Friday, September 11, 2009

Putting on the Ritz?

With the holiday season quickly approaching, we transition from the summer spent out and about to entertaining in the home. No gathering is complete without cheese and crackers. This year, forget the cheddar and put away the Ritz. With a little planning you can provide your guests with a cheese experience. If the idea of assembling a cheese board may be daunting, I am here to help.

How many people are you entertaining? You can plan on 2-4 ounces of cheese per person. Four ounces of cheese is equal to ¼ pound. If you have 10 quests you will need, at most, 2 ½ pounds of cheese. That may seem like a lot of cheese but it goes down so easily.

How many cheeses should you serve? I suggest serving 3 to 5 different cheeses. It is always nice to have a variety but you don’t want to overwhelm your guests with 10 different cheeses. A selection of three cheeses will provide some variety and the ability to compare and contrast the selection. If you are serving 3 different cheeses and are feeding 10 people you will need ¾ pounds of each cheese.
What cheese to serve? You could pick a theme like French cheeses, Virginia cheeses, or focus on a certain type of milk. Personally, I like to serve at least one goat, cow, and sheep cheese. You also want to provide a variety of textures and tastes unless you are going to focus on something specific like soft ripened cheese. I recommend one soft cheese like Daffinois, a semi firm cheese like Midnight Moon, and a hard cheese like Zamorano. And this cheese selection represents one cow, one goat, and one sheep.

What about the blue? Many people are afraid of blue cheese because they can’t get over the mold. I wonder what they would think if they knew where rennet comes from or that bacteria live in all cheeses. There are some very wonderful and mild blues cheese such as Cambazola, Montangnola, and Regina Blue. If you know your guests are adventurous you can add a stronger blue cheese.

Should I server a stinker? I love stinky cheese, usually their smell is worse than their bite. Stinky cheeses are in the washed rind category which means that the wheel of cheese was bathed in wine, spirits, or a brine solution to encourage bacteria growth. Tallegio is a washed rind cheese that makes a wonderful grilled cheese. Washed rind cheeses are full of flavor and worthy of space on your cheese board.

How about some flavor? There are many flavored cheese such as garlic Gouda, caramelized onion cheddar, Purple Haze, and White Stilton with mango and ginger. These cheeses may engage those who are intimidated by cheese. A flavored cheese is a safe bet but only serve one on your cheese board. Having too many flavored cheeses can overwhelm the palette.

What to serve with your cheese? First, let’s talk cheese delivery systems. Ritz crackers are too buttery and flavorful to be served with a cheese board. I recommend any type of fresh bread such as a baguette or neutral crackers such as Melba toast. There are some wonderful cracker companies such as Carr’s, 34 degrees, and New York flatbreads. But be careful, some crackers are overloaded with salt and cheese tends to be salty so don’t overload on the salt. There are some wonderful flavored crackers that can pair nicely with the right cheese. I love a Carr’s rosemary cracker with Daffionis or goat cheese. The Carr’s whole wheat cracker is great for blue cheese as it provides a nice sweetness.

No cheese board is complete with out accompaniments. Fresh fruit such as grapes, strawberries, or what ever is in season are wonderful palette cleansers and pair well with most cheeses. Dried fruit and nuts are also a nice addition; the crunch provides a nice contrast to many cheeses. One way to encourage people to try blue cheese is to serve the cheese with a side of nuts and honey or drizzle the cheese with honey. I like to set out a small dish of honey whenever I put out a cheese board and experiment with flavor combinations. Spanish sheep’s milk cheeses are often served with membrillo which is a paste made out of quince. There are some wonderful chutneys, jams, and preserves available many of which will suggests pairing with a specific cheese. I enjoy Kunik with Harvest Song Tea Rose Petal Preserve. Offering accompaniments encourages your guest to play with their food and get involved with what they taste.

Always serve your cheese at room temperature. This allows those yummy fats to loosen up and give up their flavor. Ideally, you would buy your cheese the day of your soiree but the day before or even two days before is fine if properly stored. You do not want your cheese to dry out and yet you also do not want to suffocate your cheese. You can store your cheese in Tupperware, cheese paper, waxed paper, or aluminum foil.

In America, we serve our cheese as an appetizer but it is a wonderful way to end a meal and prepare for dessert. One of my most memorable dining experiences was at Le Bec Fin in Philadelphia. We had a wonderful meal, and then came the cheese cart which was eventually followed by the dessert cart. I feel in love with that cheese cart and tried one of each cheese which was laid out on my plate from mildest to strongest. Serving a cheese course during your meal will encourage people to discuss the cheese. What color is it, what texture, what flavors, does it have an interesting story? If you have the time, researching your cheese can provide a nice back story to what you taste.

You can have cheddar and Triscuts anytime but the holidays are a special time. Special times and call for special cheese. Don’t be intimidated by cheese, there is no wrong way to enjoy cheese. I hope this information will help you to impress your guests at your next holiday function.

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