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Thursday, Dec. 29, 2011 08:41 pm

All about bubbly

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“Remember gentlemen, it’s not just France we are fighting for, it’s Champagne!” – Winston S. Churchill

Most New Year’s celebrations seem a bit awkward to me. The silly hats, noisemakers and excessive drinking just feel wrong, somehow. We had a party at my house every year when I was growing up. There was little alcohol but lots of food, always including my mom’s deviled hot dogs and Swedish meatballs. Everyone was boisterous and jolly, first watching the ball drop in Times Square on television, then counting down the minutes until it was midnight here, kissing and tooting horns. All I ever wanted to do – after I’d had my fill of deviled dogs and meatballs – was to creep off to my bedroom by myself, reflect about events of the past year, and think about what the next year would be like.

When my husband and I were college students and in the early years of our marriage, I had a picture in my head of a perfect New Year’s. We’d be alone in an isolated rustic cabin, with snow blanketing the ground and a beautiful starlit sky. There’d be a huge fireplace with crackling logs. We’d lie on a thick fluffy rug in front of the fire, plan for our future, and then . . . well, you get the idea. Unfortunately, that one remained a vision; we never found that cabin in the woods.

Since we’ve moved into our old farmhouse, some of our best New Years have centered on a huge bonfire. During the week between Christmas and New Year, we heap boxes, wrapping paper, fallen branches and sometimes even broken furniture into a huge pile that towers over our heads. At midnight we light the fire, warm ourselves by the blaze, and talk until the fire has burnt down to embers.

The one constant in almost all New Year’s scenarios is Champagne. Well, not necessarily “Champagne.” Strictly speaking, Champagne only comes from the Champagne region in northern France; the rest is sparkling wine. Legend has it that Champagne was discovered by Dom Pérignon, a blind monk who was cellar master in his monastery for 47 years until he died in 1715. “I’m drinking stars,” he’s reputed to have said. Modern wine historians, however, credit Dom Pérignon not with creating the bubbles but with finding a way to keep them in the bottle: the Champagne cork, which keeps the precious and pressurized contents from exploding.

Champagne from one of the top French producers is awesome: toasty, yeasty and elegant. It’s also expensive, something I rarely experience. Fortunately, there are lots of excellent sparkling wines from around the world that are delicious and much more affordable. Of course, there are the really cheap sparklers. The difference is in how they’re made. Making good sparkling wine is a tedious and difficult process – easily the most complex and time-consuming in all winemaking. It involves rotating the bottles, secondary fermentation, and dégorgement – a process in which the neck of the bottle, which has been stored upside down, accruing sediment in the neck, is dipped in a frozen brine to create an icy plug of sediment that’s allowed to pop free of the bottle, after which the bottle is quickly recorked. These sparklers are labeled “méthode champenoise,” “fermented in the bottle,” or “traditional method.” There are reasonably decent bottles for between $10 and $20 – but from there the prices go up into the stratosphere. Many very good sparklers are made in the United States, some with prices to match their quality, but others are much more affordable. Many of the big French producers have also established wineries here, mostly in California. There’s even an excellent sparkling wine producer in New Mexico, Gruet. Many Spanish sparklers are delicious, as are Italian proseccos.

Those cheap sparklers – some almost as cheap as soda – are made through the Charmat bulk process and are so labeled. Fermentation is carried out in a series of tanks. Some aren’t bad for mixing, but, drunk by themselves, they’re thin and either sour or overly sweet and much more likely to give you a nasty headache the next day than those that are made traditionally.

Another important component of drinking sparkling wine is the glass. I’m not sure how the idea of saucer-shaped glasses got started. They look cool in old movies, but no true wine lover would be caught dead drinking sparkling wine in anything but a narrow flute or a tulip-shaped glass. The narrow glasses keep the bubbles in (to which end the winemaker has expended much effort), unlike those wide glasses, which let the bubbles escape.

However you like to celebrate the New Year, have a wonderful time, and stay safe.

Contact Julianne Glatz at realcuisine.jg@gmail.com.


Gougres
Burgundian cheese puffs

These cheese puffs hail from France’s Burgundy region. They’re a traditional accompaniment to red wine, but make an outstanding pairing with Champagne.

  • tsp. kosher or sea salt
  • 1 clove garlic
  • 4 T. plus 1 tsp. chilled unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
  • 1 c. water
  • pinch of freshly grated nutmeg
  • tsp. ground white pepper
  • 1 c. minus 1 T. unbleached all-purpose flour
  • 4 large eggs
  • 1 c. freshly grated natural Gruyre cheese (NOT processed)

Preheat the oven to 425.

Mash the garlic clove with the salt to a paste. In a heavy medium saucepan, sauté the garlic in the teaspoon of butter over moderately low heat until soft but not browned.  Add the water, pepper, nutmeg and the rest of the butter and turn the heat up to high. Have the flour ready. Stir the mixture constantly with a large wooden spoon. As soon as the mixture comes to a boil, remove the pan from the heat and dump in the flour all at once. Beat vigorously. The mixture will form a smooth dough.

Return the pan to the heat for a minute or so, beating constantly. The dough will cook over the heat and pull away cleanly from the sides of the pan. Remove the pan from the heat. Quickly transfer the mixture to an electric mixer or continue to beat by hand. Add the eggs one at a time, continuing to beat until the eggs are thoroughly incorporated and the dough is shiny and smooth. Beat in c. of the cheese.

Use either a pastry bag fitted with a half-inch plain tip, a small ice cream type scoop or two spoons to put small mounds of dough (about a tablespoon each) onto ungreased baking sheets. Sprinkle the tops with the remaining grated cheese. Bake until the puffs are an even golden brown, about 20 to 25 minutes. Serve warm, straight from the oven. Makes about 40 puffs.


Chocolate truffles

Champagne pairs deliciously with sweets, especially chocolate.

  • 12 oz. good quality bittersweet or semisweet chocolate
  • 1 c. unsalted butter
  • 9 large egg yolks
  • 6 T. superfine sugar (sometimes called bar sugar) or baker’s sugar
  • 3 T. liqueur, such as Frangelico, Amaretto, dark rum, brandy, etc.

Heat the butter, chocolate and sugar over very low heat in a heavy saucepan until melted and combined. Stir in the egg yolks one by one, whisking vigorously. Add the liqueur and continue to stir for about 5 minutes or until the egg yolks have cooked and the mixture is thickened. Place the pan in a cold water bath to cool rapidly to room temperature, then put in a shallow pan and freeze for about an hour, or until firm. Sift cocoa powder onto a tray or plate. Form the truffle mixture into one-inch balls and roll in the cocoa powder. They should not be smooth – an irregular surface is what makes them look like the truffle fungi after which they are named.

Makes about 4 dozen.

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