Easy Desserts for Graduation Parties

It may be hard to believe, but graduation season is upon us. This super busy, often emotional time of year is full of award ceremonies, parties, goodbyes, and planning for the future. I remember when I graduated from high school and college, I was both relieved that the tests, homework, and classes were over but I also felt very nostalgic about my time in school and didn’t want it to end. My mom also cried a lot.

Everyone associated with a graduate is busy- the parents, siblings, friends, and teachers are all trying to celebrate their success and deal with their emotions related to the graduate moving to the next stage in their lives. Any good graduation party needs dessert, but it’s hard to make a dessert while planning and hosting a party. Luckily, I have rounded up some great ideas for a graduation party dessert that require minimal work during the party and can be as simple or as extravagant as you choose to make them.

Make Your Own Sundae Bar
How cool is this? To put it together, you set out a variety of ice cream, toppings, and cones, and let the guests go to town. Your only work during the party is setting out the ice cream- everything else can be laid out in advance.

   

Candy Bar
I love candy bars. Why? Unlimited candy, of course. You can either set it up so guests can graze throughout the party or set out bags so everyone can fill one on their way out. You can also add in some miniature desserts, like mini cupcakes, cake pops, or truffles if you want a little more than candy.

Cupcake Bar
Who doesn’t love cupcakes? If you want to give guests a fun activity during the party, you can have them decorate their own cupcakes. Even adults will have fun trying to outdo each other with their creativity. If there are other activities going on, you can have a variety of cupcake flavors available for guests to choose from at their leisure, whether you made them yourself or picked them up from a bakery. Check out my cupcake post for some recommendations around Houston.

Chocolate Fountain
Chocolate fountains are amazing and so easy to manage during a party. Just lay out a variety of dippers, like marshmallows, fruit, and pretzels, and let your guests go to town. Your only job is to ensure the chocolate doesn’t run out. I will warn you, clean up can be a bit challenging.

Donut Bar
Donut towers and bars have been a thing for awhile now and are super awesome. It doesn’t matter what time of day it is, a pile of donuts will make any guests’ eyes gleam.

Have you had any great graduation desserts? Let us know your picks for an easy, hands-off dessert!

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Peanut Butter Bon Bons- The Perfect Mother’s Day Treat

Mother’s Day is almost upon us and you know what that means- it’s time to spoil our wonderful moms who have put up with us our whole lives. They held us when we cried, patched us up when we fell, celebrated our victories, and gave us the foundation to go out and achieve great things. While Mother’s Day may seem like just another Hallmark holiday to some, I think it’s a great opportunity to acknowledge just how important a role mothers play in our lives and thank them for always being there. I know I was not the easiest child (did anyone else have a thing for flinging their shoes off their feet when they walked in the door?), so I want to give a special thank you to my mom for always encouraging me to follow my dreams, giving me the space and support to learn who I am and what I want to do with my life, teaching me to be open to new ideas, not killing me when I decided I could only wear one skirt every day for weeks on end in Kindergarten, and for picking me up after all those many, many late night high school debate tournaments.

There are plenty of great ways to celebrate your mother, from flowers to a day off to a special dinner out. But I think the best way is to make her a really special dessert, like the Peanut Butter Bon Bons in the Junior League of the Woodlands’ Texas Tables cookbook. This is a fantastic cookbook with tons of great recipes (and beautiful enough to be a Mother’s Day gift on its own!), and the bon bons are one of the most popular recipes in the book. They’re a delightfully rich, sweet ball of chocolate-covered peanut butter goodness, and the perfect treat to say “Thanks, Mom.”

I won’t lie to you- these bon bons are not terribly difficult, but they are somewhat time consuming. There are essentially two parts to making them- making the peanut butter balls, and dipping them in chocolate. After each of those steps, you chill them for two hours to harden the peanut butter and let the chocolate set. It’s nice having that time in between so you aren’t slaving over the stove for hours on end. I have a friend who even left hers in the fridge overnight because she didn’t have time to dip them right away. So you can totally work making these into your schedule, even though the overall time is a little more than you might normally expect.

Now, I can’t give you the full recipe- you have to buy the book for that- but I do have some tips to ensure these come out perfectly every time. And I should know- I made 9 batches of these for the Junior League of the Woodlands’ Holiday Market last year, so I have had lots of practice!

