A delicious meal has a balance of flavours, some element of contrast between the sweet, salty, sour and bitter; a sharp sauce to cut a rich meat, or a little sugar to enhance the savoury flavour of a tomato sauce. In the same way, contrasts in texture make a meal more interesting, and gives the mouth something more interesting to encounter. Texture is our sense of touch applied to food – the pressure on our teeth and tongue, the heat generated by spices, the silky feel of fat or the sparkle of bubbles.
A simple way to add another texture dimension to a dish is to add a layer of crunchy topping to it. Crumbles, granola, streusel, and breadcrumbs are all ways to provide a contrasting texture to an otherwise smooth dish. The crunch can come from toasting and drying bread, from the crisping of fat mixed with flour, from caramelising sugar, and from the built-in crunch of nuts.
Here are a few different ways to add crunch that can be prepared well in advance and stored for when you need a bit of extra texture for your dish.
Leftover and staling bread can be turned easily into breadcrumbs with a food processor or a blender(if you have quite dry bread). Stashing these in the freezer is helpful for making meatballs, gratin toppings or crumbing meat or fish for frying, but you can amplify their uses by doing a bit of additional work first.
You could simply toast the crumbs in oil or butter, getting them brown & crunchy before going into a freezer bag. This makes for extra-crunchy pasta bakes or gratins, or can be used as a pasta topping in its own right. Ruth Reichl (former editor of Gourmet magazine) thinks they are so useful they could be considered a Christmas gift.
Another option is to mix in some flavourings as you grind the bread to crumbs. Parsley, garlic and parmesan make for a green-tinged, intensely flavourful batch of breadcrumbs. Use them to top pieces of chicken or fish before baking in the oven, or add to minced meat with an egg for deeply flavoured meatballs.
Dukkah is an Egyptian nut and spice mix used to dip bread into. It has been popular in New Zealand and Australia for years, and as Middle Eastern food grows in prominence with the Ottolenghi effect, you see it here more often too. There are a range of different recipes and spice blends that can be used. Hazelnuts are used most often as the chopped nuts base, but you can also use almonds, cashews or pistachios, or a mixture. Once made, you can add this as a crunchy topping to a dip, as Ottolenghi does with this butter bean puree, or top soups or casseroles with it for last-minute flavour and crunch. Diana Henry’s new book ‘A Change of Appetite’ has a recipe for roast tomatoes and lentils with dukkah-crumbed eggs, which contrasts the dukkah with the soft, yielding tomatoes and egg yolks.
Granola is generally offered as a standalone choice with milk or yoghurt, but I prefer to use it as a crunchy topping to a bowl of cereal and muesli. This adds a nice contrast, but also means the dose of syrup and costly nuts per serving is reduced. Because with granola, you have to face the idea that it’s really just flapjack with a bit less syrup and a few more oats. A batch of granola can equally become a topping for cereal or yoghurt at breakfast, ice-cream for dessert, or make it into granola bars.
The crunch comes from toasting the oats and nuts in fat, but also from the caramelisation of the syrup or honey. One way to reduce the fat and sugar is to use some pureed fruit, but then more toasting is needed to thoroughly dry out the oat mix. My three favourite granola recipes:
- Orangette – Chocolate Granola – it sounds all wrong, but with finely chopped dark chocolate, this is a world away from sweet chocolate cereals
- Green Kitchen Stories – Banana Granola – my current favourite, this has a wonderful aroma from bananas and coconut oil
- Nigella Lawson – Andy’s Fairfield Granola – my introduction to granola, this uses brown rice syrup to make it extra-crispy, and ground ginger and cinnamon add great flavour.
The ideal contrast to a dish of soft cooked fruit, the recipe for crumble can provoke disagreement. Much of this is based in nostalgia for whichever crumble you had as a child, at home or school. As the American name, crisp, suggests, a crumble topping needs to have crunch. This is created by either rubbing roughly equal quantities of fat into the flour, or mixing in melted butter. Additional texture can be added with nuts and oats. Streusel toppings are along the same lines, often with more sugar, and can be used on top of a jam and shortbread base to make crumble bars.
- Nigel Slater’s Blackcurrant frozen yoghurt with crumble
- Felicity Cloake’s how to make the perfect crumble
- Kim Boyce’s Rye crumble bars with jam, via Molly at Orangette