I know from my own experience in the specialty food business that people are always looking for easy appetizer ideas to serve a crowd.
Cheese platters are a fantastic option as they do not require cooking and can be assembled in minutes.
Thinking back, cheese was definitely the appetizer of choice when my parents were entertaining. I can still hear my mother saying "save room for dinner."
Of course, she had good reason — I have to admit that there were more than a few occasions when I sat down for dinner already full from cheese.
Here are some tips on how to create a beautiful, balanced cheese platter:
• Use a selection of different cheeses (a minimum of three) — the best platters will include at least one hard, sharp cheese (such as cheddar), a soft, creamy cheese (such as brie) and a pungent cheese (such as blue).
• Try to choose cheeses from different animals.
For instance, try a sheep's milk cheese like Spanish manchego (a hard and sharp cheese) or French Roquefort (a semi-hard blue cheese); a cow's milk cheese like St. Andre (a soft and creamy triple-cream brie) or Swiss Gruyere (slightly sweet and salty hard yellow cheese) and a goat's milk cheese like Greek Halloumi (an amazing grilling cheese that tastes similar to mozzarella, though saltier) or Canadian chevre like Woolwich Dairy (try one of their spreadable herb or fruit crusted chevrai logs).
• If possible, opt for different coloured cheeses to ensure the most attractive presentation.
• Serve your cheeses with fresh or dried fruits, roasted or candied nuts, fresh bread and crackers (oops — I almost forgot the wine).
• Adorn the platters with fresh lime leafs or banana leaves (tuck underneath cheeses) for a stunning presentation. Both can be found at the New City Chinese Supermarket on King Street in Kitchener (beside the old OW Sports store).
• Use a wooden cutting board if you want a rustic look and feel. For a modern, elegant approach, plain white ceramic platters are best.
• Garnish the platter with beautiful fresh fruit like champagne grapes, figs, strawberries, kumquats, prickly pears and/or Chinese gooseberries. Specialty fruits can be found more readily during the holidays (although large "super-centre" grocery stores tend to carry exotic and tropical fruits all year).
• Hard cheeses like cheddar and manchego can share a knife but soft cheeses like brie and chevre should have their own knives so that their flavours do not intermingle.
• For the best flavour, always serve cheese at room temperature (assemble cheese platters about one hour ahead of time). Keep in mind that hard cheeses take longer to come to room temperature than soft cheeses.
• Plan on serving about one ounce per person of each cheese for an appetizer-sized portion. You may need to serve a little bit more per person if you are serving a cheese course.
Along with fruit and interesting crackers and flatbreads, I like to serve cheese with toasted or candied nuts.
"Swedish nuts" are perfect on a cheese platter, and make a delicious hostess gift.
This recipe is courtesy of Ruth Bricker, a good family friend (like a second mother, really) who serves these delicious nuts throughout the holidays. Mom obtained the recipe many years ago and now they're a Christmas staple at our house too.
Ruth Bricker's Swedish Nuts
- 1/2 lb. blanched almonds
- 1/2 lb. walnuts or pecan halves dash of salt
- 1 cup sugar
- 2 egg whites, stiffly beaten
- 1/2 cup unsalted butter
- Preheat the oven to 325 degrees F.
- Toast the nuts in the oven until light brown, about eight-12 minutes. Stiffly beat two egg whites.
- Fold sugar and salt into the stiffly beaten egg whites and beat again until stiff peaks form.
- Fold nuts into the sugar-egg white (meringue) mixture.
- Melt butter on a cookie sheet with sides (or use broiler pan) and spread the nut mixture on top.
- Bake for 30 minutes at 325 degrees F. Stir every 10 minutes until nuts are covered with coating and are light brown and no butter remains.