Rethinking the cheese ball as a modern party food
Posted November 7, 2008
Updated November 19, 2008
History has not been kind to the cheese ball.
Early on, this classic party food earned an ugly reputation it's been mostly unable to shake - an orange softball filled with garish industrial cheeses, smacking of an untraceable sweetness, and coated with stale, often soggy, nuts.
Not exactly food to get your guests going - except for going out the door.
"To me it was it was one of those things you saw at a party, and after a few people had dug into it, it looked like a train wreck," says Kemp Minifie, executive food editor at Gourmet magazine.
So bad is the cheese ball's rap, food writer Amanda Hesser several years ago wrote in the New York Times magazine that "cheese balls tend to be associated with shag rugs and tinsel, symbols of the middle-class middlebrow."
But surely they can be more.
With cheeses of all kinds getting gourmet treatment in recent years, this is one party food that seems ripe for an update. To make a cheese ball that is a holiday hit instead of a painful irony, here's what you need to know.
Cheese plays two roles in a cheese ball - structure and taste.
For that reason, cheese balls usually contain several varieties of cheese. Mild, soft cheeses provide a firm base to which other flavors are added. Firmer, more flavorful cheeses lend deeper, savory notes.
We'll start with the former. Traditional recipes call for a base of cream cheese and butter. The cream cheese has a neutral, but rich and creamy taste that readily adopts other flavors and serves as a binder.
Butter lends an added richness while helping to firm up the ball, says Nancy Hopkins, food editor at Better homes and Gardens, which recently did its own rethinking of the cheese ball using vibrant cheeses and fresh herbs.
Today, home cooks have a wider range of cheeses with similar properties, including goat, neufchatel and blue. We found a blend of neufchatel, butter and goat cheese worked best.
Neufchatel is similar in taste and texture to cream cheese, but has about a third less fat. While cream cheese works nicely, it can produce cheese balls that are a bit too rich and fatty. Neufchatel cheese is a more balanced choice.
Goat cheese adds a pleasantly tart flavor and an appealingly dry texture that meld well with the neufchatel. For a more pungent variation, crumbled blue cheese could be substituted for the goat cheese.
Mixing in a grated harder cheese, such as cheddar, provides a sharper taste. Cheddar works well with an outer coating of crushed nuts and herbs.
When selecting cheeses, there's no need to reach for the pricey artisanal stuff; you won't appreciate it in a recipe such as this. But don't go to the bargain basement, either. Cheap cheeses, as well as pre-grated, lack flavor.
Most mid-range goat and cheddar cheeses sold at large grocers are fine. Buy block cheddar and grate it yourself.
More isn't necessarily better. Too often cheese balls suffer from being loaded with too many styles of cheeses and a cacophony of nuts, herbs and other contrasting flavors.
Minifie suggests a minimal number of fresh ingredients to enliven the cheese base. Minced garlic and a bit of horseradish provide complex flavor notes without competing with the flavor of the cheese.
While many traditional recipes call for mixing chopped nuts into the cheese mixture, this usually results in soggy nuts that taste stale. Instead, we toast then in a bit of butter, sea salt and cumin, then roll the balls in the crushed nuts for a coating.
Mixing finely chopped parsley into the chopped nuts lends a fresh flavor and festive color to the cheese balls.
It doesn't get much easier than this. Mix and roll. If you like, you can use a food processor to briefly pulse the cheeses and butter together, but it likely will take you longer to set up and wash the processor than to just do it by hand.
Refrigerating the cheese mixture before forming it into balls is key. The cheese and butter need to firm up before being rolled. You also can form the balls early to save time. Roll them in the coating only just before serving.
Wearing latex gloves - or wrapping both hands in plastic wrap - is key when rolling the cheese balls. Otherwise they tend to become a sticky mess and glue themselves to your hands.
If the mixture becomes too soft to work with as you form the balls, it can be refrigerated again until firm.
Don't think big. Large cheese balls have several problems.
First, after a few people dig in, a large cheese balls looks entirely unappealing. Second, because a large cheese balls sits around longer than bite-size versions, there's more time for the nuts to get soggy by absorbing moisture from the cheese.
So we took Minifie's advice and made tablespoon-size cheese balls. These are easier to make, easier to eat and lend a touch of elegance to a once much maligned party food.
Have a recipe you want investigated? E-mail AP Food Editor J.M. Hirsch at jhirsch(at)ap.org.