Ella May Ruby does not let 1,000 apples and 150 pounds of dough intimidate her. A baker for most of her 79 years, she can easily take those ingredients and turn them into flaky, golden dumplings for today's Apple Festival at Piney Run Park in Sykesville.
She and her husband, Jack, have run the festival since it started 13 years ago. She directs the production, making sure volunteer dumpling-makers have a steady supply of butter, flour, sugar and cinnamon. She relies on unwritten recipes handed down from her grandmother. "I have been baking pies since I was a little girl and my mother would tell me to get supper together," she said.
"That was in the old days, when it was OK to eat pies," said Joanne Neil, a longtime volunteer at the park.
"I still eat them," said Ella May Ruby, who fears pie baking has become a lost art.
"Nowadays, people just buy frozen and don't bother with making real pies," she said. "There's a difference. There is nothing like homemade. Soon as I touch a crust, I can tell. Sometimes, I can tell from just looking."
For one day at least, she promises real pies and dumplings at an old-fashioned apple festival.
To get ready, everybody in the Ruby family takes on a task. Ella May supervises a dozen volunteers, including her daughters, Bonnie Smith and Barbara Miles, and sometimes her grandchildren.
Her 86-year-old husband, paring knife in hand, lops any brown spots off newly peeled apples and passes them through a corer invented and operated by his son-in-law, Gene Smith.
The festival, which benefits park projects, has become a community event. About two dozen volunteers, including a Girl Scout troop, helped with the preparations this week. Liberty High School lends its commercial ovens for baking 200 dumplings. The Rubys, their daughters and other volunteers take care of the remaining dumplings and several dozen pies.
This will be the couple's last year running the show; that duty will now fall to their daughters.
Jack was on the park council in 1986 when someone got the idea for an apple festival. The bulk of the preparations fell to Ella May and her two daughters. They mixed pie dough by hand and made 100 dumplings at home, spreading bedsheets across the floors to keep flour off the carpets.
How long it took is a blur, but it was worth the effort, Ella May said.
"They sold out in no time," she said.
As word of delicious dumplings spread and demand increased, the bakers graduated to electric mixers, burning out more than a few in the thick blend of flour, salt, water and shortening. One year, a power outage meant candlelight and a return to the hand method.
"You could say those were romantic dumplings, definitely old-fashioned," said Ella May.
Over three nights this week, they put together 500 dumplings and dozens of pies. A commercial baker lightened the load by mixing and freezing the dough ahead of time. "He can mix 10 pounds of dough at a time," Bonnie Smith said. "I told him I hoped he would stay in the area for a very long time."
The apple assembly line at the park's Nature Center started Tuesday and continued through Thursday, until about 13 bushels of apples were peeled, cored, sweetened, spiced and wrapped into dough.
"Golden Delicious cook up the nicest," said Bonnie. "They will get soft when baked, but won't lose their shape, and they're a little sweeter than other cooking apples."
Ernie Burkhart, president of the park's volunteer council, kicked off dumpling production with a hand-cranked peeler attached by a vise to the table.
"I can do 250 in 75 minutes, but your arm gets tired," he said.
The peeler made ridges in the fruit, making it look a little like a white beehive. Jack Ruby lopped off any bad spots and passed the apple to Gene Smith, manning his mechanical corer.
"The core comes out perfect," said Jack, showing off a cylindrical center with seeds.
At tables set with wooden boards and rolling pins, volunteers dusted their hands and boards with flour, and rolled the dough to a paper thinness.
"If it's too thick, it won't bake well," said Elaine Sweitzer, the park naturalist who credits the Rubys for her baking acumen.
Rolling dough is no easy task, Sweitzer told volunteers. They should expect sore arms and sorer fingers. "The more you roll, the tougher it gets."
"It is not my sport," said volunteer Rachel Kindt, 12, who finished the evening with about 20 dumplings to her credit.
Keera Scruggs, 14, worked so vigorously that she broke the handles off her rolling pin, but she kept right on rolling.
Ella May, dressed in a bright red apron, circulated extra bowls of cinnamon and butter among the cooks, letting them in on a few secrets. Before wrapping, add an extra patch of dough at the bottom so the apple won't fall out, she said.
"Everybody is doing a good job," she said, counting the rows and rows of dumplings filling baking dishes. The smell of fresh, juicy apples mingling with spices filled the room.
Amy Levine, 14, yelled, "We get to taste this stuff, right?"
Not just yet, said Ella May. All the dumplings would go into the freezer until the Rubys, their daughters and several others baked them yesterday, either at home or in the six commercial ovens at Liberty High.
Like her mother, Smith has been baking most of her life and considers it more a pleasure than a chore. She is making apple, blueberry and apricot pies for the festival, "all fresh, nothing from a can," she said.
Amy will probably have to wait for the festival to get a taste, where the dumplings sell for $1.50 each. Buyers can have them reheated and served with a warm, cinnamon sauce.
Nothing tastes better on a crisp, fall day, she said.
The festival runs from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. today at Piney Run Park, 30 Martz Road, Sykesville. Information: 410-795-3274.