In the realm of storied southern delicacies, cheese straws rank right up there with mint juleps, coffee cake and cornbread. Many of us have a favorite: one we call the best ever. Some guard the recipe as if it were the secret to Coca-Cola; others share proudly.
Recently I had the opportunity to learn the secrets of making Alma Abernathy’s famous cheese straws, the taste of which I have tried to duplicate over the years. No southern cookbook is complete without a cheese straw recipe, but whenever I made and compared them to my childhood memory of Alma’s, those recipes fell short.
Alma is the 95-year-old mother of my charter posse pal, aCa. Alma got the recipe from the old Franklin Simon Department Store’s Tea Room and has been making them for over 60 years.
They were a staple in her entertaining repertoire, and I have fond memories of them from picnics at their lake house and post-dance gatherings growing up.
Over the years I have asked for the recipe but was told by both mother and daughter that it was one of those recipes better taught in person. Good fortune smiled upon me recently when our calendars collided in Atlanta, and aCa, jSl and I had a date to learn the finer points of making this addictive nosh. The recipe is successful if you stick to the instructions.
follow the directions exactly or they aren’t worth diddly.
So don’t try any shortcuts. Set aside a chunk of time, invite a few friends over and enjoy the process.
1 pound extra sharp cheddar cheese, hand grated
7/8 cup butter (2 sticks less 1 tablespoon) at room temperature
1 Tablespoon Tabasco sauce
2 1/2 teaspoons salt
1 tablespoon paprika
4 cups self-rising flour
There is nothing secret in the ingredients. Almost all recipes call for some variation of them. I do think using the self-rising flour is key. The real secret, though, lies in the technique.
Blend spices in a separate bowl.
Add spice blend to cheese and knead with hands.
Add flour about a cup at a time and continue to knead by hand.
Add butter and continue to knead.
Tip: do not be tempted to shortcut the kneading and use an electric mixer to hasten the mixing process.
When the dough feels and looks like sugar cookie dough,
divide it into four balls. At this point the dough can be refrigerated for one day. If you do so, remove the dough from the fridge and bring to room temperature before continuing.
Flatten a ball by hand on to parchment paper to about 3/4″ thickness and it is solid enough to turn over by hand. Continue to knead and turn over until the cracks in the dough are eliminated.
Then flatten with a rolling pin to 1/4″ thick.
With a fluted pastry wheel, cut the dough into strips about 3/8” width (cover a ruler in plastic wrap to make a straight cut guide).
Using a 3×5 index card as a measuring guide, cut into 3” strips one at a time, flip over so the flat side faces up and place on a buttered cookie sheet.
Bake at 400° for 9 to 10 minutes.
The cheese straws freeze well. A batch of this recipe yields a whole mess of them (approximately 100 straws) depending on the size of the straw you make. You’ll have plenty to share.
Unlocking the secrets to Alma’s Cheese Straws not only checked an item off my bucket list, it also provided an opportunity to bond with friends, learn from a wise and witty mother and preserve this heirloom recipe for future generations. Talk about a priceless afternoon.
June 5, 2015