Sunday, December 12, 2010

Assembling a Fancy Cheese Plate on a Budget

My first job was in a fancy cheese store. I spent hours thinking about how to create the ultimate cheese plate.  Cheese plates can get pretty expensive, but they don't have to cost a lot of money to be impressive. The cheeses don't have to come from a fancy cheese store to be good. A cheese plate doesn't have to be fussy and confusing to be good. I'd argue that a simple and accessible one, where anything  goes is better.

This is a really word heavy post, so here's the gist if you don't want to read the whole thing.

  • Buy your cheeses at the nearest supermarket that has a good cheese selection. See if they give samples and check the sale bin for good deals.
  • A 3 cheese plate is a good place to start (and where I usually stay). Distribute the cheeses among the types of milk (cow, goat, and sheep) and among textures (soft but not runny, semi soft, and firm but not hard and crumbly) 
  • Get blue cheese or strong fresh goat cheese if you know your guests like it
  • Usually about 1/2 a pound to 1/3 of a pound per person is enough, but the amount is often dictated by the pieces available. It depends on how much other food will be available and how soon dinner will be, if dinner will be served. An after dinner cheese try can be wonderful too.
  • Wine is a classic pairing, but don't stress too much about specific wine and cheese pairings. If you like it, eat it.
  • Sliced baguette or crackers are almost necessary. I think bread goes farther for the money, but crackers can be less filling. 
  • Choose some of the following: grapes, dried fruit (like apricots or cranberries), nuts (like roasted almonds or walnuts), honey (especially with blue cheese), and olives (not canned ones).
  • Serve the cheeses totally unwrapped with a sign to indicate what type is which. Serve with butter knives, unless there's a cheese knife selection in the back of a drawer somewhere. Take the cheeses out of the fridge half an hour before they will be served.
  • Remove inedible rinds or at least remove part of the rind to allow guests access to the cheese. 
  • To store the cheese (if there's any left) wrap it tightly in plastic wrap, or put each into their own zip top baggie and squeeze out the air. 

Where to get cheeses?
Most supermarkets have a good selection near the deli. Fancy cheese stores are sometimes hard to come by and expensive, but most will give samples and suggestions which is helpful. Supermarket selections work just fine for me. Look for a sale bin. This is a great source for wonderful cheeses at wonderful prices. They might be expiring soon, so check for that, but even then they're probably fine (but don't quote me on that). Many cheese stores also have a selection of smaller pieces of cheese. These are usually thrown in a bin together. This can be a great way to try a selection of cheeses with one or two people or to have a mini cheese tasting to see what you like if the store doesn't allow sampling.

How many cheeses should you buy? 
I usually suggest a 3 cheese plate. This way there can be a good variety of tastes and textures without having an overwhelming selection. One or two cheeses can work too depending on the goal. If there are going to be a ton of other appetizers or it's a really small group, one or two cheeses might be all that you need. A five cheese plate can work, but I think it's overkill. Getting three or fewer cheeses can also keep the cost down, especially when it's not cut to order and there isn't much variation in the sizes of the pieces. 

How much cheese do you need? 
It depends on how many people the plate will be serving and when it'll be served. I suggest a quarter pound to a third of a pound per person. If there'll be a lot of other things to eat, you don't need as much cheese. 

What types? 
I like to buy a variety of textures and a variety of tastes. It's also fun to buy cheeses from all over the world, or to really explore one region, buy all Spanish cheeses or all Italian. For a standard cheese tray, I'd buy a soft cheese, a semi soft cheese, and a semi firm cheese. I'd avoid anything super ripe (runny and pungent) and anything too hard (difficult to cut with a butter knife). Know your audience. If you have adventurous eaters, get a blue, a goat cheese, or a stinky rinded one or even a really strong aged cheese. I'll break them into two categories, soft and firm, but try to get 3 that feel different. Either get two on the softer side and one semi firm, or two firmer cheeses and one soft one. Hard cheeses are really wonderful, but I would avoid them on a cheese plate because they are hard to cut and don't stick on crackers very well, but again go with your own tastes. I hope this post inspires enough confidence to throw everything I've written out the window and do what feels right. 
The soft cheese, choose one or two: 
Brie is always a classic. People like it and it's hard to go wrong with brie.
A soft goat cheese. Another classic. People know it and it's a fun alternative to a brie. Some come with herbs or other flavors. 
A camembert or a stinky rind cheese. These can be pungent and sometimes a little intimidating, especially when ripe, but the cheese is usually really complex and wonderful. Look for camembert, epoisses, and taleggio. 
A blue cheese can be a good choice. I love the complex flavors, but they're not for everybody. 
The firm cheese, choose two or one:
Some aged goats milk cheeses are a good choice. A firmer goat cheese tends to have less of the flavor that some people object to in softer goat cheese. A firmer cheese can be a good way to introduce a goat cheese if you're not sure of your audience. The drunken goat (this cheese sometimes goes by a different name) is a good choice. It's been soaked in wine and has a distinct purple rind. The wine gives it a great flavor and makes it a really fun party wine. 
Soft cows milk cheeses can be wonderful. Morbier is a good choice. It has a layer of ash in the middle to separate the layers of cheese. The ash is flavorless, but it makes it look cool. One layer is milk from a morning milking and the other is from an evening milking. They're supposed to taste different, but I can't tell. 
Sheep's milk cheese is really wonderful. I suggest including one on the cheese plate. The flavor is different than cow or goat's milk.
Cheeses to avoid: (again these aren't hard and fast rules, if you like them buy them)
I think it could be a fun challenge to make a cheese plate out of only things you've never tasted or buy the cheeses with the craziest names. I like to get types of cheeses that don't also come shredded in bags in the other part of the supermarket. I tend to avoid cheddar (although there are some really wonderful aged ones out there), swiss (although I'll never pass up a cave aged Gruyere), and mozzarella (although fresh burrata is heavenly if you can get it). I can't say it enough though, there aren't any rules.
If you're serving wine primarily, I'd avoid beer soaked cheeses.

