Quarantine Cuisine: The perfect cheese plate
Updated: Jun 20, 2020
One of my favorite snacks during this quarantine (and ya know, generally) is a delicious cheese or cheese and charcuterie plate, with an appropriate bottle of wine, of course!
For this edition of Quarantine Cuisine, I figured I'd provide both my loyal readers with the Maestro's rules for a perfect cheese plate. Hopefully this can help you construct an excellent snack plate on a day when you desperately need cheese (every day).
I am not a religious person about anything but food and bev. So here you have it, the Maestro's Ten Commandments of cheese plates, accompanied by photos of ten cheese plates I've made or enjoyed recently.
1) Thou shalt select excellent cheese. A cheese plate with Kraft Singles won't do. Get good cheese. This can be expensive, but doesn't have to be, and you can usually find excellent cheese for good prices, especially if your local cheesemonger has regular specials! Our cheesemonger is a bit of an anomaly––he is a cheese expert who owned a small cheese shop in Minnesota before moving to Cedar Rapids for his wife's job, and created a world-class cheese program at his local supermarket. He brings in some of the most magnificent cheese from all over the world, and often he has some killer sales and deals. I can also recommend the "cheese orphans" section at many stores; this section includes extra cuts that are smaller and much cheaper than the big slices offered at most stores, and the portions are often perfect for a cheese plate! If all else fails, many deli counters will be willing to cut a big, expensive block into a smaller one for you; doesn't hurt to ask!
If you don't have a good cheese monger or store in your area, you can look online! Murray's Cheese is a good option, as well as iGourmet. Also, include local cheese when you can!
2) Thou shalt select flavorful cheese. Never select mild cheese for a cheese plate. You need the most flavorful and interesting cheese you can find to make the snack as magical as possible. No fontina, kiddos––get an extra sharp cheddar, a meaty blue, or a funky triple crème. All of your cheeses, every single one, must be robust, unique, and flavorful. You'll find the mild, uninteresting cheese will languish on the plate, and be the cheese you throw to your dog to make him stop begging (I speak from experience). Don't be afraid of all things stinky, funky, and unusual!
3) Thou shalt select at least one cow's milk, one sheep's milk, and one goat's milk cheese. A cheese plate needs variety. You wouldn't want to select four different cheddars; you want to make sure you have as much variety as possible. Most cheese is made from one of three (or a blend) types of milk––cow, sheep, and goat. Buffalo milk is also used for cheese, but it's much less common. Cow's milk cheeses span a broad portfolio, so if you have four or five cheese on a plate, the cow's milk cheese is most likely to appear more than once on the plate. Sheep's milk cheese tend to be hard, more mild, but complex, herbal, and grassy. Goat cheeses are often soft, and tend to be tangy and ripe. When shopping for cheese, a good guide is to try to find at least one of each.
4) Thou shalt vary your textures. Much like milk type, you'll want to vary your cheese textures. Four hard cheeses won't do––you'll want to switch things up by including creamy, soft-rinded cheese, a crumbly blue cheese, a flaky sharp cheddar, etc.
My ideal cheese plate is four to five cheeses, with a sharp cheddar (cow), a soft and ripe goat cheese, a solid grassy sheep's cheese, a creamy soft-rinded cheese, and a blue cheese. I think this gives you the ideal balance of potential flavors and textures.
5) Thou shalt serve your cheese at the correct temperature. Believe it or not, most cheese isn't meant to be served at refrigerator temperature; in fact, I'd say most cheeses are best served closer to room temp. A melty triple crème, for example, should ooze a bit out of its rind when it is most expressive and flavorful. Do your research and make sure your cheese has some time to reach the ideal temp!
6) Thou shalt include something fruity, tangy, or sweet. Cheese is salty, and so is charcuterie. You need something on your plate that can clean off the palate. Including a tangy fruit, such as grapes, is an excellent choice for a palate cleanser, as is a fruit spread. Some swear by including a green onion and taking a nibble every so often to cleanse the palate. Ultimately, the goal of a cheese plate should be a balance of flavors, and things like fruit are a critical component. My favorite fruits to include: Granny Smith apples, cotton candy grapes, or ripe strawberries. Pickled items are also good choices. Preserves and spreads, as well as mustards, can also be excellent additions.
7) If thou chooseth to include charcuterie, thou shalt select contrasting kinds. A cheese and charcuterie plate is a wonderful thing, and adding meat to a cheese plate can help round out the snack. Merely plating two types of salami, however, is not in the spirit of variation. Consider different cuts of meat, a different animal, divergent textures, etc. I love to include a classic salami item as well as something like prosciutto or bresaola––this shifts textures and cuts so you have a variety of flavors. One of my favorite new charcuterie cuts is duck prosciutto, and I also love including spicy cuts like soppressata, 'nduja, or Tasso ham. Pâtes or rillettes are also a compelling option. Do some exploring!
8) Thou shalt select an appropriate beverage to pair. Wine and cheese is classic, but you definitely want to pick wine that will let your cheese shine. Huge reds like a boomy cabernet risk drowning out the flavors of your cheese, and something too light and too acidic can read as wimpy with bolder cheeses. Whites with some age, oak, funk, or oxidation are a good choice, as are lighter-bodied reds like pinot noir or gamay. Beer can also be great with cheese, particularly things like Belgian Trappist ales.
9) Thou shalt never have the same cheese plate twice. You might have leftovers, and you should absolutely not waste them, but each plate should be different. Vary your selections to try new combinations and find out what is best balanced. Pick a new type of cheddar next time you go to the store, or find a new cut of charcuterie you've not tried yet. Be adventurous!
10) Thou shalt Instagram. Why do you think I have photos of all these cheese plates saved?