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Recipe: build your own cheeseboard

My parents did a lot of entertaining when I was growing up. It was something I was vaguely aware of as a little kid. Kris and I would belly flop onto my parents’ bed and watch television until we heard the adults move to the dining room for dinner. At that point, Kris would nudge me and say, “Come on, let’s go downstairs.” We’d sneak into the kitchen unseen by the guests (but always seen by Dad, who would flash us one of his goofy smiles as we tiptoed down the stairs) and nosh on whatever was left of the appetizers: smoked oysters, cheese, crackers, olives, caviar. Party food.

Mom and Dad still entertain to this day, so I found it amusing when Dad texted me last year asking what goes on a cheeseboard. He wanted ideas since I had plated a few during various dinner parties they had attended. I grabbed some photos from my archives as well as a handful off of Pinterest to give him some inspiration. When I threw Dad’s belated birthday party at our place last weekend, I made sure to kick it off with a nice cheeseboard because I know my Dad loves a cheeseboard packed with ALL of the goodies.

The holidays are upon us and that means party season is in full swing. Cheeseboards are a lovely way to get a dinner party started or to act as the workhorse for a cocktail party or to keep family and friends occupied as you rush to cook Thanksgiving dinner. If you are looking for ideas to spark your own cheeseboard artistry, I list and show some of my favorites here. There is enormous flexibility in cheeseboards, including not having any cheese!

neva wants to become an olympic cheeseboarder [note: grapes are toxic for dogs]

Let’s start with the actual board. The board can be a plate (porcelain, glass, etc.), slate, wood, whatever you like! Plates are the easiest to clean – especially if you serve things that are oily or messy directly on the board. And slate is great for writing the names of cheeses with chalk. I am partial to wood boards because of the beautiful natural colors and grain, which is why I have a lot of them. Some are gifts from my friend, Jamie, who is an incredibly talented woodworking artist. Occasionally, I use my largest Boos cutting blocks (24×18-inch walnut and 20×15-inch maple) because they give me the greatest surface area.

If you do have something oily like hot smoked salmon, and you don’t want the oils to soak into your nice wood boards (because let’s face it, once the board is out, it doesn’t get cleaned up until after the last guest leaves), you can slap a small plate underneath it to keep the fishy smells out of the wood. And remember, cheeseboards don’t have to be these gigantic cornucopias that can feed the whole neighborhood. Small cheeseboards for two are romantic. Medium cheeseboards for a cozy gathering of close friends work very well without being overwhelming. So don’t go crazy, but… you can go a little crazy.

you can serve on plates or slate

wood boards: an array of shapes, sizes, and designs

The fun part of cheeseboarding is picking out what to serve on your cheeseboard. It’s whatever you want it to be. I personally like the cheeseboards that don’t have much if any cheese because I don’t dig on eating cheese straight up. But I know the majority of my guests love cheese, so there is always at least one soft, one semi-soft, and one hard cheese. I also have friends who have Celiac disease, so I can either omit all gluten items (mostly crackers and breads) or plate those separately to avoid contamination of the gluten-free items.

Another nice thing about cheeseboards is that they can be as labor intensive as you like – or not! Just about everything can be purchased, but sometimes it’s nice to add your own personal touch. I always make my own crostini and I usually make those prohibitively expensive fruit, nut, and seed crisps unless I am slammed for time. Grissini happen to be quite easy to make at home, too.

I find fruit and fruity things pair well with various cheeses or act as a nice palate cleanser between nibbles. I don’t make my own fruit, but I do make my own fig and brandy jam every summer to serve with brie throughout the year. I have made membrillo, a delectable quince paste in the past to pair with manchego, but it requires a lot of work at my elevation, so I have resorted to purchasing it now that more stores carry it. In late summer, I love it when I can find good fresh figs. Lots of folks like figs with blue cheese and honey, but I tend eat them straight or with a little slice of prosciutto. Another crowd pleaser is baked brie with fresh cranberry sauce or fig jam or tomato jam. Goat cheese and jam is also a hit.

cheeses: aged cheddar, smoked gouda, brie, boursin, manchego

some gluten options: croccantini, brioche toasts, grissini, crostini, fruit and nut crisps, sliced baguette

fruity things: pomegranate, fig brandy jam, grapes, apple, membrillo

Now we get to my favorite things – savory items (mostly). I make note of reactions to what I serve at every party. You know what almost all of the men make a beeline for first? Meat. Salumi, grilled sausages, prosciutto – they scan the board with big happy eyes and begin sampling this and that and come to the kitchen to inform me that everything is delicious. Sometimes I’ll include hot smoked salmon, but that’s usually for big parties or when there are flexitarians (eat fish and chicken but not red meat) in our midst.

