May 21, 2018
Taste Egg Icon
Comfort Me With an Assembly Line of Dumplings
Dumplings01931

There’s no cure for heartbreak. But Soviet mechanical efficiency and endless pelmeni do help. Some.

When you have been eating and cooking and hoarding cookbooks for years and fumbling with what it means to be human for far longer, surprise becomes as familiar as breath. Then you learn once again: You do not know all the things you do not know.

Still. Your world can be upended in ways you did not, could not fathom. The surfacing of a pragmatic, utilitarian aluminum mold. The slackening of a 10-year relationship.

First, the metal. Here in New Orleans, Stephen Torres, the founder of the food nonprofit Bill of Fare, hosts regular dinner salons at his Uptown home. He brings in notable chefs, like Daniela Soto-Innes, of the Manhattan haute Mexican restaurants Cosme and Atla, and José Enrique of the restaurant in San Juan, Puerto Rico, by the same name. The cost for entry is a donation to the chef’s chosen charity. The guests are always a ramshackle collection of chefs and food people and general yahoos, like myself. The dinners are lively: convivial, boozy, raucous, and Southern in the peculiar way those four elements intertwine in New Orleans.

Last fall, in honor of the release of her debut cookbook, Kachka: A Return to Russian Cooking, Bonnie Frumkin Morales cooked. Morales’s food is a little Russian, a little American, and very Soviet and Belarusian, an homage to the region where her parents were born before emigrating to the United States in 1980. Lots of preserved fish, like pickled herring in a fur coat and pickles and beets and potatoes and lots and lots of cultured sour cream. I have been to Kachka, her Portland, Oregon, restaurant, two times. If I lived in Portland, I would eat there all the time. My boyfriend jokes that I have an Eastern European or Soviet woman living inside me.

Make that ex-boyfriend. A few months ago, Brandon moved out—and on—after three cities and 10 years. For the last year or so, we had been making dumplings by hand together. Sitting abreast at our kitchen table as we loaded pork-ginger filling into packaged wonton wrappers and folded them into triangles and overlapped two of the tips to form small bundles. Into the freezer they went, ready for an emergency meal. A late-night drunk belly-filler. A hungover low-touch snack. Comfort food for any occasion.

At her dinner in New Orleans, Morales began the meal by serving an array of zakuski, cold appetizers served family style. The table seated at least 20 people and was full. The zakuski were merely the first round of dishes. Out came huge bowl after huge bowl of pelmeni, tiny handmade Siberian dumplings filled with an austere mixture of veal, pork, and beef and grated onion and topped with sour cream and herbs. As the bowls thudded onto the table, Morales began waving what looked like a hexagonal cross-section of an aluminum honeycomb. I began to eat what added up to probably 100 pelmeni. You give me access to unlimited dumplings and I will do more than my part. A pelmenitsa, she called it, a model of Soviet efficiency with adjacent hexagon-framed holes stamped into seven tight rows, all designed to facilitate the maximum amount of dumplings with minimal work.

Brandon said he needed to be uncomfortable. It has been two months, more or less, and the world feels both the entire same and wholly different. There is no acrimony. I would not want that. Love is not finite. It abides, unlike our—my—dumpling freezer stash. I ran out of frozen dumplings in the weeks after he left.

I ordered my own pelmenitsa online after Morales’s Russian-inspired feast. Immediately. A pelmenitsa works like this: There are 37 holes, its bottom has short legs, and the top edges of the holes are ridged. A pelmenitsa looks like a pock-marked trivet. You set it on a counter, then lay a round of rolled-out homemade dough over it. Using a piping bag or spoon, nubbins of filling are placed on each of the thirty-seven indents where the holes were. Another dough round is laid on top, water is sprayed lightly to help prevent sticking, then, employing a rolling pin, you forcefully roll over the top dough layer and entire mold to merge the top and bottom layers and separate the individual dumplings. If all goes according to plan, when you flip the mold over and gently shake, the dumplings employ gravity to become their finest individual selves.

I started playing in a dumpling sandbox. I made classic pelmeni, boiled them, then tossed them, as Morales instructs in her superb book, with butter and a touch of vinegar, then plopped sour cream on them and added chopped celery leaves for a green lift. For a different effect, I used the same filling and slicked the cooked dumplings in a Sichuan-style sauce of spiced soy sauce, chile oil, garlic, and scallion greens. The dumpling-making was effortless, so I again started accumulating dumplings in my freezer.

I had always wondered if my and Brandon’s relationship would shift or morph or collapse or transfigure. I knew it was inevitable that some version of one of those would happen. Because that is what intimate relationships do. The only inexorability is forward motion. Difference. Change. Having a pelmenitsa and an accruing stockpile of frozen dumplings stops time. Their availability helps mollify the rending, the ache, the pained resetting. The frozen dumplings also confer time. In the hours when I cannot bear to give more time to cooking than it takes to boil water, there they are. An icy fistful away, ready.

