At this time of year we’re always looking for recipes for gluten-free sweets, especially cookies, as more and more of our friends have forsaken flour. I always turn to my French pastry guru, Jacquy Pfeiffer, with all of my baking questions, even though I know that the Chicago-based, Alsatian-born pastry chef is not a gluten-free kinda guy. But he doesn’t need to be to offer an array of Christmas cookies that everyone can enjoy, whether they tolerate gluten or not. His moist, chewy almond-meal cinnamon stars (zimsterne), are among the most iconic of Alsatian Christmas cookies and date back to the 14th century, long before people even knew what gluten was, let alone gluten free.
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There are several other gluten-free cookies in Pfeiffer’s Alsatian repertoire. He did not have to invent these recipes, or make traditional cookies gluten free by working with special flours or ingredients and changing formulas. They just don’t happen to contain flour. Among my favorites are his coconut macarons, or rochers, incredibly addictive morsels made with lots of unsweetened coconut, egg whites and sugar. They are the easiest cookies in the world to make: You mix together the egg whites, sugar and coconut with a very small amount of applesauce or apricot compote (whose fruit pectin absorbs and retains moisture), and stir the mixture over a double boiler until it thickens a little and reaches 167 degrees F (75 degrees C). Then you refrigerate the batter overnight. The next day you scoop out the cookies and bake them until golden brown. They keep well for weeks, so you can begin your Christmas baking way ahead of time.
Lemon mirrors, macarons and more
Other cookies that I find irresistible and always make at this time of year so that all of my friends can enjoy them are called lemon mirrors. They are delicate, nutty cookies with a meringue base enriched with almond flour, an almond cream filling (the original recipe for the almond cream called for 1 teaspoon of flour, but that small quantity was easy to swap out for cornstarch), and a lemon icing. They’re called mirrors because the final glaze makes them shiny and reflective.
The coconut macarons and lemon mirrors are not the only gluten-free cookies in Pfeiffer’s repertoire. Think macarons. Those iconic French cookies are made with almond flour, egg whites and sugar, without a jot of wheat. But they require a little more time and practice to make than the two Alsatian cookies here, and by now you are probably ready to get those cookie plates going. So get out your baking sheets and your whisks, and leave your flour in the cupboard.
Jacquy Pfeiffer’s Coconut Macarons
It’s best to mix up the batter for these cookies the day before you bake and let it rest overnight in the refrigerator. They are naturally gluten free, with no flour in the batter.
Yield: 3 dozen cookies
Prep time: About 15 minutes
Resting time: Overnight
Baking time: 15 to 20 minutes
100 grams (about 3) egg whites, at room temperature
160 grams (3/4 cup) granulated sugar
100 grams (about 1 1/3 cups) unsweetened fine coconut flakes
10 grams (2 teaspoons) apricot compote or applesauce
1.5 grams (scant 1/4 teaspoon) fine sea salt
1. Create a double boiler by pouring 3/4 inch of water into a saucepan and placing it on the stove over medium heat.
2. Place all the ingredients in a stainless steel mixing bowl that is larger than the saucepan, and mix them together with a whisk. Reduce the heat under the saucepan to low and place the bowl on top. It should not be touching the water. Stir continuously with a whisk — not like a maniac, but stirring all areas of the bowl so that the egg whites don’t coagulate throughout the mix into small white pieces. Stir until the mixture thickens and reaches 167 F/75 C. Remove from the heat, take the bowl off the pot and wipe the bottom dry. Scrape down the sides of bowl.
3. Place a piece of plastic wrap directly over the mixture, taking care to lay the plastic right on the surface of the batter so that it is not exposed to air. Cover the bowl as well and refrigerate for at least two hours or preferably overnight.
1. Preheat the oven to 375 F and arrange the rack in the middle. Line sheet pans with parchment or Silpats and, using a 1 1/2-inch ice cream scoop, scoop the coconut mixture onto the sheet pan leaving one inch in between each cookie and staggering the rows. Each scoop should be leveled so that all the cookies are the same size and bake the same way. Bake the cookies for 15 to 20 minutes, one sheet pan at a time, until golden brown. Allow to cool on the parchment before removing.
Note: Another way to make these cookies is to pipe them onto a sheet pan with a 3/4-inch star tip. A smaller tip will not work, as the coconut likes to clump up. Pfeiffer also likes to pipe them into small 1 1/2 by 1 1/2-inch pyramid shaped silicone Flexipan molds, then bake them right in the molds. To unmold, let them cool for a full hour. They will come out easily when they are completely cool.
Jacquy Pfeiffer’s Lemon Mirror Cookies
Here’s another naturally gluten-free cookie. The only flour required is almond flour.
Yield: 40 cookies
Prep time: 1 hour (assuming ingredients are at room temperature)
Baking time: 15 minutes, plus 15 minutes for glazing the cookies
For the almond cream:
100 grams (approximately 1 cup plus 1 tablespoon) skinless almond flour
100 grams (approximately 1 cup) confectioners (powdered) sugar
6 grams (2 teaspoons) cornstarch
100 grams (7 tablespoons) French style butter, such as Plugrà
Pinch of sea salt
3 grams (3/4 teaspoon) vanilla extract
60 grams (1 large plus 1 to 2 tablespoons) beaten egg
20 grams (1 tablespoon plus 2 1/4 teaspoons) dark rum
For the icing:
50 grams (approximately 1/2 cup) confectioners (powdered) sugar, sifted
12 grams (2 teaspoons) fresh lemon juice
For the meringue cookie base:
50 grams (approximately 1/2 cup) confectioners (powdered) sugar
50 grams (approximately 1/2 cup) almond flour with skin
100 grams (about 3) egg whites
Pinch of sea salt
Pinch of cream of tartar
10 grams (2 teaspoons) granulated sugar
For the topping:
50 to 100 grams (scant 1/2 to 1 cup) sliced almonds with skin
100 grams (scant 1/4 cup) apricot jelly
Before you begin: Bring all ingredients to room temperature.
