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As a born and raised Southerner, I’ve always associated cheese balls with the holidays. In my book, these orbs of cheese — grated and glued together with cream cheese, butter, and mayonnaise, then rolled in nuts and herbs — are the reason for the season. My first memory was the Kaukauna Port Wine Cheese Ball, purchased from the grocery store and sitting out with crackers to ensure we didn’t starve prior to the holiday feast ahead. I was too young to remember anything aside from the tanginess of the port wine, but I was already obsessed with the idea of a sphere made of cheese and covered in nuts.
A few years back, I perfected my own cheese ball recipe and began hosting what I now call a “deck the cheese ball” shindig. My friends and I gather, pre-holiday madness, to connect, drink wine, and roll up our sleeves to craft cheese balls. It’s a tradition that has been going strong for years. It's kind of like an ice cream social, but in this cheesy dream world, ice cream is replaced with cheese and the toppings consist of nuts, chives, bacon bits, and dried fruit.
Here’s how to host your own with tips and tricks for this gift that keeps on giving — as well as my cheese ball recipe.
Set Up the Perfect Cheese Ball Station
I usually invite 8 to 10 friends, and each guest gets one mixing bowl (Pyrex or any sturdy bowl), one paper plate, plus a nice brown paper box or plastic wrap in which to bring the cheese ball home.
Lay out all the ingredients, mixing bowls, and spoons on a dining room table or any long, flat service. And make room to roll the cheese balls in the toppings.
Prepare the Base-Making Section
On one side of the table, present your cheese ball base, which is an equal mix of cheese and squishy stuff.
You’ll want half of your base to be cheese. My go-to is medium or extra-sharp cheddar and Parmesan. This adds a little grit and structure to the otherwise soft cheese ball. For both cheeses, I usually buy a block and grate it myself, since it’s more cost-efficient and doesn’t have the unnecessary starch found in most pre-packaged shredded cheese. I like to add in equal amounts of two different cheeses for extra texture and flavor, but you can always stick with the same cheese because there really are no rules.
The other squishy stuff
There is actually one rule and it’s this: The other half of the base is always a mix of cream cheese, Duke’s mayo (if you can find it), and butter. Butter is the magic ingredient. Just out of the fridge, cold butter adds a velvety texture.
Place the different shredded cheeses, cream cheese, mayonnaise, and butter in separate bowls along with measuring cups.
Once folks have concocted their perfect base blend, encourage them to get in the groove and work with their hands; the warmth will help meld ingredients together. The texture of the cheese ball should be creamy and well-mixed, but note you will (and should) have little chunks of butter and cream cheese throughout the sphere. If it’s too liquidy, just add more shredded cheese. Don’t overthink it: You really can’t mess this up.
Outfit the Toppings Bar
On the other side of the table, lay out the toppings in separate bowls, along with more measuring cups or large spoons so people can easily scoop up ingredients to mix and match. In the recipe below, I’ve listed my favorites, but feel free to add or subtract.
I love a classic cheese ball dipped in pecans or walnuts, but if you’re going for holiday spirit, it’s nice to deck it out with a mix of herbs, nuts, bacon bits, and fried onions. With that adventurous spirit in mind, delegate by asking guests to bring a bottle of wine and their favorite topping. Some ideas to spark their imagination: Southern hot sauces or spices, chili crisp for crunchy texture with a kick, and any kind of nut.
Put It All Together
Now instruct guests on the fun part: shaping and finishing their cheese ball. After they’ve mixed their base and selected their toppings, give them a paper plate. I’ve shared rough amounts for toppings, but there isn’t a set measurement — just add enough nuts, herbs, and/or dried fruit to cover the bottom of the plate and roll the cheese ball around until the ball is covered to your liking. You can always add a handful more if needed.
Marvel at their work, then hand them a sleeve of Ritz crackers, which is the one and only cracker for a cheese ball. They reign supreme with their buttery, salty, crispy appeal and are a thick enough vehicle to stand up to a solid cheese spread.
Add Some Flair
I like to pop a floral arrangement or two and a few candles with glass hurricanes around the dining room. Then I turn on some holiday tunes and open some bottles of wine. I love to pair cheese balls with Champagne, Sancerre, or a slightly chilled Gamay.
Before guests depart, I give them their travel accouterments, an extra set of Ritz crackers, and some intel on how to best enjoy their cheese balls. Let them rest in the fridge for 48 hours to allow the flavors to soak in before pulling out the perfect party trick. Or wrap it tightly in plastic wrap and freeze for up to three months — avoid doing this with nut-covered cheese balls and instead roll them out in the nuts once thawed, which takes about four hours (or put it in the refrigerator and let it thaw out overnight while you sleep).
Feel free to whip your cheese ball out all holiday season long and long after, because there’s never a wrong time to cheese ball.
The Shindig Ball
Serving: Two 3-oz cheese balls
For the base
8 oz cream cheese
4 oz Duke’s mayo (or Hellman’s in a pinch)
4 oz cold butter, cubed
1 bunch of spring onions, about 4, green parts thinly sliced (white parts separated for another use)
1 bunch fresh parsley, roughly chopped
Garlic powder, to taste
Paprika, to taste
1 cup grated medium cheddar or extra-sharp cheddar (preferably Tillamook)
1 cup grated Parmesan
For the toppings and serving
8 oz crushed pecans
8 oz crushed peanuts
8 oz crushed walnuts
1 cup finely chopped fresh herbs (parsley, oregano, anything green!)
8 oz bacon bits
8 oz dried cranberries
2 sleeves Ritz Crackers
Make the base: In a small bowl, mix together the cream cheese, mayo, and butter with your hands until well-incorporated.
Add in the spring onions, parsley, garlic powder, and paprika, mixing to evenly distribute.
Slide in the grated cheddar and Parmesan, mixing everything together with your hands.
Mold the base into a ball shape. The texture should be creamy, smooth, and well-mixed, but note you will (and should) have little chunks of butter and cream cheese throughout the sphere. If too liquidy, add more grated cheese.
Finish with the toppings: Select and lay out your toppings on a paper plate, then roll the cheese ball in the toppings until coated to your liking. Repeat to make a second cheese ball.
Wrap up the cheese balls in plastic wrap or place in a container, and let the ball rest in the refrigerator for up to 48 hours to bring the flavors all together (or freeze for up to three months). Note: Skip rolling in the nuts if you don’t plan to eat this for a few months and roll when thawed instead.
Serve the cheese ball on a plate with Ritz crackers.
Photographer: Paul Quitoriano
Food Stylist: Cesar Aldrete
Art Direction: Sarah Ceniceros Gomez