The first step is to assemble your ingredients and let your margarine soften a bit. You don’t want it warm, because that will make the dough too soft and sticky to form the balls easily, but you do need it soft enough to mix with the peanut butter. I usually leave my margarine on the counter for 15-20 minutes before I start mixing.

Next, you mix the margarine and peanut butter together, then add powdered sugar. When measuring the peanut butter, make sure that you get all of it out of the measuring cup, otherwise your proportions will be off. If you have too much powdered sugar compared to the peanut butter, the dough may end up tough and hard to work with, not to mention not great to eat. I also like to use a regular peanut butter with some salt added as opposed to just ground peanut butter. I think this tiny hint of salt helps cut the sweetness just enough that it’s not overwhelming.

Try to get your peanut butter balls as round and uniform in size as possible, but don’t sweat if they’re not perfect. That gives them character, right?

Once you have your dough shaped and on a pan (cookie sheets work great), pop the pan in the fridge and go relax. The reason the dough needs to chill is because it is going into a pan of hot chocolate and paraffin, and the peanut butter will get too gooey and lose its shape if it’s not nice and cold.

Melting the chocolate and paraffin takes several minutes and it’s really important not to get distracted here. You can step away for a minute or two at a time while it’s melting, but don’t go far because you do need to stir the chocolate regularly to ensure it melts evenly and doesn’t burn. And don’t worry if you don’t have a double boiler. You can use a mixing bowl on top of a pan of water to achieve the same effect- just make sure the water does not touch the bottom of the bowl. It may be tempting to let a few tiny pieces go unmelted, but DON’T! The first time I made these, I got impatient and decided those few tiny bits wouldn’t hurt anything and I wound up with lumps of chocolate on half my bon bons. They still tasted good but it was not the most appealing thing in the world. So be patient and make sure all the chocolate is fully melted before dipping your first bon bon. You need to work quickly once you start dipping the bon bons because the peanut butter warms quickly. I actually prefer to put about half the batch on a plate to dip at one time so they don’t warm up too much.

Once you have everything dipped, you are done! Just pop the bon bons back in the fridge for a couple hours to let the chocolate set, and then you can serve them, eat them, or even freeze them. One of the great things about this recipe is that the bon bons freeze well, so you can make them ahead of time and pull them out when ready to serve. Just leave them on the counter to come to room temperature.

What’s your favorite way to make your mom feel special?

If you would like to purchase a Texas Tables cookbook, you can do so directly from the Junior League of the Woodlands website: https://www.jlthewoodlands.org/texas_tables/. Information on the Holiday Market is available here: https://www.jlthewoodlands.org/holiday-market/. Proceeds from the sale of the cookbooks and Holiday Market tickets go directly back into the community to support our wonderful programs. More information on the work of the Junior League of the Woodlands is available here: https://www.jlthewoodlands.org/.

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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.

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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?

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Crazy for Cupcakes

Cupcakes. They have been the trendy dessert for years, despite annual predictions that something, anything is going will displace them. There are entire bakeries devoted to them, you can get them from vending machines, watch competitions devoted to them, and buy countless home decorations and clothes related to them.

Although the ongoing trendiness shows that cupcakes are lovely little pieces of happiness, there are plenty of baaaaaaaad examples out there. Cake and frosting together are the perfect treat but they can easily be ruined by poor execution. Don’t worry, though. I have some tips to ensure you always make the perfect cupcake, as well as my top 5 spots for cupcakes in the Houston area.

Let’s start with the cake. This MUST be moist. Dry cupcakes are the worst. Even raw cupcakes are better than dry ones because the batter is so delicious (side note- don’t eat raw batter. It’s bad for you). It’s really important to pay attention to both the cooking time in the recipe and your oven temperature. If your oven runs hot, make sure to reduce the cooking time. If your oven is spot-on temperature-wise, still be careful about the time. You never know if the recipe maker’s oven temperature was exact or not. When I bake cupcakes, I almost always start checking on them a couple minutes early, or at least at the earlier side of the cooking time range. If a recipe says 20-24 minutes, I’ll check at 18. You don’t want to open and close your oven a ton (it releases heat) but do take a peek at the cupcakes and see if they’re starting to brown or look firm on the top. If so, stick a toothpick in one. If it comes out with batter on it or looks really sticky, leave the cupcakes in the oven for a few more minutes. If there are some crumbs sticking to it but no batter, they’re ready to come out.

