Cobbler dates from the antebellum days of whortleberry pudding, calf’s foot jelly and suet dumplings, but it remains a beloved Southern staple, as emotionally central as the buttermilk biscuit and the smoked ham. Elmo’s, a bustling family diner with locations in Carrboro and downtown Durham, has a particularly good feel for what a cobbler should be: a testimony to the fruits of the earth and to the simple, sound techniques of the farm kitchen.

Cindy McMahan, who co-founded Elmo’s in 1991, says its cobbler recipe is very much a link to the world of the Southern farmspecifically to the Hendersonville farm of her grandmother Elma, who was born in 1915. “My grandma did a wonderful cobbler,” says McMahan. “But you didn’t get recipes from her. You called her on the phone and she’d say a handful of this and a handful of that. I can’t say that this is her recipe, but it’s inspired by her.”

Cobbler goes way back, so far back that nobody is entirely sure why it’s called cobbler. One theory proposes that the dish was “cobbled” together from biscuit or pie dough and whatever fruits were to hand; another suggests that its biscuit lumps resembled cobblestones. The first Southern cookbook of note, Lettice Bryan’s Kentucky Housewife (1839), gives a recipe for peach cobbler very like our modern recipes, though she advises inverting the fruit onto the cooked dough, in what must have been a messy operation. Cobbler “is not a fashionable pie for company,” she noted, but “very excellent for family use.”

Elmo’s cobbler is distinguished by its unusual incorporation of butter and its heavy sprinkling of cinnamon. Instead of being cut into the dough in pie or biscuit fashion, the butter is melted and drizzled over the raw crust, resulting in a browned butter note that twines wonderfully with the cinnamon. Imagine a cobbler topped by an enormous snickerdoodle (another instance of mysterious 19th-century nomenclature) and you will have the idea.

A hair-splitter might argue that Elmo’s cobbler is not a cobbler at all, but a “crisp.” In her book Sweet Stuff, Karen Barker, of Magnolia Grill in Durham, explains that cobblers are topped with a pastry or biscuit crust, while crisps are topped with a course crumb made from butter, flour, sugar and occasionally nuts. Crumbles, meanwhile, “are closely related and usually contain oats.” McMahan concedes that Elmo’s cobbler belongs to a definitional gray area. “Nobody really knows what a cobbler is,” she says. “My grandma made an apple crisp also, but it was different. You could see the fruit through the crumble. When I think of crisp, I think of a really light crumble topping, but this is heavier.”

In addition to its superlative cherry cobbler, Elmo’s serves apple, blackberry, blueberry, peach and strawberry cobblers. The cobblers change from day to day, meaning that the customer never confronts the excruciating need to choose.

Elmo’s Cherry Cobbler

(serves 12)

For the fruit:
2 1/2–3 pounds frozen cherries, defrosted, pitted and drained
3 tablespoons sugar

For the topping:
2 cups all-purpose flour (not self-rising)
1 1/2 cups sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 1/4 teaspoons kosher salt
2 large eggs, beaten

To finish the topping:
10 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
4 teaspoons sugar
1 1/4 teaspoons cinnamon

Thoroughly drain the fruit in a strainer. Blend the fruit with the sugar (3 tbs.) and spread evenly over the bottom of a 9 x 12 x 2-inch baking pan. Blend the flour, sugar (1 1/2 cups), baking powder and salt. With your fingers, work the eggs into the flour blend until you have achieved a moist and pebbly crumb (aim for blueberry- and cherry-size chunks). Spread the topping evenly and lightly over the fruit. Drizzle the butter evenly over the topping. Blend the cinnamon and the sugar (4 tsp.) and sprinkle evenly over the butter. Bake uncovered at 375 degrees for 35–45 minutes, or until the topping is golden brown and the fruit is bubbling at the edges of the pan (baking time will depend on pan and oven).

Elaborations & stipulations

Elmo’s cobbler recipe is extremely forgiving. Feel free to adjust the amount of fruit; the amount of sugar added to the fruit; the amount of melted butter drizzled on the topping; and the amount of sugar and cinnamon sprinkled over the butter.

A 12-ounce bag of cherries yields about 11 ounces of drained fruit. You will need, then, 4–5 bags of cherries, depending on your preferred ratio of fruit to crust.

Cherries shed a good deal of moisture while baking. Some love a cobbler that swims in its own soup, while others consider this soupiness a technical defect and eyesore. To eliminate the soupiness, coat the cherries with 1 or 2 tbs. of flour before baking. Two tablespoons of flour will produce a liquid-free, pudding-like consistency.

By all means experiment with fresh fruit, keeping in mind that fresh fruit will be juicier than drained frozen fruit and may generate Campbell’s levels of soupiness. Especially if using fresh cherries or blueberries, you may want to stew and drain the fruit before adding it to the cobbler. Alternately, you may blend the fruit with flour to absorb the excess moisture. If using apples, choose a tart, firm apple, like the Granny Smith.

To make the other cobblers in Elmo’s repertoire, simply substitute one fruit for another without adjusting the recipe otherwise. One exception: if using blackberries, which tend to be tart, add 4 tbs. + 1 tsp. of sugar to the fruit, instead of 3 tbs.

Serve warm from the oven or reheated by microwave. Elmo’s reheats all of its cobblers in the microwave with no harm done. The crust loses some of its crunch but assumes an appealing cakey quality.

For the full cobbler experience, spoon into deep bowls and top with a generous scoop of vanilla ice cream. PET makes a rich, bean-dotted vanilla that pairs magnificently with cobbler.

Dr. David A. Ross teaches English at UNC and edits the Southeast Review of Asian Studies. He likes to relax with a cleaver and a flaming wok.