Dear Cooking Comrades,
Cheese courses are always terrific (it gives you an easy course to put forward with minimal prep).
The Europeans always have cheese as the final course: dessert course, cheese course, then coffee.Americans always want: cheese, then finally dessert with coffee. For my money, how can you eat pie or cake without a cup of JOE??? But when we’re in Paris we do it their way!
Typically, cheese tastings go from the most mild to the strongest, around the plate or cheese board, like the face of a clock. We always serve at least 3 to 4 selections. We try to vary the taste and texture of the selections: Serve a soft creamy type (like a brie, or our homemade mozzarella); a mainstream cheddar (for those that like a familiar favorite); a hard/aged cheese (like a Parmesian Reggiano); and a blue cheese (Stilton, Danish blue, Maytag).
We never serve only strong-flavored cheeses (the ones that are indelicately referred to as “stinky feet cheeses”), but vary the flavor profile for a more satisfying and interesting tasting experience (unless you know your entire crowd LOVES stinky cheeses).
Looking for a variety of color in your selections is also visually more interesting. A Sage Derby has green veining, an traditional orange cheddar, a highly veined blue cheese, etc. all provide varied eye appeal on the cheeseboard or plate.
Often we’ll also mix in a chevre (goat cheese), or a sheep’s cheese for the tang and variety (roll a log of chevre in fresh chopped herbs from the garden). Offering a smoked cheese can also add variety to your selection.
Sometimes it’s fun to feature local cheeses that are new to your guests and allow them to sample something unique to your area. Or feature all regional cheeses to go with a menu theme, like all Southern Italian, all Provencal, all Nappa Valley. For the record, Velveeta, Cheez Whiz, or Kraft Singles don’t go on a cheeseboard!
To shake things up, we will create a little cheese dish, like a baked cheese puff with olive, a petite cheese ball, a tiny cheesy biscuit, stuff dates with a soft herbal cheese, or make a savory cheese panna cotta (a recipe I created for the American Dairy Association) to go with some of the sliced cheeses.
Fruit, or dried fruit (bunches or grapes, sliced pears, or dried apricots or cranberries)
Nuts like walnuts, almonds, or pecans
Olives are great with the cheeses
Pickles, or cornichon are also great
Sometimes jams — like fig jam, tomato jam, etc. are fun to put in a little tub or crock on a cheese board with a spreading knife
Plus small crostini, homemade crackers, or a flat bread, typically accompany these. Usually folks are getting full by the time the cheese comes around, so we try not to serve too much bread, or make the cheese course carb-heavy at that point of the meal. Light crackers or breads are best.
We typically garnish the plates or cheese boards with flowers or rose petals for color
Port Wine served in small glasses with the cheese course is heavenly. Although some folks prefer Claret, or Champagne/bubbly with cheeses.
We either make up individual portioned plates for each guest, or we will take a large wooden cutting board and use that for cheeses and put it in the middle of the table, or pass it around. Sometimes I will have a small stack of plates and bring the cheeseboard to the table and then I portion each plate based on the guests’ preferences (“no blue cheese” “lots of brie”). This customizes each plate, and it avoids having to pass a heavy, cumbersome cheeseboard.
Typically, a portion of each cheese is about 1 to 2 ounces (that’s about a small 1 1/2- to 2-inch square of each selection). Also, a couple of 12″ by 12″ marble or granite tiles from Home Depot or Lowes are cheap and make great cheese boards (beware they do crack and break if dropped, and you must hand-wash them, but they are pretty cheap to replace and look beautiful on the table). For a long table with many guests, we may do two or three cheeseboards for the table, so that the boards are within easy reach of each guest.
The traditional way to serve cheeses is at a cool room temperature. If cheeses become too warm they can melt or they will start to “sweat” or leach droplets of fat on the slices and it’s not very appetizing. But the cheeses shouldn’t be served cold.
Technically the experts tell you that you are supposed to have a different knife for each type of cheese. And make certain they are knives that are up to the job. Don’t use a dinner knife for heavy, dense, aged cheeses!
For cheeseboards, we typically cut half the wedge of cheese up into slices for the convenience of the guests and put the remainder of the wedge on the board. If it is a cheese known for its unique rind, such as the chevron zig-zag pattern of a Manchego, or the pinpoint writing on the Parmesan Reggiano, we make sure the rind is on the wedges, with enough of the rind stripped back for clean slices, but enough rind left to show the pedigree of the cheese.
We always include a few forks on the cheese board to easily pick up slices of cheese. For crumbly cheese like blue cheese, we will crumble up a pile of the cheese in front of the wedge for easy portions.
So for your next fancy dinner, blow your guests away by adding a cheese course, it doesn’t take a lot of effort and it seem so civilized to savor some wonderful cheese and fruit at the end of a wonderful meal.