I'm in the thick of Christmas baking now, producing tins of cookies for teachers, making and freezing components of a buche de noel, placing finishing touches on my gingerbread house. When the crumbs are cleared, will I really feel like starting all over for New Year's?
Probably not. Yet, it's unthinkable to end the year's biggest party without a special dessert. That's where Valerie Gordon comes in. The owner of Valerie Confections in Los Angeles and author of a beautiful new book, "Sweet" (Artisan, $35) understands. The book is packed with memorable treats for every occasion. "Desserts," she says, "define celebrations. They're the things we remember about holidays." For those of us with butter fatigue and baking burnout as New Year's Eve approaches, she suggests Champagne gelée, a dessert that is "low in calories, fat-free, and a wonderful punctuation mark at the end of a really rich dinner." It gets better. The recipe is ridiculously easy, or, as Gordon says, "four steps to fancy."
Champagne is a happy beverage. "You don't open a bottle when something really horrible is happening," notes Gordon. "You have a big cup of whiskey on that day." Champagne is for celebrating, especially on New Year's Eve. "Using Champagne in a dessert just magnifies the happiness." Thickened with unflavored gelatin, the gelée has the same flavor and beautiful color as Champagne. And yet it is a food instead of a beverage.
If you've never used unflavored gelatin, don't worry. It's easy. Look for it on the shelf next to the Jell-O at the supermarket. Making Champagne gelée is not much different from making a batch of Jell-O. Sprinkle the gelatin over a small bowl of cold water and let it stand until the gelatin dissolves. Then, mix it with hot sugar syrup and a bottle of chilled Champagne. Stir it gently to preserve as many bubbles as possible. For easy portioning, use a pitcher to pour the mixture into dessert goblets before refrigerating until set.
Save the vintage Dom Pérignon for drinking, but make sure, since you're really going to taste it, that the Champagne you use has a nice, rounded flavor. Avoid the really cheap stuff, which will become acidic when mixed with sugar. Gordon recommends Taittinger, a tasty and modestly priced brand. Or ask your wine merchant for a recommendation. A good quality Spanish cava or California sparkling wine, though not technically Champagne, will work just as well.
Pretty goblets or cut-glass bowls will help your Champagne gelée sparkle. "Aesthetically, the simplest things are sometimes the most elegant," Gordon says. For extra visual impact, add raspberries to the gelée before it sets. Or set out a tray of chocolate-covered strawberries, chocolate truffles or small shortbread cookies as an accompaniment.
CHAMPAGNE GELÉE (excerpted from "Sweet")
Adding strawberries, sliced if large, and raspberries, is a delicious way to vary this recipe. Add the berries to the glasses before refrigerating the gelée. If you add berries, it is best to serve the gelées the day they are made, as the berries can darken and break down, and the effect will not be as pretty.
1 tablespoon plus 3/4 teaspoon powdered gelatin
3/4 cup plus 3 tablespoons cold water, divided
1 cup sugar
1 bottle (750 ml) Champagne, chilled
1. Sprinkle the gelatin over the 3 tablespoons water in a small bowl and let sit for 10 minutes, until the gelatin softens.
2. Combine the remaining 3/4 cup water and the sugar in a medium saucepan over medium heat, and bring to a simmer, stirring to dissolve sugar. Remove from heat.
3. Add the gelatin to the sugar syrup, stirring until it has dissolved. Pour into a large pitcher. Pour the Champagne into the pitcher and stir with a long spoon.
4. Pour the gelée into glasses or small glass bowls and refrigerate for 3 to 4 hours, until set. The gelée can be refrigerated, covered with plastic wrap, for up to 3 days. Makes 6 servings