Happy almost Halloween everyone! I have had a blast coming up with something fun and a little frightening to help you throw a fantastic spooky Halloween party! What do you think of these Fried Cheese Tombstones with Blood Red Dipping Sauce?
When I was just starting my business career after college, I didn’t earn much money and it was always challenging to stretch the paycheck over the months. Thank God for happy hour hors d’oeuvres!
My friends and I used to buy a glass of wine and then graze our way down the food table, our version of the single girl’s dinner. Some bars had amazing buffets and they were always packed with other young professionals, looking to relax after work and grab a cheap bite to eat at the same time. Those were our favorite haunts.
Chicken wings, potato chips, ribs, French fries, stir-fries, they were all regular menu items. But my favorite was the deep fried cheese. Indulgent and packed with protein, it was always so satisfying. Somehow greasy foods and drinking always seem to go together, LOL.
Eventually I no longer needed to save money and could afford to buy myself an actual dinner. But sometimes I still crave the soul-soothing foods from those fun days.
Today’s recipe is a recreation of those treats, with a little extra kick from chili pepper in the sauce and the cheese shaped into ghoulish tombstone shapes. When dipped in the red sauce, everyone will have fun pretending they are wandering through a graveyard, nibbling on mini gravestones! 🙂
One place where GF flours are actually better than wheat is in fried foods. Rice flours in particular fry up very crispy without being heavy. Even if you are not required to eat gluten-free, you may fall in love with frying foods dredged in rice flours.
Preparing these appetizers is a two-step process that allows you to do most of the work in advance and all you have to do the day of the party is fry them until crispy and golden brown and serving while hot to your hungry crowd. Cooking them in batches ensures everyone gets them while they are oozing, adding to the allure for the devilish hobgoblins in your crowd.
Shape and bread the cheese sticks and freeze them until solid. You can do this a day ahead! The sauce should be made a day or two in advance because like many soups, sauces, and stews, the flavors get better when it has had a chance to rest in the refrigerator.
I hope you enjoy these Fried Cheese Tombstones appetizers – you can serve them all year long at any gathering. No need to wait another year to make them and I’m sure your guests will be thrilled to see them on the party buffet!
Jane’s Tips and Hints:
Whenever you are working with both wet and dry ingredients at the same time, like the dipping and dredging for these appetizers, it pays to use one hand for the dry ingredients and the other for the wet. By keeping one hand mostly dry, you avoid the inevitable piles of ingredients clinging to your fingers. For example, I set the cheese stick in the flour with my left hand and coat it, I move it to the eggs and use my right hand to cover it thoroughly with the eggs – transfer it to the breadcrumbs and again using my left hand, I pick up the panko and pat it all over the surfaces and set it on the drying rack.
Ian’s brand of gluten-free panko is the best I’ve found at mimicking the crunch of regular panko. Whole Foods carries it here in California, but if you have trouble finding it, take a look at their website for location assistance or you can order it from Amazon.
- Cheesy Tombstones
- 1-1/2 cups panko or dried breadcrumbs (I use Ian’s brand gluten-free Panko crumbs with excellent results)
- 1 cup + 1/3 cup grated Parmesan cheese, pulsed in a food processor until about the same consistency as the breadcrumbs, divided
- 1 tsp onion powder
- 1/2 tsp kosher or sea salt
- 1/4 tsp freshly ground black pepper
- 3 tsp chopped basil
- 3 large eggs, beaten
- 1/2 cup gluten-free flour blend, rice flour, or all-purpose flour
- 1/2 tsp kosher or sea salt
- 2 (8 oz) blocks of mozzarella cheese, cut crosswise into 1/2-inch thick strips, or 16 pieces of string cheese, wrappers removed
- 1-1/2 cups organic vegetable or olive oil, or as needed
- Blood Red Dipping Sauce
- 2 tbsp organic olive oil
- 1 med onion, peeled and finely chopped
- 1 tsp minced garlic
- 2 to 3 tsp Italian seasoning, to taste
- 1 to 3 tsp dried chile flakes, to taste
- 1 (26 to 28 oz) container crushed tomatoes, preferably Pomi brand
- 1/4 cup water
- 1/4 cup good-quality red wine or additional water
- 1/4 tsp granulated sugar
- Kosher or sea salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
- Chopped basil, for garnish
- Make the Cheese Sticks: Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and set a wire rack on top. Place on your kitchen workspace.
