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Apple dumplings are great comfort food

My cousin's mother, Georgia, spent the afternoon and half the evening at my house last week while my cousin and his wife went out for dinner and a movie. (No, she's not my aunt. He's actually second cousin. We don't usually get that detailed about cousin relationships here in West Virginia since we're all cousins, but people ask me all the time why I don't call her my aunt.) She's getting up in years, so they can't go out without a sitter. After she was ensconced in my easy chair, she asked me what we were going to do. Georgia likes to be busy. Even if someone else is doing the busy part. No slouching, people! I had recently acquired a pile of her old recipes, so I whipped them out and said, "We're going to make apple dumplings!"

If we're going to do something, it might as well end up in dessert.

I studied on the hand-written recipe for a time.

Georgia kept asking me what I was doing.

"I'm studying! I'm studying!"

Recipe for 15 Large Apple Dumplings is what it said at the top. And she's not kidding, they're BIG. (I'll get to that later.) I noticed that to the side she had the quantities calculated out to triple the recipe.

"Georgia, that is 45 apple dumplings! Are you crazy?"

She said, "Yeah."

I bet she tripled this recipe dozens of times. Apple dumplings was one of Georgia's signature recipes, a frequent go-to when she had company. She had her own apple trees, and Georgia always canned her apples sliced and blanched, in quart jars, plain (in water, not syrup) - quarts and quarts and quarts of them, so she could make apple dumplings whenever she wanted without too much fuss. She didn't can pie filling - just canned up the apple slices in quarts ready to pull out for whatever recipe she would need them for, whether it be apple dumplings, apple pie, fried apples, etc. I take after her that way, preferring to can apple slices plain rather than in fillings.  You never know what you're going to want to make, and the plain slices in quarts are a handy convenience product for whatever recipe you're about to embark upon. I used up all my apples in apple butter this year, though, and have none in quarts, so I had to get to slicing.

Which led to my first conundrum. Let's take a look at the recipe's ingredients list, shall we?

Syrup:

3 cups sugar

1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg

3 cups water

6 tablespoons butter

Dough:

5 cups all-purpose flour

5 teaspoons baking powder

2  1/2 teaspoons salt

1 2/3  cup lard

1 1/4  cups sweet milk

You know it's an old recipe when it calls for sweet milk.  Sweet milk is the old-time way of saying regular milk, not soured or buttermilk. You can substitute margarine for the butter and shortening for the lard, but you'll be sorry. Lard is the secret to a tender, flaky pastry, and butter is the secret to happiness.

One of the reasons I was studying the recipe for so long is that the apple dumplings ingredients list did not include any APPLES. How many apples? HOW MANY? Georgia?  GEORGIA?!

The instructions said: "Put one cup apple slices in the center."

One cup spread across the centers of all the dumplings? One cup in the center of the pan?  One cup PER dumpling? How big ARE these dumplings? How big are apple dumplings SUPPOSED to be?

Georgia is sharp yet forgetful at the same time. She couldn't tell me. Or else she was really enjoying herself and didn't want to tell me. You can never tell. I whipped out my laptop and conducted an apple dumplings investigation. I looked for the recipes that sounded the oldest, so that I could be comparing instructions apple to apple (ha) not apple to orange. But, oh my, I found such horrors on the internet! Apple dumplings made with Pillsbury Crescent roll dough and Mountain Dew.

I know what is wrong with the world.

PEOPLE ARE MAKING APPLE DUMPLINGS WITH CANNED DOUGH AND MOUNTAIN DEW.

No wonder our society is falling apart!

Anyway, back to the how-many-apples question. The canned dough and Mountain Dew camp just tuck a few slices into the dough and roll it up (then pour the Mountain Dew over it).  Other recipes use the entire apple, coring it out and leaving it sort of whole (sliced and cored, sort of like an onion blossom, if you know what I mean) while others just slice it up - but use pretty much a whole apple per dumpling. These were the recipes that had the most in common with Georgia's recipe, and some even referred back to older recipes and old cookbooks, so I decided this was the way to go. When Georgia's recipe said a cup of apple, it meant PER dumpling.

PLUS, studying ahead, the dumpling dough was to be rolled out, per dumpling, eight inches.  Further evidence that a few slices wasn't going to do.

I presented my findings and conclusion to Georgia and she agreed that it sounded correct. Which she knew all along, of course, and was just laughing at me. She was duly horrified when I told her about the canned dough and Mountain Dew.

I said, "You would never serve your guests apple dumplings made like that, would you?"

She said, "NO."

Georgia thought I was taking a really long time to get the apples ready, but then all she had to do when she made them was go to her cellar and get some quart jars of prepared apple slices, so she didn't understand my problem. I sliced up 12 medium-size apples.

After I got the apples sliced, I put some fruit protector on them (to prevent browning - I use Fruit Fresh) and stashed them away till I was ready for them. On to my next conundrum (or sort of conundrum, really just a laziness issue).

