History (and a chance to learn from it) hides everywhere. Even in our kitchens.

By Leah Eskin
August 24, 2020
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Dessert hits the sweet spot. No matter how difficult the day, it offers lemon-bright or butter-soft or caramel-deep respite. Food sustains life; dessert sustains joy. And perhaps offers inspiration. After dinner, black and white don’t simply coexist, but coalesce: hot fudge lavished over French vanilla, Oreos splashing in milk, cocoa flaunting cream. Chocolate and vanilla make brilliant allies.

So it’s disheartening to concede: Even sweets know bitter. I was reminded of this while reminiscing about a toy bear, Betty, who on long afternoons, bantered with my children exclusively in words that begin with the letter B. Over the years, Betty understood bumbling, bashful, bored. When my daughter stomped off to her first school dance, Betty breathed, “Beautiful!” When she stuffed her backpack for college, Betty whispered, “Be brave.”

This fall, with campus in confusion, I planned to make apple brown betty to serve in the pause between protest and antibody test. I read that brown betty, a cousin to pie, likely emigrated from Europe and appears as early as 1849 in a Philadelphia cookbook. It’s much like a crisp, crumble or cobbler, though layered with breadcrumbs—and mystery. Some early references capitalize Betty. A 1901 version from New Orleans calls the dish “mulatto-style pudding.” Raising questions: Does “brown” describe the bread, the sugar or a person named Betty? Perhaps a Betty who baked not in joy, but servitude.

I shut the books. We may never know the backstory, but brown betty no longer sounded good. Or right. So I’m renaming my back-to-school bake. In a bumbling way, perhaps, I aim to honor the original Betty, the struggle through trying times and the sweetest of ingredients: hope.

A pie-size betty is traditional, but if you like, assemble the recipe in individual ovenproof ramekins. Cut the baking time to about 20 minutes. Get the Apple-Almond Brave Betty recipe here.