Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Bubbling Over with Holiday Cheer

You say "Champagne" but you might be buying "Sparkling Wine." So, what's the difference? Chef Erin gives a quick overview of sparkling wine, how to open and serve it, and a recipe for a champagne cocktail.

You've heard the old saying, "location, location, location" when it comes to real estate or business matters but how about wine? Well, it's the same for a number of wines including champagne. The French state that you can't call your sparkling wine champagne unless it comes from the champagne region of France. Although we use the term interchangeably, true champagne must come from the Champagne region of France. Other countries produce champagne-style wines but in deference to France call them by different names: Spain makes Cava, Italy makes Spumante or Prosecco, Germany has Sekt and America makes sparkling wine/but I've also seen some labels that call themselves "California champagne."

The cheaper the champagne the larger the bubbles. There are a number of different methods to get the bubbles into sparking wine. With cheaper sparklers, carbonation is shot into the bottle with a pump. Quality sparking wines are made in the traditional French method called méthode champenoise or méthode traditionelle-- a time-consuming process that allows the bubbles to form through natural fermentation.

Like any other wine, champagne varies in body from light to full. It also varies in sweetness from dry to sweet. The driest champagnes are called extra brut, followed by brut, extra dry, sec, demi-sec and doux. Each of these terms refers to the residual sugar in the wine. Extra Brut wines have 0 to 0.6% sugar while a Doux style will have more than 5% sugar. Everything else falls in between.

Champagne should be served chilled between 40 and 50 degrees F. Cold subdues the flavors in the wine so cheap sparklers should be quite chilled while better vintages can be served at 50 degrees F. A good champagne should be refrigerated for about 2 hours prior to serving. That should ensure just the right temperature.

Although it's fun to "pop" a bottle of champagne the proper method of opening sparkling wine is to twist the bottle gently to release the cork. There is a demonstration in the video.

To open a bottle of sparkling wine:

  • Pull the zipper (the serrated foil around the neck of the bottle) and remove the foil.
  • Twist the tab and remove the metal cage from the cork.
  • Hold the cork and twist the bottle (not vice versa). You'll hear a quiet hissing sound as the cork release. Frenchman say that opening a bottle of champagne should sound like the contented sigh of a woman. Those Frenchman...gotta love 'em.
  • To pour, hold the bottom of the bottle. Your thumb should rest in the punt (the dent in the bottom of the bottle.
  • Pour each glass half way full. Once the bubbles have settled, fill the glass the rest of the way.
  • Using flutes (tall, slender wine glasses) keeps the bubbles from dissipating too quickly. Old-fashioned wide-mouthed champagne glasses let the bubbles get away twice as fast.
  • Be sure that your glasses are free from dust and soap scum. Both destroy the bubbles in the wine.
  • You might want to invest in a metal champagne stopper. It will keep the bubbles in place for another day.

Some notes serving:
I can't always afford an expensive sparkling wine, so I like to make a Traditional Champagne Cocktail.

All you need is a bottle of sparkling wine (I usually use brut or extra dry, myself), a few sugar cubes and a bottle of Angostura Bitters. Drop a sugar cube into a champagne flute, add two dashes of bitters and top with sparkling wine. Delicious!

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Holiday Appetizer: Crab Stuffed Shrimp

It's a festive time of year, so here's an elegant dish for your next party. If you decide to offer them as part of a buffet or at a cocktail party, you can serve the sauce in a small bowl on the side so guest can serve themselves.

Crab Stuffed Shrimp with Sherry Cream Sauce
Serves 8 as an appetizer, 4 as an entree

2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 tablespoons finely minced onions
2 tablespoons finely minced celery
1/4 cup finely minced red bell peppers
1/2 teaspoon granulated garlic
1 teaspoon Old Bay Seasoning
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
freshly ground black pepper to taste
1 pound lump crab, picked over for shells, etc.
1 egg
2 teaspoons arrowroot powder or cornstarch
2 tablespoons mayonnaise
24 large or jumbo shrimp, peeled except for the tails and butterflied
Sherry Cream Sauce, recipe below
thinly sliced green onions, optional

Preheat oven to 375F degrees.  Spray a baking sheet with canola oil spray.

Melt butter in a medium skillet over medium heat.  Add onions, celery, bell peppers, garlic powder, Old Bay Seasoning, salt and black pepper.  Sweat until onions become translucent, about 5 minutes.  Add crab meat and stir gently to combine.

Whisk egg in a large bowl.  Stir in crab mixture, arrowroot and mayonnaise.

Shape mixture into 20 balls - using about 1 to 2 tablespoons for each ball. (A small 1"-wide ice cream scooper/or cookie dish-out works well for this.) Press one ball into each shrimp (as pictured above) and arrange on the prepared baking sheet. Bake until shrimp is pink and stuffing is slightly browned, about 10 minutes.

