Whoever first decided it was not only acceptable but classy to throw a bunch of cheese bits and snacks on a board deserves credit for simultaneously pulling off what may have been both the greatest scam and invention in the history of entertaining.
Sure, you might want to invest in fresh cheese if you're having friends over, but you can pull together the rest of a great board using mostly what you already may have in your refrigerator or freezer. And let's be honest, you can spend all the time in the world making an impressive main course, and your guests will still probably be as enamored of the cheese board you put out to occupy them at the beginning of the evening.
Shelly Westerhausen, who recently released "Platters and Boards: Beautiful, Casual Spreads for Every Occasion" with her partner, Wyatt Worcel, unsurprisingly says that anytime is a good time for a cheese board. Small party, big party, cobbled-together dinner for one or two: You can't go wrong.
Here are tips to help you put together a cheese board, geared particularly for feeding a group or party.
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▪ Have a plan. Building a cheese board can be overwhelming and intimidating because of how many choices there are, Westerhausen says. She suggests starting with one item you absolutely want, and go from there. That probably means your favorite cheese, or maybe one cheese and one meat. With regard to quantities, it depends on when you want to serve the board. As a starter, Westerhausen recommends at least:
1 ounce of cheese per person
1 to 2 tablespoons nuts
1 to 2 tablespoons condiments
4 pieces of fruit
4 to 6 vegetables
1 to 2 ounces of meat.
As a main, the amounts increase:
1 to 2 ounces cheese (others recommend up to 4 ounces)
2 to 3 tablespoons nuts
3 to 4 tablespoons condiments
4 to 5 pieces of fruit
6 to 10 vegetables
2 to 3 ounces of meat.
Keep in mind, it's better to buy more than not enough.
▪ Fill in the rest with a variety of flavors and textures. It helps to think about categories of cheese when you're building a board. Three or four cheeses is a good number to aim for, hitting on several different types. Among the categories you can choose from: firm (cheddar, asiago, Manchego, Parmigiano-Reggiano); semisoft (havarti, Gouda, fontina, Monterey Jack); soft and/or ripened (brie, queso fresco, Camembert, mozzarella, goat cheese); and blue (Gorgonzola, Stilton, Roquefort). If you need help picking, go to a specialty cheese shop or the cheese counter at your grocery store (even my local Safeway has one these days).
The accompaniments fall into categories as well. Try to include crunchy (crackers, nuts); salty (meats, crackers, nuts); sweet (honey, jam, chocolate, fresh or dried fruit); and tangy (mustard, olives and anything pickled, chutney).
▪ Make it easy on yourself. "I don't think you should feel bad about putting together stuff you pick up from the store," Westerhausen says. This is part of the beauty of the cheese board. It lets you enjoy the party yourself, with a little restocking as necessary. If you want, you can focus on making one thing in advance - say, a dip or quick pickle or jam. Then buy as high-quality items as you can find or afford. Westerhausen says there are so many producers making excellent artisanal food (probably better than the rest of us can) that you can easily wow your guests with unique local specialties they may never have had before, rather than worrying about impressing them with your own cooking prowess.
▪ Arrange thoughtfully. Wood is a classic choice for the board. Go for hard, nonporous woods that won't draw moisture out of cheese. You can buy cheese boards relatively inexpensively at home goods stores, but your large wooden cutting board makes for an attractive display as well. Other options include slate or ceramic trays or any large serving platter. Be sure to provide knives, spoons, small tongs, toothpicks and other tools to let people serve themselves. Runny foods such as honey or jam should be placed in ramekins or small bowls. Labeling the cheese in one way or another (cheese flags are sold at some stores, or you can DIY with toothpicks or skewers and paper) is helpful, too.
A good approach is to start by placing your cheeses 1 to 2 hours in advance so they can come to room temperature. Try to avoid letting them touch so flavors don't mingle (this is also why you want separate knives for each cheese). Then start filling in the gaps with your other items. Meats should be taken out just 15 to 20 minutes before you plan to serve, and if you know you have vegetarians in the mix, you may want to have charcuterie on a separate board or platter.
You can go for a more sparse look or you can choose the cornucopia, things-spilling-onto-the-table look so popular on social media. "I personally like the way it looks when it's just overflowing and inviting," Westerhausen says, though she says she's probably in the minority. Just try not to make your board look too pristine, pretty or fussy, or people might not feel comfortable diving into it . . . for a minute or two, at least.