Vanilla Cake and Wine

Happy July! I hope you had a great Independence Day and that you’re ready for a new month of desserts and wine! This month, we’re going to talk about one of the most versatile desserts I know: vanilla cake (and cupcakes). This classic dessert is an important part of any baker’s repertoire because, while it’s great on its own, it can be turned into different flavors and combined with different fillings and frostings to become something entirely different. If you can successfully make a vanilla cake you can make hundreds, if not thousands of desserts.

Here are just a few ways you can transform vanilla cake:

  1. Add fruit juice or extract to the cake to change the flavor
  2. Add a filling to the cake, like jam, whipped cream, fruit, cookie dough, or ganache
  3. Add fruit juice or extract to the frosting to change the flavor
  4. Do 2 of these options at the same time (or all 3) to come up with something completely different

A few of my favorite combinations that all start with vanilla cake and vanilla frosting are lemon cake with raspberry filling and lemon frosting, vanilla cake with strawberry filling and vanilla frosting, and vanilla cake with cookies n’ cream frosting. To create these, you seriously only add one additional ingredient to the cake batter or frosting and turn it into something special. And you only need one recipe

Another wonderful thing about vanilla cake is that it pairs really well with wine! I absolutely love vanilla cake and vanilla frosting with Vermentino. Vermentino is similar to sauvignon blanc in terms of body and taste- light and refreshing with a mild citrus flavor. With the cake, the citrus and vanilla combine to produce a mellow, lightly sweet combination that is very smooth and pleasing. I hadn’t had Vermentino previously but it will definitely be part of my regular stock in the future, especially with vanilla desserts.

You can also try an off-dry white with citrus and vanilla flavors. I don’t recommend anything too heavy, like a dessert wine, because the body of the wine is going to overwhelm the delicate flavor and texture of the cake. A nice, light wine is a good option to match the vanilla cake. I had a Lobo e Falcao white wine with vanilla cupcakes and it was a really good combination. It was a touch more tart than the Vermentino, which was fun.

If you opt to change up the flavor of the cake or frosting or add a filling, you may need to change up the wine. The Vermentino and white blend are both nice and versatile so they might work, but it all depends on the flavors you choose. I am a big fan of sauvignon blanc or white Bordeaux with lemon or lime cake, or even an orange one. If you add a chocolate ganache, try a light red, since the ganache makes the cake a little more substantial.

Stay tuned next week for the best boxed cake mixes for those times you just don’t feel like measuring a lot. After that, we’ll have a round-up of fillings to change up the flavor and texture of your cakes and cupcakes. At the end of the month, I’ll show you how to turn one frosting recipe into five different flavors.



Crazy for Cookies and Cab

I’m so excited for this post because I’ve been doing a lot of work behind the scenes that I finally get to share with you! The Sugar Vine is 9 months old this month and it has been an awesome ride so far. My goal with this blog is to share delicious, approachable recipes and wine pairings with you. I am going to continue to do that, but in a slightly different way. In order to really help you up your wine and dessert game, each month I am going to focus on one type of dessert. Yes, one. Why? We are going to dig into it and find the best places to buy it around Houston, talk about what kind of mixes and pre-made doughs are worth your money, and find the best recipes. We’re also going to find the absolute best wine pairing for that dessert. By the end of each month, I want you to feel totally ready to tackle the featured dessert and pair it with the perfect wine, whether it’s the one I recommend or one you pick out yourself. And please, share your pairings! I love hearing about the wines you love, desserts you make, and pairings you discover!

Now, let’s get started with our first monthly theme. This month, we’re covering chocolate chip cookies. They’re a delicious classic that you can’t go wrong eating during a quiet night on the couch or taking to a summer picnic. You can make the classic Nestle Tollhouse semi-sweet cookie, or you can go wild changing up the chocolate chips, adding frosting, or turning them into cakes. What other dessert gives you that many options with the exact same base?!

It’s also surprisingly easy to find wine pairing ideas online. With many desserts, there is a dearth of information on the internet, so you kind of have to fly blind when coming up with ideas. However, chocolate chip cookies are so fantastic there are a lot of people who have jumped on the wine and dessert pairing bandwagon. And that is so exciting! The three most common options I found online were cabernet sauvignon, syrah, and pinot noir. With so many people recommending these options, what could I do except try them out for you?

