Anyone remember that old Pillsbury commercial or am I really, really dating myself here?
Don’t answer that.
Don’t worry, I’m not resorting to biscuits from one of those cans you crack open on the countertop (or anything else equally disgusting like processed cheese, garlic-in-a-jar, bottled lemon juice, canned asparagus, mint jelly or Vienna sausages). No, I'm talking about what we believe down here in the South which is “nothing says Southern Hospitality like cheese straws.”
Do you remember the movie “Annie Hall?” It’s probably my favorite film of all time because it mirrors my relationship with Henry's New York family versus my southern, wasp-y one. The best scene in the movie is when Woody Allen and Diane Keaton are seated at the dinner table with her parents and someone comments that the greatest sin in their family is to raise one’s voice at the table. Woody counters that the greatest sin in his family is to pay retail. My reality, captured on film.
We do have our share of quirkiness down here in the South. We wouldn’t say sh_t if we had a mouthful and we are notorious for keeping secrets hidden under the rugs, so to speak. We are infinitely polite and to this day, some of us still say “ma’am” and “sir.” I do not exaggerate.
But we are fanatics about our Southern Hospitality and there is nothing we won’t do to welcome you into our homes and make you feel like a rock star (or maybe a renowned gospel singer) when you walk through our front doors. It would not be a surprise if we have a big pitcher of “sweet tea” waiting in the fridge and we stand ready to rustle up something to feed you in a New York minute (sorry, couldn’t resist). We want you to feel comfortable, we want you to feel at home and we never, ever want you to think you are intruding. Even if you are.
This explains why we keep a stash of unbaked cheese straws in our freezers. You show up unexpectedly, we dash to the freezer, pop them into the oven and before you know it, these savory little morsels are placed in front of you and you can’t resist.
What, no mint juleps?
CHEESE STRAWS (adapted slightly from "The Gift of Southern Cooking" by Scott Peacock and Edna Lewis)
1 2/3 cups all purpose, unbleached flour
1½ teaspoons kosher salt
1 teaspoon dry mustard
½ teaspoon cayenne pepper
½ cup unsalted butter, cut into pieces
8 oz. extra-sharp cheddar cheese, grated
2 tablespoons water
Preheat oven to 425-degrees.
Sift together the flour, salt, dry mustard and cayenne pepper. Put the butter and grated cheese in a large mixing bowl and mix until thoroughly blended. Gradually add the dry ingredients to the butter and cheese and mix until completely incorporated. Add the water and mix for one minute more.
Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and knead five or six times. Roll the dough out to a ¼-inch thickness. Cut into strips ¼-inch wide and 4 to 6 inches in length. Place strips on ungreased cookie sheets ½-inch apart and bake in the preheated oven for 12-16 minutes until golden brown and crisp.
Cool completely on a baking rack and store in airtight containers.
Yield: approximately 4 dozen pieces
* Extra-sharp cheddar is essential for this recipe. The sharper, the better. Anything less than that will result in a cheese straw with no taste.
* I use more salt and a little more cayenne than called for in Scott and Edna's recipe. Let your palate be your guide, adding more or less to suit your taste.
* In the interest of full disclosure, I doubled the recipe when I made and photographed it. That's because I was making them for that baby shower last month and I wanted extras to store in my freezer for unexpected guests. Gotta stay true to those Southern Hospitality tenets! And yes, this recipe is easily doubled.
* Speaking of freezing, these can go directly from freezer to oven. That's actually not good news because you can drag out a few, throw them in your toaster oven and have freshly baked cheese straws anytime you want them. What was that about becoming a skinny cook?
* The original recipe also doesn't specify how to mix all of the ingredients, but knowing Miss Edna as I did, I can promise you that she never used an electric mixer. I'm sure she used her trusty wooden spoon to blend everything together. I, however, have no such scruples, so I used my electric mixer. Your choice.
* Obviously you can cut these into any size or shape you want. I have been known to shape the dough into logs, wrap well in plastic, then chill and cut into 1/4-inch slices. I then top each one with a pecan half, sprinkle with coarse sea salt and bake. Dee-licious!
* Betcha can't eat just one!