It’s hard to escape mass culture around the holidays, as you may have heard. Across the country, people gather to express their love for their weird, unique clans; then, ironically, we spend the week hanging the same lights and blaring the same tunes as all the other Whos in Whoville. This problem, for me, takes particularly solid form in the gooey cheeses and gleaming charcuterie that kick off many a seasonal fête. By the end of December, I crave not just vegetables, but a break from ingesting all that uniformity.
Maybe only a Grinch could complain about being served too much gourmet cheese. But, in many households, the recipe for great-great-grandma’s stuffing, or rugelach, emerges from the archive on just one day a year—and I can’t be the only person who has ruined a sumptuous Chrismukkah feast due to my intake of boring-yet-seductive snacks before it began. That’s why I humbly propose my family’s solution to this problem: One appetizer, flavored with nostalgia and tradition, that satisfies the munchies and yet leaves you with plenty of room for the meal to come.
Chez Caplan, we open the evening with homemade cheese puffs. Though their exact origins have been lost to time, the puffs became a staple of my great-grandmother’s dinners in New Haven, Connecticut, in the 1940s or ’50s. In my family of nail-biters and finger-tappers, nervous hands do not always make for a magic touch at the stove. (“Don’t pat the pancakes,” my mother would warn when, growing up, I squashed her handiwork with a spatula to make it cook faster.) The puffs are impervious to under-stirring, over-stirring, and pretty much anything else besides burning. They are—and I mean this as praise—a dressed-up, delightfully puffy version of cheese on toast.
The following instructions come from my grandmother, the keeper of the puff recipe in my lifetime. She has tinkered with her mother’s original, adding Italian cheese—not as readily available when Nana was cooking—and subtracting a schmear of canned fish, a tweak for which I am grateful.
To make Nana’s cheese puffs:
- Cut bread into circles an inch or inch-and-a-half in diameter (think roughly the size of the cracker), employing a cookie cutter or sharp-rimmed, small glass. My grandmother suggests using pumpernickel, whole wheat, or rye. Toast the “rounds” on one side.
- Make the cheese topping. My grandmother’s ingredients: “12 oz. Philadelphia cheese, a yolk, and a whole egg, maybe two yolks and then maybe 3/4 teaspoon baking powder and a little garlic.” Plus a pinch of salt, and “some of that best Italian parmesan cheese,” and perhaps a little pecorino, too.
- Smear the cheese topping onto the non-toasted side of the bread. Desired cheese-to-bread ratio may vary, though my mom recommends “a heaping teaspoon” per round.
- From my grandmother: “Once guests start to arrive, under the broiler they go to melt and become a little browned on top.” Keep a close eye: Puffing occurs in under a minute, and singeing can spoil a batch just as fast. Once puffs are rounded and golden-brown, remove from oven and let cool. Or don’t!
As my grandmother wrote to me when I asked her for the recipe, in her years of hostessing, “it wasn't a good dinner unless there were puffs at the beginning.” “The grands,” as she called my cousins and me, would hover near the kitchen, waiting to burn our mouths on the first batch. That was before I would even go near most cheese that wasn’t cheddar, or olives that didn’t come from a jar. By now, I’ve seen the error of my ways—and my family has started serving charcuterie boards in addition to the cheese puffs—but I tend to revert toward the end of the year. Why fill up on foods I could eat anywhere, when there's much to savor that I can only get here?