What? You didn’t know that Thursday, October 28, 2010, is Champagne Day? Me neither. The first I heard about it was a press release dated October 25 from the Champagne Bureau, which is the U.S. arm of the French trade association that represents the champagne industry.
It’s tempting to consign Champagne Day to the status of a Hallmark holiday. I mean, how blatant is a call from a trade association to drink more of its product? And from an association whose major purpose is to remind you that if it’s not from the Champagne region of France, it shouldn’t be called champagne? (Seriously, look at the website – even if you agree with them, as I do, it’s a bit heavy handed.)
But on second thought, I like the idea of food-specific holidays. Who among us doesn’t love Waffle Day (March 25 in Sweden), Pie Day (January 23 here in the U.S., not March 14 😉 ), Peanut Butter Day (January 24), Ice Cream Day (July 18), International Chocolate Day (September 13), Apple Day (October 21), or even National Mustard Day (August 7)?
And I really like one wine-specific holiday, Drink Your Best Bottle Day, a creation of Wall Street Journal wine writers. It’s never a bad thing to be reminded of the goodness of wine. Plus the holiday, Hallmark or not, gives me another excuse to blather on about champagne!
I’ve written about how champagne is produced before so I won’t get into all the specifics this time. Instead, I’m going to answer six questions people ask me about champagne. (Really, they do ask!)
1) Given that champagne is relatively expensive, I only drink it on special occasions. But is it good with foods I eat every day?
It’s not an everyday expense, but I think champagne is one of the world’s underutilized wines for pairing with food. Many French dishes use champagne as an ingredient, and its bright acidity is ideal with creamy foods. You can use it like you would a white wine, although it usually requires more substantial food – delicate flavors probably won’t stand up to everything that’s going on in a glass of champagne. So maybe not braised tilapia with steamed rice, but chicken with mushrooms and onions? Go for it!
2) What makes champagne from France different than sparkling wines made elsewhere?
We’ve talked about the mix of climate, topography, and geology, or terroir, before. The Champagne region of France is pretty much the most northerly part of the world where the three champagne grapes – Pinot Meunier, Chardonnay, and Pinot Noir – are grown, which gives them greater acidity, and the particular soil gives them a different flavor than in other regions of the world. But as far as making the sparkling wine goes, if it’s labeled as “Méthode Champenois” it’s made the same way champagne is made in France, just not with grapes from the Champagne region.
3) I’ve heard of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, but what is Pinot Meunier?
The Pinot Meunier grape doesn’t get much press, but it contributes fruity flavors and aromas to champagne, and is the primary grape constituent of most French champagnes. It’s a red grape, like Pinot Noir, and is probably related to Pinot Noir. (As I’ve described before, the juice of these grapes isn’t red, the red color comes from the skins. So as long as the grapes are squeezed gently, they make juice that looks like white wine.) The word meunier means miller in French, and the Pinot Meunier grape often has fine white hairs under the leaves, which look like a dusting of flour. While the exact proportions of the three champagne grapes in each bottle of champagne are trade secrets, you can tell if champagne is 100% Chardonnay if it’s called Blanc de Blanc, and 100% Pinot Noir if it’s called Blanc de Noir.
4) What is Brut champagne?
Interestingly, the original French champagne was sweet and a little syrupy. What we know as Brut champagne was first developed in the late 1850s, supposedly by another champagne widow, Louise Pommery. (For more on the most famous champagne widow, the Veuve Cliquot, see #6 below.) Introduced in 1860, Brut is the most popular of champagne styles today, free of syrupy sweetness. But it’s not the driest champagne – there is a little bit of residual sweetness in it, although it doesn’t necessarily taste sweet. Extra-Brut champagne is pretty much bone-dry, and you’ll notice the difference if you compare the two side by side. That little bit of sweetness helps Brut champagne pair with desserts and chocolate as well as other foods.
5) Wasn’t champagne accidentally invented by some monk?
No, but the monk, Dom Perignon, did fiddle with the process of making champagne and no doubt improved it. Interestingly, it appears that the British were the first to document the champagne-making process in the 17th century, although it’s not certain they actually invented the process. The Dom Perignon legend was born in the late 19th century as a marketing gimmick for champagne – what better than a blind monk who discovers champagne by accident as if it came from God? Genius!
6) That “Veuve Clicquot” didn’t really exist, right?
If you accept even a tiny portion of the accolades thrown her way as fact, Barbe-Nicole Cliquot Ponsardin was a remarkable businessperson who pretty much single-handedly forged the beginnings of what is today’s champagne industry. Not only that, according to The Widow Cliquot by Tilar Mazzeo, she (or one of her workers) invented the method of clarifying champagne (getting rid of the yeast residue) that’s used today. Her company also somehow managed to keep it a secret for years, giving Cliquot Ponsardin a distinct advantage over her competitors’ products. I wonder what she would think of today’s consolidation of champagne houses (these days, she’d be working side by side with her arch-rival, Möet). On the one hand she was fiercely protective of her brand, and on the other, given her experience in blockade running getting champagne to Russia, she might very well applaud the ability of the big brands to market worldwide.
So here it is, Champagne Day. What to do to celebrate? Most of you probably have a bottle of champagne around, either in the fridge or the cellar. So pop the cork (carefully!) and drink up. And if you’re looking for something spectacular to serve, try this recipe for Gâteau Breton, a French butter cake. I have found that for the ultimate food and wine pairings, simpler is often better. I don’t necessarily mean simple in preparation (although I find this cake easy to make), but having a predominant flavor, like the butter in this cake, makes the benefit of the pairing shine through. While there are ground almonds, vanilla, and liqueur in there too, they somehow just make the butter taste more butter-y. The recipe is from Rose Levy Beranbaum’s lovely book, Rose’s Heavenly Cakes, and Rose very kindly gave me permission to reprint it here.
