Have Your Cake, and Eat Cheese Too

When the time came for me to get married, no one was surprised when I planned the entire weekend by very detailed spreadsheet. In particular, I was obsessed with the food for the rehearsal pig roast, the cocktail hour, and the sit-down dinner that concluded with a cheese course before dessert. Also, no one was surprised that the one thing I outsourced was the wedding cake. I asked my mom if she would deal with it. The poor woman criss-crossed two states meeting bakers, tasting cakes, calling and emailing me with the pros and cons of one versus another. Each time she solicited my input it was all I could do not to say, “Thank you so much for the effort, I couldn’t care less about the cake.” What can I say? I’m not a sweets person. 

It wasn’t until after I had my own wedding that it occurred to me I could have asked my caterer to make a cheese cake. I don’t mean the New York style with a graham cracker crust--I mean a gorgeous, layered stack of cheese wheels in myriad colors of snow white, ochre, nut brown, maybe even pearlescent blue, all duded up with flowers to match my bouquet or herbs to match our groomsmen’s boutonnières. Instead of smashing buttercream on our noses my husband and I could have served one another a perfect sliver of cheese, topped with a fig slice or drizzle of honey. That would have been my style.  Ditto Mother’s Day and my birthday, when I only get cake because it makes my kids happy. Even on our anniversary I’d rather celebrate with a tiny tower of fluffy, buttery white cheeses than a chocolate mousse or bread pudding. Call me crazy but I’ll take cheese over cake pretty much anytime. And I know I’m not alone!

The beauty of a cake made of cheese is that you don’t have to choose between it and a “real” cake: you can have your cake and eat cheese, too.  Cheese cakes are beautifully scalable since cheese comes in teeny rounds (as small as 2 ounces, practically bite-sized) and enormous wheels (the biggest run about 180 pounds which would be enough to anchor a cake for a college reunion).  As long as you can buy whole wheels of cheese you can make a cake at home simply by unwrapping the cheese and stacking softer wheels atop harder wheels, with the biggest at the bottom and the smallest on the top. 

The crafty among us can up the game by decorating cheese cakes with fruit, flowers, herbs or nuts. The foodies out there can take a cake made of cheese and turn it into the ultimate DIY buffet, with garnishes and accoutrements that guests can add to their taste. I’m imaging bowls of fresh fruits (berries, pitted or maraschino cherries, slices of apple and pear, grapes, figs); platters of dried fruits and nuts (dates, apricots, figs, marcona almonds, macadamias, hazelnuts); a tray of spreads (fig paste, cherry preserves, quince paste, chutney); a massive sheet of honeycomb for folks to dig a chunk out of; even unexpected garnishes like dark chocolate and nut brittle.

Cheese cakes can be as interactive or full-service as you like, with guests getting to cut their own pieces or help themselves to portions sliced by a caterer (or very loving family member.)

Logistically speaking, the most important things to remember about cakes made of cheese are:

  1. Quantity: Don’t go crazy and find yourself with a hundred pounds of leftover cheese. A pound of cheese weighs sixteen ounces. You should plan for 3-4 ounces per person if the cheese is the primary food, and 1-2 ounces per person if the cheese is being served after a meal or at a loaded cocktail hour. 

Remember, you can create height and the appearance of bounty by using risers, cake plates or empty cheese boxes (if you like a rustic feel). A very affordable trick is to use glass votive candle holders between layers for extra height. You can hide them with the decoration around the perimeter of the wheel. You don’t have to rely solely on the cheese for height!

  1. Variety: You may be obsessed with blue cheese or hate Brie but chances are your guests will appreciate a range. Also, remember that (generally speaking) hard cheeses are made in bigger wheels and soft cheeses are made in smaller wheels. So cakes for smaller groups will have more soft and semisoft wheels than cakes made for larger groups.

Finally, when it comes to variety: the wheels at the top of your cake will be smaller and won’t serve as many people. If your goal is for every person to taste every cheese, you’ll want to get extras of the little cheeses at the top.

  1. Temperature: Serve your cake at room temperature, but know that all cheese, especially soft, creamy styles will start to get runny and greasy if they’re too warm for too long. Ideally, put the cake out 1.5-2 hours before it’s going to be eaten so guests can admire it. This is the perfect amount of time for wheels to warm up, without guests being served a puddle of goo. 

If you’re looking for some inspiration, here are cakes made of cheese for various groups and tastes:

A Ladies’ Luncheon Cake (serves 12-15)

The smaller cheeses are also the soft, buttery cheeses so this “cake” is all about decadence. Garnish with dried cherries and sliced apples that have been soaked in lemon water to prevent browning.

Base layer: A riff of Brie, made of goat milk

Mid layer: An eight-ounce round made of cow milk (like Epoisses for a pop of color, Camembert or southern Georgia-made Sweet Grass Dairy Green Hill)

Top layer: A taller, smaller mixed milk Italian cheese (La Tur)

A Groomsman’s Cake, at an Intimate Wedding (serves 50-75)

Bigger groups mean bigger cheeses, and thus more variety of flavor and texture. Garnish with nuts and dried fruits.

Base layer: A sturdy blue cheese with earthy flavor and fudgy texture (like Stilton, specially cut in a cross section, Rogue River Smokey Blue or Cambozola Black)

Mid layer: A truffle-laced goat cheese (Cypress Grove Humboldt Fog)

Mid layer: An aged sheep cheese (Petit Basque)

Top layer: A small, buttery round (like La Tur, Sweet Grass Dairy Green Hill, Camembert or Robiola Bosina)

A Very Big Cake, for a Very Big Celebration (serves 200-300)

Decorate the cake with flowers to match the event theme and then go all out with a DIY buffet where guests can select from a dozen garnishes for their cheese plate.

Base layer: A hard, full-flavored cheese (Pleasant Ridge Reserve, Ewephoria sheep Gouda, Cablanca goat Gouda)

Mid layer: A semisoft wheel that adds color (Drunken Goat, Mahon, Huntsman)

Mid layer: An approachable blue (Cambozola Black, Valdeon, Bleu d’Auvergne)

Mid layer: A fluffy white wheel that won’t go gooey (Cypress Grove Humboldt Fog, St. Andre, Cypress Grove Truffle Tremor)

Mid layer: An aged sheep cheese (Petit Basque)

Top layer: A creamy, spreadable round (Jasper Hill Harbison, Camembert, Sweet Grass Green Hill)

Final layer: A buttery round that adds color or height (La Tur, Epoisses)