Linda explores food facts, folklore, and fabulous recipes one ingredient at a time.
Could This Be the Perfect Dessert?
I recently had a conversation with a friend. Of course, it didn't take long before we were talking about food. And then the question arose, "What is your favorite dessert?" For me, that's an easy one—warm apple pie, scented with cinnamon and cloves, a pinch of nutmeg, and a slice of aged Cheddar cheese on top.
Some people say that everything's better with bacon. My motto is that everything—breakfast, lunch, dinner (and even bacon?)—is better with cheese.
What about dessert? Is dessert better with cheese? Or, what if cheese is the dessert?
In the United States, we often serve cheese as an appetizer, but in France, it is common for cheese to be the ultimate course, the ending signature for a perfect evening. Did the French invent the cheese course? I don't know, but I'll give them credit for doing so (and assume that they won't be offended).
A country producing almost 360 different types of cheese cannot die.
— Sir Winston Churchill, former British Prime Minister (1874-1965), speaking of France
There is no down-side to creating a cheese board:
- It presents your guests with a stunning wow presentation
- Adjustable for every budget
- Most components can be prepared ahead of time
- No cooking!
It's Not Just Something to Eat
A cheese board (otherwise known as a cheese course) is more than one of several courses in a splendid meal. It isn't merely "something to eat." The cheese course should invite conversation, exploration, and even curiosity. It is not something to be rushed. This is when we linger over that bottle of wine, nibbling slowly, thoughtfully.
There is not a singular recipe for the perfect cheese board. Here are a few methodologies for your consideration:
- Single centerpiece - Select one outstanding cheese and pair it with a few complimentary nuts and fruits.
- Source - Select cheeses from one type of milk (all cow, all sheep, or all goat).
- Geography - What is the country of origin—France, Italy, Spain, the Netherlands, USA? Each one creates distinctive cheeses.
- Texture - Use all soft, all semi-soft, firm (slicing), or all extra-hard cheeses. Or, begin with soft cheese, then progress through all of the possibilities from soft to extra-hard.
My personal cheese course could be likened to the old adage about what a bride should wear on her wedding day, "Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue."
How do we begin? First, I will briefly introduce you to each of the components, and then I will give you some tables that will help you to assemble your own perfect cheese course.
Cheese boards are the perfect entertaining dish for the busy party host.
— The Kitchen Professor
There are hundreds of cheeses in the world, but all of them can be categorized as blue, soft rind, fresh, slicing (firm), or grating (hard). I cannot list all of them here but am providing a sampling of the most common.
Although all blue cheeses have the same basic flavor (from the Penicillium roqueforti) they still have their own unique qualities from different milk sources (cow, sheep, goat) and aging.
- American (including but not limited to Maytag, Oregon, Treasure Cave, Kendall Chevreblue, and Blue Moon New World) - These vary in tang and texture. The Kendall Chevreblue is made of goat's milk and so it unquestionably the sharpest of the group.
- Danish - Pungent and perfect for crumbling over salads or stirring into creamy salad dressings. This is a double-cream (high butterfat) cheese which makes it rich and creamy.
- Gorgonzola - This Northern Italy cheese comes in two forms, the bold long-aged traditional cow's milk Gorgonzola, and Dolce (sweet) its younger cousin. Both are moist enough to spread easily on bread or a cracker.
- Roquefort - A true Roquefort must come from sheep's milk in a specific region of France, aged in particular caves. It is quite salty in taste and somewhat crumbly.
- Stilton - This great British cheese is made of whole cow's milk, and is produced in Leicestershire, Derbyshire, and Nottinghamshire. It is cheddar-like and marbled with blue veining.
Soft Rind Cheese
Soft rind cheeses are also known as "bloomy" cheeses. Each is flavored with a mold that creates a powdery coat on the surface. They are soft and oozy, perfectly spreadable even when chilled. At room temperature, they are delightfully runny and when baked (in puff pastry shells?) are luxuriously molten. Here are a few of the most common soft-rind types:
- Brie - Originally, Brie was made in the village of Brie, south and east of Paris, France. Now they are created in many areas, including the United States, but the true Brie is made from unpasteurized milk and cured for less than 60 days so it cannot, by law, be imported to the U.S.
