Here's the scenario: You're invited to a dinner party. Because you know a thing or two about being a good dinner party guest, you ask your host if you can possibly bring anything in order to lighten their load. You're hoping to be assigned dinner rolls or, even better, to be told to "just bring yourself."
Here's what the host says: "An appetizer would be great!" And you heartily agree. It would be great -- if only you had any idea what to bring. The only thing you know is what not to be: the person who shows up bearing a plastic tub of "cheese food" and a sleeve of Ritz crackers.
There is a solution. For not a lot of money, you can look like you're "to the manor born" just by showing the teensiest bit of know-how around a cheese plate.
Why does cheese freak us out? Because when we think of cheese we often first think of French cheese, which we equate with being expensive and complicated. We also think of Wisconsin cheese, which we associate with being tasty but ordinary. Once a plate gets involved, it inevitably becomes a question of whether or not it's okay to mix France and Wisconsin. Plus, there's the question of how much cheese to buy. This is not a question of how much cheese you can eat while working your way through a Bota Box and your Netflix queue. This is a question of how much cheese one eats in polite society.
If these are some of your questions, you might need a friendly, down-to-earth cheese guru like Bridget Haugh, who works in the cheese shop at Lake Wine & Spirits on Lake Street in Minneapolis. She'll make it all seem so easy, you'll wonder what the hell you're doing standing around hemming and hawing when you could be choosing a triple-crème brie and getting on with life because, really, half a pound of cheese is all that stands between you and appetizer greatness.
Just follow these simple steps:
1. Figure out how much cheese you need. Get a rough number of the people you need to feed and follow the guideline of 1.5 ounces per person. "The number-one thing about cheese trays that confuses people is how much cheese to buy," Bridget says. "And for appetizers it's 1.5 ounces per person. Six people means just six to nine ounces of cheese. That's not a lot."
2. Find a large plate, medium tray, or a cutting board. Fancy, rustic, retro -- whatever you're feeling, the flat surface of your choosing will do the trick.
3. Select your cheese. There is no "wrong" combination and three types of cheese are plenty. "People walk in here and see all the cheese and think, 'What am I going to do?'" Bridget says. "But there's really no way to go wrong if it's stuff you like." Don't be afraid to ask for recommendations and samples.
She suggests thinking about texture, making sure you have a soft, medium, and harder cheese for variety. But you could also go all Italian, all French, all soft cheeses. You're limited only by your imagination and dedication to a theme. For the cheese plate Bridget put together, she used Cottonwood River cheddar (an English cheddar she chose because it's not too expensive but very good), a triple-crème brie (that means at least 75 percent butterfat and 100 percent delicious) and Huntsman, an English cheese that combines Double Glouchester (mellow and tangy) with Stilton Blue (a strong and creamy blue cheese).
4. Arrange your cheeses. "I often break up the hard cheese, like the cheddar, because it's easier for guests," Bridget says. "Put the hunk of cheese on the plate and then take a cheese knife and break it into natural-looking curds. When you serve it put out some toothpicks as well." The important thing to remember is that you don't have to slice the cheese into perfect slices. Other cheeses can be left whole with a spoon or knife placed beside them.
If Bridget does have one cheese rule, it's to eat the rind when having brie. "Too many people throw the rind away, but it's just cheese that's been exposed to air and formed a skin," she says. "It looks like a wax or a mold but it's cheese, so eat it. Don't waste good cheese!"
5. Add some fresh fruit. Grapes are easy and can go right in the center, but sliced pears and apple are tasty as well. Yes, you should slice the fruit. Put a reasonable amount on the plate but don't think you're responsible for making sure every person gets a slice of apple. The cheese is the main event.
6. Add some dried fruits and/or nuts. For dried fruit, think cherries, dates, or apricots. For nuts, Bridget recommends Marcona almonds from Spain but even almonds from the good ol' U.S.A. will pass muster.
7. Add a sprig of something green. Purely decorative, a few fronds of dill, basil leaves, or even a grape leaf or two will elevate the cheese plate.
8. Bring on the sugar. Honey or preserves can be put in a little bowl off to the side with a spoon or drizzled on the side of the plate for dipping if you're feeling fancy. The sweetness serves as a nice contrast to the salty, earthy, tangy, and nutty flavors of the cheese.
Voila! Put some wrap or foil over that masterpiece and ring the doorbell with pride. In closing, a few final thoughts for your future cheese-plating endeavors:
- Next time you're having a cozy dinner for two, start with a single-cheese plate. The one pictured at the top of the page features Ibérico, a mild Spanish cheese made from a blend of cow's, goat's, and sheep's milk, some grape leaves to dress it up, slices of Bosc pear, and a drizzle of honey on the side.
- It's a nice gesture to bring some crackers (sleeve of Ritz, anyone?) or bread to serve alongside your cheese plate at a party.
- Want something really easy? Try one kind of cheese, some top-quality olive oil for drizzling, and fresh bread.
- Hungry for a just a little bit of cheese to try at home? Some cheese shops, including Lake Wine & Spirits, wrap and sell remainders of blocks, allowing you to buy small rectangles of cheese for as little as $1-$3.
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