1. Make the almond cream. Sift together the almond flour, confectioners sugar and cornstarch. Tap any almond flour that remains in the sifter into the bowl.
2. Make sure that your butter is at room temperature. Place the soft butter, sea salt and the vanilla in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle and mix at medium speed for 1 minute.
3. Turn off the machine, scrape down the sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula and add the almond flour mixture to the machine. Mix at medium speed for 1 minute. Gradually add the egg and mix at medium speed until it is incorporated, which should take no more than 2 minutes. Add the rum and mix until incorporated. The cream should look shiny and creamy. Transfer to a pastry bag fitted with a 1/4-inch tip and set aside.
4. Make the sugar icing by mixing together the confectioners sugar with the lemon juice. Set aside.
5. Preheat the oven to 325 F. Line one or two sheet pans with parchment.
6. Make the meringue cookie base. Sift together the confectioners sugar and almond flour onto a sheet of parchment paper.
7. Place the egg whites, sea salt and cream of tartar in the bowl of your standing mixer and whisk together for 10 seconds on medium. Add the sugar and whip on high for 1 to 2 minutes, until you have a meringue with soft peaks. Using a rubber spatula, gently and carefully fold in the sifted confectioners sugar and almond powder until the mixture is homogenous. Make sure that you do not over-mix. Over-mixing the meringue mixture will make it soupy and the baked cookies will be gummy.
8. Using a bowl scraper, carefully transfer the mixture to a pastry bag fitted with a 3/8-inch round tip. Do this gently so that you don’t deflate the mixture. Pipe 1 1/2-inch rings onto the parchment-lined sheet pans, leaving 1/2 inch of space between each cookie and making sure to stagger the rows. Sprinkle the edge of each ring with sliced almonds.
9. Pipe the almond cream into the center of each ring.
10. Place in the preheated oven and bake for 15 minutes, until golden brown.
11. While the cookies are baking, warm the apricot jelly in a small saucepan just until it becomes liquid. Keep the apricot jelly warm over the lowest heat possible so that it won’t seize up. If this happens just warm it up a little more and it will become liquid again.
12. Right out of the oven, brush each cookie with the apricot jelly, then right away with the sugar icing. Allow to cool completely before removing from the parchment paper.
Main photo: Jacquy Pfeiffer’s coconut macarons. Credit: Paul Strabbing, recipe and photo courtesy of Pfeiffer’s “The Art of French Pastry.”
Once upon a time, Alsace wines were relatively simple to understand. Alsace is virtually the only French appellation that allows the mention of a grape variety on the label, and with a couple of easily identifiable exceptions, the wines tended to be dry. But things seem to have changed in recent years. Am I alone in feeling disappointed that a wine I thought would be dry from the label turns out to be rich with a sweet, even cloying, finish? And then matters are complicated further with all the grands crus names. There are 50 altogether, but I can only ever remember a handful. Happily, a recent visit to Maison Trimbach in Ribeauvillé has served to restore my faith in the region.
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Trimbach makes the full range of Alsace grape varieties, with elegantly leafy Pinot Blanc, some rounded Pinot Gris and some deliciously understated Gewürztraminer — we joked about whether a restrained Gewürztraminer really exists. But it is really with Riesling that the Trimbach style comes into its own, emphasizing the slatey minerality of the grape variety.
A full range of Riesling
Trimbach makes seven qualities of Riesling, beginning with the simple Riesling based on grapes purchased from some 30 growers, picked and pressed by hand. The vinification is very simple, usually entailing a malolactic fermentation and certainly no oak. Freshness and minerality are the key characteristics. The wine has a fresh slatey note, with very good acidity, and a firm dry finish — just as Alsace Riesling should be.
Next up the scale is the Riesling Réserve, a selection of grapes, mainly from Trimbach’s own vineyards around Ribeauvillé. The vinification is the same, but the grapes come from vineyards with a higher limestone content. The result is a wine that has citrus notes and is very mineral, with wonderful freshness and great length. There is a certain austerity on the palate, making for a very pure example of Riesling.
The cuvée of Vieilles Vignes comes from vines that are 35 to 40 years old. They first made this cuvée in 2009, from two foudres of particularly good wine. The flavors are rich and intense, but not sweet. The wine may be a little more gourmand than the Réserve, but the fruit is always balanced with steely acidity, making a wine that is dry and honeyed, with an elegant finish.
The Cuvée Frédéric Emile is one of the flagship wines of Trimbach, whose grapes are grown in marl and limestone soil. We tasted the 2007, which Anne described as a miraculous year — full of scares about the next climatic hazard, but everything turned out well in the end. The nose was rich and honeyed, very intense with an underlying austerity. On the palate, the wine was firm and slatey with very good acidity and razor-sharp clarity. I could almost describe it as the Chablis of Alsace.
The other flagship Riesling is the Clos Ste Hune, from a vineyard the Trimbachs have owned for 200 years. The soil is pure limestone, and the vines are an average of 80 years old. The wine is made the same way as Frédéric Emile, but here you taste the effect of terroir: They are quite different. The Clos Ste Hune is very slatey, very mineral, very powerful, with very good acidity and still very youthful, with wonderful length.
