Make ‘em Long, Short, or even Round — This Traditional Snack Is Perfect for Entertaining
Looking for an easy-munching snack that delivers better flavor than anything you’d buy in a box? Something that works as an appetizer or at a cocktail party? Something casual, but special?
How about Cheese Straws — a traditional Southern snack that wins lip-smacking plaudits at summer festivities and fall celebrations alike?
You can buy these in tins or boxes at upper-end groceries or through mail-order gourmet establishments, but you’re paying big bucks for what is essentially grated cheese mixed with butter and flour. Something that you can mix together in minutes at far less cost.
And when they’re freshly baked? We’re talking mouth paradise.
Once you learn how to make these, you may never buy a supermarket snack again.
Recipe: Cheese Straws
Cheese straws aren’t “straws” at all, but something more like crackers. Almost, but not quite, a short crust. Kind of like Cheez-Its®, but with more cheese (and much more flavor).
They’re usually baked in narrow strips (up to ½-inch wide) in lengths of 4 inches or more. So they come out looking a bit like straws, which is probably how they got their name. But you can find them in other shapes as well. I like to cut out rounds using a fluted cookie cutter.
Cheddar cheese is the usual flavoring, but you can use any sharp, firm cheese that catches your fancy. Basically, you grate the cheese and combine it with flour, butter, salt, and often cayenne pepper. Form the mixture into dough, roll, cut out your cheese straws, and then bake. That’s it.
Most general-purpose cookbooks offer a version of Cheese Straws, and all recipes are pretty much the same. My favorite rendition is in The Lee Bros. Southern Cookbook, and my recipe is adapted from theirs.
This recipe makes enough for a dozen people or more, which is often more than I want. So I usually freeze half the recipe for a future occasion. You can easily cut this recipe in half, if you wish. Or double it and freeze even more (which is what I like to do).
It takes about 10 - 15 minutes to mix and roll out the dough, and another 12 minutes or so to bake. You can make the dough a day or two ahead and refrigerate it (in well-sealed cling wrap) if you choose. Baked straws will keep in an airtight container for 2 or 3 days — if you have any left, that is!
- 8 ounces sharp or extra-sharp cheddar cheese, grated (about 3 cups; you can substitute another hard cheese of your choice)
- ~1 ounce Parmesan cheese, grated (or more; optional, but adds a nice sharp note)
- 1½ cups all-purpose flour
- 1 stick unsalted butter cut into 8 or more pieces (can use frozen butter if you wish)
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt, or ¾ teaspoon regular table salt
- ¾ - 1 teaspoon cayenne pepper (or to taste; ¾ teaspoon will provide a nice ping, but won’t be too spicy for most people)
- 1 - 3 tablespoons milk or cream (skim milk is OK)
- additional flour for dusting when rolling out the dough
- additional butter to grease a cookie sheet (optional)
- Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.
- Grate cheeses (the easiest way is to use the grating disc on the food processor).
- Put grated cheese in the bowl of a food processor (if it isn’t already there). Using the metal blade of the food processor, pulse two or three times to cut up the cheese. Add the flour, butter, salt, and cayenne pepper to the cheese in the food processor, and pulse several times (for a total of about 30 seconds) until the mixture has a coarse texture (like cornmeal).
- Add 1 tablespoon of milk or cream, and pulse briefly. Feel the texture of the dough. Using your fingers, can you form the dough into a cohesive ball? If yes, you’re ready to form the dough. If not, continue adding milk or cream a tablespoon at a time until you can do so.
- Dump the dough out onto a lightly floured work surface. Using your hands, knead the dough until it forms a nice, cohesive mass. (Note: Sometimes the dough mounds up on the blades of the food processor during Step 4, forming a nice ball for you; but usually it doesn’t.) At this point, I often wrap the dough in cling wrap and refrigerate it overnight (you can also freeze it; put cling-wrapped dough in a freezer bag).
- Using a rolling pin, roll out the dough on a lightly floured surface until the thickness of the dough is about ¼-inch. You want to form a rectangle, but if you’re like most of us, you’ll have some jagged edges. No worries.
- Cut the dough into the shape you prefer. Use a sharp knife — I usually use a pizza wheel. Most people like to cut straws ¼ to ½-inch wide in lengths from 4 to 10 inches. You can also use a cookie cutter to cut rounds, if you prefer — they’re quite attractive. If you have irregular pieces of dough leftover after cutting, simply reform into a ball, roll out again, and cut some more straws.
