A cheese board is an easy appetizer to put together for any party – whether planned in advance or spur of the moment.
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With the holiday season in full swing, it’s easy to be ready for unexpected guests at a moment’s notice. If you are a cheese lover like me, you’ll prepare cheese boards for your planned guests too! A good cheese board is a little savory, a little sweet, a little salty, and sure to satisfy almost anyone’s taste desires. That is, unless you dislike cheese, but those people probably won’t last long at my house anyway.
The beauty of a cheese board is in it’s versatility. Don’t like blue cheese? Don’t use it. Love flavored cheeses? Pile them on! Need dairy-free or vegan-friendly cheeses? There are lots of yummy options on the market. Cheese goes great with most any wine including champagne, but it also pairs nicely with beer and cocktails as well. A note of caution: don’t pair it with eggnog – it just isn’t pleasant.
One of the most important elements to making a good cheese plate is how you present it. You can buy a dedicated cheese board like this one that includes a cracker rest and special cheese knives or this fancy number made of slate so that you can label the cheese with chalk. I prefer to use a simple cutting board. I picked up a mid-sized bamboo board from HomeGoods and once I got to the checkout realized that it had the state of California etched into one side. Score! We use the non-etched side for cutting and the etched side for cheese boards. If I need more room for a larger crowd, I can always upgrade to one of my larger boards or pull out my turkey platter.
However, before we get started on the cheese board these cutting boards need a little bit of TLC. I’ve been noticing in my pictures lately that my boards are looking a bit gray and weathered, like the picture on the left. A properly cared for board needs to be oiled occasionally. It should be shiny and water should bead up on it’s surface, like in the picture on the right. They should also dry fairly quickly. It’s not a difficult process, but it does take some time to allow the wood to absorb the oil.
Start with a clean cutting board, then give it a deep clean with a lemon and salt. The cutting board conditioner is going to put a seal on the wood to help keep things – like wine – from soaking in, so it’s best to get out as much of the grime as possible. I used coarse kosher salt, because that’s what I cook with but you can also do this with regular table salt. Liberally sprinkle the board with salt, then rub with the lemon squeezing out the juice as you scrub along. Let it sit for a few minutes, then rinse clean and allow to dry fully. My boards probably took a good 10 minutes to fully dry after I wiped them down with a clean towel. And that wine stain? Gone.
Next step is to massage in the board conditioner. There are various types of oils and creams and conditioners on the market to care for your cutting boards. At the very least you need a food grade mineral oil and on the other end of the spectrum you can find a recipe to make your own spoon oil – 3191 has a great recipe if you choose to go that route. I opted for John Taylor’s trusty Butcher Block Conditioner, but I’ve also previously had good luck with Howard’s Butcher Block Conditioner as well. I admit that I don’t follow the directions on the bottle. I’m such a rebel. I prefer to completely coat the board, using my hands to rub the oil in. Prop the board upright and let it sit and absorb the oil for about 8 hours or overnight. After the oil has been absorbed grab a clean towel and buff the board. This will remove any excess oil and give it an even shine.
Once it’s done, the wood looks rich, feels smooth, and repels water. Mine had been allowed to go so long without being treated that after one coat water still wasn’t beading up. I repeated the process once more and the second coat did the trick. The conditioner can be used on any wooden items in your kitchen that come into contact with food. I conditioned my mortar and pestle, a couple wooden bowls, and the handles of my rolling pin. One word of caution, try to condition your boards when you know you won’t need them for the next 8 – 10 hours or longer if they need more than one coat. Now that we have a way to present our cheese board, let’s get on to the style portion!
This is the overview for a successful cheese board. Think of this as suggested ratios and not the final word. I suggest you select 3 various types of cheese, the guideline is to have one that’s hard, one medium, and one soft. Add in 1 nut element, 1 sweet element, 1 – 2 fruit elements, and 1 or more types of crackers or bread. I’ve seen extras like pickles, onions, and mustards, but I prefer to use those for charcuterie boards instead. FYI: charcuterie is just a fancy word for the appetizer board with meat board instead of cheese.
