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DRINK | GREAT MARRIAGES

A Sweet Wine's Nutty Sidekick

June 11, 1997|RUSS PARSONS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Granted, it's not the culinary crisis of the year. But for those lucky few who invest $75 and up for a choice bottle of dessert wine, it is a matter of some concern: What desserts go with dessert wine?

The best advice is probably: None.

The problem with pairing sweet wine and sweet food is, well, sweetness. If the dessert is too sweet, it makes the wine taste harsh and discordant. And you wouldn't want that to happen to your $600 bottle of 1967 Chateau d'Yquem, would you?

If you really must serve dessert wine with a dessert, Lindsey Shere, pastry chef at Berkeley landmark Chez Panisse since Day One, has some suggestions.

"The dessert has to be something that is nutty and not very sweet," she says. "Apples sometimes work with dessert wines, if it's the right wine and the right apples. It's hard. Cherries can work. Pears, definitely."

And there's one dessert that almost always works:

"I think blancmange is perfect with sweet wine," Shere says. "It's not very sweet, and the nuttiness is a flavor that echoes a little bit the flavor of a Sauternes. It's a really wonderful combination."

She adds that she thinks blancmange also works really well with hazelnut or walnut instead of the usual almond.

Actually, though, Shere would rather talk about cooking with rather than cooking to dessert wines. Certainly not that expensive treasure you found in your cellar, but things like Sherry and Marsala aren't too dear to cook with.

"There are combinations that are really wonderful," she says. "Things like Sherry with peaches, Sherry-flavored ice cream with nectarines. I really think that those fortified wines are delicious things. Marsala with fruit is delicious, too.

"But dessert wines with desserts? Unless you're absolutely certain you know what you're doing, I wouldn't serve them together," she says. "Those wines are really special, and they deserve to be set off to show their best. Plus, they're really expensive."

BLANCMANGE

This recipe comes from Lindsey Shere's "Chez Panisse Desserts" (Random House, 1985). She notes the importance of having a strong kitchen towel, as well as maybe a strong assistant: "It is very demoralizing to have to start squeezing all over again when the nuts break through a weak towel into all the milk you have laboriously produced. The squeezing can be left to a strong assistant who wants to lend a hand."

1/2 pound unblanched almonds (about 2 cups), plus few bitter almonds if possible

1 cup half and half

1 cup water

1 tablespoon unflavored gelatin

1 1/4 cups plus two tablespoons heavy whipping cream

1/4 cup sugar

Pinch salt

Few drops almond extract, optional

Sweet almond oil or other flavored oil

Toast almonds in single layer on baking sheet at 375 degrees until they smell nutty, about 6 minutes. Grind very fine in blender or food processor and gradually add half and half and 1/2 cup water to make rather thick gruel.

Dampen center of very sturdy kitchen towel with cold water and wring out well. Set strainer over mixing bowl and center wet part of towel in strainer. Pour in about 1 cup almond mixture. Twist towel closed over top and squeeze into bowl as much almond milk as possible. Empty dry almond mixture from towel and discard. Repeat process until all almond gruel has been squeezed dry. You should have about 1 1/8 cups almond milk.

Sprinkle gelatin over remaining 1/2 cup water in small saucepan and let stand 5 minutes. Whip cream in mixing bowl until it holds slight shape when some is dropped from beater.

Warm gelatin mixture over low heat, stirring, until completely dissolved, 3 to 5 minutes. Add sugar and salt and stir until dissolved, about 2 minutes. Stir gelatin-sugar mixture into almond milk and set over ice water bath. Stir constantly with rubber spatula, scraping bottom and sides to keep mixture from jelling there first, until mixture coats spatula thickly. Remove from ice water and immediately and quickly fold almond mixture into whipped cream. Taste and add few drops almond extract if necessary to bring out almond flavor.

Oil 1-quart mold very lightly with almond oil. Pour mixture into mold and chill until completely set, 2 to 3 hours.

To serve, loosen 1 edge gently with tip of flatware knife, set plate on top of mold and invert. If dessert won't come loose, lift one corner of mold away from plate and loosen edge with knife; blancmange will usually slide out then.

6 to 8 servings. Each of 8 servings:

375 calories; 62 mg sodium; 68 mg cholesterol; 33 grams fat; 16 grams carbohydrates; 7 grams protein; 1.40 grams fiber.

* Spoons, above right, from Hodgson's Antiques, South Pasadena.

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