Friday, July 10, 2020

Honey Cake and Lavender Earl Grey Cream with Bee K’onscious Artisanal Honey

I was sent products from Bee K'onscious free of charge in order to facilitate the writing of this post.

Convoluted story time: I've been watching the Emmy Made in Japan Youtube channel for many many years. I love all the quirky recipes she attempts, and I especially love her open mindedness to even the most ridiculous sounding flavor combinations and unusual (AKA non-Western) ingredients. Emmy also often attempts to make every day grocery items, like condiments or different types or bread or noodles, from scratch, so it was no surprise when she decided to start raising her own chickens and become a bee keeper. I'm personally not a big fan of bees, but watching her foray into bee keeping and everything that goes into honey production is downright thrilling. All this is to say that I have a new found appreciation for the complexities of honey production and extraction. Much like wine, honey's flavor and texture is dependent on so many things; the season, the weather, of course the pollen available, but even the happiness of the bees in the hive!

When a company called Bee K'onscious reached out to me recently about their line of artisanal raw honeys, I couldn't help thinking of all the drama I'd watched Emmy go through with her bees in order to collect fresh, raw, beautiful honey. Bee K'onscious is based in Denver, but their honeys come from small bee keepers in California, Montana, and Brazil. Each bottle is single source, meaning it can be traced to a single bee keeper via a QR code on the bottle. Since the honey is raw and unfiltered, it retains all of the natural nutrients and anti bacterial properties a lot of over processed honeys loose along the way. Being raw and unpasteurized also means the honey can sometimes come crystallized, which might throw some people off. However, crystallized honey is just as delicious and can be more easily used as a spread on things like biscuits and pancakes. If you would rather have a more liquid honey, that's no problem! Simple dip the jar into some hot water and the honey will transform into liquid gold.

The honey I received from Montana Clover honey, and it had a lovely bright floral flavor without a cloying, lingering sweetness. As I've been baking a lot of bread recently, I really enjoyed spreading it on warm toast with a little local strawberry preserves. I actually really enjoyed it in it's crystallized form, as it added a nice bit of texture! However, I wanted to find a nice summery recipe in which I could really show off how delicious and delicate this honey is.

After going through many, many recipes in which honey was used more as a sweetening agent rather than a flavoring component, I settled in this simple recipe from King Arthur Flour. For some reason, I just think the combination of the whole wheat flour and the all purpose flour really helps the honey shine, and the fact that there is no additional sugar means this cake has just the right amount of sweetness. To compliment the simplicity of the cake and the floral flavor of the honey, I made a version of my Earl Grey pastry cream, but with a lavender Earl Grey and a touch of purple food coloring for funzies. I then topped the cake off with some fresh strawberries and blackberries and a sprinkling of powdered sugar. the result was a delectable treat that could be easily enjoyed for a decadent breakfast or a light dessert! I even crumbled up some of the cake and layered it into a mason jar along with the berries and pastry cream to take on a responsibly socially distant picnic.

If you are a honey aficionado, or you would like to become one, I would highly encourage you to check out Bee K'conscious. Not only are they an ethical and sustainable small business, the very nature of honey production is environmentally positive as can be! Keep an eye out for more honey sources from them as they expand their product line to include single source honeys from all over the world!

Friday, May 29, 2020

Learning to Pipe Buttercream Flowers in the Time of Quarantine

I was sent product free of charge from Nielsen-Massey Vanillas in order to facilitate the writing of this post.

Well, it's been a crazy few months since my last post. Back then, things were just starting to go into lock down mode. Now, we're all adjusting to our new normals, whether that is ordering takeout a few times a week to keep our friends in the hospitality industry afloat, buying meal kits from our favorite small businesses and, vendors, and farmers, or doing a hell of a lot more baking than any one person should probably be doing.

Speaking of baking, if you've been following my Instagram, you'll know I have fallen full force into the quarantine baker role. Bread, butter mochi, chocolate chip cookies. Just all the carbs. So much carbs. Thing is, as good as my baking skills have gotten, my presentation skills are still kind of lacking.

