Amid the canapes and delicate phyllo fingers hosts feel obligated to conjure during the holidays, a cheese platter may seem like a cop-out. After all, you didn’t make it. But a well constructed cheese board is a sure way to please your guests and show off your food savvy.
Start by not getting carried away. Choose a variety of cheeses that offer contrasting tastes, textures and colors. For instance, try a soft goat cheese, a hard sheep’s milk cheese, a semi-soft washed-rind cheese and a creamy blue.
And limit the platter to a maximum of six cheeses (three or four is optimal). Any more than that, cheese gurus say, confuses the palate and makes matching a wine difficult.
“You want some soft things, some hard things, maybe a blue, maybe a stinky, and at least two milk types, between cow, goat and sheep,” says Liz Thorpe, vice president of Murray’s Cheese and author of “The Cheese Chronicles.”
Thorpe’s knockout combinations would match a hard, saltier cheese such as Parmigiano-Reggiano or a nutty, well-aged Gouda, with a “bloomy rind” — those soft, melting tallegios and Camemberts — and one slightly less accessible cheese, for instance, a classic English Stilton. For good measure, you could throw in a Spanish manchego, made of sheep’s milk, or one of its goat-milk cousins, such as the Drunken Goat, a hard, mild, wine-washed cheese.
Fiona Beckett, author of the cheese guide and cookbook “Cheese Course,” also recommends playing with different themes. Try creating an entire cheese board using cheeses from a particular country. Or showcasing different styles of one type of cheese, for instance, creating a platter of blues like Gorgonzola Dolce, Shropshire Blue and Roquefort.
Cheese can be expensive, but your platter doesn’t have to break the bank. Thorpe recommends buying 1 ounce per person per cheese. So eight guests would require eight ounces of each cheese.
Complement the cheese with two or three high-quality nibbles. Dried cherries brighten up those bloomy rinds, Thorpe says, and marcona (Spanish) almonds highlight the butterscotch tones in aged Gouda.
Sheep cheeses go nicely with quince paste, and the sugar in dried figs bounces off the blues. Stick with mildly flavored noshes; no fiery chorizo or heavily smoked fish. Instead try gently smoked salmon, sweet sopressata, pickled or grilled vegetables, olives, cornichons, apples and pears. Keep your bread or crackers simple.
And show off all your good work by picking the right wine. Steer clear of the big reds, which can overwhelm the cheese, says Marnie Old, author of “Wine Secrets.” Reach instead for white wines that are dry, un-oaked and medium-bodied — sauvignon blanc, pinot grigio, Spanish albarino, Austrian gruner veltliner or dry, bracing Australian riesling. Their higher acidity complements elements like salt and fat.
“They are the workhorses of wine,” says Old, who also is the former director of wine studies at New York’s French Culinary Institute. “They lift up the flavors and the brightness.”
But the wines come with one caveat: Don’t put anything sugary on your platter, such as honey or compote. If the wines complement the salt in the cheese, they will rebel against sugar. “It’s a toothpaste and orange juice thing,” Old says.