I used to think elaborate cheese plates were difficult to make. I'm a big fan of charcuterie. In fact, I'd take a fancy cheese plate and glass of wine over a three course meal any day. However for years I assumed having cheese at home meant cutting up some cheddar and putting it next to crackers. Oh, I was so wrong! For the same effort and just a tad more expense, you can have a great cheese plate that will wow visually but even more importantly will be a fun way to keep the conversation flowing!
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Creating a dramatic and delicious cheese plate is easier than you think. The first thing you need is some kind of vessel. There are tons of popular ones right now. I prefer either a slate or large wooden board, but they also make marble cheese plates which are quite beautiful.
As far as what to include in your cheese plate, it's up to you, but there are a few things to keep in mind. You want to think about color, taste, and texture. The most important thing to include of course is the cheese!
If you have a cheese shop near you, it's worth going to once just to get a sense of what you like and what you don't. Much like tasting a variety of wine, coffee, and olive oil, cheese requires refining your palate over time.
If you don't have a cheese shop, I recommend talking to the cheese monger at your grocery store if there is one. Typically they love what they do and are always eager to help you pick a few cheeses that pair well together or with whatever you are drinking.
For a get together, I like to include 3-4 cheeses. In general, I like to include the following:
A soft cheese such as a brie or camembert. These cheeses can also be wonderful when baked in the oven and covered in honey and pecans, however for a cheese board I usually just include it by itself. I find that where brie can be expensive at times, I can often find a reasonable deal. on camembert. I try to by a small wheel of it and put it in its entirety on the board.
I like to include a Gouda, Cheddar or similar medium cheese. There are so many varieties, port wine cheeses, smoked cheeses, explore them all! Find what you like! My personal favorite is a cheese called When Gouda Meets Parm. You can't find it everywhere, but if you can check it out. It's the texture of Gouda with the taste of Parmesan...yummy! A big wedge of whatever you pick will be just right for the board.
If I include 2 medium cheeses I try to have one be a sheep's milk cheese and one be a cow's milk cheese. However, I sometimes do one medium cheese and one hard cheese such as a parmesan. Parmesan is great for nibbling on and pairs really well with many different wines. If including parmesan, I sometimes cut it in bite sized chunks for people to grab, but the wedge is fine as well.
Finally, I like to include some blue cheese. I'm not a huge lover of blue cheese, but many people are, and it gives some variety to the board. I usually purchase a stilton. Believe it or not it pairs very well with Prosecco or champagne! I didn't have any blue cheese when I was making this board, but normally I would include it.
So to recap, 3-4 cheeses; a soft cheese, 2 medium cheeses (or one hard one medium) and a blue cheese.
If time allows, you want to take your cheese out of your refrigerator approximately one hour before you plan to serve. Most cheese are meant to be at room temperature. Check with your cheese monger but it's a good rule of thumb to go by. Just set them on the counter and let their magic work.
To start the board, place your cheese on the board, I like to do one in each corner if it's a square, but work with the shape you have.
The next step is about preference, but I love grapes on a cheese board. I buy a bag of seedless grapes (use whatever color you like) and I cascade them through the board. This is an inexpensive way to fill the board, it also adds height, drama, and color. Plus, grapes are easy to grab and snack on.
Now we need something salty. I love to add prosciutto, but salami, pepperoni, or other cured meats work as well. The salty meats stand well on their own, but they also pair nicely with the cheese.
So now you should have your cheese, your grapes, and something salty; it's time for something crunchy. I like to add some type of nut to the board. Cashews, walnuts, and pecans make great additions. With the nuts as well as everything that follows, you'll want to group them together in small piles throughout the board. Keeping in mind height, and color.
Next I like to add some dried fruit such as dried apricots, cranberries, or if they're in season I add fresh apple slices. I try to think seasonally with this. Again, cheese plate's are all about having something to nibble on. Dried fruit adds yet another flavor, color, and texture to the board.
Once you have all your components you can add in the vessels. Crackers, bread sticks, and mini toasts are all great. I group them together and place them around the board. I also like to add a loaf of crusty french bread on the side.
You're trying to give options for pairing, a piece of prosciutto wrapped around an apple slice is heavenly, as is some brie smattered on some crusty bread with a salty meat and sweet jam. It's all about giving the options and then people layering flavors. Everything on the board can be eaten separately but also paired together.
Jam is also a delicious addition. My preference is fig jam (this is my favorite), it pairs well with many cheeses but especially brie, Camembert, and goat cheeses. You could also use an orange marmalade or your favorite raspberry preserve. The goal is to add something sweet to offset the salty cheese and meat. I place it in a little ramekin and nestle it on the board.
Once everything is assembled, I go back and fill in any open spaces with more crackers or nuts or dried fruit until I have a board bursting with colors, textures, and flavors!
So to recap:
Although it seems complicated, once you do it a few times it honestly takes about 5 minutes to assemble. I actually keep most of the ingredients in my house as many of the elements do not go bad right away. Especially around the holiday seasons if you have some unexpected guests drop by you can wow them in a matter of minutes!
I think my favorite part of a good cheese board is that it's about community. It's a shared experience. It's fancy but not stuffy, and it encourages an evening of conversation and laughter.
I think that's why it's my go-to. I can't think of any better way to spend time then conversing with good friends over good drinks and yummy treats. Give it a try at your next get together. I'd love to see what you come up with!