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Recipes and Stories

15 October 2014: Cheese Straws and Leaves

Cheese Straws don't have to be extruded from a cookie press. Here they're cut with small seasonal cookie cutters into fall leaves.

Cheese straws and toasted pecans are to a Southern party what cards are to poker, a standard for any Southern hostess worth her iced tea. And yet, these crisp morsels often intimidate novices. They needn’t: once you grasp that they’re just a savory butter shortbread—one of the simplest of all cookies—they’re a snap to make.

The oldest versions were in fact rolled out and cut like cookies, but once someone figured out that they could be extruded through a cookie press, fluffy little sticks became the norm. You don’t, however, have to extrude them from a press, and there’s a current fad for hand-cutting them into long, skinny, irregular and easily breakable sticks. They look interesting, I suppose, but they’re hard to handle, break easily, and will end up annoying your company. If that’s your aim, then you’re on your own.

Fortunately there are many ways to cut this pastry that are both practical and interesting. Lowcountry cooking authority John Martin Taylor always uses a pig-shaped cookie cutter for his cheese straws, and when I lost my cookie press’s star die, I started giving mine a seasonal flair with small decorative cutters. My favorites are a set of miniature leaf cutters that are perfect for the season.

But no matter how you choose to shape them, they will only be as good as the cheese you put into them. The best one to use is an old, super-sharp cheddar, the kind that will practically take the roof off your mouth, the kind that my grandfather used to age in a protected corner of the meat locker for at least another year. If you can’t get such wonders, mixing in a bit of Parmigiano-Reggiano gives it just the right kick.

Orange cheddar lends the most traditional color to these spicy little tidbits, and is the only kind that a traditional Southern cook would use. Dairies and home cheese-makers have been coloring cheddar with annatto for at least two centuries, but if you’ve got a snob thing against it, white cheddar will, of course, work just as well.

Makes about 10 dozen

12 ounces (¾ pound) well-aged, extra-sharp cheddar
4 ounces (¼ pound) Parmigiano-Reggiano (no substitutes)
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, the fine holes of a box grater, or 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, processing or working the dough until it’s smooth. Gather it into a ball, wrap well in plastic wrap, and chill for at least half an hour or up to 1 hour, but don’t let it get completely hard. If you make it ahead to bake later, let it soften at room temperature for about half an hour, so that it’s still cool but pliable.

3. Position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat to 325°F. To make them in the traditional way, put the dough in a cookie press fitted with the star die and press it out into narrow 2½-inch straws on an un-greased baking sheet, leaving about ½ inch clear between. If you don’t have a press, lightly flour a work surface and roll the dough out ¼-inch thick. Cut it with a sharp knife or a zigzag pastry wheel into ¼-to-½-inch by 2½-inch strips, laying them on the buttered baking sheet as you go. To make the stick more decorative, you can roll them out a little thinner (just over 1/8 inch), cut them into strips, and gently twist each one into a spiral before laying it on the cookie sheet.

4. Bake for about 18–20 minutes, being careful not to let the straws brown on top. The bottoms should be golden, but the tops and sides should not color. Cool on the pan before transferring them to an airtight storage container.

Recipe from Essentials of Southern Cooking (Lyons Press), Copyright © 2013 by Damon Lee Fowler, all rights reserved

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