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A carefully curated cheese plate is both showstopping and comforting. But building a cheese plate that delivers in beauty and taste can be overwhelming with all of the choices. How do you pick and pair the cheeses? How much cheese do you really need? And where should you place the extras?
Marissa Mullen, fromage aficionado behind the Instagram handle @thatcheeseplate, has been inspiring thousands with her aesthetically-pleasing cheese plate creations (check out "The HBD Plate" or this summer cheese plate featuring grilled peaches and honey) and went through the basics with us.
Selecting the Cheese
There are no wrongs when picking cheese but there are a few different techniques. Mullen likes to select a variety of milks—cow, goat, and sheep. Each cheese has a different flavor profile based on the milk it's made with. "You tend to find goat cheeses lighter and slightly tangy while cow's milk is more creamy and robust," Mullen said.
But how much cheese should you get? For a variety of textures, Mullen recommends picking four types of cheese—an aged cheese, a soft cheese, a hard cheese, and a blue cheese. "I have my go-to favorites, which include some type of aged goat cheese, a brie (a crowd favorite), and a sharp cheddar or gruyere. They all pair very nicely with sweet compotes and jams," said Mullen.
What to Serve With the Cheese
After you've picked your vehicles for the cheese (a crusty bread, baguette, and a couple of types of crackers is foolproof) the rest of the choices here are based on what type of theme you're working with.
"I recently made an Autumn cheese plate and utilized dried apricots, fresh figs, seeded crackers, and garnished with star anise," said Mullen. However, her go-to staples typically include a fig jam or compote, salami, berries, and mixed nuts. "Sweet and salty accompaniments pair well with many different kinds of cheese." For a full plate try to include something crunchy, salty, sweet, and tangy.
The Assembly Order
What goes on the cheese plate first? Start with the cheese, followed by the meat, fruit, nuts, jams, and ending with garnishes (flowers, rosemary etc). "The key to building an aesthetically pleasing cheese plate is to fill in all of the gaps. If you see any part of the plate showing, sprinkle in some nuts or garnishes," says Mullen. For an even simpler route, she's coined a technique called "Cheese By Numbers". Essentially a paint-by-numbers guide but with cheese.
Knives and Plates
In terms of design, Mullen loves using round boards. "My favorite plate is Whisk NYC, it's a copper and stone round cheese board that can feed up to ten people. I also love Boska cheese boards and knives." Keep separate cheese knives out on your plate to avoid mixing.
The two things that are really important when it comes to cheese are temperature and humidity. "Cheese should be consumed at room temperature—that's when the flavors are the strongest," said Mullen. Some cheeses start to "sweat" when dehydrated and exposed to air for too long. So you don't want to build it early and have it sitting out. "Usually I like to build the plate 30 to 40 minutes before guests arrive."
One Common Mistake To Avoid
"Nobody wants to be the first person at a party to struggle to cut a large block of cheddar." So always pre-cut big blocks of hard cheese, even if it's a few slices to get it going.
To complete the look, Mullen usually adds orange or yellow roses or rosemary sprigs to her cheese plates. But get creative with your theme—for birthday events, sprinkle confetti around the plate.
How to Photograph Your Cheese Plate
Take your photos in indirect natural light—ideally with a natural background—to let your cheesy creation shine. "I take most of my photos on my white kitchen table from a bird's eye view." Give it a try the next time you throw your own cheese plate together.