08 April 2016

Pimento cheese

Last week a friend who lives in northern Virginia wrote to me and asked me what I knew about the Southern U.S. specialty called "pimento cheese." She said she had ordered grilled pimento cheese sandwiches in two different restaurants in the Charlotte N.C. area and had found the pimento cheese mixture to be pretty hot and spicy.

I told her I wasn't surprised to hear that pimento cheese has been spiced up by the addition of cayenne pepper or maybe some roasted chili peppers by younger chefs these days. It's the style now. When I was growing up, pimento cheese was a staple in our house and it wasn't spicy at all, but slightly sweet because of the roasted sweet bell peppers (or pimientos) in it and because the mayonnaise used in the mixture was slightly sweet too. I saw a quote from a well-known North Carolina novelist saying that pimento cheese was "the peanut butter of his household" when he was growing up decades ago.

After all that, I set out to make some pimento cheese myself. It had been years since I had made or even eaten it, because even in regions outside the South in the U.S. it's rarely seen, and I haven't lived in North Carolina since the early 1970s. My mother used to make pimento cheese, of course, but now she doesn't because she has an allergy to bell peppers. Here in France, what cheese would I use? In the U.S., it's made with orange-colored cheddar, which I've never seen here.

There is at least one orange-colored cheese here, though. It's called mimolette [mee-moh-LET] and it's made in France and in the Netherlands. Mimolette is a cow's milk cheese that comes in several styles, from young, fresh, and soft to aged, dry, and hard. When I went to the cheese counter at the supermarket, I found a fresh mimolette and then I noticed a mimolette demi-vieille. In other words, it's aged mais pas trop, so it's medium style. I decided that a combination of fresh and the entre-deux mimolette would be right for pimento cheese. (I also think it would be good made with a mixture of cantal and mimolette cheeses.)

So what is pimento cheese anyway? It's a cheese spread made with grated cheese, roasted and diced red bell peppers (poivrons rouges), and a little bit of mayonnaise to serve as a binder and make it all into a spreadable mass. Americans in different regions have been making and eating it in sandwiches at least since the 1870s, from what I've read. Here's a history of pimento cheese that I think is interesting because it explains how the product, after being invented in New York, became a specialty in the American South.

What I did was grate the two wedges of cheese in the food processor using the fine blade. There was about 500 grams of cheese in all — just over a pound. I diced up about 200 grams (7 oz.) of roasted sweet red peppers. Then I put all that in the bowl of a stand mixer and added about a third of a cup of mayonnaise and another third of a cup of cream cheese (fromage à tartiner, "spreading cheese," is a so-called "Philadelphia-style" cream cheese that I can get here nowadays in any supermarket). I used a combination of mayonnaise and cream cheese because it just sounded more appetizing to me than mayonnaise only

I could have made fresh mayonnaise, but since I needed so little for the recipe I decided not to. A third of a cup is just 5 or 6 tablespoons. Pimento cheese is not cooked, so you can make it up and adjust the quantity of mayo or cream cheese that you want in it to get the desired consistency. Add black pepper, some salt, some cayenne pepper to taste, and even some finely diced onion or garlic, as you will.

Spread the pimento cheese on slices of bread or on crackers to make either sandwiches or a finger food for snacks or apéritifs. You can make a grilled cheese sandwich with it, as we did. And I've read that people put it on ground beef patties to make a pimento-cheese cheeseburger. I haven't tried that yet but plan to soon.

As always, you can click or tap on the pictures to open them at a larger size in a new window.

29 comments:

LaPré DelaForge said...

The cheese has just gone on the shopping list....
we've got the peppers and the last of a large jar of Benedicta that needs finishing....
but where do you get your "proper" bread?
And orange cheddar is yellow cheddar with added food dye and is always mild cheddar!!
Anyway... mimolette tastes better than mild cheddar.
How are you storing the bulk of it?

Diogenes said...

Ken, this post sure brought back fond memories. Growing up in Dallas, Texas, in the 1960s this was a household staple. The Texas version was sweet and slightly hot (of course). My mother used to slather it on white bread for our school lunches, and we always had a container in the fridge. Comfort food. ;-)

Ken Broadhurst said...