That is one of the reasons I still love visiting bakeries, like my neighbors, Life's Sweet Inc. Ever since this dessert wonderland opened last year, I've been obsessed with everything Melissa, the owner, makes. Every time I walk in the door, I am immediately hypnotized by all the delicious sweets on display in her pastry case. Better yet, if you stick around her shop for any length of time, you are bound to see one of her gorgeously decorated cakes making it's way out the door. Every single time, I marvel at how beautiful and precise her buttercream piping skills are.

Sadly, it's businesses like Melissa's that have been hit the hardest during the COVID-19 crisis. Small, independent, neighborhood restaurants, bakeries, and specialty shops all over the country have been forced into making horrible decisions about whether to remain open for carry out/delivery and place their staff at risk while fighting with greedy delivery platforms, or closing up completely and putting all their faith in the unstable and confusing government loan programs. But through everything, Melissa has stayed flexible and positive by keeping her bakery and cafe going through an ingenious pickup window system. I have made it a point to try and visit places like her shop at least once a week, because I am now so addicted to her ever changing lineup of sweets and perfectly prepared breakfast and lunch fair that I cannot imagine my neighborhood without her. I will single handedly keep her in business, if that's what it takes!

My buddies over at Nielsen-Massey Vanillas recently released a new instructional video over on their Better Your Bake page about how to pipe buttercream roses and hydrangeas. Well, since I have been wanting to step up my decorating skills, this was a perfect opportunity to start learning, especially since I have never ever tried piping before! But, I wanted to see just how close I could get to professional quality flower piping using the instructional video alone, so I roped Melissa into helping me. I ordered some of her impossibly moist mini cupcakes and had her put her signature piping on top of half of them, and I would try my best to replicate her work. How did I do? Well, before you scroll all the way down, take a close look at the next picture and see if you can determine which of us piped which cupcake:

Not bad for a beginner, hu? In case you couldn't tell, that's mine on the right and Mel;issa's on the left. Preparing the two toned piping was much easier to do than I thought it would be, and I'm pretty happy with how it turned out. Now, after I started practicing my piping, I realized that I was using tips that were a bit smaller than Melissa's, but I think I still achieved the same effect. Now, as for the roses... well, it's gonna be pretty obvious who the beginner piper was here!

Yeah, I didn't quite master the height and definition of Melissa's work, but at least after a few tries, I did manage to get something that vaguely looked like a rose! Oh, and by a few tries, I mean two batches of buttercream worth of tries!

Rose attempt number 1
Rose attempt number 2

In the end, the piping was a bit easier than I expected it to be, but it's definitely something that is going to take lots of practice to master. There is a lot of muscle memory and nuance involved, and getting the buttercream to just the right consistency and temperature is crucial (that's why I used Nielsen-Massey's tried and true buttercream recipe to give myself the best chance at success).

So, what do you think of how my beginner's piping compared to that of a professional? And let me know in the comments below what skills you have been learning while you've been stuck at home! Stay safe, everybody! And don't forget to support local small businesses and independent restaurants in any way you can!

Friday, March 20, 2020

Stress Baking: Giant Japanese Style Pancake in an Instant Pot with Nielsen-Massey Vanillas

I was sent product free of charge by Nielsen-Massey for us in the writing of this blog post.

So... stress baking. I talked about it in my last post, but whooooo boy, have things taken a turn since then. Currently, I am still going into my day job daily, which is not ideal, but at least it helps to keep my mind from wandering into darker places. However, last weekend, I was able to put some of my nervous energy to good use in the form of some good old fashioned recipe experimentation.

A while ago, I took a stab at Japanese style souffle pancakes, which I made on my stove top with the help of a ring mold. While they looked lovely for pictures and tasted just a good, they ended up being a little more labor intensive than I would like, so I set out to see if there was another method I could use that would simplify matters some. After some research, I discovered a lot of people were making giant souffle pancakes in their instant pots! "Well, I've got one of those," I thought, "Let's give it a shot!'

