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Dumplings, Doughboys, and Clouds in my Soup


By Stacy Cooper
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Dump-lings: small nuggets of leftover dough 'dumped' into a simmering broth to cook.

Dreaming of dumplings portends a release from anxiety. Or so I learned when I looked up my abundant dumpling dream. I was sleeping hard after a long and stressful week - the kind of busy sleep where you sink into another realm and find yourself running at breakneck speed from one complicated situation to the next till you awaken at daybreak exhausted from the night's adventures.

Night time: I was in a very large and shiny kitchen in this dream, making a huge and fragrant beef stew with dumplings. Suddenly there were dumplings everywhere - bubbling out of my stewpot, my stockpot and every saucepan I own. Dumplings floating in the air, swelling to the size of grapefruits and reproducing in midair exactly the way cells split in a high school biology film. The air in my dream was sticky with the aroma of flour and butter poaching in aromatic broth and I could feel the clouds of dough melting on my tongue like fat, warm snowflakes, tasting of childhood.

Daybreak: I couldn't wait to get into my kitchen and whip up a beef stew as an excuse for a batch of my great grandmother's dumplings.

My Grammy Davidson's dumplings, or doughboys as she called them, were light and fluffy dollops of biscuit dough plopped in great spoonfuls on top of a simmering stew. They would puff up till they formed a sort of soft crust on top of the stew, absorbing the liquid from below, and exchanging a bit of their flour with the stew as a thickener. If the stew was beef, then the doughboys remained pure, but when the stew was chicken, a fine chop of fresh parsley dotted the doughboys like confetti. The doughboys were not considered done until they were dry to the touch and airy inside.

Grammy would dip in her huge blue enameled spoon and take a piece of doughboy and a dab of stew for me to try. That little bit of dumpling would melt in my mouth, the floury dough blending with the savory stew juice into a heavenly elixir that spoke of comfort and warmth and hearty good cooking. Grammy would be wearing a neat housedress from the 1940s, in a tiny floral print. Her entire front would be covered with a bibbed apron of a contrasting floral, trimmed in rickrack and tied in a neat bow in the back. Her sturdy Eleanor Roosevelt shoes, black for winter, tan for summer, would have a light dusting of flour on them and her white hair would be drawn back in a bun, covered by a silvery hairnet. Her wire rimmed glasses would be foggy with steam from the stewpot. "Well?" she'd say. "Dreamy," was my reply. Anxiety would leave me - as long as there was a stew pot bubbling on the stove I was safe and cared for.

I never knew why they were called Doughboys - I guess I never asked. Just recently I learned that the Doughboys in WWII were an elite squad of airmen - maybe the doughboys were named in honor of them.

In winter, if a visitor happened to linger close to lunch or dinnertime, my mother, June, would stir up a bowlful of soft doughboy batter to fill out the chicken or vegetable soup. Her dumplings would be smaller and lighter, though her method was the same as Grammy's. She'd drop delicate teaspoonfuls of dough into the soup and they'd puff up into tiny floating clouds drifting independently about in the broth. I'd always fish them out first and ask for more. Mum would bake up a batch of biscuits (essentially the same recipe as doughboys) to give us our daily bread and to augment that warming, stick-to-your-ribs quality that's so satisfying and fortifying on a cold winter's night.

All the world loves a dumpling, though dumpling means something different depending on where in the world you are dining. Filled or not, dumplings generally indicate some sort of dough, on its own or wrapped around a filling and steamed or simmered. My beloved Doughboys and traditional doughy dumplings usually enrich a stew or broth; some version of Chicken & Dumplings is a classic in many a mother's kitchen. Consider Matzo Ball soup - a dumpling dish if there ever was one. And we mustn't forget dessert dumplings - often pastry or dough covered fruit like apple dumplings from Germany and England. Polish Pierogis & Italian Gnocchi could be considered dumplings as they are simply simmered or boiled and left to stand on their own, or covered in a little butter or sauce, like pasta. It could also be argued that fresh pasta, especially ravioli, is also a sort of dumpling, but that's another article altogether.

In Asia, dumplings are traditionally steamed or fried. Think of dim sum, in all shapes and sizes with an endless array of fillings. Japanese gyoza are similar, filled with ground pork or shrimp. There's the familiar and Americanized Peking Dumpling, but have you ever tried Momo, the fat Tibetan dumplings? Migrating south dumplings are often wrapped - think of tamales wrapped in corn husks or banana leaves filled with meat and rice mixtures, then steamed till fluffy and delicious.

