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By Lucy M. Casale
| January 21, 2019
Here’s the secret to surprising and delighting every single party guest: 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 guest 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: the Game Day party squad with adventurous tastes, the gaggle of girlfriends with a sweet tooth, and the neighbors you’re having over for game 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 are celebrating their 100th anniversary this year. 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 Chocolate (a Vermont brand) and Divine Chocolate. Be sure to give guests an assortment of different flavors.
Cheese. Cabot Hot Habanero Cheddar “matches especially well with chocolate,” Kennedy says. Other good bets include Cabot Seriously Sharp and cheddars from Cabot’s Legacy collection, like the Farmhouse Reserve and New York Vintage.
Jam. Raspberry is especially yummy in this mix, but go with your favorite flavor.
Wafers or sweet crackers. Stick with neutral or sweet flavors to amp up the sweet.
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. Convenience items like pre-sliced Cabot Cracker Cuts make creating this cheese board extra simple.
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. Kennedy suggests Cabot’s Cracker Cuts (especially Seriously Sharp, Pepper Jack, and Extra Sharp Cheddar). “Also, Cabot’s Legacy Collection Alpine Cheddar with a swiss parmesan flavor goes really well with meats,” he says.
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 quick and easy recipe for Rustic Cheddar Crackers. Another option is to use sourdough bread, sliced thinly.
Condiments and extras. Include a coarse, grainy mustard for dipping and jam or dried fruit. Apricots (dried or as jam) is Kennedy’s pick, but any flavor will be a nice addition. Round out your board with some final savory touches: Try olives, small 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 party 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. Start with an Alpine cheese, O’Brien recommends. Current favorites among Dedalus customers include Dutch Knuckle from Sugarhouse Creamery and Thistle Hill Farm’s golden Tarentaise. O’Brien also likes the “intricate, yet accessible” aged goat cheeses from Consider Bardwell Farm, in particular their Danby and Manchester cheeses.
Creamy cheeses. Mont D’or, a rich and runny cheese, has “a certain notoriety in the cheese world because of its decadence and rarity in the states,” O’Brien says. The Cellars at Jasper Hill crafts Harbison in this style.
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. Add walnuts, which provide an earthy flavor that pairs well with aged cheddars. Pecans are often a delicious garnish too. Their sweetness perfectly complements most salty cheeses.
Fresh fruit or preserves. Include sugary fruits and preserves to balance savory meats and cheeses. O’Brien says: “I love diced giant peppadew peppers 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 how many people, and who, are coming so you can guesstimate how much they’ll eat. Once you’re at your local cheese counter, “pick up between 1/4 and 1/2 pound of each specialty cheese you decide on,” O’Brien says. And “always grab extras of accessible styles, like aged gouda, sharp cheddar, and all-star alpines—in addition to enough cured meats, nuts, and fresh fruits or preserves for all.”
Invest in mini utensils. “Nobody likes when it’s hard to get at things,” Kennedy says. His advice: buy mini spoons for elements like jam or bowls of nuts, and mini tongs for meats and cheese, making it easy for guests to reach them from either side of the table.
Plan a creative display. “Boards that feature a medley of different shapes, textures, and colors or that feature an overall geometric theme are guaranteed to grab your guests’ attention,” O’Brien says. To make things really interesting, Kennedy encourages outside-the-board thinking. “You want it to be a ‘wow’ factor,” he says. “For events I’ve done for Cabot at ski resorts, I’ve used a snowboard without bindings as my ‘board.’” An avid fisherman, Kennedy has even used a canoe paddle as a board at his own parties. “For the Super Bowl, I would make or try to find an emblem of your team, or arrange your display in a helmet or football shape,” he says. “That kind of stuff goes a long way in entertaining.”
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. Consider all the guests who are coming and anticipate what they’ll like. Kennedy stays ahead of this problem by always serving one savory and one sweet cheese board so there really will be something for everyone.