Cheers to Cooking with Lucy Saunders and Christmas Beer
Popular beer aficionado and culinary enthusiast, Lucy Saunders shares her passion of cooking with beer at Christmas
It's been said that Christmas is a time when you get homesick - even when you're home - and that brings to mind my earliest childhood memories of cooking with beer while watching my grandmother make beer-braise cabbage. She whisked a bottle-and-a-half of Guinness and let it settle before adding it to the chicken stock where the Irish bacon, garlic, onions, and molasses were cooking – waiting to complement our homemade Irish corned beef holiday feast.
My culinary experiences have come a long way since those days when cooking with beer was seen as a cultural tradition, and today I see it instead as a full-fledged trend, thanks to the past decade's explosion of fine craft beers.
"Christmas is a time of feasting and people are accepting craft beer as part of that feast," says Lucy Saunders, editor of beercook.com. "High end restaurant chefs as well as home cooks are embracing craft beer at the table."
And what better way to cook with (and pair) beer for your Christmas feasts than by experimenting with a selection from the hundreds of variations of Christmas beers, with their reputation for big, malty, spicy flavors.
"This time of year winter sampler packs make an easy assortment for pairing with holiday foods without investing in a case," said Saunders.
Beer is recession's champagne, a fact that has not been lost on brewers around the globe, who for millennia have marked the winter solstice by brewing particularly potent beer, heavy with fruit and grain.
Since long before the wassail tradition, Christmas beers have been common among small European brewers ever since the Middle Ages. But brewers like Sierra Nevada and San Francisco's Anchor Steam are among those who have reinvented Christmas beer for the American market.
Some of my favorite Christmas beers include Samuel Smith's Winter Welcome Ale, Our Special Ale 2010 (Anchor Christmas Ale), Sierra Nevada's Celebration, Delirium Tremens Noel, Snow Goose Winter Ale from Flying Dog, Anderson Valley Winter Solstice, Samuel Adams Winter Ale, Brooklyn Black Chocolate Stout, Dominion Baltic Porter, and The Gift from Starr Hill.
Last week at a Christmas party someone handed me a bottle of the rare imported Swiss beer Samichlaus, which I learned is brewed on Dec. 6 (St. Nicholas Day) in a huge batch and is advertised as "The Strongest Lager Beer In The World," with 14 percent alcohol — three times as strong as the average beer. My research uncovered the fact that they actually have a Catholic Mass to bless the beer in the chapel at the brewery. This smooth, brandy-like triple bock would pair nicely with your boyfriend (or a cigar) next to the fireplace.
But if having a designated sleigh driver is not on your Christmas list, begin your feast with just a few dishes cooked with beer. Saunders suggests offering appetizers, side dishes and sauces when getting started. (Please note that most of the alcohol from the beer you use in cooking will evaporate from the heat.)
Beer contributes many elements to cooking. The hops add bitterness, which is offset with the sweetness of the malted grain and complemented by the flavor of the yeast. Dark beers also provide a distinct roasted flavor.
Flat, old beer usually tastes oxidized and not as pleasant as fresh beer. I credit beer's effervescence with creating some of the lightest fish and chips batter I've ever eaten. Pale ales and nut brown ales are good choices here, but in general, avoid India pale ales, as they tend to have a high hops content and if you reduce them too much you can wind-up with an unpleasantly bitter dish.
Many beer cooks suggest using a milder beer if you're using beer in a slow-cooking braise, and dilute it with stock or water if necessary. A tip from the Irish: if your dish tastes bitter, in spite of your best efforts (or because all you have is strong dark beer), just remedy it with some pureed, sautéed carrots, corn or caramelized onions. You can also add a few drops of lemon juice, and extra spices (rosemary or thyme). You are balancing the bitterness with herbs or vegetables that have a sweet or savory taste.
Beer, as wine, is a great choice in marinades for game dishes and mussels. If making a sauce with onions or mushrooms, and the beer flavor turns bitter, add a splash of sweet Madeira or sherry wine to round it out.
"Be judicious in adapting recipes to use beer as an ingredient. Start with a beer you enjoy, in good condition," says Saunders.
Whether creating a restaurant masterpiece or foraging in craft beer cellars, Saunders is always searching for a new connection between food, people and beer.
Following the success of Grilling with Beer, Saunders picture lavish - The Best of American Beer and Food: Pairing and Cooking with Craft Beer - offers pages of advice and beer paring suggestions and contains over 80 recipes tried-and-true by Saunders (as well as 40 professional and home chefs across the country), presented for home preparation.
The food photography completes her delightful read and unique recipe book, which makes a great gift for cooking with beer enthusiasts. Her recipe for Flourless Chocolate Cake with Molten Ganache demonstrates that craft beer even has a place in desserts.
Speaking of breaking the rules, Flying Dog Brewery recently released Dog Chow Cookbook - Volume One, which in spite of the name is meant for humans and not for our canine friends. The spiral-bound, 22-page cookbook features eight recipes using Flying Dog beer, along with some practical food and beer pairing tips, which offer a few light-hearted (however irreverent) guidelines to cracking the cooking with beer conundrum.
The Steamed Clams w/Bacon and Tire Bite recipe looks like it has potential. "We're not ones to follow rules. Some of the world's best outcomes came from breaking the rules," so it claims. You can get a copy online for $20 (including the "Beer: Its What's For Dinner" apron) by clicking here.
Whether you are a food and beer ambassador like Lucy, or experimenting with the basics of cooking and pairing, remember this is the season for kindling the fire of hospitality. So play and make good cheer, for Christmas comes but once a year…and does so with the year's best beer!
Flourless Chocolate Cake with Molten Ganache
(Makes 8 servings)
Executive Chef Jeff Foresman of the Hyatt Regency Hill Country Resort and Spa in Texas prepared this special dessert for a dinner hosted by Jaime Jurado and the Spoetzl Brewery of Shiner, Texas. I recommend making the ganache ahead of time so it's easy to bake and serve warm, with a glass of stout or doppelbock for dessert.
3⁄4 cup heavy cream
4 ounces unsalted butter
1⁄4 cup granulated sugar
8 ounces good quality bittersweet chocolate, chopped (Callebaut recommended)
In a medium saucepan, heat cream, butter, and sugar over medium heat. Bring to a simmer. Remove from heat, add dark chocolate and whisk well until melted. Let cool until set.
Flourless Chocolate Cake:
12 ounces unsalted butter
8 ounces quality bittersweet chocolate, chopped (Callebaut recommended)
4 egg yolks
1⁄ 3 cup granulated sugar
1⁄ 4 cup dark wheat beer (Shiner Dunkelweizen was used in the original recipe)
8 (4-ounce) buttered ramekins or small soufflé cups
1. Preheat oven to 350°F. Melt butter in a large saucepan over low heat, add chopped chocolate and stir until melted and smooth. Remove from heat. (Or, place chopped chocolate and butter in microwave-safe bowl, cover and heat on MEDIUM for 30 seconds. Remove from microwave, stir, and heat again on MEDIUM 30 seconds.) Stir until melted. Do not overcook.
2. Combine eggs, yolks, and sugar in mixing bowl of standing electric mixer fitted with paddle attachment. Beat until ribbon forms, 8 to 10 minutes. Fold in chocolate butter mixture. Stir in beer and scrape sides of bowl. Divide equally between ramekins. Bake 8 to 10 minutes.
3. Remove from oven and place a two ounce scoop of ganache in center of each ramekin. Replace in oven and bake 30 minutes. Remove from oven, let cool for 5 minutes and serve immediately.