Building a Cheese Platter

Serving cheese is a terrific way to add pizzazz to any occasion, from an impromptu get together with friends to an elaborate celebration.

All it entails is a quick trip to a good cheese vendor such as Dussa's or Oyama Sausage Company in the Market, and then a few minutes spent on arranging the cheeses attractively on a platter or a cheese board and you're good to go.

When selecting the cheese, look for a good spread of different tastes, textures, and appearances. On the average, about five cheeses would be enough for a small gathering. An interesting selection may include a soft, mild cheese like a Brie or Camembert, a distinctly flavoured semi-soft cheese such as a smoked Gouda or a Tilsit, a hard, mild, nutty cheese such as an aged Parmesan, Asiago, or cheddar, a semi-firm, sharp, rich cheese like a Roquefort or Stilton, a fresh creamy cheese like a Chèvre. Do remember to bring them to room temperature before serving for best effects. And be sure to arrange the cheeses far enough apart so they are not touching each other and to provide knives for cutting each individual cheese.

To embellish your cheese platter, try adding fresh and dried fruits such as fresh pear, apples, peaches, cape gooseberries, grapes, and berries or dried apricots or prunes to the presentation. Toasted nuts such as almonds, walnuts, and hazelnuts are also wonderful to serve with cheese. It's also quite trendy to serve fruit conserves or "pates" and firm "jellies" made from fruits such as such as quince, apricot, or raspberries.

Another important adjunct to the platter is a good selection of breads or toasts. Sliced baguettes or toast points are good, but breads such as nut or fruit loaves, thinly sliced then toasted until crisp in a low temperature oven, are even better. In fact, it's a good way to use up any slightly stale loaves you may have lying around the house.

To further enhance the experience, you might consider serving appropriate wines with the cheeses. Blue cheeses such as Stilton or Gorgonzola will go well with dessert or late harvest wines like icewines, sauternes, ports, or even sweet sherries. Fresh cheeses like a goat or feta cheese have an affinity with wines with higher acidity like a Sauvignon blanc, riesling, or pinot noir. Soft-ripened cheeses like Teleme or Brillat-Savarin will pair well with rich chardonnays and aged cheeses like cheddars and aged Gruyeres, and Parmigiano-Reggiano will serve strong tannic dry reds such as cabernet Sauvignon or zinfandel well.

If you don't mind putting in a bit of work, here's a lovely idea that will make your next party a hit: Get a small wheel of Brie, remove its wrapper, and replace it in its (wooden) box. Wrap it in aluminum foil and baked in a 325°F oven for 15 minutes or until it's warmed through and become soft and runny inside. Score its skin a few times with a sharp knife. Scatter a handful of toasted walnuts on top. Then drizzle some maple syrup and truffle oil over the whole thing and serve it hot with toast points for dipping.

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