Grandma Breckner’s Dumplings and Gravy

Jennifer Breckner

I think the real highlight of this blog, for me, is the amazing ladies that I get to meet and work with. It gives me an excuse to shoot an email to someone and say, “Hey!” and then have a meet-up. I actually met Jennifer where it seems like everyone meets now: Instagram. I gave her a follow, she gave me a follow. We met for coffee and had a lovely time talking about food and family. Jennifer is a writer, educator, event producer and public speaker, focusing on good food, craft beer, art and culture, and combining her background in nonprofit management and art history with her passion for sustainable food systems.

For nearly a decade she has served as a Slow Food volunteer. If you’re not aware of Slow Food, it is an organization that was founded in the 1980s by Carlo Petrini in Italy that promotes local food and traditional cooking. Their motto is, “Good, clean, and fair,” meaning they believe people should have access to naturally produced, high-quality foods at a reasonable price. “The passionate writings of Slow Food founder Carlo Petrini made a connection between my two interests: food and art,” says Jennifer. “I was hooked.”

Her introduction to Slow Food came when she was an art history major studying Italian futurists. She started as the Chicago chapter leader who produced the Farm Roast, the annual fundraiser featuring biodiverse Ark of Taste dishes created by local chefs. The Ark of Taste, Slow Food’s biodiversity initiative, is a catalog of delicious foods in danger of disappearing, that the organization highlights to keep in production and on our plates. Jennifer became the chair of the Midwest Ark of Taste Committee, working with regional volunteers who are passionate about agricultural biodiversity. “I love Slow Food because they advocate for joyful resistance and assert the importance of the cultural aspects of our foodways,” she says.

Jennifer is now stepping into the role of International Councilor for Slow Food, and will serve as a U.S. rep advocating for good food policy at her first global summit in China this October. Her increasing interest in agricultural biodiversity, support for small-scale sustainable farmers and producers, and desire to contribute to nonprofit organizations has recently brought her to Chicago’s venerable Green City Market Junior Board. Jennifer is also passionate about craft beer and serves as Lead Event Ambassador for Brooklyn Brewery in Chicago, where she conducts taste education workshops and promotes the brewery’s portfolio at events around the city.

Jennifer grew up near Youngstown, Ohio, and her interest in food comes from her family. “I’m lucky that both sides produced good cooks—simple, working-class fare. I had many years of sitting down to family dinners at home or with extended family, or spaghetti dinners, pierogi and haluski, and potlucks at various churches.”

She decided to share a recipe with me that she remembers her grandmother making for Sunday dinner, a meal that was an important part of her childhood. “After my parents divorced in the 1970s and my father moved back in with his parents for a couple of years,” she says, “my grandmother insisted that we come on Sundays and sit down for dinner. She knew that in the chaos of a family post-breakdown that my brother Jeff, my sister Natalie, and I needed stability, unconditional love, and the comfort that only food and your grandmother could offer.”

Julia and Andy Breckner

Her grandmother, Julia Henrietta Ryznar, grew up in Ohio, the daughter of Polish immigrants. “She had a tough life. Her mother suffered from mental illness and was institutionalized. Her father committed suicide,” Jennifer told me. “She dropped out of school after the eighth grade because at the time education for women, especially poor immigrant women, was not a priority.” Julia was married to Jennifer’s grandfather, Andy, for over fifty years. “Given my grandmother’s difficult and painful childhood one could understand if she ended up a bitter, sad person. Yet, she was happy and joyful. She lit up a room and you just loved being around her. She loved being a wife and a mother, but shortly before she passed away she offered that her only regret in life was that she never got a job in a ‘dime store’ so that she could have something of her own.” That lesson had a major impact on Jennifer. “My own desire to both have my own projects and passions and find solace and comfort in my home and at the dinner table are directly affected by that.”

Grandma Breckner

Jennifer said her grandma would serve her dumplings and gravy with chicken paprikash and lemon-garlic broccoli. When Jennifer makes this dish, she has her own version of the chicken and her brother has a slightly different way of making her broccoli. “The most interesting thing to me now,” she says, “is how we’ve all taken that basic recipe and added our own twist to it.”

Grandma Breckner’s Dumplings and Gravy

Dumplings
Ingredients:
1/2 cup flour per egg (for example: 3 eggs, 1 1/2 cups of flour)
2 tbsp fresh parsley, or 1 tbsp dried
Note: If using less than three eggs, add 1/4 tsp of baking powder to the flour.
1 tbsp olive oil

Instructions:

Put a pot on the stove with water and bring to a boil.

Add 1 tbsp of water to the egg and beat until fluffy.

Slowly add flour, parsley, and baking powder (if using less than 3 eggs). Gently mix until slightly sticky but consistent. Add 1 tbsp. of oil to the mixture.

Spoon approximately 1 tbsp. of flour mixture into the boiling water. (Note: Put your spoon in the water prior to putting in the flour mixture to avoid the flour sticking to the spoon.)

Boil for 15 minutes but keep an eye on them because you don’t want to overcook. The dumplings will rise to the top. You can either pull them out individually or wait until all are done and put a cup of cold water into the pot then drain the dumplings into a strainer.

Season with salt and pepper.

Gravy
Ingredients:
2 heaping tbsp sour cream
4 tbsp flour
1 chicken bouillon cube or 1-2 cups of broth
2 cups water

Instructions:

Slowly mix the sour cream and flour together.

