Poppy Seed Ham & Swiss Slider Melts

When Mike was in middle school, his friend Chris decided they needed superhero names. Giving each other superhero names is apparently what adolescent boys were doing when I thought they might be writing me love letters. Oh.

Chris named himself Whopper Man and, inspired by the Dr. Perky soda Mike brought for lunch every day, he dubbed Mike Generics Man.

Even all those years ago, when Mike was in 7th grade and I was in 3rd (okay, well that makes it sound creepy), we were meant for each other — because I’m totally Generics Woman.

Don’t try to tell me that name brand yellow mustard tastes any different than store brand yellow mustard. Or that table salt needs to be produced by a certain company. I do love local and/or quirky and/or artisan products, but at the grocery store, I’d say about 90% of the products I buy are generic. And in case you haven’t noticed, I eat well.

In fact, I’m always a little surprised (but not judgey; don’t be judgey, y’all) to see someone grab the name brand can of tomatoes, or the name brand box of tissues. I’m sure they have their reasons — maybe they were raised in a home where only name brand items were used, maybe they like a flavor or scent that doesn’t have a generic equivalent, or maybe they’ve had a bad experience with the generics at some point — but all I can think of is how many extra dollars they’re shelling out.

Who knows, maybe this is what crazy coupon ladies (a title I use with the utmost affection) think when they look at my cart, right? Don’t I know if I’d just buy 18 more dish soaps, it would actually be cheaper than buying just 2?

Despite my penchant for buying cheap, there are some things that I’ve come to realize you shouldn’t skimp on. I don’t care how cheap the generic brand is. I don’t care how similar it looks to the real thing. For some things, no substitution will do. For instance:

1. Laundry detergent. I spend a bajillion dollars buying fancy schmancy “darks only” laundry detergent to try and save my clothes. I still keenly remember the time when, years ago, ONE WASH with the wrong detergent ruined an awesome pair of jeans. Then again, I have some superhuman knack for ruining clothing, so maybe I did something wrong. Maybe my superhero name should be What Happened To My Sweater Woman.

2. Toilet Paper. Everyone’s had that awkward moment where they realize they bought the 1-ply. Enough said.

3. Hair color. In fact, don’t even buy name brand hair color. Go to the flippin’ salon and PAY SOMEONE WHO KNOWS WHAT THEY’RE DOING. And don’t try to get away with going to the cheapie hair school salon, either.

Trust me on this. You’re either going to end up platinum hooker blonde because your mother leaves the dye in too long (thanks, Mom, for those memories) or you’ll end up with striped hair. Intentional stripes can be cute. Inadvertent stripes are not.

4. Coke. This one brings back fond memories of the time Mike tried to prove to me that I couldn’t differentiate between generic and regular Coke Zero. We did a blind taste test — well, sort of, except that I didn’t even have to taste anything. As soon as the cup got within a foot of my face, I could smell the difference. I think he was pretty impressed (or was that the facial expression for disgusted?) There’s just nothing like the real thing, y’all.

5. Paper towels. I do actually buy generic paper towels, but I kind of hate them. They’re so flimsy that they rip in half when you’re trying to pull them off the roll. How many more times will this happen before I suck it up and spend an extra 50 cents? Only time will tell.

6. Shampoo. I sound like I swallowed a commercial, but my hair really does feel silkier and more manageable with a quality shampoo. I go through a predictable cycle: I’ll get tired of spending so much money, decide to purchase generic shampoo, lament my decision after every shower for a month, and then re-decide to exclusively purchase name brand shampoos.

7. MAYONNAISE. This, much like the timeless debate about rolling the toilet paper over or under, can cause quite the firestorm, as we found out on Willow Bird Baking’s Facebook wall. Listen, I’m all about supporting your unique personalities and tastes. I love you just the way you are. But just to be clear, there is only one appropriate brand of mayonnaise: Hellmann’s, also known as Best Foods.

Now, pardon me while I sign out of my email and hide under my desk to avoid the inevitable mayonnaise fallout.

Unfortunately, the original version of this recipe for Poppy Seed Ham & Swiss Slider Melts called for Miracle Whip. Let’s just say if my superhero name were Mayonnaise Girl, Miracle Whip would be my arch nemesis. I hate the stuff. I still remember sitting at a friend’s house as a child and tasting it for the first time. I had to seriously evaluate whether or not I could bear to finish my sandwich.