Anywhere you go, dumplings are comfort food; homey, light and filling at once, and completely anxiety releasing. Dreamon.


Dumpling Recipes

Grammy Davidson's Doughboys

3 tablespoons cold butter, in pea sized chunks
1 cup flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
pinch salt
pinch sugar (optional)
1/4 - 1/2 cup milk
Cut butter into dry ingredients till it resembles coarse cornmeal. Stir in enough milk to make a stiff, slightly sticky dough. Drop by tablespoonfuls onto a simmering stew, making sure the dumplings are in contact with the liquid. Leave an inch or so between dumplings as they will expand. Cover and steam 10-15 minutes or till dry to the touch and cooked through. No peeking till time's up! Larger doughboys may take longer.


Beef Stew with Doughboys

Make your favorite beef stew. Fifteen minutes before serving, drop in dumpling batter by tablespoonfuls, cover and simmer 10-15 minutes or till dumplings are dry to the touch and cooked through. Spoon stew over dumplings and serve at once.

Clouds in my Soup

One of my favorite comfort foods is clear chicken broth with tiny parslied dumplings.

Heat a quart of prepared chicken broth in a saucepan just to a boil. Reduce heat to simmer. Drop in parslied dumpling dough by half-teaspoonfuls. (Don't crowd the pot - you may have some dough left over.) Cover & simmer till dumplings are done, about 10 minutes.

If you prefer a heartier soup, first sauté diced carrot, onion, celery, mushrooms in a little olive oil in your soup pot till just soft. You can also add diced or shredded cooked chicken if you like. Add broth and proceed as above.

Dumpling Variations:

Dumplings are versatile and make a wonderful backdrop for complimentary flavorings. Here are some of my favorites. Experiment till you find ones you like.

Parslied Dumplings (for Clouds in my Soup or chicken stew): add 1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh parsley

Herbed dumplings: Add 1 tablespoon any mix of fresh herbs to compliment the stew. Avoid dried herbs - they make dumplings taste dusty.

Parmesan Pepper Dumplings: (great in a thick tomato based vegetable stew or in minestrone instead of pasta) add 1tablespoon freshly grated parmesan cheese and a few twists of coarsely ground black pepper.

Cornmeal/Parmesan Dumplings: Add 2 tablespoons cornmeal and 1tablespoon parmesan.

Cornmeal, Cheddar & Jalepeno Dumplings: (try these with chili!): add 2 tablespoons cornmeal, 1 tablespoon grated cheddar cheese and 1/2 teaspoon chopped jalepeno

Dumplings as Biscuits

If you have leftover batter, you can bake it into drop-biscuits. Drop by tablespoonfuls onto a greased baking sheet and bake at 400 for 6-10 minutes till golden brown.

Doughboy Casserole

Dumpling batter can also bake into a rustic & tasty crust on a casserole. Mix up chunks of leftover vegetables and meat, pour a cup of wine, cream, tomato sauce or gravy over it all, top with spoonfuls of flavored dumpling batter, bake till heated through and doughboys are golden. For a hearty brunch dish, try it with chopped ham, onions, peppers, mushrooms and cheese. Top with cream and dumplings and bake till golden.

At holiday time I love creamed peas & onions baked under a parslied dumpling crust. Dumplings and doughboys are humble fare, but with some imagination, they can be very elegant and sophisticated. They are country food, born of thrift and necessity; comfort food meant to nourish and sustain, so they are flexible and forgiving. Do with them what you will, and remember these tips:

Dumpling Tips

A wetter dough makes a lighter dumpling. Experiment till you find the consistency you like

Use an oiled spoon in each hand to pick up & drop dough; one for dipping and one for scraping

If you add seasonings, be conservative ñ a little goes a long way

Keep covered - don't peek till cooking time is over - drafts will deflate them

Use a glass cover to see what's going on in the pot

Liquid should simmer, not boil, or your dumplings will disintegrate

Cake flour makes dumplings more tender

Don't crowd the pot

No peeking, no poking

If you put a frozen pea in the center of one of your doughboys before cooking, the person who finds it will be blessed with luck and good fortune and maybe even freedom from anxiety, at least for a little while!



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