Enter my uncle's house on Thanksgiving, and the first thing you will be hit with is not the scent of turkey but a printout of the names, provenances and corresponding numbers of the 20 or so cheeses laid out around the house. Allow me to explain.
The tradition started 25 years ago when my uncle bought some cheeses from a cheesemonger friend, and it has evolved into both a family obsession and an inside joke. This year, there's a nomination process for family members to put forward cheese candidates for the celebration, and there's a semiformalized cheese-selection committee that does the shopping at Di Bruno Bros. in Philadelphia a few days before the holiday.
A cheese course is a lovely way to start a Thanksgiving meal. It buys the cook extra time to finish the bird and sides or pour him/herself a well-deserved cocktail, and it gives guests something to snack on. So here's how to pull together the perfect Turkey Day cheese tray, complete with tips from some of our favorite cheesemongers.
Cheese selection: Don't head to your local grocery store. This sort of cheese shopping requires a special trip to a cheese shop with a dedicated staff who can help you out. Don't hesitate to inquire about recommendations and always ask to taste the cheeses you are ordering.
It's all about balance: A well-assembled cheese tray should be balanced, Rachel Freier, the cheese and wine program manager at Murray's Cheese Bar in NYC, explains. "You always want different types of cheeses, cheeses from different families with different textures," she says. Think different kinds of milk, too: goat, cow and sheep. Freier suggests one creamy, another semifirm, a hard cheese and a blue for a simple board.
It's not just about the cheese: The honey, nuts, dried and fresh fruit, crackers and bread that go with the cheese plate are just as important. Aim for a variety like truffled honey, candied pecans, grapes, dried apricots and two varieties of crackers (Raincoast Crisps put the dried fruit and nuts into one neat package). Or go with one cracker and one loaf of bread that's sturdy enough to stand up to cheese spreading.
Scatter the accoutrements around the cheese to let guests mix and match their pairings. And, if you want to keep with the Thanksgiving theme, try cranberry chutney or apple butter served with an aged cheddar.
Involve your guests: Ask friends and family to bring their favorite cheese and simply leave a space on the cheese plate for when they arrive. Adding new varieties to the board is an instant conversation starter and ensures you won't end up with any lame host(ess) gifts.
Cheeses at the ready: Set up your cheese plate an hour or two before guests arrive. That will allow the cheeses to come to room temperature and give you time to focus on other last-minute chores.
Next level: Print out a page with the names of the cheeses on your plate and their descriptions (you can pull these straight from the printout label from the cheese shop), and place a small number next to each cheese so guests can identify them. Place the cheeses on plates around the house, creating a sort of cheese scavenger hunt.
Not sure exactly where to start? We asked Freier and the cheesemongers at Di Bruno Bros. for their perfect Thanksgiving cheese plate recommendations, and here's what they said:
Richard-Luis Morillo, Cheese Cave Team Leader at Di Bruno Bros.
Couronne Lochoise: A beautiful bright little doughnut of goat cheese to get you started. Eye catching and accessible but with fantastic depth. This one comes to us from a brilliant affineur (cheese ager) named Rodolphe le Meunier. (Pasteurized Goat, France)
Harbison: America's best "Brie" style is made in far Northern Vermont and is wrapped in bit of spruce bark. The bark imparts a toasty, woodsy and distinctly autumnal flavor to the cheese. (Pasteurized Cow, Vermont)
Schnebelhorn: Fall means it's the time for big, meaty alpine cheeses, and this is one of my current favorites. Brothy, strong and savory with a melt-ability that would make it perfect for a turkey club when it's time for leftovers. (Raw Cow, Switzerland)
Johnny's Clothbound Cheddar: A crumbly and savory clothbound cheddar made in the traditional English style but in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. Complex but distinctly sharp. I could see it working well with a little dab of cranberry sauce. (Raw Cow, Pennsylvania)
Blu di Bufala: A big blue made from water buffalo's milk in Northern Italy. It's super rich but with a big savory flavor that would do well with some nice port for dessert. (Pasteurized Buffalo, Italy)
Rachel Freier, Cheese and Wine Program Manager at Murray's Cheese Bar
St. Stephen: A decadent triple cream from the Hudson Valley. Buttery and creamy. Pair it with White Gold Honey. (Pasteurized Cow, New York)
Cavemaster Reserve Greensward: Our collaboration with Jasper Hill Farm is a spruce bark-bound washed-rind cheese. It's sprucy and bacon-y. Cut and discard the top then serve with a spoon. Pair with a cranberry chutney or pickled cherries. (Pasteurized Cow, Vermont)
Consider Bardwell Farm Manchester: A rustic semifirm cheese that's reminiscent of grass and sunshine. Pair it with White Gold Honey. (Raw goat, Vermont)
Flory's Truckle Cheddar: Traditionally made, clothbound and aged for 12 months, this cheddar has a nice crunchy texture and sweetness to it. Pair it with Murray's apple brandy butter and turkey. (Raw cow, Missouri)
Rogue River Blue: This cheese is a seasonal delight that's available for a limited time during fall and winter. A delicious Rogue Creamery blue, wrapped in local Syrah leaves soaked in an Oregon pear brandy. It's an explosion of fruitiness. Pair with an Oregon Syrah or White Gold Honey. (Raw cow, Oregon)
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