The holidays are a time we’re simultaneously trying to indulge and impress, but are also stretching our income way beyond comfort levels. This can make entertaining particularly stressful, especially when planning to include potentially expensive items like gourmet cheese plates in your next dinner party. However, you can have a beautiful and delicious selection of cheeses without breaking the bank if you do some careful research and planning.
Consider the servings
“Density in cheeses will vary from wheel to wheel, making it a little difficult to narrow down the perfect amount, but the average amount of cheese per person should be anywhere between three to five ounces,” says Aaron Heinold, cheesemonger at Foragers Market in DUMBO, Brooklyn. (To help you visualize this, one ounce of cheese is about the same size as a pair of dice.) If you plan to entertain large groups: two pounds for eight people, four pounds for 16 people, eight pounds for 24, etc. “You’ll always want enough, if not a little bit more, than each person may need. There’s nothing worse than having too little cheese,” says Heinold. Plus, any leftovers can go into the best macaroni and cheese or fondue ever.
Don’t let pairing intimidate you
Wine is a perfect pairing that can enhance the flavor of your cheese. “It’s usually a safe bet that a cheese from one particular country will taste amazing next to a wine of the same region. A creamy wedge of Fromager d’Affinois is perfect with a glass of red Bordeaux, or a sharp Fontina would be best paired with a crisp Pinot Grigio. Also try a strong and hoppy beer with an American washed rind cheese,” suggests Heinold. Chances are, the wheel was washed in a beer, or at least something similar to bring out the already intense flavor.
And while tea and cheese might not be the most natural fit for a party, let the concept inspire you to be get creative.
Be strategic with accompaniments
A spicy or smoky mustard could bring out the sweetness of Emmentaler and Gruyere, says Heinold. A sweet preserve or honey can also enhance the taste of a slightly sour goat cheese or an aged and nutty comte. And don’t go too crazy with the crackers—the cheese is the star. “Many people are under the misconception that cheese and crackers are a duo much like peanut butter and jelly, or peas and carrots. A cracker should only serve as a vehicle for your cheese to be appreciated in all of its glory,” says Heinold.
Go for variety
You want each taste to differ from the last, and to excite and intrigue you, says Heinold. The paste (or body) of the cheeses will also play a role in your selection. “Being able to bite into a hard cheese, like a gouda or gruyere, could be followed up with a fudgy alternative like camembert or taleggio. Runny, crumbly, soft, firm, funky, smooth, pasty: these are all descriptions that cover every cheese selection,” says Heinold. Perhaps an array of cheeses tasted from the gooiest to the hardest might make for a fun arrangement of the plate, for those who’d like to make an event of it.
A cheese plate can still be budget-friendly
Don’t have the funds to purchase the oldest and rarest of cheeses for your plate? You can still have a great assortment without breaking the bank. “Local cheese can sometimes be your best bet. Wisconsin, Vermont, New York, and California are all producing amazing cheese varieties that are perfectly reasonable in price. Keep your eyes peeled for large produced international cheeses as well, like Gorgonzola, Swiss, Manchego, or Brie,” says Heinold. These popular styles usually cost a little less. Cheddar, gouda, blues, and goat cheeses could all spare your wallet any stress.
Think outside the box
If your neighborhood is lacking a shop that carries artisanal cheeses, your local grocery store is the perfect location to find great options. “For years, grocery stores have carried a large array of cheeses for every palate. Be on the lookout for packaged cheeses, like Cabot, that you can slice and cut yourself. Feel free to add some other accouterments like sweet grapes or salty charcuterie to complete the presentation,” says Heinold. Like the cheeses, these can also be found in your local markets.
Photo by stu_spivack CC BY-SA