Pimento Cheese: The Cookbook
50 Recipes from Snacks to Main Dishes Inspired by the Classic Southern Favorite
By Perre Coleman Magness, Jennifer Davick
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2014 Perre Coleman Magness
All rights reserved.
Pimento Cheese: A Love Story
Pimento Cheese is often called the paté of the South. Country classic and city chic. We Southerners serve it out of a tub with Saltines, or incorporate it into elegant hors d'oeuvres. Meat-and-threes and mom-and-pops sell it between slices of white bread, and upmarket restaurants serve it on platters with house-made charcuterie. It is ubiquitous and useful. It's good to have around when guests are visiting, and an excellent dish to take to a new mother or the recently bereaved.
I am told that pimento cheese is a decidedly Southern delicacy, one of the many and diverse foodways for which the land of my birth is known. I did not know this; not until about fifteen years ago, when I read that fact in a magazine. I, of course, knew about pimento cheese, I just assumed it was universal. You see, I did not grow up in a pimento cheese family. My mother was not a great fan, so it did not feature on our lunch or party menus. As a child, my only encounters with pimento cheese were blobs of red-spotted techno-orange wallpaper glue on white bread at some friend's house. It was the kind of pimento cheese spread purchased in plastic tubs from that top shelf in the dairy aisle, you know, next to the Limburger and neon yellow egg salad. That was my experience of pimento cheese, and I had no real interest in exploring its possible virtues. I also had a childhood adversity to mayonnaise, which in retrospect I cannot fathom. Ah, the years of wasted youth.
As an adult, I discovered that many people around me have strong opinions on pimento cheese: fond childhood memories of Grandma's homemade pimento cheese, or closely held secret ingredients that make their own family recipe unique. I couldn't help but be curious. Had I really missed something? Then the showers started to fall in my life—bridal showers, baby showers—almost nonstop for a large section of my twenties. Pimento cheese figured heavily at these events. It is considered easy to prepare, delicious, and something everyone likes. So I started to try the little finger sandwiches, or delicate molds of pimento cheese served with crackers, sometimes even celery sticks stuffed with the mix, and I had a revelation—it's good. Like stupid good. So I set out to become something of an expert.
Pimento cheese is immutable (cheese, pimentos, mayonnaise) and yet somehow permutable. At the heart of this is the fact that the flavor combination is a good one. Tangy sharp cheese, peppers with bite, but not heat, and creamy mayonnaise just work together—and wonderfully. So taking the flavor combination and applying it to other dishes just seems natural.
* A Brief History of Pimento Cheese *
Like any good Southern tale, pimento cheese has a storied past. It came to us as an exotic ingredient from far-off lands (Spain!), and cheese was expensive, so pimento cheese was the perfect way to outshine our lady friends at dainty teas and formal luncheons. But resourceful Southerners always find a way, and Georgia farmers started growing pimento peppers to bring down the price of our favorite sandwich.
But when the hard times hit, we dug into our deep inner reserves, swearing we would never go hungry again, and turned those simple sandwiches into a profit center during times of war and the Depression. Making sandwiches, craftily wrapped in grease paper, to sell to the workers at North Carolina cloth mills became an acceptable earner for housewives, a business that was still considered ladylike and charming. I imagine the proper pimento cheese purveyor could still wear her pearls to work. That's how Duke's Mayonnaise, the preferred pimento cheese binding agent, came into being—as a big hit on sandwiches sold by a genteel lady to soldiers during World War I.
The first mention of red peppers mixed with cheese in a recipe book appears to be in Mrs. Hill's Southern Practical Cookery and Receipt Book, originally published in 1867, which recommends adding pepper as a way to keep cheese fresh before the advent of refrigeration. It wasn't until around 1908, when the business of canning pimentos in the United States began, that recipes using them started to proliferate. Pimentos became a "fancy" ingredient, with their exotic whiff of distant lands. Everyone from Fanny Farmer to Mrs. R. S. Dull mentions them in many recipes. Not many early cookbooks have recipes for pimento cheese spread, and my surmise is that it was something so pedestrian, so automatic in the kitchen, that it did not merit a formal recipe.
My research into the subject leads me to lay out this history of pimento cheese. As with many iconic dishes, pimento cheese started out in home kitchens as cheese mixed with peppers and mayonnaise. But its popularity eventually led it to be commercially produced by the aforementioned female entrepreneurs, who took that homemade staple and turned it into income. These businesses grew and turned into going concerns that sold pimento cheese sandwiches, and then spread to the newly burgeoning supermarket chains. Big producers picked up on it. Cream cheese manufacturers outside the South added pimentos to their product to expand their offerings. When processed-cheese foods hit the scene, pimento was an obvious flavor to incorporate. But in homes across the South, people (mostly women) were still mixing up bowls of their own particular pimento cheese. As time moved on, Depression, war, the convenience-food craze, and the rise of gourmet foods changed the tastes of the buying public, and the popularity of those prepackaged sandwiches and "salads" like pimento cheese waned, but not at home, and not in the South. So many Southerners have such deeply ingrained memories of pimento cheese, that it was inevitable that chefs from the region who began to explore and celebrate the food of their homeland, rather than excoriate it as old-fashioned and out-of-date, turned to that little orange spread of their childhood. So the everyday staple of so many Southern homes had reached the status of food icon. It is no longer the province of small-town lunch counters, it's now often the most talked-about offering on Manhattan menus.
