Confession number one: I’m the guest who hogged the cheese straws at the neighborhood Christmas party. Confession number two: I also tucked a napkin-full into the pocket of my wool coat before I left the party and completely forgot about them until I was sitting in church the next morning. I realized they were there during the sermon while I was looking for mints in the same pocket. Immediately they started calling me; “You forgot to eat breakfast,” they wheedled, “if your stomach growls your neighbors will hear it!” Tempted, I broke off one small bit and with almost no appreciable movement I started snacking. This was no small feat, as there’s a woman who relishes sitting in our pew so she can scowl, sigh disapprovingly at me and shush the boys. The boys wiggle like puppies and constantly grab at my hands and fiddle with my bracelets and rings when they run out of room for tic-tac-toe on the bulletin. I consider it a mastery of slight of hand that I managed to get away with my misdeed around such close scrutiny. Confession number three: When I was done, I wished there had been more cheese straws in my pocket.
Possibly because I was trying to seem very intent on the sermon so as to deflect any suspicion that I was (gasp) eating in church, I tried to look like I was paying special attention to the message. Like Ralphie in A Christmas Story, I nodded in agreement with what I thought the pastor might be saying: “I’m sure that the guilt you feel is far worse than any punishment you might receive. Now, don’t you feel terrible? Don’t you feel remorse for what you have done?”. I’m not sure that was what the pastor was saying because I was concentrating on chewing very quietly. Like Ralphie though, I knew adults loved to say things like that but kids know better. We knew darn well it was always better not to get caught.
I am inordinately fond of cheese straws and these were especially delicious. What was the secret, I wondered? How do I make mine better? I pondered these questions as they passed the offering plate. As I felt guilty, I prayed for my disrespect and then, with a flash of divinely-sent insight, I thought of the thousands of lifesavers I’ve eaten in church and suddenly realized God probably doesn’t split hairs.
The whole question of why the expensive prepackaged ones were so much better than homemade really made me curious. I would say that almost without exception, most prepackaged food is inferior to homemade. I started reading the ingredients on the packages of different brands of cheese straws. They looked no different than the recipes I found in cookbooks most of which varied very little. I decided that it had to be a matter of technique.
Cheese straws are a pastry related to piecrust. From the time I could hold a rolling pin I’ve been on the search for the perfect piecrust and have learned many useful lessons. Any pastry, if it is handled too much, will be tough, so the first rule is use a light touch. Overworking is the cause for many baking failures from tough biscuits to piecrusts that are crumbly instead of flaky. The second rule is temperature control. When I worked in the bakery, I added ice to any pastry mixture to bring the temperature down. This helped keep the butter or fat from melting before it went into the oven and assured light and flakey pockets in the croissants and Danishes. The third rule is that cheese , when browned, changes flavor and with cheese straws this is undesirable. The essence of a sharp New York cheddar is lost when any browning occurs, so it is necessary to watch your oven temperature and time when you are baking them as they go from perfect to overcooked almost instantly. Overcooked aren’t inedible, but they aren’t what you want.
To make the perfect cheese straw I started with the same basic ingredients called for in most Southern recipes: Sharp yellow cheddar cheese (extra sharp is the best choice), butter (not margarine like some older recipes call for), flour, salt and cayenne pepper. I use extra sharp New York Cheddar from Cabot that I grate in my food processor. I also use White Lily self-rising flour as using a soft winter wheat flour will give a more tender result. Hard wheat flours like King Arthur and Pillsbury are excellent for bread, but for pastry they do not work as well as soft wheat flour. Using self-rising flour gives the pastry just enough rise without having to add egg.
When mixing the cheese straws you want to start by having half of the butter at room temperature and the other half partially frozen. I take the butter out of the fridge and pop one stick in the freezer for as long as it takes the other to come to room temperature. I mix the shredded cheese with one stick of butter until very creamy, add the salt, pepper and flour and then remove the butter from the freezer and cut it into tiny little squares by cutting each stick in fours and then again in fours and then in very small slices. Then I sprinkle the bits of butter over the cheese mixture and mix it in until just incorporated. You still can see the butter bits throughout the mixture. This is what you want for a very tender and flaky cheese straw.
I run the dough, which will now be easy to handle, through my cookie press and make long ribbons that I bake and cut into straws. Sometimes I get a little wild and use the other cookie shapes but I don’t know, they never seem to taste as good. We eat first with our eyes, they say, and my eyes want straws.
Speaking of eyes, I imagine some will be on me tomorrow morning in church. Since I’m baking cheese straws today, you’ll probably want to look for me in the balcony.