Cheese and fruit are simple, festive fare for entertaining

This is the time of the year we like to invite friends and relatives to share in our activities, but it also means buying and wrapping gifts, decorating the house, driving the kids to various holiday activities, planning special meals, and the list continues.

When it comes to entertaining, a buffet cheese-and-fruit party will take some of the work out of the festivities.

Cheese - served with fruits or raw vegetables, crackers, and breads - is a simple, elegant food for the holidays. And the number of cheeses available offers interesting and virtually endless variety.

This is a sure way to please all your guests, whether they prefer gourmet cooking or good plain food.

Experiment before the party by tasting some new cheeses. Depending on the number of guests, offer at least four or five types of cheese that have different colors, shapes, and textures as well as flavors from mild to sharp.

Include a couple of the more familiar favorites, such as Cheddar and Swiss, but also have one or two cheeses that are unfamiliar to your friends, such as a chevre, the cheese made from goat's milk. When serving, cut the cheese into different shapes. Firmer ones can be cut into cubes and served with frilled toothpicks. Cut others into wedges, bars, and round and square slices.

If you have many different kinds to serve, your guests may like small labels so they can try some unfamiliar ones and learn the names. Arrange them in groups from mild to medium to strong, or from soft to hard.

Soft cheeses may include cottage, cream, or ricotta. Brie, Camembert, and Liederkranz are ripened soft varieties, as are the soft, white chevre.

Semihard cheeses include Stilton, Roquefort, and Meunster.

Cheddar, Gruyere, Edam, Gouda, provolone and Emmentaler are some of the hard cheeses.

Among the very hard cheeses are Parmesan, Romano, and sapsago.

Cottage cheese and other soft, unripened cheeses should be served directly from the refrigerator, but other cheeses should be taken out of the cold at least an hour before serving to help bring out the characteristic flavors and textures.

Provide sharp knives and cheese servers for cutting and serving the firmer cheeses and butter knives for soft cheeses.

To a variety of crackers, add thin slices of pumpernickel, rye, walnut, and crusty French or Italian bread. For a large crowd, you may also want to offer some cheese spreads and dips with chips and raw, sliced vegetables such as zucchini, radishes, cucumber, celery, and carrots.

Whole fresh fruits, from apples and pears to grapes and plums, can be arranged in bowls or baskets. Cut melon, orange sections, kiwi slices, and pineapple spears can be attractively arranged on platters or pretty plates. Remember to dip the cut apples and pears in lemon juice to prevent them from darkening.

Here are some cheeses together with a short description and a suggestion of what to serve with each:

Blue cheese has a tangy, piquant flavor, is semisoft, and has a crumbly texture. It goes well with apples or pears.

Camembert's mild-to-tangy flavor and smooth, soft texture is excellent with apples, pears, and tart plums.

Cheddar cheese, with its smooth, firm-to-crumbly texture, can vary from mild to very sharp in flavor. It could be served with melon slices or tart apples.

Edam has a mellow, nutlike flavor, and it is sometimes salty. It has a rather firm, almost rubbery texture, and it goes well with apples or orange sections. Gouda cheese is mellow and nutlike, sometimes with a slightly acid flavor. It often has small holes, and it tastes good with apples or pineapple spears.

Muenster has a mild-to-mellow flavor and a semisoft texture with numerous small holes. It goes nicely with apples or seedless grapes.

Swiss cheese is mild, sweet, and nutlike and has a firm, smooth, elastic body with large holes. It is good served with orange sections or seedless grapes.

This cheese ball can be made quickly in a food processor. Party Cheese Ball 1 small slice of onion 1/4 cup milk 3 ounces blue cheese, cubed 1/2 cup Cheddar cheese 1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce 1 6-ounce package cream cheese, cubed 1 cup pecans 5 sprigs parsley

In food processor or blender, chop onion until fine, then add milk and blue cheese until smooth. Continue blending while adding cheddar cheese cubes through feeder tube. Add Worcestershire sauce and cream cheese and mix until smooth.

Empty contents of bowl onto waxed paper square. Form cheese into a ball and refrigerate.

Process pecans and parsley until finely chopped. Roll cheese ball in pecans and parsley immediately before serving. Serve with crackers. Makes one 3-inch ball.

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