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.
Grammy Davidson's Doughboys
3 tablespoons cold butter, in pea
1 cup flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
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.
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.
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:
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
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!