The first time, and, up until very recently, the last time I had pimento cheese spread was in Louisville, Kentucky, where I spent the summer after graduating college. I taught at a summer enrichment program for at-risk children. Whenever we had a break to run out and get food, the teachers would go to a nearby supermarket and pick up provisions. As soon as I tasted the odd, lumpy orange spread that someone had brought back, I was hooked. Every few days I stopped by the prepared food/deli section and pick up a container of it. I really had no idea what was in it but I loved the stuff. I’d roll it up with lettuce and avocado in flatbread or sometimes just scoop it up with Triscuits. Yet when the summer was over, my love affair with pimento cheese seemed to end as quickly as it began.
Until the heat of this summer hit New York. Somewhere in the dusty recesses of my brain I must associate pimento cheese with stiflingly hot weather and kids. Out of nowhere I started to crave pimento cheese sandwiches and wanted to put them in my kids’ lunchboxes for summer camp.
Fortunately, I was able to consult with my hair stylist buddy, born and raised in the South, while getting my hair cut the other day. Cheddar, pimentos, garlic (usually in powder or salt form, she told me), and mayonnaise are the main characters in most versions of pimento cheese. Variations include cameos by cream cheese, hot pepper, and pickles. She always ate it between two slices of Sunbeam white bread.
I weighed my options and considered a few additions. I didn’t want to stray too far from the classic version. The mayonnaise, though, had to go. I love homemade mayonnaise, but in this heat, I really didn’t want to make up a batch. Of course, I could’ve used mayonnaise from a jar, but I felt there had to be another, less oily option. Crème fraiche has a very similar consistency that would help make the cheese mixture more spreadable, plus it adds a nice mild tang.
If my pimento cheese spread was going to stand a chance of making it into my kids’ lunchbox rotation, it couldn’t be too spicy. So I stuck with mild and lightly tangy flavors. It turned out to be perfect comfort food, delicious in a sandwich spread with a light layer or sweet relish. And instead of Sunbeam, I used an all-natural honey oatmeal bread that is just as soft. My younger daughter loved helping me make it. She’s good at dumping things into the food processor and pressing the button (supervised, of course!). My older daughter loved eating it. And so did I.
P.S. A happy hour pimento cheese spread to enjoy with beer is next on my list. Stay tuned for jalapeno- and horseradish-spiked version.
Preparation time 5 minutes
Makes about 1 ¼ cups
4 ounces sharp orange cheddar, cubed
4 ounces Monterey Jack cheese
¼ cup sliced pimentos (such as Cento pimientos)
¼ cup cream cheese, at room temperature
3 tablespoons crème fraiche
1 teaspoon yellow mustard
1 clove garlic, finely minced or passed through a garlic press
1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
pinch Kosher salt (to taste)
- Place all ingredients except salt into the bowl of a food processor. Pulse until well-blended and more or less the consistency of a small curd cottage cheese. Salt to taste.
- In order for the garlic flavor to develop, make the spread a couple hours ahead of serving and refrigerate until shortly before serving. Allow the spread to come to room temperature, or at least lose its chill, before serving. Delicious with crackers or in a sandwich with soft sliced bread and relish.