* Pimentos *
Pimento peppers, or Capsicum annuum to be exact, are small, vaguely heart-shaped red peppers. They made up part of the rarefied cargo carried back to Spain from the Americas, and they flourished in that country. I rarely find them here in any other form but jarred, though one grower at my local farmers' market sometimes has a small crop.
The first pimentos in the United States were commercially grown in California beginning in the early 1900s. Soon after, production started up in Georgia, which shortly thereafter eclipsed California in production. Some enterprising farmers set up canning facilities in many parts of the Southeast and pimentos ceased to be a rare delicacy, and became an everyday food commodity. The largest producer of canned and jarred pimentos started, and is still based in my home state of Tennessee. Thomas Moody Dunbar started selling pepper seeds to supplement his small teaching income during the Depression, then moved on to brined peppers and then to pimentos. The company expanded to California and North Carolina and bought up other producers, and now Moody Dunbar, Inc. is the prime pimento purveyor in the country.
For me, pimentos are the essential ingredient to pimento cheese. Without them, well, it's not pimento cheese. I know some chefs and cookbook writers, whom I admire greatly, roast red bell peppers and use them, and some folks substitute chipotles or poblanos and whatnot for the pimentos. While those may be delicious recipes, it just isn't pimento cheese.
* The Conversion Chart for Pimentos *
Throughout the book, I have chosen to list the measurements for pimentos as they are most commonly sold. They are readily found, sliced or diced, in 2-, 4-, and 7-ounce jars. A 4-ounce jar measures just under ½ cup, so if you are measuring from a different container, it is fine to use that amount. A 2-ounce jar is a heaping 2 tablespoons.
* I before E ... *
I have always spelled it this way—P-I-M-E-N-T-O—but I know that many recipes and magazines spell it P-I-M-I-E-N-T-O. I never really paid it much mind, but in the process of writing and researching this book, I thought it might be prudent to suss out the right spelling ... I couldn't. An online search produced results for both spellings, an informal Facebook poll swayed toward "pimento," but mostly said "who cares, do what you want." I was arguing that I spelled it with no i because that's how it appeared on the jars of pimentos I bought, until I took a second look and realized they do use that extra i. One online sources says pimiento is Spanish for "pepper" (pimento is the tree that allspice comes from), while others list both spellings in the same definition. I have a collection of old wooden boxes from different manufacturers that used to hold processed pimento cheese, and they are split on the spelling, too.
In the end, as I could find no definitive reason not to, I stuck with pimento, largely because everything I've ever written on the subject uses that spelling, and also to avoid a lot of editing. Besides, in the end, around these parts, no matter the spelling, it's all pronounced "puh-menna" anyway
* Paprika: The Pimento's Powdered Cousin *
Paprika is made from dried pimento peppers and is most popular in Hungary, where it features in traditional dishes like goulash. Hungarians are the masters of paprika, so many believe the best paprika is Hungarian and it is now widely available. Paprika comes in different varieties: sweet is the most common and what I specify in the majority of recipes. It is mild and deep. Hot paprika is spicy and made with the whole pimento pepper including the seeds. I find half-sharp paprika at Penzey's Spices, which is as it says, somewhere in between, and can be used if you like a little more bite. Smoked paprika, or pimentón, is a Spanish specialty made from pimento peppers that are smoked before being ground, and it also comes in mild and hot versions, though I prefer and specify the mild. Pimentón is smoked paprika that comes exclusively from the La Vera region of Spain.
Paprika doesn't have a long shelf life, and frankly, that's why most people probably think of it as only a decorative garnish because the paprika on the spice shelf has been there so long it has no real punch left. Buy small jars and replace them often. In my grandmother's house, it was a venial sin not to garnish a dish with a dash of paprika—sweet paprika, I should specify. This tradition originated in the days before the variety of paprika now on the market was available; no pimentón, no smoked paprika, no ten degrees of Hungarian hot or sweet, just paprika, in the McCormick jar with the green screw top. The folks at McCormick once wisely put out a series of ads in magazines charting the history of their spice packaging so you could figure out how old your spice collection was and throw out those over-two-decades-old bottles. That paprika jar at my grandmother's house didn't even make the chart.
* Cheese: Where Would We Be Without You? *
Cheddar cheese is the most traditional cheese used in pimento cheese. Indeed, some purists might argue that using anything is okay, but that's just plain wrong. I am okay pushing the boat out a little, as long as the anchor is good old cheddar.
