Walk into Cheryl Wakerhauser’s red damask–walled Portland patisserie, and the first thing you’ll notice are the empty Champagne bottles surrounding counters filled with multicolored macarons, chocolates and fancy desserts. “Bubbles excite me,” Wakerhauser, owner and head chef of Pix Patisserie, tells me. “There are so many different styles—big and weighty, or bright and fresh, perfect for a summer patio.” Wakerhauser began stocking Champagne to go with her pastries at Pix five years ago. Today she’s up to 400 selections, plus 100 other sparkling wines. Contrary to popular opinion, dry wines do just fine with dessert, she finds—when they are Champagne.
The Champagne Connection
Champagne wasn’t in the plans when Wakerhauser started Pix in 2001. The restaurant began as a stand in the Portland Farmers’ Market, something to keep her busy after she lost her catering job in the post-9/11 economy. Within a year, Wakerhauser was doing well enough to open a fixed location, offering Belgian beer pairings to go with her French desserts.
“Belgian beers go great with pastries,” she explains. “I grew up in Wisconsin. Out there we drink beer. When I moved to Portland I didn’t know anything about wine.”
While out for a birthday her attention shifted. “Because we were celebrating, I ordered a split of Gaston Chiquet and a dozen oysters for the table. It was so delicious, we had a second round of both,” she says. “That was saying a lot since none of us had much money at the time.” Since then, she’s avidly sought out more bottles and more knowledge, and traveled to Champagne to see the process firsthand. That experience sealed it for her. “To see how making Champagne works is amazing,” she tells me. “Small producers are there making wine in garages, not big châteaus. Every place is different.”
“I think my Champagne selection got so big,” Wakerhauser explains, “because I was frustrated that people only wanted to drink it one day a year.” To increase people’s interest in bubbles, Wakerhauser kept her markups to a minimum, started hosting Champagne events and, most importantly, developed pairings for the wine with her desserts. She’s found that, contrary to common perceptions, dry Champagnes are more versatile than sweet styles when it comes to pairing with dessert. “There are a lot of components [in dessert] that are not sweet,” Wakerhauser, points out, naming nuts, biscuits, cassis and citrus as a few examples of elements that also resemble flavors in wine. And bubbles play an important part. “Overall, bubbles play down sugar, and cleanse the palate,” she says.
“Just make sure you don’t have too much sugar in the dessert,” she advises.
This is a crucial point, she admits, noting that French and American attitudes on dessert differ dramatically. In the States, dessert tends to mean cakes with frosting, pies with cooked fruit, or chocolate chip cookies—sweets that rely heavily on sugar as a central ingredient. The French, on the other hand, tend to rely more on ingredients like buttery pastry, lightly sweetened creams, nut pastes and fruit to build layers of flavor and richness. Wakerhauser specializes in those sorts of pastries at Pix, an advantage when it comes to pairing dessert with Champagne.
Champagne & Pastry Pairings
Some American-style desserts can balance Champagne, Wakerhauser says, pointing out Incognito, a lemon mousse cheesecake she likes to drink with a light blanc de blancs, like the Diebolt-Vallois Brut. The combination works a lot like Champagne does with triple-crème cheese, a classic pairing. The acidity of the wine cuts the richness of the cake, she says, while the lemon and spice of the wine echoes its flavor. “You can also think about body, or weight,” she adds, pointing out that that same minerally blanc de blancs could pair well with a light dessert, such as a tart of fromage blanc with poached pear, or even a Vacherin cheese topped with a pear or lemon sorbet.
Generally, however, Wakerhauser looks to flavor to tip her off to a good pairing. “A chardonnay-specific Champagne,” Wakerhauser explains, “tends to have apple, pear and citrus flavors, so you could pair it with a citrus mousse, or meringue, for example.”
Bubbles also can play a useful role, not only in cleansing the palate but in providing a complementary or contrasting texture. “I like the crunch of nuts alongside the texture of the bubbles,” she says, calling out a Pix staple, the Jane Avril. A light almond and pistachio cake sandwiched with raspberry mousse, fresh nuts and raspberries, it’s built for a rosé Champagne; Wakerhauser likes Franck Pascal Tolerance Brut Rosé, or Vilmart & Cie Cuvée Rubis Rosé Premier Cru Brut.
In some ways, the complexities of Wakerhauser’s creations are in part why they suit Champagne so well. Working with contrasts in texture, layers of flavor and careful combinations of sweetness and acidity, her desserts tend to be as ornate as the wines themselves. Yet Wakerhauser points out that these levels of complexity aren’t strictly necessary. She calls out La Framboise, a small almond cake studded with chopped raspberries, which she likes to pair with René Geoffroy Rosé de Saignée. “I’ll send you the recipe,” she offers. “It’s adjusted for you to make it at home.” Recipe below.
Wakerhauser’s tips for choosing Champagne-friendly desserts
—the less sweet the better; desserts that build richness through elements like marzipan, pastry cream and butter rather than sugar work best
—look for desserts with flavors that are often found in Champagnes: nuts, piecrust, cassis and citrus
—match weights, opting for light mousses and lighter dishes for delicate Champagnes, and choosing denser cakes and tarts for rich, yeasty or red-fruited Champagnes
This story was featured in W&S December 2014.
photos by Dina Avila