Happy Endings

For most Americans, dessert means something sweet. However, more and more, people are opting to take a cue from Europeans and include a cheese course at the end of the meal instead of sugary sweets. Cheese offers a wide variety of tastes and textures and pairs beautifully with fruit, nuts and wine alike. So why not enjoy a bit of cheese when your meal is done?

Perhaps the biggest consideration when putting together a cheese course is the number of people you will be serving. This piece of information will help you determine how much cheese to get, how many types of cheese and what you choose to serve it with. A cheese course at a bridal reception, for example, will be quite different from one served after an intimate dinner for four. The large reception is likely to have a larger selection of cheeses, fruits, nuts and wines to suit a wider variety of tastes and, of course, more of all of them.

That's not to say that a small gathering is in any way lacking. Generally, I prefer to enjoy a cheese course in such settings. I usually choose three to five different cheeses, two to three types of fruit, and one nice dessert wine and perhaps some spiced nuts. The cheeses themselves can either be a wide variety of taste and texture or something more suited to a theme -- such as goat milk cheeses.

My favorite combination consists of a mild cheese like havarti, lovely aged cheddar and a creamy blue cheese. I usually pair the cheeses with seasonal fruits. In the winter months, I like to put out freshly washed black grapes and slices of sweet pear that have been briefly splashed in lemon juice to keep their color. I round out the menu with some spicy nuts and a nice, mellow dessert wine.

Arranging the cheese and fruit on a platter is a great way to make a statement when serving them. Generally speaking, I leave most of the cheese in large chunks and cut only enough for a first small sample. Then I include cheese knives for each of the cheeses. Leaving the cheese in large chunks is more eye appealing and tends to keep it from drying out. After I've set the cheeses in positions on a large platter that allow one to easily cut samples for themselves, I fill in the extra space with the fruit. I use some whole fruit to add extra visual appeal and it can always be quickly sliced if more fruit is needed.

Now, here's the key to it all. When serving a cheese course on a large platter to a small group, I like to set it in the center of the table on a lazy susan to allow the platter to be easily spun to reach all of the goodies that have been arranged on it. It's funny how such a small thing encourages people to nibble and try new things.

Speaking of new things, getting used to including a cheese course at the end of your meals will help you in other ways as well. You will get a chance to sample small amounts of cheese and savor their flavors. And, if you're like many home cooks, you'll start thinking of where you can use those flavors elsewhere in the meal. A creamy goat cheese sampled during one cheese course may find itself sliced over a gourmet pizza later in the week! So get out there and try something new for dessert!

As always, I encourage you to share your recipe ideas and comments. You can always post comments on the message board using the forms provided in the articles or email me directly at . Enjoy!

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