If you’re hosting any get-together between now and 2019, you probably have a to-do list, and that to-do list is probably long: Plan the menu. Grocery shop. Make the latkes. Bake the chocolate cake. Find those cloth napkins in the attic. Ooh, and the tablecloth too. Buy holiday gifts. Buy flowers. Buy candles. Tell someone to clean his room...
What’s one reliable thing to take off your plate? A cheese plate. This we-have-it-at-every-event appetizer is a Food52 favorite because it basically makes itself. Oh, and everyone loves cheese. That helps.
So the cheese plate idea is a definite no-brainer, but what about the actual cheeses? Which ones do you get? Does the type of milk matter? What about firmness? And how many? And what do I serve with them? All of this can be intimidating if you’re more familiar with eating cheese than studying it (read: almost all of us).
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Which is why on this week’s Dear Test Kitchen—our Hotline-inspired video series—Food52’s test kitchen director Josh Cohen called in an extra-special guest: his wife, Elena Santogade, who also happens to be a certified cheese expert. (Lucky us! Lucky him!)
Elena answered all our questions and then some—and I am now ready to build the best cheese board of my life (yep, my life!) this holiday season. Just follow her pro tips and you will be, too.
Pick 3–4 cheeses, based on texture and milk type.
You don’t need to buy 84 cheeses to impress your guests. Just diversify each type so every person can find one (or more!) they love. Elena’s picks:
Soft, goat’s milk
Semi-firm, cow’s milk, washed rind
Firm, sheep’s milk, aged
Maybe you’re thinking, But I don’t like goat cheese! Or, I hate blue cheese! That’s cool. Just swap out Cheese #1 for a creamy, also-soft Brie. And drop Cheese #4 altogether. So long as you avoid repetition, you’re golden.
“Think about accompaniments as little bites that people can enjoy between tasting the cheeses.” In other words: palate cleansers. Maybe it’s something sweet after eating a salty, funky cheese. Or, texturally, a crunchy nibble after eating a buttery, creamy cheese. Here’s Elena’s lineup:
Another plus of these: They’re pretty. Cheese’s color scheme can be pretty monotonous. Bonus ingredients are an opportunity for a pop of orange or red. Of course, they’re also an opportunity to have fun. Cashews can be substituted with any other nut, even a roasted mix. Dried apricots could be replaced with prunes, figs, or mango. Instead of tomato relish, try any other preserves—from pepper jelly to apple butter. You get the idea.
Take out the cheese at the right time.
What’s the wrong time? A few minutes before your guests come over. As Elena puts it, “The cheese needs to relax.” In other words: come to room temperature, so all its flavors come through. Exactly how long the cheese needs to sit out will depend on how chilly or warm the room is. Figure at least 30 minutes.
Well, don’t let them cut all the cheese themselves. Elena recommends pre-cutting at least half the cheese, so guests have an example of how each one should be sliced. This way, you avoid a certain someone who scoops out all the creamy center of the Brie and leaves a sad shell behind.
For a super-soft cheese, put out a spreader so guests can, well, spread the cheese on crackers.
For a semi-soft variety, you want each person to get “an equal part of the rind and the cheese paste.” (Cheese paste is cheese speak for the interior.) So, for a square cheese, halve it on the diagonal, then cut that triangle into baby triangles. For a round one, cut it in half, then cut wedges radiating out from the center. (If a wedge is too big, just halve it.)
For a firm variety, you probably have a wedge. Lay it on its side, cut off the left or right rind, then slice triangles.
For a big hunk of blue, “chunk it out,” as Elena says. This is as simple as nudging the cheese with the tip of your knife and breaking the cheese into bite-sized nuggets. If the cheese is too soft or messy to pick up by hand, put out some toothpicks.
What are your go-to picks and tricks for a cheese plate? Tell us in the comments!
Food52's Automagic Holiday Menu Maker
Food52's Automagic Holiday Menu Maker
Choose your holiday adventure! Our Automagic Menu Maker is here to help.
Emma is a writer and recipe developer at Food52. Before this, she worked a lot of odd jobs, all at the same time. Think: stir-frying noodles "on the fly," baking dozens of pastries at 3 a.m., reviewing restaurants, and writing articles about everything from how to use leftover mashed potatoes to the history of pies in North Carolina. Now she lives in Maplewood, New Jersey with her husband and their cat, Butter. Stay tuned every Tuesday for Emma's cooking column, Big Little Recipes, all about big flavor and little ingredient lists. And see what she's up to on Instagram and Twitter at @emmalaperruque.