One of my co-workers went to culinary school before moving into library work, so we often chat about various things that we’re cooking.  The other day, he tells me, he decided to make croissants from scratch, something he hadn’t done since back in the days when he was doing so for a grade.

“I spent 8 hours on the them, and they didn’t even turn out,” he said, wearily.  “They were so ugly.”

There are certain foodstuffs that most people are simply not going to make at home, not when you can easily purchase them at a reasonable price, and not when your own efforts are bound to be bitter disappointments by comparison.

Which is not to say it’s wasted effort, far from it.

You see, I made pot stickers this week, the first of two recipes I’m cooking from the Junior League of Seattle’s The Seattle Classic Cookbook (1983).  I meant to cook both recipes on the same day, but as things turned out, we just wound up eating an entire meal’s worth of potstickers.

It wasn’t pretty, but as it turns out, it was just the thing.

Pot Stickers: Chinese Fried and Steamed Dumplings with Gyoza and Sweet and Sour Plum Sauces

Pot stickers with sweet and sour plum sauce (and awesome chopsticks made from recycled bats donated by Japanese baseball teams)

4 leaves Nappa cabbage, or 1/4 small cabbage
1 t. salt
1/2 medium onion, chopped fine
2 green onions, chopped fine
1 t. grated fresh ginger
1 T. soy sauce
1 T. sake or cooking sherry
1/4 cup chopped chives (optional)
1/2 pound ground pork
1 package Oriental dumpling skins or won ton skins
2 T. vegetable oil
1/2 cup water

Mince cabbage and add salt. Rub vigorously in hands to squeeze out moisture. Place in bowl and add onions, ginger, soy sauce, sake, chives and pork and mix well.

Place 1 heaping tablespoon of the pork mixture in center of each dumpling skin and fold in half, shaping so that top is rounded and bottom is flat. Wet edges with water and seal. Heat oil in frying pan or electric skillet set at 350 degrees. Boil water. Place pot stickers in frying pan so that they are in rows, side by side and touching. Fry until golden brown, and pour in the water. Immediately place lid on pan and steam until water is gone.

Gyoza Sauce

1/2 cup rice vinegar
1 t dry mustard
1/2 cup soy sauce

Combine vinegar, hot mustard, and soy sauce until blended.

Sweet and Sour Plum Sauce

2 T. cornstarch
3/4 cup sugar
1/3 cup vinegar
1/3 cup water
2 T. soy sauce
1 t. sherry
1 T. Oriental plum sauce

Combine cornstarch and sugar. Add vinegar, water, soy sauce and sherry. Heat in heavy pan, stirring until thickened. Stir in the plum sauce.

Brady and I are lucky to have a Chinese restaurant in our neighborhood that is, as one of our friends described it, “much, much better than it has to be.”  It is scrumptious, and the only other Chinese restaurant within delivery distance has a sign written in an unfortunate script that makes the name of the place appear to be “Human Taste.”

At least once a month, we place an order to Chyn King, usually for sauteed string beans and sweet and sour pork, and always for fried and steamed pot stickers.  While their pot stickers are beauty queens compared to my gnarly little dumpling trolls, I was inordinately, giddily pleased when I realized that when I’d finished making these, our apartment smelled exactly like it does immediately after the pot stickers from Chyn King arrive.*

There were a few difficulties along the way.  The grocery store was out of gyoza dumpling wrappers, so I had to improvise with won ton wrappers – I used a 3 1/4″ cookie cutter to trim the wrappers into rounds.  As far as tips for sealing the pot stickers, I don’t really have any, other than maybe use less than a “heaping tablespoon” of filling for each one.  It’s hard, and I was bad at it.

But you know what I am good at?  Making sweet and sour plum sauce.

While the Gyoza Sauce recipe is perfectly good, all we wanted was the plum sauce.  It’s sublime.  As we were eating, Brady said, “What else could we make this week and put this sauce on it?

So, another recipe later this week.  The pot stickers had me both tuckered out and full up, so no room for Sweet and Sour Snapper.   In the meantime, what’s a “more trouble than it’s worth” recipe you’ve made, and did you find the experience in some way edifying?

