How to create a Pinterest-worthy display suitable for a few guests or a large gathering.
I have not always had the best experience with displays like this. Early on in my party hosting days I would usually just have cheese slices or cubes, crackers and a separate tray of vegetables. Then I received my first cheese board as a gift and started going to the more expensive cheese section of the store to get blocks of cheese, most of which I'd never tried. My first experience selecting Manchego was a disaster, it made my eyes water it was so bad. But the displays were still just blocks of cheese on a platter with some knives.
Last year I volunteered to partially cater a fundraising event for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation in Annapolis, MD. I had a vision of what I wanted the table to look like but didn't do much research beforehand and did not achieve the look I was going for. It was a combination of not having the right dishes, too much empty space on the table, not taking advantage of the abundance of ideas on Pinterest and lack of experience pulling something like that together for 50+ people.
After that things started coming together. Every time I'd have people over I tried something different -- bigger boards, less separation between them, intermingling items by what paired well together, colors, textures, types, etc. If friends had parties I'd get there early and help setup the spreads for them. Then this May I had the opportunity to cater the same fundraiser again. First I looked at hundreds of pins on Piterest. Just search for any combination of cheese + meat + display and prepare to get lost in a vortex of creativity and displays so beautiful you'll want to live your life with one on your table every day. Next I upgraded my inventory of boards and platters with a few key Crate & Barrel purchases -- 36" Carson Cheese Board, J.K. Adams Heritage Serving Board, and Onslow Tray.
Since I was one of two providing food for the event the menu had to be planned according to what they were serving, which was a shrimp and seafood boil. So I steered clear of seafood and focused on an array of favorites like chips, dips, cheeses, cured meats, fruit, veggies, and dessert. In the week leading up to the event I used my large dining room table to test run the display. What was the right selection and arrangement of serving dishes? What small dishes looked right for dips and condiments and also complimented the tray they were sitting on? What items should go where? I used post-its to start laying out the plan and once I was satisfied everything would work, I took pictures to use the day of the event. When the day came it took about an hour to set everything up and below was the final product. While there is still room for improvement, I've come a long way from cheese and crackers. Continue reading below for specific guidance on how to pull one of these displays together.
SELECT YOUR MENU
Choosing the menu before anything else is important. What you're going to serve will influence what you serve it on and what you serve it with. Think about variety -- different types of foods, textures, flavor profiles, presentation styles and colors to create visual interest in your display. Plus, people don't all have the same taste preferences so the more choices they have the happier they'll be.
CHEESES: Typical varieties to choose from include aged, soft, firm and blue. If you'll be serving wine at your party, try to get a mix of cheeses that pair well with different wines and other condiments. You can search other sites for recommendations in each category but below is my go to list. If cheese won't be the central focus of the spread, 4 oz per person should be enough.
Manchego with honey, marcona almonds and Cabernet Sauvignon
Brie with fig jam, heavy crackers and Chardonnay or Pinot Noir
Havarti with grapes or apples, almonds and Riesling
Gorgonzola (dolce) with dried apricots and Prosecco
Goat cheese with olive oil and garlic toasted baguette wedges and Sauvignon Blanc
MEATS: This is the area where I don't have much of an expert opinion, because I only eat chicken and fish, but these have been the most popular at events I've hosted and what I've paired next to them on the boards. For cured meats I'd recommend 3-4 oz per person.
Prosciutto can be rolled, twisted into a rosette or layered neatly into a pile; it pairs well with melon and Parmigiano Reggiano cheese (or even Havarti if you want to stick to the cheese list above)
Sopresatta Salami should be sliced slightly wider than the thickness of a quarter and it pairs with Brie or Gorgonzola
Genoa Salami can be rolled or folded in half, I like to serve it alongside some spicy mustard and maybe a sharp white cheddar
BREADS & CRACKERS: You probably want to offer multiple options for breads and crackers. Something for the more traditional crowd and something for the new foodies who might be going gluten free for whatever reason. You could also try breadsticks, pita bites or anything that you can dip or spread cheese on.
Toasted baguette wedges can be made my slicing a French baguette at an angle, brushing the slices with olive oil and fresh garlic, and baking at 350 for 8-10 minutes
Traditional crackers are just something that everyone usually likes and they can have a buttery flavor, nothing too strong
Thin wafers can be fun for those who don't like a lot of 'bread', and you can get them flavored with cracked black pepper or rosemary
Gluten free crackers have become some of my favorites lately -- either the savory thins from Trader Joe's or Crunchmaster's Multi-Grain rice crackers; and they go really well with hummus or brie
OTHER ITEMS: This is where you can really get creative and go with what you love. Varying flavors and textures of salty, sweet, buttery, crunchy, fresh, rich, and creamy. How much will depend on how many people, just eyeball it as these ingredients are not as expensive and some of them have a long shelf life so you can use them for your next party, too!
Fruits: Strawberries, blueberries, green and red grapes, dried apricots, dried figs
Vegetables: Broccolini, asparagus, snap peas, cauliflower, peppers (red, yellow, and orange), carrots, radishes, and cucumbers
Accompaniments: Raw honey, spicy mustard, dill dip, hummus, fig butter
Nuts, Olives and Such: Cashews, almonds, pistachios, candied pecans, castlevetrano olives, greek olives, artichoke hearts, roasted red peppers
Garnishes: Rosemary, thyme
SELECT YOUR SERVING DISHES AND SET THE ANCHORS
First, think about how many people you'll have at your party and how much food you'll need space for. For a smaller gathering you may be able to squeeze everything onto one big board. For a larger group you could take multiple boards and push them close together to create a big display. Or if you also have things like chips, desserts, and other dishes to layer in you could go for a random setup.
Once you've selected the dishes, start thinking about food placement. What pairs well together and where do you have space to fit what pairs well together? Start with the 'anchors', anything that will be in a jar or a small dish like condiments, nuts, olives, dips, etc. I like to write the items on small pieces of paper or post-it notes and arrange them ahead of time to visualize what it will actually look like and to make sure I've spread out the colors and the types of food well enough. Take pictures of this so you remember the general idea and don't stress on the day of.
On the day of the event, I'd give yourself 30-60 minutes to set up the display. That does not include prep time for all of the food, which depends on how you want to present it. Fill from one side of the layout to the other, making changes as you go if something your planned doesn't look right, or you have too many colors in one spot and not enough in another. You can choose to group all of one item in a single spot, or spread something out across the board to make it look more varied. Just have fun with it! I hope this process helps you as much as it has helped me. Below are some of my recent displays, which were for anywhere from 4 - 75 people. Feel free to reach out with any questions!
CHARCUTERIE TO GO
Because of the many restaurant regulations in place due to COVID, I recently had the pleasure of teaming up with The Carlton Restaurant in Pittsburgh, PA to host a virtual wine tasting with a charcuterie tray. They featured three Italian wines and I produced a 'To Go' tray of Italian cheeses, meats ,and other accompaniments. In the weeks leading up to the event I had to figure out how to have enough time to put the tray without losing any of the freshness of the ingredients. I tried putting everything in wax paper but that looked awful, then had to think about crackers and/or bread and keeping that from going stale. Below is what I ended up with. Everything held up perfectly and the presentation was enjoyed by all!