- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 28, 2004

No sound I know in the world of dining promises celebration more brightly than the pop of a Champagne cork. The moment you hear it, you know that a delightfully sparkling drink is about to be poured - and, no doubt, that delicious food will soon follow.

That’s why champagne, the sparkling wine from the French region of the same name, is such an integral part of New Year’s Eve celebrations. With a single sip, you will likely agree with one of the drink’s early developers, the French friar Dom Pierre Perignon (1638-1716). “Brothers, come quickly,” he said, so legend has it, the first time he tasted it. “I am tasting stars!”

For celebrating on the last night of the year, many people want to pour only the best champagne, spending a hundred dollars or more for an authentic French label from such outstanding vintages as 1998, 1996, 1995 or 1990. But you don’t necessarily have to empty your wallet to enjoy good sparkling wine. Non-vintage champagnes can also be excellent. So, too, are sparkling wines now produced in California. You might also enjoy exploring some well-made versions from around the world, including refreshing Prosecco from Italy’s Veneto, brisk Cava from Catalonia in Spain, and charming German Sekt, as well as up-and-coming choices from South Africa and Argentina.

Whatever sparkler you choose, be sure to chill it well in the refrigerator for at least an hour or an ice bucket for a good 20 to 30 minutes before serving. Keep the bottle undisturbed, too, so the wine won’t overflow when you open it. To open, first peel off the foil that wraps the neck; then, untwist the loop on the wire cage that secures the cork, and remove the cage and the metal cap on top of the cork. (All the while, stand slightly away from the bottle for safety’s sake, just in case the cork unexpectedly shoots out.) Finally, steady the bottle with one hand and firmly grip the cork with the other, using a folded napkin or kitchen towel for a better grip. Very slowly turn the cork to ease it gently from the bottle. Do not push it up with your thumbs to shoot it out, which only risks loss of wine and possible injury to bystanders.

Then, pour the wine, preferably into tall, thin glasses called flutes, which help conserve the bubbles.

There you have it: The perfect recipe for serving sparkling wine. Apart, that is, from food to enjoy with it. Try my recipe for classic blini, little buckwheat pancakes, topped with a dab of sour cream and a slice of smoked salmon: the perfect combination of rich, earthy, and salty tastes to complement a glass of stars.

BUCKWHEAT BLINI WITH SMOKED SALMON

Serves 4

BLINI

4 tablespoons all-purpose flour

3 tablespoons buckwheat flour

1 tablespoon minced fresh dill

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1/2 cup good-quality beer, at room temperature

2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted

1 egg, separated

TOPPING

1/2 cup very thinly sliced red onion

3 to 4 ounces very thinly sliced good-quality smoked salmon

1/4 cup sour cream

1 tablespoon minced fresh dill, plus fresh dill sprigs for garnishreshly ground black pepper

Preheat the oven to its lowest setting.

To make the blini, in a mixing bowl combine the all-purpose and buckwheat flours, 1 tablespoon dill, salt and pepper. Add the beer, melted butter and egg yolk and stir gently just until a batter forms.

In another clean bowl, whisk the egg white, or beat it with a handheld electric mixer, until it forms stiff peaks when the whisk or beaters are lifted out. With a rubber spatula, gently fold the egg white into the batter just until incorporated.

Heat a heavy nonstick skillet or griddle over medium-high heat. With a 2-ounce ladle, pour the batter onto the skillet or griddle to form 2-to-3-inch pancakes, taking care not to overcrowd the cooking surface. Cook until their undersides are browned, 2 to 3 minutes. With a spatula, flip them over and cook until browned on the other side, 1 to 2 minutes more. Transfer the blini to a baking sheet large enough to hold them in a single layer and keep them warm in the oven while you cook any remaining batter. (You should have 12 to 16 blini in all.)

To top the blini, arrange a thin layer of red onion on each one. Cut the smoked salmon into squares or rectangles that will fit the blini and place a piece on each one. Spoon a little sour cream on top and sprinkle with dill. Grind a little black pepper over the blini.

Arrange the blini on a heated serving platter or individual serving plates and garnish with fresh dill sprigs. Serve with chilled champagne.

Chef Wolfgang Puck’s TV series, “Wolfgang Puck’s Cooking Class,” airs Sundays and Wednesdays on the Food Network. Also, chef Wolfgang Puck’s latest cookbook, Wolfgang Puck Makes It Easy, is now available in bookstores.

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