At the center of it all was the kitchen, exciting and vibrant. Already, my grandmother, who raised me as her own from the time I was two months old, was baking. Much of what she fixed would go out as gifts, or be eaten by visiting family and friends. I’m not sure the oven was ever turned off, as my grandmother, with a cheery red-and-white checked oven mitt in hand, seemed constantly to be pulling freshly-baked treats out of the oven and replacing them with more goodies, soon to turn golden brown and delicious.
Our large, cabinet-sized black-and-white television took a break, and the phonograph I received as a birthday present spun record after record of Christmas music. The Ray Conniff Singers were a favorite, but we’d also put on Bing Crosby, The Partridge Family, Perry Como, and The Carpenters. As my grandmother floured the cutting board and rolled out dough — perhaps for a pie crust, maybe for biscuits or cookies — she would hum. She always hummed regardless of the time of year, but at Christmas she’d hum all the tunes. My five-year-old self would sit and watch her, and I was frequently rewarded with a treat for holding my post.
Many times, these treats were cheese straws — something to be enjoyed any time of year, but perfect to put out at holiday gatherings or to wrap up and give as presents not only from our kitchen but also from our hearts.
Every southern cook has a recipe for cheese straws, handed down from generation to generation. Although recipes vary a bit — some add pecans, others sprinkle with paprika — the premise of the pastry is always the same.
This heady mix of sharp cheese, butter, and fiery spices is a classic that is served graciously at teas, luncheons, and cocktails in homes across the South. I love to make them, to enjoy myself and to share with others, as well as for the memories of Christmases past that they evoke.
This recipe is from my book, Dishing Up® Virginia.
Yield: 1–3 dozen, depending on cut
8 ounces sharp cheddar cheese, shredded (2 cups)
6 tablespoons butter, softened
1 cup all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting
½ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/8 teaspoon dry mustard
1/8 teaspoon garlic powder
1½ tablespoons whole milk
Note: Adding ¼ teaspoon dried thyme to the recipe adds an herbaceous flavor profile. The straws will keep in an airtight container for several days or wrap well and freeze for up to 3 months. Thaw for 30 minutes before serving.
- Combine the cheese, butter, flour, salt, cayenne, dry mustard, and garlic powder in the bowl of a food processor fitted with the steel blade attachment. Pulse a few seconds at a time until the dough resembles coarse crumbs. Add the milk and process until the dough forms a ball, about 10 seconds. The dough should be firm and smooth but not wet; if it is too crumbly, add a little more milk.
- Refrigerate the dough for 30 minutes. Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 350°F.
- Roll the dough out into an 1/8-inch-thick rectangle on a lightly floured surface with a lightly floured rolling pin. Cut the dough lengthwise into ½- to ¾-inch-wide strips with a lightly floured pizza cutter. Cut the strips into 2- to 4-inch-long pieces.
- Carefully transfer the dough onto ungreased baking sheets, placing the strips about ¼ inch apart; if a strip breaks, press the dough back together. Bake in the center of the oven for 12 to 15 minutes, or until they just begin to turn golden. Set the baking sheets on a rack and allow the straws to cool completely before serving. Repeat with remaining dough.
Recipe excerpted from Dishing Up® Virginia © 2013 by Patrick Evans-Hylton. All Rights Reserved.