An evening of rich red Italian wines and food is never a bad thing. In fact it is exactly the kind of cozy candlelight evening and comfort foods needed on a cold winter’s night; and when paired with good friends, conversation and laughter is always a winning combination. For this cozy vini d’Italia(Italian wines) tasting, friends where asked to each bring a good Italian red and small bite.
THE CHEESE COURSE
Cold Friday evenings often remind me of those Friday night high school football games where I either sat shivering in the stands or jumped around on the field as a cheerleader. When the game was over, win or lose, a group of friends gathered at the local pizza parlor where the warm toasty pizza ovens and a crackling fireplace immediately embraced us upon opening the door and the chill of the night slowly eased away. As we settled into red vinyl booths, looking over the menus, those comforting aromas of pizza dough blistering in the oven while slowly melting delicious gooey cheese seduced our senses.
On this cold winter Saturday night, I wanted to create a similar environment for my guests with a delicious warming melted cheese course. I had recently watched a rerun of Barefoot Contessa on the Food Network and when I saw Ina re-create this restaurant version of melted Italian fontina cheese, seasoned with garlic and herbs I knew it was exactly what I was looking for. The small cast iron skillet with bubbling cheese beneath the broiler was just what I had in mind. I headed to the store in search of the small 6 inch cast iron skillets (that have since made many appearances at other parties). Each couple shared a skillet of the prepared herb fontina served with toasted crusty bread and apple slices for dipping and scooping.
Two truths and a lie: This particular wine meeting was held in the first two years of our established group. Not all of the friends I invited knew one another. So I worked to create activities that would help us get to know one another, but also serve as entertainment and topics of conversation.
Along with the invitation, I asked each of my guests to write down two truths and a lie about themselves to bring to the party. Later in the evening, during the dessert course I asked each guest to read their list and the others were challenged to guess which was the lie.This activity resulted in informative truths for each of my guests to discover about each out and lots of laughter for the lies.
Another fun activity would be to create a trivial pursuit game about wines with the weekly “Wine Quiz” from Karen MacNeil’s “Winespeed” website.
As always my guests are asked to bring a small bite. this evening the offerings were Italian inspired and everything was delizioso!
There were so many wonderful options for an Italian dessert that I decided to create a dessert sampler that would be shared by each couple. The trio included a tiramisu cookie, semifreddo and zabaglione with Amarena cherries. My guests enjoyed everything, but the stand out hit of the trio was the zabaglione with Amarena cherries.
Before there was Pinterest, I used to tear out the pages of cooking magazines with recipes I would like to use at some point and organize them in three ring binders. I had saved the zabaglione recipe from an issue of Food and Wine magazineyears ago that I also found online and worked out perfectly.https://www.foodandwine.com/recipes/vanilla-zabaglione-with-raspberries
The recipe used raspberries, but I had recently discovered Italian Amarena cherries (cherries in brandy) that are unbelievably delicious, and decided to use cherries in lieu of raspberries. It was the perfect choice, because my guests could not stop talking about how delicious the cherries were. I’ve since used them in cocktails and other desserts.
Amarena Fabbri Cherries typically come in a blue and white opaline jarthat I purchased online (but they can also be found in specialty wine or food stores). The cherries were without a stem. Over time I found stemmed Amarena cherries for about $5 a jar at Trader Joes, and was advised they are stocked on a seasonal basis. Other options are Dark Morello Cherries (also purchased at Trader Joes), or Griottines from France. For this night – Italian Amarena was the appropriate choice.
The food was delicious and comforting, the wine rich and smooth and the company filled with good friends, lots of laughter and stimulating conversation. There’s no better way to make a cold winter’s night warmer.
My Alpine-Alsace Friendsgiving Wine Club party was planned for an afternoon with just the girls from the club. I wanted to share some of the experiences and memories that three of us who traveled together in mid-September had, with the rest of the ladies in our group. With a bottle of Crémant from the Alsace region of France, the re-created German salad from southern Germany and the cheese fondue from Mürren, Switzerland all I needed was a few added touches to bring this Alpine-Alsace themed party to life.
A few months ago, I invited a friend I hadn’t seen in quite a while to join my S I P Facebook page. As she praised me for my creative ideas and the special touches I added to my various parties, she remarked, “You even etched the wine glasses with numbers!” The thing is, they weren’t etched. Hmmm… why didn’t I think of that? Do you have any idea how much time it would have saved me to not have to write the numbers on all of the glasses for each party? What a great idea!
This party would not involve any judging of wines or require my guests to bring a small bite as we usually do; so as a little activity ,after we’ve finished our fondue lunch, I decided to have the ladies give me a hand with the task of etching our wine tasting glasses for our future meetings.
A couple of weekends prior, I spent an entire Sunday etching several sets of glasses until I found the best technique for taping, stenciling and etching, leaving the four last boxes for the ladies to etch. I was now prepared with what I felt was the best method that I could share with them for the best results.
As always, a party begins with an invitation. In this day of texting and emailing everything, I selected an image I found online with the rich colors of fall and some royal looking purple grapes that gave an added pop of cheerfulness to typical oranges, golds and browns of the Autumn season. I added a similar colored font for the invite information that I then took a picture of and cut and paste the image of the completed invite into an email about a month before the scheduled date that I sent to my invited guests.
Over the weeks that followed I put the rest of my plan together little by little. The free clipart above was only available in a black and white sketch form. I printed the set and selected several markers (from my grandchildren’s box) similar to those in the art on my invite and did what the kids do – I colored in portions of the thankful cards. When finished I still found they were a little bland and decided to print sheets of the art from my invitation that I then cut slightly larger than the card and using a glue stick, attached the colorful background to frame the thankful card.
