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2017-11-29 / Featured / Taste

Fromage homage: Tips to cheese plate perfection

BY SARAH KURYSZ

For me, hosting parties has always been enjoyable. I love everything from decorating the house, to welcoming friends at the door, to enchanting my guests with food and drink. Experience has taught me that no matter how you organize your space, people will always gather around the food, so a culinary focal point is worth putting some planning into. And whether you’re hosting a sparkly soiree or a relaxed game night with old friends, there’s one dish that will always delight: the cheese plate.

One benefit of cheese plates is they free up your time and oven for other tasks. Another is variety: a well-designed cheese plate offers a range of palate-pleasing flavors. A few necessities will assure success: the cheese, the sweet, the salty and the starch.

The Cheese

You want to select cheeses that will provide a variety of flavors and textures along with varying levels of “funkiness.” The cheese section of the grocery store can be overwhelming, but there is a trick to remembering the elements of a perfect cheese plate: “Something old, something new, something soft, something blue.” Cover these bases and you should end up with something for every palate.

From left to right: Fresh mozzarella, Cloud Nine, Buttermilk Blue and St. Nuage JENNY McQUEEN From left to right: Fresh mozzarella, Cloud Nine, Buttermilk Blue and St. Nuage JENNY McQUEEN Rinds are an important factor to consider with selection, and most fall into three categories: bloomy, washed and natural. Bloomy rinds are soft and white – sometimes even fuzzy – caused by bacteria added to the outer layer of the aged cheese. Washed rinds are the result of bathing the cheese in bacteria or alcohol during the aging process, resulting in fantastic flavor. Natural rinds have the least human interaction, allowing the cheese to dry during aging, resulting in a hard crust. Rinds made of wax or cloth are inedible, but most natural rinds are safe to eat and can provide a different texture and flavor to the cheese. The most important element to a killer cheese plate is diversity. Mix up the styles, milk types (most cheese purchased in the United States is made from cow, sheep, buffalo or goat milk) and your accompaniments. Next time you are at your local grocery store, ask the cheese monger for recommendations – they are fonts of knowledge and can help you navigate the often-intimidating cheese section.

Something Old

Aged cheeses are often hard cheeses, with a firm texture and sharp flavor. The consistency of hard cheeses allows them to be crumbled and sliced; you would never spread a hard cheese. My favorite selections for this category are cheddar, parrano and manchego. Cheddar is most common, but don’t be fooled by its ubiquity; it belongs right alongside your more obscure flavors. Parrano originated in the Netherlands and is technically a semi-hard cheese. Part of the gouda family, parrano offers a wonderfully buttery and nutty flavor profile. Manchego is a dense, fatty Spanish sheep’s milk cheese that requires at least 60 days of aging!

Fresh mozzarella pairs well with salty olives and tangy Peppadews. JENNY McQUEENFresh mozzarella pairs well with salty olives and tangy Peppadews. JENNY McQUEENSomething New

The young (or new) cheeses lend delicacy and subtleness to your cheese plate. Think goat cheese, fresh mozzarella or a firm ricotta. This type of cheese will be extremely mild in flavor, with almost a sweetness to them. Try a bite of fresh mozzarella with a tangy cornichon – you will be in heaven.

Something Soft

Soft cheeses are going to be the hard hitters in the funky category. Frequently with bloomy or washed rinds, the short aging process of soft cheese brings out myriad flavors. I like to include a really funky cheese on a cheese plate. It’s a great way to mix up flavors and even conversation – people love to bond over eating something new and different. If you’re wary of going too funky, brie is a familiar and popular soft cheese, and is an excellent choice for your plate. The list of widely available soft cheeses is extensive, so I will just recommend my favorite: Humboldt Fog. Hailing from California, Humboldt Fog is an excellent goat’s milk cheese featuring a distinctive line of vegetable ash across the center. Creamy and light in texture, it has a mildly tangy flavor that makes it easy to love.

Something Blue

Blue cheese can be delicious and intimidating at the same time. A little “too blue” and it’s the only thing you’ll taste all night. However, skip the blue and you will miss out on some truly fantastic flavors. Don’t let the mold scare you away! It forms as a result of the specific bacteria used: penicillium. There are still blues aged in actual caves, and creameries that have used the same strain of penicillium for generations. The finished product is a creamy cheese streaked with beautiful blue and gray veins. Its strong flavor pairs best with sweet accompaniments. There are many styles with varying levels of intensity: Danish blue, gorgonzola, Roquefort, stilton and so many more. Select one that looks interesting and go for it!

Honey makes an easy sweet to accompany your stronger cheeses. JENNY McQUEENHoney makes an easy sweet to accompany your stronger cheeses. JENNY McQUEENThe Sweet

To offset your sharper cheeses, you need a little sugar. Fig jam is an excellent choice; its rich flavor can hold its own against strong cheese. Fresh fruit is wonderful, you’ll just want to take browning into account. A sliced apple or pear will look fantastic for the first 20 minutes, then quickly appear less appetizing. Try drizzling sliced fruit with honey to prevent oxidation. Honey is also one of my favorite sweet cheese accompaniments. Or go for something like grapes, berries or dried fruit, which will hold their composure throughout the evening.

The Salty

A few salty bites around the plate can provide a respite for your palate. Roasted nuts are an excellent choice for their texture. Olives and pickles are lovely, as they not only provide a salty kick but a nice hit of vinegar as well. If you have a grocery store near you that has a by-the-pound olive and antipasto bar, grab a few things that look interesting. Artichoke hearts, mixed olives and crunchy red Peppadews bring bright flavors and colors to your presentation. To really elevate the offerings, include some piles of sliced salami or prosciutto.

The Starch

Lastly, you will need a vehicle for getting the cheese from the plate to your mouth. You can choose flavorful accompaniments such as seed crackers or keep it simple with a baguette. I like to keep the starches relatively simple, to keep the focus on the cheese.

The key to a perfect cheese plate is variety. Here, fruit, bread, salted nuts, roasted cherry tomatoes and cured meats offset cheeses ranging from creamy Humboldt Fog to dense manchego to mild mozzarella. JENNY McQUEENThe key to a perfect cheese plate is variety. Here, fruit, bread, salted nuts, roasted cherry tomatoes and cured meats offset cheeses ranging from creamy Humboldt Fog to dense manchego to mild mozzarella. JENNY McQUEENNow that you have your cheeses, sweets, salts and starches, you can assemble the presentation. This is my favorite part. Have fun with it! Sprinkle the roasted nuts around the platter, put your jam or honey in a small bowl with a spoon, have your grapes easily accessible in a pile ready for snacking. Remember, people are going to eat everything, so it doesn’t have to look perfect to taste incredible. Wash it all down with wine! You’ll want a dry white to complement your soft and young cheeses and a bold red for your aged, hard ones. My go-tos are pinot gris and tempranillo. And for something extra special, a small glass of port pairs excellently with your “something blue.”

Enjoy! ¦

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