Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Building a Better Cheese Plate

Guest Post by Shannon of Edible Obsessions

As a Cheesemonger, I spend a good amount of time in my day helping people navigate an expansive and intimidating world of cheese. Most people come to my counter looking for an ingredient for a recipe or general snacking. However, a good number of people come in looking to put together a cheese plate or platter for a special occasion ranging from a graduation party to an anniversary dinner. Every customer's needs and tastes are different, but my goal is to get them to the same end result: a fantastic cheese plate. These are some of the tips that I share with my customers and I hope they help you the next time you're tasked with pulling together a cheese plate.

1. The first rule of composing a cheese plate is: There are no rules! Kind of. This list can be taken more as a guideline because you don't want chaos on a plate, but your dinner party won't fall into ruin if you decide to freestyle it a bit. In the end, this is your plate, you know what you like and I'm just here to help fancy things up a bit. And so is your local Cheesemonger. We expect you to ask questions, so don't be shy and don't think that any question is too simple. You're not paid to know about cheese--we are, so utilize us. You'll find that your local Cheesemonger is your number one friend when it comes to putting together an impressive cheese board.

2. You always eat with your eyes first and the eye is drawn to odd numbers. So, before you start getting into WHAT cheeses you're going to serve, think about how many. Three, five or seven cheeses are ideal, but I wouldn't go any more than that. Let's be honest, you want to impress, but you don't want to overwhelm your palate to the point that every bite begins to taste the same.

3. Building on the visual of the plate, if you're serving on a round plate, stand over it and envision them spaced out in a clockwise pattern. You're looking for a flavor progression. You want your most mild cheese (a double crème brie or mild cheddar) at the twelve o'clock position with the flavor of the cheeses increasing as you work your way around. Starting with a blue cheese or pungent washed rind will only kill your palate from the beginning, so you'll want to save these stronger cheeses for the last position. If you're working on a straight board, progress in the same manner, working from left to right.

4. If you're serving a plate for a small group, think about the meal as a whole. Are you serving the plate before or after dinner? As a specific course during the meal? Is there a theme to the meal, like French or Spanish cuisine? All of these questions will help shape the plate. Do you really want to serve a plate of Spanish cheese when you've just served a four course Italian dinner? Probably not. Nor do you want to serve a dense triple crème blue or spicy blue cheese to your guests before you sit down to dinner.

5. Know your crowd. Are they adventurous or pretty vanilla? Are they daring enough to try the smokiness of a Vacherin Mont d'Or or do you think that the mere mention of 'goat cheese' will give some the willies? You don't want to spend a good amount of money on cheese that may not be completely appreciated by your guests, so know what they like and what their openness to trying new things are.

6. Have variety. There are so many cheeses out there to be tried that it would be a crying shame to put the time, effort and money into creating a one note cheese plate. There are seven styles of cheeses out there to choose from and you should explore all of your options:

· Fresh ( Chevre and Mozzarella)

· Soft-Ripened (Brie and Camembert)

· Semi-Soft (Fontina and Monterey Jack)

· Semi-Hard (Swiss and Cheddar)

· Hard/Aged (Parmigiano-Reggiano and Aged Goudas)

· Washed Rinds (Taleggio and Epoisses)

· Blue Cheese (Gorgonzola and Stilton)

. Along with varying the types of cheese, try to vary the milks. For me, an ideal cheese plate will have all three of the main milks represented and, if it strikes my fancy, I'll even throw some Buffalo milk cheese in there to vary it even further. Every milk has its own inherent flavor profile and that will change with the style of cheese it's been transformed into. You may be not be the biggest fan of a young goat's milk cheese, but you may find an aged goat gouda more to your liking.

8. Sweet and savory love each other in a deep and serious way. By adding jam, honey, fruit or fruit pastes to the plate, you're going to play on the beautiful love affair of salt and sugar. It's a mutually beneficial relationship; as the salt in the cheese brings out more of the natural sweetness in the accompaniments and they, in turn, take a bit of the bite off of the saltiness of the cheese. You would be surprised by the number of people who think adding a bit of honey or jam to a cheese plate is a food revelation.

9. My philosophy on crackers/bread is this: They are sometimes necessary vessels to carry a gooey, creamy cheese to your mouth, but can suck up vital cheese room in your belly. You're also spending good money on good cheese and don't want to ruin it by choose a garlic or rosemary flavored cracker or a dense mini-toast that's only going to give you Cap'n Crunch mouth. So, go light and simple. If you're serving an aged cheese, don't even bother with the cracker. Again, save the cheese room.

10. Let it breathe. This is Cheese 101, whether for a plate or just for snacking. Before you serve any cheese, let it sit out on your counter for at least forty-five minutes to an hour. Cold cheese is dull cheese and all of its characteristics just can't truly be appreciated straight from the refrigerator. Give it that hour or so to shake off the chill and its flavor will wake up and show more of its nuances that made you choose it in the first place.