When I was a child, my mother made plum dumplings every year around this time. It was always an occasion. My sister and brother-in-law came over to the house, along with other friends -- most of them refugees from Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Austria who'd fled to London during the war and who still retained the Eastern European accents that spelled home and family to me.
Dumplings are peasant food, put together from this and that: soaked bread, cheese, herbs, bacon, liver -- whatever comes to the housewife's hand. They are a cornerstone of Czech cooking, from huge, loaf-sized versions sliced as an accompaniment to duck or stew, to tiny liver dumplings traditionally made by brides for their new husbands, to nockerl, bits of dough cooked in boiling water and floated on soup as a garnish.
Fruit dumplings can be made with either a cottage cheese or a potato dough; they tend to be heavy and substantial. My mother kept the main course of her annual dumpling dinner light -- soup and bread, perhaps a large salad. We paid no attention to those dishes, anyway. We were waiting for the moment when she brought in the dumplings.
Served up on your plate, the pallid orb didn't look particularly appetizing. But then you rolled it in butter-browned breadcrumbs and cut into it, releasing fragrant steam and encountering the bright-crimson plum at its heart. The bland casing intensified the sweet-sour jolt of the fruit, the breadcrumbs provided textural contrast, and the browned butter spread its nutty, unctuous blessing over the whole.
I didn't try to emulate my mother's dumplings until several years after her death. I'd never known anyone else who made them; I thought of them as somehow exotic, or, at the very least, uniquely hers. I did sit in the kitchen once, watching as she prepared them, taking notes in red ink on a scrap of paper. Since my mother rarely followed a recipe, these notes are pretty vague: "Roll dough into sausage shape...plums must be dry...use a big pot." This vagueness didn't trouble me at the time; I figured I could always call her later for clarification or watch her make them again.
A few years ago, when the plum tree in the garden was heavy with fruit, on impulse I fished out the recipe, which had stayed tucked into an old cookbook for almost two decades and through a couple of moves. My daughter and a friend helped split and pit the plums. The kitchen smelled fruity and sweet, like Christmas. I dumped the ingredients for the dough into a bowl and began pressing them together. They were reluctant to cohere. I added a second egg. That, coupled with the warmth of my palms, seemed to do the trick. I remembered a line I'd heard on a sitcom. The speaker was a middle-aged waitress, and the line went something like this: "It's been a weird morning. I looked down at my sleeve, and you'll never believe what I saw coming out: my mother's hand."
We had a group of friends for dinner, among them a couple of English expatriates. The dumplings were a huge success. "Are you going to continue the dumpling tradition?" one of the Brits asked my daughter. She looked startled, then nodded.
If you want to taste fruit dumplings, Krystyna Bien, owner of the European Gourmet deli in Arvada (6624 Wadsworth Boulevard), sells them fresh and frozen, but they're always homemade, filled with plums, strawberries, apples or blueberries. She also carries cabbage rolls, beef tripe soup, salamis and cheeses, jams, savory and sweet pierogis, soft drinks, teas, chocolate and a few excellent breads.
Bien understands the nostalgia factor, and many of her customers come from Eastern European backgrounds. "The mothers and grandmothers were making dumplings at home," she says. "It's a very old dish." She enjoys watching the reaction of second- and third-generation Americans who wander into her deli and glimpse the dumplings. "Sometimes people haven't seen them in a long time and are very surprised: 'Oh, wow, my grandma makes this.'"
You can also make your own dumplings, a relatively easy task once you get used to the process and the possible pitfalls. If the potato is overcooked, for example, the dough falls to mush; if it's undercooked, hard-grated strips mar the texture. I've rung a couple of small changes on my mother's recipe -- nuts instead of breadcrumbs, a dash of lemon on the cut surface of the fruit. But fruit dumplings are blessedly simple and very forgiving. Here's how to make them:
Boil three medium-sized potatoes (they should be mealy potatoes like russets) in their skins. While the potatoes are boiling, you can prepare the plums (apricots work brilliantly, too): Cut them, pit them and place a spoonful of sugar in the center of each. (If you wish, you can brush a little lemon juice on the cut surface of the plums before filling them.) Close them up as best you can, and -- as my mother so emphatically instructed -- pat them dry. Too-wet fruit makes the dumplings fall apart.
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When the potatoes are cool enough to handle, peel and grate them, then put the grated potato in a bowl, add an egg (or two) and about one and a quarter cups of flour. Knead until the dough holds together, then turn it onto a floured board and roll it into a large sausage.
Now heat another pot filled with salted water while you construct the dumplings. Cut a piece of dough -- a sausage slice -- about half an inch thick, roll it out into a circle and place a prepared plum in the center. Enclose the plum in dough and seal up the edges. (You can wet them with a little water or milk to help the dumpling stick together.) This part does require a little practice: You don't want the casing too thick, and you want to produce a nice smooth ball.
After the water has reached a fierce boil, throw in some of the dumplings. (You should do them in batches rather than crowd the pot.) In seven to ten minutes, they'll rise and start dancing on the surface; this means they're done. Take them out and keep them warm in a low oven while you prepare a topping. I serve the dumplings with ground nuts and melted butter, which tastes best if it gets a little brown; my mother sautéed breadcrumbs in butter. You can also offer sweetened cottage cheese or whipped cream.
Proust had his madeleine. I've frozen some dumplings. In the middle of winter, they'll serve as potent reminders -- of summer and so much more.