Pairings: A Sweet Spot

For holiday entertaining, nothing dazzles your guests like fabulous desserts and the wines that love them.



A Sweet Spot

However sated your family might be after a day-long home-cooked feast, there's always room for dessert.

As a child growing up in southern France, I remember my family hosting many informal gatherings. We'd invite lots of friends and relatives, and they would begin to arrive around 11 in the morning. Each would bring something different—wine or salad or dessert. Since our family is originally from Spain, my mother would make a big paella, a beautiful saffron-infused rice dish full of shrimp, sausage and fish. We always had several bottles of local red wine. By two o'clock we'd sit down to eat. After lunch, the men would play pétanque (also known as boules) and then everyone took a nap (short or long, depending on how much food and wine we'd had). After la reste, as we called it, we'd go back for seconds of the paella. These gatherings were generally all-day affairs.

The sharing of good food was second nature for my family. It was something we did without a lot of worry and fuss. Many people try to do too much when they entertain. They try to impress their guests too much by cooking a formal meal that literally takes days to prepare, and it ends up being a very stressful experience. The hosts begin to wonder if they'll ever make it to dessert. They spend hours tidying up, readying their best china and linen, and decorating the house with flowers. It becomes a very artificial event, and I think the guests can sense that.

When I invite friends over for a meal, I like to make something that's relatively easy, using the best raw ingredients I can find. Nothing can replace good ingredients. For example, you can be the best pastry chef in the world, but if you have bad apples, you're going to make a lousy apple tart. There is nothing more beautiful than the perfect piece of fruit. When you have a beautiful raspberry, the trick is not to destroy it by doing too much to it. You're never going to beat that flavor—it's wonderful as it is.

The first step in planning a party is going to the market to see what looks good before deciding what to make. For an appetizer, I'll buy one or two beautiful food elements and improvise a dish. Something simple, like foie gras with caramelized apples or pears. Or prosciutto and fresh figs. For the entrée, I try to stick to something that can be made in one pan. Frequently, I'll follow my mother's example and make paella, using the absolute freshest fish and shrimp I can find, and a high- quality extra-virgin olive oil. This is a dish I can cook from the heart, because it reminds me of home.

A common mistake people make when entertaining is to try out a new dish. This can be a disaster, especially with desserts, which depend so much on a reliable recipe. You're much better off making something familiar, something you know is going to work and taste great. The unknown can be a scary thing, and entertaining is stressful enough as it is. My two biggest tips on successful entertaining: Keep it simple and do as much as you can in advance. And if you screw something up, laugh it off. You're among friends. Keep these maxims in mind, and you might just make it to dessert.

For the grand finale, I like to make something authentic, not too fancy or intimidating. I might choose a pithivier, a classic French dessert that is a sort of cake in which two rounds of puff pastry encase a filling of almond cream. It is a rustic, unassuming dessert, but it is full of flavor, and that is the key to its success. It works well all year round, for large or small groups. It's also very practical because it's something I can prepare in advance and bake at the last moment. I always have one or two in the freezer, ready to go. I know exactly how long it needs to bake and what it's going to look like when it's done—there's no guesswork.

For small gatherings, I'll prepare a fricassee of winter fruits—pears, apples and chestnuts along with strawberries, figs and nuts, all sautéed in butter and flavored with Armagnac or a spicy old rum. I serve this dessert in a martini glass with a Champagne sabayon or a really good vanilla ice cream. I also like to make chocolate fondants, individual warm chocolate cakes that ooze chocolate when stuck with a fork. The great thing about this dessert is that it can also be prepped up to the point before baking and then frozen for several days in advance. Halfway through the meal it can go into the oven and will be ready in time for dessert to be served.

With a large group, it's fun to make something that will be shared. I like to bring a big crème caramel, an apple tart and a chocolate cake to the table so that everyone can taste a little bit of each. Nothing fancy, it's all about the sharing. That's the fun part. At Le Cirque, when a large group at a table ordered dessert, I would always send out an extra dessert to put in the center of the table. Soon all the plates would be passed around and everyone would try a little of each. Dessert is a special thing, a kind of reward. It makes people happy and brings them together.

Whatever your family's holiday tradition—be it napping after a multi-course repast or caroling after the china's been cleared—don't send your loved ones out into the cold without a little sugar in their bellies.


Chocolate Decadence

This is a wonderful, indulgent cake, perfect for special occasions. It is basically a flourless cake layered with chocolate cream. Use good bittersweet chocolate. It is important to use a chocolate with strong flavor, since every time you add an ingredient (eggs, almond flour, etc.), the flavor is diluted. If you don't want to make the ganache, that's O.K.—the cake is very tasty by
itself.

