Monday, November 12, 2007

Elka Eckfield's Cheese Ball

In combing through the Appetizers, Soups & Sauces section of the recipe file, I stumbled on a recipe that I think is even better than the Liptauer or Mushroom Hors d’Oeuvres. Elka Eckfield’s Cheese Ball. Looking at the recipe, it perfectly encompasses everything about the kind of cooking that symbolizes its era.

Dick and Elka Eckfield lived across the street from my parents when I was in preschool. They had a daughter named Tammy, and there was a sort of subtle three-cornered rivalry between me, Tammy and a third little girl on the street, Victoria. Inasmuch as we were only two or three years old at the time, there wasn’t much malice or venom involved, but I remember some hurt feelings here and there. I think our mothers may have had some influence—my recollection is that my own mother was very fond of Victoria’s mother, but not so fond of Elka (although apparently she was sufficiently tolerant of her to get her recipe for cheese ball and keep it for 30+ years).

The other thing that’s notable about the Eckfields is that they had another daughter when I was about two and a half or three, and I remember that being the first time I recognized that families could have more than one child. I was an only child, Victoria was an only child (her mother had a son from a previous relationship, but he was quite a bit older than Victoria, and didn’t live with his mother, so for all intents and purposes, she was an only child). When Tammy’s little sister Monica was born, I remember not being able to comprehend having a younger sibling. It just didn’t make sense, somehow. In later years I was to long for a sibling, but at the time I just couldn’t get my head around the concept. Here was this baby, and it was never going away. It wasn’t like it just came to visit. It was theirs. Forever. Now to return to the topic at hand.

Cheese balls are classic 1970s food to me. This one especially, by virtue of the ingredients in it, just screams 70s. It tries to be sophisticated and gourmet, but it just can’t resist the siren call of “convenience” products. I had a conversation with my grandmother about cheese balls and she said she’d had some recipes for them that called for, oh, a little mustard, or maybe some Worcestershire sauce, and those don’t sound too bad to me. Or maybe they just don’t sound too bad in contrast to the recipe Elka gave my mother. This recipe has but three ingredients.

Aren’t they lovely? They are, from left to right, Roquefort cheese, cream cheese, and a jar or process cheddar cheese spread. (And let me note for the record that the name of the product is, in fact, Process Cheddar Cheese Spread not processed; I have a hard time with this, because I feel it’s grammatically incorrect, but I’m not going to bother arguing with Kraft about what they call this stuff.) I had no difficulty finding the Roquefort or the cream cheese, but the jar of process cheese spread had me flummoxed. I looked all over the store. I suspected it might be with things like canned oysters and sardines. Nope. Then I checked over by pimentos, capers, and Other Oddities Packed in Vinegar. Not there. Finally I was reduced to asking where to find the Jarred Process Cheese Spread. I felt the way I’m sure fifteen year old boys do when they’re buying condoms for the first time. Or, come to think of it, the way fourteen year old girls feel when they’re buying tampons. You hope that the person you’re asking, or who’s checking you out, doesn’t think they’re for you. You hope very hard to convey the impression that these are for your mom, or your friend; you wouldn’t need anything like this.

Here’s the exchange between me and Jamie, the very nice inventory clerk at Central Market:

Me: Hi, I wonder if you can help me find something…

Jamie: Sure, what is it?

Me: Well, this is kind of embarrassing, and I can’t actually ask for this without cringing, but, uh, do you carry jarred process cheese spread?

Jamie: [pointing straight ahead of where we’re standing] Sure, right down there by the crackers on the top shelf; see it?

Me: [smiling] No, because I don’t have my glasses on, but I’m sure as I get closer to it, it’ll come into focus. Thank you!

Jamie: No problem.

It took every ounce of my reserve not to explain just why I wanted jarred process cheese spread (“You see, I write this blog…”) because I knew he didn’t really care. And as hard as I hoped he would think it wasn’t for me—maybe I had some wacky neighbor for whom I was picking up a couple of things—of course he knew it was. So I bucked up and moved on.

Now we come to the actual making of the thing. First of all, I kind of stretched the truth when I said there were only three ingredients. There are really four, with the fourth being a cup of ground pecans. The instructions say to have all the cheeses at room temperature, and then mix them together. The original recipe has all sorts of strange underlines (converted to italics for the purposes of this post) by way of emphasis.

“When all cheese are soft—mix them together well—put in refrig till a little cool
then form a ball on wax paper—after ball is formed roll in pecans—cover all of outside.
Carefully wrap in wax paper—place in bowl or similar container—keep in refrig.
Can make ahead a week.”

I left the cheeses out on the counter for about an hour to soften; and then used my mixer to combine them well.

Then I put the whole thing in the refrigerator and let it cool until the next day. This had more to do with my schedule than my concern for getting the ingredients really cool. It worked out fine, however. When I removed the bowl from the refrigerator, I realized I didn’t have wax paper, only parchment paper. Despite this obvious departure from the instructions, I was successful in forming the cheese into a ball. What the directions don’t say is what to use to make this ball. I looked at the pile of mixed cheeses on the paper and realized that the only thing that was going to cut it was my hands. I have no aversion to using my hands in cooking, but somehow the idea of molding cheese with my hands seemed odd. Hamburgers, sure; biscuit or bread dough, naturally; cheese? Weird. I guess it’s because in the normal course of cooking, one doesn’t usually shape cheese. I’ve made molds that used cheese, but I spread the cheese into the mold with a spatula.

Once I had formed the ball, I rolled it in the pecans I had ground up in the blender. This created more of a pecan dust, but I wanted to stay as true to preparation methods from the time as possible. I know for a fact that my mother didn’t have a food processor in 1973 (if in fact anyone did), and she would have ground her pecans in the blender. In any event, the pecan dust adhered to the cheese ball with no difficulty.

