Originally published in quality newspapers the week of January 10, 2011
Everything about my Grandmother Smith was soft and warm, from her manner to her middle and from her feather bed to the way she sort of whisper-whistled hymns while doing her daily chores. To say that she was soft, however, is just part of who she was, because she was also strong. She was the kind of strong you had to be to be when you were a widowed mother during the Great Depression and the kind of strong you needed to be to send your sons off to war.
When my sister and I visited her Arkansas home a couple times each year, we would fight over which one of us got to sleep with her at night. One would bunk with her in her double bed while the other got the single feather bed that was on the other end of her bedroom. Either was a pretty good deal but sleeping with “Ma Ma” was the grand prize. I can vividly remember nestling up against her warm back and throwing my little arm around her soft waist.
My grandmother lived well into her 90’s but she died about the time I was becoming interested in cooking. She was a wonderful cook and I would loved to have spent time with her in her kitchen, learning to make some of my favorites, her chicken and dumplings in particular. Like many women from that era, she was not one to work off recipes.
On my trip home to see my own mother last month, she recalled that she had sat with her mom in the kitchen one day while she was making her chicken and dumplings and taken notes. Mom had recently run across those notes and made a copy for me. It was the best Christmas present I could imagine.
I spent some time last week recreating the recipe and ended up with something really close to what I remember from my childhood. I’m sure this recipe won’t mean as much to you as it does to me, but if you don’t already have a favorite chicken and dumplings recipe, I hope you’ll give this one a try and tell your family it came from a grandma in Arkansas who was soft and warm as those dumplings in their bowl.
Ma Ma’s Chicken and Dumplings
- 2 quarts chicken broth
- 2 chicken breasts
- 3 cups all-purpose flour
- 1 teaspoon baking soda
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 tablespoon shortening
- 1-1/3 cups buttermilk
- 2 tablespoons butter
- Salt and cracked black pepper to taste
Pour the chicken broth into a stock put and bring to a boil. Once boiling, add the chicken breasts and when the broth returns to a boil, reduce the heat to medium, cover, and simmer the chicken for 18-20 minutes. To be sure it is cooked completely you can remove one of the breasts and insert and probe thermometer. Chicken should be cooked to 165 degrees. Remove breasts from the broth and set aside to cool enough to handle. Leave the broth simmering.
For the dumplings, combine the flour, baking soda, and salt in a mixing bowl. Use your fingers to work in the shortening, pinching it and incorporating it through the flour mixture. Mix in one cup of the hot broth and one cup of buttermilk. Dough should be about the same consistency as biscuit dough. Place the dough on a floured surface and work in enough flour so that you can use a rolling pin to roll the dough out to just a little thicker than piecrust.
Bring the stock both up to a boil. Use a knife to bite-size cut pieces of the dough dropping them into the boiling broth. As the dumplings are cooking, remove the meat skin from the chicken breasts and tear the meat into bite-size pieces.
The dumplings will only need to cook for 2-3 minutes. You can tell they are done when they begin to float and puff out just a bit. Stir in the butter and remaining 1/3 cup buttermilk to thicken the broth. Add the chicken pieces and serve immediately. This will make about four adult-sized portions.