For the ganache filling and frosting:

  • 1 1/3 cups heavy cream
  • 14 ounces bittersweet chocolate, finely chopped
  • 2 1/2 tablespoons Grand Marnier

For the cake layers:

  • 18 ounces bittersweet chocolate, melted and still warm
  • 2 tablespoons light corn syrup
  • 10 large egg yolks
  • 1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
  • 3/4 cup almond flour*
  • Scant 1/4 cup dark rum (optional)
  • 10 large egg whites
  • 3/4 cup granulated sugar

*Almond flour is a mixture of finely ground almonds and sugar, available in specialty gourmet stores and health food stores. If you can't find almond flour, use an equal amount of finely ground walnuts or pecans instead.

To prepare the truffle ganache: Heat the heavy cream in a 2-quart heavy-bottomed saucepan until bubbles begin to form around the edge of the pan. Place the chopped chocolate in a medium-sized mixing bowl. Pour about half of the hot cream over the chocolate and let it sit for 30 seconds to melt the chocolate. Then slowly whisk until smooth. Add the remaining cream gradually and mix until all of the hot cream is incorporated and the ganache is smooth and consistent. Pour the ganache onto a baking sheet lined with parchment paper to cool. When the ganache has cooled to the consistency of toothpaste but is still easily spreadable, it is ready to be used. If the ganache has cooled too much, you can soften it by heating a small amount in a saucepan placed over medium heat until melted. Then, quickly but gently stir the melted ganache into the harder, cooler ganache. If the ganache is still too hard, repeat the procedure until the desired consistency is reached.

To make the cake layers: Preheat the oven to 325F. Combine the corn syrup, egg yolks, butter and almond flour in a medium-size mixing bowl and beat with an electric mixer set on medium speed until well incorporated, light and fluffy.

Place the egg whites in a large mixing bowl and whip until foamy, using an electric mixer set on medium speed. Gradually add the sugar, 1 tablespoon at a time. Increase the mixer speed to medium-high and whip until stiff but short of forming dry peaks, about 7 minutes. The meringue should be stiff but not overwhipped and separated, or it will collapse when combined with the warm chocolate. Fold the meringue into the creamed butter mixture all at once. Fold up from the bottom of the bowl and fold carefully so you do not deflate the meringue. When the two mixtures are almost fully incorporated, add the warm chocolate. Use a rubber spatula and be sure to fold up from the bottom of the bowl. If you have some meringue that does not want to incorporate, carefully and gently break it apart by folding, not whisking, with a whisk.

Pour the batter onto a baking sheet lined with parchment paper and spread it evenly with a rubber spatula. Carefully push the batter. Do not smash it or you will lose the incorporated air and the cake will be flat and chewy. Place the cake in the oven and bake until the cake springs back when gently pressed, about 35 minutes. You can also test the cake with a wooden toothpick. Insert it into the center of the cake; if it comes out clean, the cake is done. Remove from the oven and place the baking sheet on a wire rack to allow the cake to cool. The cake will rise in the oven and then collapse slightly as it cools.

When completely cooled, remove the cake from the baking sheet by running a sharp paring knife around the sides of the cake. Invert the cake onto a clean work surface or sheet of parchment paper and remove the paper clinging to the back of the cake. Use a sharp chef's knife to cut the cake into four equal-sized squares. You will only use three squares for this cake. Store the fourth square in the freezer. Trim each square to make clean edges. If the cake is too delicate to move, cut the cake into four pieces while it is still on the baking sheet. Place the baking sheet in the freezer until the cake layers are cold enough to move without breaking.

To assemble the cake: Slide one square onto a cardboard cake circle or flat platter. I like to anchor the cake layer by first placing a small dab of ganache in the center of the cake circle. Use an offset spatula to spread about a 1¼2-inch-thick layer of ganache onto the cake square. Be sure to spread the ganache all the way to the edges. Top with a second cake layer, making sure the second layer rests evenly on the first. Repeat with the ganache. Top with the last cake layer and press down slightly to adhere. Use a large offset spatula to spread an even layer of ganache over the top and sides of the cake. If the cake is uneven, use the ganache frosting to make it as flat and even as possible. At this point you can place the cake in the refrigerator until the ganache has hardened, about 20 minutes. Then use the offset spatula to make the edges as clean and straight as possible. Place the frosted cake in the refrigerator for about 1 hour to set before decorating.

Remove the cake from the refrigerator and place it on a cake platter. Scrape the remaining ganache into a pastry bag fitted with a star tip. Using a spoon or spatula to transfer the ganache will help to ensure you don't have lumps in the ganache. Lumps will clog the pastry tip and make it difficult to use. Pipe decorations around the side and top of the cake.

