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Free Range on Food: American Food for Election Night, Late Night Snacks for a Sweet Tooth, Gravy, Slow Cookers, Finding Pork Butt and more

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The Food Section
of the Washington Post
Wednesday, October 29, 2008; 1:00 PM

A chat with the Washington Post Food Section staff is a forum for discussion of all things culinary: food trends, recipes, ingredients, menus, gadgets and more. You can share your thoughts on the latest Food section, get suggestions from fellow cooks and food lovers, or swap old-fashioned recipes the new-fashioned way. The Food section staff goes Free Range on Food every Wednesday at 1 p.m. ET.

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A transcript follows.

Transcripts of past chats

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Bonnie Benwick: Howdy, chatters. Editor Joe's on a shopping expedition today with a special guest. So Jane Black, Leigh Lambert and I are tending to your queries today.

Looks like Election Night food's on the minds of many, but we're also fielding early turkey and gravy questions. Bring 'em on....

Today's chatter with the most entertaining Halloween candy/food story will snag an autographed copy of Diana Kennedy's updated "The Art of Mexican Cooking." (A ring of truth is required.)

We'll announce the winner at the end of the chat. And we're off!

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Washington, DC: I enjoyed the article on election night food. Here in fake America, we are planning a "Real America" election night party with meatloaf, baked mac and cheese, green beans and apple pie.

We are fairly healthy eaters, so we don't have this menu often, but I love to make mac and cheese when I get the chance (especially now that the weather is colder here.) I usually make it with a combination of cheddar and Monterey jack cheeses. I like the flavor, but I was wondering if you had any recommendations for different cheese combinations that would melt well but still have a good flavor.

Jane Black: Glad you liked the story. The Food Section votes for a dish with some nice sharp cheddar. To add some zing, add a dash of tabasco sauce.

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Berkeley, CA: Here's my picks for some election night food.

Lipstick on a pig sandwiches - ham with cranberry chutney. Elitist sandwiches - goat cheese and arugula. Amnesty dip - guacamole. Bill O'Reilly's falafels with rogue nation pita bread. Tim Russert Memorial Buffalo Wings. Pork barrels - bacon wrapped dates. Green Party - veggies and dip. Real Virginia Peanuts. October Surprise - Jamie Oliver's butternut squash cupcakes. Cookies in the shape of various swing states. Yes We Candy.

Hopefully this will inspire some other readers here!

Jane Black: OK. This fits all the qualifications of all the things I usually hate. But at last! Something funny! They sound good. They start conversations. I suggest you get a job in restaurant PR.

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Super Bowl Menu: Sorry, but I don't like your Super Bowl menu. Here's my suggestions: Sloppy Joes, beer, potato chips and dips, beer, potato wedges with sour cream, bacon bits, and cheese topping, beer, chocolate cake, beer, delivered pizza, and beer.

Bonnie Benwick: Easy there, pardner. It's just an exhibition, not a competition. Here's hoping sodium is not an issue for you and your lucky guests.

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Frederick, MD: What is the difference between a Porterhouse and a t-bone steak (if any)?

Bonnie Benwick: Well, Frederick, in the great beef chart scheme of things, they are right next to each other in the short loin region of the cow. A porterhouse runs larger than a T-bone, and has more of the tenderloin in it. Think the p-house costs more per pound, too.

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Chevy Chase, Md.: Good Morning,

For the green chili stew of several weeks ago, where can I find pork butt? I've tried several specialty shops and supermarkets to no avail. Can other pork be substituted?

Bonnie Benwick: Hmmm. It ought to be around, Chevy Chase. It might be labeled as pork shoulder. I've purchased it at the Giant and Safeways in Bethesda. Specialty shops probably wouldn't have it because it's an inexpensive cut. I think a boneless pork loin wouldn't have enough fat in and around it.

Brookville Market has it today! $2.99 per pound.

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Alexandria, VA: I recently got back from Italy (Rome, Siena, and Liguria) and would be perfectly happy eating nothing but authentic Italian food for the rest of my life. Are there any cooking classes and Italian food stores in the area you would recommend so I can satisfy my cravings back home?

Jane Black: I lived in Italy too so I totally understand the withdrawal. I haven't taken any Italian classes here so I can't recommend any particular ones. Chatters, thoughts?

What I can say is that as of late I am loving Mario Batali's Molto Italiano cookbook. Good straightforward recipes for all the things you crave. For stores, I'd recommend the Italian Store in Arlington at 3123 Lee Hwy. The phone number is: 703-528-6266

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Bonnie Benwick: I've got some good news and bad... Spirits columnist Jason Wilson has joined the chat, and washingtonpost.com is experiencing some technical difficulties, so questions posted within the past 10 minutes can't be reached by us just yet.

They're working on it. (The good news is discernible, yes?)

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Dreaming of a well stocked bar: Just have to say I love Jason and his columns (no creepiness intended even so close to Halloween).

On Pisco, a Peruvian brandy that has been usurped by Chile, I've noticed that lower-priced Peruvian brands are getting harder and harder to find (in DC at least) in part a result of what seems to be the Peruvian commerce powers that be heavily promoting two newish brands called Macchu Pisco and La Diablada, which retail for a whopping $38-42. If you know where to find the lower end Peruvian piscos, please tell me! I miss them.

Jason Wilson: Thanks for the love (don't worry, I don't find it creepy). I've seen both Pisco Capel and Barsol around town, and both of those are fairly affordable. On a quick search, both Central Liquors and Schneider's, on their websites, say they have Pisco Capel at $16.99. Virginia ABC says they stock Barsol for under $20, and I've seen it around for less. As with all spirits, you can always ask if your local store can order it for you.

