The duff dumpling
Almost every cuisine has a dumpling. It ranges from sweet to savoury, from stuffed to unstuffed, from leavened to unleavened. Some are steamed, others boiled, but no matter which way they are made, dumplings represent comfort food and are loved the world over.
Here in the Caribbean is no exception — in Guyana there is the traditional type of dumpling but there is also a dumpling we called duff.
Duff is a dumpling that must contain baking powder and it is traditionally shaped oblong and steamed over dry-food, rice or by itself. To further differentiate, duff is also generally served as an accompaniment to something fried-up such as salt fish or smoked herring. Unlike many other dumplings duff is almost never submerged in soup either.
So this week I’m introducing you to duff. My aunt, Golin, makes the best duff I’ve ever seen or tasted. It’s a pity she is so far away and I can’t get her recipe and advice on how to make this soul food. She is so adept at making duff that hers never flops or deflates once removed from the pot in which it was steamed, swelling to plump, fluffy proportions.
Without my aunt Golin to consult, I chatted instead with another expert duff maker, a Guyanese who also lives here in Barbados. I learnt that the art is in knowing when the duff is finished cooking as overcooking it would result it its deflation once it’s exposed.
So how does one know? The answer I got was: “By intuition.” It is important also not to peek before the duff has risen. All these instructions made me think of cake-baking and the strict instructions that go along with it — right temperature, no peeking, testing etc.
I prefer to cook by intuition but when you have a deadline to meet and limited time, precision is what you’re after; successful accidents are welcome, but errors? No way! One should also be focused on the task at hand and not be like me where I was doing three things at once and forget to add baking powder to the flour and so I had to knead dough for a new batch.
Using my bamboo steamer, I set about dividing the kneaded and rested dough, equally and shaping them into balls (I thought they’d look more attractive). I steamed the duff for six minutes, basing the time on how long it takes to cook dumplings when added to a soup.
It turns out that six minutes was the magic time, at least for the size and quantity of duff I made (two cups flour yielded five). I am happy to report that my duff, in the words of a friend, “did not shame me”. They swelled and remained that way when served.
I’ve never thought of it before but I think that duff is such a nice alternative to bread or bakes. What I like about them also is that like the dumplings in some cuisines, you can actually cook it again by frying it whole or cut up and saut?ed with aromatics.
Dumplings (duff included) are special food and people are rather particular about them. Their consumption of this cooked dough is very personal and often they will only consume it if it is made by a particular person or a particular way.
Take for example, my gal pal Susan who grew up eating her mom’s dumplings, which she says are hard and chewy. So one day I made dumplings for her and did not put any baking powder into the mixture. My dumplings came out soft and delicious and only slightly chewy.
Through discussion with Susan I learnt that her mom kneaded the dough and immediately added it to the soup. I on the other hand, had let my dough rest for half-hour during which time the gluten developed and the sugar in the dough worked its magic of tenderizing the dough.
Some people also get fussy about the shape of the dumpling; they want it rolled lengthways rather than round (I know I’ll get some flack for my round duff). And then of course you have spinners, as the Jamaicans would say. This is where small pieces of the dough is rolled between the palms of your hands and become these elongated pieces of dough. Depending on how you “spin” the dough, the middle gets a little tummy and the ends taper off.
Which ever way you like it or will only eat it, I am happy to know that this soul food is still around and being enjoyed. Having said that, when last have you made some dumplings or duff? Why not surprise the family this weekend — or why not surprise yourself?
* Cynthia Nelson is a journalist, tutor, food photographer and author of the award-winning book: Tastes Like Home – My Caribbean Cookbook (IRP 2010). She writes regularly about food in various Caribbean Publications.
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