Bruschetta is great when tomatoes are in season, delicious things can be done with smoked salmon and blue cheese (separately), but for my mother’s side of the family the king of hors d’oevres is the Olive Cheese Ball. I know there are some of you out there who don’t like olives and I guess this post doesn’t have much more to offer you than a dose of pity and a wondering head shake. For the enlightened majority: Imagine a larger than usual olive baked–so that all of its delicious, briny attributes are heightened by–in a crisp, cheesy crust. My idea of pre-dinner heaven.
Above is the recipe I was working from simple and concise but my goal for this experiment (and this post) was to tweak it a bit to make it my own. I’ll deal with the ingredients first and the technique second. Four easily obtainable ingredients but the volume measuring are a bit of a problem.
Butter and paprika lend themselves naturally to being measured by volume. As I’ve mentioned before in this space–some might say ad nauseum–flour does not. Whenever a recipe calls for a cup of all-purpose flour I substitute four and a half ounces. Shredded cheese is even worse. Measuring two samples that differed by how fine they were grated and whether they were packed into the cup measure or not caused a variation between 2 3/4 ounces (coarse grate, unpacked) and 3 3/4 (fine grate, packed) ounces or more than a third of the smaller weight. Obviously, this is a large and possibly significant difference.
By “possibly significant” I mean that for all I know the variation in the amount of cheese might not be detectable in the final product or both ways might produce a different but equally tasty cheese pastry. Only one way to find out: Make two batches and have a blind tasting.
To pull back from the extremes I used six ounces in one batch and seven in the other, both grated on the fine side of a box grater, where the recipe called for two cups of cheese each. This along with 4.5 ounces of all-purpose flour, a half cup of butter (one stick), and a teaspoon of sweet paprika. By volume this would have been 2 cups cheese, 1 cup flour, 1/2 cup butter, and 1 tsp paprika.
I know this will give some of you heart palpitations but because they are both being baked I think it’s best to use standard grocery store issue for both the cheddar cheese and the olives. If you want to go fancy, go ahead, but I would definitely use pitted olives in consideration for dental health of your guests. The olives should be the largest jarred (not canned) pimento stuffed ones you can find. They’re usually labelled as “queen size” “mammoth” or “colossal”.
Moving on to technique all the recipe offers for the first step is “Blend well.” Following my inclination to science things up I operated just like if I were making a pie crust and cut each stick of butter into centimetre cubes that were chilled in the freezer for ten minutes. In a food processor I blitzed the paprika and flour for even distribution. After a moment of consideration I decided to add the cheese first, assuming that it is drier than the butter and is in finer pieces so the slightly longer time in the food processor won’t developed much gluten. I added the butter next and tossed the pieces around in the flour-cheese-paprika mix so that they were coated and didn’t clump before more blitzing. My aim was to keep the to not more than ten one-second pulses. Wrap and refrigerate the dough, that should look like the picture above, for one to four hours.
The recipe (and my mother when she makes these) employ a bunch of hand manipulation to cover the olives in dough. Between lacking the fine motor skills and a suspicion that warm fingers will cause the butter to melt I prefer to roll the dough and cut rounds that can be quickly wrapped around each olive. Just to be sure I’m not missing some secret greatness I made half of one of the batches (a quarter of the total) with the traditional method.
The dough will pull some heat from the counter (especially if you’re working on stone) and the butter will begin to soften so you’ll want to work quickly and have all your tools at the ready. You’ll need a small glass (one 2.75 inches in diameter worked for me with these olives) to cut the rounds and a dough scraper (either the sturdy metal kind or the slightly more flexible plastic variety) to get them off the counter.
Once the dough is rolled out to roughly a quarter-inch thickness use your glass to cut circles. Try to get as many as possible out of each rectangle because rolling the scraps again will start to develop more gluten and make those cheese balls chewier. Place each dough circle in your non-dominant hand and a drained olive on top. Use your other hand to manipulate the dough around the olive so that it will eventually form an even crust. Work as quickly as possible and use the cooler parts of your hand (like your fingertips) as much as you can.
Freeze the balls on a lightly-oiled cookie sheet and once frozen transfer them to a tightly-sealed resealable bag. They’ll keep like this in the freezer for three to six months.
Bake for twenty minutes in an oven that was preheated to 400F. I have been tempted to push the baking time longer. If baked two or three minutes longer the pastry will be crisper and a darker golden colour but some of the oil will have melted out of the cheese and the cheesy goodness will be severely diminished. But, under-baked is just as bad as you’ll be left with a soggy dough that falls away from the olives. Allow to cool for five minutes and then serve with a caution that they will be very hot.
Tasters of the test batch couldn’t tell the difference between the hand-rolled and counter-rolled and cut version. I had a slight preference for the more cheese one so from now on I’ll use 7 oz finely grated cheese, 4.5 oz flour, 4 oz (1 stick) butter, and 1 tsp paprika to make about 24 to 28 balls.
I have experimented in the past with removing the pimento and replacing it with goat cheese, a pickled hot pepper, or a piece of spicy Italian salami. All three were good but I’m not sure if they were worth the finicky work.