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Yesterday, we showed you how professional recipe-writers Melissa Clark and Chris Cosentino rewrote a recipe for Batter Pudding from a turn-of-the-century community cookbook.
Today, we're showing you what happened when we gave Peter Meehan the same recipe.
In case you missed it, here's the original:
And now, finally, for Peter Meehan's version (uncensored):
“This is an old-fashioned recipe, which can be depended upon.”
The Batter Pudding recipe that Merrill Stubbs sent me promises this: that it can be depended upon. About this I am not so sure.
It calls for 12 tablespoons of flour, which is a quantity I consider to be 300% more of a pain in the ass than plainly specifying three quarters of a cup. It requires the cook to sift not once but twice, which, if I could find my copy of Shirley Corriher’s BakeWise to corroborate my suspicions, I could more assuredly say is somewhere between half and a total waste of time. Also, there’s no oven temperature given (maybe it’s my oven, which has no “steady” setting), so I’m guessing it, like everything else ever, will work at 350 F, but I’d feel more comfortable depending on this batter extravaganza if I didn’t have a hint of over/underbaking worry lurking in the back of my brain.
But….deep breath, Pete. It’s the baking that’s got you worried.
See, I am not the baker in my house – my wife is. It’s about three inches from completely implausible to think that I’d be cooking this dish. It’d be like me coming home to her pulling two different Vietnamese meatloaf-y terrines out of the oven so that we could have banh mi for dinner. That’s my kind of nonsense; baking something like this is hers.
In order to get myself into the baking zone, I turned the oven on and then tried to get relaxed so I wouldn’t be worried about fucking up the cake. Or “pudding.” But fuck that. Pudding is something that you buy at the store and do your best Bill Cosby while eating, so I’m calling this thing a cake.
To really get Zen, I changed into my polyester meditation kimono, arranged my self-help geodes all over the kitchen counter, and put on a LP of dolphin songs. I struck a match to light my spirit candles and….
I was so worried about getting properly centered that I forgot the pilot light on the stove was out, and I’d spent so much time selecting just the right record of dolphin songs to put on – certain dolphin and whale songs just seem so sad to me, like the animals are too aware of the plight of the oceans – that I’d let my tiny apartment fill with oven gas, and so when I went to light my candles I was ENGULFED IN FLAMES.
As my robe melted to me, coating me in a crisp black skin like a hot dog just off the grill at the Wiener’s Circle, I thought to myself WHY? Why did you die baking a fruit pie? What a horrible way to go. Why couldn’t you have died making those Szechuan Lamb Dumplings from Mission Chinese Food – your wife loved them!
And just then, as I doubling over, about to choke to death on the mix of blood and smoke filling my lungs, Danny Bowien, the chef of MCF appeared to me, like some blonde-haired shorts-wearing transvestite Korean angel, and said, “Dude, no problem, I’ll show you how to make those dumplings.” I reached up and took his hand and we flew over the streets of Little Italy to his apartment on Grand Street and got cooking….
Dumplings start with dumpling skins, which, if you’re smart, you’ll buy out of the freezer case at the Oriental grocery and then lie to your friends and tell them that you made them because you are so ARTISANAL. I am not so smart, so I asked Danny to show me how to make his.
His mise en place made me worry that I was in one of those dreams where you think you’re in heaven but actually in hell – strippers with Jennifer Love Hewitt’s body but John Wayne’s face kinda thing. He had Italian tipo 00 flour, white wine and Parmigiano-Reggiano out on the counter. Deeeeeeply un-Oriental.
It turns out that he once worked for a Ligurian chef, and that his time with that man influenced his dough making from then on. “The wine flavors the dough and gives it a chewy tenderness,” he explained.
