Free Range on Food: Desserts for One, Caring for a Wok, Uses for Leftover Pickle Juice, Storing Chipotles and more

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The Food Section
of the Washington Post
Wednesday, February 25, 2009; 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.

A transcript follows.

Transcripts of past chats

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Joe Yonan: Greetings, Nation, and welcome to Free Range. Hope you're having a hungry day so far and have come to the chat with lots of delicious questions -- and answers, as the case may be.

We're here to serve. What'll it be?

Oh, before I forget: We'll have giveaways for our favorite posts: Debby Maugans' "Small-Batch Baking" and Melanie Barnard's "Panini."

And please stay tuned after this chat, because we'll have a chat by "Top Chef" finale-ist Carla Hall, at 2 p.m.

Joe Yonan: This just in (I love breaking food news): We'll be joined in a few minutes by Debby Maugans, so she can help me handle any baking-for-one q's...

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Boulder, Colo.: So tonight is the Top Chef finale and I'm torn between rooting for Carla, from my hometown of DC, or Hosea, from my new town of Boulder. I'm very happy to see them both make it this far. Just curious, have you all or any chatters used Carla's catering company? I believe it's Alchemy Catering. If so, did you taste the love?!

washingtonpost.com: Carla herself will be chatting directly after this chat. I say, GO Carla! - Elizabeth

Bonnie Benwick: I have definitely tasted the love. I've had her stuff at 2 events; she's also a whiz at creating nice-looking displays. And she put together a picnic for a Food section feature last July. Our lovely host will provide the link...

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washingtonpost.com: The Picnic Spread (Post Food Section, July 2, 2008)

Joe Yonan: yum!

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San Jose, CA: A political foodie question...

In her report on President Obama's state dinner for governors on Sunday, your colleague The Sleuth mentioned one of the first lady's favorites - a no-cream creamed spinach. The report also linked to a separate post that described the recipe briefly:

"Sauteed spinach, olive oil and shallots last minute whipped into a puree"

Does that sound right? I've had to cut out dairy, but used to love creamed spinach, so I wonder if this might do the trick!

Bonnie Benwick: It sounds possible, but a lot of the time non-dairy creamed spinach recipes will call for soy yogurt or building a roux of some kind. Maybe if there's pureed garlic and an immersion blender's used, the oil would emulsify and the spinach would be thickened. Chatters?

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Souped up: I have a slightly different problem for you. I made split pea soup and it's really, really bland, probably because all it has in it are some onion, little garlic and s & p. What can I now add to it to jazz it up? My husband votes for a big hunk of sausage, but it seems like I could do something better than that.

Bonnie Benwick: Too late for a hambone, so... bacon. Everything's better with bacon. Vegetarianwise, maybe try smoked paprika or sauteed leeks.

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McLean Va.: Single, live by myself. Looking for a good cookbook for single people who like good food, but don't want to spend 2 hours putting dinner together after work. I already have good recipes for stews and soups that can be frozen. It's a bit annoying to always be seeing "Serves 4 to 8" and options for doubling recipe size. How about cutting it down?

Joe Yonan: I hear ya, which is why we write on this topic every month. I've been reading lots of these since I commandeered the Cooking for One column. So far, my favorites have been Joyce Goldstein's "Solo Suppers" and Jane Doerfer's "Going Solo in the Kitchen." (Joyce's is the source of today's Dessert French Toast With Bananas recipe.) But I should also say that you should look through books on cooking for two -- if you can get past some of the romantic stuff, these can be good sources because you're left with just one round of leftovers. The new "Cooking for Two" by Jessica Strand is pretty nice.

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Washington, DC: Do you guys have a wok recommendation? We bought the Joyce Chen one from Bed Bath & Beyond, but the teflon kept flaking off. We don't want something seasoned, though.

Or do you use a different pan for stir-fries? My husband loves to make stir-fry but really wants a pan that works well (right now, we're using a dutch oven, but he's not happy about it).

Thank you so much! We love the Food section; keep up the good work!

Joe Yonan: Love love love the wok. You really need to just bite the bullet and buy a carbon steel wok (they're very cheap from Asian superstores, and I also just saw a beauty at the fab Hill's Kitchen on Capitol Hill (right near the Eastern Market Metro). They take a little care, but within a few weeks of buying mine, I had it seasoned so well that stir-fries slide across like it's glass. Seriously.

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Silver Spring, Md. : What brand of pasta sauce do you recommend that is not too sweet? We used to use Barilla, but now, every time I eat it all I can taste is sugar. I want tomato flavor.

Thanks!

Jane Black: I know there's a risk of being snobby here but I've honestly never understood why people buy tomato sauce. If you want tomato flavor and no sweetness, buy canned diced tomatoes or tomato puree. Throw it in a pot, cook it down. (If you're feeling fancy, saute a little garlic or onion first but not necessary.) Add salt and pepper and some herbs if you like. Done. Cheap. Fresh. Good.

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Richmond, Va.: I bought a pineapple last week and chopped it up. Due to circumstances, I didn't get to use it all up, and now I have about 2 cups of cubed pineapple that I need to eat before it goes bad. Recipe suggestions? Or is there a way to preserve it? Thanks.

