Vanilla Champagne and Baked Camembert
Updated: Dec 8, 2020
A Celebratory Menu for the At-Home Graduation
by Maurice Alexander
Image courtesy of NickyPe on Pixabay
Champagne is the drink of celebration. What better celebration to have than your graduation? Unfortunately for the class of 2020, the nationwide lockdown has caused the suspension of traditional open-air graduations on campus grounds. To remedy the loss of this flagship life event, I bring to you a few recipes for the perfect ‘at home’ graduation allowing you to still create your own memories with those dearest to you whilst still experiencing the grandeur of commemoration for your special day, a fitting closing chapter for the past few years of your wonderful adventure.
A champagne glass
The finest Brut champagne you can afford
A teaspoon of caster sugar
Half a teaspoon of vanilla extract of the highest quality
A stainless steel, copper, or glass champagne holder (large aesthetic mixing bowl or bucket as a replacement)
Bags of ice to fill the champagne holder
How wonderful it would have been to sip this nectar together swathed in black graduation gowns. Now nothing more than a faded daydream, let’s bring the champagne to us. As with all food and drink prepared for guests, especially for commemorative occasions, all ingredients should be of the highest quality. With speciality of this moment, you must purchase the best champagne you can afford, affordability being stretched to accompany the occasion. You don’t always get to drink champagne so, so why not get the most expensive?
Qualities of Fine Champagne
Within the tall stem glass, when poured from a just-opened bottle, champagne should fill the glass as a golden liquid. White grapes ripened upon the branch within the sunnyed vineyards of Northern France form this sparkling drink, so any pink colour indicates that the champagne in question should be avoided as it has either been adulterated with wine or treated with colourants. ‘Rose champagne’ does not exist.
A second visual element of fine champagne is the clarity of the liquid. Holding the glass to your eye, your vision should pass through to the other ride of the room, as though gazing through a polished crystal. This indicates that the champagne has been properly fermented; repeatedly filtered and strained through a muslin cloth multiple times undergoing fermentation to rid the liquid of sediment. This shows a great extent of care and effort going into the craft of the drink.
After these preliminary assessments, swirl the liquid within the glass with a repeated turn of your wrist and bring it to your nose. You should be greeted by the rich scent of caramelised apples or the heady scent of yeast. Champagnes can be of equal fineness and vary greatly in their aroma. This varies with the wishes of craftsmen, depending on if they choose to bring out the profile of the grapes or the scent of a notably characteristic strain of yeast they renowned for using. If the freshly decanted liquid smells like an astringent perfume, then that bottle of champagne has been over-fermented, partially turning to vinegar as a result. Champagnes like this are not to be drunk and should be disposed of.
A subtle, yet vitally important, characteristic of drinks is their feel in the mouth. Skimmed milk is often described as watery in comparison to its creamy sibling, whole milk. Despite both being almost entirely composed of water, it is the subtle interplay of nutrients less than one percent of their compositions that contributes to the highly noticeable differences in their physical composition, which changes how either type of milk feels on your tongue. This idea can be applied in explaining the different textures of champagne.
A quality champagne should feel, on the tongue, as soft, subdued, creamy yet light liquid enveloping crisp, miniscule bubbles clustered together that gently pop with the drinks motion. Curiously enough, a champagne can have a starting elixir that is known to produce a deliciously tasting batch which can be ruined by a poor texture. This texture is a thin-feeling liquid with harsh, loud, strongly bursting bubbles, caused by a too-warm environment during the bottle’s fermentation.
A beautiful champagne commanding a handsome price should be in possession of both an enamouring flavour and complimenting texture. A safe price range for a quality drink all will enjoy is around £50 and two or three varieties of this calibre are usually available in all major supermarkets. However, if you wish to treat yourself and loved one or a few close friends with a drink to leave lasting impressions, then you are best sourcing your champagne from a wine merchant. These are true experts who have the knowledge, contacts and palette to get the very best champagnes available. Additionally, with repeated purchases and the expression of appreciation of their line of work, you can earn yourself the special deals, knowledge and advice that sustained relationships with small businesses reward.
