The perfect cheese plate

Ok, I am not an expert on most things, but since I was a little kid, there are a few things I know I can do well.

I can write well. I can put on eye makeup without the assistance of a mirror. I can smell when milk is even slightly sour. I can write my name using a pen between my toes. I can make an excellent mix tape … and that was back in the day, when you made a mix tape from recording songs off of the radio, and you had to be super-fast to hit the “stop” button before the DJ came on, talking over the end of the song you were trying to record. Nowadays the kids have it much easier with the mP3s and playlists. But I digress.

cheese plate

And I can make an excellent cheese plate. This isn’t hubris or boasting, it’s a simple fact. Part of the reason is because it’s nearly impossible to make a BAD cheese plate … I mean, honestly, just take a look at Pinterest one of these days and search for the term “cheese plate.” (Or check out mine right here! Shameless plug!)

mini cheese plate

Some people seriously pull out a pretty platter, slice a few bits of cheese and meat, and call it a day. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. But if you’re going to do it …. if you’re going to have a great party and you want to really hit it out of the park … there are a few simple guidelines to follow.

1) Have a good selection.

Don't be afraid of the sample basket!

Don’t be afraid of the sample basket!

Seriously, people. No matter how much you love that one awesome cheese, not everyone at your party is going to like it. Present a blend of hard cheeses, soft cheeses, and stinky cheeses, and switch up the types of cheese as well … you want some sheep’s milk cheese, some goat cheese and some cow’s milk cheese.

cheese selection

My favorite local cheese shop keeps a basket near the register full of the odds and ends and weirdly-shaped chunks of cheese they have left over. This is an excellent way to sample certain cheeses you might not otherwise try.

2) The cheese is just the star. It needs a limo.

salted watermelon jelly and kokos gouda

salted watermelon jelly and kokos gouda

Don’t forget the rest of the plate! You want a nice crusty bread and at least one type of cracker, and some vehicles for cheese that are fresh fruits or vegetables.

apples and gjetost cheese

apples and gjetost cheese

Try mixing up different breads and crackers, and different fruits and vegetables like apples, pear, strawberries, endive, celery, carrot sticks, and radishes (slice them lenthwise).

endive and spicy cheese dip

endive and spicy cheese dip

carrot marmalade and port wine-soaked cheese

carrot marmalade and port wine-soaked cheese

Always have at least one savory spread and one sweet spread on the plate. I love the selection of jams and toppings from the Friend in Cheeses Jam Company, a small buisness that specializes in things that go great with cheese. (Seriously, how awesome is that?) More than once, their amazing creations like salted watermelon jelly, strawberry tarragon conserve, carrot marmalade and pisco pear butter have been the best parts of my cheese plates.

bacon jam and cheddar

bacon jam and cheddar

Meat items are also important to keep a good balance on your platter. The salty and sweet punch of bacon jam, or the smoky depth of smoked chicken liver pate or storebought liverwurst, are excellent accompaniments to most cheeses.

3) It’s a carpenter, not his tools. But get some nice tools.

mini cheese graterOk, not crazy tools. Or expensive tools. Just things like a tiny cheese grater so you can grate your cheese on the spot. Or a few of those tiny forks and knives for spreads and cheeses. Just a handful of toothpicks for your olives and your bits of meat, and a few small bowls or rammekins for those jams and jellies.

cheddar and strawberry tarragon conserve

cheddar and strawberry tarragon conserve

4) Be an artist about it.

cheese plate 2

I usually set up my larger selections on a handmade wooden board, but it’s certainly not necessary. A cracked plate works as well as a fancy decorative platter. What matters is how delicious everything looks.

cheese plate 3

cheese plate 4

Apple Cider Jelly — the easiest recipe in the world. With a catch.

My favorite jams and jellies book by Linda Ziedrich has a recipe for apple cider jelly — one that, on the surface, seems like the best/ easiest recipe for jelly in the world.

Instructions:

Take a gallon of cider.

Boil it.

Wait a while. 

I think I can get used to this.

Oh, but there’s a catch — you get either jelly or syrup. You never really know which until you wait a few days and it’s either gelled or it hasn’t. The more I thought about it, the more I started to think that this was not a gamble I wanted to take. Although I am sure a nice apple cider syrup would be good on pancakes, this was jelly time and I wanted to make jelly. Then I started researching other recipes for jelly made from fresh apple cider, and it turns out that the “just boil it” recipe usually involves a lot of straining and skimming and scraping — and you still might not get jelly in the end. Blast!

Once again, living in San Diego comes in handy. A short drive to Julian, home of the best apple cider in the world, and a friend got me a sweet gallon of unfiltered and unpasturized cider. It’s delicious just on its own out of a glass, but I thought instead of taking a risk on boiling the whole gallon and not knowing what the result will  be, I would use part of it for a delicious spiced honey apple butter. A few simple ingredients and it’s on.

A few apples, 2 cups of cider, a half cup each of honey and brown sugar, and a few teaspoons each of cinnamon and nutmeg. The recipe calls for boiling the mixture, then straining out the solid chunks of apple, then letting the rest simmer.

Personally, I prefer a few more chunks of fruit, especially in apple butter. I mashed them a little with a potato masher when they started to get soft, and later I also used my immersion blender to make the chunks a little smaller.

I also used a quart of the cider with some pectin and a cinnamon stick (according to my internet research, most people use Red Hots cinnamon candies, but I decided there was enough sugar with the 5 cups necessary to make the store-bough pectin react. A bit sweet for my taste, because I think the cider is delicious on its own without so much additional sugar, but delicious.