I almost always have pimento cheese in my refrigerator. It is one of my comfort foods and I never get tired of it. Like most Southerners, I grew up with it and there are as many variations as there are Southerners. The version that I make most is super simple and the recipe that my mother and my Grandmother always made.
It is basically only three ingredients, sharp cheddar cheese, jarred pimentos and mayonnaise. This is a case where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts for sure. The three parts don't sound like much, but when you combine them, you get a creamy, sharp, piquant spread that is so versatile that you can use it for just about any meal part.
I add it to eggs to make a cheesy scramble in the morning, use as a spread on bread for a sandwich that is served cold; toasted open-face or griddled into the Southern grilled cheese. Added to biscuit dough, you get the best cheese biscuits that I have ever eaten. Served with saltines and smoked sausage, it is an appetizer or a barbecue entree. And, my own favorite, spread on pretzel rods as a cocktail snack. These are a few of the ways that I use pimento cheese, but there are so many more!
Some people — even those living in the South — make pimento cheese with roasted red peppers, but they aren't the same as pimentos and thus they don't taste the same. Pimento is the American spelling of the Spanish "pimiento," a heart-shaped sweet red pepper that most everyone knows from the pimento-stuffed Spanish olives.
The Spanish pimiento became popular in America in the early 1900s and farmers around Griffin, Georgia, began growing them. A large canning operation opened in Griffin, and the son of the owner invented a machine to roast and peel the pimentos. That paved the way for a large-scale pimento production. My Georgia-grown Grandmother swore by the local Dromendary brand pimientos which today is the largest brand in the U.S. and incidentally, still spells "pimientos" the Spanish way. They are no longer grown in Georgia but they are all made in America.
The only caveat to this spread is that you must grate the cheese yourself. If you buy already grated cheese, it won't meld together as one. Sharp cheddar is essential because it has a little less moisture than non-sharp cheddar which makes it creamier when combined and because the stronger flavor is needed to balance the mayonnaise and the pimentos. I actually use extra-sharp cheese and a combination of white and yellow cheddar. I like the lighter color of the mix of cheeses and think it gives the finished pimento cheese a little more dimension.
I don't like a lot of mayonnaise — only enough to bind the cheese and pimentos so I use the entire 4-ounce jar of chopped pimentos and the liquid to help bring the cheese together into a homogenous spread. If you live outside the South, it may be hard to find the chopped pimentos. If you buy a jar of sliced pimentos, you will need to chop them into smaller pieces.
CLASSIC PIMENTO CHEESE
Start to finish: 10 minutes
8-ounce block of extra-sharp yellow cheddar cheese
8-ounce block of extra-sharp white cheddar cheese
4-ounce jar of Dromedary pimientos with liquid
2-3generous tablespoons of real mayonnaise such as Hellmann's or Duke's
Fresh ground black pepper to taste
Grate cheese into a deep bowl using the largest holes on your grater. Pour the entire jar of chopped pimentos on the cheese. Scoop 2 generous tablespoons of mayonnaise out of the jar and stir everything together with a fork, mashing the cheese and pimentos together.
If it is too dry, add more mayonnaise. Grind 2-3 coarse rotations of fresh black pepper on the pimento cheese and mix well. Taste for seasoning and adjust with pepper or mayonnaise as needed. I find that the cheese and mayonnaise are salty enough and you will not need to add any salt.
Spoon pimento cheese into a glass jar with a fitted lid—I like to use a wide mouth mason jar which then makes a nice serving dish as well. The pimento cheese good immediately but is even better the next day.
Nutrition information per serving: 109 calories; 83 calories from fat; 9 g fat (6 g saturated; 0 g trans fats); 25 mg cholesterol; 160 mg sodium; 1 g carbohydrate; 0 g fiber; 0 g sugar; 5 g protein.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Elizabeth Karmel is a barbecue and Southern foods expert. She is the chef and pit master at online retailer CarolinaCueToGo.com and the author of three books, including "Taming the Flame."