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After Dinner Treat: Hi,

I eat healthy all day, but I find that between dinner and bed that I want something sweet to snack on. Right now I'm indulging that urge with a couple of Oreos or other cookies, which makes me feel like I'm throwing the healthy eating I've done during the day out the window. I was wondering if you could suggest any healthy (non dairy) items that can help me satisfy this urge. I don't mind whipping something up or purchasing as is.

Thanks in advance!

Jane Black: I often turn to dried fruit like apricots. Or a mix of dried fruit and nuts. A little goes a long way. Anyone else?

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Washington, DC: Hi Food Crew,

I'm looking for a bland cookbook. I'm going to a housewarming for a friend who can't stand hot or spicy foods. One drop of hot pepper and she's running for the hills. My solution to college dining hall food was to dump hot sauce on everything, so I'm a bit lost here. Anything out there specifically for the sensitive types?

Jane Black: Wow. That may be the only cookbook I *haven't* seen on the market. (Attention publishers!) If I were buying a present, I might try one of the America's Test Kitchen books like the Family Cookbook or America's Best Recipes. They are not "bland" per se but they tend to steer clear of super spicy dishes.

Bonnie Benwick: You might try Ina Garten's new "Back to Basics." She doesn't really do spicy, and the recipes are easy to follow.

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Gettysburg, PA: As you point out today, few people have food traditions to accompany the watching of election returns as they do when watching sporting events like the Super Bowl. However, we must differ from majority. We do have an election night party and we emphasize traditional American-type cuisine. For example, in the past we have served such dishes as Kentucky Burgoo, New England Clam Chowder, New Orleans Turtle Soup, and a dessert recipe from an old Connecticut cookbook called Election Day Cake. This year we will begin serving food and drink at 6:00 and begin watching the returns at 7:00 and continuing eating and drinking until a decision is reached. The menu will included Deviled Eggs, Bacon-wrapped Scallops, Brunswick Stew, Macaroni and Cheese, Apple Pie. All served with good American beer and wine. Cheers!

Jane Black: Good for you. I approve of your emphasis on the historical without veering into the cheesy. Not that you needed my approval. That said, I think we can all agree you have passed the "pro-American" test.

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Dupont Circle: Hi Rangers, I won't be able to chat live because of a meeting, but hopefully you'll be able to help save my meal. Your pressure cooker carnitas were a huge hit in my house last winter and I'd like to make them again on Sunday. The thing is, I'd rather not eat them with my hands like a taco. Can you recomment any side dishes to serve with the meat? I was thinking maybe an avocado salad and/or a slaw (not even sure how to make this!), but I'm at a loss because it would be great to have at least one hot side to go with them. Thank you!!

Bonnie Benwick: This is lovely. You can prep the vegetables in advance and wilt the cabbage just before serving. Avocado's a good call...maybe the avocado cream in today's pulled pork recipe might be a nice option. Maybe a cornbread with jalapeno might be good, too.

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Washington, DC: What is your opinion re: crockpots? I've never owned one, but am considering buying one for winter stews, etc. I'm usually cooking for 2. Can you advise re: how well it cooks, best size, features? Thank you.

Bonnie Benwick: Chatters can certainly help you here. I've used them for testing recipes but frankly don't have the storage space to keep one on hand at home. Judging from questions we get, you'd have to be comfortable with leaving an appliance plugged in/turned on while you're asleep or not at home.

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Fairfax, VA: I can't seem to be able to make cheese sauces, especially Alfredo (which my significant other loves) so lately I have been guilty of buying it from jars. I make a killer marinara sauce and would like to be able to do the same for Alfredo. Do you have a good, true no-fail recipe?

Love the section today btw, especially Jane's piece.

Thanks

Jane Black: I don't have a recipe I use but went through a couple of recipe books in our collection. Since it's really an American dish -- some believe it was invented in Rome for homesick Americans -- it isn't in most Italian cookbooks we have.

I did find one in the Molto Italiano cookbook I just recommended and it is the easiest thing I've seen. No cream, just butter and parmesan. I'm not sure it's the "real" deal but you or anyone can make it.

Fettuccine Alfredo

Serves 4

From Molto Italiano by Mario Batali

1 1/4 fettucine

8 tablespoons unsalted butter cut into 1/8 inch dice

1/4 cup freshly grated parmigiano reggiano

salt and freshly ground pepper

Bring six quarts of water to a boil in a large pot and add 2 tablespoons salt. Cook the fettucine until tender. Drain, reserving about 1/4 cup of the pasta water. Place in a large warmed bowl.

Add the butter and parmigiano and toss until the butter and cheese have melted, adding a spalash or two of the cooking water if necessary to loosen the sauce. Season with salt and pepper to taste and serve immediately.

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1 potato, sweet potato: Hi Crew, Love the sections and the chats, keep up the great work! I have a bunch of sweet potatoes and was wondering if you have a soup or stew recipe (dairy free if possible) that you recommend? I love them roasted, but looking for new ways to enjoy my sweets!

Bonnie Benwick: Why, if I didn't know better, I'd say editor Joe put you up to that. I'll post a few links to recipes I like. But be on the lookout for his upcoming Cooking for One feature in which he loads toppings on baked sweet pots. The recipes look fab. Broiled Sweet Potato and Turkey Salad, Hot and Sticky Vegetable Stir-Fry With Honey and Ginger, Louisiana Chicken and Sweet Potato Hash, Sweet Potato and Grits Spoonbread. (If I had to choose, that last one's my favorite.)

