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NORTH DAKOTA CHEESE BUTTONS (KÄSE KNÖPFEN OR KASE KNOEPFLA)

The State of North Dakota has only one official food. That’s the official fruit: choke cherry, used for jams jellies, and of course home-made wine. Many believe that cheese buttons should be the official food. As far as I have been able to learn, they are absolutely unique to the state. My step-grandmother made them often as a celebratory dish when I was growing up. I loved them, but I have never eaten them since she stopped making them many years ago. She came from a large German family who farmed on the prairies of eastern North Dakota. No doubt they were part of the immigrant wave of German farmers who came to the Dakotas at the end of the nineteenth century. The immigrants actually came from Russia where they had originally moved with the urging of Catherine the Great. There they were successful wheat farmers, so successful in fact that the native Russians grew increasingly hostile and drove them out. Apparently, North Dakota has many similarities with that part of Russia, so it was only natural that the immigrant Germans again became successful wheat farmers.

My step-grandmother cooked meals for an itinerant threshing crew headed by my grandfather. He had two little boys in tow after their mother had died in the Great Influenza Epidemic of 1918. Both my grandfather and my step-grandmother thought the little boys needed a mother, and so they married. The little boys and their offspring grew up eating a lot of German food including sauerkraut and cheese buttons. There are many variant spellings of the local name of the dish. Perhaps the most common is kase knoepla, but the literal German translation is Käse knõpfen, so I’ll go with that.

Cheese buttons have some amazing similarities with Italian ricotta ravioli. The recipe for the noodle dough is exactly the same as a common recipe for pasta, and the recipe for the farm cheese is similar to at least one version of ricotta. You will note that the dish is remarkably deficient of any green vegetable. Instead it is heavy on bread and flour from the wheat as well as eggs, milk,  and butter from the barn yard. That should serve as a warning that this is not a dish for you if you are worried about your cholesterol. But if you like butter, it is hard to think of a better dish. It goes without saying that you cannot substitute margarine or oil.

RECIPES

Farm Cheese

Ingredients

  • 2 quarts whole milk
  • ½ cup white vinegar
  • 3 large eggs
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • pepper to taste

Method

  1. Pour the milk into a large, heavy bottomed pot and heat slowly over a medium-low flame, stirring occasionally to avoid scorching on the bottom. When the milk has reached 150°F, stir in the vinegar, remove from the heat, and cover. Stir occasionally as the mixture cools, and the curds form, about 45 minutes.
  2. Line a large colander with fine-mesh cheesecloth or a clean kitchen towel. Pour the curds and whey into the towel and allow them to drain. The curds should form a ball in the bottom of the cheesecloth. Twist the cloth gently between your hands and over the sink to squeeze out any remaining whey.
  3. Transfer the cheese to a bowl and combine with the eggs and salt.  Add pepper to taste and set aside.

Cheese Buttons

Ingredients

  • 3 cups all-purpose flour + more for kneading and rolling
  • 3 large eggs
  • 5-9 tablespoons water + more to seal the edges of the buttons

Method

  1. Pour the flour in a mound in the middle of a large, clean, flat work surface. Make a deep well in the center of the mound
  2. Break the three eggs into the well, and using a table fork, beat the eggs gently. Stir in 3 tablespoons of water and then begin to draw the flour in from the edge of the well, stirring and mixing as you go. Continue to draw in the flour, adding 1 more tablespoon of water. Avoid adding too much water, or the dough will get sticky. When the flour is completely incorporated, form the dough into a ball and knead for a 5 to 10 minutes until it is glistening and forms a smooth ball.  Cover loosely with a kitchen towel and let rest for 20 minutes.
  3. When you are ready to roll out the dough, flour the work surface lightly. Divide the dough into 4 equal pieces. Roll out one piece with a rolling pin, covering the remaining pieces in plastic while you work. Roll each piece into a round about 16 inches in diameter. Dust the dough lightly with flour if it is too sticky.
  4. Cut the dough into 2 inch squares. Place a scant teaspoon of the cheese mixture in the center of each square. Moisten the edges of the squares with water and fold over into triangles and/or rectangles (Your choice!). Gently squeeze the edges between your fingers until they are well sealed.
  5. Bring a large pot of salted water to the boil. In batches, add the cheese buttons to the boiling water. They will sink to the bottom but eventually float. Let the buttons continue to cook for a few minutes after they have floated. Transfer to a bowl with a slotted spoon and keep warm in the oven until all of the buttons have been cooked.
  6. Cut any extra noodle dough into thin strips, boil for 4 -5 minutes, drain, and add to the buttons.

