You said you wouldn’t do it this time. You promised yourself the cooking will be done by the time your holiday guests arrive so you can relax and focus on them. Yet there you are again, scrambling in the kitchen like a whirling Tasmanian devil, and you haven’t even changed into your nice clothes. We have the solution, and it is cheese. This lovely substance solves all problems.
A well-thought-out cheese platter is the great time extension. When you set out a board of gorgeous, oozy cheeses, pungent crumbly cheeses, crusty bread, good crackers, and their salty and sweet accompaniments, who is going to grumble? Well, besides vegans. But we hope you prepared for that.
You need to know how to set up your cheese platter. Don’t you dare slap down a hunk of Kraft block cheese with some Ritz crackers. Save that for your private Netflix binges. We visited the cheese mecca that is Murray’s in New York City and talked to Catherine Donnelly, executive editor of The Oxford Cheese Companion, a big, glorious book coming out Nov. 22. It’s an encyclopedia of cheese: There are 855 entries on the historical, cultural, scientific, and technical aspects of cheese by 325 authors from 35 countries — from cheesemakers and cheese retailers to dairy scientists, microbiologists, historians, and anthropologists.
“The cheeseboard can be the star of the show,” Donnelly says. “Everybody loves learning about this stuff.”
Donnelly is a professor of nutrition and food science at the University of Vermont and co-director of the Vermont Institute for Artisan Cheese, America’s first and only comprehensive academic research center devoted to artisan cheese. So we thought Donnelly and her cheese colleagues could give some good advice on how to best to entertain your guests with cheese. They might know a little something about cheese.
Nutty, smooth, pungent, creamy, sweet, or salty: the multifaceted nature of cheese means they’re ripe for discovery at your holiday dinner. “Create a range of textures, flavors, and species,” says award-winning cheesemaker Mateo Kehler of Jasper Hill Farm in Greensboro, Vermont. He wrote the foreword in the Oxford book. Here’s what they recommend for your cheese plate when entertaining at home.
10 Rules of Cheese Entertaining
1. Treat cheese like a wine tasting. In the same way you taste light white wines first and end with the boldest, most tannic reds, do that with cheese too. Start with a milder cheese, like (a) chèvre, and move through to stronger flavors, like (b) aged goat cheese, then (c) alpine-style cheese, like comté, then (d) bandage-wrapped cheddar, then (e) aged Gouda or Grana Padano, finally finishing with a (f) blue cheese, Donnelly says. “I always go for Roquefort, such as Rogue River Creamery blue,” she says. “It’s like a dessert. It pairs so beautifully with port wine.”
2. Don’t forget the accompaniments. Include some fresh seasonal fruits, nuts, and dried fruits. “There are wonderful jams and chutneys,” Donnelly says. Plus honey. Remember the honey. For people who want sour, or even more salty, rather than sweet, get olives, pickles, and tapenades.
3. Get a good cheese board or platter. We recommend a slate board, like the ones sold at Brooklyn Slate. “They’re durable and easier to clean,” Donnelly says, without absorbing any of the stinky cheese odors like wooden boards can do. The slate boards also have the benefit of being chalkboards on which you can write the name beside each cheese. But you can always get a wooden, glass, porcelain, or marble cheese platter or board. We like this wooden cheese board made with Shan Mu Chinese fir. Regular dinner plates don’t work so well. In a pinch, your cutting board will do — unless it’s plastic. “They’re actually harder to clean than wood, from a microbiological standpoint,” Kehler says.
4. Beverage pairings don’t have to be wine. We’re not talking Budweiser. The craft beer industry is going bonkers. “Beer probably tastes better with cheese than wine does because wine can be too astringent sometimes,” Donnelly says. “Some of the saisons really sing with cheeses.” Many times Donnelly serves sparkling water with cheese because she wants the cheese to be the star. But ciders are also good, especially with aged goat cheese.
5. Find a great cheese shop where you can sample, learn, experiment, and buy. If you don’t have a good cheese shop with a trained cheesemonger nearby, order online. Although, Whole Foods sometimes has a cheesemonger and a selection worth perusing. For mail-order cheese, Donnelly recommends shopping at Artisanal Premium Cheese and Murray’s.
6. Don’t scoff at American (made) cheese anymore. It’s come a long way. “What’s happening in the cheese industry right now is inspiring. It feels like a worldwide movement,” Kehler says. “I’m seeing a bridge between the working landscape and consumers who are looking for something real.” (But do continue turning up your nose at those shiny American “singles” squares, unless you’re 5 years old. Even then, by God, start the cheese education ASAP.) Kehler is onto something. The $3.7 billion gourmet cheese market sits at the top of the $100 billion artisanal food industry, according to the Specialty Food Association. That’s a sizable piece. “Our mission has always been to bring good cheese to the U.S.,” says Rob Kaufelt, president of Murray’s Cheese, which ushered in a new era of cheese-educated consumers and cheesemonger training. After taking over the flagship shop in West Village in the early ’90s, Kaufelt now has a cheese-centric restaurant next door, a fast-growing mail-order business, more than 350 cheese counters in Kroger’s, a supermarket chain with stores in 11 states, and $250 million in annual sales, according to Crain’s New York Business. Yet this cheese whiz calls Mateo “our rockstar of cheesemaking.”
7. How much cheese should you get? Buy enough cheese so that there’s at least 2 ounces of cheese for each guest. We’d like to say that means 2 ounces of each variety of cheese for each person.
8. Presentation needs to be functional as well as pretty. Don’t serve your semi-hard and hard cheeses whole. Cut them into fingers, wedges, cubes, or shards instead. Place a soft round of cheese in the middle of a circular platter. Kehler likes his 10-ounce washed-rind, cave-aged Greensward cheese for that spot. “They’re ooey-gooey cheeses you can get at with a spoon,” Kehler says. “As a center of the plate concept, it’s almost dip-able. It’s better than chips and dip.”
9. For your wildcard, go seasonal. Pick a random cheese that’s in season. Yes, cheeses have seasons. When the grass dries up, the goats, sheep, and cows move on. So we have to as well.
10. Remember those things you forget. (?!) You’ll need a small knife for every cheese, plus small plates. Oh, and of course, the bread and crackers. French bread is nice, but whatever bread you choose, it must be sturdy and sliced for guests. Don’t skimp on the cracker quality either. Toothpicks for hard cheeses can be helpful as well.
And you can always serve cheese at the end of the meal with some fruit, like the French do. Regardless, a good cheese plate is a wonderful thing. Don’t celebrate without it.
“Cheese is a primordial food for mammals,” Kehler says. “It’s a vessel for culture. Cheesemaking really represents our transition into civilization.”
— Head photo: F Serega/Getty