Pimento Cheese musing
I have had a copy of the Frank Stitt's Southern Table since it was published and love the book. For my birthday this week I was given a copy of The Lee Brother's Southern Cookbook. I have been reading Lee Bros. slowly and leisurely and noticed something I found in the Frank Stitt book. Both of the books call for cream cheese in their pimento cheese.
I have never had pimento cheese with cream cheese added before I tried the Stitt recipe and then I saw no point to it. Coming across it in the Lee book I got curious and got out my not inconsiderable collection of southern cook books and started looking at PC recipes. Not a single one mentioned cream cheese. Some had Worcestershire sauce, some had a little onion or minced garlic. Some sepcified Dukes mayo and some Hellmans and some homemade mayo. Maybe a bit of crushed red pepper flakes. But not one called among the minor variations for cream cheese.
So you all, the PC makers and eaters, let's weigh in here. Add cream cheese or not. I am definitely in the not group but how about you? What are your PC traditions?
It's gotta be better than the weird version my brother in law made earlier this year with curry and hummus! Didn't taste awful, but he's a one-pot kind of cook, so you learn to not expect a great presentation.
I sometimes use cream cheese with sharp cheddar. I use it if the cheese is for appetizers. It spreads much easier. With that said, I then have to use more seasonings since the cream cheese softens the flavors.
If you can get your hands on a copy of the Southern Foodways Alliance's 2003 Pimento Cheese Invitational book, you'll see the amazing breadth & diversity of PC throughout the south. Join the SFA and they'll give you a copy as a gift (http://www.southernfoodways.com/catal...). As I recall, the book divided PC recipes into major categories of PC according to ingredients. It's a fun read, recipes & PC remembrances.
IF you have ever heard friends or relatives use the word "menta cheese" or "menter cheese" ...
IF you remember the pre-airconditioned Southern Sundays when the church was so hot that everyone fanned themselves with fans provided by the local funeral home, then lunched potluck together in the cool basement social hall where a dozen homemade types of deviled eggs and pimento cheese competed for your passion ...
IF you lovingly pulled your Wonder Bread/pimento cheese sandwich from your grade-school lunch sack and let your tongue do all the blissful chewin' ...
IF you knew that the the cold tub of pimento cheese in the fridge would never run out because Mom made it at least once a week...
THEN, perhaps, you will nod yes in nostalgic agreement:
"Real 'menter cheese is just cheese, mayo, and 'menters."
After that, all is purely variation from the axiomatic core.
All the variations can be good, and each chef is entitled to their variation, but their variation may well not take some of us back to those days of wonder bread and cool church basements.
These days, I experiment with pepper, grated onion, horseradish, worchestershire, but always keep close to the core. I experiment with the textures of hand grated or grated thru the meat grinder, but will not accept the rounded ribbons from the food processor grater.
Because it's all about texture. And that's where cream cheese can enter the discussion for me: cream cheese acts as an emulsifying bridge between the texture of the real cheese and the mayo. This makes it great for some spreadable applications, but the textural contrast between the "al dente" cheese and the mayo becomes lost. So there: it has entered the discussion, and is now discarded. But I will never turn it down at a party if it is the only 'menter cheese available.
The Holy Trinity of ingredients:
1) The Cheese: sharp cheddar, today's commercial analog of the wheel of cheese ripening on the countertop in the warm General Store, cut by cleaver to Grandma's needs. White cheddar is texturally acceptable, but lacks the annatto dye that for generations told our eyes "yep, that's cheese." For texture, see above. Velveeta? It is a fabrication of heated kettles, commendable only for its long shelf life and meltability. Save it for the microwaved dip on Super Bowl Sunday.
2) The 'Menters: roasted red bells canned in a glass jar are totally acceptable, and can be much cheaper than the tiny jars of pimentos, with little flavor difference. Those that are Home grown and hand canned just for this purpose bring us closer to Grandma. Texture: cut to a mixture of large dice, medium, and almost a slurry: this range will move through the mayo matrix in interesting ways. Use some of the can juice too; it has flavor, and will cut down on the amount of mayo needed.
3) The Mayo: Best in this order: Homemade, then Duke's, then Hellman's. The debate over Duke's v. Hellman's would be easily settled if Dukes were shipped outside the south, as is the
transcontinental Hellman's. Said otherwise: If everyone who loves Hellman's had a chance to try Duke's, many would like Duke's better. Duke's outsells Hellman's in southern markets where both compete head to head. Available online. Hellman's is excellent; Duke's is Divine.
Some links. First, The Kraft 5 oz jar, that abomination that is in our grocery stores and pollutes our citizens' perception of how marvelous 'menter cheese can be. (Note that it proudly
proclaims that it contains cream cheese):
Second, a link to a Wikipedia article that is admittedly less provincial and more concise:
What a delightful post! You make me want to make some 'Menter Cheese that is the authentic item. Would you please post your own favorite recipe?
And also, I like having the authentic gestalt experience in cases like this. Is it always JUST PC in the sandwich or are there other ingredients? What kind of bread? Toasted or no? Is is eaten in a meal or as a snack? If as a meal, what else would classically be served with it? You can tell I have never been south of Washington, D.C.
re: niki rothman
niki, in my mom's virginia kitchen we only ate pimento cheese(sharp cheddar grated, w/ hellman's mayo and julienned bottled pimentos) on seeded rye as grilled sandwiches , with kosher dill pickles on the side.(gotta have acid with all that fat!) We always wanted lots of cheese filling, so they were (are) the messiest sandwich imaginable. Didn't deter us one bit!
Little has changed in the five years since that post,
except for addition of hunks of cracked pepper.
The Muse is the same: church ladies and aunts,
outstretched arms, homemade mayo.
Yes, there's still a relation
'tween church basement linoleum
and smooth supple pleasure
of some good 'menter cheese.
All of those aunts
have now passed away.
Their heels no longer ring
on that basement linoleum.
But their dishes of deviled eggs
and a whole bunch of casseroles
still give where it counts,
along with their elbows giving grate to the cheese.
I made Pimento Cheese in my Barbecue restaurant. I had only tried it 2 or 3 times on a visit to Tennessee and got hooked. My wife is an addict and I had to recreate the taste.
I used a mixture of sharp, aged white cheddar, Imperial sharp cheddar spread that comes in tubs, roasted red pepper, Helman's, super thin sliced scallions, finely chopped parsley and some Franks Red Hot Sauce.
I've experimented with a Chipotles en Adobo Chili or two, but prefer the milder heat and flavour of Frank's.
Here is the kicker: In what may be total ignorance we carefully chopped, grated and minced everything, mixed it all up adding S&P to taste then blended the whole mess in the Robot Coup. Were we supposed to stop at the blended seasoned stage?
I will say the spread we ended up with was versatile and beautiful.
Simply spread on a sandwich, yum!. Added to a Beef Brisket on-a-bun, divine! Mixed into unbolted, white corn grits for the best Cheese Grits ever! In a ramekin beside fresh corn bread or part of our BBQ Turkey clubhouse, we went thru tons of it!
So, can it be blended up into a spread or does it have to remain chunky to be the real thing?