My husband can list the final scores of every professional football championship dating back to Super Bowl I in 1967. That was when the halftime show starred a marching band. My forté tends toward a different spread: the appetizer table at every Super Bowl party since we moved in together in 1994.
Through careful analysis, I’ve determined that the winner every time is the hot dip.
In February, no one — save the lactose intolerant — can resist dredging a corn chip through a cheesy molten dip. Be it artichoke, crab, clam, spinach, Mexican, onion, chili, bean or chicken wing, the hot one is sure to get ransacked by the end of the first extended commercial break.
There’s just one problem with every one I’ve sampled. Once that nice-and-creamy, if not a bit heavy, hot dip sits out for more than 15 minutes, it becomes leaden. Worse is when the cheese separates or the oil pools appear.
I found 222,000 hot-dip recipes online and, with a small margin of error, 98.9 percent of them start with one key ingredient: eight ounces of cream cheese. Combining it with mayonnaise and/or sour cream, you can produce every hot dip in existence simply by varying the main ingredient and a few seasonings.
As someone who believes that a schmeer on a bialy is manna, I have nothing against cream cheese. The overreliance on cream cheese for hot dips is quite sane from a cooking standpoint: it melts readily and is a stable base. However, good old American cream cheese is, well, gummy, and can leave a plasticky coating in your mouth. This is an unfortunate result of modern technology’s gelling-agent replacements for the butterfat in traditional (read “real”) cream cheese.
Another issue is that I’m tired of eating hot dips that haven’t changed a bit since the 1970s. This year seemed like a good year to revamp them with something lighter, fresher, and greener. So, along with nixing the cream cheese, I eighty-sixed frozen, canned, or otherwise prepared, prepackaged foods and seasonings, right down to beloved Old Bay.
I tackled my two preferred hot dips: spinach and crab. These were arbitrary and self-serving choices. In the Pacific Northwest, with cold-hardy spinach thriving and Dungeness crab still plentiful at Super Bowl time, these are good dips for the season. For each recipe, I took my inspiration from fresh favorites: wilted spinach salad with crumbled bacon, blue cheese and buttermilk dressing, and my very best crispy crab cake.
My main goal was to create dips that stayed ultra-creamy even when (or if) they got stone cold. Just to make sure nothing got too fancy, I prepared each dip in a single sauté pan.
For recipe formulation, I stole a page from the fondue playbook. I stabilized the dips by using cornstarch, thereby avoiding unsightly cheese separation. I also used wine in one and vinegar in the other to brighten the flavors and lighten them. Finally, I restrained myself with the cheese.
Have I completely over-thought the hot dip? Probably. But, you see, I’ve got to do something to entertain myself once the halftime spectacular is over.
Lynne Sampson Curry is a freelance writer living in Joseph, Oregon, who blogs at Rural Eating.
Culinate’s features address the practical challenges and joys of food.
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