 

Fried Bread Sauce

Ingredients

  • ½ to 1 cup (1 or 2 sticks) unsalted butter
  • about 5 ½-inch slices of home-made or good quality white bread, crusts removed and cubed

Method

  1. Melt the butter in a cast iron skillet over medium heat
  2. Stir in the bread cubes and sauté until the bread cubes are lightly browned and crisp.
  3. Pour over the boiled cheese buttons and noodles, stirring gently to mix.
  4. Serve immediately.
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CHEESE BLOSSOMS THREE WAYS

Cheese straws are such a classic Southern tradition that it seems almost cliché to write about them. They are served at ladies’ luncheons, cocktail parties, and holiday festivities. I have been making them for years except that  during my early attempts I had a hard time turning the dough into “straws”. I used a cookie press, and the treats came out flowers. Never mind, my kids loved them so I have been making them that way ever since.

Cheese straws/blossoms are required at every family gathering, especially at Thanksgiving and Christmas, so I make double and triple batches and lug them in my carry-on luggage when I travel. That way they don’t get turned into cheese crumbs.  Even at that, the little gems disappear before everyone has had his or her fill. In fact, after many years, I have learned that some of the family have hidden away private stashes, not trusting the others to share gracefully.

This year, Carol and Cameron will be visiting from Los Angeles for a few days. Then my wife and I will head to the Bay Area to enjoy Thanksgiving with the others. I decided to make three batches and to try different cheese combinations. The usual version uses extra sharp Cheddar cheese. I gave Swiss (Emmentaler) and bleu (Roquefort) cheeses a try as well. The recipes are not wildly different, but because of the different moistures and consistencies of the three cheeses, a little different approach is required for each. In the end, though, I was pleased with the result.

RECIPES

Cheddar Cheese Blossoms

Ingredients

  • 8 ounces extra sharp Cheddar cheese
  • 1¾ cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
  • 1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • 8 tablespoons (one stick) chilled butter, cut into 8 pieces. Important: Do NOT use margarine.

Method

  1. With the grater blade in place, grate the cheese in food processor. Transfer to a plate and let come to room temperature.
  2. Change to the metal blade of the food processor. Add grated cheese, flour, Worcestershire sauce, cayenne pepper and salt in the bowl of the food processor. Pulse until well combined, scraping down the sides of the bowl from time to time.
  3. Add the butter and continue to process until it forms a ball.  Do not over-process or the butter will melt and separate.
  4. Turn out on a work surface, Knead until any extra crumbs of the dough are incorporated into the ball.
  5. Working in batches, use a cookie press to form flower shapes on an ungreased cookie sheet, spaced about 1 inch apart.
  6. Bake in the middle of oven preheated to 300°F for 20 to 25 minutes. Bake a few minutes longer if you want a darker color. Cool on a baking rack and store in an air-tight tin.
  7. Makes about 6 dozen.

Swiss Cheese and Dill Blossoms

Ingredients

  • 8 ounces “Swiss” (Emmentaler) cheese
  • 1¾ cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 tablespoon Kirsch
  • 2 tablespoons dill fronds, finely chopped
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • 8 tablespoons (one stick) chilled butter, cut into 8 pieces. Important: Do NOT use margarine.

