'Tis the season for celebrations, entertaining and eating well. I think "party," and cheese plates pop into my head.  Tia Keenan, referred to as a cheese rockstar in some circles, considers them the “holy grail of entertaining.”  Her new book is, The Art of the Cheese Plate: Pairings, Recipes, Style, Attitude – so who better to turn to for help curating festive, wintry, and gorgeous cheese plates?

Jennifer Russell: For those not as knowledgeable in the world of cheese, what pearls of cheese wisdom do you think are crucial to impart?

Tia Keenan: Eating cheese should be fun.  Don’t be afraid of what you don’t know.  Experiment. Taste. Share. Cheese is one of the few foods that has remained a part of food culture for millennia.  It’s our birthright: made from milk, our first food.  Also, eat the rind.

JR: The cheese plates in your book are gorgeous. What makes a cheese plate great?

TK: A great cheese plate tells a story through an arc of flavors and textures. It can also tell a cultural story: of a country, of an animal, of a style of cheese. We eat with our eyes; a great cheese plate is beautiful. We eat with our mouths; a great cheese plate is delicious. We eat with our minds; a great cheese plate tells us something about cheese, about the person who is so graciously feeding us, and ultimately about ourselves: what we like, what we love, how we connect to our food and to other people.

Winnimere Wonderland
Winnimere Wonderland (Photo: Noah Fecks)
Winnimere is a pudding-y, meaty, and smoky (but not smoked) winter cheese, as hearty as a roast and just as flavorful. It'd be sacrilege to eat along -- tuck into it with friends après ski or for a cozy night of board games and mulled wine. Homey bacon accompaniments highlight Winnimere's carnivorous character, proffering sweet and salty notes and crunchy, crispy, sticky bite. Vegetarians will have to sit this one out. Pictured left to right: Zingerman's Peppered Bacon Farm Bread, Ritz Cracker-Bacon Brickle, Mosto Cotto-Glazed Bacon, Jasper Hill Farm Winnimere (Raw Cow's Milk, Greensboro, VT)

JR: What is your take on pairings?

TK: Pairings are a way to enhance eating cheese. They can also be an ice-breaker, a conversation starter, or a way to clean out the fridge. The perfect pairing is the one you like. They are, at their best, a delicious bite and a provocation.

JR: ’Tis the season for parties and celebrations. You refer to cheese plates as the holy grail of entertaining. Help us create a wintry, celebratory cheese plate.

TK: Cheese is seasonal – I think that’s lost on a lot of people. During winter it’s wonderful to eat winter cheeses: aged, hard cheeses made from the milk of the past summer - or even the summer before that. Or pudding-like, gooey, winter milk cheeses like Jasper Hill Farm Winnimere or Uplands Cheese Co. Rush Creek Reserve. When entertaining, you can’t go wrong with heating up an Uplands Rush Creek Reserve and serving it with anything from a great baguette for scooping up the molten cheese, to a selection of tempura.

JR: And what would you serve to drink with these wintry cheeses?

TK: With really gooey, unctuous cheeses, I like something with bubbles. For the Rush Creek Reserve, I like a dry English-style cider or a Blanc de Blanc champagne.

Rush Creek Weekend
Rush Creek Weekend (Photo: Noah Fecks)
Rush Creek Reserve is a creamy cold-weather treat made from the milk of cows who've transitioned from eating (summer) pasture to (winter) hay. This dietary disruption impacts milk composition and makes a reach, custardy spoon cheese that's pure decadence. Drizzled on crisp tempura and griddled greens and slathered on crusty break, it's a sophisticated communal meal. Pictured left to right: Tempura Watercress, Uplands Cheese Company Rush Creek Reserve (Raw Cow's Milk, Dodgeville, WI), Tempura Olives

About the author: Tia Keenan is a New York–based chef-fromager and writer. She created the cheese program for Danny Meyer’s The Modern and pairings for Murray’s Cheese. Her work has been featured in Food & Wine, The New Yorker, and on The Food Network. Photos from The Art of the Cheese Plate by Tia Keenan (Rizzoli, 2016)

Jennifer Russell

Jennifer Russell is a founding producer at The Splendid Table. Before coming to radio, she made historical and arts and cultural programming for public television. She claims to have come out of the womb a food lover -- when other girls played house, she played restaurateur. Follow her comings and goings on Twitter: @jenejentweets.