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Article first published in SHOWCOOK http://www.showcook.com/2012/in-the-news/cooking-with-wine-spirits-kate-abbott/


There are many wines, domestic and imported, which are both a pleasure to drink and reasonably priced for cooking. The wine used for cooking may be either white or red and for savoury food should be dry rather than sweet. There are in my opinion only a few instances when a touch of sweetness is not out of place in meat cookery, for example the Madeira sauce served with ham and tongue.

If you are not sure how to buy wine and spirits for cooking, the best step would be to find a good, trustworthy wine merchant. Beware of bargains in wine, and never use wine in cooking that you would not drink. Of course this does not mean marinating a shoulder of venison in a precious expensive vintage Burgundy which deserves rather to be enjoyed in a glass, where it can be fully appreciated.

Wine is added to foods to enhance natural flavour. Colour too is a factor. White wine is usual for fish and poultry dishes. Red wine will add dark colour to meat, gravy, or to coq au vin. When wine is cooked the alcohol evaporates, leaving only the flavour of the fruit, and provides subtleties and nuances of flavour, aroma and bouquet to a dish. However moderation is important in order not to overwhelm the food. It is best not to use more wine than specified in a recipe on the assumption that if a little wine is good, more will be better. Too much wine can spoil a dish irreparably.

Other than its use in dessert, wine has three major uses in cooking. First, it is used with herbs and spices as a marinade, to season and to tenderize meat before braising or long slow cooking. The marinade is used in the cooking as well and becomes part of the sauce. When cooking fish, wine often forms part of the liquid for poaching, and also becomes part of the sauce. In both cases the wine is subjected to considerable cooking and thus reduced. In this instance it need not be of the highest quality, although it should still be good enough to drink.

The second use of wine in cooking is to make pan sauces. In this instance the wine is used to deglaze the pan in which meat, fish or poultry was roasted or sautéed, to dissolve the tasty bits that cling to the pan, and incorporate any juices. The pan should be very hot when the wine is added as this hastens the deglazing and the evaporation of the alcohol. The sauce is then reduced and poured over the food. The quick cooking approach of deglazing does not cause the wine to lose its bouquet which is why when deglazing it is preferable to select a wine of a slightly better quality than what you would use for marinades.

The third use of wine in cooking is as a final flavouring agent, in which case it is added at the very end of the cooking process, or just before serving. The sauce is not brought to the boil after the wine is added. Wines for this purpose are usually fortified, that is, strengthened with brandy such as Sherry, Madeira, or Port. When used in this fashion they provide excellent flavour to the dish.

The remainder of a bottle of wine used in cooking can be served with the meal, or the bottle can be tightly corked and laid on its side in the refrigerator until it is needed again for cooking, but should be used within a few days as wine tends to turn to vinegar rather quickly once exposed to air. Should this happen do not worry, the ‘turned’ wine need not go to waist, instead use it for making salad dressings.

When using wine and spirits in cooking, certain ones are indispensable; it would be good to have these on hand. You will need two kinds of wine, reds for cooking dark meats and game and white wine for fish and poultry dishes. Both kinds should be dry wines. For flaming you should have Cognac or another brandy. A Sherry and Madeira of excellent quality are useful for flavouring everything from soups to desserts. Good options to have on hand for desserts are dark rum, kirsch, and one of the liqueurs, such as Grand Marnier, Cointreau or Curaçao.

Wines are less important than liqueurs in flavouring desserts because the small amounts that can be added as flavouring would have little effect compared with the intensity of flavour that can be derived from an equal amount of rum, brandy, or a liqueur. The simplest way to of using liqueurs to flavour desserts is to add them to puddings, sauces, or whipped cream, or sprinkle over fresh or cooked fruit or over ice cream or sorbets.

Too much liqueur added to an ice cream or ice mixture will prevent it from freezing; too much liqueur added to anything can make a dish taste of nothing but liqueur. Use liqueurs in cooking as you do wine, discreetly.

The French and the Italians are skilled users of wine and spirits in many of their dishes, from the simplest to the most elaborate, often combining the flavouring agents of wine or spirits together with citrus peel, citrus juice and fragrant flower waters.

This typical Mediterranean Ricotta cake is airy, soft, and at the same time a little moist. Grand Marnier, orange flower water, and citrus zest intensify and perfume the cake with gorgeous flavour. It can be served as is, or with soft fruits, or with a dash of yoghurt flavoured with citrus juice, and or flower water and a little icing sugar to taste.

Sicilian Ricotta cake


Serves 6-8


1 tablespoon castor sugar for dusting the baking pan

1 tablespoon orange juice

1 table spoon Grand Marnier

1 tablespoon orange- flower water

55g seedless raisins

75 g unsalted butter

130 g caster sugar

2 large eggs

Orange zest from 1 orange

Lemon zest from I lemon

3 tablespoons flour

1 ½ tsp. baking powder

Pinch of salt

450 g Ricotta, drained and lightly mashed using a fork

Icing sugar for dusting


Preheat the oven to 180C

Lightly butter a 20cm spring form tin and dust bottom and sides with some castor sugar, discarding any excess.

Place the orange juice, Grand Marnier, and flower water in a small pan and heat to just warm. Add the raisins and leave to soak soften and absorb the liquid.

In a bowl cream the butter and sugar until well combined. Add the eggs and whisk till combined. Add the zest, flour, baking powder and salt and whisk to combine. Add the ricotta and whisk to incorporate. Fold in the raisins and their soaking liquid.

Scrape the mixture into the prepared baking pan and place in the middle of the oven, bake for about 60 minutes. Test for doneness after about 55 minutes by inserting a skewer in the middle of the cake. It is ready when the skewer comes out clean. Leave to cool on a wire rack.

Turn out onto a plate. At this point the cake may be dusted lightly with some icing sugar.

Tip: if the cake starts to brown too quickly, cover loosely with some aluminium foil for the rest of the baking period

Options: the raisins may be replaced with peeled and finely chopped apple or pear, cinnamon.