As in my original recipe, for the most part I used a pretty standard pancake batter, but I did a few significant things to give my pancake a lovely, fluffy texture and a really good flavor. Firstly, I used cake flour, which is basically more finely milled all purpose flour (think the difference between granulated sugar and powdered sugar). This ensures the batter remains light weight. Secondly, unlike a lot of instant pot pancake recipes I saw in which the batter was pored directly into the bottom of the insert, I decided to use a spring form pan propped up on the trivet insert. This allowed me to put a little water into the bottom of the insert, which injected lots of moisture into the pancake, and also ensured the bottom of the pancake didn't burn. Lastly, I separated my yolks and whites and whipped the whites to soft peaks as if I was making an actual souffle. As part of their "Better Your Bakes" campaign, my friends at Nielsen-Massey Vanillas have produced a really good video on how to do this properly: I also used their Ugandan Vanilla Extract, which has a really unique creamy, almost chocolaty flavor to it that takes this pancake to the next level.

The one draw back to doing things this way is that even though the batter is very easy to put together, it does take a bit of time to cook. My suggestion is to get everything put together first thing in the morning, then wash the dishes, make some coffee, take a shower, etc., and when you're done, your delicious giant pancake will be ready for you! I also experimented with making this pancake ahead of time and refrigerating it, and while that does make the pancake a bit more dense, it's still pretty delicious and it reheats very well. In fact, on the second day, I actually took the second pancake and heated it in a skillet with a little butter, which gave it an awesome crunchy top!

Let me know in the comments below how you're taking care of yourself through this crazy time in our collective lives. Are you stress baking too? If so, share with me and Nielsen-Massey by posting a picture of your baking creations to social media with the hashtag #BetterYourBake Hope you and yours are all keeping safe and healthy!

Giant Japanese Style Instant Pot Pancake

1 large egg, yolk and white separated
1/4 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup milk
1 tablespoon white sugar
1 tablespoon Nielsen Massey pure Vanilla Extract
1 cup cake flour
1 teaspoon baking powder

In a medium sized bowl, add sugar, salt, and vanilla extract to the yolk and whisk to combine, then add the milk and stir until a uniform pale yellow color has been achieved. Slowly add in the flour and baking powder until the mixture is smooth and mostly free of lumps.

In a separate bowl, whip the egg white using a whisk or a hand mixer until stiff peaks have formed. Slowly add the yolk batter into the whipped whites a little at a time and fold gently to incorporate until everything is combined.

Use butter or cooking spray to line the inside of a small spring form pan. Place the trivet into the bottom of the Instant Pot insert and add 1/2 cup of water, or just enough to cover the bottom of the insert. Pour the batter into the spring form pan and place on the trivet. Set the instant pot to cook at low pressure for 45 minutes and close the valve. Once the time is up, briefly vent, remove the spring form pan, unmold the pancake onto a plate, and serve with butter, syrup, fresh berries, powdered sugar, or anything you like.

Optional: for a crunchy top, heat about 1/2 a tablespoon of butter in a skillet, then brown each side of the pancake in the pan for about a minute on each side.

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Jam and Almond Cream Stuffed Vanilla Brioche with Nielsen- Massey Vanillas

I was sent product free of charge by Nielsen-Massey Vanillas in order to facilitate the writing of this post. All opinions are my own.

Last year, I learned to make my own pasta. This year's culinary goal? Bread. Because I need to be able to produce carbs on demand. So when Nielsen-Massey recently challenged me to come up with a great recipe in honor of a Galentine's celebration of self care for me and my single besties, I figured there was no time like the present to start learning.

Like many people, I have a healthy obsession with the Great British Bake Off, which is probably what put the idea of learning to bake bread into my mind. Who hasn't fantasized about getting a Hollywood Handshake, am I right? The thing is that the show is so gentile and lovely and everyone is so nice to each other, that I think I have been begun associating baking with everything good and warm and fuzzy. Now if only there could be a show that made me feel that way about vegetables!

As I set out on my first bread making adventure, I kept thinking about the episode of Bake Off where the contestants had to make Chelsea Buns, which are traditionally a sort of sticky bun filled with currants and spices. I liked the concept of making more of a pastry-like bread than just a regular old loaf (because I always have to make things more difficult than they have to be). I also loved the idea of being able to pull off chunks of the bread, making it easily sharable. After all, I wanted to be able to share the carby love with all of my fellow single ladies.

