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Tina Caputo

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Petaluma, California

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In her day job, Tina is the editor-in-chief of Vineyard & Winery Management magazine, a wine business magazine based in Northern California. Before joining V&WM, she was the managing editor of Wines & Vines magazine. Throughout her career Tina has written about wine and lifestyle topics as a freelancer for publications including the San Francisco Chronicle, Wine Review Online, US Airways magazine and Decanter.

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How Artisans Harvest Wine Corks In Portugal Image

The ax strikes the tree with a dry, hollow crack. The man wielding it carefully uses the edge of the blade to pry a thick piece of cork from the tree, then hands it down the ladder to a worker waiting below. In the surrounding forest, the crew continues separating the bark from the trees in the summer heat, until the day’s harvest is collected. There are no machines to do this work. It requires skill as well as physical strength, and the stamina to withstand 90-plus-degree temperatures, swarming flies and dry, thorny brush that tears at workers’ pant legs.

This was the scene I witnessed in late July, during the annual cork harvest in Coruche, Portugal’s cork capital. The harvest takes place each year between May and August, as it has for centuries.

Cork is the name for the bark of the cork oak tree (scientific name Quercus Suber L.), an ancient species dating back millions of years. Cork oaks grow primarily in Portugal, but also in France, Spain, Italy and Morocco. Because these unique trees have the ability to regenerate their outer layer of bark after it’s been stripped, there’s no need to cut down the trees in order to harvest the cork.

Portugal is the world’s largest producer of cork, and the country is home to nearly 2 million acres of cork forest, or montado. Cork trees can live 500 years or more if their bark has never been harvested, and up to 150 years if it has.

In the wine world, people often marvel at the patience of grape growers, who have to wait three years for a new vineyard to produce a usable crop. That’s nothing compared with the long-range planning required of Portugal’s cork farmers. Once a cork tree is planted, it takes 25 years before its bark can be harvested.

The first year’s bark isn’t good enough for wine stoppers, so it’s sold at a much cheaper rate for flooring and other byproducts. It takes nine years for the bark to regenerate before it can be harvested again, and even then, it still isn’t viable for wine corks. Only after nine more years, at the third harvest, does the tree produce bark that’s suitable for stoppers. In case you’ve lost count, that’s 43 years of waiting!

Skill and strength

Watching the harvest crew in action last month, I came to understand why these are the world’s highest-paid agricultural workers. Stripping the bark is hot, difficult work, and requires both care and muscle. The harvesting is done mainly by men, known as descortiçadores (debarkers),who earn up to 90 euros ($120) per day wielding sharp iron axes called machadas.

As my guide, Sofia Ramos of the Coruche Forestry Association, pointed out, this work cannot be done by just anyone; it takes specialized skill to remove the bark without damaging the trees. The technique is passed down through generations, and is not something that can easily be picked up by migrant workers from non-cork-producing regions. “They have ancient knowledge,” she told me, “and that is very valuable.”

As I stood in relative comfort, but still dripping with sweat and swatting flies, I watched the workers strip the gnarly gray-brown bark from the trees, leaving behind smooth trunks the color of mahogany. Moving swiftly and efficiently, it took each two-man team about 10 minutes to strip a tree before moving on to the next one.

Although the harvest process appeared to be fairly simple from my vantage point, I learned that it actually consists of many distinct steps:

First, a vertical cut is made in the bark, while at the same time, the edge of the ax is twisted to separate the outer from the inner bark. Second, the cork is separated from the tree by inserting the edge of the ax between the cork strip and the inner bark, and twisting the ax between the trunk and the cork strip. Next, a horizontal cut is made to define the size of the cork plank to be extracted. Finally, the plank is carefully removed from the tree so that it doesn’t split (the larger the planks, the greater their value.)

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Portugal's "debarkers" are the highest-paid agricultural workers in the world. Credit: Courtesy of APCOR

Once the tree has been stripped, it’s marked with a number, using the last digit of the year in which the extraction took place. This lets the forest manager know when the trees will be ready for the next harvest.

Each day’s cork planks are stacked onto tractor beds and transferred to a drying area where they rest for three weeks before being transported to a cork processing facility. There, the planks are boiled to remove impurities, trimmed, sorted, cut into strips and finally, punched into stoppers.

