Building the Perfect Cheese Plate

~ My ideal dinner ~

This week it was my turn to host our Book Club Group at my house. Book Club…cough, Wine Club, cough… is one of my favorite ways to have some quality girl-only time with some awesome women. You never know what might happen at book club – sometimes we celebrate job changes, weddings, pregnancies, babies – and in this week’s case – engagements. Other times it’s an awesome support group to discuss the tougher, non-glamorous parts of life, but you can always count on great company, food and wine.

I could literally eat cheese plates for every meal for the rest of my life and be happy – not kidding. When they are done right and include all the scrumptious components, there’s just nothing better. (This was just an appetizer, I fed them “real food” for dinner lol). However, there are some key things to pay attention to when preparing your cheese board if you want it to be a real success. Here’s what I included in this particular mix.

Cheese:
So yes, obviously cheese, but what kinds make up a great spread? The key is to have a variety of flavors and textures. You want a range of mild to bold tastes. Just be careful of going all the way to the blue cheese end of the spectrum as those can be too strong for some guests. You can usually attain a variety of flavors if you get cheeses made with different types of milk, ie. goat, cow, sheep etc. And clearly you can feel the hardness or softness of the cheese when you pick it up at the store. Diversity in texture and flavor is the key for a successful spread.

I already had some Brie (top right), which is a nice soft creamy cheese made from cow’s milk with a mild flavor which requires a knife to eat. So when I went shopping, I looked for cheeses that would be good additions to the brie. The cheese in the top left is a salty Manchego which is much firmer in texture. Manchego is a sheep’s milk cheese originating in Spain. This is one of my sister’s favorites, so I knew she’d be happy to see it on the plate. Bottom left is a Young Goat Gouda cheese that has a little softer texture than the Manchego and more of an almost sweet buttery flavor. Not at all like the bold goaty chevre that most people associate goat’s milk with. And lastly on the bottom right is a Whiskey White Cheddar made from cow’s milk. I always pick a cheddar of some variation because it’s the most commonly loved cheese so it makes for an easy crowd-pleaser. This is a little more bold than the Goat Gouda with a slight tang. Pro Tip – Where applicable, pre-cut all of your cheese and arrange them in little piles. It keeps your guest from having to do extra work by cutting off pieces themselves and they can just dive in to the food!

Meats:
Now that the important part has been selected, it’s on to some meats. I’m more of a cured and “toothier” meat person, I don’t really love squishy terrines or pates. So, I went with a Calabrese Salami (above the center), which is a pork infused with Sangiovese wine, cayenne, and paprika as well as a Genoa Salami (below the center), which is pork seasoned with white pepper and garlic. Delicious accompaniment to the cheese.

Dip:
Now, I don’t typically include this on most arrangements, but we had just been to our local farmers market a few days prior and ran into the No Double Dipping Company. They sell nearly 50 different flavors of  little spice packets that you add into sour cream and mayonnaise to make delicious dip. We picked up 10 so I was dying to make one for the party. I went with the Vermont Maple Bacon flavor which was a great sweet/savory combo and served it with some crisp pretzel sticks (top of photo).

Extras:
If you are like me, I’m happy just eating cheese straight-up, but most people like some sort of delivery system to the mouth in the form of a cracker or fruit. Plus, if you are going to include a spreadable cheese, you are going to need something to accompany it. I added pear and apple slices around the plate and included a side dish of two types of crackers – a standard thin water cracker and a stiffer sea salt cracker. I like my selection to have neutral flavors so it doesn’t compete with the cheese unless I’ve picked a super mild cheese that could really benefit from a flavored cracker.

For some extra visual and taste appeal, I sprinkled some red grapes and cherry infused Crasins around the plate. Lastly, a ramekin of Castelvetrano Olives – my favorite! Pro Tip – Buy olives without pits if you can. If you cannot, make sure your spread includes an empty ramekin that your guests can use to easily dispose of them. 

Other items I like to use depending on the selections are honey, jams, balsamic glaze and nuts. You can always include bread in place of or in addition to crackers, and of course you could include a multitude of different fruits – think about what might compliment the wine you will be drinking.

~ Takeaway ~ If I spot a cheese/charcuterie board on a restaurant menu, I almost always order it just to see what they include. I’ve definitely found that some are far more spectacular than others. Building a delicious cheese plate is an art, but it can be easily done. If you really take the time to search out a diverse variety of flavors and textures, your cheese spread can look just like a pro’s. And don’t forget the wine!

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