Cream cheese, cucumber juice and a touch of onion may sound like an unlikely combination for some people, but it sounds delicious to me. The dish is known as Benedictine and is a Kentucky favorite. It’s a recipe that I have never tried, but is one I’d like to try. I came across this recipe in my weekly email from NPR about their most emailed stories of the week. After reading it I felt compelled to share this recipe with my readers because it seems like a cool and refreshing accompaniment to any summer party.
From the article, it appears that Benedictine is not well known outside of Louisville, Kentucky. I’d never heard of it before reading this article, had you? But this creamy, cool cucumber spread has persisted in Kentucky ever since Jennie Benedict, a famous Louisville caterer, invented it around the turn of the 20th century.
Benedict opened a tearoom on downtown Louisville’s South Fourth Street in 1911. Back then, that was the city’s bustling commercial center, packed with stores, cafes, theaters and hotels. Today, it’s a few boutiques and several wig shops.
Susan Reigler, a former restaurant critic for Louisville’s newspaper, The Courier-Journal, wrote the introduction to the re-release of Benedict’s Blue Ribbon Cook Book in 2008. Reigler says Benedict’s role in the city’s culinary history was huge and that the roots of many of the city’s flavors can be traced back to her recipes.
Of course, some of Benedict’s concoctions have fallen out of favor — like calf brains and peptonized oysters for the sick. But Reigler says Benedictine has endured.
“I think it’s just very different. It’s very refreshing. It’s a light spread,” she says. “What could be more light and delicate than cucumber juice?”
One source of contention among Louisville chefs is whether to include the two drops of green food coloring that Benedict used in her recipe. The dye lets people know that it’s not just a plain cream cheese spread, but the practice is no longer popular with chefs like Kathy Cary, who prefer more natural ingredients.
Cary has owned Lilly’s, a restaurant that specializes in Kentucky cuisine, for the past 25 years. For her, the dish is truly a way to showcase both local cucumbers and local traditions.
“Mine is really about … celebrating the cucumbers,” Cary says. “Obviously, no dye, no food coloring. And it’s filled with texture, and sort of the crunch of the cucumbers.”
Some cooks serve Benedictine as a dip, others as tea sandwiches with the crusts cut off. But Cary usually puts hers into a hearty sandwich with homemade mayonnaise, bacon, bibb lettuce and sprouts.
Recipe: Jennie Benedict’s Benedictine
8 ounces cream cheese, softened
3 tablespoons cucumber juice
1 tablespoon onion juice
1 teaspoon salt
A few grains of cayenne pepper
2 drops green food coloring
To get the cucumber juice, peel and grate a cucumber, then wrap in a clean dish towel and squeeze juice into a dish. Discard pulp.
Do the same for the onion.
Mix all ingredients with a fork until well-blended (using a blender will make the spread too runny). Serve as a dip or as a sandwich filling.
Recipe: Lilly’s Benedictine
8 ounces cream cheese, softened
1 cucumber, peeled, deseeded and chopped
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup chopped red onion
1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon pepper
1 teaspoon fresh chopped dill
Combine ingredients and mix well.
With plenty of cucumbers and onions around, you can be sure that I will be. Making this dip. Most likely, I will do a slightly modified version of the second recipe since I like the idea of the chopped cucumber in the dip. Do you think you will try it? Or have you already had Benedictine?