Dessert Wines: Making your Holiday Sweet!

There are very few rigid rules in the world of wine. Far too much time is spent agonizing over just the right pairing for a holiday meal when the truth is there isn’t one right answer. Many wines pair beautifully with many foods. The holidays are the perfect season to have fun and try some new wines from different regions around the country or around the world. Ever had a wine from New York? Try a Finger Lakes Riesling. Love Pinot Noir? Try a selection from Oregon’s Willamette Valley. Die-hard Cabernet fan? Napa is the place for you. Want something really different? Try a sparkling Shiraz with your New Year’s dinner.

Festive table setting with silver ribbon gift on plateGenerally, it’s hard to go wrong, except when it comes to dessert. Please put away your fancy, brut champagne and dry table wines! They have no place here. With dessert, the simple rule of thumb is the wine must be sweeter than the dessert.

At first, this might seem confusing. Who serves wine with dessert anyway? The answer is you! Or it should be. Coffee and tea are so yesterday. To be truly cutting edge, the sophisticated host offers a chic dessert wine at the end of the meal. It’s not as odd as it might sound.

Sweet wine is the classic accompaniment for the dessert course. Sweet champagne and fortified wines have been the choice of kings for centuries and you’re the king of your castle, right? Having a classy dessert wine will impress your guests and make you look like a real connoisseur.

The type of wine you select depends on the type of dessert you serve. The sweeter the dessert, the sweeter the wine. Easy, right? Not always. Have you ever been served a dry, sparkling wine and chocolate-covered strawberries? The combination is often presented in hotels and restaurants. Though it looks decadent and inviting, it is ever so wrong. The flavor of a dry wine becomes bitter after you nibble on sugar. Suddenly that expensive bottle of bubbles is offensive. What a waste!

The proper pairing would be a demi-sec (slightly sweet) champagne or even better, a lovely glass of port to complement the creaminess of the chocolate and the fruitiness of the berries. Brut champagne is meant to accompany briny oysters or to cut the greasiness of crispy french fries, not to be sipped with a plate of bonbons. Dry with dry, sweet with sweet. Think about it. If you are reluctantly agreeing that perhaps I do have a point, read on…

When choosing a sweet wine, consider your dessert. Do you like chocolate? Try a tawny port. Love Tarte Tatin? Look into a luscious and impossibly elegant Sauternes. Prefer pecan pie? Try a hauntingly delicious Rutherglen Muscat from Australia. Want sparkles? A delicate Moscato D’Asti might be just the thing. Have a budget for the best? Seek out a fine demi-sec or doux champagne from France and savor every bubble.

Be adventurous this festive season. This is your chance to not only keep up with the Joneses but to surpass them altogether. Your basic understanding of wine and simple pairing will catapult you to new heights of admiration from family, friends, and business associates. Don’t tell them I told you. Let it be our secret. Have a gorgeous holiday. Cheers!


Feeding Your Inner Santa

As the year draws to a close, the farmers’ market takes on a new life. Along with plants, flowers, and greenery ideal for decorating and gift-giving, there are plenty of essentials for holiday meals, including just-picked cruciferous vegetables, sweet potatoes, winter squash, pomegranates, persimmons, crisp apples, creamy pears, Meyer lemons, grapefruit, and tangy-sweet tangerines and oranges.

Having grown up in very modest circumstances in Ireland, my parents considered it perfectly reasonable to include a couple of fresh oranges to our Christmas stockings. We just saw it as a sneaky way of buying us fewer toys.

Then there was the year my father got his revenge on his ungrateful children by adding a few large russet potatoes to the bottom of each stocking. Imagine our excitement when we saw those bulging stockings hanging from the mantle! I’m still working through that one in therapy. But I digress…

Before going to bed on Christmas Eve, we always left Santa a couple of slices of my mom’s Irish soda bread slathered with butter, and a cup of hot tea with milk and sugar. (Coincidentally, this also happened to be my father’s favorite snack.)

raisin bread in a marketJust in case Santa drops by my house this year, I decided to set aside the traditional raisins for a change and give my soda bread a seasonal twist; along with an orange-scented honey butter. This will be good on Christmas morning, or anytime of day with a cup of tea, coffee, or hot cocoa.

