You guys! I’ve been holding out on you. I had the most amazing pimento cheese at a Christmas party last weekend, and although I haven’t had or made it in years, it was like a rebirth into the world of pimento cheese. I had forgotten how much I love its intensely cheesy, mayo-y, briny deliciousness.
I immediately requested the recipe from the friend who had brought it, who had found it on the conversation thread of a makeup tutorial YouTube channel she frequents. Ah, the internet. Remember when you got recipes from your neighbours and small collection of cookbooks, or clipped it out of the newspaper? So this particular pimento cheese came from a woman who got it from her southern mother – pimento cheese is a southern thing, not surprisingly from the same era as the cheese ball. At its core, it’s extra-aged cheddar and mayo, with a hit of spice in the form of cayenne or chili flakes. I instantly asked my Facebook crowd if anyone made this and had their own formula, and someone pointed out that Dorie Greenspan’s latest cookbook, Everyday Dorie, which was happily sitting on my desk, contained a recipe for pimento cheese. And so the next morning, before I had digested the excessive quantities of pimento cheese I had consumed the night before, I set about making two batches – Dorie’s and Tara’s internet friend’s mother’s – for a little taste test.
Pimentos are mild peppers – you may know them as those little red bits stuffed into manzanilla olives – and you can buy them by the jar alongside the pickles at most grocery stores. Most recipes for pimento cheese call for a combination of old and extra-old cheddar, and there are often specifics about the grating/grinding process. Dorie blitzes hers in the food processor, which is ridiculously easy, and I love the shade of orange it produces. Hers is ridiculously simple – cheese, pimentos, a bit of mayo, cayenne and salt. It’s superb. Tara’s friend’s mom’s is more complex – the ratio of cheese to pimentos is similar (10 oz vs 16 oz), but it calls for 1 1/2 cups of mayo (to Dorie’s 3 Tbsp), along with a teaspoon of grated onion (just a bit! I love old dip and spread recipes that call for such a miniscule amount), a shot of Worcestershire, toasted pecans and chili flakes. The cheese grating process is specific: the coarse holes of the box grater for the old cheddar, and the smaller holes for the extra-old, which produces a finer almost paste similar to what you’d get in the food processor. Her formula is thus: 8 oz extra old cheddar (grated with the small holes on the box grater), 8 oz old cheddar (grated with the regular holes), a 4 oz jar diced pimentos (drained), 1 1/2 cups mayo, 1 tsp finely grated onion, 1 tsp Worcestershire sauce, 1 tsp crushed red chillies 1 cup pecans, lightly toasted and chopped. Mix it all and refrigerate.
I brought both to another party that night, and for a long time the two were neck and neck – everyone loved both (except, hilariously, a friend who actually grew up in the southern states and hates pimento cheese – I was counting on her authority!) – but as the evening grew later, Tara’s friend’s mom’s started to take the lead. Honestly, I’d make both – Dorie’s is so simple, and I like doing it all in the food processor. Tara’s friend’s mom’s is so delicious. But next time I make it, I’ll likely morph the two: not worry so much about the ratio of extra old to old cheddar, leaning toward more of the extra old, go somewhere in the middle for mayo (1/2 cup? 3/4?), a 4 1/2 oz jar of pimentos because that seems to be the standard size they come in around here, and add a bit of onion and Worcestershire if I feel like it. I did like the cayenne better than the chili flakes, but mine wasn’t as hot as Tara’s batch, so it depends on what you happen to have in your spice drawer. The pecans were delicious, and remind me of another vintage cheese dip my mom makes every Christmas, but pecans are pricey – I think I’d add half next time if I used them at all. (I did some videos over on Instagram stories, if a visual would help here.)
At any rate, I’m excited to be reunited with pimento cheese. I spread some inside a grilled cheese sandwich earlier this week, and it was mind-blowing. It’s also the easiest thing to make ahead to bring to parties, or have tucked away for your own. Thanks for the reminder, Tara and Dorie!