Free Range on Food: Kitchen gifts, Christmas cookies, vegetarian Christmas fare, casserole disasters, wine aerators

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The Food Section
of the Washington Post
Wednesday, December 2, 2009; 1:00 PM

Free Range on Food is a forum for discussion of all things culinary. You can share your thoughts on the latest Washington Post 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 of this week's chat follows.

Archive of past discussions

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Joe Yonan: Greetings, all, and welcome to Free Range. How was your Thanksgiving? Hope it was happy and delicious and fun. We're back to the grind here, at the ready to help you plan your next meal. Did you see the great freezer graphic that we put together to help you with your chilling needs? Bonnie came up with seven fantastic recipes for sauces and marinades that work well in the freezer, too.

But that's not all we're about today. We'll try to handle anything you can throw our way. Let's go!

Joe Yonan: How could I forget the giveaway book? We'll have "500 Best Sauces, Salad Dressings, Marinades & More" by George Geary for our favorite chatter today.

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Arlington, Va.: Thank you for the article on freezing foods. I wondered, can you freeze leftover jarred pasta sauce? We rarely finish the bottle in a timely fashion (how long will it keep once opened anyway?), and this might be a way to minimize waste.

washingtonpost.com: Make It, Freeze It, Take It (Post, Dec. 2)

Graphic: The big chill: A freezer guide (Post, Dec. 2)

Bonnie Benwick: You're welcome. Free Range chatters are partially responsible for the graphic. You guys ask us so many good questions about freezing foods each week that we tried to cover basics today.

Sure you can freeze the jarred stuff. Depending on what's in it (how much oil, etc.) maybe use it within 3 months.

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Gifts from the kitchen?: Have I missed a recent article on home-made treats we can give for the holidays? In the past the Post has inspired some great ideas, and given the economy this year I think a lot of us are trying to spend less/relish the home-made touch.

Ideally I'd like to see such an article before Thanksgiving, so I have time to pull it off before Christmas. Lacking a recent article, suggestions welcome!

Thanks.

Jane Black: We didn't do it this year because we published that very article last year. Have you made everything we suggested? If not, plenty of good ideas here. If so, the fabulous cookie issue is coming next week. People love cookies.

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Candy making thermometer help!: Oh great gods/goddesses of the food world, I need a recommendation for a decent candy thermometer. Christmas is about here and my el-cheapo, yet reliable and dependable old and decrepit thermometer stopped working and its replacement is less than satisfactory (another el-cheapo one, as my old one lasted me something like 15 years and worked great and I thought all el-cheapos would work the same! Fool that I am) I don' t need anything fancy schmancy, just something to accurately read the temperature of whatever candy thing I am making..

Jane Black: Bonnie and Joe are our gadget gurus but I'm going to weigh in here. It's not my recommendation -- I only make caramel which I can do by sight -- it's Cook's Illustrated. They are, in my experience, the most reliable when it comes to testing products.

Their pick: The

CDN DTTC-S Combo Probe Thermometer Timer & Clock

. (The link goes to Cook's review; subscription required.) Cook's likes the digital readout and the fact that it clips on to the side of the pan. Sells for about $24.95, which isn't ultra-cheap but...sounds like this might be the last one you need to buy.

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New York: Are there any good cook books or web sites for recipes on cooking for 1?

Thanks.

washingtonpost.com: Funny you should ask: Cooking for One

Joe Yonan: Exactly. As for books, I like Judith Jones's new "The Pleasures of Cooking for One"; Joyce Goldstein's "Solo Suppers"; Suzanne Pirret's "The Pleasure is All Mine"; and Deborah Madison's "What We Eat When We Eat Alone."

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Kensington, Md.: I want to start baking Christmas cookies but am not sure whether they will freeze well. I am specifically wondering whether I can freeze sugar cookies to be frosted later. Do you have any tips or recipes for cookies that freeze well? Thanks!

Bonnie Benwick: Unfrosted sugar cookies are just fine for freezing. If they are delicately thin, they could go between layers of parchment paper or wax paper in plastic containers. Otherwise, stacked in a freezer-safe resealable plastic food storage bags would be fine.

Speaking of such matters, our 25 Cookie issue runs next week (Dec. 9). Joy to the world!

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Arlington, Va.: I substituted turkey and made a GREAT turkey corn soup:

Chicken & Corn Soup

1 chicken, quartered ( or chopped chicken pieces with boullion), 4 cups water, 1 onion, 1 stalk celery, 1 carrot, 1/4 tsp peppercorns, 1/2 tsp coriander seeds, 6 ears corn or 2 package frozen, 2 tomatoes chopped or 1 can chopped tomatoes.

Boil water, chicken, onion, celery, carrot, coriander, peppercorns

Add tomatoes and corn, cook for 45 minutes

Extra hints - add 1-2 tsp chopped garlic, 1-2 tsp hot sauce

Joe Yonan: Turkey? Why would you sub turkey? ;-)

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Bethesda Mom: Post-Thanksgiving question on quantities, which will also serve for the upcoming holiday season. One the things that always flummoxes me about entertaining is determining how much raw ingredients are needed to feed the expected number of people. For example, at Thanksgiving, we had a 15 lb turkey (free-range) for 10 turkey eaters, 12 people in all. We had little left-over turkey (in fact, I would have preferred more leftovers.)

I made 3 lb of yukon potatoes into mashed potatoes, which which about half were left over; ditto 2 butternut squashes which were roasted and pureed; also on the menu (and left over) were roasted cauliflower and brussel sprouts, and a corn pudding I made which was supposed to serve 12. Stuffing was also on the menu and also left-over in large quantities, but I put this down to the fact it was very dry, due to being cooked outside of the turkey and with vegetable broth in deference to the vegetarian at the table.

