Plate Cake, Brown Betty, Grunt, Slump: None of these rolls off the tongue like “dacquoise” or “creme brulee.” But what their names lack in mellifluousness, classic American fruit desserts make up for in old-fashioned good taste. As summer approaches, and we return to casual cooking and baking, it’s time to dust off great-grandma’s best recipe, or turn to Google if her recipe box has gone missing. First up, something that will make good use of Long Island strawberries, just coming to market.
Wild strawberries grow all over the world, and strawberries have been cultivated in England and France for centuries. But pre-Columbus, European berries were small, tough and flavorless, and were more likely to be used ornamentally than in the kitchen. In the Americas, it was another story. Juicy and sweet, wild berries growing here had long been enjoyed by Native Americans and were embraced by colonists and incorporated into their culinary traditions. The cobblers and crisps that we enjoy today are direct descendants of both Native American strawberry breads and British fruit pies. British horticulturists, recognizing the superiority of the wild berries growing on this side of the pond, crossbred native North American strawberries with South American varieties. Eventually, seeds of this hybrid made it back across the Atlantic, giving rise to the 3 billion pounds of strawberries grown in the United States every year.
I’ve made my share of strawberry cobblers and crisps, plate cakes and crumbles. But even though I love the fluffy, sweet biscuit dough that tops a slump, I’m sorry to say that I avoided this particular preparation because the name didn’t appeal to me. Realizing that I could call the recipe “strawberry dumplings” changed the game. Suddenly, steaming dumplings over a skillet of simmering strawberries seemed like a great idea.
A slump, or strawberry dumplings as this recipe will be known going forward, is simply a potful of sweetened strawberries, topped with dollops of biscuit dough, covered, and cooked through. It’s been popular in the United States since colonial times, when settlers used juicy North American strawberries in English steamed pudding recipes. This dessert is made entirely on top of the stove, so there’s no need to turn on the oven. If you have a cast iron pot, you could even make it outdoors, on top of the grill.
The end result is soft, warm and comforting. Whipped cream or ice cream provides richness and a little bit of chill. Because this is a steamed dessert, the pastry doesn’t get crisp or brown. To add that element of caramelized crunch, sprinkle the dumplings with a mixture of turbinado sugar and cinnamon just before serving.
1 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
1⁄2 cup packed light brown sugar
1 teaspoon baking soda
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into small pieces and chilled
1⁄2 cup buttermilk
1 quart strawberries, stemmed and sliced
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1 tablespoon cornstarch
2 tablespoons turbinado sugar
1⁄4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
Vanilla ice cream or sweetened whipped cream for serving
1. Whisk together the flour, 1⁄4 cup brown sugar, baking soda and 1⁄4 teaspoon salt in a large bowl. Add butter and, using your fingers, rub into the flour until pea-size crumbles form. Add the buttermilk and stir with a rubber spatula until a rough dough forms. Cover and refrigerate.
2. Combine the berries and remaining 1⁄4 cup brown sugar in a medium saucepan. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Whisk together the lemon juice and cornstarch in a small bowl. Stir into the berry mixture to incorporate.
3. Remove the pot from the heat and use a small ice cream scoop to drop 1 1⁄2-inch balls of biscuit dough over the berries.
4. Return the pot to the stovetop and adjust the heat so it simmers very gently. Cover tightly and continue simmering until the dumplings are puffy and cooked through, 17 to 20 minutes. (Cut into the center dumpling with a paring knife to check for doneness.) Let the dumpling cool on a wire rack, uncovered, for 15 minutes.
5. Combine the turbinado sugar and cinnamon in a small bowl. Sprinkle over the dumplings. Spoon into dessert bowls and serve warm with ice cream or whipped cream. Makes 6 servings.