happy birthday, laura ingalls wilder!


Over the fence to the farmhouse,
With laughter and repartee gay,
It’s almost time to be eating again
And we’re rather too far away.
There’s chicken and dumplings for dinner,
With salad and vegetables fine
And fruits just fresh from the orchard
Oh who wouldn’t love to dine!
Over the fence to the farmhouse
We’re afraid they will not wait
And with chicken and dumplings for dinner
Twould never do to be late.

~ Laura Ingalls Wilder


If ever a writer comes to mind when I think about “comfort and joy,” it’s Laura Ingalls Wilder.

Her Little House books provide lifetime nourishment with their ample stores of hope, optimism, familial love, strength, and enduring pioneer spirit. I’m quite certain at least 90% of you reading this post wanted to be Laura after reading her stories — wanted to be the kind of girl who never compromised who she was, who possessed a singular determination and always ventured forth with a brave heart.

To celebrate her 144th birthday, I decided to try two of the recipes Laura often prepared while living at Rocky Ridge Farm in Mansfield, Missouri. They come from The Laura Ingalls Wilder Country Cookbook, a collection of 73 recipes adapted from the ones Laura pasted in a recycled scrapbook during the 30’s and 40’s. Besides recipes, notes, and meal ideas, she also saved clippings from newspaper food columns and cooking advice from both her mother, Caroline Ingalls, and her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane.

Laura and Almanzo

            

Laura’s cookbook is comfort personified — old fashioned favorites which called for “foods gleaned from her kitchen garden and staples she kept in her cupboards: cornmeal, brown sugar, white sugar, spices, whole wheat flour, and white flour.” Do Macaroni Casserole, Meat Loaf Supreme, Pork Pie with Sweet Potato Biscuits, Orange Nut Bread, Applesauce Cake, and Molasses Cookies conjure up visions of a wholly satisfying meal cooked in a wood-burning stove in a cozy farmhouse? Suffice to say, many of us today crave this brand of farm-to-table goodness, and experimenting with some of these old recipes might be the closest we’ll ever get.

When I scanned the list of 19 Main Dishes, “Chicken and Dumplings” caught my eye. I admit a teensy obsession with dumplings in general, but I did want to try Laura’s version for two primary reasons: 1) I never had this kind of dumplings growing up in Hawai’i, and 2) I wanted to compare her recipe with another I’m quite fond of. Besides, this was supposedly a favorite Sunday dinner for Laura and Almanzo. So yes, I made it on a Sunday to get the full effect ☺.

OLD-FASHIONED CHICKEN AND DUMPLINGS
(6-8 servings)

1 large roasting or stewing chicken, cut in pieces
1 rib celery with leaves, cut fine
1 or 2 carrots, sliced thin
3 tsp. salt (divided use)
1/2 tsp. freshly grated pepper
1/2 tsp. mace
2 eggs
2/3 cup milk
3 tsp. baking powder
2 cups flour, plus 1/4 cup to thicken gravy
2 T butter

1. Arrange chicken pieces in large pot; add vegetables, 2 tsp. salt, pepper, mace and water to cover by at least an inch. (You need plenty of broth to cook the dumplings.) Bring to a boil, reduce heat, and simmer until chicken is tender, about 1-1/2 hours.

2. Place cooked chicken pieces in an ovenproof dish. You may remove the bones if you wish. Cover and keep warm.

3. Make the dumpling batter: Mix the eggs, 2 tsp. salt, and milk together. Sift the dry ingredients. Cut butter into flour with two knives or a pastry cutter. Blend the wet and dry ingredients to a fairly stiff dough, adding a little more flour if needed.

4. Drop the dough by spoonfuls into the boiling broth. Cover the pot tightly, reduce the heat slightly to prevent boiling, and cook for 15 minutes without removing the cover.

5. To serve, arrange the chicken and dumplings on a hot platter with a little of the hot broth. Serve extra broth separately or make gravy by slowly mixing 1/4 cup flour into 1 cup of the broth. Return it to the simmering broth and cook for 5 minutes, stirring.

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Len and I thoroughly enjoyed this dish; it did indeed make us feel just that much closer to Laura in spirit. It was easy and pretty straightforward to make; there’s nothing better than having something hearty bubbling away on the stove, its savory smell filling the kitchen while you’re happily anticipating what’s to come.

Next time, though, I will make the dumplings smaller. My little boulders took longer than the specified 15 minutes to cook through, and I think smaller dumplings (dropped by tablespoonfuls) would have been lighter and fluffier. Laura did emphasize cooking them without removing the cover. Guess who wandered into the kitchen just 5 minutes after I’d dropped those dumplings into the liquid and REMOVED THE COVER? You should have heard me scream!

