I’d heard about marshmallow fudge, a common shortcut to make the beloved holiday treat, but I was having a hard time wrapping my head around Velveeta fudge.
A brick of processed cheese, mixed with powdered sugar and melted butter — this was not a recipe I’d heard of growing up in my neck of the Ozarks. But others with Midwestern roots in the newsroom chimed in that they’d had this back home.
Fudge is an American confection that dates back to the 1880s, when a grocery store in Baltimore sold “fudged” caramel for 40 cents a pound. Traditionally, you make it by cooking butter and granulated sugar to a soft-ball stage, about 236 degrees. This method requires being exact with the time, temperature and stirring and can be difficult to master, especially if you only make it once a year.
So it’s no surprise that Americans, with their quest for efficiency and love of grocery store shortcuts, turned to the supermarket aisles for help with this staple of the holiday cookie tin.
Some quick fudge recipes use sweetened condensed milk and chocolate chips or marshmallows and evaporated milk to obtain that signature texture, but Velveeta fudge recipes rely entirely on a combination of melted cheese and butter mixed with powdered sugar and cocoa. Most Velveeta fudge recipes also call for a little vanilla or nuts, while others suggest dried cherries or even chili powder.
How did Velveeta end up in a dessert? Velveeta was first introduced in 1917 as a new kind of cheese made from scraps of real cheese. By the 1920s, Kraft had purchased the brand and started its still-ongoing marketing campaign to encourage customers to buy it.
When it debuted 100 years ago, Velveeta introduced a texture into American kitchens that was at that time much harder to obtain. Marshmallows and gelatin have had a similar effect on our collective recipe canon. With these new products, home cooks (and the marketers targeting them) could let their creativity go wild. From the 1940s through the 1960s, this gave us savory Jell-O salads, marshmallow-topped casseroles and, yes, Velveeta fudge.
In the past 10 years or so, Paula Deen repopularized the “chocolate cheese fudge” made with the product that is more often used in queso, mac and cheese and enchiladas. A few years later, the South Carolina chef Sean Brock included his family’s version in his book “Heritage.”
I went as basic as possible for my first attempt at making Velveeta fudge, using only vanilla and not including any nuts. The fudge mixture came together quickly. After I melted the butter and Velveeta on the stove, stirring often over low heat, I poured over a mixture of powdered sugar and cocoa.
Using a spatula, I folded the fudge over and over again, pressing the dry mixture into the warm liquid until the two were thoroughly combined. The fudge spread easily into a 9-inch-by-13-inch casserole dish, and within a few hours, it was solid enough to slice into pieces.
The texture of the fudge was smooth, almost putty
–like, and there was a creaminess that traditional fudge usually lacks. The biggest tell that something was different, however, was the faint smell of queso and underlying savory taste.
It’s unlikely someone would guess they’re eating cheese, but there are enough differences that friends and family are bound to ask what your secret ingredient is.
With or without the cheese, a fudge recipe with melted chocolate is always going to yield a richer product than one that relies on powdered sugar and cocoa. But this was still a nice treat.
In my family, fudge is a holiday dessert. And it may come as a shock to some, but the key ingredient in this fudge is Velveeta cheese. The ultra-creamy nature of the processed whey melts more evenly than traditional cheese. Everyone knows I am dedicated to heirloom ingredients; now I suppose you can add Velveeta to the list.
— Sean Brock
1/2 pound Velveeta cheese, cut into 1/2-inch-thick slices
1/2 pound unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch-thick slices
2 pounds powdered sugar
1 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1 cup chopped black walnuts (or other nut, optional)
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Spray a 9-by-13-inch pan lightly with nonstick baking spray.
If you have a double boiler, melt the Velveeta and butter in the top of a double boiler over low heat. The water in the lower boiler should never be hotter than a simmer. Stir the Velveeta and butter together with a silicone spatula until melted and combined, scraping down the sides as necessary, about 8 minutes. Transfer the mixture to a large bowl and set aside. You can do this in a microwave or in a saucepan over medium-low heat, but stir often to combine thoroughly.
Put the powdered sugar and cocoa in a large bowl and whisk together, making sure that no lumps remain. Add the nuts and stir to combine.
Add the sugar mixture to the warm cheese mixture, then add the vanilla and stir until the sugar is dissolved and the mixture is smooth. Pour the fudge into the prepared pan. Tap the pan on the counter to remove any air bubbles and smooth the top with a small offset spatula. Refrigerate for at least 8 hours; wait until the fudge is cold before covering it, so that moisture won’t form on the top. Cut the fudge into 1-inch squares. Serve at room temperature.
Tightly covered, the fudge will keep for up to 1 week in the refrigerator. Tightly wrapped, it can be frozen for up to 3 months. Thaw it in the refrigerator and bring to room temperature
— Adapted from “Heritage” by Sean Brock (Artisan Books, $40)