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Say Cheese: Have a ball. Really.

Don't knock it till you've tried it: The Holiday Cheese Ball of 2009. (Domenica Marchetti)

You didn’t think I would let the holidays pass without a mention of the cheese ball, did you? Forever a staple of Christmas buffet tables and "gourmet" gift baskets, the cheese ball suffers from a dubious reputation, and rightly so. Most cheese balls I have encountered have been nothing short of heinous: highly processed Swiss or cheddar that tastes mostly of sodium and chemicals, mixed with pineapple or chipped beef then rolled in stale nuts and plopped onto a plate.

No thanks.

Recipe Included

Still, I always have liked the idea of a cheese ball. If you think about it, why not? It’s a communal sort of dish, one where everyone gets to dig in. If plated well, it can make a pretty addition to the table. And, if you use good cheese, you can actually create a delicious specimen.

Makes sense, doesn’t it? I decided it was time to rehabilitate the cheese ball.

Fresh goat cheese, feta and blue cheese are all good candidates for base ingredients. They can be molded and mixed with a near-infinite number of other (good-quality ingredients: sun-dried tomatoes, olives, dried fruit, nuts, herbs and spices. I settled on blue as the primary cheese for a good winter ball. And, as luck would have it, my neighbor, Anne, had just purchased a large chunk of Stilton and kindly supplied me with some of it. (It was also Anne’s idea to add a splash of cognac to the mix, which elevated the cheese ball to greater gastronomic heights.)

I added a good-quality cream cheese, one without guar gum or other stabilizers (I used Ben’s Cream Cheese, purchased at Balducci’s) and some mascarpone I happened to have on hand.

I liked the idea of adding dried fruit for color, sweetness and seasonality. So I chopped up a mixture of dried blueberries, cherries, cranberries and sultanas (dried apricots would also be good). A spoonful or two of honey and that splash of cognac were all that was needed to complete my cheese ball recipe.

Because I had never made a cheese ball before, I assumed that shaping it would be a messy chore. That actually turned out to be simple. I mounded the mixture in a bowl, covered the bowl with wrap and let it chill in the refrigerator for a couple of hours. Then I used a spatula to shape the mound into a ball, rotating the bowl as I went. Once the ball was shaped, I covered the bowl again and returned it to the fridge. Shortly before serving time I transferred the ball from the bowl to a serving plate by carefully scooping it up from its underside and lifting it with a silicone spatula. I had planned to roll it in toasted pecans, but I liked the festive color produced by the chopped fruit. So I left it as is, and used a couple of dried cherries and some sliced almonds to garnish it.

I also had planned to use a few sprigs of rosemary to decorate the plate, but I couldn’t find my rosemary bush under all the snow. So I used a berry-laden branch from another shrub in my yard (hope it wasn't poisonous). And there it was, the cheesy cheese ball transformed.

Happy holidays!

-- Domenica Marchetti is the author of Big Night In: More than 100 Wonderful Recipes for Feeding Family and Friends Italian-Style. Follow her on Twitter.

Holiday Cheese Ball
10 servings

Serve with plain water crackers.

MAKE AHEAD: The cheese mixture needs 2 hours’ refrigeration before it can be shaped into a ball. The cheese ball can be made and refrigerated 1 day in advance.

1 1/4 cups mixed dried fruit, such as dried cherries, cranberries, sultanas and blueberries, plus more for garnish
4 ounces cream cheese
4 ounces mascarpone
4 ounces crumbled Stilton cheese (rind removed)
1 to 2 tablespoons honey
1 to 2 teaspoons cognac
A few slivered or sliced blanched almonds, a couple of rosemary sprigs or other winter greens, for garnish

Place the dried fruit in the bowl of a food processor; pulse just until chopped coarsely. Scrape the chopped fruit into a mixing bowl.

Combine the cream cheese, mascarpone, Stilton and 1 tablespoon of the honey in the bowl of the food processor; process until creamy and well blended. Taste and add the remaining tablespoon of honey as needed; process to incorporate. The mixture should be on the sweet side, but not too much so.

Add the cognac to the mixture (to taste), along with the chopped dried fruit; process just until combined. Return the mixture to the mixing bowl. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 2 hours, until fairly firm.

Use a spatula to shape the mixture (while it's in the bowl) to about the size of a softball, rotating the bowl as you shape. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate until serving time.

When ready to serve, use a large spatula to transfer to the center of a serving platter.
Arrange a few berries or a large dried cherry on top of the cheese ball, then arrange the almonds around the cherry. Garnish the platter with the sprigs of rosemary or other winter greens.

Per serving: 189 calories, 5 g protein, 16 g carbohydrates, 12 g fat, 7 g saturated fat, 35 mg cholesterol, 216 mg sodium, 2 g dietary fiber, 12 g sugar

By The Food Section  |  December 22, 2009; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Recipes , Say Cheese  | Tags: Domenica Marchetti, Say Cheese, cheese ball, recipes  
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