Prepare and have ready:
1/2 recipe Basic All-Butter Crust...
After our Building A Better Pantry series on dairy products, I thought it fitting to expound upon the cheese plate. Even if you don't care to make cheese of your own, I'm sure most of you still enjoy eating it, and, let's face it, cheese made by passionate professionals is just hard to beat.
More than anything, I hope the blogs I've written about cheese making have given you an idea of why good cheese is so expensive. In addition to the raw ingredient--good milk--cheese makers must purchase the necessary equipment (pasteurizers, cheese vats, refrigerated bulk tanks, cheese molds, presses, cheese storage facilities...), and then they spend a lot of time to create and refine what we will eventually buy at the store.
Cheese is so common that I fear it is taken for granted. The process, however, is long and arduous and fraught with difficulties, especially for small cheese makers. There are also many cheese makers who keep their own flocks of animals, if you can imagine that. This adds several more levels of difficulty. In short, I don't think cheese is expensive enough, but I won't get into all that.
As you may have gathered, cheese is an obsession bordering on mania for me.
I didn't grow up in a household where the multitudinous varieties of cheese were highly prized--there were slices of waxy provolone, wedges of extra sharp, bright orange cheddar, and the requisite block of Velveeta. Cheese was never given a lead role in our dining room and I had never eaten a cheese more exotic than perhaps a young gouda until I was eighteen.
But when the truth was revealed to me, in the form of a woman selling goat cheese at a farmers' market, I never second-guessed it: cheese and I are meant to be together.
After three and a half years of apprenticing for cheesemakers, of shoveling goat poop, of hauling countless gallons of milk (each one weighing 8.6 pounds if you'd like to know) from bulk tank to pasteurizer, of digging cheese gunk out of floor drains, and of washing innumerable cheese molds, I can't say why I still love cheese as much as I do. It's just ineffable.
It's the sort of obsession that has no rules. It means licking the last gooey puddle from an Époisses box, even when other people are watching. It means special ordering cheeses I can't afford. It means always stopping by the cheese counter, if only to smell.
It also means that no occasion, no dinner party is complete without a cheese plate. And orchestrating a cheese plate is very simple, really. Intuitive, even. The Joy of Cooking elaborates on the cheese plate in both the Appetizers and Hors d'Oeuvres and Desserts chapters, and for good reason. Cheese is an effortless way to entertain, and it's hard to beat where flavor and sophistication are concerned.
Some ground rules. Have at least three and no more than five kinds of cheese on the cheese plate. Serve 2 to 3 ounces of cheese per person (But have a little extra on hand just in case...you decide you need a cheese chaser the day after the party).
When choosing cheese, you want enough variety to keep everyone's palate on its toes (or, rather, taste buds). Choose cheeses with different flavors, textures, and aromas. You may want to have a theme--Italian cheeses or American farmstead cheeses--or you may want to eschew any semblance of a theme and just choose based on what looks best at the cheese counter. I prefer the latter approach. The fact is, those of us with fewer cheese resources might not be able to find a good sheep's milk cheese or blue cheese, for instance. Don't buy something substandard just because you absolutely have to find a certain type of cheese.
Don't forget to check out your local farmer's market--there are some incredible domestic cheeses these days, and you can take the opportunity to talk to the cheesemaker and learn more about what you're buying firsthand. Just as wine has terroir (a different flavor profile based on where it was produced, where the grapes were cultivated, etc.), so does cheese. An American cheesemaker in California may make a cheese very similar to one made in North Carolina, but the cheeses will be different due to any number of factors including, but not limited to, the diet of the ruminants in question, the breed of the animal, the stage of lactation, the time of year the cheese was produced, the methods of the cheesemaker, and the aging conditions. Wow your guests by finding out some specifics.
When choosing cheeses, consider your crowd first and foremost. If you'll be having tame eaters over, don't scare them off with something that you can smell from the next county (although it's important to remember that, usually, stinky cheeses should not taste terribly strong.). While you may prefer your cheeses coulant (runny) and fragrant, many guests with tamer palates will appreciate milder, less audacious cheeses. The bottom line is that while cheeses technically have a "perfect point of ripeness", that particular perfection may not appeal to everyone. Also keep in mind that pregnant women are often advised to stay away from soft and raw milk cheeses, and so many do. You want your guests to feel comfortable with the cheese plate, not repelled by it.
