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Learn How to Throw the Ultimate Wine & Cheese Party

It’s the holiday season, which is one of the most exciting times of the year for those who like to throw a holiday party. If you’ve always wanted to throw a party but aren’t sure what to do or where to begin, nothing could be easier than hosting a wine and cheese party. Throw in some baguettes or crackers and a little fruit or crudité and you’ve got yourself a wonderful holiday party!

As part of Holland America Line’s onboard enrichment program, the Culinary Arts Center Host conducts lectures on a variety of topics, including how to host a wine and cheese party. Follow these simple rules and it certainly will be a party to remember.

For the basic wine and cheese party choose at least one semi-hard cheese like cheddar, Swiss or Edam, one blue cheese such as Gorgonzola, Roquefort or Stilton, and a soft cheese like chevre (a soft goat cheese) or brie.

Try to mix colors, shapes and textures when buying cheese.

Arrange the cheeses on your board and add bunches of different colored grapes. Allow six to 10 crackers per person, depending on the length of the party, and scatter them around the cheese board or directly onto the tablecloth. Uncork the wine; turn on some music and presto, an instant and easy party! If your budget allows, add a selection of whole nuts, figs, and pear or apple slices to your display (dip the slices in lemon water to prevent browning).

Cheese displays can be built on any clean surface. Use pieces of marble, wood cutting boards or large tiles. If you don’t have a cheese board, a clean wood cutting board or a new, unused marble floor tile will work just as well. You can line the board with clean leaves from lemon trees or rose bushes or buy leaf-shaped cheese paper from a cookware store. Make sure that any fresh leaves you are using come from non-toxic plants.

Group three, four or five different cheeses together. Mix different textures and flavors. Fruit goes very well with cheese. Serve with grapes, slices of firm pears and apples, or dried fruit such as apricots and dates. If your cheese display surface is large enough, place the fruit and crackers around the cheese. If you don’t have enough space on the cheese board then put fruit in bowls, and scatter crackers directly on tablecloth or on folded napkins.

If you are short of time there is nothing easier than buying a prepared crudité tray from your grocery store. Of course, the plastic tray on your buffet doesn’t add to the look of you party, so what do you do? Make store-bought crudité look homemade by arranging in a tureen or large shallow bowl with the dip in a small bowl or cup placed in the center. Alternate colors so you don’t have broccoli next to celery. Instead, have red bell pepper strips or carrots between the broccoli and celery. Stand vegetables upright instead of laying them flat. Add tiny yellow tomatoes or snow peas to your display … whatever is in season and available. Blanch broccoli and asparagus for half a minute in boiling water; it will turn a bright, lovely green.

CHEESE 101:

FRESH OR UNRIPENED CHEESES
Uncooked and unripened. Usually mild and creamy with a slight tartness.
• Cream cheese is a soft cow’s milk cheese used throughout the kitchen in baking, dips, dressings, and confections, and is popular spread on bagels and toast.
• Feta is a semi-soft cheese made from sheep or goat’s milk. It is white and flaky and usually stored in brine. Used for snacks, salads, sauces and fillings.
• Mascarpone is a soft cow’s milk cheese with a flavor that makes it a popular addition to sweet and savory dishes.
• Mozzarella is a firm cheese usually made from cow’s milk but traditionally made with water buffalo’s milk. Excellent on pizzas, salads or sandwiches.
• Ricotta is a soft, fluffy cheese, with small grains and a sweet flavor. Ricotta is an important ingredient in many pasta dishes and desserts.

SOFT CHEESES
Characterized by their thin skins and creamy centers.
• Bel paese is made from cow’s milk and is mild and creamy with a fruity flavor. It is excellent for snacking.
• Brie is a rind-ripened cow’s milk cheese that is rich, creamy and oozy. Brie is the classic after-dinner cheese. It also is used in soups, sauces and hors d’oeuvres. Brie is sold in round wooden boxes. It is readily available in an 8-ounce size (sometimes called baby Brie), a 2-pound wheel and pre-cut wedges.
• Boursin is a triple-cream cow’s milk cheese usually flavored with peppers, herbs or garlic. It is smooth and creamy and makes an excellent breakfast cheese or a filling for baked chicken.
• Camembert is a rink-ripened cheese. It is creamy like Brie, but milder. It is excellent after dinner and goes very well with fruit.

