Cheese and Crackers


Just what the busy host or hostess needs!

By Karen Berman

 

A platter of cheese and crackers is the harried host’s secret weapon. Unwrap a few cheeses and open a box or two of crackers and you have one hors d’oeuvre out of the way. That was easy!

Bring the Cheese to Room Temperature
Because most cheese actually tastes better at room temperature, set the cheese board out an hour before your guests are scheduled to arrive and forget about it. (Make sure it’s out of the way of misbehaved dogs and ravenous teenagers.)

Some cheese connoisseurs consider three hours at room temperature the right amount of time for cheese to reach its optimum state. If you plan this far ahead, leave the cheese on the counter but don’t open the cracker boxes until closer to serving — particularly if the day is humid.

Vary Your Selection
Just because it’s easy, a cheese platter need not be mere filler. A varied selection of cheeses, chosen for contrasts in flavor and texture, can be a wonderful, flavorful item on your hors d’oeuvre menu. The more you experiment and learn about cheeses, the more appealing the cheese platter will be.

Assemble your cheese board to include a semi-firm cheese such as Cheddar, Asiago or Jarlsberg; a soft-ripened cheese, such as Camembert or Brie; a semi-soft, such as Havarti, jack or Gouda; and a blue-veined cheese such as Stilton or Roquefort. Consider a goat or sheep’s milk cheese, too. There are so many wonderful cheeses on the market these days, both from artisanal producers and supermarket brands, that you have plenty of choices.

You can choose cheeses from a particular country or mix and match. Once upon a time, the more interesting selections were shipped largely from France, with a few from England and Italy. Now, practically every nation with a dairy industry is represented in a good cheese shop or dairy counter. And the number of high-quality American-made cheeses has skyrocketed, so you could make a heavenly cheese platter using only domestic cheeses.

Dress Up the Platter

For a sweet, healthful counterpoint to the rich cheese, place grapes, pre-cut in mini-bunches, around the cheese board. Not only do they provide a pretty accent to the platter, but your guests can easily pick up and munch on them as well as the cheese. Trim off any “naked” branches with a small pair of scissors. Other fruits, such as apples and pears, marry well with cheese, too.

If you prefer savory accompaniments, decorate the platter with a variety of pitted olives or small pickles such as cornichons.

Storing Cheese
Cheese generally does not freeze, so don’t try to freeze leftovers — or serve cheese that you’ve frozen to guests. Even well refrigerated, very soft-ripened cheeses tend to spoil in a few days and so if yours emits an unpleasant or ammonia-like smell, it’s probably past its prime. A little mold on the outside of a firm or semi-firm cheese is no big deal. Cheese is made when mold is introduced to the milk, after all, so most of the time, you can just cut off exterior mold and enjoy the cheese inside.

The more cheeses you try, the more you will come to appreciate them. And your guests will look forward to your creative cheese platters.