Jane Black: I sometimes sprinkle a little brown sugar on it and throw it under the broiler, then serve it with ice cream or, more recently, a gingerbread cake. You could also make a fruit salsa: add black beans, cilantro, red onion, lime juice, salt and a little drizzle of olive oil.

Or, you could just eat it plain.

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Rinse/don't rinse: Foodies, can you tell me whether canned beans should be rinsed or not? That slimy liquid looks pretty gross, but a lot of recipes say just dump 'em in, liquid and all.

Joe Yonan: I rinse whether the recipe calls for it or not. If it calls for the whole mess, I make up for the extra liquid by filling up the can halfway or so with water and putting that in. Because of the extra sodium that's usually added to beans, I don't want it.

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Arlington, Va.: a couple drops of liquid smoke would do wonders to the soup.

Bonnie Benwick: Right, or Bragg's Amino Acids.

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D.C.: I was wondering if one of your reporters was invited to the White House along with the cooking students from L'Academie? I was hoping to read his/her observations.

Jane Black: Our Style writer Manuel Roig Franzia was there. He mentioned it, if briefly, in his coverage of the governors' dinner. But from what I heard a lot of the cooking students were pretty shy about asking questions and Mrs Obama had to encourage them to speak up. She also talked a little bit about what the family likes to eat: Creamed spinach, which is delicious but has no cream; waffles and grits "though they don't eat them every day"; and homemade soups.

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Pickle Juice: Here is your most random question of the day: What can I do with leftover pickle juice? We eat lots of dill pickles in my house, and I am faced with dumping half a jar of pickle juice down the drain. Can I use it for something else? I feel so wasteful!

Bonnie Benwick: Freeze it as ice pops. Seriously: www.bobspicklepops.com. And someone told me they saw America's Test Kitchen using pickle juice to moisten just-steamed potatoes for potato salad. Eh.

Joe Yonan: Pickle juice is a longstanding addition to a Southern potato salad, so what really surprises me about the ATK thing is that those folks are YANKEES, through and through. I love 'em anyway.

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Lothian, Md.: Thanks for the mention of Nancy Baggett's new bread book today -- I immediately went to Amazon to purchase. Hopefully this will work for me -- I got rid of my breadmaker last spring because of the space it required. The one time I made bread by hand, it was extremely relaxing and to think I can make artisan breads quickly is impressive.

Bonnie Benwick: She's really onto something. If more people could live within the smell of warm bread baking (all joins hands and sway now...), well, the world would be a happier place.

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Baltimore, MD: Has anyone tried this?:

http://www.dizzy-dee.com/recipe/chocolate-cake-in-5-minutes

It is basically a single serving chocolate cake that you can cook in the microwave in 5 minutes. I haven't tried it yet because I fear the accessibility/speed of the dish would have me eating it all the time, which is not good for my waistline. It doesn't look all that pretty but I bet it tastes pretty good, and you could always jazz it up with fresh fruit, ice cream, whipped cream, etc.

Bonnie Benwick: Imagine that. For me, it lacks a certain, um, presentation factor. Chatters?

I did watch L'Academie chef Patrice Oliver make 10-second meringues in the microwave at the Food & Wine expo.

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I love YOU, Joe...: ...bless your li'l ol' southern heart (from a SC girl).

Joe Yonan: Aw, shucks...

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baking for one : Quick funny story... When I moved to San Francisco in 1998, I didn't have many friends. I have always had a passion for baking, as you well know, cutting down certain receips is a disaster in the waiting. All the breads/desserts I made, I would often bring (leftovers) to the office on Mondays. As a result, the invitations to cookouts and dinner parties were non-stop. One of my co workers at the time was living with the chef de cuisine of a well known restaurant in town. The panettone bread pudding and ricotta cheesecake I brought to their home made it on the restaurant's menu. Baking is like wine, it should be shared...

Joe Yonan: Yes, it's true -- sharing is gorgeous. But for those of us without much willpower, we also have to work into our rotation things that won't create giant temptations that we'll polish off before they make it to the office!

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Food Safety Resources?: Do you recommend any easily accessible resources on food safety issues -- e.g., how long foods can be stored without refrigeration, letting things partially defrost then refreezing, that mayonnaise is not a preservative, that freezing questionable things makes it all better, etc, etc? We need a "third party intervention" around here, so that it's not just me fussing about things not being handled safely. Scientific data would be very helpful in this instance, as general "safe handling" instructions are seen as unreasonably overprotective.

Thank you!

Jane Black: It's not the most user-friendly site but here's a government sponsored site that gives some good advice.

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Re: cooking for one: In the Everyday Food magazine (from Martha Stewart), they always have a "cooking for one" recipe. They also have a "lunchbox" feature, which serves two, so that could also work. I believe all their recipes are available on marthastewart.com, though I'm not sure if you could narrow it enough to find just those for 1-2 servings.

Joe Yonan: Absolutely. I like EF.