BRIE
• Is the rind of Brie edible? Yes but it can be easily removed with a sharp knife if you wish.
• Brie is at it’s best when served at room temperature or slightly warm.
• For an easy presentation of whole Brie, remove the wrapper and label but leave the rind intact. Place the Brie back into the wooden box. With a sharp knife or cookie cutter, cut a 3-inch circle of rind from the top of the cheese. Remove rind. Place the wooden box in a preheated 350-degree oven for 30 minutes or until the cheese has melted. Let your guests scoop out the melted cheese using crackers or crudités.
• Another easy presentation is to place the whole Brie in the center of a piece of thawed frozen puff pastry. Cover the surface of the unwrapped cheese with pesto. Place another piece of puff pastry on top. Pinch the pieces of puff pastry together, trimming as necessary to encase the Brie. Using a sharp knife or cookie cutter, cut a 3-inch circle out of the puff pastry. Fill the hole with pine nuts. Place on an un-greased baking sheet, brush with beaten egg and bake in a preheated 400-degree oven for 30 minutes or until puffed and golden.
• For a sweet alternative, omit the pesto and pine nuts and use apricot jam with raspberries or dried cranberries.

SEMI-SOFT CHEESES
Includes many mild, buttery cheeses with smooth, sliceable textures.
• Fontina is a cow’s milk cheese. It has a dark gold crusty rind and a pale gold dense interior with a nutty and rich flavor.
• Gorgonzola is a blue-veined cow’s milk cheese with a creamy interior and bluish-green veins. Creamier than Stilton or Roquefort, with a more pungent, spicy, earthy flavor.
• Gouda is a mild, buttery cheese. Very popular for snacking and in fondues.
• Havarti is a cow’s milk cheeses also know as Danish Tilsit. Pale yellow with many small, irregular holes, it has a mild flavor and creamy texture. It is often flavored with dill, caraway seeds or peppers. Very popular for snacking and in sandwiches.
• Pain de Pyrenees is a cow’s milk cheese. Pale yellow with irregular holes and a mellow, sweet, nutty flavor.
• Port du Salut is a cow’s milk cheese that is smooth, rich and savory. Great for snacking or with fruit.
• Roquefort is a blue-veined sheep’s milk cheese. Intensely pungent with a rich, salty flavor and strong aroma. Roquefort is an excellent choice for serving before or after dinner.
• Stilton also is a blue-veined cow’s milk cheese. It is pungent, rich and tangy, combining the best of the cheddars and blues. It is best served alone with plain crackers, dried fruit or port.

FIRM CHEESES
Not hard or brittle. Some are close-textured and flaky like cheddar; others are dense, holey cheeses like Swiss.
• Cheddar is a cow’s milk cheese with a dense, crumbly texture. The best cheddars are made from raw milk and aged for several months. Flavors range from mild to very sharp, depending upon the age. Colby and longhorn are two well-known mild, soft-textured cheddars.
• Swiss, also known as Emmenthaler, is a cow’s milk cheese. It is mellow, rich and nutty with a natural rind and a light yellow interior full of large holes. This is the basic fondue cheese. It is also used in sandwiches, snacks and after dinner with fruit and nuts.
• Gruyere is a cow’s milk cheese that is moist and highly flavored, with a sweet nuttiness similar to Swiss. It melts easily and is often used with meats, in sauces or served after dinner.
• Jarlsberg is a Swiss-type cow’s milk cheese with a mild, delicate, sweet flavor and large holes. Popular for sandwiches, snacks, and in cooking.
• Monterey Jack is a cheddar-like cheese that is very mild and rich. Dry Aged Jack develops a tough brown rind and a rich, firm yellow interior. It tastes nutty and sharp and is dry enough for grating.
• Provolone is a mild, smooth cow’s milk cheese. Smoked provolone is also popular, especially for snacking. Excellent in sandwiches and for cooking. It is often used for melting and in pizza and pasta dishes.

HARD CHEESES
Carefully aged for extended periods. Hard cheeses are most often used for grating. Grate cheese only as needed as they begin to loose their flavor within hours of grating.
• Asiago is a sharp, nutty cow’s milk cheese with a cheddar-like texture. If aged, it is suitable for grating. Milder than Parmesan, it melts easy and is often used in cooking or shaved onto salads.
• Parmigiano-Reggiano, also known as Parmesan, is a cow’s milk cheese that is used for grating and cooking. It is rich, spicy and sharp. It is excellent served with nuts and fruit.
• Pecorino Romano is a sheep’s milk cheese. Brittle and sharp, with a sheepy tang, it is excellent with olives, sausages and red wine.

