Thanks to a move across three states, all the usual upheaval that goes with it, and a few unexpected wrenches thrown in along the way, we're still adjusting to our new home and life in Virginia. The consequence is, that my holiday baking has gotten a very late start. While that's probably not a bad thing for my waistline, it hasn't helped my spirit.
Yesterday, however, at long last I finally tied on an apron, got out the mixer and processor, and began my baking ritual with a batch of Christmas Cheese Stars.
That's just cheese straws with a little bit of a holiday spin that happened completely by accident.
For almost a century and maybe longer, home bakers have been shaping cheese straws by extruding the dough from a cookie press fitted with a star or ribbed ribbon die. It's how I always did them myself until the star die of my press vanished. Since none of the other shapes were really suitable, I've been rolling the dough out as for cookies or pastry and cutting it by hand, at times with a pastry wheel or knife, but most often with small decorative cookie cutters.
They're not as fluffy and airy as those extruded from a press, but they're a little easier to store without breakage and decorative shapes make them festive and seasonal. I use a small star cutter at Christmas and assorted leaf shapes in fall, but really anything that suits your fancy will work: a small Christmas tree or bell shape, or simply a plain or fluted 1¼-inch round.
But how they're shaped isn't as important, of course, as what goes in them. To be at their best, they require an old, very sharp cheddar. And while a cheese that's been made yellow-orange with annatto (a natural food coloring) is the most traditional, if you can lay your hands on a really good well-aged imported English cheddar that isn't colored, use it. It'll be expensive and won't give the straws the color you'd expect if you're a traditionalist, but will be well worth it.
When the cheddar available to you isn't quite up to the mark, a bit of Parmigiano-Reggiano mixed in will give it just the right kick.
Christmas Cheese Stars (or Straws)
The other thing I've changed over the years is to up the ratio of butter to cheese and flour, which not only enriches the flavor, but adds delicacy and crispness to the crumb.
Makes about 15 dozen, depending on the shape
1 pound well-aged, extra-sharp cheddar
6 ounces Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese (no substitutes)
½ pound (1 cup or 2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
About 1½-2 teaspoons ground cayenne pepper, to taste
1 teaspoon salt
15 ounces (about 3 cups) all-purpose flour or soft wheat pastry flour
1. Grate both cheeses with a rotary cheese grater, the fine holes of a box grater, or the fine shredding disk in the food processor. In a 12-to-14 cup food processor fitted with a steel blade or with a stand mixer, cream the cheese and butter until fluffy and smooth.
2. Whisk or sift together the cayenne, salt, and flour. Add it all at once to the processor or to the mixer in batches, stopping the motor for each addition. Process or knead until the dough is smooth. Gather it into two equal balls, wrap well in plastic wrap, and chill for at least half an hour or up to 1 hour, or for up to three days if you're making the dough ahead. Don't let it get completely hard if you plan to make the straws right away.
3. If you've made the dough ahead, let it soften at room temperature for about half an hour before proceeding, so that it's still cool but pliable. Position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat to 325° F. If you have a cookie press, fit it with the star die and press the dough onto an un-greased baking sheet into 2½-inch straws, spacing them about half an inch apart.
4. If you're not using a press, lightly flour a work surface and roll the dough out a little less than ¼ inch thick. Cut it with a sharp knife or a zigzag pastry wheel into ½-inch by 2½-inch strips, laying them on an un-greased baking sheet as you go. Alternatively, the dough can also be cut with a small, decorative cookie cutter (see the notes above).
5. Bake for about 18 to 20 minutes, being careful not to let them brown on top. The bottoms should be golden but the tops and sides should not color. Cool them completely on the pan before transferring them to an airtight storage container.