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For easy holiday entertaining, assemble your own cheese and charcuterie boards

Picturing the oncoming whirlwind of food that is the next couple of weeks, I closed my eyes and wondered what Ina Garten, the queen of easy, breezy entertaining, would do.

She would probably work on her cheese and charcuterie game.

Cheese and charcuterie boards are prevalent on local menus, but they're also the perfect appetizer to serve at home this holiday season. While friends and family await dinner, a cheese board will keep them happy until the big meal. Or, for a holiday gathering, these beautifully composed platters can even serve as the evening's main event. They're fun, festive and easy. And they don't require an oven.

Your board can be as extravagant or budget-friendly as you'd like, a sort of choose-your-own-adventure with cheese and meats. Create a lush, colorful platter decked out with all kinds of accompaniments; pick up an assortment at a specialty store, or simply raid your pantry. Go all out with a sexy slate board and tiny knives whose sole purpose is carving cheese, or just use your biggest wooden or glass cutting board. Even more casual: Tear a sheet of brown kraft paper, lay it over the table and label the cheeses with a marker. This option has the advantage of easy cleanup; just pack up any leftover meats and cheeses, then toss the paper.

"I think it's important to do things that are unexpected and fun. And to not be afraid. I can't reiterate that enough," said Hope Mauck, head cheesemonger at Mazzaro's Italian Market in St. Petersburg. "Don't overthink it. Have fun with it because, after all, it's cheese, and it's not going to be bad no matter what you do."

The No. 1 thing to remember is to serve your board at room temperature. Serving cheeses and meats straight from the fridge will mute their complex flavors, so arrange your board and set it on the table about an hour before guests arrive. Unwrapping them before serving lets the cheeses breathe. It's also important to talk to your cheesemonger.

"We call ourselves cheese therapists here at Mazzaro's because it's really about coaxing out information and finding out what you're into and guiding you to the perfect cheese," Mauck said. "We understand people don't know a lot about cheese and that's why we're here."

Matt Bonano, owner of Brooklyn South, a specialty market and deli in St. Petersburg's Edge District, starts with three cheeses. He usually chooses one from each species: cow, goat and sheep. Cow's milk cheeses can be very flavorful and fatty, and complement many different foods, he said. Goat's milk cheese is gamier, tangier and often has a sweet mineral flavor. Sheep's milk is very fatty with a "sheepy" flavor, which he describes as almost oily butterfat. It's earthy and savory.

After milk type, Bonano chooses a variety of textures from soft, semisoft and firm cheeses.

Three cheeses and three meats is ideal for a cheese and charcuterie board. The combination offers plenty of variety without exhausting or confusing anyone. Plan on about an ounce per person per cheese and half an ounce for charcuterie. For a more intimate gathering, local cheesemongers recommend leaving your blocks and rounds of cheese whole to show them off, and let guests break off hunks as they go. For a larger party, go ahead and break down your cheeses into slices or chunks and place toothpicks nearby for guests to easily grab. If you're looking to keep costs low, stick to one or two cheeses.

The charcuterie side of your board should also contain diverse textures, shapes and flavors. Lately, I'm reaching for mortadella studded with pistachios or soppressata. Prosciutto is always the place to start for Bonano, who halves the long slices for easy eating. He also likes finocchiona, an Italian-style salami redolent with fennel seed, and mousse truffee, a chicken liver mousse with black truffles that is "insanely beautiful" but not too strong and a little sweet. Choose things you like to eat.

Chad Johnson, executive chef at Haven and the Epicurean Hotel, says a lot of charcuterie is pork-based, but there are less common options to try for your board, too. He likes to offer products that seem familiar but are new to his guests. Bresaola, which is like a prosciutto made from beef, is unexpected but relatable. In the fall and winter, Johnson serves venison or wild boar terrines and more fatty, rich pates. Rillettes are a rustic pate easily made at home with minimum effort for maximum reward. "It's basically meat dip," he said.

