How to Make an Interesting Cheese Platter for a Dinner or Holiday Party
(with some thought to making it kid-friendly)
by Joanne White
The following cheese plate suggestions are for cheeselovers of more readily available cheeses (like Brie, Gruyere, Cheddar, Saga Blue, etc.) who would like to explore new territory. The same concepts can be applied to make a wilder, more exotic or complex cheese plate. Since I don't know what's available locally to you, I've made some guesses as to what you might readily find. I’ve tried to include some suggestions that would make the platter fresh and exciting, and allow guests to try something different...
For a Plate of Five Cheeses, I would choose these types of cheese:
Position #1: fresh(er) goat’s milk – with a bloomy rind (slightly aged) or no rind (a fresh cheese)
Position #2: soft or semi soft cow or sheeps milk - bloomy rind
Position #3: a washed rind
Position #4: a harder type (like a cheddar)
Position #5: a blue cheese
Note: Usually an odd number is better on a cheese plate.
I would suggest adding a washed rind cheese to make a "5th cheese" or leaving out the #2 or #5 (or #1 and #3, or #2 and #4) to make a 3 cheese plate.
For the fresh or soft goat you want a white (bloomy rind) cheese or a fresh rindless cheese, which might be herb-coated (thyme, rosemary, pepper). Choose what looks good/is in the best condition - that's what is most important here. It's really going to depend on the cheese store or grocery store cheese counter. I would ask and get a recommendation as to what is showing best or what just came in. If you choose a soft but older goat cheese, it will still go in slot #1.
A bloomy rind cheese which is rich and creamy is D'affinois or Pave D'affinois (a double cream factory cheese) which goes well with most fruit and nuts, and sparkling wines. (This can also replace #1. It is a kid-friendly cheese. Imagine a sweet brie.) Real Brie de Meaux (ask for it by name and the label needs to say "de Meaux") would also work here, as would a Camembert.
A washed or stinky cheese - Taleggio is a party pleaser, somewhere in the middle of stinky. It's a washed rind. For a wilder (and more adult) crowd you could try Epoisses. Cowgirl Creamery's Red Hawk is also a great choice for a party - a washed rind, triple cream.
Three very kid-friendly cheeses that adults love, too (they have crunchy protein crystals), are Piave (a slightly salty hard cheese with a fruity flavor), Mimolette (a bright orange cheese) and, an Aged Gouda (most of these have a caramel flavor to them). Look for an "aged gouda" which has the actual number of years old (e.g., a 2-year-old aged gouda) as some "aged goudas" are artificially aged. Two good choices are Roomano and Saenkanter.
If you're thinking Cheddar, go for a better UK cheddar from Neal's Yard Dairy like Keen's or Quicke's (more rustic), a domestic cheddar from Shelburne Farms in VT (2 yr Farmhouse Cheddar), or Cantal or Salers from France. I've personally been loving Green's Glastonbury Cheddar (but good luck finding it.) Lincolnshire Poacher would work well, too.
A hard sheep, like Berkswell from England, or a slightly softer Abbaye de Belloc, are crowd pleasers.
If you'd prefer something in the Swiss, Gruyere or Emmenthaler category, try: Pleasant Ridge Reserve (WA), or, either Beaufort or Comté (sometimes labeled Gruyere de Comté) - the latter two are French and are more complex and fruity. If you want to be wilder, look for cheeses from Rolf Beeler which resemble Swiss or Comté (hard rind, hard to semi-hard cheese) most of which are excellent mountain cheeses.
A Blue to finish it off - Blue de Gex, Bleu du Bocage, Blue D'Auvergne, Fourme d'ambert (all milder, French blue cheeses; which are great for those who usually don’t prefer Blue cheese) or a great US choice is Berkshire Blue.
Accompaniments to your Cheese Plate
You need really good bread or an assortment of breads. Try walnut, or fruit bread, plain baguette, even a crostini or flat bread. We have a great local (San Francisco) flatbread called La Panzanella.
If you wish to add non-cheese bread items, try fig or fruit paste with a sheep's milk or creamy cheese like D'Affinois. Other ideas would be crackers, almonds or walnuts, honey, jam, or fresh fruit. I'm not a fan of offering non-seasonal fruit. If it's winter try, apples or pears which have been stored from Fall. Don't feel as if you have to put grapes on the plate. If the fruit isn't in-season, try offering a dried version, or a jam or fruit relish or compote, instead.
Tips on putting the cheese onto a platter:
• Be careful not to mix the cheese accompaniments when plating. Consider putting the accompaniments on a separate plate.
