I talk a good game about growing up in the Midwest, and affiliate myself with the Midwest whenever possible, whether that be by following Big Ten football, drinking Leinenkugel, or complaining about the lack of a road grid in certain East Coast cities. But I should also confess that my Midwestern upbringing wasn’t very traditional, since my mother is decidedly an East Coaster, and I grew up in the Chicago Metroplex rather than a small town, so certain traditions escaped me.

Luckily for me, Mom adapted many classic Midwestern dishes into her cooking repertoire, and it was Dad who more often provided the “fancier” meals of my youth.* While Dad’s turn in the kitchen often meant Hungarian goulash, sweet & sour pork (courtesy a battered old copy of Fannie Farmer) and a raft of dirty dishes, Mom mastered any number of casseroles and even came to consider mashed potatoes a “real” food. One Midwestern classic I remember vaguely from my childhood was the cheese ball whipped up for the holiday open house my parents periodically hosted. While my parents socialized with their peers, my peers and I would tear around the shag carpeted basement, fueled by the pop we only got a few times a year and third helpings of the festive foods we snagged when we thought nobody was looking. I don’t know what recipe Mom used, to be honest, but I do remember being amazed at the prospect of adding additional flavors to cheese and then changing its shape. (I was somewhat of a moron as a child, you’ll soon learn.)

This Midwestern dish disappeared from my life until a recent Thanksgiving. I hosted a few friends who were similarly unable to go home, and we managed a masterful potluck style Thanksgiving. A fellow Midwesterner showed up with an amazing cranberry-coated cheese ball, and we were pretty much all hooked. The accompanying cranberry gin and tonics likely helped. It’s been cranked out a few times since, once to great acclaim by T, and I made it again last night in anticipate of said friend’s pumpkin beer tasting party this evening.

Cranberry Cheddar Cheese Ball (inspired by Martha)**

2 1/2 tbsp unsalted butter, softened
1 8-oz package cream cheese (slightly softened; I’ve used neufchatel or low-fat here with reasonable success)
a dash or two each of: apple cider vinegar, Worcestershire sauce, Sriracha hot sauce
pinch of salt and pepper
8 oz sharp orange cheddar cheese, finely shredded (I’ve used 1 1/2 to 2 cups to taste, for the non-volumetrically inclined)
2 tbsp preserves
8 oz dried cranberries, finely chopped

1. Put butter, cream cheese and the first five flavors (acid, umami, hot, salt, pepper) into either an electric mixer with the paddle attachment on (you can use the butter wrapper to grease the paddle a bit, which helps the cheese ball not be so sticky) or a food processor. Mix until combined.
2. Add cheddar cheese and preserves/chutney. Mix to combine. Form into a ball – I did this by scraping the substance into a vaguely spherical shape, dumping it onto the cream cheese wrapper, and using the wrapper to mold the ball, as these wrappers are pretty resistant to sticking.
3. Spread plastic wrap on a flat surface. Spread about half the cranberries onto the wrap, and tip the cheese from the wrapper onto the cranberries. Press the remaining cranberries onto the rest of the ball. Once most of the cheese is covered with the cranberries, you can use the plastic wrap to help you adhere any stray cranberries and maintain the shape of the cheese ball.
4. Serve with anything. Honestly. You’ll enjoy.

*Mom would want me to point out that now that she’s unyoked from the picky taste buds of mine and my sister’s youth, she can afford to be much more adventurous with her cooking. We now regularly enjoy shrimp fra diavolo, curried onions, and the traditional Christmas Eve enchiladas. (It’s an amazing tradition.)

**Martha’s recipe is for three balls – to make the base, then add the special ingredients. I’ve split it up to make one party-sized cheese ball. You’ll also notice a number of substitutions – I substituted apple cider vinegar for the lemon I didn’t have, and I suspect almost any acid would work; ditto Sriracha for Tabasco (heat) and apricot marmalade for mango chutney (sweet/fruit). Also, who really has white pepper? For real?

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