While the holiday "open house" invitation is always welcome, one easy way to give your event a little structure and novelty is to center it on pairings. Wine with cheese, beer with cheese - these are old favorites. But there are other hookups to savor. Combining sake with cheese is a bold icebreaker, and chocolate with beer is another. The novel combinations are fun conversation starters, and provide a clear focus for your entertaining. And other than buying and arranging the ingredients, you don't have to do much. Cooking? You are off the hook. Not that cooking is a bad thing, but not having to do it can simplify arrangements at a time when arrangements most need simplifying.
Sake & cheese
This duo may seem counterintuitive. Sake in this country is mostly thought of as something that is served warm with sushi. But high-quality sake (it rhymes with "okay," not "hockey") is closer to white wine and is served chilled. Heating sake was originally a way of compensating for poor sakes made during rice shortages caused by World War II. No, a glass of serious sake can be as complex as a wine.
At a session at the recent Wisconsin Original Cheese Festival, Barrie Lynn ("The Cheese Impresario") walked a group of sake newcomers through four cheese/sake pairings. "It's a versatile beverage," says Lynn. Its sugar content is lower than wine, and its alcohol by volume is generally higher, around 17%. There is even sparkling sake.
After swirling the sake in a wine glass and taking in its aroma, taste the cheese slowly, making "a cheese highway" on the tongue. Then sip the sake; the flavors will blossom, with nutty, maple syrupy and smoky spiciness coming to the fore.
With the help of Kay Inoue of the Banzai Beverage Corporation, Lynn came up with four pairings: Seashore Pride sake with raw milk foenegreek Gouda from Holland's Family Farm in Thorp, Wis.; Best in the East sake with Airco cow-sheep-goat blend from Carr Valley; Euphoria sake with aged brick spread from Widmer's Cheese Cellars; and plum nectar sake with Hook's Ten-Year cheddar.
People from Wisconsin generally have pretty sophisticated palates for these sorts of pairings, says Inoue, even if they have no experience with drinking sake. The craft beer tradition here holds us in good stead as experimenters.
Of the four, my favorite pairing was the sweet, almost punchlike plum nectar wine - admittedly the most accessible sake of the day, according to Lynn - with the sharp, not-quite-bitter 10-year cheddar. Lynn also liked the combo of the sweet sake with the almost bitter cheese. Conversely, the sweetness of the Euphoria sake merged with the almost buttery aged brick spread from Widmer's.
While Lynn and Inoue came up with these pairings to bring out specific qualities of the sake and the cheese, after the initial tasting talk-through, they encouraged everyone to try different matchups. The Gouda brought out different qualities in the plum sake, for instance. The fun of the mixing and matching is likely to be the heart of the party.
The sakes mentioned are in stock at Steve's, Riley's, Star and Hy-Vee.
Chocolate & beer
Last January at the Isthmus Beer and Cheese Festival, Madison chocolatier Gail Ambrosius paired her chocolates with brews from Furthermore, of Spring Green. Generally, sweeter, malty beers work well for this. Belgian ales, doppelbocks, porters and stouts are good beers to start with. Depending on how you feel about fruit beers, they can be part of the mix too.
Viking Brewery (of Dallas, Wis.) makes a seasonal stout called Hot Chocolate brewed with cocoa and cayenne pepper. This might go well with a white chocolate; brewer Randy Lee recommends it with vanilla ice cream as a contrast. But it could also bring out the heat in a cinnamon/cayenne truffle.
Wisconsin Belgian Red from New Glarus Brewing is another seasonal to consider paired with caramels or espresso-flavored chocolates, or with a chocolate cake or tart.
And if you tend to like hoppy rather than malty beers, India pale ales are not out of the question either, paired with some of the new hot pepper chocolates. Ambrosius' Three Hot Nuts chocolate bar gets its heat from cayenne and chipotle; the nuts are pine nuts, pistachios and pepitas. And it's topped with a chili verde salt. Try it with Kiss the Lips IPA from Lake Louie Brewing.
Wine & cheese
This classic of art openings everywhere is often indifferently thrown together. However, you can create a wine and cheese tasting to be as formal or as freewheeling as you like. Choosing about six wines and seven or eight cheeses and letting guests come up with their favorite combos is a low-stress approach. Vary the kinds of cheeses - soft, hard, mild, bold - and the wines. Keep different cheeses on different plates and try to keep the cheese knives segregated as well.
While the hot Wisconsin cheese of the moment is Upland Cheese's Rush Creek Reserve (recently lauded in The New York Times), you may not score any before the holidays, unless the holiday in question is Martin Luther King Day. Fromagination is currently taking reservations for the soft, raw milk, washed-rind cheese for mid-January, or wheels of it may be in stock from time to time at Whole Foods Market.
Part of Rush Creek's popularity is that there is nothing else quite like it on the market. But if you're looking for an approximation, try a triple creme, like the mild, buttery, almost lemony Cremeux de Bourgogne from France, or Mt. Tam from California's Cowgirl Creamery, paired with a sparkling wine. Or for slightly more assertive flavors, look to Moses Sleeper from Vermont's Jasper Hill or Red Hawk from Cowgirl Creamery paired with a pinot noir. Your cheese seller will have recommendations for wines to choose; Fromagination even lists appropriate matches right on the cheese tag.
Beer & cheese
In Wisconsin, this is a fairly foolproof proposition, not only because beer and cheese is so much a part of the culture, but because there are so many great local beers and cheeses to choose from. You could easily put together a Wisconsin-only beer and cheese party, even basing the suggested initial pairings on geographic proximity.
A beer from Pearl Street Brewery in La Crosse could go with a cheese from Westby's Hidden Springs Creamery, for instance; or Hidden Spring's Ocooch Mountain sheep's milk cheese with Pearl Street's DTB Brown Ale. Or take one of Wisconsin's most popular cheeses, Uplands' Pleasant Ridge Reserve, which hails from Dodgeville, and twin it with Lake Louie's Tommy's Porter, of Arena.
You could even limit yourself solely to Green County pairings, between New Glarus Brewing, Minhas Craft Brewery and the cheeses from around Monroe that are too numerous to mention.
Generally, cheeses with sharper flavors go with maltier beers, while more delicate, younger or softer cheeses go with lagers or wheat beers. Blue cheeses are a good choice for hoppier beers.
But as with wines, have seven or eight cheeses and five or six beers on hand and let your guests experiment.