GOAT’S MILK CHEESES
• They tend to be sharp and tangy in flavor.
• They range in texture from very soft and fresh to very hard, depending on age.
• Chevre refers to small, soft, creamy cheeses that come in a variety of shapes (cones, disks, pyramids, or logs). They are often coated with ash, herbs or seasonings. They are excellent for cooking and complement a wide variety of flavors.

HOW TO STORE CHEESE:
Most cheeses are best kept refrigerated, wrapped well to keep odors out and moisture in. firm and hard cheeses can be kept for several weeks.
• Fresh cheese will spoil in 7-10 days because of their high moisture content.
• Some cheeses that have become hard or dry may still be grated for cooking or baking.
• Freezing is possible but not recommended because it changes the cheese’s texture, making it mealy or tough.

HOW TO USE LEFTOVER CHEESE:
Never throw out those leftover bits and pieces! The French take bits of Brie, cheddar, mozzarella, and anything else they have lying around and mixing it together with garlic and wine. They call this fromage fort (strong cheese). Spread this on thick slices of bread and throw it under the broiler for a few minutes.
• To do this at home: take about a pound of assorted leftover cheese and trim off any dried out or moldy parts. Put 3 or 4 cloves of garlic in a food processor and pulse until garlic is chopped up. Add cheese, 1/2 cup of dry white wine, and a least a teaspoon of ground black pepper. Process until the mixture becomes soft and creamy, about 30 seconds. Wrap tight and refrigerate for 1-3 days.

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CHOOSING YOUR WINE
Low-alcohol wines are best in summer. Choose light refreshing whites and roses, or even some light reds. If serving large numbers make fruit-wine punches or wine cups. Robust wines are better served in cooler weather. Hot punches and mulled wine are good ways to use inexpensive wines. Dry champagne will ruin a sweet wedding cake. Better to serve a demi-sec champagne instead.

WINE DESCRIPTIONS:
Barbera: Light and fruity Italian red wine.
Cabernet Sauvignon: Rich and full-bodied red wine, often tasting of blackcurrants, and sometimes mint and eucalyptus. Improves with age. Best served with red meat.
Chardonnay: Depending upon how it’s made, Chardonnay can be dry and light or full-bodied and buttery. Excellent served with creamy sauces.
Chenin Blanc: Can be very dry to sweet. Sweet Chenin Blancs generally tastes of honey. Dry Chenin Blancs are fresh and fruity. Dry versions are excellent with shellfish.
Gamay: Also know as Beaujolais. Most are light, fruity reds that are meant to be consumed while young. The taste of pears, bananas, and raspberries can often be detected in Gamays. Great for summer picnics.
Gewurztraminer: Spicy, full-bodied white wines that can be dry or sweet. With its rose perfume and litchi flavor, Gewurztraminer is one of the few wines to go well with spicy foods.
Merlot: Rich and smooth red wine.
Muscat: Musky white wine, often very sweet. Sweet varities make excellent dessert wines. Tastes of peaches and apricots, and sometimes pineapple. Excellent with fresh fruit.
Pinot Grigio: An Italian white wine that is aromatic, light and smooth. Excellent served with fish dishes.
Pinot Noir: Light- to medium-bodied red wines with a strawberry aroma and tasting of red currants and cherries.
Riesling: White wines that can be anywhere from bone-dry to very sweet. Light in body yet strongly flavored. The high acidity balances the richness of this wine. Wonderful paired with spicy foods.
Sangiovese: Also known as Chianti, an Italian red wine.
Sauvignon Blanc: Also known as Pouilly Fume. Very dry, fresh white wines. Tastes of green grass and gooseberries. Good with fish and with salads dressed with vinaigrettes.
Semillon: Dry to very sweet white wines. Makes some of the best sweet dessert wines. Serve with fruit.
Syrah: Also known as Shiraz. Dark, full-bodied red wines that are less tannic when aged. Aromas of blackcurrant, raspberry, cedar, black pepper and spice.
Viognier: A perfumed and full-bodied white wine.
Zinfandel: Can be light white or rose wines, or massive and tannic reds. Always with a berry-like flavor.

WHAT TO DO WITH LEFTOVER WINE:
Your party’s over and the guests are leaving … leaving behind half-empty bottles of the nice wine you splurged on. It breaks your heart to throw it out, doesn’t it? Well, you don’t have to throw it out. Pour those partial bottles into a saucepan and bring to a boil. Lower heat and simmer until the wine reduces by three-quarters. The alcohol will be boiled out and the flavor will become very intense. Cool and pour into ice cube trays. When frozen, store in zip lock bags for future use. Reduced wine adds a lovely depth to sauces, gravies and soups.

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