All Aboard

From hors d’oeuvres to desserts, cheese is picking up steam on catering menus

By Deanne Moskowitz

At a debutante party catered by Joel Catering and Special Events in New Orleans, cheese was a big mover. Four themed carts, effectively uber-stations, delivered cheese and drink assortments to a cheese-hungry crowd of nearly 1,000, reports Sarah Hall, company president.

But Joel Catering isn’t the only place where cheese is on a roll.

For an over-the-top wedding held on a farm, Twelve Baskets Catering in Seattle recently set three tables with a 16-foot cheese and charcuterie pine tray, its centerpiece a tiered “cake,” comprising concentric circles of cheese, topped with figures of a bride and groom. The extravagant display was only the appetizer, points out John Bagge, co-owner with his wife Jamie.

Challenged to create the Parisian ambiance for a French Bohemian event for more than 700 guests at the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art’s annual fundraising gala, Best Impressions Caterers in Charlotte, N.C., made cheese the star, according to A.J. Donner, chef de cuisine. Reproducing the mood of a Parisian street market, he piled tables inside the entry tent with whole wheels of cheese, among them triple crème brie and Roquefort, cut open for sampling and enhanced by everything from cured meats, carrot jam and pickled vegetables to oysters being shucked on the spot.

For a wedding reception, Mintahoe Catering & Events in Minneapolis produced a 4-foot-tall cheese pyramid at the request of one cheese-crazy couple, relates JJ Johnson, sous chef. An extremely cheese-savvy bride and groom, they tasted three different versions before they were satisfied with one.

Such cheese-centric events aren’t unusual anymore, these caterers claim, but the response to a growing appetite for cheese among catering clients, who—having been educated by social media and food TV—are determined to know what they’ve been missing.

Twelve Baskets’ Bagge says that he’s definitely “noticed an increase” in cheese consumption over the last few years. “There’s just such an awareness now,” he observes.

Mintahoe’s Johnson notes a “more refined taste” among consumers, who are looking for premium and unique cheeses, comparing the trend to one favoring premium liquor and cocktails in his area.

The appreciation for artisanal cheese also is seen as part of the farm-to-table movement. People are “interested in how things are made, where they come from and what their pedigree is,” says Joel Catering’s Hall.

“The scene is blowing up around here,” Best Impressions’ Donner exclaims, referring to the growing presence of local artisans, farms and cheesemakers in the Charlotte region. People are becoming more interested in cheese, he conjectures, because it’s sold at local farmers markets.

Always a convenient add-on to sandwiches, salads and appetizers, cheese is moving up in the menu hierarchy. It’s more prevalent on hors d’oeuvre and entree menus, partly due to the rise in vegetarian diners; it’s breaking into the dessert category; and it’s standing alone on cheese boards and stations.

Big Wheels

The best evidence that cheese has come into its own is the raging popularity of cheese platters, boards and stations.

They’ve “really taken off” at Joel, Hall marvels, going from “an occasional sell at weddings or corporate events” to a feature at 80 percent of weddings, which represent about 85 percent of the company’s business.

A station offering multiple food options might include a single platter of three cheeses with croutons, crackers, cornichons and other simple garnishes, Hall explains. But more common are dedicated stations, boasting six to eight selections, cured meats (such as house-cured duck prosciutto), house-made country pâté, and various tapenades and toppings, such as pickled vegetables and red onion compote. Knowing that people eat smaller quantities of certain bolder cheeses, such as blue, Hall purchases less of them for her assortments.

Bagge gets a lot of requests for cheese displays, especially for larger weddings. The company’s Signature Cheese Display is a tiered showstopper, combining up to eight domestic and imported cheeses separated by nuts, dried and fresh fruits, and herbs, accompanied by homemade crackers and fresh baguettes. Among the components may be English double Gloucester and Wensleydales infused with apricot, blueberry, port, sage, lemon or cranberry; smoked Dutch Gouda; Danish blue and dill Havarti; aged Irish cheddar, French brie and chèvre; and Spanish sheep’s milk Manchego.

Donner puts cheese and charcuterie on a lot of cocktail hour menus. Striving to give guests a satisfying eating experience, he is careful to plate selections at “open” or self-serve stations with the right embellishments: perhaps a smoked goat cheese with fresh honeycomb, or a blue cheese with a fig and balsamic reduction. Favoring soft cheeses, Donner has learned to create several smaller displays rather than one large one when catering outdoor events, so that the boards can be swapped for new ones before they become soggy.

Responding to the demand from clients for cheese boards with a “wow factor,” Mintahoe recently reinvented their Gourmet Cheese Board, combining it with their Charcuterie Board and raising the quality of the ingredients with the help of a neighboring distributor. Johnson’s favorite innovations include fennel salami with Manchego, spicy capicola with smoked Gouda, hard salami with Cotswold, and prosciutto with Drunken Goat.

