Christmas has long been my holiday. Since the larger side of my family lives in Iran, and my only close relatives on the small side relocated to Georgia, our holiday gatherings are not grand affairs, and the five of us — my grandpa, grandma, mom, dad and me — typically just celebrate a holiday or birthday with a dinner and dessert. There’s no traveling involved (my grandparents live 20 minutes away), no “morning after” menu with which to contend and no problem wondering how all the food will fit in the fridge. My grandma hosts Thanksgiving and serves the same thing each year, while I look forward to flipping through my cookbooks and planning Christmas dinner well in advance, from soup to nuts.
Menu planning for such a small event, then, should be a cinch, right? Wrong. I’m not really working with adventurous eaters here. My grandparents are meat and taters folk. Their diet, understandably, reflects that of a hardworking, humble, New England family. They’ve always had little, never traveled and didn’t really learn that there’s more than two varieties of onions or that herbs don’t just come in jars. And coming from humble origins myself, I respect that, I do.
Our Christmas dinners are not avant-garde. They’re just homey and comforting, and I like that, but there are so many restrictions. Grandpa doesn’t like nuts, lettuce that is not iceberg, dressing that doesn’t come from a bottle, garlic or anything “foreign” (his words, not mine). He orders his meat medium-well (blech). He devours chocolates (only milk) but not chocolate desserts. Grandma can’t eat breakfast or lunch food like sandwiches, only indulges in white chocolate and has trouble eating ice cream. She thinks chickens don’t have bones and thus will only eat poultry that has been cut off the bone. She also has somehow made something similar to anything that you have ever served and will always make that clear as you proudly present your dishes. I would never know, because she seems to only give my family week-old, leaden loaves of date-nut bread for gifts. The list goes on.
This year, although my meal was what most would call “traditional,” I took a lot of risks for this group. Each item had the potential to perturb the palate of someone. But there was one thing that brought everyone together — one thing that made everyone overlook that the rolls were crusty and homemade and not from the Pillsbury package, eat up the perfectly cooked roast that was medium-rare when they would have preferred medium, forget that they don’t like cauliflower when faced with cauliflower gratin, kindly scrape the caramelized onions off the green beans without making a fuss, accept that the brown butter fingerlings weren’t mashed and covered with gravy, pretend to understand what a Paris-Brest and Speculoos were, lap up the Eggnog Ice Cream Tartufi even though they stay away from frozen dairy, and skip the snide remarks when offered truffles with a higher % cacao. Phew.
Cheese straws saved the day. Yes, a humble cracker made the meal for many of us and served as the perfect accompaniment to my salad, because it distracted my grandparents from the presence of almonds and mesclun.
Apparently, the cheese straw ia a southern specialty, but it will now stand tall in a glass whenever I have company. These buttery, cheese-packed, surprisingly flaky, crisp cracker sticks are easy and a blast to make. They’re customizable and dangerously addictive. I recommend not baking them perfectly straight. They look beautiful slightly wavy and crooked. Fun and festive, they’d be the perfect addition to a New Year’s Eve celebration. You’ll never touch a supermarket “cheese-flavored” cracker again.
Adapted from The Lee Bros. Southern Cookbook via Smitten Kitchen
1 1/2 cups freshly grated extra-sharp Cheddar cheese (I recommend not using a dry cheese)*
4 tablespoons (1/2 stick or 2 ounces) unsalted butter, softened and cut into 4 pieces
3/4 cup flour, plus more for dusting
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes (I used 1/4 teaspoon of dry mustard since my grandparents don’t like spice. It was a great addition!)
1 tablespoon half-and-half
Preheat oven to 350°F.
In a food processor, combine the cheese, butter, flour, salt, red pepper (or any other herb or desired seasoning) in five 5-second pulses until the mixture resembles coarse crumbs. Add the half-and-half and process until the dough forms a ball, about 10 seconds.
On a lightly floured surface, using a lightly floured rolling pin (I’d go with a lightweight French pin — this dough is a dream to work with and quite soft), roll the dough into an 8- by 10-inch rectangle that is 1/8-inch thick. With a sharp knife , cut the dough into thin strips (I like crooked waves) of any length , each 1/4- to 1/3-inch wide (dipping the knife in flour after every few inches ensures a clean cut). Gently transfer the strips to a parchment lined baking sheet, leaving at least 1/4-inch between them. The dough may sag or may break occasionally in the transfer, but don’t be concerned — just do your best.
Bake the straws on the middle rack for 12 to 15 minutes, or until the ends are barely browned. Remove from the oven and set the cookie sheet on a rack to cool.
Serve at room temperature. Cheese straws will keep in the refrigerator, in a sealed container, for two days (I’m still eating them after making them on Christmas eve and storing at room temperature and they’re just fine).
*You know those cheese snacks that don’t really taste like cheese? You went to all that effort to get a nice cheddar, so you want to taste it. Go for the sharpest cheddar you can find.