The next time I pull one of those stoppers from a wine bottle I’ll be thinking about Portugal’s miraculously regenerating cork trees, and the hardworking descortiçadores who harvest their bark.

Main photo: Cork trees can be harvested only every nine years. Credit: Courtesy of APCOR

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Summer’s Not Just for White; It’s OK To Chill Red Wine Image

When the temperature climbs near triple digits and you’re outdoors feeling the heat, there’s nothing like a nice refreshing glass of … red wine. I know what you’re thinking: red wine on a hot day? You must be crazy!

But before you head for the cooler full of ice-cold beer or chilled white wine, answer this question: What’s going to taste better with the juicy burger or gorgeous rib eye you’re grilling? “Lite” beer or Pinot Noir? (That’s a rhetorical question, of course.)

The trick to making red wine suitable for summer is simple. Just chill it.

I’m not talking about keeping the bottle in the refrigerator for days or plunging it into an ice chest for hours. I’m merely suggesting that you bring the wine down to a more hospitable serving temperature by popping it into the fridge for a short period or putting it on ice until it’s lightly chilled.

This may sound like blasphemy to some people, but I’ve seen many a winemaker chill down their reds before serving them on hot summer days. They are also not above dropping the occasional ice cube into a glass of wine. If winemakers do it, why can’t you?

The right reds

When choosing a red for the cooler, steer clear of big, oaky wines. Don’t even think about chilling a Brunello di Montalcino or Napa Cab, or you’ll be sorry. The cold mutes the fruit and complexity in those big reds, amplifying the oak and alcohol.

What you do want is a fruity red with some finesse. Beaujolais is a classic example of a chillable red, but other wines, such as Pinot Noir, Grenache and lighter styles of Zinfandel, can also benefit from the ice bucket. Sparkling red wines — not rosés, but true reds — were born to be chilled, and the drier styles (think sparkling Shiraz from Australia) are excellent with grilled meats and sausages.

Dry red sparklers, served cold, are refreshing and pair well with grilled meats. Credit: Tina Caputo

Dry red sparklers, served cold, are refreshing and pair well with grilled meats. Credit: Tina Caputo

Just cold enough

There’s a very good reason most people avoid drinking red wines in hot weather: Reds served at “room temperature,” which in the summer can easily be 75 degrees Fahrenheit, are not at their best. Warmer temperatures can render them flat and lifeless, and far from refreshing.

In my home experiments, I’ve found the ideal temperature for red wines to be around 65. Any colder than that and they begin losing their aroma and flavor complexities. In a refrigerator set to 38, as mine is, it takes about 30 minutes for a bottle of wine to reach the desired serving temperature. The timing is a bit less for chilling a bottle on ice. (If a chilled red seems dull and muted, warm the bowl of the glass in your hands for a few minutes and it will perk right up.)

Cool reds for hot weather

Here are five chiller-ready wines, tested by yours truly, to help you beat the heat this summer:

A to Z Wineworks 2012 Oregon Pinot Noir ($19): Light red in color, this light- to medium-bodied Pinot has aromas of raspberries, cherries and spice, along with bright acidity. The wine loses a little of its brightness when chilled, but retains its lovely red fruit character.

Cantiga Wineworks 2011 El Dorado County Grenache ($28): Light, transparent red in color, this juicy wine has aromas of berries and spice. The wine has some tannic backbone and acidity, along with raspberry and vanilla flavors. Don’t let this one get too cold, or the tannins will start to take over.

Dry Creek Vineyard 2012 Sonoma County Heritage Vines Zinfandel ($20): This medium-bodied Zin has black and blue fruit aromas, with some woody notes. The wine has blackberry and cherry flavors, with moderate acidity. The chiller brought out its cherry and spice notes.

MacRostie 2012 Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir ($34): With aromas of red fruits and spice, the wine has bright flavors of raspberries and cinnamon. The spicy quality comes out a bit more when the wine is chilled, along with a tart cherry note on the palate.