A gourmet cheese board featuring Spanish cheeses from Mintahoe Catering & Events in Minneapolis. (Photo by Bellagala Photography)

Whey Better

Clients are looking for better quality cheeses, and increasingly they know what they want. One client asked Twelve Baskets to make lasagna with Boursin in addition to ricotta, a variation that became a favorite on the company’s menu.

Mintahoe stocks 40 to 50 varieties at any given time, reflecting the diverse preferences of its client population; and a lot of Joel’s clients are “really into cheese” and will present a list of the ones they want.

Hall sees a strong emotional attachment to the choice of cheeses for social occasions. Couples often request the cheeses of Spain, France or another country to which they have traveled or where they became engaged, and one Wisconsin couple wanted a cheese plate to reflect their home state.

Demand for American and European classics continues throughout the country, while the popularity of local cheeses depends on the area.

People are “switching over to higher-end American and Minnesota-made cheeses” at Mintahoe, reports Johnson. One of the best in his opinion is Amish Bleu from Faribault, Minn. But the company is trying to source more local craft batches and is experimenting with new varieties, he says.

Taking advantage of “the many great resources in the Carolinas,” Best Impressions features mainly local cheeses. However, Donner still uses a lot of American favorites, like Humboldt Fog from California, and European classics like Comté, Roquefort and Camembert, steering clients to a local Camembert-style from Spinning Spider Dairy, whenever possible.

For smoked and other goat cheeses, which he buys in quantity, Donner relies on Goat Lady Dairy in Climax, N.C., touting its high quality and ability to handle the necessary volume. The “awesome blue cheese” made by Clemson University’s agriculture department has been on his local cheese rotation for a couple of years, too.

Priding himself on buying local, Bagge works with a major distributor of Northwestern cheeses, and he’s been called upon to cater local manufacturer Tillamook’s annual employee product introduction and retail store appreciation road show. Despite his local leanings, Bagge often includes imported cheeses on displays, arguing that certain Irish, Scottish and English products can’t be equaled here.

Joel doesn’t feature all-local displays, says Hall, because Louisiana doesn’t produce a lot of cheese variety, although it claims some “wonderful cheese companies and cheesemakers.”

While flavored fine cheeses seem strong at retail, caterers interviewed here aren’t enthusiastic about them. Donner would rather accompany plain goat cheese with a chutney. Universally cited exceptions are Boursin and Drunken Goat, which Johnson explains “has a violet rind from absorbing red wine during the aging process.” He notes that Cotswold has been very well received because of its “bolder herb flavor,” and Bagge is fond of fruit-infused Wensleydales.

Chugging Along

To maximize the cheese-eating experience, caterers often pre-select wines to complement cheese assortments; although some, like Bagge, rely on well-trained bartenders to assist guests.

Some of Johnson’s go-to couplings include cabernet sauvignon with aged smoked Gouda and chardonnay with Gruyère. He can’t resist adding that lambrusco jelly with brie is an “amazing” combination.

Rarely pairing wine and cheese at larger events, Donner usually works a cheese course into menus for intimate at-home wine dinners. His clients are increasingly booking private tastings with favorite Napa wineries, which are willing to fly in a sommelier or attendant to sample their wares, while Best Impressions caters the food.

At one such wine dinner, Jean-Luc Joillot Crémant Blanc de Blanc “Agnes” was paired with the opening appetizer trio: slow-roasted beets and goat cheese mousse with coffee shortbread; poached North Carolina shrimp avocado salsa; and lamb tartare with fresh horseradish, cured egg yolk and fingerling chip. Witchery Sauvignon Blanc, Napa Valley 2014 was served with the eighth of nine courses: Green Hill Camembert with Meyer lemon jam and savory biscotti.

Matching food and beverages was a prominent feature of the Joel Catering debutante party, since the host felt passionate about food and beverage pairings. Sake was served at the large sushi station, as well as classic red and white wines, and each of the four cheese carts carried an appropriate wine: a port on the cart consisting of Shropshire, Roquefort and Rogue River blues; Champagne on the creamy cheese cart consisting of brie, truffle Brillat Savarin, Truffle Tremor and Epoisses; cabernet sauvignon on the cart comprising Monty’s English cheddar and cheddars from Cabot and Bleu Mont Dairy; and grüner veltliner on the Alpine cart, including Gruyère, Comté and Emmental.

Beer and cheese pairing is a big thing for Best Impressions lately, because the many breweries that are opening up in their area are booking grand openings to promote their names and renting event spaces for weddings. Millennial couples into craft beers want to incorporate a lot of beer into their menus, and the kitchen finds itself using a lot of cheeses. For a beloved dip that is accompanied by house-made Bavarian pretzels, they combine caramelized onions, cream and horseradish with local smoked Gouda and Hop, Drop ‘n Roll, an award-winning IPA from NoDa Brewing Company.

