Presenting fine cheeses to your family and guests over the holidays is a special treat. It is elegant, sophisticated and festive, yet can be the most effortless of all your holiday food preparations.

Try to include a variety of textures and flavors on a cheese board. Most cheeses belong to one of four basic categories: aged, soft, firm or blue. For a good variety, choose at least one from each group. Here are some examples:

1. Blue: The most intense.

Gorgonzola, Cashel Blue, Fourme d’Ambert, Roquefort, Stilton.

Blue Cheese Combination: Oat cracker + Roquefort + honey

2. Semi-firm: Subtle but rich.

Manchego, Cave-Aged Cheddar, Fontina, Garrotxa, Saint-Nectaire.

Combinations: Baguette + Manchego + quince paste

Dried nectarine + Cave-Aged Cheddar

3. Super-aged: Sharp and nutty.

Parmigiano-Reggiano, Asiago, Comté, Aged Gouda, Aged Gruyère.

Combinations: Sea salt cracker + pear + Aged Gouda

Parmigiano-Reggiano + dried sausage

4. Pungent: Strong smelling.

Taleggio, Èpoisses, Langres, Livarot, Pont l’Évêque.

Combinations: Raisin-walnut bread + Livarot

Flat bread + Taleggio + chutney

5. Mild: Soft and creamy.

Fresh Chèvre, Brie, Camembert, French Chaource, Robiola.

Combinations: Wafer cracker + piquillo pepper + fresh chèvre

Wheat cracker + sun-dried tomato + Chaource

Tips

  • You can also select cheeses by the type of milk used (cow, goat, sheep). This will ensure a range of different flavors on the plate.
  • Serve at least one familiar cheese.
  • For a party in which cheese is the main event, plan on buying 3 pounds for 8 people, 6 pounds for 16 or 9 pounds for 24. If cheese is one of many items being served, plan on buying 3 to 4 ounces per person.
  • Offer a selection of breads, including sliced baguette, bread sticks and crackers in all different shapes and sizes. It’s a good idea to vary taste and texture among the breads as well as the cheeses.
  • Jarred condiments and vegetables are quick and fuss-free. Try sweet preserves or honey, tart chutneys and spicy mustards. You can also add artichoke hearts, roasted red peppers and caponata. If you have a bit more time, prepare caramelized onions, which complement most cheese plates.
  • Various other sweet and salty items can work as well. Try cured meats such as prosciutto and salami or candied nuts and pistachios. Assorted seasonal and dried fruits can include figs, cherries, apples and pears.
  • Separate strong-smelling cheeses. If you want to serve a pungent cheese, place it on a separate plate, so it doesn’t overpower more delicate ones. 
  • Set out a separate knife for each cheese, especially the soft varieties. Soft cheese spreads well with a butter knife, firm cheese might require a paring knife and aged cheese often requires a cheese plane.
  • Remove the cheese from the refrigerator an hour before serving―cold mutes the flavor.
  • If you’re serving cheese before dinner, choose lighter cheeses, such as an herb-coated goat cheese or fresh mozzarella.
  • If you’re serving cheese after dinner, then you can go one of two ways — serve just one rich and creamy cheese, such as the easy-to-find triple-crème cheese called St. Andre — or go for full-flavored cheeses like Manchego, Cheddar, Aged Gouda and/or Blue cheeses.
  • Arranging the cheese platter: Never crowd cheeses on the platter or they will be difficult to slice for your guests.

Wine and cheese are a classic combination.

  • Blue cheeses, such as Stilton or Gorgonzola, go well with dessert wines like Sauternes and Ports.
  • To accompany fresh cheeses like a goat or feta, choose a Sauvignon Blanc or Pinot Noir.
  • Soft-ripened cheeses, like Teleme or Brillat-Savarin, go well with Chardonnay.
  • For aged cheeses, like Cheddar, aged Gruyere and Parmigiano-Reggiano, serve Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel or Burgundy.

