No matter how many parties I host, somehow planning the menu still feels so stress every single time. I've learned to conquer that hump by master simplification, like this perfectly easy (but still elegant!) cheese and cracker spread. All you'll need to do is make a quick trip to the store and spend a few minutes arranging.
Choosing the cheese
While a solid cheese platter has many components, the main focus is obviously the cheese. If you’ve ever spent time in the cheese section of your local grocery, you know there's a wide spectrum of cheeses that can be classified in a few different ways:
- Firmness: Soft, semi-hard and hard
- Type: Goat, sheep or cow
- Region: Spain, Italy, California, etc.
- Age: Whether or not the cheese has been aged, and if so, for how long?
It's easy to feel overwhelmed by all the choices, which can result in two things 1) Completely overbuying cheese (which I’ve been known to do) or 2) Creating a cheese plate that isn’t terribly diverse.
Here's how to avoid those issues.
Pick cheeses that have opposite classifications
Mix it up! If you already picked up a soft cheese, look for a hard cheese that might compliment it. Or, if you’ve picked up a couple cow’s milk cheeses, throw in a goat or sheep cheese too for a good medley.
Focus on a region
This just helps to narrow your options. I live in Northern California and more often than not I’ll use all local cheeses that fall into a few different classifications. You could even go the extra step and learn how to make cheese at home! But that's a different beast. Here's what I chose for this example:
- Petaluma Mt. Tam Triple Cream (soft cheese)
- Point Reyes Blue Cheese (blue cheese)
- Sonoma Goat Cheese (soft cheese/goat’s milk)
- Cypress Hill-Aged Gouda (semi-hard and sheep’s milk)
- Point Reyes Toma Farmer’s Cheese (semi-hard)
A quick note about rennet
Some cheeses are made from animal rennet, which means they're not vegetarian-friendly. Usually the labels will indicate whether or not vegetarian rennet was used, but do a quick search on the internet if the label leaves you guessing.
You probably know that a good cheese platter isn't just about cheese. Things like nuts, fruit and olives are eaten separately and make great flavor pairings, while jam, mustard and bread/crackers are for mixing and matching right along with the cheese. The point is to create a taste explosion that doesn't just feel like the cheese and crackers snack you ate growing up.
Bread & crackers
Bread and crackers play the main supporting role here, so don't go skimpy. Play with flavor combinations by providing a few different types of crackers and bread. I love a sourdough baguette, a wholegrain loaf, plain crackers and nut-thin crackers.
Beyond the bread, you'll want an assortment of condiments to bring out the cheese flavors. Fig jam is pretty common, but I prefer spicy chile jams, lemon marmalade and spicy mustard. Look up the flavor profiles of the cheese and use that to guide your condiment choices. The farmers' market is also a great place to find artisanal jam ( or make your own jam ), mustard and honey that your guests won't see anywhere else!
Olives & pickled items
Alrighty, cheese and crackers are set, so now we need some pairing items. I like to visit the olive bar at my local grocery store and grab a few different marinated olives, roasted peppers, mushrooms and roasted garlic along with one or two crisp pickles (green beans are another favorite of mine).
Dried or fresh, fruit always deserves a spot on your platter. With so much salty and savory going on, you need the simple sweetness of fruit to balance everything out. I choose my fruit depending on the season, so I'm always getting the freshest flavors. In the fall and winter, I'll serve grapes, apples or pears. If it's summer, stone fruit and fresh berries are my go-to.
Now that we've got plenty of flavors happening, it's time to think about texture. Nuts bring a bit of crunch to the platter — some of my favorites are marcona almonds, roasted pistachios and sweet roasted walnuts. Any type of roasted nut (plain or flavored) is a nice addition, so have a look at the bulk bins at your local grocery, and check around the cheese area for flavored and unique nuts.
Now the fun part! Plan for 3 to 4 ounces of cheese per person, along with the various other items you picked up. For a party of 8 to 10, I like to serve 5-ish cheeses. It's also a good idea to remove your cheese from the fridge at least 45 minutes before serving so it can warm slightly to slice or spread easily. The most important thing here is to have fun, so enjoy your selections and the time spent with friends. Fewer things are finer.