Everyone can be a gracious hostess, everyone. It’s easy too – all you need is to learn the ins and outs of the ultimate cheese tray.
A cheese tray is the hostess’ first line of defense, the dish that is the simplest to pull together and is often the first course your guests will enjoy. The magic of a cheese tray is this… A stunning cheese tray sets the stage for a fun shindig and can serve as either the opener for a lineup of impressive courses for a dinner party, or it can stand alone and get you off the hook for any other eats. If you’ve put together a nice cheese tray and provided booze – you are automatically a fine cocktail hour hostess.
What makes for a good cheese tray? You have seemingly infinite options, but here are some guidelines I like to follow….
- Use a large white or silver platter. No matter what season, time of day, or theme for your party decor, food always pops off of a crisp background. I opted for a very inexpensive white oval platter for the cheese tray above, but family silver or stainless would work just fine. I like white because it allows the food to be the star of the show, but any solid color would do. I avoid patterns, I find them distracting. Arrange your cheeses and pairings in neat but close groupings – this will make your cheese tray look abundant!
- Offer 3-5 Cheeses. The cheeses are the anchor of this dish, the right selection will really make or break the cheese tray. I like to be sure to include one of each of the following types of cheeses in my cheese tray: A goat’s milk cheese, a cow’s milk cheese and something either sharp or smoked. For the tray above I opted to use four cheeses, the first of which is brie. Brie is a cow’s milk cheese that is absolutely decadent and creamy. I’m not sure I’ve ever served a cheese tray that didn’t include brie. You could substitute camembert or a triple cream cheese if you prefer – but for me, brie is nonpareil. I also included a Texas chevre, a goat’s milk cheese that had been infused with local honey. Yes, honeyed chevre. You’re going to want to get some and rub it all over your body… I mean, include it in your next cheese tray. I also included a smoked edam cheese that offered a nice contrast to the chevre & brie. Smoked cheeses can sometimes be overwhelming, so I was sure to buy one that was mild enough to not wreck your palate and allowed my guests to enjoy sampling all of the options. The last cheese I included is a guilty pleasure cheese – garlic and herb Boursin. Yep, I just copped to that. Boursin is similar in texture to cream cheese, and is basically a fancy french imported Velveeta (processed cheese product). Boursin is heaven though, so there’s no shame in my game. Another strong option would have been for me to use Manchengo, a Spanish cheese near and dear to my heart or an Italian cheese like Parmigiano Reggiano (cow’s milk) or Pecorino (a sheep’s milk cheese). Any more than about 5 options is too many. Honestly, 3 is just fine if you cover the bases of cow/goat/smoked or sharp. You don’t want to overwhelm your guests with options or make them feel like they are at the cheese counter at Whole Foods.
- Include something salty & something sweet. A cheese tray isn’t just cheese – nay, in my book a cheese tray is cheese and then other nibbles that will pair well with cheese and help you cleanse the palate. For this cheese tray I included genoa salami and organic green grapes. In the past I’ve used dry roasted almonds or cashews in place of cured meats, and replaced grapes with cherries. Something sweet, salty and most importantly bite sized will bring important variety and brilliant color to your cheese tray.
- Keep your crackers simple. Serving your cheese tray with garlic toast or an herby cracker is a mistake – you want the flavors of the cheese to be the stars, don’t mask them with a highly seasoned cracker or biscuit. I prefer to use water crackers because they are simple, elegant looking yet sturdy enough to hold up to spreading. If you want something heartier, a whole grain cracker or plain flat bread is a suitable alternative. Just be sure they aren’t too salty.
These are just a few ideas and suggestions – you have millions of selections to choose from when it comes to cheeses, accompaniments, crackers, plating design etc. Have fun with it!