In Search of the Perfect Cheesestraw
By Contributor Regan Jones, RD, The Professional Palate
I’ll be honest. Throughout my life there have been expectations as a young girl, grown women and a new mom that I just didn’t live up to:
...riding a bike
...playing touch football at holidays
...making delicious sweet tea
You know, the really “important” stuff (and stuff that to this day, I simply don’t do well. I know... sweet tea... that should be in the graduation exam down south, right?) But before you discount my worth all together, please know this: I make a mighty fine cheese straw, thank you very much.
Admittedly, that hasn’t always been the case. When I first realized that if I was ever gonna call myself a good Southern cook, I needed to add cheese straws to my cooking repertoire, I tried a host of different recipes, techniques, short-cuts, improvisation and magic spells (okay, I kid about that last part, but I did try just about everything.) After many failed attempts I found myself asking, “Why is this so difficult? Isn’t this just a baked cheese dough?” Oh... if it weren’t only that simple! While cheese straws are truly not that difficult, they are requiring of a few special pieces of love and attention to yield the type straw fitting of a good Southern kitchen:
A good cookie press is a must if you want to make the piped out version of cheese straws that many of us think of as the classic recipe. You can improvise without one and make cheese wafers, but then those really aren’t cheese straws are they? Delicious in their own right, but different nonetheless. I tried a number of different presses before I settled on a high quality press from a popular cook’s warehouse. I recommend a manual “gun” type press. Cheese straw dough is stiff, and battery powdered cookie presses just don’t have enough power. I also recommend avoiding the old turn-and-crank type press. I doubt these are too easy find any more, but I know I had use of one when I first started and thought my hand would fall off from trying to crank out the dough. Save yourself the frustration. Get a good cookie press. Period.
1 pound high-quality Extra Sharp Cheddar Cheese*
3/4 cup (12 tablespoons) high quality butter* (not margarine), at room temperature
3 cups (360g) all-purpose or bread flour (save your White Lilly soft wheat flour for biscuits... it's a wonderful flour, but too tender for cheese straws)
1 teaspoon salt (or to taste)
1/4 teaspoon ground red pepper (or to taste... my husband and I like them a little hotter than this)
1/4 teaspoon garlic powder (optional)
1/4 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
1/4 teaspoon hot sauce
1 to 2 tablespoons water (optional)
(*I am a huge fan of Cabot cheddar and butter and came to this conclusion years ago... long before I started to work for them as a client. So in the spirit of full disclosure about my relationship with Cabot, click here.)
Preheat oven to 325 degrees.
Shred your cheese; allow to come to room temperature (This is important. Really cold cheese/dough is HARD to press out even in a good cookie press).
Cream with butter (I use my heavy duty stand mixer for all of this).
Combine flour, salt, red pepper, & garlic powder, if desired. Add flour mixture to cheese mixture, 1/2 cup at a time, until well combined. Beat in Worcestershire sauce & hot sauce.
(Here's where the "tricky" part comes in. When I used to make these in Florida, there was plenty of moisture in the air and I usually didn't add any water. When I lived in Texase, I’d have to add 1tablespoon of water or more to get the dough smooth enough to press out with my cookie press. Humidity clearly makes a difference. Also, if your kitchen is cold/cool, you might have to microwave the dough just a LITTLE bit... don't want the butter/cheese to melt, but you need it warm enough to be able to press it out through the cookie press.)
Press dough out into straws on baking sheets using a cookie press fitted with star tip (Note: this is up for debate. There is contingent of the cheese straw community that believes they should be piped out in a flat disc-like pattern. More disclosure: I’m a star-tip devotee.)
Bake at 325 for 10-15 or until just barely lightly browned on the bottom (12 minutes seems to be the magic number for me).
Then... and don't be tempted to skip this step... turn oven off and allow to cool slightly; put all the straws back in a warm oven to "dry out" (much like curing shortbread. I typically do this overnight.) The flavor won't change, but they'll taste crisper to start with and stay crisp much longer.
Having said all of this and hopefully inspiring you to getting pressing to cheese straw perfection, I leave you with these wonderful "cheese straw options", some of which don’t require a cookie press. Because, like me, you may find some rights right of passage simply aren’t your cup of (sweet) tea.