Beyond ingredients and techniques, recipes are rooted in personal histories and present passions. When I worked with chef and television personality Carla Hall on her cookbook “Carla Hall’s Soul Food,” that meant African American dishes from the South — which included a version of her grandmother’s pimento cheese.
An indulgent spread for slathering on crackers or sandwiching in soft bread, pimento cheese is a mix of shredded cheddar and sweet, roasted, red pimento peppers that is bound by cream cheese. Serve it at Thanksgiving or keep it in the fridge to offer to neighbors who drop in or friends who come over to watch the game.
Developing the recipe with Hall meant chasing her pimento cheese memories from her grandma’s home. Once we nailed the recipe and published the book, I realized that one of my daughters had adopted it as her comfort food. But she always found the kick of cayenne in Hall’s recipe a little too spicy. I found a fine chop of poblano chile folded into the mix adds crunch — I wanted the spread to have a little more texture — with a mild, fruity heat.
While messing with someone’s family recipe can be seen as sacrilege, Hall and I agree that home cooking is about making a recipe your own. Follow a recipe exactly as written the first time around to try it, but remember that it’s your kitchen and you can tweak it until it’s all your own.
Poblano Pimento Cheese
10 minutes. Makes 1 ¾ cups.
Keeping the different textures of the ingredients intact while letting their flavors meld together is key to good pimento cheese. Jarred, chopped pimentos tend to be tasteless and too mushy, so be sure to start with a whole roasted pepper and chop it yourself. Beyond that, you can optimize the texture with your mixing technique. Carla uses the paddle attachment of a stand mixer to smash the shredded cheese into the cream cheese. I prefer to mix by hand — and I don’t mean with a spoon. I like to squeeze all the components together between my fingers until well blended. The action of mashing barehanded is as satisfying as eating the resulting spread.
- 1 whole roasted red bell pepper, finely chopped (½ cup)
- 2 ounces cream cheese, at room temperature
- ¼ cup mayonnaise
- ¼ teaspoon kosher salt
- 8 ounces medium cheddar cheese, grated
- 1 fresh poblano pepper, peeled, seeded and minced
Combine all of the ingredients in a large bowl. Use your hands to mix and mash everything together until very well blended. Serve with crackers or sandwich in bread.