Korbel Champagne Cellars Sonoma County Rouge ($14): This sparkling red has a base of Pinot Noir, with a tiny bit of Merlot added. The wine has a beautiful dark purple color, with fine bubbles and a black cherry aroma. It’s full bodied and flavorful, with black cherry flavor and a dry finish. Serve this one nice and cold.

Main photo: On warm days, red wines can benefit from the ice bucket. Credit: Tina Caputo

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What’s The Difference In Single-Variety Olive Oil? Image

When you buy a bottle of extra virgin olive oil, how much thought do you give to the variety of olives used to make it?

Two months ago if you’d asked me to name all the types of olives I knew, I would have managed to come up with a few: Kalamata, Mission … uh … green ones. Somehow it hadn’t crossed my mind that, like wine, olive oil reflects the variety of fruit that goes into it. And just as there are wines made with a single grape variety, there are single-variety olive oils, each with its own character.

This revelation came to me during a visit to B.R. Cohn Winery in the Sonoma Valley. Along with Cabernet Sauvignon, the winery is known for its range of extra virgin olive oils, which includes an estate oil made entirely from a French variety called Picholine.

B.R. Cohn’s Picholine olives are the size of soybeans, and yield only about 25 gallons of oil per ton compared to 50 gallons for other varieties. “Because of its low yield at the press, not many people make olive oil from the Picholine,”  winery president Dan Cohn said. “It’s very labor intensive.”

Even so, he believes the variety deserves to stand alone.

“Most of the wines we produce here are 100% Cabernet,” Cohn said. “I believe there’s something to be said about being true to the varietal.”

Cohn looks for a specific flavor profile in the Picholine oil that reflects the olive’s character. “I like a little grassiness in the front of the palate, then a little apple, then a little butter and just the right amount of pepper in the finish,”  he said.

Seeking out varietal olive oil

Talking to Cohn about the winery’s prized Picholine oil made me wonder how common single-variety olive oils really are. A visit to my neighborhood market confirmed my suspicions: Of the two dozen extra virgin olive oils on the shelves, nearly all were multi-olive blends.

However, further investigation turned up a handful of merchants selling varietal olive oils online. Among them was a local operation called The Olive Press, which runs tasting rooms in Sonoma and the Napa Valley to showcase its blended and single-variety oils from California.

“Blends are popular because they allow millers to manipulate the overall delivery of an oil,”  production manager Chris Gilmore said. “Some millers prefer to either round out or, in some cases, bolster robustness through the introduction of other varietals. This effort produces some very interesting oils, much like the blending of the central five Bordeaux varietals produces exceptional diversity in wine rather than highlighting just one.”

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The Olive Press in Sonoma offers samples of several single-variety extra virgin olive oils. Credit: Tina Caputo

But there is also a dark side to blending. “Internationally, blending is largely an effort to mask inferior export oils headed for the United States,” Gilmore said. “The grim truth is that foreign exporters will ‘blend’ a high volume of defective oil with perhaps a bit of fresh oil in the hopes of giving some life to the product. The lower prices of these oils make them attractive despite the fact that they contain none of the health benefits of extra virgin olive oil.”

Gilmore likes making single-variety olive oils because it allows him to showcase the aromas and flavors of individual varieties. “Each varietal displays characteristics unique to that type of fruit, much like a pinot grape holds vastly different potential than Cabernet,” he said. “To make a well-balanced single-varietal oil is both challenging and rewarding, and it’s what gets me excited every fall.”

Tasting the difference

To taste the differences for myself, I dropped in at The Olive Press and sampled an array of varietal olive oils. Vicki Zancanella, the tasting room’s resident olive oil expert, guided me through the offerings.

OILVE OIL LINKS


To order single-variety olive oils online, visit:

» theolivepress.com

» nvoliveol.com

» oliandve.com

» allspiceonline.com

“A good extra virgin olive oil should have three things,” she said. “It should have fruitiness at the front of your palate, bitterness at the back and pungency as it goes down your throat.” And just as there are common descriptors for tasting wine, there are classic aromas and flavors in extra virgin olive oil, such as freshly cut grass and tomato leaves.

The varietal oils I tasted varied in intensity from delicate to robust, and showed a fascinating range of flavor profiles:

Arbosana: A delicate oil with a subtle aroma of banana peel, and mild bitterness at the back of the throat. Best for salads, mild greens and roasted vegetables.

