With the holiday season fast approaching, entertaining is in full swing! You want to celebrate with good friends and good food, but you don’t want to spend weeks in a panic! RELAX! Starting out with a cheese tray is very easy and relieves you from more time consuming dishes.
How often have you heard a host remark, “I’m so nervous – guest X is such a good cook” or “I hope everyone likes the way the house looks” Enough misplaced worries! You are inviting people into your home to eat your food, drink your wine, and have a pleasant evening.
Being invited to a party is a treat, a night away from the stove, something to look forward to and enjoy. So, relax-your guests will be happy to be there. And remember you, not they, will be your harshest critic!
The Ease of Cheese:
A selection of cheeses may be served as either the final or the pre-dessert course of a seated dinner or as part of an hors d’oeuvres menu. Either way, a cheese plate or cheese tray should be a thing of beauty! Arrange the cheeses on a pretty plate (or other flat surface of your choice), accent with fresh or dried fruit and nuts, decorate with flowers and leaves. It’s a good idea to select a range of cheeses with different flavors, colors and textures.
What To Serve Cheese On
- Slate or stone: Slate or stone tiles from a home improvement store keep cheese cool and look beautiful.
- Platters: In a pinch, you can use any flat surface as a platter, just cover it with a white linen napkin and grape leaves
- Marble: With their distinctive patterns and colors, marble boards have been used since the Middle Ages for keeping cheeses cool.
- Straw mats and wicker trays: Inexpensive and rustically authentic, these can be beautiful and functional. The straw or wicker allows the cheese to breathe and prevents condensation, which could damage the rind.
- Wooden boards: Weathered, rustic boards are perfect for emphasizing the artisanal origin of cheese. Snarled pieces of wood or driftwood can have unusual patterns, holes and cracks that represent the natural, pastoral nature of cheese.
You can line the board with clean leaves from lemon trees or rose bushes, or buy leaf-shaped cheese paper from a cookware store. Make sure that any fresh leaves you use come from non-toxic, pesticide-free plants. Serve the cheese and crackers with bunches of different-colored grapes, slices of firm pears, figs, apricots, and dates, and whole nuts like almonds and walnuts. You can also make your presentation more colorful by choosing cheeses in which the rind or the pate of the cheese is colorful. Jams add color and chard leaves are beautiful too. You can liven up any cheese tray with HONEYCOMB (a personal favorite). It looks and tastes glorious, especially with cheese!
Allow six to ten crackers per person, depending on the length of the party and the extent of the menu. If your cheese display surface is large enough, arrange the fruit and crackers around the cheese. If you don’t have enough space on the cheese board, then put the fruit and crackers in separate bowls, or scatter the crackers directly onto the tablecloth itself.
- Plan on 1.5 to 1.75 ounces of cheese per person if serving 5 cheeses. Decrease the amount if tasting more cheese.
- Bring cheese to room temperature (this usually takes about an hour) before serving for the best flavor and aroma.
- Use separate knives for different varieties of soft cheese and blues.
- Suggest that guests sample the cheese from mildest to the strongest in flavor and arrange them that way.
When you prepare cheese samplers, present different cheese varieties in different shapes. It helps your guests easily identify the different varieties.
It is best to cut soft cheese while they are stil chilled. This helps keep lines clean and makes them easier to handle.
A chef’s knife works well for most cheese. However, hard cheeses, such as Parmigiano-Reggiano, cut better when brought to room temperature.
Since matching-up cheeses, wines, and fruits can sometimes be difficult, I have suggested several top choices for you. Find your favorite wine and buy the cheese and fruit to go with it, or pick a cheese that sounds yummy and select the wine and fruit.
- Blue cheese, (semi-soft), Roquefort, wine – strong reds, fruit – apples, grapes, pears.
- Brie,(soft cheese) Camembert, wine – Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir, dry port, fruit – plums, berries, apples.
- Edam, (semi-soft) Gouda, cheddar wine – Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Burgundy, fruit – apples, grapes, pears.
- Goat cheese, chevre, feta, wine – Chenin Blanc, Sancerre, Pouilly fume, fruit – apples, pears, peaches.
- Gorgonzola, (semi-soft) wine – Sauternes, champayge, fruit – pears.
- Gruyere, (firm) provolone, wine – Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Beaujolais, fruit – melons, peaches, pineapple.
- Monterey Jack, (firm) wine – Chardonnay, cream sherry, fruit – plums, strawberries, apples.
- Mozzarella, (fresh)wine – Pinot Blanc, Pinot Grigio, fruit – melons, peaches, pineapple.
- Neufchatel, (fresh), cream cheese, wine – Champagne, fruit – apples, grapes, pears.
- Parmigiano-Reggiano, (hard), wine – Chianti, Burgundy, fruit – figs, grapes, apples.
- Stilton (semi-soft), wine – Port, fruit – pears.
- Swiss, Emmentaler (firm), wine – Riesling, Gewurztraminer, fruit – apples, grapes, pears.
Apple cider, beer and Prosecco wine also goes very well with cheese and oaky chardonnay goes wonderful with sharp cheddar and you can never go wrong serving flatbreads, walnuts, and dried fruits with cheese.
How To Store Cheese
- Buy only what you need for a given occasion.
- Wrap leftover cheese in waxed butcher paper or waxed pastry paper so it can breathe.
- Wrap blue cheese in plastic so they won’t breathe all over everything in your refrigerator.
- Store cheese in the vegetable drawer of your fridge
REMEMBER: Cheese is a living thing, continuing to evolve (that is, to mold). In the case of most hard cheese, just cut off the mold and enjoy the cheese.
Never throw out those leftover bits and pieces. A classic French recipe is to take bits of Brie, cheddar, mozzarella, and any other leftover cheeses and mix them together with garlic and wine. They call this fromage fort (“strong cheese”).
To do this at home, take about a pound of assorted leftover cheese and trim off any dried-out or moldy parts. Put three or four cloves of garlic in a food processor and pulse until the garlic is chopped. Add the cheese, 1/2 cup of dry white wine, and at least a teaspoon of ground black pepper. Process until the mixture becomes soft and creamy, about 30 seconds. Wrap tightly and refrigerate for 1 to 3 days. Spread on thick slices of bread and broil for a few minutes until brown and bubbly.
Making a cheese tray is really quite easy. Most cheeses are so beautiful in their natural states that little embellishment is really necessary. As long as we all stop hacking good cheese into sad little cubes, we can pretty much enjoy whatever wonderful cheese strikes our fancy.
One last note, if you or your guests finds a cheese too strong, spread a cracker with butter and then put the cheese on top of the butter!