Monday, December 16, 2013

Cheese straws and memories

Whenever the bulky cheese grater appeared on the counter at home, it meant one of two things. We were either having pimiento cheese sandwiches for lunch or Mama was making cheese straws. 
Around this time of year, it usually meant cheese straws, but that grater with the hand crank also came out when Mama was helping with a shower or a wedding, including my own. 
I would get excited whenever I saw the cheese grater and Mirro cookie press on the kitchen counter. Not only would I get to sample the broken cheese straws when they were cooled enough to eat, but it also meant my cousins would be visiting. 
When Mama made cheese straws, either my Aunt Margaret or my Aunt Lottie would usually come to help so they could quickly finish a batch for whatever special occasion they were planning. This was often followed up with tubs of delicious fruit punch they would put in the freezer to serve at the party. 
The children would hover in the kitchen when all of this was going on. I remember my sister, Susan, and I would stand by the bowl where Daddy was grating cheese and watch it come out of the grater cylinder, making a mountain of fine orange cheddar that smelled so good. We would beg, just like hungry little birds, for handfuls of the soft cheese. Daddy would give us just a little bit, but Mama needed it for the cheese straws, he would tell us. I thought of  this last week when I was grating my cheese and my husband wanted to sample the sharp cheddar! I let him have a very little bit, but I wanted every ounce to go in my recipe. 
The cookie press, now called “vintage” on ebay, only came out for cheese straws, spritz cookies and Mama’s powdered sugar-covered nutty fingers. 
I loved looking at the recipe book that came with the press and the photos of the fancy cookies you could make using different plates. For the cheese straws, Mama used the star plate for the desired ruffled points that would get a little crispy in the oven. 
I enjoyed watching as Mama or one of my aunts pressed the cheese straw dough into the cookie press and turned the knob on the end, pressing out long rows of orange dough with lots of little points. Someone else would cut the rows into serving size pieces and make sure they were straight before going in the oven. 
The smell of cheese straws baking is unmistakable. Last week, when I baked a batch, I was taken aback when I got the first whiff of cheddar mixed with a little red pepper and paprika. It was the smell of Christmas in Mama’s kitchen. 
I have Mama’s Mirro press as well as one that my mother-in-law gave me. I use the working parts from each one of them to make the same  Christmas treats Mama made. 
My family loves cheese straws, and after I found my mama’s handwritten recipe a few years ago, I’ve made them a few times for us. It’s a lot of hard work with that decades-old press whose crank doesn’t turn as easily as it once did. I have tried to find a new cookie press, but I’ve had no luck finding one that operates the way Mama’s did. So last week, when I made my cheese straw dough and failed miserably with a new press that was sent to me, I went to Plan B. I rolled the dough into logs about as big around as a nickel, and cut the logs into pieces that resembled fat coins. I topped some with a pecan half. 
I couldn’t wait to taste one when it came out of the oven, and I burned my fingers in my haste. But within a few minutes they were ready to sample. 
Yes, it’s the same taste. No pretty little ruffles like Mama’s cheese straws, but they were so good. 
I worried what my tradition-minded family might say. I shouldn’t have. My daughter, Anna, has eaten almost the entire first recipe! 

The recipe
Most recipes I’ve found have the same basic ingredients for cheese straws: sharp cheddar cheese, butter, flour and red pepper. The difference is usually in how much butter, cheese and pepper are used. 
My dear friend and former sister-in-law Frances Wells Tomlinson adds Worchestershire sauce to her recipe. Mama used paprika. 
Since I have yet to find a cookie press on the market that works the way my mama’s old Mirro press works, I made this recipe as wafers or little biscuits. If you make it that way, you don’t have to buy special equipment. No, the wafers are not as pretty as Mama’s cheese straws and don’t have 
the crunchy ruffles. But they are good. Very, very good. And they are easy.
I experimented with this recipe three times in the last week, and it took less than an hour from start to finish each time. 
I grated my own cheese the first time and used packaged, finely shredded cheese the other times. I had better results with the dough and final 
product with the batch using cheese I grated. 
This recipe is the one my mama, Helen Owens Boykin, used so many times for Christmas Eve parties, baby showers and wedding receptions, including my own. 

Helen’s Cheese Straws 

  • 3⁄4 stick of butter, softened 
  • 1⁄2 pound grated sharp cheddar cheese 
  • 1 1⁄4 cup self-rising flour 
  • 1 ⁄2 teaspoon salt 
  • 1 ⁄4 teaspoon ground red pepper (cayenne) 
  • 1 ⁄4 teaspoon paprika 

With electric mixer beat butter until creamy. Add grated cheese a little at a time until incorporated. Gradually add in flour, salt, red pepper and paprika until mixed. My dough is crumbly at this point, so I use my hands to work the dough until it is soft. The warmth from your hands should make 
the dough form as needed. 
If you have a cookie press, use the star tip to make cheese straws. Cut in desired lengths before baking. Mama’s recipe says she made 60 to 70 3 1⁄2-inch cheese straws. 
If you don’t have a press, take a handful of softened dough and roll it into a log about as big around as a nickel. Cut around 1⁄4-inch thick. Repeat 
with remaining dough. 
Bake either version at 400 degrees for 8 to 10 minutes. 
Adapted from a recipe by Helen O. Boykin 

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