Wednesday, 11 March 2015

Wine, FebFast and Red Wine Chocolate Cupcakes
"How do you like living in Australia?"
"Yes, I'm enjoying living here but I feel like I'm in college again as I've gained the freshman 15."

The 'freshmen 15' is of course a reference to the weight gain American students tend to gain after leaving home to start their first year of University or College. With easier access to alcohol and Mom not monitoring the fridge, it is easy for the weight to pile on. And why are they gaining weight down under? I attribute it to nibbles (appetizers), dinner parties, BBQs and alcohol. Nibbles seem to be everywhere. Nibbles are snacks, appetizers, crackers and dips especially. I have never seen so many dips and crackers in all my life - hummos, eggplant, pumpkin, pesto, crab, salmon, spinach, beetroot, etc. There are whole refrigerated aisles at the grocery stores full of different dips. My house is never short on a supply of dips, crackers and bottles of wine. I love the nibbles and what a cute name, a name I should consider for my next pet.
Some of my nibbles and wine stash 
One component of enjoying life down under is alcohol. Beer and wine are very popular. Whether you are meeting friends for dinner, a "sausage sizzle" (simple BBQ with an Australian staple, sausages), sporting event, etc. some form of alcohol is usually present. I suspect this is true in most countries however there seem to be more socializing events here and more drinking than I remember in the busy, work driven, competitive Silicon Valley, CA that I left behind. Australians and ex-pats seem to be working to live and eating, drinking and enjoying life. It is a lucky country for sure.

There is a lot to be said about alcohol in Australia; there is the good, the bad and the ugly. Alcohol is a part of the Australian culture and more laid back lifestyle here. There are lots of problems associated with drinking - drunk driving, underage drinking, alcoholism, binge drinking, and alcohol fueled violence. I have decided to leave the bad and ugly with the rest of the horrible news that shocks the world and focus on the good. So, my blog is about wine, my favourite form of alcohol.

Wine is abundant in Australia and there is a plethora of different wines available - Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio, Pinot Gris, Sauvignon Blanc, Semillion, Reisling, Sparkling Whites and Sparkling Shiraz, etc.  Australia produces over 1 billion litres of wine a year and is the fourth largest exporter by volume behind the traditional wine-producing giants of Italy, France and Spain. Due to its small population (24 million people), 2/3 of its' wine is exported. The government puts  a tax on wine so sometimes Australian wines are cheaper overseas than they are in Australia. A good example of this is Yellow Tail which is so popular in the US yet more expensive, unpopular and obscure here.

Australia doesn't have any native grapes; varieties were introduced from Europe and South Africa in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Today, over 100 different grape varieties are planted and used by commercial winemakers. The country has been creative, inventing cask wine and also the screw top bottle due to a lack of cork. Screw top bottles are great! They're so much easier then having to take a cork out. No corkscrew needed and no worries about possibly getting cork pieces in your wine.
Wine in Australia comes from 4 different States (New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia and Western Australia) and there is always debate over which region makes the best wine. I prefer Chardonnay from Victoria and Shiraz from South Australia. It is harder to find big, buttery, oaky Chardonnays like the ones I enjoyed in California and unfortunately, they're not popular here.  There is even a saying - "ABC" which means anything-but-chardonnay. Sauvingnon Blanc and Champers is most popular for white wines while Shiraz is most popular for red wines. A nice perk about going out to dinner in Australia is that many restaurants are licensed and allow you to bring your own (BYO) bottle of wine. A corkage fee is usually charged but it is minimal. 

So many words have slang terms down under. Here are just a few associated with drinking wine:
Bottle Shop - a store to buy alcohol
Pub - bar
Pissed - drunk
Champers - champagne (extremely popular drink)
Grog - alcohol
Drink Driving - driving while intoxicated (as opposed to 'drunk driving')
RBT - random breath testing (popular on my local roads on the weekends)
Shout - to offer to buy the next round of drinks
feeling Dusty - hungover

Some  people may have lost their freshmen 15 last month. February is popular for "Febfast" , a month when people give up drinking voluntarily. Some get sponsored and raise money that goes to specific youth groups and a family drug support groupWhy February? I think it is for the procrastinators who kept their holiday cheer alive in January and because February is the shortest month of the year. It is like Lent for non-Catholics drinkers.


I've heard people talking about not drinking in February but I didn't realise that it was a national event outside of my little suburb and that some fasters may raise money for a good cause. I find it impressive that Australia as a whole doesn't celebrate many US commercial holidays, however they dedicate  months to doing good things. For example, November is Movember where men grow facial hair to raise funds for prostrate cancer and mental health (see past blog on Movember with great pecan pie recipe) and February has FebFast.  I give people credit. My FebFast journey started earlier, it was more of a DecemFast. I realised over the Christmas holidays that I was drinking too much. My 1 glass of wine a night had turned into 2-3 glasses of wine every night. In France this might be normal, but for me 2 glasses of wine can put me over the edge. I decided at the end of December stop drinking, cold turkey.

