By Paul Partica, The Cheese Shop Of Centerbrook
Here comes the time of year when entertaining is at its peak. The list is endless: dinner parties, luncheons, holiday parties, small gatherings and so forth. It matters not the occasion; food is always involved, and what could be easier and more satisfying than an array of cheese? It always seems to be the first appetizer to disappear.
Since this is the time of the year for celebrations and entertaining, I thought a few suggestions and guidelines might be in order.
One of the first items to determine is how much cheese to buy. I always start with some basic questions. How many people, what else is being served, what time of day is the event, how long is the event, and will there be alcohol?
Let’s address some of the obvious issues. If there will be plenty of other appetizers, you might need less cheese. If the party is going to be in the late afternoon or just before dinner, everyone will be hungry and more cheese will be consumed. Will it be a one-hour gathering or an all evening affair? And most importantly, will there be wine and other alcoholic beverages being served? This last question can really alter your needs. Events with wine can double your cheese requirement.
My formula works well:
Short event, many other appetizers, early afternoon, not dinner time, no alcohol:
1-1.5 oz. cheese per person
Safe range, some other appetizers, wine will be served, close to dinner:
2-3 oz. cheese per person
Long event, wine, no other appetizers, just before dinner:
3-4 oz. cheese per person
The larger amount of people, the smaller amount of cheese per person you’ll want to serve. The opposite is also true. If you are having a small group, say four guests, you would most likely want four 6-8 oz. pieces of cheese just to make your tray presentation look good. Whatever has not eaten can be saved for another day.
As with all foods, we taste with our eyes first. So it’s important to make the cheese tray look appealing. This is accomplished by including a variety of cheese families, perhaps soft-ripening, washed rind, blue, Gouda, goat – just to name a few. Also, arrange your selection by color and shape and add an assortment of grapes, pears, dried fruit, nuts, olives, etc. Be careful about nuts; there could be someone with an allergy. You may want to arrange nuts in their own separate container if you are not sure. Also consider adding to your cheese selection a nice pairing of accoutrements such as Acacia honey, balsamic vinegar, fig spread, or a wide range of preserves and other toppings.
I usually start with a centerpiece of grapes then place the cheeses neatly around them. Don’t worry about voids; they can be filled in later with figs, dried apricots, pear and so forth. If you want to fill empty spaces with crackers, be sure to put them on the tray just before serving. If you place crackers on early and wrap the tray with plastic wrap, the crackers will absorb moisture from the cheese and become somewhat soggy, undermining the overall taste of the tray.
I also always highly recommend using whole wedges of cheese rather than small, cubed pieces prepared ahead of time. Cubed cheeses tend to dry out quickly due to mass exposure to the air. One plus to using whole wedges is that any leftovers can usually be saved for another day. Cubed leftovers are usually too dried out and not very eye-appealing. You can slice the rind off the two sides of a wedge of cheese and just leave the back rind for a little protection from the air for that possibility of salvage for another day.
All cheese should be served at room temperature. Usually an hour at room temperature is ample unless you’ll be serving outside on a hot summer day. In that case, fifteen minutes would provide enough time to bring the cheese to proper temperature. Try to leave everything wrapped until serving time to avoid any possibility of cheeses drying out. Remember to add crackers at the very last moment to prevent sogginess.
I like the use of condiments but find it a better practice to place them on the tray with the cheese, but not on the cheese. It’s easier to add a condiment to cheese rather than remove it. In addition, the cheese platter will become messy and unappetizing in short order. It’s also a good idea to have a separate knife or spreader for each cheese. Slap the hand of someone using the blue knife on the Brie.
I also like to use labels to name cheeses because most people like to know what they are eating. You may also wish to label the type of milk: goat, sheep, cow and buffalo. This can help those with certain allergies. There are many lactose-free cheeses and certain people would be happy to have that knowledge. You can find nice reusable porcelain or slate cheese markers for this purpose.
Lastly, try to resist the temptation of only serving your favorites.