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Mother's Day Is Time for a Cheese Ball
An appetizer and a State of Grief
For Mother’s Day this year, I’ve decided to make a cheese ball. I was flipping through Bound to Please: The Irresistible Idaho Cookbook, which had been one of my mom’s favorite and most used ones, and I was struck by the number of recipes for them. Nearly a half dozen! They have small differences, like a dash of hot sauce or Worcestershire here, a little dried fruit or fresh herb there. But there’s always cream cheese, always a crunchy coating, and always a ball shape that begs for the plunge of an appetizer knife.
I don’t really remember my mom making them; they must have been a dinner party thing through the 80s and my brother and I were too young to participate much. But her high marks in the margins — “EXCELLENT.” “VERY GOOD.” “GREAT.” — finally won me over, and I’m pleased to share that both the “Excellent” Bound to Please recipe I landed on, as well as the one below that riffs on it a little, is very good. Most cheese balls probably are, because they’re easy, crowd-pleasing, and flexible for the cook. I aimed to conjure her as I set the cream cheese out to soften, mashed the ingredients first by hand and then (more easily) in the stand mixer, and molded a perfect globe. What’s not to love? The payoff is strong.
I’ve written about Bound to Please a few times before. In fact, this little Mother’s Day remembrance already feels like something I’ve written before. Always ostensibly about her, but inevitably about me. It’s been almost 20 years since my mom died, and as more time passes, the more my efforts to memorialize her start to feel a bit, well, cheesy.
Mother’s Day is increasingly like this. The holiday can be a struggle for those of us in the Dead Mom’s Club, especially in these food spaces where Mom content is unrelenting. Luckily for me, enough time has passed to learn that one of the facts and privileges of age is outliving. And now to have so many moms in my life, I have a deeper appreciation of motherhood in the grand sense, as a life force. So I don’t mind Mother’s Day at all. I want motherhood celebrated.
I will say, though, that for my personal purposes, I approach it with a mix of warm anticipation and creeping dread. Anticipation because it presents the chance to finally honor my mother properly — to get it right at last. Creeping dread because, as you might imagine, that ambition is never fulfilled. This net-zero outcome isn’t helped by the fact that in the scheme of food writing, these remembrances usually rely on cliches and tropes. Because here I am sharing a recipe for a cheese ball.
I used to carry a grief of longing — how I wish I could still call her, see her, be with her — which still creeps up on occasion. But at some point I was forced to accept her absence. And what’s taken shape instead, in this widening expanse of passing time, is a grief of FOMO, a nagging what if? It’s having to live with an unsolved mystery: How different would my life be if she were still here? Who would she have become? How would her presence have shifted the trajectory of our family? How did her death make me this middle-aged adult I am — did it harden me, stunt me? Is it hardwired into my habits and moods? I’ll just never know.
It can be a trippy and frustrating thing to consider, and it catches often in my throat. I hope that for those whose experience of Mother’s Day is complicated, that maybe there’s something to relate to in sharing this. The FOMO is a fact of it, and a reminder that grief is hard. Cheese balls are much easier.
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Pistachio-Date Cheese Ball
Picking through the cheese “ends” at a cheese counter — the smaller leftover pieces that are too small to sell from behind the counter — is a great place to source the cheddar and bleu cheeses here. It’s the pungent cheese that gives so much character to this.
Make sure to use crunchy toasted or roasted nuts, so that you get crunchy, toasty contrast in the coating.
This is inspired by the “Fantastic Cheese Ball” from Bound to Please: The Irresistible Idaho Cookbook.
Yield 1 large cheese ball | Prep time 15 minutes
8 ounces room-temperature cream cheese
2 ounces coarsely grated sharp cheddar (heaping ½ cup)
2 ounces crumbled bleu cheese (heaping ¼ cup)
4 medium dates, pitted and diced
1 small shallot, finely minced
1 clove garlic, finely grated or minced
Pinch cayenne pepper or a few dashes hot sauce
A few swipes of lemon zest
About 1/2 cup coarsely chopped toasted pistachios or pecans
1. In a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, or a mixing bowl if using a hand mixer, blend the cheeses, dates, shallot, garlic, cayenne, and lemon until combined. You can also mix it all by hand as long as the cream cheese is softened.
2. Spread the chopped nuts out on a plate or small baking sheet. Scrape the cheese mixture out of the bowl and use your hands to shape it into a ball by slapping it back and forth and compressing it. Roll it through the chopped nuts until well coated all around. Place it covered, or in an airtight container, in the refrigerator for a few hours or ideally overnight, during which time the flavors will develop.
3. Allow to soften at room temperature for 30 to 60 minutes, then serve as an appetizer with crackers and crudités. The cheese ball will keep well for several days, stored in the fridge.