Mission: Buttery, with aromas of grass, plums and tomatoes. Rich, with some bitterness on the finish. Ideal for cooking and baking.

Ascolano: Stone fruit aroma, and buttery on the palate, with peppery, pungent notes. Great for fruit salads and fresh tomatoes, or for baking.

Arbequina: A medium-intensity oil, with aromas of tomato leaves and forest floor. Some astringency on the palate, produces a nice burn at the back of the throat. Good for salads, or cooking chicken or fish.

Koroneiki: Robust, with fruity, herbaceous aromas. Smooth, creamy texture and prominent bitterness. Blend with balsamic vinegar for salad dressing or use for cooking hearty Greek fare.

Picual: Powerful “green” aroma of tomatoes, greens and tomato leaves. Quite bitter on palate, with green tomato notes and pungency at back of the throat. Drizzle lightly over caprese salads or simple pasta.

With so many flavors and uses to explore, it looks like I’m going to have to make room in my pantry for a few new bottles.

Main photo: B.R. Cohn likes to harvest its Picholine olives when they are half green and half purple. Credit: Courtesy of B.R. Cohn Winery

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Don’t Stress, Mom’s Fresh Pasta Recipe Can Be A Joy Image

As a first generation Italian-American, I was raised on culinary delights my friends could only imagine: a never-ending supply of homemade tomato sauce and meatballs; fried bread dough glistening with olive oil; fresh pasta made from scratch. Perhaps because she couldn’t stand the thought of her son having to eat dried spaghetti and sauce from a jar, my Italian grandma made sure my mom — a non-Italian from West Virginia — learned how to cook my dad’s favorite dishes.

Although she had no experience making Italian food, my mom was a quick and enthusiastic learner. It was she who first taught me how to make fresh pasta in our basement,  albeit against my will.

Unlike people with fond childhood memories of cooking at their mothers’ elbows, I was not interested in learning to make pasta as sassy pre-teen. When my mom tried to reason with me,  “If you don’t help, how will you know how to do this yourself someday?”  I shot back, “I’ll have my maid do it for me.”

It’s a wonder she didn’t whack me with a rolling pin.

It wasn’t until I moved from home and had to fend for myself in the kitchen that her words sunk in. Where was the fresh fettuccine going to come from, if not my own hands?

Technique makes all the difference

If my mom felt the warm glow of I-told-you-so when I finally asked for her recipe, she didn’t show it.

I made fresh pasta many times over the years and came to understand all too well why my mom had been so eager for extra hands. The process seemed to take forever! I’d spend half a day cranking dough through the pasta roller, and by the time I was finished, all I’d want to do was order pizza and go to bed.

Until a few years ago, when my Aunt Lena invited me to her house for a linguine lesson, I never suspected that pasta-making could be anything other than an act of martyrdom. That day, my aunt taught me a few things that helped explain why my previous attempts had been so exhausting. Here’s what I’d been doing wrong:

I made my dough with a food processor, which can make it too stiff. Only by kneading the dough with your hands can you feel when the texture is right.

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Crack eggs into the flour well, being careful not to break the dam. Credit: Tina Caputo

Because my dough was so unyielding, I had to run it through the roller more times than normally would be necessary. This made the process take longer than it should have.

I didn’t let the dough rest properly. Letting it sit for 10 minutes or so before each trip through the pasta roller relaxes the gluten and makes the dough easier to work with. (Aunt Lena also taught me that while the dough rests, I should rest too — with a glass of red wine in hand.)

In only two hours, the two of us cranked out enough pasta to feed a dozen family members, with plenty of leftovers. And the experience was fun and relaxing!

To make my pasta pursuits even more enjoyable, I’ve since adopted an innovation recommended by my mom: a pasta roller/cutter attachment for my KitchenAid stand mixer. I was reluctant to give up my hand-crank machine at first, but changed my mind when I discovered that because the mixer’s motor turns the rollers automatically, I could use both hands to guide the dough as it came out of the roller. That makes solo pasta-production much easier.

Now that I know that making fresh pasta doesn’t have to involve five hours of hard labor, I don’t wait for a special occasion to make it.