Now let’s talk about fillings. They’re not required but they can make a good cupcake phenomenal. You want a nice, complementary flavor to balance or enhance the flavors in the cake and frosting. You can use anything for the filling, including chocolate ganache, jam, whipped cream, lemon curd, or pureed fruit. I even used cookie dough once. Holy moly, was that good! To get the center out of the cupcake, you can use a knife or a spoon, or you can use a tool specially made to core cupcakes. A friend gave me one several years ago and it honestly changed the way I made cupcakes. Most of my cupcakes are now filled and it’s a really fun challenge to come up with new, exciting flavors.

Frosting is literally the icing on the cake and my absolute favorite part of making cupcakes. A good frosting should complement the cake and the filling without drowning them in sweetness. There needs to be a good ratio of cake to frosting, too. Personally, I like about 3 times as much frosting as a normal person, but a good rule of thumb is enough frosting so you have a little with every bite of cake. Texture is also super important with frosting. You need to make sure your butter and powdered sugar are well-mixed and that the frosting isn’t overly oily. Some people really like all shortening frostings because they hold their shape in the heat. The issue is, they’re super oily and often leave a greasy feeling in your mouth that I find super off-putting. Butter tastes amazing and has a great texture for frosting, but it can get a little melty in the heat. Some people like to do a combination of the two to get the benefits of shortening and the flavor and texture of butter. Personally, I just use butter and keep the cupcakes inside when it’s hot (which is pretty much all the time here).

Three of the most classic and popular flavors are vanilla, chocolate, and red velvet. There are a tons of recipes online and in cookbooks for these, ranging from meh to amazing. Here are a few of the recipes I us over and over:

  • Hershey’s “Perfectly Chocolate” Chocolate Cake– The cake is super moist, which is awesome, but it does create problems for super detailed decorating. I like to just do a nice, basic swirl to keep the cake from sticking to the frosting.
  • Williams-Sonoma Vanilla Cupcakes– You can use this recipe as a jumping off point for lots of flavor varieties by changing the extract used or adding juice or citrus zest, just be careful not to overbake because they do lean toward dryness.
  • Southern Red Velvet Cake– I always add extra chocolate to punch up the flavor a little. Try doubling it to start and then adjust as needed for your preferences.

Don’t feel like making your own cupcakes? That’s okay; I have you covered there, too. I took on the oh, so difficult task of scouting for the best cupcakes in the Houston area. It was tough job, but someone had to do it. These are my top 5 (in alphabetical order):

Crave
I totally want to hang out and work at Crave. I went to the store in The Woodlands and it’s bright, open, and filled with delicious smells. The employees are friendly and ready to help you choose just the perfect flavor and you can take them to go or hang out at one of their tables and maybe get a coffee to sip while you eat your cupcake. I tried their top 2 flavors- red velvet and double chocolate. Both were really good, but my favorite was the double chocolate. It was super rich and moist without being too dense.

Oooh La La Elite
Tucked into a corner of a shopping center, Oooh La La Elite Cupcakes is a hidden treasure. They have a large, open store with plenty of tables and lots of cupcakes. I got a little crazy here because it was really hard to choose a flavor, so I got three. All were super moist with good flavor. The boyfriend’s favorite was the red velvet, because the frosting wasn’t as sweet as others he’s tried. My favorite was the strawberry shortcake because the cake was moist, the strawberry filling was super flavorful, and the cream cheese frosting was rich without overpowering the cake and filling. I also had a really good wedding cake cupcake, which is one of their most popular flavors. It’s made with vanilla and almond flavoring. I don’t love almond, but if you do you will absolutely love this one.

Photo courtesy of Oooh La La Elite Cupcakes

Petite Sweets
Petite Sweets is exactly what it’s name suggests- a cozy sweet shop that serves up small (delicious) desserts. They don’t specialize in cupcakes, but they serve mini cupcakes that are just fantastic. They’re little bites of heaven with big flavors. I had the cookies n cream, which had a little cookie at the bottom and a light frosting reminiscent of Oreo filling, and the salty caramel that was rich, caramely, and gooey in the middle and made me crave more.

Photo courtesy of Petite Sweets

Sprinkles
If I’m being perfectly honest, I was a little nervous about trying Sprinkles because I have had some bad experiences with chains. I feel like it’s hard for them to maintain their attention to detail when trying to mass produce cupcakes. However, I was proven wrong by Sprinkles. I got a vanilla cupcake from their ATM (how fun is that?!) outside the store in Houston on Westheimer. The cupcake was moist and super vanilla-y, which is really important with such a simple flavor. I am definitely interested in going again and trying some of their more unique flavors. They have a long list on their menu, with different flavors available by the day and month.

