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One of Spain’s favorite wines suffers from a case of mistaken identity — and is better known abroad under an alias.
In the Mediterranean coastal regions of Murcia and Valencia, wine made from Monastrell (the fourth-most planted red wine grape in Spain) is a local favorite. With its slightly rugged, fruit-intense profile, it is ideal to pair with hearty winter flavors such as La Mancha’s gazpacho manchego, redolent of rabbit, wild mushrooms and snails, and Valencia’s richly seasoned paellas.
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But somewhere around the 16th century, the varietal traveled to France and took on the name Mourvèdre, which stuck for 500 years. Over time, Mourvèdre gained popularity as a perfect partner for Grenache (known as Garnacha in Spain) and Syrah — a blend known as GSM for short. GSM blends from Chateauneuf-du-Pape and Côtes du Rhône are particularly well known. French winemakers also stepped ahead of Spanish vintners to carve out a reputation for the grape as a respectable single varietal. Even Australians and Americans thought well enough of Monastrell to plant vineyards of their own, but gave it yet another name: Mataro.
But recently, Monastrell has moved to center stage, to share the spotlight with garnacha and the Rioja region’s famed Tempranillo. With more producers creating Monastrell wines of what could be called a finessed rustic style, Monastrell has shed its reputation for jammy, high-alcohol vintages and acquired one for its distinctly Spanish, authentic approach to this powerhouse grape. Michelin-starred chef María José San Román showcases the fruit and wine on the menu every night at her restaurant, Monastrell, in the heart of the varietal’s growing region in Alicante.
But Monastrell is not an easy grape to grow; it takes perseverance and dedication. The varietal flourishes on old bush-trained vines, planted in incredibly rocky soil at elevations high enough to be hard on the fruit. In temperatures that are blazing hot in the summer and bitterly cold at night, the grape benefits from being both drought-tolerant and late to harvest, but typically produces in heavy and light volumes on alternate years.
To the eye, Monastrell’s thick skins contribute to a deep, dark purple color. On the nose, its aroma gives away the earthy, rocky soil it thrives in, but the wine is all about spice and intense, dark fruit such as blackberries, blueberries and plums.
Most quality producers in Spain have tamed its highly tannic, rustic taste with selective oak aging, and the best vintners create wines that balance intense fruitiness with savory undertones. Although there is no getting around the fact that most Monastrell wines are relatively high in alcohol, averaging 12 to 15 percent, there’s a softness to the fruit that makes this wine very approachable, with the right level of acidity.
Experiencing Monastrell at its source
During a recent visit to Bodega Castaño in the Yecla DO (Denominación de Origen) of Murcia, I witnessed the unique growing conditions of this workhorse grape. More important, I tasted Monastrell at its source, perfectly paired with country food and generous Spanish hospitality.
As a guest of Ramón Castaño Santa and two of his three sons, winemaker Ramón and Daniel, I toured an estate that had been maintained by four generations of Castaño vintners. On this day during harvest, the Monastrell grape hung in heavy bunches just inches from ground, so I was able to experience the deep flavor of the fresh fruit before swirling the wine in a glass over lunch.
Although the hearty country gazpacho prepared over a wood fire was a simple but spectacular main course, the real treat was the collection of six wines that the Castaño family shared with its guests. From the simple, single varietal 2013 Monastrell to the smooth 2011 Casa de la Cera, the family’s flagship example of a perfect Monastrell blend: 50% Monastrell, 50% combination of Garnacha Tintorera, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Merlot.
I discovered that afternoon that Monastrell is a friendly wine that’s worth getting to know. There are a host of Spanish vintners from Murcia’s four recognized winemaking regions that are creating great examples of Monastrell vintages, including Bodega Castaño and Castillo del Baron in Yecla and Enrique Mendoza, Volver and Sierra Salinas in Alicante.
Best of all, Monastrell can still be an incredible value because the reputation of the heavy-handed, rough style of the Monastrell of old has not caught up with the new, more refined approaches that vintners are applying to this fruit-forward wine. Sometimes, mistaken identity can work in a wine lover’s favor.