Cheese Appetizers

Focaccia with Pears and Blue Cheese

Ingredients

  • 1 cup warm water
  • 1 package active dry yeast
  • 1/2 teaspoon honey
  • 2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 cup plus 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1 medium red onion, thinly sliced
  • 1 teaspoon brown sugar
  • 1 large Bosc pear, cored and sliced thin
  • 1/2 cup crumbled blue cheese

Directions

In a large bowl, combine the water, yeast and honey and let stand for 5 minutes. Stir in 1 cup of the flour and 1/4 cup of the oil; let stand for 5 minutes. Stir in the remaining flour and the salt and knead until smooth. Transfer to an oiled bowl, cover with plastic and let stand for 1 hour.

Meanwhile, in a skillet, heat 1 tablespoon of the oil. Add the onion, cover and cook over moderate heat, stirring occasionally, for 10 minutes. Add the sugar, cover and cook, stirring occasionally, until browned, 10 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 450°F. Oil a 9-by-13 inch rimmed baking dish.

Transfer the dough to the dish and press it down to fit. Dimple the dough all over with your fingers and drizzle with 2 tablespoons of the olive oil. Let the dough rise until puffed, about 20 minutes.

Scatter the cooked onions over the dough. Arrange the pear slices over the onions and sprinkle with the blue cheese. Drizzle the remaining 2 tablespoons of oil over the focaccia and bake for 20 minutes or until golden. Cut into small squares for serving as an appetizer.

Smoked Salmon Toasts

Servings: 16

Ingredients

  • 8 ounces mascarpone cheese
  • 2 tablespoons chopped fresh dill, plus 16 small fronds for garnish
  • Finely grated zest and juice of 1 lemon
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 1/2 medium fennel bulb (about 8 ounces), cored
  • Toast, recipe below
  • 4 ounces sliced cold-smoked salmon, cut into 16 even pieces

Toast

  • 4 slices (about 4-1/2×3-1/2 inches) firm, country bread
  • 1 tablespoon unsalted butter, melted
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

Directions

Mix the mascarpone, dill, 1 teaspoon lemon zest and 2 teaspoons lemon juice in a medium bowl. Season with salt and pepper.

Using a sharp vegetable peeler, peel the fennel into long, thin strips by pressing firmly against it; season the strips with salt.

To assemble:  spread the toasts with some of the mascarpone and then cut each toast into four even squares.

Top each square with a couple of pieces of the fennel, a curl of the salmon, a dill frond and a few grinds of black pepper. Drizzle with remaining lemon juice.

Make Ahead Tips: You can make the mascarpone spread and cut the fennel several hours in advance. Keep both refrigerated; bring to room temperature before assembling.

Toast

Adjust an oven rack to 6 inches from the broiler and turn the broiler on to high. Set the bread on a baking sheet, brush one side with the melted butter. Toast the bread until it’s golden brown and crisp on top, about 1 to 2 minutes. Turn and cook the other side until golden, about 1 minute. While the bread is still hot, slice off the edges. Let cool slightly. Spread with the toppings before cutting into squares or triangles.

Make Ahead: Toasts can be made up to a day ahead; store them in an airtight container.

Spinach-Cheese Swirls

Ingredients

  • 1 sheet frozen Pepperidge Farm Puff Pastry
  • 1 egg
  • 1 tablespoon water
  • 1/2 cup shredded Monterey Jack cheese
  • 1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
  • 1 green onion, finely chopped
  • 1/4 teaspoon garlic powder
  • 1 (10 ounce) package frozen chopped spinach, thawed and squeezed dry

Directions

Thaw pastry sheet at room temperature 40 minutes. Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.

Mix egg and water. Set aside. Mix Monterey Jack cheese, Parmesan cheese, onion and garlic powder.

Unfold pastry on lightly floured surface. Brush with egg mixture. Top with cheese mixture and then spinach.

Starting at short side, roll up like a jelly roll. Cut into 20 (1/2 inch) slices. Place on baking sheet. Brush with egg mixture.

Bake 15 minutes or until golden. Serve warm or at room temperature. Makes 20 appetizers.

