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By Lucy M. Casale
Here’s the secret to turning any small gathering into a special occasion: Build a cheese board. But don’t stop at cheese. Add some nuts, a dash of fruit, maybe some assorted meats and fancy jams, and you’ve got a spread sure to please. No one (at least no one in their right mind) ever turned up their nose to an array of cheesy deliciousness.
Every person is different—and, luckily, so is every cheese board. From the savory to the sweet to the specialty, there’s an arrangement to satisfy everyone: your partner with adventurous tastes, a best friend who always brings their sweet tooth, or the neighbors you’re having over for a backyard movie night who like a little spice.
Guiding you in the process from store to serving board are two well-versed cheese board builders: First, Chef Jimmy Kennedy, who has catered countless events for Cabot Creamery Co-operative, the famous Vermont-based cheesemakers whose products have won every major award for taste and who recently celebrated their 100th anniversary. And second, John O’Brien, Artisan Foods Manager—a.k.a. cheesemonger a.k.a. cheese-board-builder-extraordinaire—at popular Burlington, VT wine shop Dedalus. Next time you’re in Burlington, swing by for wine or to check out his cheese counter.
Chocolate and fruit are supporting actors on this board. For an eye-catching arrangement, build the board with cheeses and chocolate on opposite sides and fruit in the center. “Sometimes people are hesitant about the cheese-chocolate combo, but once they get into it, it’s usually the first board to go!” Kennedy says.
Elements to include:
Chocolate. Pick up a variety of your favorite bars. Kennedy’s favorites are Lake Champlain Chocolates (a Vermont brand) and Divine Chocolate. Be sure to give guests an assortment of different flavors.
Cheese. Cabot Wickedly Habanero matches especially well with chocolate. Other good bets include the slow-aged 1-Year, 2-Year, and 3-Year Cheddars in Cabot’s deli line.
Jam. Raspberry is especially yummy in this mix, but go with your favorite flavor.
Crisps or sweet crackers. Stick with neutral or sweet flavors to amp up the sweet. We love these Vermont-made Jan’s Farmhouse Crisps.
Fresh fruit. Go for a rainbow of colors to create a board as visually appealing as it is tasty. Kennedy’s must-haves are strawberries and grapes.
This board focuses on meats as the cheese pairings. “I love charcuterie and nuts, so I go heavy on those,” Kennedy says.
Meats. Grab your favorites and go for variety. Consider kielbasa, sausage, salami, and prosciutto or jamón serrano. Kennedy’s board is never without Vermont Smoke and Cure Pepperoni.
Cheese. We love to use flavored cheeses for this board, so Kennedy suggests using Cabot’s Cracked Peppercorn and Roasted Garlic cheddars which go perfectly with the other savory elements on this board.
Nuts. Almonds, cashews, and pecans all make a pretty presentation. Corn nuts are delicious in this mix too.
Crackers. “It’s important to get a really good cracker for this board,” Kennedy says, “or make them yourself.” Here’s a recipe for Sourdough Discard Cheddar Crackers. Another option is to use sourdough bread, sliced thinly.
Condiments and extras. Include flavorful dried fruits like apricots to balance the briny flavors of olives, pickles, or both.
Each season brings a unique set of products into specialty shops and cheese counters around New England. If you’re open to a hands-off approach, O’Brien says you can ask your local cheesemonger to craft a “Dealer’s Choice” selection for you.
“There is no better centerpiece than a healthy helping of Pimento Cheese,” O’Brien says. Here’s a recipe for Cabot’s Best Pimento Cheese, featuring a creamy, spreadable texture and spicy pimento peppers.
Hard cheeses. Cabot’s slow-aged 2-Year and 3-Year cheeses have a smooth flavor, but an impressive bite that balances the savory meat and sweet preserves on this board.
Cured meats. Ask your cheesemonger to suggest perfect pairings. Their expertise can help you impress guests with less common meats, such as mortadella, a sophisticated Italian sausage, or speck, a thinly sliced smoked ham similar to prosciutto.
Nuts. Pecans are always a delicious garnish, and their sweetness perfectly complements most salty cheeses. Walnuts also provide an earthy flavor that pairs well with aged cheddars.”
Fresh fruit or preserves. Include sugary fruits and preserves to balance savory meats and cheeses, like clementines or mandarins for a touch of sweetness.
Once you’ve made an ingredient list based on the curated boards above, you’re ready to buy your cheese and eat it too. Keep the following tips in mind while buying and building, and remember that Kennedy and O’Brien agree: There’s no right or wrong way to build a cheese board. “Don’t be intimidated,” Kennedy says.
Buy enough of everything. Know who is coming, and guesstimate how much they’ll eat. Once you’re at your local cheese counter, pick up around 1/4 pound of each specialty cheese you decide on. “Always grab extras of accessible styles, like aged gouda, sharp cheddar, and all-star alpines,” O’Brien says, “in addition to enough cured meats, nuts, and fresh fruits or preserves for all.”
Plan a creative display. The key to building an eye-catching cheese board is to “feature a medley of different shapes, textures, and colors that feature an overall geometric theme,” O’Brien says. Consider making it personal by creating mini cheese boards for each guest, or think outside-the-board and arrange a “to-go” box of charcuterie, cheese, and accompaniments for everyone to enjoy.
Fill the board completely. Empty spaces can make the board feel sparse—even when it has a lot to offer. Arrange your cheeses and accompaniments in a way that covers your base.
Give guests options. Try to anticipate what your guests will like. Kennedy stays ahead of this problem by preparing both savory and sweet cheese boards so there really will be something for everyone.