I didn't grow up in a household where the multitudinous varieties of cheese were highly prized--there were slices of waxy provolone, wedges of extra sharp, bright orange cheddar, and the requisite block of Velveeta. Cheese was never given a lead role in our dining room and I had never eaten a cheese more exotic than perhaps a young gouda until I was eighteen.
But when the truth was revealed to me, in the form of a woman selling goat cheese at a farmers' market, I never second-guessed it: cheese and I are meant to be together.
After three and a half years of apprenticing for cheesemakers, shoveling goat poop, hauling countless gallons of milk (each one weighing 8.6 pounds if you'd like to know) from bulk tank to pasteurizer, digging cheese gunk out of floor drains, and hand washing innumerable cheese molds, I can't say why I still love cheese as much as I do. It's just ineffable.
It's the sort of obsession that has no rules. It means licking the last gooey puddle from an Époisses box, even when other people are watching. It means special ordering cheeses that are out of my budget. It means always stopping by the cheese counter, if only to smell.
It also means that no occasion is complete without a cheese plate. Building a cheese plate is very simple, really. In Joy, we elaborate on the cheese plate in both the Appetizers and Desserts chapters, and for good reason: Cheese is an effortless way to entertain.
Some ground rules: Have at least three and no more than five kinds of cheese on the cheese plate. Serve 2 to 3 ounces of cheese per person (have a little extra on hand just in case).
When choosing cheese, you want some variety. Choose cheeses with different flavors, textures, and aromas. You might choose a theme--Italian cheeses or American farmstead cheeses--or you may want to choose based on what looks best at the cheese counter. I prefer the latter approach, as it encourages you to buy what looks, smells, and tastes best.
To buy cheese, check out your local farmers’ market--there are some incredible domestic cheeses out there, and it gives you the opportunity to talk to someone who knows about the cheesemaking process. Just as wine has terroir (a different flavor profile based on where it was produced, where the grapes were cultivated, etc.), so does cheese. A cheesemaker in California may make a cheese very similar to one made in North Carolina, but the cheeses will be different due to a number of factors including the diet and breed(s) of the animals the milk came from, the time of year the cheese was produced, the cheesemaking methods, and the aging conditions. Wow your guests by finding out some specifics.
It’s pretty rare, though, to have an abundance of very small cheese producers in a particular area, especially outside larger cities. The next thing to look for is a cheese shop or a grocery store with a decent cheese counter. Even some large chain supermarkets have good cheese counters. If possible, find a cheesemonger (a great word for someone who sells cheese) that will cut pieces of cheese for you to sample. Also see if they will cut wedges of cheese to order. It can be difficult to tell how long a pre-cut and wrapped piece of cheese has been sitting in the case, and cheese does start to deteriorate once it is cut.
A good cheesemonger should be able to tell you how long the cheeses in question have been aged, what their flavor profiles are, what to serve them with, and generally any questions you can conjure. A professional is not hard to spot once you start asking questions.
To choose cheese, consider your crowd. If you're hosting tame eaters, you might avoid cheeses that you can smell from the next county (although it's important to remember that, usually, stinky cheeses do not taste terribly strong). While you may prefer your cheeses coulant (runny) and fragrant, many guests with tamer palates will appreciate milder, more demure cheeses. Also keep in mind that pregnant women are advised to stay away from soft and raw milk cheeses.
When purchasing cheese, do not be afraid to pick it up, touch it, or smell it. To judge a ripe bloomy cheese, you'll want to squeeze it gently to see how ripe it is. The cheese should give slightly, not unlike a very ripe tomato or mango. Some cheeses are extremely soft. If a cheese that should be soft is very hard, move on.
Washed rind and blue cheeses should be judged differently. You'll often be able to smell these cheeses through the wrapping. They should smell pungent, but not like ammonia. Washed rind cheeses should be rather soft, and any cut edges should not be discolored. As for blues, be sure that cut pieces are not discolored or dried out.
When you get the cheeses home, store them responsibly. It is best to buy pieces of cheese that are small enough to be consumed within a week or two. For parties, buy the cheese as close to the date of the party as possible. In general, cheese does not like being wrapped in plastic for long periods of time. Cheese is a living food and needs to breathe!
You can splurge on cheese wrap, a plastic film that breathes, allowing you to keep cheeses fresher longer. But, for short periods of time, plastic wrap, foil, or wax paper will work. I like to wrap cheeses snugly in wax paper, then in foil. Plastic wrap prevents cheese from breathing, so I avoid it if possible.
Serve cheese at room temperature. Period. Take the cheese out of the refrigerator about an hour before serving. In very hot weather, this may only take 30 minutes. Unwrap the cheese just before serving to prevent the cut surfaces of the cheese from drying out.
Give each cheese enough room on the platter. Choose a very large plate or cutting board, and place the cheeses as far apart as you can. Unlike guests, cheeses should not mingle.
Each cheese should have its own knife. Gooey Époisses should not be smeared all over a lovely aged Gouda. That's just not how we behave at parties.
What you serve with cheese is important too. If you serve a big, bold red wine with good cheese, that wine is going to storm your palate like a herd of wildebeest, and you’ll miss out on the nuances of the cheese, which is really the whole point of serving a cheese plate.
In general, dry or mildly sweet white wines are the way to go. The acidity of the wine should play nicely with both mild, creamy cheeses and robust, aged ones. Of course, some cheeses benefit from sweeter dessert wines (port with Stilton, for instance), but I recommend a decent dry, white wine for the average cheese plate.
You’ll want to buy some good bread (our favorite is walnut bread) or crackers. Fruit is a classic cheese accompaniment: Dried figs, dates, cherries, or apricots are good options, but fresh fruit like sweet-tart apple slices, whole small plums, and bunches of grapes are excellent too.
We also like to have nuts on the cheese plate. We prefer really flavorful ones like Marcona almonds, black walnuts, and roasted hazelnuts.
Honey, quince paste (also called membrillo and usually found in the cheese department), and bitter chocolate are other options. It’s pleasing to the palate to have some sweet with the salty.
Don't forget that cheese makes an excellent dessert even though most Americans think of cheese as an appetizer. It can be a really pleasant way to end a meal.