Looking for an American cheese for Thanksgiving? Of course you are. You could set out a fine bandaged Cheddar, or maybe some fresh local goat cheese with olives, but if you want to put the most smiles on the most faces, serve pimento cheese. Or as we say in my home state of Texas: puh-menna cheese. It’s so retro, it’s in again.
My Aunt Dorothy, my mother’s sister, was such an indifferent cook that she basically got a pass at Thanksgiving. While my grandmother wrestled with the turkey and my mom and Aunt Henrietta churned out the pies, Dorothy’s assignment was the pimento cheese-stuffed celery. I’m pretty sure she bought the pimento cheese because she could not have been trusted to make it.
Tasting Zingerman’s Pimento Cheese brought that decades-old sensory memory flooding back. I had forgotten how much I liked this concoction, but I suppose my taste for it is deeply embedded, like my taste for sweet tea. Poking around online, I found the Zingerman’s recipe. And in an e-mail exchange with Ari Weinzweig, Zingerman’s proprietor, I learned how this Ann Arbor specialty-food shop came to have a cult following for a Deep South classic.
Long story short: Weinzweig dissed pimento cheese at a Southern Foodways Alliance conference and struck a nerve. A lot of nerves. He had no clue that southerners held this blend of cheap cheese and jarred mayonnaise in such high regard. Back home in Michigan, he began playing around with a recipe, sneaking in good Cheddar and top-notch Spanish pimientos. It tastes a lot like what I remember, only better. And 10 years in, it’s one of the single most popular items at Zingerman’s Deli.
Southerners slather pimento cheese between two pieces of white bread or scoop it up with celery. Here are a few ways the Zingerman’s crew likes it:
- As an omelet filling
- In scrambled eggs
- With pretzel sticks
- On a grilled-cheese sandwich with tomato
- Stirred into grits
- On sourdough toast with tomato soup
- On a burger or hot dog
- In place of shortening in a biscuit recipe (Note to anybody: report back if you try that)
Here’s how to order it.
And here’s how to make it:
Zingerman’s Pimento Cheese
Weinzweig recommends Grafton Village 2-Year Aged Cheddar or Cabot Cheddar and bottled Spanish piquillo peppers. You can substitute a fresh red bell pepper or pimiento, roasted and peeled, or any high-quality bottled roasted red peppers. Some people add celery salt. The spread did not look or taste like the pimento cheese I remembered until I added a good deal of paprika—maybe ½ teaspoon. Eureka.
After Thanksgiving, serve with Scandinavian rye toasts and martinis.
- ½ pound sharp Cheddar, coarsely grated
- 1 cup mayonnaise
- ¼ cup finely diced roasted red peppers
- ¾ teaspoon juice from the jarred peppers (if using)
- Freshly ground black pepper and cayenne pepper to taste
- Coarse sea salt to taste
- My addition: California paprika or Spanish smoked paprika, or both, to taste
Combine all the ingredients in a bowl and mix well. That’s it!
Makes about 2 cups