When purchasing cheese, do not be afraid to pick it up, touch it, or smell it. To judge a ripe bloomy cheese, you'll want to squeeze it gently to see how ripe it is. The cheese should give slightly, not unlike a very ripe tomato or mango. If it is very hard, move on.
Washed rind and blue cheeses should be judged differently. You'll often be able to smell these cheeses through the wrapping. They should smell pungent, but not like ammonia. Washed rind cheeses should be rather soft, and any cut edges should not be discolored. As for blues, look for even penetration of blue mold, and be sure that cut pieces are not discolored or dried out. I find that, at least in our area, blues are not as popular as other cheeses, and so tend to sit at the cheese counter longer.
Unless you have a stellar cheesemonger in your area, many of the cheeses that are cut and wrapped may already be past their prime. As soon as a cheese is cut, its quality begins to deteriorate. If possible, find a cheesemonger that will cut pieces of cheese for you to sample. Also see if she will cut wedges of cheese to order. It can be difficult to tell how long a pre-cut and wrapped piece of cheese has been sitting in the case.
The best advice I can give is to find a good cheesemonger. She should be able to tell you how long the cheeses in question have been aged, what their flavor profiles are, what to serve them with, and generally any questions you can conjure. A professional is not hard to spot once you start asking questions.
When you get the cheeses home, store them responsibly. It is best to buy pieces of cheese that are small enough to be consumed in a short period of time (1 week). For parties, buy the cheese as close to the date of the party as possible. In general, cheese does not like being wrapped in plastic for long periods of time. Cheese is a living food and needs to breathe!
You can splurge on cheese wrap, a plastic film that breathes, allowing you to keep cheeses fresher longer. But, for short periods of time, plastic wrap, foil, or wax paper will work. I like to take a multi-pronged approach when I don't have cheese wrap on hand. I wrap cheeses snugly in wax paper, then in foil. Plastic wrap has the audacity to prevent the cheese from breathing, and so I avoid it if possible.
Serve cheese at room temperature. Period. Take the cheese out of the refrigerator about an hour before serving. In very hot weather, this may only take 30 minutes. Unwrap the cheese just before serving to prevent the cut surfaces of the cheese from drying out.
Give each cheese enough room on the platter. Choose a very large plate or cutting board, and place the cheeses as far apart as you can. Unlike guests, you do not want the cheeses to mingle (unless making fromage fort--more on that later).
Give each cheese its own knife. Gooey Époisses should not be smeared all over a lovely aged Gouda. That's just not how we behave at parties.
What you serve with the cheese is just as important as the cheeses themselves. If you serve a big, bold red wine with good cheese, that wine is going to storm your palate like a herd of migrating wildebeest, and any cheese you taste will taste like that wine.
In general, dry or mildly sweet white wines are the way to go. The acidity of the wine should play nicely with both mild, creamy cheeses and robust, aged ones. Of course, some cheeses benefit from sweeter dessert wines (port with Stilton, for instance), but I recommend a decent dry, white wine for the average cheese plate. Great cheese can elevate a mediocre wine, but average cheese can debase a great wine. Bottom line: splurge on cheese, find a decent wine.
Accompaniments: a high-quality loaf of bread. Whole grain is even better. Simple but high-quality crackers are also good to have on hand. Some of your guests may wish to sample the cheeses without bread, in which case be sure to have some small forks (or toothpicks) on hand.
Fruit is classic, but unless you can find perfectly ripe, in-season fruit that gets on its knees and begs you to eat it, try dried fruit to the tune of figs, dates, cherries, and apricots. Apples, plums, grapes, and fresh fennel are good choices for a fresh component to the cheese plate--they aren't too messy and they provide a nice contrast to the salty, pungent cheese.
Nuts are also lovely. I prefer Marcona almonds, black walnuts and hazelnuts.
Finally, olives. A personal favorite is the heavenly Castelvetrano. However, almost any olive (Short of the--gasp!--canned variety) will shine.
Honey, quince paste (Usually found in the cheese department), and bitter chocolate are other considerations. A sweet contrast to the salty cheese plate is in order.
Don't forget, as the Joy of Cooking recommends, that cheese makes an excellent dessert even though most Americans think of cheese as more of an appetizer. During my time in France, my host mother would often serve different cheeses, at their peak ripeness, after dinner en lieu of dessert. It was a pleasant break from the usual.
Finally, enjoy the cheeses. Really great cheese is not just for eating. It's for savoring.