Monday, January 14, 2013

Make Your Own Cheese Platter

Any of you who were paying close attention when I first announced the menu will notice that this is not what was on the original menu for an appetizer. I had these apple, brie, almond thingies in mind, but I just couldn't convince myself that they were right for the fancy dinner party menu. The flavors were exactly what I wanted, but I was having trouble with the delivery. I finally figured out why. This menu reminds me of something that might have been served in New England during the Winter in the mid-late 1800's. (Think Little Women.) I realize that any shared meal requires gathering to some extent, but this menu somehow connotes to me a real sense of something more intimate: communion. So, instead of offering individual servings of these flavors, it seemed more appropriate to serve a dish that the hosts and guests would gather around and enjoy together in a nice, messy way. Something like a wedge of brie, or other spreadable cheese. Something like a bowl of almonds, and/or other nuts. I think you get the idea.

There's really no recipe for a cheese platter, because none of the components on the plate are made at home. (Unless, of course, you make your own cheese, in which case, I think you're incredibly cool and I'd like to tour your... cheese-making plant(?) someday.) The fact that you don't have to do so much as stir any part of your platter is great news because that's time and energy that can be spent on everything else you need to do to get ready for the party! So, what I'm going to do is simply suggest various components which you might choose. 

First, let's start with this awesome diagram put together by Martha Stewart.
See Martha's article, "How to Make a Perfect Cheese Plate."
Perfect, isn't it? (I recommend taking a peek at her article. It's a quick and useful read.)

For the vehicle, I would certainly have a sliced baguette and water crackers, but I'd also consider using a high-quality wheat cracker of some kind, too. (Wheat Thins or Triscuits would be too casual and the flavors would compete with the cheese.) I might also consider a multi-grain baguette, but I'd probably choose one or the other, not both. The only issue you might run into with a multi-grain baguette is that it does carry its own flavor that will influence the experience of whatever else you're eating. You decide.

For the "something crunchy" I'd go with a nice, lightly salted mix of nuts. Even though I love the idea of nuts still in their shell, cracking each individual one might get a bit cumbersome for your guests.

Martha suggests a handful of fruit options for your "something sweet," but I'm partial to dried apricots, sliced pear, a crisp and fairly sweet red apple, and, of course, the classic bunch of red grapes. I might also put out a little ramekin of fig preserves or other kind of fig spread which would pair very nicely with some of your stronger, stinkier cheeses.

Speaking of cheese... If you can, visit a grocery store with a robust cheese selection or a specialty store and ask to sample a variety. They may very well have good suggestions or even pre-made platters to inspire you. During my last visit to Wegman's I noticed a list on display of their top picks. Here are their picks along with the cheeses I spotted in their already-assembled plates as well as a few of my favorites that I didn't see.

 Creme des Citeaux
"triple cream with a hint of mushroom"
Tomme de la Jeune
"smooth, fresh semi-soft texture with a gentle goat's milk flavor"
Le Meunier Tome de Fontenay
"creamy, washed rind cheese with a pronounced herbal flavor and aroma"
Le Meunier Fourme aux Moelloux
"creamy, distinct blue flavor with sweet French wine"
Petit Theodore Rum Raisin
"fresh, smooth, soft cheese enhanced with rum"
Dill Havarti
semi-soft, somewhat sweet and slightly acidic with a strong dill flavor
Mild, Milky Brie
very creamy with a milky and mildly pungent flavor and an edible rind
Medium, Buttery Brie
creamy with a buttery and moderately pungent flavor and an edible rind
Applewood Smoked Cheddar 
dense and semi-hard white cheese with a slightly smokey flavor and a hard, paprika-coated rind
White Stilton with Cranberries
 sharp, creamy cow's milk cheese brightened with sweetened cranberries
Sage Cheddar
semi-soft, strong cheddar complimented with the soft but bold flavor of sage oil
Young/Semi Mature Gouda
yellow, semi-hard cheese with a sweet and slightly nutty flavor
Jalapeno Cayenne New York Cheddar
creamy, aged cheese with the hot and slightly sweet flavor of jalapeno and cayenne peppers
Blue Stilton
creamy, English cheese with a pungent flavor (though milder than other blue cheeses) and sharp after-taste
a distinctive, sheep's-milk flavor with a firm, buttery texture

Choose a variety that includes at least one relatively mild (or safe) flavor and a few different textures. Martha suggests three different kinds for a gathering of 6-8, with a greater selection for a larger event. Label the cheese and serve on a cheeseboard, large, wooden cutting board, a cheese slate, or something more creative like this DIY chalkboard serving platter by Amanda Wright at "Wit & Whistle."
Photo courtesy of "Wit & Whistle"
Doesn't all this cheese talk make you want to tour Europe and New England??

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