As a youngster, when I saw my mother cooking a big, fat hen, I knew we would have something really special for dinner. The cooked chicken often went into her great chicken salad or in her chicken and dressing.
Nothing was wasted. The broth was used either for the cornbread dressing or for making dumplings. Sometimes, she cooked her homemade egg noodles in the broth.
The best broth for flavorful dumplings is the rich one you get from cooking a hen. The broth made from stewing chicken breasts or a fryer is not as tasty as hen broth. Of course, you can use the canned broth, but remember that it is usually quite salty so taste before adding more salt.
As was true with most of Mother’s specialties, she didn’t have a recipe for her dumplings, yet they always turned out the same. I watched as she made the dough, rolled it thin and cut it into strips that were dropped into boiling broth. It looked so easy, but I soon learned there is a technique for making good dumplings.
My first mistake when trying to make dumplings was to use a regular biscuit dough. I thought this was what my mother used. I failed to realize that dumpling dough must be firmer than that used for biscuits or it will fall apart when it hits the hot broth.
You can use your favorite biscuit recipe, but add more flour. Some cooks use a little broth rather than milk in their dumpling dough. Mother used buttermilk.
There are other steps to remember when making dumplings. The broth must be at a rolling boil before dropping the strips of dough into the pot. After using all the dough, the temperature should be reduced and the pan covered until the dumplings have firmed up.
If the broth doesn’t thicken enough, you might want to try a simple thickening process using beurre manie. I learned about this in a class with the “Dean of American Cooking,” the late James Beard.
Beurre manie is simply a mixture of equal amounts of butter and flour kneaded together into a smooth mixture. I like to form this into small balls about a half-inch in diameter, freeze them and store them in plastic bags in the freezer until I need them. When used to thicken liquids, you drop a couple of the small balls into the boiling mixture and stir until well mixed. If the mixture still is not thick enough, continue dropping these butter-flour balls one at a time until the right consistency is reached. When using this method for thickening, the flour will mix into the liquid more evenly.
You can even use the beurre manie for making white sauce. Just heat your milk and start dropping the butter-flour balls into the milk until you get it as thick as you want it.
After finally learning to make dumplings similar to my mother’s, I decided to change the recipe slightly by adding a can of cream of chicken with herbs soup — a simple addition that adds great flavor.
CHICKEN HERB DUMPLINGS
3 cans (14 ounces each) chicken broth
1 can cream of chicken with herbs soup
1 cup self-rising flour
3 tablespoons shortening
1/3 cup buttermilk
1/2 teaspoon coarsely ground black pepper
3 tablespoons butter or margarine
1/4 cup milk
1 1/2 to 2 cups coarsely chopped cooked chicken
Combine broth and soup in large soup pot. Heat to a rolling boil.
While broth is heating, make the dumplings. In a food processor, combine flour, shortening and buttermilk. Process until a dough forms. Remove onto a well-floured surface. Knead more flour into dough until you get a stiff dough. Roll the dough thin. Cut into strips about 1 1/2 inches wide. Cut or tear strips into several pieces and drop into boiling broth. Stir and reduce heat to low. Cover pot and cook about 6 minutes. Remove lid and let mixture continue to bubble. Add black pepper, butter, milk and chicken. Cook until slightly thickened. It will thicken more as it cools.
— Prudence Hilburn of Piedmont, Alabama, has won more than 30 national cooking awards and written several cookbooks, including, “Simply Southern and More.” Write her at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.prudencehilburn.com.