Fresh Pasta

Serves 4 to 6

Ingredients

2¾ cups all-purpose flour

3 eggs (room temperature)

3 ounces tepid water

1 teaspoon salt

Directions

1. Mound flour on a cutting board or clean work surface and make a well in the center of the flour. Crack the eggs into the well and add water and salt. Use a fork to break the yolks and slowly begin scooping flour into the well, a little at a time, until all the flour is incorporated into the liquid.

2. Knead dough until smooth. If the dough feels sticky, it is too wet; add more flour 1 tablespoon at a time until it feels smooth and doesn’t stick to your hands. Form dough into a log shape.

3. Cover dough with plastic wrap and let it rest 10-15 minutes. While you’re waiting, you can relax and drink some wine (this also applies to steps 4 and 7).

4. Knead again for a few more minutes until dough is smooth, adding a bit more flour if needed. Cover and let rest for another 10-15 minutes.

5. Slice log into five pieces of equal size. Dip each slice in flour to coat and brush off any extra flour. Roll each slice with a rolling pin to flatten into small ovals and sprinkle with flour.

6. Run dough slices through a hand-crank pasta machine or KitchenAid mixer roller attachment at the 1, 4 and 6 (wide, medium and small) thickness settings. (Run all the sheets through on the wide setting, then roll all of the sheets on medium, etc. That allows the sheets to rest for a few minutes between rollings.) Skip the smallest setting if sheets have reached the desired thickness after two trips through the roller. You should be able to see the outline of your hand through the sheet. When dough is coming out of the roller, pull on it gently to stretch it out. Sheets should be smooth and elastic.

7. Cut sheets in half so they are each about 12 inches long. Lay sheets on a tablecloth, dust with a little flour and turn them over. When edges begin to dry (in 20-30 minutes), the pasta is ready to cut. Don’t let it dry too much, or sheets will buckle and get caught in roller.

8. Run pasta sheets through cutter and arrange noodles in loose nests on a tablecloth. Sprinkle with a little flour to keep strands from sticking together. Cook in boiling salted water until al dente (2-3 minutes). If you’re not planning to eat the pasta that day, leave it to dry completely, turning nests over after an hour or so. Dried pasta will keep in the pantry for a few months.

Top photo: Making beautiful fresh pasta takes some effort, but with the right technique, it can be relaxing and fun. Credit: Tina Caputo

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Wine And Asparagus Can Be Friends With Good Pairings Image

When tasting certain wines, critics are often inspired to make food-pairing declarations. “This is a perfect oyster wine,” one might say about a crisp Sancerre, or “This Cabernet is crying out for a grilled steak!”

That almost never happens with asparagus. Asparagus is delicious, but it’s also laden with a sulfur-containing amino acid that can conspire with the vegetable’s grassy flavor to make wine taste vegetal, metallic and downright awful. It’s known in the wine world as one of the untouchables — a pairing best not attempted. Despite the taboo, I’ve seen asparagus on enough wine country tables to know that although the pairing may be difficult, it’s certainly not impossible. It can even be enjoyable!

Chad Hendrickson, executive chef for The Hess Collection Winery in Napa, Calif., agrees. “It’s all about the preparation and other ingredients that are used,” he said. “I’m looking for flavor components in the wine that I can use to help bring the wine and the dish together.” Plain, blanched asparagus tends to clash with wine, he noted, but grilled asparagus is another story. “Grilling adds that nice bit of char, and it also adds a cleaner asparagus flavor,” he said. The next step is to include elements in the dish that will act as a bridge to the flavor of the asparagus. “I do a salad that consists of citrus over shaved fennel, grilled asparagus and a little goat cheese,” he said. “We also make a wildflower honey vinaigrette for asparagus that works really well with the flavor of our Chardonnay.”

Hendrickson recommends white wines with asparagus, and avoids serving it with buttery, oaky styles of Chardonnay. “I’m a fan of wines with more of a mineral background,” he said, noting that Pinot Grigio is one of his favorite asparagus-friendly varieties. He also likes to pair certain asparagus dishes with richer wines, such as Viognier.