- Camembert - This one originates from a village of the same name near Normandy, France. It looks and tastes very much like Brie, but with a more assertive flavor.
- Double-cream or (dare we suggest?) triple-cream - As one might expect, these are even more decadent, however, they are not as aromatic, nor are they as flavorful. If you are new to soft-rind cheeses either of these might be a good introduction.
- Taleggio - An Italian cows milk cheese aged 6 to 10 weeks. Folklore of this cheese tells us that it was invented by monks over 1,000 years ago. They would wash the rounds of cheese to remove the mold growing on the surface, but in doing so actually encouraged the growth of mold inside the cheese, creating a host of pungent flavors.
Firm (Sliceable) Cheese
This large category includes some of the best-known cheeses. This is where you will find your Cheddars, Swiss, Gouda, Edam, and more. But that's just the beginning. Each of those can be either delicately mild or possess bold, sharp tastes. Aging makes the difference between a so-so cheese and an assertive cheese. This is just a sampling of the favorites.
- Cheddar - This one originated in England but is also produced in North America, Australia, and New Zealand. Mild cheddar is aged 4 months and is loved for being extremely sliceable, shreddable, and meltable. Sharp cheddar can be aged for a year or more.
- Edam - The "red ball" cheese comes in three forms—mild is creamy, pale, and almost bland. Aged Edam is darker in color and flavor. Very aged is darker still and has a pronounced sweet-nutty flavor.
- Gouda - The other cheese enrobed with red wax, has a bit more zing, with a rich buttery flavor.
- Havarti - This Danish cheese is mild, semi-soft and is often flavored with herbs such as dill, caraway, or chives.
- Gjetost - This Norwegian goat cheese is unlike any other cheese you will ever encounter. It is brown in color, sweet, salty, has a fudge-like consistency and a flavor that can only be described as caramel-peanut butter with a twang.
- Provolone - This Italian cheese is commonly used in cooking and can be aged anywhere between 2 months and up to 2 years; the longer it is allowed to age the more assertive the taste.
- Swiss cheeses - There are several under this category. Emmenthaler is a true Swiss cheese with large eyes. Those exported to the United States are aged for as little as 4 months; the ones distributed throughout Europe enjoy a more leisurely stay on the curing rack. Gruyere is the sweetest of the Swiss and is often used for fondue. Jarlsberg is the Norwegian cousin to Swiss and tastes almost identical.
Fresh cheeses do not have a rind and are not aged—they possess pure, clean flavors characteristic of the milk from which they are made. They can range in texture from soft and spreadable to slightly crumbly.
- Cotija - Similar to feta, but drier and more crumbly.
- Farmer's cheese - Cultured (soured) milk often flavored with fresh herbs.
- Feta - Tangy, made of sheep or goat milk. Brining gives it the characteristic salty taste.
- Fresh goat cheese (chevre) - Tangy, funky, and spreadable.
- Halloumi - Similar to panela, but more rubbery in texture. Can be grilled or pan-fried.
- Mascarpone - Cheese made from thickened cream.
- Mozzarella - Stored in water, this cheese is creamy and mild-flavored.
- Panela - Mild-flavored cheese that does not melt when heated.
- Ricotta - Creamy, spreadable, fluffy, and slightly sweet.
If you love long-aged cheese that is bold, salty, hard and crumbly rather than creamy, this category is for you.
- Grana Padano - This Italian cheese is made from cow's milk from the Po River Valley. One of the world's first hard cheeses, it was produced over 900 years ago by monks near Milan. Of all of the Italian grating hard cheeses, this one has the mildest flavor.
- Parmigiano-Reggiano - The story of Parmesan (Parmigiano-Reggiano) is long, spanning centuries, and slow, following the natural rhythm of the seasons. In fact, the minimum maturation time is twelve months, and only at this point can it be decided if each individual cheese is worthy of the name it was given at its birth.
- Pecorino-Romano - Most Pecorino is produced on the island of Sardinia from sheep's milk. The flavor is rich, buttery, nutty, and decidedly salty.