Off the top of my head, I’d list cinnamon rolls, King Cake, and mole sauce – yet, all were, in some way, well worth the trouble.

___________

* And, as it turns out, we are not the only ones convinced of Chyn King’s greatness.  If you don’t believe us, pop over to their Yelp page where even Felicia “Dr. Horrible/Dollhouse/The Guild” Day has chimed in on the awesomeness of Chyn King.  Oh, L.A.

I’ve had Women of Great Taste, published by the Junior League of Wichita, Kansas (1995), for ages now, but just didn’t quite know what to make of it.  For starters, there’s the theme, which is a good idea, but plays out sort of… strangely.  Each chapter begins with a clever illustration of a famous woman, tied loosely to the theme of the section.  Carry Nation (the only native Kansan of the bunch) for Appetizers and Beverages makes sense, as does Marie Antoinette for Desserts.  Though it’s a stretch, I’ll buy Carmen Miranda for the Soups and Salads section, but the illustration of Joan of Arc wielding a kabob for the Meats section might be considered in slightly poor taste.

However, the recipes themselves are anything but.  Forget everything you think you know about Kansan cuisine because the dishes included in this cookbook don’t seem like anything that might have come out of Auntie Em’s kitchen.  Sure, there’s some comfort food here, but for the most part, the dishes are light, elegant, seasonal, and many include international flavors and ingredients.  In the end, it was tough to pick what to make, but since I vowed to make one meal that didn’t call for massive gobs of butter, and since I felt like baking bread, things fell into place from there.

This particular bread recipe appealed to me because there are two beekeepers in my family, so we currently have a ton of wildflower and buckwheat honey (fun fact:  when bees make honey from the pollen and nectar of buckwheat, it turns out a dark purplish-red).

Liberty Loaves

Liberty Loaves

2 cups water
1 cup rolled oats
1/2 cup honey
1 T. butter
2 t. salt
1 cup roasted sunflower kernels (optional)
1 package active dry yeast
1/2 cup warm water (110 to 115 degrees)
2 1/2 cups whole-wheat flour
2 cups bread flour

Bring water to a boil and stir in oats. Set aside for 1 hour. Oil two 9 x 5 x 3-inch loaf pans and a large mixing bowl. Add honey, butter, salt and sunflower kernels to oat mixture and stir well. Dissolve yeast in warm water and allow to stand for 5 minutes. Stir softened yeast into oat mixture. Blend in flours until dough pulls cleanly away from sides of bowl. Form dough into a ball and place in prepared bowl, turning to coat entire surface. Cover loosely with plastic wrap and a kitchen towl. Let rise in a warm draft-free area for 1 hour or until double in size. Punch down dough to remove air bubbles, then knead until smooth and elastic. Divide into two loaves and place in prepared pans. Cover and let rise again until double in size.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Bake until bread sounds hollow when tapped on bottom, 50 minutes. After baking for 35 minutes it may be necessary to shield loaves with foil to prevent over-browning. Remove bread from pans immediately and cool on a wire rack.

Yield: 2 loaves

I was really concerned about how this bread would turn out because it didn’t rise to anything close to double in size, though I was careful about temperature.  Brady theorized that between the heavy oats, whole-wheat flour, sunflower seeds, and honey, the yeast just got tired.  Whether or not this was the case, however, this is a delicious bread recipe, moist, nutty, wholesome, and just a little bit sweet.  I had some this morning for breakfast, toasted with butter and honey, and it was heavenly.  I know it says the sunflower kernels are optional, but don’t you dare leave them out.

Running butter tally:  1 tablespoon

For the main course, I chose this butternut and shallot risotto.  I don’t quite know what a shallot is, or how it’s related to or different from an onion, but I do know that the presence of shallots in a recipe improves the likelihood of its deliciousness by at least 25%.  Unless it’s dessert.

