History has not been kind to the cheese ball.
Early on, this classic party food earned an ugly reputation it's been mostly unable to shake - an orange softball filled with garish industrial cheeses and coated with stale, often soggy, nuts.
But with cheeses of all kinds getting gourmet treatment in recent years, this is one party food that seems ripe for an update. To make a cheese ball that is a holiday hit instead of a painful irony, here's what you need to know.
Cheese plays two roles in a cheese ball - structure and taste.
For that reason, cheese balls usually contain several varieties of cheese. Mild, soft cheeses provide a firm base to which other flavors are added. Firmer, more flavorful cheeses lend deeper, savory notes.
Traditional recipes call for a base of cream cheese and butter. The cream cheese has a neutral, but rich and creamy taste that readily adopts other flavors and serves as a binder. Butter lends an added richness while helping to firm up the ball.
Today, home cooks have a wider range of cheeses with similar properties, including goat, neufchatel and blue. We found a blend of neufchatel, butter and goat cheese worked best.
Mixing in a grated harder cheese, such as cheddar, provides a sharper taste.
More isn't necessarily better. Too often cheese balls suffer from being loaded with too many styles of cheeses and a cacophony of nuts, herbs and other contrasting flavors.
A minimal number of fresh ingredients will enliven the cheese base. Minced garlic and a bit of horseradish provide complex flavor notes without competing with the flavor of the cheese.
Don't think big. Tablespoon-size cheese balls are easier to make, easier to eat and lend a touch of elegance to a once much maligned party food.
Best cheese balls
1 cup neufchatel cheese, softened
1/2 cup goat cheese, softened
6 tablespoons butter, softened, divided
1 cup shredded sharp cheddar cheese
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 teaspoon minced horseradish or horseradish mayonnaise
3/4 cup walnut halves
1 teaspoon sea or kosher salt
1/2 tablespoon ground cumin
1/4 cup finely chopped fresh parsley
Heat oven to 300 degrees. Line a rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper.
In a medium bowl, combine the neufchatel and goat cheeses and 4 tablespoons of the butter. Use a rubber spatula to mix until well combined. Mix in the cheddar, garlic and horseradish. Cover and refrigerate for 1 hour.
While the mixture chills, melt the remaining 2 tablespoons of butter. In a small bowl, combine the butter and walnut halves, toss to coat evenly. Sprinkle in the salt and cumin, then toss again.
Spread the walnuts over the prepared baking sheet and toast for 7 to 10 minutes, or until lightly browned and aromatic. Remove the nuts from the oven and transfer to a plate to cool.
When the nuts are cool, use a knife to finely chop them. The pieces should be small but not pulverized.
In a wide, shallow bowl or baking pan, mix together the chopped walnuts and parsley.
Once the cheese has chilled, put on latex gloves and use a measuring spoon or scoop to form 1-tablespoon balls. Gently roll the balls between your hands to smooth, then roll each through the nut and parsley mixture. Arrange on a serving platter.