Drizzle with Sherry Cream Sauce and sprinkle with sliced green onions, if desired.  Serve immediately.

Sherry Cream Sauce
Makes approximately 3/4 cup

1 tablespoon minced shallots
1/2 cup dry sherry
1 cup heavy cream
salt to taste

Place minced shallots and dry sherry in a small sauce pan over high heat.  Simmer until sherry is almost completely gone.  Add heavy cream and reduce heat to medium.  Simmer until the cream thickens and reduces by about 1/3.  Be careful not to let it boil over.  Add salt to taste and serve over Crab Stuffed Shrimp.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Homemade Holiday Gift: Jam Filled Spitzbuben Cookies

I've been teaching a German Cookie and Sweets class at PCC this month.  Although there are many wonderful cookie recipes, the Spitzbuben, a jam filled sandwich cookie has been the hands-down favorite. They originated in Switzerland and migrated north to Germany. I thought I'd share the recipe here with you too.

Makes about 30 cookies
Prep time: 60 minutes including chill time
Baking time: 10 to 12 minutes

1½ cups unsalted butter, softened (3 sticks)
1 cup sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract (I like a Nielsen Massey Vanilla)
1 egg
3½ cups flour, plus more for dusting
½ teaspoon kosher salt
Powdered sugar for dusting
¾ cup raspberry jam

Preheat oven to 325º F.

Beat butter and sugar with a hand mixer until fluffy. Add vanilla and egg and beat. Mix in flour and salt.

Transfer dough to a floured surface and form it into a disk. Use a rolling pin to roll the dough out to 1/4 inch thick. Using a 2-inch fluted round cookie cutter, cut out cookies and transfer to parchment paper-lined baking sheets, spaced 2 inches apart. Chill for 30 minutes.

Using a 1¼ -inch plain round cookie cutter, cut out the centers of half the cookies; discard the centers.

Bake cookies until lightly browned, 10 to 12 minutes. Cool.

Dust cookie rings with powdered sugar. Place 1 teaspoon of jam in the center of each whole cookie. Spread the jam to within ⅛ inch of the edge. Top each with a cookie ring.

Homemade Holiday Gift: Chocolate Dipped Caramels with Sea Salt

Looking for a great homemade holiday gift? These dark chocolate covered caramels are divine! The sea salt is key. It adds a whole new dimension of flavor and texture. Enjoy!

Chocolate Dipped Caramels with Sea Salt
Makes approximately 150 pieces

4 cups sugar
1 1/3 cup light corn syrup
1 cup water
1 quart whipping cream
1 cup unsalted butter, room temperature,
   cut into pieces
1 teaspoon grey sea salt, plus extra
1 pound tempered bittersweet chocolate or
   dark chocolate candy melts

Line a 9x13-inch baking pan with aluminum foil. Smooth out wrinkles and generously butter bottom and sides.

In deep, heavy-bottomed 8-quart pot, combine sugar, corn syrup and water. (Be sure to choose a very deep pot so the sugar mixture doesn’t boil over.) Bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Swirl the pot once or twice to combine ingredients, but do not stir. Boil until mixture turns a medium amber color. Be sure to watch the boiling sugar closely because the color can deepen quickly.

As the caramel continues to boil, it will turn a very dark mahogany brown, the bubbles will turn tan in color. This is your cue to remove it from the heat and add the cream, butter and 1 teaspoon of salt. The mixture will bubble up; just let it sit a moment to subside. Place back over medium-high to high heat and swirl pot around a few times to combine ingredients. Clip on a candy thermometer and boil until mixture reaches 250 degrees, swirling mixture several times during boiling to make sure the temperature is consistent throughout. Immediately pour mixture into prepared pan but do not scrape the bottom of pot.

Allow to sit overnight or until firm enough to cut. Cut into squares (1/2” each).

Melt chocolate in a double boiler over lightly steaming water. Remember, chocolate doesn’t need a lot of heat to melt, if you over heat it, it will seize up and be unusable.

When the chocolate is completely melted and smooth, skewer a caramel with a bamboo skewer or candy making fork and dip it in the chocolate. Remove the caramel from the chocolate and allow the excess chocolate to drip away – it makes for a neater finished candy vs. a pool of chocolate around each caramel. I even gently tap the skewer on the side of the pan to get the last few drops off.

Using another skewer, coax the chocolate dipped caramel onto a sheet of wax paper. Use the tip of the skewer to swirl the chocolate slightly to cover up the puncture mark. Sprinkle with a few grains of sea salt and allow the chocolate to set. Once the chocolate has set, place each one in a paper candy cup.

Note: Caramel recipe adapted from Fleur de Sel Caramels, "Unforgettable Desserts: More than 140 Memorable Dessert Recipes for All Year Round" by Dede Wilson

Monday, December 2, 2013

An Old Fashioned Christmas!

