For one family, holiday cheer begins in the dairy case
Many holiday rituals have long roots in religious, cultural or family customs. My favorite Christmas tradition, meanwhile, has roots made out of cream cheese and cheddar.
As much as I’d like to claim I uncovered evidence of the Proto-Germanic rites of hybrid lumberjack-dairy farmers in some old musty book, the truth is my family’s most storied custom originates in a chintzy checkout-line recipe magazine most of us would use to spark our fireplace. It’s a Christmas tree made out of cheese. And while I’ve never been exactly sure of why we make it, I anticipate its annual lactoarboreal construction with the same magical vigor that keeps children awake the night of December 24.
The Lazor Family Cheese Tree began four Christmases ago. Its holy text was something my mother, an ambitious home cook, discovered while waiting to pay for groceries in my hometown, about 90 minutes south of Philly. The booklet mom procured, which teased holiday entertaining ideas in the quasi-glossy, poorly serif-fonted way only supermarket recipe booklets can, didn’t have very many exciting options in it, but the cheese tree caught her eye immediately. (You can tell by her underlined note “GOOD” scribbled on the top of the page with red Sharpie.)
The tree has the familiar conical silhouette of a tall, narrow evergreen. Hand-formed with a blend of cheeses—cream cheese for the base, with other shredded choices providing color and texture—it’s got the flavor and texture of your run-of-the-mill cheese ball, those nut-studded spheres that always prove so popular at office parties.
What really separates our cheese tree from the ho-ho-hors d’oeuvre pack is the adornments. Rough-chopped parsley (preferably curly, for the most realistic greenery) serves as the coniferous leaves. For tinsel: pin-thin strips of lemon peel, twisted. Halved cherry tomatoes stuck to the tree’s sides act as ornaments. Cracker presents, bound with chive bows, are scattered around the base. And then, the glorious and celestial final touch: a bell pepper, cut into the shape of a star wedged into the top. Do you see what I see?
Even if you do a flawlessly Martha-esque job decorating your cheese tree, a task I feel we’ve mastered by committee, it’s still ridiculous.
That, I think, is the true power of this tradition. It’s something we all do together, and it gets my family laughing and talking—much like decorating a real Christmas tree, but you can’t dig a big hunk out of one of those with a Triscuit and down it while ripping open a pack of tube socks. The variations are infinite, but the supremely silly spirit is something that really speaks to me each holiday. It tastes good, too, as it’s a tree made out of cheese.