I am a sucker for a good cheese plate.
Cheese is one of the few foods that even after all of these years I still feel would stop me from going 100% vegan. Meat, I can take or leave. As some of you know, I didn’t eat meat for a decade or longer and still don’t eat a lot of it today. But cheese? Vegan cheese is ok, I happen to like nut-based cheese, but it’s just different… #TrueStory
A cheese plate is, of course, excellent as an appetizer, but as I learned recently it can also be nice to have after dinner instead of a dessert. I was used to seeing after-dinner cheese courses here in the U.S. on fancy or trendy restaurant menus, but in France, cheese was on nearly all restaurant menus—talk about heaven! A cheese plate can also be a nice choice to have as a leisurely lunch or dinner, especially when there’s little time to cook. No matter the course, a cheese plate is never a bad choice.
Not sure where to start in building the cheese plate of your dreams? Let’s begin with a few of the basics. Here are six things that I like to keep in mind when crafting the perfect plate.
#1 Ask for samples
So, you go to the store, and maybe you freeze when you see the selection. So. Many. Different. Kinds!
Don’t want to commit to a gigantic block of cheese without trying a smaller piece first? I hear you. Cheese can be costly, so you definitely want to make sure that you like it before going all-in on it.
The good news is if you go to a specialty food store—even regular grocery stores that have a substantial cheese counter—many times you can ask for samples.
I’ve visited several stores—Whole Foods to Wegmans, specialty cheese stores in small and large cities alike, family farms that make cheese—and there have been few times that I was flat-out told “no” to a sample. Yes, there are times when I was politely offered different samples from what I asked to try, simply based on what was open at the time. Many other times, I’ve been offered samples before I could even ask!
I recognize that right now a lot of stores have suspended sampling due to health and safety concerns because of COVID-19. With this in mind, it still doesn’t hurt to talk to the staff and ask them if they have or can cut smaller pieces of cheese for you to buy, take home and try vs. committing to a larger cut of something you’ve never had before. It never hurts to ask!
#2 Don’t rely on just the descriptions
Murray’s Cheese, for example, is a specialty cheese and grocery store that has probably about the nicest descriptions that I’ve seen—they briefly tell you the milk its made with, where it comes from, the taste and texture all right there, printed directly on its cheese labels. At other stores, though, the information on the label may not be as helpful, or there might be some signs near some of the cheese that might describe it to you but that’s all.
Descriptions are helpful, but tasting is still the only way to start to understand what it really means for a cheese to be buttery or mushroomy and best determine what you like and are looking for on your plate. Again, don’t be shy—talk to the people who work at the store! Ask them what they like and tell them what you like, too. They may have solid recommendations on what’s good and what you might like based on other cheeses you’ve tried.
After you’ve tried a couple of cheeses, you can start to recognize themes. I’ve had a very similar experience with wine or beer tasting, too; the more you try, the more you start to get the lingo.
#3 Choose a variety of tastes and textures
Once you have an idea of what you like, also consider the following things when picking the perfect cheeses for your board:
- The kind of milk the cheese is made from—sheep, goat, or cow milk all have different, nuanced flavors that can be fun to sample and compare to one another.
- Choosing a variety of different textures—It’s always a nice practice to choose a harder cheese, a soft or spreadable one, and a blue for your plate to keep things interesting. Think about the differences in taste and texture between a wedge of crumbly, sharp Parmesan; a creamy, smooth log of goat cheese; and a tangy Roquefort, for example.
- Adding in some different shapes and sizes—slices or wedges are fairly common, but you might also find other interesting shapes at the store. A small wheel of cheddar which you can slice half of to present on your board, and some softer cheeses, like Chevre, are shaped like a small cone or pyramid that can be put on the plate as a whole piece.
#4 Cheese loves having some friends
Just like peanut butter and jelly, or ketchup and mustard, there’s no doubt that cheese and crackers are a classic duo. And just like there are endless flavors, textures, and styles of cheese, there are also a number of different crackers that you could choose from, too, to complement them:
- Flatbread crisps, which can be thin or a little thicker and full of seeds or made out of different flours (rye, whole wheat, spelt…)
- Thin, crispy, round water crackers
- Rich butter crackers in different shapes
For a proper cheese plate, though, it’s best to give cheese and crackers some more “friends” to party with:
- Nuts and chocolates—Roasted, salted almonds or better yet, marcona almonds, which I always think of as are regular almonds tastier cousin. Small squares of dark chocolate that have been sprinkled with some flaky fleur de sel or another coarse sea salt. But among my favorite cheeseboard companions are piedras de chocolate, literally meaning “chocolate-covered rocks,” which are the best of both worlds: almonds in a thick shell of dark chocolate that have been dusted in cocoa. Chocolate-covered pistachios, too, are also amazing.
