By Christine Hyatt – Holiday parties are a time to sparkle and splurge. Creating an eye-catching, artfully arranged and tasty cheese plate is a great way to add some interactivity to your festivities and create new food memories for your guests.
I’ve seen strangers bond over cheeses and many people groove on the adventure of and novelty of tasting and comparing different flavor combinations that fine cheeses bring to the table. Think of it as interactive, edible entertainment.
With the wide selection of cheeses readily available, as close as your local supermarket deli or specialty and farmers markets, there has never been a better time to experience this fascinating food.
Here are some simple tips for pulling together a gorgeous, tasty and memorable cheese experience this holiday!
Choose Your Cheese
Select 3 different cheeses with a variety of textures and flavors so there is wide appeal.
With so many types of cheese available, it helps to think of cheese in terms of five broad categories. These broad stroke classifications provide clues on how a cheese will likely taste.
Fresh Cheeses – Rindless, soft cheeses with wide appeal for their mild, mellow flavor and value. Dress them up with sweet or savory toppings. Try: Burrata with Pesto, Crème Fraiche with Raspberry Chipotle Sauce
Surface Ripened – Soft cheeses with a white, velvety rind and buttery, mushroomy flavor. The interior can be firm to soft and oozing, depending on the age of the cheese. Crowd favorites for their rich and decadent texture. Try: Camembert, Triple Cream, Ripened Goat Cheese
Aged Cheese – Broad category of cheese which has been pressed into wheels or blocks and aged several weeks to years. Younger, softer cheeses often have a mild, milky flavor while harder, more aged varieties showcase complex, nutty, savory and even sweet flavors. These are easy to love cheeses because they provide familiar flavor clues. Try: Aged Gouda, Cheddar or Gruyere.
Washed Rind Cheese – Small category of cheese closely related to the Surface Ripened types. Regularly washed with a brine solution during aging, these cheeses develop a bold aroma and distinctive orange rind. Ideal for the more adventurous crowd, these cheeses are favorites among seasoned cheese connoisseurs. Try: Epoisses, Taleggio, Red Hawk
Blue Veined – Distinctive blue veins run through this style of cheese bringing a robust, spicy and earthy flavor profile. Best of class blues present a well balanced buttery, salty, savory flavor bomb that delights daring tasters. Look for: Stilton, Roquefort, Gorgonzola
Each of these broad categories of cheese can be made with cow, sheep or goat milk. The type of milk used to make each cheese will impart a distinctive flavor. Cow’s milk, the most widely used type of milk in cheesemaking, has familiar, buttery notes. Increasingly popular, goat’s milk cheeses have a distinctive and delicious tangy edge. Sheep milk is a small, but growing category and provides richness and often has nutty notes.
Select your cheeses with your guests and pocketbook in mind. There are good cheeses at many price points with flavors ranging from mild to wild. If your guests are a little more adventurous, opt for the bold flavor of Washed Rind and Blue. For crowds new to cheese, stick to the fresh, soft and aged categories.
Buy Your Cheese
If you are looking for value and convenience, big box stores like Costco or smaller, specialty markets like Trader Joes are hard to beat and carry a more than respectable selection of great cheese.
For a more customized experience, I highly recommend seeking out a specialty cheese counter or independent cheese shop if you are lucky enough to have one nearby. The offerings will be more extensive and you can sample the cheese before buying so you’re sure to love your selections.
Plan on serving between 2 and 3 ounces of cheese per guest, more if cheese is the star of your party, less if it’s a supporting player. Simply multiply the number of guests by 2 or 3 and then divide by the number of cheeses you’re serving.
Here’s a cheat sheet. For smaller parties of 8-12 guests, buy 8 – 10 ounces of three different cheeses. Expecting a larger crowd of 20 – 25? Purchase 1 to 1.5 pounds in three styles.
Accompaniments enhance the eating experience visually through color and texture and provide another layer of flavor. Think sweet, salty sour and spicy counterpoints to the buttery, savory and nutty flavors of the cheese.
Spiced nuts, honey, dried and seasonal fruit, mustards and chutney, jams and compotes, pickles and olives can all be dynamic pairing partners on the cheese plate. Flavor combinations are practically endless and seeking out your favorites is an addictive and tasty pastime.
How To Assemble Your Cheese Plate
Use a serving platter or large tray, depending on the size of your crowd.
Add some fresh pine branches or other greenery and twinkle lights, if desired.
Place three small to medium dishes on the greenery and place a wedge of cheese on each. Add a knife for each cheese.
Bowls of condiments, nuts or other accompaniments nestle in next to the cheese.
Finish the display with fresh, seasonal fruit or sparkly ornaments.
Cheese Plating Tips
Remove cheese from the fridge at least an hour before serving. Enjoying cheese at room temperature allows for the fullest flavor and maximum enjoyment.
Don’t crowd the plate. Provide enough space for guests to cut and serve the cheese.
Provide a separate knife for each cheese to keep it neat and avoid mingling the flavor profiles.
Consider making small signs or a cheese menu. People who like cheese (or craft beer or wine) will appreciate the info in case they want to purchase it themselves.
About the Contributor
Christine Hyatt is the “Cheese Creative” behind Cheese Chick Productions, a niche marketing company specializing in food photography, video production and sharing the story of handcrafted cheese and the people who make it. During her tenure as American Cheese Society President, she championed American Cheese Month, which recently celebrated its third year. She loves answering cheesy questions on Facebook and Twitter. To learn more about this Woman You Should Know, click here.