemon juice or orange juice

  • cider is often poured over it all, but Robert Carrier - bless him - does Golden syrup instead. I'm going with Robert Carrier. However, I think I shall perhaps add the spices and sugar to the breadcrumbs or the apples. It sort of makes more sense. But then again perhaps I should be loyal to his recipe.

  • it can be made with any other kind of fruit of course.

So I'm looking forward to this. Maybe I'll give the kids the options and they can choose. I mean you could add sultanas couldn't you and/or nuts? Or go Nigel Slater - another very favourite cook - with his Chocolate Apple Betty and he sticks with Robert Carrier's Golden syrup too.

I guess we don't know much about Apple brown Betty much because it's so American, but perhaps we ought to. I've often wondered what it was. Now I know.


A brown Betty is also this kind of teapot from Staffordshire potteries. It uses a glaze obtained from local clays.

I don't see how you could make a connection to Apple brown Betty, but some have apparently. Maybe somebody English trying to claim it as English.

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