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Centreville, VA: Part question, part suggestion: I'd love to see a feature sometime soon on slow-cooking. It's perfect for this time of year and, given the economy, also seems appropriate since it generally makes the most of less expensive ingredients. Bonus points for those that also freeze well. That being said - any suggestions for favorite resources or "not-your-mother's" style recipes? I love to cook loads over the weekends to freeze for later but am getting tired of my usual suspects. Thanks - love the Food section!

Bonnie Benwick: Jane's not interested in bonus points, but what the heck, I'll bite. We'll see what we can drum up for wintertime; thanks for your suggestion. Meanwhile, you can find 10 nifty slow-cooker recipes when you search on washingtonpost.com/recipes and type SLOW COOKER in the search field.

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Charlotte, NC: I have a soup question. I love homemade soup--but since it's just me and my hubby, we always end up with more than we can eat before we get sick of it. Can you freeze soups? Does it only work on broth based (as opposed to cream based soups)? Do I need to use special containers or know anything in particular? How long can will they keep in the freezer? I'd love to make two types of soup over a weekend--be able to freeze half of each for later in the winter (we're expecting a baby so I'm all about preparing good homemade food before that happens!) and then eat the rest.

And do you guys have any fool proof recipes? I've got a killer beef veggie (or just veggie depending on my mood) and a pretty decent potato soup that I'm working on fixing up. I'd really love a great cream of mushroom soup...broccoli cheddar (with cauliflower if possible)...you get the idea. Thanks!!!

Jane Black: Broth based soups definitely freeze better. Cream and milk tends to separate in the freezer. When you freeze soup, as with anything, you want to get as much air out of the container as possible to avoid freezer burn. So make sure your plastic containers have a tight seal and you fill them up. You can also use ziplock bags.

As for recipes, here's one from the new Cook's Country cookbook for creamy broccoli and cheddar soup. It recommends storing it for 3 days max in the fridge.

Serves 6

3 tbsp unsalted butter

1 large onion, chopped

2 garlic cloves, chopped

1-1/2 pounds broccoli , stalks peeled and cut into 1/2 inch slices, florets chopped into 1/2 inch pieces

4 cups low sodium chicken broth

1 cup heavy cream

1/4 cup heavy cream

1/4 tsp ground nutmeg

3 cups shredded milk cheddar cheese plus extra for garnish

salt

cayenne pepper

1. Melt the butter in a large pot over medium heat. Add the onion and cook until soft, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add the broccoli stalks and cook until bright green and just beginning to soften, about 5 minutes. Stir in the broth, increase the heat to medium high and simmer until the stalks are tnder, about 5 minutes. Add the florets, cream and nutmeg and simmer until the florets are tender, about 5 minutes.

2. Puree the soup in two batches in a blender until smooth. Return to the pot and bring to a simmer over medium heat. Stir in the cheese until melted and season with salt and cayenne. Serve garnished with extra cheese.

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Mt Pleasant: I am cooking my first turkey for Thanksgiving at my boyfriend's family's house in CT. I'm doing a practice run this weekend and it looks pretty simple, a dry rub and stuffing with some intermittent basting. Any tips though on what to avoid or secret hints for an amazing turkey?

Bonnie Benwick: Don't worry! Think of it as a big chicken. The basting will make it look nice, but doesn't do that much for the meat.

* Start with a fresh turkey, preferably local.

* Use a brine, wet or dry (we'll have lots of info on this in our Thanksgiving issues, Nov. 19 and 23).

* Placing aromatics or a flavored compound butter between the skin and breast meat is a good thing to do.

* Tent the breast meat near the end of roasting to keep it from overcooking.

Chatters, give Mt. Pleasant the benefit of your experience...

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Arlington, Va.: Can you suggest any good cookbooks for novice cooks? Or any older, quality cookbooks -- from consignment shops perhaps?

Thanks!

washingtonpost.com: I like Learning to Cook by Marion Cunningham. Lots of good pictures and basic recipes. - Elizabeth

Jane Black: And the Joy of Cooking is always good. You see old editions of that around in used bookstores a lot.

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Greenbelt, Md.: I've heard good things about pomegranate molasses vinaigrette. Does anyone know the recipe?

Jane Black: There's isn't a recipe per se. You just use the molasses as an acid/binder, the same way you would mustard for example. I did give someone a recipe on the chat not long ago for a pomegranate-hazelnut vinaigrette from a Suzanne Goin cookbook. Here it is again.

1 tablespoon finely chopped shallots

3 tablespoons fresh pomegranate juice

1 tablespoon sherry vinegar

2 teaspoons rice vinegar

3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

Coarse salt to taste

1 tablespoon hazelnut oil

In a small bowl, combine chopped shallots, pomegranate juice, sherry and rice vinegars, and salt; let stand 5 minutes. Whisk in olive oil and remaining 1 tablespoon hazelnut oil.

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pumpkin bread: I made Ev's pumpkin bread and it was just glorious. I didn't have (3) 8x4 loaf pans, so I used a tube pan, but the pumpkin bread took something like 60-70 minutes, instead of the 30 minutes in the recipe, still using 350 degrees. Does that sound right to you?

Bonnie Benwick: If it worked, we're all for it.

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Alexandria, VA: RE: Italian cooking classes - Roberto Donna offers classes at Bebo. Haven't taken one myself so I can't vouch for what they're like, but he's a very talented chef.(http://www.robertodonna.com/events/cooking.php)

Jane Black: Here's one suggestion.

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pork butts and other parts: For the pork butt shopper just a caveat. Do look for pork shoulder in the fresh meat section. Do not confuse this with smoked pork butts. Those (at least here) come in a red wrapper near the hams, and are superb for boiled dinners, but are not what I think you are looking for in this context. The labeling gets confusing.