I didn’t love the syrah because I felt like the flavors in the wine were competing with the chocolate chip cookies. Pairings should enhance or complement each other, not compete, so I personally don’t recommend this option. The pinot noir, on the other hand, wasn’t bad. The cookies I used for the tasting had dark chocolate chips, and I felt like the wine mellowed the dark chocolate a good bit. They almost tasted like traditional semi-sweet cookies, so it definitely wasn’t a bad pairing. My favorite was the cabernet sauvignon. With both the dough (not that I would ever eat raw cookie dough) and the cookies, the pepper in the wine was really accentuated. I actually hadn’t noticed it that much until I tried it with the cookie. There wasn’t any underlying harshness, just good ol’ fashioned chocolate chip cookie and a nice, peppery cab.

What’s your favorite way to enjoy your chocolate chip cookies?



Celebrating Memorial Day

Memorial Day is often considered the official start of summer. Most people are off work, it’s warm and (hopefully) sunny, and barbeques and other outdoor activities are the place to be. But Memorial Day isn’t really about these things and too often I think the meaning gets lost in all of the fun. I’d like to take this opportunity to share a little of the history of Memorial Day and ways to honor those who died for our freedom.

Memorial Day originated after the Civil War in 1866 in the South and in 1868 in the North to honor the soldiers who lost their lives during the war. The North and South kept separate holidays until after World War I, when the holiday became an opportunity to honor all Americans who gave their lives during any war, rather than just focusing on the Civil War. Memorial Day was officially designated as a federal holiday held on the last Monday in May in 1971.

Since its inception, Memorial Day has been commemorated in a number of ways. One of the oldest traditions is to decorate the graves of soldiers. This tradition harkens back to the period after the Civil War and continues today. Poppies are often used as decoration around Memorial Day as a symbol of remembrance. This was inspired by Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae’s poem In Flanders Fields, which he wrote during World War I and inspired a poem in response by Moina Michael, who wore and sold poppies to benefit servicemen in need. Since 2000, the National Moment of Remembrance has been held at 3 pm on Memorial Day, which is a time to stop and remember those who made the ultimate sacrifice.

There are also a number of concerts, parades, and sporting events held on or around Memorial Day, including golf tournaments, NASCAR races, and the Indianapolis 500. Then there are the barbeques. And the desserts that must accompany any good barbeque. And wine. Basically, there are plenty of options to have a good time and gorge yourself.

Desserts at a Memorial Day party need to be able to handle the heat, since there’s a decent chance they’ll be outside a good part of the day. I really don’t recommend having a cake, unless it is kept in the shade and there aren’t a ton of intricate buttercream decorations. Why? Frosting made with butter melts in the heat. Ice cream isn’t a great idea, either, unless you have a freezer nearby. I really love to do fruit desserts around Memorial Day because so many delicious fruits are in season at that time. It’s easy to do a simple, light dessert that tastes great with fresh fruit and whipped cream, whether it’s by itself or in a pie or tart shell.

Wine options abound at Memorial Day celebrations as well. I love a nice, cold white like pinot grigio or Semillon. However, you can also do a light red if you prefer, like a Lambrusco or gamay.

No matter how you choose to celebrate Memorial Day, please take a moment to honor those who gave their lives for our freedom. Without their bravery and sacrifice, we wouldn’t have the opportunity to celebrate with barbeques, dessert, and wine.

In Flanders Fields
By John McCrae, May 1915

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.



Washington Wine- A Wonderful World to Discover

A friend of mine recently hosted a wine tasting party at her home featuring wines from her beloved Washington State. The tasting opened my eyes to the variety (and deliciousness) that the Washington wine industry has to offer. Prior to the wine tasting, my primary experience was Chateau Ste. Michelle, specifically their Riesling, and maybe a few other commonly available brands. Now, I’m not knocking Chateau Ste. Michelle or any of the others, but the wines my friend served at the wine tasting from some of her favorite wineries had so much depth, character, and variety that I became a firm believer in the value of Washington wine.

