Pimento cheese is as Southern as grits, fried chicken, catfish and belles. The orange and red cheese mixture has been a staple of Southern tables and lunch boxes for generations.
In the 16 states south of the Mason-Dixon Line, you’ll find a jar of the homemade stuff sharing refrigerator shelf with other perennial denizens such as ketchup, mustard, barbecue sauce and jam. Most Yankees are only vaguely aware of this icon of the South. If they are, it could be because the pimento cheese sandwich takes a turn in the spotlight once a year as the most traditional offering on the menu at the Augusta Masters Golf Tournament, held this year from April 6-9.
Pimento cheese is primarily a sandwich spread, simple and delicious, a mix of cheddar cheese, pimento peppers, mayonnaise, salt and pepper. (Pimentos are a variety of mild chili pepper called “cherry peppers.” They are even sweeter than bell peppers and very mild.)
After that, few agree on additions and variations to the basic recipe and the customizing begins. Should you use Hellmann’s mayo or the Southern favorite, Duke’s mayonnaise. Should the finished product be smooth or chunky?
What about adding bacon, onions, garlic, cayenne, pickles and jalapenos, cream cheese, another kind of cheese or both? Add a pinch of sugar? Are you kidding me? Most cooks agree that it’s best to make the base recipe the first time, then proceed with caution. Even so, mine will always be better than yours, yours will always be better than mine and nobody makes it better than (insert any old name here).
Bottom line: there is no true recipe, and there’s no accounting for taste.
One thing every cook can agree on, however, is that pimento cheese must be homemade. Avoid pre-made types in grocery store cold cases. They can have up to 30 components including something called “American cheese imitation,” corn syrup and stabilizers. Worse, they can be Day-glo, slimy and taste awful.
The ways to eat pimento cheese are many. Spread between two slices of soft white commercially made bread, crusts cut off, or not. Or spread on toasted slices of hearty country bread or English muffins, then run under the broiler to get melty and gooey. Make any grilled cheese sandwich, but spread the outside slices with mayo instead of butter for a delicious change.
Set out a crock with a small spatula and spread on crackers or fill the channels of celery sticks. Bake the stuff in a casserole for a spicy cheese dip. Add a blob to baked potatoes. Raise the bar on burgers and omelets. Eat it for lunch, for a snack or spoon it right out of the jar. And damn if it isn’t good.
Some say that the origins of pimento cheese began on Southern farms sometime in the early 1900s. Of course, back then the mixture would have been made by hand. Today most people just toss the ingredients into a food processor, and while that’s efficient, both flavors and ingredients lose distinction in a smear of homogeneity. I’m old school, because I think when cheese is grated by hand and other ingredients are gently mixed in, the chunkier spread retains its distinctive colors and flavor integrity.
Then there’s the argument over the spelling of the spread. Northerners favor pimento, Southerns prefer pimiento with an “i” and usually pronounce it “pimmena cheese.”
For deeper research in this complicated subject, read the tirades, pronouncements and preferences of Southern food writers John T. Edge, Virginia Willis and Nathalie Dupree. Then you decide. Which is it, food fight or comfort food?
THE LEE BROTHERS’ PIMENTO CHEESE
There are more complicated recipes, but none better. This version is the easiest, longest lasting and most traditional. Cheese grates easiest when cold. Spread the mixture on crackers, trowel it on white bread for sandwiches, stuff into celery sticks, make grilled cheese, top a burger or baked potato. Make it a day ahead, and the flavor improves.
8 ounces extra-sharp Cheddar cheese, grated with a food processor or hand-grater (never pre-grated)
1/4 cup softened cream cheese (2 ounces, pulled into several pieces)
Scant 1/2 cup jarred pimento or roasted red peppers (from a 7-ounce jar, finely diced
3 tablespoons mayonnaise, Duke’s or Hellmann’s or any high-quality store-bought mayonnaise
1/2 teaspoon dried red chili flakes
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
In a large mixing bowl, place the cheddar cheese in an even layer. Scatter the cream cheese, pimentos, mayonnaise and chili flakes over the cheddar cheese. Using a spatula, mix the pimento cheese until it is smooth and spreadable, about 1 1/2 minutes.
Transfer the pimento cheese to a jar, plastic container or bowl, cover tightly and store in the fridge. Pimento cheese keeps in the fridge about 1 week.
Makes about 1 1/2 cups.
— Adapted from cookbook authors Matt and Ted Lee, The New York Times
AUGUSTA NATIONAL’S MASTERS GOLF-STYLE PIMIENTO CHEESE SANDWICH
At the Augusta Masters Golf Tournament, the most traditional menu offering is the pimiento cheese sandwich, and note the Southern spelling. The mixture is spread on soft white, spongy supermarket-type bread, wrapped in green (of course) waxed paper and costs just $1.50. The actual recipe is a big secret, but according to golfers, this version is close.
3 cups shredded white cheddar cheese
2 cups shredded sharp yellow cheddar cheese
4 ounce crumbled blue cheese
1 cup shredded Parmesan cheese
1 (4-ounce) jar sliced pimentos, drained
1 cup light mayonnaise
2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
1 loaf of white, grocery store soft bread
Combine cheeses, pimentos, mayo and mustard in a food processor and process until smooth. Cover and chill. Spread on bread slices.
Makes a lot of sandwiches.
— “Par 3 Tea-Time at the Masters” by the Junior League of Augusta, Ga.
HOT AND SPICY PIMENTO CHEESE BAKE
Get out fondue forks or solid toothpicks and start dipping. This is hearty and filling. Make it for tailgating or halftime fare.
1 1/2 cups mayonnaise
1/2 (12-ounce) jar pimentos, drained and chopped
1/4 cup sliced scallions
1 jalapeno pepper, seeded and minced
8 ounces extra-sharp cheddar cheese, shredded
8 ounces pepper jack cheese, shredded
Cilantro leaves (optional)
French bread cubes
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Stir together the first four ingredients in a large bowl; stir in cheeses. Spoon mixture into a lightly greased baking dish.
Bake for 20 to 25 minutes or until dip is golden and bubbly. Garnish with cilantro leaves, if you like. Serve with French bread cubes for dipping.
— Southern Living magazine
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