Ann Dorer Essay Series: Getting Recipes Right

Illustration by Judy Jamieson

It’s one thing to get a recipe—and quite another to get it right. The recipe I have worked hardest to retrieve is the dumplings my husband’s grandmother, Panka, always made for family gatherings. Soft, slightly puffed strips of dough cooked in rich chicken broth, her dumplings were everyone’s favorite.

I had to have that recipe.

Panka, however, didn’t have one. Making dumplings was something she just knew how to do. But she was happy to show me.

“How much flour do I use?” I asked.

Panka poured flour into a bowl. “About that much.”

Milk and shortening were measured the same way.

It was even hard to get the short list of ingredients right. After years of trying to get my dumplings to taste like hers, I asked Panka what kind of milk she used to make the dough. “Buttermilk,” she answered simply.

Overhearing this, one aunt practically screamed at Panka, “Do you mean you use buttermilk?” (Apparently, this aunt had been trying to get this recipe right for a long time, too.)

I finally got Panka’s dumpling recipe written down correctly. But I no longer use it. I now make dumplings like Panka did—I just know how.

Another recipe I had to have was my mother’s fudge. Mama gladly wrote the recipe for me on an index card, precisely giving ingredients and directions. Whenever I make her fudge, I clutch that card—now yellowed and splattered with chocolate—and quake.

According to Mama’s directions, after you add the butter and vanilla to the cooked chocolate mixture, you then stir the fudge “until it begins to lose its gloss.” That’s when you pour the fudge into a pan. If you stir past this point, the fudge becomes a chunk you have to carve out with a knife.

Looking for the gloss to fade, I stare into the pot with every light on in the kitchen, stirring and stirring, trying to decide if it’s time to pour out the fudge. Not an easy recipe to get right!

Old Timey Coconut Cake is yet another recipe I had to have. I clipped it from a newspaper in the 1970s and have kept it ever since. Reading the recipe for this cake’s frosting always makes me shake my head and smile. The directions say to cook the sugar and milk together “until you have the feeling it is time to add the coconut.”

I have a feeling I’ll never attempt to make this frosting.

Because it’s one thing to get a recipe—and quite another to get it right.

Text by Ann Dorer
Illustration by Judy Jamieson

Former editor and consummate Southern lady Ann Dorer shares her reflections on life in our beloved region. For more of her thoughts, see her essay on Becoming a Southern Lady and previous post on her granddaughter Maggie’s pre-k graduation. Browse exclusive place cards that feature Judy Jamieson’s beautiful artwork in our online shop.

Discover inspiring style ideas, seasonal recipes, and more by ordering your Southern Lady subscription today!