Sixteen years ago, I wrote a cookbook inspired by some of the enticing cheese plates I was seeing in restaurants. That little book, The Cheese Course, is still in print, but restaurant cheese plates have since evolved into a platform for competitive creativity that I could never have imagined. Two new books—both from New York City cheese authorities—demonstrate the state of the art.
Composing the Cheese Plate by Brian Keyser and Leigh Friend (Running Press) and The Art of the Cheese Plate by Tia Keenan (Rizzoli) are like identical twins separated at birth. They share a background and a core aesthetic but diverge in the details.
Both books give the cheese plate the kind of focus that other courses typically get in fine dining. The results are studied compositions of shape and color, with artfully placed drizzles and dollops. Every wedge has its rightful complement. No cheese stands alone.
Keenan used to work for Keyser at his Manhattan establishment, Casellula Cheese & Wine Café, so perhaps it’s not surprising that their ideas overlap. But they overlap a lot. Goat cheese with marshmallows. Cheese with smoked pickled okra, with lotus root, with creamed corn, with husk cherries, with a variety of pestos. These unconventional pairings turn up in both volumes—not a crime but possibly a challenge for readers who are trying to distinguish between them.
Keenan’s work is more daring, more irreverent, more conceptual. Keyser and Friend have their own out-there ideas (parsnip puree with bloomy-rind cheese), but their style seems more relaxed and less bent on novelty. Both books include occasional beverage suggestions, but the accompaniments don’t make that easy. How do you find a wine (or beer or cider) that appreciates candied jalapeños or sweet-and-sour pineapple?
I suspect that these two books will be game-changers for the American cheese course. Offering guests a tray with a few well-chosen cheeses and a smidgen of honeycomb may soon seem pitiful, like you’re hardly trying. It’s exhilarating to see so much creative juice focused on cheese presentation, but conservative palates like mine may need time to adjust. I just hope others will continue to share my belief that a single perfect cheese can be an appealing course all by itself.
Special Pricing on Cheese Class
American artisan cider is the beverage trend of the moment and Sonoma County is where the trend began. Cheese absolutely loves these serious handmade ciders, and I’m going to prove it to you on Sunday, September 26, at Healdsburg SHED. Joining me for “Cheese & Cider,” an afternoon guided tasting, will be self-proclaimed Cider Evangelist and Tilted Shed Ciderworks owner Ellen Cavalli. Ellen is passionate, knowledgeable and fun! SHED has kindly agreed to take $5 off the class price for readers of Planet Cheese. Use the discount code “cheese&cider” when you reserve here.