Noni Doni’s 12 Bakes of Christmas – Appetizers (7, 8, 9 & 10): Cheeseball, Polenta, Brie in Pastry, Smoked Salmon Spread

This cheeseball is super fast and easy to make in advance.

If you’re in need of appetizers in a hurry, today I present four fast, easy and delicious recipes. Let’s go!

First, let’s begin with the Party Cheeseball, perhaps one of the easiest appetizers of all, aside from a cheese platter or a bag of chips. Once you gather the necessary ingredients, it will take literally minutes to assemble and chill. Boom. Done. It’s name, Party Cheeseball, pretty much says it all: This is a cheeseball so good that it’s always popular at parties.

As is the case with many of my favorite recipes, this is an oldie-but-goodie; originally my former mother-in-law’s recipe.

As the appearance of the recipe card suggests, it’s been consulted many, many, many times over the years. The recipe card also suggests that someone’s a messy cook, but whatever.

The front side of what may now be known as a vintage recipe card for a Party Cheese Ball.

For those who are keeping track of the 12 Bakes of Christmas countdown, this is recipe No. 7. Yes, I’m aware Christmas in Sunday.

Moving along, this Party Cheeseball requires just a few ingredients: cream cheese, bleu cheese, extra sharp cheese and various seasonings. You basically mix the cheeses together, then add everything else, including some chopped pecans, then make a softball-sized cheeseball and roll the whole thing in more chopped pecans. Wrap it tightly in plastic and chill (or even freeze). If you need the cheeseball sooner than later, then pop it in the freezer to speed things up.

In fact, this recipe is so fast and easy to make that it took less time to make the cheeseball than to photograph it. Even after fussing with cropping, and adjusting the color, to me, none of the photos made the cheeseball look very appetizing. Frankly, to my eye, the cheeseball looked more like something that might come out of a Friskies can. Seriously. Check out the snowmen’s expressions. They look unsure of the identity of the thing they’re posed beside.

In the end I did manage to get a few photos that were acceptable. All that remains now is to share the recipe with you and hope you like the Party Cheeseball as much as I do.

Party Cheeseball

2 8-ounce packages cream cheese, softened
1/4 pound bleu cheese
1/2 pound sharp cheddar cheese, grated
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/2 teaspoon seasoned salt
2 tablespoons grated onion
1 clove garlic, grated
1 cup chopped pecans

Combine cheeses in mixing bowl and combine until well blended. Add the Worcestershire sauce, cayenne, seasoned salt, onion, garlic and 1/2 cup of the chopped pecans. With your hands, shape the mixture into a ball. Roll in the remaining 1/2 cup of chopped pecans.

Chill thoroughly. Serve with assorted crackers. Freeze (wrapped tightly in plastic wrap) if desired.

Polenta pleaser

I am in such a rush to get through these dang 12 Bakes of Christmas before Christmas that I didn’t have time to make this next recipe and photograph it. Sorry. Take note. This is recipe No. 8.

I do have a product photo. (You’re welcome.) So here’s the main ingredient — polenta — and the brand I usually buy.

This recipe was cut from the pages of some magazine, but I don’t know which one because it’s been at least 25 years or more since I found it.

It’s called Polenta Bites With Bleu Cheese, Tomatoes and Pine Nuts for obvious reasons. They’re called bites because they’re baked in tiny muffin pans. Do not use regular cupcake pans, unless instead of dainty bites, you’re OK with an entrée-sized polenta patty instead of an appetizer. (Hmmm. Actually, that might be a good idea, maybe on a bed of arugula …)

Focus, Doni.

Polenta. Right. Don’t let polenta intimidate you. Trust me, if you can successfully make Cream of Wheat or oatmeal, you can make polenta. After that, it’s simple from then on. Once the tartlets are formed in the muffin pans from hot polenta, then each one is topped with tomatoes, pine nuts and bleu cheese. Then they’re baked until the bleu cheese melts. Top with sliced basil. They’re delicious, easy, colorful and cute. I love cute food.

