As I’ve mentioned several times already, I love collecting and reading cookbooks. I have a pretty extensive cookbook collection, made up of mostly baking/dessert cookbooks, alongside a number of regular cookbooks. While I love trying out recipes from my dessert cookbooks, I have yet to really venture into cooking the recipes from my other cookbooks. Oh, I’ll try out a recipe every now and then, but I’m not an avid savory cook.
So, why do I even bother buying non-baking cookbooks? The storyteller in me loves to read the stories behind the recipes, especially those that involve people’s memories of sharing food with loved ones. There’s something so warm and cozy about learning about other people’s families and lives through their food. This is not the fancy stuff you get at gourmet restaurants, but the everyday type of food that become reliable staples in a family’s repertoire of recipes. Food that is simple to make with inexpensive ingredients and from recipes that have either been hand or type-written onto index cards and stashed away in notebooks, or have remained unwritten and are prepared from memory. When we eat out, we may go for the exotic fare of another culture or a gourmet meal from a trained chef, but what evokes the fondest of memories are the foods that our parents or grandparents made for us – the comfort foods of our childhoods.
I recently watched a documentary film on PBS called Kitchen Conversations: Life Through Recipes, by Dhera Strauss, in which middle-aged or older women each prepare a recipe from her childhood while reflecting on her life or the lives of family members, including what part cooking and eating have played in those memories. While not all the women necessarily enjoy cooking, they all have interesting stories to share that revolve around food. A few of the women even open up and share some painful memories of survival that lend a tender poignancy to the film.
One of those women, Renata, recalls her mother making and serving her kopytka, a type of (Polish) potato dumpling, almost like gnocchi, on a cold night after school. Their preparation is simple and uses basic ingredients – something that seems appropriate for Renata’s mother to make, as Renata reveals the deprivation her parents suffered during WWII. Deprivation that was so seared into her parents’ consciousness, that they vowed to make sure their own children would never starve. I was so fascinated watching Renata make kopytka and listening to her story, that I decided to give these dumplings a try myself. I found a recipe online and got to work.
Kopytka (Polish Potato Dumplings)
(Recipe adapted from Food.com)
Servings: 5 to 8
For the dumplings:
2 cups flour
1/4 tsp salt
For the onion topping: *
3 Tbsp (salted) butter
1 medium onion, finely chopped – see my notes below
Salt, to taste
Pepper, to taste
1) Peel and cut the potatoes into even sized chunks.
2) Cook the potatoes in a pot of salted, boiling water until tender. Drain.
3) Mash (or rice) the potatoes into a bowl while they are still warm, until there are no lumps. Set aside to cool.
4) Add about 1-1/2 cups of the flour, the egg, and the 1/4 tsp salt to the cooled mashed potatoes. Mix, using a wooden spoon and bowl scraper, until everything is combined.
5) Add more flour, as needed, until the mixture becomes a manageable soft dough. I ended up adding the remaining 1/2 cup of flour, but the amount of flour needed will vary, depending on the day and the humidity of your kitchen.
6) Sprinkle some flour on a flat working surface – either a large cutting board, or a silicone baking mat, or even wax paper. Transfer the dough to the work surface and knead the dough until it is relatively smooth and pliable, using a bench scraper to scrape up any bits of dough that stick to your work surface. I added between 1/4 to 1/2 cups of additional flour, but as mentioned above, the amount you add will vary, depending on the humidity of your kitchen. It’s better to add a little less than too much flour, to prevent the dumplings from becoming too tough.
7) Cut or tear out a chunk of dough, and using both hands, roll it on a floured work surface to a diameter of about 1 inch. Roll from the center of the dough out towards the ends to create a length of dough that is even thickness throughout.
8) Using a bench scraper or knife, cut the length of dough on a diagonal, about every half inch, to form the dumplings.
9) Repeat steps 7 and 8 until you use up all the dough.
10) Bring a pot of salted water to a boil, and gently drop the dumplings in. (Portion out the dumplings so that you cook them in batches without overcrowding the pot). Give the dumplings a few stirs with a slotted spoon to prevent them from sticking.
11) When the dumplings float to the surface of the water, boil them for another 3-5 minutes, until they are cooked through. Remove dumplings with a slotted spoon.
12) Continue boiling and cooking the rest of the dumplings. Set them aside while you prepare the topping.
13) Melt the 3 Tbsp of butter in a pan.
14) Add the chopped onions, and salt and pepper to taste.
15) Saute the onions until they are a nice golden color.
16) Toss the dumplings into the pan with the onions until everything is combined.
17) Serve and eat!
* In addition to an onion topping, kopytka is also served with a bread crumb topping. The original Food.com recipe for kopytka also includes one for the bread crumb topping.
Note: While the kopytka as prepared according to this recipe is delicious, it is a bit on the bland side, so if I were to re-make this, I would increase the amount of onions used in the topping by at least double – using 2 large onions instead of 1 medium one. Maybe even add more butter to saute them in. The onions add a nice touch of sweetness to the bland, but tender dumplings.
While the kopytka is kind of bland, its blandness and tenderness (from the potatoes) make it very comforting to eat. I can see why this would be a good dish to eat on a cold day, like Renata did when she was young.
What was your childhood go-to comfort food after school? Please share in the comments.