As a way of making summertime lunch or dinner parties a shade simpler, try combining the drink with the dessert.
Hundreds of options are available for using wine to upgrade standard cold dessert dishes of American tables. With fresh fruit now in abundance, combinations of all sorts are available to the home chef.
Contrary to popular use, the potentials of wine in cooking extend far beyond seasoning occasional soups and preparing marinades, and one of the directions it can take is the dessert.
But why wine in desserts, instead of the old standby liqueurs like Grand Marnier, Chambord or Triple Sec to give a hefty tang to a meal's end? My feeling is that as a finishing touch in warm weather, wine flavorings make a better effect than spicy cordials . . . less assertive and more subtle. The aromatics, the herbs of hefty cordials, sometimes can dominate. There's just something heavy about them.
Wine has never been neglected as a dessert seasoning in European cuisines. In Austria it is used to prepare short pastry batter for making deep-fried rolls stuffed with fresh fruit -- the simple street snack called "weintag."
Ever basically simple and often elegant, French cooking goes the whole hog in the dessert department and makes the wine the star. A northern French tradition is winding up the meal with a glass of champagne, escorted by the "biscuit de Rheims," a dense, mildly sweet rectangular cookie made by bakeries in the champagne country that you eat along with the bubbly. In a more general way, watered wine is often a favorite poaching medium in many Euopean cuisines for preparing choice fruits for the dessert treatments. The proportions are usually 2 of wine to 1 or 1 1/2 of water.
If you are lucky enough to have champagne, don't despair if it goes flat on you. Stale champagne is a favorite ingredient in preparing Gallic snacks including desserts. Novices can try out less lofty wines on simple, inexpensive and regularly available ingredients. Here are some options:
Use a tablespoon or two of marsala in your favorite pudding, sweet sauce or chocolate mousse for extra dimension. A little sherry, sweet or dry, say a couple of ounces, can do wonders with desserts involving moistened vanilla wafers, ladyfingers or crushed gingersnaps. Sherry does well in desserts involving peaches or pears.
The pear is ideally poached in dry white wine with a little bit of lemon juice and a little bit of sugar. A tad of madeira, say a teaspoon or two, can add luster to a caramel or butterscotch dessert mix. One quarter of a cup of marsala in your fruit pie filling will do wonders. It's cognac or brandy, a tablespoon or two, in your dessert souffles, hot or cold, for glamour. Fold in as a final step before cooking or freezing.
There's nothing new or trendy about recognizing a wine role in dessert preparation. Wines have played a role in cooking back to the days of the Roman empire and earlier.
Frothy syllabub comes out of the centuries with tradition behind it, too. It was an obligatory offering at receptions and dinners of mid-Victorian years. We know that it graced homes like Nashville's Belmont, the greatest mansion in Tennessee, during the antebellum tenure of Elizabeth Harding. It was a regular, too, in thousands of other houses where, in a pre-air-conditioning age, a cold drink was one of few remedies for lethal American summers.
The following traditional late spring or early summer concoction of the old South can be served in a punch bowl with a flourish, reception-style, to seated or standing dinner guests. It's really better sitting down since punch cups do not hold enough of the frothy stuff to be worthwhile. Liquid items should be thoroughly chilled before beating.
Serves eight to 10.
Mix 2 cups of white wine (sauterne or Moselle preferred) with about 5 tablespoons of grated lemon rind, a cup of sugar and 1/3 cup lemon juice. When sugar is dissolved, add to a blend of 3 cups milk and 2 cups of light cream, then beat until frothy. Beat 4 egg whites with 1/2 cup sugar until stiff. Pour wine mixture into a chilled bowl and top with mounds of egg white. Sprinkle with nutmeg and serve.
Wine and fruit compote
A big, chillable ceramic or glass bowl, or separate smaller bowls, are ideal for this simple, refreshing and winy way of winding up a meal. If you alternate kiwi and single grapes on top with the orange and ivory notes of the oranges and bananas, the effect can be jewel-like.
3 kiwi, chilled and then peeled and sliced
6 large oranges, chilled
2 tablespoons lemon juice
4 medium or three large bananas, chilled
1 pound of seedless grapes, purple preferred, chilled
1 cup of marsala, red vermouth, madeira or malaga wine, or sweet white wine of your choice
18 vanilla wafers, crumbled
1 or 2 --es of Angostura bitters
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
Chill 8 compotes or 1 medium to large bowl in the refrigerator or freezer. Remove from refrigerator and add 1 or 2 tablespoons of the crumbled wafers to the bottom of the compotes, or line bowl with the crumbs.
Slice chilled oranges in half and fillet them by cutting out pulp slices and saving them, discarding the membrane and skin. Thin-slice kiwi fruit and bananas. Place the orange slices on the bottom of your arrangement, alternating them with the bananas. Then alternate the grapes with kiwi slices on the top of the compote or fruit bowl. Spike the wine with Angostura, cinnamon and lemon juice; mix and pour it over the bowl of fruit or spoon it over each compote helping. Cover with plastic wrap and chill compotes or bowl in refrigerator for 1 or 2 hours and serve.
