Just the word makes us smile.
Cheese. It’s so simple – mostly milk, whether from cow, sheep or goat – yet so complex and, in many cases, so special. That makes cheese a perfect ingredient for holiday entertaining.
“A cheese plate or tray is probably the easiest thing you can bring to a party or make for your own,” said Mariah Ramana of The Cultured and The Cured in East Sacramento. “It’s a nice, classy option.”
Cheese for the holidays – or any celebration – is a centuries-old tradition. It can start or end a meal as a flavorful appetizer or classic dessert. It pairs well with a wide spectrum of beverages (not just wine). When getting people together, an interesting cheese plate automatically gives guests something to talk about.
And these people-pleasing platters can be super easy to put together. That’s part of their attraction.
“I have fallen in love with the convenience and popularity of cheese trays, especially during the holidays,” said Katie Segale of Granite Bay. “They are so easy to prepare, and everyone loves discovering new cheeses and pairings.”
Rebekah Baker, corporate cheese buyer for Nugget Markets, has seen interest in cheese, as well as cheese sophistication, rise among her customers. Shoppers have come a long way from wanting just cheddar, jack and Swiss.
“We have over 400 different kinds of cheeses in our stores,” said Baker, who recently returned from a tasting/buying trip to Europe. “We have cheese from all over the world, but we also have a really big local (California) focus.
“Our guests are a lot more educated about cheese,” she added. “They’re getting more and more excited about quality cheeses. They want the unique factor. What’s new? What’s seasonal? They love it when they find something really interesting and different. People love the discovery and sharing it with others.”
Putting together an appetizing cheese plate is about contrast, mixing and matching flavors and textures. That includes not just the cheese but its accompaniments.
“Cheese shouldn’t be intimidating or pompous,” Baker said. “Cheese is for everyone. Learning about new cheeses can be really fun.”
(Of course, ask first if any of your guests are allergic to dairy products. In that case, cheese may not be for them.)
When Baker puts together a cheese plate, her first question is about timing. Will this cheese be an appetizer or dessert? For pre-dinner cheese plates, she tends to lean towards savory flavors. After-dinner picks can go sweeter.
“Start with three cheeses and build from there, depending on your number of guests,” Baker said.
Mixing up cheeses from a global menu of options can seem overwhelming. Just saying the names can be hard. (To help conquer that hurdle, the Cheese of Europe website offers a glossary including audible pronunciations of each cheese.)
That’s where the cheesemonger or specialist can become your new party-planning assistant.
“You want variety because palates are very personal,” said Ramana of The Cultured and The Cured.
Andrew Hillman, The Cultured and The Cured’s owner and cheesemonger, urges customers to pick their beverage before the cheese.
“What are you drinking?” he said. “Wine, soda, cocktails, beer; that makes a huge difference in how those cheeses will taste. (By picking a beverage first), that’s a better way to start than picking random cheeses.”
For the holiday season, champagne is a favorite celebratory drink and goes great with several cheeses. To pair with champagne, Hillman offers this trio:
“Start with Brillat-Savarin,” he said. “That’s a triple-cream brie and probably the perfect champagne cheese. It’s super soft and creamy. For a medium cheese, try a Humbug Mountain goat cheese from Rivers Edge (in Oregon); it’s similar to Humboldt Fog (goat cheese from Cypress Grove), which also would be a good choice. I like a champagne with a little sweetness and the tartness of the goat cheese contrasts well with that. For a firm cheese, try a Pleasant Ridge Reserve from Uplands Cheese (in New York). It’s an Alpine style cheese, a little sharper with a pleasant nuttiness that goes really well with riesling or gewürztraminer or slightly sweet champagne.”
Baker also likes Humboldt Fog, but she suggests pairing it with Taza dark chocolate and porter beer. Another novel after-dinner pairing: Long Clawson Stilton, a blue-veined cow’s milk cheese from England, paired with port.
To go with beer (such as a pale ale), Baker suggests this assortment: Cypress Grove’s Herbs de Humboldt (a California fresh goat cheese coated with herbs de Provence), Alta Langa’s La Tur (a soft and creamy Italian blend of cow, sheep and goat milk), Montchevre’s cranberry goat cheese log (for something totally different, seasonal and festive) and Emmentaler, a medium hard Swiss cheese with a nutty flavor.
Trouble deciding? A theme can help narrow down all those possibilities, Baker said.
“There are a lot of fun ways,” she said. “You can theme by a country – such as all-Italian, all-French – or go all-local.”
When cheese shopping, don’t be afraid to ask for advice and taste samples. Smell as well as taste your selections; some cheese can be particularly pungent.
“Remember: Everybody tastes things differently,” Baker said. “Some people will like it, some people won’t. But that’s part of the fun. You may discover a new favorite cheese.”
Call The Bee’s Debbie Arrington, (916) 321-1075. Follow her on Twitter @debarrington.
