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Genius Pimento Cheese (+ Grilled Pimento Cheese and Bacon Sandwiches)

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Every week on Food52, Senior Editor Kristen Miglore digs up Genius Recipes -- the ones that make us rethink cooking myths, get us talking, and change the way we cook.

Today: Cheese, mayonnaise, and pimentos shouldn't be this good together.

Pimento cheese is, at its core, nothing but tufts of unmelted cheese, a cushion of mayonnaise, and chopped pimentos: a glomming-together of unassuming and seemingly unfriendly ingredients. It doesn't seem like it should exist, but the moment you taste it, you understand.

This trinity is a Southern institution -- but from there, everyone has their own way. Perre Magness (Food52's own TheRunawaySpoon), who's writing a pimento cheese book, has learned that every Southerner has a story, an opinion, a recipe. "What's so interesting," Magness told me, "Is -- for something that's basically 3 ingredients -- people have such strong opinions about the absolute only way to make it."

Virginia Willis adds grated onion. Richard Miscovich spikes his with rye. America's Test Kitchen's linchpin ingredient? Pickle brine. For some, orange cheddar is non-negotiable (and it's not like it's Red 40 dying most of our orange cheese, so let's all relax about that). Even the question of Duke's vs. Hellmann's mayonnaise isn't safe territory. "People get very emotional about that," Magness said.

It's common practice to stir together a batch to keep it in the fridge all week -- to stuff in brown-bag sandwiches, on your favorite crackers, in the crook of a celery stick. We recommend all of this. But it's starting to see new life too. "10 years ago, you never would have seen pimento cheese on a burger," Willis recently told me. Or in fritters or biscuits, or as a starter at fancy restaurants. But how could any of that be a bad idea?

It would be impossible to declare any one version genius, new- or old-fangled, and to do so I would have to possess a boldness that I simply do not. Pimento cheese is genius, period.

But this one, from Parker and Otis in Durham, North Carolina, is an excellent place to start. It has a low mayo-to-cheese ratio and a big dose of pimento -- both of which keep it strong and fierce. There's also an underdog spice at play: celery salt, which takes a heartbeat of sharp tang and breathes a little herbal depth into it. (But don't worry, not too much.) Our Assistant Editor and Community Manager Marian Bull brought this to a lot of tailgates, and made a lot of friends.

And as if they knew that pimentos aren't always easy to find at Yankee grocery stores, this recipe says it's okay to use comparatively milder and less cute roasted bell peppers (which we did).

Best of all, Parker and Otis use it to make a jaw-dropping upgrade to a grilled cheese. It has bacon. And tomato. To mimic the sandwich press used at the shop, we weighted and dry-toasted ours in skillet, and finished warming it through in the oven. But Magness has an even better idea, for next time: "Put a little mayo on the outside so it gets real crispy."

Adapted slightly from Bon Appetit

Serves 12 as a dip, or 6 as a sandwiches

Pimento Cheese Dip

2 cups coarsely grated sharp yellow cheddar cheese (about 8 ounces)

2 cups coarsely grated extra-sharp white cheddar cheese (about 8 ounces)

1 cup finely chopped drained pimentos or drained roasted red and yellow peppers from jar

1/2 cup mayonnaise

1/2 teaspoon celery salt

Crackers and assorted raw vegetables (such as carrot sticks, celery sticks, trimmed green beans, and bell pepper strips), to serve

Grilled Pimento Cheese Sandwiches with Tomato & Bacon

Pimento Cheese Dip (above)

12 strips bacon, cooked till crispy

1 large, ripe tomato

12 slices sourdough bread

Photos by James Ransom

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This article originally appeared on Food52.com: Parker & Otis' Pimento Cheese (+ Grilled Sandwiches with Bacon & Tomato)<