There is something to be said about a really great cheese board. Perhaps that is because there is something to be said about really great cheese. No matter how you shake it though (or in this case, bake it), most people can get behind the notion of a grazing platter filled to its ever-loving brim with small bites, bobs, and bits of delicious morsels. To me, this board that I am so boldly declaring as “The Ultimate Winter Cheeseboard,” will make just about any gathering more special, more delicious, and more interesting to all who are gathered. Even if it happens to be a party of one.
About 7,000 BC, right around the time when man first domesticated animals, cheese appeared. At least that’s the word on the street. It was probably in the Fertile Crescent, somewhere between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, in what is now Iraq. Now, the way I just wrote that makes it sound as if I’m trying to suggest that cheese just appeared out of nowhere, “poof!” Not the case, although that would make for a more intriguing story, I will admit. No, there appear to be two popularized theories behind the origins of cheese – one of the world’s single most beloved edibles.
- When a nomad, traveling with a camel, was about to set off on a journey through the desert. In preparation for his hot, thirsty journey, he filled his saddlebag, made of a dried sheep’s stomach, with milk and set off. When he stopped several hours later, he discovered that his milk had separated into some white solids (the curds) and a watery, hazy fluid (the whey). Et voila. Cheese!
- The other theory involves the milk that was used as an offering to the Gods, many thousands of years ago BC, and how it grew thick and curdled when left outside in the warm sunshine (or near a cave fire). If the liquid was drained off when the milk was placed in a container, say, the dried stomach of a sheep, then the curdled mass would have become a soft cheese.
The only reason I’m really bothering to give the 10-second history of the origins cheese – besides the fact that I’m a nerd for food history – is the other fact that, just the other day, as I was preparing grilled cheese sandwiches for my kids, I remembered the time I thought I’d made my own cheese when I myself was a kid . . . “Hey Mom and Dad! I invented a totally new kind of cheese!!” I exclaimed, as I ran into the kitchen with my satchel of …
That’s really all you need to know. Well, besides the fact that this little cheesy memory of mine ended with an upset stomach and a long nap. It’s the middle of the story that I’ll spare you, as really I’m trying to woo you with the wonder that is cheese, not gross you out with my silly stories of childhood food science experiments gone very, very wrong. No, it’s the beginning and the end of this story that I will tell. As for the middle? It stays in the vault . . . aging for all eternity . . . right along with the world’s best cheeses. I think the actual history of cheesemaking is far more appropriate for our purposes today.
So! Back to business. This cheeseboard is one for the ages, friends. It’s got all of the major players of a classic, standard-op board but it’s been both winterized and gussied up a bit. It’s like someone at the party plugged in the boring cheese platter and suddenly, in a burst of exciting electrifying enchantment, a showstoppingly-beautiful board took its place.
I’m getting carried away. But I truly do love to serve this particular collection of goodies at small cocktail parties or get-togethers because it’s satisfying and really lovely. It’s also incredibly easy but looks FAR more involved and impressive than it really is – the best kind of recipe for entertaining. But really, this is more of a formula that I’m sharing with you here – not an exact recipe that you must follow verbatim or else risk utter and total failure. This is just the roadmap I use when I put together seasonal cheese boards (or “dunk and slather” boards, as my friend Meg calls them):
- Savory cheesecake for dipping (recipe follows)
- Pear and thyme relish (recipe follows)
- Dried fruits (apricots, figs)
- Nuts (I used Marcona almonds here)
- Fresh seasonal fruit (I used pomegranate and brûléed pomelo segments – just sprinkle some sugar on them and broil)
- A good quality smoked sausage
- Crackers (I love Raincoast Crisps)
- Hard cheese (I used Sartori Black Pepper Bellavitano)
You can treat this as an easy plug-n-play formula to follow if you want to create a stunning, seasonal platter and just use the things that you like. Don’t like figs? Try dates. Hate almonds? Roasted hazelnuts are great in the winter time. The addition of the savory cheesecake and the homemade pickled pear relish tie everything together and give it a bit of a “wow” factor. The recipes for both are below, and the relish is something I plucked from Sarah Marshall’s The Preservation Pantry, a beautiful new cookbook that is absolutely perfect for anyone who is interested in preserving and canning. Highly recommend it guys!
And with that, I’ll leave you with the recipes below and I do hope you give them a try. You’ll be bored with your boards no more.
Just say cheese, y’all.
Pear and Thyme Relish
This is my adaptation of Sarah’s wonderful relish. Here, I’ve halved her recipe, as I only wanted a small batch of relish and opted not to can anything this time. If you’d like her full instructions on how to can safely and effectively, I highly suggest you pick up a copy of her lovely book!
- 1 ¼ cups distilled vinegar divided
- 3 ripe pears finely chopped
- 1 green bell pepper finely chopped
- 1/2 medium yellow onion finely chopped
- 2 Tbsp fresh lemon juice
- 1 stalk celery finely chopped
- 1 Tbsp kosher salt
- ½ Tbsp brown mustard seeds
- ½ tsp dried thyme
- ¼ tsp crushed red pepper flakes
- ¼ tsp ground turmeric
- 2 Tbsp light brown sugar
In a large pot, add 1/2 cup of water, ½ cup of the vinegar, the pears, bell pepper, onion, lemon juice, celery, salt, mustard seeds, thyme, pepper flakes, and turmeric. Bring to a boil over high heat, and then reduce to a simmer for 30 minutes. You want to simmer the contents of the pot until all of the liquid is gone but the vegies aren’t sticking to the bottom – so if this takes a little longer for you, that’s okay.
Add the remaining ½ cup vinegar, ½ cup water, and the brown sugar. Stir and simmer uncovered for 10 minutes. Break apart any large pieces or chunks with your spoon.
Cool the relish completely before storing it in the refrigerator.
Savory Garlic and Herb Cheesecake
A crustless, 5-ingredient cheesecake base that is easily transformed into whatever flavor you like. This is essentially a dip disguised as a cheesecake and is a canvas for flavor experimentation galore. Try adding things like shaved or grated parmesan and lots of freshly cracked black pepper for a parmesan-peppercorn version, or add four or five cloves of roasted garlic for a delicious twist. I love using feta and chopped olives, and chopped sun-dried tomatoes are also a frequent addition in my house as well.
- 8 oz cream cheese at room temp
- 1 cup sour cream
- 2 eggs
- 4 oz garlic and herb spread such as Boursin
- 2 tsp salt or to taste
Pre-heat your oven to 350 degrees F.
Combine the cream cheese, sour cream, eggs, garlic and herb spread, and salt in a large bowl and mix with an electric mixer until smooth and creamy.
Pour the cheesecake mixture into a small baking dish (I used a 5" cast iron pan) and bake for 30 minutes, or until lightly browned and set in the middle. Serve with crackers.