I then used a very small hole punch to make two side by side wholes at the top of the card. A rustic twine was tied around an aubergine colored napkin and then the ends where thread through the holes in the cards and tied into a bow. The prepared napkins were placed on top of the plate for each of my guests with a sprig of fresh rosemary and a fondue fork.
My hammered copper fondue pots, ordered from Switzerland, arrived with a set of fondue forks; but unlike the forks my mother bought back in the 1970’s, they do no have colored tips at the end of the handle. The colored tips of yellow, orange, dark blue, green, light blue and red help everyone identify which fork is theirs when they get mixed around in the pot, just as wine charms help guests keep track of which glass in the room is theirs. While the fork doesn’t usually sit in the pot for cheese a fondue, when oils are used to cook meats and vegetables, the forks remain in the pot for a while until the food is cooked and can become intertwined.
Drawing from the images and experiences of my time in Europe, I found these little condiment bowls with red roosters that reminded me of France. I imagined them filled with pieces of hard cheese brought back from Switzerland my one of my traveling companions, cornichons, and caper berries like those we shared while there.
To create a cozy warm table setting, I used a neutral colored plaid throw placed over a cream tablecloth; copper bowls on each end of the table will be filled with bread cubes and roasted potatoes and carrots to be passed around and dipped into the hot buttery cheeses. Shimmering copper colored round place mats beneath gold rimmed china and my mother’s wood handled bronzeware utensils all brought together the comforting Alpine setting I was trying to achieve.
Fields we passed along the highways in France were filled with sunflowers. Fortunately sunflowers are also available in the floral sections of grocery stores and I mixed them with some rust and purple colored chrysanthemums. The shops of Eguisheim were also filled with large tin hearts painted in various colors, but the red and white stood out in my memory the most. Switzerland replaces hearts with cowbells. So the two cowbells I found at Hobby Lobby resemble a combination of the painted tin heart and cowbell as one for a fraction of the cost of those in Europe.
When we entered our hotel room in Mürren there was a glass bottle like the one above filled with water ( and the name of the hotel etched on the outside) with a few tumbler glasses. I repurposed this French Lemonade bottle filling it with water for the table as a nod to another of our memories. The wood disk trivets add the Alpine feel of the beautiful black forest of Germany and the Alpines among the Alps of Switzerland. A recent rain storm left debris from the pine trees scattered on the streets and in parking lots. I gathered some of the branches with small pine cones to slip between the flowers for an added alpine touch.
🌲🐓🐄🌻Alpine- Alsace Wine Club Friendsgiving Fondue Table 🌻🐄🐓🌲
Delicious cheese wrapped in wax paper covered with colorful cows and their bells brought home from a little shop in Zurich by one of my traveling companions. The rind of the cheese in the forefront is crusted with wildflowers and herbs – beautiful and delicious. It was the lighter of the two cheeses in flavor as well.
Another memory was a jar of caper berries that one of my friends picked up in a shop that she served one evening with meats and cheeses in our little German cottage. I filled the Alsace red rooster condiment bowls (I have two) with the caper berries, cubed pieces of the cheeses, cornichons and cocktail onions.
I purchased a bottle of Crémant d’Alsace at Wolfberger winery that brought home to share with my friends. I picked up a second bottle from another region at my wine store back home and one of my friends brought a bottle of French Blue Rosé and all were served during the fondue and etching. We drank a few different Rosés while in France and the bottle of French Blue also had a little effervescence similar to the Crémants. This lovely little pear shaped bottle of liqueur, also from Eguisheim, was supposed to be served with dessert. But sometimes a busy hostess may forget some of her plan. The good news is that we still have a little memory to enjoy from our trip at another wine party.
One of my favorite finds was the German salad. This is a wonderful way to eat a lot of raw vegetables and enjoy a light salad. Left clockwise: shredded carrots, thinly sliced radishes, chopped sugar snap peas, red bell pepper, Persian cucumber and canned corn. Other options were diced pickled beets and smashed boiled and buttered potatoes all tucked beneath a pile of spring greens tossed in a light vinaigrette. For my version, I simply sprinkled the greens with white balsamic vinegar, garlic infused olive oil a sprinkle of kosher salt before tossing. To add a little color I dotted the greens with a few bright viola flowers in memory of the many, many beautiful flowers we saw hanging a window boxes.
A meat tray was also a favorite of my traveling friends, so of course there had to be one at our party. Crisped prosciutto on one end and fresh on the other, with other charcuterie sliced meats and small bowls of black cherry preserves and homemade fig preserves were served with whole wheat crackers.
Our cheese fondue at a family owned restaurant in the Swiss Alps was served with cubes of bread and boiled potatoes (for dipping). For my fondue dippers, I chose to roast baby red and golden creamer potatoes and carved baby rainbow carrots. Roasting adds more flavor and the carrots added fall color.
We lunched at a cafe’ in Eguisheim after our stroll through the quaint town where I tried escargot for the first time. One of my friends took on the job of searching for escargot we could serve at our party. These beauties were found at our local Fresh Market, filled and stuffed with garlic parsley butter that required only a few minutes in the oven before they were ready to serve. These were no where near as melt in your mouth tender as they were in France, but they gave my guests a chance to give them a try. (I also served Rösti cakes which is basically shredded hash brown potatoes formed into a round disk. This was a dish one of my traveling companions ate a couple times prepared in different ways on our trip.)
