Not every antique is a thing you can hold in your hand. Some are conceptual such as a recipe which has been around for decades. In the Pennsylvania Dutch country, where I come from, certain foods have a long tradition. Scrapple, Lebanon Bologna, snitz pie, fastnachts, a hundred different variations on sausage and much more are as deeply woven into the culture as hand-stitched quilts and six board blanket chests decorated with distelfinks. My favorite among these is the humble apple dumpling.
They are a shining jewel in my childhood memory. I associate them strongly with another favorite thing: Autumn. Being an exile these days in the Pacific Northwest I am besieged by evergreens everywhere I look diluting the seasonal scenery and causing me to gaze wistfully at airline prices. I ameliorate the angst that inhabits my emotions by clinging to a personal tradition. I make apple dumplings. I make more than I can and distribute them freely to friends and relatives. It makes me feel more or less sane and keeps me in touch with my roots as nothing else can.
Dumpling construction as I choose to practice it is a nostalgic meditation. I keep it apart from the new-fangled gadgetry that inhabits our kitchens today: no microwave, no food processor. The only artifacts of the present are apples picked from my favorite tree that grows tall and expansive beside the driveway. It wears a jacket of moss on its trunk and lower limbs. Healthy colonies of lichens populate the upper branches and a small red squirrel has claimed it as his territory lately. I don’t mind as long as he pays the apple rent faithfully.
Apple is my favorite choice in pies generally but there is something extra special about a single apple clad in baked dough. The best part of a slice of pie is at the end. After you have worked your way up the triangle to the remaining strip of apple and crimped crust the ratio of fruit to dough favors more crust and is a grand way to culminate the experience. Thus, the dumpling is like a dessert made up entirely of the delicious edge of a pie. That’s the way I thought of it as a child and I have yet to grow up and alter my opinion.
There are still old-fashioned hand crank gizmos that will peel, core, and slice an apple in jig time. Which is an older sort of time that is a little harder to come by now that Deepak Chopra has discovered that Quantum physics explains how he can sell more books. It’s an antique concept with many functional reproductions available today. I float the denuded apples in water to keep them from turning brown. It occurs to me that they are going into an oven that will completely alter their nature so it seems a waste of time. But my mother did it this way and that makes it as much a connection to the past as a good idea.
Mom’s memory is all over this process as evidenced by the tools involved. The dough is rolled out on a wooden board with lots of flour. The rolling pin is solid maple, a replica of a kitchen tool from long ago. I turned it on the lathe myself about 35 years ago. It was a Christmas present for her back in the day when we gave people actual things instead of money or gift cards which are really just more money. Mom is no longer with us but I still have our rolling pin.
A solid pin has a nice feel in the hands. The shape includes handles at each end but there are no roller bearings clicking like a bicycle needing a trip to the mechanics. It will not fall apart and refuse to keep its handles on the axle. Many years of butter, shortening, and flour has kept it running smoothly in the web between thumbs and forefingers. Its weight is substantial and it pushes a wave of dough in any direction I choose. Like a sharp chisel slicing cleanly through even-grained wood, it puts the “Z” in zen.
I must have watched my mother roll out the dough on several hundred pies and dumplings. She taught all the kids to do it. When I think of her in the kitchen in full baking mode I remember a day when I stopped in to visit as an adult. She was babysitting one of my nephews. He was standing on a chair rolling out dough on the counter top. Her joy was as evident as his concentration. I don’t know who was having a better time. Maybe it was me glimpsing the love that infused my own childhood.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Since writing this article I have had requests for my recipe. I didn’t really have one, except in my head, so I have written it down without carving it in stone. If you care to try it alter it in any way that fits your own taste. Give some to friends, treat a child, get up in the middle of the night and indulge yourself. The flavors of the past never grow old.
Apples: about 6 per batch of dough, Granny Smith or any tart, crisp apple.
1 two crust pie dough recipe.
1 cup sugar with 2 tsp. Cinnamon thoroughly mixed together.
1 cup brown sugar
2 eggs, separated
Dry Riesling, chilled
Make up your pie dough. I find the recommended recipe to provide the elasticity and integrity to be helpful in folding and handling the dough. Also, it has a dairy load of butter in it and you can’t go wrong with that. The recipe gives temperature specifications which sound pretentious and overly picky but I found them to be useful in light of all that buttery goodness which should not get all melty before it’s proper time. Put it in the fridge while you do the other steps, answer the phone and pour a glass of Riesling.
Peel and core apples. A little hand-cranked nineteenth-century technology makes this faster, easier and you can feel more off the grid about the whole thing. Place naked apples in a communal bath of cold water. Give a little swirl and let them enjoy themselves.
Divide your dough into ten chunks. Spread flour on the chosen rolling surface and roll a chunk of dough to a square, circle or free-form shape that looks closer to a map of, say, Australia than one of Finland. It doesn’t matter much as long as the dough will hold together while you fold it up over the apple, but we’ll get to that in a minute. I tend to use a lot of flour to keep things from sticking to the board. It’s always easy to tell that I’ve been baking.
Some recipes give an instruction like, “roll pastry dough to a 21×14-in. rectangle; cut into six squares.” That sounds faster and more efficient but I’m not good at making that big rectangle/squarish thingy without a lot of ragged edges that don’t work and play well with others. If you happen to have that knack go for it.
Using a pastry brush lightly spread some egg goo/whites on the dough. I like the small china bristle chip brushes from the hardware store. Because you know I’m a manly man and if I could find a place to use a socket wrench in this business I sure as hell would. (insert macho grunt here). Sprinkle cinnamon sugar mixture on the square/circle/not Finland. Rescue an apple from the water bowl and pat it dryish or just shake it a bit and dribble water all over the kitchen. You’ll hear about that for awhile. Place the apple in the middle of the target zone and drop a tablespoon of brown sugar/pecan mixture in the core. Follow it with a dollop of blackberry jam or any other fruity delight that strikes your fancy. Throw in another spoon of brown sugar/pecan and cap it with a half teaspoon of butter. Fill center of each with 4 teaspoons sugar mixture and 1/2 teaspoon butter.
Bring an edge of the dough up over the apple. Repeat with the opposite side. The egg should hold the overlapped portion together. Fold the remaining flaps of dough up over the apple in similar fashion then place the dumpling lovingly in an ungreased 13×9-in. baking dish. I prefer Pyrex but metal stuff will do. Polk some vent holes in the top of each dumpling. When all passengers have been secured in their places slide them into an oven which has been preheated to 350 degrees. Bake them for about 50 minutes or until the version of golden brown you prefer has been reached. There should have been a lot of bubbling going on in the meantime. Some people brush the outside with an egg wash or a sugar syrup concoction. I like to keep it simple. Eat at least one of these while it’s still quite warm. That’s Pennsylvania Dutch heaven.