If I am looking for a specific cut for a recipe, I've learned to check before I shop. I consult the front of Good Housekeeping, Betty Crocker or another "staples" cookbook (can I mention Bittman's How to Cook Everything on a WaPo site? Love you guys, but this book is really helpful.) These books have drawings and descriptions of what the cuts are, and what the alternate names are.

Just my 2 cents.

Bonnie Benwick: We hear you. The little Field Guide to Meat by Aliza Green's easy to carry to the store, too.

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Arlington, VA S: I like Diana Kennedy, having inherited one of her books from my parents (I don't recall the title, but it is an older one). It's inspired me to make corn and flour tortillas from scratch, many of the salsas, almost all of the bean recipes, and adaptations of a few others.

The adaptations are because I'm a vegetarian. For flavor purposes, I substitute a blend of unrefined (the dark stuff) peanut oil and olive oil for lard. Given her joy for flavor and authenticity, I wouldn't be surprised to hear that she has a bit of the disdain that Anthony Bourdain has for vegetarians. However, if you have any information on what she feels are good vegetarian substitues in some of her reciepes I'd be thrilled. I'm pleased that you published a vegetarian recipe (adapted?) from one of her cookbooks today!

Bonnie Benwick: She has no obvious disdain for vegetarians, but she does feel strongly about using pork lard in tamales. Hope you try that fried pumpkin recipe, which really isn't fried at all -- more of a saute. And I could even see improvising the pumpkin seed sauce, using a vegetable broth and throwing roasted or sauteed vegetables in there instead of the shrimp. It was just so creamy and tasty.

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Petworth: The America's Test Kitchen cookbooks are indeed perfectly and stunningly boringly bland.

For more interesting not spicy food, perhaps a German cookbook? Or classic French? Or for that matter, many styles of other cuisines. Not-pepper and bland are two different things. Which one are you really looking for?

Bonnie Benwick: Bland cookbook chatter, come back at us.

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wine: Just a shoutout to the Oakencroft Winery in Charlottesville. We just learned, quite by fluke, that they are closing at year's end. As fans of some of their wines, we were bummed to hear this. We ordered a case (we live WAY out of state, and stumbled on Oakencroft in search of a Virginia winery with Jeffersonian ties, however loose.)

Now, I guess we'll have to explore anew...

Jane Black: Thanks for the update. Any particular bottle you'd recommend so the rest of us can partake before it disappears?

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Alexandria: I need a new roasting pan. Any suggestions for the ultimate (though reasonably) priced roasting pan? Every time I shop for one I get immediately overwhelmed!

Bonnie Benwick: Well, I've tested a lot of recipes using an enameled Kitchen Aid roasting pan, which came with a stainless-steel rack insert. I think the price is pretty reasonable. But if you're in a position to invest, a heavy-duty one like a Le Creuset pan with raised handles and nonstick rack insert would be a one-time purchase that would serve you right.

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Mac Cheeses: I made one the other day (a Martha Stewart recipe by way of smittenkitchen) that called for sharp cheddar and gruyere. Very tasty. Extremely healthy, as well...

Jane Black: We were just talking about gruyere here. I really like the flavor but Bonnie, our recipe goddess, worries that it gives mac and cheese a stringy consistency. Did you have that problem? Just something to think about.

Bonnie Benwick: Ha!

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re:pressure cooker carnitas: Serve them up a la Chipotle's burrito bowl - mix the carnitas with any or all of the following: rice/beans/salsa/cheese/lettuce/guac.

Bonnie Benwick: Such inspiration!

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Alexandria, VA: Bland cookbook - I don't know, if you could get a hold of a 70's or earlier vintage Betty Crocker cookbook I'd say that would probably do the trick (and yes, I have one, though I too love spicy food and use it pretty sparingly).

Jane Black: So do we think that bland food is 1950s food? Is that what's going on? I mean Italian food isn't always spicy. Or French or pretty much any cuisine that isn't really focused on chilis. On reflection, what I really think is that you should get a cookbook of things she would like and have her pick and choose or simply leave out chilis where appropriate.

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Alexandria, Va.: Bonnie, do you know what Diana Kennedy's take on mole would be? I once had a Mexican dinner cooked for me by my freshman year college roommate (this was in 1965 when she was by then married) who said a Mexican meal is not complete without the use of mole.

Bonnie Benwick: Briefly, I think Diana has written that moles are cooked sauces that can be made many ways, depending on the region of Mexico.

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Bonnie Benwick: WPNI is back! And the Halloween stories have poured in.

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Kansas City, Mo.: While based in Kansas City in 1968 through 1972 for a traveling job, I knew I wouldn't have time to shop before the start of a Singles group Halloween party. I went to a nearby grocery store in Fargo, ND and bought two cans of pork and beans, then flew home. While the beans simmered I needed to give quick thought to a costume. Spotting my crepe paper "yellow rose of Texas" on a long green stick (stem) that I had brought back from San Antonio, I grabbed a yellow sheet and instead of going as a ghost went as the yellow rose of Texas.

Bonnie Benwick: No. 1, submitted for your approval.

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Arlington, Va.: Pat turkey dry. A dry bird leads to crisp skin. Since you are cooking the bird in a foreign stove watch things carefully. Try to find a bird you have to order, not just brand name. Free range, organic is worth the price difference, and make sure it's a Tom. Going from fridge to oven is never a good idea.

Bonnie Benwick: Here's some good turkey advice for the novice T-giving chatter.

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Falls Church: I've just been asked to contribute something (not dessert) to a work potluck, and I'm feeling very uninspired. What have you had lately that would go with a potluck format?

