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The biggest secret of my stable, nuclear family is that we’re deeply nomadic, at heart. For the last hundred and twenty years or so, we’ve been moving away: on my father’s side, from northern and western Ireland, from New York and New Jersey to Indiana and Southern California; on my mother’s side, from a small town in the north of Italy (and from Ireland), from Iowa, Virginia, and Kentucky to the Colorado plains. Each of my parents moved to California in the late ’60s because it was so different than where they’d grown up, yet after twenty years they were eager to move on.


My parents were worried, they later told us, that if the family stayed in Orange County, my brother and I would be sucked into Southern California surf culture and never leave. Aside from the fact that neither my brother nor I had the faintest idea of how to surf–my brother was eight when we moved–and freckled profusely after ten minutes in the sun, it was a reasonable concern. But there were others: my parents had lived through enough earthquakes (including the 1971 San Fernando one, when my dad’s apartment building swayed so much he could see daylight through a crack in the wall and had time to ponder what would happen to the pool up on the roof) that the “big one” loomed ever larger in their imagination. And my grandparents’ house in the Denver suburbs was just sitting there, empty. So we moved away.


Moving boxes were always a fixture in our garage: my dad’s, packed with electrical-engineering and astronomy books; my mom’s, with bright sheaves of holiday cutouts, alphabet posters, and music from all her classrooms. And then my brother and I had our own, which, along with new boxes, we re-used for treks to and from college, and first (even second) apartments. The screech of packing tape makes my family giddy.


However, after moving to three different countries in the last five years, I took the packing tape, last fall, and stashed it far away in the back of the hallway closet here in Astoria. And I don’t want to see it for at least another ten months.


Maybe all this moving is why I gravitated toward the solidity of family recipes (even though the oldest ones are crumbling). The certainty of the results is reassuring, when everything else (career, the future, the vagaries of the MTA) is not.


This recipe is my great-grandmother’s, on my mother’s side. Her title for the recipe is straightforward and confident. And it’s true.

The Best Apple Dumplings You Ever Ate

6 Granny Smith apples, sliced thinly
4 cups water
1 ½ cups sugar
½ stick of butter
½ tsp. nutmeg or cinnamon

Dumpling Dough*
3 1/2 to 4 cups sifted flour
1/2 stick butter, softened
2/3 cup milk

Add water to stock pot. Add sugar, butter, nutmeg (or cinnamon). Simmer gently.

For dough: Combine to make rich biscuit-like dough. Roll to about ½ inch thick. Take knife and cut out pieces of dough the size of a saucer. Place in the palm of your hand, and fill with the sliced apples. Bring up edges to form a ball, the dough covering the apples. Drop in hot syrup. Be sure to baste tops with syrup, as this makes a nice brown top. *Alternatively, use a pie-crust recipe.

Bake in medium-hot oven (325° F) for 30-40 minutes, and keep warm until served. The syrup in which the dumplings are baked serves as the sauce. My great-grandmother notes, “Do not make dumplings large, and use no sugar inside of the dumplings. There lies the secret. I use a little cinnamon in the dumpling although it isn’t necessary. These are fine.”


Be prepared for an urge to drink the leftover syrup out of the pan.


At the end, you’ve got a golden, flaky dumpling.

The dumplings meet Manhattan ;)

The dumplings meet Manhattan ;)


Whenever my brother and I complained as teenagers, my mother would admonish us, “You’re from pioneer stock. Chin up.” This, and the stories from the branch of the family that trekked out to the Colorado prairie on a covered wagon in the 1880s, was enough to silence us for a while.

My great-grandmother’s family settled on the eastern plains, in Kit Carson County, just past the line in Colorado where a summer afternoon can turn humid and fierce with storms. My grandmother spent part of her childhood there, an only child hunting for arrowheads and avoiding rattlesnakes, before her family moved into Denver.

One of a handful of recipes from my great-grandmother, this one for a lemony mint drink is the kind of thing that would improve a summer afternoon far from town.

Mint Drink

Mint Drink

Mint Drink

2 cups sugar*
1 quart water
juice of 3 lemons
rind from 1 1/2 lemons
2 cups mint leaves
ginger ale

Cook sugar, water, lemon juice, and lemon rind for 10 minutes. Pour boiling mixture over mint leaves. Let stand all night. Strain, and add equal parts to ginger ale. Color with green food coloring. Float pineapple sherbet on glass.

[*1 cup is enough, unless you don’t plan to use much ginger ale.]


The base is a lemon-flavored simple syrup; you could update it (if you wanted to) by using thyme instead of mint…but the lemon-mint combination is ideal for summer.


Lemon and mint steeping in a giant bowl. Our apartment smelled like an herb garden.


The results, the next morning…


At first, I resisted adding the green food coloring. Then I decided that the effect demanded to be seen…and it was just as impressive (and startling) on a drab New York windowsill as it would have been on a sun-bleached Colorado porch.

Pařížský dort: Part One

To be honest, anything involving making sníh, snow (egg whites whisked into firm peaks), by hand, makes me nervous. I lack the stamina that prior, mixer-less generations of women from all sides of my family no doubt had in spades. Still, ever since seeing this kind of cake, and its frappé-like layers in the windows of the Ovocný Světozor patisserie in Prague, I’ve wanted to try to make it.

Pařížský dort (Parisian Cake)

Pařížský dort (Parisian Cake)

I’ll include a translation of the recipe in Part Two, but here’s Jakub’s mom’s recipe, again.

I started with the base, first:


I’m fairly sure those egg whites should have been much fluffier, but the base turned out decently:

Finished cake base on the left; butter melting for the next layer, right.

Finished cake base on the left; butter melting for the next layer, right.

The chocolate-butter-cocoa layer revealed itself to be brownies in the making:


And here’s two of the cake’s layers, so far. It was only after taking that out of the oven that I realized that those neat slices of Pařížský dort in Prague all had right angles. My kitchen and I are round-cake-pan kind of people, though, so this version looks for all the world like a chocolate tart:


It’s now sitting in the fridge with a note attached: “Please don’t eat yet–work in-progress.”

Later today, I’ll add the chocolate-cream layer, and then the whipped cream top, at some point. The recipe advises that the whipped cream should be made one day ahead, stored in the fridge overnight, and then used the next day. Someone with a broader culinary background than me can weigh in on why this might be.

Since it promises to be another broiling week here in New York, I’m excited to try one of my great-grandmother’s recipes for a mint and ginger-ale drink topped with pineapple sherbet:


Any project like this has to be able to withstand the “So what?” test. That is, sure, it’s fun to page through old recipes, but so what? What’s the bigger significance?

I’m not sure I can supply a watertight answer to that yet, but the process of pulling together disparate strands of a family tree, this way, and using recipes as a vehicle for storytelling and characters, is what interests me most.
Who are these people?
What did they like?
Why have these recipes been saved for nearly a hundred years?
Plus, this kind of search is relatively easy for anyone to do, as nearly everyone has access–through a file of old recipes, or via oral tradition, which just comes to you as you’re standing in the kitchen–to a family story like this.

Launch date: October 6th on Daily Lit! Pass the cake!

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You can reach me at theghostinthepantry ♠ at ♠ gmail ♠ dot ♠ com.




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