One of the biggest challenges of writing my regular newspaper column is party food. That's mainly, I confess, because I'm a bit of a broken record when it comes to putting out a party spread: I butter-roast a couple of pounds of pecans, toss them with salt (and chopped rosemary if I'm feeling racy) grate a pound or so of cheddar and stir it into a batch of pimiento cheese, stuff a pan of biscuits with country ham or roll out a batch of spicy cheese straws, and call it a day.
Coming up with a different menu that's clever and interesting and doesn't have any of those things on it, is always a struggle.
The clever part is the biggest stumbling block. It's not that I mind the cook being clever in theory, in practice, nine times out of ten, "interesting" food just leaves me feeling that I'd much rather have had roasted pecans, pimiento cheese, and a good ham biscuit. It's a bit like the old Chinese curse: "May you live in interesting times,"—May you have an interesting table.
But even introverts like me love a good party. And while I have not, in more than forty years of hosting and attending parties, tired of good pecans, cheese straws, pimiento cheese, and ham biscuits, at least one thing that's new and different is always welcome; and, as the weather cools, so is something warm.
And nothing answers that quite like a golden-crusted, lusciously-gooey baked cheese dip. If you're looking for a great little addition to your fall party tables, look no further.
Hot Three-Cheese Dip
Loaded with calories (but so worth every single one of them), hot cheese dip is always a crowd pleaser. Up the ante with half a cup of crumbled cooked bacon, either mixed into the dip before baking it or sprinkled over the top during the last five minutes of baking.
And if it decides to turn warm (as it so often does in Savannah during October) and you just can't face cranking up the oven, don't fret: Simply roll it into a ball while it's chilled, roll that ball in chopped toasted pecans, crumbled bacon, or minced parsley (or another herb), and serve it cold as a cheese ball.
1 large clove garlic
1 8-ounce package cream cheese, softened
6 ounces (1½ cups) extra sharp cheddar, grated
2 ounces (generous ½ cup) Parmigiano-Reggiano, grated
½ cup finely chopped scallion (about 3-4 small scallions)
Dry mustard powder
Whole nutmeg in a grater
Crackers, plain melba toast rounds or pita chips, or scoop-type corn chips
1. Lightly crush, peel, and mince the garlic. Sprinkle it with salt and, using the flat side of the knife blade, rub it against the salt into a smooth paste. Whip the cream cheese with a mixer at medium speed to soften it. Set aside 1/3 cup of the cheddar and fold the remainder into the cream cheese. Fold in the Parmigiano, garlic paste, and scallion. Add a pinch of mustard powder and season it to taste with nutmeg, cayenne, paprika, and salt (if needed) and mix well.
2. Transfer the dip mixture to 8-inch gratin or small baking dish, smooth the top, and sprinkle the reserved cheddar and more paprika over it. Cover and refrigerate until 45 minutes before baking.
3. 45 minutes to an hour before you plan to serve it, take the dip from the refrigerator and put it onto a rimmed baking sheet. Let it sit at room temperature for 15-30 minutes while you position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat it to 375° F. Half an hour before serving, bake until bubbly and lightly browned on top, about 20-25 minutes. Don't let it bake too long or it'll just go oily and take on a harsh, sharp taste that is interesting in the worst kind of way. Let it settle 5-10 minutes and serve it with crackers, melba toast rounds, pita chips, or scoop-type corn chips.
To serve it as a Three-Cheese Cheese Ball, You'll need about a cup of chopped toasted pecans or crisp cooked bacon or about ½ cup of minced flat-leaf parsley or rosemary. Instead of holding out 1/3 cup of the cheddar, add all of it in step 1. Cover and chill 2-4 hours or until fairly firm, then scoop it onto a sheet of plastic wrap and shape it into a ball. Keeping it well wrapped, return it to the refrigerator until ten minutes before you're ready to serve it. Spread the pecans, bacon, or parsley on a plate, unwrap the cheese ball, and roll it in the topping until it's covered on all sides. Put on a serving plate and serve with crackers, melba toast rounds, or plain pita chips.