That Cheese Plate is a column by Marissa Mullen — cookbook author, photographer, and Food52's Resident Cheese Plater. With Marissa's expertise all things cheddar, comté, and crudité — plus tips for how to make it all look extra special, using stuff you probably have on hand — we'll be crafting our own cheesy masterpieces without a hitch.
When I think of Thanksgiving, I envision a big golden turkey roasting in the oven; warm, thick gravy; creamy mashed potatoes; and tart cranberry sauce. I usually try to save my appetite for dinner, but as these delicious warm fragrances tempt me, I'm usually hungry for an appetizer long before the big meal. Thanksgiving cheese boards are the perfect way to satiate your guests a few hours before the hot dishes are ready. You can pace yourself, create small portions, and opt in for fruit and protein to pass the time.
There are a few different techniques to make your Thanksgiving cheese plate stand out. To start, we need a solid foundation. Why not use a rustic basket? This classic Thanksgiving cheese board is not only festive, it's also easy to transport! Baskets are a great way to establish a theme, while simultaneously providing a convenient appetizer to carry to your gathering, mess-free. To achieve the look of this creation, I placed a glass round plate at the base of the basket for my stable surface to build on. For another classic Thanksgiving look, you can build a cheese board out of a cornucopia. Layer your cheese and meats to flow out the opening of the cone. I'd recommend building this one on site, so you don't need to move it. I also love to create a rustic table-scape with different bowls filled with cheesy dips, crudité, and fresh bread. When it comes to decor, you can really amp things up with decorative gourds, greenery, and candles. Let the cheese plate be the welcome party before the big meal.
Gourds and boards
I love elevating my Thanksgiving cheese boards by adding a few gourds. Although pumpkin spice season is quickly fading away, it's nice to add in some extra autumnal flair with different green, orange, and yellow gourds. You can also add a variety of gourds and mini pumpkins to your table-scape, matching the colors on the cheese board with the colors of the table. On this plate, I have orange Taleggio and dried apricots, so I'll add some mini orange pumpkins to the table and plate itself. Just make sure your guests don't accidentally mistake a gourd for cheese.
On all of my cheese plates, I like to pick a nice variety of cheese to choose from. Think about different milks (cow, goat, sheep, buffalo, even cashew cheese!) and different textures (hard and soft.) On this plate, I stayed away from the decadent and heavy cheeses, like camembert blue, or a triple creme Brie.
I decided to add a lighter cheese, like a soft-ripened goat cheese. I also added a 14-month aged Gruyère and a washed rind cow's milk cheese (like Taleggio or Epoisses). The goat cheese has nice floral notes, herbaceous overtones, and a clean citrus finish, while the Gruyère has more complex, earthy tones with nutty and caramelly flavors. The washed-rind cheese is the stinky one of the bunch, with a pungent kick and funky notes of cider and hay. Each of these cheeses work wonderfully with sweeter accoutrements, so I included a variety of dried fruits to complement.
I tied in the range of orange, red, yellow, and brown tones to incorporate feelings of Thanksgiving. The cranberries and pomegranate seeds add beautiful earthy tones to the board. Additionally, salami di Parma adds a nice pink hue down the center of the plate in a Salami River formation. Salami is an excellent pairing, providing a pleasant tangy complement to the cheese. The dried apricot, washed rind cow's milk cheese, and mini gourd highlight the orange tones on this plate, while the seeded crackers, dried figs and candied nuts sprinkle in the notes of brown. I also added in some fresh thyme for a pop of green.
Dips and spreads
Another fun technique for a cheesy appetizer is to go beyond the board and build on the table itself. I like to serve a few dips alongside a cheese plate for additional options and pairing opportunities. To add a savory, creamy dish to your table, I'd recommend Lemony Whipped Goat Cheese with Crispy Prosciutto and Pomegranate. This is a light and tangy dip that highlights sweet and savory notes, but won't leave you too full before the main meal. You could also add a sweet fig cake to the table spread, which makes for a great pairing with a cheese like Manchego or Mahón. For something more savory, try whipping up a Smoky Eggplant Dip with Kefir and Buttered Walnuts. I also love serving these dips with fresh veggies like sliced carrots, celery, and cucumbers, for a refreshing crunch,.
Now how do these beautiful colors and flavors all work together? Pairings are largely personal, but there are some different techniques to try. I love pairing salty and sweet items, but you don't want to overpower your cheese. Try juxtaposing items of similar intensities. I love the soft-ripened goat cheese paired with the fig jam. I also enjoy pairing the pungent washed rind cheese with a sweet candied walnut. Another great savory and salty pairing is aged Gruyère with salami.
To serve your cheese, provide a small plate for all involved. Using cheese knives, utensils, spoons, and forks, encouraging everyone to make their own mini creation out of the bigger plate to avoid cross-contamination. This plate can comfortably feed 6 to 8 people as an appetizer (and fewer than that for an all-day grazing situation). If you'd like to serve it with extra crackers, keep them on the side in an additional basket.
Don't forget drinks
Although wine and cheese is always a smart move, I love to enjoy a cocktail or mocktail with my Thanksgiving cheese plate. Try pairing an aged Gruyère with a glass of Apple Rye Punch. The apple cider is a great sweet contrast to the salty cheese, while the Rye ties in those subtle caramel notes. I would pair a Mulled Wine Sparkler with the Tallegio on the board, offering spiced mulled notes to match the funk of the wash-rind, with a bubbly Prosecco to cleanse the palate. As for the soft-ripened goat cheese, I would pair the creamy, delicate cheese with a Fall 75, an autumnal take on a French 75. The gin and vanilla bring out the herbaceous notes in the goat cheese, while the champagne adds a nice crisp finish.
Prep time: 15 minutes
Serves: 6 to 8 as an appetizer
- 6 ounces (one round) soft-ripened goat cheese
- 6 ounces Gruyère
- 6 ounces washed rind cow's milk cheese, such as Epoisses or Taleggio
- 4 ounces salami di Parma, thinly sliced
- 4 ounces dried figs, cut in half
- 4 ounces dried apricots, cut in half
- 3 ounces dried cranberries
- 1 ounce pomegranate seeds
- 1 box fruit and nut crackers
- 3 ounces candied walnuts
- 1 jar fig jam
- 1 bunch fresh thyme
- Set your foundation. Place your plate in the basket and add a ramekin and mini gourd.
- With a sharp knife, slice the Gruyère into long, thin rectangles. Slice the round of soft-ripened goat cheese in half, and keep the wheel of washed-rind cheese whole (whether it's a round or wedge). Spread out the different cheeses evenly on the plate.
- Fold the salami in half, and in half again. Layer this down the center of the plate in a curved shape to make our "salami river."
- Create "produce ponds" around the plate, filled in with dried figs, dried apricots, and dried cranberries. Once those are on the plate, sprinkle pomegranate seeds over the dried figs to add a pop of color.
- Fill in the rest of the empty gaps with the crackers and mixed nuts.
- In the empty ramekin, scoop in the fig jam.
- Garnish the plate with sprigs of fresh thyme.