Celebrate Ambrosia Day on December 12th
Back in my bookish childhood days, I loved the stories of Ancient Greece, and I would pretend that a rare and coveted breakfast of frozen orange juice and simple, soft, buttery (real butter she hipped from the heavy cream that floated at the top of the glass milk bottle), eggy French toast with honey, was AMBROSIA, the food of the gods, that gave them strength and ensured their immortality. Once a year, at Hanukkah, when our neighbors presented us with a lovely golden yellow, braided Challah, Mom would make French toast out of thick slices of that. It was heavenly delicious.
To be honest, I am not crazy about the “ambrosia” salad that seemed to appear sometime in the 1950’s and has remained popular at every dish to pass church supper since, that festive looking concoction of canned pineapple and mandarin orange segments, with mini marshmallows and coconut. I certainly would not risk the wrath of the gods for that, even though my southern mother-in-law apparently held the secret old North Carolina family recipe that her usual kindly, “y’all” neighbors on Mount Airy would kill for. She swore it was all in the coconut--toasted or not, shredded, or chipped. Maybe that’s my problem. I’m just not crazy about coconut.
The other side of the Ancient Greek gods’ business was that us mere mortals could pay with our lives if we dared to eat their ambrosia. I can only think of a few things that strike the same blissful chord in my heart and palate as those childhood breakfasts—a well-made Crème Brulée, a classic French chocolate mousse made with butter, chocolate and raw egg, or a fresh pear Tarte Tatin (all sweet stuff); or, on the savory side, a burrata and roasted beet salad with a simple mustard vinaigrette, a rare slice of steak with a perfectly grilled mushroom and a rich red wine glaze, or moist piece of poached salmon draped with a well-executed Hollandaise sauce. It is not only the taste that turns mere mortal fare into ambrosia, it is the texture, too, that melt-in-your-mouth thing that makes your eyes close in dreaminess and forces an “Mmmm” purr.
There are wines, too, that make me think of perfection. Don’t get me wrong. I love all kinds of wine, from dry to sticky sweet, from red to pink, to white, from delicate to burly and bold and certainly would consider an evening meal incomplete without it, even if I were just grabbing a tuna sandwich. And that has been true for 60 years. I try to match the food to the wine, hoping that they will complement each other, like companions, each bringing out the best, and moderating the faults, in one another. Fat in meat moderates the astringent tannins in big, oaky reds. Sweeter, lighter Rieslings assuage the fire in spicy hot dishes. Citrusy, dry white wines act like lemon on seafood. And so on. But occasionally, I long for a wine ambrosia, something to savor all on its own, some nectar of the gods.
And that is where good dessert wines come in:
A real, natural Ice Wine, from a place in the wine growing world where sweet raisined grapes really freeze on the vine, are handpicked in in the middle of a frozen night. and not cryo frozen…Michigan, Canada, the Finger Lakes of Upstate New York, Germany, the original home of Eiswein. It’s expensive because it takes so many of those shriveled grapes, individual hand-picked by spicy fingers to make a small bottle. The sweetness if balanced by a hint of acidity. With apricot and honey flavors. And, it’s long, lush, rich, viscous and smooth, and delicious chilled and sipped on its own by the warm fire. Add a loaf of homemade, sweet bread, a piece of blue cheese, and a jar of fig or pearl jam for a holiday gift.
TRY Fenn Valley’s Vidal Icewine OR Jackson-Triggs Reserve Niagara Vidal Icewine from Canada.
A classic sweet Dessert Wine, what the Aussies call a “sticky,” is ambrosia, too, a German Trockenbeerenauslese [“troh-ken-ber-en-owss-lay-zuh” Say that fast!], or a Tokayji [toke-eye] from Hungary, or a French Sauternes [soh-tairn] from the region of Bordeaux and made from the a blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon [sem-ee-yown] grapes, the most famous of which costs over $300 a half bottle A lovely version is available for under $20! Like Ice Wine, these stickies are slightly syrupy and, though sweet, avoid being cloying because of the grape’s natural acidity. Like Ice Wine, they are made from shriveled, though not frozen, overly ripe grapes. It is the natural process of the shriveling that gives them their distinctive rich, earthy flavor. Like cheese, where the milk is “invaded” by mold, the grapes are invaded—and desiccated—by a mold called “botrytis,” and the wine is said to be botrytized. Enough of the science. He the magic is in the mouth with these slightly syrupy treats.
TRY Nicolas Sauternes. A 90 Point wine, straw colored with flavors and aromas of roasted grapes, ripe apricots and honey. Chill, sip on its own, or with Crème Brulée and say, “Mmmm.” (Note: Sauternes from Michigan and other U.S. states is not the same, at all). Another great holiday gift, along with a homemade pumpkin pie, or a war, freshly made Pear Tarte Tatin and a jar of homemade *Crème Fraiche.
Or a Moscato, a dessert Moscato, not light and sparkling (though it, too, is delicious), but ever so slightly syrupy, on the order of dessert wines. Some wine snobs poopoo Moscato, claiming it girly, not “real” wine, big and dry, and manly. Not true, fellows. Moscato, sweet and syrupy, was the wine the Ancient Greeks drank, tough soldiers and great philosophers, and their gods. It is the oldest variety of grape and goes back long before the Greeks. Homer in his epics sings the praises of the wines his warrior heroes drank, dark and sweet, and made from grapes dried on straw to concentrate their flavor and sweetness, wines that tasted of honey and flowers and orchard fruits. These wines are heavenly, chilled and sipped, and serve with dried fruit and nuts, crumbly wheat crackers and Manchego cheese with quince paste.
TRY Quady Electra Moscato or Red Moscato, one a white Moscato, one a Red Moscato, both delicious, ever so slightly spritzy and medium bodied, the white with classic honeysuckle and apricot flavors; the red with more richness and berry fruit. Chill and serve with light desserts, a fruit tart with creme fraiche, a holiday English Trifle, a fruitcake. Great holiday gift to give the pair, with their Heavenly Angel Labels!
Holiday Hack: Make your Own Crème Fraiche
This simple solution will cost you less than half of a same sized container of “Crème Fraiche.” Open a 1 C carton of pasteurized (not ultra-pasteurized) whipping cream and add in 2 TBS cultured buttermilk. Close carton and shake for 1 minutes. (or add them both to a jar and shake…) Then leave on the counter 24 hours to thicken. Refrigerate. Then you can sweeten it or not, stir it into sauces, add it to your scrambled eggs. make dips, flavor it to your liking for savory or sweet dishes, dollop it or whip it. It is ambrosia! I usually make it by the quart—4 containers of whipping cream + 8TBS of cultured buttermilk. It stays fresh in the fridge for ten days. If it separates a little, just stir it up. Note: I usually save enough of this to use as my starter for the next batch, instead of the butter milk.
During her distinguished career, Roz has served a term as the Retail Representative on the MDA's Michigan Grape and Wine Industry Council and Continues to serve on their Promotion & Education and Competition Committees. In addition, she has served as a judge in various national and international wine competitions.
Working with D&W's wine stewards and SpartanNash's vendor partners, Roz tirelessly explores the vast world of wine, discovering the finest wines for every budget and every taste. And she loves to discuss food and wine with customers and colleagues. As a lifelong foodie, there is nothing else she'd rather be doing.