The words holidays and entertaining seem synonymous. For most people, the only time the top of the bookshelf is dusted is when expecting an onslaught of visitors for the five to six weeks between Thanksgiving and New Year. It also raises the timeless question what the heck do I serve all of these people?!
If you are like me, you will probably browse the internet and trusty cookbooks for appetizer recipes that will 1) not be that hard to make and 2) impress people. But most people seem to overlook the cheese plate. It’s an entertaining essential that many seem to relegate to fancy-pants parties where conversations revolve around socio-economic implications of Rothko paintings.
Cheese is an everyman’s food. I’ve never met a single person who didn’t like cheese in one form or another (not counting that god-awful Cheez Whiz). Put out a cheese plate and a few little nibbles during the holidays and you are certain to please everyone at your party. The trick is the variety and offerings. Get it right, and you’ll keep everyone pleased, from curmudgeony ol’ Uncle George to too-cool-for-school hipster Cousin Poppy (that’s not really her name… she changed it to fit in with her Williamsburg friends).
I recently sat down with my new crush, Eric Paul, and talked cheese. Eric is a rock star to me. You tweens can keep Justin Bieber, I’ll take The Cheese Traveler any day (seriously… I’m smitten). Eric is a cheese monger who sells his dairy delights around the Capital Region, but most specifically at the Delmar Farmers Market (where Britin is also a vendor and FSC friend Leah is a board member!). He is committed to sourcing cheese that is produced locally and in artisanal tradition with (typically) raw milk. Take a cue from my entertaining know-how and Eric’s cheese expertise to help de-mystify the cheese plate.
1. Start with your cheese. Variety is important for a basic cheese plate. Sure, you can build a plate that is all goat milk, or only cheese from Italy, but when trying to please a crowd, go for variety. The amount of cheeses you have is up to you (Eric recommends three or four, explanation below), but don’t go for more than five. I think five cheeses makes for a visually-appealing aesthetic, but less is fine. So, choose three to five cheeses.
2. Milk is important. Cheese is basically just milk (well, and cultures, flavorings, etc… but really, milk) that is left to congeal. Eric’s “three or four” guideline is based on milk characteristics of chosen cheeses. He recommends serving one goat milk, one sheep milk, one cow milk, and one bleu (more a process than a milk choice). It’s a fine rule to build from. If you are going for a fifth cheese, you could pick something with more “novelty,” like a gourmet blended cheese, something that is rare, or a cheese that is especially stinky or unctuous.
3. So is texture. If you are going to take the time to vary the milk in the selected cheeses, don’t downgrade your plate by serving only one texture of cheese. Bor-ing. Serve a variety of textures, as well. Select from a variety of firm, soft, aged, “crumbly” (aka bleu), washed rind, etc.
4. Consider serving size. Assuming you are serving your cheese board as an appetizer or first course, you will want considerably more cheese than a dessert course serving. A good rule of thumb is 3 ounces per person, per type of cheese for a appetizer. Cut that amount in half for a dessert course. If you are only serving cheese as an appetizer, bump the portion size up by half an ounce or one ounce. Also take the appetite of your guests into account (if the burly lumberjack-type runs in your family, serve more. If your family eats like birds, serve less).
5. Let the cheese “come to temperature.” To get the most flavor out of the cheese, it needs to come to room temperature before serving. Eric says one hour on the counter from the fridge is typically enough (depending on firmness of cheese). If you have room in your refrigerator, assemble the cheese board no more than 12 hours in advance, wrap it in plastic wrap, and place in the fridge. Unwrap and put it in “serving position” an hour before guests arrive.
6. Arrange cheese based on taste. There is an order to tasting cheese, just like tasting wine. Start with the “lightest” cheese and end with the “heaviest.” Mild cheese should go towards the top of the serving board, and the rest of the cheese should be arrange accordingly clockwise. Bleu and washed rind cheeses are typically the strongest, so end with them.
7. Add accouterments. Here is where you can really get creative. Traditional cheese plates include nuts, fruit (fresh or dried) and cornichons or baby gherkins. Crackers, breads, and fruit spreads are also commonly placed to accompany cheese. Don’t be afraid to play around here a bit, just remember to offer accouterments that both compliment and provide contrast to the cheese. Go for a selection of breads (breadsticks, fruit-and-nut breads, or a crusty baguette), a smattering of fruits (dried figs, pear slices), something crunchy (an interesting cracker, pickled onions or radishes, some buttery or spiced nuts), and a few spread options (spicy mustard, fruit preserves, an herbal or wine jelly). Don’t go overboard – just keep it to one accompaniment per cheese.
8. Find a knowledgeable and friendly cheese monger!i Like Eric :-). A good fromger will certainly be able to help you perfect your cheese plate prowess.
A very special thank you to Eric Paul, The Cheese Traveler, for helping me with this post. It’s Cheese Month over at Silly Goose Farm, so stop in if you’d like more information on preparing a cheese board.