Butternut Risotto

Butternut Risotto

1 medium butternut squash
2 T. unsalted butter, divided
1 T. olive oil
4 shallots, minced
2 cups Arborio rice
1/2 cup dry white wine
5 to 6 cups chicken broth, heated
Freshly grated nutmeg, to taste
Salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste
1 T. minced fresh rosemary
1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese, divided
Rosemary sprigs for garnish

Cut squash into eighths, discarding seeds. Steam until fork tender. Scoop squash from skin and lightly mash. Melt 1 tablespoon butter in saucepan, add oil and saute shallots for 2 minutes. Add rice and cook for 5 minutes, stirring often. Add wine and continue cooking until liquid is nearly absorbed. Add squash and 1 cup heated chicken broth. Simmer until liquid is nearly absorbed. Continue stirring in broth one ladle at a time until rice is creamy and firm, 15 to 20 minutes. Season with nutmeg, salt and pepper. Stir in rosemary, remaining butter and 1/4 cup cheese. Serve in shallow bowls garnished with remaining cheese and rosemary sprigs.

Yield: 4-6 servings

I’ve made adequate risotto, flavorless, mushy risotto, and one really excellent risotto, and what seems to make all the difference is (gasp) really following the directions.  This one was really tasty (though it can’t really compete with that sublime bacon and egg recipe I linked to), and the flavor combination of fresh rosemary, butternut squash and nutmeg works amazingly well.

Running butter tally:  3 tablespoons

For side dishes, I decided to go with two vegetable dishes, and chose the first because I’d never braised fennel before, or for that matter, done much of anything with fennel before. It’s a crazy-looking vegetable, kind of a cross between an onion, a bunch of celery, and dill, and it tastes a little bit like anise.

Braised Fennel

Braised Fennel

4 medium fennel bulbs
1 1/2 T. unsalted butter
1 t. granulated sugar
2 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
1/4 cup fresh orange juice
1 cup water
Salt, and freshly ground pepper, to taste
1/2 cup fresh parsley leaves

Trim tops off fennel, then cut each bulb in half lengthwise. Melt butter in a large skillet and stir in sugar until dissolved. Add garlic and saute for 2 minutes. Place fennel in skillet, cut side down, cooking until well browned, 5 to 10 minutes. Turn fennel and add orange juice, water, salt and pepper. Bring to a boil, reduce heat and cover. Simmer until fennel is fork tender, 20 to 30 minutes. (If pan becomes dry during cooking, add a little more water.) Continue to cook uncovered at medium heat until liquid evaporates. Toss with parsley and serve immediately.

Yield: 8 servings

This one got mixed reviews.  I thought it was quite nice, but there was some note in the flavor that Brady didn’t like at all, and that he swears was not anise.  Also, for something braised, it is very attractive.  Usually braising will knock the pretty right out of food.

Running butter tally:  4 1/2 tablespoons

And speaking of pretty, here’s the last Wichita dish.  It’s beyond easy, but there were heirloom cherry tomatoes at the grocery store, and I couldn’t resist. I doubt I even need to tell you how good it tastes because a) so luminously pretty, and b) shallots!

Herbed Cherry Tomatoes

Herbed Cherry Tomatoes

2 shallots, minced
4 green onions, thinly sliced
2 T. minced fresh parsley
1 t. dried dill weed
1/4 cup butter
3 cups cherry tomatoes
1/2 t. salt

Saute shallots, onions, parsley and dill in butter until tender. Add tomatoes and salt. Cook, stirring gently until a few tomato skins burst, 5 to 7 minutes. Tomatoes should be well coated with butter-herb mixture.

Yield: 6 servings

Running butter tally:  8 1/2 tablespoons

Alas, it seems that I have still managed to go over one stick of butter, despite my best efforts; however, as it is only by a half tablespoon and we did get two suppers, a breakfast, and a couple of lunches out of this meal, I will not lose too much sleep over it.

Next up:  either Washington state or Washington, D.C., I have not decided which, but either way, there will probably be fish.

I come to you off an eventful and fun, though not particularly restful holiday season; however, I am good and ready to tackle some more Junior League cookbooks, and meet some culinary goals in the New Year.

