Sunday, February 7, 2010

Entertaining with Individual Cheese Plates

Entertaining and cheese are synonymous in my home. How often do you see a cheese platter at a party? I bet the answer is pretty frequently. The reason is that it is easy to prepare, tastes great and makes entertaining a snap. Recently we had our good friends, Jim and Heather over for wine and small plates. Decided to break out of the routine and put a new twist and spin on the cheese platter and served individual cheese plates. I guarantee the presentation will impress your guests along with showcasing the different pairing accoutrements for each of the cheeses.

We enjoyed Marie Stuart Champagne with the cheese plate. Produced in France, this champagne has a pale gold appearance, wood and quince undertones along with a rounded and strong finish of lasting fruit and a slight mineral after taste. This champagne is a blend of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. Perfect with all of the cheese selections.  Here are the four cheeses and parings I selected for the evening:

St. Agur Blue Cheese: Made from pasteurized cow’s milk from the mountainous Auvergne region of central France. It is enriched with cream and aged for two months in cellars which gives a spicy and creamy texture. Not quite as salty as a traditional blue, melts well and similar taste to a fine Roquefort. Paired the blue cheese with honey and a lightly toasted, buttery & nutty walnut.

Cypress Grove – Truffle Tremor: Classic truffle flavors meet the creamy perfection of ripened goat milk cheese. This cheese is earthy, elegant, and sophisticated with hints of black truffles. It is simply divine without any pairing!

Mimolette: A cow’s milk cheese that is traditionally produced in France which looks like a cantaloupe and has a bright, deep tangerine color. The color comes from the natural dye, annatto. The cheese is firm, compact and slightly oily with a subtle fruity aroma and a mellow nutty flavor. It is best aged between 18 and 24 months, but can eaten at different stages of aging. With the nutty flavors, I paired this one with a touch of good fig jam.

Manchego: A sheep’s milk cheese that is produced in La Mancha and is made from Manchega sheep. The rich, semi-firm product is aged in natural caves for three to six months. The shape of this cheese is very characteristic and defined, due to the traditional use of esparto grass molds which imprints a zigzag pattern along the side of the cheese. The small wooden boards used for pressing the cheese, also imprints the typical wheat ear pattern on the top and bottom.

Manchego's flavor is very distinctive, slightly salty but not too strong. It is creamy with a slight piquancy, and leaves the characteristic aftertaste of sheep’s milk; it tastes very similar to feta cheese, though not as salty and with a chewier texture. Manchego cheese is distinctly Spanish and paired with traditional elements of marcona almonds, quince paste and a small slice of fig cake (pan forte).

11 Cheese Tips:
  • Ask the cheese monger at your local cheese shop or high end grocery store for his or her favorite cheeses along with choices you may not have considered. This will broaden your knowledge of cheeses.
  • Set your cheese out one hour prior to serving to let the flavors fully develop.
  • Limit your cheese platter or plate to 3 to 4 choices – otherwise it is a bit overwhelming for your guests.
  • Diversify your presentation by paying attention to appearance, textures, milk source and flavors. Try having a cow, sheep and goat type represented.
  • You can choose to select cheeses from all one variety, country or state to show off the differences. Or choose all from one milk source but different types.
  • Provide appropriate implements for the cheeses. Choose a sharp knife for harder cheeses and a butter type knife for soft cheeses.
  • Showcase the cheeses true self by not removing any of the rinds.
  • Choose your accompaniments for your selections of cheeses. A rustic country bread, baguette or simple cracker is a good choice.
  • Pairing options include: Honey, dried fruits such as apricots, dates, olives, nuts, grapes, jams, chutneys, fresh fruits such as apples or pears.
  • Best beverages to serve with cheeses are champagne, sparkling wines and sauvignon blanc. You can also consider a nice fruity pinot noir.
  • Storing cheeses in wax paper or parchment paper is preferred over plastic wrap. Cheeses prefer a humid, cool environment, so store them in a bin in your refrigerator which has a higher humidity factor.

After our cheese plates, we enjoyed a Butternut Squash and Apple Soup with date, almond and salty crackers. Paired the Grgich Hills 2007 Chardonnay which is a pure chardonnay crafted from organic grapes. A very aromatic wine with aromas of ripe peach, mango and tropical flowers, plus a hint of minerality.
  Heather and Jim brought along a lovely bottle of Melanson Vineyards 2003 Cabernet Sauvignon. Melanson Vineyards produces small lot, handcrafted estate wines. The wines are grown on Pritchard Hill in the Napa Valley. This terroir produces superb, reserve style wines that are outstanding. This wine has aromatics of black cherry, plum, dark chocolate, roast coffee and smoke segue to lush mouth-coating flavors of ripe berries, red currant, anise, vanilla, nutmeg and cedar. The wine is structured with soft tannins but enough acidity to pair perfectly with the triple slider plate. Created three slider combinations: Caprese with tomatoes, mozzarella and basil, Caramelized onion and blue cheese and finally mushroom pate with sharp cheddar cheese.
We finished the evening with a handcrafted Almond Tart and homemade Crème Fraiche Ice Cream. A wonderful evening filled with good friends, lots of laughs, flowing wine and food.

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