Perfect cheese plate
Assemble a cheese plate or tray like a pro with these suggestions from TheCheesesofEurope.com:
▪ Selection: Choose three to five cheeses with a variety of textures and flavors, from soft and mild to hard and sharp. Mix up milks, too, with some cow, goat or sheep milk cheeses among your selections. When building a cheese plate, quality is more important than quantity. For peak of freshness and flavor, shop for cheese close to your event.
Can’t decide? Ask experts for advice. Your cheesemonger can give you suggestions as well as tastes of possible cheeses.
How much cheese? Plan on 4 to 6 ounces of cheese total per person. For example, if serving six, your cheese selections should total at least 24 ounces (11/2 pounds).
▪ Presentation: Bring cheeses to room temperature before serving, about 30 minutes to an hour depending on size. Make a few slices of each, then arrange on a plate, tray, cheeseboard or other serving surface with the remaining cheese so your guests can see what each cheese looks like next to its slices. Have a few knives handy, too, for more slicing and/or spreading.
When placing on the serving dish or tray, arrange the cheeses so they progress from mildest to most pungent in a clockwise pattern. Labels are optional, but be ready to answer your guests’ oft-repeated question, “Which cheese is this one?”
▪ Add extras: Select mild-flavored crackers, toast points, crostini or thin baguette slices. Remember: This is all about the cheese; it should be the star.
But a good cheese plate is more than cheese and crackers. These extras complement the cheese and bring out its nuances. Consider thinly sliced crisp apple, pear or Fuyu persimmon. Fresh or dried figs, blackberries, golden raisins, fresh grapes, dates and dried apricots add exotic flavors. Or offer some fig spread, plum butter or chutney on the side. Sliced meats and olives add salty notes and contrasts. Almonds and walnuts provide a healthy crunch. Drizzle a little honey on pungent cheese for a dash of sweetness. Chocolate squares pair well with some cheeses, too.
▪ Beverages: Pair mild cheeses with lighter wines and more robust cheeses with bolder wines. Cheeses also pair well with beer, coffee, cider and liqueurs.
▪ Resources: The Cheeses of Europe offers suggestions for different cheese plate combinations for various occasions. Find them at www.thecheesesofeurope.com/recipes/recipes. The site also has a video demonstration of a cheese board being assembled.
Rolls with cured ham and prunes with Saint Angel or Fromager d’Affinois
Serves 6 (2 rolls per person)
6 slices of cured ham
12 stoned prunes (can be substituted with other dried fruit, such as dates)
5 ounces Fromager d’Affinois or Saint Angel cheese
Pre-heat the oven to 425 degrees.
Cut the slices of cured ham in half lengthwise.
Cut the Fromager d’Affinois or Saint Angel into pieces.
Roll up one prune and one piece of cheese inside each slice of cured ham. Keep it all together with a toothpick.
Put into the oven for 5 to 8 minutes. Serve immediately.
Baked Camembert bread wreath
Recipe courtesy Freutcake
One 8-ounce Camembert wheel (such as President)
One 25-ounce bag Parker House style frozen rolls dough
¼ cup unsalted butter, melted
1 teaspoon minced fresh rosemary, plus more for garnish
¼ cup pomegranate seeds for garnish
Flaked Maldon sea salt
Cover a large baking sheet with parchment paper.
Using the Camembert as a guide in the center, arrange frozen dough rolls in two circles around the cheese, leaving a 1/2-inch space between rolls and between circles.
Remove cheese and refrigerate until ready to use.
Brush frozen rolls with melted butter. Thaw 1 hour in a warm, draft-free area, then allow an additional 2 hours to rise until doubled in size.
Once dough has formed a “wreath,” par-bake at 325 degrees for 7 minutes.
Using a sharp knife, carefully remove the top layer of rind from the Camembert wheel. This will allow for easy dipping.
Remove par-baked rolls from the oven and fit Camembert in the center. Bake an additional 8-10 minutes, or until rolls are golden brown and cheese is melted.
Using parchment paper, slide wreath off of baking sheet and onto a serving platter or board.
Brush rolls with melted butter and sprinkle with flaked Maldon sea salt. Sprinkle Camembert with minced rosemary.
Garnish wreath by inserting small 1-inch long pieces of fresh rosemary and clusters of pomegranate seeds between rolls. Serve immediately.
Endive with chèvre
This easy appetizer looks elegant – and it’s gluten-free – as the endive leaves sub for crackers or bread. Experiment with other soft cheeses, too, or blue or gorgonzola blended with cream cheese.
2 Belgian endives
6 ounces chèvre (goat cheese)
Freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons chives (optional), finely chopped
Cut the root ends off the endives and separate the leaves. Sort to get 18 leaves of approximately the same size (save others for another use). Wash and pat dry. Cut the radishes into very thin slices. Stack up a few slices and cut them vertically into matchsticks.
Place about 1 teaspoon of cheese onto the broad, flat end of each endive leaf. Grind a little black pepper over the top and sprinkle with chopped chives if desired. Garnish with radish matchsticks. This can be served immediately or covered with plastic wrap and refrigerated for later use.