When your friends ask what they can bring, tell them to bring the bubbly. Pairing wine or beer can be tricky with several cheeses, but Champagne, prosecco or cava won't clash with any cheeses on your plate.

"Champagne is the safest thing. It cleanses your palate," Johnson said. "It gives you a fresh start for the next bite, and with the holidays, sparkling wine is perfect for celebrations."

Labeling your cheeses is helpful so people know what they're eating and can buy it for themselves later if they find a new cheese they love. You can keep it simple with a piece of paper and toothpicks or chalk. Include the name of the cheese, and also the type of milk or where it came from if you'd like.

The timing for when the cheese hits the table is important, but you don't have to be as diligent about clearing it. After several hours a sheep's milk may develop some oil condensation, but the flavor won't be affected, Mauck said. Before bed, just wrap the cheese and place it in the fridge. You can party all night and so can your cheese.

Ileana Morales Valentine writes the In Our Kitchen column for the Taste section, and she lives in St. Petersburg with her husband. Follow her blog, Say hello at

Sidekicks for your cheese and charcuterie board

Arrange cheeses from mildest to strongest on your platter, then accessorize. This is where you can really make the board your own. The basic accompaniments are fruit, nuts, olives and crackers or bread, but you can get creative within those categories. Our preference for the holidays is a full and luxurious arrangement, with lots of tasty extras. Corral them in small bowls or group them right on the platter. "You want it to look overflowing and approachable," Hope Mauck said.


Grapes are the classic fruit seen on cheese and charcuterie platters, and for good reason. When in season, seek out specialty varieties. Concord grapes are stunning — deep purple and musky with thick skins. (Just beware of the stubborn seeds, sometimes two or three to a grape.) Champagne grapes are picture-perfect, clusters of tiny grapes that pop in your mouth with refreshing, sweet flavor.

Matt Bonano says he likes to include melon on his platters, which is a great companion for salty prosciutto. Sliced plums, figs or pear would feel seasonal and add tons of color. Fruit jams or preserves add color and another layer of sweetness, but something like an onion or tomato jam would be fun as well. Dried fruit, like apricots, dates, golden raisins or figs, add another level of sweetness and chewy texture


Any almonds work on a cheese board, but Marcona almonds are a treat with a richer taste and a softer crunch. Candied walnuts or pecans are winners, too. Try pistachios or Spanish peanuts. Even shards of almond or hazelnut brittle would be a great crunchy, sweet addition. Talk about unexpected.

Olives and pickles

Quickly pickled vegetables or fruit are welcome on any cheese and charcuterie plate. They have a palate-cleansing effect and are a great contrast to rich cheeses and fatty charcuterie. Think carrots, beets or even tomato for a splash of color. Castelvetrano olives — bright green, mild and buttery — are excellent on a platter. Skip something too strong, like pickled garlic, that will overpower the cheeses. You can find quick pickles at specialty grocery stores, or make them before your party with a bit of vinegar, sugar and salt.

Crackers and bread

Sea salt crackers will stand up to any cheese or meat you serve. Sliced baguette is the go-to choice for bread, but don't be afraid to try a seeded loaf or even an oatmeal walnut bread. Kick it up a notch and grill or toast your bread slices. I like to offer both crackers and bread, especially if you're doing meats and cheese. Cheese straws or even biscotti are welcome here, too (see accompanying recipes). Save crackers with a lot of seasoning or herbs for another time — if you scoop up a cheese with a rosemary cracker, you'll probably just taste rosemary rather than the nice cheese you picked out, Bonano says.

Tried-and-true cheese trios

Here are three cheese pairing suggestions. If you can't find or don't want to buy these particular cheeses, look for similar varieties that are made with the same type of milk and are the same texture.

From Hope Mauck:

Abbaye de Belloc: A semihard cheese made by monks in the French Pyrenees using sheep's milk, the result is a sweet, mild flavor with hints of brown butter and caramel.

