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Five ways to enhance entertaining with a California cheese course

Whether it's preparing for a holiday gathering, watching the big game or planning a dinner party with friends and family, it can be difficult to decide what food to serve. A cheese course is a simple, elegant solution that also saves much-needed kitchen prep time.

The California Milk Advisory Board (CMAB) is offering party hosts, families, and cheese lovers alike an introductory lesson on putting together a first-class cheese course.

Variety matters. California has more than 50 cow's milk cheesemakers making more than 250 different varieties and styles of cheese, so it's easy to make your course innovative. There are five different categories to keep in mind when selecting cheeses to serve; Fresh, Soft, Semi-Hard, Hard/Aged, and Flavored. A traditional cheese course should always contain a bloomy rind soft-ripened cheese like a Brie or Camembert. Add a soft or washed rind cheese, such as Crescenza or Teleme (a California original) for a cheese your guests may not have tried. A semi-firm hard cheese is a great addition because you can include favorites such as Gouda or St. George. Very hard aged cheeses like a Dry Jack (another Golden State creation) compliment the other softer cheeses and provide intense flavor. And of course, finish it off with a strong, flavorful cheese, such as Blue or Schloss.

Less is more. Only feature three to five different types of cheeses so guest can savor rather than be overwhelmed by the flavors you've chosen. The beauty of a cheese course is that you only need to provide about 1 ounce of cheese per person if you are enjoying before or after a meal. If your cheese course is the main attraction, 3 ounces for each guest will do the trick.

Avoid the cold shoulder. In order to bring out the full flavor, cheeses should not be served cold. It typically takes an hour or two at room temperature for a large piece to fully develop. However, do not slice cheese until you are ready because you may risk drying the cheese out, and take special care with fresh cheeses, which need to be treated like fresh milk.

Make it a party. Everyone knows cheese pairs well with wine, but did you know cheese also pairs perfectly with beer? Whether your group likes chardonnay, pinot noir or cabernet, or ales, wheat beers, pilsners and porters, you don't need to worry about complimenting your cheese course. Download the free Pair Savvy smartphone application for an easy guide to pairing Real California Cheeses with wine, beer and even chocolates.

Enhance with company. Cheese loves the spotlight but a simple co-star can really enhance a course. If your cheese course is kicking off the party, plan on a savory accompaniment like fresh Mozzarella with roasted tomatoes to fuel the fun and conversation. Cured meats like salami or prosciutto, olives, dried fruit, marinated or grilled peppers, tomatoes and mushrooms can also really brighten the flavors of selected cheeses. If your cheese course is ending on a sweet note, a California White Cheddar with apple and walnut conserve is sure to hit the spot. You can also try honey, jellies and jams, slices of fruit and berries, or candied nuts. For these Real California Cheese recipes and more, check out RealCaliforniaMilk.com.

With the CMAB's simple tips, you are ready to impress family and friends with tasty flavors and pairings for any occasion. Just look for the Real California Cheese seal to guarantee you're getting products made with 100 percent California milk.

California White Cheddar with apple and walnut conserve

2/3 cup diced red apple (1 medium apple)
2/3 cup diced green apple (1 medium apple)
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/3 cup golden raisins
1/4 cup chopped walnuts, plus 4 walnut halves
2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
8 slices rectangular slices sharp Real California White Cheddar, about 2 1/2 (about 1/2 ounce per slice)

In a small saucepan combine all ingredients except the cheese. Cook over medium-low heat for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. Remove from heat and let cool. For each serving, plate cheese. Top with 1/4 of the conserve mixture. Partially overlap with another slice of cheese. Garnish with walnut halves.