I just have the remaining pimento cheese in a covered container in the fridge. We'll eat it up over the next three or four days. You could always make a half recipe if you think it won't be consumed rapidly enough. And, sorry to say, I think both the cheeses I bought had preservatives in them, as does the mayonnaise and cream cheese...

I just bought a loaf of "industrial" pain de mie (extra-moelleux, the label said, at Netto, where I found the cheeses. The pimento cheese would be good on Jacob's crackers, if you can get those. We often find them at SuperU in Saint-Aignan.

Most pimento cheese recipes call for sharp or even extra-sharp cheddar. There's no reason it couldn't be white cheddar. Or cantal, maybe a mixture of jeune or entre-deux and vieux.

Ken Broadhurst said...

We always had pimento cheese in the fridge too. I remember thinking at one point that it was too sweet, but that was probably the mayonnaise as much as anything. I think Dukes mayonnaise is the best you can buy, and of course you can make your own. Also, using half cream cheese and half mayo cuts down on the sweetness too. I'm thinking of putting a couple of diced up chipotles (in adobo) into the next batch, or even adding some to what we have left, just as an experiment.

chm said...

Would it last longer if you didn't use homemade mayo, but cream instead? Would the taste be quite different?

Ken Broadhurst said...

Just use Philadelphia-style cream cheese instead of mayonnaise. Make half a recipe and you won't have the pimento cheese sitting around for too long.

Most people don't know that "Philadelphia" cream cheese is not from Pennsylvania but from a village of the same name in New York State. The dairy farmer's plan back in the 1800s was to make a cheese like the Neufchâtel you get in Bray in Normandy, but he didn't do it right and ended up with cream cheese. That's why some cream cheese in the States is called Neufchatel.

Ken Broadhurst said...

I should add that the mayonnaise in pimento cheese is less for flavor than for consistency, so cream cheese works just fine. And you can buy little jars of pimentos at the supermarket in the U.S., I'm sure. I used roasted sweet red peppers in a jar (imported from Turkey).

chm said...

Thank you for the information about Philadelphia. I didn't know this one was in New York state and not in PA. I regularly use cream cheese to replace butter and milk in mashed potatoes and sweet potatoes. It works fine.

melinda said...

there are some brands that add jalapenos too, and that one is pretty tasty....this spicy version is called "Palmetto cheese"

Nadia said...

I have never heard of this cheese but then I grew up in South Africa. I will be trying this and will be adding a dash of extra spice to kick it up a notch.

Nadia said...

I am going to try that.

Evelyn said...

This is my favorite store bought pimento cheese made in Pawley's Island, SC I think. http://www.pimentocheese.com/about-pimento-cheese.php
I like tomato with it. It is often served around here stuffed into celery. In Louisville we also had a cucumber cream cheese dyed green called Benedictine spread, which is good on a hot summer day.

Thickethouse.wordpress said...

This sounds delicious....Hungarians make something called korozott (which just means "mixed" and should have umlauts over the "o"s) and every family has its own version. But there is always paprika in it. I think I will try chopped peppers next time I do this.

"Korozotthttp://zsuzsaisinthekitchen.blogspot.com/2012/02/hungarian-cheese-spread-liptoi-korozott.html

Ken Broadhurst said...

I see that Palmetto Cheese makes a version with bacon in it. Walt and I had bacon on our pimento cheese sandwiches.

Madonna/aka/Ms Lemon of Make Mine Lemon said...

That is very interesting that your Mother is allergic to peppers. I don't eat any orange cheese any more. It seems I am sensitive to the coloring - they use annatto seeds. I would hate to become sensitive to cheese, that would just be a tragedy. :)

btw, after 4 tries I have successfully learned to make mayonnaise, thank you very much. I really needed the success since I am allergic to soy and soy in some form is in everything.

Emm said...

Hmmmm. I had no idea it was a southern specialty. I remember eating it as a child growing up in New England. Of course, it was southern New England, but still . . .
I think our version was rather more bland than yours, however.

Ken Broadhurst said...

Walt, who grew up in Albany NY, tells me he never heard of pimento cheese untill he met me and went to N.C. a few times.

Ken Broadhurst said...