Despite my fierce mayonnaise loyalty, I thought perhaps this time around I should stick to the recipe and use the Miracle Whip. What if that awful Miracle Whippy flavor was somehow crucial for the final product? With more than a little shame, I purchased a tiny jar of it just in case.

It was a short lived “just in case.” All it took a microscopic taste of that stuff upon arriving home to remember how much I hate it. I promptly threw it out of the recipe altogether. Turns out I do have some sense.

I’m happy to report that when slathered with the right sort of mayonnaise, stuffed with melty Swiss and honey ham, and smothered in a tangy butter sauce, these sliders really were the bee’s knees. They’re so easy to throw together, but come out of the oven gooey and comforting. And lest I totally offend a portion of my readers, I should add that (sigh) you can use Miracle Whip on them if you really want to. I’ll just look the other way.

Do you roll the toilet paper over or under? And (be gentle!) what’s your preferred mayonnaise?

Poppy Seed Ham & Swiss Slider Melts

Recipe by: slightly adapted from The Girl Who Ate Everything
Yield: 24 sliders

These gooey, cheesy, delicious sliders have all the makings of the perfect recipe: they’re easy to make, fun to eat, and so, so good. They seems to inspire some sweet nostalgia, too — several people who ate them mentioned that they remembered this meal from their childhood! Just make sure to use tasty ham and Swiss cheese — and of course, good mayonnaise!

24 good white dinner rolls (I like Hawaiian or potato rolls)
mayonnaise for spreading (or half mayonnaise and half Miracle Whip whisked together, if you must!)
24 pieces good honey ham
24 slices Swiss cheese
1/2 cup butter, melted
1 tablespoon poppy seeds
1 1/2 tablespoons yellow mustard
1 tablespoon minced onion
1/2 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F and lightly spray a baking dish with cooking spray. Split each roll and spread on a nice layer of mayonnaise (I love mayonnaise on melts, so my layer was thick). Stuff each roll with a slice of ham and the slice of Swiss cheese (I tore larger slices into fourths to make them fit and then poked all four pieces into each roll). Pack these stuffed rolls in close together in a large baking dish.

In a small bowl, whisk together the melted butter, poppy seeds, mustard, onion, and Worcestershire sauce. Pour this sauce evenly over all the sandwiches until they’re all coated (the original recipe notes that you don’t have to use all the sauce, but I did — maybe my rolls were bigger.) Let these sit for around 10 minutes until the butter starts to set up. Cover your baking dish with foil and bake the sliders for 12-15 minutes or until nice and melty. Uncover and bake them for 2 minutes more to toast up the tops. Serve warm and gooey from the oven.

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Pork Bulgogi Bāozi (Steamed Korean BBQ Buns)

Hands down, my favorite food experience in the universe (so far — who knows, maybe something really awesome is goin’ down on Mars) is going to yum cha, or eating at a dim sum restaurant. Dim sum is a Chinese tea-like meal where a variety of amazing dishes are served as small plates. At a typical dim sum restaurant, carts full of steamed dumplings, fried eggplant, roasted pork buns, custard cakes, Chinese broccoli, sesame balls, and other treats traverse the dining room, replenishing each table.

It sounds pretty heavenly, right? If you haven’t tried it, you really should. That being said, my first dim sum experience was, um, terrifying.

I think the restaurant atmosphere contributed more than a little bit to my anxiety. The interior walls were all painted stark black, and the blinds were mostly drawn. Where sunlight did find a breach, it sliced into the space as bright and sharp as a flashing knife. Grotesque white statues towered in the center of the restaurant and carts crawled down narrow aisles, preventing any retreat. The restaurant owners were apparently going for “horror movie chic.”

My real trepidation, though, came from having no idea how dim sum worked. I saw the carts full of food, but were you supposed to flag them over? Would they just come to you? Were you supposed to write your order on your tab or did the servers write it for you? Was it annoying to ask what each dish was? As the cart rolled towards our table, so did a wave of panic. I didn’t know what I was doing! I turned a frantic face to Mike and literally started plotting an escape: “We’ve already ordered our drinks, but can’t we just pay for them and run out?!”

