by Nancy Sweet, director, culinary programs and operations, Lincoln Land Community College
It’s the holidays – the most wonderful time of the year for unexpected entertaining of friends! I love catching up with friends over the holidays, but sometimes the work that goes into pulling off a big dinner, especially last minute, can take the fun out of those visits. Instead, I’m all for snacks. Dips, spreads, bite-sized appetizers, and my favorite, the cheeseboard.
In my opinion, there can never, ever be too much cheese. Cheese is delicious and cheese boards can be super impressive yet easy to create, especially on the fly with pantry staples. And if you have a little extra time, adding a few homemade accompaniments is a nice touch. But, for the most part, my advice is to keep it simple to start. Then, if time and ingredients allow, fancy it up a bit.
At pretty much any grocery store, there are tons of cheeses to choose from. And if you have the option to go to a specialty store or specifically a cheese shop, the options are dizzying. But, how to decide?
First, a little primer on cheeses. Cheese can be made with almost any milk, but most often is made from cow, goat or sheep’s milk. Textures range from very soft, supple and young, like an unaged Chevre (spreadable goat cheese) which still tastes like the fresh grass the goat was grazing on, to very firm, aged and crumbly, such as a five-year aged cow’s milk Gouda with notes of pineapple and caramel, with crunchy crystals created by the milk proteins hidden throughout.
The rind of the cheese is important to consider too. It acts as a barrier, keeping out bad bacteria that could spoil it and keeping in the good bacteria that allows the natural aging process inside the cheese to better flavor it. Rinds can be washed in different liquids such as beer, wine or tea to add flavor, or a specific mold can be introduced to create a bloomy rind such as with Brie. Rinds can also be made from herbs or spices, cloths or simply a food-grade wax.
Flavors of cheese normally deepen with both the addition of outside flavors such as beer, herbs or specific bacteria and also with time. A fairly young, soft Camembert might have flavors of mushrooms, earth or forest floor, whereas a pungent wash-rind cheese like Limburger might be oozy, funky and “barnyardy.” A 10-year aged cheddar can become sharp, piquant and nutty. How much butterfat is added during the cheese making process affects flavor too, creating a double or triple cream cheese, such as St. Andre, a triple cream that is smooth, buttery and super-rich.
When selecting cheese, go for variety – not just variety of taste, texture, age and milk type, but also shape and size which can increase the visual appeal of the cheeseboard. Don’t feel like you have to slice or cube the cheese up. Just set it out in wedges or whole wheels along with a cheese knife for each cheese to avoid having the look of a basic deli cheese tray. And, just because you love a pungent, stinky blue cheese doesn’t mean everyone else does. It can be a good idea to always include at least one familiar cheese that appeals to most everyone.
Three to five different cheeses are nice when the cheeseboard is the main food of the evening. When purchasing, plan for approximately five to six ounces of cheese per person. If cheese is just one of many snacks or is being served as an hors d’oeuvre before dinner, two ounces per person is plenty. Any platter is good to serve cheese on, but get creative. Mix and match different platters, plates or boards or utilize elements from nature like a small chuck of granite or slate or a treated piece of wood. Be sure to let the cheese come to room temperature before your guests start snacking, so remove from the fridge at least 20 minutes ahead of time.
Cheeseboards can be really jazzed up by what you serve alongside the cheese. Sweet or salty accompaniments plus good bread and crackers will round everything out. Olives and a high-quality salami or Italian prosciutto are good as their saltiness will help cut some of the richness of cheese. The sweetness of dried fruit such as apricots or fresh fruit like sliced pears or bundles of grapes can enhance the creaminess of other cheeses. Toasted nuts, like candied walnuts or salty Marcona almonds, add another layer of texture.
Adding specialty items like a peppered honey, sweet or savory relishes or chutneys, and spicy mustards are tasty and fun to find when out shopping for cheeses. Put them in cute small bowls or if the jar it comes in is small enough, just put it right on the board. Jarred artichoke hearts and roasted red peppers are also a nice and easy addition. Add a mix of crackers, breadsticks or sliced baguettes in different shapes and textures to any empty spots on the board or add to another basket. If you are feeling extra fancy, finish with a garnish of some springs of fresh rosemary.
If you do have some extra time, and want to add a few homemade flourishes to your board, below are some easy recipes to use.
12 oz mixed olives, such as Kalamata, Picholine, Cerignola or Lucques
4 strips orange peel
2 crushed garlic cloves
2 pinches red pepper flakes
4 TBS olive oil
2 springs rosemary or thyme (optional)
Combine all ingredients and let sit for at least two hours.
2 TBS olive oil
1 ½ cups thinly sliced shallots
Salt and pepper to taste
2 cups port
Saute shallots with olive oil and salt and pepper over medium low heat until caramelized, about 20 minutes. Add port and let cook until port is reduced and syrupy, approximately another 20 minutes.
1 egg white
½ cup sugar
1 tsp nutmeg
1 tsp cinnamon
½ tsp salt
2 cups pecan halves
Preheat oven to 300°F. Brush large rimmed baking sheet with butter.
Whisk egg white in bowl until foamy. Add sugar, spices, and salt. Whisk until mixture is thick and opaque. Add pecans; stir until coated. Transfer to greased baking sheet.
Bake nuts until golden brown, about 10-15 minutes. Cool completely on sheet. Transfer to container; cover and store at room temperature.
Want to know more?
Lincoln Land Community College offers associate degree programs in Culinary Arts and Hospitality Management and academic credit certificates in Culinary Arts and Baking/Pastry. For more information call 217-786-4613 or visit www.llcc.edu/hospitality-culinary-arts