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Modular Small-Batch Question: I tend towards the (very) sweet and my husband loves more savory fare, but each of us loves dessert so we often have to compromise or take turns. I try to accommodate him by, say, sprinkling sea salt on his chocolate pudding or mixing some thyme or rosemary into half a batch of lemon cookies, but I'd love any other suggestions for small-batch baking that's modular: that can go sweeter or less sweet, even savory, within one small batch of the same thing. Thanks!

Debby Maugans: One spice that comes directly to mind is to add a little quality curry powder to a chocolate tart. In Small-Batch Baking, there is a Candied Cranberry Chocolate Tart in the holiday section that would be lovely without the cranberry topping, with a half-teaspoon of curry powder in it.

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D.C.: In your opinion, how far in advance should a cake be made before serving? I make quite a few pies, and they are often better (and definitely set) the next day after baking. But for cakes, and I am talking the two-layer, icing all around kind, should you bake it in the morning, ice in the afternoon and serve that night or do it the day before? I sometimes watch Ace of Cakes on the Food Network and it seems that they bake their cakes a couple of days in advance of when they actually deliver them to customers. It would seem that they would start to go stale after a few days.

Debby Maugans: I find it easy to make the layers up to a week ahead, wrap them well in plastic wrap, and put them in heavy-duty zip-top bags. Freeze them, then thaw the day you want to serve them and frost them at that point.

Joe Yonan: It's true, cake layers freeze beautifully. I also think frosting protects cakes from getting stale too quickly, though, so a day ahead is fine in my book. As for Ace of Cakes, keep in mind that with those big presentation pieces, the frosting is often that godawful fondant, which seals everything up tight as a drum -- with a texture to match, IMHO.

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Washington, D.C.: I have a question about the Vadouvan recipe. The ingredients have the onions, shallots and garlic roughly chopped. The recipe has them going into a food processor to be chopped. Are the roughly chopped pieces going into the food processor to be further chopped? Could I just mince them in the first place and skip the food processor?

Bonnie Benwick: The onions and shallots need to get more of a chutney-like consistency, minus the chunks. We chop before we food-process because it makes the end result more uniform in texture.

That is a really nice mixture to have on hand in the freezer. I could see it doing nice things to meat, fish and vegetables alike.

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Split pea soup: If you don't want meaty things, try a bit of sherry or some soy.

Bonnie Benwick: Ooh, sherry. That's a good one.

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Houston, Tex.: I bought chipotle peppers (the ones in the can). I didn't need all of it, so I put it in the fridge. How long will it stay? I'm not sure I know what to do with the rest.

Bonnie Benwick: In the fridge for a week or two, if it's properly contained. Best to wrap individual peppers with a little adobo in plastic wrap and freeze them for long-term (6 months) use.

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Mushroom soaking water: Hello!

lately I've been using dried mushrooms to give my stews more intense flavor. Seems a shame to toss out the soaking water, but it looks murky. Can I keep it? Do I need to boil it? Could I use it in my stews?

Thanks

Jane Black: You can definitely use it. Just make sure to strain it through a very fine sieve or one lined with cheesecloth or paper towels to get the grit out. You can boil it to reduce it or use it as a broth.

Joe Yonan: If you don't have a fine sieve, but you have a gold-mesh coffee filter, that'll do the trick, too.

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Baltimore: Hi Food section! My friends and I have all recently read British novels (Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, the Brontes... you get the picture) for one reason or another, and we decided it's high time for a British tea. A friend of mine has a go-to recipe for scones, and we have an ample supply of tea; do you have any other suggestions? Thank you!

Jane Black: Finger sandwiches! Cucumber and cream cheese on white bread with the crusts cut off. Egg salad, chicken salad and ham are also traditional. If you're feeling modern, nutella would probably go down a treat as well.

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Arlington, Va.: I second making your own tomato sauce - we tried this last year when a recipe in the "Sopranos" cookbook called for it and haven't looked back - it's so easy, and so good!

Joe Yonan: Sounds like it's so good it might just get you whacked.

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prepared tomato sauce: Pomi marinara!

Tt's tangy and tomato-y and so garlic-y that I don't need to tweak it at all, just open the cube and warm.

Jane Black: Oh yeah. I like that too. It comes in a box usually. But you need to use the whole thing. It gets moldy pretty quickly.

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Peeve: As a Brit it annoys me that people say sweet when they mean sugary. European desserts have much less sugar than American but they can be very sweet -- that comes form the main ingredients such as orange.

Joe Yonan: sweet (swet) adj 1 a) having a taste of, or like that of, sugar

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Desserts!: Yes! Those of us cooking for one, for whatever reason, need treats too.

I love things like cobblers in the summer, but by the 5th day in a row the cobbler isn't in the best of shape. We have a small freezer, so keeping things like cookie dough for occasional use isn't very practical.

One of my current favs is to get quality frozen berries (it is February, after all) and nuke just a dozen at a time til they start to juice. Pull out, and top with yogurt. Sweet, fresh, and easy (and rich, I use full fat yogurt and then don't miss ice cream as much).

But that doesn't sate the desire for baked goods. If you have ways to get tiny cakes and small batches of cookies, bring them on! Otherwise, I end up stopping by a bakery on the way home and the ones here in the hinterlands just aren't as nice, and less likely to sell single serving sizes, as many of the ones I visited in DC.