Non-vegetarian spreads include pâtés, terrines, rillettes (typically pork) and salmon rillettes. I make the salmon rillettes myself because I’ve never seen them in the markets. I actually consider Boursin cheese to be more of a spread than a cheese, if that makes sense. And while we’re talking about spreads, dips – both cold and hot – are fair game. Cold dips might include hummus, baba ganoush, spinach dip, white bean dip, toum (Lebanese garlic sauce). You can serve crudités or pita with these. Hot dips will probably need to be served separately from your cheeseboard so you don’t melt neighboring items. Some of my most popular hot dips include sweet onion dip and its cousin chorizo sweet onion dip, artichoke dip, green chile dip, and chanterelle mushroom dip. I serve crostini or sliced baguette or tortilla chips (especially for gluten-free folks) with the hot dips.

Nuts make for great little bites, and my favorite are Marcona almonds. The rosemary Marcona almonds at Trader Joe’s are fantastic. Candied nuts or spiced nuts (sweet or savory) are nice to have on offer, or you can always go with the classic cocktail peanuts or salted mixed nuts. They work well in a little pile or a small bowl.

Let’s not forget pickled, brined, and marinated things! Olives are pretty standard. I prefer the buttery flavor of the castelvetrano olive, but a classic mix of olives goes well with any cheeseboard. I like to pickle things, so there is usually some sort of homemade pickle on my cheeseboard at any given time: pickled okra, pickled red onions, pickled blackberries. Cornichons are a must, but I buy those. Marinated mushrooms, roasted peppers, artichoke hearts, sun-dried tomatoes – all good, especially if you are leaning toward Mediterranean flavors.

for carnivores: hot smoked salmon, prosciutto, assorted salumi (fennel, truffle, chorizo, calabrese)

nuts and spreads: pate, salmon rillettes, marcona almonds, candied pecans

pickled/marinated/brined things: assorted olives, castelvetrano olives, marinated mushrooms, cornichons

So how about a few examples of smaller, simpler cheeseboards? I am inclined to set out a small board if the sit down dinner has multiple courses. It’s also great to tide guests over until everyone trickles in and is ready to be seated. I’ll also make a little cheeseboard for Jeremy on special occasions so he can sip some bubbles or a nice wine before dinner. The smaller the board, the less I feel the need to cram everything together. These are super laid back and easy.

cornichons, olives, tartufo (truffle salumi), chorizo, aged cheddar, smoked gouda

grissini, prosciutto, horseradish crème fraîche, castelvetrano olives

holiday grapes, finnochiona (fennel salumi), chorizo, tartufo, smoked gouda, manchego, membrillo

Sometimes the cheeseboard is the appetizer. For medium size groups or to keep guests busy upon arrival, use a bigger board and pack it with more stuff. I’ll leave a wedge of cheese on the board with the first few slices and a cheese knife if folks want more. I have found that people will consume more cheese if you start with more slices – maybe my guests are just shy? For soft cheeses, I leave them intact with a soft cheese knife nearby. I also cluster paired items together on the board like the membrillo and manchego or the brie, fig jam, and crisps. Usually the larger the board the more garnishes I employ. I saw this baby pineapple at the store and had to get it because… baby pineapple! Definitely eat the darn thing after the party is over. As for herbs, rosemary is the hardiest as it doesn’t wilt much if at all. For the best rosemary sprigs, trim them off a plant rather than buying the packaged stems that are squashed flat. You could walk outside and grab some spruce tips or pretty branches from your yard, but I try to avoid introducing any unexpected guests (i.e. bugs) onto the food I’m serving.

