My Aunt Louie, an English autocrat with piled white hair and a brave bosom, had uncanny good luck and a flair for living. She would drive down the village street, bowing right and left to her friends in the manner of the Queen Mother, on her way to delivering fruit cake for the church tea.
Aunt Louie had a knack for buying a stock just before it took a headlong flight upward in the market. Her lottery tickets invariably won a prize, and once earned her a valuable diamond brooch in the shape of a bow as pioneered by Cartier. I have it to this day.
She was addicted to lethal martinis, which she consumed with verve from a cut-glass coupe originally designed for Champagne. To soak them up she always served her signature hors d’oeuvre -- Parmesan balls -- piled in a Chinese export bowl that had seen better days.
These wonderful little bites, which have long since also become one of my favorite cocktail snacks, have a way of exploding into a thousand crumbs if you bite into them. That’s because they’re incredibly tender and buttery, and that’s why I make them small enough to pop into your mouth whole. Perhaps it’s the unlikely combination of gin and Parmesan that somehow sings when you eat these with a martini; whatever it is, it’s a match made in heaven.
I once asked Aunt Louie where her recipe came from, and she looked nostalgic. “We went on our honeymoon to Monte Carlo,” she said, “and I made rather a lot of money in the casino. Your uncle would get very tired of waiting for me and always said that the only compensation were the cheese balls in the bar. So I tried them at home and they became a family tradition.”
They’re a snap to make, requiring only three main ingredients -- well, four, if you count dry mustard to pep up the flavor. Parmesan is the best cheese to use, but any finely grated, dry cheese will do. Butter, however, is irreplaceable.
You make them in the food processor: A minute’s whirring and the dough is ready. Double, even triple the quantities do fine. The only job that takes a bit of time is pressing the balls in shape, as they must be kept small enough to avoid the shower of crumbs.
Like all good hors d’oeuvres, cheese balls are sharp enough to whet the appetite, encouraging guests to stay and enjoy an extra glass.
Best of all, they can be prepared ahead, and they freeze beautifully. I usually make extras for the freezer for emergencies. That’s my excuse, but I have to admit that the emergency is often self-inflicted: I need a quick snack.