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The three cheeses you see above are Carr Valley Cheese’s Mobay (a Wisconsin cheese that’s half goat’s milk and half sheep’s milk with a layer of ash in between), Sweet Grass Dairy’s Sevenwood (a Georgia raw cow’s milk cheese washed in balsamic vinegar) and Cypress Grove Chevre’s Purple Haze (a California fresh goat cheese flavored with lavender and fennel pollen–and a 25th Annual American Cheese Society competition winner).

Did I know about any of these cheeses before taking on the Barefoot Bloggers challenge to create a Cheese Plate? Noooooooo. I picked this challenge, because the cheese counter at Whole Foods was a total mystery. Because I was reading great things about American artisanal cheeses but hadn’t tried any. And because, when you have a large group of people all making the same recipe, you seize the opportunity for variety where you can get it. In this case, straight from the cow’s teats. Or the goat’s. Or the sheep’s.

We don’t judge.

There’s no real recipe for a cheese platter, but if you follow Ina Garten’s tips in “The Barefoot Contessa Cookbook,”you’ll put together something dangerously respectable.

Barefoot Tip #1: Choose an interesting assortment of cheeses—hard sharp cheeses, soft creamy ones and pungent blue cheeses. Look for an interesting mix of flavors, textures and colors.

Most experts suggest limiting your number of cheeses (choose three to five) and picking a theme (i.e. Spanish cheeses, French cheeses, one cow’s milk/one goat’s milk/one sheep’s milk), but it’s still easy to get overwhelmed with the options. There are also some great tools online, like Artisanal Cheese’s new CheeseClock™, a graphic illustration showing how to put together a balanced cheese plate, and the Wisconsin Cheese Cupid, which focuses on cheese and beverage pairings. But if you have access to a cheese shop or a grocery with actual people manning a cheese counter, ask a cheesemonger for suggestions and samples. And don’t feel pressured to buy a wheel when 2 ounces will do.

Barefoot Tip #2: Be sure to have a platter or wooden board large enough to hold the cheeses without crowding them. Arrange the cheeses with the cut sides facing out and with several small cheese knives.

But before you plate the cheeses, you’ll want to unwrap them and let them come to room temperature. This should take about an hour.

Barefoot Tip #3: To finish the platter, add sliced breads or crackers and green leaves.

Whether you choose plain, multigrain or otherwise flavored breads or crackers is up to you. Many cheese experts recommend plain crusty breads and crackers, so they don’t interfere with the taste of the cheese. But if you can’t imagine eating cheese without a stack of Breton Multigrain crackers, by all means, bring the crackers hither.

Barefoot Tip #4: Overall, the simpler the design, the better the platter looks. Group each kind of cheese together and add one large bunch of green or red grapes in the center to create a visual focal point. Fill in the spaces with lots of crackers or small slices of bread.

Other popular accompaniments include nuts, figs (fresh, preserved or baked in a cake), apple or pear slices, olives, quince paste, fruit preserves and honey. I “filled in the spaces” with spiced pecans, homemade white crackers, honey and grapes.

Before this challenge, my idea of a cheese platter would have been that grocery tray of cubed cheeses that you pass on the way to the good stuff at a party. Now, my curiosity is officially sparked.

Thanks, Ina.

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