Ringing in the New Year with a party? One thing you’ll want on your buffet is, undoubtedly, cheese.
But if you’ve already googled how to put together a stunning plate, you’ve probably come across photos of downright gorgeous, over-the-top abundant, whole-table-length works of art disguised as cheese boards. Don’t let those scare you into outsourcing your platter. With the right elements and a few design tips, an enticing spread doesn’t have to be rocket science.
We consulted some of the Twin Cities’ top cheese know-it-alls to answer some basic questions about how to put together a killer cheese plate for your New Year’s soiree.
First and foremost, ask a cheesemonger. Don’t leave your selections up to guesswork — or the pre-sliced, shrink-wrapped stuff in the refrigerator at your grocery store.
“Supermarket cheese is just fine, but to create something truly special, have someone who can introduce you to the world of handmade artisan cheese,” said Liz Nerud, an American Cheese Society-certified cheese professional who works at the Kowalski’s Market in Woodbury.
Tell the cheesemonger what you like and let them steer you in a new direction. Ask for a taste, and learn the story of the cheeses in the case, said Tony Fritz, co-owner of Gazta & Enhancements at Keg & Case Market in St. Paul.
“We know every little nuance,” Fritz said.
For example, one of the cheeses at Gazta comes from an island where the cows are fed Scotch malt. So if, in conversation with a cheesemonger, a shopper reveals he or she is a Scotch drinker, this cheese would be a top recommendation. “Scotch will amplify a depth that a heavy red wine would bury,” Fritz explained.
Choose three or five cheeses — “odd numbers are best,” Nerud said — across a spectrum of flavors and textures. Don’t worry about the color of the cheese. “One adds color with the garnishes.”
“Then we come to the rind question,” Nerud said of the age-old dilemma over brie and other cheeses with those love-it-or-hate-it rinds.
“Should you eat the rind or not? The answer is: sometimes.” Yes for brie, no for Manchego, for example. And by the way, scooping out the inside of a brie and leaving the rind on the platter is considered poor manners, according to Nerud. You don’t have to eat it, but you should take it.
Serve the cheeses at room temperature. “It’s like allowing a bottle of wine to breathe; it allows the perfume of the cheese to develop,” Nerud said.
Even better, serve a soft cheese close to its expiration date, Fritz said. “It sounds weird, but that cheese will be soft. It almost goes back to a milk state.”
Provide about 2 ounces of cheese per guest — so for a party of 20, you’ll want about 2 ½ pounds.
And don’t be afraid to be a little adventurous, Nerud said. “There are actually very few cheese challenges. Mostly just unfamiliar things that are glorious to explore.”
How should it look?
Consider the platter: slate or wood, whatever appeals to you. “They are the blank canvas,” Nerud said. “And then you can be the artist.”
Do pre-slice most cheeses for a party. “Then you don’t have a bunch of people standing over a hard cheese hacking at it,” said Christian Petty, cheese buyer for Surdyk’s Liquor & Cheese Shop in Minneapolis.
The exception, of course, is soft cheese, like a brie. Don’t forget to provide a knife.
And though whole fruits look awfully pretty, “they’re not practical,” said Mary Richter, Surdyk’s culinary director. Slice those pears first.
“Anchor” the platter with cheese in different formations. Shingled squares, a “river of triangles,” a “starburst” of wedges, Nerud said.
Think in 3-D. “Don’t have everything on a flat surface,” Fritz said. “Stack things up with depth and layers.”
Richter advises hosts to keep a backup reserve of prepped foods to replenish the board as guests pick it over. Only put out a quarter-wheel at a time.
Write out a menu or individual placards that note the names of cheeses and accompaniments, so if guests try something they like, they can find it again.
Here’s a design tip: “When you’re creating your platter, you design it like it’s a formal garden, not a wildflower meadow,” Nerud said. “You don’t want things scattered hither and yon. You want each thing to have its own defined space and special place. Don’t just scatter herbs over like you’re putting parsley on a casserole. ”
But no pressure. “You don’t want it to look too complicated to eat,” Nerud said. “You don’t need to be the Georgia O’Keeffe of a cheese platter.”
Don’t let the wildly elaborate cheese boards seen on social media get in your head. “People and their Instagram pics,” said Richter, who noted that anything too fancy will be a mess in about 20 minutes regardless.
Should I add meat to the platter?
If you’d like to dip into charcuterie, consider where you want your focus. Is cheese the main idea? Then accompany that with a single hunk of pâté or one sliced meat.
As with your cheese, use the meats’ shapes to your advantage. Thinly slice salami and fold into half-moons and shingle them. Or fold into quarters and place little puffy triangles on the board. Roll prosciutto into a cigar shape or a rosette.
Surdyk’s likes to match their cheeses with meats of contrasting flavors. Peppery and garlicky salami, buttery prosciutto di Parma, spicy chorizo.
The folks at Gazta don’t recommend using any meats — they are a cheese-only operation.
“We don’t necessarily think meat and cheese need to go together to make a good platter,” Fritz said. “Cheese has its own story.”
What do I serve it with?
Jams, pickles, nuts, olives — go crazy.
“Think of sweet and savory,” said Mel Guse, co-owner of Gyst Fermentation Bar in Minneapolis, now a private event space. “Sweet and acidic to cut through. It doesn’t have to be a little cornichon. It could be pickled onions people make at home. You can really pickle anything.”
Guse also suggests different kinds of mustards — honey, whole-grain — to pair with different cheeses.
For sweets, try dried cherries, candied nuts, honey, jams. “Miso caramel corn is really fun,” Guse said.
Think visually, too. “Color contrast is huge,” Fritz said. And consider texture. At Gazta, Fritz sprinkles pistachio dust and vegetable ash on his cheese platters.
Make sure runny accompaniments, like jams, get their own little bowls. And if you choose to serve olives with pits, be sure to provide a receptacle for them.
Whether to serve olives with pits is a matter of some debate. Nerud prefers pitted, “for safety’s sake.” The folks at Surdyk’s, however, say to keep the pits in. “The olive loses its integrity in the pitting process,” Richter said.
What about bread?
Choose breads of different sizes, shapes and textures, said Meredith Schwarz, co-owner of Rustica bakery. And be more experimental than you would for a sandwich.
Baguette is a “must-have,” Schwarz said, but so are contrasting breads like Rustica’s miche, made with rye flour. “It is a much darker bread that has a beautiful flavor profile with mild cheeses,” she said. Or try a spicy semolina, available only on Mondays, or a walnut raisin bread that goes well with brie.
Slice baguettes into bite-sized pieces. Cut a boule (a round loaf) into wedges instead of slices.
Make fruit and nut crisps by freezing a loaf, slicing it thin and toasting it in the oven with a little olive oil. “It’s got a lot of crunch and texture to go nice with a schmear of cheese,” said Schwarz. And it’s a great way to use up leftover bread on the brink of staleness.
Above all, buy your bread the day you plan to serve it, or a day ahead at most (except the baguette, which is “a shadow of its former self the next day”). Store it in a paper bag. Pop it in the oven to get it warm and crispy before serving. Plan for five people to a boule and six to a baguette.
How can I take things up to an 11?
For even more pizazz, rent a raclette machine. The electric griddle-type device heats up a French or Swiss mountain cheese into a gooey mess that you can scrape onto your plate of accoutrements. (Caution: Do this only if you’re OK with your house smelling like a fondue shack for a few days.)
Surdyk’s has a few machines it rents out by the day, though by now they’re probably all spoken for. So get on the list for 2019. And in the meantime, enjoy your beautiful, homemade cheese plate.