When I lived in New York City, everyone talked about “the holidays” (meaning, loosely, those weeks from Thanksgiving to New Year’s Day) as the time of year when you were guaranteed to be entertaining and when assembling a proper cheese board was an essential survival skill.
After four years in New Orleans, I’ve learned that the mission-critical entertaining season here runs from Halloween to Mardi Gras. I’m guaranteed to be hosting friends from out of town, or running tables down our center hall for our large family Thanksgiving dinner, or getting that hopeful 4:45 p.m. text from a friend suggesting a 5:15 p.m. gathering for our combined families of 15.
If I were more like my domestic heroes, I would have a chest freezer in the outdoor shed, stuffed with twice-baked potatoes, quarts of homemade soup and sauce, several gallon baggies of homemade meatballs, and a couple of trays of lasagna to be text-to-table ready in 60 minutes or less. Sadly, I am still campaigning for the chest freezer (and secretly worrying about how I would ever fill it if I got one).
All of which is to say that my ability to assemble instant meals (or at least long-lasting noshables) from cheeses, meats and some strategically chosen accoutrements is more important than ever before. But for holiday cheese boards my goal is bigger. Better. More. I want them to be beautiful, to feel special. I want the cheese to be decimated and everyone remarking happily, even as they sit down to a three-hour, butter-soaked Thanksgiving of carbs and meat. That’s my benchmark of a cheese board done right.
The question must then be asked: Where does one go from the usual wedge of Brie and hunk of Cheddar? And my answer is: to infinite places, depending on the need and situation.
Let these basic principles be your guide to a varied and impressive cheese board:
How Many and What Types of Cheese?
Part of what makes this season special is excess. That’s the appeal. So while I usually suggest 3 to 5 cheeses at most, holiday cheese boards should aim bigger. I like a selection of 7, which is enough to hit a really broad array of styles, and 4 or 5 unusual condiments for accent.
Speaking of styles, I won’t tell you to forego your beloved Brie, but if there is ever a time to experiment, this is it. With a crowd of guests comes a crowd of tastes, and I find it deeply satisfying when I succeed in pleasing everyone. (See my Holiday Cheese Cheat Sheet for a breakdown of cheeses by type.) Pick one each from seven different groups and you’ve got your variety with minimal stress.
Selecting different types also ensures a range of textures: a few buttery, slathery options; some semisoft or firm choices; a nugget of something hard and chunkable.
Give every animal a spot at the table. Cow milk cheeses comprise the vast majority of offerings, but goat, sheep and mixed milk options are there for those who look. If you’re lucky you may find a buffalo milk cheese or two. Different milk types deliver different flavors and mouthfeel. They also give you the opportunity to help guests out of an established comfort zone while still offering the safety net of old reliables.
Because you’ll be offering a wide range, provide a variety of knives conveniently placed next to each cheese. Thin-bladed knives are best for soft, sticky cheeses like fresh goat cheese, Brie, Camembert and blues. Thick-bladed knives do good work cutting through dense, firm cheeses. The rock-hard hunks can be chunked, using a spade-shaped knife or, in a pinch, an oyster shucker. (Don’t supply a cheese plane, since it requires you to pick up the entire piece of cheese just to shave a paper-thin slice.)
How Much to Buy?
Quantity is a tricky discussion because of the variables — with number of guests and number of other foods being the most influential. As you offer more types of cheese, you will find that visitors generally eat smaller amounts of greater variety. A good rule of thumb is to assume half an ounce of each cheese, per person. Should you limit the selection to 3 to 5 cheeses, up this to an ounce per person.
My Approach to Pairing
What makes a good pairing is whatever makes you and your friends happy, but I have found certain principles for pairing food and drink with cheese are more likely to make people happy. My pairing methodology strives for balancing textures and flavors, plus introducing elements that offer your palate refreshment from all that fat and protein. As you pick your condiments think about:
Texture: Soft, buttery cheeses beg for crispy companionship. Think Brie types with fresh apple or pear slices and nut toasts. Hard, chunkable cheeses can stand up to sticky, viscous garnishes like aged balsamic vinegar or fruit pastes and jams.
Flavor: Cheese is salt, fat and protein. You can cut that with sugar, acid and spice. If we extend this is to drinks I would add carbonation. So, salty blue cheeses pair beautifully with honey, chocolate and dessert wine. The classic English ploughman’s lunch relies on tart pickles (or pickled fruit) to slice through the dense and earthy paste of aged Cheddar. I think the best wine to drink with cheese of all kinds is Champagne: You get to drink your toast, while crisp acidity and fine effervescence prime your mouth for another bite.