Cheese Platters 101

There's a party coming up and you have been instructed to “bring some cheese.”  Do you show up with a chunk of cheddar and a wedge of blue, open them and plop them down on any available surface?  Well, if it's game day with the guys, you are probably good to go. 
However, if you want to make an actual presentation of your selections, we are ready to help with that!  In fact, the cheesemakers and all of us behind the cheese counters at Oliver's applaud you for taking it to the next level. 

So where do you begin?

Define your occasion:  Simple appetizer at home?  Girls' night in?  Potluck with hard-core foodies?  Splashy platter for brunch with future in-laws?  Whatever your reason to celebrate, cheese is an excellent answer to the question, “What should we eat?”

How much cheese is appropriate?  If it's an appetizer, figure on about 2 total ounces per person, with some extra for an abundant appearance.  If it's for dinner, the answer lies somewhere between you, your emotional state, your waistline and your pocketbook.

How many selections?  Think in odd numbers – one, three or five selections look best in an arrangement.  Trust us, it's a design thing.  You will also be embellishing with other elements, so sometimes ONE perfect cheese is enough.

Which cheeses should I serve?  When you are showcasing cheeses, your selections should be perfectly ripe, at room temperature, with companionable garnishes. For example, a Triple Cream Brie is luscious with a fruit preserve served on a crisp, simple cracker. Equally appetizing but completely different is chunked Parmigiano Reggiano drizzled with truffle honey or aged balsamic vinegar on a sweet (not sourdough!) baguette.

Want to serve multiple cheeses on a single tray? Many paths lead to the same destination. You could:

  • Feature a single milk type – create a progression of goat cheeses; from fresh and tangy chevre to mellow goat Camembert to complex, fruity goat Asiago.
  • Offer an array of cheeses made in differing styles.-  Choose three or five cheeses that contrast through milk types (sheep, cow, goat, and buffalo), textures from soft to hard, and flavor profiles from mild to assertive.
  • Craft a tray of all bloomy-rind cheeses, to explore how the cheesemaker's expertise is expressed through milk choice, molds, shape, age, blending, etc. This approach might be more appropriate for the advanced cheese lovers among us, but as you can see, there are lots of ways to have fun with cheese. 

How should I arrange my selections?  Your cheese wedges should sit with the points facing out.  If one of your cheese selections is round, cut just to the center of your cheese and remove a small sliver.  This will encourage your guests to cut the cheese properly so that each person will have a serving that includes the heart of the cheese. If your round cheese is very soft, it is appropriate to leave it in its wooden container to be spooned out like a delectable pudding.

If serving hard cheeses but don't want your guests to have to work at cutting them (sometimes awkward on a platter), here's how to prep it.

How do I pre-slice hard cheeses?  Take a wedge with the point facing you, turn it onto its side for stability and using a knife with a blade larger than the wedge, trim off any top or bottom rind to make all of the pieces uniform.  Leave the back rind intact as a handle.  Start slicing straight down.  You should end up with large triangular slices.  Stack them and cut in half again, to end up with twice as many smaller triangles.  Arrange your slices facing out on a tray, ready to be easily enjoyed.

How should I arrange disparate shapes and flavors?  Is your cheese platter a focal point?  Are you “tasting” or socializing?  If it is a focused tasting, arrange and enjoy your selections from mildest to strongest.  If it is simply a delicious addition to a gathering, arrange your cheeses while paying some attention to color contrast.  Play and have fun!

This is how to do it.  A surface large enough for the number of cheeses you will be serving is important and choices range from granite, wood, marble or ceramic. Place your cheeses facing out on the platter, with enough room for each cheese to have its own identity.  Simple trimmings such as dried fruit and pecans, walnuts or Marcona almonds should be used sparingly, as accents. Other accompaniments such as charcuterie, crackers and preserves are best served alongside, on their own. The idea is casually elegant – not too crowded or too fussy! You want the platter to be inviting, not overwhelming.

Important things to remember

  • Provide a separate cheese knife for each selection, assuring that the sharp Gorgonzola doesn't end up on the mild young Manchego.
  • Serve your selections at room temperature. Virtually every cheese benefits – flavors deepen, textures soften. The only exceptions are the fresh, unaged cheeses like ricotta.
  • A sweet counterpoint to your cheese may be appropriate- dried fruits, such as dates, figs, apricots, cranberries; fruit preserve, chutney, aged balsamic vinegar, membrillo or pates de fruits are correct.
  • Don't be too daunted by this process. Express yourself but don't over think it!  It's just an appetizer, not an international accord between nations, that is, unless the Italian cheeses beat the French cheeses in the People's Choice category…

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