I never eat a cheese straw that I don’t think of Lady Helen Hardy, the grande dame of cheese straws in New Orleans. Hers were the thinnest, the most delicate, the crispiest I ever ate, and she was known far and wide for her mastery of the spicy and delicious snack.
My problem is finding and keeping a cookie press that befits the recipe we ran in The Times-Picayune years ago when I was food editor. It was the recipe of Lady Helen, who died last year, and who supplied many a party with her golden gems. My original cookie press broke eons ago, I’ve gone through several plastic ones that didn’t work right and now I can’t find the latest one that I must have loaned to someone or pushed out of sight in the back of a cabinet.
Whatever the case, I’ve invented a new way to sculpt these lovelies in time for Carnival parties when they’re a must-have. I simply roll them out with a rolling pen, about 1/8-inch thin, cut them in long strips and ridge them with a fork. This technique cuts the time and effort if you can soften the dough with warm hands to hold it together. The only hard part is pressing the dough together into balls that will roll out. For that, I called on my husband to help bail me out as I frequently do.
When I think Carnival, I not only think of cheese straws but certain other dishes that I can make for a party or to have at home. One of my favorites is a crawfish-stuffed brisket. What I like about it is that you can put it in the oven and all but forget about it. This dish is typical of the way we love to stuff things in south Louisiana cooking. Meats, vegetables – you name it, we’ll stuff it.
I also recently set out to duplicate the amazing spread called Better Cheddar sold at Langenstein’s. The ingredients listed on the package are white cheddar cheese, walnuts, mayonnaise and seasonings. Easy enough; it was just the amounts I had to figure out, and the following recipe comes pretty close in my estimation. First I roasted the walnuts, giving them extra flavor, and I made sure to use Hellmann’s mayonnaise. Some recipes I’ve seen call for homemade mayo, which is great if you have the time. For seasonings, I turned to good old Tony Chachere’s, a combination of Louisiana spices that’s hard to beat. It is my all-purpose seasoning, although I sometimes turn to Paul Prudhomme’s and Emeril Lagasse’s spices when I’m feeling my gourmet instincts.
Mardi Gras is late this year; it’s always late or early, never on time. But we’ll get started mid-February when the weather can be freezing, rainy or sunny. When you’re out on the Carnival route by day, it’s comforting to return home to a cooked dinner. I like to cook my briskets overnight on a low oven. If I don’t take them to a party, then they’re there when I return home. Or if you’re dead tired and just ready to prop up your feet, there’s nothing like a good Old Fashioned and some cheese straws.
Lady Helen’s Cheese Straws
• 2 cups all-purpose flour
• 1 1/4 teaspoons baking powder
• 1/2 teaspoon salt
• 1 1/2 sticks butter, at room temperature
• 16 ounces extra-sharp cheddar cheese (preferably Cracker Barrel), grated, at room temperature
• 6 to 8 dashes Tabasco sauce
• 1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
Sift flour into a large bowl. Add baking powder and salt and sift again. Set aside.
Place butter and cheese in a large bowl, making sure they’re soft and at room temperature.
With your hands, mix the two together until smooth and creamy.
Add Tabasco and cayenne pepper and mix well.
If you have a good cookie press, go ahead and use it, laying out strips of cheese mixture, about 1/8-inch thick, on lightly greased or sprayed cookie sheets.
(Or, press dough into several balls, using warm hands, until packed together well.
Then pat thin on wax paper or parchment paper and gently roll out to 1/8-inch thickness with a lightly floured rolling pin.
With a sharp knife, cut into strips about 1-inch wide and lift to baking pans with a long knife.
When dough is on the pans, use a fork to make ridges in the straws.
This also helps to thin the dough a little.)
Preheat oven to 300 degrees and bake straws for 10 minutes.
Lower the oven temperature to 225 degrees and bake for about 10 minutes more.
With a small sharp knife, cut straws into pieces about 4-inches long and continue to bake until they’re straw-colored but not brown, about 10 more minutes.
If baking two cookie sheets at once, switch racks and turn pans halfway through for more even baking.
Take straws up onto wire racks to cool immediately after baking. When cooled, store in tins for up to one week.
Makes about 100 cheese straws
• 1 16-pound untrimmed brisket or 1 8-pound trimmed brisket
• Salt, freshly ground pepper, Creole seasoning and garlic powder
• 3 medium onions, divided
• 1 bunch green onions
• 1/2 bell pepper
• 4 cloves garlic
• 1 pound Louisiana crawfish tails with fat
• 1 cup Italian seasoned breadcrumbs
• 1 egg
• 1/2 cup Worcestershire sauce
If using an untrimmed brisket, slice off much of the fat leaving about 1/4- to 1/2-inch fat.
(Cooking with fat and skimming it off later adds taste and tenderness to the meat.)
Using a sharp knife, cut a pocket into the brisket horizontally so that the edges of uncut meat run about 1/2-inch on all three sides.
Make sure you don’t cut through the meat except on one side.
Sprinkle brisket liberally inside and out with seasonings.
Using a food processor, shred 1 onion, bell pepper, green onions and garlic. In a large bowl, mix onion mixture, crawfish tails, breadcrumbs and egg together, and stuff into the pocket of the brisket.
Tie the brisket together by wrapping it around the whole brisket several times or sew the opening together with kitchen twine.
Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
Place brisket in a large baking pan.
Chop remaining onions and sprinkle over brisket.
Pour Worcestershire sauce over onions.
Roast brisket, uncovered, for about 30 minutes to brown slightly.
Then cover tightly with heavy-duty aluminum foil, reduce oven temperature to 275 and bake for 4 hours.
Check occasionally to see if the pan needs liquid. If so, add about 1/2-cup water.
If more than a cup of fat collects in the pan, skim off as much as possible during the cooking and discard.
After 4 hours, raise temperature to 325 degrees and cook for 1 more hour.
When done, brisket should rest for at least 20 minutes before serving.
While brisket is resting, spoon or pour off fat remaining in the pan.
Reserve brown juices and pour over brisket to serve.
To serve, slice brisket with a very sharp knife across the grain and into serving size pieces, each with some of the stuffing.
Serves about 20 people
Best of Better Cheddar
• 2 to 2 1/2 pounds good quality white cheddar cheese, at room temperature
• 2 cups walnuts
• 1/2 teaspoon each: salt, cayenne pepper, garlic powder and Creole seasoning
Cut cheese into 1/2-inch cubes and place in a food processor.
Pulse until cheese is shredded.
Place walnuts on a cookie sheet and roast in a preheated 400-degree oven for 10 minutes.
In a large bowl, mix cheese, walnuts, mayonnaise and seasonings.
Stir together well until mixture is spreadable.
Serve on your favorite crackers.
Makes about 6 cups