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From the food editor: For New Year's Eve, build a cheese board

Make a cheese board for New Year's Eve. Photo by Michelle Stark, Times food editor.
Published Dec. 26, 2017

A cheese plate is an easy way to impress a crowd with very little effort. And it's great fun to get out your largest serving tray and build a custom mix-and-match medley of finger foods.

That's how I usually do New Year's Eve, the wide variety of morsels a good fit for the grazing that happens from dinnertime till midnight. Plus, cheese goes great with bubbly.

Here are my recommendations for building a low-key yet delicious cheese plate you can put together quickly for New Year's Eve noshing. See you in 2018.

Normally, like for a Wednesday night cheese plate, I go pretty basic, opting for cheeses I like to eat on the regular and may even have in my fridge, like cheddar or goat. But for a special occasion, consider stopping at your local specialty market, like the vast cheese room at Mazzaro's in St. Petersburg, and pick up something fancy. Stick to these general cheese categories: something sharp and firm (cheddar, asiago, parmigiano-reggiano), something lush and creamy (brie), and something tangy or a little stinky (goat, blue). Plan to have at least three options on your plate; you cannot have too many.

Walnuts, pecan, almonds — they all work beautifully as cheese accompaniments. You could certainly serve them raw on the platter, but I like to punch mine up with a little something extra. Add about 1 cup to a skillet set over medium heat, and toast for about 5 minutes, shaking the pan a couple of times. Add 2 tablespoons of maple syrup and 1 tablespoon olive oil, and stir to coat. Remove from heat and add to a bowl. Add 2 tablespoons brown sugar, 1 tablespoon cinnamon, 2 teaspoons salt, 1 teaspoon paprika and a pinch of black pepper. Stir or shake the nuts to coat them thoroughly with spices. Let cool slightly, then serve.

A swipe of jam, a handful of grapes, some dried cranberries — or, make the fruit compote below for something both fruity and a touch spicy.

We've got the sweet and salty covered, now we need something vinegary. Place a big dollop of your preferred mustard (I like the whole-grain kind with mustard seeds in it) on the plate for swiping, and add any pickled veggie for crunch.

A cheese plate must, serve something crunchy and something softer on your platter. Try water crackers, which are thin and plain-tasting and perfect for loading with cheese and more, and a thinly sliced baguette. Plan on having twice as much as you think you need; the carbs always go fast.

For the compote:

1 cup filtered water

1 cup apple cider

1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

Pinch of salt

? teaspoon ground nutmeg

Zest of a clementine or half an orange

1 generous cup prunes

1 generous cup dried whole apricots

½ generous cup dried cherries

1 tablespoon minced crystallized ginger

1 tablespoon cognac, optional

For the cheese plate:

4 to 8 ounces brie cheese

4 ounces sharp cheddar cheese

4 ounces goat cheese

1 cup nuts of your choice

Handful of grapes

1 cup pickled vegetables

A couple tablespoons mustard

A couple tablespoons strawberry or raspberry jam

Crackers

Thinly sliced baguette

Ready your largest, flattest serving platter.

Make the compote: Bring water, apple cider, vanilla, salt, nutmeg to a boil in a heavy-bottomed 4-quart pot.

Add zest and dried fruit and stir. Bring back to a boil. Place the lid on the pot and reduce heat to a simmer. Simmer for 10 minutes or until fruit is plump. Add the ginger and cognac if using. Stir and turn off the heat. Let sit for 2 to 3 hours or until it has cooled to room temperature. Then, spoon some into a small dish and place on the platter.

When you're ready to eat, arrange the cheese on the platter. You can either cut cheese into chunks, or put out small knives for guests to cut their own (my preferred method).

Add nuts, grapes and vegetables to the platter, then add mustard and jam. Set out a couple forks and spoons for guests to use.

Serve crackers and baguette in a separate basket or bowl.

Source: Michelle Stark, Tampa Bay Times

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