Add 1/2 cup of broth to the mixture and continue to stir.

Add this to the water and bring to a boil.

Lower heat and stir continuously until it thickens.

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A delicious meal, made with simple ingredients. These are the recipes that I like to showcase on this blog. Not the flashiest or sexiest recipes, but those that elicit the happiest memories.

Jennifer agrees. She told me that when working at the Art Institute several years ago, Anthony Bourdain was visiting for a lunch and book signing. “Bourdain told the crowd that cuisine developed because of the contributions of poor people who often were given the leftovers of an animal or the least desirable produce and had to make something edible from it. He offered that if you are given the best cut of meat you need to do very little to make it taste delicious. His words meant a lot to me then for it was the first time that I understood the contributions of poor people to culinary life.”

If you want to follow Jennifer, you can check out her website, or you can follow her (and Ark of Taste) on Facebook and Instagram. Just look for the handle @jenniferbreckner  and @midwestarkoftaste.

Jennifer, thank you so much for sharing your grandmother’s recipe and how it had such an impact on your life!

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Chocolate Peanut Butter Buckeyes

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My apologies to every sports fan who stumbles upon this blog, only to find that there is absolutely no information about (any) college sports team. The Buckeyes I refer to in the title are not the Ohio State Buckeyes, but the tiny chocolate-covered peanut butter balls that were inspired by Ohio’s state tree. Alex and I were visiting Ohio (his first time to Ohio!) this Memorial Day weekend to celebrate the wedding of our lovely friends, Michael and Deborah, in Cleveland Heights. The ceremony was beautiful and rather dramatic because of a sudden thunderstorm. Plus, it was a Jewish ceremony, which meant Alex and I had to learn a Jewish wedding song and see some new (to us) traditions. On top of that, the bride is originally from Brazil, so there was also samba music and lots of dancing. We couldn’t have had more fun, or celebrated a better couple.

I grew up just across the border from Ohio, in Indiana, but I had seen very little of the state before. As we always try to do, we turned this short trip into a slightly longer road trip. After leaving Cleveland early on Monday, we drove down to Columbus, only briefly stopping to get coffee and to walk around the Short North and German Village neighborhoods. It was really the only urban area that we visited. Most of our road trip was spent driving by rolling fields and through one-stoplight towns, smelling Memorial Day barbecues. Today, we will leave my mom’s house in search of antique stores to buy knicknacks we don’t need.

In honor of our trip, I thought I would make a very traditional Ohio treat (and by traditional, I mean a mid-century invention of Midwest housewives). I’m using my mom’s ancient recipe for peanut butter balls. When mom made them, they were called peanut butter balls, and they were completely covered in chocolate. The only difference is that when you make buckeyes, you leave a tiny cap of peanut butter showing. Ohioans call them buckeyes, because they resemble the nut of Ohio’s state tree, the buckeye. My mom would usually make the treat for family get-togethers. In Ohio, they are often also served during Ohio State games.

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Chocolate Peanut Butter Buckeyes
Makes about 30, 1-inch Buckeyes.

Ingredients:
1 cup peanut butter
2 1/2 cups powdered sugar
1 stick unsalted butter
1/4 tsp salt
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
12 oz. semi-sweet chocolate chips (or chocolate bar, chopped)

Instructions:

In a large bowl, combine peanut butter, powdered sugar, butter, salt, and vanilla extract with a hand mixture. The mixture will look thick, almost like a cookie batter. Cover with a dish towel and allow to chill in the refrigerator for about half an hour.

Cover a large cookie sheet with parchment paper. Using a small spoon (the large scoop on my melon baller worked well), scoop portions of the peanut butter mixture, roll into a ball and set on parchment paper. Continue until all of the peanut butter mixture has been used. Refrigerate for another half an hour.

Fill a small saucepan with about an inch of water and bring to just a boil. Make a double-boiler by filling a small bowl with the chocolate and setting this on the saucepan, above the water. Be sure that the bottom of the bowl does not touch the water in the saucepan.

Stirring the chocolate often, allow the chocolate to melt above the heat. Once the chocolate has just melted, remove from heat and stir until the mixture is smooth.

Using a toothpick, skewer the refrigerated peanut butter ball and dip into the chocolate mixture. Keeping the toothpick in the top of the ball, slowly rotate the ball in the chocolate until all is covered, except for a small portion at the top. Return to parchment paper and remove the toothpick. If you like, you can lightly pat the the spot where the toothpick was to get rid of the hole.

Continue until you have coated all of the peanut butter balls with chocolate. Allow to refrigerate for at least another half hour before serving.

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Bear in mind, these little candies are very rich. Delicious, but rich. Even as a child, while other family members were gobbling them up a few at a time, I could only eat about half. The recipe above is a slight adaptation to my mom’s original, using slightly less sugar. I first tried to use much less, but didn’t have much success keeping the peanut butter in ball-form for dipping. So they’re still rich, but a little more balanced. They remind me a lot of the Reese’s holiday versions of peanut butter cups. You know the ones: egg-shaped for Easter, hearts for Valentine’s Day, always with a shockingly large ratio of peanut butter to chocolate, just the way I like it. My next plan is to make a batch, freeze them, take them to our next summer barbecue, and win the hearts of everyone.

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