Isn’t it great that the best appetizer you can serve for the Holidays requires no cooking? I refer to cheese. All you have to do is unwrap it, place it on a tray with a few condiments, give it an hour’s time at room temperature, and voila! You’re done. Holiday tasks should all be so simple.
One of the best parts about serving cheese is the ability to prepare it in advance. Cheese is less perishable as you might think so you can shop early for it, leaving time for other last-minute tasks. With a little help from your local cheese shop, you can purchase what you need quickly and avoid those long holiday lines.
When shopping for cheese, be sure to inform your retailer as to when you will be serving it. This should enable him to help you choose cheeses that will keep for your party. Don’t be afraid to ask for recommendations and explain what cheeses you do know and like. Naming the different families of cheese that you prefer is always helpful.
This formula works very well in determining quantities:
Short event, many other appetizers, early afternoon, 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
In general, the larger the amount of people attending, the smaller the amount of cheese per person you will want to serve. The opposite is also true. If you are having a small group, say four guests, you will most likely want four 6-8 oz. pieces of cheese for a full tray presentation. Whatever has not eaten can be saved for another day.
It is human nature to taste with our eyes, so keep your trays attractive. Try to pick cheeses of different shapes, sizes and colors. Also, choose from different families such as blues, soft-ripening, washed rinds, goudas, goat and sheep, cheddars, etc. You can add fruits such as grapes, pears, dried apricots, figs and dates. Accoutrements like acacia honey, balsamic vinegars, chutneys and jams all add to the enjoyment and visual excitement of your presentation.
If you include nuts, be careful about guests with food allergies. As a precaution, you might want to keep the nuts separate.
Cheese trays can be prepared a day in advance, dried fruits included, as long as the entire tray is wrapped well with cling film (sometimes referred to as Saran wrap) and stored in the refrigerator. Even two days in advance is okay. A runny cheese like Brie, however, should be wrapped tightly around itself. You can place it in position on the tray, but open it at the last moment.
I never advise to pre-cut or cube cheese into small pieces. Pre-cutting will cause the cheese to dry up and lose flavor, so any leftovers are doomed for tossing. Not even an ill-attempted fondue can save this situation. I always recommend presenting whole wedges on your tray.
Crackers should also be kept off the prepared tray. If wrapped with the cheese, they will become soft and soggy. Add crackers at the last minute, just before serving. Place your accoutrements in separate serving dishes with a small spoon for self-service. Not everyone wants a topping on their cheese, and this can create a messy, unappetizing tray in a hurry.
Here are a few more tips that will help make things seamless:
- Serve the cheese at room temperature. An hour is usually good.
- Don’t remove cling film from the tray until you are ready to serve. You want the cheese to be warm, but certainly not dried up.
- Cheese labels are always great. Identifying the names of the cheeses and the type of milk used to produce the cheese is helpful for your guest, especially those who can only tolerate goat or sheep milk, for example. It might also save you from answering many questions during the night. You can find attractive porcelain or slate markers for this use.
- I also advise placing a separate knife next to every cheese on the tray. Anyone caught using the blue cheese knife on the Brie should be cut off from the wine as punishment. Don’t feel sorry for them; that leaves more wine for you.
These make wonderful gifts and are a universal favorite because they don’t go to waste. If the recipient is not fond of cheese, someone in the family or holiday guests is likely to be. When purchasing these types of gifts, try to include a good variety of flavors. I find that a combination of crackers, meats and other accoutrements works well.
An important consideration is the condition of the cheeses. It is always a good idea to discuss your needs with your retailer at the time of purchase so cheeses arrive to their destination at the proper ripeness. Also, try to ship in the beginning of the week for arrival before the weekend. This might avoid your gift sitting near a post office radiator over the weekend, for example.
Ordering in advance is highly recommended. Remember that retail stores get busier the closer you get to a holiday, and fresh-cut cheese gifts take time to prepare and ship. When shipping a gift, I always prefer boxes over baskets as they typically arrive in better condition.
And although baskets look nice, from a cost perspective, I would rather have an additional item, like a wedge of cheese, included than have a basket likely to be thrown out right after the holiday. But that’s my personal preference. You may also want to check the additional cost of shipping a basket over a box. You will usually save on shipping costs.
Other Cheese Thoughts
Did I mention hot apple pie with a little cheddar cheese on it? How about Quiche Lorraine, mac and cheese, cheese puffs, French onion soup with Gruyere melted on top, potatoes au gratin, grilled cheese, fried cheese, cheese soufflé and cheddar cheese soup?
How about Fondue and Raclette? Need I say more? Cheese, indeed, for the holidays.