I didn’t know at the time, but the mirabelles I purchased in France and then made a yogurt bowl with the following morning, can’t be found in the U.S. I learned that according to Bon Appetit, they’re banned because true Mirabelles are grown only in Lorraine, France and import laws make them nearly impossible to procure in the United States. So I was happy to find this box of Quince & Mirabelle tea, the only nod available to this sweet plumy taste experience.
One culinary experience I missed while in France was the crepe. My plan was to make a fluffy chocolate mousse spiked with kirsch and amarena cherries for a crepe version of the black forest cake we had in Germany. My mousse was not very happy with the liqueur, and ended up being a very soft pudding – but I went with it, adding more cherries inside and on top. After eating so potatoes, bread and cheese, the dessert was light and not overly sweet.
The eating part now over we moved on to our planned activity I had set up at my breakfast table. I explained the process I had practiced for etching our wine glasses with numbers for our future tastings. It took a little while to get the method down and we had a couple of mishaps, but in the end everyone seemed to feel a sense of satisfaction as they peeled away the tape and stencil to reveal the elegant number they had each created. I can already imagine the pride on their faces at the next wine club party when their glasses are lined up before them.
I am so grateful for my group of friends. If it were not for their support and encouragement, we would not have enjoyed the past five years of wine club meetings filled with a variety of wines from around the world, great food and fun themes with lasting, shared , fond memories. Happy Friendsgiving my friends!
In the South, the humid hot summer heat begins to dissipate slowly as Fall quietly eases in with its cool refreshing breezes and changing foliage, but not until well into late October or November. Still we hang our autumn leaved garlands and wreaths on our doors and thresholds, line the front walkways with purple, yellow and amber chrysanthemums and perfectly shaped pumpkins hoping to encourage the comforting temperatures of Fall to fully arrive. Autumn is my favorite time of year. A time when my passion for baking and cooking hearty soups and stews peaks, along with taking long walks as nature’s colors transform into the most beautiful shades of red, orange, and burgundy.
Several years ago I went on a Fall Pilgrimage in New England -from Boston, to Salem, Portland, Kennebunkport, through the White Mountains of New Hampshire and Vermont, The Berkshires, Stockbridge and finally Cape Code to witness the most beautiful display of nature I’ve ever seen along with historical landmarks of our wonderful country. I enjoyed it so much, that I did it again a few years later. I still remember the quaint little town of Salem dressed for the coming of Halloween, with potted mums displayed everywhere you looked and our visit to the Salem Witch Museum.
Those memories of my Fall in New England and the haunting vibrations of witches and Halloween, inspired my Hauntingly Elegant Wine Club evening. I wanted it to be unique but not gimmicky, catchy with a touch of elegance.
My invitation was emailed to my guests, but I created a printed version for the sake of creating a photo. Guests were asked to bring a red wine, with a haunting, spooky or spell bound label and a small bite; and black attire.
Thawed frozen black cherries soaked in kirsch, pureed and strained (discard cherry pulp); add the juice of half a lemon to cherry liquid. Fill 1/4th of each coupe glass with cherry juice; 3 dashes chocolate bitters and top off with Prosecco. Garnish with dried cherries soaked in kirsch over night and an Amarena cherry.
My guests sipped on their cocktail while another guest and I opened the bottles of wine, placed each in a numbered bag and poured the wines into the numbered glasses in preparation for the tasting.
About a month prior to this party, I had purchased red roses to place on the table for my book club meeting. For some reason, they were so pretty and remained only partially open. I watched as they slowly dried holding their bud form. I also had a vase of hydrangeas from a friend’s wedding that had dried in their contains. With a plastic cauldron, plastic skulls, green and Spanish moss (all from the dollar store), dry dead branches from the yard sprayed with gold paint and black grosgrain ribbon tied in knots on it’s smaller branches to look like bats, I created a spooky elegant floral arrangement for my sofa table. Black lanterns placed on each side contained battery candles and pieces of dried flowers, moss and black glittered branches.
From there I began to dry roses and other flowers from my garden to sprinkle along the table, add to my candelabra, and create other small arrangements around the house. I made spiders from champagne corks and black pipe cleaners, and placed Spanish moss and black crows in the chandeliers.
The local craft store had all of the Halloween decorations on sale and I purchased spider web netted tablecloths and scarves that draped over my lamp shades. More plastic dollar store skulls, black glittered twigs, moss and dried flowers were sprinkled along the center of each table. On this evening I had 14 members requiring two tables for seating. I used my black and gold rimmed china, brass candle holders with black tapered candles and gold-ware cutlery to add to the mystic and elegance.
THE CHEESE COURSE
THE SMALL BITES:
Warm Garden of Eden Autumnal Salad with Serpent Garlic Breadsticks
1 cup of black rice
1 cup of peeled and diced sweet potato or butternut squash
1 quart of vegetable stock
1/2 to 3/4 cup cubed green apple
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 teaspoon chili flavored oil (optional)
1/4 to 1/2 cup pomegranate seeds
1/4 to 1/2 cup toasted pecans & or pepitas (pumpkin seeds)
2 to 3 cups of baby spinach or arugula
salt and pepper
Apple cider vinaigrette
Cook rice in vegetable stock using amount of liquid according to the package instructions and allow to complete to room temperature when complete.
Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees. On a small sheet pan – place the pecans and/or pepitas and toast in the oven for 10 minutes. This brings out the natural oils in the nuts to enhance their flavor and crunch. (A great alternative is candied or spice coated pecans – but they take more time involving egg whites, sugar and spices – you can find a recipe on Pinterest). Set toasted nuts aside in a small bowl.
