Cheese tradition rolls along

Having a ball with tasty ideas

December 03, 2003|By Laura Werlin and Annie Rush | Laura Werlin and Annie Rush,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

As admitted cheese nerds, we know that many of our cheese fascinations seem, well, a bit strange. But we were recently flipping through some vintage cheese books - The Dairy Cook Book (1941), Encyclopedia of Cheese & Cheese Cookery (1966), Better Homes and Gardens Cooking With Cheese (1966) and A Salute to Cheese (1966), among others - and came across a common thread among the recipes: the cheese ball.

This got us thinking: Whatever happened to that nut-coated creamy sphere that lent its profile to the otherwise flat spread at our mothers' dinner parties?

This led us to investigate further, and what we discovered is that the cheese ball has never died; it's just taken on a new profile.

Legend has it that the cheese ball came about in 1801 when a 1,235-pound ball of cheese was pressed at the farm of one Elisha Brown Jr. and presented to President Thomas Jefferson at the White House as a token of gratitude. (Other historical accounts are similar, but the result was a wheel - not a ball - of cheese. That incident supposedly gave rise to the term "the Big Cheese," to connote a person of importance.)

Our own theory is different. Although there is no documentation to support it, we suspect that the cheese ball came about either as a means of preserving cheese or perhaps as a sort of mockery of the round shape in which many cheeses are made.

The advent of processed cheese allowed cheese to be molded into shapes, such as a ball. It then could be flavored with just about anything.

The cheese ball has had many permutations along the way. There is, of course, the quintessential cheddar-and-nut cheese ball made famous by Hickory Farms of Ohio, the cheese ball of our youth, which drew on Cracker Barrel cheddar, a dash of pimiento and pecans.

Today, it might be found in the form of an ash-coated goat cheese christened Wabash Cannonball by Capriole cheese company owner Judy Schad of Indiana. Or consider the Bingham Hill Cheese Co. of Colorado, which rolls its creamy Poudre Puff in herbs and changes the cheese's name to Tumbleweed.

These are not the cheese balls that we can make at home. Still, it's the same idea: orb as inspiration. And there are myriad ingredients and forms the not-so-old-fashioned cheese ball can take. Little balls or long logs, it's all in the cheese-ball tradition.

The newest version of The Joy of Cooking contains a straightforward recipe drawing on cream cheese for the base and enhancing it with parmesan, onions, carrots, celery, horseradish and mayonnaise. The ball then is rolled in chopped walnuts.

A variation uses white cheddar rather than parmesan, and sour cream instead of mayonnaise. It's modernized by the addition of currants and pine nuts.

Other ingredients to consider for cheese balls are olives, chives, blue cheese, sun-dried tomatoes, goat cheese, herbs and chopped dates.

To make it, all you need is at least one creamy cheese, such as cream cheese, fromage blanc, ricotta or goat cheese (or a combination of any of these) and usually another harder cheese that's grated. Combine those, along with just enough sour cream, creme fraiche or mayonnaise to hold the cheese together, and add the rest of your ingredients.

But don't stop there. The cheese ball must have a beautiful coating, whether it be nuts, dried fruit or just a light dusting of paprika.

In the end, though, what was before may still take the cake now. The Red and Green Cheddar Balls from Betty Wason's Encyclopedia of Cheese & Cheese Cookery (Galahad Books, 1966) beams "holiday entertaining." In this case, cheddar, butter, beer, paprika and parsley come together to say "holiday time" in all its red and green splendor. Move over, popcorn ball.

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