Mike, thankfully, was calm. He talked me down, helping me to temper my fear by focusing on the food. And oh, the food! I stuffed myself silly with every manner of new and delicious Chinese food, but my favorite dish by far was the char siu bao, or steamed pork buns.

These buns aren’t your average heavy, dense bread. They’re light, cakelike, and inexplicably fluffy. They’re clouds! They’re sheep! They’re cotton! They’re every other fluffy metaphor you’ve ever heard. The sweet pork filling inside the mildly sweet steamed buns was worth every bit of dim sum panic I’d felt. I vowed to make them in my own kitchen someday.

Y’all, that day has come — except, inspired by the McCormick 2012 Flavor Forecast, a report that highlights up-and-coming flavor trends around the world, I decided to mix it up. Two trends the Flavor Forecast describes are Honoring Roots and No Boundaries. These trends — one that showcases regional flavors around the world and another that encourages the blurring of the boundary lines between them — seemed to complement one another in a delicate balance. They were yin and yang, if you will. I chose to encapsulate both by creating a traditional recipe — Chinese steamed pork buns — with an unexpected ingredient. Instead of filling the buns with char siu, the typical Chinese barbecued pork, I opted to fill them with salty, sweet, spicy Korean barbecue, or bulgogi.

Bulgogi combines the spice of Korean Pepper Paste with sultry sesame, fruity Korean pear, and garlic. It’s delicious over rice, but it really shone when it was coated in this delicious sauce and stuffed into these gorgeous buns (ha ha ha, gorgeous buns!) It took me three tries to make the perfect bāozi, but this version really is the tops. I can honestly say that pulling my Fluffy McFluffypants buns out of my new bamboo steamer was one of my proudest kitchen moments to date. Even better, these buns were one of my most delicious kitchen moments to date!

It may require an initial investment to begin cooking and enjoying Asian food if you aren’t used to doing so (I had to buy soy sauce, rice wine, rice vinegar, Korean pepper paste, sesame oil, sesame seeds, and potato starch to stock my pantry). But these ingredients can be used over and over again, and meals like this are so worth the investment!

In fact, I was so excited about this recipe that I made you a video tutorial on how to shape the bāozi. Sophomoric jokes are included at no extra charge:

Have you ever eaten at a dim sum restaurant or cooked a new-to-you cuisine at home?

Pork Bulgogi Bāozi (Steamed Korean BBQ Buns)

Recipe by: Willow Bird Baking with bun recipe adapted from Rasa Malaysia and bulgogi recipe adapted from Food.com
Yield: 12 pork bulgogi buns

Korean BBQ, or bulgogi, is a delicious combination of salty, sweet, and spicy. It’s amazing served over rice, but even better stuffed inside these slightly sweet, light-as-a-feather steamed buns. I did all the legwork for you in this one, trying multiple bun recipes and tweaking quantities until they were just right. So trust me: invest in the ingredients (you’ll use them over and over again) and make these buns! If you don’t have a steamer, here’s an easy way to make one.

Bun Ingredients:
8 grams active dry yeast
160 milliliters lukewarm water (100-110 degrees F; I use a candy thermometer to do a quick check)
½ teaspoon white vinegar
280 grams low-protein flour (Hong Kong Flour or Cake Flour)
100 grams wheat or potato starch (I used potato)
100 grams icing sugar
30 grams shortening
10 grams baking powder
10 milliliters cold water

Pork Bulgogi Ingredients:
1 pound pork loin (cut into thin, wide slices)
5 tablespoons soy sauce
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 sprigs green onions, chopped
1/2 yellow onion, sliced
2 tablespoons McCormick toasted sesame seeds
black pepper
1 tablespoon and 1 1/2 teaspoons honey
2 1/2 – 4 tablespoons Korean red pepper paste (gochujang)
1 tablespoon McCormick red pepper flakes
1 1/2 teaspoons sesame oil
1 teaspoon vegetable oil for cooking
1/2 cup chopped Korean pear

Sauce Ingredients:
1 tablespoon + 1/4 teaspoon soy sauce
1 1/2 teaspoons honey
1 1/2 teaspoons sweet soy sauce
1 1/4 teaspoons sesame oil
1 teaspoon Korean red pepper paste (gochujang)
3/4 teaspoon rice vinegar
1/4 teaspoon packed brown sugar
1/4 teaspoon McCormick toasted sesame seeds
chopped green onions

NOTES: I measured the bun ingredients by weight for accuracy. You can convert them to imperial measures using an online calculator, but I’d use weights if you can.

