The way I keep life delicious? Cheese – and lots of it. During the last eight months of a global pandemic, companies have been pulling out all the stops to come up with creative virtual experiences that are both educational and engaging.
Oh, and trust me… I get it. The idea of spending even more time in front of a screen is pretty unappealing for those of us who work on computers all day. But there are a few virtual experiences that are worthwhile. Specifically, cheese tastings. As we approach the holidays, I’m already thinking of gifting this virtual cheese tasting experience to family and friends – because they’re simply that much fun (and totally unique!).
One particular tasting series I’ve really enjoyed is by Murray’s. This artisanal cheese and specialty foods retailer, part of the Kroger family of brands, is based in Greenwich Village, NYC. Now, they’re delivering their delectable goods to people throughout the country through virtual offerings.
Murray’s Virtual Cheeseboard Making Class: How it Works
My mouth was already watering while scrolling through the Murray’s website. It’s safe to say that I was ready to learn how to make a cheeseboard immediately – after all, it is a good skill to have (especially for when indoor entertaining can safely resume again!).
I signed up for a one-hour virtual cheeseboard making class ($110) after exploring the full roster of virtual offerings, which included various types of pairings and other DIYs.
You can access tickets to upcoming cheese classes via Eventbrite. Book a few weeks out to secure your spot. Each class is set for a specific date and time; if you can’t make it live, you can always watch the replay later. Although, the real-time interaction makes it more fun, as you can ask the instructor questions in the chat box.
A few days prior to the class, I received an email with a list of instructions for logging into the virtual session via Zoom. In addition, there were directions for cutting and plating the cheese, plus a list of what to expect in my box. Note: This is when Murray’s lists out out the cheeses and accoutrements for the class. If you’re someone who loathes a particular kind of cheese (or has a food allergy), this may not be the best fit for you.
The day before the class, I received a beautiful package at my doorstep filled with everything I needed for the virtual class (remember to refrigerate the cheese!).
For the class, I recommend using a laptop or tablet rather than a smartphone – this makes it easier to see the instructor. Before the class, I placed the ingredients within reach for easy access. Over the next hour, I learned how to build my own cheeseboard… and it was amazing!
Why my experience had me cheesin’
I’ve made quite a few cheeseboards in my life – far from the Instagram-perfect kind, though. Mostly, I like throwing together some slices of whatever cheeses we have in our fridge. Typically it’s cheddar and Manchego (my favorite) along with some Crunch Master crackers and maybe some apple slices or grapes. However, I have to admit, this cheeseboard class taught me a lot – starting with how and why cutting tools matter.
Our instructor, Michele Molier, assistant manager of education for Murray’s Cheese, began by demonstrating how to use a cheese harp (such a pretty name!) to slice our first cheese, a half wheel of mini Brie. This tool is preferred because soft cheeses, such as Brie, will often stick to the side of a knife. She effortlessly sliced the half wheel into a half-dozen mini wedges, plating them in one corner of the board with rind facing out and slightly overlapping for a fanned-out look. Though I didn’t have a cheese harp myself (tools aren’t included in the boxes) I followed suit – but not before sneaking in a little taste of this creamy cheese, which was heavenly.
Some questions popped up in the chat box about whether it was safe to eat the rind of Brie cheese. Molier explained that by law, any cheese rind has to be food grade – meaning you can eat it without getting sick (yes, even the red wax on Gouda, although it may not be very tasty). Generally speaking, the softer the rind, the more appetizing it is, she said. The bloomy rind of the Brie in this case smelled and tasted a little mushroom-y, but not in an off-putting way.
Cheese, cheese and more cheese:
Our next cheese, White Lake Rachel, had a medium texture. Molier demonstrated how to turn the wedge on its side and use a knife to carefully cut it, applying the same amount of pressure with your hand holding the knife as well as your other hand pressing down on the blade.
The reason why we cut cheese wedges into triangles, she explained, is that cheese is ripened from the inside out. Its flavor actually loses strength toward the rind – so cutting triangles she described as “pick-uppable” give a nice blend of all the flavors in that cheese. This is also why tempering cheeses (leaving them out on the counter a while before eating) is important. Cold cheeses don’t reveal nearly as much flavor or aromatics. Room-temperature cheeses, on the other hand, are sort of like your aunt after two glasses of wine… they’ll reveal a lot in a short amount of time, whether you want them to or not.
Next was a block of Gruyere, an Alpine-style hard cheese that Molier showed us how to cut into long rectangles she called batonettes – think cheese-stick vibes. This kind of cheese can be a star of any board, she said, because it’s so widely enjoyed. I loved how she plated these batonettes in a diagonal stacked pattern: five across the bottom, then four, then three and so forth. It added a dynamic look to the cheeseboard that I hadn’t thought of doing before.
The final cheese we added was Murray’s Stilton, a variety of blue (aka moldy) cheese that had a very pungent smell and taste, but added a nice kick of flavor to the board. It’s not for everyone, but we learned how to slice it into small triangles using a different knife from other cheeses so as not to spread the bacteria from the Stilton.
In addition to the four cheeses, the box included what Molier called “residence pairings,” or additional items to help fill in the board and make it extra snackable. The four items in my box were blackberry jam, marcona almonds, apple butter and oatcakes (my new favorite!).
She showed us how to put the jams into miniature bowls and place them either adjacent in the center of the board, to draw eyes in, or in opposite corners. Then we worked in the other filler items, sprinkling the almonds around to fill up open spaces, and fanning out the oatcakes on two sides of the board. The goal of a cheeseboard is to create the illusion of a cornucopia, Molier told us, so the fuller, the better.
Though none were included in the box, meats like prosciutto or ham, folded into cute little triangles, can make a good addition to a cheeseboard, Molier said, as can sliced veggies or fruits. I learned a great tip for Brie: Instead of slicing into wedges, you can take a full wheel and carefully slice off just the top layer, making a “dip bowl” for things like sliced bell peppers and cucumbers.
I couldn’t let our class time run out without asking a question relevant for the times: How do we make a cheeseboard COVID safe (as in, avoid having everyone reach in with their hands)? Molier’s simple solution was to provide lots of toothpicks, which guests can use to pick up any of the cheese bites. She also recommended picking up some mini cheese signs, or even making your own little flags to put on toothpicks, to stick in each cheese to let guests know what they’re eating.
At the end of the day, cheeseboards are about recreating the Lunchable (throwback!), but in higher quality, Molier said – which made me laugh. It’s true: It’s hard to say no to a meal of cheese and crackers. When she put it that way, it helped take off some of the pressure, too. Yes, it’s fun to build a beautiful board. But some of the best ones are made simply by pulling things you already have out of the fridge.