Jane Black: Most of our election night recipes will work for that. I'm a fan of the chunky butternut squash salsa.

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Halloween Treats: In my house, as in many others I imagine, one of the great traditions that went along with Halloween was finding Mom's candy stash. We were quite sneaky about, and let's just say that Mom was never all that imaginative or good at finding decent hiding places. (It continues to this day. Looking for those candies she's hiding from us to put out on Thanksgiving? Why, they're at the back of the 2nd shelf of the kitchen cabinet to the left of the stove, natch!) One year, the cache of goodies included a bag of Reese's PB cups (singles). We must have been feeling particularly devious that year, because we carefully unwrapped each candy, eased the cup out of the paper and replaced the wrapping (PB cups are particularly well-suited for this, as we had tried it before with other types with only limited success). When Mom went to retrieve the seemingly pristine bag of treats on October 31, she found a bag full of empty wrappers. Mwahahaha!

Bonnie Benwick: No. 2, with an evil laugh as the kicker.

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Oxford, UK: Here's a sweet potato recipe from a cookbook I just bought. It's from Leon, which is a great restaurant in London. I have eaten these at the restaurant and they are really good and healthy, not being fried.

Sweet Potato Falafel: 2 med sweet potatoes (about 700 grams), 1 1/2 t ground cumin, 2 small cloves garlic chopped, 1 1/2 t ground coriander, 2 handfuls cilantro chopped, juice of 1/2 lemon, 120g gram flour, dash olive oil, sesame seeds, s&p

Roast potatoes whole until tender. Cool, peel, and mash. Add all other ingredients except sesame seeds and oil, taste and adjust seasonings. You should have a smooth mixture with no chunks. Put in fridge to firm up for an hour or so. When you take it out, it should be sticky rather than really wet. Add more gram flour if necessary.

Heat oven to 400. Using a couple of spoons or a scoop, make mixture into falafel-ly looking things and put on oiled baking sheet. Sprinkle with sesame seeds and bake for about 15 min until bases are golden brown.

Makes about 18 falafel.

Bonnie Benwick: One person's falafel is another's croquette.

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Re: Something sweet: As long as you don't go overboard there's nothing wrong with indulging in a small treat. In Growing Up on the Chocolate Diet, Lora Brody recommends getting the best chocolate you can afford and eat just one piece. And while you're eating it, concetrate on enjoying it, don't let other things like the T.V. distract you.

This trick works for me, I find I'm much more satisfied with a small piece of very good chocolate instead of mindlessly scarfing a pounder bag of M&M's.

Jane Black: Very good advice. It's the mindlessness that makes us eat more rather than the need for a big portion of sweets.

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Richmond: Is this considered declasse by foodies? I've had good luck cooking turkey in one of those cooking bags; keeps it moist.

Bonnie Benwick: The skin can stick to those bags, and with the advent of brining, I guess we've moved on.

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Arlington, VA: I've been wondering lately if people still give out baked goods on Halloween??? I recall fondly my mom making caramel apples, iced cut-out sugar cookies, and other goodies for trick-or-treaters. I know kids looked forward to coming to my mom's house, too, because of those treats.

I would love to do the same...but sadly, I suspect I should stick to packaged candies. Thoughts?

Bonnie Benwick: If the kids know you in the 'hood, it might be okay. We live in a different world...

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Arlington, VA: I made some great pumpkin cheesecake tarts this weekend but now I have about half a big can of pumpkin left (the store only had the big cans, not the regular ones) I could always just make a pumpkin pie, but do you have any other ideas on what to make with it? Something festive?

Jane Black: Here's one of Bonnie's great "dinner in minutes" of pasta with creamy pumpkin sauce.

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crock pots: I got one a few years ago and do use it, though perhaps not as often as I could. Features to look for would probably include - more than one heat setting, oval size to accomodate roasts, removable dishwasher safe insert, close-sealing lid. I think Rival is considered a respectable brand. I use mine to cook for two and generally make the full recipe (6-8 servings) and freeze other servings for future dinners or lunches. Mine doesn't have a timer, but I plug it into a timer in the outlet so I don't have to worry if I'm not around. Generally speaking a little extra cooking time usually isn't a problem.

Bonnie Benwick: Slow cooker advice, thanks.

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Boulder, CO: Does Jason have any good drink recipes/suggestions for both Halloween & Election night?

Jason Wilson:

For the election, you could try El Presidente:

Ice

1 1/2 oz. rum

1/4 oz. Cointreau

1/4 oz. dry vermouth

1 dash of grenadine

Stir with ice in a mixing glass, then strain into a cocktail glass.

Garnish with the Audacity of Hope?

Jason Wilson: As for Halloween:

How about a Green Ghost?

Ice

1 1/2 oz. gin

1/2 oz. green Chartreuse

1/2 oz. lime juice

Shake well, then strain into a cocktail glass.

On second thought, this is a pretty strong one. It would work if you happen to be on the losing side on Election night, too.

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Arlington, VA: I am not sure Mario Batali's Alfredo recipe will work with just any old butter. Major brand butter doesn't have the butterfat content to make an Alfredo sauce. I thought this was common knowledge. Some French butters come close but you really need something approaching the butter used in Rome with its high fat content or you have to add heavy cream. I know from experience.

Jane Black: Very interesting point. I hadn't thought about it. You can buy European-style butter, which has a higher fat content. There is a whole selection of them at stores such as Whole Foods. I believe that KerryGold butter has a high fat content too but I didn't see exactly what it was advertised on their Web site. I guess most people don't want to know...

