A cheese plate can be many things. A party platter, a snack, even a meal -- a cheese plate can be all of these things. It doesn't require any cooking, but crafting a perfectly harmonious plate of delicious dairy is a delicate balancing act, and some forethought is required.
Illustration by Sam Woolley.
It can be easy to go overboard with both cheeses and accoutrements, but having a clear vision of the type of cheese plate you want to present to the world can keep you on track. But before you can do that, you need to decide how many cheeses you want to serve.
One Cheese, Two Cheese, Sharp Cheese, Blue Cheese
Photo by Daniel Panev.
Highlighting a Single Cheese
There are two routes you can take when presenting one cheese. You can choose a crowd-pleaser -- like a good sharp cheddar or an excellent wheel of brie -- or you can go with a slightly more divisive show-stopper like a super funky blue, or the stinky-though-tasty Taleggio. In either case, you'll need at least one carby delivery system and one complementary extra. Serious Eats has a good primer on various tasty types of cheese, but here are a few of my favourite ways to let a single cheese shine:
- Dubliner + Tart Apple Slices + Slices of Grilled Baguette: Dubliner is a hard, aged cow's milk cheese that is sharp, sweet and nutty with the most delightful little crystals distributed throughout. Because it has such a complex, robust flavour, I like to keep the bread simple, and provide a crisp, bright piece of fruit to cleanse the palate. (I've found slices of green apple keep your mouth from getting over-saturated with dairy, meaning you can eat more cheese for a longer period of time.)
- Cambozola + Fruit-Studded Crisps + Honey: This combination of French soft-ripened triple cream cheese and Italian Gorgonzola is exactly what you would think it would be, with a milder blue flavour and a whole bunch of creamy character. I like eating with with these fig and olive crisps, but a cranberry crisp would be pretty good too. I also am a big fan of a drizzle of honey on any sort of blue cheese, and this is no exception.
- Parmigiano-Reggiano + Really Good Balsamic: I got this idea from Bon Appetit -- who also have some really great single-cheese plate ideas -- and it is good. Get a real thick, aged vinegar for drizzling and dipping, and you can forget the carby delivery system altogether.
Double (or Triple) Your Pleasure
Photo by Luke Andrews.
I'm not a fan of the even-numbered cheese plate for some reason, but if you are only going to serve two cheeses, I would do one hard and one soft, and do them really well. Three is my favourite number to serve however, because it gives you the freedom to throw something wild and crazy into the mix. Here are some of my favourite picks for each category:
- Something Hard: Clothbound cheddar, aged gouda, Dubliner, a really good Edam *get one that comes in a ball of red wax), a really good parm (get a piece close to the rind), and Spanish Manchengo will all treat you right.
- Something Soft: Burrata (mozzarella's creamier cousin), mushroom-y Camembert, meaty-yet-fruity Taleggio, fresh chèvre, homemade ricotta, and -- of course -- brie are all tasty ways to enjoy the softer side of cheese.
- Something Fun: The best thing to do here is talk to a cheese monger and tell them you want something to "surprise and delight" your guests with. Cheesemongers are some of the most helpful people I've ever encountered, and they will be thrilled to help you pick. Some of my favourite "out there" offerings include the fudge-like Norwegian brown cheese; a weird chocolate cheese; a lavender and fennel-dusted cheese; dill Havarti; or the softest, stinkiest cheese you can get your hands on. This is also a good space to add a little whimsy to your platter; pimento cheese may not be fancy, but it's insanely tasty and always welcome.
To ensure a good variety of flavours, you can try picking one from each cheese-bearing animal (cow, sheep, goat), but I've used my "hard, soft, fun" template with much success. (That template seems much dirtier than it actually is, now that I've typed it out.)
Accessorise, Accessorise, Accessorise!
Photo by Quinn Dombrowski.
Now that we have our cheeses chosen, we're free to think about fun add-ons. It can be very easy to go crazy here, so I try to limit myself to one sweet thing, one salty thing, one sweet saucy thing, and one savoury saucy thing. You'll also need bread and crackers.
- Fresh Fruit: Apples, grapes, pears, blueberries, strawberries, any berry and fresh figs all provide a palate-cleansing counterpoint to rich and salty dairy.
- Dried Fruit: Tart and sweet dried cherries and cranberries do really well next to funky blues, and dried stone fruits such as apricots add a bright note I really enjoy with richer cheeses. Dates are also a good choice, and pair well with both super sharp and milder, creamier offerings.
- Olives: Rather than buying one jar of one type of olive, hit the olive bar and get a wide variety of shapes, sizes and cures. Just make sure to provide a little bowl for pits. (And be sure to tell your guests about the pits.)
- Pickles: I actually only have one pickle to suggest for your cheese plate, and it is the small but mighty cornichon. These tiny little guys pack quite the acidic punch, and they're just so darn cute.
- Meats: Careful here, as your cheese plate could spiral out of control and become a charcuterie plate. (And what a tragedy that would be.) Choose one very good meat and let it shine. If I'm serving a lot of strong, salty or funky cheeses, I'll choose a less aggressive carnivorous selection, like mortadella, but usually I'll pick a superbly-spiced salami or super rich pâté or liver mousse to accompany my fromage.
- Nuts: You can go with a mixture here, but my personal favourites are candied pecans, pistachios and Marcona almonds. (Confession: I also enjoy the heck out of wasabi and soy sauce almonds, though they're a bit of a palate-wrecker.)
- Honey and Jam: The first time I drizzled some honey on a slice of sharp cheddar, I thought I had invented something great. It turns out cheese and honey had been paired together by many before me, but the discovery still changed my life for the better. Jams and fruit pastes provide a similar sweet note on a cheese plate, and I'm particularly fond of those with a bit of tartness to them. (I am however, an unabashed fan of pepper jam, poured over a block of cream cheese and served with Wheat Thins. I don't know if this is trashy, and frankly I have no damns to give.)
- Mustard and Vinegar: A pop of acid is much needed in this dairy-dominated spread and a bold, grainy mustard can fill that need. A thick, syrupy vinegar also makes a nice drizzle, and I wouldn't be mad if you set out a little decanter of pomegranate molasses.
- Bread and Crackers: These are delivery systems, and they exist to get the cheese to your mouth, not distract from it. I like to provide a simple sliced baguette (toasted for crunch) along with one fun, seedy or fruit-studded cracker or crisp.
I know that's a lot of foodie info to take in at once, so we'll recap real quick: Unless you are going the "one cheese" route we covered earlier, my platonic ideal of a cheese plate is:
One hard cheese + one soft cheese + one fun cheese
Simple toasted toast points + a smattering of seedy or fruity crackers
One sweet thing + one salty thing + one sweet saucy thing + one salty saucy thing
This may seem like a lot, but I've never had much in the way of leftovers and, if the unthinkable does happen you are plagued by "excess cheese", you can always make cheese crisps or fromage fort. Everyone wins.