Main photo: Monastrell grapes. Credit: Caroline J. Beck
With her latest book, “Baking Chez Moi,” acclaimed author Dorie Greenspan has fait mouche (hit the bull’s-eye) again. In this luscious culinary tome, Greenspan manages to break through the mystique of French baking techniques with ease and humor. She is, quite simply, the perfect guide for any baker who wants to explore everything from approachable variations on haute pâtisserie to those classic weekend cakes called gâteaux de voyages.
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"Baking Chez Moi"
By Dorie Greenspan
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt,
Of late, I’ve been poring over countless cookbooks for research. It’s made clear to me how important the author’s voice is in translating subject matter, recipes and technique. Greenspan’s uncomplicated, personable style makes me want to study her cookbooks cover to cover, with notebook in hand and an occasional smile. After all, how many cookbook authors will attribute a recipe’s success to “the magic of that vixen: chocolate”?
Reading “Baking Chez Moi” is like spending time with a best friend who happens to know just about everything there is to know about French baking, and whom to ask when she doesn’t. Even better, she’s a whiz at translating it into something that readers can conquer, not fear. It’s a skill that is never handier than when trying to attempt trickier French desserts like colorful macarons or her riff on Pierre Herme’s sumptuous Carrément Chocolat.
Anyone who has attempted advanced baking knows that it is an art of precision. Following directions to the letter is normally recommended. Yet while Greenspan encourages the exactitude of using metric weights and measures, she also allows for some interpretation, and in many cases promotes it.
Affectionately nicknamed “Miss One More Minute,” the author suggests that recipe timing is meant to be a well-defined guide but not absolute — especially when oven calibrations are never the same. Through her own tales of hits and misses, she gives the reader permission to play, including inventive sidebar suggestions she titles “Bonne Idées” (good ideas).
But what I like best about Greenspan’s approach with “Baking Chez Moi” is her active style of cross-pollination between recipes throughout the book. She moves from recipe to recipe just long enough to unearth the special character of each, then whisks along to find clever ways to employ it elsewhere, inviting the reader to jump right in and join her. And I took that invitation — after a first read, my copy was left with 17 sticky notes tagging the recipes I intend to try first.
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From "Baking Chez Moi"
"This recipe was given to me by Joëlle Caussade, whose husband, Gilles, owns a lively Paris bistro, Le Petit Vendôme, where Joëlle makes the mini cannelés that are served with coffee.
"A word on timing: The batter needs to rest in the refrigerator for at least 12 hours, so plan ahead.
"Serving: Cannelés are traditionally served alongside coffee or tea and often turn up on trays of mignardises, the small sweets that are after-dessert desserts.
"Storing: The batter needs to be refrigerated for at least 12 hours, but it can hold there for up to 3 days. As for the baked cannelés, they’re perfect the day they are made and still good, but firmer and chewier, the day after. Keep the cannelés in a dry place at room temperature. Lightly cover them if you like."
- 2 cups (480 ml) whole milk
- 1¼ cups (250 grams) sugar
- 2 tablespoons (1 ounce; 28 grams) unsalted butter
- 1 cup (136 grams) all-purpose flour
- 2 large eggs
- 1 large egg yolk
- 2½ tablespoons dark rum
- 2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
- Melted unsalted butter, for the molds
- At least 1 day before making the cannelés: Bring the milk, ¾ cup of the sugar and the butter to a boil in a medium saucepan, stirring occasionally to make sure the sugar dissolves. Remove from the heat and let cool until the mixture reaches 140 F. (If you don’t have a thermometer, cool the milk for 10 to 15 minutes; it should still feel hot to the touch.)
- While the milk is cooling, put the flour and the remaining ½ cup sugar into a strainer and sift them onto a piece of parchment or wax paper. Keep the strainer at hand.
- Working with a whisk, beat the eggs and yolk together in a large bowl until blended. Whisking without stopping, start adding the hot milk, just a little at first; then, when you’ve got about a quarter of the milk blended into the eggs, whisk in the remainder in a steady stream. Add the flour mixture all at once and whisk—don’t be afraid to be energetic—until the batter is homogeneous. You might have a few lumps here and there, but you can ignore them.
- Strain the batter into a large bowl or, better yet, a pitcher or a large measuring cup with a spout; discard any lumps in the strainer. Whisk in the rum and vanilla, cover the container tightly and refrigerate the batter for at least 12 hours. (The batter can be refrigerated for up to 3 days.)