And then we were given a treat: 1985 Clos Ste Hune. The colour was golden, with an elegant nose that was dry and slatey, but with an underlying richness. On the palate, there were lots of nuances, with some very intriguing dry honey and some lovely notes of maturity. It was rich and elegant, but not heavy or sweet, with a lingering finish. A fabulous glass of wine that demonstrated just how beautifully Alsace Riesling ages.
The Vendanges Tardive and Selection de Grains Nobles, traditionally sweeter and richer, are only made in the very best years. The 2002 Vendange Tardive Riesling was light golden in color, and on the nose, rich with a maturing nutty nose. On the palate it was very elegant, with very good acidity — there was a little noble rot in 2002, but that is not essential. The palate was beautifully balanced with rich honeyed fruit, combining fresh acidity with some sweetness. It was subtle and nuanced.
Our tasting finished with 2001 Sélection de Grains Nobles Frédéric Emile. The grapes were picked in mid-November, with some noble rot. The color was golden and the nose maturing beautifully, as only fine Riesling can. On the palate there were nuances of dry but honeyed, nutty fruit, with some slatey characteristics and a touch of minerality, with a smooth rich finish. It was a powerful example of the heights that Riesling can achieve.
Top photo: Trimbach vineyards in Alsace. Credit: Courtesy of Maison Trimbach
Riesling spent years on the unfashionable grape list, but that’s over, thankfully, and the varietal has been experiencing a serious comeback. This light, fruity-tart 2011 Foris Riesling from Oregon’s Rogue Valley, with its flavors of bright citrus and green apple flavors and only 11% alcohol (!), is one of the many fine and inexpensive ones available. It’s a bit in the Alsace style, and like many Rieslings, it’s exceptionally food-friendly. It was the perfect choice with scallops and bok choy laced with lemon slices at a recent dinner. And it was another reminder that Oregon wine country is about a lot more than Pinot Noir.
Elin McCoy's Wine of the Week
Region: Rogue Valley, Oregon
Grape: 100% Riesling
Serve with: Ham, smoked salmon and trout with horseradish cream sauce, sautéed scallops
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Riesling’s revival in the U.S. owes much to sommelier and self-described “acid freak” Paul Grieco, co-owner of New York’s Terroir wine bars and Hearth restaurant. He initiated the Summer of Riesling movement back in 2008, when he decided the only white wines he’d pour by the glass in his wine bars and restaurant from June to September would be Riesling. Now the idea has gone national and a www.summerofriesling.com page lists hundreds of participants and events. There’s still time to join in, as these continue through Sept. 21.
It’s not surprising that Oregon has become a source of interesting Rieslings. The state’s cool climate and ancient volcanic soils give the wines a unique character. It was one of the first varietals planted, and in the 1980s, nearly 25% of the state’s vines were Riesling. Then Pinot Noir started grabbing everyone’s attention. Today, only about 50 wineries (of 450) produce Riesling.
The Foris winery goes back to 1971, when Ted Gerber and his first wife Meri bought vineyard land in remote Illinois Valley in southwest Oregon. In 1974 they planted Pinot Noir and Alsace varietals — Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Gewurztraminer and, of course, Riesling. At first they sold grapes, but in 1986, they founded their boutique winery, which now produces wines from about 180 acres divided among four vineyards in the Rogue Valley appellation. Like Alsace, their vineyards experience a wide diurnal shift — warm days, cool nights — that gives the wines roundness and crisp acidity.
This 2011 Foris Riesling has both, which is why it’s so delicious with food.
Try it and see.
Top photo composite: Label and bottle for the 2011 Foris Riesling. Credit: foriswine.com
Among the wines of Alsace, Muscat is probably the least known — and the most surprising. Its relative obscurity is explained by the fact that there’s just so little of it.
Of the total vineyard area in Alsace, Muscat accounts for just 362 hectares (900 acres), or a little more than 2% of all plantings. Compare this with Riesling (3,376 hectares, 8,300 acres or 22% of planting) and you get the picture. There’s just not enough of this wonderful wine to go ’round.
Why such tiny quantities? Mainly because Muscat is famously difficult to grow. I sometimes think if grapes were people, Riesling might be a nicely brought-up young man, mature beyond his years, a touch preppy, a sure hit with mothers-in-law. Muscat, by contrast, would be the temperamental teenager — every parent’s nightmare. She’s susceptible to the slightest rebuff, always ready to flounce out in a huff. In a word: complicated.
Muscat grapes finicky, but payoff is worth it
Marie Zusslin of organic and biodynamic Domaine Valentin Zusslin in Orschwihr, agrees that the grape is thoroughly “capricieux” (capricious). She underlines how difficult it is to work with at every stage, right through the growing cycle and into the cellar. “You can’t let Muscat out of your sight for a moment if you want to be sure to preserve its structure and its delicate aromas,” she commented in an email.
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And the surprise element? Muscat in Alsace is always made as a dry or off-dry wine. This sets it apart from Muscat from other parts of France and elsewhere in Europe, where it is most often made sweet, and sometimes additionally fortified with alcohol. Crisp, dry, distinctly grapey — it’s the only wine that actually tastes like a juicy mouthful of fresh grapes — and delicately aromatic, Muscat is the classic Alsatian aperitif. At the world-famous Auberge de l’Ill in Illhauesern, where pre-dinner drinks are served on long, lazy summer evenings in the garden fringed with weeping willows that bend low to the river, sommelier Serge Dubs delights in offering un verre de Muscat as an appetite sharpener — très typique and more fun than the conventional alternatives, such as a glass of Champagne or Crémant d’Alsace.