Rose approaches baking in a scientific way, which of course appeals to me. Baking requires precision, which makes some people nervous – but precision doesn’t mean that there isn’t room for individuality. What Rose teaches so well is that consistency is a comfort, and once you’ve got it under your belt you can indeed make your own modifications to a recipe to suit your taste. For instance, you learn that you can substitute some ingredients and as long as the proportions of the main ingredients remain the same, you’ll get the right result with the flavor you like. And you’ll have fun doing it, too. Rose’s books shine with the joy of baking. I met her a couple of years ago when she came to DC to demonstrate pie crust making for a Washington Post article and can tell you that after meeting her and catching her enthusiasm you want to rush right home and bake for yourself.
The first thing you might notice about this recipe is that it lists weights as well as volume measures. Before you throw up your hands, let me tell you that if you weigh your ingredients you’ll never go back to measuring them. Your baked goods will turn out the same way each time and you’ll wonder why you made such a fuss to begin with. Of course, not everyone has a good kitchen scale, so if you follow the measuring directions exactly, you will come very close to what you would get by weighing. But if you have a scale, try it. You won’t be sorry!
I could go on and on about ingredients, the baking pan, etc, but I won’t – you’ll just think I’m a nut case and I’d rather you go ahead and make it. If you’re looking for a good champagne pairing, try Champagne Bernard Mante Brut Grande Reserve ($38). As I mentioned earlier, there’s a little residual sweetness to make it pair well with desserts. The light acidity and elegant yeasty flavor really sing with the butter flavor of the cake. (If you absolutely don’t like champagne, try Domaine la Croix des Marchands Methode Gaillacoise ($18), a naturally sparkling wine with a light green apple flavor. It’s delicious too.) Try it, and raise a glass to your good fortune of having two of the world’s finest things at the same time!
From Rose’s Heavenly Cakes by Rose Levy Beranbaum, reprinted with the author’s permission.
Pan: 1 9-1/2 inch fluted tart pan with a removable bottom (preferably nonstick), or one 9-inch cake pan with 2-inch high sides, encircled with a cake strip.* Coat either pan with baking spray with flour.
½ cup (1.5 ounces or 42 grams) blanched sliced almonds
¾ cup superfine sugar (5.3 ounces or 150 grams), divided (if you don’t have it, run regular granulated sugar in the food processor for 3 minutes)
Salt: ¼ teaspoon, unless you’re using the salted butter (see below), then use 1/8 teaspoon
Unsalted butter at room temperature: 9 ounces (255 grams) if high-fat European style, or 10 ounces if regular unsalted butter or Vermont lightly salted butter (284 grams)
About 4 large egg yolks, at room temperature (1/4 cup plus ½ tablespoon by volume, 2.6 ounces or 74 grams by weight)
1 tablespoon dark rum, Kirsch, Cognac, or water (0.5 fluid ounce or 15 grams)
1-1/4 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
Bleached all-purpose flour: 2 cups sifted into a dry-ingredient measuring cup and leveled off, plus 3 tablespoons (8.7 ounces or 250 grams)
1 whole egg, lightly beaten
Preheat the oven to 325 degrees F. Spread the almonds evenly on a baking sheet and bake for about 7 minutes, until pale gold. Stir once or twice during baking. Cool completely. Grind in a food processor with ¼ cup of the sugar and the salt until fairly fine but not powder fine.
In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the flat beater, mix together the remaining sugar and the butter on medium speed for about 1 minute until smooth and creamy. Scrape down the sides of the bowl. Beat in the yolks, one at a time, beating for about 20 seconds between each addition. Scrape down the sides of the bowl.
Add the almond mixture, the rum or brandy and vanilla and mix on low speed until the dry ingredients are moistened. Raise the speed to medium and beat for about 20 seconds until incorporated. Add the flour in four parts, beating on the lowest speed for about 15 seconds and turning the mixer off between additions. Detach the beater and mix in any remaining flour streaks with a spatula. Scrape the batter into the prepared pan and smooth the top with a small offset spatula.
With the beaten egg, brush the top of the cake well using about a tablespoon of egg. Use the tines of a fork to make a crosshatch of three long lines in two directions. If the batter has softened, refrigerate or freeze it briefly to make it more firm.
Bake for 35 to 45 minutes or until deep golden brown and the cake springs back when lightly pressed in the center. It should just begin to come away from the sides of the pan. Let the cake cool on a wire rack for 10 minutes, then remove the sides of the pan (if you used a pan with a removable bottom), invert the cake onto a cookie sheet and remove the bottom, reinvert onto a serving plate and let the cake cool completely. If you used a cake pan, invert the pan onto a lightly-greased cooling rack to release the cake, the reinvert onto a serving plate and allow it to cool completely.
* Cake strips are made to go around the sides of cake pans, and they prevent the sides from browning too much – they also help prevent the cake from making a domed surface in the middle. According to Rose, you can also make your own using a strip of aluminum foil long enough to encircle the pan with a little overlap. Wet some paper towels, fold them the height of the pan, then lay them along the strip. Then fold the aluminum foil over to encase them. Wrap the strip around the pan and secure it with a metal paper clip or clamp.