Method

  1. With the grater blade in place, grate the cheese in food processor. Transfer to a plate and let come to room temperature.
  2. Change to the metal blade of the food processor. Add grated cheese,flour, Kirsch, dill and salt in the bowl of the food processor. Pulse until well combined, scraping down the sides of the bowl from time to time.
  3. Add the butter and continue to process until it forms a ball.  Do not over-process or the butter will melt and separate.
  4. Turn out on a work surface, Knead until any extra crumbs of the dough are incorporated into the ball.
  5. Working in batches, use a cookie press to form flower shapes on an ungreased cookie sheet, spaced about 1 inch apart.
  6. Bake in the middle of oven preheated to 300°F for 20 to 25 minutes. Bake a few minutes longer if you want a darker color. Cool on a baking rack and store in an air-tight tin.
  7. Makes about 6 dozen

Roquefort Cheese Blossoms

Ingredients

  • 8 ounces Roquefort cheese
  • 1¾ cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 tablespoon Pernod
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • 8 tablespoons (one stick) chilled butter, cut into 8 pieces. Important: Do NOT use margarine.

Method

  1. Crumble the cheese into the bowl of the food processor. Add  flour, Pernod,  and salt. Pulse until well combined, scraping down the sides of the bowl from time to time.Add the butter and continue to process until it forms a ball.  Do not over-process or the butter will melt and separate.
  2. Turn out on a work surface, Knead until any extra crumbs of the dough are incorporated into the ball.
  3. Working in batches, use a cookie press to form flower shapes on an ungreased cookie sheet, spaced about 1 inch apart.
  4. Bake in the middle of oven preheated to 300°F for 20 to 25 minutes. Bake a few minutes longer if you want a darker color. Cool on a baking rack and store in an air-tight tin.
  5. Makes about 6 dozen

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MINI-ME “POPCORN”: POPPED SORGHUM

Our family loves popcorn as a snack. When I was a child, our family made a big batch every Friday evening. When we had our own family, we often made a huge bowl to snack on while we watched a movie on TV. Now all of our children frequently make a batch of popcorn regularly. Our daughter-in-law adds some nutrition to the mix by sprinkling it with yeast powder.

So I was intrigued when Sarah and Evan introduced me to popped sorghum. I had never seen it before.  Sorghum  is a grass that first came from Africa, but is now cultivated world-wide and used as a grain or forage. It is used for flat breads, syrup/molasses, and the production of ethanol. It comes as pepper-corn-sized grains that pop up into little puffs that look just like miniature popped popcorn kernels but have a nuttier taste than regular popcorn. Otherwise, you prepare the two just the same – in hot oil, in a paper bag in the microwave, or with an air popper. Then you can eat plain, salt, add butter, or flavor to your preference.

Sarah and Evan use popped sorghum in creative ways with fresh tomatoes, roasted pecans, pasta, etc., etc. I am not that creative. Besides, I fall back on my childhood ways and just like to eat it with melted butter out of a big bowl.

If you want to give popped sorghum a try, you can order it on the internet from Mini Pops, Inc., Stoughton, Mass.. (Three pounds for $8.49 plus shipping)

RECIPE

Popped Sorghum

Ingredients

  • ¼ cup sorghum grain
  • (3 tablespoons vegetable oil if popping in a saucepan)
  • salt and oil or melted butter to taste

Method

  1. Place sorghum grains in a brown paper lunch bag. Fold the top of the bag and fasten with two staples three inches apart to prevent arcing.
  2. Place the paper bag in a microwave oven (preferably with turntable) set on high for 3 minutes.(It will probably take 2 minutes or less to complete the popping)
  3. Start the microwave and listen carefully to the sound of popping. As soon as it slows down, remove the bag from the microwave. Don’t hesitate or you will wind up with burned kernels.
  4. Transfer to a serving bowl and season with salt and oil or melted butter as desired.
  5. Alternatively, heat 3 tablespoons vegetable oil over high heat in a heavy bottomed 4-quart saucepan with tight-fitting lid. Add 5 grains of sorghum.
  6. When the sorghum grains pop, add the remaining sorghum and cover the pan with the lid.
  7. Shake the pan gently over high heat. Listen for popping. When it slows, remove the pan from the burner, and transfer the popped sorghum to a serving bowl and season as desired.

