Hanukkah, which ended on Wednesday, was just the start to a frenetic and festive holiday season filled with dinners, parties and, of course, lots of sweets. Cookies tend to get top billing--just look at the holiday issues of every food magazine--because for their usual diminutive, single-serving size and general simplicity to make, they pack in a lot of pleasure.
I like sweets, but I prefer them turned on their head a little. Spike the chocolate ice cream with chipotle or the grapefruit sorbet with black pepper, and I start drooling like one of Pavlov's dogs. Contrasting flavors take a run-of-the-mill treat and make it special, and they send your tastebuds into a John Cage meets Merce Cunningham frenzy. The simplest of these combinations has to be the salted caramel, which had its brief brush with fame after Oprah claimed the ones at the now defunct Boule Bakery in L.A. as her favorites. Personally, I love the Salted Caramel Bars by my friend Gaby Dalkin, featured on her blog What's Gaby Cooking yesterday. They combine all the buttery goodness of caramel AND shortbread, but the sprinkling of salt, like quartz scattered across a pond of honey, makes you feel like your on the grey coast of Brittany in the 1930s. Bake a batch of these for your next holiday party and make instant friends. Not into cooking? You can buy a batch of fresh, homemade salted caramels from Bird in the Hand Candy Company.
Finding a wine to pair with such contrasting flavors can be challenging. You want something to act as a foil for the sweetness but not overpower the subtle saltiness. A dry Sherry offers the acidity and complexity and can have complimentary qualities, too. Palo Cortado Sherry, which is an a rare style made when the flor yeasts on an Amontillado begin to die off before the wine's evolution is complete and the wine is then finished in an oxidative style like an Oloroso. The Lustao Palo Cortado "Peninsula" ($21.99) is a fantastic introduction to the style because it isn't prohibitively expensive. It has a roasted, salted, buttered hazelnut character yet remains light and fresh. If you don't mind spending a little more money the Antonio Barbadillo "Obispo Gascon" Palo Cortado ($34.99) is delightful, too, with caramel, black tea and nutty notes. And, as you can imagine, both Palo Cortados would not only complement salty caramels, but appetizers like salted Marcona almonds or dates wrapped in bacon.