16-inch medium board: grapes, baby pineapple, crostini, candied pecans, pomegranate arils, manchego, membrillo, castelvetrano olives, marcona almonds, prosciutto, fruit and nut crisps, fig jam, brie, cornichons, apple

Then there is the meat board. There is zero cheese, just protein and fat and sodium. When I assembled and photographed this board, Neva cried and cried and cried because she knew that this was the board that (her) dreams are made of. Don’t worry, she got a little prosciutto. I could tuck crackers and sliced baguette in and around the other items, but I think it makes quite a statement on its own. The crackers and bread can happily occupy their own little board.

salmon rillettes, hot smoked salmon, pâté, prosciutto, assorted salumi, mustards, grilled chorizo and bratwurst

from the side

Finally, there is The Big Kahuna. It’s like a self-serve feeding station. Some guests will gather selections from the board, then mingle, then return to refill and mingle some more. Others will park themselves squarely next to the board and chat with folks who meander by or simply proceed to sample every item. It’s all good as long as no one breaks into fisticuffs. When the boards are large, I think they look better with minimal empty space. I put the fig brandy jam, salmon rillettes, and marinated mushrooms in their own little bowls because they are messy, but everything else is touching. This may be problematic for people who don’t like their foods to touch, but most of the people I know like that are five years old.

For assembly, I generally place the cheeses, membrillo, bowls, and fruit down first (except the pomegranate seeds – they are in the last wave). Then I arrange crackers near their intended partners. Next I fan out the salumi and stack the little ribbons of prosciutto. The piles of olives, cornichons, nuts, and pomegranate seeds are laid out before placing rosemary sprigs where there is empty space or a splash of color is needed. Make sure that anything requiring a serving spoon, a fork, toothpicks, or knives and spreaders has what it needs to avoid abuse.

That’s pretty much it! The wow factor is quite big considering the amount of work it takes to put a cheeseboard together. So if you are gearing up for party mode, make sure you have this arrow in your party quiver for the upcoming holidays and beyond. It will serve you and your guests well.

holiday grapes, manchego, membrillo, baby pineapple, croccantini, green grapes, fruit and nut crisps, salmon rillettes, marinated mushrooms, smoked gouda, prosciutto, apple, aged cheddar, mixed olives, pomegranate, candied pecans, castelvetrano olives, crostini, fig and brandy jam, brie, marcona almonds, assorted salumi, cornichons

mid angle view

from above

Build Your Own Cheeseboard
[print recipe]

The hardest part of making a cheeseboard is deciding what to put on it. If you are short on time, you can purchase everything you need. If you want to add your own personal touch, make some of the items yourself. If folks have dietary restrictions, you can keep things like nuts, crackers/breads, seafood, or meats on a separate board or omit them entirely. Here are some components to get you started.

soft cheeses like: Boursin, brie, Camembert, goat cheese, Gorgonzola, mozzarella, triple crème
semi-soft cheeses like: Gouda, Gruyere, jack cheese, Stilton
hard cheeses like: aged cheddar, Asiago, Manchego, Parmigiano-Reggiano, Pecorino Romano

duck prosciutto
hot smoked salmon or trout

dips and spreads
hot dips
spinach dip
white bean dip

crackers, breads
baguette, sliced
fruit and nut crisps
grilled sliced bread
herbed crackers
water crackers
wheat crackers

fruit and sweet things
apple slices
dried apricots
dried cranberries
dried dates
fig jam
figs (fresh or dried)
membrillo (quince paste)
pear slices
pomegranate arils
quince jam

candied pecans
candied walnuts
candied almonds
cocktail nuts
marcona almonds
spiced nuts

pickles, brined things, marinated things
marinated artichokes
marinated mushrooms
marinated roasted peppers
pickled beets
pickled blackberries
pickled onions

broccoli florets
cauliflower florets
cherry tomatoes

baby pineapple
fresh cranberries
fresh herbs (rosemary holds up well to wilting)

Choose an appropriately-sized board or plate for the ingredients you have selected. Arrange your cheeseboard components. Set garnishes in the empty spaces.

more goodness from the use real butter archives

cranberry hazelnut seed crisps pickled blackberries fresh figs with blue cheese and honey cold seafood platter

16 nibbles at “cheeseboarding”

  1. Naomi says:

    This is an absolute work of art. I wouldn’t want anyone to eat from it. It’s too beautiful to ruin.
    Thank you for sharing.

  2. Kristin says:

    You aren’t making your own fruit yet, huh? They are all gorgeous, but that last board really makes me think of a Dutch still life. It’s stunning. Thank you for including so many ideas for different kinds of cheeseboards. While I would love to make a huge one, there are so many more occasions where a smaller one would work.

  3. Carole says:

    What kind of apple do you choose to avoid browning?

  4. Amanda says:

    I am so inspired by your gorgeous boards! Mouth is watering with all of your delicious looking options!

