Food Memory: Cheese Straws

IMG_0760 In every community in the South – church, club, work, neighborhood – there seems to be the one lady who is famous for her cheese straws. Neither of my grandmothers made cheese straws, nor does my mother. But I have always known about them and associated them with significant occasions – parties, weddings, wakes – and in every Southern community it seemed that there was always a lady – always a woman – who was celebrated for her cheese straws.

When I worked at Alabama Shakespeare Festival, that lady was Mrs. Betty Campbell, a theatre supporter and erstwhile ASF board member.

A member of that theatre company knew that he had truly arrived and been accepted into the fold when Mrs. Betty Campbell graced him with a tightly wrapped little package of cheese straws tucked into his box at the theatre. After I had been at the theatre for about a year, I was delighted to find a package of Mrs. Betty Campbell’s cheese straws placed neatly in the center of my desk when I returned from lunch one afternoon. The golden baked morsels lived up to their reputation and were worth the wait. And they were consumed quickly.

But that was the only time Mrs. Betty Campbell ever honored me with cheese straws. I waited patiently, but a second offering never materialized. This nagged me for a while and then, one Sunday morning in the New York Times magazine, I ran across an article, “Eat the Rich Stuff,” by Julia Reed, a Mississippi native. In the piece she remembers tastes of her own childhood and how they inform her adult Christmases. The article is wonderful but the real revelation is the fact that at the end of the article Reed shares her favorite holiday recipes, including one for cheese straws.

I read the recipe carefully and realized I can do that. Why I thought have I spent my life at the mercy of old ladies with cookie presses to get my cheese straw fix when all I have to do is buy some basic ingredients and a cookie press (whatever that is) and I can have my own fresh homemade cheese straws whenever I get the urge?

I went shopping for a cookie press at a local kitchen supply place, but first I had to figure out what it was. I approached a customer who sort of looked like she might be a Junior Leaguer. She would know. “Excuse me,” I said, “where might I find a cookie press?”

She eyed me. “You’re going to make cheese straws, aren’t you?” she said.

“I plan to try.”

She took me straight to a shelf of cookie presses and pointed out her favorite, an Italian model. She wished me luck and went on her way. I left the store with a sparkling new cookie press and a resolve to become the first man, to my knowledge, to make cheese straws.

The first batch turned out well. I began to add my own touches to the recipe, share the results with family and friends, and get accustomed to the process. One of the first things I learned was that all of those old ladies were strong. It was a workout of the wrist and arms to squeeze those straws out of the tiny opening of the cookie press and onto a baking sheet.

The first true test of my cheese straw mastery came on a visit to Greensboro, Alabama, a small town in Hale County. I went down for a quick visit to see my friend Randall and decided to take a bag of freshly baked cheese straws to him and his mother. When I presented them, both were surprised that I had baked them. Some friends – Greensboro ladies that I had known over the years – had been invited over for afternoon tea.

When we were seated, Randall set out a plate of my cheese straws. I tensed a little, knowing that I was among a group of Southern cooks who knew their way around cheese straws.

“These are delicious. Where did you get them?”

“Eddie made them,” Randall said. I was among people who had known me so long that I was still “Eddie” to them.

There were looks of disbelief and then astonishment.

Finally, someone said, “Well, they’re delicious and it’s obvious you used real butter. That’s essential.”

I assured them that real butter had indeed been used and then found myself comparing cheese straw recipes with the ladies. I was happy I had passed the ultimate test of the cheese straws and was validated in the belief that I could serve and present cheese straws with confidence.

Later, I remember thinking Is this what my life has become? Sitting around comparing cheese straw recipes with a bunch of ladies older than my mother?

Oh well. I can think of worse fates.

I continue to bake cheese straws for special people and special occasions and continue to enjoy the surprised gasps when I reveal that these straws were made by a man. I haven’t baked any in almost a year but when the temperatures begin to drop and the air gets crisp the urge to buy some fine cheddar and make up a batch begins to twitch. This time of year a few cheese straws with fresh figs (or fig preserves), a glass of sherry, or a cup of warm tea hit the spot.

Here’s my recipe. It is adapted from the recipe in Julia Reed’s 2001 New York Times piece which was in turn adapted from a cookbook called Southern Sideboards Cookbook by Winifred Cheney. Over time, I have made my own revisions, and that is what I’m sharing with you.

CHEESE STRAWS

1 stick (8 tablespoons) of softened unsalted butter

8 ounces finely grated extra-sharp cheddar cheese (I like to mix white and yellow cheddar)

½ teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon cayenne pepper (I like my straws hot)

1½ cups plus 1 tablespoon sifted flour

  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Mix the butter with the cheese and seasonings in a large bowl. Add the flour and knead into a smooth dough.
  2. Pack the dough in batches in a cookie press and press through the round-ridged opening onto an ungreased cookie sheet to form “straws.” 2½-3 inches are good, but I just squeeze until it seems long enough or stops on its own.
  3. Bake until golden and crisp, usually about 12 minutes in my oven. Remove from the cookie sheet with a metal spatula, cool, and store in an airtight container.

The straws break easily but that doesn’t affect the taste, does it? Also, depending on temperature and humidity, I sometimes sprinkle a little water on the dough in the press so that it comes out more easily.

Oh yeah – if you make these and people love them, mention my name.

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