Debby Maugans: My book, Small-Batch Baking, can be purchased at Amazon and any book store. You'll find a whole chapter on cobblers and other yummy crumbly desserts, as well as cookies and cakes, scones and muffins that use only a pint of fresh berries or less. Each recipe only makes 2 servings.

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McLean: For those pasta sauce emergencies, I buy Trader Joe's Organic Marinara. I checked the labels of lots of kinds and this has no sugar added.

Joe Yonan: Thanks!

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food safety negotiation: It sounds like the other person you are dealing with thinks in a different way from the way you do (less logical, less analytical, more based on past experience). Extra resources may just irritate the other person, even if to you the resources make sense. Why not do a trade? They put up with your "fussy" food safety rules, you agree to do something new that they always wanted you to do but you didn't because you disagreed. It won't hurt you and everyone will stay healthy.

Jane Black: We should move this over to Carolyn Hax!

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mustard questions: Hi, I would love a recipe for an easy mustard sauce that can be spooned over chicken. For that purpose, I already have a jar of mustard in the refrigerator, but it has some liquid on top. Should I just stir it back in or does this mean the mustard has somehow spoiled? Does mustard go bad? Thank you!

Bonnie Benwick: As long as that liquid doesn't appear to be a threatening color, just stir it back into the mustard. Your refrigerated, tightly capped mustard can last for a year. This Barefoot Contessa recipe had such a good, easy sauce. We all love it. Go Ina.

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Chipotle pepper: Freeze them individually on a cookie sheet with some parchment paper. When they are frozen, put them in a ziploc in the freezer.

Or, you can use an ice cube tray.

Much easier than individually wrapping them.

Bonnie Benwick: If your freezer can accommodate a baking sheet, go for it.

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Vienna, VA: I'm making a strawberry themed birthday cake for a close friend and need a little help. I'm planning to do a layer cake, using my basic yellow cake recipe (makes two round cakes, which I slice in half to make 4 layers). I was going to fill the layers with vanilla buttercream and fresh strawberries. I'd like to frost the outside with a strawberry buttercream frosting (I thought it would make a pretty color) but I don't have a recipe for strawberry buttercream frosting. Do you or chatters have one you could share? And does this all sound like a good idea?

Jane Black: I think this sounds delicious! Here's a buttercream recipe we ran in the paper way back when. That said, I'd also be in favor of pureeing some fresh or frozen (defrosted) berries and mixing it with whipped cream for the outside icing. Might make it less sweet?

BASIC BUTTERCREAM (Enough for a 2-layer 8-inch cake)

1/2 cup sugar

1/3 cup water

2 egg yolks

1/2 pound softened, unsalted butter, cut into small pieces

Bring sugar and water to boil and cook until the thread stage, that is, when a spoon emptied of syrup leaves long threads of syrup hanging. The thread stage should just be reached, not passed, because sugar syrup at the hard crack stage will also form threads. And if you were to add syrup at the hard crack stage, the buttercream would be full of sharp, broken pieces of sugar.

Place the egg yolks in the small bowl (6-cup capacity) of your electric mixer. Turn the mixer on medium speed and add the sugar syrup, gradually at first, then faster. After the syrup, add the pieces of butter one by one. When half the butter has been added, turn the mixer on high speed and whip for 30 seconds to remove any lumps. Then turn back to medium speed and finish adding the butter. Again, turn the mixer on high speed and whip until light and smooth. If desired, increase the volume of the buttercream by chilling it for 20 minutes and whipping again.

Into the basic buttercream recipe, add 3/4 cup of quartered strawberries and the juice of 1/2 lemon. Whip until the strawberries disintegrate and the buttercream turns rose.

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U Street: I guess this is sort of a baking-for-one question...

My roommate is going out of town and so I've decided my goal for this weekend is to bake my very first loaf of bread (delicious snack for me and then a pleasant surprise when she comes home). The problem is that I've never done it before and I'm a bit terrified. I'm sure there are recipes out there that don't require a standing mixer/dough hook, but I don't know which one to trust. Any suggestions for a solo first time baker? Thanks so much!

Debby Maugans: Run to your local bookstore and buy Small-Batch Baking. There are several yeast bread recipes that will get you started. It is easier to start with small batches to get you used to the feel of dough, and you will have just enough for yourself. Once you get the hang of it, make another batch the next day so your roommate will have a fresh loaf. Bread isn't as great leftover as it is fresh and warm.

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Washington, D.C.: Hi food section!

I'm interested in learning to cook some very basic Japanese dishes (this cuisine intrigues me--seems very healthy and the Japanese stay slim).

Dashi (fish based soup stock) appears to be the basis for a lot of things. Have any of you all tried to make this?

Any suggestions for jumping in slowly to Japanese food?

Thanks very much!

Bonnie Benwick: I've used dried dashi mixes that were pretty good; found them at Daruma in Bethesda. And here's a simple recipe we ran in 2007.

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Dallas, Tex.: I've just been told by my doctor that I have to eat vegan two days a week. I am a dedicated carnivore. Other than pad thai with tofu, edamame, miso soup and cucumber rolls, I've run out of ideas for dinner. I don't want to do Tofurky or other faux meats. Can your veg/vegan readers help me with ideas?