“And I never add salt to my dumpling dough,” he explained. “If you add salt to something like a dough, the water and flour react differently. So my Italian chef taught me to put in pecorino or parmesan – I like pecorino more because it’s a little more salty and acidic, but I’ve got Parmesan here so we’re using it. We don’t cook with MSG, but there are ways of getting it into everything…”
He put 3 cups of tipo 00 flour and ½ cup of grated Parmesan cheese in a large mixing bowl and stirred them together with the dowel he would later roll out the dumplings with. (Without such a dowel, he advised cutting a broom handle into three pieces, using one of them to make dumplings and giving the other two away as dumpling-dowel-making gifts.) He then stirred in ½ cup of cold Sancerre and ½ cup warmish water.
Danny gave an overview: “It’s just like you’re gonna make pasta: make a well, put the liquid into the well, knead it, then let it rest,” He added his liquid in two additions, stirring between them. It was a hot and dry day and he added a splash more of each warm water and cold wine when it was apparent the dough was too dry to incorporate all the flour in the bowl. (So probably 2/3 a cup of each of the liquids.) He was stirring uni-directionally. “I always try to mix in the same direction. Like a Hobart.” Hobarts are what kitchen people call stand mixers, which is the brand-neutral term for what my Mom called a Kitchen-Aid. He noted that if he was going to make dumplings to be fried, he’d add a splash of oil to the dough. I will note that, at least at home, Danny seems to cook only with olive oil.
Once the dough came together, he worked it by hand, kneading and punching it down into a smooth-ish dough in the bowl. He then flopped it out on the counter and kneaded it a bit more – the palm-push move of a breadbaker, a 45 degree turn, palm-push, turn, bring it back on itself, repeat – for 3 to 5 minutes. Someone in the room joked that the finished dough felt like an 18-year-old’s boob but I don’t think anyone present had been near real 18-year-old-boobs in recent enough memory for that to be a useful descriptor. The dough was tender-firm, resilient and smooth. Danny slicked it with olive oil and let it rest while he put together the filling.
The first step in that was making ginger-scallion sauce. Amelia Tel?, the cook at Mission Chinese who had been in charge of making these dumplings, peeled a palm-sized knob of ginger with a spoon, then handed it over to Danny. He minced the ginger (slices, slices into sticks, sticks crosswise into little bits) and sliced most of a bunch of scallions – he would have used all of them, but he likes a 1:1 ratio of the two primary ingredients, of which he probably had 2 cups total. The scallions were a little more rustically cut than the ginger, which Danny said was because they “get all soggy and gross when you cook them” if they’re cut too fine.
He heated the barest film of olive oil in a scorching hot pan and, as soon as it smoked, in went the ginger and scallion. He pulled the pan from the heat, stirring the mixture until it cooled. He turned the wilted ginger and scallions out into a mixing bowl and seasoned them with 2 scant teaspoons of salt, 10 or so lashes of fish sauce, a teaspoonish of turbinado sugar and a healthy dash of white pepper. “It should be salty, umami and have a sweet finish,” Danny told me. It was, and it did, and he proceeded.
The rest of the filling was easy. Stir together the following in a mixing bowl:
½ # pork, ground
1 ½ # lamb shoulder, ground
A three-finger pinch (about a ½ tablespoon) cumin, lightly toasted
A three-finger pinch (about a ½ tablespoon) fennel seed, toasted and ground in a mortar and pestle
¼ cup ginger-scallion sauce
½ cup white wine
½ cup water
1 bunch dill
2 tablespoons hoisin sauce
A few dashes of fish sauce
A pinch of salt
A larger punch of sugar
¼ cup lightly crushed peanuts (Planter’s roasted are completely acceptable.)
At the restaurant they’d probably also add a tablespoon or two of garlic, but Danny didn’t have any. They also add a bit of mushroom powder, which was not on hand.
Ditto duck fat. Danny and Amelia noted that Chinese recipes would often call for cornstarch for a filling like this, but they thought that dumplings made with cornstarch weren’t as good when they cooled down and, out of apparent deference to the possibility of their dumplings being eaten as leftovers, they did not use it. I appreciated that.
