A Toast to the Holidays

21 Dec A Toast to the Holidays

Mini Cheesecakes with Sugared Cranberries

‘Tis the season to celebrate, and a holiday highlight for Mike and me is our annual Christmas party.  Having served up appetizers for several years, and then desserts for the last two, I decided to uncork a wine and cheese menu for this year’s event.

Shortly after Thanksgiving, I began collecting festive ideas for cheese appetizers, clipping photographs and taping them to the wall calendar above the desk in my office. What a fun project this turned out to be! One of my favorite finds was a cheese tree I saw on Pinterest.com.

Our daughters Mackenzie and Madison jumped in and arranged cubes of various varieties of cheese into the shape of a Christmas tree, decorated with sprigs of fresh thyme and grape tomatoes, just before the party. If you’re looking for a wide array of interesting cheeses to serve, Sam’s Club has Stilton with Cranberries, Red Pesto, Three Alarm Cheddar, Tuscan Cheddar and Dilled Havarti.  (For a color photo, see Paige Morton’s Cheese Tree at http://pinterest.com/pin/89509111313507881/ .)

As for the wine, we relied on our good friend Mark Tronson, owner of Wines by Wednesday, who offered some perfect pairings based on the cheese offerings I had developed, which included Roquefort Grapes with Pistachios, Parmesan Thyme Gougere Puffs and Mini Cheesecakes with Sugared Cranberries.

“Most sommeliers I’ve interacted with agree that cheese is very hard to successfully pair wine with,” Mark told me. “The creaminess of the cheese tends to mask the taste buds, so a lot of the nuances of the wine are lost on the palate,” he said.

Nevertheless people love cheese and wine together, and Mark was confident the pairings he recommended would work well together, and he was right.

To serve with the Roquefort Grapes with Pistachios, Mark suggested Charles Bovey sparkling wine. “A rule of thumb in pairing is: If in doubt, always choose a nice sparkling wine,” he said.

“This wine is from the Chenin Blanc grape which creates a little nuttiness on the palate on its own and provides a great pairing with the cheese-covered grapes with pistachios,” Tronson said. This sparkling wine is made from the grape that has made Vouvray famous in royal courts for centuries (Chenin Blanc) and has a beautiful citrus aroma, according to Tronson.

The winery describes it as full and frothy upfront with almond, fig and pear flavors.  It is a festive wine for a festive time!  It was a big hit with the cheese-covered grapes rolled in pistachios which rapidly evaporated right out of the large-scale champagne glass in which they were presented to guests.

Parmesan and thyme screamed Chianti, Mark said, when pairing a wine with the Parmesan Thyme Gougere Puffs I made. “I normally would have opted for a white wine with this, but I thought we needed some diversity for the wine-drinking crowd tonight, and this is a really easy-drinking Chianti without all of the tannins of some of the higher-end versions,” Tronson said of the Villa da Filacaja Chianti. “It should be a crowd pleaser.”

The winemaker describes it as a wine having “A ruby/cherry color with an expressive bouquet of spice and morello cherries, a mélange of bright red berries and sweet basil finishes with harmonious balance.”                  

For dessert, I made Mini Cheesecakes with Sugared Cranberries and served them with a glass of Frisk, a sparkling Riesling, which Mark agreed was a perfect pairing. Of all the wines we served, this was the most requested and complimented on at the party.

Here are Mark’s tasting notes on Frisk:

“Made by a team of maverick winemakers, Frisk is crafted by seasoned hands. Harvested in the chilly eve and delivered to the winery in pristine condition, prized free-run Riesling juice is fermented with canny yeasts that ensure the wine is sporting plenty of aromatic verve along with a low 8% alcohol. And the prickle? A gentle spritz produced by those clever yeasts, captured to deliver a tickle that will rouse your palate. It’s downright Frisky.”

When asked about his approach to wine pairing, Tronson said, “The theory I was taught and have used most often is first to match region with region. There is a reason that the food of a place is grown there – climate, history, indigenous animals, vegetables, and there is also a reason the wines of the regions taste as they do.  Together, they seem to always make a happy marriage.”

If you are making a nice red pasta dish, you would look to Italy, probably Chianti would be your best bet.  It offers great acidity that cuts right through all that big taste and lays great dried red cherries and berries on the palate with enough tannins to cut through the tomato sauce.

If you are having something with goat cheese (chevre) in it, generally attributed to the Loire Valley,  I love both their Chenin Blancs (Vouvray) and their Sauvignon Blancs (Sancerre/Poully Fume),  so I serve those with anything goat cheese centric, Mark said.

One more example are the great meat dishes of Argentina and their Malbecs , especially with chimichurri sauce.

“Secondly, I try to match big with big (i.e. – big bold barbeque sauce with a big, spicy red Zinfandel) or heat with sweet (i.e. – a Thai dish with Riesling or Gewurztraminer with a touch of sweetness that takes a little of the heat away),” Mark advised.  “The heat takes a wine that would normally be too cloying sweet and makes it just perfect.”

