A version of this homage to cheeseballs appeared in my monthly Oregon Wine Press Column and begins a week of posts dedicated to reveling the history of this oft-maligned Christmas tradition. *********
Cheese balls, those somewhat questionable, occasionally soggy, nut-encrusted blobs appearing on holiday buffets for decades, have resurfaced in the past few years with a modern, decidedly upscale twist.
Though skeptical at first, as visions of the obscenely orange Hickory Farms cheeseballs of my youth played out in my head, I opened my mind to the idea that great cheese just might enliven this kitschy creation.
Let’s face it, cheeseballs are approachable in ways a hunk of gorgeous blue cheese might not be. Connoisseurs might look down on the offering, but if one is set out at a party it WILL be devoured. They can be surprisingly good and comforting, and even a thrifty way to impress your guests.
History of the Cheeseball
The history of the cheese ball is somewhat murky and incarnations appear throughout cookbooks and periodicals.
A persistent, though erroneous, story about the first cheese ball is in wide circulation in print and online. Legend has it that a 1,235-pound cheese ball was presented to President Thomas Jefferson in 1801. The cheese in question was actually a Cheshire cheese from Massachusetts, NOT the world’s first or largest cheese ball.
The world would have to wait almost a century for the concept to go mainstream.
An 1899 article in The New York Times shares a simple recipe for fried cheese balls meant to accompany a salad. I recreated the recipe (left). They looked great and, while not terrible – somewhat dry and too lightly seasoned – with some tweaking, the concept could be quite tasty.
The idea caught on and evolved through a number of formats over the decades. Other noted recipes cited by food historians at www.foodtimeline.org called for mixing cream cheese, butter, cheddar, Roquefort and, later, cold-pack cheese before rolling in herbs or nuts.
Still other versions moved the concept in a warm direction with the addition of flour, eggs and breadcrumbs combined into bite-sized balls served warm, baked or fried. When cold-pack, or Club Cheese, was introduced in the 1930s, it became a key ingredient in cheeseballs, both homemade and commercial.
Preparing a Cheeseball
Cream cheese is nearly always the right choice for the base. You can opt for Neuchatel, which is a lower-fat version, if that matters to you. For this once a year treat, I go for the regular version.
Some recipes call for butter to add richness and cut the tang of the cream cheese. This is especially compelling if you are looking for a sweet, rather than savory, version.
Up the tang factor with a mixture of fresh goat cheese and cream cheese (like in this recipe for Holiday Cheeseball with Goat Cheese & Bacon) – delicious for savory combinations.
Vary the pungency and complexity in your recipe by adding younger, more mellow cheeses or opting for aged or blue cheeses that pack more flavor punch.
What is most important to remember is to make the cheese mixture ahead, allowing several hours or even a day for the flavors to meld. You’ll be rewarded with a more nuanced, balanced flavor. You can make one large cheese ball or, with a bit more finessing, try single, bite-sized morsels.
The exterior can be coated with complementary minced fresh herbs, chopped dried fruits and spices. Add some crunch with whole or chopped nuts, crisp crumbled bacon, crushed pretzels or your favorite crackers. For maximum crunch, be sure to roll the cheese ball in your preferred coating just prior to serving.
The concept is nothing if not versatile. For the impending holiday season, it seemed like a great time to check out a few methods of preparation for the humble cheese ball and update it with an artisan twist, using cheeses with bold flavor and complexity.
Over the next two weeks, I’ll be testing a few of these classic recipes and sharing the results. Hopefully you’ll be inspired to try some yourself.
Whichever way you roll, you will elevate the fun and the flavor of your next gathering with a simple and tasty homemade cheeseball!
Share your creations in the comments or on Facebook for a chance to win a free copy of my 2015 Cheese Chick Productions desktop calendar. I’ll choose three winners at random on January 1st!
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