Making a crumble topping is a simple thing: It involves stirring together flour, sugar, and spices (maybe some oats, too) and then cutting in chunks of COLD butter. The result is that you get a crumbly mixture rather than a smooth batter, which you get with softened butter.
Usually, we do this one of two ways: With a pastry cutter or our fingers. But the recipe we used over the weekend called for beating the crumble topping on the lowest speed of a standing mixer. We thought that would break down the butter chunks too much, but turns out it worked beautifully—and with much less muscle. So, here are our three techniques, with pros and cons for each:
1. By hand. We mention this in our recipe for Pear and Blue Cheese Crostata. If you are mixing a small amount of topping, it's easy to pinch together the dry ingredients and the butter, rubbing it between your fingers just enough to form pebbles.
Pro: Quick, and the only clean-up involves licking.
Con: A little tiresome. Not recommended for those with carpal tunnel syndrome. Also, if you work it too much, the heat from your hands can soften the butter into mush.
2. With a pastry cutter. Using this tool (which looks like a rainbow of little wires, with a handle) cuts butter into the dry ingredients quicker.
Pro: Better than your fingers for a larger amount of topping—say, enough for a casserole dish.
Con: If you've got a chunky topping that includes a lot of oats, the pastry cutter can get clogged. We find ourselves clearing the wires a lot.
3. In a standing mixer. This was new to us, and we worried that overly agitating the topping would give us batter, not pebbles. But if your butter is really cold, it works beautifully.
Pro: Hands-off! It took longer than we thought (about three or four minutes), but eventually the mixture came together, and we had perfectly uniform crumble chunks. When we picked it up, the butter was still chilly. Great for a big amount of topping with oatmeal in it.
Con: Hmm. You have to clean the mixer attachment? But you'd be cleaning the pastry cutter, too...
Get the recipe for the crumble above: Rhubarb Lavender Crumble (use the topping on apples or pears instead)
(Image: Faith Durand)