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Party cheeses shape up

For the holidays, toss the ball, think outside the cube.

The recipe for Black Pepper, Cheddar, and Pecan Shortbread is adaptable using different herbs and cheeses. (From “Basic to Brilliant, Y’all,” by Virginia Willis)
The recipe for Black Pepper, Cheddar, and Pecan Shortbread is adaptable using different herbs and cheeses. (From “Basic to Brilliant, Y’all,” by Virginia Willis)Read more

Cheese balls and cheese cubes are ignoble holiday party offerings that, in some cases, provoke spite, memories of past injustices, and self-loathing.

A friend of a friend of a friend machine-eats cheese balls and cheese cubes every year at her mother's tinsel-bedecked home because, without fail, a sibling announces piously every 10 minutes that she rarely eats cheese and squeezed in a five-mile run before breakfast.

Like all family grudges, it's a long story, but one that brings to mind the fact that cheese balls and cheese cubes are also to blame for mindless eating at office parties during tense or awkward situations with coworkers or bosses. Why? Because they are there, offering something to do with your hands and mouth while you freak out.

For this reason - even apart from the association these holiday dairy concoctions have with plush carpets and the 1950s and '60s - it's way past time to replace them with more creative cheese-based nibbles not linked to childhood or work-related trauma.

Of course, one of the beautiful things about cheese balls and cubes is that they do not need heating or other types of tending. They can be made ahead, or partly made ahead.

Substitutes should also have those characteristics - or come close to having them, as with Cheese-Crusted Olive Balls, which can be prepped and baked when needed.

Typical cheese balls are made of processed cheese, meaning they start off wrong and then veer into awfulness with the addition of something like port wine. Then they often get sculpted into, say, a whimsical snowman. Or perhaps rolled in chopped nuts.

A better way to go is obvious: Use high-quality, real cheese. And there's no need to form it into a snowball. Disks are easier to cut into, much more grown-up, and won't roll out of the refrigerator or off the table.

Or make frico, which is a relative of the crisp runoff that spills from toasted-cheese sandwiches onto a hot grill. These now-trendy rounds of fried cheese are really flourless crackers that can be kept in a tin until party time.

Cheese straws or cheese-based shortbread are another way to go, one that has been popular in the South for decades.

According to John Martin Taylor, an expert in Southern cookery, crackers flavored with cheese are a regional specialty and, in fact, an American creation. He's not talking about puff pastry sprinkled with Parmesan, but rather pastry made with butter, cheese, flour, salt, and cayenne.

Taylor's definition of authentic, historic cheese straws are ones flavored with hot pepper that complement the drinks Southerners crave in hot weather.

There are hundreds of variations on cheese straws. My favorite variety is a cheese-based shortbread, which is not as crisp, but just as versatile.

The Black Pepper, Cheddar, and Pecan Shortbread recipe here from Virginia Willis, a Southerner herself, could be fiddled with endlessly using herbs, different cheese combinations, and spices.

And to really divorce yourself from childhood cheese-ball trauma, consider including this Tofu Ball on your holiday table.

If it evokes bad childhood or office memories, you come from a much different place than I do - I mean, than that friend of a friend of a friend does.

Cheese-Crusted Olive Balls

Makes 30-36 pieces


1 cup finely shredded sharp cheddar cheese or other  hard cheese of your choice

4 tablespoons very soft unsalted butter

¼ teaspoon smoked paprika

¾ cup all-purpose flour, plus more for rolling

36 pimento-stuffed olives or pitted (stuffed or not) olive of your choice


1.   Place a rack in the middle of the oven and preheat to 375 degrees. With a wooden spoon in a medium bowl, mix the cheese with the butter and paprika until thoroughly blended. Add the ¾ cup flour, and mix it in with your hands. Allow to rest in the bowl, covered with plastic wrap.    2.   Measure out a level teaspoon of dough and pat into a 1½- to 2-inch circle, depending upon the size of the olives. Bring the edges together to cover the olive. Roll the ball between your palms until smooth and transfer to a rimmed, ungreased baking sheet. Repeat with the remaining dough and olives. Refrigerate until firm, about 10 minutes.

3.   Bake until the olive balls turn light golden brown, 20 to 25 minutes. Serve hot.

Per serving (based on 12 servings): 112 calories, 3 grams protein, 7 grams carbohydrates, no sugar, 8 grams fat, 20 milligrams cholesterol, 214 milligrams sodium, no dietary fiber.

