Kitchen Q&A: Cheese Course

Kiasa wrote to me yesterday asking about creating a cheese course. (I immediately started salivating…and thinking.)

Last night my husband (and muse) and I sat down to discuss fromage. What would we put on our cheese plate?

We came up with a few things to keep in mind when planning a cheese course–

1) Keep the number of cheeses between 3-5.

2) Select cheeses that vary in texture, intensity, and flavor. You may also want to include cheeses made from goat, cow, or sheep’s milk.

3) Make a eye-catching, pleasing platter–use leaves, herbs, etc. to decorate it

4) Serve the cheese with complimentary sides–fresh/dried fruit, fresh nuts, chutneys/preserves, pickles, crusty bread and crackers, etc.

5) Think about your guests–what kinds of cheeses do you think they will like? Are they adventurous foodies, or novices? (Surely you wouldn’t want to buy all that cheese and have it sit uneaten on the cheese board.)

6) Choose a theme–maybe you want cheese from one particular region or country, maybe you would like a classic sampling, or perhaps you want to highlight cheeses only made from goat’s milk.

We’d want a cheddar, a blue cheese, a softer mild cheese, a hard strong cheese, and maybe something smoked–like Gouda. (That’s just us–you’d have to come up with what you like.)

You can go with the saying “Something old, something new, something goat, something blue.”

A good, simple plate might include:

Sharp Cheddar (Vermont or English)
Chevre (mild goat cheese)
Roquefort (or another blue–Stilton is good, but strong)
Brie or Camembert
Ricotta Salata (or maybe Manchego)

Good accompaniments include:

  • Dried fruit–figs, apricots, raisins
  • Nuts–toasted, fresh (in the shell) or candied walnuts, almonds, pecans, hazelnuts
  • Fresh fruit–apples, pears, grapes, figs, or berries (stay away from citrus–it’s too acidic)
  • Homemade or gourmet store bought condiments–preserves, membrillo (quince paste), cranberry chutney, wildflower honey, etc.

My husband’s advice is to pair crisp fruit like apples and pears with blue cheeses and cheddar, pickles also pair well with cheddar (he likes Branston pickle); fresh figs, raw honey, nuts and dried fruit go well with softer, mild cheeses (like Brie); fruit pastes (like membrillo) and preserves go well with salty cheeses.

(image via dean and deluca)

If you choose to add a cheese like Manchego, serve it with salami, though it is traditionally eaten with membrillo.

Make sure to have enough bread and crackers (biscuits). The Joy of Cooking states that it is also customary to have softened butter on hand. (We like that idea!) We suggest buying a high-end, cultured butter from Europe or the Vermont Butter and Cheese Company.

The books I have read on this subject suggest serving a cheese course with a plain, crusty bread to allow the flavor of the cheese to shine through. A few said to think about serving a walnut or raisin bread, as is done in France, because it is complimentary to cheese.

We like plain, water crackers the best. However, a selection of crackers will suit the tastes of any crowd.

I own a great book called The Cheeselover’s Cookbook and Guide by Paula Lambert. (This is a must-have book for all cheeselovers–beginning or advanced.)

Ms. Lambert offers some suggestions on how to enjoy the cheeses.

  • Eat the cheeses in order of strength–mild to robust to very strong
  • Eat slowly–savor it, allow it to melt in your mouth
  • Soft, semi-soft and blue cheeses are best savored by pressing them to the roof of your mouth. Harder and sharper cheeses are best tasted at the tip of the tongue.
  • Eat the cheeses with wine or a piece of fruit to accentuate the flavor of the cheese.

When it comes to wine….I don’t drink wine, so we’ll have to look to other sources for that.

Other helpful advice–

  • Plan on buying two to three ounces per person as an hors d’ ouvere; four to six ounces per person as a light meal
  • Try to buy the cheese on the same day as your party, if possible.
  • Serve the cheeses at room temperature (70 degrees F.); cover the cheese with a damp cloth to keep them from drying out.
  • When arranging the cheeses on a platter, leave enough room between them so they can breathe.
  • Be sure to have separate knife for each cheese.

Readers, do you have any other advice to share?

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  1. Maybe add mascarpone and lady fingers? It’s so mild and sweet that it’s more like whipped cream than cheese.

    Most people haven’t really tried cheese like that…

    Just a thought.

  2. WOW!!! This is this so helpful. Thank you for answering my questions so thoroughly. I really appreciate you specific ideas/examples. Hopefully my guests will enjoy my first cheese plate ever…thanks to you! I’m off to Murray’s Cheese Shop!

  3. The ever wonderful TJs is such a great place to pick up things for experimenting. I happen to have an allergy to cow’s milk, so my cheese courses are goat’s & sheep’s cheeses. I have yet to find a cheese that isn’t beautifully highlighted by the tart Montmorency dried cherries that Trader Joe’s stocks.

  4. I love this! Thankfully we have a Wegmans near our house where we can taste TONS of cheese and they help with pairings, everything from fruit to crackers to non-alcoholic beverages to serve at the tasting! Thanks for all this info though, makes me think I need a cheese tasting soon!

  5. This may shock you but I understood most of what you were talking about. I may be from Davis County, UT but I have a bit of culture in me. Mostly from you and Fred I’d have to say. Anyhow, I make a cheese and cracker plate almost every day at work to serve to clients awaiting their service. We do almost everything right! Save the breathing room and wide variety of cheeses but we serve with fruit, nuts, and mild crackers. Everyone thought I was nuts when I chose water crackers at the store. They said they were nasty and tasteless. Little do they know eh?

  6. Excellent Tutorial in the cheese course. I often have to do one for the dinners up at the big house I work at. I often add a ripe fig or two to the tray, sliced and opened like a flower. Not only very pretty, but they also go very well with cheese!

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