Sauterne has become an international treasure in price and rarity, matched in the world by only a few great sweet wines of Germany. Its role in an apricot compote is noble, reflecting the sweet sunshine of the dried fruit and the golden raisins. Apricots, with their complex, sunny flavor, and ginger are the perfect choices for this dilly, drawn from the 1984 edition of "The Best of Food & Wine," published by American Express.
1/2 pound dried apricots
1/4 cup sugar
1/4 cup currants
1/4 cup golden raisins
2 cups sauterne wine
3 whole cloves
1/3 cup crystallized ginger, chopped
1 tablespoon pine nuts
In a medium saucepan combine the apricots and sugar with 2 cups of water. Cover, bring to a simmer and cook over low heat for about 30 minutes, or until the apricots are soft. Drain the cooling liquid into another saucepan and set the apricots aside. Boil the liquid over moderately low heat until it is reduced to 1 cup, about 15 minutes. In a large bowl, combine the reserved apricots, the reduced syrup, the currants, raisins, sauterne and cloves. Cover and refrigerate for 12 to 24 hours. Just before serving, add the ginger and pine nuts to the compote and serve cold.
White wine snow
Ronald Johnson, one of the world-class experts on American food, recounts this glacially chilling summertime dessert cup. It's from his 1984 volume, "The American Taste," published by William Morrow and Co. Inc., $19.95.
1 tablespoon unflavored gelatin
1/4 cup water
1 cup dry white wine (or champagne)
2/3 cup sugar
3 tablespoons lemon juice
3 egg whites
pinch of cream of tartar
green grapes for garnish
Sprinkle the gelatin on the water and allow to soften for 10 minutes. Mix the wine, sugar and lemon juice in a stainless steel or enameled saucepan. Bring to a boil, then lower the heat and stir until the sugar is dissolved. Put in a bowl, stir in the gelatin and refrigerate until the mixture begins to set.
Beat the mixture with an eggbeater or electric mixer until light and frothy. In another bowl beat the egg whites with the cream of tartar until they hold stiff peaks. Fold the two mixtures gently together. Mound into 6 individual dessert cups, decorate with halves of seedless green grapes and chill for an hour or more.
Wine jelly with fruit
Serves four to six.
Back in the 1950s "I-Love-Lucy" years, you made this sort of thing with canned fruit and packaged gelatin mixes. Here is an up-to-date version of cold jellied fruit that goes back to the fundamentals. Time-Life Books used it in its anthology "Great Cooking," published in 1986 by Henry Holt & Co. Note: Avoid fruits that inhibit jelling, like kiwi, papaya, fresh pineapple or figs.
2 envelopes unflavored gelatin
1 1/2 cups water
2 cups dry white wine
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1/2 cup sugar
2 cups assorted fruit, such as: peeled peach halves or slices; peeled apricot halves; peeled and cored pear halves; pitted cherries; whole strawberries or strawberry halves; whole grapes or grape halves; banana slices; melon cubes; or orange sections
sweetened whipped cream (optional)
In a small heatproof bowl, sprinkle the gelatin over 1 cup of the water. When the gelatin has softened for 2 or 3 minutes, set the bowl in a skillet of simmering water; cook over low heat, stirring, until the gelatin dissolves. Remove the skillet from the heat, leaving the bowl of gelatin in the water.
In a large bowl combine the wine, the remaining 1/2 cup of water, the lemon juice and sugar and stir until the sugar dissolves. Thoroughly stir in the gelatin. Pour a 1/4 -inch layer of the mixture into a 1 1/2 -quart mold, pack the mold into a bowl half filled with crushed ice and refrigerate until firm. (Keep the remaining jelly at room temperature so it remains liquid and ready to use.)
Spread the pieces of fruit between paper towels to dry them. Arrange a layer of one kind of fruit or various kinds on the surface of the set gelatin. Gradually pour on enough liquid wine jelly to reach almost to the top of the fruit.
Chill again until set, then pour in enough jelly to cover the fruit by 1/4 inch. Chill. Repeat this process 4 or 5 more times, filling the mold with alternating layers of fruit and jelly and refrigerating the mold after each step. Finally add enough jelly to come to within 1/4 inch of the top. Refrigerate the dessert for at least 6 hours until it is firm. (Any remaining jelly may be chilled in a flat pan and used chopped or cut into decrative shapes as a garnish.)
To serve, run a knife around the sides of the mold and dip the bottom in hot water for a few seconds. Wipe the mold dry, place an inverted serving plate over it and, grasping plate and mold together, turn them over. Rap them on a table; the jelly should slide out easily. Chill until ready to serve. If you like, pass some whipped cream separately.