One of my earliest childhood memories involves heavily processed, cheese-flavored crackers.
In my recollection, I was sitting in the flower bed outside our 70’s ranch-style house in the Dallas suburbs. (Why I chose to sit on top of the pansies and begonias is lost to the vagaries of memory, but I’ll assume it made a soft seat.) Like the square Kodak photos from the era, my memory of the event faded to an orangey shade of sepia, save for the hundreds of Technicolored hot air balloons that were dotting and drifting across the wide Texas sky. Barber-shop stripes. Rainbow zig-zags. Polka dots. Hundreds.
Years after the advent of the internet, a search determined this improbable sight not as a figment of my young imagination, but the very real and very annual Plano Balloon Festival. (It was mildly disappointing, actually, as if Alice came to realize that her Wonderland was located in a suburban strip mall off the interstate. And there were likely only seventy-five or so balloons at the time, though in either case I couldn’t count that high. Hundreds!)
Much more plausible than a sky full of hot air balloons? On top of the pansies and below the balloons, my three-year old self was happily chomping away at an open box of cheese snacks.
Marcel Proust had his madelines; I have a contraband box of Cheez-Its. This should tell you a few things about the both of us.
Years later there was indeed a powerful rush of nostalgia, one that nearly knocked me over, the first time I tried the recipe below. These cheese straws are essentially a glamorous, dressed-up and distant cousin of my beloved crackers, rich with cheddar and a little heat from flecks of crushed red pepper. These are a buttery, savory snack to serve to grownups with cocktails, rather than toddlers with juice boxes, though I can just barely abstain from smashing them into my face by the fistful, Cookie Monster style. (It’s a mostly grown up recipe, then.)
Like I said, I absolutely recommend serving these as a nibble with drinks before dinner; they have just the right amount of fat and salt and flavor to perk up one’s palate without wrecking your appetite (I’m looking at you, cheese and charcuterie plate). They’re versatile, in that they feel right in every season, and just as appropriate for a casual summer crab crack as a fancy-dress cocktail party. (People still have those, don’t they? And if so, how do we get an invite?) Limited ingredients make the straws an easy, pull-together-from-the-pantry kind of recipe, and one you can do ahead, something any party-thrower would surely appreciate, fancy or not.
The recipe is adapted from the delightful Lee Bros. Southern Cookbook, an exhaustive anthology of classics and updates from the American South; those readers below the Mason-Dixon line (Hey, y’all!) may recognize cheese straws as a crunchy specialty of your region. (If you’re not Southern and fact-checking for regional or culinary credibility, rest your weary Yankee head: cheese straws were reportedly served at the memorial of Miss Edna Lewis, the cherished grand dame of Southern cooking.)
The Brothers Lee, low-country expats in New York, know a thing or two about the power of food memory and nostalgia; in the early 90’s they founded a boiled peanut company, delivering traditional Southern delicacies to their homesick compatriots in the big city. (Unless you’ve already developed a Proustian taste for them, I just can’t imagine boiled peanuts would be all that edible. But who knows?)
The Lees recommend doubling the batch, as do I, in the all-too-likely event that your guests get carried away in a Cookie Monster kind of moment.
adapted from the Lee Bros. Southern Cookbook
- 1 1/2 C cheddar cheese, grated (buy the strongest, sharpest cheddar you can find)
- 4 T butter (1/2 stick), diced and room temp
- 3/4 C all purpose flour
- 1/2 tsp kosher salt
- 1/2 tsp red pepper flakes, crushed
- 1 T milk, half-and-half, or cream
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
In a food processor, combine the first five ingredients for 10 one-second pulses. The mixture should look like coarse meal, with pea-sized chunks. Add the dairy; process until the dough folds in on itself to form a ball, about 10 seconds or so.
On a large piece of plastic wrap, flatten dough into a rough square shape, about 1/2″ thick. Wrap and refrigerate until ready to use; chill dough for at least 10 minutes while you clean up. The dough freezes well for up to 2 weeks; if you go that route add an extra pinch of salt, as freezing flattens the flavor. (Try saying that three time fast.)
Lightly flour your work surface and rolling pin. Roll chilled-but-pliable dough into a large rectangle shape, about 1/8″ thick. (Don’t bother getting out your ruler, just approximate. It’s more important that the straws are about the same thickness so they’ll cook evenly.) With a pizza rotary cutter or sharp knife, cut dough into long strips, about 1/2″ wide (or go skinnier, if that’s your preference, and watch the baking time).
Transfer straws to a cookie sheet and bake for 10-15 minutes or so; turn cookie sheet halfway through baking. (You’ll likely have to bake them in batches.) Straws are done when fragrant and lightly browned around their edges. Serve at room temperature.
Straws will keep, tightly sealed at room temperature or in the fridge, for a few days. I suspect they won’t last quite that long.