Soda bread is so incredibly easy to make, the finished loaf leaves the novice baker feeling like a real pro. There is no temperamental yeast to deal with, for it is the chemical reaction between the baking soda and buttermilk that causes the bread to rise. My mom’s version goes one step further by adding an egg, which also lightens the texture.

And don’t overlook the gift-potential of this loaf, wrapped in cellophane with a big tartan-plaid bow.As holiday baking goes, this is a lot healthier than a batch of cookies… and takes less time to make.


4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour

3 tablespoons granulated sugar

1 teaspoon baking soda

1 teaspoon fine seas salt

1 cup coarsely chopped dried cherries

1/2 cup coarsely chopped dried apricots

1/2 cup stemmed and coarsely chopped dried figs

Finely grated zest from 1 orange

2 cups buttermilk

1 large egg, at room temperature, lightly beaten

  1. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Generously grease a 9- to 10-inch cast-iron skillet with vegetable shortening. In a large bowl, combine the flour, sugar, baking soda, and salt; whisk gently to blend. Stir in the dried fruits and orange zest to coat with the flour mixture. Make a well in the center and pour in the buttermilk and egg; mix until a stiff dough forms. (Use a wooden spoon if you must, but the most efficient way to mix this soft, sticky dough is with floured hands. Alternatively, the dough can be mixed in a heavy-duty mixer fitted with the dough hook… though, as far as I’m concerned, this just creates more stuff to wash!)
  1. Remove the dough from the bowl and mound it into the prepared skillet, roughly forming a round loaf. (Don’t be concerned it doesn’t hold its shape; all will be corrected during baking.) Lightly moisten your hands with water to smooth the top. Using a serrated knife dipped in flour, score the top with a large X, about 1-inch deep. This will ensure even baking… and is said to also scare away the devil. (One can’t be too safe when baking, after all.) Bake 1 hour or until the loaf is golden brown with a firm crust, and the bottom sounds hollow when tapped with a knife. Remove from the skillet and cool on a wire rack at least 30 minutes before cutting into 1/2-inch thick slices. Serve warm, at room temperature, or toasted, with or without Orange-Honey Butter. Makes 1 (9-inch) round loaf.

Orange-Honey Butter

1 stick (4 ounces) unsalted butter, at room temperature

1 tablespoon honey, or more to taste

Finely grated zest from 1 orange

Dash of salt

Mix together the butter, 1 tablespoon honey, orange zest, and salt until well blended.Taste, adding more honey if desired. Use at once, or cover and refrigerate.

Some final thoughts:

–If buttermilk is not something you normally use, fake it by placing 3 tablespoons of distilled white vinegar or lemon juice in a 1-pint glass measuring cup. Add enough milk to measure 2 cups and stir to mix. Let it stand at room temperature for 10 to 15 minutes, until the mixture appears slightly curdled.

–I think baking this in a cast iron skillet gives the finished bread more soul…or, at least, a better crust. If you don’t have one, just use a well-greased 9-inch cake pan.

–Remember to check the expiration date on the box or can of baking soda in your pantry. It definitely loses its oomph over time.

–The original recipe calls for 2 cups of raisins, minus the orange zest, and that version still tastes wonderful. As you wander through the farmers’ market, however, check out the wide assortment of dried fruits and nuts available to come up with your own signature holiday soda bread. I am already thinking about shaking things up with chopped pitted dates and walnuts or pistachios….

The Danville Certified Farmers’ Market, located at Railroad & Prospect, is open every Saturday, rain or shine, from 9 a.m. until 1 p.m. For specific crop information call the Pacific Coast Farmers’ Market Association at 1-800-949-FARM, or visit their web site at This market is made possible through the generous support of the Town of Danville. Please show your appreciation by patronizing the many fine shops and restaurants located in downtown Danville. Buy fresh. Buy local. Live well!



