celebrations, food

Composing a Cheese Board

If you'd like to host a get-together this holiday season but you're worried about the time and energy it would take to put out a spread, this post is for you.

Cheese boards are the best kept secret of the cocktail party catering world.  When done right, these platters are more impressive than any array of painstakingly cooked appetizers and take a fraction of the time to put together.

Above is an example of a board fit for a small gathering.  Below is an ample tray for a large group.

Either way, I always begin by picking out my cheeses.  My idea of a great afternoon is one spent at an awesome, stinky, fine cheese store.  But most grocery stores these days have a section of finer cheeses, so if you don't have the time or desire to make a special trip, start there.

For a small group, two cheese types will be plenty.  I like to have one soft, ripe cheese and one that's aged and firm.  Add a third cheese for a bigger crowd; a nice crumbly blue is a welcome addition in that case.

If you're worried about the expense of fancy cheeses, take a cheaper though just as refined approach.  Purchase an inexpensive chévre and roll it in lemon zest and black peppercorns for your soft cheese.  Use a simple white cheddar for the firm variety and choose a small wedge of Amish blue.  Your guests will love them.

Once my cheeses are picked out, I think about what I'd like to eat with them.  If we were sticking to classic French rules, we wouldn't even think of discussing fruit with cheese unless it were serving as dessert.  I, however, like to throw out the rules here, as I think a lot of people enjoy fruit with cheese for a cocktail snack. 

There are countless options for accompaniments, but I always make sure to have something in each of five categories.  I've listed them below along with some examples of each.

Crackers or Bread

  • crostini -- buy them in your grocer's bakery section or easily make some
  • multi-grain crackers
  • water crackers
  • savory shortbreads -- here's a great recipe if you want to make some
  • rustic buttermilk crackers -- get some artisanal ones or make these in advance

Fresh Fruit

  • grapes, cut into 4-5 piece clusters
  • apple or pear slices, tossed with a little lemon juice to keep them from browning
  • strawberries, halved
  • clementines

Salty and/or Briny

  • caper berries
  • cornichons or pickles
  • olives

Crunchy and/or Nutty

  • marcona almonds
  • mixed, roasted nuts
  • wasabi peas
  • spiced and/or sugared nuts -- I love this recipe

Sweet & Sour and/or Jammy

  • dried fruit soaked in wine vinegar
  • pickled fruit
  • jam
  • compote
  • chutney
  • stewed dried fruit -- here's a good one

I have my own preferences; for example, I think briny olives are the perfect paring for ripe cheeses, like the honeyed goat I'm using in my example.  Fruit compote with a nutty, aged cheese is another favorite combination and I love pickles with smoked cheeses.  But the best approach is to use whatever you would want to eat with the cheeses you've chosen.

Now comes the fun part: composing the tray.  You can purchase a fancy marble or wood cheese board or you can use any wooden cutting board, as I do.  Pewter or ceramic platters work just fine, as well.  I like to begin with some greenery (non-poisonous, of course) for contrast.  Above are hydrangea leaves; lemon leaves are beautiful, too, and can usually be purchased very inexpensively at the flower shop.  A convenient option is kale, as you can just add it to your grocery list.

Set your cheeses next.  In this example I'm using a soft honeyed goat cheese and a smoked gouda to serve six people for cocktails.  

While the goal is not to evenly slice everything and have it look like a grocery platter, I also don't like to just put out whole chunks and have people guess as to how to go about them.  My solution is to start it out for the guests, leaving a nice piece of the cheese block remaining.  If it's a hard cheese, I slice and fan out some of it, leaving a block at the back with a little cheese knife in it.  If it's a crumbly cheese, use a fork to crumble some of it so it's obvious how it's meant to be eaten.

Next, begin filling in the spaces with some accompaniments.  I start with the firmer components like cornichons and nuts.  Lately I've taken to keeping the nuts contained in their own vessel in case there are allergies present.  When I use olives, I always include a little dish, either on the tray or nearby, for pits.  Placing a pit in the dish is a nice hint as to why it's there.  The softer elements come next.  Above I've used a candied-pickled apple jam.

I use the fresh fruit to surround the board's components, adding height and interest.  When using grape clusters, make sure the stems are on the underside.

I add the crackers or bread after all of the other components.  This way, if there isn't room on the tray, they can be placed in a basket next to it.  

Finally, I set the proper utensils, such as cheese knives, spoons for compote, and tongs for fruit.  For a large gathering where you won't be able to talk directly to each guest about the cheeses, little labels on picks or tiny forks are fun additions.

Friends, along with a couple of bottles of wine or a pitcher of rum punch, this is all you need to host a gathering this season.  Happy holidays!