Making your (holiday) cheese plate great
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.
- 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
- 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.
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.