(Pimento) Cheese Balls

I am not Southern, nor do I pretend to be.

Actually, that’s a lie. I often pretend to be Southern when I am not busy pretending to be an upper class English twit, an easily astonished Minnesotan, or a drunk Kiwi.

However, it is the Southern American (namely: the coastal Atlantic) accent that is closest to my heart. And the easiest for me to do sober.

I love Southern things like cakewalks, magnolia, and kudzu. I love Southern people like Tennessee Williams, Georgia O’Keeffe*, and Florida Evans. I love Southern food like shrimp and grits, fried chicken, and hoe cakes.

Truth be told, I don’t like to eat hoe cakes, I just like to say the two words together in a long and lazy drawl.

There are some Southern accents that do not appeal to me, but they are chiefly the decorative kind: I am not about to allow wicker into my bedroom, my apartment is entirely too small for Corinthian columns, and I lack the green space for a lawn jockey.

To compensate, I am introducing more Southern food into my diet. Peach cobbler, collard greens, and mint juleps are easy for me to get my head– and my lips–around, but there is one dish that has been a bit of a challenge to my taste buds: pimento cheese.

I had the notion that I could never pass for a Southerner unless I could summon up faked, fond childhood memories of eating pimento cheese on the screened-in porch with my dear, long-departed grandmother. I’d tell people we liked to keep her in the ice house during the summer months, but when the weather cooled down enough, I’d wheel her cadaver out onto the porch and we’d have a nice, long chat. She never managed to finish her dainty pimento cheese sandwich, so I would always do the honor of finishing it for her.

I miss those days.

I thought perhaps this dish was an acquired taste like scotch or tripe or spanking, and I was right. Nevertheless, I threw myself into the task of acclimating to its I-may-not-need-teeth-to-eat-this-but-I-will-need-a-strong-digestive-system-to-process-it texture and succeeded. Much like scotch or tripe or spanking, once you acquire that taste, there is no going back.

And I am not going back. Ever. Especially to my grandmother’s house. Because it’s been torn down. It’s now a yoga studio.

Pimento Cheese Pops

There are numerous recipes for pimento cheese. Not one of them, in my opinion, is the  quintessential recipe because there is no such thing as the quintessential pimento cheese recipe. To state that there is a one-size-fits-all recipe for it is like saying that all Southern people act alike. Or sound alike. What I love about pimento cheese is that it is embraced widely across that large nether-swath of our country, but that it changes subtly from region to region. And from home to home.

It’s a malleable goo which shapes itself to its maker’s command, but it is faintly sharp on the tongue, like so many Southern people I know.

As an outsider, the idea of smearing the stuff between two pieces of white bread or using it as celery spackle makes it serviceable, but the first thing I thought of when encountering pimento cheese was: “Gosh, that would make a lovely cheese ball.” I blame my Minnesotan stepmother for this. She makes a mean cheese ball. And she says “Gosh” a lot.

It’s a very fine way to serve pimento cheese, if you ask me. The act of rolling it into little balls and then poking them with sticks is wonderful enough, but the idea of hiding a richly textured, smooth-as-a-Coastal-drawl cheese that packs a subtle bite behind a thin layer of sweet nuttiness? Well that reminds me of so many Southern women I know.

It’s like someone poked Julia Sugarbaker with a stick. But with tastier results.

Makes about 24 pops

Ingredients:

For the pimento cheese:

• 4  ounces of cream cheese
• 2 cloves of garlic, finely minced
• 1 tablespoon finely grated yellow onion which has been squeezed mercilessly in a paper or tea towel to exorcise unwanted moisture
• 8 ounces of sharp cheddar cheese, finely grated
• 2 ounces (1/3 cup) of mayonnaise. Use good stuff, like Hellman’s/Best Foods if you don’t plan on making your own. And if you do make your own, I wouldn’t spread it around, if you know what I mean.
• 1/4 teaspoon of ground pimentón (Spanish paprika), because a) it’s good and b) it just sounds right, given the title of the recipe.
• 3 ounces of diced pimentos. Dromedary pimentos by Moody Dunbar, Inc. are preferred, but that’s merely because I like the name.
• A few good twists of black pepper from your Georgia pine pepper grinder.

For the candied pecans:

• 2 cups of pecans
• 1 egg white
• 1 tablespoon of water
• 1 cup of granulated white sugar
• 1/2 teaspoon of kosher salt
• 1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper

To make them into pops:

• You’d better have some lollipop sticks on hand. The short ones.

Preparation:

1. Mix cream cheese until it is as light and fluffy as a pair of lace pantalettes. Dump in all the remaining pimento cheese ingredients and stir until well combined. Place your spread into an appropriately sized container, cover and refrigerate. I find that pimento cheese tastes better after its ingredients chill and mingle for a few days.

2. To make the candied pecans, pre-heat your oven to 250ºF, line a baking sheet with tin foil or parchment, and lightly grease the surface with vegetable oil or cooking spray.

3. In a medium-sized mixing bowl, combine the egg white and water. Whip them into a froth that has the consistency of Old Yeller’s saliva after he has been stricken with hydrophobia. In a separate bowl combine the sugar, salt, and cayenne pepper.

4. Subject the pecans in the egg white froth, coating evenly, then toss the nuts into the sugar mixture, making certain to coat them evenly. Spread the nuts onto the prepared baking sheet in an even layer, then bake for 1 hour, making sure to stir them every 15 minutes. Remove them from the oven, let cool, then chop finely.

5. To make the cheese balls, it’s best to weigh the cheese out in grams. If you don’t have a kitchen scale, get one. I find an ideal weight for these cheese balls is 20 grams. I had originally made them weighing 39 grams, but it was too much. A little pimento cheese goes a long, long way. Roll your precisely-measured cheese lumps into smooth balls and return, covered, to your refrigerator until you are ready to finish production.

6. Roll each ball into the finely chopped nuts, gently pressing the candied darlings into the surface of the cheese. Insert a pop stick into the center of the cheese ball as if one were taking the temperature of an infant– gently. Refrigerate until about 1/2 hour before serving. You want them cool but not cold.

7. Serve to unsuspecting guests with a slug of bourbon or, if they are abstaining, sweet tea.

*Georgia O’Keeffe is not Southern, but she is the only Georgia I can think of on short notice.

 

About Michael Procopio

I write about food and am very fond of Edward Gorey. And gin.
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