Photo courtesy of Washington State Wine/
Andrea Johnson Photography

Grapes have been grown in Washington since the early 1800s, so they have a lot of history working with different varietals to find out what works and what doesn’t in their climate. At first, wines made with grapes were primarily for home use, but in the 1960s winemakers started seriously experimenting with different varietals. Since then, the Washington wine industry has steadily grown into the 2nd largest in the U.S.

While many people think of the Washington climate as being rainy and overcast, the state actually gets more sunlight than California’s primary growing region. Most vineyards in Washington are to the east of the Cascades. This mountain range helps shield the eastern part of the state from the rainy weather Seattle is so well known for. The drier air also helps protect the vines from many diseases that require a humid climate to develop. Washington winters can get rather cold, which forces the grapes to lie dormant and store energy. Summers are quite warm and sunny, which allows the grapes develop. It’s also pretty dry in the grape growing region, which many grape varieties actually like because it stresses them. Another stressor that actually makes grapes turn into delicious wine is a large temperature shift between day and night. Grapes love warm, sunny days and cool nights. This large shift in temperatures helps balance the sugar and acidity in the grapes, which creates a good foundation for wine.

Photo courtesy of Washington State
Wine/Andrea Johnson Photography

So what does all this history and climate get you? A large variety of wine with really good flavor from many different wineries. There are nearly 70 varieties of grapes grown in the state and over 900 wineries. The sheer number leads to a ton of options for the wine drinker. They grow everything from Riesling, Chardonnay, and Viognier, to Pinot Noir, Syrah, and Petit Verdot. There is really something for every palate. They even make ice wine, which requires the grapes to be left on the vine until they freeze. This creates a very concentrated, sweet wine.

My friend who hosted the wine tasting was kind enough to share wines from several of her favorite wineries. A few of my favorites were from Flying Trout and L’Ecole No 41. I liked them so much I’m seriously considering joining their wine clubs.

Photo courtesy of Washington State Wine/
Andrea Johnson Photography

I know I’m always singing the praises of Texas wines (which are delicious and amazing), but Washington wines are also really good and worth a try, especially if you can sample the fantastic variety available.




Wine Insiders- Great Wines, Awesome Value

I am a total sucker for good wine at a great price. I mean, what’s better? High quality wine that doesn’t break the bank? Sign me up! Unfortunately, this means that I totally fall for any advertising that promises me that. Which means I sign up for wine clubs. Lots of wine clubs. These offers always seem to arrive in my mailbox around the same time, which leads to me ordering WAY too much wine. One time I received 3 cases of wine within 3 days of each other. Plus I was in a monthly wine club and had been receiving two bottles of wine each month for several months. Some had to be stored in my closet. It just wasn’t good. I’m learning to say no to wine club offers now.

Wine clubs aren’t all bad, though. One thing I like about wine clubs is that they can introduce you to brands and grapes you haven’t tried before and may fall in love with. When I first started drinking wine, this helped me get familiar with some of the more popular varieties and decide how I felt about them without making a huge investment (as long as I remembered to cancel future shipments). Wine clubs quite often provide a great value on the wines as well. However, it can sometimes be a pain to constantly receive shipments, have to remember to cancel them if you don’t need them, and remember to drink them before the wine turns to vinegar (not all wine should be kept for years and years). Plus, you may not always like the types of wines they send you, even if they are good quality.

Wine Insiders is kind of cool in that they do offer a wine club, but you are not required to join it to take advantage of deep discounts on some really good wine. I was introduced to Wine Insiders a year or two ago through a random piece of mail promising me 12 award winning wines for just $79.99 (or something like that). Of course I opened that envelope- it was a steal! I was fully aware that there was a decent chance the wines would stink and it would all be a waste. However, a few things made me feel more comfortable trying this one over some of the other offers I received:

  1. They offer a guarantee that you will like every wine or they will send a replacement or issue a refund. You can’t get that type of guarantee on wines you pick up at the grocery store.
  2. They have a tasting panel that tries all of their wines and they only accept ones the panel rates 93 points or higher. A number of the wines they sell have also received awards at U.S. and international wine competitions.