- In a medium shallow baking dish, (such as au gratin) combine the breadcrumbs, 1 cup of the Parmesan, onion powder, and salt. Stir with a fork until blended. Add the basil, stirring until evenly distributed in the breadcrumbs. Place next to the baking sheet.
- In another shallow baking dish, beat the eggs until well blended. Set next to the breadcrumb mixture. Place the flour and salt in a third shallow dish, stir with a fork to blend, and set next to the beaten eggs. You have just set up a breading station like the pros use!
- Cut the blocks of cheese into 1/2-inch sticks. Using a sharp paring knife, carve one end of each stick to look like the rounded end of a tombstone. Leave them squared off if you are serving this at another time of the year.
- Roll the cheese sticks in the flour, tapping off excess. Then dip each stick into the eggs, completely coating them and allowing any excess to drip back in the pan. Place the sticks in the breadcrumb mixture and cover with the breadcrumbs, patting them on each side until completely coated. Place on the wire rack set over the baking sheet. Continue until all the cheese sticks have been coated.
- Repeat the process, skipping the flour the second time, and dip the sticks back in the eggs and then in the breadcrumbs for a second coating. Set them back on the wire rack.
- Gently cover the baking sheet with aluminum foil and place in the freezer. Leave in the freezer until completely frozen, 1 to 1-1/2 hours. They can be made to this point up to 2 days in advance and kept covered in the freezer until ready to cook.
- Prepare the Dipping Sauce: In a large saucepan or Dutch oven, heat the oil over medium-high heat. When shimmering, add the onions and cook, stirring often, until translucent and softened. Add the garlic and cook for about 15 seconds or until it becomes fragrant. Stir in the herbs and cook another minute. (This infuses the oil with the herbs, making the dish more flavorful.) Pour in the tomatoes and wine, stirring to combine. Add the sugar plus salt and pepper to taste.
- Reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer for about 30 minutes or until the flavors have blended and the sauce has reduced slightly, stirring often. Taste and adjust seasonings, adding more herbs if desired. Remove from the heat. The sauce can also be made a day or two in advance. Store, covered, in the refrigerator and reheat over medium heat when ready to serve.
- Keep sauce warm. Refrigerate any remaining sauce to use for another meal. It is great over pasta!
- Fry the Cheese Sticks: Remove the cheese sticks from the freezer and set next to the stove. Place a baking sheet with a wire cooling rack set inside it beside the pan of cheese sticks. Preheat the oven to 250°F.
- In a skillet with straight sides (mine is a 10-inch diameter with 2-inch non-sloped sides), pour in the oil. It should be about 2-inches deep or deep enough to come halfway up the sides of the cheese sticks. Depending on your pan, you may need more or less than the 1-1/2 cups called for. My pan needed about 11 ounces. Attach a candy or frying thermometer to the side of the pan. Heat the oil over medium heat to 350°F. Any lower and the breadcrumbs will soak up the oil; hotter and they will burn before the inside is melted.
- Working in batches and using tongs, gently add a few of the cheese sticks to the hot oil, making sure there is plenty of room between them for the most even browning and easier turning. Fry them until golden brown, about 1 minute per side. Use the tongs to gently turn them, being careful not to pinch too tightly and knock off any of the breadcrumb coating. Move them around as needed to keep them separated.
- When they are done, lift them out of the oil letting any excess drip back into the pan and transfer to the rack over the lined baking sheet. Immediately sprinkle with some of the remaining cheese. Transfer to a warm oven to hold while you finish the rest of the sticks. Fry the remaining cheese sticks, add them to the baking sheet, and sprinkle with remaining 1/4 cup of cheese.
- To Serve: Pour warm sauce into a medium bowl or 6 smaller heatproof bowls such as ramekins for individual dipping. Place sauce on a warmed platter and sprinkle a little of the basil on top. Arrange the fried cheese sticks around the bowl. Serve immediately.
- Yield: about 6 appetizer servings
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