Cheese is the yin to chocolate's yang, a sublime, handmade food that adds zing to any holiday table. It's rich but, like chocolate, it satisfies in small quantities. Liz Thorpe, author of The Cheese Chronicles, recommends a range of cheeses and gives tips to bring it all together.
You don't need a lot of it to feed your crowd. Plan for 1 ounce of each cheese per person if you're serving 3 to 5 cheeses. Cut that in half if you want to serve more cheeses.
This Dutch cow's milk cheese is aged a minimum of 18 months to a hard waxiness that breaks into chunks under knifepoint. With flavors of butterscotch, bourbon, and salt, it's often called the "candy of cheese." Look for big white patches, which are amino acid clusters that add a crystalline crunch. Other brands to seek out: Reypenaer, Beemster XO, Parrano, and U.S.-made Marieke Gouda. Serve at room temperature.
The aged sheep's milk wheels of the French Pyrenees mountains are among cheese lovers' top picks. Look for names like Istara, Ossau Iraty, or P'tit Basque for a dense, chewy texture and edging-on-caramel flavor. The flavor is intense, complex, and satisfying even in small bites. Serve at room temperature.
Made from a mixture of cow, goat, and sheep milk, this cupcake of a cheese is the work of Caseificio dell'Alta Langa. When brought to room temperature, the perimeter of the cheese is runny and oozy, while the center is a cakey paste. Serve at room temperature.
Arturo Chiriboga of Bavaria's Obere Mühle dairy makes quite possibly the world's greatest blue cheese. It's cream-enriched for a mouthfeel like dense cheesecake; the veining is minimal; the flavors, sweet and creamy with a fruity pop. If you can't find it, look for the deliciously buttery but less complex Cambozola Black Label ($24/pound, murrayscheese.com). Serve at room temperature.
If you're a fan of Brie, wait until you try Florette. Famed French cheese maker Fromagerie Guilloteau makes a pillowy, buttery goat's milk Brie-type cheese that is sure to dazzle. The rind is remarkably thin, sweet, and yeasty, while the mellow, spreadable inside is a revelation for professed "goat cheese haters." Serve at room temperature.
A few special but versatile accoutrements will prevent palate fatigue.
Each holiday season, the age-old question returns: Should you serve crackers or fruit with your cheese tray? Both, actually, with cracker-crunchy, delicately sweet dried pear or apple crisps from Simple & Crisp ($5/15-slice mini pack, simpleandcrisp.com). They lend a clean fruitiness, an ideal foil for soft, spreadable cheeses.
Pickled fruits, like raisins, plums, and apricots, are gaining popularity in appetizer spreads and cheese plates. Boat Street Pickled Mission Figs ($13/9-ounce jar, boatstreetpickles.com) set a high bar: The creation of chef Renee Erickson, these pickled figs deliver a punch of acidity thanks to red wine vinegar. Balsamic vinegar and rosemary add depth of flavor, and the fruit's natural sweetness provides a counterpoint to salty, nutty cheeses.