- Lightly brush the cannelé molds with melted butter and put the pan in the freezer. The pan needs to be frozen only for 30 minutes, but if you put it into the freezer right after you make the batter, you won’t have to wait for it on baking day.
- When you’re ready to bake: Center a rack in the oven and preheat the oven to 450 F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper or a silicone baking mat. Put a cooling rack on the sheet and put the frozen cannelé molds on the rack.
- Remove the batter from the fridge. It will have settled and formed layers, so give it a good whisking to bring it back together, then rap the container against the counter to debubble it a bit. Fill the cannelé molds about three-quarters full.
- Bake the cannelés for 30 minutes, then lower the oven temperature to 400 F and bake for another 30 minutes or so. Cannelés are supposed to get very dark—black really—but if you’re concerned that yours are darkening too fast or too much, place a piece of parchment or foil over the molds. When properly baked, the bottoms will be dark and the sides of the little pastries will be a deep brown—think mahogany. (I spear a cannelé with a bamboo skewer and pull it out of its mold to inspect it.) While the cannelés bake, they may puff above the tops of the molds, like popovers or soufflés, and then, as they continue baking, or when they’re pulled from the oven, they’ll settle down. Pull the whole setup from the oven and put it on a cooling rack.
- Let the cannelés rest in their molds for 10 minutes, then turn them out onto a cooling rack. (Resting gives the tender pastries a chance to firm so they’ll hold their shape when unmolded.) Be careful: Even though you’ve waited 10 minutes, because of the caramelized sugar and melted butter, cannelés are hotter than most other pastries. Let the cannelés cool until they are only slightly warm or at room temperature.
Main photo: Dorie Greenspan. Credit: Alan Richardson
The next time you bite into a peach and experience a burst of juicy flavor that threatens to dribble down your chin, you might owe Dr. Stanley Johnston a note of thanks. Chances are you are eating a Redhaven, the most widely planted peach variety in the world. It was developed by Johnston during his long career at Michigan State University’s South Haven Experiment Station, beginning in the early 1920s.
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Even though Michigan’s production pales in comparison to leading peach-producing states like California, South Carolina and Georgia, the Mitten State gets to claim Johnston as its hometown hero. He dedicated his life to creating fruit varieties that would thrive in Michigan’s perfect conditions, including the Redhaven peach and his namesake, the Stanley blueberry, and his legacy can be found all around the world.
While there are hundreds of varieties of peaches, Johnston’s best-known creation was a series of eight different Haven peaches, and the Redhaven variety is the most famous of all. So it is fair to say he’s responsible for years of wonderful pies, cobblers, sundaes and sauces, all served up during peak peach and blueberry season.
Professional chefs and home cooks alike have long known that the brilliantly colored Redhaven is ideal for baking, canning or freezing. But what exactly makes the Redhaven an all-time favorite? It is that perfect combination of intensely pure peach flavor all wrapped up in a nearly fuzzless globe of juicy smooth texture. It is the quintessential peach.
When I’m within reach of a farmer’s stand, I almost always opt for white peach heritage varieties that smell, taste and look the part of a season-ripe and ready delicate fruit. But I’m also willing to admit that it’s hard to beat Johnston’s classic Redhaven if you’re after really “peachy” punch.
This summer, I decided to celebrate Johnston’s contributions to summer fare by grilling a slab of pork ribs and slathering them in a spicy peach and blueberry grilling sauce. I can also attest that the sauce’s deep rich, sweet and spicy flavor is just as good over grilled chicken. If you want to join me, pick a peck of peaches and a couple pints of blueberries and let’s get the party started – just don’t forget to thank Dr. Johnston.
- ½ pound fresh blueberries
- ½ pound fresh peaches, skins removed
- ½ large onion, roughly chopped
- Juice of 1 lemon
- 2 cloves garlic
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- ½ cup dark brown sugar
- ½ cup cider vinegar
- ½ cup Worcestershire sauce
- 2 tablespoons tomato paste
- 2 chipotle chiles in adobo (canned variety)
- ½ teaspoon salt
- Place all ingredients in food processor or high-powered blender and process until sauce is a smooth consistency, about 3-5 minutes.
- Transfer to a small saucepan and heat over a medium flame until the sauce reaches a boiling point, reduce and simmer for 30 minutes.
- The sauce can be prepared up to one week in advance but must be refrigerated until needed.
