Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Wine Faults: What's Wrong with Your Wine?

Along with a couple of our friends, we attended a course put on by the local community college's adult education division. It's a small class by design, because it's held in the back of a local wine shop and taught by their wine buyer. Our instructor walked us through the characteristics of wine faults and how to know if the wine you buy has gone bad.

Now, since the internet doesn't have a scratch and sniff feature, we'll try to describe what we smelled for you.

Corked wine - "Corked" wine does not mean that it has a cork in the bottle. Screw-top wines can be corked as well. A corked bottle has a fungus that has either infected the cork, barrel, or winery equipment. It smells like wet, musty cardboard. Think grandma's basement. The flavor of the wine will be flat and lack the fruitiness that we all love so much about wine. No harm will come to you if you drink a corked wine, however, it won't taste how it is supposed to. We learned that about 5% of the wine in the world is corked. 

Cooked wine - "Cooked" wine occurs when the wine hasn't been properly stored or shipped and has been subject to high temperatures. Basically, the heat stews the flavors in the wine and they taste very muddled and not fruity. Apparently a lot of wineries will not ship wine in the summer months to make sure that this doesn't happen. This one you can sometimes tell by looking at it. Check out the cork before you buy it. If it feels raised, then move on to another bottle. Even that doesn't always work, however. If you get your wine home, pop the cork and notice that some of the wine has traveled up the side of the cork, chances are, it's cooked. 

Oxidation - Oxidation occurs when a bottle has been exposed to too much oxygen. Oxidized wine will have the scent of burnt caramel or cookies. Not bad smells at all, but not how your bright, fruity wine should smell. Take this one back to the store.

Volatile Acidity - All wines are acidic - it's the nature of grapes. "Volatile" acidity smells like nail polish remover or vinegar. You'll know somethings wrong the minute you take a whiff. This happens because of the presence of acetic bacteria and oxygen during the winemaking process before the bottle is even in the picture. 

Excessive Sulfur Dioxide - Sulfur is a natural preservative used in wine. Excessive sulfur, however, is a bad thing. It makes the wine smell like burnt matches or burnt rubber. Not exactly the most appetizing scents. Apparently there is one exception to this rule, however. Syrah's from the Northern Rhone region have a rubbery element that is characteristic of the grape. So, keep that in mind if you're drinking French Syrah.

Corked, cooked, oxidation, volatile acidity and excessive sulfur dioxide are all the "really bad" wine faults. If you discover any of these in your wine and you bought it from a winery or wine shop, you should be able to take it back to the store you bought it from and get a refund or exchange. 

We have more to share, but we think this is probably enough information for one blog. We'll check back in another time with the less egregious wine faults.

Image courtesy of

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Pappardelle & Peas

We are constantly looking for new ingredients to play with in the kitchen. Pappardelle pasta is not as easy to find as you might think where we live. If you want spaghetti, fettucini, linguini, rotini, penne - no problem. Pappardelle, however, is not so common in our grocery stores. Just about every time we enter the Chicagoland area, we stop at Trader Joe's. It's probably unnatural how much we love shopping there. We even went on our anniversary trip and were mistaken as locals because we bought so much stuff. We're alright with it.

Anyway, we found this pasta and formed a meal around it. We made a "cream" sauce to pair with it and kept the seasoning light. And, it was great. We wish we'd bought more papparedelle. You could probably substitute fettucini and be fine, however.

Here's what you need: 
1 package of pappardelle pasta
1/2 bag frozen peas
5 Tbsp margarine (we didn't say it was healthy)
1/3 cup 2% milk
1 1/2 Tbsp Parmesan cheese
Freshly ground black pepper
Kosher salt for the pasta water

Here's what you do:
Start heating your pasta water. If you're cooking on a gas burner, this will probably take you much less time, so you can probably wait a bit if you want. We have electric, so take that into consideration.

While your water is heating, heat your frozen peas through in a sauce pan. You don't need to get them hot, really, just not frozen any more.

