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Recipes and Stories

21 December 2012: Christmas Cheese Straws

An old-fashioned Christmas treat: classic cheese straws with a cup of tea

Of all the Christmas goodies that hosts and hostesses have traditionally laid by for drop-in guests during the holidays, cheese straws speak closest to my heart. Called cheese “biscuits” in nineteenth century manuscripts and community cookbooks, they’re not to be confused with the cheese-flecked baking powder bread popular today: back then “biscuit” was still being used (as it still is in Britain) in its older form to designate a crisp cookie.

There are many variations. My mother’s really were cheese biscuits, and were laced with puffed rice cereal, which made them very light and delicate. Mama didn’t use a cookie press, but rolled them out and cut them into little rounds that she topped with a pecan before baking. Every fall she started making them early, by the hundreds, and stockpiled them in the freezer for a big open-house reception for the church. Some are laced with ground pecans and the dough is rolled into a cylinder, chilled, and then sliced for baking.

Underneath these various shapes, they’re all just variations on savory butter shortbread. In the nineteenth century, they were an accompaniment for the soup course, luncheon salad, and afternoon tea, and knew no season. Today hosts still make and serve them year round, and they’re popular cocktail party fare, but they’re especially popular during the winter holidays. They’re the taste that says “Christmas” the most for me.

The secret to good cheese straws is, of course, good cheese. While the original may have been made with Parmesan, an old, super-sharp cheddar has long been the standard in the South. We use the orange kind, often mixed with a little Parmesan for sass, though white cheddar can, of course, be substituted if you prefer it; just use the oldest, sharpest cheese you can get your hands on.

Makes about 10 dozen

¾ pound (12 ounces) well-aged, extra-sharp cheddar
¼ pound (4 ounces) Parmigiano Reggiano
¼ pound (½ cup or 1 stick) unsalted butter, softened
1 generous teaspoon ground cayenne pepper, or more, to taste
½ teaspoon salt
10 ounces (about 2 cups) Southern soft wheat flour or all-purpose flour

1. Grate the cheese with a rotary cheese grater, through the fine holes of a box grater, or with the fine shredding disk in the food processor. In a food processor fitted with a steel blade or with a mixer, cream the cheese and butter until fluffy and smooth.

2. Add the cayenne, salt, and flour and process or work it into the dough until smooth. Gather it into a ball, wrap well in plastic wrap or wax paper, and chill it for at half an hour. Don’t let it chill hard. If you make the dough ahead to bake later, let soften at room temperature so that it’s pliable, especially if you are using a cookie press.

3. Position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat to 325° F. Put the dough in a cookie press fitted with the star die and press it out onto an un-greased baking sheet into narrow 2½-inch straws, leaving about ½ inch clear between. The dough can also be rolled out on a lightly flour a work surface about ¼-inch thick and cut it with a sharp knife or a zigzag pastry wheel into ½-inch by 2½-inch strips. For rolled and cut straws, it’s a nice touch to roll them out slightly thicker than 1/8-inch and gently twist each straw into a spiral. I also use small cookie cutters to cut the dough into seasonally decorative shapes. Lay the straws on the baking sheet as you go.

4. Bake for about 16 to 18 minutes, being careful not to let them brown. The bottoms should be golden but the tops and sides should not color. Cool on the pan or on wire racks before transferring them to an airtight storage container.

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