Making your (holiday) cheese plate great

Following a few hacks can make you a cheese plate master. Photo credit: Sam en Croute

Following a few tips can make you a cheese plate master. Photo credit: Sam en Croute

Cheese scares the bejeezus out of many people, especially when it comes to serving up a plate for dinner or party guests: The intimidation factor is similar to what plenty of folks experience when ordering or purchasing wine.

While there are indeed rules of thumb when it comes to the slicing, serving and pairing of cheese, I promise that the world will not come to an end if you or your party guests don’t follow them to the letter. The simple guidelines below will enable you to easily create a sweet or savory cheese plate that leave your guests swooning, and your bank account intact.

Less is more when it comes to serving cheese, so leave the fussy plating and overly-complex condiments in the dust and focus on the fun part: eating and socializing. You’re welcome.

Photo credit: Food Network

Photo credit: Food Network

Shopping

  • If you’re serving other food, allow one ounce of each cheese per person (16 ounces = 1 pound).
  • Limit your selection to three or four cheeses for up to 12 guests- more than that will blow out your palate.
  • There are no hard-and-fast rules- the cheese police will not arrive to cart you away. The important thing is achieving a balance of flavors and textures, as is choosing what you like. You can also use a theme to guide your purchases, like all goat’s milk, blues or aged cheeses. I recommend:
  • One creamy or mild cheese
  • One semi-soft washed rind (these are your stinky cheeses- like Red Cloud. Note that these smell more pungent than they taste) or bloomy-rind cheese (like our Haystack Peak, Camembert or Snowdrop- this style has a velvety white or grayish rind. Psst, the rind is always edible unless you’re dealing with a wax-coated or bandage-wrapped cheese).
  • One hard (aged) or blue cheese
Our Red Cloud funks up a savory cheese plate- we suggest pairing with beer.

Our Red Cloud funks up a savory cheese plate- we suggest pairing with beer.

Serving

  • Cheese is ideally plated clockwise, from mild to most intense- this prevents a strong cheese from overpowering the palate/other cheeses. Since policing your guests is a Party Fail, however, I suggest instead placing cheese cards on your selections so people know what they’re eating.
  • Simplicity is key: The cheese should be the star of the show, so don’t clutter the plate. Two or three seasonal condiments are ideal, not counting bread and/or crackers (the latter shouldn’t have strong flavors, either, to avoid the aforementioned overpowering issue).
  • This is time to bust out that antique serving platter, slab of marble or handcrafted wooden board. Don’t crowd cheeses and accompaniments; my preference is to serve anything drippy or gloppy in separate bowls, with miniature serving utensils (try caviar or salt cellar spoons or jam spreaders). Garnishes should be minimal, such as a sprig of herbs or edible flowers, or place the cheeses atop clean, dry (non-toxic) leaves.
  • No cheese knives? No problem. While each style serves a specific purpose, you can generally get away with using whatever you already own, such as a sharp paring knife and a butter knife (tip: stock up on vintage pieces at flea markets and antique stores).
  • How you cut cheese depends upon its shape and style.
Clutter just makes for confusion. Photo credit: That Cheese Plate

Clutter just makes for confusion. Photo credit: That Cheese Plate

Sweet or Savory?

A cheese plate should be one or the other (savory just means, “not sweet.”). If you’re planning to serve cheese before dinner or for a cocktail party or après ski, accompaniments like salami, pâté, ham or other cured meats are ideal. Provide small dishes of grainy mustard, marinated olives or pickled vegetables on the side, as well as slices of a hearty bread like rye or pumpernickel.

I also love toasted nuts and dried or fresh seasonal fruit (think sliced apples, pears, persimmon) in lieu of the mustard and pickles, for a more refined plate. Serve with hunks of baguette or a country-style levain.

Going for a dessert or pre-brunch plate? Sweet accompaniments like preserves, honeycomb and fresh seasonal or dried fruit are lovely with cheese- particularly soft styles or mild, creamy blues. Serve with rustic walnut levain or plain crackers.

A sweet cheese board, simply rendered. Photo credit: The Kitchn

A sweet cheese board, simply rendered. Photo credit: The Kitchn

Knifestyles of the rich and buttery

Photo credit: Design Mom

Photo credit: Design Mom

We’re big believers in doing things old-school: making and packaging our cheese by hand, rather than machine, and steering clear of processed ingredients or preservatives.

So, when it comes to casually serving cheese, we’ve also been known to use whatever type of knife is handy. With this admission out of the way, we’d like to confess that there are four main styles of cheese knives, and each has a specific purpose.

We promise the Cheese Police won’t beat down your door if you continue to cut and serve cheese with your trusty paring knife. But if you’re a true caseophile or entertain frequently, we suggest you invest in some nice cheese knives. You can find beautifully-crafted ones for under $20, as well as more spendy, hand-forged versions.
Know what makes a great host(ess) gift? A set of cheese knives. So much more on-trend than a bottle of (yawn) wine. We asked Will Frishkorn, co-owner/cheese-slinger at Boulder’s Cured, what his favorite cheese knife is among their inventory.

Says Will, “While the Swissmar knives run the entire range, their soft cheese knife is one that we use more than any other at home.  Slim, with the ability to cleanly work on almost any delicate cheese, it’s the one specialized cheese knife you shouldn’t be without.”

      To find out more about this soft  knives and other cheese implements, read on:
  • Cheese cleaver: This mini-version of a meat cleaver may have a pointed or flat head. It’s used for slicing or breaking off shards from dense cheeses such as our Queso de Mano, aged Cheddars, or Gouda.
  • Cheese plane (planer): This tool is a flat, stainless-steel triangle with a sharp-edged slot in its center. You drag the plane across the top of the cheese, and it shaves off thin, even slices. A thinner slice exposes a greater amount of surface area to the air; the result is more flavor from the cheese. A cheese plane is used for harder cheeses such as our limited-release Wallstreet Gold, Gruyère, and Grana Padano.
  • Soft-cheese knife: Also known as a skeleton knife, this offset knife has a curved tip that often has a forked tip. A soft-cheese knife has holes punched in its blade, which minimizes the surface area that makes contact with the cheese. This prevents cheese from sticking to the knife as its cut and served, making for a cleaner, more attractive slice with less waste left on the blade. Ideal for soft, creamy cheeses such as our Snowdrop, Haystack Peak, or Camembert, or soft blues.
  • Spreader: Ideal for fresh chevre, ricotta, and other soft, rindless cheeses with a spreadable consistency—as well as for butter.