I’ve decided to give up reading articles on health claims about wine. I think it will be better for my health if I do. In fact, I’m not sure why it is we need our wine to be a “healthy” beverage in order to enjoy it in the first place.
Here’s what brought this on. The latest social media blast tells us that drinking a half-bottle of wine before bed will make you lose fat weight. Sadly, I took the bait, and went down the click-hole of articles. I rate the quality of the articles by how many clicks it takes me to get to the actual study or studies that are supposed to support the claims. This one took me a record nine levels down.
The way it works is that Facebook, Twitter, et. al., link to one or more lifestyle articles. These then link to other lifestyle articles that may be housed under the umbrella of bigger media operations. Or to sites that have vague medical/science connections. And finally, maybe a newspaper article or two that may contain a link to an actual study. As often as not, though, you’ll only get the name of the institution that conducted the study. If you’re really lucky, you’ll get the name of the lead researcher. From there, if you’re good at searching (or, like me, have a librarian husband), you can find the complete study.
Of course, by the time the study results percolate up to social media, they’re almost nothing like the original results. In finding the sound bite, all of the caveats that come with any good research get stripped away. When you’re looking at human health studies, things are rarely neat and tidy. In fact, most dietary health studies could honestly be summed up like this: “We’ve found something interesting. We think it could be significant but we’re not sure yet. We’d need to do more work in these particular areas to pin it down. For now, though, it probably won’t hurt you to try this, and it may help.” But that’s never what makes it to my Facebook feed.
How does this happen? It’s a combination of two factors. The first is deadline pressure on reporters, who are usually generalists even if they cover “science” for a media outlet. Then there’s the fact that scientists almost never communicate well about their work. After a long and often frustrating discussion, the reporter and scientist might agree on how to characterize a study and come up with a summary that satisfies them both (and I say “might” because that’s not a given). After that, though, summaries of summaries of summaries make their way out into the world without a glance back to the original sources. It’s a game of telephone without anyone actually talking to anyone else.
This isn’t unique to claims about wine and health. I experienced the same thing when I produced reports based on environmental data and talked about them with reporters. The original print story would (usually) be pretty good. But subsequent print and online stories would get stripped of important clarifying details. It’s even worse these days, because Facebook barely existed when this old enviro was still doing data analyses.
So here’s what I think you could rightly say about the research on drinking wine before bedtime. If you like to snack after dinner and before bed, you could try having a glass of red wine instead. The wine probably has fewer calories than you’d get in a snack, and it may make you sleepy so that you don’t have anything more before going to bed. The wine may have some moderate effect of fat burning. But would you lose as much fat/weight if you didn’t have a glass of wine and didn’t have a snack? It’s not clear, some of the data indicate yes, some no. Hardly the miracle I read about on Facebook.
As more of these studies and reports like this one come out, it makes me wonder about a bigger question. I think wine is understudied, and I’m all for good research on wine. And good press articles on it, too. But why are we so quick to jump on even the most dubious bit of news? Why is it that we need our wine to have miraculous health benefits in the first place?
I know wine is good for me – it makes my food taste better, and makes me a (marginally) better conversationalist at dinner parties. (I also know that too much of it has the opposite effect.) I’d be perfectly happy drinking it without the thought that it’s miraculous for my health, as long as it’s not harmful. Why can’t it just be good for my health because it makes me happy? Within reason, happy people are healthier, right?
Yet we see these miracle claims every couple of months for wine and, to a lesser extent, dark chocolate. And they get a lot of press, especially if it’s good news (or too good to be true, as is mostly the case). Is it guilt at enjoying those particular things that makes us want to claim that they’re actually good for us, and not just pleasurable things to eat and drink? Do we have to proclaim that we’re just having antioxidants in a highly palatable form so that we’re not seen as mere hedonists? Or deep down, do we actually believe some of the self-loathing, elitist baloney about drinking wine and are looking for cover in health benefits?
I’m not sure if it’s the vestiges of the country’s Puritan heritage, remnants of prohibition-era demon alcohol thinking, or some other cause. But until I hear from reputable sources with better data, I’m happy to go along thinking wine is a pleasant-tasting, buzz-inducing beverage that I drink often. And I’ll definitely try to avoid those click-holes in the future.
Cy and I had a big group dinner to attend this past weekend. The couple who hosted picked the theme – Country French – and the other couples had to make appetizers and desserts on that theme. We decided to make French cheese puffs, called Gougères. Our friends Joanna and Todd came over to make them with us. Since we had to serve finger food to 16 people, we decided to make plenty of them. And to make it more interesting, we decided to make four batches, each with a different cheese.
Gougères are made using the same kind of dough for making cream puffs and eclairs, except with more salt and no sugar. Bring water, butter, and salt to a boil. Then add the flour and cook until it makes a ball that’s a little dry on the outside. Put the ball of dough in a bowl and beat in eggs, then the cheese. Shape them on a baking sheet either by piping from a pastry bag, or using a greased tablespoon. As they bake, they puff to at least twice their original size.