Photo courtesy of Sprinkles

Treat
Treat is a super cute shop in Tomball with big cupcake flavors. I loved the atmosphere inside and had a really hard time choosing. Once again I had a red velvet, which is their #1. I think my favorite part about it was the frosting- creamy, rich, with a really nice amount of cream cheese flavoring. I also went out on a limb and tried the Italian cream, which is not one of my usual favorite flavors. This one really sent me through the roof with the flavors and textures.

Do you have any great cupcake making tricks or favorite places to get a sweet treat?

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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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Easter Candy and Wine- The Perfect Pairings

Easter is right around the corner and the store shelves are stocked full of candy. Chocolate bunnies, cream filled eggs, jelly beans, and marshmallow chicks are EVERYWHERE. There is something about Easter candy that makes it taste better than candy at any other time of year. I don’t know if it has something to do with the pastel dye used on the candy corn, or the chocolate to peanut butter ratio on the Reese’s eggs, but everything is just oh, so amazing, and it has been since I was a little kid. I remember how exciting it always was to wake up in the morning and find an Easter basket on the table filled with sugary treats.

Adults don’t have to miss out on the magic of Easter just because they don’t get baskets from the Easter bunny anymore. They get to enjoy Easter in a whole different way because they get to have wine with their candy. Yes, I said it. Wine and Easter candy is one of the many wonderful things about being an adult.

Here are my picks for the best pairings this Easter:

Reese’s Peanut Butter Eggs

Easter could be the only time Reese’s had candy on the shelves and I would personally ensure they stay in business. The thin coating of chocolate over the peanut butter creates the perfect ratio of peanut butter to chocolate. The big eggs are the best but the small ones work, too. The eggs are really GOOD with pinot noir and merlot. The peanut butter helps mellow out both wines so they’re nice and smooth without being harsh or bitter on your tongue.

Jelly beans

The jelly bean pairings really surprised me. The rosé and jelly bean combination was almost fizzy with a really sweet, fruity flavor. Equally surprising was that the sangiovese didn’t overwhelm the fruity flavor of the jelly beans and tasted really good with the candy.

Chocolate Bunny

I never used to eat the chocolate bunny in my Easter basket. Every year, one was right in the center of my basket waiting for me but I couldn’t eat it. I didn’t want to hurt the bunny. I didn’t have a problem with eggs, cookies n’ cream bunnies, or anything else; but for some reason the hollow chocolate rabbits were too real to me. I understand now that the bunny won’t hurt if I take a bite out of its head, so I happily eat any chocolate rabbits sent my way. The milk chocolate ones pair really well with both rosé and pinot noir. They’re both smooth and easy to drink with the chocolate.

Cadbury Crème

I personally prefer Cadbury caramel eggs to crème in the Cadbury eggs, but the crème is pretty good when you pair it with zinfandel or rose. They’re smooth and creamy without any harshness.

Peeps

Marshmallow peeps are probably THE guilty pleasure of Easter. Everyone claims to hate them but they appear in more forms every Easter, so obviously someone is buying them. If you’re going to eat Peeps, try them with a viognier, which gives them a nice fruitiness in the back of your throat or with a table white that is just a tad on the sweet side. The peeps will make it nice and sugary without bitterness.

If none of these options float your boat, try moscato with everything. I could not find a candy that didn’t work well with it. The wine was sweet and smooth with everything.

Do you love Easter candy as much as I do? What’s your favorite and what wine do you recommend with it?

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The Best Wines to Drink in the Spring

Happy spring! Here in Houston, it’s been spring since January (we didn’t have much cold weather this year), but for the rest of the world, this is the time to start thinking about green grass, flowers blooming, and snow melting. Wines are getting lighter with the change of season but everything is still a little in-between the hearty, full-bodied wines of winter and the light, cool ones of summer. While you may not be into Syrah and Malbec anymore, you’re also not ready for Riesling and pinot grigio. So what do you choose? Look for wines in the middle of the body spectrum- full bodied whites, roses, and light to medium bodied reds. Here’s the scoop on each of these types and some suggestions on what to try for each.