Some of the ingredients for this recipe (Korean red pepper paste, rice wine, sweet soy) are easiest to find at an Asian supermarket. I bought my steamer there as well, for around $13 — a great investment considering how many times I’ve already used it! Finally, you can usually find pork ready-sliced for bulgogi at an Asian supermarket; if not, freeze the loin for a bit before slicing with a serrated knife, which will make it easier to cut through.

Make pork bulgogi: Whisk together marinade ingredients (soy sauce, garlic, green onions, onion, sesame seeds, sesame oil, pepper, honey, pepper paste, and pepper flakes) and toss pork in marinade. Cover and let the pork marinate overnight in the refrigerator (for at least 8 hours).

Heat a skillet over medium heat and add vegetable oil. When oil is shimmery, add some of the pork mixture (don’t crowd the pan — I cooked about 4 slices at a time) and cook, turning occasionally, for about 5 minutes or until brown and done. Remove this pork to a cutting board. Cut all pork into small bite-sized pieces and place it in a bowl. Toss in chopped Korean pear.

Make sauce: Whisk all sauce ingredients together except green onions. Pour about half of the sauce over your pork bulgogi (you want it lightly coated, not swimming in the sauce) and reserve the other half (with green onions sprinkled in) for dipping.

Make bāozi: Sift together the flour, wheat or potato starch, and powdered sugar into a mixing bowl. Make a well in the center and gently combine the yeast, vinegar, and warm water in the well. Let this sit and proof for around 10 minutes before slowly mixing in the surrounding flour mixture bit by bit, forming a dough. Add in the shortening and then knead (on a KitchenAid mixer at about speed 4-6, knead for about 4 minutes; by hand, knead for about 10 minutes) until the dough is smooth and elastic. It shouldn’t be sticky to the touch.

Transfer the dough to a bowl lightly coated with vegetable oil. Cover it with a damp cloth and place it somewhere warm to rise (I always put mine into an oven that has been warmed for a few minutes and then left open to drop to just above room temperature) for 30 minutes. I never noticed too much rise, so don’t worry if it doesn’t seem like a huge difference.

After 30 minutes, dissolve the baking powder completely in the water and sprinkle this mixture over the bao dough. Knead it in to fully combine it (I used the dough to mop up any of the mixture that was still on the bowl and kneaded it in well — an uneven distribution of baking powder can cause discoloration of your buns). Recover the dough and let it rest for 10 more minutes.

Fill and shape your buns: Turn the dough out onto wax paper and pat it into an even width. Use a dough cutter or sharp knife to divide it into 12 roughly equal sections. Take one section and gently roll it out to about 1/4 inch thick with a rolling pin (I keep the sections I’m not working with covered with a damp cloth so they don’t dry out.) Holding the dough in your non-dominant hand, place the pork bulgogi filling in the center and carefully pleat the edges of the dough together at the top, turning the bun as you work, until it is fully closed (see the video below for a demonstration of to shape the buns — and jokes about the word ‘buns,’ of course). Place each bun on a square of wax or parchment paper.

Steam your buns: Preheat your steamer by boiling water and a teaspoon of vinegar over medium-high heat in a saucepan with your steamer on top (here’s a photo of how your steamer setup should look). Preheating the steamer ensures your buns will fully rise. Once it’s steaming, place buns in each tier (being careful not to crowd them), spray them with a bit of water (this help ensure a smooth surface), and close the steamer. Cook for 12 minutes without opening the lid. Remove the buns to a cooling rack to let them cool. Serve warm with reserved dipping sauce.

You don’t see many product reviews on Willow Bird Baking, because I’m choosy with how I share this space. My choosiness reflects my own ideals for Willow Bird in addition to my respect for the community we have here. When I get the opportunity to work with a company I genuinely love and use in my own kitchen, though, I’m always thrilled to share. McCormick is just such a company, and I’m excited to share their forecast of upcoming flavor trends.

Disclosure: McCormick sent me a Flavor Forecast Immersion Kit of ingredients, and compensated me for other ingredients and for my time and creative energy. I value my readers such that all opinions expressed on Willow Bird are always my own.

