Take the guesswork out of assembling this crowd-pleasing delight.
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It can add a culinary touch to any party -- from a small bridal shower to a wedding for hundreds. Just ask Sarah Simms Hendrix. The private chef, food stylist, and author of the blog La Femme Epicure filled an eight-foot table with cheeses, meat, and all the accompaniments for her California nuptials. Here, she shares her advice on what you need to pull together a scrumptious spread on your own.
Photography: Bryan Gardner2 of 7
Select the Cheeses
The number of cheeses to choose from can be overwhelming, so start by organizing the array. Categorize cheeses by texture -- aged, soft, firm, or blue -- and by the type of milk -- cow’s milk, goat’s milk, or sheep’s milk -- used to create them. Then pick a cheese from each to get the most crowd-pleasing range that offers appearance and flavor.
Seeking some recommendations? These reliable favorites mix together beautifully:
- Beecher’s Flagship Cheddar: A semi-hard cow’s milk cheese, aged 15 months.
- Cowgirl Creamery Mt Tam: A soft, triple-cream cow’s milk cheese.
- Spring Brook Farms Tarentaise: A firm, raw cow’s milk cheese, aged 12-18 months.
- Cypress Grove Truffle Tremor: A ripened goat’s milk cheese, laced with Italian black summer truffles.
- Rogue Creamery Smokey Blue: A cow’s milk blue cheese, cave-aged 9-12 months and smoked over hazelnut shells.
- Bellwether Farms San Andreas: A firm, raw sheep’s milk cheese, made in the style of a Tuscan Pecorino.
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Stick to the Tried-and-True
Regardless of how you make your selections, there is one major rule you must follow: always serve at least one familiar cheese. For some palates, the stinkier and uglier the choice, the better. But when you are catering to many guests with many taste preferences, you want one safe option to avoid scaring away conservative eaters.
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Decide on the Serving Sizes
So how much do you serve? This is the tricky part for most people. If dinner is to follow, you want to hit that sweet spot where you display just enough to allow snacking but don’t ruin your guests’ appetites. To ensure portioning perfection, plan on buying 3 to 4 ounces of cheese per guest. If the cheese is more of the main event, plan on buying approximately 1.5 pounds of cheese for 4 guests, 3 pounds for 8 guests, 6 pounds for 16 guests, and so on.
The key here is to not overdo it; always show a little bit of restraint, since it keeps things feeling sophisticated and thoughtful.
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Add Something Sweet and Salty
To turn an ordinary cheese display into an extraordinary one, accompany it with a few perfect pairings.
It’s always nice to have one jarred or homemade condiment such as fresh honeycomb, a sweet preserve, tart chutney, tomato relish, or spicy mustard.
On top of that, offer fresh or dried fruits, roasted nuts, and olives. Dried apricots, pears, and tart cherries are all dependable and delicious, and dates—especially the honey and Halawi varieties—are a wonderful cheese board addition. They are the ideal size and they are like soft little caramels when you pop them into your mouth.
You can also offer marinated artichoke hearts, slow-roasted tomatoes, or roasted peppers for more of a Mediterranean feel.
These are a few never-fail combinations, based on specific cheeses:
Blue Cheese: Honeycomb, Le Conte pear, and caramelized onion jam.
Triple Cream: Fig spread and Marcona almonds.
Cheddar: Tart cherry spread, Honeycrisp apple, and salted pistachios.
Chèvre: Sun-dried tomato tapenade and marinated olives.
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Pick the Charcuterie
For this step, work with odd numbers; three selections usually suit any entertaining situation. Just like with the cheeses, you want to pick cured meats with different textures and flavor profiles.
To begin, the hard, dry-cured salamis from Creminelli (the Barolo, which is made with red wine, and the Tartufo, which is made with truffles) are sure to please any meat-eating crowd. Another great option is jamón serrano -- Spain’s version of prosciutto. Made in a very similar process, but aged for a longer time, it is slightly drier and a bit deeper in color. La Quercia Acorn Tamworth Coppa is also incredible. The hogs spend the last months of their lives eating acorns and hickory nuts, which results in sweet, smoky notes and a very silky finish.
For something extra special and to impress charcuterie connoisseurs, try jamón ibérico or add on a completely unexpected but always scrumptious duck prosciutto.
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Serve It Up to Perfection
As for presenting the meats, here are a few tips. Always slice your charcuterie very thinly. When plating the jamón and prosciutto, don’t roll them up tightly. Instead, aim for an airy and light display that feels inviting and appealing to the eye.
Also keep in mind the ideal temperature. For serving cured meats and cheeses, it is 70 degrees (a.k.a. “room temperature”). Heat causes meats and cheese to get sweaty and they can turn a bit, so if you are serving outdoors wait until the last minute to bring out your spread.
When it comes to serving vessels, get creative because anything goes. You can try things like marble, slate, or wood slabs; rustic cutting boards; or even cake pedestals. Top off your display with crostini or crackers, and don’t be surprised if it’s consumed within minutes of its initial presentation.