Childhood Favorites = Today’s Comfort Food
I’m starting to feel like a broken record here but it’s really true…I love cooking with my mom. Besides the fact that she’s a great cook herself, she’s got all this amazing know-how that you just don’t find in cookbooks. And she has a couple of recipes that I don’t dare mess with on my own. I’m talking about those childhood favorites that never taste the same when you attempt to recreate them yourself as an adult.
I don’t think I’ll ever make mac & cheese on my own. It’s a shame really because I love mac & cheese and when the dreaded day comes that my mom is no longer in the kitchen, I’ll have to go without mac & cheese for the rest of my life. See, she makes the best mac & cheese…with raw cows milk, lots of velvety cheese and then this amazing bread crumb topping that gets all crusty and golden. And she bakes it in the same casserole dish every time, which seems to be the perfect size for what is a precise ratio of chewy golden pasta bites around the edges and melty cheesy bites in the middle. Pardon me while I wipe this bit of drool off my keyboard.
I also love her mashed potatoes, but I finally got myself to make those by deciding I wasn’t going to try to recreate hers, but rather to come up with my own variation. Mine includes goat cheese stirred and melted into the hot potatoes (instead of her hunk of butter) and an extra pinch of sea salt. I still like hers better, if only for sentimental and/or the-wiring-in-my-brain-was-set-for-life-at-age-five reasons. Mashed potatoes and mac & cheese…the second and third best comfort foods.
I say second and third best because there’s another dish that stands at the front of that comfort food line. Homemade old-fashioned apple dumplings were a thing of sheer indulgence during my childhood. We didn’t have them all that often, but when we did, it meant life was good. Truth be told though, I’d almost forgotten about them until a month or so ago, when I was eating out and saw them on the menu. Of course I ordered a dumpling for dessert, but it just wasn’t what I’d hoped it would be. The apple dumplings of my childhood were large – gianormous really – made with a whole apple brimming with cinnamon sugary delight and snuggly down in a flaky sugary crust. What I had at the restaurant was a small half apple with scant cinnamon and a dark egg-washed glossy crust around it. I knew then and there that I’d have to recreate the apple dumplings of my memory. But I wasn’t about to do it on my own.
Yep, back to good ol’ mom. I roped her into teaching me all about apple dumplings at the same time we ferreted out the method for pickling pears. Her recipe for dumplings also comes from a Pennsylvania Grange Cookbook, just like the pickled pears recipe, although the dumplings are in a different edition. I’m glad I went to the source for the original recipe. Left to my own devices, I would have likely used a basic pie dough recipe for the pastry. Turns out the dough for the dumplings has the addition of milk, making it more elastic and granting greater forgiveness when pulling it up around the apples, something a novice like me needed. But really, the apple dumplings turned out to be pretty simple. Thanks to the little mom tutorial, I’m confident I can successfully recreate this childhood favorite on my own now.
Never content to leave well enough alone, we did take a few liberties with the recipe just for fun. I wanted to leave out the butter that usually got drizzled over the apples before they’re wrapped up. Despite the obvious health benefits of this, I just didn’t think it was necessary with the buttery dough too. I didn’t miss it at all when chowing down on the hot dumplings topped with vanilla ice cream. We also added some dried cranberries in the hollowed out core of the apples. They were a nice little surprise that I’d add again next time. We doubled the cinnamon and sugar (which is reflected in the recipe below because I think you should too). We got rid of the red food coloring in the syrup…it just seemed stupid. Our hypothesis is that food coloring was still a novelty when the recipe’s cookbook was printed so housewives were probably eager to show off their status as a culinary expert by “enhancing” colors wherever they could. And finally, we topped the completed (but still unbaked) dumplings with little cinnamon drops/red hots to add visual interest and an extra punch of cinnamon flavor at first bite.
A quick word about the apples themselves: We don’t grow them (yet) at Weavers Way Farm so I snagged mine from the lovely folks at Three Springs Fruit Farm, a neighboring stand to ours at the Headhouse Farmers Market. These guys have the best apples! For these dumplings, I selected a large sweet baking apple (that I can’t remember the name of for the life of me right now) from their many crates. My mom also made a second batch with Granny Smiths at the same time we made these. Both varieties turned out delicious dumplings. The only rule of thumb here is to use solid apples that will hold their shape once baked. Avoid soft eating apples like Red Delicious as they’ll sag and likely cause the pastry crust to crack and cave in.
Childhood memories were never so sweet as these apple dumplings were for me. What’s your favorite childhood dish that equals the ultimate comfort food for you as an adult?
OLD-FASHIONED APPLE DUMPLINGS
My mom’s recipe (taken originally from an old PA Grange cookbook)
2 c. all-purpose flour
2 t. baking powder
1 t. salt
2/3 c. butter (still cold)
1/2 c. milk
4 large apples
6 T. white sugar
3 T. ground cinnamon
2 t. ground nutmeg
1/2 c. dried cranberries (optional)
1 1/2 c. white sugar
1 1/2 c. water
1/4 t. ground cinnamon
1/8 t. ground nutmeg
Preheat oven to 375 F. Peel apples and, using a kitchen gadget or sharp knife, remove all of the cores. Slice off just a small amount at the top and bottom of each apple to flatten them out so they’ll wrap in the dough easier. Rinse off the apples in cold water and dab dry with a paper towel. Set aside.
In a large bowl, combine flour, baking powder and salt. Cut in butter, using your hands to squish everything together, until the mixture resembles coarse crumbs. Pour in milk all at once and stir to form a dough. Add a little more flour if needed to make the dough less sticky. Do not overwork the dough as you want it to remain light and tender. Split the dough ball in half and on a floured surface, roll out one half to about 1/4 inch thick. Cut into two 6″ squares.
Place a whole apple in the center of a dough square. Mix together the sugar, cinnamon and nutmeg listed under “Apples” above. Generously dust each apple with this mixture and fill the core with cranberries and a little more sugar mixture. Moisten the edges of the pastry square with a finger dipped in cool water and bring the corners together at the top of the apple. Press edges together to seal and pinch together any tears in the dough around the apple.
Repeat the rolling out of the second half of the dough and creating the other two dumplings. Place all four dumplings in a baking dish, one inch apart, and decorate with dough cut-outs of leaves or any other creative flare you can think to use.
In a medium saucepan over medium heat, combine the ingredients listed under “Syrup” above. Bring to a boil then remove from heat to cool slightly. Pour the syrup over the dumplings and sprinkle with additional sugar (this forms a delectable golden crust once baked). Bake in preheated oven for 45 minutes, until apples are tender (use a fork poked into them to test) and dough is nicely browned.
Best served warm with a scoop of vanilla ice cream. Can be stored in fridge for up to 3 days. Reheat in the oven at 200 F for 15 minutes.