Jane Black: I'm with you on the fake meat. Stuffed peppers or tomatoes are a good dish. Any kind of pasta (tomatoes, capers and lemon zest; wild mushrooms with garlic and spinach; or even just garlic and fresh herbs). My go-to vegetarian dish is the old frittata but that doesn't work for vegan.

Out of curiosity, why a vegan diet twice a week?

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New England: Hi! I loved the article today on desserts for one; it's something I've practiced as a health strategy for years: if it makes leftovers, it has to be healthy; if it's a treat, I make it one at a time... I've found that I like to have dessert every day, but I like to make it a choice, so I make a new one each night, which gives me ample time to make sure I really want it, gauge how rich I want it to be, and keeps me learning new recipes for small treats. My go-to dessert formula is free-form trifles: I keep three bags in the freezer -- scraps of cake and stale cookies in one, chocolate shavings and half-bars in the next, and frozen fruit -- and always have mascarpone in the fridge, so I can assemble something gooey and luscious every night. It keeps me conscious of my choices, instead of just grabbing another cookie from a batch of 3 dozen.

Joe Yonan: You're an inspiration.

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Solo Dessert Eater, Va.: Thought I would submit my favorite way to eat dessert solo inspired from something I saw Jacques Pepin do once. Whenever I have left over fruits like berries or even peaches, I just saute them with some jam or spread. Add a bit of vanilla syrup or orange juice or lime and serve it on top of a yogurt with some crushed cookies or biscotti. If I am in a fancy mood, I will layer them nicely in a martini glass.

Debby Maugans: Love that!

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Richmond: I'm on a muffin/cupcake run. Two questions involving muffin tins: (1) I'd love a flexible recipe for single serving pineapple upside down cake in muffin tins. Can I use my standard recipe and cut down on cooking time? (2) (not really a baking question) I'd like to make mini-frittatas in my muffin tins. How long cook, at what temp? Made Nutella cupcakes this weekend! yum.

Debby Maugans: You sure can make your upside down cake in a muffin tin. You will have to chop up the pineapple unless you have a jumbo muffin pan that has cups that are large enough to snuggle pineapple slices on the bottoms. Also, since the proportionate height of the muffin cups is smaller, just put about 2 tablespoons of the diced pineapple in the bottoms. If you put too much, the cakes will bake up soggy --and more like pineapple pudding.

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Cake in 5 minutes...: tastes exactly as you would think a cake made in five minutes in the microwave tastes. Not that good.

Bonnie Benwick: There you go.

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pickle juice ideas: I love boiling up mushrooms in them for a few minutes. The mushrooms have a lovely light pickled flavour, enough like you get from fancy deli mushrooms to be delish.

Bonnie Benwick: Who'd have thunk it? Here's one...

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teriyaki sauce: Hi Bonnie,

I tried to make a good teriyaki sauce for salmon that I found in the WP database, and while it tasted good, I couldn't seem to get it thick enough even after a good couple of minutes of boiling. Twice it even boiled over. What's the trick to thickening this stuff?

Bonnie Benwick: A little slurry of cornstarch and water works. How thick do you need it to be?

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chipotle peppers : hmmm.. I have kept chipotle peppers in my fridge, in a nicely sealed plastic storage doohickie for at least a year... I have one left. They have been perfectly fine and no one has died eating anything I make with them. They (well it, now) never spoiled. I live with spice wimps (husband, two small children) so I use them sparingly.

Perhaps I should not have admitted this :-)

Joe Yonan: I could tell a similar tale...

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Small desserts: I really enjoyed the story on scaling down desserts, as I've been doing the same thing for years. It referenced one cookbook author's quest to adjust leavenings, which is something I've struggled with too. With eggs, I usually pour a beaten egg into a measuring cup and halve or quarter it that way. Do you have other tips on how to adjust leaveners in a recipe that serves 12 when you're taking it down to, say, two? What is one sixth of a half teaspoon of baking soda?

Debby Maugans: You did the right thing with the beaten eggs. To adjust baking soda and powder, divide the amount proportionally to the amount of flour and other dry ingredients you are breaking it down to. Then take a teeny bit more off the top. In other words, if you have broken the recipe down to 1/8 teaspoon soda, don't make it an entirely level measurement. I don't know what one sixth of a half teaspoon of baking soda is; my guess is you mean 1/16 of a teaspoon. In that case, you'll have to judge what half of 1/8 teaspoon is. Hope that helps. It does take a bit of experimenting to get the right texture when you are quartering recipes.

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22101: How would one go about seasoning a wok?

Joe Yonan: You scrub off the manufacturer's coating, rinse, dry, set the wok over high heat for a few minutes, then use tongs and paper towels dipped in peanut oil and wipe it all around. Then you leave it on a lower heat for 10 or 15 minutes, turning and tilting if possible so the flame heats up the sides of the wok, too. The bottom should turn black. If it seems dry, add more oil. Do this a couple of times before using it.

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leftover pickle juice: I slice cukes into the jars and use them within a week for a crisp flavorful salad topping.