Melt the margarine in a high-walled skillet.

Simmer until the butter starts to brown, then add the milk.

Crack as much black pepper over that as you desire and let it bubble away and thicken for a few minutes.

Your water should hopefully be boiling now, so go ahead and salt the water liberally and drop the pasta in. We didn't add salt anywhere else in the dish, so be sure the pasta has good flavor!

Right about the time you drop the pasta, add your peas to the sauce.

Instead of straining the pasta, we just scooped it out of the water with a spaghetti fork and added it right to the sauce. Give that a good toss. 

If you think your sauce is a little thick, add a couple splashes of pasta water until you achieve the consistency you want. Keep in mind you really want the sauce to stick to the noodle and not be runny. Once you're sure you coated the pasta thoroughly, plate it up.


Thursday, December 22, 2011

Brussels Sprouts with Bacon and Onions

Zack has been wanting to make brussels sprouts for a while. Michelle, however, had never eaten a brussels sprout in her life. Well, Zack won out and we threw these together for a family dinner we had the other night. It would make a great holiday side dish.

Here's what you need:
1 lb brussels sprouts
5 strips of center cut bacon
1 red onion
1 Tbsp butter
1/4 cup Parmesan cheese
water/ice for shocking your sprouts

Here's what you do:
Start by boiling your water for the brussels sprouts.

Next, slice your onion by cutting into little crescent moon shapes.

Cut your bacon into about 1/2" pieces.

Heat a skillet over medium heat and cook your bacon until crispy.

Once crisp, scoop the cooked bacon out and set aside.

Hopefully by now, your water is boiling. Drop the brussels sprouts in.

Let those boil for 8-10 minutes. While they're boiling, fill a large bowl with ice and water and sit it next to your boiling sprouts.

Now, back to the other pan... drain about half of the bacon fat off and add about a tablespoon of butter. Drop in you onions.

Stir them around to coat them with the butter and bacon grease. (We did not say these were healthy, did we?)

While your onions are cooking, your brussels sprouts should be finished blanching. Scoop them out and straight into the ice bath.

Let them cool a bit. Slice them up by cutting the bottoms off and then quartering them. Any of the outer leaves that fall off during this process should be discarded with the bottoms.

At this point, your onions should have caramelized.  

Once the onions are ready, toss the sprouts in with them. Then, add the bacon.

Remove from the heat and stir in the Parmesan.

Serve immediately.


Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Sugar Cookies

The baking extravaganza continues today. We made a TON of cookies. This sugar cookie recipe has been used since I was little. We made a double batch, so the pictures are off. The recipe is for a single batch, however.

Here's what you need:
2 cups flour, sifted
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. salt
2/3 cup butter
1 cup sugar
1 egg
2 Tbsp milk
1/2 tsp. vanilla
1/2 tsp. lemon extract

Here's what you do:
Combine the flour, baking soda, baking powder and salt in a large mixing bowl. Sift these ingredients together.

Soften your butter slightly and cream together with the sugar.

Blend in the egg, lemon extract, vanilla extract, and milk. We add a little extra of the lemon extract and vanilla extract.

Slowly add the dry ingredients. Blend until smooth.

Spread a couple layers of plastic wrap out on the counter.

Scoop your dough onto the plastic wrap and wrap it up.

Place in the fridge and chill for at least 2 hours.

I missed taking pictures of this next part because I was whipping up another cookie batter, but you'll need to sprinkle flour over a large flat surface, flour your rolling pin, and roll out a portion of the dough at a time. Cut with cookie cutters and decorate. The rule in our house is the kids decorate, so these are decorated by my nieces and my nephew. You can either decorate with sprinkles or icing.


Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Pumpkin Pie

We're still in pre-Christmas baking mode, so it's Michelle again. There are few things I like more in the world than pumpkin. My birthday falls on or around Thanksgiving every year and I'd rather have pumpkin pie than birthday cake. 

My sister was wonderful enough to buy me a pie plate for my birthday, so now I can make my own pumpkin pies. As far as pie recipes go, this one is pretty simple, and, in my opinion, tastes amazing.

