A quick and crowd-pleasing snack, a cheese tray is perfect for party hosts who enjoy holiday entertaining but lack time to plan and cook a big appetizer spread.
As fast and fuss-free as it is, though, creating a cheese board entails more than grabbing a pretty platter, unwrapping a hunk of cheese and piling on some crackers. With a few simple steps, a good selection of cheese and the right nibbles to pair with it, it's easy to elevate a cheese plate from average to awesome.
Cheese boards are a popular option for holiday parties because they're easy to share and they offer a wide range of flavors that work well with other foods, Nora Weiser, executive director of the Denver-based American Cheese Society, said via email.
“There are so many varieties,” Weiser said, “that there is generally a variety that complements most everything.”
But with so many choices, it can be overwhelming deciding which cheese to serve. Cheese producers, sellers and other experts say a good approach is to start with the basics and build from there.
A classic cheese plate might include a soft, creamy brie; a semi-firm cheese (cheddar and Gouda are popular choices); and a blue cheese like Stilton or Gorgonzola. To round out the offerings, add one or two other types — a harder aged cheese, for instance.
Try to limit the selections to four or five cheeses and plan for about three ounces of cheese per person. Include a range of flavors (from mild to strong), textures, colors, sizes and shapes “to create diversity and add interest to your tray,” Weiser said.
It's also nice to have a variety of milk types, said Maria Watts, marketing and community relations manager at Whole Foods Market in Omaha. Mix it up and combine cow's milk cheeses with a sheep's milk and/or a goat cheese.
When in doubt, she said, don't be afraid to ask employees behind the cheese counter for recommendations, pairing advice and samples to try.
Whether it's a formal dinner or impromptu get-together, cheese plates are a convenient way to feed a crowd because they're impressive and yet virtually effortless.
“It's assemble and there you go,” Watts said.
To accompany the cheese, offer an assortment of crackers, toasted baguette slices or grilled ciabatta. Keep it simple and stick with mild, neutral breads and crackers that won't overwhelm or mask the flavor of cheese.
Along with bread and crackers, set out a variety of other nibbles with multiple flavors, from savory to sweet.
Savory options could include sliced prosciutto, rillettes, different types of salami and other cured meats, said Steve Bell, chef-instructor at the Institute for the Culinary Arts at Omaha's Metropolitan Community College.
“Charcuterie is really popular,” Bell said.
Marcona almonds, pistachios, pecans and other nuts offer a crunchy contrast to the creaminess of cheese, while marinated vegetables, olives, pickles and spiced chutneys bring a little tanginess to cheese plates.
For something sweet, consider honey, jams or quince paste. Sliced apples, pears, grapes, figs and dried fruit like dates and apricots also pair well with most cheeses.
“The sweetness of fruit complements the saltiness of cheese,” said Watts.
To further finesse your cheese board, Weiser suggests seeking artisan and farmstead cheeses from your area.
Jisa's Farmstead Cheese general manager, Julie Wachal, said she enjoys pairing mild cheddar with sliced apples, havarti with prunes or fresh pineapple, and aged New York cheddar with grapes.
Once you've decided on the cheese and accompaniments, it's time to think presentation.
Wachal likes to use a big oval serving platter made of bamboo for a casual yet elegant look. When arranging slices of cheese, she creates rows of alternating colors for added visual appeal, she said.
In the middle of the tray, she places fruit and a small glass bowl of nuts. Almonds are one of her favorites because they complement everything from creamy havarti to sharp cheddar, Wachal said.
Instead of using a traditional platter, Bell suggests serving cheese and crackers on a rustic wooden plank or a smooth slab of marble, granite or slate. For height, arrange cheese on stacked cake plates or tiered food stands.
It's also easy to create your own surface, he said. Simply invert four glasses, place a book on them, then drape it with a piece of linen or other fabric. “There's so much creativity that can be done there.”
Tips for Creating a Cheese Board
» Include a range of flavors and textures, from mild to strong, soft to hard.
» Arrange cheese clockwise, or left-to-right, based on flavors. Start with the mildest and work your way toward stronger cheeses.
» Allow space between each type of cheese to avoid mixing flavors.
» Label each cheese so it's easy for guests to identify.
» For variety, offer domestic and imported cheeses, as well as local artisan and farmstead cheeses.
» Include a separate knife or serving utensil for each kind of cheese.
» Buy cheese one to two days before your party. Take it out of the refrigerator and unwrap it about an hour before serving so it can come to room temperature.
» Serve plenty of accompaniments: fresh and dried fruit, nuts, olives, pickled vegetables, cured meats, breads, crackers and condiments.
Sources: American Cheese Society, Omaha's Whole Foods Market