Which fruit or fruits should you consider for your cheese board? The easiest answer is to buy whatever is in season. Apples and pears are outstanding with cheese. Grapes and cheese are a perfect partnership. If fresh berries are in season you should certainly add them for taste and color.
Are there fruits to avoid? Any fruit that is highly acidic will definitely not work with cheese, therefore avoid all citrus fruits, rhubarb, pineapple, and kumquats.
If there is a fruit that you dearly love, but it is not available fresh, consider adding it as a dry fruit (see the next topic for ideas).
When fruits are dried their flavors intensify, they become sweeter and even more succulent. I love apricots when they are fresh but would much rather enjoy a slice of Swiss cheese with a dried apricot. What are the best dried fruits for your board?
Nuts not only provide an interesting textural crunch, but each variety also offers its own distinct flavors.
- Almonds - Have a slightly sweet flavor and pair well with Swiss cheese.
- Cashews - Their mild taste and buttery texture go hand-in-hand with salty, tangy blue cheeses.
- Pecans - These are sweet and creamy, a perfect foil for the salty flavors of almost any cheese.
- Walnuts - These are high in tannins which give them an umami, verging on a bitter flavor. Drizzle them with honey for a stunning marriage with goat or sheep milk cheese.
Honey is not a mandatory ingredient in a cheese board, but if you are creating an especially amazing board, an over-the-top presentation (which could be an assembly of cheeses or just one stunning cheese) you might want to consider how a drizzle of honey might provide that high-note to your display.
Bread and Crackers
This is not the place for an herby artisanal bread, nor is it fitting to present a cheese- or onion-flavored cracker. This is where the bread takes a back seat and serves as a quiet (yet important) understudy, the foodstuff which helps to support and elevate the other players in the drama.
A small baguette slice or a water cracker will be admired and thanked for its service.
And, of Course, the Board
This is another place where you can let your imagination shine through. Here are a few suggestions:
- large flat platter
- one (or more) cutting boards. If using small boards, arrange one cheese on each.
- slate (that online retail behemoth) sells slate for this specific purpose. You can write the name of each cheese directly on the board if you wish
- serving trays
- colorful plastic cutting board(s) from the Dollar Store
The "Single Centerpiece"
This would work well for a small group or if you are operating on a tight budget. Buy one stunning piece of cheese and present it with a few of the suggested go-withs. You don't have to use all of the suggested fruits and nuts. Select the ones that are easy to find, local, fresh, and in season.
Cheese Board by "Source" (Type of Milk), Geography, or Texture
Now that you have some guidelines for which fruits, dried fruits, and nuts pair well with the cheeses, let's work on sorting those cheeses by type.
How to Use the Chart
Here are a few suggested combinations:
- Source (Type of Milk) - For this selection we'll focus on cow's-milk cheeses. Serve a Danish blue, a camembert, and a sharp aged cheddar with pears, dried apricots, and pecans.
- Geography - Let's focus on cheeses from Italy. Gorgonzola, provolone, and pecorino-romano.
A Few More Tips to Keep in Mind
- Have a separate knife for each type of cheese.
- Always serve cheese at room temperature.
- Always present an odd number of cheeses (odd numbers are more visually appealing).
- Try to present different shapes of cheese—rounds, wedges, pyramids (again, this create visual interest).
- And, just as at a wine tasting you start with light fruity tastes and then move on to more assertive, oaky flavors, always begin with the mildest-tasting cheese and then progress to sharper/more distinct/funky cheeses.
Just for Fun: The World's Largest Cheese Board
The world's largest cheese board was created on August 1, 2018, in the city of Madison, Wisconsin. A forklift positioned the crowning jewel of the array onto a custom-designed board—a 2,064-pound wheel of Henning's Mammoth Cheddar. Once securely in place, other lesser-proportioned wedges and wheels of cheese were artfully arranged on the 35-foot by 7-foot board. Mike Marcotte, a representative of the Guinness World Records, was present for the weighing in. He pronounced the display of 4,437 pounds and 63 ounces of Wisconsin cheese as a new world record.
© 2018 Linda Lum