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Assemble a cheese tray to wow your guests

CHEESE TRAY
CHEESE TRAY
It's a New Year's Eve party and the star of the buffet table is the cheese board.

How do you create one?

"If you have different people with different tastes, have a variety," said Danielle Anderson of the Corkscrew Wine Emporium in Springfield, Ill. Anderson handles the cheeses at the store, in addition to assembling gift baskets and selling wine.
"You will want some soft and some hard cheeses, and you will want some mild-tasting ones and some with stronger tastes."

Consider the spectrum of types and textures (ripened, unripened, washed rind, blue, hard, soft, semi-soft), the flavor intensity (strong, gentle, sharp) and milk types (cow, sheep, goat).

It's also fun to have cheeses representing a cross-section of countries, Anderson said.

She likes Island Stream, a creamy New Zealand sheep's-milk cheese that pairs well with red wine. She also is partial to Chevagne, a mild goat's-milk variety from Belgium that tastes good with dark bread. Another of Anderson's picks is Chaubier, a French cheese made with half goat's milk and half cow's milk. It's a smooth cheese with a strong goat's-milk flavor that complements red wine.

For those who don't like strong cheese, Anderson suggests Triple Cream, so named because extra cream is added to the curd during production.

"It's like a brie, but very buttery," she said.

At the Corkscrew, Anderson helps the undecided by offering samples of any of the dozens of wheels, loaves and tubs on display in the refrigerated cheese case.

For the novice putting together a cheese tray, the experts at the St. Louis District Dairy Council suggest sticking with inexpensive supermarket staples: cheddar, American, Monterey Jack, Swiss and Colby Jack. They make a good starting point because they give you a variety of colors, textures and flavors.

Other tips for putting together a cheese board or tray:

- Select up to five cheeses.

- Figure on 2 ounces of cheese per guest.

- Arrange the cheeses from mild to strong and soft to hard.

- Either place the unsliced cheeses together on a large wooden cutting board, tray or marble slab or provide an individual holder for each type.

- Provide a different serving knife for each cheese.

- Serve cheese at room temperature. Remove from refrigerator 30 minutes to an hour before the party.

- Leave cheese wrapped while it's warming so it doesn't dry out. Remove wrapping just before serving.

- Tell guests the name, type and origin of each cheese, and suggest sampling from mildest to strongest.

- Round out the cheese board with accompaniments. Consider grapes, berries, slices of apples or pears, honeydew melon wedges, nuts, olives, crackers, bread sticks, baguettes, whole-grain bread, prosciutto slices, salami or summer sausage cubes and chutney.

Remember the wine. A rule of thumb: Cheese is partnered best with wine made near the cheese's home. Serve Spanish cheese with Spanish wine, for example. If in doubt, ask for advice from the staff of any wine or liquor store.

Anderson was raised on the island of Mauritius, a tropical Indian Ocean spot east of Madagascar, near Southern Africa.

"I grew up eating European cheeses. My dad was big on cheap Bordeaux and stinky cheeses," she said.

But for those with a more timid palate, Anderson suggests sampling cheeses, starting with the mildest variety.

"Sometimes you tell a customer about a cheese and they'll say, 'That's weird,'" she said. "But as soon as they taste it, they go, 'Mmmm.'"

Appetizer recipes featuring cheese from www.ilovecheese.com:

BAKED BRIE WITH STRAWBERRY GLAZE

1 (13- to 16-ounce) whole brie cheese, with rind left on

3 tablespoons strawberry preserves

2 teaspoons balsamic vinegar

1/2 cup sliced fresh strawberries

1 1/2 tablespoons toasted hazelnuts or sliced toasted almonds

Crackers or party-bread slices

Yields 16 servings.

Preheat oven to 350 F. Place brie on baking sheet or in shallow baking dish. Bake for about 10 minutes or until cheese is soft and warm, but not runny.

While brie is baking, heat preserves and balsamic vinegar in small saucepan until thick and bubbly and then remove from heat.

Remove cheese from oven and transfer to serving dish. Arrange strawberries on top of round. Drizzle with heated preserves and sprinkle with nuts. Serve with crackers or party-bread slices.

Nutritional analysis per serving (without crackers): 110 calories, 6 g protein, 3 g carbohydrate, 8 g fat, 25 mg cholesterol, 0 g fiber, 170 mg sodium.

CHEESE AND BACON TRIANGLES

6 (8-inch) flour tortillas

12 slices American cheese

1/2 cup cooked bacon bits

Butter, for cooking

Salsa (optional)

Yields 12 servings.

Cut tortillas in 1/2 to form 12 half-circles. Place 1 slice of cheese over each tortilla 1/2, tearing cheese to leave a 1/4-inch border around edges. Top cheese with bacon bits. Brush a small amount of water around the edges of the tortilla. Fold in 1/2 forming a rounded triangle. Press the watered edges of tortilla together to seal.

In skillet over medium heat, cook triangles in small amount of butter until golden brown, about 3 minutes per side. Let stand 1 minute before serving.

If desired, serve with salsa.

Nutritional analysis per serving: 180 calories, 9 g protein, 14 g carbohydrate, 10 g fat, 20 mg cholesterol, 1 g fiber, 550 mg sodium.

CHEESY PULL-APART PARTY STICKS

1 (11-ounce) can refrigerated soft breadsticks

6 ounces (1 1/2 cups) shredded cheese such as mozzarella, provolone or smoked gouda

1/2 teaspoon dried basil or oregano

About 2 cups warmed store-bought marinara sauce

Yields 12 servings.

Heat oven to 375 F.

Remove breadsticks from can. Arrange in single layer lengthwise on parchment paper-lined baking sheet. Do not separate breadsticks. You should have a 13x6 rectangle.

Sprinkle cheese and basil or oregano down center of dough, leaving a border of about 1/2 inch. Bake 10 to 11 minutes or until cheese is lightly browned. Remove from oven and transfer to board or platter. Let cool 3 to 4 minutes. To serve, pull apart breadsticks. Serve with marinara sauce.

Nutritional analysis per serving (with sauce): 240 calories, 8 g protein, 28 g carbohydrate, 10 g fat, 5 mg cholesterol, 2 g fiber, 770 mg sodium.

Kathryn Rem is food editor of the Springfield (Ill.) State Journal-Register.
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