The luckiest of occasions during a coastal North Carolina spring is to find yourself at wedding reception, porch party or church social where someone has taken the trouble to make cheese straws.
These delicately crisp sticks, pungent with sharp cheddar cheese and a cayenne pepper sting are markers of the South’s best cooks, those kitchen masters who turn rubbery thick muscadine grape hulls into succulent deep-dish pie filling, boney fish into steaming, rich stews and tough collard leaves and knobby ham hocks into a luscious mélange that makes your heart jump at the memory of their marriage.
Cheese straws are different, though. They’re that something extra meant to impress and savor. “The Heritage of Southern Cooking” author Camille Glenn put it best in the matter-of-fact title she gave her recipe: Very Special Cheese Straws.
Although cheese straws are special indeed, albeit for fleeting seconds on the tongue, the dainties consist of nothing more than flour, butter, cheese and cayenne pepper. The ingredients are blended light-handedly in a manner similar to preparing everyday biscuits or pie dough.
Some cooks add egg yolk, others ice cold water to insure perfection. In Morehead City’s heritage cookbook “A Little Taste of Heaven Since 1857,” recipes call for Rice Krispies cereal to achieve certain crispiness. Southern Living’s “Recipe Revival: Southern Classics Reinvented for Modern Cooks” advises layering grated cheese over the dough and then folding and rolling the dough to incorporate the cheese, thereby producing flakey texture. Fancying up cheese straws with herbs, anchovies, pecans, blue cheese, even pepperoni is the discussion at online recipe exchanges.
Traditionalists might politely say of these folks, “Bless their hearts.” Experienced Southern cooks prefer what they’ve known for generations as the authentic simple recipe, no matter debate over the cheese straw’s history.
Some food writers argue that the cheese straw was invented in England, inspired by British biscuits and cheddar cheeses. Others point to France, although Southerners would say cheese twisted into puff pastry mocks a true cheese straw. One of the earliest recipes for the South’s cheese straws showed up in 1861 in Isabella Beeton’s “The Book of Household Management,” printed in London. Another appeared just after the Civil War in “Mrs. Hill’s New Cookbook” published in New York.
No matter where cheese straws were born, the American South claims them. How the crisps infiltrated the region is a mystery. The area’s warm, humid climate waylaid any longstanding cheese-making tradition.
Writer John Martin Taylor in a 2008 Gastronomica article argued that cheese straws were how Southerners preserved cheese. The theory makes sense when one considers hoop cheese, which may be the South’s best-known cheese. It was once available by the hunk at country and convenience stores all along the North Carolina coast, but the unsalted, nutty, orange cheese spoils quickly. Better to mix it into pastry that keeps for a week in an air-tight container.
With all due respect to Mr. Taylor’s exhaustive research on the cheese straw, one giant hole remains in his theory: No plate of cheese straws lasts long on any table.
Nelle Geer’s Cheese Dreams
Nelle Geer’s Cheese Dreams were a staple at Morehead City social events, Nelle Lazenby Geer writes in “A Little Taste of Heaven Since 1857,” a collection of recipes from Morehead City. Geer cut the dough into circles, but you may also use a pizza wheel to cut 3- to 4-inch-long strips, each about a half-inch wide. Alternately, push the dough through a cookie press. This is her formula, with a little cayenne pepper added and more detailed instructions for various mixing methods. Geer said nothing more than blend the ingredients as you would for pie crust. Most recipes set the oven temperature at between 325 and 375 degrees. Geer goes up to 400 degrees and doesn’t give a baking time, so check the cheese straws at five minutes. She also doesn’t say how many pieces this recipes makes, but it’s a big batch. Expect a yield of about four dozen.
4 cups all-purpose flour, chilled
1 to 2 teaspoons cayenne pepper or to taste
1 pound extra-sharp cheese, chilled
1 pound butter, chilled
Whisk together flour and cayenne pepper in a large mixing bowl.
Grate cheese. Cut the butter into small pieces.
If working by hand, sprinkle the cheese and butter over the flour mixture. Cut cheese and butter into the flour using a pastry cutter or rub the butter and cheese into the flour with your fingertips until a dough forms.
If using a stand mixer, add cheese and butter and blend using the paddle attachment. Add flour and blend just until dough forms.
If using a food processor, sprinkled butter and cheese over flour in the processor bowl and pulse just until a dough forms.
Refrigerate dough for at least an hour.
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Roll dough to ¼-inch thickness between two sheets of wax paper and cut into 1-inch rounds or 3- to 4-inch-long strips, about ½-inch wide each. If using a cookie press, bring the dough to room temperature and pack it into a cookie press cylinder fitted with a star or ribbon disk.
Bake on an ungreased cookie sheet until edges are slightly brown.