Give Thanks for Cheese

Every Thanksgiving my enthusiastic offers to bring (fill in the blank: lard-crust pie; a mashed starch; a light, vitamin-rich vegetable thing) are quickly dismissed by my host(ess) who instructs me to select the cheese. I’ve picked cheese for upwards of fifty holiday and celebratory group gatherings, all of which I’ve attended, which means the selection has to be good. 

I’ve learned that holidays 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 7 of the rankest, limpest cheeses I’ve recently discovered. It also means checking the urge to bring 7 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 3-5 cheeses and 1-2 pairing items. 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.

As a side note, buying cheese for a group can get really expensive. Don’t think buying on budget means you are relegated to the land of lame cheddar. There are some really excellent “fancy cheeses” that can feed a group of 8-10 for less than $25 (for the whole spread).

What You Need

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.

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 ain’t 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.

If you can find it: A small production American aged goat like Consider Bardwell Manchester or Tumalo Farms’ Pondhopper.

On a budget: Don’t be like your cheese, Drunken Goat, a Spanish invention that is soaked in red wine for friendly fruity notes and smooth, dense texture.

Something Truffly: 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.

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, sweeter and more noshable than English clothbounds. 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 for a better block.

Defy-ing Blue: A blue that isn’t wet, crumbly, salty and acrid. Imagine! Good blue cheese is none of these things. Opt for the thick, nearly-spreadable Fourme d’Ambert with earthy, licorice 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 Chiriboga Blue: cream enriched, German, melts on the tongue.

On a budget: Cambozola Black Label. All about the melting, cream texture and mellow, milky flavor.

Buying Tips:

Normally I recommend an ounce/person/cheese but Thanksgiving is so overwhelming, scale that back to half an ounce/person/cheese. You’ll need:

For 4 people: A quarter pound (most stores won’t let you buy less) of each cheese

For 8 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 2 versatile condiments that can work several of the cheeses. I like a fruit (or fruit and nut) cracker or crisp. They’re not as heavy as bread and feel festive and seasonally appropriate. Another cool option are Simple and Crisp fruit crisps, which are actually slices of dehydrated fruit so you can skip to bready thing all together. Then I go for a fruit chutney or preserve. These can do double duty as a canned-cranberry alternative with your bird. Options like Virginia Chutney Company spicy plum, Dalmatia fig spread or Harvest Song Walnut Preserves are all excellent.

Show up with a rustic wood board or black slate that you can leave behind with your host(ess) as a thank you gift.