The bread or cracker element is completely up to you. If I choose flavored cheeses, like herbed cheese or a spicy pepper cheese, I like to keep my bread element plain. When doing more straightforward cheese, I like crackers with a little flavor to them. You can go as plain or as fancy as you want. one of my favorites is to make crostinis. Grab a baguette from the bakery, slice it up, spray the top with a bit of olive oil, sprinkle with salt and bake for 10 minutes in a 350 degree oven. Super simple and you home smells like freshly baked bread. One trick I’ve learned over the years: when slicing crusty bread, start with slits that go about halfway through the loaf then go back and cut through the full way. This allows the bread to keep it shape and makes it much easier on you to get even slices all the way through.
For the fruit element, I went with apple slices and dates. I only sliced up 1/4 of the apple and used only a handful of dates. I have used grapes, strawberries, blackberries, raspberries, pears, peaches, plums, mango, and I could go on. The fruit is the only element that I think about when pairing the wine, but it’s more about what is in season and what you like best.
The sweet element is something sweet and spreadable. Jam, jelly, preserves, honey, maple syrup, fruit paste, even an asian plum sauce will fit the bill. Sometimes I’ve seen the sweet element drizzled right onto the plate, but I put it in a jar or ramekin to allow my guest to mix things up however they choose.
The nut element pictured is my honey sage butter pecans. They are so yummy, but I somehow overlooked this little jar in the back of my fridge. Not sure how they didn’t get eaten, but I’m glad I had them. You can do any kind of nut: fresh, roasted, salted, or even seasoned. I put 1/4 of a cup of nuts on the board, but you can adjust as necessary.
Moving on to our star of the cheese board, the cheese! Aim for between 1 – 1.5 ounces of cheese per person.
When presenting the cheese, make it easier on your guests (and your wallet) by cutting the cheese up in advance. Above we have the same portion of cheese before it’s cut and after it’s cut. Keep in mind that 1 ounce of cheese is supposed to be a complete serving. One ounce in one chunk seems really small. It’s easy for someone to come up, cut that in half and eat it all in one bite. In that case, your 5 ounces or so that would feed 4 people is now gone in 10 bites.
By slicing the cheese up before you put it on the board it not only looks like a lot more cheese, but it encourages people to eat smaller pieces and hopefully not ruin their appetites. It also prevents that awkward situation where the parmesan goes flying across the room because someone is trying to be polite and not put their hands all over it while cutting. Funny, unless you are the one with the knife in hand.
Your soft spreadable cheeses are of course the exception, so make sure you have a knife at hand. A soft crumbly cheese can be broken up into larger chunks instead of being cut.
For the hard cheese I chose an aged Beemster gouda. It one of my favorites and has these little crystals in it that form during the aging process that give it a zingy little crunch. I selected a 6 ounce portion and used 1.75 ounces on the board.
The medium cheese I chose was Fiscalini Purple Moon, which is a raw cow’s milk cheddar that’s been soaked in cabernet. It’s a little sharper than I expected, but it has a great creamy texture. I chose a 6.5 ounce portion and used 1.5 ounces on the board.
My last cheese is a Cypress Grove Chevre Herbs de Humboldt. It’s a goat’s milk cheese with herbs de provence. I’ve always had good luck with Cypress Grove cheeses and found the “Herbs de Humboldt” funny. (Humboldt county in CA is known for it’s herbs, but not the kind that are legal in most states.) These come in 4 ounce portions and I used 1.5 ounces on the cheese board.
In all, this makes one of the most cost-effective, but yet elegant appetizers that can be thrown together at a moment’s notice. Keep the elements stocked in your fridge and you’ll be ready for any impromptu holiday gathering.
Do you keep cheese stocked in your fridge or am I the only one? What is your favorite kind of cheese for a cheese board? What’s the most interesting way you’ve seen a cheese board presented? Let me know in the comments below!
Cheese Board 101: Style and Presentation
- 1 hard cheese
- 1 medium cheese
- 1 soft cheese
- 1 sweet spreadable element jam, honey, or fruit paste
- 1 nut element any nut preferably salted, roasted, or seasoned
- 1 - 2 fruit elements
- 1 - 3 bread or cracker elements
Choose a suitable cheese board or platter for presentation.
Use about 1 - 1 1/4 ounce of cheese per person.
Slice the medium and hard cheeses into small bite sized portions.
Portion the soft cheese and supply a serving knife.
Serve the sweet element in a jar or ramekin with a spoon or small knife.
Divide the fruit into bite sized pieces if necessary.
Arrange all the elements on your serving board and enjoy.