Then there are just traditionally accepted pairings that everyone agrees on. Here are Mark’s four favorites:  *Champagne & movie popcorn (lots of butter and salt) *Champagne & raw oysters *Pinot Noir from Burgundy with Lamb Chops drizzled with a little touch of truffle oil *Sauternes & Point Reyes Blue Cheese

This week’s Special of the day: A Toast to the Holidays with Perfect Wine and Cheese Pairings and recipes for Roquefort Grapes with Pistachios, Parmesan Thyme Gougere Puffs and Mini Cheesecakes with Sugared Cranberries. Cheers! 

Wine pairings and tasting notes by Mark Tronson, owner, Wines by Wednesday
312 5th Avenue South, 761-WINE (9463)

Recipes and food photography by Sydne George

Roquefort Grapes with Pistachios

Roquefort Grapes with Pistachios
Makes about 50 cheese-covered grapes
50 grapes, washed and dried
12 ounces cream cheese, softened
5 ounces Roquefort cheese (or other blue cheese) crumbles
Freshly ground pepper
1 cup pistachios, finely chopped
Using an electric mixer, beat cream and Roquefort cheese until combined.
Add several grinds freshly ground pepper and mix to combine.
Cover grapes with about 2 teaspoons cheese mixture each, using your fingers to cover completely.
Place chopped pistachios in a shallow dish.
Roll cheese-covered grapes in pistachios to cover.

Parmesan Thyme Gougere Puffs

Parmesan Thyme Gougere Puffs
Makes about 60 cocktail-sized appetizers
¼ cup butter
1 cup flour
¼ teaspoon salt
1 ½ cups grated fresh Parmesan cheese+ 3 tablespoons
1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves + more for garnish
5 eggs
1 teaspoon water
Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
In a medium saucepan over medium heat, combine butter and water and bring to a boil.
Remove from heat and add flour and salt, stirring to combine.
Return to heat and continue to cook, stirring constantly until mixture forms a ball.
Remove from heat and transfer dough to mixing bowl.
Using electric mixer, beat 1 ½ cups Parmesan cheese and 1 tablespoon thyme leaves into dough until incorporated.
Add 4 eggs, one at a time, beating after each addition to mix.
Line 3 baking sheets with parchment paper.
Spoon tablespoon-sized dollops of dough onto prepared baking sheets in rows, about two inches apart.
Whisk 1 egg and 1 teaspoon water together in a small bowl.
Brush egg mixture over the tops of the gougere.
Sprinkle each gougere puff with grated Parmesan and thyme leaves.
Bake in preheated oven for 12-14 minutes, until golden brown and cooked through.
Serve warm.

Mini Cheesecakes with Sugared Cranberries

Mini Cheesecakes with Sugared Cranberries
(Makes 24 mini cheesecakes)
Make the crust:
1 cup graham cracker crumbs
3 tablespoons sugar
¼ cup melted butter
Preheat oven to 300 degrees.
Spray insides of mini cheesecake pan with baking spray.
Combine all crust ingredients.
Spoon crust into mini cheesecake pan with removable bottoms to cover bottom of each mini cheesecake.
Use a wooden tart tamper or bottom of a small glass to press crust into bottom of each mini cheesecake.
Bake in preheated oven for 7 minutes. Cool.
Make the filling:
12 ounces cream cheese, softened
1/3 cup sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
3 eggs
2 tablespoons sour cream
2 teaspoons flour
3 tablespoons white chocolate, chopped
Using electric mixer, beat cream cheese and sugar together.
Add vanilla and beat to combine.
Add eggs one at a time and beat to incorporate.
Add sour cream and flour and beat together.
Stir in white chocolate.
Spoon filling into cooled crusts, filling about 2/3 of the way up the side of the pan.
Bake in preheated oven for 20 minutes, or until set.
Turn oven off and let cheesecakes rest in oven for 10 minutes.
Remove from oven and let cool completely.
Remove from pan and refrigerate until ready to serve.
Make the Sugared Cranberries
(makes 12 ounces of sugared cranberries)
2 cups sugar
2 cups water
12 ounce bag fresh cranberries
¾ cup sugar
In a medium saucepan over low heat, combine 2 cups sugar and water until sugar is dissolved.
Bring to a simmer and remove from heat.
Add cranberries and stir.
Pour cranberries and syrup into a glass bowl. Cover and refrigerate for 8 hours, or overnight.
Strain cranberries.
Puree ¾ cup sugar in blender or food processor until superfine.
Pour superfine sugar into rimmed baking sheet.
Pour drained cranberries on top of sugar and roll to coat with sugar.
Let dry for an hour.
Garnish each mini cheesecake with a few sugared cranberries.
(Extra sugared cranberries can be bagged for gift-giving.)

Sydne George is a food journalist specializing in recipe development, food writing and food photography. She can be reached at  sydnegeorge@hotmail.com. Sydne’s “Special of the day” columns and recipes are archived at: http://sydnegeorge.com/blog.

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