Chef Andrew Little
As American as apple dumplings, the cooking of Chef Andrew Little, at Sheppard Mansion in Hanover, Pennsylvania, reflects deep pride in the heritage of South Central Pennsylvania. Land of the Pennsylvania Dutch, barely 50 miles from Baltimore, Philadelphia and Harrisburg, and another stone’s throw from Washington, DC and New York, the undulating hills of this stretch of mid-Atlantic is rich in agricultural and culinary resources. Chef Little is at home, and it shows.
When creating menus, “Presenting an in-depth taste of the area and its rich culinary history is foremost,” says Chef Little. Sourcing local ingredients, researching old recipes, and cooking from the heart all are paramount.
Pennsylvania Dutch cooking, with its roots in the kitchens of 17th and 18th century German and and Swiss immigrants, is not known for being light and modern. Chef Little’s interpretations, soundly rooted in tradition, herald an updated direction. Converting outsiders may be an uphill battle, but this man is up to the task. Dinners at Sheppard Mansion are renowned for authenticity, seasonality, freshness, and wonderfully contemporary surprises.
Historically, the economy of the Pennsylvania Dutch community was rural, founded on agriculture and the supporting trades, including millers. Grain and dairy farms continue to abound. Local wheat is still grown, and still milled. Wheat, in its many incarnations, forms the cornerstone of the seasonal, and as-organic-and local-as-possible menu at the Mansion – Slippery Noodle Pot Pie, Creamed Chicken and Waffles, Sauerkraut Balls, Schnitz und Kneppe, Apple Dumplings and Shoofly Pie are all lovingly featured.
Wheat flour is also the foundation of the superb offerings in the Mansion’s adjacent food market – in Bourbon and Brown Butter Doughnuts, Pretzel Croissants, and artisanal breads that change seasonally. On the shelves on a chilly February Thursday? Pretzel Breads, Seeded Ryes, and Cherry-Pecan Wholewheat Loaf. Oh my!
Rye bread, is it popular? “Yes!” declares Chef Little. “Locals get pretty excited about a good loaf of rye bread, particularly one with whole caraway seeds in it.” These are my kind of people, good Midwestern girl that I am, with a solid northern European heritage. A good loaf of rye is rare, and treasured.
My familiarity ends there though, and I suspect I have a lot of company. Schnitz und Kneppe, Slippery Noodles, Shoofly Pie? What the heck is this stuff? A short glossary is in order, Sheppard Mansion style.
- Schnitz und Knepp – Traditionally a homey one-pot meal of dumplings, ham and dried apples. Chef Little’s dumplings are similar to Italian gnocchi in their delicacy, and his luxurious version of this dish includes rabbit legs, country ham, sage and mushrooms.
- Slippery Noodle Chicken Pot Pie – Another beloved classic, Pennsylvania Dutch style potpie does not use piecrust at all. Instead, the delicious chicken (that actually tastes like chicken) is served with homemade, hand-cut, egg-enriched noodles and a silky chicken sauce. Pure, simple serenity.
- Creamed Chicken and Waffles – The fluffy, yeast-raised waffles at the Mansion benefit from a fold-in of toasted, ground oats. Poached till tender, pastured chicken is served over the waffle with “whatever root vegetables are coming out of the ground” and a nap of chicken velouté. “The dish just bounces off the plate!” enthuses Chef Little.
- Sauerkraut Balls – A clever way to use up the cold roast pork and sauerkraut from Sunday dinner by chopping the leftovers, shaping them into dumplings, coating them in crumbs – Chef Little likes a rye crumb variation, and frying them. “Even more delicious with a mustard dipping sauce,” exclaims the chef. “Like the best Reuben you’ve ever had!”
- Pretzel Bread and Pretzel Croissants – At the Sheppard Mansion traditional Pennsylvania Dutch chewy pretzel dough, for which this region is renowned, is shaped into small rolls and sprinkled with coarse salt. The croissant dough is a happy marriage of both doughs, baked into sweet, buttery, salty crescents.
- Apple Dumpling – Sweet apples bundled in buttery pie pastry and baked till crisp on the outside and tender on the inside. A sort of personal apple pie, next to a mound of voluptuous whipped cream or ice cream.
- Shoofly Pie – A pantry pie with a molasses bottom and cinnamon-nutmeg crumb topping. Sweet and spicy, this pie takes a lighter turn in the hands of Chef Little’s talented pastry chef.
The Pennsylvania Dutch created a legacy of thrift, wasting nothing, a lesson that resonates today. I would venture a guess that many of our most cherished American dishes germinated from a similar resourcefulness. From snout to tail, so to speak. Shaft to seed, in wheatspeak.
Could this rich culinary tradition not only thrive in the Mid-Atlantic, but spread in popularity too, as has happened with other regional American cuisines such as Cajun and American Southwest cooking? Chef Little’s answer? A resounding, “ABSOLUTELY!” He continues, “Honestly, Pennsylvania Dutch cuisine is no different than the other great regional cuisines of the United States. Until now, Pennsylvania Dutch food hasn't had a cheerleader to shout its merits from every mountaintop. Well, I'm getting my pom poms out and cheering away!”
The Sheppard Mansion is an ideal destination, perfectly situated – rural, but not remote – luring and rewarding city patrons. This is stuff you will not find in a food court, fast casual bistro, or urban homage restaurant. Nope, you will have to get in your car and make a day of it, or weekend. Program your GPS to “Authentic Regional American Cooking (with some welcome modern twists) and hit the road!
Lisa Cherkasky is a food stylist, recipe developer, and food blogger in Arlington, VA.