Wine merchants carry a wide array of wines, but champagnes fall into three categories dependent on their sugar content. Champagnes with very little sugar bear the title ‘Brut’, those with more sugar are classified as ‘Extra-Dry’ and champagnes with a greater amount of sugar are branded as ‘Sec’. Bruts have a crisp apple flavour, Extra-Drys being crisp yet sweeter, and Secs being the sweetest and heaviest of the three.
These nuanced differences mean that some champagnes naturally pair better with dishes, line drawn between sweet and savoury. Brut champagne is the drink for welcoming arrivals which guests can sip as they try the canapes and ease themselves into the rhythms of the party. Secs are made for desserts, the sweetness complimenting the nature of a dessert and its sparkling body is refreshing without contrasting. This allows sec champagne to rescue one’s appetite when dining on indulgent, classical French desserts like chocolate mousse. Extra-Dry can be served with both, leaning towards canapes.
All three, brut, extra-dry and sec, should be served as though they have been brought out from the permafrost depths of the Arctic. It is of the highest importance that champagne is placed in a champagne holder with their glass bodies swathed in ice. The low temperature calms the bubbling liquid considerably, meaning when its time to uncork, with or without the grandeur of using a sword, the minimum volume of the golden elixir will follow the cork out from the bottle in the fury of being set free. What horror it is to witness half the contents of a fine champagne gush out onto the grass after the uncorking of a room-temperature bottle. It should go without saying, but always ensure that champagne is handled with the greatest care. This is another reason to buy champagne from a wine merchant and hand-collect it. They know how to handle wine and the reasons for doing so. You will never know if the assistants of the supermarkets handle champagne bottles with the additional care they need.
Storing and Serving Champagne
For this special get-together, purchase multiple bottles of a fine Brut champagne. The number to buy varies with the number of guests and their taste for a beautiful alcoholic drink, but a safe estimate would be a bottle per person. This will be a considerable financial investment, so reserve the champagne for a celebration that warrants it — like a graduation! Brut champagnes should always be bought when being served to a multiple guests, especially if the guests spill across generations. You see, Bruts are the standard champagne flavour with their spritely apple flavours, acting as a blank canvas for further sweetening whilst also serving as the perfect drink for those not in possession of a sweet tooth.
Chill the bottles and glasses in the back of an incredibly cold fridge overnight. The empty champagne holder, typically polished stainless steel with or without a coating of chrome, is to be placed in the freezer overnight. Do not fill it with ice at this point because the ice will freeze together as a solid block and fix themselves to the holder, making it impossible to use in the morning. If you do not have a champagne holder, just use a very large mixing bowl, preferably with a pearlescent coating to it to maximise aesthetics, or a bucket if you have nothing else. The same rules for overnight freezing apply to both.
Just before serving, remove the champagne holder from the freezer and fill it with the ice. You can purchase large bags of ice cubes at the supermarket and judge how many bags you’ll by eye. Bring along your champagne holder if you struggle with spatial dynamics. Submerge the bodies of the champagne bodies in the ice and carry the beautiful structure to your guests. They may cheer your arrival knowing that they’ll soon be drinking alcohol but also in adoration of the beauty of your offering, frosted champagne bathed in glittering ice cubes like ships anchored amongst a sea of glaciers.
When serving, ask if they would like a sweet vanilla champagne. If they accept your suggestion, place the teaspoon of caster sugar and the half-teaspoon of vanilla extract in the bottom of the chilled champagne glass. Request that your guest holds the flute champagne at an angle and gently pour in holding the bottle at a minimal distance from the mouth of the glass. Fill the head of the glass by two thirds. The flurry of bubbles and the motion of the liquid will dissolve both the vanilla extract and the sugar. This removes the bothersome step of stirring and the ‘stirring rod’, typically in the form of a vanilla pod, which can produce its own problem of the seeds from the pod creating the appearance of black speckles in the drink that can be quite unsightly, not to mention it can be cumbersome for your guest drink whilst having to account for something in the glass. With all drinks, do not add ice to them as it will melt and dilute flavour.