What to serve with your cheese
You don't need all of these things with your cheese selection. Something to put the cheese on for eating is nice and sometimes fruit, nuts or honey make a nice pairing, but they aren't necessary. Sometimes too many options can be overwhelming. Wine isn't necessary. There are many cheeses that pair well with beer too and I'd dare say all of them go well without alcohol if that's not your taste.
There are books and websites devoted to wine and cheese pairing. People who make their livings by telling people what wines to drink with what cheeses. My rule is this: if you like it, eat it. Generally, milder cheeses are served with white wine and more robust cheeses with red wine. A blue cheese or a super aged cheese may be too peppery for a white wine. A nice brie may be totally overwhelmed by a red wine. If only red or only white wine will be served with the cheese course, then plan accordingly, but if guests can pour their own wine and choose their own cheeses, then let them eat what they like. If the cheeses are a focus of the dinner or party, it could be fun to look up a wine and the cheeses that pair with it. Then the combination of tastes could be discussed and compared. If the cheeses will be sitting out with other appetizers and not the focus of discussion, I wouldn't worry about it.
Bread or crackers? This is again a matter of taste. I suggest a mild cracker, but not a flavorless one, that will go with many cheeses. I think bread goes farther for the same amount of money, but it is also filling. If the cheese is supposed to tide guests over until a late dinner, I'd serve bread. Put a good amount of crackers or bread slices out, but have more ready and keep an eye out for a depleted supply.
Fruit can be a wonderful addition. Grapes, sliced apple (coated in lemon to keep from browning), and pear are really classic. Grapes require the least prep work and attention. I suggest red seedless grapes. Dried fruit and jams are often displayed near the fancy cheese selection. Fig jam is classic. Often dried apricot cakes are served with the cheese to be sliced and placed on top. These things can be very expensive. I suggest buying some dried apricots, figs, or cranberries and placing them on the cheese plate. I think this will be less expensive and easier to deal with than jam or a dried fruit cake.
I like nuts on a cheese plate. Fruit and honey are very sweet, so it's nice to have a savory option too. Marcona almonds are fabulous, but also pricy. Try them if you can, but you probably won't want to share them with your guests, they're that good. Roasted almonds are a good choice, walnuts can be wonderful, pecans can work in a pinch. I'd go with one of the three roasted and salted. Again, be mindful of guests. If any guests have nut allergies be aware of this. You know your guests better than I do; keep nuts in a separate container or don't use them at all. Avoid candied nuts, they're wonderful, but again the purpose of the nuts is to be savory.
Honey is fabulous with blue cheese, but I think it can be wonderful on anything. Honey comb is traditional but is also expensive, and not everybody knows what to do with it. I suggest plain old honey, you probably have some in your cupboard right now. If you have a nice honey pot, then use that and the special utensil that never gets used. If you don't, then put the honey in a small bowl or jar with a fork or spoon and let guests figure it out. Why not just put the bear out there? That's what I'd do.
Olives are another classic accompaniment. Avoid canned ones, and you should be fine. Be careful of pits. Many don't come pitted, so warn your guests. I wouldn't put the olives on the cheese necessarily, but they can be a nice thing to eat between cheeses.

How to serve the cheese
I think the cheeses should be left in big chunks and be totally unwrapped on a plate or platter (get one that suits the sizes of the cheeses, don't dwarf the cheeses with a huge plate). Get creative with presentation, a wooden cutting board or something can make a fabulous cheese plate.  Let guests take their own slice in the size they want. Special cheese picks are available for labeling cheese, but you'll probably only use them once. A toothpick with a piece of paper glued around it to make a flag works just as well. Write the name of the cheese on it and maybe the country of origin and the animal the milk is from if it fits. If you got some fancy cheese knives as a wedding present, dig them out of the cabinet now. If not, put a butter knife near each cheese and call it a day. If an accoutrement is better suited to one cheese than another (again, there aren't any hard and fast rules) then try to put them near each other. Make sure there are small plates and/or napkins nearby so that people can take the cheeses they want and walk away. The cheeses should be taken out of the refrigerator about half an hour before they will be served so that they can come to room temperature and be at their full flavor. Remove inedible rinds, or at least part of the rind. Wax rinds are inedible. Very hard rinds are inedible. Brie rind is edible. Many labels will say. It's sometimes a matter of taste. Although brie rind is edible, most guests dig into the cheese and leave the rind at a party. When the cheese course is over, wrap any leftovers tightly in plastic wrap individually (but not tight enough to deform the cheeses) or place each one in their own zip top baggie and squeeze out the air.

I hope this inspired you to make your own fancy cheese plate. Remember that anything goes. If you have specific questions or suggestions, email me or put them in the comments. Let me know how your cheese party turns out! 


  1. Thank you! This was very helpful to me as I have to create special cheese trays for 6 consecutive nights!

  2. this is more helpful than any post that I read on the commercial websites. thank you so much!