Five ‘beyond-the-board’ holiday entertaining ideas.
Growing up, winter holiday meals for Lilith Spencer, cheesemaker at Jasper Hill Farm in Greensboro, VT, meant re-runs of the greatest hits – turkey, mashed potatoes, gravy, yams, rolls, cranberry sauce and stuffing. None of these dishes included cheese. Now that Spencer is hosting her own holiday gatherings, cheese enjoys a prominent seat at her table. For example, she says, “I like to employ cheesy traditions from some of my friends’ families, regional specialties like lasagna, Swiss-style scalloped potatoes or steak and Stilton pie. I also incorporate cheese into some of those classic dishes, like mashed potatoes, casseroles and apple pie.”
Here are five beyond-the-board ways to make cheese the star of holiday entertaining.
1. ONE CHEESE STARS
Cheese boards, served as appetizers, paired with fruit for dessert or combined with charcuterie, are the most popular mainstay uses of cheese for holiday entertaining. In fact, cheese is second only to charcuterie as the most popular type of board, according to the October 2022-based report, Charcuterie Trends, Analytics, and Statistics, by Tastewise, a Tel-Aviv, Israel-based food and beverage industry data platform.
But, if you’re bored with boards, try focusing on a single cheese. That’s what Erin Harris’s family did. Getting ready for the holidays meant soaking a big chunk or wheel of Stilton in port, says Harris, a Toronto, Canada-based Red Seal chef, cheese specialist and food writer, known publically as ‘The Cheese Poet’.
“It’s one of my favorite Christmas cheese memories. My family is originally from the UK, and Stilton on the table was a tradition. We’d start before the holiday, putting big pieces of the cheese in glass jars or poking holes in a wheel and pouring in the port. Then, at teatime or the cocktail hour as friends came by to share holiday cheer, there would be this cheese on the table. It would be the shining star of the show, and we’d serve it with sliced fresh pears and roasted walnuts. One cheese rather than many can often make a bigger impression. It’s a good example of less is more.”
Jasper Hill’s Spencer agrees and adds, “I love a dramatic presentation, and it’s even better when it’s low effort: a single, giant piece of one exemplary cheese can make a real statement. It’s sort of a minimalist answer to the whole board trend. We’re so used to seeing these intricate geometric arrangements now, you forget what the cheese actually looks like in its natural state.”
When Spencer hosts several guests, she often makes an entire eighth wheel (around 4 pounds) of Cabot Clothbound Black Label the focal point of the festivities. Because it’s naturally crumbly, she puts out the whole wedge with a couple of spades for folks to break off their own little nuggets, which ends up looking really beautiful. She’ll also set out a few simple pairings on separate dishes. This way, the cheese shines, and the guests can focus on how each pairing changes their experience.
Another single-star cheese, albeit on a smaller scale, is baked brie.
“One of my favorite holiday recipes is Mark Bittman’s Cranberry orange relish, and it’s amazing in a baked brie. You could even add some jalapeño to spice it up a bit, or some pistachios for some crunch. A spiced cardamom pear baked brie with toasted pecans would be lovely, too; I love cardamom this time of year. A double creme brie is usually best for baked brie, as a triple creme can be too much butter fat,” says Kristine Whitten, ACS, CCP, lead cheese specialist for Murray’s Cheese, an artisanal cheese retailer based in New York, at the company’s Fry’s Food Store locations in Dallas and Houston, TX.
The Italian-inspired equivalent of a French brie or Camembert is Italian Robiola, which is made in a similar style in the northern region of Piedmont, according to Tess McNamara, head of Salumi and Formaggi for Eataly North America, headquartered in New York. “Robiola is equally as decadent and oozing in its flavor and texture and is enhanced when cooked together with sprigs of herbs and cloves of garlic tucked into its rind. Simply use a small knife to cut slits in the rind and insert the herbs and garlic before baking. You can also add pine nuts, pulled-apart pitted olives, honey or hazelnuts for a great regional pairing either baked or at room temperature.
2. CHEESE BALLS MAKE A COMEBACK
Christmas ornament-sized balls of soft cheese rolled in crunchy nuts sat on every holiday cocktail table in the 1970s. Fast forward, and the cheese ball is making a comeback, albeit in a 2.0 way.
“Our idea of an elevated cheese ball is a handmade burrata stuffed with truffles or a robiola wrapped in chestnut leaves, which impart just the right amount of nutty, earthy, roasted notes,” says Eataly’s McNamara. “If we were creating a cheese ball from scratch, we’d probably turn to some of our local and regional producers of soft format goat cheeses and dust them with fresh herbs or serve a log or ball with roasted figs.”
This comeback could be especially popular for cheese balls made with on-trend flavor profiles.
“I like the idea of using non-cow cheeses as they become more popular,” adds Murray’s Cheese’s Whitten. “One idea is to mix some roasted garlic, rosemary, goat cheese and cream cheese (for texture) and roll it in everything spice. Another idea is an orange cinnamon cardamom cheese ball with pistachios, using Bellwether Farms’ basket ricotta or fresh sheep milk cheese to make it luscious.”