Camembert is a decadent cheese that is terrifically easy to prepare. It is a two-inch thick round of cheese with a white, wrinkled coat covering up gooey interior of rich, salty-sweet innards.
Camembert can be found at any cheese isle in a supermarket and readily available from your local cheesemongers. To be labelled as camembert, the cheese must have its origins in the Normandy region of France, so will be found grouped with the other French cheeses. Prices vary, but a camembert possessing an awe-inspiring flavour with a deeply nourishing ability go for around £8, supermarket prices being around £3. I remain resolute in my advice for purchasing food for guests; purchase the best you can afford! It shows that you really care about the speciality of the occasion and leaves a lasting impression of you being a wonderful host that goes above and beyond to secure the enjoyment of others.
Qualities of Fine Camembert
Details to look for in fine camembert is that it is about two inches thick and decent-sized circle. Its skin should be a gleaming white with some wrinkling on its surface. A slight decompression from the top is normal due to the camembert liquid body failing to support itself: which explains the wooden box they come in. It keeps them from collapsing under their weight, the skin is soft and malleable. The chief detail to note is the scent; camembert should have an overwhelming, repulsive scent that should exude from the cheese when it is at rest or in the fridge. Fortunately, the stench vanishes when it is baked.
There’s no escaping it, but once you’ve tasted the delicious flavours imbued within the gooey mass of a baked camembert, this smell is a mark of true quality. The odour signifies to the experienced camembert-eater that the cheese has been made with wholly raw milk that hasn’t been processed at an overly high temperature, permitting the bacteria to live within it and foster highly nuanced flavours. A strong scent shows that the camembert is alive and perfect for consumption.
Almost all camembert’s available at cheesemongers will be in possession of their own unique scents due to the cheesemonger being an expert whose market niche is in providing finer cheeses to food enthusiasts. I’ve only found one easily available brand of ‘live’ camembert in UK supermarkets: LeRustique. Contained within the branded wooden container is the most delicious camembert with that characteristic scent. Almost all supermarkets stock President camembert but they don’t have an odour and thus lack flavour. If you’re unsure about a wildly flavoursome melted cheese, then begin with purchasing a President Camembert and if you have found a new culinary joy seek out a cheesemonger or a supermarket carrying LeRustique camembert to indulge that decadent craving.
Young, Ripe and Mature Camembert
The reason why it is so important that camembert emits an odour is because of the bacteria that produces it can be used to further the development of the cheese’s flavour. This is done by simply storing the round of camembert cheese in the fridge. After purchasing, look for the ‘Use By’ date and write beside it the date of your inspection. If the length of time between the day of purchase and the ‘Use By’ date is greater than a month, then the camembert is ‘Young’ and has a lighter, softer flavour. If the length of time between the date is less than a month but greater than a fortnight, then the camembert is ‘Ripe’ and is considerably softer with a strong, distinctive flavour. If it is less than two weeks until the ‘Use By’ date then the camembert is ‘Mature’, with a rich, dynamic flavour of the highest intensity, being so enriched by the microorganisms living within it that it can barely support itself, melting at room temperature.
There comes a dilemma. How reasonable can it be to keep stinking cheese in the fridge for almost a month? Even to camembert lovers like myself, I must admit that I’d be knocked sick from repeated exposures to its stench after a week opening and closing the fridge for the everyday, non-camembert related reasons. Your family and flatmates will not tolerate it either, in fact they barely tolerate an afternoon of it warming on the counter, tamed only by the promise that it will be eaten by your and your guests in the evening. To avoid the torture and squabbles, just ask for a ‘Mature’ camembert from your local cheesemonger.
Camembert at any of these stages can be baked in the oven. However, there are two requirements before you place your coveted cheese round into the hot body of an oven. First, is it should be at room temperature, leaving it to warm up for an hour or longer on the kitchen counter depending on the season. Second, is removing the packaging and placing the fat, white disc into a cheese baking dish. Fortunately for us cheese lovers and dinner party enthusiasts, the market has provided us with speciality ‘Camembert’ cheese dishes crafted to their specific size, with most of them looking pleasing to the eye.