Cheddar cheese was born in England, in the town of Cheddar. It dates back to the twelfth century, but became a mass-produced product in the mid-1800s. The production of cheddar-style cheese in America started in the Colonial days and grew with the Westward expansion and opening of cattle-grazing lands.
Originally, the color of cheddar cheese changed seasonally, based on the diet the cows consumed, so each season's production would vary in color. Naturally, cheddar cheese is a yellow color of no particular distinction. Eventually, most cheddar cheese was dyed using annatto seeds to keep that consistent color year-round. Producers of cheddar for large-scale markets upped the dye color to produce the bright orange we know today. Real English Cheddar, however, has a protected status from the European Union and can only be made in certain regions of England and must contain no colorings.
The degrees of cheddar cheese range from mild to extra sharp, and the distinction depends on age. The longer a cheese is aged, the sharper its taste. I specify in recipes which level I prefer. I truly believe that the best classic pimento cheese is made with two kinds of cheddar: the traditional bright orange and the white. I like a combination of extra-sharp, sharp, or medium to give bite.
Always, always grate the cheese to be used for pimento cheese from a fresh block of cheese. Pre-grated bagged cheeses have their place in the world, but this is not it. They are coated with an anticaking agent, which mixes with the mayonnaise and makes the whole affair gummy. A food processor works well for quick grating, a box grater is easier to clean, and pretty fast, too.
* Mayonnaise: Homemade or Store Bought? *
If you want to make good pimento cheese, the mayonnaise must be good. Homemade is wonderful, but let's be honest, that doesn't happen very often. I have discovered that people are fiercely devoted to their particular favorite brand of mayonnaise. I am a devoted fan of Duke's, but was raised on Hellman's, as Duke's was only introduced around here a few years ago.
The key is to look for a brand with as few ingredients as possible, and nothing you can't pronounce. Duke's is particularly good, because there is no added and unnecessary sugar. I make my preference known, but won't engage in the brand battle. Most people tell me they prefer the brand they do because it is what they grew up on, and that's a good enough answer for me. And I also know there are those who will fight me tooth and nail on this, but in my considered opinion, it must be mayonnaise—no sandwich spread, salad dressing, or whip of any kind. Added sugar, corn syrup, and chemicals have no place.
Here is my house-made recipe for mayonnaise, and it could not be simpler (see next page).
Makes 1 ¼ cups
2 LARGE EGG YOLKS
1 TABLESPOON FRESHLY SQUEEZED LEMON JUICE, OR WHITE WINE VINEGAR
¼ TEASPOON KOSHER SALT
1 CUP VEGETABLE OIL
Place the eggs in a food processor and add the lemon juice and salt. Process until combined. With the motor running, gradually add the oil in a thin, steady stream. Process until the mixture is creamy, thick, and emulsified. You will actually hear the food processor change sounds from smooth blending to a wet slapping sound. Scrape the mayonnaise into an airtight container. It will keep in the refrigerator for 3 days.
» Use a neutral-flavored vegetable oil like canola or grapeseed. Olive oil adds too distinct a flavor, which will compete with the pimento cheese.
» Homemade mayonnaise may not be as thick as store-bought, so add it in increments to your pimento cheese until you achieve your preferred consistency.
» Pimento cheese made with homemade mayonnaise will not stay fresh as long as that made with store-bought mayonnaise, only 3 days. Both, of course, need to be kept refrigerated.
I come from a gadget-loving father, and both my parents are very culinary- minded, so I have been using Cuisinart food processors since my teens. But it was only a few years ago that I discovered this handy tip: The machine has the lid with the feed tube, the big apparatus that fits down in the feed tube called the large pusher, and that has an open tube in the center, and the small pusher that fits in that tube. The small pusher has a little hole in the bottom called the drizzle hole. When making mayonnaise, fit the small pusher into the machine and pour the oil into it. The oil drips out in a perfectly steady stream.
* To Buy or Not to Buy *
This will perhaps be the most controversial section of the book—store-bought pimento cheese. There are many who believe it to be the culinary Antichrist and anathema to all that we hold holy. But there are also many who have the passion and history with pimento cheese who've never had anything but. When I told a Midwestern transplant friend I was working on a pimento cheese cookbook, she was utterly taken aback because she didn't realize it was something people make. She thought it was like M&Ms, a creation of the great industrial machine that could never be duplicated at home.
Since I have taken it as my sacred duty to research all the avenues of pimento cheese available to me, I feel I could not leave this debate out of the discussion. I have bought small-batch, locally made pimento cheese of all varieties, eaten every pimento cheese sandwich on every menu in town, begged it off restaurants that don't normally sell it off menu, and badgered waitresses to find out if it is made in the kitchen or comes on the truck. I have packed it in coolers and carried it home from road trips, and asked friends to do the same. And some of it is quite good. So if you find one you like, made by someone you like, by all means buy it, but you really must learn to make your own, fresh homemade version, too. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Pimento Cheese: The Cookbook by Perre Coleman Magness, Jennifer Davick. Copyright © 2014 Perre Coleman Magness. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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