Menu For Hope III
Jennifer McLagan's Aromatic Chinese Oxtail Stew

Anne Willan's Parmesan Balls


Hark! The holiday party angels sing. So, how many parties have you been to so far this month? Or better yet, how many are still to come? Are you sick of showing up with your stand-by bottle of wine? Or a potted poinsettia? Well, dear readers, never fear. I've got a fantastic little recipe for you that, wrapped up in Martha Stewart-ish glassine paper and tied with a pretty bow, is a perfect holiday gift.

The recipe comes from Anne Willan - a kitchen hero of mine and a contributor to the LA Times. Not only is the recipe easy to follow, but it has the added appeal of surviving doubling and even tripling its quantities if you need high-yield baked goods for gifts this time of year. Luckily for all of us, the outcome tastes pretty fabulous, too. And doesn't slaving over a hot oven virtually guarantee you lots and lots of holiday points from your grateful hosts? Although the slaving part here is totally fabricated - it'll take you all of 20 minutes.

The food processor renders the flour, ground mustard, salt, pepper, grated Parmigiano and melted butter into fragrant, couscous-like crumbs. You roll the crumbs into small balls and let them chill before popping them in a hot oven, where the pungent flavor of the cheese morphs into something deeper and more nuanced. The mustard and ground pepper add an irresistible kick to the crumbly balls. And what comes out of the oven is a sophisticated, savory snack that is quite difficult to stop eating.

What I like the most about these holiday hors d'oeuvres is how they so easily morph from high-end to low-brow, depending on what you decide to serve them with. An elegant coupe of Champagne and you've got yourself a swish little Christmas soiree. A mug of mulled wine and - presto! - you're at a cozy weekend Advent afternoon. A tall, frosty beer and you're just hanging back taking a breather from all this insanity.

My tip to you is to shape these balls even smaller than indicated - a half inch across would probably be great (and also, my baking time was longer than indicated, by about ten minutes). They tend to the dry side and since you really do need to pop them whole into your mouth, a slightly smaller ball is all the better for being washed down with your beverage. Maybe that should be your gift to yourself this year. A break. A drink. And a handful of these toasty, crumbly, peppery balls. Then let the holiday madness wash over you!

Anne Willan's Parmesan Balls
Makes 26 balls

1 1/4 cups flour, plus up to 3 tablespoons more, if necessary
1 cup loosely packed grated Parmesan cheese
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground white pepper
1/2 teaspoon dry mustard
1/2 cup melted butter

1. In the bowl of a food processor, mix the flour, Parmesan, salt, pepper and dry mustard. Add the butter and work it in using the pulse button so the mixture forms crumbs. Press a few crumbs together with your fingers. If it's sticky, add 2 to 3 tablespoons more flour.

2. Butter a baking sheet. Turn the crumbs into a bowl, press them into balls 1 inch in diameter and place them on the baking sheet. Chill in the refrigerator for 30 minutes>

3. Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Bake the cheese balls until lightly browned, 26 to 28 minutes. They keep well in an airtight container, or they can be frozen.