Thanksgiving is behind us, but plenty of entertaining challenges still lie ahead as the winter holidays approach. Fortunately, there's a sophisticated, classic party pleaser you can count on that looks great and requires almost no preparation: the cheese plate.

Having spent two years behind the cheese counter at the Alexandria Sutton Place Gourmet (now Balducci's), I know that putting together a cheese platter can be an intimidating

prospect for many. But there is no reason to fear: When it comes to cheese, a little bit of exploration goes a long way, and local gourmet grocery stores carry a number of can't-miss options.

These selections of both European classics and up-and-coming American cheeses present a full range of flavors, with none so strong or sharp that they are an entertaining risk. Don't believe me? Ask the friendly faces behind the counter -- in most cases they will be more than happy to give you a taste.

Some notes on preparing a cheese plate: Most varieties are best at room temperature. The time needed to achieve this varies, but for most cheeses about an hour should do. It's also a good idea to serve no more than three or four kinds at a single gathering; any more and you risk confusing your guest's palate (mix and match at will from the options below; they all go well together). And while we have suggested food and drink to complement your selections, it's worth noting that these wonderful cheeses are exceptional on their own as well.

Justin Rude