Whites

In the spring, I recommend a full bodied white wine. These wines are served chilled, so they’re great for warmer days, but they have a heavier weight in your mouth and some rich creaminess due to oak-aging and malolactic fermentation. Two good options for full-bodied white wines are oaked chardonnays and viogniers. Oaked chardonnays are richer than their unoaked counterparts and have more vanilla and butter flavors. Viogniers are often recommended as an alternative to chardonnay. They can also be either oaked or unoaked and are richer when they are, just like chardonnay. Even without oaking, I really like viognier in the spring because the floral notes remind me that flowers are blooming.

My recommendation: Bent Oak Viognier

Rosé

Rosé wines are the quintessential spring wine. If you think of drinking reds in winter and whites in summer, it just makes sense to have rosé in the spring. Like reds and whites, there is a whole spectrum of rosé wines from dry to sweet. Rosé wines are made from a variety of grapes that influence how light or bold the wine will be. Two great options for spring are wines made from Syrah and Grenache. Syrah rosés tend to be a little more on the savory side and a little bolder, which means they’re great for a slightly cooler spring evening. Grenache rosés are a little fruitier but still have a good body, which is perfect when your spring is more reminiscent of summer. I recently had a rosé that was a combination of these two and was a little on the drier side with just a tiny touch of fruit.

My recommendation: Gerard Bertrand Cote des Roses

Reds

Light and medium-bodied red wines are some of the most versatile wines out there. Both types tend to be more on the fruitier side than full-bodied reds. However, they have more weight than most rosés, which is nice when the weather is on the cooler side. Light-bodied reds tend to be a little more acidic than medium ones, but they all tend to have nice fruit flavors and are easy to drink with or without food. Pinot noir is a pretty classic light-bodied red that is easy to drinks with nice fruit flavors. In terms of medium-bodied reds, I’m pretty partial to Sangiovese. It has a nice weight on the tongue with higher tannins but still has a nice, smooth finish.

My recommendations: Z. Alexander Brown Uncages Pinot Noir (light), Vino Noceto Riserva Sangiovese (medium)

Do you have any springtime favorites?

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A Fresh and Fruity Berry Crisp and a Bright, Sweet Moscato

I don’t understand people who don’t like fruit desserts. One of my sisters doesn’t like them and I think something’s wrong with her taste buds (sorry sis!). Fruit desserts have everything you could possibly want- taste, texture, versatility. The fruit is sweet but can have a little tartness depending on what kind you use and how much sugar you add. You have texture from the crust and topping. They’re good either hot or cold. You can even add extras like ice cream or chocolate sauce and it tastes amazing. Plus, they pair wonderfully with wine! Fruit desserts are amazing!

One of my favorites is the fruit crisp from the Williams-Sonoma Essentials of Baking cookbook. I mentioned this book before as a great resource and this recipe doesn’t disappoint. They have 3 options for the crisp- the main one is strawberry rhubarb and the other two are apple or pear and mixed berry. I love that it’s such a versatile recipe and can be made at any time of year. Since rhubarb isn’t available in the grocery store right now, I opted to make a mixed berry crisp using frozen berries. Frozen berries can be a great substitute for fresh if the fruit you want to use isn’t in season. Just make sure to get the kind with no sugar added or it will throw off your recipe. You also need to account for the extra water you’ll have when the berries thaw. You can either do this by lightly coating the berries in flour or by letting them thaw and then draining off some of the juice.

To make the crisp, just assemble your ingredients….

Mix the berries with sugar and cinnamon and pile them in your baking dish….

Then mix up the topping with melted butter, sugar (white and brown), oatmeal, flour, cinnamon, and a smidge of salt and put it in a layer on top of the fruit….

Side note: I love the topping, so I usually make 1.5 to 2 times the recipe. In this case, I doubled it but didn’t use all of it. In a 13×9 pan I can use a full doubled topping.

And bake until it’s golden brown.

Seriously easy, right? As long as you don’t burn it, it’s virtually guaranteed to be delicious! I love how the crisp is both sweet and tart with just a hint cinnamon to spice it up. The topping has a wonderful crunch that balances the softness of the berries for a really pleasing texture.

Like I said earlier, fruit desserts are fantastic with wine. The fruit in the crisp helps enhance the fruit flavors in the wine. The key here is to find a wine with similar flavors to the fruit you used but that won’t taste sour with the sweet topping. If I had done an apple crisp I might have paired the dessert with a chardonnay or a Riesling. With a cherry crisp, I might have cut back a little on the sugar and paired it with a gamay or Sangiovese. So what wine wins with the mixed berry crisp?

