Friday, October 28, 2011

Friday Family Favorites - Cheesebuttons!

     We made Cheesebuttons earlier this week.  It all started because it's fall, and when it's fall, it's applesauce canning season.  And there is nothing better to serve with applesauce then Cheesebuttons.  When one of my daughters posted just the word "Cheesebuttons!!!!!" on Facebook, her cousins were quick to reply with "When, Where?" 

     Cheesebuttons are one of those family favorites that get handed down from generation to generation, not that it is especially a gourmet treat but because it's a comfort food that evokes memories of days gone by and family connections.  We even joke that if a boyfriend doesn't like them, don't even think about getting engaged!
     So where did this family favorite come from?  We don't know for sure but it seems to have its roots in German culture as they are somewhat like spaetzle.  I do know that they were made by my great-grandmother Lena, handed down to her daughter, Ethel and taken over by myself as the family cheesebutton cook.  I've written in earlier blogs about Lena and Ethel and the stories that Ethel wrote about her growing up on the plains of Saskatchewan, Canada back in the early 1900s.  I've come to appreciate even more this meal, knowing the hardships they faced.

     I remember when I was a little girl at my grandmother Ethel's house at lunch time and she would plan on making Cheesebuttons for lunch.  Sometimes she would send my sister and I off to walk to the store to go buy more cheese or even better, she would call my dad, who worked at the grocery store and ask him to bring sausage with him and join us for lunch.  When he did, he usually was joined by others who came home with him for lunch and the famous buttons of cheese.

     Thirty years ago, at my wedding shower, all the attendees were asked to bring a recipe to get me started on the path as a new bride.  My aunt wrote this on her card...


1.  See if there are any old hunks of cheese in the refrigerator and grate them up.
2.  Fry some bread crumbs until they burn a little.
3.  Heat up a jar of home made applesauce.
4.  Call the store and tell them to come for lunch and bring some sausage links.
5.  Set the table for 20 people.
6.  Call my Mom and tell her to come over and make cheesebuttons.....Good Luck!

     Over twenty-five years ago, my father reworded a poem as a tribute to my Grandmother where it hung on her wall until she passed away in 1986.  This plaque now hangs in our kitchen. It reads:


I am a man well up in years with
simple tastes and few,
But I would like to eat again
a dish my boyhood knew.
A rare old dish that Grandma made
we would eat like gluttons,
This generation knows it not
We call it Cheese and buttons.
I patronized all restaurants where
grub was kept for sale,
But my search up to the present
has been without avail.
They say they never heard of it,
and I vainly wonder why,
For that glorious concoction
was better far than pie.
Applesauce, cheese, links of sausage
and little balls of dough
Were the appetizing units
that filled us with a glow.
When mother placed that smoking dish
upon the dinner table,
And we partook of its delight
as long as we were able.
My longing for that boyhood dish
I simply will not shelf;
If I cannot find it anywhere
I'll make the thing myself!
      There are a few essential tools needed when making cheesebuttons.  First you need a heavy-bottomed pot with well-salted water kept at a simmering boil.  Just enough heat to keep the little blobs of dough quickly cooking before raising to the surface to be scooped up at put into a oven-proof dish.

     Another necessity is a well-worn pig-shaped wooden cutting board.  My father made the one we use back when he was in junior high and it has been in use ever since.  Not that others may work, but this one has a special connection and when you need to "cut" these buttons into the water, the weight and curve of the board feel just right.  My younger sister and her husband made all of my siblings their own pig-board for Christmas one year, a most treasured gift. 

     Also of importance is the cheese.  I've tried spaetzle in restuarants across the country but all seem to serve it with swiss cheese, or a gravy.  Not so with cheese buttons.  It's American cheese.  More specifically, Kraft Deluxe American cheese.  It melts better and tastes better.  You buy a 2 lb block and grate it yourself.  A must.

     You also need to have some buttered breadcrumbs ready.  They are for sprinkling atop the buttons just before serving.  A nice finishing touch.

     And as I've mentioned before, homemade applesauce.  You know, the kind made with tart apples.  Here in Minnesota, my favorite is Haralsons.  And when you make sauce, you have to cook down the apples with the skin still on them.  This causes the finished sauce to be brown in color.  No sissy white sauce for these little dumplings.  The sauce is finished with sugar and a dash on cinnamon.  There is none finer.

     Also on the menu and a must is sausage links.  We made cheesebuttons with links, with patties, as a side dish with pork chops and roasts, but its the links that win hands down.  Used to be the links put out by Armour's that were the best, but we can't find them around in the stores anymore. 

     The batter for this is simple.  For every adult eater (you decide) you need 1 egg, 1 cup of flour and enough water to give it a pancake batter-like
consistency. No, more like wallpaper paste.  A little thicker that pancake batter.  That's it.  Simple. Dumpling-like.  Spaetzle-like.
     The one factor though that remains constant is the technique of cutting this batter into the pot of water.  I've told my siblings (some who have made it for their own families) that its all about the water and the sound.  I remember the sounds when I think of learning this technique at my grandmother's side.  The tapping of the knife scraping each little button into the water.  The clicking sound as she tapped the knife against the pot rim to get off the excess water from the blade.  It's important to keep your knife wet so the buttons don't stick.  The sound of cooked buttons as she scooped them into the serving dish.  The sound of sizzling coming from the sausages cooking over on the side counter in an electric skillet.  The occasional burp of the applesauce heating up on the stovetop.  And the chatter of other family members as they set the table for mealtime. 

      I've tried using a spaetzle maker.  It makes the buttons too small and the consistency is all wrong.  I tried it twice.  Then I gave the spaetzle maker away.  Why hold onto the clutter.

      So that is all there is to it.  Put a glob of batter on the pig board.  Cut them into buttons as you drop them into the simmering water.  After they float to the top, scoop the buttons into a dish.  Repeat until there is enough buttons to cover the bottom, and sprinkle with cheese.  Repeat the process.  Top with breadcrumbs and serve with warm applesauce and sausage links.


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