An overabundance of fruit character can also cause pairing problems, according to Lia Huber, who creates recipes for Bonterra Organic Vineyards in California’s Mendocino County. “The key is to stay away from anything too fruit-forward, because overt fruitiness in wine clashes horribly with that funky-musty undertone that asparagus has,” she said. “Instead, choose wines with mineral, citrus or grassy characteristics and high acidity, like Sauvignon Blanc. These wines come right alongside asparagus and hold hands.”

The best pairings

To find out which wines really work best with those funky green stalks, I recruited a few friendly wine professionals to join me in the Mother of All Wine-and-Asparagus Tastings: 28 white wines versus five pounds of grilled asparagus. Between bites of asparagus, we tasted the wines blind (with the labels covered to hide the brand names) and awarded each pairing a medal rating of bronze, silver or gold. Wines that clashed with the asparagus received a “no medal” rating. Once initial medals were decided, we pitted the gold medal wines against each other in a taste-off round to crown the Asparagus Champion.

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Topping grilled asparagus with a mixture of chopped eggs, pickles, capers and fresh herbs makes it a great partner for crisp Sauvignon Blanc (recipe by Lia Huber). Credit: Tina Caputo

Having judged quite a few professional wine competitions in our collective careers, we had to alter our mindsets a bit for this one. Rather than simply selecting the best wines in each round — and there were some very good ones in the running — asparagus compatibility was the most important factor in rating the contenders.

Winning wines

Of the 28 wines we tasted, five earned gold medals and 10 scored silver. I expected the Sauvignon Blanc wines to shine, and they did, but there were some surprises too. I thought the Chardonnays would surely bomb, and had doubts about the rosés, but one of each made it into our top five. Starting with the Asparagus Champion, the winning wines are:

Steelhead Vineyards 2012 North Coast Sauvignon Blanc ($12.99): With fresh lime and citrus aromas, this wine is crisp and clean, with plenty of citrus and grassiness on the palate.

Quivira 2012 Fig Tree Vineyard Dry Creek Valley Sauvignon Blanc ($22): This wine has tropical aromas of guava, along with grassy notes and a pleasant muskiness. It’s lean and fresh on the palate with lemon and grapefruit flavors, and bracing acidity.

Malk 2012 Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc ($29): A peachy, floral aroma is followed on the palate with surprising freshness and complexity. The wine shows a hint of peach flavor, along with tart citrus and mineral notes.

Casey Flat Ranch 2013 Capay Valley Rosé  ($18): Pale pink in color, this dry rosé has subtle aromas of strawberries and orange zest. It’s fresh and crisp, with lively acidity and a balanced fruitiness.

Domaine Carneros 2012 La Terre Promise Carneros Chardonnay ($44): With aromas of green apples and soft vanilla, this wine is nicely rounded, with a fine balance between fruit and subtle oak. This wine would pair best with asparagus dishes that involve some richer elements.

Now that you know which wines to serve with that gorgeous green bounty, all you need is a great recipe to celebrate the stalks of spring. This dish was created by Huber to “hold hands” with Bonterra’s Sauvignon Blanc, but it works just as well with similarly grassy, citrusy wines.

Flash-Roasted Asparagus With Springtime Gribiche

Serves 6

Ingredients

2 pounds asparagus, trimmed

3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, divided

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

2 hard-boiled eggs, peeled

1 tablespoon white wine vinegar

1 teaspoon Dijon mustard

1 tablespoon capers, chopped

4 gherkin pickles, chopped

2 tablespoons fresh herbs (flat leaf parsley, tarragon, chervil), finely chopped

Directions

1. Preheat oven to 475 F.

2. Toss asparagus with 1 tablespoon olive oil and a generous pinch of salt and pepper, and spread on a baking sheet. Roast for 5 to 8 minutes, turning occasionally, until just tender to the bite.

3. Meanwhile, separate 1 egg yolk from the white; place yolk in a medium bowl and the white on a cutting board. Finely chop white and remaining egg and set aside.

4. Use a fork to break up the egg yolk in the bowl and whisk in 2 tablespoons olive oil, vinegar and Dijon until it’s smooth. Mix in chopped eggs, capers, pickles and herbs, and season with salt and pepper.