Two distinct varieties of Muscat are cultivated in Alsace: Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains (often known locally as Muscat d’Alsace) and Muscat Ottonel. Received wisdom, shared by Jancis Robinson in the magisterial Wine Grapes, is that Petits Grains, a small-berried variety (as indicated by the name), is the superior grape, finer and more delicate and with high acidity, which gives it good backbone. Ottonel is softer, with all the blockbusting Muscat aromas, but it’s generally considered less elegant.
Traditionally, Muscat produced in Alsace was a blend of the two: Petits Grains for acidity and structure and Ottonel for seductive, ripe-fruit aromas, explains Thierry Meyer, former wine commentator on Alsace for the French wine guide Bettane & Desseauve.
Still, today you will find winemakers who are of the opinion that a blend is best, probably one that majors on the supposedly finer Petits Grains at the expense of the purportedly clumsier Ottonel. Marc Hugel of the eponymous domaine in Riquewihr is firmly in the blending camp and considers Muscat made purely from Ottonel to be “an aberration.” Zind-Humbrecht, for its part, is leaning ever more heavily in the direction of Petits Grains for its celebrated Muscat (also a blend). On the other hand, Domaine Zusslin in Orschwihr, Domaine Weinbach in Kaysersberg and Frédéric Mochel in Traenheim make beautiful Muscat from 100% Ottonel. But whichever of the two grapes winemakers use and in whatever proportion, all agree that choice of terroir, careful winemaking and plenty of TLC throughout the cycle are key.
However, because you won’t find any mention of the relative proportions of the two varieties on the label, this is not something to fret about. Concentrate, rather, on tracking down what you can (try www.winesearcher.com for suppliers) and savor this fruity, fragrant summer drink to the full.
Summer is time for Muscat
If Muscat’s credentials as the perfect seasonal aperitif are well established, it also stars in combination with light summery cuisine. The preferred local match is with asparagus, but — in Alsace at least — the season is now closed and the markets are full of beautiful early vegetables (baby carrots or zucchini, fingerling potatoes, fava beans and sugar snaps). Try Muscat with a platter of these with linguine in a lightly creamy emulsion based on the jus from the barely- cooked vegetables, or with a salad of summer leaves topped with soft fresh goat’s cheese.
Catherine Faller at Domaine Weinbach in Kaysersberg advises partnering Muscat with her celebrated snail soup, richly flavored with parsley, chervil and garlic. “The wine picks up le petit côté végétal (the slightly vegetal hints) of snails in their herby broth,” she explains. A favorite match of mine is Muscat with a dish of lightly gingered prawns in a sauce of lemongrass-infused coconut milk, whose delicate flavors echo the floral-spicy nature of the wine. For a final summer showstopper, try an Alsace Muscat with a soft-centered Pavlova meringue topped with passion fruit and strawberries and a lick of honey.
Top photo: Three favorite Muscats, from Domaine Weinbach, Domaine Zusslin and Hugel et Fils. Credit: Sue Style
If Anderson Valley, the coastal region of Mendocino County about two hours north of San Francisco, hadn’t rightfully become famous for Pinot Noir, its aromatic white wines would likely receive more attention. The climate and geography are tailor-made for grape varietals traditionally associated with the Alsace region of France: Gewurztraminer, Riesling, Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc and Muscat.
Both areas share a cool climate, with an annual average temperature hovering at about 55 degrees. Edmeades Winery is largely credited as being the first to plant Gewurztraminer, among other varietals, in Anderson Valley in the mid 1960s, though the folks at Navarro Vineyards, Handley, Husch and Lazy Creek were not far behind.
Together they built the region’s reputation for successfully nurturing these types of wines, which appeal to a large number of people because of the absence of new oak. Instead, stainless-steel tanks or used barrels are used to ferment the grapes long enough for the sugars to lower and the wines to get dry, with less than 1.5 percent residual sugar.
Whether from the homeland or Mendocino County’s own Anderson Valley appellation, these under-the-radar whites are fairly priced and spectacularly fine with a variety of food or as an aperitif. As an added bonus, a tasting visit to the valley makes a great day trip from San Francisco. The following list of producers, located mostly along Highway 128 in and around the town of Philo, represent a mix of old and new, but they all make great aromatic whites.
A joint venture between husband and wife Douglas Ian Stewart and Ana Lucia Benitez, Breggo sold last year to Napa Cabernet specialist, Cliff Lede. Before that, “Food & Wine” magazine” named it best new winery at the 2008 American Wine Awards, and Robert Parker raved poetically about the winery’s Gewrrztraminer and Wiley Vineyard Pinot Gris, calling the latter the finest Pinot Gris he’d ever tasted in the New World.
11001 Highway 128, Boonville. (707) 895-9589, www.breggo.com
Up in the highlands above Philo, Esterlina’s nod to Alsace includes a dry Riesling and off-dry Riesling from its own 253-acre Cole Ranch (its own sub-appellation, among the world’s smallest). Both citrus-laden wines have plenty of wildflower, peach and vanilla flavors.
