A few of my favorite holiday things

The first glimmers of the holiday season are here. So let the festivities and planning begin. I love the thought of twinkly lights, celebrations and time with family and friends. However, this abundantly splendid season can sometimes leave me with little time to cook.

So, a few years ago, when my holiday calendar was over flowing, I had an epiphany. What if I had a cheese and charcuterie night instead of the traditional meal I had planned?

I could make it ahead and it would still feel like a celebration. After all, who hasn't dreamed of having a reason to serve cheese for dinner?

Thus, with visions of brie and berries dancing in my head, I assembled a large board with all of my family's favorites. I decided to serve it with sliced baguettes. The cheese board was a glorious hit. It was wonderful to be able to come home, take off my coat, turn on some good music and magically pull dinner out of the refrigerator.

Cheese boards are also great for welcoming guests at Thanksgiving or as a party starter with wine and cocktails. So here are a few of my favorite things and best tips for assembling a gorgeous holiday cheese board.

First, start with a large wooden cutting board or tray. Then begin with the cheeses so they anchor the board design. I generally have three to five different cheeses depending on the number of people I am serving. Some of my best-loved picks are a good Brie, St. Andre a French triple cream cheese, Sartori Bella Vitano flavored cheeses, a sharp cheddar and a Maytag blue cheese. I like to make it easy for everyone, so I pre-slice my hard cheeses and cut the top rind off of the top of my soft cheeses. Another festive addition is a Boursin cheese ball.

Second, I add two to three charcuteries like salami, sopressata, prosciutto or Jamón Ibérico in groups. I like to cut longer slices of prosciutto in half and roll them.

Finally, add the accompaniments. I like berries, dried apricots, pears and jam, as they add a lightness which pairs well with the cheese. One of my favorite jams is Divina orange fig spread. Other special additions include candied oranges which you can find at Trader Joe's and sugared cranberries. Fill open spots on the board with fresh herbs like, sage, rosemary, thyme and mint.

- Amy McCauley of Hinsdale

is the paper's food columnist.

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