Pimento cheese, or “Carolina Caviar,” as it was sometimes referred to where I grew up, is kind of a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it’s the perfect snacking cheese — spreadable, mildly spicy, and salty. On the other hand, one can never just dip their hand in a single bite of pimento cheese and stop. I know this from firsthand experience. I may have also fallen asleep with streaks of dried pimento cheese smeared across my face in a cheddar-induced haze. This is why I don’t make it often. This is also why I’ve stopped setting it out on my coffee table, right in front of my napping sofa.
This past Easter seemed like a good reason to make a big batch, though. The moms on our quiet little street all got together and planned a neighborhood-wide egg hunt, and we all agreed that the price of admission was a side dish. Pimento cheese is a surefire party pleaser, and this way I could make sure that my family didn’t absentmindedly consume a whole bunch of it on our own (see: nap/cheese issue, above). Today’s recipe is my basic, go-to recipe, adapted from the Lee Brothers Southern Cookbook, and above I’ve listed some of my favorite add-ins to make your pimento cheese uniquely yours.
Even though it was sunny outside, the ground had barely thawed from the winter, leaving a muddy mess. I really wanted the kids to wear their Easter outfits, but fancy leather sandals were out of the question. On went the rubber boots. The kids were very excited about it. Rain boots means muddy places, which means high-footed stomping. They win, mom loses.
While the kids stomped around outside waiting for the Easter bunny to arrive, I headed inside to char my red bell peppers under the broiler in my oven (to see an example of how black your red bell pepper needs to be in order for this recipe to work, check out my photos here). It’s important to char the bell peppers so that the skin is extra-black on all sides. It means the bell pepper is getting cooked thoroughly, so that, once peeled, the flesh is sleek and soft the touch, like the surface of an otter (I don’t know why it reminds me of that, it just does). Secondly, the char also imparts just a hint of smokiness, which really adds depth to the pimento cheese spread. Without the bell pepper, all you have is a variant of a sad little cheese dip. No one likes sad cheese.
This recipe produces my absolute favorite pimento cheese. The sweet bell peppers mitigate the saltiness of the cheddar well, and the cream cheese/mayo combination adds just the right amount of creaminess. If you’re looking to really wow your guests, there are a few ways you can punch up your pimento cheese after you’ve already made your basic batch of pimento cheese according the recipe I’ve posted below.
First and foremost, if you don’t have kids coming over, mix in a shot of bourbon. The booze elevates the pimento cheese so that it’s similar to a port cheddar with a decidedly Southern kick. I also almost always add two tablespoons of minced fresh chives for a lighter onion twist to the cheese. Other times, I’ll blacken a jalapeno under the broiler at the same time I’m charring the bell pepper and chop up the two together to mix into the cheese base so that there’s a grassier spice mixed in with the sweetness of the bell pepper. A tablespoon of sriracha hot sauce has also been a big hit among our guests in the past, and sometimes I’ll make extra bacon to chop up and put into my pimento cheese (although I’ll note that adding bacon means you need to eliminate seasoning the pimento cheese with any sort of salt whatsoever, or you’ll have a salt explosion in your mouth when you try to eat it).
I’ll close out this post with a pic of my two little munchkins right before they headed outside to destroy their beautiful clothes, the lawn and their appetites for lunch (vis-a-vis CANDY). This photo represents one of the rare times I was able to get both of them to sit still and smile while they were wearing acceptable outfits (i.e., pants on both). Also, their faces are clean. This is a huge win for me. Naturally, I’m printing this photo on EVERYTHING WE OWN.
- 1 red bell pepper
- 8 ounces finely shredded extra-sharp Cheddar cheese
- 2 ounces cream cheese, softened
- 4 tablespoons mayonnaise (Hellman's, preferably; is there any other kind?)
- salt and pepper to taste
- 1 shot (1.5 ounces) of good quality bourbon OR
- 1 tablespoon sriracha OR
- 2 strips very crispy bacon, chopped roughly OR
- 1 jalapeno OR
- 2 tablespoons minced chives
- Wash bell pepper and jalapeno (if using) and pat very dry with paper towels. Turn on the broil function to your oven and allow it to warm up for about 2-3 minutes.
- Place the pepper(s) about 2 inches from the top of the broiler in oven.
- Flip the pepper(s) with tongs after about two minutes to make sure the skin on all sides gets blackened evenly.
- Remove pepper(s) from oven once it is completely blackened on all sides and immediately place in a heatproof bowl. Cover with a plate to steam; let pepper(s) cool.
- While the pepper(s) are cooling, stir together the cream cheese and the mayonnaise.
- Remove pepper(s) from bowl, reserving liquid, and peel skin off.
- Remove seeds and stem, then chop the remaining flesh into a small dice.
- Stir together the peppers, reserved pepper liquid, grated cheese and mayo/cream cheese combo until well blended.
- If using optional ingredients, fold them in after all other ingredients have been mixed together.
- Season with salt and pepper to taste.
- Serve immediately with your favorite crackers or store up to a week tightly covered in the refrigerator (after chilling, bring to just below room temperature prior to serving).