Cheese is usually served in one of two courses, either an appetizer course as hors d’oeuvres with Champagne, Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir before dinner or as a cheese course after the main course, prior to or in place of dessert in which case it may be served with a Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Shiraz.
Serving Cheese as an Appetizer Course
Select two to five cheeses made in different styles, flavor and texture (hard, soft, crumbly) together with varied accompaniments for each cheese such as walnuts or Marcona almonds, fig cakes, chutney, olives, floral honeys, and fresh fruit. Apples, pears, strawberries, grapes, fresh figs and melon are all excellent while dried fruit can be scattered around the platter as a tasty decoration.
Pair each cheese with its accompaniments. Serve each cheese on its own separate, flat platter, preferably marble or wood, with a cheese knife dedicated to that platter and space to allow easy slicing. Serve the accompaniments in small ramekins on the same platter as the cheese, so your guests will understand that they are meant to be enjoyed together.
Serving Cheese as a Dinner Course
When serving a cheese course after the main course provide each person with a knife and fork. A cheese course is served with three individual, pre-cut cheeses, each about 5 ounces, separated on a small plate. Each cheese should have one accompaniment placed in proximity to its cheese so the pairings are obvious to the guest together with a small selection of sliced breads.
Typical combinations include a cow's milk cheddar with dates, a chevre with almonds and a soft creamy blue with honey, all served with a Cabernet Sauvignon.
The only exception to including a cheese course is when the menu contains Chinese or Japanese cuisine or hot Indian Tandoori or Thai curry.
When preparing your cheese plate cut the total amount of each cheese you will be using and only remove that from the refrigerator to bring it up to room temperature. Keep the cheese wrapped so it doesn’t dry out and only unwrap and cut it into individual portions to plate it just before serving.
General Rules in Serving Cheese
Here are a few general "rules" than will help with your enjoyment of cheese.
- No matter how cute the wrapper, always serve cheese naked and at room temperature.
- For a formal wine and cheese tasting, label each cheese with its name, milk type and country of origin.
- Serve several interesting kinds of breads, French, black bread, rye pumpernickel, etc. but not one with a strong aroma or flavor.
- Seasoned or salty crackers will detract from the cheese flavor.
- Pre-cutting cheese into individual cubes will dry it out detracting from aroma and texture so for appetizer servings try to always let the guest slice their own cheese.
- If you need to cut a soft cheese it is easier to do so while still cold and then bring it to room temperature for serving.
- To cut any cheese hard or soft correctly use a sharp chef's knife. If you have trouble obtaining a clean cut heat the knife under hot water then wipe it dry and cut in one clean stroke.
- To cut cheese at the table only provide a well made curved cheese knife. Don't use "scoops" or "paddle" knives or any other cheese cutter gimmicks.
- Avoid placing delicately flavored cheeses alongside strong, pungent cheeses as the stronger aroma will overpower the lighter.
- Be sure to rewrap and refrigerate any leftover cheese as soon as possible.
To experience optimum flavor and texture cheese should be served at room temperature. Soft, high-moisture cheeses will melt at around 131°F, while hard, low-moisture cheeses such as Parmesan remain solid until they reach about 180°F.
Many varieties of fresh goat cheese, have a protein structure that remains intact at high temperatures. When cooked, these cheeses just get firmer as water evaporates.
Some cheeses melt smoothly but many tend to become stringy or suffer from a separation of their fats. Many of these can be coaxed into melting smoothly in the presence of acids such as the acidity of the wine in a Fondue.
Elastic stringiness is a quality that is sometimes enjoyed, in dishes including pizza and Welsh rarebit. Even a melted cheese eventually turns solid again but oils leach out during the first melting and are gone, leaving only solids.
As its temperature continues to rise, cheese will brown and eventually burn. Browned cheese has a distinct flavor of its own and is frequently used sprinkled atop dishes before baking.