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Puffy Cheese Sticks

As we dip our toes back into the sea of socializing, we need PPEs—Prepared Party Edibles—snacks that are ready to serve the moment the stars align. These flaky, cheddar-laced sticks make the perfect nibble—they are simple to prep and freeze, and then quickly bake into puffy little wands of cheesy goodness.

Before snack scientists created vacuum-packed rods of mozzarella so parents could dole out string cheese to kids, “cheese sticks” referred to these savory pastry hors d’oeuvres. Also known as cheese straws, they go back to the kitchens of the 1860s, with notable recipes in UK’s famed Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management (1861) and in Godey’s Magazine (October 1865) in the US. The recipe featured here is plenty old enough—I still go by the browned clipping I snipped from the Boston Globe in November 1977 and taped to an index card.

As far as I know, cheese sticks have never been a fad. But they are so hard to resist, they’ve lived through such trendy waves as brie en croute, bruschetta, and tapas. Maybe you’ve seen boxes of artisan cheese sticks alongside imported delicacies at your grocery store. I say, save your money and make these puffy, cheesy bites yourself.

Have I mentioned “puffy”?  Rolled-and-sliced dough can produce cheese sticks that are flat and crispy, but this recipe delivers puffy layers for a delicate flakiness. The puff in this recipe comes from adding cheese in stages, and then rolling out and folding the dough after each addition. It creates a fine layering of dough, or “lamination,” similar to what you get with puff pastry. Only when I first made puff pastry did I catch on that the secret to the cheese stick was this little bit of rolling and folding.  Of course, the egg yolk and baking powder probably don’t hurt in the rising.

To help confirm that “puffy makes perfect,” I tried a recipe for cheese straws from my 1931 edition of  Aunt Sammy’s Radio Recipes Revised. This cookbook came out of the wildly popular radio show where Uncle Sam’s wife Aunt Sammy, a clever creation of the US Department of Agriculture, gave out recipes for simple, inexpensive, nutritious and delicious meals that families could enjoy during hard times. In Aunt Sammy’s recipe, the dough gets rolled out only once, so, as suspected, the strips baked up crunchy like thin cheesy bread sticks. They’re tasty, but lack the delectable bite of the puffy cheese sticks. (For another take on this recipe, see “Aunt Sammy’s Radio Recipes Revised” Cheese Straws.)

But how much puff is enough? Puffy cheese sticks are so desirable that there is a movement—led by icons such as Ina Garten, Martha Stewart and Emeril—to skip making dough altogether and just use frozen, packaged puff pastry. While cheese sticks or twists made this way do puff up quite a bit (they are puff pastry, after all), I found they don’t save work, don’t improve the flavor, and they don’t lend themselves to freezing for on-demand baking later on. This recipephany makes cheese sticks that are quite puffy enough, thank you. And you don’t have to buy expensive packaged dough.

So, as the summer welcomes us outside, let’s look forward to being with friends, raising our glasses to good health, and munching together on these delightfully puffy cheese sticks.

Puffy Cheese Sticks

Adapted from The Boston Globe
Recommended: Pizza wheel, ruler

  • 2 cups flour
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • ¾ cup cold butter
  • 1 egg yolk
  • ¾ cup milk
  • 2 cups grated cheddar cheese (I use my favorite cheese, Trader Joe’s Unexpected Cheddar)

1. Mix flour, salt and baking powder in a bowl; cut in the butter (I use my fingers) until it is down to tiny lumps. In a small bowl, beat egg yolk with milk; mix with a fork into the flour mixture until it comes together into a ball of dough. Chill one hour.

2. On a lightly floured surface, roll out the dough into a square 1/8 inch thick. Sprinkle half the dough with half the cheese and fold over, sealing the edges. Fold in half and roll out ¼ inch thick. Sprinkle with the remaining cheese, seal, and repeat folding and rolling. Finally, fold dough in half twice and roll out to ¼ inch thick. (I get about a 12″ square.) Cut into strips (I use a pizza wheel) about ½ inch wide by 3 inches long. (NOTE: If the kitchen is warm and the dough gets too sticky to roll, don’t add much more flour. Put dough in the refrigerator to firm it up before finishing the rolling.)

3. Arrange the number you want to freeze in a container, with aluminum foil between the layers. Seal, label and freeze.

4. To serve immediately, place strips on a baking sheet an inch or so apart and bake in a preheated 425° oven 10 minutes or until delicately browned. Serve hot or cold. Refrigerate or freeze leftovers.

5. To bake frozen sticks, carefully remove the strips from the containers. Arrange on a baking sheet an inch or so apart and bake in preheated 425° oven 12 minutes, or until delicately browned. Serve hot or cold. Refrigerate or freeze leftovers.

6. Makes about 60-80 sticks.

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