Cheese platter sure to please

Just add some fruit, crackers and wine

July 27, 2005|By Liz Atwood | Liz Atwood,SUN FOOD EDITOR

Where there's a party, there's bound to be a cheese platter.

And why not? It's the one dish a hostess can depend on. It requires no cooking, takes just minutes to assemble and is sure to be a crowd-pleaser.

Creating a cheese platter can be as simple as serving sliced cheddar alongside grapes and crackers.

But the large variety of domestic and imported cheeses in the supermarket today allows a hostess to be more creative and present a range of tastes, textures and colors on the cheese plate.

"The important thing when you do a cheese plate is to get a variety of flavors," said Jack Fromberg, owner of the wholesale company the Great Cheese on Calvert Street. "You want to make a mixture of flavors and textures."

Judy Schwartzberg, owner of the Big Cheese, a retail store in Annapolis, suggests arranging a platter with five or six cheeses. "I think a cheese platter needs first and foremost to be really beautiful," said Schwartzberg, who designs cheese platters for parties.

She goes so far as taking cheese slices to the florist to select flowers that will match her platters (her favorite is Gerbera daisies).

Her next piece of advice is to make sure the cheeses are easy to serve. "It's important for a cheese plate to be very guest-friendly," she said. "You want it to be inviting. You don't want people to be fearful."

The cheese should slice easily. Hard cheeses should be served with scrapers. And each cheese should have its own knife.

Schwartzberg also said she avoids cheeses that have strong odors unless she is serving guests she knows well. "I rarely put out a blue [cheese]," she said.

But Fromberg has no such reservations about serving blue cheese on his platters, and counts Stilton as among the five cheeses he would be sure to serve to his guests.

He and other connoisseurs say the cheese should be arranged on the plate from mild, such as a mozzarella, to strong, such as the blue. The cheeses also should be arranged from soft to hard and served at room temperature.

When it comes to selecting accompaniments, apples, grapes and pears will go with almost any cheese.

But for a more summerlike offering, try using berries and melons on the plate. Strawberries will pair beautifully with a Stilton, raspberries go nicely with brie and tropical fruit should match nicely with cheddar, Fromberg said.

Schwartzberg likes to use spicy cheese condiments to dress up her platters. "We are at a time when people are very bored with food," she said. Spreads made of oranges, apples, black cherries and figs pair nicely with cheese, she said.

Which cheese to serve is largely a matter of personal preference. Steven Jenkins, author of the Cheese Primer (Workman, 1996), said mild, fresh cheeses such as fresh chevres, sheep's milk ricotta, Piedmont robiola, pecorino Toscano, feta and mascarpone pair well with summer fruit.

"But that is not to say that I wouldn't prefer my beloved full-flavored cheeses, because the intense flavors of summer fruits are not just for gentle fresh cheeses. These fruits practically cry out for cheeses that will challenge them," he said.

For that reason, he goes for gorgonzola Dolce, le Chevrot from Poitou-Charente, a "serious" camembert and French and Spanish sheep cheeses. "These will elevate stone fruits, melon and berries to heights you never knew existed," he said.

Cheese connoisseurs speak of cheese the way oenophiles speak of wine, and there are similarities, Fromberg said. "Every piece of cheese you taste has a different flavor," he said.

Schwartzberg carries 140 cheeses in her store, almost all imported. But she said putting together a cheese platter doesn'thave to be difficult. Ultimately, one's own taste should be the guide.

"People should eat whatever cheese they want with whatever fruit they want," she said. "What could be bad with sweet apricots, sweet peaches and melon?"

Go well together

Here are some suggestions from the American Dairy Association on pairing cheese with summer fruit:

Brie -- strawberries, melons and grapes

Camembert -- melons, grapes, sweet berries and sun-dried tomatoes

Mild Edam -- peaches, melons, apricots and cherries

Baby Gouda -- peaches, melons, apricots, cherries

Gruyere -- melons, dates, figs

Monterey Jack -- plums, peaches, jalapenos

Parmesan -- fresh figs, melon

Swiss -- cherries and berries

Teleme -- honeydew melon, cantaloupe, tomatoes

You can get a free copy of the American Dairy Association's cheese pairing slide rule by e-mailing dairyspot@milk 4u.org. Put cheese in the subject header.

-- Liz Atwood

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