Monday, January 21, 2013

How to Prepare a Cheese Tray

Architect asked me to bring a cheese tray for our New Year’s Eve celebration so I thought I would share some of the ideas I gathered while assembling this variety of milk-based flavors, textures and forms.

First, if you don’t have a cheesemonger to consult (because we all have a cheesemonger), go to your local whole foods store, sample a variety of cheeses and ask some questions.  Chose some that are sure to be crowd favorites, like cheddar or Swiss, but make sure you include selections from a few different categories.  The taste of the cheese is affected by several things.  Most cheeses are made from the milk of three animals – cows, sheep and goats.  The milk from these animals vary based on the breed and that contributes to the taste and texture of the cheese…smooth, mild, sweet, rich or hearty.  
Where and when the animals graze and what they eat influences the taste, aroma, color, and texture and fat content of the milk they produce and, naturally, the resulting cheese product.  A cheese produced from the milk of cows, sheep or goats that graze on mountainside pastures in Europe will taste quite differently – and some believe more superior – than animals that nibble on commercially prepared feed.   Also, the milk of animals eating springtime chutes -- like the photo of these cows  I took while in Ireland last March --  will be subtlety different than the milk of animals grazing on the abundant summer fodder or feed stored to sustain the long winter. 

Okay, now that you know what affects the taste, texture and quality of cheese, think about the categories of cheese you’d like to serve and pick one or two from each category. 

Blue Cheeses such as French Roquefort, English Stilton or Italian Gorgonzola. 

Hard Cheeses such as Pecorino, Swiss or Gruyere.

Aged Cheeses such as Cheddar, Romano, Gouda or Muenster.

Soft Cheeses such as Camembert, Humbolt Fog, Mascarpone or Brie.

It might be fun to choose a theme for your tray like all cow’s milk cheeses or different types of cheeses from the same country.  For my tray, I mixed it up and chose an Irish Cheddar, Amish Blue, French Brie and Camembert, a creamy spreadable Goat, a Gruyere, and an Italian Truffle.   Whatever you choose, choose an odd number of cheeses and plan for about 1 ounce of each type of cheese per person.

Crackers are not the only thing that pair nicely with cheese and you will want to give some thought to what to serve to complement your cheese platter.  Flavored crackers work well for spreadable cheeses, but so do pear and apple slices and honey. 

Hearty cheeses can handle robust mustards or other spicy-savory spreads such as fig jam, chutneys, balsamic vinegar jelly, or horseradish. Flavored nuts are fabulous served along side of Blue cheeses.  Olives are lovely and grapes are a safe bet for any type of cheese.  How about artichoke hearts, roasted red peppers, hummus or caramelized onions! Also, cured meats like prosciutto, salami or praline/maple bacon pieces are always a hit.

Presentation is also important.  Arrange the cheeses from strongest to mildest on a lovely cheese board.  I lined a fun, filigree serving tray with cheese paper and made labels for each cheese.   I chose seven cheeses but could only fit six on my tray!

Also, chalk-board cheese trays are not only interesting but handy because you can write the names of the cheeses directly on the tray! Humbolt Fog is one of my favorite soft cheeses. 

I mentioned cheese paper.  A cheesemonger will wrap cheese in a special paper that helps cheese stay fresher longer because it’s made from material that allows cheese to breathe while maintaining optimal humidity.  I found a brand at Giant.

Pick a drink to serve with your cheeses…wine is always nice, but sparkling water or cider will work nicely.  Choose a light wine for soft cheeses – maybe a Pinot Grigio – and a more robust wine for heartier cheeses – perhaps a nice Cabernet or Malbac. 

Last but certainly not least, relax and enjoy!


Merey B said...

Nice! It reminds me of the care you took with the food when you hosted Stitch!

KnitOne, PearlOnion said...

I miss those days, Merey.