Here's what you need:
1 can pumpkin
1 can evaporated milk
3/4 cup sugar
1/2 tsp salt
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp ground ginger
1/2 tsp ground nutmeg
2 eggs
1 pre-made pie crust

Here's what you do:
Preheat your oven to 425.

In a small bowl, mix the sugar, salt, cinnamon, ginger and nutmeg.

In a separate large bowl, beat the eggs.

Add pumpkin and sugar mixture to the eggs.

Slowly add the evaporated milk to the mixture.

It should look like this when you're done:

Spread your pie crust out on your pie plate and pour the pumpkin mixture in.

Place into your pre-heated oven for 15 minutes. After the initial 15 minutes, remove the pie from the oven, and cover the edges with foil. You don't want your crust to burn.

Reduce the temperature of the oven to 350 and bake the pie for an additional 40-50 minutes. You should be able to stick a knife in the center and have it come out clean.

Remove from oven and cool for 2 hours on a wire rack.

Slice and top with whipped cream and serve.


Monday, December 19, 2011


Hello all! Just Michelle today. Zack's not much of a baker, so you can pretty much assume any time sweets are involved, I'm behind the apron. My mom, sister, aunt and I got together over the weekend and baked, and baked. First off, I have to share our fudge recipe. It comes from a different aunt of mine and I think she really has it perfected. 

Here's what you need:
1 stick oleo/butter
4 1/2 cups sugar
8 oz. evaporated milk
Dash of salt
12 oz. bag of semi-sweet chocolate chips
1 small container of marshmallow fluff
1 tsp vanilla
1 cup of nuts (optional)

Here's what you do:
Heat oleo, sugar, evaporated milk, and salt in a medium sauce pan.

Stir until the oleo melts.

Bring that to a boil.

Reduce heat to medium or medium-high. You want it to remain boiling, but not a hard boil. Let that bubble for 8-10 minutes, stirring occasionally to prevent it burning to the bottom.

After 8-10 minutes, remove from heat and add the chocolate chips, marshmallow fluff, and vanilla. If you're adding nuts, this would be the time to do it.

Get this mixed up as quickly as you can and pour into a greased cookie sheet/jelly roll pan.

Let cool, slice and eat. I mean, share.


Sunday, December 18, 2011

Peanut Butter Fluff

We weren't planning on making this a blog originally. That's why there are no process pictures. Turns out, it was tasty and simple and we needed to share. You see, we had cool whip left over from Thanksgiving and no more pumpkin pie. So, instead of throwing the cool whip away, we created peanut butter fluff.

Here's what you need:
About 1/2 tub of Cool Whip Lite
4-5 Tbsp Peanut butter (ours is JIF Natural, but any smooth peanut butter will do)
Graham crackers

Here's what you do:
Scoop the peanut butter into a mixing bowl and pop it in the microwave for about 15 seconds to loosen it up.

Dump the cool whip over the top and fold the two together. Mix gently, so you still keep the cool whip nice and fluffy.

Now, just spoon some on to graham crackers.


Friday, December 16, 2011

Kitchen Knives

If you enjoy cooking, you need good knives. You need to take care of your good knives. We have a set of Chicago Cutlery knives (not exactly the ones pictured above) that Zack invested in before we started dating 4 years ago. They still do their job well and we will probably have them around for years to come. We're kind of attached to them.

You don't have to go out and buy the most expensive set of knives out there. There are a few things to keep in mind when shopping for kitchen knives.

1. Is the steel of the knife forged in one piece all the way through the handle? It should be. Don't waste your time on a knife that isn't.

2. Is the knife weighted properly and fit well in your hand? The knife should feel comfortable for you to hold, and shouldn't be overly heavy at the base. 

3. If purchasing a block of knives, is there a sharpener or honing case? You want to sharpen your knives regularly. If the knife sharpener isn't included (which it should be if you're purchasing the block) pick one up.