Tomatoes, Pears and Grape Vines

Q. Every year, I harvest some of my green tomatoes from the frost hoping they’ll ripen indoors, but they never do. I usually place them in the sun on the window sill but eventually I end up throwing them out. How can I successfully ripen them this year?

A. Leaving tomatoes out to ripen in the open air doesn’t work as you’ve found out. You can ripen tomatoes off the vine in a shallow box with a lid to create a simple ripening chamber. The bottom of the box is lined with a one-inch layer of newspaper and you place the tomatoes next to one another but don’t let them touch each other. A second layer can be added, separated with another layer of newspaper, but no more. The box is then place in a cool out of the way location like the garage. Every five to seven days, you open the lid a remove those that have turned red. The chamber traps the ethylene gas which is given off by the tomatoes. You can hasten the ripening by adding an apple or other fruit that releases ethylene. I know an old school method would have you wrap each tomato separately in newspaper or other material and store them in a box. I think it’s tedious and the lid makes that unnecessary. You should select tomatoes that haven’t been damaged by the cold. So, it may be too late for this year but I’d still try few anyway to get a feel for the technique.

Q. I have two Flowering Pear trees planted on the same day exactly three years ago. One turns color in late October while the other is just turning color now. Why don’t they color up at the same time?

A. Flowering Pear, Pyrus calleryana, is a deciduous ornamental flowering pear. Bradford, Whitehouse, Aristocrat, Redspire, and Capital are some of the varieties available today. The Flowering Pear was first introduced and bred for the purposes of creating a fireblight resistant variety. Unfortunately, this never materialized as they are also susceptible to the disease. They’re typically a pyramidal trees with vertical branching and rapid growth that is both tolerant of dryness and pollution. They produce beautiful white flowers, deep green summer foliage, and red to purple fall color. The three inch white flowers cover the trees complete in late February or March so it resembles a huge powder puff.

There are two possible answers to your question.  One could be they’re different varieties which I don’t think is the case and the other is how they were propagated. Plant genetic dictates the timing as to when the leaves turn color along with many other characteristics. The green dominant pigment in growing plants is produced by chlorophyll. The other leaf colors are only apparent when plants stop growing. Those started from seeds are very unpredictable while cuttings mirror its mother plant. So, it’s very possible your trees came from trees with different coloring time periods although the same variety. The time period when the leaves turn color in the Chinese Pistache tree is between four to five weeks; however, it’s much broader with a Flowering Pear.  It’s not unusual to see an individual tree in a row of Flowering Pears to show color starting in late August with the rest progressing through mid December. Also, there is no way to tell for sure whether it will color up early mid season or late ahead of time.

Q. Will I harm next year’s crop of grapes by cutting back old, ugly branches now?  I did that last year and had very few grapes this year.                  

Senior man pruning a wine grape vineyard in his garden

A. January/February is the traditional time of the year to prune grapes. However, they can be pruned earlier if you choose. Grapes are dormant once the leaves start to turn color and drop off. In the fall, the green leaves are storing energy and food for next year so you don’t want to remove them too early. Pruning grapes early does not affect the production. Improper pruning by cutting off the fruiting spurs is the primary cause for little to no grapes. Grape vines are a vigorous grower that produce lots of stems and leaves each year. For many, it’s a confusing mass to prune, especially if there are no defined vertical trunk and laterals. Grapes need to grow on a trellis structure with one main trunk and several lateral branches. A typical fence is not necessarily the ideal trellis for grapes. With time, the fence is damaged by the growth. Poor air circulation increases problems with diseases and the vines are difficult to maintain. Also, your neighbor may not appreciate the vegetation growing on his or her side.  A separate trellis structure off the fence improves the maintenance and disease issue besides avoiding a neighbor dispute. In preparation I’d watch several of the videos on You Tube. This should give you a good idea if you pruning technique needs to be modified. Google “spur and cane pruning grapes.” 

Note: There are two methods of pruning grapes, cane and spur pruning.   Here is a variety list as which pruning method is the best.