We’ve all seen them on Pinterest – epic cheese and charcuterie boards overflowing with a bounty so great it makes your mouth water. From gift exchanges to cocktail parties, the holiday season presents many occasions for designing your own picture-perfect spread.
A classy cheese presentation offers your guests the opportunity to casually explore a menagerie of aromas, tastes and textures while experimenting with cheeses, meats, crackers, jams and fruit.
“That’s the fun of a cheese and charcuterie board,” says David Sohrweide, general manager at Simon’s Specialty Cheese Store in Little Chute. “You’re allowed to be adventurous because you’re not committing to anything. You’re just committing to that one bite.”
Choosing the Cheese
A dynamic cheese and charcuterie board is a little gift unto itself, but selecting the right components can be somewhat tricky, if not overwhelming due to the seemingly endless options.
“The point of a charcuterie board is to contrast and complement,” Sohrweide explains. “You want sweet and salty flavors, smooth and rough textures, hard and soft cheese. If you’re having a winter holiday board you want to think hearty, warm, homey flavors.”
Ben Shibler is the operations manager at Ponderosa Dairy Products, a third-generation family run farm in Kewaunee which also owns The Cannery Public Market in Green Bay. He recommends planning the board around the cheeses and sticking to about four to six different varieties.
“Any more than that and it will overload your palate,” he says. “Too much variety clouds perception.”
Make sure to have about one to two ounces per cheese for each person. Aim for a variety of textures including soft (burrata, brie), semi-soft (stilton, Gorgonzola), semi-hard (manchego, Swiss) and hard (cheddar, parmesan).
When selecting which varieties to include, crowd-pleasing cheddars are a good foundation. Shibler suggests the very winter-appropriate Ponderosa Farmstead Snow Cheddar, a nutty white cheddar cheese with a creamy mouthfeel. Next, including a semi-hard cheese, like gouda, will add a different texture to the mix.
“The goudas coming out of Wisconsin right now are excellent,” Sohrweide says. “We carry varieties that have bits of truffle, bacon or fenugreek in them.”
Soft cheeses make an excellent addition to a cheese board, especially at this time of year, says Alan Trick, owner of Nala’s fromagerie in De Pere.
“We like to promote the soft, creamy cheeses for the cold winter months when you’re inside by the fire,” says Trick, who specifically suggests Fromager d’Affinois Truffle, a French brie-style cheese with pieces of black truffle. “It’s a big hitter around Thanksgiving and Christmas in the cooler weather.”
To contrast savory and salty flavors, make sure to include something on the sweeter side as well.
“You want to indulge the sweet tooth with something like our chocolate cheese fudge that we make right here in the store,” Sohrweide says. “It’s made with fudge, Simon’s cheddar cheese and cream cheese.”
Cheeses containing fruit flavors are another way to offer sweetness and add color to your cheese board.
“For the holidays, a nice option is Maple Leaf Cheese’s cranberry white cheddar. Cranberries are grown in Wisconsin so that’s a good starting point,” says Shari Rogers, store manager at Lamer’s Dairy in Appleton. “Another good one is their apple harvest cheddar made with apples and cinnamon.”
Once the cheeses have been selected, it’s time to consider what else will round out the board. Accompaniments like fruits, nuts and spreads can take your cheese board up a notch.
“The cheese always needs to be the centerpiece because that’s the main course, but from there you fill in the gaps with meats and proteins,” Shibler says. “Next fill in with veggies and fruit and last is nuts and jams. That gives you the most diversity in terms of flavor profiles.”
Janel Abel Megna, owner of 313 Dodge in Kaukauna, says honey is an often underestimated and underused component.
“That dab of sweetness does amazing things for the cheese and meat,” she says. “Fresh or dried fruit is always welcomed and pairs well with the cheese or is a nice break in between bites. Nuts add a nice crunch as do pickles. Whole grain mustard adds an interesting texture to the meats. And you can never go wrong with some dark chocolate either.”
Shibler suggests adding thinly sliced salami or Italian sausage to bring out the flavor of mild cheeses. Seasonal fruits such as currants, figs and pomegranates add great color as well as flavor. Almonds and pecans are versatile nuts that work with many different palates. “I usually like to include one jam and I learn toward the jalapeño jams,” Shibler says. “Something like green olives for the color is both visually and spiritually pleasing.”
Offer a variety of breads in the form of sliced baguette and crackers which will serve as the vehicle for cheeses and other items. Offer crackers in a variety of shapes and sizes to accommodate the cheese and meat offerings.
While there are truly no rules to designing a cheese board, there are some ways to create a “user friendly” experience.
“When I plate cheese boards, I try to arrange them with what pairs best in mind so more of the sweet items (fruit, hard cheeses, honey) by each other and then savory on the other side (meats, mustards, pickles),” Abel Megna says. “I try to plate the cheeses with lots of space in between, then fill part of the space with the meat and finally fill the rest of the open spaces with the nuts, fruit and jams.”
After the items are arranged to your liking, create a more bountiful board by tucking fresh herbs in the open spaces for a festive touch around the holidays.
“I personally would add some pomegranate perils or cranberries to the board, find those pretty crackers that have fruit and nuts in them and maybe garnish with some slapped rosemary and orange slices so the whole board smells amazing,” Abel Megna suggests.
Sohrweide says to be mindful of food allergies when working with nuts, dairy and soy. If any of your guests have allergies, consider making a segmented board using small bowls or leaving space between items so allergic guests can still enjoy the items that are safe for them.
“If no one has food allergies, fill that board up and make it look impressive for your guests,” Sohrweide says. “I love looking at a cornucopia of food in front of me that just makes your mouth water.”
Remember that guests will first eat with their eyes so selecting the right serving platter or tray is an important consideration. “There’s a difference when you present it on a paper plate versus a rough-hewn piece of oak cut from a tree or a piece of slate,” Sohrweide says. “Presentation is a big part of the overall experience. It makes everything pop and makes it more exciting.”
How you approach the design of your cheese board is entirely personal. Shibler says it comes down to what you like and what’s pleasing to your palate.
“There’s infinite possibility for personal interpretation on a cheese board,” he says. “Don’t feel tied down to a status quo. Be creative.”
● Let cheese come to room temperature before serving. Cold dulls the flavor.
● Label each cheese. Rogers suggests writing the name on little flags attached to toothpicks that can be stuck directly into the cheese.
● Each cheese should get its own knife or serving utensil, especially for pungent varieties.