Mozzarella Sandwiches with Two Sauces

Makes 12 (antipasto) servings

Ingredients

For anchovy sauce:

  • 1 stick unsalted butter, cut into pieces
  • 4 flat anchovy fillets, finely chopped
  • 2 tablespoons drained capers, coarsely chopped
  • 2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
  • 2 tablespoons finely chopped flat-leaf parsley

For the marinara sauce:

Makes about 3 cups

  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 1 28-ounce can crushed Italian tomatoes
  • Pinch sugar
  • Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 tablespoon chopped fresh basil leaves
  • 1 tablespoon chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley

For mozzarella in carozza:

  • 1 (1-pound) Italian bread loaf, such as pane di casa (5 inches wide)
  • 1 (1-pound) ball of fresh mozzarella, cut into 6 (1/4-inch-thick) slices
  • 1 cup plus 3 tablespoon milk, divided
  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • 4 large eggs
  • Olive oil

Directions

Make anchovy sauce:

Melt butter in a small heavy saucepan over low heat. Discard any foam from top, then remove from heat. Stir in anchovies, capers and lemon juice. Keep warm and covered. Stir in parsley just before serving.

Make marinara sauce:

Heat oil in a saucepan over medium-high heat. Add the garlic and cook, stirring, until fragrant. Add the tomatoes and sugar and season with salt and pepper, to taste. Bring to a boil, lower the heat and simmer for 30 minutes. Keep warm. Stir in the basil and parsley just before serving.

Make mozzarella in carrozza:

Cut bread loaf in half. Starting from the middle halves of the loaf, cut bread into 12 (1/4-inch-thick) slices. Sandwich each slice of mozzarella between 2 slices bread, then cut off crusts, forming 4-inch squares (mozzarella slices should be smaller than bread slices).

Put 1 cup milk in a shallow dish and spread flour on a plate. Dip both sides of each sandwich in milk, pressing edges lightly to seal sandwich. Coat with flour, making sure edges are coated well. Place on a parchment-lined baking sheet and chill 2 hours.

Whisk eggs in a large shallow bowl, then whisk in 3/4 teaspoons of salt and remaining 3 tablespoons milk.

Heat 1/4 inch of olive oil in a 12-inch skillet over medium heat until it shimmers. Dip sandwiches, 1 at a time, in egg mixture, letting excess drip off, and fry 2- 3 at a time, turning once with a slotted spatula, until golden, about 6 minutes per batch. Drain on paper towels. Keep warm in the oven set at the lowest temperature.

Cut in half diagonally and serve with anchovy sauce and marinara sauce.

Provolone Pesto Terrine

This recipe comes from my sister, who made it for us many years ago. I don’t know the origin of the recipe but It was a big hit and everyone in the family has the recipe. It is perfect for this season with its Christmas color combination.

Ingredients

  • 1 cup prepared Basil Pesto: see post for a homemade version: http://jovinacooksitalian.com/2012/04/21/two-sauces-for-everyday-meals/
  • 1 8 oz package cream cheese
  • 2 cloves minced garlic
  • 1/4 teaspoon white pepper
  • 1/4 cup toasted pistachios, coarsely chopped
  • 1/2 cup sun dried tomatoes in oil, drained, blotted dry and coarsely chopped
  • 1 lb thin sliced provolone cheese
  • Thin Italian bread slices
  • Cheesecloth, cut large enough to line a loaf pan

Directions

In a food processor combine cream cheese, garlic and white pepper. When smooth and creamy, place in small bowl and fold in pistachios.

Wet cheesecloth and ring dry. Completely line a loaf pan (8×4 inches), letting excess hang over edges.

Cut provolone slices in half. Slightly overlapping slices, line bottom and sides of the pan, extending halfway up. Divide remaining provolone cheese into 3 equal stacks and set aside.

Spread 1/2 of the pesto mixture over the provolone in bottom of the loaf pan. Cover pesto with 1 of the stacks of provolone, overlapping as you go.

Sprinkle cheese with 1/2 of the sun dried tomatoes. On top of that, evenly spread all of the cream cheese mixture, then sprinkle on the remaining 1/2 of the tomatoes.

Cover that with another stack of provolone cheese.

Cover with the remaining pesto, and then cover that with remaining stack of cheese. Fold the cloth over the top of cheese, compact slightly, and refrigerate for at least 4 hours.

To serve, invert onto a serving dish, remove cheesecloth, and garnish with basil and pistachios. Serve with slices of crusty bread.

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