Polenta Bites With Bleu Cheese, Tomatoes and Pine Nuts

3 cups low-salt chicken broth
1 cup yellow cornmeal (polenta)
1 cup Parmesan cheese, grated
2 ounces soft bleu cheese, cut into 24 small cubes
3 tablespoons thinly sliced green onion
2 tablespoons roasted pine nuts
12 grape tomatoes, quartered lengthwise
2 tablespoons thinly sliced basil

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Lightly butter 24 mini muffin cups in pan.

Bring broth to a boil in a medium saucepan over medium high heat. Reduce the heat to medium; gradually whisk in cornmeal (polenta). Cook until mixture is very thick, stirring constantly, about 2 minutes. Remove from heat. Stir in Parmesan, Season to taste with salt. Spoon about 1 1/2 tablespoons of the cooked polenta into each mini muffin cup. Using the back of a spoon, press a small crater into the polenta to create a receptacle for the next ingredients.

Into each polenta tartlet’s indentation, put the tomatoes, pine nuts  and bleu cheese. Place in a preheated 350 degree oven and bake the polenta bites just until the cheese starts to melt. Remove immediately and sprinkle the basil over each bite. Serve warm or at room temperature. Makes 24.

Baked Brie and Jam in Puff Pastry

I’m in the home stretch, but as with the previous recipe, I’m writing like the wind to make my pre-Christmas deadline for all 12 of of the Christmas recipes. This is recipe No. 9. (Somebody mark that one off the list for me, OK?) It’s so simple that you almost don’t need a recipe. Just instructions. I will say that whenever this Baked Brie in Puff Pastry appears at a party or potluck, it disappears quickly. You will not have anything left to bring home.

When baked, the Baked Brie and Jam in Puff Pastry is so pretty, and with the egg wash, that little brie disk in pastry looks shiny, golden and beautiful. Save the puff pastry scraps to make some small decorations from tiny cookie cutters to adorn it, and you can see why it’s a favorite. Yes, I know. Photos would have been nice. Thank you for understanding. Use your imagination. We’re in hurry here. Christmas is breathing down my neck and I still have three recipes to publish before Christmas.

Where was I? No photos. Right. Well, here are photos of the main ingredients. First is a wheel of brie, like this one.

Next is a box of frozen puff pastry, like this Pepperidge Farm brand, which is the one I usually use. There are two sheets each wrapped in paper envelopes, but for this recipe, you just need one sheet. Important: A couple of days before making your appetizer, remove 1 pastry sheet packet from the box and return the remaining packet to the freezer.  If you don’t get a head start on thawing the puff pastry in the refrigerator for a few days before you make the appetizer, you’ll have rock-hard pastry sheets, and don’t even think about thawing it the microwave. Mushy disaster.

Finally, aside from the egg wash (1 egg beaten with 1 tablespoon of water), you’ll need jam, preserves or jelly. It doesn’t matter what kind. Whatever strikes your fancy. I recently used a specialty jam I bought that was Meyer lemon, blood orange and pepper jelly. It had a bit of a kick, but it’s perfect with the brie.

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Now, let the assembly begin: Remove one pastry sheet from the box and return the other unopened sheet to the refrigerator. Roll it out gently onto a floured surface. (You need it just a large enough square to hold the brie wheel, with enough dough to come up and over the brie.)

In the center of the pastry spoon out your favorite jam. Any kind is fine, but some of my favorites are fig, apricot and cranberry relish (I know, technically, it’s not a jam). Place the brie wheel over the jam. Cut a large circle around the brie, judging it large enough so the pastry can be brought up and over the brie, enough to ensure all the brie is completely covered. Cut out small shapes from the excess dough with cookie cutters, such as stars (for the holidays) or hearts (for Valentine’s Day).

