The most important thing is to take your cheese out of the refrigerator at least an hour ahead of serving. You only get the full flavor at room temperature. You should also wait to slice it until just before serving. The moment it's cut, cheese begins to dry out.
Ideally you should have a different knife for each type of cheese so that you don't smear soft cheeses on hard ones or mingle strong cheeses with mild ones. For more informal occasions, use a napkin to wipe the knife before slicing each cheese. You can buy special cheese knives with holes in them that make it easier to cut through softer cheeses. Cheese slicers are useful when you need fine slices for sandwiches.
When you cut from a cheese that's already been cut in a wedge, try to cut a long thin slice rather than simply cut off the tip. Smaller circular cheeses can be cut into wedges, while harder cheeses taste better cut into fine slices rather than chunks or cubes. Cheeses like Parmesan should always be grated or served in small chunks broken off from the block.
Don't remove the rind beforehand, even though you may not want to eat it. It's a question of taste rather than safety, though most people would be inclined to discard harder rinds or the rinds of pungent cheeses which can be stronger than the cheese itself. Obviously, don't eat a waxed rind.
Handling and Storage
The two main enemies of cheese are excessive heat and air. Heat makes it deteriorate rapidly. Leaving it open to air will dry it out and leave it prey to the bacteria that cause mold.
You need to wrap the cheese properly. The original wrapping – whether it's a tub, a wooden box, or waxed paper — is the best option, but if you open a cheese that's been vacuum packed or have to re-wrap a cheese, waxed or parchment paper or aluminum foil is generally better than plastic wrap, which can make the cheese moist and sweaty. However, plastic wrap is an acceptable way of wrapping blue cheeses and hard grating cheeses like Parmesan. Beware of putting cheeses together in a plastic container, as milder cheeses may pick up flavors from stronger ones.
It's advisable not to keep cheeses too long once you cut into them. Softer cheeses and cheeses that have already been matured by a cheese shop will deteriorate quicker than harder ones and should ideally be consumed within 1-2 days. If you keep them longer, re-wrap them regularly.
Can you freeze cheese? Purists would say no, but if you have more cheese left over than you are able to eat immediately it makes sense, but be prepared for a loss of quality. Hard cheeses generally freeze better than softer ones. Grating them first makes them easier to use.
The Cheese Course
Choosing one or two cheeses and pairing them with simple, specially chosen accompaniments creates a "composed cheese course.” Composed cheese courses delight the eye and showcase the unique flavor and texture of each selected cheese.
The composed cheese course can make an appearance as an appetizer, after an entrée or as a dessert. Served early in the meal, a beautifully composed cheese course gives your friends a glimpse into the delights that will follow from the kitchen. Served after the main entrée, it offers a chance to linger, to slow down and extend the pleasure of a meal. It's no wonder we're seeing this trend as a welcome addition to today's dining experience.
In many European countries, it's long been the custom to enjoy a cheese course before, or in place of, a sweet dessert. In England, it follows the main course and is frequently accompanied by savory biscuits and port. In Italy, a cheese course paired with sliced salami is often served as an appetizer. The cheese course may have its roots in France, where it has long been considered the ideal complement to an unfinished bottle of wine at the end of the meal.
The cheese course is one of the most rapidly growing trends in American dining. Whether it's at the beginning of a meal, at the end, or somewhere in the middle, the contemporary version of a cheese course is a new and exciting culinary experience for many people dining at home with friends.
Making a cheese course at home
As with most things, it's best to start simply. Begin by offering one to three cheeses with varying textures, colors and flavors, cut into interesting shapes. Serving three cheeses does not challenge the palate with too many flavors, yet provides good variety and contrast. Offer a range of flavors and textures from soft and mild cheese to hard and very sharp or pungent. Even serving one cheese at its peak of flavor paired with a beautifully prepared savory or sweet accompaniment can be a highly satisfying experience.
Service and Presentation:
Remember to allow aged cheese to sit for about an hour at room temperature before serving, but fresh cheeses should be treated like milk and kept cold until serving. Have a selection of interesting plates, wooden or marble platters, straw mats or wicker trays. Use seasonally available fresh herbs and greens. Presentation ideas are endless, inspired by your individual style, the season and the occasion.
Estimate one to one-and-a-half ounces of each cheese per person. If serving three or more cheeses, you might decrease the amount to an ounce or less per person. Cheese courses typically contain just small amounts that provide a combination of flavors to stimulate your guests' appetite, or extend the pleasure of a satisfying meal.
Be sure to slice cheese with the proper tool. Any sharp utility knife will work to cut and serve a semi-soft or hard cheese. Curled prong-tipped knives or special cheese serving knife sets (including wide-bladed knife, cheese fork, spreader, thin-bladed and heart-shaped blade knives) are available at your local AJ's.
The Cheese Course: When to serve
Before the Meal: A Starter Course
A cheese course before, or at the beginning of the meal, serves to awaken the taste buds. It may include one or more cheeses served either at room temperature, fried in crisps, or perhaps baked in a crust of coarsely ground walnuts or almonds. Consider such accompaniments as cured olives, pickled vegetables, salted whole nuts, crunchy crudités, roasted or grilled seasonal vegetables, chutneys, mustards and tapenades.
Mid Meal: Transitional
A new trend in dining is a composed cheese course after the entree. This course can be included in your meal of several courses, or as part of many selections that includes several small servings of various selections from throughout the meal, including a cheese course. Another type of composition can be prepared for parties of three or more diners as an informal small plate or to serve with cocktails.
End of Meal: In Place of Dessert
A delicious selection of fine cheeses satisfies the appetite and helps to imprint a lingering memory of a fine meal. Many cheeses pair exceptionally well with fresh and dried fruits. Choose seasonally available apples, pears, figs, or berries, nuts (walnuts, almonds, hazelnuts, pecans and pistachios), honeys, and dessert wines such as sherries, ports and brandies.
Blue Cheese, Walnuts and Figs
Brie with Roasted Pears, Maple Syrup and Sage Glaze
White Cheddar with Apple Chutney
Dry Jack with Brandied Fruit Compote
Crescenza Marinated in Lemon, Garlic and Olive Oil Served with Baby Greens
Mona Lisa Aged Gouda with Spicy Carrot Raisin Chutney
Fresh Mozzarella with Eggplant Caviar