Every busy parent needs a back-pocket dish to make for holiday parties and special gatherings — that one inspired yet effortlessly easy-to-assemble offering that won’t fail to wow. For my money, there is no better party-pleaser than the fancy cheese plate: It requires no cooking and you are only limited by your budget and imagination.
It would never have occurred to me to attempt a fancy cheese plate in the first place had not my mother requested I bring one for Thanksgiving dinner last year. At that time, what I knew about fancy cheese could fit with room to spare on a small cracker. Luckily, the helpful and extremely nice folks at New Seasons Market near my mother’s house in Portland helped me “design” an assortment of great cheeses and pairings. My mother was pleasantly surprised by my effort — the resulting cheese plate was a bona fide hit. Heady with success, I decided to make cheese plates “my thing.”
In an attempt to bolster and broaden my knowledge of cheese, I looked around for opportunities to learn about cheeses back home in Seattle. The enthusiastic team at Murray’s Cheese Shop at the Greenwood Fred Meyer, headed by cheese master Bob Wedemeyer, offers “Cheese 101” classes throughout the year (they resume again in January, 2014). An avid pupil, I learned so much and tasted cheeses I would have never discovered otherwise.
Becoming a cheese whiz in your own right is easy if you follow these surefire tips to creating an unforgettable cheese platter:
- Great places to find toast-worthy cheeses: Murray’s Cheese Shops in Fred Meyer and QFC, Whole Foods, Metropolitan Market, New Seasons (Portland area), neighborhood gourmet food shops.
- How much is enough? To assemble a gorgeous cheese plate for 5‒8 guests, a general portion guideline is to offer half to one ounce each of 3‒5 cheeses per guest. Adjust as necessary. You may also find odds and ends for sale that are already cut small. A festive plate of cheeses and simple pairings should cost around $25‒$35.
- Cutting the cheese: Cheeses should be served at room temperature; each selection should have its own knife and a label (use a tent card or cheese marker, or write names in chalk on a slate serving tray) to help your guests know what they are eating and if they want to find it again — or avoid it.
- Feeling bleu? Cheese selection 101: Your cheese assortment can be a sampling based on any attribute, like physical type (fresh, soft-ripened/bloomy, semi-soft, hard, washed-rind), specific kind (cheddar, Gouda, blue), milk source (goat, cow, sheep, buffalo, blend) or country of origin — the possibilities are endless. But it’s a good idea for the sake of variety and presentation to have an odd number of cheeses (i.e. 3 or 5).
- Let it brie — the art of presentation: Cheese master Wedemeyer advises that you arrange your selections from “mild to wild,” i.e. left to right. That way guests can start with the mildest, most delicate flavor and then venture into the stronger flavors. You definitely want a bold, stinky blue situated as far away as possible from that subtle, creamy brie.
Impress with pairings
This is where your creativity really comes into play. When you pair a fancy cheese with an exotic jam or specialty food and the combination brings a new flavor into the world — BAM! That experience is so gratifying and delicious.
Here are some surefire pairings to try:
- Fromage d'Affinois double cream brie + fresh honeycomb
- Parrano + fresh apple
- Murray’s Estate Gouda + candied almonds
- River’s Edge Up In Smoke Goat Cheese + Dalmatia Fig Spread
- Ossau Iraty Sheep Cheese + strawberry or sour cherry preserves
- Cougar Gold Cheddar + McClure’s Garlic & Herb Pickles
- Fontina + salami
- St. Agur Blue Cheese + chocolate shavings (yup, you read that right)
- Sartori Merlot Bellavitano or Sartori Chai Bellavitano (no pairing needed!)
And of course don’t forget these fromage-friendly fixings as well:
- Thin-sliced French bread or crackers
- Fresh fruit (red grapes, cherries, berries, figs)
- Dried fruit (apricots, apples, dates, cranberries)
- Quince paste
The most important thing is to have fun with it! I love to talk to guests about the cheeses and find out what they liked or didn’t like. It all feels so “adult.”
Cheese plates can ignite a sense of excitement and creativity. Rich with cultural history, versatility and culinary tradition, cheeses give you a lot to taste and talk about. So consider bringing a fancy cheese plate to your next gathering!
Kali Sakai lives with her cheese-loving family in Ballard.