(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.

 

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About Michael Procopio

I write about food and am very fond of Edward Gorey. And gin.
This entry was posted in Rants and Stories, Savories and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

38 Responses to (Pimento) Cheese Balls

  1. Laurie says:

    Wonderful. You are so entertaining.

  2. Fatemeh says:

    The grandmother bit? Yea, didn’t see that coming. Knocked me right off my wicker stool. Bloody brilliant.

    • Fatemeh,

      It rather took me by surprise, too. I noticed that I typed “long-departed” and thought “Oh, great. I made her sound as if she’s nearly always been dead”. So I just decided to go with it.

      Funny, I shall now think of you as having wicker stool.

  3. Penandra says:

    I always appreciate your posts and while I’m not sure that I have any interest in even trying pimento cheese, I certainly appreciate the link to the absolutely delightful clip of Julia Sugarbaker (Dixie Carter) — my very favorite Designing Woman!

  4. You are lovely. No matter what accent you pretend with. Or what you do with cheese balls. :)

  5. Like a savory cakepop, I like it!

    I’ve recently had to affect a Southern accent for a play I’m in. Perhaps I should also incorporate more of the South into my diet, for inspiration!

    • If you told me what the character you are portraying is like, I could tell you what sort of Southern food you ought to be ingesting.

      For example, if you’re playing a sexually repressed cotillion belle yearning to break free from her corsets, I would definitely prescribe hoecakes.

  6. Susie says:

    OK, now you having me feeling very guilty that I don’t slave over making pimento cheese…I just buy the spread and slap it on a Triscuit! It’ll be the first thing I eat when I go to South Carolina in a few weeks and I’ll be thinking of this post and chuckling about your grandmother. Thanks Michael!

  7. I’ve lived away from the US for 37 years, and I STILL have a Southern accent, especially if I drink a wee bit. I think this is such a sane and appealing recipe. Thanks.

    • I don’t think anyone has ever referred to a recipe of mine as sane. However, in this case, I would have to agree with you. And please, never lose the accent. It’s a powerful weapon.

  8. Andrea says:

    Well, bless your heart! Aren’t you terribly interesting. Don’t forget that Sweet Tea sold to Yankess includes vodka.

  9. Trix says:

    I never thought of myself as a Southern belle (does Maryland count?) but I actually do have fond memories of eating pimiento cheese sandwiches. Only not with my grandmother, but with my mother, who was alive at the time. Sadly, I don’t have an ice house so I haven’t been able to continue the tradition since she’s passed. It wasn’t homemade of course, nothing in my house ever was. I like your version. Poking sticks into things is never a bad idea, if you ask me.

    • Linguistically-speaking, parts of Maryland do count.

      I am very sorry to hear about your mother passing on. However, if you are amenable to the idea, you may want to consider an extra-large walk-in freezer for the rest of your family. That way, you can visit them any time of the year you please. This is what I plan for my family. I have some brochures, if you’re interested.

  10. Sean says:

    Tennessee Williams, though born in Mississippi, grew up and attended grade school, high school and university in St. Louis (my hometown). And while St. Louis gave us the horrific Dred Scott trial, it is not technically a southern state. But I’m sure TW may have taken the midnight train to Georgia from time to time. And my money’s on Suzanne Sugarbaker when it comes to something tasty when poked with a stick.
    Did I tell you I love your site? No? Well I do.

    • Sean,

      I am perfectly willing to overlook the fact that both you and Mr. Williams grew up in St. Louis, if you are willing to overlook the fact that I was born and raised in Anaheim.

      I am very happy you took the time to tell me you love my site. Thank you. I am also very happy that I took the time to sift through 4 hundred spam comments to find yours hidden among them. I have an overzealous filter. Thank heavens I caught it.

      Cheers and thank you again for bothering to take the time to tell me.

      Michael

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  12. Lawrence in Ohio says:

    I do declare!

    Pimenna Cheese (the way my friend Pat in South Carolina pronounces it–she IS a college graduate, from a university in Memphis) is one of my most favourite things to put on a cracker (Ritz, Triscuit) or even a toasted pita wedge……

    However, I did not learn it from Pat, I learned it from my Mother, who grew up in South Western Ohio (near Columbus). However, Pat was delighted that I knew and loved Pimenna Cheese.

    Whenever the wide-mouth (like the Sugarbaker sisters) jar in the Frigidaire ran out, we hauled out a noisy, noisy electric grinder, and went through the ritual of replenishment. but we never added the cream cheese at all. We did add a sizable titch of Grey Poupon, however.

    At the advent of the blessed and blessedly quiet Cuisinart, I retired that noisy electric grinder, and started to whirl. (Imagine a Bear whirling?) All I do in the processor, however, is to shred the cheddar, add the Hellman’s, and the Grey Poupon, with the Steel Knife (“S” blade.) The pickles and pimiento are added to the mix in a separate bowl, with a sturdy wooden spoon, or lest the pickles and pimiento get lost in the sacred (well, nearly so-!) unguent.

    A delicious, if rather off label use for this is baked potatoes, instead of butter or sour cream.

    Thank you again, Michael!

    Lawrence in Ohio

    • I can absolutely see the baked potato thing happening.

      If I am to imagine this bear whirling, should I imagine said bear in an apron, or batting about a large salmon until it is dead?

      Pimenna cheese. I like the sound of it.

      • Lawrence in Ohio says:

        This bear wears a t-shirt and an apron to keep the hair out of the food.

        If I were to take up salmon slappage, PeTA would fall into a collective swoon.

  13. Emily says:

    I’m still recovering from the blasphemy of cream cheese in the ingredient list.

    Someone bring me my smellin’ salts!

    • I may very well be a heretic but, without the cream cheese, the stuff wouldn’t stay on the sticks unless one froze them first. And now, the sudden, unexpected thought of frozen mayonnaise is the one which will get me out of bed this morning.

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  15. sippitysup says:

    I think you may have typo here. Don’t you mean “p’mmenuh cheese pops”? GREG

  16. you have the toughest job (making us laugh) yet do it with such (seemingly) ease and grace. Here’s a toast to you with a mint julep from an Italian southerner who adjusted to living in the US and because a US southerner. From one south to the next. (These pops are going to be definitively handy on my next book club with the ladies and will gain me some peach points)

  17. sarah says:

    Oh, you are just so witty and clever! Really. A perfectly written post.

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  19. Peggy Groves says:

    Hello Michael, yes you are a character for sure. I am a true Southerner. Mississippian from birth. Accent and all. Just came across your website, looking for recipes for pimientos. My daddy made pimento cheese sandwiches for his lunch most all the time. That was about 50 years ago or more. Anyway, I just made some. Never got his recipe though. I do believe it’s going to turn out fantastic after all the flavors marry each other.
    Hope you have a wonderful day. As they say in the South, Bless your heart.
    Peggy

    • Dear Peggy,

      I always thought “Bless your heart” was a kind of genteel put down or expression of pity/social disapproval? Whatever the case, I will take all the blessings that come my way.

      Did you try the pimento cheese ball recipe yet? If you did, I hope you enjoyed it. I may not be a Southerner by birth but, in some ways, I am in spirit.

      Here’s hoping you have a wonderful day as well.

      Michael

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