It took three food editors and one boyfriend 6 1/2 hours to make 40 dumplings from The Dumpling Galaxy Cookbook. That works out to 1 1/2 hours for one person to make a single dumpling. One dumpling that you cannot get full off of.
It was completely worth it.
The Dumpling Galaxy Cookbook is a trim, approachable-looking book by Helen You, founder of the eponymous Queens mecca, and Max Falkowitz, an editor at Saveur. Pick it up and you suspect that this is the place for dumpling beginners, the place where I belong: There are sweet little illustrations and space motifs and stunning photography by Ed Anderson. Most of the 43 dumpling filling recipes are just one page.
“Let’s just make these for dinner on Friday night!,” one of our editors said to me. She hadn’t read any of the recipes yet.
Before you even get to a one-page filling recipe, you have to make the dumpling dough, and while the book does say you could use store-bought wrappers (which I always thought were good enough), the dough featured in this book is what makes the dumplings kind of mind-bogglingly good. It's chewy yet buoyant, protecting a filling that bursts with tenderness and great flavor (we made pork-chive dumplings and dill-egg dumplings, along with a mochi-like sweet one called tang yuan). I can’t stop thinking about the dough, though I trudged through most every step of making it.
While the introduction acknowledges that making and shaping dumpling dough takes practice, you're best off considering this book a pamphlet, not a textbook, on the art: There are a mere two pages on making dough and the same number for shaping boiled, panfried, and steamed dough wrappers. (Yeah, did you know your dumplings should have a different dough depending on how they’re cooked? This I am happy to now know.)
With a little more direction and assurance, a first-timer could learn so much more and have a more enjoyable experience along the way. I’m only asking for more because the dumpling recipes were so freaking good, I don’t want anyone to be scared off by the process. There's a lot to learn in You's dumpling galaxy, and I just want to be invited in.
Here's a little bit more about our trials in dumpling-making, which are well worth undertaking yourself—your dumplings will be delicious even if you have to wing it (as we did).
Making dough, a half-blind exploration
There are endearing, helpful cues throughout the dough-making text (“with a texture reminiscent of a gummy bear,” “forms a clean ball you can easily push into, like the gel of a shoe insert”), but without photos or troubleshooting or heads-up about time investment, making the dough oftentimes felt like we were going down a black hole.
This was especially true when it came to rolling the dough, which probably took three hours and definitely involved a lot of whining and worrying. Is the dough really supposed to be this sticky? When is adding more flour too much flour? Oh, we need an Asian-style rolling pin—what is that, who has enough of those for a crew of dumpling makers, and can we just roll with these jars instead?
Each of us read the rolling instructions separately and went forth with quite different "techniques." The instruction of “roll the same edge a few more times, using more pressure at the edge than at the center” tripped me up over and over—how much more pressure? Does it matter? How much thinner should the edge be than the center? When a project is this time-intensive, I didn’t want it to be for naught, so every instruction seemed important and like a make-or-break-the-dumpling kind of moment.
More so, I was curious! Why do we put egg whites and salt in boiled and panfried dumpling dough, but not in steamed dough? Can you make the dough in advance? Are these doughs traditional, or the result of the authors' tinkering?
I already felt like the compactness of the book was limiting so much information we could be getting from these exceptionally knowledgeable authors (I think the Dumpling Galaxy menu is bigger than the book). And we were only on step one. Good thing we persevered.
Here’s where you get to take a deep breath. The fillings are generally a breeze to pull together and easy to fix if you mess them up; many can be made ahead, with ingredients you already have around.
I loved that we were instructed to mix the fillings with our hands. I laughed when the dill and egg dumpling recipe instructed us to cool the scrambled eggs without explanation, something entirely unappetizing but I trusted.
The whole recipe for Pumpkin and Black Sesame Tang Yuan, these alien-looking sweet dumplings with outsides made of pumpkin and glutinous rice flour that swim in a sweet egg white broth, came together quicker than just making the dough for the other two dumplings.
We only used two-thirds of the allotted milk and still had to add a lot of rice flour to get the dumpling to come together—and there was enough leftover filling and pumpkin for one editor to make this bread—but still the dumplings were delightfully chewy and savory-sweet. And we had Sarah's bread. So phew it all turned out.