1200 Holmes Ranch Road, Philo. (707) 895-2920, www.esterlinavineyards.com
Milla Handley founded Handley Cellars in 1982, because she was impressed by Anderson Valley’s viticultural reputation for bright acidity, long hang-time and great flavors. Returning the favor, Handley’s Gewurztraminer has lusciously exotic fruit flavors, steely acidity and refreshing balance. In some years, Handley also sources Riesling from Esterlina’s Cole Ranch. The Pinot Gris is equally tropical in memorable ways. Adding to the mix, Handley makes a Pinot Blanc from the vaulted Hein Vineyard.
3151 Highway 128, Philo. (707) 895-3876, www.handleycellars.com
Tony Husch first planted Gewurztraminer along Highway 128 in 1969, only the second modern vintner in the area to do so. Husch’s first Gewurztraminer was produced in 1971; winemaker Brad Holstine makes it now, a wine with aromas of lychee, mandarin and a bite of spice. In addition, Husch makes a Muscat Canelli, a fresh, tropically fruited dessert wine with 6 percent residual sugar, and a late-harvest Gewurz at 12 percent.
4400 Highway 128, Philo. (707) 895-3216, www.huschvineyards.com
Lazy Creek Vineyards
Founded in 1973 by Johann and Theresia Kobler, Lazy Creek was over the years among the most sought-after names in Anderson Valley, not only for its exquisite, estate-grown, “old vine,” dry Gewurztraminer but also Riesling, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Josh and Mary Beth Chandler ran Lazy Creek for almost a decade, but two years ago the famed producer was bought by Don and Rhonda Carano of Healdsburg’s Ferrari-Carano.
4741 Highway 128, Philo. (707) 895-3623,www.lazycreekvineyards.com
Wine drinkers really love Londer Pinot Noir, but Shirlee and Larry Londer are as skilled and beloved for their dry Gewurztraminer, a minerally, lychee, honeysuckle and rose wonder they’ve been making from the one acre of the varietal they planted back in the 1990s. Longtime go-to Pinot consultant Greg LaFollette made the wines with Larry until a few years ago. Rick Davis, formerly of Flowers and Tandem, helps out now.
14051 Highway 128, Boonville. (707) 895-9001,www.londervineyards.com
Inspired by Alsace since building their winery in 1974, Navarro founders Ted Bennett and Deborah Cahn, along with winemaker Jim Klein and now daughter Sarah Cahn Bennett, have successfully been introducing Riesling, Gewurztraminer, Pinot Gris and Muscat Blanc to curious wine lovers ever since. Their dry Gewurztraminer is a standard-bearer — Navarro figures it farms about 35,000 Gewurztraminer vines at this point — while the winery has won gold medals at the Riesling du Monde competition held annually in Alsace. Non-drinkers will appreciate the non-alcoholic grape juice Navarro also makes from Gewurztraminer grapes.
5601 Highway 128, Philo. (707) 895-3686, www.navarrowine.com
Toulouse has long been a source of pinot noir grapes to others (Baxter, MacPhail). Founder-winemaker Vern Boltz, a retired Oakland Fire Department captain, has more recently started making an impressive estate Riesling, Gewurztraminer and Pinot Gris. The Riesling has tremendous fruit flavor, particularly pineapple and pear, with notes of grapefruit, lemon and lime. The Gewurztraminer also screams citrus and tropical fruit, but shares varietally correct shades of rose, honeysuckle and more. The Pinot Gris tends more to the lemongrass side of things. Pair any one of them with curry, chili peppers or anything with bite.
8001 Highway 128, Philo. (707) 895-2828,www.toulousevineyards.com
Virginie Boone is a Sonoma Valley-based wine writer. She has reported on the Northern California wine scene for the Santa Rosa Press Democrat and its affiliate food and wine magazine, Savor.
Photo: Navarro Vineyards Gewurztraminer
The differences between Ashkenazic and Sephardic Jewry’s foodways are clearest at Passover. Sephardim traditionally ate rice, legumes and other foods verboten to those from Northern and Eastern Europe and Russia, which makes borrowing traditions for an all-inclusive modern Passover table a bit challenging.
But an Ottoman lasagna, called mina, also known as miginas, meginas or mehinas, is easily suited to Jews of every ethnicity and historical identity. By any name, these savory layered matzo lasagnas are found in Jewish cuisine from Egypt to Turkey to the Isle of Rhodes. And they are anything but new.
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Mina originated from medieval pasteles, according to John Cooper in his book, “Eat and Be Satisfied: A Social History of Jewish Food.” “Small meat pies, or migina, the equivalent of strudel … [were themselves] a variant of migas, and [were] filled with empanada-style fillings,” Cooper writes. Those Old World migas were filled with chopped meats or seasonal vegetable purées such as calabaza, aka pumpkin or eggplant, or a creamy, cheesy spinach version.
Traditionally, minas are cut into small mini-appetizer-sized bites and become a part of the Mediterranean mezze table — the selection of small dishes served at cocktail hour or as a long, lingering supper that is common everywhere from Greece through the Levant.
I love serving mina in the mezze style, filled with mint-infused roasted eggplant and lamb for a meat-based Seder alongside caponata, garlicky fried olives, bay-leaf-brined carrots and braised burnished leeks. But for a midweek meal, I go all cheesy and ooey-gooey.
Many recipes soak the all-but-hardtack matzo in water to soften. I rinse it lightly. I like the textural difference in the mina. I also go crazy with cheese sauce. During Passover, when that feeling of deprivation for “regular” foods has become more than a little bit wearing by midweek, a cheese-and-vegetable pie is a respite, one that offers a mac-and-cheese-like familiarity.
I lean toward Alsace, France and northern Italy for the flavors that have the heft to give this lasagna serious substance.
