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How to Select Cheeses for a Holiday Feast

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A high end cheese case can appear overwhelming at first glance. | Photo: Paul Wilkinson/Flickr/Creative Commons License

You have been assigned (or maybe you even volunteered) to bring a cheese platter to the next big holiday feast. Now you're faced with cheese counters piled high with a variety of cheeses from all over the world: it can be rather overwhelming. Grocery store Brie and smoked Gouda have gone the way of Merlot and The Dave Matthews Band -- if you want people to think that you have been living in a bomb shelter for the past fifteen years, then by all means, bring Brie and smoked Gouda to the party. For the rest of us, the task of selecting cheeses that are appropriate and interesting can be a challenge. So, how does one select a successful pairing of cheeses for an already abundant feast?

Creating some rules and limitations for the platter before you get to the store can make selecting cheese a breeze. Pick a number between three and five. Two cheeses on a platter can seem rather sad, and with six or more you might as well just bring the whole store with you.

How many people will be at the party, roughly? Two ounces per person is the minimum. So for eight people you would need 16 ounces, or one pound total. If you go with three cheeses then you need one third of a pound of each cheese. How much will that run you? Anywhere from $20 up to $40, depending.

Wheels of cheese on display | Photo: missbossy/Flickr/Creative Commons License

Consider texture, milk type, and rind type. The wider the range that you represent, the better. Textures range from buttery to hard as leather to dense and crunchy, and everything in between. There are crumbly cheeses, and smooth ones; silky and granular: a texture for every mood. Be sure to represent a range. It might behoove you to provide a range of milk types as well. Some of your guests may prefer one to the other and some may even have allergies that restrict them from eating cow milk cheese. We want them to enjoy cheese too!

The first thing you notice on a cheese is its rind (or lack thereof.) There are so many varieties: Cloud-like bloom rinds, sticky red bacteria rinds, craggy natural skins, ash coated or herb-caked. Mix and match because the aesthetic value of your platter will weigh heavily on the variety you portray.

French cheeses | Photo: Joi Ito/Flickr/Creative Commons License

Arriving at the cheese shop, look at the selection. Look for a soft cheese -- here's one with a bloom rind that looks so decadent that my mouth waters.

A perfectly ripe, brie-like cheese Photo: Richard North/Flickr/Creative Commons License

It's a cow's milk cheese. Cross that off the list. So what might be next? A semi-firm goat cheese? Here's a cinder-coated goat cheese from France. A slightly firm pate with a smooth and silky fondue where the cheese is most ripe.

Perfect. So... what else. A hard sheep cheese? Look at this stunning Pecorino!

Delicious, aged sheep cheese | Photo: Graeme Maclean/Flickr/Creative Commons License

Wonderful. There we have it. Three cheeses, three completely different flavor profiles. Your guests will love it.

Here are a few themed cheese platter ideas. Mix and match as you see fit.

French cheeses
French Chevre: Comes in all shapes, sizes, and rind types. Great aesthetic.
Comte/Beaufort: Alpine cow cheeses. Meaty aged cheeses with long lasting flavor.
Roquefort: I'll be sure to tell my guests that this sheep's milk blue cheese is aged in caves.
Brebis: Young, semi-firm sheep cheese. Like a mild Cheddar with a sustaining nutty finish.
Mimolette: A bright orange cheese somewhere between Cheddar and Gouda in flavor. The older the better. The color is fantastic.

California Cheeses
Humboldt Fog (Cypress Grove): A classic chevre-style cheese from Arcata with a bloom rind and a band of ash.
Lamb Chopper from Cypress Grove: a semi firm sheeps milk gouda.
Red Hawk from Cowgirl Creamery: My favorite cheese of all time. It is silky with a long lasting flavor. Pairs well with most alcoholic beverages.
Dry Jack from Vella Cheese Co.: the one with pepper and cocoa rubbed into the rind. So good.
Point Reyes Blue: Another Califo classic. You might just keep this for yourself.

Crowd Pleasers
Aged Gouda: You can find these anywhere! They are so much better than the passe smoked goudas that plagued cheese platters of the 1990s. Please don't ever bring smoked gouda to a party unless you are sure there are no cheese snobs around. They will think less of you for it.
Tripe-Creme: It looks like an over stuffed brie and is so much creamier and richer.
Humboldt Fog: I really can't write anything about cheee without mentioning it at least twice.
Anything from Cowgirl Creamerie: Especially Mt. Tam or Red Hawk.
Roquefort: You don't need a lot. The cheese connoisseurs will appreciate it.
Manchego: The "It" cheese

Vacuum-sealed Chevre: go with the plain stuff. It's not very expensive but is tart and bright enough to stand out among stronger cheeses.
American Brie: mild and inexpensive. They are also bland and irrelevant in todays cheese scene.
Aged Gouda: relatively inexpensive for how much flavor they punch. Look for Beemster, Rembrandt and other like brands.
Pepper Jack: Buy a block, cut it into cubes. People love it.

Use these suggestions and techniques in building your own perfect pairing for a spectacular holiday cheese plate. Have questions? Shoot us a tweet and we'll throw down some knowledge.

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