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Tamales: No Halloween candy story but before you give the book away, would you consider posting from it a recipe for Mexican tamales? It's for a Day-of-the-Dead dinner (Nov. 1). Pretty please?

Bonnie Benwick: Loooong. Send us your email to food@washpost.com and we'll reply with the goods. Pork or squash blossom?

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Jeffersonian Wine: Dave Mc here - the chatter seeking wine with Jeffersonian ties should seek out Barboursville. The winery is on the grounds of a mansion that TJ designed for James Barbour, an early VA governor. The mansion was destroyed by fire in the 1880s but the ruins are still there and appear on the wines' labels. Their flagship wine is called Octagon, after the shape TJ used in his domes at Barboursville and Monticello. The winery is Italian-owned (TJ had an Italian viticulturist) and winemaker Luca Paschina has put up an exhibit to Jefferson's winemaking attempts in the Octagon barrel room. As one of Virginia's biggest wineries, Barboursville gets pretty good distribution as well.

Another possibility is Jefferson Vineyards, located adjacent to Monticello (and perhaps even on land TJ once owned, I'm not sure). They use Jefferson's signature as the label on some of their top bottlings.

Both of these wineries may be able to ship to the out-of-state chatter, depending on where he/she lives.

Bonnie Benwick: Here's our Dave.

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Annandale: When I was growing up in real America, mac and cheese was only made with Velveeta.

Any ideas on what to do with the premade polenta? I've fried it in olive oil but it seems like at a restaurant I had it where it was creamier (and perhaps included cheese). I didn't find many choices on your recipe finder.

Jane Black: For the record, I really think homemade polenta is better. It's also far cheaper and so easy to make. That said, you can grill the premade stuff and top it with seasonal vegetables and cheese (tomatoes/mozz in summer; butternut squash, sage and goat cheese in fall etc). I've also heard of folks lining the whole bottom of a casserole with it and making "polenta pie." Again, top it with anything including taco meat, salsa, black beans etc.

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Washington, DC: Thanks for your article about VegDC.com and Java Green. I use VegDC.com a lot, especially when entertaining out-of-town guests who want to know where we can all eat. I wanted to mention Compassion Over Killing also has free recipes online http://www.cok.net/lit/recipes/if you want to stay in instead. They are a great resource for all things veg -- both the hows and the whys. I use them all the time.

Bonnie Benwick: You're welcome.

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Gruyere in Mac & Cheese and an Alcohol Question: It didn't lead to stringiness in this recipe, but I could see where you might be worried about it. The flavors were really excellent, though (with a smidge of nutmeg).

On a different topic, how long does opened hard alcohol last in a dark, fairly climate-controlled liquor cabinet? Liqueurs vs. others? We don't drink a ton of hard alcohol, so want to make sure we're not letting it sit too long.

Jason Wilson:

It depends. The common wisdom is that most opened spirits of 80 proof and higher can last in your liquor cabinet for many years, as long as they're recapped. Even some lower-proof liqueurs will last for years. Opened creme liqueurs, however, I'd be a little careful of. If you haven't had a drink of the creme liqueur for a few years, I'd approach that with care. And, of course, vermouth, sherry, and other wine-based apertivi should be kept in the fridge and should never be kept opened for more than a month.

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Chevy Chase, Md.: Dear Rangers, Anyone ever make turkey gravy ahead of time and freeze it? I'm an experienced cook but the gravy making step is one I'd love to get done ahead of time for my family's Thanksgiving dinner this year. I thought about browning turkey wings and necks and proceeding from there with stock, etc. Is this feasible? A cook in Chevy Chase

Bonnie Benwick: It is feasible. If you have a roux-ish recipe, just leave out the drippings. On the big day, boil the gravy base and reduce it to the consistency you want, then add drippings or turkey juices.

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Gravy Making Question : This is a question I have had for quite a while.

There are two methods of making gravy - slurry and roux - that come to mind and I don't know which is better.

1. Gravy can be made by stirring flour into the hot fat to create a roux, then the liquid into that; cook and stir until thickened.

2. Gravy can be made by making a flour and cold liquid slurry, then blending it into the drippings; cook and stir until thickened.

The slurry method is easier but the roux method is more often recommended. It's easier to make a low fat gravy with the slurry method. Is there any difference in the results?

Thanks for clearing this up in time for the holidays.

Bonnie Benwick: I'm in the roux camp, because the taste of the flour gets cooked off and frankly, I find there's better control of how thick/thin the gravy can be. If low-fat is a goal, maybe you should replace the drippings with just the juices of the turkey instead (defatted drippings). Add white wine, herbs and/or a poultry stock or broth for more flavor.

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Gettysburg PA: Do you know where I can buy duck fat in the DC area? I need about 2 pounds; I'm not sure how much that is in volume. Thanks for your help.

Bonnie Benwick: Tit for tat...you must tell us what you'll be doing with it.

If you call Mel at Market Poultry (202-543-7470) in the Eastern Market, he'll start putting aside fat from their fresh ducks. It may take a week or two, he said. Best to call and order from him directly.

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Cranberry Pie Help?: I've made this pie 3 times. First time, it took all night to set, but was gorgeous. Second time, it didn't set at all and we had crusts full of a lovely soup. Third time, it set in the pan on the stove, and was like rubber in the crust. As far as I know, I followed the directions each time. So, what's up? How do I get this back to delicious, gorgeous, and beautifully textured? (NB: I used the same box of cornstarch all three times that month.)

I'm pasting in the relevant parts of the recipe in case that helps:

Cranberry Meringue Pie - supposedly a Martha Stewart recipe.

If you can't find blood oranges, use regular ones for the zest and juice.