I started working on the syrup and realized I was out of nutmeg! Or, I was out of store-bought ground nutmeg. I buy ground nutmeg sometimes, which I shouldn't, because I have a big mound of whole nutmeg. I have a handy special nutmeg grater and a one-pound bulk bag of organic whole nutmeg. Whenever I open the bag it smells so good, I want to climb in and live there.

Nutmeg loses much of its flavor after it's ground, so if you store it whole and just grind it as you need it, you'll always have fresh full-flavor nutmeg. Any recipe calling for nutmeg will taste ten thousand times better if you use freshly ground nutmeg, but due to a certain laziness, I'll sometimes use the pre-ground store nutmeg if I have it. I didn't have it, so that meant I had to be industrious.

Trust me, this recipe is so delicious, it is worth the trouble of making it even more amazing by using freshly ground nutmeg.

Next, I prepared the syrup. The recipe doesn't instruct how long to boil the syrup because, of course, women of Georgia's era assume you know how to make a simple syrup. And that's all it is, a spiced simple syrup, with some butter added at the end because why not? Bring the mixture to a boil, turn to low and simmer about three minutes. Turn off the heat, dump in the butter to melt, and let the syrup cool while you continue with the recipe. Time for the dough!

I noticed when perusing apple dumpling recipes that some used more of a real pie crust pastry, and that would work perfectly fine, but I loved this dough. With the addition of baking powder, it is a delectable cross between a pie pastry and a biscuit - yet not overwhelmingly biscuit-y in the result. Yet not pie crust-y either. Before substituting your own favorite pie pastry, try this dough.

With all the ingredients in the bowl, I cut in the lard then stirred in the milk and kneaded lightly. The instructions said to divide the dough into three balls. From here, you're supposed to divide each ball into five smaller balls for 15 dumplings, which are then to be placed in two 9 x 13 baking pans.

After doing this according to the instructions, I'm going to recommend dividing the dough into four balls, then each ball into four more, to end up with 16 dumplings instead of 15 - so you can evenly divide the dumplings in the two pans. This will also result in just slightly smaller dumplings, and that's okay because these dumplings are supersize. That is how I will do it next time and from now on, but this time, I followed the directions and made 15. After all, Georgia was watching. Who am I to tell her how her favorite recipe should be rewritten before I've even finished making it for the first time? Shhh.

Roll each ball out to about 8 inches. Place a cup of apple slices on each center. I didn't really use a cup, and didn't actually even measure. I just put the amount of apples that seemed reasonable, which might have been more like 2/3 cup. As I noted above, I cut up 12 average size apples, and I had about a cup of apples leftover when I finished. Dump 1/8 cup sugar on top of the apples and a dash of cinnamon.

Fold the dough up around the apples to make a sort of pouch. Divide the dumplings between two greased 9 x 13 pans. Pour the syrup over the dumplings. The instructions say to bake at 350 degrees for 35-40 minutes or until done. Until done for me took 50 minutes. I baked them for the first half of the time on the lower baking rack in the oven to make sure they got done on bottom then moved them to the top rack to let them brown nicely on top.

I am an apple pie lover, but I love these apple dumplings MORE than apple pie. If you have apple slices stashed in quart jars, they're actually pretty easy to make and wouldn't take so much time. I'm more committed than ever to increasing my efforts to get apples put away, not just in apple butter, but in slices. This recipe has comfort food written all over it, but is also so stunningly delicious that no wonder it was Georgia's most frequent offering to guests, often served at parties (explaining her triple quantity notes), and is even worthy of showing up on a holiday table (in case you're looking for something different this year).

The straightened-out recipe:

Old-Fashioned Apple Dumplings

Syrup

3 cups sugar

1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg

3 cups water

6 tablespoons butter (or margarine)

Dough

5 cups all-purpose flour

5 teaspoons baking powder

2 1/2 teaspoons salt

1 1/2 cup lard (or shortening)

1 1/2 cups milk

Filling

10-12 medium-size apples, peeled, cored, sliced

2 cups sugar

ground cinnamon

Combine syrup ingredients in a medium-size pot. Bring to a boil, turn down heat and simmer three minutes. Remove from heat. Add butter and leave to melt in pot while you prepare the rest of the recipe.

Mix flour, baking powder, and salt in a large bowl. Cut in the lard. Add the milk, stirring to combine then kneading lightly. Transfer to a floured surface. Divide dough into four balls. Divide each ball into four more balls to end up with 16 small balls. Roll each ball into an approximately 7 to 8 inch circle.  For filling, place about 2/3 cup sliced apples in each center. Top with 1/8 cup sugar and a dash of ground cinnamon. Fold pastry over apple to something like a pouch. Place prepared dumplings in two 9 x 13 greased pans, eight per pan.  Pour syrup over dumplings, dividing between the two pans.

Bake in a preheated 350-degree oven for about 45-50 minutes or until done. Serve with ice cream or whipped cream.

Note: You can add raisins and/or chopped nuts to the filling for a more festive dessert.

Writer Suzanne McMinn lives in Roane County, where she writes every day in her blog, Chickens in the Road, at http://www.chickensintheroad.com/.


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