Building the perfect cheese board

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Holiday party-season is upon us. And as creative and inventive as one might want to be—eggnog-flavored donuts, let’s say—a good cheese board is always a safe bet.

A few tips for making a good one:

1. Get suggestions. Visit a cheesemonger in a cheese shop or a grocery store that stocks a dedicated cheese counter (Whole Foods, for example) and have some fun sampling. Don’t be shy. Just spell out the plan. For example, you might try:  “I’m hosting a party with twenty friends. It’s a casual, but festive get together with beer and wine. Hoping to get three or four cheeses and keep the cost under $25. Any recommendations?”  Most are eager to help—and will offer tastes. If they’re at all snooty, they’re no good at customer service; it’s not you, it’s them.

2. Mix it up. Whether you get help or make selections from the cold bin at Trader Joe’s (fine, too!), aim for a mix of textures and, possibly, milk sources. Goat’s, sheep’s, or cow’s milk cheeses (or blends) are usually described as hard/aged, soft, firm, or blue. (If you aren’t having a large gathering, less is more: two good cheeses, one hard and one soft, is enough. Three ounces per person is a good rule of thumb.)

3. Take it out. Unwrap your cheese and bring it to room temperature before serving. You can arrange everything on one large, pretty board—or, for a bigger group, you might spread it out to prevent a back-up. I was eager to use this large piece of olive wood we brought home from a trip.

4. Pre-cut or slice it. (At least some.) Bon Appétit magazine cautions again cubing the cheese (too “after-school snack”) or slicing too-thin strips (which can “‘sweat’ and become translucent-looking,” a sign that the cheese is losing flavor). Don’t worry if you don’t have the exact right selection of cheese knives. Cheese planes and wires and spoons (for a wonderfully runny Époisses) are lovely to use, but just be sure to at least offer a distinct knife for each cheese if you don’t have those things.

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5. Pair it. Consider some options beyond the baguette (water crackers, crostinis, flatbreads, for example). And set the cheese beside things like jam-style fruit spreads, olives, nuts, cornichons, apples, honey or even chocolate for additional flavor. (But, in general, avoid flavored cheese. Truffles and specially prepared rinds—ash, pine, and like—being the major exception.)

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Finally, have some fun.  Disregard everything I said and try the peppermint-rind cheddar or the caramel-like goat cheese, or use your family’s recipe for brie baked in crescent-roll dough from the pop-tin.  Your friends will appreciate that, too.

Pictured cheeses: Drunken Goat, Cinco Lanzas, Saint Agur (bleu), Old Amsterdam (aged Gouda), and Marin French. The bottom two are Gjetost from Norway, and a peppermint-rind BellaVitano by the Sartori Company of Wisconsin.

P.S. Baked vegetable chips, my favorite Blood-Orange salad, and recipes for Kumquats (and new-year prosperity).

Update: Our cheese board is Olive Wood from Tuscany. Here are some similar products

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