I decided to do a brioche style bread because... well, because brioche is freaking delicious, but also because I wanted to lean slightly sweet. In an ode to Chelsea buns, I decided to do a filling with red currant jam and some almond paste, but instead of doing a swirl, I decided to do little round buns that one could pull off a larger loaf. Much to my delight, this recipe worked so perfectly that I called my mother in total elation, shouting, "I made bread!" while covering my phone in sugar glaze and crumbs in the process. The buns come away easily and are sturdy, yet fluffy and soft as a pillow, with the perfect little surprise pocket of filling in the center of each one. If snuggling into a fuzzy blanket with a good cup of tea, a good Netflix series, and this whole loaf of bread in front of me isn't self care, I don't know what is.

The beauty of this recipe is that it can literally be customized to any flavor combination. Peanut butter and grape jelly? Sure! Orange marmalade and pistachio? Why not! I can imagine a thousand different filling that would work equally as well as the one I used, and the subtle vanilla flavor of the bread itself would work well with any of them. And seeing as how a layperson like me was able to make this so easily, I'm gonna go ahead and say this recipe is super beginner friendly! The main thing to remember is this: you have to take care of that yeast. Keep it warm and cozy. No cold eggs, no cold milk, no cold butter. And if your kitchen isn't over 70 degrees, I suggest heating your oven to its lowest setting, turning it off, and putting your dough in there to proof.

Let me know in the comments below what you think! Have you every baked bread from scratch? What flavors would you fill yours with?

Pull Apart Stuffed Vanilla Brioche

1/2 tablespoon of instant yeast
1/2 tablespoon of salt
1/4 cup sugar
3-4 cups bread flour
1 cup warmed whole milk
2 large room temperature eggs
1/4 cup melted butter
1 tablespoon Nielsen-Massey Vanilla Extract or Vanilla Bean Paste
Any flavor or jelly, jam, or marmalade
7 ounce tube of almond paste (or homemade)

For Egg Wash:

1 egg yolk
1 teaspoon Nielsen-Massey Vanilla Extract
1/2 teaspoon sugar

For the Glaze:

1 cup powdered sugar
1 teaspoon Nielsen-Massey Vanilla Extract
milk until desired consistency

Combine 1 cup of the flour with the yeast, salt, and sugar and whisk together using the paddle attachment of a stand mixer. Add in the milk, eggs, butter, and vanilla extract and continue to whisk with the paddle attachment until the mixture is completely smooth (remember to scrape down the sides of the bowl with a spatula to make sure everything has been incorporated). Start adding in the remaining flour 1/3 a cup at a time. About half way through, you will need to switch out the paddle attachment for a dough hook. Keep adding flour until the dough is no longer sticky.

Dump the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and kneed it until everything is the same smooth texture and the dough springs back when poked. Put into a large bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and put someplace warm for proof for about 2 hours.

Once the dough has doubled in size, punch down the risen dough and divide it into palm sized rounds. Flatten each round and spread a teaspoon of jelly and a teaspoon of almond paste onto the center of the dough, leaving the edges clean. Fold the edges over the filing and pinch them together to seal the dough, then shape into a ball and place into a non stick bunt pan. You should be able to get at least 2 layers of buns. Cover the pan with plastic wrap and set aside somewhere warm to proof for about 40 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 350 degree. Combine the egg yolk, vanilla, and sugar in a small bowl and whisk together. Using a pastry brush, apply the egg wash to the top of the proofed buns. Bake the bread for 40-45 minutes, or until the tops of the buns are lightly golden brown. Let cool.

Mix the powdered sugar, vanilla, and milk in a small bowl. After the bread is completely cool, remove it from the pan and place on a plate. Drizzle the glaze over the top and serve.

Monday, December 23, 2019

Why You Should be Using Canned Tomatoes from Europe for Your Christmas Dinner

I was sent products free of charge as part of the Greatest Tomatoes from Europe campaign in order to facilitate the writing of this post.

Earlier this year, I read Real Food, Fake Food: Why You Don't Know What You're Eating and What You Can Do About It by Larry Olmsted and it really opened my eyes to how little and how much labeling matters in the USA. So many words used on packaged goods like "All Natural" and "Healthy" mean absolutely nothing. A ton of the seafood sold in this country is complete and total lies, from the its listed country of origin to its actual species. And don't even get me started on how deceptive wine labels are in this country!

