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Throw a holiday party with extra cheese, please!

Instead of going all-out with a sit-down dinner or formal cocktail party, try focusing on one type of food. Real Simple's Elizabeth Mayhew has tips.
/ Source: TODAY

You don't need to be an entertaining pro or a professional chef to host a memorable holiday party.  A cheese party is an easy, sophisticated way to entertain over the holidays. Assembling a memorable spread takes just one trip to the store and an hour to set it up, start to finish. Elizabeth Mayhew of Real Simple magazine gives tips on how to get a little cheesy at your next holiday party.

Invitation
People's first impressions begin with the invitation — have fun with it, and play off your theme.  Real Simple created a "say cheese" invite; you can download the template from our website, print it on a standard card, then grab a hole-punch and have fun.

The cheese
The well-rounded cheese plate should have at least one cheese from each of four categories:

AgedGoat Gouda, Comte, Aged CheddarSoftConstant Bliss, Camembert, Brillat-SavarinFirmManchego, Mimolette, Parmigiano-ReggianoBlueStilton, Valdeon, Gorgonzola Dolce

  • Buy more hard cheeses than soft ones — they have a longer refrigerator life, so you can keep leftovers for days.
  • Remove the cheese from the refrigerator about an hour before serving. Arrange them on cutting boards, platters or plates — make use of whatever you have in the kitchen. Offer a selection of breads, including baguette, crackers and breadsticks in a variety of shapes and sizes.
  • Arrange the cheeses on cutting boards, saucers, platters or plates (soft cheese can go on anything, but hard ones work best on a sturdy surface).
  • If you want to serve a pungent, stinky cheese, place it on a separate plate so it doesn't overpower more delicate ones.
  • Serve at least one familiar cheese; four or five choices are enough.
  • Label each cheese so guests know what they're tasting.
  • Place the cheese platters and the other nibbles on several different tables to avoid gridlock.
  • Set out a separate knife with each cheese. Soft cheeses spread well with a butter knife, firm ones cut best with a paring knife and aged ones require a cheese plane (slicer).

Modern Cheese Balls
Serves 12 to 16

This delicious goat cheese appetizer is simple to prepare but looks and tastes very fancy. It takes about 40 minutes start to finish. 

2 (11-ounce) logs of goat cheese1/4 cup wasabi-coated green peas1/4 cup granola1/4 cup gingersnaps (about 5 cookies)1/4 cup finely grated Parmesan1/2 teaspoon whole fennel seeds

Working with about 1 rounded tablespoon at a time, roll goat cheese into balls. Grind each of the coating ingredients in a mini Cuisinart, one at a time. Roll each goat cheese ball in one of the coatings (it's best to roll the balls in the coatings about an hour before your guests arrive.) Serve on platter.

TIP: To save yourself time, try rolling the goat cheese into balls the day before and refrigerating them for up to 24 hours.

Beverages
Another way to cut down on stress — don't feel that you have to offer a full bar. Stick with wine and offer sparkling water.

Cheese-friendly varietals have either a lively acidity or strong tannins. Try Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon, and an inexpensive alternative to champagne, such as cava.

When buying wine, estimate one bottle for every two guests, and throw in an extra bottle or two, just in case. 

Setting up
Set up the buffet table the night before, to cut down on prep time the day of the party. If you're someone who registered for the 5-piece place setting when you got married, this is the perfect time to use your butter plates. But don't be scared to set out a mishmash of dishes, alternating the styles as you stack them. If you don't have enough pieces, borrow from friends or call a party-rental company. It costs about $1.50 per person for a standard dessert plate, fork and champagne flute. The best part about this is you don't have to worry about the cleanup. 

Instead of spending time on an elaborate flower arrangement, make it simple but sophisticated by putting a few magnolia leaves or branches of berries in a glass vase.  Because they won't wilt like flowers, you can arrange these in advance.

Storing the leftover cheese
After the party, store soft cheeses in resealable containers, blue cheeses in plastic wrap and firm and aged cheeses first in wax or parchment paper, then in plastic wrap.  (Before the party, refrigerate the cheeses in their original packaging.)