Holiday Pinecone Cheeseball

Why is it that cheeseballs only really seem appropriate in the few weeks surrounding Christmas? Maybe it’s because I go to my aunt and uncle’s house every Christmas after an enormous dinner with my family and still somehow eat the better half of a pecan cheeseball with cracked pepper water crackers. Or perhaps it could be because a “cheeseball” is exactly the right word to describe what I feel like after several nights of eggnog and Christmas cookies and, uh, cheeseball. Yeah, that’s probably it.

But really, the other 50 weeks of the year could pass by and my mind would not once even consider a cheeseball. Then, Christmas rolls around and this is suddenly a thing. It doesn’t make sense because cheese in a constant in my life and I would gladly eat this all day, every day. But for future reference, at least there’s buzzfeed to remind me of plenty of other occasions where cheeseballs are suitable.

The holiday cheeseball I made this year was a mildly disturbing yet intriguing pinecone-shaped ball of all things delicious. I made it for a Christmas party my roommates and I held at our house last weekend. As expected, the cheeseball sat on the table for a good hour and a half before someone had the courage to attack it with the cheese spreader. And once that first move was made, the cheeseball lived a very short life thereafter, soon turning into a small pile of residual almonds.

It’s a simple, do-ahead appetizer with a shockingly small list of ingredients despite having a good deal of flavor. This Paula Deen special (shocker!) contains a triad of delicious fats – cream cheese, mayo, bacon – with just dill weed and scallion added in for flavor. After a night’s rest in the fridge, the whole mass just needs to be shaped into a pinecone-ish shape, and covered in almonds. I also sprayed it with edible metallic gold spray because, why not? And that’s it! My only regret was not having ritz crackers…next time.

Holiday Pinecone Cheeseball
Adapted slightly from Paula Deen via Amy Sedaris
Makes one awesome cheeseball

1¼ cup whole unsalted almonds
1 8oz package cream cheese
½ cup mayonnaise
4 crispy cooked bacon slices, crumbled
½ tsp. dill weed
3 scallions, chopped
salt and pepper, to taste
rosemary sprigs for garnish and crackers for serving

Preheat the oven to 300 degrees. Spread the almonds out on a cookie sheet and toast for 15 minutes. Once toasted, set aside to cool.

In a stand mixer, beat the cream cheese and mayo on medium speed until smooth, about 2 minutes. Add in the bacon, dill, scallions, salt, and pepper and mix to combine. Transfer to a container and chill overnight.

Before serving, use the cold cheeseball mixture to make a pinecone shape on a serving platter. Press the almonds into the cheeseball at a slight angle, beginning at the tapered end. Continue until the entire thing is covered.  Keep chilled until ready to serve. Garnish the top with sprigs of rosemary and serve with crackers.

Holiday Snack (CRACK)ers

Do you know what these little morsels are? These are possibly some of the most uniquely flavored, amazingly textured, little biscuits I’ve had…ever. That’s why the are (crack)ers. They’re drugs in snack form. They’re addicting to the point where you can’t ever seem to stop yourself from going for another sweet and savory crunchy bite. Yet, believe it or not, this is one addiction that you won’t regret making.  Because, despite the rich butteriness and the sweet, caramelized crispness of these crackers, they are VERY healthy. No fats and oils here. Just sweet dried figs, tons of nuts and seeds, woodsy rosemary, a dash of whole wheat, natural honey, and a lot of creamy, yet low-fat, buttermilk.

These crackers could possibly be a little bit of a lifesaver this Christmas season. Flavor-wise they are just as satisfying as the masses of cookies, sweets, and other naughty things you’ll be tempted with. Yet you will know that they are actually on the nice list. And with such a great crunch, they’ll be a real stress-reliever when the craziness of the holidays makes you feel like you could just…crack.

They are the easiest things to put together and the batter is pretty much assembled in one bowl. The whole process is a lot like making biscotti yet so much simpler and cleaner. The batter is split between two loaf pans and let to cook until golden and spongy. They cool completely, spend some time in the freezer to firm up and are then sliced into paper thin pieces before being toasted to nutty crispness in the oven.

The flavor is a little hard to describe. They definitely have sweetness from the honey that becomes almost molasses-like is it caramelized with the toasting. They also have they unusual tanginess from all of the buttermilk. A rich buttery smell permeates the whole house as it cooks, which strangely actually comes from the rosemary. Though herby there is a caramel-like undertone. It’s a smell that is reminiscent of fireplaces, cool, snow-dusted forests, and sweet toffees. And finally, the extraordinary number of figs and nuts adds lots of texture layers and rich toasty flavors.

There is a lot of potential for ways to top these crackers. We enjoyed them with chesees of all sorts; sharp, aged cheddar cheese, brie, smoked gouda, or a simple smear of mascarpone. Though I’m sure there are so many other uses for these. In fact, I almost liked them best plain. I am also really interested in swapping out some other ingredients for other to make an apricot, pistachio, cardamom crackers or dried cherry, pecan, and thyme, maybe even candied orange, almond, and tarragon. The possibilities seem endless. I hope you try these out in your own home and even consider them as a nice gift along with some cheese and snack bowls.

Holiday Snack (CRACK)ers
Makes about 70 crackers
adapted very slightly from Seven Spoons

Note: It can be a little hard to tell when these are done toasting because they stay soft while in the oven and don’t crisp up completely until after cooling. So, I would start at 15 minutes per side and if they still seem a little softer after cooling, pop them back in the oven for five minutes at a time until they reach good crispiness. But be careful not to burn them! Also, if they start to get soft after a few days form air moisture (if they last that long) you can again place them back in a 250 degree oven for 5-7 minutes, let them cool, and they will be perfect again.

½ cup chopped walnuts
¼ cup pepitas (pumpkin seeds)
1½ cups all-purpose flour
½ cup whole-wheat flour
2 tsp. baking soda
1½ tsp salt
2 cups buttermilk
¼ cup brown sugar
¼ cup light honey
1 cup chopped dried figs
¼ cup shelled sunflower seeds
¼ sesame seeds
1½ tsp finely chopped rosemary

Preheat the oven for 350 degrees and grease two 9 by 5 inch loaf pans with butter or cooking spray.

Place the walnut pieces and the pepitas on a baking sheet and toast in the oven for 10 minutes. Set aside to cool.

In a large mixing bowl, combine the flours, baking soda and salt. Add in the brown sugar, honey, and buttermilk and stir with a wooden spoon until just combined. Add the toasted nuts and the rest of the ingredients and stir to mix them in.

Divide between the two pans and bake about 35-40 minutes until golden and the top springs right back when you lightly poke it. Remove from the pans and leave to cool. Once fully cooled, wrap them up well and place them in the freezer until firm. This makes it much easier to slice and actually, it lets you slice up however many crackers you want to make at a time and leave the rest of the loaf in the freezer for later.

For the toasting, heat the oven to 300 degrees. Slice the frozen loaves into ¼ inch (or even a little less if you can) pieces and place them in one layer on a cookie sheet. Bake them for 15 minutes on one side, flip the crackers over, and then 15 minutes on the other side. Cook on a wire rack. Again, if they are too soft, continue to toast at 5-minute intervals until very crunchy.