Why does a government organization like the FDA let companies get away with stuff like this, you might ask? Quite honestly, because as long as people aren't getting horrendously sick, they really don't care. Much of the food industry in America is left to self regulate, so authenticity and honest labeling depends entirely on the integrity of each individual brand. 

In Europe, however, things are very different. Packaged food products are strictly regulated and labeled so that consumers not only know what they're eating and drinking, but also where it came from. Everyone knows that old chestnut about how real Champagne can only come from the Champagne region of France, but did you know that real Parmesan cheese can only come from Parma, Italy? So no, that white stuff in the green cardboard bottle you like to sprinkle on your pasta and pizza is no where near the same thing as a fresh cut wedge of Parmigiano Reggiano. The city of Parma even tried to petition the US government to copyright the name of their signature cheese, but it was ruled that "Parmesan" was a descriptor word for cheese, and therefore could not be copyrighted. Same thing with Cheddar, which should technically only be from the village of Cheddar in Somerset, UK.

Soon after reading Real Food, Fake Food I attended a seminar hosted by the Italian American Chamber of Commerce, which talked about many of the same labeling standards on European goods and instructed us on what to look for. Have you seen a DOC or PDO label on something? That tells you the item has to fit very strict regional regulations in how and where it is made or packaged. Most often you will see those labels on things like wine and olive oil, which are more strictly categorized in Europe (the stuff we sell as Extra Virgin Olive Oil in this county, for instance, would be sold for lamp oil over there!), but once you start looking for them, you'll realize how many European products you could be getting to upgrade your pantry.

Take the humble canned tomato, for example. Used for everything from soups to sauces to jams, canned tomatoes are a pantry staple. Now, this is an objective opinion and not a fact, but a lot of American tomatoes just have absolutely no flavor. There is a reason Italian tomatoes are prized, and it has everything to do with how they are grown and when they are processed. 

When my mother and I began planning our Christmas dinner this year, we decided to make a big pan of lasagna, but with everything made from scratch. As I have taken up pasta making over the last year, creating the fresh noodles would be no issue. And since this was going to be a big special dinner, we decided we should only get the best ingredients. Real Parmigiano Reggiano. Real Buffalo milk Mozzarella. And of course, Italian tomatoes. 

But before we cooked up our big lasagna on Christmas Eve, I decided to test if canned European tomatoes are really all that different from American ones by making a humble Tomato Bisque. Of course, I had to give it a little twist of my own, so I decided to serve it like French Onion Soup by topping it off with a garlic crostini and a thick layer of melted cheese. If I wanted to be really pretentious about it, I could have called it a Re-Imagined Tomato Soup and Grilled Cheese, but since I only want to be a little pretentious, I'm calling it Caprese Soup. My challenge to you, dear reader, is this: Make this soup twice, once using canned American tomatoes, and once using canned European tomatoes and see if you can tell the difference in color, texture, and flavor. If you can, I bet you'll suddenly be searching labels at the grocery store for products of European origin, just like me.

Caprese Soup

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil (or any good quality cooking oil)
1 medium yellow onion, roughly diced
3-4 cloves of garlic, chopped
2 14.5 oz cans of whole tomatoes
1 bunch of fresh basil, finely shredded
1/4 cup of heavy cream

Thin, crispy garlic crostini
1 cup shredded, low moisture mozzarella
1/2 cup slivered Parmesan cheese

Add the oil to a deep bottomed pot, such as a stock pot or a Dutch oven, and bring to temperature over medium high heat. Add onion and saute until the pieces of onion are translucent and slightly golden around the edges. Add in the garlic and cook for about 30 seconds. Add in the canned tomatoes and their juices, then turn down the heat to medium and simmer covered for about 10-15 minutes. Use a stick blender to puree the contents of the pot, then add in the fresh basil, stir, and cook uncovered for another 5 minutes. Turn off the heat and add in the cream.

Use a ladle to fill a stone onion soup bowl with the tomato bisque. Top with 2-3 garlic crostini, then mound on mozzarella and Parmesan cheese until the entire top is covered. Put under a broiler for 2-5 minutes, or until the cheese is completely melted and golden on top.