I was meeting my friend, Cathy, for a drink at Duo's a couple weeks ago. She was running a little late so I was perusing the cocktail list. I read the description of their Old Fashioned which included orange bitters. I recently purchased some for a rum drink, so that caught my eye in the description.

I have to tell you that I am not, generally, a bourbon drinker. When I read descriptions of whiskey drinks, I often think that they sound good, but am never really thrilled if I order one. But on impulse, I decided to order an Old Fashioned and I loved it! I liked it so much I was craving one while we decorated our Christmas tree.

I'd been making candied orange peel for my German Christmas Cookie Class at PCC so I had some orange simple syrup by default.  Since I'd thought the orange bitters were delightful, I thought adding orange simple syrup would be great too. It was! So, without further adieu, here's my recipe for an Orange Infused Old Fashioned. Ho, ho, hope you like it.

Orange Infused Old Fashioned
Makes 1 cocktail

2 teaspoons orange simple syrup (recipe below)
2 dashes Orange bitters
2 dashes Angostura bitters
1 orange slice
crushed ice
2 ounces bourbon
1 good quality jarred cherry (I use Bada Bing Cherries by Tillen Farms)

Add orange simple syrup, orange bitters, Angostura Bitters and the orange slice to a Old Fashioned/rocks glass. Muddle the orange to release the juice and orange oil.

Fill the glass with crushed ice. Pour bourbon over the ice and stir to combine. 

Garnish with a cherry. Guaranteed to make the holidays merrier!

Orange Simple Syrup
Makes 1 cups2 navel or seville oranges
1 cups water
1 cups sugar

Wash the oranges to remove any waxy residue and pesticides. Use a vegetable peeler to remove the peel of the oranges in strips. Try to remove only the orange peel. The white pith beneath is really bitter and will impact the flavor of your syrup. Set aside.

In the meantime, combine the sugar and water in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat. Stir occasionally until sugar dissolves.

Add the peel to the saucepan. Reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer for 30-40 minutes, until the syrup has thickened slightly.

Remove the orange peels, cool syrup to room temperature, and enjoy.

You can store the syrup in a covered bottle or jar in the refrigerator for up to two months.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Fun Food for Your Holiday Party: Mashed Potato Martini Bar

The holidays are usually a mix of family and friends. If you find yourself needing a crowd-pleasing party food, I've got just the ticket. A Mashed Potato "Martini" Bar! (Don't worry, I am not referring to potato vodka. This idea is kid-friendly.) I am talking about build-it-yourself party food.

Mashed Potato Martini Bars are a fun and festive plus, they're an inexpensive option but one you can make look elegant. And everybody loves mashed potatoes!

So what is a Mashed Potato Martini Bar? It's mashed potatoes served in martini glasses with a salad-bar-style collection of toppings. The combinations are only limited to you and your guests' imaginations.

Here's what you need:

Martini Glasses - make it fun and festive. It's not just a mashed potato bar, it's a mashed potato martini bar. If you don't own a set, pick up some mismatched ones at a thrift store.

Mashed Potatoes - your favorite recipe. You'll need about 1/2 to 1 cup per person, depending on what else you are serving. You can keep the potatoes warm in a chafing dish or slow cooker.

Now you just need to put out a bunch of your favorite potato toppings. Here are a few suggestions to get you started.

  • Freshly Grated Cheeses (Cheddar, Pepper Jack, Parmesan - Whatever You Like)
  • Sour Cream or Your Favorite Potato Chip Dip
  • Cottage Cheese
  • Whipped Butter or Flavored-Butter
  • Minced Chives or Green Onions
  • Pesto Sauce
  • Gravy
  • Cheese Sauce
  • Cloves of Roasted Garlic
  • Chili
  • Beef Stew
  • Caviar
  • Diced Roasted Chicken or Turkey
  • Minced Ham
  • Crumbled Bacon
  • Garlicky Sautéed Shrimp
  • Corned Beef Hash
  • Sun-Dried Tomatoes
  • Sour Kraut
  • Sliced Kielbasa or Polish Sausage
  • Steamed Broccoli
  • Roasted Red Pepper Strips
  • Sautéed Mushrooms
  • Caramelized Onions or Shallots
  • French Fried Onions 

Topping ideas are limitless. Try to offer at least 5 or 6 different choices so you're guest can get creative. I've seen people top their mashed potatoes with cheese, and that's it -- and others go through like it's a sundae bar, putting everything on it.

When your guests arrive, give them a brief overview of how to make their mashtini or better yet, be the first to go through the line. It'll show your guests what to do, plus nobody likes to be the first to do something at a party.

Plan for people to have seconds. You may even want to enforce a two martini maximum!

Happy Holidays!