Pre-heat oven to 400 degrees. Using 2 separate sheet pans – spray each tray well with cooking spray (I used olive oil spray) and place pans in the oven to pre-heat the tray.
Place the diced squash (or sweet potato) in an appropriate sized bowl. Add 1 1/2 tablespoons of olive oil (or) 1 tablespoon of olive oil and 1 teaspoon of chili oil to add a little heat, salt and pepper and toss to evenly coat. Carefully spread the vegetables in a single layer on one of the heated sheet trays and return to the oven. Roast for 30 minutes, turning the vegetables over half way through creating a little browning on the sides that are facing down on the tray.
Use the same bowl to place the diced apples and toss in remaining 1/2 tablespoon of olive oil, salt and pepper. Carefully spread on the second heated sheet tray in a single layer and roast in the oven 15 minutes (warmed through but with a little crunch still present) – when these come out the squash needs turning over.
Meanwhile, in the bottom of a large salad bowl mix together the ingredients for the vinaigrette (recipe in the next box).
Add the cooked black rice first, the roasted apples and vegetables next, then the arugula or spinach (or combination), pomegranate seeds, pecans and/or pepitas without tossing at this point. Layer with heaviest items in the bottom and lighter on top with vinaigrette at the very bottom of the bowl. When ready to serve gently toss all ingredients together to lightly coat with the vinaigrette. Note: To keep vegetables warm, you can leave them on the sheet tray in the oven at 200 degrees until ready to serve for about 20 minutes – more than that they may dry out too much.
Apple Cider Vinaigrette: In a mason jar with lid ( or simply add ingredients to the bottom of the salad bowl) place 1/3 c. Extra Virgin Olive or Avocado Oil; 1/4 cup Apple Cider; 1 tsp. Dijon mustard; 1 minced shallot (or garlic optional); 1 tbsp. honey or agave; 1/2 tsp. kosher salt; 1/4 to 1/2 tsp. ground black pepper. Either whisk in the bowl or shake vigorously in the jar to combine. Optional: Gently warm vinaigrette in a small saucepan and return to serving salad bowl. (This is for a lightly dressed salad. If you prefer more dressing -double the recipe and guests can always add more ).
When I saw these serpent breadsticks on Pinterest, I decided to make a warm Garden of Eden vegetable salad and breadsticks that used autumnal flavors. The salad combined black forbidden rice, roasted sweet potatoes (or butternut squash), pomegranate seeds, baby spinach and toasted pecans with a warm apple cider vinaigrette. My serpent breadsticks were flavored with garlic butter and black Hawaiian salt. For best results: The tongues were made with dried red chili peppers with a little “v” cut into the end with scissors. I had to make a little slot at the end of the head of each breadstick before baking , to get the pepper to hold in place. I quickly inserted the pepper tongue in place immediately after the breadstick came out of the oven while still soft. As they cooled the pepper held in place. I used black peppercorns for the eyes. [Baking the breadstick with the red pepper inserted causes it to burn, so it has to be added after the baking.] Below are images of the beautiful small bites brought by my guests.
THE DESSERT COURSE:
Fall immediately makes me think of campfires and S’mores. I found this great cake recipe adapted from Molly Yeh’s blog. I used leftover cake and filling to make a couple of cake balls I called truffles, and a mango syrup that I dotted along the sides of the plate to help cut the richness of the ganache. A lighter version would be to use a mousse in lieu of ganache and semi-sweet or milk chocolate instead of the bittersweet I used – but a true S’more calls for a rich chocolate. Several of my guests were celebrating birthdays over the previous and next couple of weeks, so we added candles and sang ‘Happy Birthday’. http://mynameisyeh.com/mynameisyeh/2017/4/smores-mini-cakes
La Catrina [Cabernet Sauvignon] 3 votes
The Walking DEAD [Bloody Red Blend] 2 votes
The Walking DEAD [Cabernet Sauvignon 2016] 2 votes
Ministry of The Vinterior [Cabernet Sauvignon 2015] 1 vote
Vampire [Vampire Red -Winemaker’s Blend 2014]
Saved [Red Wine 2014]
This is a great time to pull out your slightly tarnished silver, save the colorful flower petals from your garden and let them dry, and search through dollar stores for moss, black pebbles and other items to add to your decor. While I live near the swamps and large trees filled with Spanish moss – I purchased moss to avoid bringing in unwanted insects and who knows what else into the house.
Long before the idea of a Hauntingly Elegant Party came to mind, I found this bottle of Bartenura Semi-Sec (of all places at Walmart). The webbed bag was so elegant and interesting that I decided to buy a bottle and hold on to it for some occasion. One day while one of my friends was visiting, I was sharing some of my ideas for the party and suddenly remembered the bottle tucked away in my pantry. She pointed out that the bag looked like a spider web. Lightbulb moment – I had my trophy for the winner.
As the Fall months approach, if you’re looking for a fun way to celebrate the ghostly spirits of Halloween with a slightly Gothic twist , I hope you will be inspired to host your own hauntingly elegant evening. If you try any of my ideas or create your own – check out the posts on my Pinterest page and share yours.
The blazing heat of summer arrived well before the actual official day of the season this year and has been nonstop. Basically no rain to speak of for several weeks now, the lawns are browning and plant life sagging. Lawn sprinklers are doing their best to supply some much needed nourishment, but by the following day – everything looks parched once again.
