Hooked On Cheese Straws: Heritage and Baking Tips Posted by: Aaron Stearns | 0 Comments
Cheese straws are one of life’s little pleasures, nothing fancy, just addicting. Chances are you probably cut your teeth on them if you’re of a certain age and grew up in the South. They’ve long been the go-to staple for cocktail parties, church potlucks, wedding receptions, and funeral food alike. Practically every family has a recipe that was passed down to the next generation and no one really thought much about it.
Or at least not until boutique bakeries began shipping these crispy cheesy biscuits all over the country. Katy bar the door, the demand rose like the temperatures in August; cheese straws were born again and are all the rage at parties and for hostess gifting from coast to coast. These buttery cheesy pastries will melt in your mouth and if you don’t believe it, just try it.
Oh the taste of a dusting of cayenne mixed with plenty of butter, cheddar, and enough flour to hold the pastry together. They can be rolled, twisted, or piped from a cookie press; then sliced off into lengths commonly referred to as “straws.” Some cooks don’t go to the trouble to make straws, rather they make wafers or rounds; but this simply isn’t proper in the minds of most Southern matriarchs.
When made and stored between layers of wax paper in an air-tight tin for a day or two, the aging process just makes them even more succulent. That is if they last that long. According to lore, the hot and humid Southern temperatures gave rise to the cheese straw as a way to preserve cheese. Reportedly they were served along the Carolina coast pre-Civil War and The White House Cookbook (1887) includes the first recipe for them per se. Food historians can’t agree on the exact origin but most tend to believe that cheese straws are of American origin first baked in Southern kitchens.
Cheese straws were served at a White House dinner in 1913 hosted by President Woodrow Wilson. According to the Library of Congress, they were also on President Franklin Roosevelt’s Thanksgiving table in 1937. Magnolia’s—the restaurant inside Atlanta’s heart and soul department store, Rich’s—served thousands of them over the years, and the Historic Mobile (Alabama) Preservation Society hosted a cook-off in 2012 to determine the best cheese straws in all the land.
Like lightening bugs, honeysuckle, and hot summer nights; cheese straws are part of the vernacular in the South. From Steeplechase picnics in Nashville to tailgating in the Grove at Ole Miss; cheese straws are as popular as ever. Florida’s Executive Residence kept a ready supply in the freezer at Gov. Bob Graham’s request, and the mecca of fine dining in New Orleans, The Commander’s Palace, even featured these tasty nibbles in their cook book.
Cheese straws are one of the most versatile foods on the planet. They are apt to show up at wine-tastings, picnics, debutante balls, christening brunches, or as afternoon snacks. Sometimes as stand-ins for croutons or crackers, or even with the cheese course at elegant dinners—could the South exist without them? Nothing pairs with a libation better, so it’s any wonder that in the land where a good cocktail party is an institution, they remain the appetizer of choice.
Outside the South, cheese straws can be a novelty; but the rest of the country is fast beginning to crave this down-home fare. Chefs and home cooks alike are tweaking the recipe by adding other cheeses, jalapeños, anchovies, red pepper paste, rosemary, toasted pecans, or bacon bits. They can tinker with perfection, but can they improve on it?
Most of the recipes are pretty similar; the secret lies in the ingredients and the process. It’s not difficult; just heed the advice of those who are proud of their prowess in making the perfect cheese straw. Use regular cheddar, neither mild nor sharp, because of water content in the cheese. Melt the butter before adding. Fold the pastry dough over itself several times by hand to blend it, but by no means knead it; then roll the dough thin to ensure the flakiest cheese straws. Use a soft southern flour such as White Lily or Martha White because they have less gluten; and for heaven’s sake don’t dump the flour in all at once. The old-school cooks are protective, not of the recipes, but of their time honored techniques. Now that you know what it took generations to learn, you can fancy yourself a cheese straw aficionado; but be careful or you’ll become a cheese straw addict! Oh honey child you’ve been warned.
*Want to get hooked on this delicious, savory southern delicacy? Try our Orignal Cheese Straws or spice things up with the Savory Trio Cheese Straws infused with the flavors of asiago, bleu cheese and jalapeño.
Libby Murphy is a freelance writer and author living in Jackson, Tennessee. She has written one book, Tennessee Taste & Traditions with a second one in production, A Tennessee Waltz. She’s the founder of an entertaining and Southern cooking website TwirlandTaste. She has been featured in various publications including: Time, Southern Living, The Los Angeles Times and more.