For some reason the steamed and boiled fruit pudding never properly took permanent hold in the New World. It was, by and large, the dessert of choice in Britain for centuries. You could certainly find it in the early days of the colonies, and into the early 19th century, basically as long as open-fireplace cooking was the norm, it was around. But despite its many virtues, almost no one makes them today. They do have virtues – it could be cooked along with a soup or stew so was quick and easy to mix up and prepare, it lasts forever (you can make a traditional plum pudding today and eat it in July with no noticeable loss of quality), the best plum or figgy puddings (yeah, that’s what that Christmas song is talking about) are so alcoholic you can get drunk on them (they were banned by the Puritans because of their awesome booziness.)
In the new world, however, while the pudding never quite caught on in large part because of an initial lack of suet, a host of modified fruit puddings that were baked rather than steamed or boiled emerged – and they have had a lasting impact on our cuisine. Different tastes, German and French immigrants adding their stamp to British traditions, different cooking conditions all left their mark, leaving us with a host of variants on a theme with a million names – none of which always mean exactly the same thing.
On the same basic order as the steamed pudding (ie, fruit, seasonings and something starchy to make them go ’round), some of them were failed steamed puddings (slumps and grunts seem to have been derived from trying to made boiled puddings with early colonial equipment), others were responses to the higher cost of alcohol and left out most of the booze, still more focused on the available fruit of the new world, and added in French (Brown Betty, Clafouti), and German (biscuit dough topped cobblers, possibly birds nest pudding) techniques.
Why should you care? Well, you don’t need to worry about the history in any real sense, but I do think that it is just about nuts not to have a basic recipe for fruit crisp/buckle/pudding in your culinary repetoir. It is something you can make year round. I start the season making rhubarb crisp in April, go from there to strawberry rhubarb, cherry, peach, plum, blueberry, blackberry, more peach, peach raspberry, apple, pear, quince…and you can make excellent ones from home dried or canned fruit as well, so they truly are the universal dessert. Assembly takes only as much time as cutting up the fruit (or coring it in the case of bird’s nest pudding) and making the dough or streusel – it can be done in a trice with a little practice.
Everyone will eat them, almost. Not eating sugar? No worries, fresh naturally sweet ripe fruit only, unsweetened biscuit or pie crust topping. Vegan? No problem – while Brown Betties have buttered crumbs, you can get away with just about any oil in most of these. No gluten? Easy – a crisp with gluten free oats and ground almonds as the topping. These are the universal dessert, which can brought to just about any gathering – and they are greeted by universal enjoyment.
The basics are simple – toss chopped/sliced fruit with a bit of sweetener if you want it, and any spice you want. Then decide what kind of variant you are making. A sweet biscuit dough dropped on top makes a cobbler. Streusel makes a crisp or crumble – but a crumble can also use cookie crumbs or nut toppings. Buttered breadcrumbs on top and bottom and a bit of brown sugar make a Brown Betty. Mix the fruit into cake batter and you’ve got a buckle. Make a dumpling batter (wetter) and cook it on top of the stove and you’ve got a slump or grunt. Core whole fruit (usually apples, but quinces, pears and peaches are good too) and put it in pie crust and you’ve got a bird’s nest.
None of them will win prizes for elegance of appearance, but all will send people begging for seconds.