Greek bites puts two twists on the traditional cheese ball. First is its size, and second is the olive at the center of each.
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Photo courtesy Jason Wyche

Greek bites puts two twists on the traditional cheese ball. First is its size, and second is the olive at the center of each.

Party fave ball gets a makeover

By Addie Broyles
Cox Newspapers

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AUSTIN, Texas – Michelle Buffardi knew the cheese ball was in serious need of reinvention.

Most of us are probably familiar with premade cheese balls that don’t exactly taste like real cheese, or old-school recipes that call for cheeses that increasingly are hard to find. (This time every year, my mom embarks on her annual hunt for jars of Kraft Roka Blue and Old English shelf-stable cheeses, which few stores carry anymore, for her favorite cheese ball.)

But Buffardi, a cheese lover and food writer in New York who recently published “Great Balls of Cheese,” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $16.99), knew there was a better way.

“I wanted to have the flavors and accouterments that people expect but made with real cheese,” she said.

Softened cream cheese is the best base because it’s readily available and somewhat neutrally flavored, but goat cheese is another good option.

From there, you can add harder and stronger flavored cheeses, such as cheddar, mozzarella or Manchego, which when shredded also add stability to the final ball.

After you build a cheese base, the sky’s the limit for what ingredients you can add next. Buffardi makes several balls inspired by real-world dishes, like a pepperoni pizza ball or the black bean ball that has all of her favorite burrito ingredients. In all, she came up with 50 recipes for her book, which came out in October.

Kendall Antonelli, co-owner of Antonelli’s Cheese Shop in Austin, suggested using chevre mixed with at least one standout ingredient. His idea was Peppadew peppers, a roasted South African pepper that you could replace with regular roasted red peppers.

For a savory ball with a hint of sweet, Antonelli recommended mixing equal parts artisan ricotta with a Roquefort and then drizzling it all with a fig and black tea reduction or preserve, such as the kind from Quince & Apple, a syrup and preserves maker in Madison, Wis.

Good cheese balls have a variety of complementing ingredients, but great cheese balls have a mix of textures, too. Raw onions work, but not everyone loves them. (Buffardi suggested caramelizing the onions if you’re not a fan of raw or are looking for totally different flavor.)

For a salty crunch, Antonelli suggested rolling the cheese ball in crushed Marcona almonds, and Buffardi uses everything from crushed pretzels and graham crackers to broken tortilla chips and shredded carrots.

The longer the ball sits, the more the flavors come together, Buffardi said, which can be a bad thing if you add too much of a pungent ingredient, such as garlic or dill. In general, making the ball a day before you plan to serve it allows the flavors to meld just enough to please guests.

When it comes time to serve, crackers and pita chips are the obvious choices, but Buffardi also suggests raw vegetables such as you’d serve on a relish or crudite plate or toasted slices of baguette or, if you’re serving a sweet cheese ball, cookies, fruit or graham crackers. In her book, she recommends a specific food to pair with each ball.

As a recipe developer, Buffardi knows that the flavors in the cheese balls had to come first, but she wasn’t wedded to the ball shape.

She began by making a cheese ball in the shape of a snowman, but that was just the start.

“I thought, ‘If a snowman works, what about a Christmas tree-shaped cheese ball that you could cover in herbs?’” she said. “It doesn’t have to be so uptight all the time.”

That’s where the cute and sometimes silly shapes in the book come from: the eye-catching owl that graces the book’s cover, chicks for Easter, footballs for the Super Bowl, baseballs for Opening Day, a hedgehog, penguin, cat and an eight-ball for everyday fun.

So, why are cheese balls so popular during the parties? It’s a tradition rooted in convenience, Buffardi said. They are easy (and relatively inexpensive) to make, easy to transport for parties and easy to serve.

Plus, even people who think they can’t cook can make them and bring them to a potluck or get-together.

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APPETIZER

Greek Bites

8 ounces cream cheese, softened

8 ounces feta cheese

1 tablespoon chopped fresh oregano

Zest of 1 lemon, grated

1 tablespoon dry white wine (optional)

16 Kalamata olives, pitted

1 cup pine nuts, toasted, for coating

32 thin pretzel sticks, for serving (optional)

Fresh mint leaves, for decorating (optional)

Using a stand mixer or a bowl and a spatula, combine the cream cheese, feta, oregano, lemon zest, and wine, if using. Refrigerate the mixture for 1 hour.

Cut the olives in half. Using your fingers, wrap about 1 tablespoon of the cheese mixture around each olive half to cover. Refrigerate for 1 hour.

Before serving, roll each ball in the pine nuts. Spear each with a pretzel stick, if using, or toothpick and garnish with a mint leaf, if desired.

Yields about 32 bites.

Recipe from “Great Balls of Cheese” by Michelle Buffardi (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $16.99).

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APPETIZER

Mexican Black Bean Ball

2 cups shredded extra-sharp cheddar cheese

15-ounce can black beans, drained and rinsed (see cook’s note)

8 ounces cream cheese, softened

2 tablespoons minced red onion

3/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro, divided

2 teaspoons ground cumin

1/4 teaspoon coarse salt

Pinch cayenne pepper (optional)

Crackers or pita chips, for serving

Cook’s note: You could add cooked (and cooled) chorizo or taco-seasoned ground beef instead of or in addition to black beans, if you’d like.

Using a stand mixer or a bowl and a spatula, mix together the cheddar, beans, cream cheese, onion, 2 tablespoons cilantro, cumin, salt and cayenne, if using, until combined. Form the mixture into a ball, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 2 hours or overnight.

Before serving, coat the cheese ball in the remaining cilantro.

Serve with crackers or pita chips.

Recipe from “Great Balls of Cheese” by Michelle Buffardi (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $16.99).

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APPETIZER

Lox Bagel Ball

16 ounces cream cheese, softened

4 ounces smoked salmon, chopped

2 tablespoons finely chopped red onion

2 tablespoons small capers, drained

1 bunch scallions, chopped, for coating

Bagels, bagel chips or pita chips, for serving

Using a stand mixer or a bowl and a spatula, mix together the cream cheese, salmon, onion and capers. Form the mixture into a ball, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 2 hours or overnight.

Before serving, roll the cheese ball in the scallions to coat.

Serve with bagels, bagel chips or pita chips.

Recipe from “Great Balls of Cheese” by Michelle Buffardi (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $16.99).

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APPETIZER

Pineapple-Pineapple

2 bunches scallions

16 ounces cream cheese, softened

1 cup shredded sharp white cheddar cheese

8-ounce can crushed pineapple, well-drained

1 small jalapeno, cored, seeded, and diced

1/2 teaspoon ground cumin

1/2 teaspoon coarse salt

2 cups pecan halves, toasted, for decorating

Crackers, for serving

Cut the green tops off the scallions; set aside. From the white parts of the scallions, chop 1 tablespoon and reserve.

Using a stand mixer or a bowl and a spatula, mix together the cream cheese, cheddar, pineapple, jalapeno, cumin, salt, and the reserved tablespoon chopped scallions until combined. Form the mixture into a ball, cover with plastic wrap, and refrigerate for at least 2 hours or overnight.

Before serving, remove the cheese ball from the plastic, mold into a pineapple shape, and set it on a platter – it should look like an oval with a flat top. Arrange the pecans to look like the skin of a pineapple (you may need less than 2 cups, but choose the best-looking pecans to decorate the cheese ball). Stick the reserved green scallion tops in the top of the cheese ball to look like the crown of a pineapple.

Serve with crackers.

Yields 15 to 20 servings.

Recipe from “Great Balls of Cheese” by Michelle Buffardi (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $16.99).