The Ultimate After Dinner Cheese Course
Make it blue. Add a little goat. Something smelly. The ultimate after-dinner cheese course
You have to be a romantic to invest yourself, your money, and your time in cheese. Is it worth it? Oh ya……Anthony Bourdain
I know, we all miss Anthony. He took us on the most daring of missions. The mission to find and fall in love with all that is best about food, life, and cheese.
Entertaining – we love it. The huz and I are happiest with a full dining room table. The buzz of the prep in the kitchen. The playlist drifting in-between the aromas of the roasting veggies. The photo-worthy condiments laid out for the pizza. The salad holding court on the sideboard. Early arrivals, hanging out, pouring wine. We like to make it casual. Usually with easy food, which means we get to spend more time with our friends. Ina Garten said that “parties are recess for grown-ups and I want everyone to go home saying: Wasn’t that fun!” I’m with you Ina!
Do you want to know a secret? My favorite is the beginning and the end of a gathering. The middle part is fabulous and is always filled with at least a fun surprise or two! Since our move to Cuenca, we have found, for us, the magic time to entertain – Sunday afternoon, about 2ish…There is something special about a Sunday afternoon with friends. I like to plan little ‘nibble’ areas. Small plates, scattered around the living | dining area with everything from olives to popcorn, homemade potato chips, hummus with freshly made flatbreads. And of course the roasted asparagus, sweet carrots, and garlic cauliflower florets [yum]. After the meal and everyone is settled back, relaxed and expecting a sweet dessert – the cheese course appears.
Since the move, its been a bit of a cheese challenge here. The good news is, there has been an influx of ‘cheesemakers’ calling Cuenca and the surrounding area home. Plus we do have a couple of cheesemongers importing a small selection.
My most favorite cheese course combines four delicious varieties. Four seems to be the crowd-pleaser. It seems that the larger the variety the more excited your guest becomes.
The glory of a cheese course is that you can be a purist and buy the best cheeses and let them dazzle on their own with just the simplest baguette on the side.
Your other option is to make it a little more elaborate and go all out with breads, crackers, dried fruits, nuts and a couple of unexpected treats.
Whoever thought that there is a pecking order to a cheese course? A great friend, who is also a gifted vintner, educated me and it goes like this. Think of the cheese course like a wine tasting. You want to go from light to medium, to full-bodied. He likes to give a little tutorial [of sorts] as he is presenting the cheese. You don’t want to overwhelm your palate with the strongest cheese first. Start on the lighter side, with, perhaps a goat cheese. For medium, you want to move along to sheep. The next two varieties are the heavy hitters. The strongest full flavor, smelly and intense cheese, and the grand finishing touch, of a perfect blue. Below are the cheese suggestions and an assortment of favorites for each of the varieties.
- A little Goat...My first love and still a favorite with roasted beats…The French call this goat Chévre. It’s actually quite mild with an earthy finish. a. sainte maure…Running through the center of this cheese is a hollow natural straw to let in the air for ripening and to make this soft luscious log easier to handle. b. humboldt fog…This cheese has a layer of ash running through the creamy middle, hence the name, fog for the soft color from the ash. Use the leftover to crumble on a simple green salad the next day. c. coach farm triple cream goat cheese…Because this gooey lovely cheese is 75 percent butterfat it tastes a lot like a yummy brie.
- Just for Ewe…These sheep love a rugged hillside, consequently, the flavor has a bit of that craggy, standup character to it. These varieties have a habit of becoming sharp and salty with age – kind of like some people we know! a. manchego…Without a doubt the most popular cheese in Spain. The superb nutty flavor and the ability to go along with most anything makes this cheese impossible not to love. b. brin d’amour…This herb-covered cheese is soft and savory, especially when served when young. c. pecorino toscano…A touch milder, peppery taste, and less salty then it’s cousin Pecorino Romano. In Italian pecorino means “little sheep!”
- A little something Smelly…If this cheese was kid on a playground, no one would want to play with him! This is a washed rind. It is washed with wine, brine, and or other liquids to bring out a distinct flavor and an award-winning stinkiness. Inside the rind is a soft delicious cheese. a. vacherin fribourgeois…Swiss, but not your mother’s swiss. It is the high masses in the aroma category but calms down to a soft, subtle flavor. b. epoisses…This cheese comes in its own wood container and is beyond compare in flavor. You can serve with a spoon, but it is not drippy and keep it in the container. It’s a nice presentation. c. european muenster….No, it’s not the same one you disliked as a child. The finish is creamy, silky, and ever so heady – a nice word for smelly.
- The Blue Queen…It’s best to begin with the creamier varieties, it’s a more subtle first introduction. This brash veiny blue mold | Penicillium roqueforti cheese is capable of leaving a lasting impression of the most divine flavor. And the range of boldness in the blue cheeses offers a wonderful tasting on its own. a. montbriac…No matter your preference, this is the one that is going to please the crowd. The finish is velvet-like with beautiful chunks of blue throughout. b. cabrales…Another Spanish conquest. It’s crumbly, moist with beautiful blue veins. It gives a little nudge off the pedestal to France’s Roquefort. c. point reyes original blue…What can I say; I’m a California girl. Of course, being from California, this is a hormone-free cow’s milk. It is a unique, flavorful blue with a fairly soft texture.
There is a wide variety of condiments that can be plated with the cheese course. A selection of five is a good start. Similar to wine pairing you want to select a few accompaniments that will complement the cheese, while with others you want to pair with a contrasting flavor. Which can be unexpected and exciting. Here are just a couple of examples.
Spanish Manchego with assorted olives… A strong boutique blue with raw honeycomb… Italian Parmigiano-Reggiano with a well aged Balsamic on the syrupy side.
A few other accompaniments to keep in the pantry… Infused varieties of honey | Pear, Truffle, Orange. Fig Spread, from Trader Joe’s. Other savory jams, caramelized onion, spiced wine|sour cherry. Chutney. Nuts, dried fruit – apricot, fig, spiced mango. Assorted nuts.
No matter what you’re working on – you always need the right tool. Here are a few that will make you look like a pro.
The cheeses + tools – Soft: for these velvety cheeses you’ll need a spoon for scooping – best made in horn. Medium -Soft: A Proper Cheese Knife. Cut straight down, then spare with the knife. Medium-hard: A Plane. Move from the outside rim of the cheese to the interior. Hard: A Spade. Engage your inner warrior by stabbing into the hunk, then prying off a chunk. Check out Williams-Sonoma for great sets with marble or olive wood handles. And cheese boards. Tiffany & Co for the magnificent Elsa Peretti Padova Cheese Knife. Artisanal Cheese. A good online cheesemonger.
Always serve cheese at room temperature. About an hour for the full flavors to come in from the cold. How about that rind? It’s a split decision, some say yes, others no. Try it with some cheese on it and never eat if fuzzy! A little libation is always fun. A tawny port, like a Graham’s and amontillado sherry are good in the fortified wine category. They both work well with a wide range of cheeses. Or, you can finish off that bottle of wine on the table!
Storing your cheese properly is well worth your time. Rule number one…Never use plastic wrap. If you don’t want to invest in cheese bags or cheese paper, wax or parchment paper work just as well when wrapped correctly. There is a great tutorial by Serious Easts Jake Lahne on the very best way to store your cheese. It’s a terrific step by step on wrapping. Also, you do not want to overbuy cheese. It’s best when you are able to consume the cheese within a few days.
Bon Appétit friends. I would love to know what some of your favorite cheese’s are. Enjoy!