Right before Christmas, I discovered a cookbook, The New Best Recipe Book from the editors of Cooks Illustrated, that had been sitting on my shelf forever with no attention being given to the amazing recipes inside. Lesson learned. I made the best gingerbread cookies over the holiday, and thought to myself, "What else is in there?". So, being the cheese head I am, I looked in the index under "cheese" and found "cheese straws." "Hooray!" I thought. I'd just made some pretty decent collard greens for New Years, and was pretty sure I was successfully channeling my inner southern belle. Cheese straws being a very traditional southern food would be a perfect next project, right y'all? Well, being from Michigan with New England parents and living in California, you could safely assume that southern belle is a bit of a stretch for me. Good thing the recipe was a super easy, non-Southern version, or I would have had to de-camp to Savannah (a bit of a fantasy of mine, but that's for another time...).
Anyway, the version I made was super easy - anyone can do it, even people who don't know where the Mason Dixon Line is. Ready?
-One sheet of puff pastry, partially thawed. Place it, unfolded, on a sheet of parchment paper.
-1/2 cup of shredded cheese (the recipe calls for Parmigiano Reggiano, but you could absolutely use Aged Gouda, Sharp Cheddar, or any drier/more aged cheese) sprinkled on top of the sheet of puff pastry with a little salt and pepper. Place another sheet of parchment paper on top and use a rolling pin to press the cheese into the pastry.
-Flip the whole thing over and repeat with another 1/2 cup of cheese and roll to press in.
-Slice into even strips with a pizza cutter or whatever
-Make into twists and bake at 425 degrees for 10 minutes, rotating halfway through for beautiful, puffed "straws."
So, as I was researching this post, I found this amazing web site. Hoppin' John has spent A LOT of time researching the history of cheese straws. Turns out, the recipe I just shared with you is not officially a cheese "straw," but more of a cheese "finger." And Hoppin' John, while complimentary about the fingers, refuses to admit them to the lexicon of Southern cheese straws. I will not even begin to share with you the knowledge on his site, but I will tell you that real cheese straws are basically flour, fat, cheese, and a bit of spice - cayannne, etc. More like a savory shortbread cookie than a cracker. Think about it - it is HOT in the South, and until recently, cheese wasn't really something that was made there. A great way to preserve cheese there was to bake it! Puff pastry just won't hold up in humid, hot weather. The first Southern cheese straw recipe seems to have surfaced in 1861, and they haven't gone away since. And did I mention that they're delicious? Crunchy and flaky, with a rich cheese flavor that comes from a cup+ of cheese, and the intensifying magic of the oven. The addition of spice, either plenty of black pepper or cayanne, adds great depth of flavor. Tastes great with Cabernet. Give it a try!