The holidays are certainly the season for entertaining, and we all want to be the perfect hostess. However, there’s not a lot of time to plan, shop and cook for potential guests. Here’s a little secret – you can still be the perfect hostess and only spend a few minutes in the kitchen. How can you entertain with ease? One simple word – CHEESE!
When building a cheese tray, texture, color and portion size are important to consider. The rule to remember is easy to follow: “Old, new, stinky, bleu and maybe a wildcard.”
Three to four varieties of cheese are enough, and five is only necessary for large groups. Old and new covers the texture category with hard versus soft, and color can be accomplished through the bleu. The stinky is sometimes a category that is dropped because many people are offended by overly-stinky cheese. Wildcard can represent a favorite from a different country or region of particular interest.
A general rule for portion size is two ounces per category, per person plus various sides like olives, nuts, fruit paste and charcuterie items. The cheese needs to come to room temperature before serving. Remove the cheese from the refrigerator 20 minutes in advance of your guests arriving.
This category includes hard cheeses like aged Gouda, aged Cheddar, Parmigiano-Reggiano, Grana Padano, Manchego, Gruyere and Asiago.
Fresh cheeses, soft or semi-soft cheeses, and bloomy rind cheeses fall into this category. Examples of fresh cheeses include many goat cheeses (also known as fresh Chevre), Ricotta, Mozzarella and Feta. Popular semi-soft choices include Fontina and Havarti.
Bloomy rind cheeses include Brie and Camembert. It is called “bloomy rind” because if you look at the rind under a microscope, it looks like a field of white flowers. They are at their peak when their interior is soft, and the rind is starting to show white spots of mold.
In America, bleu cheese is traditionally associated with salad dressing, but bleu cheese as an ingredient or as a component on a cheese tray is a rising trend.
In the American artisanal cheese industry, farmhouse bleu cheeses are on the rise and rival the pungent sweetness and creamy texture of European versions. In Italy, bleu cheese is called Gorgonzola, called Stilton in England, and called Roquefort in France. Another popular version is Irish Cashel Bleu. Many of the European and Farmhouse versions of bleu cheese are milder and creamier.
Some exceptional American bleus include Rogue River Bleu from Oregon and Roth Buttermilk Bleu. All of the bleu cheese varieties – American and European – offer a range in flavor and texture.
Why so stinky?
Stinky cheeses are an acquired taste, and most people love them or hate them. Generally, the cheeses are soft cheeses, and they have a slimy, slightly gooey rind. Their flavors and aromas are particularly pungent because of the bacteria used in the cultures. Examples of stinky include Tallegio, Raclette and Chimay.
Many cheeses would be an ideal choice for a wildcard cheese. From Spain, Idiazabal is a firm sheep’s milk cheese that is slightly smoky with a buttery, nutty flavor. It’s a good choice for those who aren’t sure if they like sheep’s milk cheese.
From Italy, Parmigiano-Reggiano and Grana Padano are the obvious choice, but another hard Italian cheese is Piave. Sometimes called Parmesan’s cousin, Piave has a sweeter, milder flavor.
Another idea is to include a flavored cheese. Beecher’s Flagship cheese is an award-winning blend of Cheddar and Gruyere that is a semi-hard cow’s milk cheese left to cave-age for at least 15 months. The No Woman variety adds Jamaican Jerk spices to create a complex, smoky flavor that’s earthy, nutty and spicy.
Rounding out your cheese selection is easy to do and requires no cooking. Several accompaniments can be found right in the cheese department. Sliced salami and other cured meats like Serrano ham, Prosciutto di Parma and Speck complement the flavors found in many cheeses. Also, fruit paste and honey are nice toppings for Brie and semi-soft cheeses. Add a few small bowls of almonds, caramelized walnuts or pecans, olives, pitted dates, and an assorted selection of cut fruit or grapes. Don’t forget the artisan crackers, toasted baguette slices or baked pita chips.