There’s something magical about fall in Nebraska.
The autumn sun setting over the Great Plains. Combines moving through the fields as they harvest corn. Husker football and farmers markets on crisp Saturday mornings. The cottonwood trees turning bright orange and yellow.
The Vala family in Gretna, Nebraska, has been keeping that magic alive for 35 years now at their farm, Vala’s Pumpkin Patch and Apple Orchard.
It started with Tim and Jan Vala, who began lovingly developing a small plot of farmland 20 miles outside of Omaha, the state’s largest city. Today, the farm spans 400 acres and is a must-visit spot for families across the Midwest every fall.
Vala’s is perhaps best known for the 55-acre pumpkin patch on the property. But there’s so much more to do and see, after you’ve picked the perfect orange pumpkin to carve into a jack-o-lantern. There are more than 50 attractions at the farm, including a corn maze, hayrack rides, live entertainment and tons of kids’ play areas, games and activities.
Of course, after all that you’re going to be hungry. Though the made-from-scratch apple cider donuts are perfect when paired with a cup of coffee, the apple dumplings here really steal the show.
Drenched in a gooey caramel sauce, these dumplings are perfectly crispy and buttery on the outside. Inside, there’s an entire apple, grown right here on the farm, flavored with cinnamon and nutmeg. These dumplings are the brainchild of Kelsey Vala, one of the three Vala sisters who are now co-owners of the farm.
Though Vala’s is primarily a pumpkin patch, the family recently opened a new apple orchard where people can pick their own apples and take them home. Kelsey Vala wanted to create a dessert that would highlight the apples from the family’s orchard, and thus, the dumpling was born.
“I was looking for a way to really showcase the apple — a really nice orchard apple that’s nice and big and delicious,” Vala says.
She’s a fan of using Cortland apples for the dumplings, since they’re the perfect combination of tart and sweet, but she’ll use whatever varieties are available from the family’s orchard. She likes to keep things simple by using her tried-and-true pie crust recipe as the dough for the dumpling.
To try one of Kelsey Vala’s delectable dumplings, you’ll want to head over to the Pie Barn, a century-old barn the Vala family saved from demolition (see photos below of them actually moving the historic barn to their farm).
The building, the pies, the dumplings and the other tasty treats at Vala’s all create a feeling of “homespun nostalgia” for visitors, says Kelsey Vala.
“I really want to inspire people to remember, ‘Oh, this is the way a pie or dumpling should taste,'” she says.
Want to make the Vala family’s famous dumplings at home? They graciously shared the recipe with us (though you’ll have to find your own pie crust recipe, as theirs is top-secret!). While you’re waiting for these hearty treats to cool down after you pull them out of the oven, you’ll probably want to start researching your trip to Nebraska so you can experience the warm and fuzzy feeling of Vala’s for yourself. When it comes to this family-friendly pumpkin patch, apple orchard and farm, we can definitively say that this corner of Nebraska is actually for everyone (despite what the state’s tongue-in-cheek tourism slogan says!).
Apple Dumplings with Cinnamon-Caramel Sauce from Vala’s Pumpkin Patch and Apple Orchard
This recipe makes 15 dumplings.
For the filling:
- 1/2 lb unsalted butter, softened
- 4 teaspoons cinnamon
- 3/4 cup sugar
- 1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
For the cinnamon-caramel sauce:
- 2 cups sugar
- 1/2 cup water
- 1/2 cup corn syrup
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
- 1 1/3 cup heavy cream
- 1 teaspoon vanilla
- 8 Tablespoons unsalted butter
For the filling: Whip the softened butter on medium-high speed in mixer. Add cinnamon, sugar, nutmeg and salt. Mix until spices are fully incorporated. Place in a gallon ziplock bag for piping into apples. It’s easiest to pipe into apples when it’s made fresh.
For the caramel sauce: Bring sugar, water and corn syrup to a simmer and stir with a wooden spoon until sugar dissolves. Keep simmering until the syrup turns into a golden brown color. Take off the heat. While continuously stirring, quickly add the salt, cinnamon, heavy cream, vanilla and butter. It will sputter up and bubble vigorously, so be careful. It’s nice to have someone to help you hold the pot while you add the final ingredients and continuously stir. Keep quickly stirring until it’s completely smooth.
To assemble the dumplings, you’ll need:
- 15 apples, peeled, cored and with seeds removed
- Dumpling filling in a ziplock bag and soft enough to squeeze out
- 7-inch square of pie crust per dumpling (4.5oz), chilled
- Small cup of half-and-half
- Pastry brush
- Sheet tray with parchment
- Pipe filling into apple.
- Place an apple in the center of a crust square.
- Brush all inside edges of crust with half-and-half.
- Fold opposite corners into each other, and press in very firmly (if you don’t press it in,
then the crust will fall off!).
- Line dumplings up neatly on a sheet tray with parchment. Cover with plastic wrap, label,
- Spray each dumpling with half-and-half, and dust top with sanding sugar and cinnamon-sugar.
- Bake at 375°F for 35 minutes until golden brown and tender, but still with a little crunch in the apple. Use a cake tester to test the doneness of apple.
To Serve: Place dumplings directly in the pot pie warmer from oven. Have a small metal pan in the corner of the warmer for the caramel sauce. Put the dumpling on a plate and drizzle 1⁄4 cup caramel sauce on top.