Turn the pastry disc on a cookie sheet (or in a pretty pie plate in which you’ll serve it), with the ugly, scarred side down. Brush lightly with the egg wash, then place the cut outs on the wet egg wash to fasten in place. Brush the cut-outs with the egg wash, too.

Bake at 400 degrees for 20 to 30 minutes, until it’s golden brown. Let sit for about 10 minutes before serving to give the brie a chance to cool and firm up a bit, otherwise you’ll have hot brie lava oozing out at the first cut. You will love this. I promise.

Smoked salmon to the rescue

Among ANC assistant Barbara Rice’s many talents, she’s also an excellent cook. She recently brought a smoked salmon spread to a party, and her dish was an instant favorite. I overheard one guest proclaim that she could eat that salmon spread with a spoon. I agree.

I hope you notice that I do have photos of this salmon spread (what remained after the party). I’m disappointed to say that similar to the cheeseball, the Smoked Salmon Spread photos do not do this justice. It kind of looks like — oh I don’t know — not salmon spread. Anyway, I love props, so I added a couple of Russian dolls to stand behind the last spoonful of salmon dip with a few crackers. Normally, this would be served in something more the size of a cereal bowl, surrounded by assorted crackers. But this was all that was left. Again, use your imagination.

Also, notice that this is recipe No. 10 of 12. Home stretch. We’ve got this. 

Does a closeup make the salmon spread look more appetizing? Maybe.

When I contacted Barbara for the recipe, she spoke words that experienced cooks often utter, but that drive many people crazy:  “I made it up on the fly.”

Why, of course she did. Luckily, Barbara has a good memory (how do you think she keeps track of ANC trolls?). She was able to provide a list of ingredients and instructions so we can replicate Barbara’s Smoked Salmon Spread. You know that any recipe that begins with the verb “mash” is going to be easy, and this one is exactly that.

Side note. Most of her ingredients made sense; but one surprised me. See if you can guess, and we’ll chat about it at the end of the recipe.

Barbara Rice’s Best Smoked Salmon Spread

12 ounces hot-smoked salmon, skin removed and any bones picked out
2 8-ounce packages cream cheese
2 stalks celery, minced
1/2 a sweet red bell pepper, minced
1 tablespoon Granzella’s muffaletta mix
1 heaping tablespoon prepared horseradish
Big pinch lemon pepper (Barbara makes her own with Meyer lemon zest and fresh-ground pepper)
Big pinch of cayenne
Big pinch of salt

Mash everything together with a fork. It will taste a bit bland at first, but it improves greatly if covered and stored in refrigerator for a few hours before serving.

Serve in a pretty bowl with assorted crackers.

P.S. About that unexpected ingredient. Were you surprised by the addition of Granzella’s muffaletta mix to the salmon spread? I was. Never fear; if your refrigerator is like mine, and you don’t happen to have a jar of Granzella’s muffaletta mix handy, don’t worry. It’s only 1 tablespoon out of the entire recipe. But if you wanted to improvise a bit you could look at the ingredients and chop up some things you may have, like olives, garlic, olive oil, and peppers. Remember, though, you only need 1 tablespoon of whatever faux muffaletta concoction you make. 

That’s it. Recipes 7, 8, 9 and 10. Stay tuned for the final two recipes. Click here for recipes 1 through 6, and other favorite Noni Doni recipes.


If you enjoy journalist Doni Chamberlain’s food stories, investigative reporting and commentary, please consider a contribution to A News Cafe. Thank you!

Doni Chamberlain

Independent online journalist Doni Chamberlain founded A News Cafe in 2007 with her son, Joe Domke. Chamberlain holds a Bachelor's Degree in journalism from CSU, Chico. She's an award-winning newspaper opinion columnist, feature and food writer recognized by the Associated Press, the California Newspaper Publishers Association and E.W. Scripps. She's been featured and quoted in The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, L.A. Times, Slate. Bloomberg News and on CNN, KQED and KPFA. She lives in Redding, California.

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