Makes 2-3 servings.

Tuesday, December 17, 2019

One Dough, Three Cookies: Christmas Thumb Print Cookies with Nielsen-Massey

I was sent products from of charge by Nielsen Massey in order to accommodate the writing of this post. All opinions are my own.

So your boyfriend's best friend's girlfriend suddenly decided to throw a last minute Christmas party. And your office manager suddenly decided everyone should do a pot luck lunch before the holiday. And your kid suddenly remembered the band is holding a holiday bake sale in order to raise funds to get the dents hammered out of the tubas. Not to fear! I'm here to help.

Of course everyone thinks of cookies around the holidays, and everyone has their favorite flavor combos that remind them of their childhoods. The easiest way to please everyone without endlessly sorting through Pinterest for recipe ideas is to find one basic cookie recipe and riff on that.

I, personally, have a great affinity for thumbprint cookies, mostly because they are so versatile that they can be re-invented to accommodate almost any flavor combo. To prove this, I decided to use Nielsen-Massey's Holiday Flavor Bundle as inspiration and create three different thumbprint cookies from the same basic recipe.

First, I made the easy decision to pair the almond extract with cherry preserves. Cherry and almond are such a classic combo, and the bright red center and the creamy white cookie just look so darn festive. Top these cookies with some slivered almonds and watch them disappear (in my own personal testing session at my office, these were the first to go).

Secondly, I decided to be a little adventurous with the vanilla while still keeping within the realm of winter flavor. Nielsen-Massey's vanillas are, after all, top notch and deserve to be featured rather than used as an after thought. For this version, I finely ground some winter spices (cinnamon, clove, nutmeg, and cardamon) and mixed those into the cookie dough along with the vanilla extract. I filled these cookies with a sweet orange marmalade and topped them with a drizzle of melted white chocolate. This version of the cookie might have been my favorite, if only because it reminded me of the orange spice tea my mom used to give me when I was a kid.

Lastly, I decided the pair the peppermint extract with chocolate, because what else is a more quintessentially holiday flavor combo? I altered the base cookie recipe slightly by replacing a 1/2 cup of the flour with cocoa powder and I baked the cookies without any filling. While they baked, I made a quick ganache from dark chocolate, cream, butter, and some more peppermint extract. Once the cookies were cooled, I filled them with the ganach and topped them with crushed candy cane bits.

Tell me what cookie flavor combos you'd like to try in the comments below!

Thumbprint Cookie Base

3/4 cup softened unsalted butter
1/2 cup sugar
1 large egg
1 tsp flavoring (such as vanilla extract, peppermint extract, etc.)
1 3/4 cup flour
1/2 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp salt

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

In a medium bowl, cream together the butter and sugar with a hand mixer, then add the egg and extract/flavoring. Add the baking powder and salt. Continue mixing, adding in the flour 1/4 cup at a time until it is all incorporated and the dough has formed. If the dough it a sandy texture, use your hands to finish mixing it until it is one thick mass.

Scoop the cookie dough into 1 inch balls and place them onto a greased baking sheet or a silicon mat. Make an indent with your thumb to create a well in the middle of the cookie. If using a jam-like filling, drop it into the well now. Bake the cookies for about 15 minutes, or until the bottom edges start to go golden brown. Let the cookies cool on a rack for about 15 minutes, then if not already filled, top the cookies with whatever filling you are using.

Makes about 2 dozen.

Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Wine and Cheese: 6 Tips for Building the Perfect Holiday Cheese Plate

I was sent products by Mary's Crackers and Mionetto free of charge. All opinions are my own and I am not affiliated with any of the companies mentioned in this post.

Forget the crudite, forget the charcuterie. If I show up to your holiday party and there is no cheese on your table, I'm leaving. And I brought a damn good White Elephant gift, which I am now keeping for myself. There is just nothing quite like a well curated cheese plate, and I'm not talking one of those pre-sliced, plastic wrapped deals that looks like they just dyed the same block of cheese product different colors. A good cheese plate needs variety, not just in flavor, but in texture. Hard cheese, soft cheese, fresh cheese, aged cheese. Like a wedding. "Something old, something new, something borrowed, something bleu."