In 2009, I cooked, baked, and/or canned meals or dishes from 37 Junior League cookbooks, which leaves a scant 14 to go in my year (and change) of Junior League cookery.  During that time, I want to:

  1. Successfully roast a chicken.  I’ve attempted two this year, and both have been abject disasters, though I did at least get some decent chicken stock out of them.
  2. Make at least one or two more things that involve seafood.  Even though I’ve done it a few times, cooking with the fishies is always scary for me.
  3. Make a King Cake for Mardi Gras.
  4. Make at least one meal that is sort of healthy, or at least doesn’t involve multiple sticks of butter.
  5. Cook something that looks insanely difficult or terrifying.

I think this is doable, especially since my in-laws got me a gift certificate to the New School of Cooking for Christmas, and I plan to use it to take either a class on Roasting or Fish Basics.

Oh, and in case you wondered how the Christmas Cake from the Junior League of Dayton turned out, let me just say that it will make you change your tune about fruit cake, and leave you begging for another whiskey-marinated slice.

Christmas Cake, aged 4 weeks

Though the recipe yields 32 slices, it does kind of take the pressure off on what to bring to the party.  I brought 3 trays of it various holiday gatherings (and one to work, since I figured that my poor fellow colleagues who had to work the day after Christmas could use a little, um, holiday cheer), and they were, for the most part, picked clean.

And now, for my first cookbook of 2010, on to Wichita!

Before last week, I’d never made a biscotti in my life.  Now, I want to make them constantly in every flavor imaginable, and possibly dipped in dark chocolate or raw sugar.  They’re so much fun to bake, and elegant enough to serve with after-dinner coffee at a party, but easy enough that you wouldn’t feel too guilty if you ate the lot yourself.

This recipe comes from the Junior League of Atlanta‘s True Grits (1995), from which I prepared a meal earlier this year. Though hazelnuts are named in the title, you can substitute almonds if hazelnuts and hazelnut extract are not to be found, or out of your price range.

Spiced Hazelnut (or Almond) and Chocolate Biscotti

Spiced Almond and Chocolate Biscotti

1 3/4 cups flour
1 cup sugar
1/3 cup baking cocoa
1 t. baking soda
1 T. cinnamon
1 t. freshly grated nutmeg
1/2 t. ground cloves
4 ounces bittersweet chocolate, coarsely chopped
1 cup coarsely chopped hazelnuts or almonds
1/4 cup dark-roasted coffee beans, coarsely ground
3 eggs
1 t. vanilla extract
1 t. hazelnut or almond extract

Sift the flour, sugar, baking cocoa, baking soda, cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves into a large bowl. Add the chocolate, hazelnuts (or almonds) and ground coffee; mix well.

Beat the eggs with the flavorings in a small bowl. Add to the chocolate mixture; mix and knead until the mixture forms a stiff dough, adding 1 to 2 teaspoons water if necessary. Divide the dough into 2 portions. Dust each portion with flour and form into a 12-inch roll. Place on a baking sheet lined with lightly greased foil. Bake at 350 degrees for 50 minutes. Cool on a wire rack for 10 minutes. Reduce the oven temperature to 300 degrees.

Place the rolls on a cutting board. Cut diagonally with a serrated knife into 1/2-inch slices. Place cut side down on a cookie sheet. Bake at 300 degrees for 40 minutes or until crisp, turning once halfway through the baking time. Cool on a wire rack. Store in an airtight container.

So good the coffee is really optional.  At this very moment, I am eating one all by itself.

My cousin Tracy recently gave me a copy of the Junior League of Gaston County, North Carolina‘s Southern Elegance (1987), so I decided to leaf through it and see if I could find a good Christmas cookie or two.  Linzer Hearts, those pretty little cut-out cookies that usually have a little picture frame top with raspberry jam inside, caught my eye. However, I decided to make them with more seasonally festive star cookie cutters.

I thought it would be easy. I thought it would be fast. I was so wrong.

