Food: The revolution has begun! Bringing back the holiday cheese ball

The humble cheese ball is an American standard that can be seen as out of date. But a few twists can give the cheese ball a new attitude. | Photo by Melissa Elsmo

The humble cheese ball is an American standard that can be seen as out of date. But a few twists can give the cheese ball a new attitude. | Photo by Melissa Elsmo

“It’s a tuna ball,” giggled my food aficionado friend, Penny, as she proudly revealed a pecan covered orb with a side of Ritz crackers. Knowing her prowess in the kitchen, Penny’s favorite contribution to our annual retro-inspired appetizer feast seemed more than a little out of character to me; her dish contained nothing more than canned tuna, onions, cream cheese and nuts.

While our friends noshed happily on the old school sphere, I learned that Penny was raised among tuna balls and the simple appetizer made frequent appearances at her childhood parties. It’s no wonder she didn’t want to tamper with her mother’s simple and economical ingredient list — food memories have a way of taking hold of even the most gourmet among us.

Cheese balls of every variety rose in popularity during the 1920s and are still considered to be among the classic American holiday appetizer offerings. Unfortunately, they’ve acquired a less than ideal reputation over the years. When compared to the popular fingertip-sized portions of pine-scented venison tartar commonly served at cocktail parties these days, a globe of clunky cheese seems hopelessly basic and woefully out of date. Here’s the thing though; cheese balls may be unrefined, but they are undeniably reliable in the good eats department.

I began riffing on ways to update Penny’s basic tuna ball recipe the moment I tasted it and became instantly passionate about breathing new life into the lackluster American cheese ball and transforming it into an updated holiday menu mainstay.

My Hokey Holiday Cheese Ball recipe ditches the fish in favor of an expanded ingredient list, but preserves the make-ahead convenience the best party foods offer. Nothing should tamper with the timeless look of a properly made cheese ball, but lively lemon zest, salty feta and crunchy cucumber give this appetizer an unexpectedly Mediterranean flair.

The season where everything old is new again has arrived and an improved version of a retro cheese ball offers busy cooks a welcomed chance to embrace a little holiday nostalgia without sacrificing a morsel of flavor or style.

Happy Holidays!

Hokey Holiday Cheese Ball
This festive appetizer spread featuring traditional holiday hues can be kept in the refrigerator for several days. If you RSVP’d yes to more than one holiday soiree in a given weekend, simply divide the mixture accordingly and wrap as directed before transporting. (Makes 2-3 cheese balls.)

8 ounces cream cheese
1 large garlic clove, minced
1/2 cup quartered artichoke hearts, drained, patted dry and chopped
1/2 cup cucumber, seeded and finely diced
1/4 cup red onion, minced
1/4 cup pitted Greek olives, chopped
1/4 cup roasted red pepper, drained, patted dry and chopped
1 tablespoon chopped oregano
12 ounces feta cheese, crumbled
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1/2 teaspoon lemon zest
1/2 teaspoon lemon juice
Sliced cucumber, sliced tomato and oregano sprigs for garnish
Pita chips and crackers for serving

Place the cream cheese in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment and beat on medium speed until softened. Add the garlic, artichoke, cucumber, red onion, olives, red pepper and oregano. Mix until just combined. Add the feta and beat until well blended and thick. Add the pepper, lemon zest and juice and beat until just combined. Divide the mixture into halves or thirds. Place each portion on a large sheet of plastic wrap. Pull up the sides and twist the ends to shape the mixture into balls. Refrigerate overnight or up to three days before unwrapping and serving garnished with cucumber, tomato and oregano sprigs. Serve the cheese ball with the pita chips or crackers.
If you prefer to serve your cheese ball with sliced French or multigrain bread, try coating the ball in toasted pine nuts or almonds after unwrapping to add a little crunch.

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