When I think retro, my mind instantly goes to shag carpets, popcorn ceilings, and the gruelingly awkward four years of middle school that I spent trying to bring back bell bottoms and paisley patterns. (Why? Just why?) It gets even worse when you tack on the word recipes, and venture into the ninth circle of hell that is 1960s party food. You know, pimiento-studded jello casseroles. Anchovy cream stuffed apricots. Mayonnaise-frosted meat cakes. All fuel for tonight's nightmares.
But before you write off one of the weirdest food eras altogether, you should know that there is one mid-century dish that does not deserve to be lumped in with the other torture-loaves. And you'll be surprised to know that it, too, involves processing ingredients until smooth and then molding them into an unnatural shape. It's the cheese ball, and it's actually delicious.
"A dish that's in the ninetieth percentile of cheesiest appetizers ever can't be totally wrong, but it can be dated."
The classic version is made by blending cream cheese with shredded cheddar and some seasonings (a little hot sauce, Worcestershire, and garlic powder) until smooth, forming it into a ball, and rolling the whole thing in nuts. Think of it as pimento cheese dip's more sophisticated (but equally tacky) cousin. Now, a dish that's in the ninetieth percentile of cheesiest appetizers ever can't be totally wrong, but it can be dated. There's something about the combination of cream cheese and industrial-shredded cheddar that tears all potential sexiness away. However, the cheese ball is experiencing a renaissance these days, and for good reason. It can be made ahead, it requires minimal cooking, and, again, it is a literal ball of cheese.
So how do we inject some allure into the kitsch? We take away the junk (I'm looking at you, waxy pre-shredded cheddar), we use more flavorful ingredients, and we give people options. Nothing says sultry like a tray full of cheesy choices, am I right?
After much internal debate, I decided to use three of my favorite soft cheeses—blue cheese, feta cheese, and goat cheese—in my cheese ball trio. These cheeses all are strong in flavor, and they process together well with cream cheese to form gently whipped, scoopable cheese balls.
Because the cheeses are higher quality, I didn't want to overwhelm them with too many mix-ins. I instead made a big batch of a cream cheese, lemon juice, chive, salt, and pepper mixture in my food processor, which serves as a simple base for all three cheese balls. Many cheese ball recipes call for Worcestershire sauce and butter in the base, but here we don't need those add-ins: The softer cheeses don't require any additional fat to reach a smooth consistency, and they're plenty savory without the added umami boost of Worcestershire.
I divided the base into three equal portions, which I then processed together with the cheeses, one at a time. I kept the blue cheese and goat cheese versions as simple as possible, and added sun-dried tomatoes to the feta cheese for more interest and variety. After creating each cheese mixture, I transferred them to sealable containers and refrigerated until they were firm enough to roll.
Next, I created the actual spherical shapes by wrapping the cheese mixtures in plastic wrap and gently rolling them and molding them with my hands until they became perfectly round. At this point, I refrigerated them again so that they would keep their shape when rolled once more in the toppings.
For the blue cheese ball, I decided to make a crust of toasted chopped walnuts and tart pomegranate arils. I also toasted up some pinenuts which I then used to cover the feta and sun-dried tomato cheese ball. For the goat cheese ball, I opted to leave nuts out of the equation and instead used a variety of chopped herbs, fresh lemon zest, and a generous amount of freshly crushed black pepper.
Once the cheese balls are coated, you can serve them immediately with chips, crackers, or veggies, or save them for later in the refrigerator. They can be made up to three days in advance. Score one for avoiding the last-second scramble!
The simply updated trio will take off some of the stress of never-ending holiday cooking with the help of your food processor, and they will taste damn good while they're at it. There might not be hope for the jello-mold casseroles, but this refurbished retro recipe is one (or should I say three?) that's well-worth the revival.