Since that first shipment of wine, I have ordered from Wine Insiders a few more times, most recently last month. I received an offer for great food wines, so I thought I would give it a shot. The wines I received in the past were good quality, after all. There have been some I didn’t love, but that was because I just didn’t like that kind, not because the wine was poorly made. I also really like that Wine Insiders tells you what you will receive before you order. It’s not just a generic “12 great whites from top winemakers.” You actually know the specific wine you will receive, so you don’t accidentally get 3 bottles of something you hate. In this case, I had actually tried a few of the wines in the case, but I liked them so I was happy to get some more. There were also several wines I hadn’t tried before, including a Vermentino that I had never heard of.

The case arrived within a week and a half of me placing the order online. Inside the box was the wine (obviously), along with a letter from Director about Wine Insiders’ guarantee, quality, etc.; a packing list, a $100 voucher for more wine (here we go again…I may need to rent storage), and a coupon for Hello Fresh (something new to try!).

Since I’ve never had vermentino before, I was pretty excited to try the Cala de Poeti Vermentino. The wine is light, slightly floral, with just a little touch of oiliness on the tongue. Overall, a really good wine that I may reorder to have on hand. This is what I love about Wine Insiders- you can get old favorites and find new ones!

Are you a wine club fan? Have you found any favorites through a wine club?


The Scoop on Fruit Wine

Here’s a funny thing about wine: It’s made from grapes but taste and aroma descriptions involve any flavor under the sun other than grapes. Grapes are fruits, but grape wine is just called wine while wines made from other fruits are called fruit wine. Does anyone else find this a little strange? Why the distinction? There are even those who don’t feel that fruit wines are real wines.

No one really knows why wine made from grapes is distinguished from all other fruit wines, but it may have something to do with the ease with which it can be made with minimal intervention. In other words, it’s easier to set a batch of grapes to fermenting and forget about them, and still end up with something that’s good to drink. Wine can really be made from almost any plant that can be fermented, but not all plants turn into wine without intervention. Grapes have a good balance of tannin, sugar, and acid to mingle with yeast and water to create wine with minimal additives. Many other types of plants need added sugar to make them taste better and actually turn into an alcoholic beverage, since sugar coverts to alcohol during the fermentation process. Without the added sugar, you would just have somewhat spoiled juice. No one wants that.

The extra care involved in making fruit wine should not turn you off to drinking it, though. A skilled winemaker can turn a batch of fruit into an amazingly flavorful bottle of wine that range from dry to sweet to sparkling and everything in between. I personally prefer fruit wine that tastes like the fruit it’s made from, but there really is something for everyone. Prefer dry wines? Check out elderberry, which is made in a pinot noir style. Love bananas? Try some banana wine from the Philippines. How about a wine that transports you to a Hawaiian luau? Have some passion fruit or pineapple wine. You can even find fruit wines fortified with liquor, like plum wine popular in Japan, Korea, and China.

One of the first fruit wines I had (before I even liked wine) was black currant wine from Butler Winery in Indiana. It has a jaw gripping tartness that makes my mouth water whenever I think of it. Unfortunately they only ship within Indiana and to Florida, so you have to make a trip to one of those states to get your hands on it. If you do, let me know because I need you to bring me some!

I also had a really amazing strawberry wine in Virginia that tasted like you had just bit into a fresh, juicy strawberry straight off the vine. It was incredible. I tried it at a wine festival that had wineries from all over the state, and the winemaker actually sent people to a winery that made chocolate wine. When you had a sip of the strawberry and a sip of the chocolate, it tasted exactly like a chocolate covered strawberry!

The wine I’m drinking now is a luscious raspberry wine from Texas SouthWind Winery. The winery is located in South Texas near Refugio and Goliad (if you know your Texas history, you will definitely recognize the name Goliad). They make ten different fruit wines. TEN! I want to try them all because their red raspberry is so delicious! To me this is the perfect spring wine. It’s fresh and sweet with just a little hint of tartness at the end. While those in northern climes may need a few more weeks before it’s warm enough to drink something this light and fruity, here in Houston it’s been plenty warm for weeks. This is just the wine I needed to dive straight into this bright, warm season and enjoy the flowers that are popping up everywhere!

Are you a fan of fruit wine or do you stick with the grape variety?



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