Marissa Mullen is an artist, and her medium of choice is cheese. The 27-year-old Brooklyn resident is the founder of That Cheese Plate, a business that Mullen describes as "a centralized hub for cheese-plate inspiration."
Her niche talent for cheese-plate artistry started as a hobby. Back in 2014, Mullen started sharing her creations on her Instagram account. But as of April 2019, cheese is her full-time job.
She's expanded her craft into That Cheese Class, which teaches a cheese plate design method she's coined Cheese By Numbers. "It's essentially paint-by-numbers with cheese," says Mullen. She's demonstrated her technique on the "Today" show and the "Rachael Ray Show," and has teamed up with Random House on a forthcoming book, "That Cheese Plate Will Change Your Life," which is set for release in 2020.
As we approach the holiday season, subbing out labor-intensive appetizers for a DIY cheese board can save you time, money, and help you avoid dirty dishes, Mullen says. As an added bonus, she says, "cheese boards bring people together ... and the best part about cheese plates is that you do not need to be a chef to make one."
Here's how to assemble the perfect cheese plate, which, for the uninitiated, includes more than just cheddar and crackers. And, as a bonus, here are two great recipes: one for a great cheese plate that costs less than $3 per person and takes less than 30 minutes to put together, and another for an on-the-go cheese plate to make your hectic holiday travel a little more palatable.
Mullen suggests starting to structure your party plate using this simple formula: cheese, meat, produce, something crunchy, dips, and a garnish.
If there's one item you spend more on, it should definitely be the cheese, she says: "You can definitely taste the difference when you buy a really cheap cheese from a grocery store versus a really nice cheese from a cheese shop."
If you choose to splurge on cheese, you can still keep costs low. Start by telling the worker at your deli counter, "'This is my budget.' They can cut pieces of cheese a little smaller to make them cheaper, and you can definitely find a lot of cheeses that are less than $8 a block," she says.
If you're serving eight to 10 people, Mullen suggests going with three different cheeses: a hard cheese with robust flavors like a Gruyere or Gouda, a soft cheese like a crowd-pleasing Camembert or Brie, and a stinky option like blue cheese. If stinky cheese intimidates you, ask for advice. "Tell them, 'I want to put this on my cheese plate to add some color and nice pungent aromas. What's an accessible blue cheese?' for example." she says.
At national grocers like Whole Foods, cheeses like Gruyere and Brie cost around $7 for a half a pound. Camembert cheese cost around $10 for a similar size portion. Cheddar cheese tends to be less expensive at around $5 for a half a pound.
Next is your charcuterie, or prepared meats. Look for a prepackaged meat like a Genoa salami, which should cost around $6 for eight servings.
When you pick your meat and cheese pairings, you either want to match flavors like a pecorino cheese with prosciutto, or pair complete opposite flavors, like a Brie cheese with fig jam, Mullen suggests.
When picking the crunchy element and the produce for your cheese plate, you can get creative while still saving money. Dried fruits and spiced nuts will cost more upfront, but you'll be able to stretch your supply over multiple cheese plates, since you'll only use a portion of your purchase. Plus, nuts and dried fruits have a long shelf life, Mullen says.
"For garnishes, I like to use herbs because they add that pop of green color, they smell great, and it just ties in the whole picture you're painting," she says. Mullen suggests buying a poultry herb mix, which costs around $1 and consists of the "garnish trifecta": sage, rosemary, and thyme.
If you're vegan, vegetarian, or have an allergy to nuts, you have plenty of alternatives. There are cashew-based cheese spreads and fig logs that resemble salami. You can substitute nuts for seeds like pepitas, or use pomegranate seeds for that crunch, she says.
"When you see a cheese plate, it evokes a feeling of excitement ... There's an aesthetic element and it's customizable. No one is telling you what to pair. It's a conversation starter," says Mullen.
And it's worth the money: "If you bring over a $40 bottle of wine, that's a really thoughtful gesture, but a lot of people might not realize that bottle is $40. But, with a cheese plate, since it's so visual, you get this reaction of excitement. It kind of fulfills you in that way and you think, 'This was worth the money because I just bought this plate of joy to a party," she says.
You can follower Mullen's method, or you can also get creative, she says. "With my cheese plates, I'm not trying to steer people in any direction. There are rules to pair because it works better on your palate or taste buds, but I believe everyone is different and everyone has a different opinion and experience that shapes their likes and dislikes."
Creating an aesthetically pleasing plate is about more than just cheese, Mullen says. "It's the art of cheese. It's discovering how you can arrange these items on a plate to make it stand out to make that first impression at a party."