Now then, for dessert, I made Apple Upside-Down Cake. There are several apple recipes in Laura’s cookbook — makes perfect sense since they had a large orchard. I used golden delicious apples, wishing we had Laura’s Missouri Pippins and Ben Davis apples here in Virginia.

APPLE UPSIDE-DOWN CAKE
(makes one 8-inch square cake)

1/4 cup brown sugar
2 tsp. cinnamon
2-4 apples, depending on size (about 3 cups of slices)
2 T butter
3 eggs
1 cup flour
2 tsp. baking powder
1/2 cup cooking oil
1/2 tsp. salt
1 tsp. vanilla

1. Preheat oven to 350°. Generously butter 8-inch cake pan.

2. Sprinkle brown sugar and cinnamon over bottom of pan.

3. Peel and slice apples and arrange over sugar to cover bottom of pan. Dot with butter.

4. Beat eggs until light in color. Mix flour and baking powder and stir into eggs with the oil, salt, and vanilla. Pour batter over apples and bake for 34 minutes until firm and lightly browned.

5. Invert pan on heatproof platter and gently shake out the cake. Serve hot with whipped cream, slightly sweetened and with a little cinnamon added.

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My first reaction to this cake: “Wow, this isn’t sweet.” Looking back at the ingredients, it did only call for a mere 1/4 cup of brown sugar, no sugar at all in the cake batter. I guess I was expecting a typical yellow cake. Once I got over that surprise, I appreciated the syrupy apples saturated with sugar and cinnamon. When I turned the pan over, the cake fell out easily without breaking. Unfortunately, we didn’t have any whipped cream on hand, and I think this cake would be better with it, or topped with warm custard (like they do in England).

What I also enjoyed about Laura’s Apple Upside-Down Cake was thinking about how she and Almanzo planted hundreds of apple trees themselves on Rocky Ridge Farm, and waiting 7 years for them to come into bearing. Almanzo used organic farming methods, fertilizing with cow manure and wood ash. Since he didn’t allow hunting in the orchard, the abundant quail took care of the insects that might harm the trees. I also thought that my modern palate is accustomed to lots more sugar than was probably the norm in Laura’s day. Sugar was a luxury when she was growing up. Even though their farm at Rocky Ridge prospered, Laura and Almanzo lived a life marked by thrift and frugality.

Laura's kitchen at Rocky Ridge Farm

             

I’m so glad I tried both recipes. The kitchen was the heart and center of Laura’s life as a farm activist and homemaker. Besides cooking, baking and preserving food, she entertained her many friends there and even penciled some of her famous stories in notebooks at the kitchen table. Making her recipes was a wonderful way to re-imagine this part of her life in the Ozarks and tap into a little regional history.

I hope you’ll try a Laura recipe this week — either something from The Laura Ingalls Wilder Country Cookbook, or The Little House Cookbook by Barbara M. Walker. The Little House books are full of food descriptions, and this is the perfect time to try some of the dishes mentioned. Laura lived to be a grand 90 years old, passing away on February 10, 1957. So yes, this is truly her week.

Happy Birthday, Laura!

♥ Recipe for Almanzo’s favorite Fried Apples ‘n’ Onions here.

♥ Laura’s famous gingerbread recipe is here.

♥ More 2011 Comfort and Joy posts here.

Copyright © 2011 Jama Rattigan of jama rattigan’s alphabet soup. All rights reserved.

12 thoughts on “happy birthday, laura ingalls wilder!

    1. This was last year’s post — I suspect you saw it because I updated parts of it. I’ll have a 2012 Laura celebration tomorrow🙂. Hmmmm, I would have sworn you were very well trained, too . . .

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      1. Oh, I was wondering… because I think I have that recipe in my file (and, um, still haven’t made it) and was pretty sure it had to have come from you. I have, however, made your lemon bars several times recently! Well, I’m glad to celebrate for 48 hours!

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  1. I read all these books to my daughter when she was young; they bring back such happy memories. Your posts always are such a pleasure, Jama. Thank you. I will try to make a few of the recipes you shared. I love apples & that cake looks delicious. I grew up with a grandmother who cooked on a wood stove & I’m still trying to duplicate her biscuit recipe. And, my mother-in-law often make apples & onions as a breakfast treat. Yum, and thank you!

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    1. Laura’s books should be part of everyone’s childhood — I always feel a little sorry for people who say they’ve never read the Little House books. I’m drooling at the thought of your grandma’s biscuits!

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