For the unimaginative among us, snacking on cheese and crackers harkens back to Oscar Mayer’s childhood, when puny sack lunches consisted of a plastic wrap of processed lunch items. But for those among us with vision as well as a penchant for following social media accounts depicting fantastical charcuterie boards overflowing with goodies, it conjures up polished teak slabs crammed with rows of cured meats and cheeses, pickled root vegetables and boneless fruits, spiced jams and sweet jellies, all complemented by mile-long flights of carefully selected wine pairings.
Or maybe that’s just me.
Either way, with holiday gatherings fast approaching, whipping up a quick platter with a few flavorful cheeses, some cured meats, and an assortment of crackers is the perfect way to keep guests munching while the finishing touches are put on the turkey.
However, such an ornate hors d’oeuvre tray should not be relegated to an evening pre-meal show, especially as charcuterie boards are increasingly becoming a worthy centerpiece at weddings, events and holiday gatherings.
That’s the idea behind Boards and Pours, the brainchild of Colleen Wolak and Alexa Carter. During the height of Covid, when socializing was limited to a small quarantined circle of friends gathering for meals, Wolak and Carter saw room to channel their creative energy into food-centric parties, but without the emphasis on traditional meals.
“We want to redesign the way you make charcuts or graze,” Carter said. “Instead of individual servings, we want our food to be laid out beautifully and attractively across the table—one big board of things.”
Board and Pours started out showcasing elaborate versions of charcuterie boards, but quickly moved on to full grazing menus—brunch, seasonal dinner boards, deconstructed Thanksgiving-themed mashed potato boards.
Everything is fair game for a whiteboard-style presentation.
Still, sausage spread staples are what people are most familiar with, and Wolak and Carter teach workshops that instruct novice boarders on how to easily elevate this dish into a holiday theme.
Carter admits it’s easy to walk into any grocery store and get lost in the cheese and meat department, stocking up on extravagant jams and specialty nuts in addition to the staples. Even a few boxes of fantastic-sounding crackers can start to add up.
She recommends picking one or two key items to splurge on—a cheese wheel with a delicious cheese or a nice tangy cream—and then filling out the rest of the board as frugally as possible.
Two easy ways to keep costs under control are to replace crackers with a sliced baguette or to roast the nuts yourself. Mix walnuts or almonds with a little butter and rosemary and put them in the oven for 15 minutes at 350 degrees.
Build from the cheese outwards
Wolak explains that trying to take a charcuterie board to the next level can sometimes feel overwhelming, especially when you’re trying to make a photo-worthy design. She says the best place to start is with the cheese.
“Place the cheese the way you want and then build the board from there,” Wolak said. “Maybe you have a wedge on one side, some cubes on the other and some slices on the other. After that, it’s just layering all the fillers on.”
As for giving each element its due, Carter says the understated effort is often elegant in its own Spartan way.
“Just taking a few pieces of cheese and stuffing them on the board, rind and unsliced, it can be just as amazing as any fancy design,” she said. “That way it takes up space and makes a whole piece of cheese look more expensive.”
Fillers can add color and flavor
“The production lane is your friend and there’s tons of color,” Carter said. “Anytime you can put something fresh on a board, it just elevates it that much more.”
Fresh fruit, such as pears or apples, can be cut in unique ways to fill the space with color, while rainbow carrots, heirloom tomatoes and purple cauliflower add splashes of seasonal color. Carter recommends adding pesto or beet hummus. Homemade or store bought.
“Pesto is so bright green, it looks damn fresh on a board,” Carter said. “It’s just a twist of heart that you might not think of.”
Finishing touches in the form of fresh eucalyptus, sprigs of rosemary or other aromatic herbs can make food visually as well as aromatic. Then try to make the board itself disappear.
“We always mention to people that you have to fill in nooks and crannies at the end—nuts, berries, dried fruit—they’ll make the board look really full,” Wolak said.
Have fun and keep it simple
“The number one thing is not to stress about it,” Volak said. “There’s enough going on during the holidays, it really should be the least of your worries.”
While Instagram may be full of charcuterie boards featuring salami arranged in origami-like flourishes, Wolak says the picture-worthy board isn’t the end goal—it’s about enjoying the food with friends.
“The thing is, no one has ever turned down a meat and cheese platter because it wasn’t pretty enough.”