I'm not all that much of a dessert person. Oh, I won't turn down a dish of ice cream, a perfect flan or creme brulee or a nice wedge of chocolate cake, but sweet just doesn't entice me in the way that savory does.
And as much as I enjoy heading for the kitchen to fashion something creative and new, I probably don't make one dessert in an average year, or maybe an average decade. My position on this is simple: Too many calories, not enough time.
But the other day, with an exceptionally fine dessert wine (a 1996 Hungarian "5 puttonyo" Tokaji) coming up for tasting, the idea of creating a dessert to match it sneaked into my head, and I did not resist.
As I wrote in my wine report in our Wine Advisor Premium Edition, my usual approach to sweeter wines is to serve them as dessert rather than with dessert. But Tokaji's grace and complexity made the challenge of coming up with a memorable match worth the effort.
I ran the concept past the food gurus on our Food Lovers' Discussion Group forum and got a lot of good ideas, from apricot dishes to creme brulee to the Italian nut cookies called cantucci. But ultimately, I stuck with my original instincts and fashioned a simple, New Orleans-style bread pudding with a caramel-orange sauce, carefully designing a dessert with flavors aimed at matching the profile of Tokaji.
First, I reduced the sugar content to make the dessert just lightly sweet, reasoning that most food matches with sweet wines fail when a sugary dessert makes the wine seem sour in contrast. And I modified the typical New Orleans-style ingredient list to echo many of the flavor and aroma characteristics that I expected to find in the wine: Brown sugar instead of white; golden raisins in place of purple; orange peel, and a shot of the bittersweet-orange character of Grand Marnier in addition to the standard caramel tones of Bourbon.
Despite my relative lack of practice in the dessert arena, it all went together easily. Only the brief step of caramelizing sugar for the sauce was at all challenging, but note that this one requires starting a long time before dinner to allow for macerating the raisins, soaking the bread, baking and giving it time to cool to serving temperature.INGREDIENTS: (Serves four, or two with leftovers)
For the pudding:
1. Plump the raisins by soaking them in the Grand Marnier and Bourbon for about a half-hour. Drain, but don't discard the liquid.
2. While the raisins are macerating, cut the bread into smallish cubes a bit larger than 1/2-inch (2 cm) square. There's no need to remove the crust, which will add interesting texture to the pudding.
3. Break the eggs into the blender (or stick blender container) and blend them on high speed until they're very smooth and lemony yellow. Blend in 1/2 cup of the milk or half-and-half (a commercial blend of milk and light cream), the vanilla, brown sugar, cinnamon and nutmeg and the liquid reserved from soaking the raisins.
4. Put the bread cubes and raisins in a bowl and stir in the egg mix. Cover and place in the refrigerator for at least an hour.
5. Toward the end of the hour, preheat your oven to 350F (175C). Stir the remaining 1/4 cup of milk or half-and-half into the bread mix. Grease a small baking dish (5-by-7-by-2-inch or similar) with a little butter, and put in the bread mix. Bake for about 45 minutes, until the top is well browned and a knife inserted in the center comes out clean.
6. While the pudding is baking, make a simple caramel sauce. Heat the half-and-half almost to the boil (I simply stick it in the microwave for 30 to 45 seconds). Put the sugar in a small nonstick skillet and stir in the vanilla extract. Put it over medium-high heat and caramelize it, watching carefully. It may seem that nothing is happening at first, but the sugar will gradually begin to "sweat" and will then suddenly melt into a thick, clear liquid. Stir it constantly with a wooden spoon, taking care not to splatter yourself (this stuff is as hot as napalm) and being prepared to lift the pan off heat if the sugar darkens too quickly. At some point it will turn yellow, then brown. As soon as it reaches a dark golden-brown color (but not black), remove it from the heat and, pouring gradually, stir in the hot half-and-half. At this point, you can put it back over very low heat and continue stirring, watching out for boilovers, until it's well blended and thick. (This may seem like a finicky or even scary process if you don't do it any more often than I do, but persevere ... the result is worth the effort.) When the sauce is blended, put it in a small bowl or pyrex measuring cup and cool it in the refrigerator. Stir in the Grand Marnier just before serving.
7. Let the bread pudding cool a little before serving. It may be served hot, but I like it after it has cooled to warm room temperature, allowing the flavors to blend. Slice or spoon out individual servings, topping each with a dollop of the caramel sauce. And whipped cream if you like ... we didn't bother, and it's really not needed for the dessert-wine match.
MATCHING WINE: As noted, I designed this dish specifically to go with a particular dessert wine, Royal Tokaji 1996 Tokaji Aszú 5 Puttonyos), but it should work quite well with any dessert wine in either the botrytized style (Tokaji, Sauternes, late-harvest wines, ice wines) or Tawny Ports, sweet-style Madeira or Sherry, or similar Australian dessert wines.
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