Every Thanksgiving, my enthusiastic offers to bring (fill in the blank: a lovely lard-crust pie; creamy mashed potatoes; a light, vitamin-rich vegetable thing) are quickly dismissed by my host or hostess. All they want is cheese.
I've picked cheese for upwards of 50 holiday gatherings, and I've learned a thing or two along the way.
I've learned that holidays, despite the food excesses, are a time of restraint. When you're contributing to a group meal, it's best to keep the group in mind, rather than indulge your momentary personal obsessions. In my case, that means checking the urge to bring seven of the rankest, ooziest cheeses I've recently discovered. It also means checking the urge to bring seven of any kind of cheese, which is too many to precede a meal that, under many circumstances, reduces adults to sweatpant-swathed comatosity.
My best Thanksgiving cheese spreads have included three to five cheeses and one to two accompaniments. The cheeses are what people expect, but better. I want them to say, "Oh this reminds me of X, but it's so much more..." And, because I am Cheese Girl, and everyone wants to know what the cheeses are and why I picked them, each needs to have a good story. That's the entertainment of it—standing around with half a dozen people and throwing out a neat fact that takes things well out of common Brie territory. These are the marks of triumphant mass cheese feedings. The food is a vehicle for conversation.
Below are some tips and cheese recommendations to make this all happen. First, a quick note: buying cheese for a group can get really expensive, but shopping on a budget doesn't mean you're relegated to the land of lame cheddar. There are some really excellent "fancy cheeses" that can feed a group of eight to 10 for less than $25—for the whole spread.
How Much Cheese to Buy
Normally, I recommend one ounce per person per cheese, but Thanksgiving is so overwhelming that you can scale that back to half an ounce. That means:
- For four people: A quarter pound (most stores won't let you buy less) of each cheese
- For eight people: A quarter pound of each cheese
- For 12 people: A third to a half pound of each cheese
- For 16 people: A half to three quarters of a pound of each cheese
Pick two versatile accompaniments that can work well with several of the cheeses. I like fruit (or fruit and nut) crackers or crisps. They're not as heavy as bread and feel festive and seasonally appropriate. Another cool option is Simple and Crisp fruit crisps, which are actually slices of dehydrated fruit, so you can skip the bready stuff all together.
Then I go for a fruit chutney or preserve. These can do double duty as a canned-cranberry alternative with your bird. You can peruse our top jam picks or consider cheese-friendly options like Virginia Chutney Company spicy plum, Dalmatia fig spread, or Harvest Song Walnut Preserves.
Show up with a rustic wood board or black slate that you can leave behind with your host(ess) as a thank you gift.
What Cheese You Need
1: Something Creamy
Everyone's looking for Brie. Don't give it to them. Blow minds with northern Italy's answer to something creamy, the cow-and-sheep blend Robiola Bosina. A neat little square, the flavor is sweet and mild, the rind totally innocuous, and the texture exceptionally fatty and plump.
If you can find it: Splurge on Vacherin Mont d'Or, the highly seasonal spruce bark-bound scooper that's woodsy, milky, and sublime.
On a budget: Fromager d'Affinois is the Better Brie. Ultrafiltered milk is like lactic silk, the flavor akin to butter. Everyone likes butter.
2: An Aged Goat
"I don't like goat cheese," the guests will say. So I don't tell them what it is until they've tried it. Then I get the fun of explaining how fresh, crumbly goat cheese is nothing like like firm, aged goat cheese, with its sweet, rounder flavors and earthy substance. Spanish Garrotxa is my favorite for this game. The velvety grey rind looks good, but doesn't taste so hot, so instruct guests to eat around it.
If you can find it: A small production American aged goat like Consider Bardwell Manchester or Tumalo Farms' Pondhopper.
On a budget: Get Drunken Goat, a Spanish invention that is soaked in red wine for friendly fruity flavors and a smooth, dense texture.
3: Something Truffled
I normally eschew flavored cheeses, but the bite in autumn air, bottles of red wine, mushrooms—all these things make truffles feel right. And people love truffled cheese. It says Special! Indulgence!
Many truffle cheeses taste totally artificial and horrible. A few do not: Cypress Grove Truffle Tremor, wherein cheesecakey goat milk is flecked with earthy traces of black truffle. Or Pecorino Tartufello: available both young and aged (Riserva) with a sturdy, straightforward tang offset but the fungal hum of fat truffle shavings.
On a budget: Skip this one. Cheaper truffle cheeses are generally awful. Add in a wedge of Parm-like, wine-soaked Sartori Merlot Bellavitano instead.
4: A Better Cheddar
Here is where I preach the gospel of clothbound cheddar and its vast complexities and differences from the block cheddar I knew into my twenties. American clothbound cheddars tend to be more caramely, sweet, and noshable than English clothbounds, which are more dry and crumbly. Cabot Clothbound Cheddar, Beecher's Flagship Reserve, and Homestead Creamery's Flory's Truckle are all superlative.
On a budget: There are block cheddars that capture a compulsively edible succulence totally unlike "sharp" or "mild." Look for Beecher's Flagship, Homestead Creamery's Prairie Breeze, or the Welsh Collier's Cheddar for a better block.
5: Change Minds About Blue
Imagine: a blue that isn't wet, crumbly, salty and acrid. Good blue cheese is none of these things. Opt for the thick, nearly-spreadable Fourme d'Ambert with its earthy, licorice-like complexity.
If you can find it: Rogue Creamery Rogue River Blue, released seasonally each fall, is wrapped in pear-brandy macerated grape leaves and tastes of fruit and cream with a smoky undertone. Very expensive, very hard to find, very excellent. Or try Chiriboga Blue: a cream-enriched German cheese that melts on the tongue.
On a budget: Cambozola Black Label is all about the melting, cream texture and mellow, milky flavor.