The South is credited with creating the cheese straw but no one knows who, where or why exactly. There is one vague story about leftover cheese being added to biscuit dough to make a snack but I don't buy it.
Cheese straws are closer to a crumbly savory shortbread cookie than they are to flaky biscuits. These days, the term "cheese straws" encompasses a category of savory crackers in all different shapes and some even made with puff pastry.
The recipe that I grew up with was a simple dough made in a bowl with a fork. It was rolled into a ball and mashed down flat with the same fork in a crisscross pattern like a peanut butter cookie. The ingredients were few; best-quality butter, extra-sharp cheddar, all-purpose flour and a pinch of cayenne pepper. They were served as a nibble before dinner and wrapped up with a bow as a gift at the holidays. These days there are so many commercial companies making all manner of cheese straws in every possible flavor combination that "cheese straws" have become a category of cheese crackers.
Last week, I decided to make up a batch of cheese straws to serve with cocktails before a dinner party that I was hosting. The recipe that I use is a mash up of the recipe that my mother made with a secret ingredient that I discovered in Paris many years ago.
When I was in college, I visited one of my best friends who was doing a year abroad and lived with a family in a tony neighborhood of Paris. Expecting to meet the lady of the house, I rang the bell. Instead, I met Sena, the jovial family cook who was infatuated with all things American. Sena ran the house, did all the marketing and cooking and looked after my friend. She invited me in and I couldn't wait to taste her French food. Instead, she placed a plate of the best cheese straws that I had ever tasted in front of me with some ice tea. She was beaming. I was a little disappointed. She was obviously proud of herself, thinking she was very American chic serving cold tea and cheese straws to two Southern girls.
I took a bite to be polite. Little did I know that that bite would change my cheese straw game forever. Always the inquisitive one, I had to know why they were better than all the cheese straws that I had tasted before. I complimented Sena, and then asked, "what is your secret?"
When she told me, I couldn't help but laugh out loud. Her secret was Rice Krispies cereal. When I pressed her, she admitted that she picked up her secret many years before from an exchange student from Alabama.
I loved that I had to travel all the way to Paris, to pick up a cheese straw tip from a girl from Alabama. And, to this day, I add Rice Krispies cereal to my cheese straws. Try it. I guarantee that you won't be able to stop eating and/or making them.
CHEDDAR AND CAYENNE CHEESE STRAWS WITH A PARIS TWIST
Servings: 20 servings (3 per serving)
Start to finish: 2 hours, 45 minutes (Active: 15 minutes)
2 sticks unsalted butter, softened
1 pound extra-sharp cheddar cheese, grated by hand
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon smoked paprika
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper or more to taste
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 cups Rice Krispies cereal
Mix first six ingredients with a fork or clean hands until all the ingredients are well distributed. It will be a stiff dough but it will all come together eventually. Add Rice Krispies and mix until evenly distributed — you will need to use your hands at this stage.
Cover and chill for 2 hours. Roll into small balls or logs. Place on ungreased cookie sheet fitted with parchment paper, and mash down with a small fork in a crisscross pattern.
Bake at 325 F for 20-25 minutes or until golden on the edges.
Chef's Note: The larger you make them, the longer they will take to cook. I like them slightly darker, but if you like them on the lighter side, bake for less time.
Remove from oven and let sit on cookie sheet for 5 minutes. Transfer to a cooling rack, and let cool completely. Store in an airtight container.
Nutrition information per cheese straw: 235 calories; 156 calories from fat; 17 g fat (12 g saturated; 0 g trans fats); 49 mg cholesterol; 211 mg sodium; 12 g carbohydrate; 0 g fiber; 0 g sugar; 6 g protein.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Elizabeth Karmel is a barbecue and Southern foods expert. She is the chef and pit master at online retailer CarolinaCueToGo.com and the author of three books, including "Taming the Flame."