3. GO FOR WINTER CLASSICS – FONDUE & RACLETTE
The classics never go out of style, making fondue and raclette winter season staples.
“Super melty cheeses are a must, and Alpine styles are classic! Gruyére, Comtè and Emmentaler are very traditional for fondue. Other cheeses can be incorporated in a fondue to add flavor like cheddar or Gouda, but the base cheese needs to be very melty. For something a little different, you could do something Italian style with Fontina and Taleggio, and you could use speck or Calabrese salami and roasted zucchini and eggplant for dipping,” says Murray’s Whitten.
Alpine-inspired cheeses like Jasper Hill Farm’s Alpha Tolman and Whitney, also make a fantastic combination for fondue, according to Spencer. “Whitney is modeled after mid-elevation mountain-style cheeses like raclette, so it’s designed to melt. Alpha Tolman is a little firmer and denser, and its fruity and nutty notes balance out Whitney’s funky, meaty qualities. Up here we like to make our fondue ‘Vermont-Style,’ subbing out the kirsch for a splash of hard cider.”
Elevate a classic fondue with grated fresh truffles, not truffle oil, recommends Harris, who authored the 2020-published “Essential Fondue Cookbook: 75 Decadent Recipes to Delight and Entertain”. “Beyond that, use your imagination when it comes to what to dip into the cheese. For example, roasted brussels sprouts, chunks of butternut squash, tater tots, chunks of soft pretzel instead of a baguette or fresh fruit like strawberries, apples or pear slices. Cornichon pickles and whole-grain mustard are condiments with acidity that can cut the richness of the fondue. Add a holiday spin on this with a homemade pickle or relish or something like a caramelized onion jam.”
Beyond fondue is raclette.
“It’s such a rich, hearty cheese, that’s exactly what you want when it’s cold out. I also love imagining people huddled around a fire, scraping melted raclette onto root vegetables, cured meats and pickled vegetables on a cold winter night. Raclette has an inherent sense of community; it’s built for sharing. You could do a traditional French or Swiss or go for Springbrook Reading or the new cool kid in the cheese world, Jasper Hill’s Whitney,” says Spencer.
4. MERRY MENU-MAKING WITH CHEESE
Make merry by mixing cheese into a soup to nuts of wintertime and holiday dishes.
“As soon as the temperatures dip, roasted veggies become a big part of my diet. Lately, I’ve been roasting cauliflower and topping it with blue cheese crumbles and toasted pine nuts. I’ve been using Point Reyes Bay Blue because it’s a personal favorite, but almost any crumbly blue would work for this. If you want to go the creamy route, you could turn this into a soup, too,” says Murray’s Cheese’s Whitten.
An easy-to-make entertaining-friendly dish is to use sizes of fresh mozzarella, from pearls to 1-pound logs, to garnish hot and cold dishes.
“You can layer tomatoes with fresh mozzarella slices to build a candy cane shape, but you can also add baby pearl-sized fresh mozzarella to your soups and pizzas to create shapes and add a stringy, fresh cheese flavor,” suggests Roseanne Crave, marketing, and sales manager for Crave Brothers Farmstead Cheese, in Waterloo, WI.
Cheeses that melt well, like Jasper Hill Farm’s Whitney, make it a workhouse in the kitchen.
“It fits into pretty much any cheesy recipe and often does a better job than what the recipe calls for because it’s much less likely to separate. Mashed potatoes, casseroles, and mac and cheese are some of our favorite places to feature Whitney. Also, in addition to a go-to salad topping, Bayley Hazen Blue is great on top of warm vegetable dishes. Shave off thin slices with a paring knife or crumble by hand,” says Spencer.
Savory pies are a great vehicle for leftover cheeses and can create guest-worthy entrèes.
“Add some roasted vegetables, the cheese scraps and herbs, (ground meat if you want), and you have a savory slice of pie. Smoked or regular scamorza is a great accompaniment to roasted mushrooms, as is a triple crème folded into a risotto. Keep in mind that cheese is versatile, and different styles and families lend themselves to different applications, but you really can’t go wrong,” says Eataly’s McNamara.
5. TIS THE SEASON FOR CHEESE-SPIKED DESSERTS
Apples and cheddar are a classic combination and a delicious dessert pairing. In Vermont and other parts of New England this pairing is particularly celebrated, says Jasper Hill Farm’s Spencer. “Specifically, we prefer to eat our apple pie alongside a slice of cheddar cheese. I like to incorporate our Cabot Clothbound Cheddar into a Dutch apple pie. I use about a third of a cup mixed in with the filling and then more in the crispy streusel topping. Clothbound works so beautifully here because it has a lot of nutty, brown butter and caramelized notes, and it isn’t exceedingly sharp.”
A favorite holiday recipe finale at Crave Brothers is Pumpkin Mascarpone Trifle.
“For those of us who may not be die-hard pumpkin pie fans, this recipe is the perfect mix of light, sweet and pumpkiny goodness. It is a beautiful color and simple to make and layer in any fun/festive glass or dish,” says Crave Brothers’ Crave.