• If you've purchased a cut cheese which has been wrapped in plastic, "Face" the cheese before serving it. That means, lightly scrape the cut surface with the back of a knife, or cut a thin slice off to give it a fresh face. You may want to do this with any cut cheese, as a rule. A good cheesemonger will give you fresh faces when you purchase the cheese, so if unwrap it the same day, you probably won't need to reface the cheese.
• Make sure that the edge of the cheese to be cut faces towards the edge of the plate.
• Don't crowd the cheeses – you want them to be easy to cut.
• Consider slicing a piece or two of each so that they are "started", more accessible and, so that the first person knows how the cheese should be cut.
• Make sure that the type of knife supplied will work for the cheese (or provide a pair of spoons if that's what's required for a scoopable cheese).
• Label your cheeses. Make your own labels with cut post-it notes or labels taped onto toothpicks or cut skewers. Avoid actually piercing the cheese, if you can, laying the "label" near the cheese or tucking it under an edge, or piercing the rind on a hard cheese. If you are sure that all of the cheese is likely to be consumed, go ahead and put the label into the cheese.
• Make sure that the cheeses have been "out of the fridge" for more than an hour before they get eaten. You want them close to room temperature. Soft and fresh cheeses probably need an hour (or 30 minutes for small cheeses), but harder cheeses and bigger pieces may need closer to two hours before they show their stuff.
• When re-wrapping unused portions of cheese, clean up the edges and then wrap in parchment paper. Place your label on top and then wrap in plastic wrap (i.e., a second wrapping layer) and place in the warmer area of your refrigerator. Don't reuse the paper that your cheese came in (unless you are an expert). If you are storing cheese and the cheese you've purchased came in plastic wrap, unwrap it, rewrap it in parchment paper, label it, and then wrap in plastic. Refrigerate.
The Challenge: Making a Cheese Platter for the Holidays...
The inspiration for this page came from a letter I received from an East Coast reader. She was looking for suggestions for a holiday cheese platter with accompaniments that would please a crowd and would also be a kid-friendly cheese platter.
What's the difference between a cheese plate and a cheese platter?
A cheese plate offers pre-cut slices of cheese to taste. A platter offers larger pieces or whole cheeses from which to cut a piece. A platter is often found on a buffet table. A plated cheese course is served to the table.
The Basics of Making A Cheese Plate:
(From notes I took at the Artisanal Master Class)
Allow about 1 oz of each cheese per person.
Guidelines for Progression of cheeses on a cheese plate:
Mild to Strong,
Young to old,
Alternate types (goat/sheep/cow) most of the time - but it’s a soft rule.
Look for contrast – don’t pick 3 or 5 cheeses which are all really similar unless that is the purpose of the tasting.
End with the blues – because of the acids in blue which pierce your palate and linger on.
Small note: Goat’s milk cheeses have smaller fat globules and cross the stomach more easily – so they are easier to digest. They are good for heavy meals and sensitive stomachs.
How to Buy the Cheese
1) Know your Cheese Counter and visit it often. The cheese counter should be busy - cheeses should turn over, and there should be lots of regular customers.
2) Cheeses should be cut and wrapped to your order, if possible, rather than languishing in plastic wrap in a cooler until sold.
3) Most cheeses you buy you should be able to taste first. (Small cheeses are often sold whole.)
Where to Buy the Cheese
If you have the time and are lucky enough to have one nearby, buying cheese at a specialty cheese shop is probably best. Your local Farmers' Market may also be an excellent choice for local cheeses. Whole Foods (esp. larger ones) and some independents grocery stores, can have an excellent selection but be sure to look for a busy cheese counter where you can taste the cheese before you buy (or have it cut to order). Some gourmet food stores will have some good choices, but quality really varies at grocery and gourmet stores (and even at Cheesemongers for that matter).
Big chain supermarkets, discount warehouses, etc., usually feature industrial cheeses and anything fragile you find there will likely be in poor condition...buying cheap, poor quality cheese is a never a winning strategy.
Why are there only 3 or 4 cheeses in the photos?
Jack was very concerned that the photos show 3 or even 4 cheeses but not the 5 or 7 that I talk about. The reason is I like to give the cheeses lots of space, so I use two platters. I could put them all on one platter, but since we mostly serve the cheese at our house, I don't have to carry them. Two plates or even three to spread out the cheese are wonderful. If you are transporting the cheeses you may need to put them on platters when you get there or sacrifice some space.
I generally use 14" round flat white plates. Some soft cheeses require a bowl (perhaps with a spoon). Harder cheeses I often serve on a wooden cutting surface like an olivewood board, as they are easier to cut and it saves the plate knife scratches.