Cheese baking dishes often round, lidded-ceramic pots portraying upon their lids an idyllic pastoral world of cows grazing upon rolling grassland or a well-endowed, milkmaid reposed amongst the meadow, whose flowers frame her wanting face in all its fragile beauty. There exist also cast-iron camembert dishes whose bodies often flare themselves out to form themselves into the shape of an open flower gazing up to beckon the sun. Do not attempt to put a camembert round in the oven without one, as it will just completely collapse in the heat and fully decompose, coating whatever tray you have the misfortune of placing it on.
Camembert fully explained, here are two very different, but easy, recipes you can try with your new favourite food to be.
Camembert with Port, Thyme and Chilliflakes
One round of camembert
A Pinch of thyme
A Pinch of chili flakes
A tablespoon of port
A camembert dish
Release the camembert from its wooden box and paraffin cloak and remove its top. Do this by inserting a cheese knife into the side of the nude camembert about a quarter of a centimetre from the top of the cheese. Gently push the knife into its tender body by about 2 inches and slice through the camembert in a circular motion, turning the cheese in your hand or physically moving the knife around in a perfect circle. When the knife returns to its insertion point, withdraw it and simply pull the top of the camembert of its body to expose its liquid core.
Place the cheese in its baking dish and top with a pinch each of the dried chilli and thyme. Fresh or dried thyme is fine, but be sure to cut the fresh thyme especially fine and, if using dried, be sure to get a higher quality thyme as it will possess both stronger flavour but its jar will be entirely filled with thyme leaves, allowing you to crumble some of thyme between your fingers when adding the pinch. This helps the thyme distribute itself throughout the melted core of the camembert whilst preventing someone biting onto a hard thyme leaf.
Following the addition of the dry ingredients, pour on the tablespoon of port, taking care to ensure that it pools in the heart of the disc and not spill down its sides. If your baking vessel has a lid, place it on the dish and you can eat the camembert top you cut off earlier whilst it bakes in the oven. If the dish doesn’t have a lid, then replace with camembert top. This is to prevent the cheese and its toppings from burning.
Preheat the oven to 180 celcius for fan-assissted ovens, 200 celcius for conventional ovens and gas mark 6 for gas-supplied ovens, baking on the middle shelf for 15 minutes.
Serve with toasted baguette, using them to dip into the cheese. Can be served to one person or between two people.
Camembert with Pork and Onion
One round of camembert
A tablespoon of unsalted butter
A tablespoon of unsmoked pork lardons
A tablespoon of diced onion
A grinding of salt and black pepper
A camembert dish
Unsheathe the camembert from its wooden bed and paraffin covers and cut off its top as previously described before placing the cheese upright in the baking dish.
Butter in the UK is commonly adulterated with vegetable oil to cut costs whilst also making it ‘spreadable’. This type of butter is not suitable for cooking. The only butter brands readily available at supermarkets but also composed of 100% milk are Grahams, Anchor and President. Unsalted should always be used in cooking as recipes require you to add the specific amount of salt needed for any sweet or savoury dish. Salted butter is used only for sandwiches, as you can’t evenly add salt to a sandwich.
Melt the tablespoon of butter in a frying pan, adding both the tablespoon of minced white onions to the pan after the butters foaming has subsided, frying on a medium heat for 5 minutes until translucent. Once the flesh of the onion is mainly clear, add the tablespoon of unsmoked pork lardons and fry for 5-10 minutes until both the onions and lardons are lightly browned.
Spoon the onions and lardons onto the top of the cut camembert and season with a single grinding of both sea salt and black pepper. Cover with the lid of the baking dish or the lid of the camembert and bake in the oven at 180 celcius for fan-assissted ovens, 200 celcius for conventional ovens and gas mark 6 for gas-supplied ovens for 15 minutes until the camembert has melted completely.
Serve with cut, toasted baguette and mix in the dish with a teaspoon before serving. Use the teaspoon for spooning onto the baguette slices or dip the baguette directly into the melted cheese. One camembert can be shared between two people.