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Fork in the Road: Fruit crisps spell summer delight

Here’s a genuine local twist on a much-loved Canadian tradition
Fruit crisp is one of those nice ‘n’ easy, flexible recipes that scream “summer” and invite you to play around.

Piles of fresh rhubarb at farmers’ markets. Baskets of sweet strawberries. Early summer apples almost on hand, and blueberries ripening as I write…

Beyond the very good and good-for-your-gut plantains I wrote about last time, if you want to add to your super-dessert repertoire, for summer or anytime, here’s a recipe for delicious fruit crisp that’s as easy and, depending how you tweak it, almost as healthy. Plus it takes full advantage of all the amazing local fresh fruit showing up like crazy thanks to the sudden switch to full-on summer.

This recipe, from Tom Barratt—Whistler’s original parks planner who still calls this place home—has stood me in good stead over the years for many a down-home dinner party or sweet pick-me-up for friends and loved ones needing a treat or a little comfort. Everyone loves it, plus it evokes tons of memories. Seems many a Canadian mom makes a dynamite fruit crisp.

This one is actually from Tom’s mom, Anne, who had six kids to look after when they were all growing up in Kitimat. Besides Tom, there was brother Bill, the original Resort Municipality of Whistler parks construction foreman, who, along with his wife Karen, comprise two more of the many longtime locals cashing in their resort chips to get away from “Nowhere,” in this case opting for Ladysmith instead. (See Alyssa Noel’s great Pique column on this sadly growing trend.)

Raising six kids in Kitimat in the 1950s and ’60s when B.C.’s government invited the Aluminum Company of Canada (Alcan) to develop a town and hydro-electric facility there to support one of the most power-intensive industries on Earth—aluminum smelting—couldn’t have been easy, or cheap.

Dad was at work all day as a purchasing agent for Alcan’s Kitimat site, and staples like cream or fresh milk were expensive and often in short supply. So Tom’s mom always served her fruit crisp with condensed milk. When Whistler’s original muni hall staff got together for pizza nights, and it was Tom’s turn to supply dessert, you guessed it—he always brought his mom’s fruit crisp and the obligatory can of condensed milk.

“The first time I brought it, Dave Eastham (a former muni hall consultant who jokingly called himself an ‘insultant’) and everybody just laughed, so I kind of figured it out. Nobody would open the can, but I kept on bringing it as a symbolic gesture because if I didn’t, they’d give me grief,” Tom recalls with a laugh.

Condensed milk is not the easiest thing to find these days, whether you need it for fruit crisp or dulce de leche. And no, it’s not the same as evaporated milk. That’s made from cow’s milk with about 60 per cent of the water extracted. Because it contains no sugar, it goes through a lengthier process to maintain its stability.

Condensed milk is also cow’s milk with about 60 per cent of the water extracted, but sugar is added so it requires less processing than evaporated milk because the sugar inhibits bacterial growth. This makes it practical for challenging settings, like an industry town such as Kitimat being built on B.C.’s rugged coast at a time when families, like the Barratts, had to take a boat up the coast then a steam locomotive in from Terrace.

Whether or not you serve your fruit crisp with condensed milk, you’ll have a hit on your hands. So next time you’re enjoying the Valley Trail or any of the many wonderful parks and facilities that Tom designed and his brother Bill supervised the construction of—Meadow Park, Rainbow Park, the beach and park at Lost Lake, Alpha Lake Park, and more—why not bring a little picnic along, including some fruit crisp?

Then raise your glass or bottle of beer to the Anne Barratts of the world who passed along such practical, “fruitful” recipes that use the best of our B.C. bounty.

Tom Barratt’s fruit crisp

This is one of those nice ’n’ easy, flexible recipes that scream “summer” and invite you to play around. Use whatever fruit base you like. Try combining different ones. Ultimately, it’s way easier and healthier than making a fruit pie.

This recipe makes enough for a 9 1/2 x 13-inch pan. If you use a smaller one, you can freeze the leftover “crisp” to use later.

Clean your fruit. Chop larger stuff like rhubarb into bite-sized pieces. Fill your pan with fruit to about 1/2 inch from the top. Since there’s sugar in the crisp topping, experiment if you want to sugar to your fruit, too. The less sugar the healthier it is, but I’ve found sprinkling a couple of tablespoons evenly over the fruit before adding the crisp topping brings out the flavour. For astringent fruit like rhubarb, you’ll want to sprinkle more—maybe 1/4 cup or more before you add the topping.

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees. In a bowl, mix 1/2 to 1 cup of cup brown sugar with 2 cups flour. Tom uses 1/2 cup of sugar these days, but his mom’s original recipe calls for 1 cup. I use something in between. When the sugar and flour are well mixed, add 1/2 cup butter by chopping it into chunks then rubbing it in with your hands to get a nice “crumbly” effect. Add extras as you like, maybe a handful of rolled oats, dried cranberries, chopped nuts or sunflower seeds. And try using other flours, like almond flour.

If you use a 9 1/2 x 13-inch pan, spread all the mixture evenly over the fruit. It usually works out to about a 1/2 inch of crisp on top. If you use a smaller pan, or prefer less topping, simply adjust accordingly and freeze the leftovers to use later.

Bake at 350 degrees for about half an hour, or until the fruit juices bubble up the sides, and your topping is a nice golden-brown. Serve warm or cold. Enjoy!

Glenda Bartosh is an award-winning journalist who learned that the first Canadian milk condensery was built in Truro, Nova Scotia, in 1871, some 20 years before the first U.S. one that eventually churned out the famous Carnation brand.