Outdoor entertaining in Southern Louisiana is simply uncomfortable. Between the intense heat and the buzzing and biting mosquitos, unless there is a screened in patio available, outdoor entertaining is limited to several weeks in the Spring months and again in the Fall . So our summertime wine party has to be held inside.
Longing for the comforts of a cool sea breeze, and the smell of fresh salty sea air, my inspiration is drawn from the colors, traditions and flavors of the Island of Capri and the Amalfi Coast of Italy as we sip and taste cold citrus and grassy white Italian wines.
For the invitation (that was emailed) I created a text box in Word using a blue font and border with a pale yellow page color. I inserted a lemon branch (free clip art) and created the boarder with an online picture of bougainvillea, lemons and votive candles that I printed out and then measured, cut with a paper cutter and glued to frame the invitation.
SETTING THE TABLE
My intention was to create a fresh, Amalfi Coast – Capri Island atmosphere. Images of bougainvillea bursting with vibrant fuchsia blossoms climbing the walls of villas, the fresh white linen fashions, cool variations of the ocean’s blue and green hues, nautical touches to represent the fishing and boating, as well as an abundance of lemons all highlighted with the romantic flicker of candlelight were all incorporated into my table decor.
I searched for an image of a lemon tree branch small enough to clip and place at the top of the wine score card (above), using the same image to make a small place card to slip into the sardine can pull-tabs. Finding one Ortiz sardinas can in my pantry that inspired the idea was used for this picture, but I ordered a lower cost version from World Market that were actually used for the party. While canned sardines actually come from Portugal they made a really cute place setting stand and favor. I have memories of eating them as a little girl with my grandpa, but I’ve never eaten them as an adult. Why does it seem so scary a thought now?
THE FLOWERS & LEMONS OF THE AMALFI COAST
The kaleidoscope of deep Mediterranean ocean blues and greens, the jutting rocky cliffs dotted with pastel vistas, salty fresh air breezes filled with the fragrance of fish and seafood and white capped waves splashing along the rocky shoreline are all hard to capture in a dining room, but we can imagine.
I bought this lovely climbing bougainvillea for $16 a couple of months prior to my party, with high hopes that it would yield a healthy quantity of blossoms for the planned date to clip and create a center garland for my table. Another option would be to bring the plant indoors for the evening. While the plant is strong and healthy, when the day of the party arrived, it was completely void of blossoms. I’m sure it will be overflowing with blossoms by next week- when I no longer need them! So as a substitute, I clipped crepe myrtle blossoms of the same color from the trees that we have an abundance of in the South.
Of course you can’t have an Amalfi coast themed party without lemons. I’ve always wanted a beautiful, healthy lemon tree in my backyard, but one given to me years ago died once I moved it from a pot to the ground. While lemon trees can be grown successfully in Southern Louisiana, the most successful citrus here that I know if is the sweet satsuma. The satsuma peels easily and is free of seeds with its harvest being closer to Fall. One of my wine club members has successfully grown a lemon tree in her back yard for years that yields huge Meyer lemons similar in size to those found on the Amalfi coast, but our party was just before the harvesting time so I couldn’t have fresh branches dotted with lemons for my decor.
Luckily, artificial, but very realistic in appearance, lemon tree branches can be purchased in many places. So for this party, that’s what I’ll be using.
THE DECOR & COLOR INSPIRATION
It was summer, but I struggled to find a tablecloth or table runner and napkins in the soft blues I wanted for the table. My usual resources ( Homegoods, TJ Maxx and Marshalls) were coming up short. I found blue and white striped napkins, but nothing for the table. Then I found a printed tablecloth that might work, but no napkins. The Friday after the 4th of July, I decided to browse around in World Market Cost Plus. Many of the summer items were marked down 40% to 50% and there was a 20% off coupon to add from my membership. Among those sale items I found this sardine plate with the perfect shades of ocean blues I had imagined and I knew I had found my color inspiration.
On a lower shelf, I found two cobalt blue glass lantern candle holders that added a bit of drama and height to the table. My luck continued and I found a table runner and solid napkins in a cool shade of blue similar to one of the sardines on the plate. Later I found a table cloth in the same shade of blue. Dollar Tree rope (found in the floral section) was cut and knotted to give a nautical touch around each napkin.
THE PLACE CARD
THE WATER BOTTLES
Several years ago while browsing through my local TJ Maxx and Marshalls stores, I was drawn to these beautiful cobalt blue bottles of Ty Nant water. As with wine, tasting water from different parts of the world is interesting. I chilled and drank the water, but afterwards I just couldn’t part with the beautiful bottle. There’s something elegant about it. Over time, I collected and saved both the bottles and their screw on aluminum tops (all 12 of them) and for a period of time refilled each with filtered water. I would then place the empty bottle(s)in the dishwasher to clean and refill again. I thought this was an environmentally clever way to drink bottled water, but also a very attractive vessel. Something about drinking from a glass bottle rather than plastic or a metal version is much more appealing. For the wine party, I’ll be filling my cleaned bottles with sparkling Italian San Pellegrino water at each place setting for both an additional pop of color and the water my guests need to cleanse their palates.
THE APERITIF AND THE WINE
For the aperitif I try not to venture too far away from something with wine. I’m concerned about blowing out my guests taste buds with an alcohol or flavor too intense to afterwards enjoy the actual wine tasting. I found this cocktail “The Gentle Italian” again on Giada’s page made with Lillet, Aperol and Processo. It was light and citrusy. My guests sipped on their aperitif while I and another guest opened and labeled bottles and another poured their contents into numbered glasses.