Bonnie Benwick: ...and another. Chatters are on it today.

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Falls Church: Don't dump that pickle juice! Make a piquant martini, or use it in a vinaigrette, or tuna or egg salad.

Bonnie Benwick: ...and another...

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for U Street: Bread is easier than it sounds, and amazingly delicious. A couple tips:

Pay attention to your yeast, if not active your loaf will be h e a v y.

Kneading: a. Knead the first time til your hands are clean. Flour your hands to start, but a good gauge for me has been that the dough actually pulls together and leaves you with relatively clean hands. This is more true with conventional white flour than wheat.

b. Knead until the dough is about the same texture as your earlobe. Sounds funny but is pretty apt.

Oh, and bread freezes well. It's not as good as fresh from the oven, but it's pretty darn good.

Have fun with your experiments.

Joe Yonan: The first thing I did when I read this was ... reach up and feel my earlobe. Whaddayaknow?

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NW DC re Dessert French Toast With Banana: Hello. Is it okay to use frozen bananas instead of fresh? And I have that same question for banana bread if you don't mind answering. Many thanks!

Joe Yonan: Sure on both. With the French toast, I imagine they'd be a little slimier than if you used fresh, but it's nothing a little extra butter couldn't help you get over. ;-)

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Silver Spring, Md.: A big THANKS to the Food Section gurus for my lovely prize last week. I was expecting to get an Italian cookbook (per your intro) and was, at first, disappointed to find out it was Michelle Bernstein's "Cuisine a Latina" cookbook.

Then I opened the second recipe in the "Beginnings" section. It was for stuffed fried olives.

You see, my grandparents are from the Marche region in Italy. My aunt is visiting there this week for the first time. The region is known for its stuffed, fried Olive Allascolana. My grandmother used to make them. Although she stuffed them with veal, the cooking technique is still the same and what we needed to recreate the dish. Rather than guessing, I have a nice recipe to follow.

Turns out, Michelle's mother is from Argentina, where there is a significant Italian population. So you did send me an Italian cookbook, just one that also has a recipes for ceviche, gazpacho and mole! Thanks again!

Joe Yonan: Sorry for the mistake, if it was a mistake, but glad it worked out!

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tomato sauce: Since the person actually DOES want to buy it, which is what the question asked, we use several organic brands we get at MOM's. Muir Glen is nice, but I am forgetting the other brands. In any event, browse the shelves there. Several are really, really good. The brands we use don't have sugar in them.

Joe Yonan: Ouch -- I sense a little attitude. But thanks for the recommendation!

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Washington, D.C.: Thanks for taking my question - I'm a novice in the kitchen, but I've been surprising myself lately with some meals that have turned out wonderful. As I get more adventurous, I am finding that many of the recipes I want to try have a step using a food processor.

I began looking some up online, and they are just so expensive! Are there any models out there that are less expensive but still get the job done? I really want one, but until I see a need for it more than every once in a while, I really don't want to shell out hundreds of dollars for it.

Bonnie Benwick: Just scanning the shop online options, I see there's a decent size (7-cup) Kitchen-Aid that's just under $100. The smaller models (3-cup) are all about half that price. I guess it depends on what you plan to use it for. I think it's a sound investment. You'll find lots of ways to use it. Or I guess there's eBay or Craigslist.

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bland lentils: Cook up one or two thinly sliced onions in olive oil, and add a good-size quantity of one of those Indian/Pakistani spice masalas that come in a box for a dollar at an Indian grocery. Cook a few minutes more, then add the lentils and cook until the flavors combine.

Joe Yonan: Natch.

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pancakes for one: I would love to know how to cut down a pancake recipe to make only 2 or 3 pancakes. Most recipes call for 14 pancakes, and if I cut that in half I still have 7. Pancakes are never good the next day, and I can't cut the egg in half to make only 3. Any thoughts?

Joe Yonan: I like Debby's idea, which I ran as a special tip with the story today -- If you're faced with cutting an egg in half, think about instead just using 1 yolk (for something richer) or 1 white (for something drier).

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Single w/Serious Sweet-tooth: Thank you SO much for the baking for 1 column today. My BF never really shared my sweet tooth, but after having cancer has cut all refined sugars out of his diet. My friends are mostly trying to lose weight, so they didn't appreciate my foisting leftovers off onto them, so this column absolutely is a godsend!!

A quick question, tho -- the tips for baking for one gives good ideas on how to adapt ingredient amounts, but how do you know what size pan to use or how long to bake an item for?

Thanks!!

Debby Maugans: When you want to downsize a recipe, start by quartering the ingredients. So if you are figuring on a fourth of the amounts, figure on a pan that holds one-fourth of the quantity that the original recipe calls for. In other words, If you want to make a cake from scratch, chances are you will have about 3 to 4 cups of batter. If you want to make a small batch cake, you'll end up with about 3/4 to 1 cup batter.

Here are pan suggestions:

For 1 regular layer cake, use 2 (14/5-ounce) cans, 3 mini individual Bundt-shaped pans, 3 or 4 large muffin cups

For 1 (13-x 9-inch) sheet cake, use an 8- or 9-inch loaf pan.