If you do not plan to serve the cake within a few hours of assembling it, store it in the refrigerator until ready to eat. If the cake has been stored in the refrigerator, allow it to come to room temperature for at least 30 minutes before serving. It is easiest to cut the cake with a hot chef's knife. To heat the knife, dip it in a tall container filled with hot water before each cut and wipe off the excess water. If you like, you can serve this cake with some fresh berries. Makes one 6 x 9-inch cake; 6 to 8 servings.

Wine recommendation: The classic match with any chocolate dessert is Port. Taylor Fladgate 1997 Late Bottled Vintage Port's fresh, ripe fruit flavors highlight the richness of the chocolate.

Crème Caramel

Crème caramel is a classic dessert. It is baked at a low temperature because it contains no starch; it depends on the eggs for structure. If you bake it at a temperature that is too high, the eggs will scramble and the texture won't be smooth or creamy. When you remove it from the mold, the melted caramel runs over it, forming a ready-made sauce.

For the caramel:

  • Scant 1/2 cup granulated sugar
  • 1 tablespoon water

For the custard:

  • 4 1/2 cups whole milk
  • Generous 1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
  • Water
  • 1 vanilla bean
  • 5 large eggs
  • 8 large egg yolks

To prepare the caramel: Preheat the oven to 300F. Pour the sugar into a medium-size heavy-bottomed frying pan and cook over medium-high heat. Make a dry caramel by letting the sugar cook until evenly light golden brown, 3 to 5 minutes. Remember, the caramel will continue to cook in the oven, so do not make it too dark, or it will taste bitter. Occasionally stir the sugar with a wooden spoon to remove any lumps. When the caramel has reached the proper color, carefully add a little water (it may splatter) to keep it from becoming too hard. Mix in the water and remove the caramel from the heat. Carefully pour the hot caramel into the bottom of a 2-quart mold. It may be necessary to tilt the mold from side to side so that the caramel completely covers the bottom.

To prepare the custard: Pour the milk and half of the sugar into a nonreactive 2-quart heavy-bottomed saucepan. While the milk is heating over medium-high heat, use a sharp paring knife to slice the vanilla bean in half lengthwise. Separate the seeds from the outside skin by scraping the bean with the knife. Place the skin and seeds in the milk. Scald the milk mixture by heating it until bubbles start to form around the edge of the pan. Remove from the heat.

Place the remaining sugar, the whole eggs and egg yolks in a large mixing bowl and whisk until well incorporated. When you add sugar to eggs (especially to egg yolks), it is important to create an emulsion quickly, or a chemical reaction that produces heat will occur. If you do not whisk immediately, this heat will cook the egg yolks and create lumps in the custard. Continue to whisk while slowly pouring the hot milk into the egg mixture and whisking until the mixture is smooth and consistent in color. Try not to create air bubbles on the surface of the custard when you whisk, as these can form a crust on the baked custard. Pour the mixture through a fine-mesh sieve to remove the vanilla bean pieces and any overcooked eggs. Then pour it into the mold and place in a roasting pan in the oven.

Traditionally, custard is baked in a hot water bath to insulate it from the direct heat of the oven and to keep the eggs from cooking too fast, which would cause them to separate. Use hot water from the tap and pour enough water into the roasting pan to reach halfway up the side of the mold. When baked correctly, the custard should tremble slightly when gently shaken. This should take about 21¼2 hours. If you detect any liquid under the skin, the custard is underbaked. Put it back in the oven and shake it every 5 minutes until it is ready. If the custard begins to bubble during baking, reduce the oven temperature by 25F.

Remove the mold from the oven and the water bath and place it on a wire rack for 30 minutes. Refrigerate for 2 hours before serving: It will finish setting in the refrigerator. It is safer to let the water bath cool before removing it from the oven.

Carefully run a sharp paring knife around the inside of the mold to loosen the custard. Invert a flat plate over the crème caramel. Place one hand on either side, grasping both plate and mold, and flip them both so that the mold is on top. Gently lift off the mold. You may need to tap the bottom of the mold to release the custard. Sometimes I like to serve this dessert with whipped cream. Crème caramel will keep in the refrigerator, well wrapped in plastic, for a couple of days. Makes one 8-inch dessert; 8 to 10 servings.

Wine recommendation: For a roller-coaster ride not usually associated with this buttoned-up classic, pour a lush, honeyed wine that will complement the caramel flavor yet provide enough acidity to counter the dessert's sweetness. Macari's 2000 Essencia from Long Island is a fine choice.

Jacques Torres is the owner of Jacques Torres Chocolates, a chocolatier in Brooklyn that sells handmade chocolates to both retail and wholesale customers. He was the executive pastry chef at Le Cirque in Manhattan for 12 years. Jacques Torres Chocolates, 66 Water Street, Brooklyn, NY; 718/875-9772 or www.mrchocolate.com.
For more of Jacques Torres's dessert recipes, pick up the December 2002 issue of Wine Enthusiast at your newsstand.

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