As our week of cheese ball recipes comes to a close, we wanted to share a few final thoughts. First, and most importantly, is that we hope our enthusiasm for the oft-maligned ball has inspired you to brush off your old recipes and revive this classic holiday party dish.

Second is that ingredients do matter. No, you probably won’t want to use your $50/lb. Hook’s 15-year cheddar, but there’s no excuse to use a processed cheese food product, either. This week I spotted a recipe that called for “a jar of Kraft blue cheese.” I can not imagine an occasion for which it would be appropriate to buy blue cheese in a jar. And you won’t see me reaching for the mayo jar either, even if the Queen-of-Butterfat herself recommends it. You can make a perfectly delightful ball with the better cheddars available at your local grocer, or even mix one “budget” cheese with something a little nicer.

Finally, get creative! The flavor combinations are nearly endless. We drew from popular dips, onion and pimento, for two of our balls. You can go spicy with smoked paprika, sweet with cinnamon and pumpkin, or add a Mexican flair with cumin and jalapenos.

Cheese + Champagne Original Cheese Ball Recipes

We’re also tickled to see cheese ball love spreading around the Web:

Last week’s curd news and cheese recipes from around the web …

  • “The Governator proposes a huge tax on wine to save the CA budget deficit. What a stupid idea ….”  (RT @vinography)
  • Love is in the air … check out the “Wisconsin Cheese Cupid,” link. (RT @GenGreen)
  • What’s Bon Jovi eat on his pizza? Goat cheese & mozzarella (spotted at Posto in DC, @afabbri)
  • Keep warm with Vermont Cheddar & Ale soup, from Feel Good Eats.
  • We generally prefer to leave the cheesemaking to the experts, but @EndlessSimmer proves it can be done at home, too, link.

Connect with Cheese & Champagne…

Our second Alpine cheese this week brings us back to Switzerland, specifically to the town of Bellelay in the canton of Bern. Tête de Moine, which translates to “monk’s head” from the original French, was – surprise – originally made by monks, though now dairy cooperatives have taken over the cheesemaking. Why the unusual name? Tête de Moine is traditionally not cut into slices, but rather shaved across the top and sides with a knife held parallel to the cheese. The cheese’s appearance mimics the shaved head of the monks who developed it. The Swiss use a special device called a girolle to cut Tête de Moine – it skewers the cheese like a kabob and a vertical blade is swung around the top of the cheese to create pretty little ruffles. I thought it would be a bit much to buy a girolle just for the one cheese, but hey, if you’ve got the money and inclination, you’re welcome to it (lend it to me sometime). Instead, I used a simple paring knive to shave small pieces of Tête de Moine from the wheel and assembled the “petals” into a rose on my plate.

But enough about its appearance – how does Tête de Moine taste? Delicious! Steven Jenkins describes it as “beefy” in his “Cheese Primer,” and I have to agree that it’s a fitting description. A raw cow’s-milk cheese, it has a saltiness that reminds me of a well-seasoned steak, and, as my husband pointed out, a slight smoky flavor, too. (My husband also called the Tête de Moine “sexy,” which may sound odd until you learn about his unbridled love for beef.) The cheese could definitely stand up for itself on a plate of smoked or cured meats, but it would also pair nicely with fruit (not the strawberry shown – that was just to make the rosette pretty – but apples or pears) or a hearty cracker.

The big flavors of Tête de Moine would match well with a full-bodied wine – Jenkins recommends a Burgundy or Rhône. I had neither on hand but had already opened a bottle of a Chilean 60/40 blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot earlier that night, so I gave that a whirl. The pairing wasn’t bad by any means (not like my Epoisses mismatch a few weeks ago), but I think a stronger wine would have really made the Tête de Moine shine.

Tête de Moine also lends itself well to cooking – check out the cheese’s official Web site for recipes.

Growing up, New Year’s Eve was the one time a year we got to eat all the processed junk food our little hearts desired, from ready-made French onion dip and Lay’s potato chips to whatever shrink-wrapped meat and cheese goodies my dad got in holiday gift baskets from his colleagues. I don’t believe I ever had a homemade cheese ball, but we did think the Hickory Farms cheese logs and spreads were a nifty treat. (Funny how warped a sense of “luxury food” one develops when raised on a strict healthy-food diet!)

