Many things benefit from a prelude — an orchestral overture introducing tunes to come, an opening monologue to loosen up the crowd, a preface to set the backdrop for a book. That’s what a good hors d’oeuvre can do, priming the palate for the meal ahead.
Cheese always pleases, and even more when it appears in bites that are a little unexpected: a crunchy biscotti rich with Parmesan and almonds, a classic cheese straw of Cheddar with a kick of cayenne, or a rosemary-laced shortbread of goat cheese and the surprise of tart-sweet dried cranberries.
Serve one with wine, beer or the spritzer of the moment, and you establish a spirit of anticipation for the meal you’ve prepared. Bonus: Serving an hors d’oeuvre fills the time between when guests arrive and when the last-minute touches on the main dish are complete, without anyone feeling neglected.
Serve all three during a holiday open house, or simply a Friday night “stop by after work and we’ll nosh, maybe order a pizza,” and you’ve established yourself as someone who’s always prepared for a get-together.
And you can be, because these are make-ahead bites. The cheese straws, in fact, are even better the second day. The biscotti keep for a couple of weeks as is, but you can refresh them in a low oven for 5 minutes if you want to fuss. They take well to a schmear of your favorite cheese spread.
The goat cheese and cranberry shortbread is a revelation — which may surprise some diners. They actually were among the runners-up of last year’s Taste holiday cookie contest, festive with dried cranberries and with a subtle sweetness from powdered sugar. But the no-kidding dose of chopped rosemary takes the shortbread far enough into savory territory that contest judges mused about how it might fare as one component of a cheese plate.
Short answer: fabulously.
Besides, there’s something so thoughtful about serving something homemade. The boxed crackers and purchased cheeses come in handy, no question. But in less than an hour, you can make and bake a small bite. The holiday season is in the wings. Curtains up! □