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    Fruit Tarts at the restaurant Cafe Monte.
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    Vanilla Creme Brulee paired with St. Hilaire champagne from Brasserie Georges.
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    Chocolate Pecan Tart paired with Brut Champagne at Zebra restaurant.
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    Brut Champagne at Zebra restaurant.
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    J. Lassalle Premier Cru at Cafe Monte restaurant.

The power couple

By Kathleen Purvis

Posted: Tuesday, Jan. 18, 2011

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Champagne and dessert. Doesn’t it sound perfect for Valentine’s Day?

Well, it would be perfect if the champagne – properly called sparkling wine if it isn’t actually from Champagne, France – would cooperate.

Sparkling wine is a dandy match with many savory foods. It’s got all those palate-tickling bubbles and a nice dose of acidity.

“Acid counterbalances salt, moderates spice, cuts through fat and highlights other acids,” explains Catherine Rabb, chef and co-owner of Fenwick’s and a senior instructor who specializes in beverages at Johnson & Wales University Charlotte.

Spicy foods, salty foods, even rich, fatty foods can all embrace sparkling wine.

Sugar? That’s tougher. Despite that frothy appearance, many sparkling wines are actually very dry. And in wine-speak, dry is the opposite of sweet.

“Pairing bubbles and dessert can be a little tricky,” says Rabb. “The rule of thumb is that when you’re pairing a wine with a dessert, the wine has to be sweeter than the food or it just makes the wine taste lean and mean.”

That doesn’t mean it can’t be done, she said.

“In general, the best approach is a bit of restraint with the sweetness levels of dessert. Super-sweet chocolate is tough, for example, but a lovely vanilla creme brulee can make a much better match.”

Creme brulee? Sounds like the perfect end to a romantic dinner – all that sharing, dipping spoons into the creamy custard and getting a little crispy bit of browned sugar on top. At SouthPark’s Georges Brasserie, it’s made in a vanilla version with raspberries on top.

That matches Rabb’s pairing suggestion perfectly: A slightly sweet Champagne, such as Moet et Chandon Nectar Imperiale, or Mumm’s Cuvee M. That type of Champagne (yes, they’re both French) can also handle cheesecake that isn’t too sweet, or apple or pear desserts.

A rose sparkling wine, particularly from America or South America, is beautiful to look at and lovely to drink. At Cafe Monte on Fairview Road, a very dry sparkling rose would be a good partner with tiramisu, which is more creamy than sweet and has a little bitter edge from the coffee used to dip ladyfingers.

When it comes to sweet chocolate desserts, Rabb likes to go sweet with the wine, such as an Italian Brachetto d’Aqui.

But if you want to walk a little on the wilder side, Zebra co-owner Lisa Alexander likes a traditional dry Brut with her restaurant’s walnut-pecan chocolate tart.

“It’s that wonderful bitterness (of chocolate) and then the sweetness,” she says. “And then you have the dry Brut, more that chalky, earthy dryness of the champagne.” Brut can work with rich chocolate truffles too, she says.

If you’re really going sweet with dessert, Rabb suggests going really sweet with the wine, such as an Asti or Moscato d’Asti.

“The wines typically are very sweet, with flavors of white grapes, lychee, apricot and tangerine.”

And if all else fails, skip the dessert. Focus on the sweetness of the company – and the champagne, of course.

Recipe

Vanilla Creme Brulee with Vanilla, Orange and Mango Coulis

From the “MasterChef Cookbook,” by JoAnn Cianciulli and the contestants and judges of the TV show “MasterChef” (Rodale, 2010). A coulis is a dessert sauce, usually fruit-based. You could skip it and still have an impressive dish.

6 large egg yolks

1/2 cup plus 3 tablespoons sugar, divided

1 quart heavy cream

2 vanilla beans, divided

2 oranges, 1 thinly sliced and 1 juiced

1 tablespoon orange liqueur, such as Grand Marnier

1 ripe mango, halved, seeded and diced

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Whisk the egg yolks and 1/2 cup sugar until the mixture is pale-yellow and thick.

Pour the cream into a medium pot over low heat. Using the tip of a small, sharp knife, split one vanilla bean down the middle, scrape out the seeds and add them to the pot, discarding the pod. Bring the cream to a brief simmer – do not boil or it will overflow. Remove from the heat and gradually whisk a little of the hot cream into the yolk mixture. (Don’t add hot cream too quickly or the eggs will scramble.)

Divide the custard among six (6-ounce) ramekins. Place the ramekins in a roasting pan, place the pan on a shelf in the oven and add enough hot water to cup halfway up the sides of the ramekins. Bake 40 minutes, or until barely set around the edges. Remove from the oven and cool to room temperature. Chill at least two hours or up to overnight.

Coulis, if using: Split the remaining vanilla bean down the middle, scrape out the seeds and add to a pot along with the pods. Add the orange and lemon juices, orange liqueur, and 2 tablespoons of the remaining sugar. Cook over medium heat for five minutes, or until reduced slightly.

Add the mango and continue to simmer for five to 10 minutes, or until the juice cooks down to a syrup. Cool slightly and remove the vanilla pod.

Transfer the fruit mixture to a blender and puree until smooth. Strain through a fine-mesh sieve into a bowl. Chill at least 20 minutes.

Sprinkle the remaining 1 tablespoon sugar on top of each chilled custard. Hold a kitchen torch two inches from the surface to brown the sugar and form a crust. (You also can do this under the broiler; watch very carefully to keep the sugar from burning.) Serve with the coulis on the side. Garnish with orange and lemon slices.

Words that mean “sweet”

If you’re shopping for sparkling wine, remember the order of sweetness on the label:

Doux, Sweet or Dulce: The sweetest, with 50 grams or more of sugar per liter.

Demi-Sec: Very sweet, still in dessert-wine territory.

Extra-Dry: Slightly sweeter, or drier. Dry is actually sweeter than extra-dry.

Brut: The driest sparkling wine.

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