Joe Yonan: This reminds me -- of another plug for Hill's Kitchen on Capitol Hill, where just yesterday I saw lots of little baking pans, including ones that were about the size of jumbo muffin tin cups, and another that looked like it would approximate Debby's fabulous idea for reusing bean or tomato cans for little layer cakes. One has a removable bottom! And they're cheap.

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Washington, D.C.: I gave up bread for Lent, and I'm trying to put together some meals to get me through to my mac and cheese binge at Easter. I'm essentially cutting out pasta, bread, potatoes and rice. I have a few generic meat and and steamed veggies, but I seem to be lacking creativity here. Any suggestions?

Bonnie Benwick: Puree some celeriac (celery root) or parsnips. Saute leeks and add a touch of cream. Look up some of the whole-grain recipes we ran recently as Dinners in Minutes (quinoa, bulgur, millet). You may not go back to your old starches once the Easter eggs start rolling.

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U Street (again): I felt my earlobe too, Joe! And thanks very much for the tips -- I'm still a bit nervous but appreciate the love from the host and chatter. Wish me luck....

Joe Yonan: Good luck!

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DC: to the person who needs vegan ideas - check out the blog Fat free vegan kitchen.

Also, 101cookbooks and smitten kitchen often have great recipes that don't have meat or dairy, I just made a great soup from 101.

Joe Yonan: I have said it before, and I'll say it again, I love me some 101cookbooks.

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Pickle Juice woman: Wow, I love the idea about the mushrooms! Thanks for the tip!

Joe Yonan: Fun, eh?

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Alexandria, Va.: For the banana question, frozen bananas are ALWAYS better than fresh when going in baked goods. My go-to recipe for banana bread involves bad bananas and bad milk (let the milk go until it is sour but doesn't have lumps and it is GREAT for banana bread, but you can get a similar effect from putting vinegar in unspoiled milk or using buttermilk, though I let buttermilk spoil too for my bread). I find that when I freeze my bad bananas to save for when I want banana bread, the consistency melds better with the batter and then if I want chunks, I add a diced fresh banana.

Joe Yonan: Yes, you're right, for baking indeed. Lots of fruits work better from frozen in baked goods, actually. I'm thinking of berries in pies; they concentrate their sugars so you have to add less of it.

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Silver Spring, Md.: Desserts for one--I've taken to making a bananas Foster variant: saute butter and brown sugar, add a sliced banana, flame it with rum or brandy because it's so fun, and serve over vanilla ice cream or even just plain yogurt.

Also, I invested in a cookie jar--so my cookies last as long as I let them.

Joe Yonan: Love bananas foster. Glad the cookie jar is working out for you -- I would have to install a lock on it and give the key to a really stern friend for this to work for me.

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one sixth of a half: I think the person meant, if a recipe to serve six calls for a half-teaspoon of baking powder, what is the result?

A half teaspoon is 0.5, which when divided by six = 0.083. One-eighth teaspoon is 0.125. Therefore, one sixth of a half teaspoon is slightly MORE than a half of a one-eight tsp measure.

If you enjoy the single baking, you might find it valuable to do the math on U.S. vs. metric measurements and see if a set of metric measuirng spoons would help you. There are undoubtedly online calculators that could come to the rescue, along with dim, cobwebbed memories of Sr. Martha Mary's lessons on common denominators and dividing fractions.

Joe Yonan: Yes, but as Debby told me, the leavener often needs to be further reduced when scaling down. It's not just a matter of doing the math, unfortunately. She suggests that once you do the math, you take a little more off the leavener, so in this case, I would do slightly LESS than half of a 1/8 tsp measure. And be prepared for experimenting.

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Confirmed sweet tooth: I loved the article on desserts for one -- it took me back to college, and making a miniature bread pudding from a leftover (terribly stale) blueberry bagel. The pudding turned out wonderful, with an almost caramelized top, and I've tried to reproduce it since but it has never been quite as good.

I've done some other individual or 2-person desserts since (with just the 2 of us at home), but I've been nervous about trying baked goods -- mostly, as the article mentioned, because leavening seems so touchy and little differences in quantity make a big difference in the result. Are there any basic guidelines for this? Just experiment and see what you get? Is it easier to work with cakes that use eggs as leavening, instead of baking powder/etc?

Thanks!

Debby Maugans: Leavening is the basic problem with downsizing recipes. But it can be done. Practice and experimenting is the key, but what makes that OK in my opinion is that if the product isn't as great as you'd like, you aren't throwing much away. The batches are so small you can usually afford to give it another go.

Eggs may be a little easier to work with if you measure them correctly. Use only large eggs. If a recipe calls for 2 eggs and you want to make one-fourth of the recipe, crack a whole egg into a small bowl or cup, and beat it with a fork until the proteins loosen and it becomes more fluid. Then measure out half of it -- a little more than a tablespoon.

With baking powder and soda, use a tiny bit less than a level measurement.

Good luck!

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woks: I also need a new wok and would gladly go for carbon steel but the woks at my local Asian market don't say what they're made of. Can I tell by looking? Also, re the suggestion to "scrub off the manufacturer's coating" and then season the wok - How? With steel wool? What sort of coating does this work for?