Spinach, Butternut Squash, Sweet Onion and Fontina Mina
Sephardic Passover lasagna, mina, can be — no, it should be — on every table at some point during Passover. This version, influenced by the cuisine of Ferrara, Italy, eats like a great mac and cheese packed with vegetables, but since it can prepared in stages over a few days, it’s as easy to make as lasagna. Great for a midweek Passover meal for a big family — a truly satisfying one-pan wonder. In fact, it’s a tasty change of pace at any time; feel free to add a few minced sage leaves if it’s cold outside for an autumnal feel.
Prep time: About 40 minutes
Cook time: About 1 1/4 hours
Total time: 1 hour, 55 minutes
Yield: About 12 pieces
½ cup (8 tablespoons/227 grams/1 stick) unsalted butter, divided
3 pounds fresh baby spinach
3 teaspoons kosher salt, divided
2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper
1 large red onion, peeled and cut into into 1/2-inch dice (about 2 cups)
3 cloves garlic, peeled, halved and grated, any green centers discarded
1 cup Gewürztraminer or dry Riesling wine
2 large butternut squash (about 2 1/2 pounds), peeled and cut into rough 1/4- to 1/2-inch dice
Leaves of 8 fresh thyme sprigs, minced
Leaves of 3 small sprigs fresh marjoram, minced
1 quart milk
7 tablespoons potato starch
1 cup crème fraîche or sour cream
1 pound shredded Gruyère cheese, divided
1/2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
5 sheets matzo
2 cups (about 9 ounces) diced Fontina cheese
1. In a deep saucepan set over high heat, heat 2 tablespoons butter and swirl until it is just foaming. Add half the spinach, 1 teaspoon of the salt, 1/4 teaspoon of the pepper, and with tongs, toss gently in the butter. Cover, reduce the heat to medium-low and cook for 4 to 5 minutes, until just wilted.
2. Add the remaining spinach, tossing to coat. Cover and cook, stirring occasionally, for 4 to 5 minutes, until all of the spinach is fully wilted. Transfer to a colander and drain. When the spinach is cool enough to handle, squeeze out excess liquid. The spinach will have shrunk quite a bit. Set aside. This can be done up to 2 days in advance, and the spinach stored in a covered container in the refrigerator.
3. In the same (now cleaned) saucepan, set over medium-high heat, heat 2 tablespoons butter and swirl until it is just foaming. Add the onions, garlic, 1 teaspoon of the salt, and 1/4 teaspoon of the black pepper and cook, stirring occasionally, for 15 minutes, until the onions are soft and the edges browned.
3. Add the wine, butternut squash, thyme and marjoram and cook for about 20 minutes, until the liquid is reduced in volume by at least half. Set aside. This can be done up to 2 days in advance, and the mixture stored in a covered container in the refrigerator.
4. When you are ready to make the mina, preheat the oven to 350 F. Spray a deep 9-by-14-inch lasagna pan or glass Pyrex pan with nonstick vegetable oil spray.
5. Heat the milk in a medium-sized saucepan over medium heat until hot but not scalded.
6. In the same (again, cleaned) deep saucepan, heat the remaining 4 tablespoons butter over medium heat until it begins to foam. Immediately whisk in the potato starch and quickly add the warm milk, still whisking over medium heat, making sure there are no lumps. Cook for 3 to 5 minutes, until the mixture thickens slightly and comes to a gentle but active boil, adjusting the heat as necessary.
7. Reduce the heat to a simmer, add the crème fraîche and cook, whisking gently, until blended into the sauce.
8. Add about three-fourths of the shredded Gruyère cheese, reserving the rest for topping, and with a spoon, stir until the cheese melts. Add the nutmeg and stir to blend.
9. Spoon 1 cup of the cheese sauce over the bottom of the lasagna pan. Break the matzo into 3-inch wide slats, rinse them under cold water for about 5 seconds, and arrange them over the sauce in a single layer, breaking the sheets at the perforations as necessary. Add the spinach, arranging it in an even layer, and top with another cup of cheese sauce. Arrange another layer of matzo on top and spoon another cup of cheese sauce over it. Cover with the Fontina cheese and the remaining salt and pepper. Add another layer of matzo and top with the onions and butternut squash. Spoon the remaining cheese sauce over the top and scatter the reserved Gruyère over it.
10. Prepare a sheet of foil big enough to cover the lasagna pan and spray it with nonstick vegetable oil spray. Cover the mina loosely with the foil, greased side down. Bake for 1 to 1 1/4 hours, or until bubbling hot. Remove the foil, increase the heat to broil and broil for 2 to 3 minutes, until the top is lightly browned. Serve immediately.
Note: You may use frozen spinach, if you wish. Thaw it, rinse well, drain, squeeze out any excess liquid and proceed with the recipe.
Main photo: Great for a midweek Passover meal for a big family — this lasagna is a truly satisfying one-pan wonder. Credit: Copyright 2015 TheWeiserKitchen
When it comes to Carnival, overindulgence is the whole point: too many parties, too much booze and, in just about every Catholic country, great platters of fried sweet dough.
Carnival doughnuts are omnipresent across Catholic Europe and parts of the Americas. In Lyon and Strasbourg, France, square yeast-raised beignets are made for the holiday; in Spain you will find rosquillas de carnaval (a dense, doughnut-shaped treat) and all sorts of other buñuelos; in Italy each region has its own fritelle di carnevale. The one-word explanation? Lard.
Christians were supposed to abstain from meat products for the 40 days of Lent, and doughnuts were traditionally fried in hog fat. As every good Catholic knows, you need to sin before you can repent. So, if you’re going to spend six weeks restraining your urges, you might as well make a good reason for it.
