When in doubt: dumplings

I have a long history of turning to elaborate baking projects in times of stress. In college, my roommate and I fell into the practice of Midnight Baking: when we found ourselves heading down the spiral slope to an all-nighter, we’d pull some dough out of the freezer and get started on a pie.

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Roomie mixing up pumpkin pie innards on the radiator, circa 2006.

If you’re going to be up all night anyway, a pumpkin pie that doesn’t come out of the oven until 2am isn’t a problem; it’s just short of lifesaving.

In the grad school slog, term paper and presentation deadlines have nearly always translated into treats for friends and office-mates. Once, near the end of the term, as deadlines loomed and all my colleagues were looking increasingly wild-eyed in the hallways, I showed up to a friend’s birthday party having made several dozen of these mini apple pie cookies.

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Clearly, when my adviser was expecting a final draft of a major paper and summer research grants were coming due, cutting 6 dozen circles out of handmade dough and crimping them closed around 3 dozen wafer thin perfectly concentric apple slices dredged in cinnamon sugar was an excellent use of my time. (Cue the eye roll.)

So when I was in the grips of a particularly bad bout of fieldwork-induced self-doubt several weeks ago, I knew what I needed: serious baking time. Just me, flour, and butter, meditatively convincing myself that if I can smooth the wrinkles out of my ideas even half as well as I can roll out a beautifully smooth, round ball of dough, it’ll all be okay.

The problem?

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I have no oven.

I’ve been considering building myself a solar oven, but as is often the case with crippling incidents of self-doubt, this was nighttime; a solar oven wouldn’t have done me any good. Going back in time to develop really satisfying stress-reduction habits that don’t rely quite so heavily on impractical bulky appliances was also, sadly, out of the picture.

So instead…I made myself some stovetop fried apple hand pies. Natch.

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As confectionary tales go, this one was a bit of a disaster: the combination of margarine in place of butter (curse you, ambiguous gold foil wrapper!), inexact ingredient ratios in the absence of cup measures, olive oil for frying, tropical humidity, and a decidedly non non-stick pan meant most of my gorgeous little dough pockets turned into gnarled torn mush the instant they hit the pan. They weren’t the most aesthetically appealing sweets I’ve ever cooked up, but that wasn’t really the point: the process itself was mostly what I needed. I might not have solved all my dilemmas, but I certainly felt calmer and more in control when folding down those lovely creases of dough.

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And as is always the case when individual ingredients are delicious, the sugary buttery apple dough mush was still pretty tasty.

Here’s the tweaked recipe I’ll be using the next time I get walloped in the doubt department:

Dough

1 C* flour
1/2 C frozen butter, grated into the flour
1 heaping tsp brown sugar
Healthy splash very cold water

*Since I don’t have measuring cups or spoons, I’ve been relying on an ad hoc part method to maintain the general ratio of recipes found online; in that sense, the dough recipe above can also be thought of as one part butter to two parts flour. I know there are those who swear by the 3-2-1 method (three parts flour, two parts fat, one part water) but this dough has—until now—always done me fine.

Filling

1.5 medium apples, diced
1 tbs butter
Enough brown sugar to cover the apples in the pan
Cinnamon, nutmeg, and ginger to taste
Healthy glug of whiskey
Hefty sprinkle of flour

Water for sealing dumplings
Oil for frying
Ice cream or yogurt for nomming

Sift sugar into flour, then grate frozen butter directly into dry mixture. I know the received wisdom is that you want to keep your dough as cold as possible, so butter should be cut into flour with knives or mixed with a cold spoon—but I find that doesn’t integrate things as well as just getting in there with my hands. Since I have poor circulation, my hands are usually so cold that this has never had any negative effect on my doughs (until now). Wrap in plastic and stick in the fridge or freezer.

Toss apples in the butter over medium heat until they begin to soften. (Allowing the butter to brown first is always a nice touch.) Add the brown sugar to coat the apples and stir. Add cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger. As the apples continue to soften and ooze juices, splash in that healthy glug of whiskey to deglaze the spiced caramelized goodness off the bottom of the pan and onto the apples.

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Allow the apples to continue cooking and releasing juices, then reduce the heat to low. Add flour judiciously, stirring continuously, in tiny sprinkled batches to avoid adding too much—you want just enough to get a slightly thickened consistency, with a matte sheen. Remember that the juices will continue to thicken as the mixture cools. Set aside.

Once the dough is suitably chilled, roll it out (a large beer bottle makes a nice roller) on a well-floured surface. I used the lip of a large mug to cut the dough out at the diameter I wanted—about four inches. At this point, keep a little dish with cold water at the ready. Spoon a scant tablespoon of cooled apple mixture onto a dough circle, swipe around the edge with a wetted finger, then fold over and seal—either by crimping with a fork, or with the tuck-and-press crimp method. Since the air was quite warm, I kept the dough and the crimped dumplings in the fridge as much as possible.

When you have all your dumplings sealed, heat veggie oil in a pan and get frying! Drain on paper towels or clean scrap paper, cool, then scarf those buggers up with some ice cream and enjoy the delicious taste of tangible success in the face of the universes’ many intangibles.

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