Black Pepper, Cheddar, and Pecan Shortbread

Makes 4 dozen bites


1½ cups all-purpose flour

1 tablespoon freshly ground black pepper

½ teaspoon sea salt

Pinch cayenne

½ cup (1 stick) unsalted  butter at room temperature

8 ounces white cheddar cheese at room temperature

1 cup crushed pecan pieces

About 48 pecan halves


1.   Place flour, pepper, salt, and cayenne in a food processor fitted with a metal blade. Pulse to combine. Add the butter and cheese and process until smooth. Cover the work bowl with plastic wrap, and set aside to rest for about 15 minutes.

2.   Transfer the dough to a clean work surface. Work the dough in your hands (it should be soft and pliable like Play-Doh), and shape it into 2 equal cylinders, 2 to 3 inches in diameter. Place the crushed pecan pieces on a rimmed cookie sheet, and roll each cylinder in the nuts. Wrap each cylinder tightly in plastic wrap and chill until firm, about 30 minutes.

3.   Position oven racks in the top and bottom third of the oven. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Butter two baking sheets, or line them with silicone baking liners or parchment paper. While the oven heats, working with one cylinder at a time, cut each cylinder into ¼-inch-thick slices, and place slices 1 inch apart on the prepared baking sheet. Repeat with remaining dough. Place a pecan half in the center of each slice.

4.   Bake the shortbread, rotating the baking sheets once, until they are lightly browned at the edges, about 20 minutes. Remove cookies from the baking sheet, and set on a rack to cool completely. Store at room temperature in an airtight tin or plasticware between sheets of waxed paper or parchment paper.

Per serving (based on 12 servings): 281 calories, 8 grams protein, 14 grams carbohydrates, 1 gram sugar, 22 grams fat, 40 milligrams cholesterol, 250 milligrams sodium, 2 grams dietary fiber.

Updated Cheese (or Tofu) Ball

Makes 6-8 servings


For cheese ball:

2 cups almonds or hazelnuts

Juice of ½ lemon

¼ teaspoon cayenne, optional

¼ cup grated Parmesan

2 ounces Gorgonzola, crumbled

Salt and black pepper

½ cup chopped fresh parsley or chives

For tofu ball:

2 cups almonds or hazelnuts

2 tablespoons olive or nut oil

2 tablespoons miso

Juice of ½ lemon

¼ teaspoon cayenne, optional

6 ounces drained firm tofu

Salt and black pepper

½ cup chopped fresh parsley  or chives


   1.   Put the nuts in a food processor and pulse until very finely chopped, almost pastelike. Add the lemon juice, cayenne, Parmesan, Gorgonzola, a pinch of salt and pepper, and ½ cup water. Process until the mixture is creamy and spreadable; add a tablespoon or 2 more water if it seems too thick.

2.   Shape the mixture into 1 large or 2 medium balls. Roll the balls in the chopped herb, and flatten them into a disk shape (it's easier to cut into). Wrap in plastic and refrigerate to set up firmly if you like. Serve with crackers, bread, or crudités.

3. For Tofu Ball, pulse nuts in food processor as in step 1. Add 2 tablespoons olive or nut oil and 2 tablespoons miso along with the lemon juice and cayenne, and don't add any water. Use 6 ounces drained firm tofu instead of the Parmesan and Gorgonzola. Continue to follow intructions in step 2.

Per serving (cheese ball): 177 calories, 8 grams protein, 6 grams carbohydrates, 1 gram sugar, 15 grams fat, 9 milligrams cholesterol, 139 milligrams sodium, 3 grams dietary fiber.

Per serving (tofu ball): 192 calories, 7 grams protein, 7 grams carbohydrates, 1 gram sugar, 16 grams fat, no cholesterol, 165 milligrams sodium, 4 grams dietary fiber.EndText

Cheddar Walnut Frico (Crisps)

Makes 60 crisps or 12 servings


2½ ounces aged cheddar cheese, grated (about 1  cup)

2½ ounces Parmesan cheese,  grated (about 1¼ cups)

2 ounces walnuts, coarsely  chopped (1/2 cup)

2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh thyme or

   1 tablespoon dried thyme


1. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees, and set a rack in the middle level. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper. Combine the cheeses in a small bowl. Drop the mixture by rounded teaspoonfuls onto the lined baking sheets, leaving about an inch between them. Flatten the cheese mixture with the pack of a spoon. Sprinkle the top of each cheese circle with a little of the chopped nuts and thyme.

2.   Bake, one sheet at a time, for 5 minutes, or until the crisps are bubbling and the edges are golden brown. Let stand for several minutes, then slide off the paper with a spatula. Blot the crisps gently with paper towels and serve at room temperature.

   Notes: You may grate the cheeses in a food processor. These keep well up to 4 days if stored in an airtight tin between layers of parchment paper.

Per serving: 66 calories, 5 grams protein, 1 gram carbohydrates, no sugar, 5 grams fat, 6 milligrams cholesterol, 127 milligrams sodium, no dietary fiber.