“First of all, I’d argue with the idea that anyone isn’t sophisticated enough to drink dessert wine,” says the Guardian’s Fiona Beckett. Which is not to say that Jean isn’t wise to consider other ways to make use of her mounting collection. Zero-waste chef Tom Hunt, who isn’t a big fan of the sweet stuff, either (“Why would I want an extra sweet thing on top of dessert?”), uses dessert wine to “add sweetness and flavour to sweet and savoury dishes alike”, such as braised meat or stews (just use in moderation). “You could also switch it in instead of red wine, unless you’re using that as a colouring.”
If you’ve got any marsala knocking about, make a sauce for chicken – think 1970s classic chicken marsala, or follow Nigel Slater’s lead with a cream-and-herb sauce. After frying off two chicken breasts, he puts marsala, white wine and vermouth in the pan, bubbles to reduce, then stirs in creme fraiche, grainy and dijon mustards, cornichons and capers. “Stir in a small bunch of parsley, finely chopped. Add in a squeeze of lemon juice, then return the chicken breasts to the pan.” Marsala in the filling of, say, a mushroom-and-chestnut pie would also be a very good thing, or make like Nigella Lawson, who in Nigella’s Christmas Kitchen uses the fortified wine to finish a roast squash and sweet potato soup.
Sauternes or muscat could find a home in jelly to eat with cheese and crackers (or to give as a present), or be used for poaching fruit, such as pears. Then there are chocolate truffles: “Mix the wine into a little leftover stale cake,” Hunt says, “shape into balls and dip into melted white chocolate – that would be pretty good.” Alternatively, pour the wine into the cake batter itself: “Find a recipe that has some liquid in it already, and that you could just swap out. That would give it a nice, sophisticated flavour.”
Dessert wine deserves to be in trifles, panforte (heat with the honey and sugar before pouring over your fruit-and-nut mix) and syllabubs– and that includes zabaglione, which conveniently makes a great festive dessert. For her “perfect” version, Felicity Cloake whisks four egg yolks with three tablespoons of soft brown sugar in a heatproof bowl until thick. “Gradually beat in four tablespoons of dessert wine, a tablespoon of brandy (optional) and a pinch of salt.” Set the bowl over (but not touching) a pan of simmering water and keep whisking until, when lifted, it “drops a fairly solid ribbon trail on the surface”. Remove from the heat, whisk again, then serve – a crushed amaretti topping optional, but very much encouraged.
Finally, where there’s dessert wine, there are cocktails. “Play around with it,” says Beckett, who suggests starting with a smoky joe (sake, cognac, single malt and dessert wine stirred with ice and strained) or auld alliance (equal parts whisky and sauternes mixed with ice and strained). “Failing that, give it as a gift.” And happily – whispers – ’tis almost the season for that.