5. Arrange asparagus on a serving dish and top with the gribiche sauce.

Main photo: Asparagus is considered a notoriously difficult food to pair with wine. Credit: Tina Caputo

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Bettering ‘Buttercream’ By Adding More Butter Image

My birthday falls just after the first day of spring, and along with warm sunny weather there’s one thing I always look forward to when the season changes and I clock in another year on the green side of the grass: cake. Not just any cake, but a rich chocolate one slathered with my mom’s famous vanilla buttercream frosting.

I don’t normally get excited about frosting — it’s usually too sweet or too gritty for my taste — but this one has a light and silky texture, with the perfect amount of sweetness and vanilla flavor. I could eat it with a spoon (and sometimes do).

I can’t think of anything more perfect for topping a springtime cake, whether it’s devil’s food, yellow or red velvet.

Mom’s magical frosting is based on a recipe she found in an Eastern Star cookbook, a post-wedding gift from her grandmother in the mid-1960s. Mom fiddled around with the recipe, tweaking the amount of sugar and flour, and eliminating the use of shortening until she made it her own. “After that I don’t think I ever made another frosting,” she told me.

Mom’s process involves boiling milk and flour in a saucepan until it’s thick and lump free. While the mixture cools, butter, margarine and sugar are creamed together in a stand mixer until fluffy and creamy. The cooled flour mixture is gradually added to the mixing bowl, along with vanilla, until all the ingredients are incorporated and the frosting looks like whipped cream.

When I asked my mom why she uses equal parts margarine and butter in her recipe, she wasn’t exactly sure. “The original recipe called for half shortening,” she said, “but I couldn’t stand the idea of eating raw Crisco.” She thought margarine was a more palatable option.

Although the Eastern Star recipe was simply titled “Frosting,” mom has always called her frosting “buttercream.” I recently learned that technically, that’s not quite correct.

Classic buttercream frosting

According to John Difilippo, who teaches baking and pastry arts at the Culinary Institute of America in the Napa Valley, there are many versions of buttercream frosting. But the one most commonly used by American pastry chefs, he said, is Italian buttercream. It’s made by boiling sugar and water into a syrup and combining the mixture with whipped egg whites. Finally, butter and vanilla are beaten into the mixture until smooth. French and Swiss versions are slightly different, but all include egg whites or whole eggs, and some form of cooking to pasteurize the eggs and ensure a more stable frosting.

Difilippo had never heard of a buttercream recipe quite like my mom’s, but he was able to solve the shortening mystery.

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Butter and sugar are creamed together in a stand mixer until light and fluffy. Credit: Tina Caputo

“It’s a very common process, just for saving cost,” he said. “Crisco is much cheaper than butter.”

The person who contributed the Eastern Star recipe may have learned it from a relative who grew up during the Depression, when many people couldn’t afford the luxury of an all-butter frosting or one using eggs.

“A lot of people simply make recipes the way their mother or grandmother taught them,” Difilippo said.

True enough. For all the years I’ve been making my mom’s frosting, I’ve always used equal parts butter and margarine. Now that I know the reason behind the margarine, it’s going to be all butter from here on out.

I don’t think my mom will mind my tinkering with her recipe. After all, she’s the one who started it.

Karen’s Buttercream Frosting

Makes enough for one 9-inch layer cake (if you like a lot of frosting on your cakes, increase recipe by one half)

Ingredients

1 cup milk

4½ tablespoons flour

2 sticks (1 cup) butter, room temperature

¾ cup sugar

1 teaspoon vanilla

Directions

1. Cook milk and flour in a saucepan until mixture is thick and starts to bubble, starting at medium heat, then turning down to low. Stir constantly to make sure there are no lumps. Remove from heat, cover pan and let cool completely.

2. Beat butter in a stand mixer at medium speed, adding sugar a little at a time, until mixture is very creamy and fluffy. Be patient — this will take about five minutes.

3. While mixing at low/medium speed, gradually add the cooled flour/milk mixture, then the vanilla, until all ingredients are incorporated. The finished frosting should be light and fluffy, similar to whipped cream.

Top photo: The author’s favorite birthday cake since childhood — chocolate, topped with her mom’s buttercream frosting and chocolate chips. Credit: Tina Caputo

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