Friday April 5, 2013

If you’ve been a regular reader of my column, you know how I feel about pie. If only given one choice, I would pass over every dessert (as well as entrees) for a slice of pie - any kind. Sure, I have my favorites, but pie is pie and that’s really all there is to it.

Margot, our almost-eight-year old feels pretty much the same way. "Pie" is her answer for everything, from "What do you want for breakfast?" to "How was your day?" It’s pretty nonsensical, but she doesn’t ever want to forget - or us to forget - this one important thing in life.

While Margot and I may be the truly obsessive ones in the family, pie is so universally liked that it is always served at family get-togethers. Often the pie choices are a given - lemon meringue at the Memorial Day Mundell family reunion, fresh strawberry pie for my brother’s birthday in July, apple for my husband and my anniversary in October, apple and pumpkin for Thanksgiving, apple and chocolate at Christmas, more lemon meringue and maybe a banana cream for Easter. Sometimes there are flavor variations, but that takes place by adding a type of pie, not replacing one. After all, the more pie the merrier!

Imagine my surprise when we arrived at my mom’s house for our delicious Easter brunch and I found no pie! What was this? How could such a thing happen? I looked again; no pie anywhere. I did find a small tray of "pie bits," the leftover edges of crust sprinkled with cinnamon sugar and baked until crisp and golden, perfect for snitching while setting the table. Being the by-product of some sort of crust, I looked yet again. There, on my grandmother’s old Hoosier cabinet, I saw the answer - two glorious pans of apple dumplings.

Here I must stop and think hard. These apple dumplings are really, really good. So good that they might just make me retract what I said earlier about passing up every other dessert for pie. Mom sent a couple leftovers home with me a few weeks ago and they awakened a long-forgotten memory from my childhood - golden brown pastry filled with spiced apples surrounded by a gently bubbling pool of sweet syrup. Not something we had often, but so delicious that I clearly had not forgetten them.

This recipe comes from the Better Homes and Gardens New Cook Book, circa so-1950s (I looked, but couldn’t find an actual date). I remember spending time as a kid poring over its pages, fascinated by the section-dividers with their stereotypical black-on-pink portrayals of a happy kitchen with wife in charge and the man-of-the-house helping out in some goofy way. Even in the late ‘70s these recipes were so clearly of a different era (apparently the only cheese known to man was American cheese and using gelatin and condensed soups as ingredients was a daily thing) and the book featured menu ideas, tips and table settings. I was very impressed that every meal menu included a dessert, carefully chosen to compliment the entrée and thought that this was certainly a tip our family would benefit from. When I came to page 210 I remembered the oddly tinted photograph of the apple dumpling well, with a dab of "tart red jelly" balanced on top of a perfect pyramid of pastry. We were lucky that my mom remembered how good those dumplings were and had the good sense to take a chance and replace the pie at our Easter table.

Mom’s version doesn’t go for the perfect pyramid of pastry surrounding a whole peeled, cored apple, instead she tucks a half of an apple inside the biscuit-like dough, focusing on easy comfort rather than the impressive stress. We have also left out the red food coloring called for in the original recipe - not missed at all!

Apple Dumplings

1 cup sugar

1 cup water

One-eighth teaspoon cinnamon

A few gratings of fresh nutmeg

2 tablespoons butter

3 apples, peeled, cored and cut in half length-wise

2 cups flour

2 teaspoons baking powder

1 salt

Two-third cup shortening

One-half cup milk

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.  Combine sugar, water and spice in a small saucepan and bring to a boil. Add butter and remove from heat. Sift together flour, baking powder and salt. Cut in shortening with pastry blender or 2 knives until mixture is crumbs the size of peas. Add milk and stir until moistened. Roll to one-quarter-inch thick and cut into 6 roughly 6-inch squares. Place half of apple on each square and sprinkle with additional cinnamon sugar and a dot of butter. Fold dough over apple and pinch edges closed. Place dumplings 1" apart in a greased 11x7 baking dish. Spoon syrup over dumplings, sprinkle with sugar and bake until golden, about 35 minutes. Serve hot with a bit of cream poured over or at room temperature.

My love of pie has not diminished at all, but I have to admit that there is now another dessert that will give it a run-for-its-money. And frankly, I doubt that apple dumplings will remain just "celebration fare." They were a hit at Easter brunch and would make a mighty-good weekend morning breakfast. Without the forethought of pie crust and the slightly longer baking time required of most fruit pies, I think this recipes will find its way onto our table more often.

Julie Potter is a wife, mother of two, avid gardener and passionate cook who believes good food doesn’t have to be complicated. Share your thoughts with her at jpottercooks@gmail.com.