Serious Cheese: How to Make a Fancy-Looking Cheese Plate on a Budget
Times are tough out there. The recession is still kicking, inflation is rampant, and even Flappy Bird can't hack it. Your friends are coming over, though, and even though you don't have a ton of disposable income, you still want to impress them. You've outgrown chips and salsa, and feel ready to plow forth into the sophisticated world of artisan cheese—if only you could afford it.
Fear not! Creating a fancy-looking cheese plate on a budget is way easier than you might think. How? Read on.
Actually, hold that thought: before we plow forth, here's the essential food philosophy I subscribe to: good food is not meant to be cheap. This post is about cheese on a budget; not cheap products. This will all be relative. Inexpensive food—especially when it comes from animals — likely means that some person or some creature suffered along the way. Being opposed to bad animal husbandry and under-paid and unsafe workers eliminates a lot of food choices. But that's another post for another day. Now, let's focus on the cheese.
First things first: cheese is filling. The protein and fat in cheese will make you feel full fast, so you can feel satisfied with just a little portion. That means buying less, which means saving more money. See, we're winning already.
For a cheese plate for four, our budget will be $30. I chose this number because it seems like less than the average amount you might spend on appetizers for four at a restaurant. Having a nice cheese course at home before dinner is a great way to socialize with your friends and save a bit of scratch once you're out.
My assumption is that you will be getting small pieces of a variety of cheeses. Sure, you could head down to the local warehouse store and buy a two-pound chunk of cheese for $8 a pound. But then you're stuck with two pounds of one cheese which will eventually be fed to the cat. So let's stick with small, freshly cut pieces of cheese.
The prices below are what we charge at our cheese counter in Minnesota, so they might fluctuate a little depending on where you live. At our store, we consider anything less than $10 per half pound to be a budget cheese. Bear in mind that cutting cheese to order is an approximate science at best, so consider these numbers a guide rather than the rule.
- ¼ lb Fromage d'affinois: $5
- ¼ lb Fourme d'ambert: $5
- ¼ lb Marieke Gouda: $5
- ¼ lb Reading Raclette: $5
- Baguette: $3
- Nuts of your choosing: $3
- Jar of honey: $4
Here's what my budget plate looks like: A soft, double-creme cheese called Fromage d'affinois, velvety blue Fourme d'ambert, sweet Marieke Gouda, and a slightly funky Springbrook Reading Raclette. I've assembled a variety of readily available, reasonably priced, crowd-pleasing cheeses. If these cheeses are unavailable at your cheese shop, focus on the dynamic of the plate rather than the particular cheeses. A good cheesemonger will always give you tastes of different cheeses so you can ultimately control which bits fit into your budget. And if you're shopping somewhere without a cheesemonger tending the cheese (gasp!), then try and select what looks happy and healthy in the cheese aisle.
For the most part, these cheeses are rich. You're not going to need to eat much to feel their full impact on your belly. These four are also cheeses that present big on a tray— they're not going to crumble into dust. You can cut the Gouda and Raclette into long, thin strips and they'll fill up your plate. Leave the creamy Fromage and Fourme in whole chunks and let your guests spread those themselves.
Of course, you should also have accoutrements. The goal is to make your plate look abundant. Thinly sliced baguette is far more economical than crackers, and usually more delicious, too. Grab a bag of nuts and sprinkle those around the cheeses in whatever artistic pattern you like. They'll cover up all the blank space on your canvas, and they're also packed with more filling fat and protein. The final component is a jar of honey. One small jar will go a long way, and it's one of my favorite cheese pairings. Leave it in the jar and put it directly on your tray.
And that's it! Honestly, the only way to blow your budget on a cheese tray is to overthink it and snatch whatever sounds or seems fanciest. If your cheese counter doesn't carry these four options, let variety be your guide. Look for affordable cheeses with different flavor profiles, colors, and textures to keep the plate interesting. Soon you'll have your own roster of cheese combinations to bust out for holidays, housewarmings, or wherever delicious cheese is mandated.
About the author: Benjamin Roberts sells cheese, eats cheese, dreams about cheese and runs a burgeoning Minnesota cheese empire France 44 & St Paul Cheese. You can follow him on Twitter, Facebook, or tumblr.