A Cheesemonger's Start-to-Finish Guide to Holiday Meals
The holidays are here. Christmas carols on an endless loop, running the cookie gauntlet at the office, ugly sweater FOMO. Who wants to stress about about recipes and decorations? This time of year should be all about having fun and enjoying friends and family.
But, we totally get it.
The holiday stress struggle is real. Planning ahead can be a big part of easing that stress, which is why we love cheese plates. They can be assembled in advance and make it easy to offer guests (even surprise ones) a variety of flavors and textures. Julia O’Malley put together a great guide to cheeses last year, and we checked back in with Helen Howarth over at Fromagio’s in Anchorage to see what she was thinking for the upcoming holiday season.
Starting your party or meal with a cheese plate isn’t just easy, it’s also smart. Helen reminded us that cheeses can bring big flavors in small packages so your guests can nibble, feel satiated, but not too full that they won’t enjoy that dinner you spend days preparing.
Pickled foods are another addition to a cheese plate that can help stimulate appetite without being filling. Plus, according to Howarth, “the acidity of pickles cuts through the fats of charcuterie and cheese.” We’re all loving these kelp pickles from Barnacle Foods in Juneau - an easy way to add a touch of local flavor. We also had a lot of fun with this recipe for pickled pumpkin.
Howarth recommends adding a couple of specific cheeses that she’s been enjoying lately, including Green Hill from Sweet Grass Dairy in Georgia. This (or any) Camembert style cheese is a great way to start a meal.
Any good quality blue cheese adds depth to a cheese plate, Howarth loves the Original Blue from Point Reyes. She suggests “adding a drizzle of honey and some sliced apples and pears.” A set up with like that can start a meal, but also makes for a great dessert.
If you want to work cheese into a holiday meal, Howarth suggests a simple tartiflette. Here’s a recipe, or you can just simply butter up a cast iron skillet, layer in thinly sliced potatoes and onions along with some grated Tallegio until the pan is filled, then season with salt and pepper and drizzle in some half and half. Bake at 350 degrees until done, and you have a side dish for a meal (or a simple lunch). “It’s such a crowd pleaser,” says Howarth, “and it’s super easy, just some slicing.”
Fromagio’s satisfies my love of good butter as well. Howarth carries a butter from Rudolphe Meunier that is so delicious you can literally slice it and eat like you would a block of cheese (I call that the chef’s prerogative). But, as long as we’re talking dairy, I do recommend investing in the highest quality butter you can afford if you’re putting it on the table for spreading on warm rolls or putting on mashed potatoes. You can make your own butter from high-quality heavy cream, but most local groceries carry good commercially produced options like Kerrygold. Flavored butters are another great addition to your holiday meals.
Another idea? Coffee with butter is all the rage for breakfast right now, but Howarth thinks it could be a great meal ender as well. Just add a tablespoon of good quality butter to a cup of coffee, a little nutmeg or cinnamon, and use an immersion blender to create a rich, frothy, after dinner pick-me-up.
Of course cheese adds a savory depth to dessert as well. Some caramel-like Gjetost melting on a slice of apple pie is a great way to end a meal. I mentioned blue cheese earlier, but any well-thought-out selection of cheeses, some sweet and spicy nuts, a jar of homemade jam paired with some port, Sauternes, holiday spiced tea or warm apple cider makes for an elegant ending. Even if your guests claim they are stuffed!