- Cured meats and fish—If you’re into meat, choose peppered salami or pepperoni (which if you purchase a lot you can slice some and leave half of it unsliced, making for a nice presentation), a good quality sardine (can be served right from the can), or a small filet of smoked salmon which you can flake off. Thinly sliced deli ham or turkey, too, can even be a good choice.
- Fruit preserves, jams and jellies—A few years ago when I was really big into canning, I made a ton of preserves, jams and jellies that turned into great cheeseboard partners, including strawberry-balsamic preserves and orange, bourbon and black pepper marmalade. The day I discovered fig jam, which I bought initially from Eataly during a trip to New York City but have since found in more local grocery stores, as a pairing for cheese was a very, very good day. It is heaven with just about any mild, nutty cheese, like swiss, comté or gruyère as well as with mozzarella.
- Fresh or dried fruit—Sliced pears or apples and grapes tend to be classic, as wells as figs and dried apricots. I also like cherries when they’re in season and berries.
- Honey—Honey infused with truffle is just decadent. If you feel like splurging, I suggest trying it at least once (a little does go a long way.) Honey is also delicious infused with chiles, too, for a spicy kick that wakes up a creamy cheese. I like Bees Knees Spicy Honey, which conveniently comes in a small squeeze bottle.
#5 Pick a theme for your cheese & pairings
Optional, but fun to consider, especially for a party. Again, the cheesemonger can be your friend here, too, and offer some recommendations for you.
- All French cheeses—such as creamy, spreadable brie or camembert, both of which have edible rinds but Camembert tends to taste richer; French Feta made with sheep milk, typically milder and creamier when compared to Greek Feta (dry, sharp, crumbles easy, and made with cow milk); and a buttery, nutty comté or gruyère. These can be served with a crusty baguette, maybe some grapes or fresh apple slices, and a glass of champagne as an elegant lunch for a special occasion or a cheese course after a meal instead of dessert.
- All Italian cheeses—such as burrata, which is best described as fresh mozzarella wrapped around a ricotta-like filling (this is called stracciatella) that oozes out when cut into; sharp or extra-sharp provolone; and creamy, spreadable gorgonzola dulce, which is salty yet also has some sweetness (as the name implies!) Serve with crostini, herbed olives, and roasted red peppers or thick slices of tomato drizzled with olive oil, balsamic and a sprinkling of fresh basil, and Italian meats like capicola or Proscuitto.
- All local cheeses—keep it local and just choose the best from what is produced in your area, whatever’s good and whatever your local purveyor recommends. Cheese made by small farms and cheesemongers that I’ve visited across the United States I’ve found is inspired by different styles, textures, and tastes. In New Jersey where I live, there are a few options within the state for fresh cheese. For example, Valley Shepherd Creamery in Long Valley, NJ, has a delicious one called Nettlesome, a cheese made with (you guessed it) nettles that has a garlicky flavor. They have good goat cheese and butter, and also offer different kinds of aged cheddar and flavored cheeses. If you’re within the tri-state NY/NJ/PA area and are looking for a nice drive to get out of the house right now, it can be a small day-trip to make from New York City, the Lehigh Valley, or the Jersey Shore. Normally, they have tours to show guests the cheesemaking process as well as goats and other animals that you can say hello to, but unsure if that is still the case right now due to COVID-19. In their shop located on their farm, they have all of the ingredients to make a great cheese plate—boards, crackers, jams, etc.—so you could purchase anything you need, then get on the road and find somewhere al fresco to stop and snack.
#6 Show it all off!
If you picked different cuts of cheese (wedges, slices, pyramids) and cheeses with different textures (maybe a cheddar that has a colorful wax or a goat cheese that has been rolled in everything bagel seasoning, you’re already off to a good start to making your cheese plate look great.
Pick your nicest cutting board or platter to arrange your cheeses and accompaniments. Add large piles of crackers, a big bunch of grapes, some small ramekins of jams or jellies… whatever you picked, it’s best to experiment with the way they look on your board. This part I think requires some trial and error, but that’s part of the fun. Move and rearrange things to see how they look. Above all, just have fun!
What are some of your favorite types of cheese? Let me know in a comment below!
- What’s the Difference Between Brie and Camembert? (via The Kitchn)