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Quick Dinner: Garlicky Peanut Noodles with Crunchy Vegetables

I was a mess of elbows and ankles today as I ran around school, the grocery store, the bank, and my apartment desperately trying to tug loose ends together.

In the store, I deftly ran over my own foot with a grocery cart just minutes before dropping not one but two 12-packs of diet Sunkist.

People stared. I acted nonchalant: Whatever, don’t act like you’ve never thrown some soda around. Totally under control over here.

I’m now doing laundry, packing Byrd’s things, packing my things, fixing up lesson plans, adjusting my budget, wrestling with Squirt’s stupid filter, and trying to find a moment to shave my legs. Oh, and writing a blog post, naturally.

All of this craziness came about because tomorrow I’m waking up at 3 in the flippin’ morning, collecting my mountain of luggage, and heading to San Francisco (with flowers in my hair! Except not really.) The 3rd annual Foodbuzz Blogger Festival is this weekend, and I can’t wait to eat lots of good food and see some sweet people.

Well, I can totally wait for the airplane part, though. In fact, can we just delete that part altogether? I’m one of those hyperventilating-just-a-little, having-occasional-panic-attacks, making-weird-faces people you hope you don’t have to sit next to on the plane. It’s cool; as long as I take my pills I should be able to limit the panic to some periodic weeping in the window seat.

I kid, I kid. The pills actually knock me straight out. I may snore, but at least I won’t be convulsing?

Anyway, back to the current chaos. Even with all the hubbub tonight, I threw together a homemade dinner. I’ve been eating this quick, 15 minute pasta dish like it’s goin’ out of style since I saw it on Not Without Salt. It checks all of my most important boxes for a weekday meal: it’s low calorie, it’s almost effortless, it’s tasty, and it’s piled sky-high with fun toppings.

The peanut butter and soy sauce together form a hearty, savory sauce that’s saved from straight-up bitterness by a few glugs of white wine and some gorgeous carrot curls. I threw on some green onions, chopped peanuts, lime juice, and tons and tons of bean sprouts before mixing the whole dish together and digging in. I love that gorgeous salty soy sauce flavor in every bite.


All right, my loves. On that crunchy, delicious note, I’m off to ‘Frisco (I know, don’t worry. I’ve already read all the blogs about how much locals hate it when tourists call it that) for a food adventure. Stay safe, and stay off airplanes, you crazies! If people were meant to fly, God would’ve given us jet engine biceps. Or helium-filled love handles. Or, like, wings or something.

P.S.: My apartment will be occupied and supervised while I’m gone. Probably by robots that throw themselves into bonfires so they can incinerate you in a fiery embrace. Nice try, thieves of the interwebz!


Garlicky Peanut Noodles with Crunchy Vegetables

Recipe by: Adapted from Not Without Salt‘s recipe inspired by Nigel Slater
Yields: 4 servings

These noodles are bathed in a salty, garlicky peanut sauce before being topped with an array of crunchy toppings: carrot curls, bean sprouts, green onions, chopped peanuts, sesame seeds. A spritz of lime juice and a good toss finishes the dish in just 15 minutes. I love simple weekday meals.

3 tablespoons peanut butter (or tahini if you’d rather, but I haven’t tried it)*
1/3 cup soy sauce*
2 tablespoons rice wine (or dry white wine)
1 tablespoon rice wine vinegar
1 1/2 tablespoons Sesame oil
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon chopped shallot
4 servings’ worth of spaghetti (or other long noodle)
*You may need to adjust peanut butter and soy sauce to your taste preferences (more peanut butter for sweetness, more soy for saltiness)

Optional Toppings:
carrot curls (just take a vegetable peeler to a peeled carrot to get these)
bean sprouts (boil these for a few minutes and then rinse in cold water for safety)
chopped green onions
chopped peanuts
sesame seeds
squeeze of lime

Boil salted water over medium-high heat and cook pasta to al dente according to package instructions. Drain, return to pan, and set aside.

In a food processor, combine the garlic and shallots and process until fine. Scrape down the sides of the processor bowl with a spatula and then add the peanut butter, soy sauce, wine, vinegar, and sesame oil and process until combined. Add this sauce to pasta in pan and toss to coat.

Serve pasta on plate topped with shredded carrots, green onions, chopped peanuts, sesame seeds, bean sprouts, and a slice of lime.

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