cheese it up
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A cheese plate is a welcome addition to any party. But creating one can be intimidating if you don't know your way around the wheels. Here are answers to the basic cheese questions:
- What kinds should I get? There's no right or wrong cheese — you can buy a brie or a cheddar and call it a day. Or, you could choose a variety of cheeses, based on one of these attributes:
- texture: soft, semi-firm and firm
- milk: sheep, goat and cow
- country/region: Spanish, French, Italian and US cheeses are among the easiest to find
- Okay...but what should I get? For soft cheeses, brie (cow's milk) is always popular. Wow brie fans by upgrading to a triple-cream cheese like the French Saint-Andre (cow) or adding a bite with cambozola (cow), a combination of French triple-cream cheese and the sharper Italian blue cheese gorgonzola. Another option: a goat cheese like the California crowdpleaser Humboldt Fog, a runny, creamy cheese bisected by a line of edible ash. You have lots of great choices for semi-hard cheeses: nutty Spanish manchego (sheep), sweet French cantal (cow), mild Dutch edam (cow) and sweet-salty Swiss gruyere (cow) are all winners. Hard cheese options include the salty Italian Parmigiano-Reggiano (cow), sharp aged Italian asiago (cow) or earthy UK aged cheddar (cow).
- Where should I buy them? You'll get the best selection from a cheese shop, but you can also find great cheeses in a higher-end supermarket or store like Trader Joe's. Do not be afraid to ask the cheesemonger (yes, that's what they're called) for help choosing. They'll not only steer you toward cheeses you'll like in the price ranges you want, they'll give free samples to help you make your selections.
- How daring should I get? Know your audience. If your guests are not stinky-cheese people, you probably won't convert them. Either skip the stiltons altogether, or serve one "scary" cheese alongside some "safe" cheeses. And give the scary one its own knife.
- How much should I buy? The general rule is about 3 to 6 ounces per person, depending on how much other food you're serving.
- What temperature should I serve them at? Cheese should be served at room temperature to get the full flavor. An average-size soft cheese should warm up from the fridge in as little as a half hour, but a larger piece and/or a harder cheese could take as much as 2 hours.
- How do I plate them? Put the part of the cheese people will be cutting into facing the edge of your plate. If you like, cut a few pieces of each cheese. That will prevent guests from being too intimidated or polite to take the first piece, and it will show them how the cheese should be cut.
- What kind of knife should I put out? Setting out the wrong kind of cheese knife could cause injury — or just embarrassment if pieces go flying. Harder cheeses need a sharper knife. Knives specifically made for harder cheeses often have a forked tip (to pick up pieces) or a serrated edge. A cheese plane is preferred for some firmer cheeses, like aged cheeses. Knives for softer cheeses look more like butter knives, with rounded edges, and double as cheese spreaders. Do you need to have special knives just to serve cheese? Nope. Just make sure the knife you choose can safely cut through the cheese.
- Bread or crackers? Whichever you like. Or both. If you're serving a variety of cheeses, a selection of crackers and thinly sliced crusty bread complements them nicely. One cheese? One type of cracker or bread is fine.
- What should I serve alongside? Sweet and savory accompaniments, like grapes, apple and pear slices, dried fruit, quince paste, nuts, cornichons, sliced meats and olives.
- Where do I store leftovers? In your mouth. Or, if you have more willpower, wrap leftovers in clean parchment paper, wax paper or plastic wrap and pop into your fridge's crisper.