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PAIN DE MIE

For some now forgotten reason I decided that I wanted to make croque monsieur and croque madame sandwiches. I realized that I didn’t have the right bread. American white sandwich bread is such a lump of dough that it wouldn’t hold up to the other ingredients. Artisanal breads also didn’t sound right. The only thing that would really work is French sandwich bread – pain de mie (“soft-in-the middle bread”). It also goes by the name of a Pullman loaf in the USA. I grabbed onto that idea, because my pain de mie pan, complete with lid, had been gathering dust. There really is no bread that will substitute for pain de mie: if has a fine crumb, the crust is soft and brown, it cuts so easily that you can turn it into thin Melba toasts,  it toasts beautifully, and it has a delicious flavor not remotely the same as American sandwich bread.

Besides all that, it is a kitchen gadgeteer’s dream because of the special bread pan with a lid. Of course, if you don’t have such an implement, you can fashion your own with a regular bread pan and some sort of lid – a tile or small metal pan that can serve as a lid. You will also need a weight. I used a piece of flagstone from our yard.

If you want to make the investment in the pan, you may have a hard time finding it at your local kitchen store. Fortunately the pans are readily available by mail order or on the internet. I bought mine from King Arthur Flour . They sell two sizes of the pain de mie pans complete with lids. The smaller size measures 9 x 4 x 4 inches and sells for $29.95. The larger pan measures 13 x 4 x 4 inches and sells for $34.95. This recipe is designed for the larger sized pan.

Notes:

The crumb of this bread is amazingly soft. At the same time, the crust is brown and, well, crusty. All of this is due to the ingredients::

You should use a flour with lower protein content. Don’t use bread flour. All-purpose flour will work, but Southern lower-protein flours like White Lily, Martha White or Gladiola, are even better.

Potato flour, made from ground dried potatoes and also called potato starch, adds moisture.

Powdered milk also adds moisture along with a little sweetness, but it may prevent the dough from rising as fully.

Butter should be unsalted, and it should be softened to room temperature so that it can be readily incorporated into the dough.

Be sure to pre-heat the weight so that baking of the bread is even.

 

RECIPE

Pain de Mie

Ingredients

  • 2/3 cup milk (110° F, 43°C)
  • 1 cup water (110° F, 43°C)
  • 6 tablespoons butter, softened at room temperature
  • 2¼ teaspoons salt
  • 1½ tablespoons sugar
  • ¼ cup dry milk
  • 2 tablespoons potato flour
  • 1 package instant dry yeast
  • 4¾ cups unbleached all-purpose flour

Method

  1. In a large bowl, combine the milk, water, butter, salt, and sugar. Then add the dry milk, potato flour, and yeast, stirring with a whisk until well mixed. Add 4 cups of the flour, one cup at a time, stirring until the flour is completely incorporated and the batter pulls away from the side of the bowl.
  2. Turn the dough onto a clean work surface dusted with the remaining ¾ cup of flour. Knead until the dough is smooth and elastic, about 10 minutes. Then place the dough in a greased bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and let rise in a warm place until doubled, about 1½ to 2 hours.
  3. After it has risen, turn the dough onto a lightly oiled surface, deflating it gently. Let rest for 10 minutes. With the palm of your hand, flatten the dough into a rectangle that is the length of the pan and about twice as wide. Fold in half lengthwise, and pinch the seam closed tightly. Place the dough, seam side down, in the well-greased pan. Also, make sure the under-surface of the lid is well-greased.  The dough should come up to no more than 1/3 of the height of the pan. Place the lid on the pan, leaving it open several inches. Cover the opening with oiled plastic wrap and let rise for the second time until the dough comes to about ¼ inch below the lip of the pan, about 1½ hours.
  4. In the meantime, pre-heat the oven and the lid weight to 375°F
  5. Remove the plastic wrap, carefully close the lid, and let rest for another 10 minutes. Be very careful not to deflate the dough with the lid.
  6. Bake for 30 minutes in the middle of the oven at 375°F with the weight placed on the lid. After 30 minutes, remove the weight and lid, and bake for an additional 15 minutes. The loaf should register 190°F with an instant read thermometer. Remove from the oven, let rest for 10 minutes, and then turn onto a cooling rack. Cover with a clean cloth and let cool completely.

