Homemade gifts are always a treat, especially if they’re food-inspired. Who doesn’t love receiving a jar of homemade jam from berries picked along a hike, canned salmon from a summer fishing expedition or pickled beets and carrots plucked the garden?
One of my favorite gifts to make is this twist on cheddar cheese straws — crisp and tender with a punchy kick from cayenne and hot sauce, made using a “short” dough, which involves a high proportion of fat to flour. The moisture comes from the butter and cheese without having to add other liquid, except for a few dashes of Tabasco or similar hot sauce to bring it all together. Traditionally these are shaped squeezed out of a sturdy cookie press fitted with a star tube, but easier options include rolling into logs and slicing or cutting using fun cookie cutter shapes.
As with all baking, time and texture depend on moisture content in the air as well as variations in ovens. Keep in mind that before baking, it’s important to set out butter and cheese so they are at room temp and not cold. Anywhere from 30 minutes to one hour is usually sufficient, depending on how warm you keep your kitchen. If you are a stickler, a thermometer inserted in center of butter should read between 65 degrees and 70 degrees for what’s considered “room temp.”
If you have a stand mixer or a food processor, your work time will be much easier. Alternatively, use a large mixing bowl and a handheld electric mixer. Hand grating a block of cheese makes for better crisps. Pre-shredded cheeses often include added anti-caking agent. Sharp or extra-sharp cheddar is the go-to, but try other hard cheeses such as Comté or Gruyère.
Perhaps try a pinch of cumin or turmeric for flavor and color. They crisp up as they cool and keep well at room temperature. Wrap in colorful tins or in clear bags with ribbons for homemade holiday gift giving.
Spicy cheese crisps
Makes 4 dozen, depending on size and shape
1 1/2 cups/340g unsalted butter, softened
16 ounces sharp or extra-sharp cheddar cheese, grated or Comté or Gruyère
1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon salt depending on saltiness of cheese
1 teaspoon ground cayenne
3/4 teaspoon garlic powder or smoked paprika
3 3/4 to 4 cups/480g all-purpose flour (or gluten-free 1-to-1 baking flour)
Make sure to set out butter and cheese at least 30 to 60 minutes before beginning to bake. Butter should be soft to the touch — if not, microwave for a few seconds — and cheese cool but not cold. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper or silicone baking mats. Grate cheese.
Place softened butter, grated cheese, salt, if using, cayenne, garlic powder or paprika in bowl of a stand mixer and beat, using the paddle attachment (or in a large bowl using a handheld mixer), until blended at least three to five minutes and until creamy and whipped. Gradually add flour, starting with 3 1/2 cups, beating until combined. Add up to another 1/2 cup flour until dough starts to form to clump together. With beater/handheld mixer running, add a few dashes of hot sauce; the liquid adds a bit more moisture as well as flavor and helps dough bind together. Dough might appear dry but if you press a bit between your fingers, it should stick together. Add a bit more hot sauce if too dry. Remove dough to a clean kitchen surface and use hands to press dough together, like you would with a pie crust. Cut dough into four equal parts. Roll each portion into 8-inch logs — if slicing — or rectangular discs if using cookie cutter shapes; wrap logs in plastic and chill 20 to 30 minutes.
While dough is chilling, heat oven to 350 degrees. Roll dough into a ¼-inch thick rectangle or square and cut into shapes using a cookie cutter or a knife. Or cut dough logs into 1/4-inch slices and place on prepared baking sheet, not touching but not spaced too far apart; they won’t spread too much while baking. Alternatively, roll dough between hands into 1-inch balls and gently flatten. Bake 12 to 18 minutes, depending on thickness, until golden around edges and bottoms. Let cool on baking sheets; they will continue to crisp up as they cool.
To make ahead: Wrap dough well in plastic and chill in fridge three days or in freezer up to one month.