The filling section of the book, however, left me again wanting more. The Chinese name of You’s restaurant literally translates to "One Hundred Kinds of Dumpling Garden," and they serve that many at the restaurant. Sure, I could riff, but I wanted more of You's signature flavors. Where were the Lamb Soup Dumplings, one of the 50 best dumplings in New York?
Am I being greedy?
Shaping the Dumplings, a Panic
Five hours in, we were hoping we were close to eating dumplings, and a major hurdle was still ahead of us: putting the filling into the wrappers. We suspected our rolled dough was too sticky to start shaping, but didn’t really know, and if it was, didn’t really know how to fix it. We read the page-worth of shaping instructions over and over, and inspected the Instagram-sized process images over and over, really wanting to get this right.
Here’s how our dumplings turned out:
Can you even call these blobs dumplings? Because the instructions are so precise (“the dumpling’s belly should form a teardrop shape between your thumbs, which will create the round yuan bao shape”), we felt like anything but exactly what the photos showed would mean failed dumplings come cooking time.
Cooking, the most delicate step yet
We eventually just went for getting dough fully around filling, and prayed for our little dumps as they swam in a pot of boiling water, six at a time. (Here, more questions: What you do with the dumplings while they wait their turn in the boiling water? Cover with a moist towel, leave out on a floured workstation, rest in an egg carton so they keep their shape?)
Boring aside: I've always been fascinated by the various methods for boiling dumplings. Everyone has their own quirky way. In Every Grain of Rice, Fuchsia Dunlop says to:
"Drop some of the dumplings into the boiling water and cook them for four to five minutes. Each time the water comes back to a rolling boil, add a small cup of cold water to calm it down, so the dumplings do not fall apart."
In Asian Dumplings, Andrea Nguyen instructs:
"Nudge the dumplings apart with a wooden spoon to keep them from sticking together and/or to the bottom of the pot. Return the water to a simmer and then lower the heat to maintain the simmer and gently cook: a hard boil can make a dumpling burst. Cook the dumplings for about 8 minutes, or until they float to the surface, look glossy, and are puffed up and a tad translucent."
In Dumpling Galaxy, You offers another way:
"Boil for 2 minutes on high, then reduce the heat to medium-high and cook for 2 minutes, then reduce the heat again to medium and cook for 2 more minutes. The dumplings are ready a minute or so after they rise to the surface; their skins will turn puffy."
You'll notice You's method is the only one here where the dumplings remain undisturbed during cooking. Suspicious that the dumplings would stick, but with no guidance about what to do if they did, we followed along—at this point, skeptically. Sure enough, some dumplings stuck to the bottom of the pot, their lovingly prepared wrappers ripping as we pried them off.
Despite so much doubt and blind trust and probably mistake after mistake, we came out with dumplings that were hideous but that tasted as good as the ones at Dumpling Galaxy. It is, yes, a testament to the malleability of the recipes, but that doesn’t mean the authors couldn’t help us out a little more. We would've been just as giddy if the dumplings didn't come with such confusion.
While many could say cookbook readers want their hands held these days, there's a difference between a cookbook with controlling specifics and a cookbook that's a friend in the kitchen. As Maria Zizka, a food writer and cookbook co-author, put it:
"A well-written recipe is like a reliable map in that it sparks excitement and adventure yet also provides a sense of comfort, which comes from the knowledge that others have embarked on the same journey."
Making dumplings is a learned skill, and you can't expect to get it perfect on first try. But when a cookbook is geared towards the beginner, some comfort and answers to the real-life questions that may arise would go a long way. When you're setting out to write a friendly recipe, Christine Muhlke, the editor at large of Bon Appétit, has a good instruction: "Assume nothing." Maybe the next edition could have 100 more pages, or a resources section or a troubleshooting section?
I have leftover dumplings in my freezer right now, and I'm so happy about it. Do I need to cook them differently than fresh-made ones? I'm sure the authors could answer this and all our other questions, expert dumpling-ers that they are, but the book doesn't say. Next time I cook from the book, which will definitely happen, I'll also keep the internet by my side.