Main photo: Pork ribs with Spicy Blueberry and Peach Grilling Sauce. Credit: Caroline J. Beck
Sometimes hand-me down family recipes need a little nudge to make them suit today’s tastes. In the case of my grandma’s icebox cake, she traditionally labored over creating homemade pound cake and then paired it with homemade chocolate mousse-like pudding. My mom updated it for her day by using Jell-O pudding instead. It was tasty enough to be my favorite dessert as a 6-year-old, but as an adult, I want something more. More chocolate, to be specific.
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So I followed a big sister’s suggestion and combined the best of these family ideas. I added all the extra-dark chocolate I could find to the pudding as it cooked. Valrhona, Scharffen Berger, Callebaut, Guittard, Ghirardelli — pick your poison. And it didn’t seem to matter how much I threw in, so I took advice from my 8-year-old grandnephew, who is fond of promoting “add as much chocolate as you want” to almost any dessert recipe, and included three full bars of Valhrona, 1½ boxes of Scharffen Berger and a partial bag of Ghirardelli dark chocolate chips. And always on the lookout for simple and fast, I found that a three-loaf package of store-bought pound cake works just as well as homemade when chocolate is the star of the dessert.
With all that input — and all that chocolate — this cake might just live on to be a five-generation heirloom. I think Grandma would be proud.
- 3 store-bought pound cakes
- 18 ounces or more of dark chocolate (bars, bits or chips)
- 2 large (5-ounce) boxes of Jell-O Cook and Serve Chocolate Pudding
- 6 cups whole milk
- 2 cups whipped cream
- Cut pound cakes into ½ inch slices. Each cake should supply enough slices to fit in a single layer in a 9 x 13 baking pan.
- Break up chunks of dark chocolate bars. Combine two boxes of pudding mix and 6 cups of whole milk in a large saucepan set over medium high heat. When it starts to warm up, add chocolate pieces and continue to stir until the mixture boils. Remove from heat and set aside.
- Line a 9 x 13 baking pan with one layer of ½ inch slices of pound cake. Spread one-third of the pudding over the layer of cake. Repeat layering process two more times, alternating cake and pudding.
- Insert a few toothpicks in the top of the cake to keep plastic wrap from resting directly on pudding and cover. Refrigerate for 12 hours to allow the cake to chill and the pudding to settle.
- Prior to serving, spread a layer of freshly whipped cream over top of cake.
If you have a stash of good-quality baking chocolate, I encourage you to simply empty it into the pudding. It seems to be able to absorb quite a bit without consequence. You can serve this cake with as little as 3 hours’ chilling time, but it is best if left to settle and chill overnight or at least 12 hours.
Main photo: Chocolate icebox cake with Valrhona, Scharffen Berger and Ghirardelli chocolate. Credit: Caroline J. Beck
Driving along shoulderless highways in northern Michigan, it’s hard to miss row after row of Montmorency cherry trees loaded with fruit waiting to be baked into pies or squeezed into a liquid elixir that scientists and doctors assign superfruit status.
With more than 2 million cherry trees, Michigan produces over 70% of the country’s tart cherry crop, and July is the start of the season for a fruit that has been credited with controlling cholesterol, lowering weight and boosting heart health. Not to mention being at the heart of a mean cherry pie.
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Tart cherries might well deserve a medal for their healthy attributes, but I’d much rather test their ability to satisfy my craving for the yin-yang balance of sweet and tart enveloped in one glorious double-crusted pie. That’s because tart cherries, not sweet, have always been the basis for the best cherry pie. Bakers can control the amount of sweetness with sugar and the tangy essence of tart cherries keeps the pie from becoming cloyingly sweet.
In a part of the country where any proper pie judge will tell you that cherry pies are not to be trifled with, I decided to go out on a limb and conducted a loosely structured pie contest of my own. In traditional measure, blue ribbons become a battle between best crust and most cherry-packed (but least gooey) filling, and awards only go to those that deliver both.
Ferreting out the best the region had to offer, I sampled options from The Cherry Hut, a 92-year old pie-making institution in the little town of Beulah (8 points for cherry-packed filling), to local behemoth Cherry Republic (9 points for crunchy, tender crust). Naturally, I couldn’t avoid including a few farm stand options in between. In the end, a roadside pie spiced with a bit of balsamic vinegar took the prize for my personal favorite. Cask-aged balsamic, which delivers its own magic blend of sweet and tart, was the perfect complement to the fruit and provided a deep base of flavor to the freshly harvested cherries.