Aside from the low gas prices, dismal economic reports continue to lead the daily news reports. If you’re feeling a little more frugal (late)-Seventies than Swinging Sixties, the retro cheese ball stretches your cheese dollar and is sure to amuse and delight your New Year’s Eve guests. Better yet, cheese balls are best made from a good, traditional cheddar and don’t require a special trip to your local cheesemonger. Apparently, cheese balls are all the rage this holiday season, having been endorsed by Amy Sedaris and Martha herself (link to video clip). A classic recipe requires cheddar, cream cheese, a liquid (Worcestershire sauce traditionally), spices and crushed nuts. The possibilities for variations are endless, but I kept mine simple and used Old Bay for a taste of the Chesapeake. Serve with some mini crab cakes or steamed King crab legs for maximum effect.

Recipe: Chesapeake Cheddar Cheese Ball

2 cups grated cheddar 
8 ounces cream cheese, softened
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
1 1/2 teaspoons Old Bay seasoning
1/2 cup crushed pecans
* (I used Tillamook to keep with the coastal theme. Had I planned a little more in advance, I would’ve used Chapel’s Country Creamery’s crab spice cheddar, locally-produced on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.) 

Instructions: Mix first four ingredients in mixer until well combined. Chill in refrigerator for 30 minutes to an hour, then shape into a ball and roll in crushed pecans until evenly coated. Wrap and store in refrigerator overnight. Bring to room temperature (at least 30 minutes) before serving. Enjoy!

Of course, you can make your cheese ball as simple or fancy as you please.  Alanna has a round-up of family cheese ball recipes over at BlogHer, including Big Red Kitchen‘s eye-catching Curried Cheese Ball with coconut and peanuts. The Kitchn offers a more gourmet option, a Blue Cheese and Rosemary Ball, or booze it up with this Cheese Truffle recipe from Tillamook. For a sweet option, try (or imitate) a Butterscotch Brickle cheese ball mix

Ringing in the New Year with cheese? Let us know what’s on your menu!
And be sure to follow us on Twitter for the latest from around the cheeseosphere.

We know budgets are tight these days, and gourmet cheeses can really make your grocery tab add up quickly. Here are a couple ways to incorporate cheese in your holiday feasts and still have enough money for the Hanukkah brisket, Christmas goose or whatever else is on your menu!

Pick a “showcase” cheese. Odds are you’re serving enough other food for people to fill up on, so you don’t really need to have multiple cheeses. Pick one high quality cheese, centered among spiced nuts and other accompaniments, and pair with a beverage, for a stand-out start or finish to the meal. Try Cypress Grove’s Truffle Tremor paired with a California sparkling wine for a first course, or a wedge of Parmigiano Reggiano and spiced hot cider for an after dinner treat.

Make cheese a star ingredient. Baked brie – with seasonal cranberry sauce or fig preserves – stretches your cheese dollars and is sure to please a crowd. Or try blue cheese-filled endives, topped with pomegranate seeds (a la Eric Ripert) for festive little bites of cheese.

Look for budget-friendly cheeses. You don’t have to get the most expensive triple-creme cheese from France to wow your family and friends. Look for heartier favorites like a Dutch gouda or aged Irish cheddar – or look for domestic brands, like Cabot/Jasper Hill (Vermont) or Carr Valley (Wisconsin). Tillamook‘s vintage white extra sharp cheddar (Oregon) is a budget-friendly family favorite. A mild, hard cheese like cheddar and gouda will hold up well to a variety of foods and beverages as part of the holiday meal.

Skip the Champagne. Perfectly palatable sparkling wines from California, Spanish cava, or Italian prosecco can be found for $15-30, and will delight your guests when paired with cheese treats. I love Tarantas organic cava ($12.99 at Whole Foods) and have used Trader Joe’s $6 prosecco in pomegranate cocktails that are perfect for Christmas. Sean of Vinifico! recommends Zonin Prosecco Brut NV ($14), and Washington Post wine columnist Dave McIntyre calls Scharffenberger Brut “America’s best bargain bubbly.” (See his blog for more bargain sparkling wine recommendations.)  

Hope your holidays are cheese-filled and merry!