Parmigiano-Reggiano: The cow's milk cheese you have grated many times over pasta is worthy of being eaten on its own, especially the real-deal aged stuff from Italy.

La Tur: This robiola cheese from northern Italy is made from a blend of milks from sheep, cow and goat. The result is a fresh-tasting cheese so soft it's practically fluffy.

From Matt Bonano:

Landaff: This is a cow's milk cheese from a family farm in New Hampshire with a buttermilk tang.

Sandy Creek: This soft-ripened goat's milk cheese has a distinctive wavy line of ash in the middle of the cheese round. Tangy and smooth, this cheese hails from Goat Lady Dairy in North Carolina.

Ewe's Blue: This is a creamy, rich sheep's milk cheese from upstate New York. It has an earthy, round flavor and is similar to Roquefort. When buying blue cheese, make sure it looks bright, fresh and firm.

From Hope Mauck:

Rogue River Blue: This is a cow's milk blue cheese from Oregon.

Caciotta di Capra Foglie di Noce: This is an Italian aged goat cheese wrapped in walnut leaves.

Brebirousse d'Argental: The soft, gooey sheep's milk cheese is buttery, nutty and has a bright orange rind. Look for Malghese if you can't find it or prefer a slightly less gooey cheese. If you love Brie, you'll love this.

The recipes

You can certainly get by with all of the store-bought doo-dads listed to the left. But if you want to add something homemade, try these recipes. They'll add quite a sophisticated touch to your board.

Butter, radishes and salt is a classic combination, and giving radishes the white chocolate-covered strawberry treatment is a beautiful and unexpected way to present them. You want to look for bite-size radishes. The petite French Breakfast variety is especially pretty for this recipe, but small Cherry Belles, which are easier to find, work well, too. I make these the morning before I plan to serve them and keep in the fridge till party time. Keep them away from your cheese drawer because the butter can pick up other strong flavors in your fridge.


Butter-Dipped Radishes

Butter-Dipped Radishes


  • 1 bunch radishes (about 12 small red or pink radishes, French Breakfast or Cherry Belle varieties)
  • 1 stick butter (½ cup)
  • Flaky salt, such as Maldon


  1. Fill a large bowl with water and a couple handfuls of ice. Plunge radishes into ice bath, moving around gently in water a couple times. After about 1 minute, remove radishes. Cut off greens to separate from radishes, making sure to leave about 1 inch of stem (makes them easier to eat), and possibly a couple small leaves near the root. Reserve greens for another use or toss.
  2. Use a paper towel and carefully rub radishes to remove dirt and dry completely. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and set aside.
  3. Place butter in a small heatproof bowl. Place in microwave for 25 seconds, leaving the butter almost halfway melted. Whisk the butter to melt the remaining butter into a smooth consistency; it should look pale, like melted white chocolate. (If the butter melts too much, allow it to cool and firm up again slightly in the fridge before trying again in the microwave, about 5 seconds at a time.) Dip radishes about halfway into prepared butter to coat. Place on prepared baking sheet and sprinkle with flaky salt. Chill, allowing butter to set on radishes.
  4. Makes about 12 prepared radishes.
Source: Ileana Morales Valentine

Rillettes are a kind of rustic pâté and though the name sounds fancy, the recipe is simple. Make the rillettes up to a week ahead and be ready for compliments when you bring out this homemade charcuterie for your cheese board.