Yes, my mother can't eat tomatos or peppers or even apples -- a lot of fruits and vegetables, because of allergies. She also can't have chemical yellow food coloring. And yes, cheeses and butter are colored with annatto, also called roucou. I'm glad your mayonnaise came together. Only four tries isn't bad.

Ken Broadhurst said...

That's very interesting and I'm going to make some körözött with local Loire Valley fresh goat cheese soon. I have plenty of paprika -- hot, smoked, mild. I think a combination of those plus some diced roasted red sweet peppers might be really good.

Ken Broadhurst said...

Philadelphia is a village near Watertown, NY, up north near the Canadian border (Ontario).

Ken Broadhurst said...

Tim, it is not true in America that orange cheddar is always mild. Look at this Tillamook Cheese company page. Tillamook makes good cheddar out in Oregon and this sharp-flavored, aged cheese is colored with annatto. Orange cheddar is so common in America that the cheddars that are not orange are labeled as "white cheddar" while the orange ones don't have a color specified on the label.

Ken Broadhurst said...

Emm, look at this web page that a friend in California just sent me.

LaPré DelaForge said...

We just had this... it has been pronounced as good...made half your quantity...it'll keep us going for 3 or 4 years!!
200gms pre-raped cheese [Maasdam, Mozzarella and Emmental] to which I added 40gms Scottish "cheddar" from LeClerc [our Wykes having just run out...]
100gms Philly-style cheese [LeClercs again...]
2 servingspoons of Benedicta
Two roasted red peppers, salt and peppa...
a dollop of Dijon, a touch of Pimenton "El Angel" smoked Hot Paprika...
describes itself as "picante" on the tin...
it is in fact hotter than Cayenne...
but the flavour is all paprika...
put the garlick on the bread.
Lovely!!

Most commercial cheese will have a preservative in it...
makes sense from the producers' point of view...
what I am allergic to is the accelerants used to pre-age / speed-age some types of cheese...especially commercial cheddar.
Haven't had Jacob's Cream Crackers for ages...
I've seen them on the SuperU English shelves...
but my wallet has rebelled and asked "HOW MUCH....you can not be serious!"
Besides, there are some very nice Jewish matzo crackers available at a much more amenable price!

chrissoup said...

My mother was fond of pimento cheese, but I had no idea anyone ever made it at home. Ours came from the store in a jar that could be used as a juice glass when empty.

Emm said...

That's interesting, although the Times piece doesn't explain the "northern roots" comment. I seem to remember it being made with pimento, the stuff they put into green olives, and more like a cream cheese. I like your version better.

Ken Broadhurst said...

The link within my post points to a page about the history of pimento cheese and its northern roots.

Ken Broadhurst said...

What you made sounds good but it doesn't sound like pimento cheese. You know how it is when you grew up eating something. My goal was to make a pimento cheese that would take me back to my childhood.

As for Jacob's crackers, they cost less than 1.25 € a pack at our SuperU. I saw them in Leclerc at Perrusson (I think) one day a few months ago and you're right, they were much more expensive. We find Jacob's affordable compared to Carr's crackers.

I added some hot sauce from North Carolina — it's called Texas Pete "Hotter Hot Sauce" — to our pimento cheese yesterday before we ate some for lunch. That kicked it up a notch and we enjoyed it.

Ken Broadhurst said...

Well, you were in "Southern" California, after all. I never noticed whether you could buy pimento cheese in any of the supermarkets in the Bay Area. As I said, it had been years... but we are enjoying it in sandwiches that we toasted in the oven yesterday.

LaPré DelaForge said...

It may not be YOUR pimento cheese... But it is definitely ours now... I am going to try it next on baked spuds...cheese on baked spuds is a childhood standard...nice with cheddar...best with Double Gloucester...which has a sort of stringy gooiness as you pull a chunk away...like pizza adverts.
Carrs are always pricey...but nice occasionally because there Is no real substitute for a proper high baked Carrs....eek, that sounded like an advert...
The only hot sauce we have here is Tabasco....
The pre-rasped cheese was pure laziness on my part...it was 6pm...we had another shop to go to...so I went for speed, and that one sounded nice...and it was ...
Normally, I wouldn't touch pre-grated cheese...
Normally!