Linzer Hearts (or Stars or Whatever)

Must prepare ahead

Linzer Stars

3 sticks sweet butter
1 3/4 cups powdered sugar, softened
1 egg
2 cups unbleached flour
1 cup cornstarch
2 cups walnuts, finely chopped
1/2 cup red raspberry preserves

Cream butter and 1 cup of the sugar until light and fluffy. Add egg and mix well. Sift together the flour and cornstarch; add to creamed mixture and blend well. Mix walnuts in thoroughly. Gather dough into a ball. Wrap in plastic wrap and chill for 4 to 6 hours or overnight.

On a well-floured surface roll dough out to 1/4-inch thickness. Using a small heart-shaped cookie cutter about 1 1/2 inches long, cut out cookies and place on a cookie sheet lined with parchment paper. Chill cookies for 45 minutes.

If you're short on room in the fridge, you can chill the cookies between layers of waxed paper.

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Bake cookies for 10 to 15 minutes or until they are very lightly browned around the edges. While they are still warm, spread half of the cookies with raspberry preserves, using 1/4 teaspoon jam for each. Top each with one of the remaining cookies. Sift the remaining 3/4 cups powdered sugar into a bowl and press tops, bottoms, and sides of the cookies into sugar to cool.

— Jennifer Davis

While these are a delightful, yummy, pretty special occasion cookie, they are not the kind of cookies you pull out for a passing acquaintance.  In fact, they are probably not even the kind of cookies that you allow your loved ones to casually munch on around the house.  These are cookies to be cherished, rationed, and hoarded.  That’s what Christmas is about, right?  Hoarding?

It’s not that the cookies are exactly difficult.  The dough mixes up in no time, the baking is a no-brainer, and the assembly is pretty self-explanatory.  Rolling out the dough is another matter entirely.  Because it is comprised almost entirely of butter, you have a very small window of opportunity to get it rolled out, cut, and back on the plate before it turns into a sticky mess that refuses to do anything except stick to the counter.

So, after you cut out a batch of cookies, you’ll have to gather up the scraps, ball them up, wrap them back in waxed paper, and stick them back in the fridge for at least 20 minutes before you can roll them out again.  This gets… time-consuming.

Also, it just occurred to me that they are usually dipped in powdered sugar, something I completely forgot to do.  Rats!  Then again, as I started baking Christmas cookies at 2 in the afternoon, and wrapped up production around midnight, I think it’s miraculous that I didn’t accidentally fill them with ketchup.  (NOTE:  These cookies did not take 10 hours to make… I did make two other kinds that day.  However, it sort of FELT like they took 10 hours to make.)

Having dispatched with that old Christmas battle axe, the fruitcake, I decided that my next bit of holiday cooking should be an equally storied dish – the sugar plum.  However, I had absolutely no idea what a sugar plum was.  Like the children nestled snug in their beds, I, too, had certain visions of what I thought a sugar plum might be, possibly a plum version of a candied apple.  This turns out to have been completely wrong.

For the record, I also ran into this problem with Turkish Delight when reading The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe as a child.

Turns out that sugar plums are an assortment of finely chopped dried fruits, nuts, and sundry, mixed together and rolled in powdered sugar.  I was trying to figure out what made these particular sugar plums Byzantine in nature, and in my brief reading found that dates, figs, walnuts and pistachios were part of the average person’s diet during the Byzantine Empire. So, there you go.

This recipe comes from the Junior League of Chicago‘s Soupcon (1974).

Byzantine Sugar Plums

Byzantine Sugar Plums

3 pounds combined pitted dates, peeled figs, seeded raisins, currants, apricots, prunes

1/2 pound blanched walnuts or almonds

1/2 pound unsalted, shelled pistachio nuts

1/2 pound crystallized ginger

Grated rind of 2 oranges

3 T. lemon juice or brandy, or as needed

Confedtioners’ or granulated sugar

Put fruits, nuts, ginger and rind through the coarsest blade of the meat grinder. Add just enough lemon juice or brandy to enable mixture to stick together. Shape into balls, 1 to 1 1/2 inches in diameter. Roll in sugar before wrapping. Vary assortment of fruits and nuts to suit your own taste, using any one or all of those suggested.