While watching the PBS show Weekends with Yankee I saw an interview with the famous chef and good friend of Julia Child -Jacques Pepin. I learned of this beautiful book of his art created to record memories of food and fun with friends. I wish it had been available years ago when I first started my wine, book club and tea gatherings, but it was published in 2017. My friends made notes on the left and listed the food they brought for the gathering on the menu side. I chose a page that fit the theme of our wine meeting and everyone took turns making their entires while sipping their Aperitif.
While our party is about wine, it isn’t stuffy. We of course want it to be fun! So it was no surprise when one showed up with the fish bottled table wine, that wasn’t bad by the way. The bottles are lined up as they were numbered above.
THE CHEESE COURSE
I like to find new things in the culinary world for my guests and I to experience. Burrata is , kind of the “it” appetizer ingredient at the moment. It is pricey, but when I went in search of it at Whole Foods I happened to catch an Amazon Prime member discount day with 40% off. I purchased two balls of the cheese and decided it would just be a small bite sample for everyone. For an elevated way to serve it, I looked through a back issue of Wine Spectator Magazine that hasn’t failed me yet. There I found a Burrata Caprese recipe by the high respected chef Nancy Silverton. I prepared the plates about a half hour before everyone arrived and set each out on the table knowing I had to handle the wine as it arrived.
My twist on the recipe was to add fresh slices of heirloom tomato and chunks of parmesan to the plate. I couldn’t find the vine cherry tomatoes that the chef used, so I substituted the multi-colored grape and pear shaped tomatoes for a more colorful plate.
For a hot summer’s night, I wanted to serve something traditionally Italian, but refreshing and light. Inspired by the series Giada in Italy-Capri, I decided to serve small bite sized biscotti and an espresso granita that she made on her show.
I used Giada’s limoncello biscotti recipe, but made my own twist by adding chopped candied lemon (from Trader Joes) to the dough and a quartered piece to the top of each cookie before baking. This added a little more color and identifies the flavor of the cookie. I also made pistachio biscotti found @ilarysbakery. The size of the star shaped pastry tip was not provided so my shape isn’t as impressive as her’s, but they had the great pistachio flavor.
The granita prepared the day before and scooped into the cups earlier on the day of the party saves on serving time. My freezer drawer was cleared for storing the espresso cups and each were topped with whipped cream before serving. Per Giada’s recipe if desired you can pour your shot of limoncello into the granita. After first tasting the granita on its own many of us tried it with the limoncello and found it to be surprisingly good. I also decided to pick up some cannoli’s and placed one on each plate to share.
No surprise, an Italian themed evening ends with the digestif limoncello. Whether sipping it on its own or adding it to the granita all limoncellos are not the same. Some are very strong with a moonshine flavor or bitter and yet over the years may mellow out. Others have the perfect balance with just the right amount of everything like a cool glass of lemonade. While in Italy several years ago, I was told to store the bottle in the freezer.
While the score cards are there for making notes, they aren’t always serious as you can see. Some try to guess from the list of descriptions which bottle is which, others just note how the wine makes them feel or simply check their favorites.
Guests are provided with a list of the wines and whatever descriptions I could find on the internet to reference while tasting the wines.
Another lovely evening where the conversation this time was buzzing about upcoming travel plans for myself and some of my guests from Italy to Germany, France and Switzerland. We can’t wait to get back together after our trips and share memories of our adventures.
To be fair, when you are blind folded you can’t exactly pose for a photo!
Our “Decades” Wine Club was near the end of its 5th year. One steamy summer evening in July we gathered for a “blind” tasting of the top 2 bottles from prior meetings over the past year. Our club consists of 5 couples and 2 singles, with 2 alternate couples who fill in whenever one of our original members is unable to attend. Due to limited space in my home, dishes, glasses and so on – I’ve limited the attending group per meeting to 12. The part that I did not anticipate is that both of our “alternate couples” each had 2 winning bottles of wine from meetings they attended during our past year. This caused me to form a plan for 16 possible guests (we ended up with 14), so I simply split everyone up between two tables rather than one and it worked out fine.
I’ve learned that even when your intention is to organize a gathering for fun; when a little light competition is involved, “winning” can be tempting. I began to observe my guests throughout the evening at past meetings and overheard couples trying to identify which wine was “theirs”, rather than voting on the wine they actually liked the most – or one spouse would vote for the same wine as the other, rather than independently voting. As a result we often have 2 wines that tie or have nearly equal votes. To make the finals more interesting I decided to include the top 2 wines from each meeting. We typically have 7 bottles per meeting and with this plan we ended up having our usual 7 bottles (3 white and 4 red) for the finals that I call “The Annual Wine-off”.
So what’s with the Peek-a-Boo you ask? Due to my little observance of “couple voting” I decided to cleverly separate everyone for the initial tastings and give everyone a blindfold. The bottles were bagged and numbered 1 through 7. Then I discreetly wrote the same 1 through 7 under the base of the stem of each glass. After I poured all of the wines into their matching numbered glass I placed quarter sized numbers 1 thru 3 (in front of the whites) and 1 thru 4 (in front of the reds) that I printed out. The girls were lined up at the bar on their own with the 3 whites, 4 reds, a small bowl of bread and crackers, a glass of water and a blindfold. The blindfolds pushed out just slightly under the nose allowing downward vision, so they could see the stems of the glasses and the numbers in front of them. They started with the whites (that should be the coolest temperature) and each chose which of the 3 they liked most, by handing me the printed number.
