The Cheese Course
How to Select and Serve Cheese
Cheese is one of food's greatest pleasures. But there is much to know when it comes to making cheese the main event. Whether it's the centerpiece of a wine and cheese party or else a luxurious course to finish a fine meal, cheese is fragile, complex and full of variety.
When putting a cheese course or plate together, it's essential to ask for help from a first-rate cheese monger who can help you with an overall plan and then guide you on the best choices. Then all you need are a few guidelines to make sure you and your guests get the maximum enjoyment from this luxurious and satisfying food.
When to Serve a Cheese Course
A cheese course can be the centerpiece of a lunch or it can be a luxurious finish to a special dinner. Keep in mind that cheese is full-flavored, which means it may not be a good choice to follow a heavy meal so if a cheese course is your goal, anticipate it. For example, serve it after a complex soup and salad, or in place of a sweet dessert.
A cheese plate should offer a combination of flavors and textures as well as a variety of cheeses made from goat, cow and sheep's milk.
- Tell your cheese monger you are putting a cheese plate together so that he or she can give you suggestions.
- Ask to taste each cheese you're about to buy to make sure it's in perfect eat-it-now ripeness.
- Make sure you have at least one each of a goat, sheep and cow's cheese.
- Choose cheeses that have flavors ranging from mild to powerful. If the entire plate is full of gentle flavors, it will have less interest; if they're all pungent and stinky your guests may wish for more variety.
- A general guideline is about 2 pounds of cheese for every 4 people. Some cheeses, especially chevres, are lighter in weight meaning you'll need less. Another approach is to think of each serving size; anticipate about 3 to 4 tablespoons of each cheese for each person, with a mini-version of the cheese platter served on each guest's plate.
- For both taste and visual interest, select a combination of hard, soft, runny and blue cheeses.
- Depending on the menu for the rest of the meal, it may be interesting to serve cheeses that are all from one country. But if you do this, still strive to have variety in type, texture and flavor.
- Serve the cheeses at room temperature, not cold from the refrigerator because the chill can significantly dull the cheese's taste. Your cheese monger can guide you on how long any cheese can sit out at room temperature.
- Presentation is up to you, but I like to arrange all the cheeses on a single platter or wooden board, perhaps with a bunch of grapes in the center and on the side, a basket with slices of bread plus small bowls of nuts and dried fruit. Then I can tell my guests what's what and have them choose what they like.
- When arranging the cheese on the platter, place them in a circle or a row ranging from mild to pungent.
- Be prepared to tell your guests what they're having by writing down the name of each cheese and where it's from.
Tip: If you're serving a cheese course after an entrée, take the cheese out of the refrigerator as you sit down for dinner. Cheese will taste its best and spread most perfectly at room temperature.
Tip: If there is any cheese left over, wrap it in plastic wrap and then in foil before replacing in the refrigerator. Otherwise your refrigerator will smell like Gorgonzola and your Gorgonzola will taste like the inside of your refrigerator.
The Tools and Pairings
- Different cheeses need different knives and serving pieces. A hard cheese like Parmesan needs a knife that chips off chunks; a soft cheese like Brie or Pierre Robert is best served with a knife that has a serrated edge to cut through the soft rind. And a runny cheese, like Epoisse, may need a spoon.
- A cheese course is a favorite way to finish a dinner's wine. But if you served white wine with the entrée, you may want to open a red wine specifically chosen to serve with the cheese.
- Serve the cheese with crackers that aren't too salty or flavored, or else with thinly sliced pieces of toasted baguette or a walnut bread.
- The unctuousness of cheese is often helped by pairing it with something sweet or acid or nutty. This could be as simple as a bunch of grapes, a small dish of toasted (unsalted) walnuts or pecans, or some dried dates, figs or apricots. A classic companion is membrillo which is a Spanish quince paste sold by many cheese mongers. Another choice would be fig jam or mostarda, which is an Italian preserve that combines fruit with a kick of mustard, or else honey or an onion confit.