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LIL’S ICE WATER CRACKERS – SANTA FÉ MONSOONS

At last the summer monsoons (Yes, that’s what they are called.) have come to Santa Fé. Clouds build over the mountains in the early afternoon and develop into towering thunderheads. By late afternoon the clouds darken and horsetails of rain begin to stream in patches over the valleys and mesas. Sometimes you get a shower. Sometimes you don’t. We have been suffering from a severe drought for the past three years, so the rains have been a welcome relief. Even though the drought has not been broken, the new moisture has helped the grasses to green and ripen, and the flowers have been encouraged to bloom. The white clouds and blue skies are an important part of the New Mexico landscape, They are among the things that have attracted so many artists over the years. Georgia O’Keeffe clearly loved the clouds, and that love is captured in her famous series of paintings, Sky Over Clouds. One of the series, Sky Over Clouds IV, has a prominent place in the Art Institute of Chicago, while others hang in museums all over the world.

Georgia O'Keefe's Sky Above Clouds, IV, Art Institute of Chicago

Georgia O’Keeffe’s Sky Above Clouds, IV, Art Institute of Chicago

The rains have brought water to the dry arroyo in our back yard, and the water, lightning, and thunder have encouraged the spade-foot toads from their long sleep in the mud at the bottom of the pond to serenade us all night long.

My digression on monsoons has led me far away from the food topic of this entry, but I wanted to share the good news of moisture at last. Now on to crackers.

One of the food blogs I like to follow is Dinner of Herbs. The author has been trying out a lot of different recipes for crackers lately, so I decided to look through my collection of cracker recipes. I came across an old favorite that I got from Bernard Clayton’s classic, New Complete Book of Breads, (Simon and Schuster, 1987) I’m not sure if the recipe is in the original edition, published in 1973. Marion Cunningham has also been credited with first publishing the recipe. That has some importance because there are a lot of entries on the Internet describing this or that as the “original” version. In any event, Clayton says that he got the recipe from Lillian Marshall, a noted cook and author from Kentucky, hence the name, “Lil’s Ice Water Crackers”. I have made some changes and suggestions about the recipe that you can read in the “Comments” section after the recipe.

Actually, the recipe is NOT for crackers, but instead how to turn plain saltines into something tastier and fit for company. When you read the recipe you will ask yourself how can this turn out to be anything but a pile of glop?

Trust me, you will love the results.

RECIPE

Lil’s Ice Water Crackers

Ingredients

  • 24 single saltine crackers (a sleeve of crackers contains about 36)
  • 1 quart ice water
  • 1 stick butter, melted

Method

  1. Arrange the crackers in a single layer in a 11 x 17 inch jelly roll pan with a turned up edge
  2. Pour the ice water over the crackers and let them stand for 3 minutes.
  3. Carefully remove the crackers with a spatula or slotted spoon and place them on a towel covered layers of paper towels. The crackers will be soggy and fragile so take extra care with this step.
  4. While the crackers are draining, wash and dry the jelly roll pan.
  5. Pour half of the melted butter into the pan and spread with a spatula or your fingers so that the bottom of the pan is completely coated.
  6. Arrange the crackers in the pan and drizzle the remaining butter over them.
  7. Bake in the middle of an oven preheated to 475°F for 15 to 20 minutes, checking frequently to make sure that they don’t burn
  8. Serve immediately while still hot.

