Creating a Cheese Tray
It's common in the US to serve cheese as an appetizer before a meal. But cheese can also be served with a salad after the main course and before dessert. A cheese tray with various accompaniments is wonderful as a light lunch or dinner served with wine or beer. Also think of serving a cheese tray for a small gathering of friends before or after attending a special event. A nice cheese tray is great for guests to serve themselves while waiting for Thanksgiving, Christmas, or any special holiday dinner.
Types of Cheese
The first thing to decide is what type of cheeses you plan on serving. Cheese is categorized in several ways; first by the butterfat content. Low-fat cheese has about 20% butterfat, regular cheese, such as Gruyere has 45% butterfat, double-cream cheeses have 60%, and triple-cream cheeses have 75%. The higher the butterfat content, the creamier the cheese. There are also hard cheeses such as Parmesan and soft-ripening cheeses such as Brie. Cheeses are also categorized by type of milk. While most cheeses are made from cow's milk, there are also goat's milk and sheep's milk cheeses. Finally, there are blue cheeses, which are aged with a
mold injected into them that produces the blue streaking.
When assembling a cheese tray, you should aim to have an assortment of flavors, textures, and shapes on the plate. For a small gathering, three cheeses are fine; for a larger one, five is better. You can arrange cheeses by texture (soft, semi-soft, and hard) or intensity (mild, medium, and strong). You could also have a theme, such as international style cheese tray featuring cheeses from one country or one highlighting the cheese of a particular state or cheesemaker. Another type of cheese tray could include a mix of fresh, aged, soft and hard cheeses.
Arranging the Cheese
Cheese tastes best at room temperature, so take it out of the refrigerator at least an hour before serving. Serve three to five varieties, about two to three ounces per person. Arrange the cheeses on a wooden cutting board in the order in which they should be tasted: from the lightest and freshest to the ripest and most intense. A nice touch is to add labels to the cheese to identify the various cheeses for your guests. A big bunch of grapes and some green or paper leaves on the plate add a little color. Once in a while you may find just one cheese, such as burrata, that is so special that you want to serve it all by itself. Just add some crusty bread and a bottle of wine and you're all set.
Fresh fruits, such as pears, apples, and grapes, or dried fruits such as figs and dates, provide a wonderful accompaniment. Stay away from citrus fruits as they are too acidic and will overwhelm the cheese. Nuts pair nicely with cheese as well. Also include some good crusty bread or a variety of crackers. Try pairing spicy blue cheeses with a walnut bread. Don't serve bread or crackers with black pepper or other spices that might interfere with the flavors of the cheese. Other nice accompaniments to cheese are chutneys, fruit pastes, jams and honey.
Cheese Cutting Tools
Vary the heights and styles of the cheeses on your cheese tray and make sure that you set out the right knife for each selection. There are knives that are specifically designed for different types of cheeses, from a soft and spreadable Brie to an aged Parmesan. Hard cheeses require a knife with a sharp edge, while soft cheese spread well with a rounded edge. You can also purchase a cheese slicer, which is an elegant way to present certain types of cheeses, and makes perfect slices with a stainless steel wire. If you find that you entertain with a cheese tray fairly often, these are nice accessories to have, to highlight your cheese presentation.
What to Drink with Cheese
Wine, particularly sweet wine, compliments many cheeses.
Many people also like beer with cheese.
How to Store Cheese
Wrap cheese in parchment or waxed paper rather than plastic wrap
Store cheese in the crisper drawer of your refrigerator.
Fresh Cheeses are ready to eat as soon as they are made; no aging required. They generally have the mild, minerally flavors of their primary ingredients: milk and salt.
Examples of Fresh Cheese: Crescenzia, Rutulin, Chevre, and Burrata
Semisoft Cheeses are mild in flavor and are most often aged from a few days to a few months. They melt beautifully under the slightest heat.
Examples of Semisoft Cheese: Bel Paese, Gouda, and Roccolo
Soft-Ripened Cheeses are distinguished by their white "bloomy" rinds and creamy interiors, soft-ripened cheeses get softer instead of harder as they age. The best-known are Brie and Camembert.
Examples of Soft-Ripened Cheeses: Saint Andre, Cravanzi, and Toma Piedmontese
Hard Cheeses have a maturation period that is often measured in years not months.Hard cheeses often possess a uniquely crystalline texture.
Examples of Hard Cheeses: Grana Padano, Asiago, and Parmigiano-Reggiano
Blue Cheeses get their color from rich veins of mold and range in texture from creamy to creamy-crumbly to hard.
Examples of Blue Cheeses: Stilton, Mountain Gorgonzola, and Cambozola