Driving Deliciousness

Adding cheese is an easy way to intensify deliciousness or lend diversity, which may explain cheese’s prevalence on hors d’oeuvre and entree menus lately. Another factor is the value of cheese in meeting the growing challenge to produce diversified vegetarian dinners.

Donner adds diversity and richness to vegetarian meals by basing one course or station on cheese or using it as a component. Hall sees a salad supplemented by cheese as a smart first course, partly because it is hearty enough to be held, if necessary, yet is vegetarian, an important advantage to many groups.

Cheese is a component if not the principal ingredient on a surprising number of hors d’oeuvre selections. At Best Impressions, cheese-containing hors d’oeuvres predominate, says Donner.

Ficelle toast spread with truffle-infused honey, topped with 16-month-old pecorino and juniper-cured speck ham, and finished with fresh arugula is a bestselling example. Donner points out that a “nice vegetarian option” particularly popular now is brioche spread with a mousse made from Clemson blue cheese and whipped cream, sprinkled with candied walnuts and spice-infused honey.

Among hors d’oeuvres that incorporate cheese at Joel are petite grilled Explorateur cheese and fig mostarda sandwiches on brioche bread; Japanese eggplant topped with mozzarella, oven-dried tomatoes and fresh oregano with a balsamic reduction; and Gruyère grit cake topped with duck confit and a sherry-herb gastrique.

Two strong summer appetizers at Twelve Baskets are watermelon, feta and mint leaf skewers with balsamic reduction drizzle, and cedar-planked brie with fresh raspberries. Other favorites include brie and poached pear cup with candied walnuts and lavender honey in phyllo cup, and Roma tomato bruschetta with feta.

A hit with both Mintahoe’s wedding and corporate clients, Bleu Bites combine blue cheese mousse, green grape slices, honey and spiced pistachios in a phyllo cup. People preferring subtler flavor love the company’s cinnamon-and-wine poached pear, honey and brie crostini.

With vegan requests on the rise, some caterers are experimenting with vegan cheeses, while others avoid them.

Bagge, who gets many requests for non-dairy events, turns to plant-based vegan cheeses frequently, using them for salad crumbles, grilled cheese sandwiches, pizza, Mexican specialties and dips. Almost weekly, he does a dairy-free taco bar, substituting vegan cheese. Executive Chef Tim Kramer’s vegan cheese favorites include the Follow Your Heart brand or Vegan Gourmet Mozzarella, and Soy-Sation shredded mozzarella; and Vegan Gourmet Cheddar and Daiya-brand products, made from soybean oil and soy milk powder.

Demand for vegan dishes incorporating cheese is a “trend and a hurdle” for Mintahoe lately, notes Johnson. He adds that tapioca-based cheeses work “decently,” but the company has begun investigating nut-based ones, although working with them is a bit more difficult.

Donner would rather serve something authentically vegan and delicious than feeding “fake cheese” to people who eschew the real stuff. Although 90 percent of Joel’s parties include some or many vegetarians, Hall has never had a request for vegan cheese, probably since the vegan population in her area is small.

Raw milk cheeses aged 60 days under specific conditions are legal in the United States, but these caterers tend to steer clear of them, barring special requests. They worry about vulnerable guests, such as pregnant women or the elderly.

Cedar-planked brie with fresh raspberries and a raspberry chipotle glaze from Twelve Baskets Catering in Seattle. (Photo by Shane Welch Photography)

Destination: Dessert

In subtle and dramatic ways, cheese is moving into the dessert realm.

Serious cheese courses aren’t common, but cheese and fruit or a sweet wine can be an answer for people who can’t have sugar or want something less sweet.

Best Impressions’ pastry chef, Jennifer Young, has been playing with the sweetened cheese fillings associated with certain beloved Italian desserts. In a take-off on tiramisu, she layers sweetened whipped ricotta between ladyfinger-shaped sponge-like cakes, covering the base with a Valrhona mousse and dusting it with cocoa powder. She distinguishes her Hummingbird Cake, a Southern classic, with mascarpone icing and a star-anise spiced orange blossom sauce.

Janet Lopez, Mintahoe’s pastry chef, invented an ice cream that is cheddar-cheese flavored. She pairs it with her apple tart.

The major advance that cheese has made as a dessert is the pervasive trend toward wedding cheese “cakes,” like the one that Twelve Baskets recently produced. Hall sends interested clients to a trusted distributor for the selection process, since choosing wheels with the right sizes, shapes and heights is challenging. Still, a cheese “cake” is likely to win the hearts of cheese-obsessed couples—not to mention getting guests to smile and say “cheese.”