As the winter holidays approach, especially now that we live in a different place, my mind keeps slipping back to the holidays of my childhood. Most of us do that at this time of year, but these days I'm much more conscious of it. Despite the way we "preacher's kids" love to grumble about growing up under watchful and often judgmental eyes, not just of the church, but of the entire community, it did have its perks, particularly during Christmas.
Not only did my mother and both grandmothers turn out their usual bounty of seasonal treats, we were always showered with food offerings by the church congregation, even from people who didn't really like us. They ranged from homemade baked goods to store-bought chocolates, tea samplers, and elaborate cheese boards. One of the things I remember looking forward to the most was a sturdy brown conserve crock filled with potted cheese.
Potted cheese is a simple, old-fashioned conserve in which shaved, grated, or crumbled cheese is beaten to a paste with butter, spices, and other flavorings. But to my childish cheese-loving heart, that exotic crock full of deliciously soft, spreadable cheese was pure culinary magic.
Those sturdy crocks of ready-made potted cheese are still around, going in and out of style with the tide of fashion. But nowadays I'd rather make my own than buy it. It's a snap if you have a food processor and making it yourself means you have more control over the quality and flavor. Best of all, it'll keep for weeks, so a homemade treat is ready and waiting when unexpected company drops by, or the holiday spirit moves one to issue those impromptu invitations.
Potted, or Whiskey Cheese
Historically, the kind of cheese in this varied, but Cheshire is the one most often mentioned. I use a well-aged cheddar, but it's also lovely made with Stilton or other blue cheese, or really just about any other semi-hard grating cheese. Later recipes call for leftover scraps, and it's possible that it was originally a way of using those up, but most older recipes simply specified a weight of cheese "scraped" or "shaved" without mentioning its condition.
The spices also varied, from mace to hot peppers to prepared mustard and even Worcestershire sauce, and the alcohol that both flavored and preserved the mixture ranged from fortified wines such as dry sherry and port to brandy and whiskey.
My version developed from an Irish recipe using their well-aged cheddar, celebrated butter, and whiskey. I keep the spices simple—just enough mustard to bring out the flavor of the cheese, but a pinch of cayenne or a bit of freshly crushed mace or grated nutmeg would not be amiss.
Serve this with plain crackers, sliced baguette, or toast rounds. It also makes a nice spread for tea sandwiches.
Makes about 2 cups
8 ounces aged English, Irish, or New England cheddar, grated
4 ounces (¼ pound or 8 tablespoons) salted Irish or European-style butter, softened
1 tablespoon Dijon or prepared English mustard
¼ cup bourbon, Irish whiskey, rye whiskey, or brandy
1. Combine the cheese, butter, and mustard in the bowl of a food processor fitted with the metal blade and process until smooth. Or combine them in a mixing bowl and cream until smooth with an electric mixer set at medium-high speed.
2. Whip in the whiskey a tablespoon at a time. Taste and adjust the salt, adding a tiny pinch or so as needed. Transfer it to a pint crock, ramekin, or glass jar, cover, and let sit at least 1 hour before serving. If you're making it more than a few hours ahead, refrigerate it, but let it warm to room temperature for at least 30 minutes before serving.