An Essay on Apple Dumplings
An Essay on Apple Dumplings (and maybe even a sort of recipe)
Every year for Christmas Eve, my husband makes the seafood chowder and I make the apple dumplings. And every couple of years, one of my sisters-in-law says, "I tried to make apple dumplings after Christmas, but they never come out as good as yours."
The secret(s) of apple dumplings are #1, good apples, and #2, good piecrust.
(#3 is practice, but the only way to get that is to make them over and over again, and write little notes to yourself on the recipe.)
I don't care how exactly you follow the recipe, a Golden Delicious apple just won't make a very good apple dumpling. They are fine for eating out of hand, they just don't have enough tartness to make a good baking apple. My very favorite baking apple is the Jonathon. Smallish, tart, firm. If you can't get Jonathons, look for apples that say "Good for baking". This will not be the MacIntosh or the Red Delicious, at least in my considerably-opinionated opinion.
Good piecrust. My 1946 "Woman's Home Companion Cook Book" says "Lard makes a very short or tender crust . . ." and having once bought a box of margarine sticks that turned out to be "lard margarine", I can testify that this is true. But if you can feel your arteries gooping shut just from reading about making piecrust with lard, go with margarine. Cut the margarine into the flour and salt, then add the water very gradually. Ve-e-ery gradually, tablespoon by tablespoon. You want the dough ball to hold together, but not be too sticky. If you start rolling it out, and you can see sticky whitish streaks in it, those are from too much water. And too much water leads to hard crust. Better luck next time!
I have only attempted to make piecrust with Crisco one time, at a friend's house, a miserable experience. On re-reading the pastry section of my "Woman's Home Companion Cook Book" when I got home, I guessed that Crisco must act like an oil crust: the more you work it, the tougher it gets.
Roll your crust thin, thin, thin, as it will be folded over itself several times. Even if it is the most perfect, tender, flaky crust in the world, when it is in multiple layers it can be daunting!
Peel, halve, and core the apples. Use a sharp knife and get out the hard bits near the stem and blossom end. There are few things as unpleasant as putting a nice bite of warm apple dumpling in your mouth, and finding some of those hard, sharp, shell-like bits that protect the seeds in it.
For the filling, I use brown sugar mixed with spices. For Christmas, I go heavy on the spices: cinnamon, ginger, and cloves. You can put in any nice warming spices you prefer, like nutmeg or allspice and so on. Mix the spices thoroughly into the sugar. Put a spoonful into the cored center of each apple, and then a little pat of butter. I usually slice a butter pat off the end of the quarter-pound stick of butter, then cut that into fourths, and put a little butter square in each.
So it goes like this: roll out piecrust quite thin. Cut into a square about eight inches on a side. Put a peeled, cored, halved apple in the middle of the square. Into the cored center, put a spoonful of sugar and spices and a tiny butter pat. Bring up one corner of the square onto the top of the apple. Wet the opposite corner. (I put a little dish of water on the cupboard and just dip one finger.) Bring the opposite corner up and press it firmly down on top of the first corner.
Now you have an apple in a sort of tube of pastry. Usually one end of the tube will look more triangular than the other: that is, the other end will look sort of lopsided. Save the nice end for last. Wet the third corner, the more lopsided one, and bring it up to the top, tucking the side crust in like wrapping a present. Press firmly so the dumplings don't undo themselves during baking. Now do the same to that last corner. Ideally it should make a nice neat triangle point laying on the top. Set it aside in the baking pan, and make the next dumpling.
Once all your apples are wrapped up in piecrust, it is time for the syrup. Heat up the water, float the butter on top, add the sugar and spices. Stir as the water heats. It doesn't need to boil. Just melt the butter and dissolve the sugar, then turn it off.
Preheat the oven. Now set the pan of dumplings on the oven rack and pour the hot syrup into the pan. Trying to pour hot syrup in the pan, then trying to put the hot, sloshing pan in the oven, is a recipe for painful sugar-syrup burns!
Since the baking temperature for these is very hot, if you have an oven with a broiler underneath, do clean that broiler pan before you try this. One Christmas Eve we had smoke rolling out of the oven, as the heat ignited the grease in the broiler pan. The dumplings were as sooty as Tom Kitten's roly-poly pudding that year.
Apple Dumplings (4)
Piecrust: 1-1/2 cups flour, 3/4 teaspoon salt, 1/2 cup shortening, 6-8 tablespoons cold water.
Apples: 4 Jonathon apples, peeled, halved, and cored, with hard bits at stem and blossom end removed.
Filling: 1/4 cup brown sugar, 3/4 teaspoon cinnamon, 1/2 teaspoon ginger, 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves. One thin pat of butter, cut into 4. (Any leftover filling sugar can be used in making the syrup.)
Syrup: 1 cup water, 1/2 cup packed brown sugar (use up any leftover filling in the bottom of the measuring cup), 1-1/2 Tablespoons butter, 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon, 1/4 teaspoon ginger, 1/8 teaspoon ground cloves.
Preheat oven to 425 degrees F. Put dumplings as you make them into 8 x 8-inch baking pan. Put dumpling pan on rack of hot oven and pour hot syrup into pan. Bake for about 40 to 45 minutes, or until dumplings are just browned on top. Remove from oven, allow to cool below mouth-burning temperature. Serve. Wonder why you don't make these things more often.
Leftover syrup from the bottom of the pan makes an ice cream topping that is out of this world.