Slips of paper with numbers -after tasting the wines blind folded, the vote was cast by selecting the number each member wanted to vote for.
I then had the girls step back and remove their blindfolds for a break. while delivering their 3 white wine glasses to their partners who were sitting at the table waiting to now determine their blindfolded votes. However, I rearranged the glasses so that they were not in the same order. Their 1 thru 3 were different bottles now actually 3,2,1. When the guys voted I had to get them to show me the actual glass they were choosing so I could look under the stem and write the true bottle number on their voting tab. [This would be impossible to handle all on my own. My long time friend who is a member does not drink wine. So I employ her to help me with the uncorking, bagging and numbering task at the beginning and tonight she shared the task of monitoring our blindfolded voters on this night.]
While the guys were tasting the whites, the girls moved on to the reds and once their votes were cast, again I delivered the reds to the guys in a different line up to make their choices.
Not only did the voting spread out to give votes to every bottle, we also had an actual clear higher count winner for both white and red. My guests also were stunned by how much better they were able to focus on the flavor of the wine when blindfolded. In theory it has been said that if one of the senses in blocked off, the others are enhanced. By taking away sight – more focus was distributed to the taste buds and everyone’s concentration on the nose and flavor was elevated.
When I explained to everyone they would be blindfolded the “Fifty Shades” joking began – therefore I affectionally added “AKA 14 SHADES” WINE-OFF.
But in truth, aside from trying to get a clearer voting method, the evening was festive and fun. My group of winos are always eager participants in whatever I dream up. It keeps our meetings fresh and fun where great memories and friendships are formed.
THE CHEESE COURSE
THE SMALL BITES
On the table: The beautiful and delicious small bites prepared by my guests: [Left] Cucumber cups filled with julienned daikon radish, carrots, bean sprouts, baby tender lettuce, a large boiled shrimp, thinly sliced red jalapeno -topped with black sesame seeds, a dot of Siracha and sweet chili sauce; Asparagus Au Gratin; Grilled chicken skewers; [Right] Mini lamb pies and caramelized onion quiche. [Far right] It was National Chocolate day and one guest brought artesian chocolate truffles.
A beautiful much more professional version of this fascinator was the inspiration for this homemade version. It began with a red, white and blue felt hat with headband. I couldn’t find the large blue and white gingham fabric used in the original, so I recovered the hat with white paper dollies (first layer) to hide the bright red, and then large blue and white checked gingham tissue paper left over from the grillin’ party. A silk hydrangea and white roses, white feathers (in the kid’s craft section a bag at the craft store) ; silver trim from the sewing section of Hobby Lobby, and a bag of plastic horses purchased online, sprayed silver (others in gold for the table decor) all used to create this little jewel.
Here’s a fascinator tip:
These fascinators are top heavy and keep moving around on your head. I hot glued ribbon from the top of the head band (centered) leaving equal amounts on each side to tie under the back of my hair. The edges were folded over to the backside of the headband and glued again. I made little single knots at the end for a finished look. This provided a more secure fit and balance on the head.
After all of the planning -our big derby day finally arrived. The ladies all entered one by one. each with their own hand made fascinators, while the guys (a little less enthusiastically) looked like dashing Southern gentlemen in their bow ties. One by one as they arrived, I quickly had each couple stand in front of the beautiful painting of racing horses (borrowed from my neighbor) for a photo.
At each meeting I create a little gift basket of some kind for the winner(s) whose wine received the most votes for the night. I’ve tried to create a way for everyone to get a chance to win over the years. For this wine party, I purchased a blue ribbon and added a little gold horse- on the number 1 (that was a surprise taped to my shipping invoice when I received the embossed brass race horses that from Etsy – used to create my gold rimmed aperitif glasses.) I also purchased a bag of wine charms (not the kind you put on stemware – these are just regular charms), and threaded a cork screw and bottle of wine on thin twine that easily wrapped behind the large button to create a Derby wine blue ribbon.
My aperitif (a rose sangria) was served by one of my guests, while two of us uncorked, bagged and poured the bottles of wine for our tasting. As the cheese course (pimento cheese soufflés ) baked in the oven, my guests gathered in the living room to watch the Belmont Stakes race unfold with the winning horse -Sr. Winston securing his victory.
I slightly altered the table decor from t he original plan (see “Derby Wine Party – The Plan” post), with black and white diamond patterned ribbon that resembles jockey silks and added a great touch to the black linen napkins. A small knotted tie of the same ribbon was added to the top of the score card to match.
MY CHEESE COURSE: This was my first run of this Pimento Cheese Soufflé (meaning no test bake) and it was delicious. The recipe says it yields 4-6 servings (depending on the size of your dish), but I made 12 individual ramekins from the ingredients of just the one recipe. I also brought one to my neighbor who let me borrow her painting and cut some of her Black Eyed Susans for the party.
Once everyone was finished tasting the wines, we voted to determine a winner before moving on to the food. The comments were that all of these wines were very rich and screaming for a luscious red meat or red sauce. We always vote on the wine prior to eating, so that the vote is purely based on the taste of the wine, unencumbered by other flavors added to the palate.
Once the cheese course had been consumed, we moved on to the small bites that my guests and I provided. A week before the party I emailed “inspiration” from a Pinterest search of traditional Derby foods and everyone provided feedback on what they would bring to avoid duplications. As always, the food was beautiful and delicious.