What I did wonder as I was rolling my cheese ball around in the pecan powder was just how many people this thing was intended to serve. The card gives no indication of how many servings might be intended from the proportions given. I made a half recipe and the resulting ball was the size of a softball. I’m a little afraid to think of how big a full recipe would be. I only made a half recipe because I didn’t want to be eating cheese ball for the next six months, the Roquefort cheese was $9 as it was (for a little over 3 ounces), and the jar of process cheese spread I bought was only 5 ounces, as opposed to the 10 ounces called for in the recipe.

Here’s the finished product:

This really didn’t taste like much other than Roquefort cheese. You could hardly tell the cheese spread was in there, which was kind of disappointing. I mean, if you’re going to make a recipe using something as low rent as jarred process cheddar cheese spread, you sort of expect it to have some presence, some reason for being in there, other than to ensure that you get your RDA of things like sodium phosphate and apocarotenal (color).

But cheese balls were very popular. I suspect because they came together quickly (without chilling time, it took me just under a half an hour to make this one), served a lot of people (in the case of Elka’s, I think a full recipe would serve half the population of Kansas, by conservative estimate), would be fairly cheap to make for a large group (mine cost about $15, and would easily have fed 15 or 20 people), and required little in the way of fancy serving equipment. They can be set out at room temperature, and about the only other things you need are crackers and a cheese spreader. In the past few years I’ve heard that cheese balls were out (evidently Ruth Reichel made that declaration in an interview), and that they were in (Amy Sedaris, the actress and sister of the hysterically funny David, apparently has a business that makes them and delivers them all over Manhattan with great success). I suspect Ms. Sedaris’s cheese balls are better than mine, because based on my own experience with this one, I can’t see why anyone would bother with them.

To conclude this I will tell you two things—first, that the cheese ball never really saw the light of day after it was rolled in pecans and photographed. I put it back in the refrigerator to keep (until when, I have no idea), and because my fridge is so small and crappy, I was forced to kind of balance the plate on some other things, and the next time I opened the door to get something out, it rolled off the plate and fell on the floor. It hit with a solid “thud” and I scooped it up and tossed it in the trash can. My husband asked me yesterday how it had turned out, and I explained its flavor and its fate. He said he would have liked to have tried it, just to see what it was like. I admitted that I could have just cut off the part that hit the floor (because it just dropped, it didn’t roll across the kitchen or anything), but that I looked at the fact that it had fallen on the floor as an excuse to toss it. Second, the jar that the process cheese spread comes in, once the label is removed, makes a surprisingly attractive little vase for a large bunch of short-stemmed flowers. I can’t say that I would have bought the spread just for that, but it’s a nice side note, and a bright side of having to buy the stuff in the first place.

And here, for anyone who wants to make this, are the proportions of the ingredients as written, along with the instructions rewritten and with emphasis removed:

6 oz. Roquefort cheese
10 oz jar process cheddar cheese spread
12 oz. cream cheese (or 4 – 3oz. packages)
1 cup ground pecans

When all cheeses are soft, mix them together well. Chill until somewhat firm. Using your hands, form a ball on wax or parchment paper, then roll the ball in the ground pecans, covering the outside of the ball well. Wrap the ball in wax paper and place in a bowl (or skip the wax paper and just place the ball on a plate), and refrigerate. Can be made up to a week in advance.

Serves probably 30 people.


E said...

My family has a similar recipe with 2 differences. We use grated sharp cheddar instead of the process spread. And since nuts kill my sister, mom rolls it in paprika. And my whole family LOVES it. Well, except for the time mom accidentally used chili powder instead of paprika. Had it hit the floor in my house, nothing would have been cut off or thrown out. But then we're clearly all cheese-aholics.

On a related note, my grandma has a recipe that uses the bacon flavored Kraft process cheese spread, in an egg/sausage breakfast casserole she used to make for the occasional holiday brunch. Also tasty. Sadly, I can no longer find it in the store, though the Kraft site says they still make it.

Breakfast casseroles also seem like a 70's food. Though not as much as jell-o molds with vegetables and mayo or cool whip in them. NASTY!

Other interesting thing I learned: Kraft apparently has 415 products with the word "cheese" in the name. And I have no cheese in my lunch today. How sad am I?

TD said...


Make this (sans nuts, of course, if your sister is going to be around to try it) and tell me if you still think you'd have kept it. The flavor is just so...nothing. I mean, not that Roquefort cheese isn't good, but it just wasn't special, you know? It might have made a good sandwich spread, I'll give it that.

Breakfast casserole IS a 70s food, and I expect we'll see one of those later on (in the Omelets & Casseroles section). However, I can safely say that I will not, even as a joke/experiment/blog project be making a jell-o mold with fruit, vegetables and/or mayo in it. No!

415 products--well, that IS a useful bit of trivia, isn't it. Filing that away for future reference :)

Now, go get some cheese!


Bellini Valli said...

If I had a dollar for every cheese ball that showed up at special occasionas and potlucks over my lifetime I would be a rich woman. Ha! They are always good and always fool proof. I imagine that Cheeze Whiz could be used in this particular recipe. I'd say that is our Canadian version of the Processed Cheese Spread or we also have a cheese that is called "cold pack" cheese that is more piquantly flavoured.

TD said...

I've seen fewer cheese balls of late--more cheese and crackers kinds of things. But I hear they're all the rage again, so who knows, I may start to see them all over! The Cheeze Whiz here in the States is more of a semi-liquid product. How they get it to remain in a semi-liquid state at room temperature is probably something I don't want to know! I'm sure it involves Better Living Through Chemistry :)