I found the first week really hard. At dinnertime when I usually enjoyed my glasses of wine, I found myself smelling the opened wine bottle and sniffing my husband's wine glass like a bloodhound. I also felt a bit anxious and very grumpy thinking, 'no wine with dinner, what's the point?!' I started eating more sweets to fill that void in the beginning. Despite this extra eating, my stomach got flatter, I was sleeping better and I had more energy. By the third week, I noticed I was happier and my mood was more stable. I also noticed that my skin and eyes looked brighter. By the fourth week, I was feeling so great, I wondered why I drank at all. Well maybe that's not true. After 6 weeks, I decided I may have a drink here and there but not in the house and only when I go out socially. I will not drink more than two glasses of wine as I no longer want to feel "dusty" the next day. So, while some have a food diet, I have a drinking diet and so far it is working, fingers and lips crossed.

If you can't drink the wine, just put it in your cake - haha.  I am sharing a recipe for Red Wine Chocolate Cupcakes. It is from a new cookbook called 'Baked Occasions' by Matt Lewis and Renato Poliafito. They are the owners of Baked bakeries in New York City. I like their recipes - rich, classic and yet at the same time, a spin on traditional American baking. This recipe intrigued me because who ever thought to put wine a cupcake?! I adapted this recipe by using less wine, less sugar, and adding some instant coffee powder which enhances baked chocolate cakes in my humble opinion. These cupcakes are delicious and fine to serve to minors. You would not know there is in wine in them unless someone told you; it's a subtle flavour.

Red Wine Chocolate Cupcakes
with Chocolate Glaze
adapted from Baked Occasions
by Matt Lewis & Renato Poliafito

PREP: 20 mins
BAKE: 20 mins
YIELD: 20-24 cupcakes

1/2 cup cocoa powder
2 ounces/55 gm dark chocolate, chopped
1 cup hearty red wine (I used Shiraz)
2 cups plain flour
1 1/4 tsp baking soda
3/4 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp instant coffee (optional)
8 oz/225 gm unsalted butter, room temperature
3/4 cup white sugar
3/4 cup brown sugar
2 eggs, room temperature
1 egg yolk, room temperature
1 tsp vanilla extract/essence

Chocolate Glaze
4 ounces/115 gm dark chocolate chopped
1 tablespoon corn syrup/golden syrup
1/2 cup heavy cream OR whole milk

NOTE: I am a keen baker. The quality of your ingredients and their temperature are important. This recipe calls for both butter and eggs to be at room temperature which means planning to leave them out on the counter hours before baking. If you forget, butter can be sliced into big chunks and put in the microwave for 20-30 seconds (depends on strength of your specific microwave) to soften it. Eggs can be put in a small bowl of hot tap water (not boiling) and allowed to sit for 10 minutes to get closer to room temperature.

1- Preheat oven to 175 C/150 F. Line 2 - 12 cup cupcake pan with paper liners.

2-  Place the wine in a saucepan. Heat until just boiling, take off the burner and add cocoa powder and chocolate, stirring until the chocolate is melted and the mixture is smooth.

2- In another bowl, mix together the flour, baking soda, baking powder, and salt. Set aside.

3- In an stand alone electric mixer or hand held electric mixer, beat the room temperature butter until smooth. Add both the white and brown sugars and and beat for 3 minutes until light and fluffy. Add eggs one at a time, beating after each addition. Then add vanilla extract/essence. Scrape bowl and beat batter again for 30 seconds so that it is well combined. (Don't beat too long as prolonged beating/mixing results in tough, "gummy" cupcakes).

4- Remove the bowl from the mixer and by HAND, alternate folding in the flour and wine/chocolate mixtures, starting with the flour and ending with the wine/chocolate. 

5- Fill the cupcake liners 3/4 full with batter. Note: cupcakes may taste a bit "winey." This taste will be more subtle once baked. Bake, rotating the pan halfway through (if you remember), for about 20 minutes. Test with a toothpick to make sure the cupcake is cooked through. After 5 minutes remove cupcakes from pan to prevent any further cooking and allow cupcakes to completely cool. 

1. Please chocolate in small saucepan. Drizzle the corn syrup or golden syrup on top. Add whole milk or heavy cream and heat SLOWLY, CONSTANTLY STIRRING until melted. You must heat it slowly so that chocolate doesn't burn.

1. Dip the top of each COOLED cupcake into the glaze and add decoration if desired. Let cupcake stand at least 30 minutes before serving.

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