But after all that pie, I was feeling a bit sleepy, and no wonder. Did I mention that tart cherries contain melatonin, a natural hormone that helps you sleep at night?
The winning farm stand pie inspired my interpretation of the classic Michigan cherry pie. I’ve blended a rich, cask-aged balsamic vinegar into the filling and added a bit of Fiori di Sicilia, a blend of floral, citrus and vanilla essences, to keep the flavors bright.
- Pie dough, enough for two crusts, chilled
- 3 pounds, pitted fresh or frozen (do not thaw) tart cherries
- ⅓ cup Pie Enhancer (or 6 tablespoons flour)
- ½ cup sugar
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 3 tablespoons cask-aged balsamic vinegar
- ½ teaspoon Fiori de Sicilia extract (or vanilla extract)
- Sparkling sugar
- Preheat oven to 350 F. Roll out enough dough for one crust and place in 9- to 10-inch deep dish pie plate, leaving a 2-inch overhang. Return to refrigerator while assembling filling to keep dough cold.
- In a large mixing bowl, toss to combine cherries, Pie Enhancer or flour, sugar, salt, balsamic vinegar and Fiori di Sicilia. Fill pie dish and return to refrigerator again while preparing top crust.
- Roll out remaining pie dough and trim into 1-inch slices. Weave for latticework and gently transfer over filling. Turn lower crust up and over edges of lattice and crimp with fingers or fork.
- Whisk egg with 2 tablespoons water and gently brush over top crust. Sprinkle with sparkling sugar.
- Place the pie on a baking sheet and bake for 1 hour to 1 hour 20 minutes, crust will be golden brown and fruit will be gently bubbling when done. Remove to rack to cool.
Not one to cling to tradition, when I find a new ingredient that is a big improvement over my old ways, I embrace it. Such is the case with King Arthur Flour’s Pie Enhancer, which I use to thicken fruit pies. A blend of superfine sugar, modified corn starch (aka Instant Clear Gel) and ascorbic acid, it sets the pie juices but avoids that gluey texture that flour sometimes imparts. But follow your own tradition and if flour works best for you, then substitute 5 tablespoons of flour for the Pie Enhancer and increase the amount of sugar in the filling for a total of ⅓ cup sugar.
Having been raised under the shade of a sweet cherry tree, I always took great pride in asserting Michigan’s cherry dominance. It was not until researching this piece that I made a shocking discovery: Most sweet cherries are grown in the West. To be specific, Utah, California and Oregon.
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Next, I discovered that Utah also supported its sweet cherry stronghold by designating the cherry as its state fruit back in 1997. Meanwhile, Michigan is still trying to make up its mind about that subject. Proposed legislation designating a state fruit has been stalled in committee for more than a year, with heavy opposition from the blueberry contingent. Not only was my state not among the Top 3, it couldn’t even muster sufficient political muscle behind its homegrown sweet cherries. I never would have guessed that a simple story about a spicy cherry salsa would cause me such emotional upheaval.
Despite my disappointment in this news, I still am crazy about sweet cherries in June and July. I like to throw them on waffles in the morning, salads in the afternoon and start any party with a simple, kicked-up cherry salsa, especially if it’s an impromptu gathering and I’ve only got 15 minutes before running out the door. This light, fruity salsa is sure to disappear as fast as guacamole on Cinco de Mayo or cherry pie on the fourth of July. But that’s another story with a happier ending, because cherry pie uses tart cherries, and Michigan wins that contest hands down.
- 1 pound sweet cherries, pitted
- ½ pound fresh or canned pineapple
- 1 jalapeño pepper
- Juice of 1 lime
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 teaspoon Aleppo chili pepper, or to taste
- ¼ cup parsley, minced
- Combine all ingredients in a blender or food processor and pulse until the mixture reaches a chunky sauce consistency.
- This can be served immediately, but it is best if allowed to marinate for up to three hours while the sweet and spicy flavors get to know each other. Serve with tortilla chips.
Main photo: Sweet cherry-pineapple salsa. Credit: Caroline J. Beck