For our special Valentine's Day post, please welcome my friend Ash Krafton, author of the soon-to-be released Bleeding Hearts, and she of the coolest author name ever. Take it away, Ash!
Food is more than an essential element of survival. It's a connection, a bridge to other people.
On our first date, my college sweetheart cooked dinner for me at his dorm. I told him he needed to go steady with me because I was going to marry him. (I did marry him, almost five years to the day after that first date.)
Part of it was due to a need for continued survival—I couldn't cook. Eggs, toast, okay. But a meal? Four food groups? Heck, no. I'd gotten by with just a microwave and a toaster. When he made steak and rice and green beans on our first date, I did the logical thing and claimed him.
I thought I had it made. I mean, I graduated with a stable career, I started a 401(k) plan, and I married a man who could cook. Little did I know that things would change. And it was all his grandparents' fault.
Gram and Pap were German, with Grammy being of the Pennsylvania Dutch variety. They lived in the coal region of Pennsylvania, north of the Lehigh Valley. Pap's immigrant ancestor came from Germany in 1749, landing in the Port of Philadelphia and making his way up to the Lehigh Valley. He settled there with approximately 150 acres and raised a family. He and his wife were tragically killed in an Indian attack. His orphaned children fell to the guardianship of relatives who were more interested in the land than the children and the property soon fell to other hands.
The children survived and prospered in the way that stout German settlers did. Their progeny thrived and spread, eventually finding work in the copious coal mines throughout the area. Today, we live near one of the oldest coal mining towns, where the co-generating plants still run and the coal still gets mined and the big tri-axel coal trucks lumber like mammoths across the pitch-black fields.
My husband lived with his grandparents at the Homestead, a name we gave to their big farmhouse since it was the center of all family activities. Little Grammy was four-foot-nothing and ruled the family with a smile and a wooden spoon. From time to time she'd treat us with bits of PA German—words and phrases I deeply regret never mastering from her. (There's a bit on that dying language in this interesting article.) One thing to which I did pay attention, though, was the way she cooked.
If you're not familiar with PA Dutch cooking, I have two words for you: gravy and dessert.
Gram could make gravy out of anything. Her ham gravy was indescribable—when my mother-in-law makes it, I could just eat it out of the ladle (and I have.) That thick gravy was a layer of calories and flavor and essence that just coated everything on the plate with love. I honestly believe that PA Dutch gravy is the origin of the phrase "comfort food."
I have years of training ahead of me before I can claim I'm truly a gravy maker…but I did pick up the knack for making Gram's desserts. Dessert is just as big a part of the meal as the roast or the ever-present mashed potatoes, and just as nutritious. She used seasonal fruits and vegetables to make her creations, the staples of our diet. Her cooking reflected generations of farm-raised living: taking what the land provided and making it rich and succulent. Even the "poorest" foods had substance and flavor.
In my soon-to-debut urban fantasy BLEEDING HEARTS, my main character (she'd kill me if I called her a "heroine") gets a slice of apple pie that takes her heart straight to her grammy—that connection to another loved one that only food can create. My grandmother's apple pie was A-MAZE-ING but that's not what I'm going to share. I've got something even more special, something that screams PA Dutch cooking. You can get apple pie anywhere, but these little babies are a regional specialty.
Grammy's Apple Dumplings
6 baking apples (I use Macs because that's what Gram grew in the backyard)
2 cups all-purpose flour
2 ½ teaspoonsful baking powder
½ teaspoonful salt
2/3 cups butter, chunked and chilled
½ cup milk
For apple mixture:
1 cup granulated sugar
1 cup dark brown sugar
1/8 teaspoonful cinnamon
1/8 teaspoonful nutmeg
Sift dry ingredients together. Add butter and cut into the flour until crumbly. (You can use a food processor to do it; I torture myself by using a hand-held pastry blender. It's how I force the love into the food.) Sprinkle milk over mixture and mix until it comes together. Knead it into a dough and roll it out to between ¼ inch to ½ inch thickness. Cut squares out, approximately six inches square.
The dough is easy to handle because it's thick. Just don't play with it too much—it has butter in it and you don't want it to melt in your hands! Just work quickly and set the squares aside so you can make the apples.
Peel and slice the apples. Mix the sugars and spices and add to the apples and stir them around to coat. Spoon the apple mixture into even portions onto the center of the six squares. If there's syrup left in the bowl, you can drip it over the apples. (Or do like I do and just eat it. The apple "gravy" is the cook's reward.)
To seal the dumplings, dip your finger in water and moisten the edges of the square. Draw the corners up and pinch the seams closed to form a little purse. I usually do the opposite ends first then bring them together in the middle. Set each dumpling on a baking tray and bake at 375 degrees for approximately 30 minutes. Peek at them after 20 minutes and bake until they are golden brown. Let them cool a bit before eating.
Now, the eating of an authentic PA German apple dumpling is just as important as the baking. To eat one, place the dumpling in a bowl, break open the crust, and pour a little milk over it. I like how the milk softens the thick crust, creating a cool contrast to the still-steaming apples, turning the whole thing into a bowl of loving comfort food. These dumplings are hearty enough to substitute as a light meal and sweet enough to be called dessert. What gets better than this?
And, trust me when I say this is the proper way to eat it. Once, when Grammy made dumplings for dinner, my husband's step-dad picked it up in his hand and ate it dry. You should have seen the expression on Gram's face—she looked like she'd swallowed a cat. I mean, the utter shock and dismay and horror was a mix I'd never seen before. Moments later, Mom tore into him and half-lectured/half-berated him at a pitch that shook the windows. All the while, he grinned and ate the thing down to his bare hand. No manners, I tell you.
So, I eat it in a bowl with milk. I don't need Grammy's ghost manifesting behind me to beat me with her wooden spoon.
I'm sure my family is going to read this and decide it's time to get together for dinner at the Homestead, where my husband's brother now lives with his family. Gram and Pap have passed on but they are not gone—they are there with us in spirit and tradition every time we cook like Grammy did. It's another dimension to the term "comfort food"—a simple apple dumpling is enough to invoke the sense of love and pride Grammy put into her cooking and it's easy to imagine her there with us. Her recipes helped us get through the mourning of her passing—I cooked for my Pap so he wouldn't be as lonely for her. And it helped. We survived because her recipes reminded us to keep living.
That's why I cook for my family. Food isn't just an element necessary for survival; it's how we relate to each other. I've since expanded my cook book to other ethnic foods and built bridges to other cultures. My world is bigger, thanks to my expanded palette, but "home" will always taste like Gram's apple dumplings.
When she's not cooking, she's writing. Ash Krafton's debut novel Bleeding Hearts: Book One of the Demimonde (Pink Narcissus Press 2012) comes out next month. Watch her blogfor her upcoming virtual book tour dates. Ash still resides in the PA coal region with her husband, children, and bossy German Shepherd—all of whom want apple dumplings for dinner tonight.