After looking around online, I decided to go with Julia Child’s recipe from Mastering the Art of French cooking. We made three of the batches with firm to hard cheeses, all finely grated: Gruyère, Mimolette (which has a shockingly orange color), and Pecorino Romano. They turned out light and puffy. We also made a batch with St. Andre bleu cheese, and they puffed well, but all but the smallest of them collapsed a little when they cooled, and they were wetter than the puffs made with the other cheeses.
Still, they were mighty tasty. But I wanted to see if I could figure out the reason for the collapse. The bleu cheese dough was wetter than the others, so I figured it was a question of more liquid. So I looked back at the other online recipes and did some math. I calculated the total volume of liquid (water, butter, eggs) to the volume of flour in the various recipes and this was the result:
Epicurious = 2.24
Julia Child = 3.17
Myrecipes.com = 2.5
Food52.com = 2.375
Julia’s recipe was much wetter than the others to start, even without the cheese. Adding wet cheese was too much, and the puffs wouldn’t dry out enough to stop them from collapsing as they cooled. With the dry cheeses, the extra moisture in Julia’s recipe probably makes for a much lighter puff. Water turning to steam in the hot oven is what makes the Gougères puff, and to a certain extent more water makes them puffier. But only up to a point.
I’ve redone the recipe with less water and butter. This takes the liquid/flour ratio down to 2.8. That’s higher than the other recipes, but they’ll still turn out beautifully. The cheese you use will make a difference, too. Some supermarket blue cheeses are pretty dry, especially if you buy them already crumbled. But as long as they taste good to begin with, don’t worry about it. I’ve added thyme to the recipe, it was Cy’s idea and it’s a tasty addition.
As for wine, bleu cheese can take more intensity. Champagne is a classic pairing with Gougères. But you can also serve a medium-bodied red wine, especially if it will also go with the other food you’re eating. Cave la Vinsobraise Diamant Noir ($15) is 60% Grenache, 40% Syrah, from Vinsobres in the southern Rhône valley. Wines from Vinsobres seem a little drier and earthier than other wines of the region, it’s likely because of the slightly higher elevation. But they’re delicious, just fruity enough, with a little pepper and spice too. This one is aged in concrete tanks, not in oak, so there’s no wood/vanilla flavors in there. Definitely a treat!
Serves 6-8 as a passed appetizer, approximately 40 puffs
Note: If you want to use a hard grating cheese instead of blue cheese, increase the water and butter by one tablespoon each.
5 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
1 cup minus one tablespoon water
¾ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon finely ground black pepper
1-1/2 teaspoons chopped fresh thyme leaves
Pinch of nutmeg (optional, but I like it)
¾ cup all-purpose flour, measured by dipping the dry measuring cup into the flour and mounding it, then leveling off to the top of the cup with a knife.
4 large eggs
4 ounces bleu cheese (such as St. Andre and Roquefort), in small pieces
1 egg beaten with a teaspoon of water (to glaze the puffs)
Preheat the oven to 425 degrees F, and line two baking sheets with parchment paper.
In a medium nonstick pot, stir the butter, water, salt, pepper, thyme, and nutmeg together over medium heat. Keep stirring as you bring the mixture to the boil – there should be boiling action in the middle of the surface as well as the edges. Take the pot off the heat and dump in all the flour. Stir with a wooden spoon or firm heatproof spatula until the flour is completely moistened by the liquid.
Return the pot to low heat and cook, stirring constantly, for two minutes or so. The mixture will form a ball and look a little drier. You’ll start to see a little bit of a film covering the bottom of the pot around the ball of dough. Scoop the dough into a mixer bowl (either stand or handheld) and let it sit for a minute.
Start adding the four eggs, one at a time — using the mixer on low speed, combine until each egg is thoroughly incorporated, scraping the bowl as needed. It shouldn’t have moist puddles, but will look like a thick cake batter. Beat in the cheese until just combined.
At this point, you have two choices for shaping. With a large pastry bag and a large tip (either plain or star tip), you can pipe them into 1-1/2 inch mounds. Or, use a lightly-greased measuring tablespoon and scoop slightly rounded tablespoons onto the sheets. Make sure they’re at least an inch apart so they don’t fuse together as they bake. Lightly brush the top of each puff with the beaten egg/water mixture.
Bake for 25 minutes, rotating the sheets in the oven halfway through. They should be lightly browned and puffed. If in doubt, leave them in the oven for another two or three minutes. They’re moist enough so they won’t get too dry.
Remove the baking sheets from the oven and let the puffs cool for a couple of minutes. Transfer them to a cooling rack so they don’t get moist and soggy underneath. Serve at room temperature or slightly warm – they’re easy to reheat in the oven, too.