  5. Pey-Lih says:

    Absolutely beautiful! I love how you arranged each cheeseboard into a piece of elegant art work….it looks too good to eat.

  6. Bette says:

    Wow — you’re a genius. There was an article in the Washington Post this week about a young woman with her dream job — cheesemonger. Yet, her cheese boards can’t touch yours for artistry or delicious appeal.

    Your parents, husband, and friends are lucky to know you!

  7. Mary Karen says:

    Absolutely Stunning! These are truly works of art…and that initial photo with Neva is precious! Thanks for the Holiday inspiration.

  8. Ellie's friend from Canada says:

    Oh, your platters are beautiful. The only person other than a 5 year old who doesn’t want their foods touching
    each other would be an allergic person. Because I am allergic to fish and seafood and nuts, last year when we dropped into a mountain lodge, I asked to have my “charcuterie” board on a plate. What a great solution for someone who is allergic to many things. As we stepped into the mountain lodge on a snowy day, the fire was roaring. The little board was lovely (mine served on a plate). There were lovely cheeses and smoked bison meat and other meats from an alpine butcher/deli store in the nearby town. Your blog brings back warm memories of
    that day and brings inspiration for the upcoming holiday season. Your arrangements are truly beautiful…now if only I could find a baby pineapple. what I did find at the market were tiny yellow or orange sweet peppers that would be wonderful stuffed with crab (for those not allergic) or a cream cheese mixture.

    Happy U.S. Thanksgiving!

  9. Laura says:

    Wow! These look fantastic, thank you very much for the wonderful ideas!

  10. Jill Hyde says:

    Whaaaaatttt? You don’t make your own fruit? Oh these boards are gorgeous! As always, your presentation is beautiful and artistic. I bet your dad enjoyed the birthday party! Thanks for the inspiration. xo, jill

  11. Anna says:

    Gorgeous spread! Hope you had an amazing Thanksgiving holiday!

  12. jenyu says:

    Naomi – I’m fairly certain if you have a crowd of hungry guests, they wouldn’t hesitate to dive in ;)

    Kristin – I think the concept of making my own fruit (i.e. growing) is a pipe dream. I routinely kill or almost kill several “easy to care for” houseplants, so no… not making my own fruit – ha ha ha! And I agree that the small ones are actually far more practical (but the big ones are super fun!).

    Carole – I like Honeycrisp apples because they are sweet and tart and don’t tend to brown. Fuji and Granny Smith are also good choices.

    Amanda – Thank you!

    Pey-Lih – Thanks :)

    Bette – You’re so sweet! xoxo

    MK – You are welcome, my dear!

    Ellie’s friend from Canada – Of course, folks with allergies have legitimate concerns, which is why I point out keeping things like gluten separate for those who have Celiac disease, but the same applies to those with allergies to nuts, seafood, or have religious dietary restrictions (pork). It’s the responsibility of the host to ascertain who has dietary issues and also the responsibility of the guest to take precautions when eating at someone else’s home :) I gave the baby pineapple to my parents and told them to eat it (I hope it was sweet) because I paid as much for that as it cost for a full size pineapple!

    Laura – Thanks and you’re welcome!

    Jill – :) xoxo

    Anna – We did, and thank you! I hope yours was lovely as well. xo

  13. Rose says:

    What an amazing post. I am going to bookmark this as the definitive guide to creating cheese boards. What a masterpiece!

  14. Steve says:

    JEN! It is so amazing and funny you made this post because I have always used your cheese boards as an inspiration when assembling my own for friends. Nothing is more fun (or visually appealing at a party) than a full spread of cheeses and meats. Thank you for doing a deep dive into how you craft yours. I too prefer wood boards and am starting to amass a collection of them. Since moving up to New Hampshire I’m surrounded by cheese hounds and they get a good amount of use. All the best from my family to yours this Holiday season. :)

  15. jenyu says:

    Rose – You’re sweet, thank you. I hope it helps you create some masterpieces of your own! xo

    Steve – That is awesome and I’m so glad we’re all inspiring one another :) I didn’t realize being in NH you’d have more reason to crank out the cheeseboards – but it totally makes sense! Thank you and I hope you and yours have a lovely and enjoyable winter holiday (maybe with lots of cheese!). xxoo

  16. Sam says:

    So so so gorgeous. I just pulled this up to show my mom!

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