So long, boring cheese parties. It’s time to spice things up with a little (or a lot) of help from Tia Keenan.
The renowned chef-fromager and cheese guru is reimagining the cheese platter with her book, “The Art of the Cheese Plate,” a natural progression in her career after spending more than a decade in the industry mastering pairing.
“I wanted to do a book that was really user friendly and expressible, but at the same time was really beautiful and interesting looking, and sort of different from what a lot of the other cheese books on the market look like,” she said.
The colorful book features 37 unique plates composed mostly of three cheeses and three condiments. Two of the condiments require some preparation while the other is always purchased.
“I wanted to help people become better shoppers and to understand that when you’re making a cheese plate you don’t have to make everything by scratch,” she said. “[But] the recipes in this book are generally really quick and simple; after all it’s a condiment, it’s not something you should spend all day cooking.”
Keenan spoke to Pulse more about the exciting new book, one of her favorite pairings and what it takes to make the perfect grilled cheese sandwich.
How do you think you succeeded in making your book different than the others?
We are kind of stuck in this rut with cheese [in America] so my work has always been about disrupting that. The visual language of cheese tends to be this farmhouse aesthetic—the wooden board, the slate, the afternoon light, the bowl of grapes—and across the board cheese books sort of always use that visual language…I wanted the photographs and sort of the attitude of this book to be really different from that, to be really colorful, vibrant, fun, sort of funny, whimsical and sexy…everything that isn’t covered when we have that gauzy, rose-colored view of this farmhouse fantasy.
Are there any pairings from the book that are your favorite?
It is definitely hard for me because I kind of feel like they’re my children, I sort of love them all in different ways…[But] I enjoy condiments that make a joke, stir up nostalgia or sort of play on a theme. One of the fun condiments I make is a sort of Cracker Jack, but with pork crackling and popcorn and I call it Cracklin’ Jack in the book…Everyone loves Cracker Jack and this is sort of a fun take on it; it’s surprising, it’s sort of humorous, it’s tasty, it’s crunchy, it’s sweet, it’s salty.
What would you say is the biggest no-no when it comes to a cheese plate?
I think the most important thing about a cheese plate is the quality of the cheese…I’d rather have three really high quality well-made special cheeses than five mediocre ones. I’d say you have to start with good cheese; you can’t dress up low quality or past its date cheese with condiments. You have to start with a good foundation.
How do you define quality in cheese?
For me personally it means that it’s cheese that’s made with integrity. Usually cheese that’s made at least in some part of its process by hand. It means cheese that’s been handled skillfully along the way as it’s gone from producer to distributor to retailer…and buying your cheese from a cheesemonger or a store that you trust is really important.
I also read that you’ve made a lot of grilled cheeses over the years. What really makes the perfect grilled cheese?
That’s a good one. I’ve definitely worked with grilled cheese a lot in my career. I think the most important thing for grilled cheese—it sounds so simple but it’s something that I see not done in a lot of restaurants—is to really have that cheese be melted, gooey and hot. I think when you cook a grilled cheese, it often actually takes longer than you think it should for the cheese to melt. I also think that we get really excited when we are making grilled cheese and we want it to move along faster than it does. Even though to me this sounds really simple, I think it needs to be said that in a grilled cheese the cheese all the way on the inside, even in the middle of the sandwich needs to be really, really hot and melty.