Pelmeni: Handmade Siberian Meat Dumplings

Pelmeni: Handmade Siberian Meat Dumplings

148 with a pelmenitsa; 100 by hand

Ingredients

  • Dough
  • 3½ cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 tablespoon kosher salt
  • 1 large egg
  • ¾ cups plus 2 tablespoons cold water
  • Filling
  • ½ pound ground beef
  • ½ pound ground pork
  • ½ pound ground veal
  • ½ onion, finely grated (include its liquid)
  • ⅔ cups ice water
  • 1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • To Finish
  • Butter
  • Vinegar
  • Salt
  • Sour cream or crème fraîche
  • Chives, parsley, or celery leaves (or a combination)

Adapted from Kachka: A Return to Russian Cooking by Bonnie Frumkin Morales

You could make these by hand, using a 2-inch round cookie cutter and fashioning the dumplings into a kind of tortellini. But, truly, I cannot emphasize the power of a pelmenitsa. A pelmenitsa is faster! It produces less waste! A pelmenitsa is cheap to buy! It makes more dumplings! Let that last point sink in. It. Makes. More. Dumplings. Isn’t that always the endgame?

  1. MAKE THE DOUGH: In the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with a dough hook, mix together the flour and salt. Add the egg, then slowly drizzle in the water. Mix until a dough forms, then knead for 10 minutes, until the dough comes together into a smooth, elastic ball. If you don’t have a mixer, you can do this by hand, but knead for 20 minutes. Wrap the dough in plastic wrap or place in a covered container, and let rest at room temperature for at least 1 hour.
  2. MAKE THE FILLING: Place all the ingredients in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment and mix until the mixture comes together. You want the fat to emulsify, which will incorporate all of the ice water and onion liquid and coat the mixture with a nice fat-smeared sheen. If you stop the mixer and grab a pinch, it will stick to your fingers with a very tacky feel. Under- or overprocessing will lead to dry meat, so try to this this nice sticky sweet spot—stop and check. The entire process should take 1 to 2 minutes tops with the paddle attachment (longer by hand). Refrigerate until ready to assemble. The filling is best made the same day you assemble the dumplings but can be made up to a day ahead, if needed.
  3. ASSEMBLE THE DUMPLINGS: Get that pelmenitsa ready! Divide the dough into 8 equal balls, and grab a spray bottle of water (or a dish of water and a pastry brush), a straight-sided rolling pin, and a rimmed baking sheet dusted with flour. Liberally dust the top of the pelmenitsa with flour. Take one ball (leaving the rest covered with a dish towel so they don’t dry out), and roll it out on a lightly floured countertop until it’s slightly larger than your mold. Drape the rolled-out dough over your pelmenitsa, so that it reaches over the ends of the mold. Press or pat the dough lightly so that an imprint of the mold below is made on the dough.
  4. With two spoons, or a pastry bag fitted with a wide tip, scoop or pipe a little blob of filling into each of the 37 divots. You’ll need just a heaping teaspoon or so in order to still be able to seal things (don’t get carried away with the amount of filling!). When you have piped filling into all the slots, roll out a second piece of dough until it’s slightly larger than your mold. Lightly spray some water over the top of your filled pelmeni, or lightly brush the exposed dough with water if you don’t have a spray bottle, and then gently place the second round of dough over the top. Firmly roll over the top with your trolling pin, several times as needed, to seal the pelmeni and cut the dough between them. Turn the pelmenitsa upside-down over the prepared baking sheet and nudge the filled dumplings out, separating them with your fingers, if needed. Repeat with remaining dough and filling. The dumplings can be cooked or frozen for future use (freeze on the baking sheet so they don’t stick, then transfer to sealed bag).
  5. SERVE THE DUMPLINGS: Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add about 20 dumplings per person. Adjust the heat so the boil is healthy but not too vigorous. Stir a few times as they cook. You don’t want the dumplings sticking to the bottom of the pot! Cook until the dumplings rise to the surface, and then for 1 more minute. Should take about 4 to 5 minutes. If you’re not certain when they’re ready, remove one and cut it in half. If the filling is cooked through, the dumplings are ready.
  6. Meanwhile, prepare a mixing bowl large enough to hold however many pelmeni you are cooking. For each serving of pelmeni, add 1 tablespoon butter, 1 teaspoon white vinegar and a pinch of salt. When the dumplings are cooked, skim them out of the water with a slotted spoon or drain them in a colander, shaking off any residual water. Place them in the prepared bowl and toss. The softened butter and vinegar will come together with the heat of the dumplings and the motion of stirring, emulsifying into a sauce. Keep moving the pelmeni around in the bowl until all of the butter is incorporated. Either keep them in the bowl or transfer them to a serving platter. Top with a healthy amount of sour cream or crème fraîche and then the herbs.

Scott Hocker

Scott Hocker is a writer, editor, recipe developer, cookbook author, and content and editorial consultant. He is currently the editor in chief of liquor.com and was previously the editor in chief of Tasting Table.

[email_signup id="3"]
[email_signup id="3"]