Wager money on this: Few chefs have thought more about how to make a great cheese straw than Mimi Maumus, who runs home.made, a restaurant and catering business in Athens, Georgia.
Maumus has been contemplating the perfect recipe since she was a girl growing up in New Orleans, where people take the perennial Southern cocktail snack as seriously as they do sno-balls, oysters, and gumbo. “Once I began cooking professionally, I wanted to tackle a lot of the foods that I relished as a child,” she says, “and cheese straws were high on the list.” Now she calls her signature version Swanee Bites, named after a customer’s grandmother who used to say, “Well, I swanee!” instead of cursing. They involve a thick smear of pimento cheese between two cheese straws; the edges of the little sandwiches are then rolled in chopped pecans.
Cooking was not Maumus’s plan. “My mother warned me that restaurants were dangerous places and I might get locked in a walk-in freezer by an armed robber,” says the chef, who worked her way through the University of West Georgia at restaurants while studying sociology and psychology. In 2004, she moved to Athens and landed at Hugh Acheson’s Five & Ten, building her catering operation on the side.
Her cheese straw spirit guide is the late Lady Helen Henriques Hardy, the undisputed queen of New Orleans cheese straws. Hardy’s recipe is so often requested by Times-Picayune readers that editors keep photocopies of it on hand. The version Maumus developed is light on flour—she likes White Lily—and calls for butter, a hit of cayenne, and very sharp white cheddar, though you can use orange cheese if you prefer the color.
Like Hardy, Maumus believes a perfect cheese straw should be extruded. “New Orleans cheese straws are never to be balled or rolled,” she says. She tried cookie presses, breaking a half dozen flimsy ones from both overuse and dough that was too firm. Finally she landed on an especially soft dough and a pastry bag with a metal star tip. Home hackers could make do with a ziplock bag snipped at the corner, but if there was ever a reason to invest in a pastry bag, this is it.
Whatever method you choose, keep the tip close to the baking sheet as you pipe, to create slightly flattened straws. Then bake them with the kind of precision that results in a light, crisp texture with a rich, cheesy flavor.
“I bake them briefly at a medium temperature and then turn the oven as low as possible to finish,” Maumus says. “I don’t want them to have any browning. The cheese flavor becomes too bitter.”
Still, she continues to tinker. She’s currently thinking about modifying caulk guns to use instead of pastry bags to increase volume and ensure consistency.
Cheese straws, Maumus says, “take a lifetime to perfect.”