If you're hosting a get-together any time soon, 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 cake. Find those cloth napkins in the attic. Ooh, and the tablecloth too. Buy flowers. Buy candles. Tell someone to clean his room ...
What's one reliable thing to take off your plate? A cheese plate. This appetizer is an evergreen 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).
Which is why we called in a certified cheese expert — Elena Santogade. Elena answered all our questions and then some. Just follow her pro tips and your next cheese plate will be the talk of the party.
1. Pick your cheeses
You don't need to buy 84 cheeses to impress your guests. You just need three or four, based on texture and the type of milk used to make them. 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
- Cream-added blue
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.
2. Add some nibbles to serve alongside
"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:
- Dried apricots
- Tomato relish
- Seeded crackers
Another plus of these: They're pretty. Cheese's color scheme can be pretty monotonous, so 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.
3. 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.
4. Don't let the guests cut the cheese themselves
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 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.
This story was originally published on Food52.com: 4 actually useful cheese board tips, according to our favorite certified cheese professional.