Comments

  • A sleeve of saltines contains about 36 crackers, but some of them will probably be broken. Also, 36 crackers may be too many to work with at one time, especially if you are just trying out this recipe. Some of the crackers might begin to disintegrate before you can transfer them. As well, if they are too close to one another, they tend to stick together.
  • The original recipe called for 2 quarts of ice water, You don’t need that much to moisten the crackers, and the amount is a bit unwieldy.
  • Three minutes is tops for the crackers to soak. Some recipes say 10 minutes, but that is too long. The crackers need to swell up, but they will start to disintegrate with long soaking.
  • Wet crackers may stick to a wet paper towel, so be sure to have enough layers of towelling to absorb all of the excess moisture.
  • Allow plenty of space between the crackers so they don’t stick together.
  • If some of the crackers do stick together, don’t worry. They may take longer to crisp than the single crackers, but the way to deal with that is to remove crackers when they are golden and crisp and return the unfinished crackers to the oven until they are fully baked.

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REGGIE’S AMAZING MICROWAVE PRALINES

Reggie Graves, one of our best friends from our days in Louisiana, recently paid us a visit. Reggie is well-known for his championship chili – I have written about it in the past – but he is an excellent cook besides that.  Whenever we have a chance to visit with Reggie, you can be sure that there will be good food and lots of talk about food.

We were definitely not disappointed on this visit. Reggie brought us a huge bag of shelled pecans and the promise to make his favorite microwave pralines.

During one evening of reminiscing about old times, we talked about a famous praline shop in the New Orleans French Quarter on Decatur between Jackson Square and the French Market. I am not sure that the shop still exists, especially after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. The memory lingers on, beginning with the fragrance of caramel and roasted pecans drifting out onto the street for blocks around the shop. The accompanying visual is of a huge woman hovered over an equally huge copper pan filled with bubbling caramel and pecans. The woman would stir and stir the mixture until it was just right, and then she would ladle dollops of the blazing hot mixture onto a cool marble table. When the pralines had cooled, she would wrap them in squares of waxed paper, ready for sale to the many tourists who had lined up to watch her. Of course, the taste memory is biting into a golden brown praline filled with pecans and cooked so perfectly that the caramel was soft and chewy without any sugary texture.

Making pralines at home can be a challenge. First, you probably don’t have a big copper vat. Then there is the matter of getting the caramel cooked just right so that it is creamy without a trace of sugar crystals. That means that many home cooks – this one included – prefer to buy their pralines from a good candy store.

Those challenges are what makes this recipe so great. You can make perfect pralines in just a few minutes using your microwave. The biggest problem is to make certain that the time of cooking is tied to the wattage of your microwave oven. This recipe is designed for a 1000 watt appliance. To make it a general recipe, I tried to see if there are tables or graphs to suggest how you should adjust cooking time according to oven wattage. Indeed, there are lots of tables available, but I found most of them confusing and difficult to use. Instead, I developed a simple formula which you can use as a beginning guideline. You will probably need to experiment to find the ideal time for your oven, but a beginning point is to divide 1000 by the wattage of your oven and multiply the cooking time in this recipe (12.5 minutes) to find the approximate correct cooking time for your oven.

The other essential secret is to use a large enough (eight cups at least) microwave-proof bowl to boil the praline mixture.

With that, here is the recipe:

RECIPE

Ingredients

  • 1 pound light brown sugar
  • 1 cup heavy cream
  • 2 cups shelled pecan halves
  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • enough softened butter to grease a large baking sheet

Method

  1. In the large microwave-proof bowl or pitcher, combine the brown sugar and cream.
  2. Using a 1000 watt microwave oven with turntable, cook the brown sugar and cream mixture on High for exactly 12.5 minutes
  3. Using a hot pad, transfer the bowl with the cooked mixture to a heat-proof surface.
  4. Stir in the pecan halves and the butter,
  5. Working quickly, when the pecans are completely coated and the butter is melted and incorporated, form the pralines
  6. With a soup spoon or tablespoon, ladle spoonfuls of the mixture onto the buttered baking sheet.
  7. Cool enough before eating so that you don’t burn your tongue, but pralines are delicious warm or cold.
  8. If you get tired of eating just the pralines, try crushing them before sprinkling them over dishes of vanilla ice cream

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