Pork Rilletes


  • 2 pounds skinless, boneless pork shoulder (Boston butt), cut into 1-inch chunks
  • 1 pound pork belly, skin removed and reserved, meat cut into 1-inch pieces
  • 4 sprigs thyme
  • 3 bay leaves
  • Kosher salt
  • Freshly ground nutmeg
  • Fresh lemon juice
  • Toasted bread or crackers (for serving)


  1. Heat oven to 275 degrees. Place pork shoulder and belly and skin in a large ovenproof saucepan or Dutch oven. Tuck in thyme and bay leaves and add ½ cup water. Cover and place in oven to braise, stirring occasionally, until meat is falling-apart tender and fat is soft, 2 ½–3 hours. Remove from oven; remove thyme and bay leaves, and let meat rest until cool enough to handle.
  2. Using a slotted spoon, transfer meat and skin to a large bowl; pour fat and any cooking liquid in pot into a heatproof measuring cup (you should have about 1 cup).
  3. Shred meat with a potato masher; do not hold back. Pour in ¾ cup fat and mash meat a little bit more — mixture should look and feel almost pasty (but in a good way). Season with a big pinch of salt, pinch of nutmeg, and a splash of lemon juice, which will temper the richness of the meat. Taste and adjust as necessary (err on the side of too salty — it will mellow as it cools).
  4. Pack meat mixture into wide-mouth jars, pushing out any air bubbles. Top each with a few spoonfuls of reserved fat and chill until set, at least 2 hours.
  5. Serve with bread or crackers. Note: Rillettes can be made 1 week ahead; cover and chill. Let sit at room temperature 2 hours before serving. Makes about 4 cups.
Source: Bon Appetit

I am a lifelong Cheez-it fan, and this cheesy, crunchy biscotti tastes like a more elegant version of those beloved crackers. Savory biscotti is an unexpected but welcome addition to a cheese and charcuterie board. Gouda and walnut add richness, and after a second bake this bready biscotti is perfectly crisp. The yeasted dough takes a little planning; make this recipe in advance and serve on the day of your party.


Gouda and Walnut Biscotti


  • 1 envelope active dry yeast (2 ¼ teaspoons)
  • ¾ cup plus 2 tablespoons warm water
  • 1 tablespoon sugar
  • 2 ¾ cups all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting
  • 8 ounces aged Gouda (preferably 4 years), shredded (2 cups)
  • ½ cup walnuts, finely chopped
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 6 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened


  1. In a medium bowl, combine the yeast with ½ cup of the warm water and let stand until foamy, about 5 minutes. Stir in the sugar and ¾ cup of the flour to form a sponge; cover and let stand until billowy, about 30 minutes.
  2. In a large bowl, combine the remaining 2 cups of flour with the Gouda, walnuts and salt. Make a well in the center and add the yeast mixture and the remaining 1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons water; add the butter and stir until a dough is formed.
  3. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Scrape the dough onto a lightly floured work surface and knead until smooth, about 5 minutes; divide into thirds. Roll each piece of dough into a 12-inch log about 1 ½ inches wide. Arrange the logs on the prepared baking sheet 2 inches apart. Loosely cover with damp paper towels and plastic wrap. Let stand for about 45 minutes, until the logs of dough rise.
  4. Heat the oven 350 degrees. Remove the plastic wrap and paper towels and bake the logs for about 35 minutes, until they are golden and puffed and an instant-read thermometer inserted in the center registers 205 degrees. Let the logs cool on the baking sheet for 20 minutes.
  5. Reduce the oven temperature to 300 degrees and position two racks in the lower and upper thirds of the oven. Transfer the logs to a work surface. Using a serrated knife, slice the logs crosswise, ⅓-inch thick. Arrange the slices cut side up on 2 baking sheets and bake for 45 minutes to 1 hour, until golden and crisp; flip the biscotti halfway through and shift the baking sheets from top to bottom and front to back. Transfer the biscotti to a rack and let cool completely before serving. Biscotti can be stored in an airtight container for 1 week. Makes about 6 dozen biscotti.
Source: Food & Wine

The recipes

You can certainly get by with all of the store-bought doo-dads listed to the left. But if you want to add something homemade, try these recipes. They'll add a sophisticated touch to your board. Ileana Morales Valentine

For easy holiday entertaining, assemble your own cheese and charcuterie boards 11/16/15 [Last modified: Monday, November 16, 2015 5:19pm]
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