3 1/4 cups fresh cranberries (12 ounces) 1 1/2 cups sugar 1 1/2 teaspoons finely chopped blood orange zest, plus 1/4 cup blood orange juice 1/4 teaspoon salt 1/8 teaspoon ground cinnamon pinch of ground cloves 3 tablespoons cornstarch 3 large egg whites Pinch of cream of tartar

(pie crust directions, then:)

3. Bring 2 cups cranberries, 1 cup sugar, and 1 1/2 cups water to a boil in a medium saucepan. Reduce heat, and simmer mixture, stirring occasionally, until cranberries have burst, about 5 minutes. Pour through a coarse sieve, then a fine sieve; discard solids. (You should have about 1 3/4 cups; if you have less, add water).

4. Bring strained cranberry juice, 1/4 cup sugar, the zests, salt, cinnamon, cloves, and remaining 1 1/4 cups cranberries to a boil in a medium saucepan, stirring occasionally. Reduce heat; simmer, stirring occasionally, until cranberries are soft but have not burst, about 3 minutes.

5. Meanwhile, stir cornstarch, blood orange juice, and 1/4 cup water in a bowl; whisk into cranberry mixture. Bring to a boil, stirring constantly. Cook, stirring, until translucent, about 1 minute. Divide among prepared shells. Refrigerate until set, about 1 hour (up to overnight).

That first time it was so wonderful, I'd like to be able to rely on this recipe.

Thanks!

Bonnie Benwick: We're a bit stumped, CP. Seems like the filling should set up right away; the refrigeration may have more to do with helping it remain gelled when the meringue is applied and sent to the broiler. The mixture shouldn't be soupy going into the shells.

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Tysons: Another resource for Italian cooking may be this magazine. My mother says that the Italian version of this magazine is great. This link is to their US version website. I'm pretty sure it is also available in a few Italian food stores, too. I recently gave someone a subscription but I haven't heard any feedback, yet.

lacucinaitalianamagazine.com

Bonnie Benwick: Thanks. We've seen it at Whole Foods and Balducci's.

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Boulder, Colo.: Speaking of having leftover pumpkin... I made the Pasta with Creamy Pumpkin Sauce last week for dinner. It wasn't our favorite. Now I have a cup of leftover pumpkin - any other suggestions?

Bonnie Benwick: Insert sad face here. Add it to a chili recipe, a muffin recipe, a soup recipe.

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freezing soups: I've found some creamy soups that aren't too high a proportion of cream freeze okay just reheat very slowly and carefully on the stovetop, stirring frequently, to prevention separation.

Also a tip on freezing soups in rigid containers: you can help keep freezer burn away by pressing a sheet of plastic wrap into the surface of the soup and continuing the wrap down the outside sides of the container (then put the lid on securely). The "protected" surface will keep a bit better (true for freezing anything, not just soups).

Jane Black: More helpful hints!

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Houston, TX: I liked the election food article. Last election, my friend set up a taco bar. It was easy and by offering beef and beans you can satisfy vegetarian friends as well. Ofcourse, while we were engrossed watching the results, my 2-year old decided for forego the taco for the cat food, but that's a different story altogether.

Jane Black: Some might say the menu offends any Democrats you invited. (Why not clam chowdah?) But I think it's a fun, very versatile idea. (Minus the cat food.)

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DC re Diana Kennedy: Thank you so much for the article about Diana Kennedy, the two recipes (more, please?), and for reminding me that she's in town.

I'd much appreciate her opinion, and in her absence yours, on the following:

Is it possible to recreate exactly the taste of food in Mexico if one is working with ingredients grown in the US -- or grown for the US market?

I lived in Mexico for many years and continue to visit there. The only times food here in the eastern US has tasted completely the same to me, even when following Ms. Kennedy's recipes exactly, is when I've dined at the Mexican Embassy, where I assume they fly in at least some of the ingredients.

I am thrilled that Ms. Kennedy is teaching some local chefs how to prepare Mexican food correctly, and I will be dining at Oyamel when I can afford to as another way of getting my question answered.

Thank you!

Bonnie Benwick: Well, I'd say that since she felt compelled to bring her own foodstuffs, she might say it's more challenging to re-create the true taste with ingredients here. That said, she's found more variety in the local Latin markets.

She finds many products here are sweetened in ways she doesn't approve of, and that includes fruits and vegetables raised that way!

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Butternut squash cupcakes??????: OMG. Do you have the recipe, or can you tell me where to look. They sound AMAZING!

Jane Black: Time is running out but if the chatter who recommended these is still out there, help a brother out.

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Survey: What's your favorite type of pie?

washingtonpost.com: Cherry! - Elizabeth

Jane Black: Blueberry. Or Peach. Or Blueberry Peach. (No wonder pollsters have such trouble...)

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carrot and corn muffins: Hi, I know baking is way more precise than cooking so I shouldn't have made any "minor" changes, but I did, and it was a bad move. I tried to make the carrot and corn muffins, which seemed so yummy. I used mostly wheat flour in place of the regular flour (about 4:1), and made them in a pan rather than in muffin tins. They were super oily. That one cup seemed like a ton when I was making them, but I wanted to follow instructions and used it anyway. Could I have used less oil? Is it just not a recipe suited to a full pan? Does using wheat flour not soak up oil as well? Thanks very much for any tips.

Leigh Lambert: My guess would be the same as yours. Whole wheat flour acts very differently from standard flour. It doesn't have as much gluten in it for starters, which may effect the absorption of oil - not sure. Any reason you wouldn't just use the flour called for and save the healthy tendencies for another recipe?