European doughnuts: happy excess
For ordinary people, doughnuts became associated with happy excess during a time when all the rules of their miserable existence could be inverted, when a measly diet of stale bread was replaced by mountains of fresh-fried doughnuts.
But few are as obsessed with Carnival or fried dough as the Venetians. Year round, you can find delicious krapfen (jelly doughnuts) there, but in the lead-up to Lent, the fried dough repertoire increases exponentially. Bakery windows are full of frittelle di carnevale, which depending on the pastry shop, take two very different forms: airy yeast-raised fritters chock-full of raisins, pine nuts, citron and, occasionally anisette or grappa (see recipe); or fried cream puffs that enclose a variety of creamy fillings.
I can’t believe that it’s a coincidence that Europe’s doughnut orgies take place in the depths of winter. The sugar and the fat are better than any high-tech undergarment.
I had a chance to test this out during a ski trip to Innsbruck even as Fasching (Carnival) was reaching its delirious peak. Here, in the alpine Tyrol, locals celebrate by parading through the streets in masks worthy of a Brothers Grimm nightmare and by eating mountains of Faschingskrapfen, or Carnival doughnuts. Even as I got off the train, I was greeted with stands loaded down with plump raised doughnuts, some filled with preserves, others with custard, chocolate cream or even eiercognac, a boozy eggnog custard.
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According to my friend, Austrian food historian Ingrid Haslinger, they’ve been frying up these yeast-raised pastries here for centuries. In the days when sugar was a luxury reserved for princes, the mountain folk would dip their krapfen into bowls of prune and apple butter. Now everybody can indulge in the sweet-filled variety.
I was pleased to find piles of Carnival doughnuts even at the mountaintop ski lodge. In these harsh conditions, they are not merely a snack but rather lunch itself. Following the lead of local skiers, I sat down to a spicy goulash soup as appetizer and continued with doughnuts for my main course (one filled with apricot and the other with chocolate, if you must know). Winter never felt so right.
The perfect pre-Lent indulgence
The doughnut as Carnival food, something that you gorge on before the gray days of Lent, isn’t entirely an alien concept in the United States. The Pennsylvania Dutch keep a firm grip on the centuries-old tradition of frying up enormous batches of Fastnachts in anticipation of Ash Wednesday just like their ancestors did in southwest Germany and parts of Switzerland. The Fastnacht is typically a yeast-raised doughnut (sometimes with potato added) cut in the form of a diamond, often slashed and opened in the center to allow it to cook faster and a larger surface area to get crisp.
You find similar recipes in Alsace and neighboring regions today. Fastnacht (literally “fast night”) is a German word for Shrove Tuesday and in the parts of the old country, these Carnival pastries were (and are) called Fastnachstküchle. The plain folk there shortened the name but kept the recipe and at least the doughnut part of the pre-Lenten tradition; Carnival is certainly not the festival of folly that it can be in Catholic Germany.
One rule that is universal, though, no matter where you find the doughy treats and regardless of name: Too much is never enough. You’ll have plenty of time to repent.
Frittelle veneziane (Venetian Carnival Fritters)
Prep time: 15 minutes
Cook time: 4 to 6 minutes per batch
Yield: About 2 dozen
2 ounces (about 1/2 cup) golden raisins
1/2 cup anisette liqueur
1/4 ounce (1 packet) active dry yeast
3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons tepid water
1 large egg
9 ounces (about 2 cups) all-purpose flour
3 tablespoons granulated sugar
Large ping (1/8 teaspoon) salt
1 ounce (about 3 tablespoons) pine nuts
1 ounce (about 3 tablespoons) chopped candied citron
Grated zest of 1 lemon
Oil or lard for frying
1. In a bowl, combine the raisins and anisette. Cover with plastic wrap and soak at least 4 hours or overnight.
2. In the bowl of a stand mixer, stir together the water and yeast. Let stand 5 minutes. Stir in the egg. In a separate bowl, mix together the flour, granulated sugar and salt.
3. Using a paddle attachment, beat the flour mixture into the water-yeast mixture on low speed. Beat 5 minutes on medium to make the batter very smooth — it should be somewhat thicker than pancake batter.
4. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and place in a warm location. Let stand until the batter has doubled in volume, 45 to 60 minutes. Stir in the raisins, pine nuts, citron and lemon zest.
5. Using a deep fryer or a heavy pan, heat at least 3 inches of the oil to 350 F. If you’re not using a deep fryer and are without a built-in thermostat, check the oil temperature using a candy or deep-fry thermometer.
6. Lightly oil 2 tablespoons, then scoop about 2 tablespoons of batter in one spoon and slide it off with the second. A small oiled ice cream scoop works well, too. Fry about a half-dozen at a time, turning occasionally until cooked through, 4 to 6 minutes. Drain on paper towels and allow to cool — enough so you can pick them up. Sprinkle generously with confectioner’s sugar. The frittelle are best served warm. Leftovers can be frozen and reheated in a 350 F oven.
For more on doughnut history, check out Michael Krondl’s most recent book: “The Donut: History, Recipes and Lore from Boston to Berlin.”
Main photo: Fritetelle veneziane, or Venetian fritters, are best served warm with a dusting of confectioner’s sugar. Credit: Michael Krondl
In a rural enclave of central England, just off the historic coaching route between London and York formerly known as the Great North Road, there is a celebrated cluster of cheese dairies. Their fame rests on one magnificent product: Stilton, otherwise known as “the King of English cheeses,” which is an indispensable part of any self-respecting British Christmas.