The Abbazia Moscato Dolce, a 93 point gold medal in 2016 Winemaker Challenge International Wine Competition!!!!!

This Moscato made my taste buds sing when paired with the crisp! It’s a sweet, floral wine with just a touch of sparkle that draws out the fruit and sweetness of the dessert in a burst of flavor. I knew after just one sip that I didn’t need to try anything else because this was the perfect pairing. It’s absolutely irresistible!

Have you tried making a crisp before? Let me know what kind, if you loved it, and what wine you think would pair with it!

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Irish Apple Cake- A St. Patrick’s Day Delight

      I have a confession to make: I have a bit of a love affair with Ireland. No idea when it started or why, but I am fascinated by the history, culture, and food. I was fortunate enough to visit a few years ago for my 30th birthday and I fell even more in love with the country. It is such a beautiful place with friendly people that I want to return many more times.

What do most people think of when they think of Ireland? Probably St. Patrick’s Day. St. Patrick’s Day is a Christian feast day celebrating the arrival of Christianity in Ireland. It is also a day to celebrate Irish culture and has become an opportunity to wear green and indulge in green food and drinks. Now, I love a green cupcake as much as the next person, but now that I’ve experienced Irish cuisine at its finest, I want to celebrate its flavors and more natural colors at St. Patrick’s Day. I looked for an Irish wine to feature, but Ireland does not have a significant wine industry because the climate is really not great for grape growing. There are some vineyards in the country but it’s pretty hard to find anything in the U.S. So, I found a really amazing Irish dessert to share with you instead: an Irish apple cake

I’ve never been a huge fan of apple cake ibecause I think it’s overly spicy (sorry, Mom, I know you love apple cake!) and I don’t think the apples are really the star of the dish. This is a great alternative to the apple cakes I know because it’s a nice dense, fresh cake with a little hint of spice to it. The recipe is from Irish-American Mom: http://www.irishamericanmom.com/2013/03/01/kerry-or-irish-apple-cake/

To start, I greased and floured a spring form pan. The spring form is nice for this cake because it allows you to remove the cake from the pan without flipping it over and smushing the top. The top is so pretty and rustic it would be a shame to smush it. I floured the pan in addition to buttering it because I have found that it helps give the cake a little more height and prevents it from sticking. Butter alone will sometimes work but I’ve had so many cakes fall apart when removing them from the pan that I always flour the pan no matter what. All it takes is a spoonful of flour and a minute to shake the flour all around so it sticks to the butter.

Once the pan is prepped, you just combine the dry ingredients and mix in the butter with a pastry cutter or your fingers. You want to ensure the butter is evenly distributed throughout the flour so it will look like small bread crumbs.

Then you peel and slice the apples and mix them into the flour. I quartered each apple, quartered each slice, then quartered the slices. I felt like this was big enough to give each piece some heft but small enough to cook in a reasonable length of time. Make sure to cut the apples as uniformly as possible. If you have some giant pieces and some tiny ones they won’t cook evenly. The small pieces will be mushy and the large ones will be al dente. Try to do this part quickly (without losing a finger) because the apples will brown if left in the air too long. One way to combat this is to toss them with a little lemon juice. Just use a small splash so you don’t introduce too much liquid or flavoring to the cake batter.

Next, you mix the eggs and milk together and add them to the apple and flour mixture. Don’t worry if it looks like you have way too much flour and apples compared to the liquid. I promise you will have enough to mix it all together. The batter is more dough-like and very thick and lumpy. You’ll need to spread the batter carefully in the pan to make sure there aren’t any holes. The last step is to sprinkle a little sugar on the top to help the cake brown and to give it a little crunch on top.

The cake takes about 45 minutes to cook and will be browned on top when you remove it from the oven.

I actually had this cake for both dessert and breakfast. It’s perfectly sweet for dessert (maybe with a little ice cream?) but it’s also an amazing brunch cake. For dessert, it’s fantastic by itself or you can make a custard sauce to top the cake and really take it over the top. This one from The Kitchen McCabe is really good. Just be careful not to overcook the custard!

No matter how you eat this apple cake, it is absolutely amazing and a wonderful example of the deliciousness that is Irish food!

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