- Grease a cookie sheet lightly (to help avoid sticking; can also using baking spray) or line the cookie sheet with a silicone baking mat (my preference). You will need 2 cookie sheets if making the full recipe. Carefully (so they don’t break apart) place straws on cookie sheet(s), leaving gaps of at least ¼ inch between the straws (more is better if you have enough cookie sheet real estate; as the straws bake, they’ll expand, and if they touch their neighbors, they will stick together).
- Bake the straws in the middle rack of the oven for 10 - 15 minutes, or until done. Mine usually are done at 12 or 13 minutes.
- You can serve Cheese Straws hot or at room temperature. They’re good both ways, but they’re particularly scrumptious when fresh from the oven.
- Making the dough is much like making pasta dough. For more info about that, see the post on making Homemade Pasta and Noodles.
- You can also make this dough by hand if you don't have a food processor. Mix flour and salt well, and cut in bits of butter. Add grated cheeses and blend into the flour/butter mixture. Then add a tablespoon of milk or cream as directed in Step 4, and continue with the Procedure above.
- When forming the dough on the work surface, you may find that you didn’t add enough milk or cream in Step 4. If so, just sprinkle a bit more on the dough and knead it in until you have a ball that holds together — and that you can roll out without it breaking apart.
- You can substitute cold water for milk or cream in Step 4, if you wish. Your cheese straws will be somewhat leaner, but still plenty tasty.
- Rather than rolling the dough flat, you can shape it into a log: With your hands close together and palms down, simply start rolling the ball of dough back and forth. It will begin to form a cylinder. As the cylinder takes shape, move your hands from the center towards each end to elongate it, forming a “log.” Then cut wafers about ¼-inch thick, and bake as you would straws.
- Instead of rolling and cutting the dough, you can place it in a cookie press and extrude the straws. Many commercial cheese straws are made this way. But I find it easier to roll the dough (it takes a minute, two at the most) and then cut the straws rather than mess with the cookie press.
- You can skip the Parmesan, but it complements the cheddar well, and makes for a more interesting flavor. You can also increase the amount of Parmesan by another ounce or two.
- A firm blue cheese like Asiago makes wonderful cheese straws. Just substitute it for the cheddar.
- If you absolutely can’t stand spicy, you can omit the cayenne pepper. But it adds a lot, IMO.
- Before baking, you can brush the tops of the cheese straws with some water (or better yet, an egg wash) and sprinkle additional cayenne pepper on them for even more heat. Or you could add another spice — cumin seeds are nice.
- There are recipes for making cheese straws out of puff pastry. Although these can be quite good, I think the flavor of the cheese shines through better in traditional straws.
- Today, cheese straws can be found throughout the US. But historically they were particularly popular in the South. Why? Who knows — it just happened. If you’re interested in their history (including whether they originated in England and migrated to the US), you can find scads more info at The Food Timeline and Hoppin’ John’s Cheese Straw Discussion.
Delicious with Cocktails
“Oh, wow,” said Mrs. Kitchen Riffs as she tasted a cheese straw hot from the oven. “I think we’ve bought our last packaged snack.”
“Yeah,” I replied, “once you learn how to make these, it’s hard to go back. And they’re great with cocktails.” Which is what we were sipping while devouring more cheese straws that either of us would care to acknowledge.
Cheese Straws are one of the best nibbles going, and they pair excellently with just about any drink you can name. Good thing! Because as you’ve probably noticed (since I keep telling you), we’re celebrating our Summer Sippin’ Series here on Kitchen Riffs.
Each week this summer, we’re featuring a different cocktail. We started with Cocktail Basics. Then we featured the Mojito Cocktail, the Tom Collins, and the Sloe Gin Fizz.
But drinking on an empty stomach isn’t a good idea, so we need some munchies. Hence, this post on Cheese Straws. We’ll do another munchie post or two sometime this summer (plus plenty of other food posts).
“Which cocktail are you doing next in the series?” asked Mrs K R.
“What we’re drinking — the Bellini.”
“Oh, yum, they’re luscious.” She looked significantly at her empty glass.
I took the hint and made her another. And replenished the Cheese Straws.
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