This grand, cylindrical, semi-hard blue cheese has always enjoyed a royal reputation, which its producers have gone to great lengths to nurture. As Jenny Linford, author of “Great British Cheeses,” observes, Stilton is one of only a handful of British cheeses to have been protected and defined by law. In 1936, the producers banded together to form the Stilton Cheese Makers’ Association, or SCMA, for promotional purposes and to manage the brand and ensure quality production. In 1996 they secured Protected Designation of Origin status for their cheese, a label reserved for traditional products that are prepared, processed and produced within a specific region and thus have unique properties.
Stilton has a raw-milk counterpart in Stichelton
Six dairies in the counties of Nottinghamshire, Leicestershire and Derbyshire are responsible for rolling out more than 1 million Stiltons every year, with sales climaxing around Christmas. The SCMA, in its wisdom, has specified the use of pasteurized milk for its cheese. Raw-milk cheese fans can seek out Stilton’s alter ego Stichelton, which has taken the ancient name of the village of Stilton (where — perversely — it may no longer be made, because the village falls outside today’s permitted production area).
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Even though all Stilton must now be made from pasteurized milk, there are significant and interesting variations from dairy to dairy. “Very few people realize how much Stilton cheeses can vary depending on the creamery which makes them,” Linford commented in a recent email. Her recommendation is to sample cheeses from different producers until you find one you like. Her personal preference is for Colston Bassett Stilton, made specially for Neal’s Yard Dairy; I have a soft spot for Cropwell Bishop Creamery.
You may be vaguely familiar (or even helplessly infatuated) with Stilton, but if you’re not, what can you expect from this festive cheese? Its nicely nubbly crust is an appealing, burnished gold color, dotted with small, regularly occurring holes — evidence the maturing cheese was pierced with needles to allow the characteristic internal blue veins to develop. Flavorwise, I like to place it in the center of the blue cheese spectrum, somewhere between the salty, crumbly Roquefort from southern France and the luscious Gorgonzola from northern Italy. Its pale ivory paste flecked with blue delivers a smooth, satisfying, mushroomy punch that speaks to me of middle England (and of Christmas).
Most often, Stilton is presented in smallish, ready-cut wedges, which is fine. But at least once in the life of any trembling cheese-lover, the chance to go for bust with a half-cylinder, typically weighing about 9 pounds (4 kilograms), will present itself. Seize it. Fold over a snow-white linen napkin, wrap it around the cheese like a corset and fix with a couple of pins.
If you can lay hands on a Stilton scoop (see picture), go for it. With the help of this traditional tool, which resembles a tiny trowel, burrow gently into the cut surface of the cheese. In our Yorkshire household, the trick when scooping out a respectable helping of cheese (closely monitored by other family members) was to edge as close to crust as you dared without breaking the wall — a cardinal sin for which severe penalties were levied. For lack of a scoop, you can cut slender, horizontal slices (with crust) from the top of the cheese — but never wedges, which would be hugely greedy and punishable by Stilton deprivation for the rest of the year.
Besides the half cylinders, you can also buy whole, infant Stiltons, which weigh in at around 5 pounds (2 kilograms). But in rather the same way that a magnum of wine delivers even more than double the pleasure of a regular 750-milliliter bottle, baby Stiltons never quite match up to the full-sized cheese for sheer pizzazz and total, creamy perfection. Resist the temptation to buy Stilton in a pot — the pots are nice, but the cheese (overly salted and a bit dry) seldom is.
To go with the cheese, offer a selection of cheese biscuits (with coarse-milled oatcakes leading the pack), slices of rustic country bread or soda bread, or slivers of walnut and dried fruit loaf or even pumpernickel.
And finally, which wine goes best? Port is often invoked, but for my taste this feisty, fortified wine delivers a sledgehammer blow at the end of what is not, by any measure, a light repast (think roast turkey, stuffing, Brussels sprouts, roast potatoes, bread sauce, Christmas pudding AND whipped brandy butter). Some favor Sauternes, or Tokaji, “the wine of kings and the king of wines” to partner this “King of English cheeses.”
Living here in Alsace, where we faithfully observe the Christmas Stilton tradition, my preference goes to a local, late-harvested Riesling, Pinot Gris or Gewurztraminer (Domaine Weinbach, René Muré or Zind-Humbrecht all do wonderful Vendanges Tardives). For a real treat, we uncork a treasured Sélection de Grains Nobles, which is not only late harvested but also botrytised and combines depth and complexity with a tingling spine of acidity to counterbalance the wine’s natural sweetness.
Where to buy Stilton
In the UK
Try top top cheesemongers throughout Britain, including these London shops:
La Fromagerie, Moxon Street
Neal’s Yard Dairy at Borough Market and Covent Garden
Paxton & Whitfield, Jermyn Street
Harrods in Knightsbridge
Fortnum & Mason, Piccadilly
Whole Foods, Kensington High Street
Caviar House & Prunier at London Heathrow
In the U.S. (East Coast):
Formaggio Kitchen, Cambridge, Mass.
Murrays, Greenwich Village, New York City
Artisanal Premium Cheese, New York City
Where to buy Stichelton
In the U.K.: top cheesemongers in Britain, as above
In the U.S.: Formaggio Kitchen, Cambridge Mass.
In France: Fromager Bernard Antony, Vieux-Ferrette, Alsace
Main image: Stilton. Credit: Credit: Cropwell Bishop Creamery