Skull Cheese Ball with "Hard Tack"

Saturday, October 20, 2012


One of the food items I knew I had to make for the pirate party was a cheese ball formed into a skull. Cheese balls are literally balls of cheese that guests can help themselves to and served traditionally with crackers or vegetables. You can make virtually any combination you like to suit the season and theme of your party. And this low-maintenance appetizer can be made even a couple of days in advance, refridgerated well, then brought out when you're ready for your party.

For this pirate party I knew I needed to keep the cheese on the whiter side of the color spectrum to achieve that skull color I wanted, so I chose a simple good quality fresh cream cheese as the base. I found a wonderful cream cheese at Whole Foods that tastes more like cheese rather than the commercial brand that has more of a gummy texture. I highly recommend you go that route if you can find it. Then for the real cheese flavor of the dish I chose a very aged English white cheddar. Some freshly cracked black pepper to the mix and that's all. The combination of white cream cheese and slightly ivory color of the aged white cheddar made a perfect skull color for the dish.

"Cheese ball" by no means translates to boring. I wanted my skull to have both visual appeal and taste really great and interesting, so I decided to introduce a jelly to contrast the flavors and colors and flavors of the dish. I decided to fill the sockets of the skull with a jalapeno jelly; the puce color was perfectly spooky and the sweet spicy jam paired just perfectly against the savory cream cheese and super sharp aged cheddar. As a whole the dish worked both aesthetically as well as on the palate, and I got a lot of compliments on it at the party.

To go with the cheese skull I chose to serve "hard tack." I took reference from historical pirates in what they'd actually eat and I found they would make this super hard crude cracker from flour they'd take on board and water from the sea. The dough was incredibly tough and hard to work with and retained a very salty flavor from using the salt water, hence the name. I didn't make it from scratch, but instead found some lovely sea salt crackers at the market and used those to great effect. The combination of the historically accurate crackers together with the festive cheese skull made a perfect pirate party appetizer. I will most certainly be doing this again for any future pirate parties as well as Halloween.

To serve such a dish, I chose a simple gold charger plate. I formed the cheese ball in a skull shape onto a piece of parchment paper. I made the skull 2 days before the party, covered and refrigerated it until the morning of the party. Then I took a sharp knife and cut around the edge of the skull, leaving the cheese to sit on the paper. Then using a sturdy spatula, transfered the skull (paper and all underneath) to the gold charger plate. If you plan to use a proper serving dish go ahead and form the skull right onto your serving platter and simply cover with plastic wrap until ready to serve. Fill the sockets with the jam before serving.

Skull Cheese Ball with Hard Tack
3 cups worth of good quality cream cheese, at room temperature
1 1/2 cups shredded aged sharp white cheddar (recommend: English white aged cheddar)
about 1/2 tsp freshly ground black pepper
jalapeno jelly or your favorite jam (optional)
parchment paper
sea salt crackers for serving

Place the cream cheese in a large bowl, then add the cheddar and pepper. Using your hands or a rubber spatula, mix all ingredients together until combined well. Roll the cheese mixture out onto a piece of parchment paper. Then using your hands, gently form the cheese into a large skull shape. If you find the cheese is sticking to your hands a bit, dampen your hands in some water and shake off the excess then mold the cheese. To make the sockets and mouth, take a teaspoon (like one you'd eat with) and make an indent for eyes. Then gently using the spoon, dig a little deeper into the cheese about 1/3 of the way down to the bottom to make space for the jam to fill in. Do a smaller upside-down heart shape for the nose. Then taking a toothpick or wooden skewer, draw down the lines for the mouth. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate at least 4 hours, or up to 3 days.

When ready to serve, fill the sockets with the jelly/jam and serve with the crackers around the skull or in a separate bowl next to it.

Serving suggestion:
Add a small cheese knife to the side to help guests serve themselves.

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