THE GRAND FINALE -DESSERT COURSE. A trio of favorites from different races. The Derby Pie (chocolate pecan pie) from Kentucky; the Lady Baltimore Cake & Smith Island Cake (called Doberge in Louisiana) from the Preakness Stakes each a hit in their own way. While the actual Smith Island cake is 10 layers, I purchased a short Doberge cake at the bakery and cut it into rounds since I home baked the Derby pies and Lady Baltimore cake. One plate like the one below was served per couple.
Bellies full and heads maybe a little tipsy – I commented that one of my guests’ fascinator looked very 1920’s Art Deco, to which another guest replied, “Do I hear a Great Gatsby Theme coming to mind?” Hmmm – hang on to your hats, you never know…..
While not every meeting is as elaborate as this one, I do try to come up with one that has a little more costume and fun once per year. Last year it was our “Hauntingly Elegant” party near Halloween and the year prior it was our “Murder Mystery Nite”. [Blog posts for both are available in the Wine Club category]. For now we will toast this evening goodnight, and look forward to when we “meet” again!
4 ounces good-quality tonic water, such as Fevertree or Q Tonic 2 ounces white port Orange slice, to garnish
Pack a highball glass with ice. Pour in the tonic, then the port. Stir lightly. Squeeze the orange slice a bit into the drink. Sip and enjoy!
I decided to do a little research about the wines of each country that we would be tasting, and found an article about a Portuguese aperitif made with white port and tonic water that I decided to greet my guests with.
I searched the internet for free clip art and found the perfect wine glass with musical notes pouring in like wine. I inserted it as a watermark into my emailed invitation.
My wine club has been meeting at least three times a year for five years now. I feel it’s important to continue to create new experiences, so that everyone remains entertained. My group prefers red wines, but in the summer they have been open to tasting white wines. The theme for this wine party was termed “Symphony of Whites” an idea inspired by an old Victoria Magazine article with the same title. The symphony of whites article was composed of white garden flowers, but it sparked an idea for this white wine night, music and simple elegance. As always it began with the invitation, made from free clip of musical notes pouring into a wine glass that was used as a watermark for this invite.
THE TABLE DECOR& MUSIC
Playing on the “Symphony” I found a roll of music sheet wrapping paper that I used as a table runner down the center of the table. I like having a clean simple table due to all of the glassware and tight spacing. With assigned wines coming from parts of Germany and Austria where some of the best symphonies were composed or celebrated, I played symphony music on Pandora in the background. In fact, I play theme music for all of my parties on Pandora. For the Carnival Rio de Janeiro (see the past post) I played the Brazilian station, French music for the French wine night, and so on. Don’t forget the score cards. I used the same watermark from the invitation for the two column scorecard that is cut into two.
THE CHEESE COURSE:
For the cheese course I had a very large spread representing several of the countries; broiled feta with tomatoes and garlic roasted in Greek olive oil, stuffed grape leaves, various cheeses from the countries of our wines and a beer cheese fondue with baked pretzels. (See previous post on cheese courses). While I had a large spread, one of these would have been sufficient.
THE ACTIVITY CHALLENGE
When my wine club first met I would create little conversation games that encouraged everyone to share a little about themselves and offer topics of conversation that included and allowed everyone a chance to speak. With each new meeting plan, I tried to create fun exercises to make the evening interesting. For this party, once I had the list of wines in hand I looked up each on the internet. I found descriptions of the aromas of each and prepared slips of paper with the information. The description of each guests’ wine was set at their place at the table along with small plates containing items with some of the aromas described. The wines in the glasses were numbered, but it’s a blind tasting so no one knew which wine was theirs. The exercise was for each couple to use the description and fragrance items to try to identify which wine was theirs. [Two of the wines had pine scent – hence the sprigs of pine you see at the table.] White wines have a variety of interesting aromas and flavors that made this exercise fun.
This idea was formed after reading the “Cork Dork” by Bianca Bosker. She explained how sommeliers practice smelling various ingredients in order to master their scents. If you love wine I highly recommend this book. I’m happy to say that two of my guests identified their wines and those same two wines were also voted the top two of the night.
Aromas of ripe honeydew and nectarine with gingery note top. Vibrant, open-textured and crisply balanced, with pear, peach and rock melon fruit flavours. Round, fleshy and smooth in texture with good clarity to its ripe melon and citrus flavors. Honeyed peach, pear tart, almond powder with a touch of orange bloom. Light yellow gold. – Australia
The scent is pure pine forest, cool and refreshing; the flavor is pure, fresh fruit—pears and cold green grapes—the pine notes floating over them as if carried on a breeze, A clean and refreshing zip of mint and eucalyptus explode from the glass. –Greece
Somehow, we completely forgot to take any pictures of the small bites for this party. It’s sometimes hard to host and also be photographer. Over time I’ve put sticky notes on the table to ensure either I or someone else takes a picture once everything arrives.
THE DESSERT COURSE:
I had a lot of fun with the dessert course for this one. The most fun I’ve had since our Vino Italia night. I found chocolate tuxedo cups before I had the plan and stored them in the pantry for a future date. I used an “authentic” black forest cake recipe from Pinterest (which by the way is not as sweet as the usual American bakery version -and better for it). Bing cherries were in season, making the dessert the perfect choice. I deconstructed the cake into small chocolate tuxedo cups (perfect for the symphony) and a mini cake on the side for each couple to share. A Viennese coffee was also served with a chocolate music note I made with bittersweet chocolate a few days ahead.
When you want to experiment with different types of wine, it helps to make the evening interesting and entertaining. It also helps when the food is delicious! Try your own tasting with a night at the Symphony!