If you hear "cheese ball" and think Play-Doh-colored processed cheese coated in tasteless crunchy miscellany, think again. Bursting with artisan cheeses and fresh seasonings, and rolled in nuts or crackers, these updates on the passe party food simply rock.
Cheese Balls Get Some Respect
Kirstin Jackson for NPR
I was not always ashamed of coveting the cheese ball.
As a child, when it was time to decide whose house to dine at on Christmas, I always voted for the side of the family that served cheese balls. Not only did they turn the other way when I topped off my eggnog with something warming and merrymaking, but they never objected when I polished off a box of butter crackers spread with half of their cheese ball supply. Those were memorable holidays.
I recall walking toward their front door on Christmas afternoon like it was yesterday. The air was crisp, the sun was shining, and I could see the fire blazing through a fresh application of fake snow on the window.
Inside, amid trays of salami, olives and carrots with ranch dressing sat my balls of cheese wonder. They were expertly rolled in walnuts that, while no longer crunchy, were so finely chopped that no one remembered that the balls had sat on a grocery store shelf for a week or two prior. When sliced, the spheres exposed colors vibrant enough to make '80s fashion seem tame. My favorite was the port-flavored one with a poinsettia-red center that smelled faintly of bacon.
Years later, I discovered with much trepidation that my admiration for the cheese ball was not universal. I learned that many were disdainful of this dish that my family and I held so dear.
One winter night at a party, I ran into a group of self-pronounced foodies chatting over a bowl of hummus about dishes traditionally served in their families during the holidays. One exclaimed that her aunt never let them sit down to dinner until the annual cheese ball was finished. When I spoke kind words about her relative and, chuckling, shared that I had been known to finish a ball or two even before the last guest arrived, I was given looks of disbelief and slight disgust.
To my surprise, they informed me that most serious modern food lovers associated cheese balls more closely with Velveeta than Fourme d'Ambert. To them, they were relics from a former time when cheese not sliced and individually wrapped in plastic was considered suspect, and people like me, who sang praises of dishes associated with that mindset, were not to be trusted in the kitchen.
So I kept my desire quiet, praying that the nut-covered dairy treat of my childhood would grace a red-and-green decorated table when I attended a holiday party, only to have my dreams repeatedly shattered. Cheese balls, it seemed, had fallen out of fashion.
Then one day after recalling the good times I had at the hors d'oeuvres table as a child, I decided I had had enough. I was going to rock the cheese ball boat. I would bring this American classic into the next millennium.
Using a mix of my favorite artisan dairy products and everyday ingredients, I created three of my soon-to-be most highly requested recipes of all time. I decided that rather than being based on processed spreads and products like many other cheese ball recipes, my renditions would contain the best international and domestic artisan cheeses on the market, thereby enchanting new admirers without even trying.
In so doing, I discovered that cheese balls never go out of style. They just need a makeover.
By serving cheese balls such as blue cheese with caramelized balsamic onions, farmhouse cheddar balls with pecans and bourbon, and a rare dessert ball zinger of lemon cheesecake with graham cracker crust, you'll teach your guests that everything they thought they knew about cheese balls was wrong. And, with these beauties, you might be able to forge your way onto the guest list of that Christmas mixer whose invitation got lost in the mail last year.
Although the balls are traditionally served during winter holidays, Cheese Ball Appreciation Day is April 17. Keep the party going.