Apple dumplings

One more apple recipe before we move on to winter. My grandmother used to make these, but I’d forgotten them until recently when my mother and sister mentioned they were looking for the recipe. They’re simply apples baked in pastry with a brown sugar syrup, a sort of single-serving pie, and I have no idea why they’re called “dumplings,” because every other dumpling I’ve ever heard of was boiled, and these are of course baked. In any case, I was compelled to try to reconstruct the recipe from a memory that is, by now, a quarter-century old and pretty foggy.

apple dumpling

Reconstructing the recipe was easier than I’d expected, because James Beard’s American Cookery has a recipe for Apple Dumplings that looked about right. Below I’ll give my adaptation of Beard’s recipe, but first a little history. (Ok, you can skip to it if you really want to.) It turns out there are scads of apple dumpling recipes out there, going back at least to the eighteenth century century, when — as I’d have expected from the name — they were boiled and not baked. Susannah Carter’s 1765 (English) The Frugal Housewife includes a recipe in which apples are peeled and cored, wrapped in thick butter pastry, wrapped in cloth, boiled until soft, and served with melted butter, white wine, and grated sugar. And here’s Eliza Leslie, who can always be counted upon to offer something delightful and detailed, from 1840:

Take large fine juicy apples. Pare them, and extract the cores without dividing the apple. Fill each hole with brown sugar, and some chips of lemon-peel. Also squeeze in some lemon juice. Or you may fill the cavities with raspberry jam, or with any sort of marmalade. Have ready a paste, made in the proportion of a pound of suet, chopped as fine as possible, to two pounds and a half of sifted flour, well mixed, and wetted with as little water as possible. Roll out the paste to a moderate thickness, and cut it into circular pieces, allowing two pieces to each dumpling. Lay your apple on one piece, and put another piece on the top, closing the paste round the sides with your fingers, so as to cover the apple entirely. This is a better way than gathering up the paste at one end, as the dumpling is less liable to burst. Boil each dumpling in a small coarse cloth, which has first been dipped in hot water. There should always be a set of cloths kept for the purpose. Tie them tightly, leaving a small space for the dumpling to swell. Plaster a little flour on the inside of each tying place to prevent the water from getting in. Have ready a pot of boiling water. Put in the dumplings and boil them from three quarters to an hour. Send them to table hot in a covered dish. Do not take them up till a moment before they are wanted.

Eat them with cream and sugar, or with butter and sugar.

Eliza Leslie, Directions for Cookery, in Its Various Branches (Philadelphia: E. L. Carey & Hart, 1840), p. 313.

Lemon zest is a lovely addition, which I’ll try the next time I make apple dumplings. Raspberry jam stuffed inside the apples would be outstanding if completely unlike anything my grandmother ever made. (I commented making the dumplings that had my grandmother been French she’d have glazed them with strained apricot jam instead of brown sugar syrup, and that’s worth a try, too.) But boiled pastry? There was more of that in Ye Olden Days than you might think, and certainly more than you’d want to eat. Pastry was, until fairly recently, used more as a way of holding the food (or of holding it together) than as something to be enjoyed for its own sake. And boiled dumplings don’t require you to heat up an oven. But soft is simply what apple dumplings were; even at the turn of the twentieth century, recipes frequently called for steaming them with a bit of water in a covered dish in the oven.

Recipes for “Baked Apple Dumplings” began appearing sometime in the mid-nineteenth century. Again cue Eliza Leslie, who can also be counted on to throw tradition to the four winds if it will make dinner taste better:

Take large, fine, juicy apples, and pare and core them, leaving them as whole as possible. Put them into a kettle with sufficient water to cover them, and let them parboil a quarter of an hour. Then take them out, and drain them on a sieve. Prepare a paste in the proportion of a pound of butter to two pounds of flour, as for plain pies. Roll it out into a sheet, and cut it into equal portions according to your number of apples. Place an apple on each, and fill up the hole from whence the core was extracted with brown sugar moistened with lemon-juice, or with any sort of marmalade. Then cover the apple with the paste, closing it neatly. Place the dumplings side by side in buttered square pans, (not so as to touch,) and bake them of a light brown. Serve them warm or cool, and eat them with cream sauce. Leslie, Directions for Cookery, p. 442–3.

“These,” Leslie noted, “will be found very good.” She made no such comment on the boiled kind, which was her way of telling you that if you must make this nasty old thing, she would tell you at least how to do it right, but that she would by no means encourage you. I’m inclined to take her at her word and leave the boiled apple dumpling to the historical dustbin. If Eliza Leslie, James Beard, and my grandmother all agree on something, it must surely be right.

Recipe: Apple Dumplings

Adapted from James Beard, American Cookery (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1972), p. 723.

You will need, first of all, enough pastry dough for a double-crust pie. Use whatever recipe you like, or buy frozen. Then take:

  • 6 small baking apples (but see note)
  • 1/3 cup brown sugar
  • 1/2 cup butter, softened
  • nutmeg
  1. Peel and core the apples. Mash the sugar with the butter, and stuff this mixture into the cavities of the apples. Roll the pastry as for pie and cut into, roughly, 6-inch squares. Sprinkle the fillings each with nutmeg. Enclose each apple in a square of the prepared pastry by molding the pastry around it. Chill the apples 30 minutes.
  2. Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. In a saucepan combine the following:
  • 1 1/2 cups firmly packed brown sugar
  • 1 cup water
  • 2 tablespoons butter
  1. Cook at a gentle boil 5 minutes. Brush the pastry-enclosed apples each with a tablespoon of syrup and arrange them in a baking pan. Bake them 10 minutes, then reduce the temp to 350 degrees and bake 30 minutes longer, basting with syrup every 10 minutes. Serve warm with thick cream (says Beard) or with (as my grandmother did) vanilla ice cream, or just in a dish with some cold milk.

Notes: I used rather larger apples than Beard called for, a “rustic red” from the state farmers’ market. Three apples used up about two-thirds of the dough, so I’d say this recipe would make four dumplings using regular-sized eating apples. Honestly, though, the dumplings were too big. With small apples this is a hearty dessert; with large ones you have to unbutton your pants afterwards. See if you can find small apples in bags — something a little tart, because you’ll want the tartness to cut through all that butter and sugar.

Dang, they’re good, though.