As I've mentioned here before, I'm a pretty big fan of the Southern restaurant chain Cracker Barrel. Their buttermilk biscuits are the lightest, airiest biscuits around. The chicken & dumplings and hashbrown casserole are pretty rockin', too. But once in a blue moon I'll indulge in their most decadent menu item of all, baked apple dumplings.
Up until a few days ago, Cracker Barrel's apple dumplings were all I knew. Spicy-sweet apple chunks are tucked into a mini gratin dish, snuggled under a buttery pie crust, and sprinkled with a crunchy pecan streusel. Once baked, they're drenched in a rich and creamy caramel syrup and topped with heaping scoops of vanilla bean ice cream on their way out to the table. Talk about guilding the lily!
You might imagine my surprise when a Google search revealed no recipes that even came close to the Cracker Barrel apple dumplings of my past. According to the internet (and some reputable cookbooks) a true apple dumpling is a whole apple that is peeled and cored, sprinkled with butter and cinnamon sugar, and swaddled beneath a flaky pastry crust. A similar concept as Cracker Barrel's, but different. Still sounds pretty tasty to me.
Feeling up to the challenge, I decided to play with the traditional version since it is considered the "classic." (Really, I have so many apples squirreled away right now it wouldn't be a big deal to make both. As long as someone helped me eat them!) There's a decent amount of recipes available for apple dumplings around the web, all varying in some small degree or another. The main differences seemed to be the crust type, ranging from frozen puff pastry, pie dough, or pâté sucrée.
I ended up trying out a few different versions, one using my favorite butter pie crust from America's Test Kitchen and the one you see below. Both have their pros and cons — the Test Kitchen crust had a great butter flavor and nice cooked texture, but was really difficult to shape when it came time to wrap the apples. The shortening crust you see below on the other hand, lacks the mild buttery flavor of the first crust but came together super quick and proved much sturdier. They're both great, so feel free to use whichever you're most comfortable with.
I really did fall hard for this new-to-me version of apple dumplings. I served a batch as the grand finale at a recent potluck I hosted, to rave moans and groans from the crowd. I can't wait to make them again, although now I need to take a quick trip to Cracker Barrel to get my fix of theirs... Dang!
Do you have an heirloom recipe for apple dumplings you'd like to share? I'd love to hear your version.
Baked Apple Dumplings
Makes 6 dumplings
(Note: I just remade this recipe using a double batch of Anne Willian's pâte brisée, and it was the best of both crust worlds. The egg yolks yielded a very pliable dough, and the butter added the flavor that was missing from the shortening version. I highly recommend you check it out! It may just be my new "go-to" pie crust recipe.)
For the Crust
3 cups all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons sugar
3/4 teaspoon baking soda
pinch kosher salt
4 1/2 tablespoons vegetable shortening
1 cup milk (or just enough to make the dough stick together)
For the Filling
Juice from one lemon
6 extra small baking apples (such as Gala)
1/4 cup packed brown sugar
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
Pinch kosher salt
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into 6 pieces
For the Caramel Sauce
2 cups packed brown sugar
1 cup water
4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, cubed
Pinch of kosher salt
Vanilla ice cream, to serve.
For the dumplings, in a large bowl, combine the flour, sugar, baking soda, and salt. Using a pastry blender or your fingertips, cut the shortening into the flour mixture until it resembles small peas. Add milk — 1/4 cup at a time — and stir until a shaggy ball of dough just begins to form. Turn out the dough onto a well-floured surface and roll into a large rectangle or square, about 1/8-inch thick.
Cut a piece of parchment paper into a 6-inch square. Using the parchment paper as a guide, cut out 6 total squares from the dough, gathering scraps and re-rolling as needed. Layer the dough on pieces of parchment paper and refrigerate while preparing the apples.
Preheat the oven to 450°.
Add the lemon juice to a bowl of ice water. If necessary, slice off the bottom of each apple so it sits level on the counter. Peel and core each apple and place in the lemon water to prevent browning.
To make the filling, combine the brown sugar, granulated sugar, cinnamon, and salt in a small bowl. Sprinkle the bottom of a square of dough with sugar mixture. Place an apple in the center of dough. Put one pat of butter in the core of the apple and sprinkle additional sugar mixture inside. Bring the four corners of dough up around the apple, pinching the edges to seal and folding over excess if necessary. Continue with all of the apples.
Arrange the apple dumplings in a large cast iron skillet, leaving about 1-inch of space between each apple. Bake until the crust begins to turn golden brown, about 20 - 25 minutes. Meanwhile make the caramel sauce. Remove the par-baked dumplings from the oven and pour the caramel over top and around the apples.
Reduce oven to 350°. Continue to bake the dumplings until the sauce is thick and bubbly and the apples are very tender when pierced, about 35-40 minutes. Remove from the oven and allow to cool for a few minutes before eating. Serve warm with vanilla ice cream.
To make the caramel sauce, combine the brown sugar, water, butter, and salt in a medium saucepan and bring to a boil. Continue to boil for 2 -3 minutes, stirring frequently. Remove from heat and pour over dumplings before returning to the oven.
(Images: Nealey Dozier)