Lastly, a showstopper start or end to a holiday meal is a creamy brûlée made with Humboldt Fog. This iconic soft-ripened goat milk cheese is crafted in Humboldt County by Cypress Grove Cheese in Arcata, CA. The recipe boasts only three ingredients: a mini wheel or slice of Humboldt Fog, turbinado sugar and a broiler or culinary blow torch.
“Whether you’re with family or new friends, this Humboldt Fog Brûlée is a great vehicle to gather people around,” says Haley Nessler, senior marketing manager for Cypress Grove and Cowgirl Creamery. “It just plain makes people happy.”
Humboldt Fog Brûlée
Courtesy of Cypress Grove Cheese
Humboldt Fog (Mini or slice)
Slice off the top rind of the wheel or cut a piece off from a slice. You want some exposed paste. Sprinkle a thin layer of sugar over the paste. Using a culinary blowtorch, heat the sugar until you have a golden brown, crunchy crust. Keep that torch moving so the sugar doesn’t scorch. If no torch is available, broil in the oven. Serve with crackers, bread, fruit and spoons.
Apple-Cheddar Coffee Cake with Maple Streusel
Courtesy of Jasper Hill Farms
2 Tbsp unsalted butter
4-5 medium apples, peeled, cored, and sliced thinly
1/3 cup packed light brown sugar
1 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp nutmeg
1 lemon’s worth of zest
2/3 cup grated Cabot Clothbound Cheddar
Make the Filling: Melt butter in a saucepan over medium heat. Add apples and stir to coat. Cook apples for 2-3 minutes, then add brown sugar and spices. Continue to cook; the apples will release their juices, then the liquid will begin to thicken into a glaze. At this point, remove the saucepan from the heat and add the lemon zest, stirring to distribute. Do not mix in the cheese until the mixture has cooled completely. While the filling is cooling, prepare the streusel topping.
1/2 cup + 2 Tbsp flour
2 Tbsp sugar
1 Tbsp maple syrup
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/8 tsp salt
4 Tbsp cold butter, cubed
1/2 cup grated Cabot Clothbound Cheddar
Make the Streusel Topping: Add flour, sugar, maple syrup and spices to the bowl of a food processor. Pulse a couple of times just to combine. Add butter about a third at a time, pulsing briefly 2-3 times between each addition. Add the cheese in the same manner. Transfer the mixture to a small bowl and refrigerate until needed. Don’t worry if it’s all clumped together. In the meantime, make the batter.
2 cups flour
1/2 tsp nutmeg
1 1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
3/4 tsp salt
8 Tbsp (1/4 pound) butter, at room temperature
1/2 cup sugar
1/4 cup packed light brown sugar
3 Tbsp maple syrup
2 large eggs
1 1/2 tsp vanilla extract
2/3 cup buttermilk or whole milk
Make the Batter & Assemble the Cake: Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. Line an 8×8 cake pan with parchment paper, leaving a couple of inches of overhang on the sides. Sift the flour, nutmeg, baking powder, baking soda and salt into a medium bowl and set aside.
Using a large bowl and handheld mixer, or in the bowl of a standing mixer, beat the butter on medium-high speed until fluffy. Gradually add in the sugar followed by the brown sugar, beating until well-combined, creamy and fluffy (at least 3 minutes).
Add eggs, one at a time, scraping the bowl between each addition, followed by the maple syrup and vanilla. On low speed, add about a third of the flour, then about half of the buttermilk; another third of the flour, then the remaining buttermilk, ending with the remaining flour. The batter will be very thick, much thicker than regular cake batter, but not as thick as bread dough.
Divide the batter in half, distributing it between two bowls. Spread half of the batter across the bottom of your cake pan. Do your best to make it even; you can lightly but firmly bang the pan on the counter a couple of times to help settle the batter.
Take your cooled apple filling and mix the cheese in, then spread it evenly over the first layer of cake batter. Press down gently on the filling to make sure it is even but try not to push it down too far into the batter underneath. This is the trickiest part: spread the second layer of batter over the filling. The best way to do this is to kind of dollop the batter across the top before you spread it out; drop a big spoonful on each corner and one in the center, then start to spread the dollops towards each other, filling in the gaps. Don’t worry too much about leaving small, exposed sections (ultimately, this is all going to be covered with a thick layer of streusel), and use your fingers if you have to.
Finally, take your streusel topping out of the fridge and use your fingers to crumble it. It’s nice to have smaller crumbles (they’ll get nice and crunchy), and then bigger chunks that stay a little more tender and butterier. Scatter the crumbles evenly across the top of the cake. It will not come very high up the edges of your cake pan.
This cake will get nice and tall in the oven. Baking times may vary. Start checking on it at around the 45-minute mark, but it will likely take closer to a full hour or even a few minutes longer. To keep your streusel from burning, loosely cover the cake with foil about 35-40 minutes into baking. The cake is done when an inserted toothpick comes out clean. Cool the cake in the pan for 15 minutes or so, then use the excess parchment to help lift the cake carefully out of the pan and onto a cooling rack. This cake is particularly excellent served slightly warm, but equally delicious at room temperature.