Having been raised in North Carolina, schooled in Florida, and settled in South Carolina, I have spent all my life in “The South,” and I can’t think of a time when I wasn’t aware of pimento cheese. I never really liked it until I moved to Greenwood, South Carolina, and tried the pimento cheese that is house-made at Corley’s Market and Grill.
This pimento cheese tastes fresh, and each flavor component is distinct: cheddar cheese, mayo, pimento peppers, salt, and pepper. It melts nicely when piled by the spoonful on a burger, and it makes a killer grilled cheese.
In short, I love Corley’s pimento cheese, but I have also experimented with making my own, with great success (I have to admit).
To really understand pimento cheese, one must realize that there are really only three key ingredients: cheese, mayonnaise, and peppers.
Once this is all understood, the possibilities for home-cook variations are incredible. I have arrived at two custom variations, one with chipotle peppers, and another with fresh jalapeños and cilantro.
Version 1 (Chipotle): grate two cups of sharp cheddar cheese in a basic box grater or whatever you have on hand; Add about 1/4 cup of mayo, one canned chipotle pepper, about a teaspoon of the adobo sauce from the can of chipotle peppers, salt and pepper to taste. Stir all ingredients together with a spoon or food processor to combine and break the cheese into smaller bits. Chop the chipotle pepper before mixing the ingredients unless you mix with a processor. (Disclaimer: I don't really measure anything when I cook, and this isn't a recipe but a loose blog-post description of how I make something--adjust everything as needed!)
This produces a cheese spread that is more flavorful than the traditional pimento cheese. It has more heat than pimento cheese (pimentos aren’t spicy at all), and the smokiness that comes with all chipotle peppers (a chipotle pepper is a smoke-dried jalapeño).
Version 2 (Jalapeño): follow the same process as Version 1, substituting one whole fresh jalapeño, diced, and about three tablespoons of chopped fresh cilantro.
This version is great because of its combination of the sharp, clean heat of the jalapeño and the fresh flavor of the cilantro, with the heat being simultaneously cooled by the cheese and mayo. It has a quick and satisfying punch of heat, but it doesn’t have the extended and unpleasant burn of biting into a raw hot pepper.
As I have already indicated, the three big tests for pimento cheese are the burger, the grilled cheese, and the cracker. My two variations pass these tests, but they pose an additional problem: pimento cheese takes its name from the pimentos. Since I don’t use this boring pepper, my cheeses are some kind of bastardized cheese spread. I can’t call them “Chipotle Cheese” and “Jalapeño Cheese” because no one has ever heard of such things; I can’t call them “cheese spreads” because such a name would conjure images of Velveeta or Cheese Whiz (yuck!). So, I’m willing to declare any combination of cheese, mayo, and peppers “pimento cheese” and allow myself to take liberties with the variety of pepper that joins the cheese and mayo. In honor of Lewis Black, I’ll refer to my decision on terminology as “the soy milk rule” because, remember, no one would buy “soy juice.”
I hope you try my variations on pimento cheese; if you have your own, I would love to hear about it!