Joe Yonan: If it's not nonstick-coated, then it's most likely carbon steel at your Asian market. As for the scrubbing, indeed, do it with steel wool -- but please make sure that unless you slip up and get some rusting later (you have to dry these by hand rather than let them drip dry, or they'll rust), this should be the LAST time you take steel wool to your wok. Once you have the fabulous patina built up, you don't want to scrape it off, or you have to build it up from scratch again.

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diaperville: Hey Food folks -- I wonder if you'd consider doing a story on making your own baby food. I'm transitioning my son from bottles to solids, and I like the idea of making my own vs. buying jarred foods. But honestly, I'm a little intimidated. Maybe having some advice and good recipes from you would help. Thanks for considering!

Bonnie Benwick: We've just gotten in a few books on the subject, which I haven't yet perused. But simple's the best way to go, yes?

Gently cooked vegetable, pureed with a little water? Maybe a touch of salt, unless it's otherwise indicated? Or a combo of a little rice cereal and banana? Chatters I'm sure have a handle on this, too.

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Pine Plains, NY: Carbon steel woks can be frustrating if you have a ceramic top electric stove since the bottom eventually will warp and not make good contact with the heating surface. I found a lightweight cast iron wok at a nearby kitchen store that doesn't warp, really is lighter than most cast iron and gets nice and hot. Made in China, no manufacturer's name though.

Joe Yonan: I would find MANY things frustrating with such a stove, I think. Thanks for the tip!

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Silver Spring: The comment about adobo chiles reminded me of the time I made a chili with adobo chiles and chocolate (delicious by the way). The recipe called for THREE CHILES. I misread it as THREE CANS of chiles. After adding two cans I decided to take a taste as it seemed like a lot. Very hot. I ended up adding lots more tomatoes and beans.

Joe Yonan: Yowsah! Was it good once you expanded the other ingreds?

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Philadelphia, Pa.: Joe, I think you mentioned that you've got some experience with Weight Watchers -- I'm jumping back in and wondering if you've got any tips and tricks to share. I do OK but it's always nice to have new ideas to shake things up.

Joe Yonan: Track, track, track. When I track, I lose. When I don't track, I don't lose.

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D.C.: Re: pickle juice. Make Rye Bread. King Arthur has a good recipe on its internet site.

Bonnie Benwick: Maybe this is the last word on pj.

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Silver Spring, Md.: Ooh, I always put lemon juice in split pea soup. It's a good candidate any time I want more brightness and zing.

Bonnie Benwick: I like that the best!

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more on mustard: What happens to it after a year? I've had some for much longer than that. I didn't mean to risk my health, I just thought it didn't expire. It still smells like mustard ... Should I toss it? Thanks!

Bonnie Benwick: It doesn't get rotten all of sudden. It's just not the best quality. It may still smell like mustard but won't be giving you all the mustardy flavor you are due -- like with certain spices whose aroma lingers long after the flavor's diminished.

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On woks: A wok is a must for tofu - I don't really understand why but it makes so much better tofu than when I use a normal frying pan ... .

Joe Yonan: I (heart) mine.

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Awash in herbs: I'm sure this has been covered before, but... I have more than half a bunch of flat-leaf parsley and a full bunch of cilantro. What can I do with these before they go bad?

Bonnie Benwick: Pesto city.

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Small, intense desserts?: So who's got a recipe for a small dessert that really sates that need for DESSERT?

I keep a small stash of chocolate bars for such emergencies, but those don't serve the same function. I want to feel sated, not sugared. I have to watch my sugar consumption so leftovers are a hazard. The Mediterranean Deli used to have the BEST rice pudding - when Mom would make it. I can sometimes get a great cupcake at a bakery. But what can I do at home?

thanks!

Debby Maugans: On the box of Baker's unsweetened chocolate, there is an easy recipe to downsize. Quarter it and put the batter into a standard size loaf pan, then bake it about 10 minutes less than in a large pan. It is very fudgy and you'll only have a few brownies.

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Silver Spring, Md: Hello,

Is this an error in the recipe for Spaghetti With Garlicky Shrimp and Broccoli? The recipe calls for 2 medium cloves garlic, minced (about 2 tablespoons). Even a large clove of garlic will not yield 1 tablespoon minced. Did you mean to say about 2 teaspoons?

Bonnie Benwick: Two tablespoons is correct; we shorted the amount of garlic. That's why we provide both measures. Good catch.

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Joe Yonan: Well, you've spooned warmed banana slices over us, drizzled on a little bit of honey, and topped us with a dollop of yogurt, so you know what that means -- we're done.

Thanks, all, for the great questions as usual, and thanks so much to our special guest, Debby Maugans, for helping us with small batches of small-batch queries.

Now for the giveaway books. The chatter who talked about microwaving frozen fruit as a dessert-for-one idea will get Debby's great "Small-Batch Baking." And the baking newbie, just in case there's a need to do something with all that leftover bread, will get "Panini." Send your mailing info to food@washpost.com, and we'll get you your books.

Until next time, happy cooking, eating and reading!

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