Last Friday, we talked about choosing different kinds of cheeses to serve at your next gathering. Today we are going to talk about how to serve cheese. A cheese platter of one or several cheeses with fruit, crackers and other accompaniments can be the perfect pairing for wine and beer and sets the tone for a relaxed evening with great flavors and great friends. If you have put the time and money into selecting special cheeses to delight your guests, you do want to serve them properly so they can be enjoyed at their height of flavor.
- First and foremost, you need to bring the cheese to room temperature. We live in an age of refrigeration frenzy–we think we need to keep everything in the cool of the refrigerator at all times. But of course, this is not always the case. In order to allow the full fragrance and flavor of a cheese to emerge, it needs to be served at room temperature. For hard cheeses, which take longer than soft ones, this probably means taking them out of the refrigerator at least an hour before serving. You will want to leave them wrapped at this time so the exposed surfaces don’t dry out. Don’t pre-cut the cheese for the same reason.
- Throw away the wrapping the cheese came in. You should not try to use the original wrapping again–it will not reseal properly. When it is time to put your leftover cheeses away, you should use waxed paper and put the wrapped cheese in a loose-fitting food bag which will preserve the humidity and air-circulation so the cheese doesn’t dry out. Do not store cheese with other strong-smelling foods. As a cheese breathes, it might absorb those aromas and may spoil. Do not store more than one type of cheese with another–strong-smelling cheeses and blue cheeses can taint the milder cheeses. Lastly, and most importantly, please do not freeze your cheese, because that will ruin the smell, texture and flavor.
- Locate a separate knife for each cheese. If you cut all the cheeses with the same knife, the flavors mingle, and they’ll end up all tasting the same. Separate knives for each of the cheeses also make it easier for your guests to cut different cheeses at the same time. Soft cheeses spread well with a butter knife, while hard cheeses might need a paring knife. Aged cheeses could be cut with a cheese plane, although a good, all-purpose chef’s knife should work well.
- You have many options available when you decide how to present your cheeses for a party:
You can use any flat china or glass plate or platter. You might want to use a straw mat or wicker tray for your cheeses which can lend a casual look and allows the cheeses to breathe. You can use a pretty cloth napkin under the cheeses to protect your tray or mat.
Cheeses can also be presented on slate, stone or marble tiles or slabs. They look special and help keep the cheese cool. Wooden cheese boards are traditional choices and come in all sorts of shapes and sizes.
Cutting boards of wood, tempered glass or plastic will also work well.
Since you don’t want to crowd your cheeses, you may want to have several medium-sized boards, plates or platters or a combination for your party.
To add pizzazz to the presentation, you might want to use grape, fig or lemon leaves (available from a florist) under the cheeses. If you have a garden, any large flat leaf like hydrangea looks beautiful, but be certain the leaves aren’t poisonous, are pesticide-free and have been washed off first. Party supply stores also carry paper leaves for cheese platters. White paper doilies, while nice under dry cookies and sweets, can get grease spots from the cheese and may not look good over the course of the party. Sprigs of rosemary also make good decorations on a platter.
- Your cheese platter should have an odd number of cheeses–three, five or seven. This design tip applies to food items as well as decorative ones. Odd numbers of items are visually pleasing in their balance. But you can certainly serve an even number of cheeses if you wish.
- Give your cheeses room on the platter. Putting too many cheeses on one platter or cheese board makes them difficult to cut. Be sure your guests have easy access to the cheese platters on your table. Arrange your cheeses from the mildest to the strongest and suggest that your guests sample them in that order. If you want to serve a strong aromatic cheese, place it on a separate plate so it doesn’t overpower more delicate ones. four or five choices are enough.
- Label each cheese so you don’t need to recite the names all evening to your guests. If you like, you could jot down a few adjectives describing the flavors on the labels. If you don’t feel creative, copy what’s on the cheese wrapping, what the cheesemonger put on the label at your local cheese counter, or check online for descriptions. You can use purchased cheese markers, or make your own from index cards held up by binder clips or taped to toothpicks. You can also make a tent-card that will stand up by folding your index card in half.
Recognize that many of these suggestions are made for gourmet cheese lovers who want to be able to enjoy the special nuances of the various cheeses and for hostesses who have purchased expensive cheeses that they want to be able to serve again. But the serving and storage suggestions make good sense and can apply to all types of cheeses.
Next week, we are going to talk more about how to cut different cheeses in the appropriate shapes for your platter and about all the possible accompaniments you can add to your cheese platters for an outstanding-looking presentation. Until then, smile and say, “Cheese!”