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.
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!