I know, it can be intimidating to put together a really nice cheese plate yourself. But I have been doing it for years (I had a friend who once admitted mine was the only house he'd go to outside his own because he knew I'd always have good cheese on hand) and I am here to give you a few tips to help please all the cheese lovers at your next gathering.

1) Aged cheese, like Goudas, Parmesans, and Cheddars are the most common and approachable hard cheeses, but they do get pricey. Good news is, these cheeses are meant to be nibbled on in very small quantities, as they pack quite a punch, so you can get away with smaller wedges. Do not slice these cheeses! Break them into small hunks using a cheese spade. That way you don't destroy the crunchy calcium crystals that give aged cheeses their distinctive texture. Stay simple with something like a 5 year gouda or an authentic Parmesan (produced in Parma, Italy) and you can't go wrong.

2) Fresh cheeses are great for people who like cheese, but aren't fans of the funkier varieties. Fresh mozzarella and burrata are easy enough to find these days, but can be quite messy on a cheese board. I love putting out a bit of goat cheese, since it is sliceable and spreadable, but less of a mess.
Montchevre in particular makes a wide variety of sweet and savory flavors that are excellent. I highly recommend the Honey variety, as it's simple, yet effective. These are perfect for those who prefer to eat their cheese on crackers.

3) Speaking of crackers, CHOOSE CAREFULLY. A lot of flavored crackers will overpower your skillfully selected cheeses. You want something that will function both as a palate cleanser without drying out your mouth and as a vehicle for cheese without shattering into a million pieces after one bite. I recently tried a few varieties from Mary's Gone Crackers and I really appreciate how their extraordinary texture works with cheese. They are jam packed with seeds and whole grains, giving them a lovely crisp snap, but also the strength to not crumble to bits. They are also made with rice, making them gluten free! My money's on the Original flavor, the Black Pepper, the Classic Super Seed, or the Everything Super Seed. 

4) Back to the cheese; don't be afraid of the funk. No, I'm not talking about stinky cheeses. I'm talking about funky flavors. Cheese purists will turn their noses up at the thought of anything infiltrating their cheese's natural flavoring, but adding a bit of something something to a cheese can help make it more accessible to the cheese novices in the crowd. Instead of a simple brie, why not go with something like this Champignon Mushroom from Germany, which is a rinded soft cheese with mushroomy umami flavor. Or instead of a standard cheddar, how about on with truffles in it? Too many savory cheeses on your plate? Go for one of the many varieties of white stilton with fruit in it. I've seen everything from blueberry to mango to apricot, and I have adored them all.

5) Accompaniments are essential. If you really want to make it all about the cheese, I say skip any kind of cured meats all together. Same with nuts. If you want to also have meats or nuts, make those their own things and place them far away from the cheeses so people aren't as inclined to eat everything together. If you're lucky enough to have a decent cheese department at your local grocery store, you may find a variety of unique jams and spreads that will be great accessories to your cheese. Get at least one sweet, one savory, and acidic spread. I like to present things like slices of quince jelly, fig butter, and bacon jam. Just like the crackers, your accompaniments should not only work with the cheese, but function as palate cleansers between bites of cheese. 

6) This is the big one: Wine. What is a good cheese plate without a good bottle of wine to accompany it? Now, I am no wine expert by any means, but all I've ever heard from wine directors and sommeliers is that the most important rule is to drink what you like. The first thing I personally reach for when eating cheese is a sparkling wine. A bright, bubbly, slightly acidic wine really helps to cut through the fat of the cheese and prepare you for each new bite. I really like Mionetto Prosecco Extra Dry because it's affordable, but is still an excellent quality, not to mention completely organic, and it has a subtle floral flavor that I think works really well with most cheeses. If you would rather go all out, I would highly suggest visiting the nearest Wine Cellar location and having them help you pick out a variety of reds, whites, and blushes that will please a crowd. I recently stopped into the Schaumburg location and did a little in store tasting, where I fell in love with wonderful Chardonnay from La Voute and a red blend from Valcatrina that will both be served with my holiday cheese plate. Seriously, there are so many deals to be had at The Wine Cellar that I was actually able to buy 6 bottles of wine for under $75!

And that's it! Now go out there and celebrate Jesus with Cheesus!