The mixture will look a little something like this.

— Mrs. Thomas N. Boyden (Susan Dalton)

The mixture I wound up going with was dried apricots, figs, and pitted dates with walnuts, pistachios, and orange peel, crystallized ginger (though far less of this than the recipe called for), and brandy.  And instead of a meat grinder, I put everything through my shiny new Cuisinart (a Christmas present from my parents who’d apparently grown weary of hearing me complain about my shoddy kitchen appliances), and the consistency came out right.

These sugar plums are rich, sticky, dense, and yummy.  However, if you can eat more than one of them in a sitting, I’d be very much surprised.  I took a dozen and a half of them into work, and they disappeared pretty quickly. One person made the comment that they were “nice and Christmasy,” while another who despises dried fruit deemed them “better than I expected.” Also, I’d underestimated how much southern Californians like dates and figs.

Good as they are, however, I’m not sure that visions of them would necessarily dance in your head.  Then again, “Twas the Night Before Christmas” was first published in the 1820s, when an orange passed for a good Christmas present, and the average life expectancy was something like 35 (16, if you were a London pauper). So, a ball of dried fruit, nuts, and brandy was probably a really big deal.

Brady says I’m really selling the sugar plums short, though, and wants it noted that “the sugar plums are like the platonic ideal of the Fig Newton. And who doesn’t love those?”

I’m back from Thanksgiving vacation with my family, and geared up to do some serious holiday cooking and baking.  As a result, I’ll be doing something a little different for the next couple of weeks.  Instead of cooking an entire meal from one Junior League cookbook, I’ll be posting individual recipes suitable for holiday entertaining from lots of different cookbooks.

This first one comes from the Junior League of Dayton, Ohio‘s Discover Dayton (1979), which my awesome Aunt Margie gave me at Thanksgiving dinner.  We were in the kitchen, and she was unloading her bag of goodies for our feast when she reached in and handed me this book, saying, “I have been reading your blog.”  Little did she know I’d been paging through a copy of this very book at the library not two days earlier, and mentally putting it on my to-do list.

In addition to many tasty-looking cookie recipes, Discover Dayton also has a recipe that’s a twist on the much-maligned Christmas fruitcake.  The main difference being that this one comes out looking like something you’d actually want to eat, devoid of all the terrifying DayGlo cherries.  And besides, it has, like, half a bottle of booze in it.

Christmas Cake

Prepare Thanksgiving week to serve Christmas Day. Like fruit cake, but we rate it better!

Christmas Cake

2 cups white sugar
1/2 pound butter
6 egg yolks
1 pound cake flour (NOTE FROM MARY:  This comes out to about 4 cups)
1/2 t. salt
1 t. baking powder
1/2 cup whiskey or brandy
1 pound white raisins
1 pound pecans, chopped
6 egg whites, stiffly beaten
Whiskey or brandy

In a mixing bowl, cream sugar and butter; beat in egg yolks. Sift together flour, salt, and baking powder. Add dry ingredients alternately with 1/2 cup whiskey. Stir in raisins and nuts. Fold in stiffly beaten egg whites. Turn into a well-greased and floured bundt or angel food cake pan.

The batter will be fairly thick, more like a quick bread than a cake

Bake in a preheated 300 degree oven for 2 hours; cool. Wrap cake in cheesecloth wet with additional whiskey or brandy. Wrap in foil, and store in can or cake tin with a tight-fitting lid. Store in refrigerator. The longer it ages, the better it is!

Mummified in Jameson Irish Whiskey

YIELD: 1 10-inch cake, 32 servings

— Mrs. James C. Medford (Carolyn Lowe)

So, we’ll see how this turns out.  I did not have a cake tin that would fit in my fridge (where space will be at a premium for the next few weeks), so I have the thing wrapped in a million layers of aluminum foil right now.  But even though it will be taking up valuable space in my lousy 3/4-size fridge until Christmas, it pleases me to know that it’s sitting there, aging gracefully and soaking up all that Jameson.  Kind of like Jimmy McNulty on The Wire.