Back to the dough: Danny lightly floured the dough ball, kneaded it for 10 or so seconds, and let it sit for a minute or two while he got his station together. He cut the dough into five pieces, one of which he made into a bowl’s worth of hand-pulled noodles garnished with hoisin and ginger-scallion sauces, but that’s a different story for a different recipe.
He took those four remaining pieces of dough and, working from the middle, pushing down and out, rolled them into long tubes. “Like making breadsticks,” he opined as he rolled, and their shapes did recall the reason we all love the Olive Garden.
He took one of the dough snakes and cut it into one-inch pieces, flipping the pieces cut-side-up as he did, and floured the shit out of them.
He said the belly of the dumpling should be slightly thicker than the fringes. He made this happen by rolling out one side of the little discs of dough, rotating them, and repeating, without ever letting the dowel roll over the middle of the disc. There was insane precision to what he was doing, but he made it look easier than easy. (I learned this later, when I tried my hand at making them at home.) He stuffed the dumplings with a scant teaspoon of filling and used a finger slicked with water to seal them into a crescent shape before bringing the ends together to form what the Italianos would call tortelloni.
He dropped the formed dumplings into a pan of boiling water and cooked them for no more than two or three minutes before transferring them to deep bowls. He dressed each bowl with a spoonful of crisp-chili-oil (he makes his own; there’s a brand with a sourpuss old lady on the jar that you can get at many Chinese supermarkets), a dot of Szechuan chili oil, 3 tablespoons of Chinese black vinegar, a couple tablespoons of Planters peanuts, ½ tablespoon-ish of Turbinado sugar, a couple generous pinches of cilantro leaves, a large pinch of just-toasted sesame seeds, and a fair amount of cucumbers (which he had previously cut in half lengthwise, smashed with the wide side of a cleaver, and then thinly sliced crosswise).
There it was, the burn I was looking for! The mix of salty and sweet and heat creeping up but never overtaking me, the layers of flavors on top of layers of flavors, the contrast of cold and crisp and…yes. So much better than burning to death in a polyester robe in the service of a pudding-cake!
And, amazingly, it seemed as if time had reset itself: I was able to leave Danny’ apartment and go back to mine, which was unharmed, unburned, whole – like I’d never even delved into the original recipe in the first place.
I set out to make a batch of dumplings for my wife and a couple friends that night in celebration of life not ending, and doing so I found this: that I needed to adjust the quantities of the recipe I had – maybe twice as much dough for that amount of filling. And I needed to work on my dumpling dough rolling technique – Danny made it look like a breeze, the dumplings I made looked like wax sculptures someone had taken a blowtorch to.
While I was doing the dishes, wondering how I’d rectify the problems of my recipe on such short notice, I heard a voice whispering something. It felt like it was coming from somewhere close to me, like silk brushing against my hear, like a shell pressed against my skull: a dependable recipe, a dependable recipe, a dependable….
I spun around to find the ghoul of Merrill Stubbs floating over my kitchen counter, her mouth only inches from my head, like a less creepy but still otherworldly version of that ghost librarian from the opening scene of Ghostbusters. I was terrified and shocked, paralyzed and curious: I always wondered what foxy lady-ghosts were wearing under those gauzy floating white garments they wore…
But as she wound up with a well-buttered three-quart ovular baking dish, I knew I’d never find out: I’d been asked to test a cake recipe and I’d written a stupid story about ghosts and geodes and spicy Chinese dumplings.
The first hit knocked most of the teeth out of my mouth. The second knocked me mostly unconscious.
And as I lay dying on my kitchen floor, my teeth and blood pooling like so much dried-cherry sauce on my chest, I called out for Amanda Hesser to help me. But I was beyond help then. Maybe I always was.
I looked up to see Ms. Stubbs bringing the baking dish upon me another time, and closed my eyes, knowing what would come next.
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