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Ohio: Suggestion for the person who would like to freeze soups. Potatoes get a little nasty when frozen in soup, so if you can leave those out of the portion you plan to freeze, they can always be added when you thaw it for use later.

Jane Black: And another good trick.

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Baltimore, Md.: For the question about slow cookers. I'm single and have two, one 6 quart size and a 2 quart size. I use each one fairly frequently. Having dinner (and lunch for the next several days) ready when I come home is great. My brother had a problem with leaving it plugged in all day while we were at work. I plugged it into a power strip, so no worries.

I've cooked pork chops, pot roast, chicken, and vegan chili with good results. If I'm not feeling very inspired I just cut up veggies like carrots, celery and onion and place them in the insert with a little broth and the meat of choice. Comes out delicious with little effort.

I'm debating something with turkey now that Thanksgiving is looming.

Bonnie Benwick: Helpful.

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Arlington, VA: I cooked a turkey on a Weber charcoal grill a couple of years ago following the instructions that came in the manual and it was fantastic and surprisingly easy.

Bonnie Benwick: And saved stove space, I bet.

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Halloween Story: My last year trick-or-treating proved to be a big scare! I'm 31 years old now, but I can still remember the night like it was yesterday. I was on the last leg of my neighborhood walk with my best friend. We heard some other people behind us, but did not realize we were in for an attempted candy knapping! Two older boys ran in front of us and tried to snatch my well deserved treats. I held onto my plastic Giant bag for dear life and watched as all my candy flew into the air. The boys ran off and I gathered up my candy in my arms and booked it home.

Bonnie Benwick: No. 3, just under the wire.

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Pleasepleaseplease I want that book!!!: True story, if not in the best of taste, as it were ...

When I was in my first year of college, I lived on the bucolic campus several miles outside the nearest city. The student center was on the far side of the quad from my room, and it had the only junk food vending machine for miles around.

I was much too pure and organic back then to eat such things, much less keep them in my room. Indeed, I kept no food in my room and took all my meals in the student cafeteria where I mostly consumed raw vegetables.

In light of our geographic isolation from the locals, to whom we disparagingly referred as "townies" and who were none too fond of us either (reports in the local newspaper treated us about as favorably as the McCain campaign treats Obama), and given our immersion in elite cultural, philosophic, academic and scientific pursuits, it didn't occur to me that anyone would show up trick-or-treating on Halloween. Much less a small group of adult-size local teenagers who -- it seemed to me -- didn't need costumes to look ready for a rumble scene a la "West Side Story." They even had packs of cigarettes in their rolled-up t-shirt sleeves.

Did I mention that the only violent crime on campus that we ever heard about allegedly was perpetrated by local young men who supposedly had some sort of rite of passage that involved inflicting bodily harm on us?

So when the knock on the door came, and I found myself face-to-face with surly teenagers high on something other than life who stuck out sacks into which I could deposit some sort of treat if I did not want to find out what sort of trick they might otherwise be prepared to play on me, and being a rather runty, wimpy, and obliging sort myself, I gave them the only candy-like item I had in my room: Individually-wrapped squares of chocolate-flavored Ex-Lax from my first-aid kit.

That's Ex-Lax as in extra-laxative.

Luckily for me, my visitors didn't realize at the time what it was I had given them, and by the time they figured it out (if they ever did) they probably didn't remember which room they had gotten it from. Or perhaps they simply couldn't stay out of the bathroom long enough to come back and "thank" me.

But allow me now to give a very belated shout-out to the makers of Ex-Lax for getting me out of what might have been deep ... you know.

Bonnie Benwick: No. 4, I think you've got the edge.

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Cognac and Brandy: What cognac or brandy would you recommend for limited drinking and mostly cooking? i.e., something drinkable, but nothing so refined you'd feel a little nuts to heat it up and bury it in, say, pie?

Jason Wilson:

I'd go for Pierre Ferrand 1er Cru, which you can usually find for around $30 or under. This works for all purposes, sipping, cocktails, and you wouldn't feel bad cooking with it either.

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Day of the Dead party: I was the chatter that asked about Day of the Dead party recipes a couple of weeks ago. The shrimp looks good, but I was hoping for more ideas and recipes! What about a nice Sangria recipe? Also any other finger foods I can make relatively easy? (I don't want to chance making tamales for the first time before a party.) Also thoughts on cookies or cupcakes to round out things? Thanks!

Jane Black: Sounds like you need a Diana Kennedy cookbook. Here's a sangria recipe to start you out.

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Me Again: My caramels turned out almost like fudge. (Still mighty tasty.) Is it just a question of the temperature/stage I cooked it to?

Bonnie Benwick: We asked Nancy Baggett: If the recipe has been made before and it came out like caramels, but this time came out like fudge, it is likely a combination of two things: The mixture was cooked to too high a temp and more importantly it was stirred too much, which caused the sugar to crystallize and form fudge. Fudge is in fact precisely that--a caramel formulation that is cooked and stirred until it crystallizes and sets. If the recipe has never been used before, it may be that it doesn't have enough corn syrup, which actually helps prevent the mixture from crystallizing even if it is agitated too much. Even though fudge does crystallize, the key is for the sugar crystals to be so fine they are not detectable on the tongue--otherwise you've got a gritty fudge.

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Bonnie Benwick: Yikes, stripes. We're out of time. Halloween story No. 4, the long involved and mea culpa involving Ex-Lax, you win. Remember to send your email info to food@washpost.com.

Sorry we couldnt get to more of your q's today. You will NOT want to miss next week, as we're revealing more than anyone needs to know concerning Cupcake Wars! Charts, graphs, and, of course, the winners and revelations about the process.

Until then, as Joe might say, happy cooking, eating and....

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