Was it the variety of offerings? The fact that there were so many starches that led to so many left-overs? How should a home cook judge quantities?

Bonnie Benwick: Hi Bethesda. Sounds like a lot of side dishes, to be sure, but not an extraordinary amount. Maybe your guests were really craving turkey this year. You must have roasted it to perfection.

Who carved the bird? Sometimes there's a lot more meat that can be gleaned.

Stuffingwise and for next year, you could make a small part of the stuffing recipe with the veg broth and use drippings or turkey stock or whatever you think would do the trick for the rest of it. I went that way with green beans this year, using some for That Green Bean Casserole which was requested, and the rest for lemon-zested and sautéed beans.

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Indianapolis, Ind.: Not sure you guys can help me with this, but thought I would try.

I finally found persimmons in the grocery store this year and want to make persimmon pudding. However, I've found tons of recipes and have heard some are more tart than others. My family has its own recipe, but evidently only a few people have it and I haven't been able to get a hold of them. Do you guys know a recipe that would be a good balance of sweet and tart? If anything, it would probably need to lean more sweet than tart. Thanks for the help!

Jane Black: No one has any specific advice here and we don't have a recipe in our archives either. So I'm throwing this out to chatters. Anyone have a tart persimmon pudding recipe they can stand by?

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Pre-paring: Hi Foodies,

I am making a Potato, Leek, Gruyere and Oyster Mushroom dish that I've been drooling over in Bon Appetit. I was wondering how far in advance I can make it. The recipe said the leek and mushroom mixture can be made the day ahead. I was wondering two things:

1. How far in advance can I slice the potatoes? Don't have a mandoline, so this will be the most time-consuming task.

2. Would I be able to make the whole thing the day before and reheat it for the potluck?

Thanks!

Bonnie Benwick: Is it this one from 1998? Sure, you could make it a day in advance and reheat.

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Red Wine Cranberry Sauce!!: I made this sauce for Thanksgiving Day - and then had to make it again on Friday for the leftovers. I think my guests might have had a bit of turkey to go with the sauce but at the end of the meal it was gone. Quick and easy. It has become an instant family tradition. Thank you!

Joe Yonan: Glad to hear it. I'm a fan, too. Now, you should rate it in our Recipe Finder! We're trying to make sure people know that they can now rate recipes, and that they do it! Here's the recipe for your making (and rating) pleasure.

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Arlington, Va.: I made some lemon-iced cookies recently, and for the most part they turned out really well. However, when I was rolling the dough into a log before freezing it, I couldn't figure out how to keep my fingers from making all those imprints in it. Plus, it ended up looking more rectangular than circle-ish. What's the best way to roll dough like that so it has a nice shape? The taste was great, but the cookies weren't nice little circles.

Or should I just roll out the dough, use a cookie cutter and freeze the individual ones? My recipe called for the log method.

Bonnie Benwick: You can achieve a nice rounded log if you use a large piece of parchment paper or plastic wrap. Put a loglike shape of dough on the paper or wrap, about 3 inches from the edge that is closest to you on the counter. Fold that 3 inches over and tuck it under the dough, then slowly roll, tucking and keeping things taut, tucking in the 2 ends as you go. By the time you get to the end of the paper/wrap, you should have a nice evenly rounded log. And if the dough is so soft to begin with that you were leaving finger indentations in it, maybe chill it for 15 minutes before you get rolling.

Another thing you can do is wrap the dough in plastic wrap, then stuff into an empty paper-towel tube, pressing in from each end or even cutting it to fit your needs.

Chatters, what other tricks do you use?

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Casserole disaster: Maybe you guys could have a how-to on casseroles, because I can't seem to make them. I made Emeril's twice baked potato casserole and it was so liquidy after one hour, I had to bake it longer to try to dry it up and the cheese broke, and it was an oily and goopy mess. Very unappetizing. It sure looked like it ought to have been good.

Joe Yonan: Have you had other casserole disasters? Maybe the recipe is the problem! (Did you follow it exactly -- baking potatoes, letting them cool, all other ingreds?) You might post a comment on their site and see what others who have made it think.

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Vegetarian Christmas: Though Thanksgiving was just last week (and we suffered through it at a restaurant. Bah!), I am getting excited to host Christmas dinner. We are having two vegetarians as well as 8 meat-eaters. I would like to make one or two vegetarian casseroles (bonus if I can do most of the work the day before). Do you have any good suggestions?

Jane Black: Well, there's always lasagna, which you can make way in advance, freeze and bake. But one of my favorite winter casseroles is our baked polenta with cheese and swiss chard. The casserole can be covered and refrigerated for up to 1 day. Add about 5 minutes to the baking time.

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Pumpkin Chocolate Chip Cookies: We have a holiday cookie exchange at our office and I was thinking about making pumpkin chocolate chip cookies for it. But I can't seem to find a good recipe online. Looking for one that isn't too muffin like and more like a soft cookie.

Joe Yonan: We don't have exactly that, but Leigh wrote about these pumpkin sandwich cookies (whoopie-pie-like) that could fit the bill. I'd do them as is, but you could certainly easily put some chocolate chips (small ones, preferably) in that filling.

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Arlington, Va S: I'm happy to see the article on freezing food this week. I tend to freeze a fair amount of things, both ingredients and prepared dishes.

Here's my questions - I've tried freezing milk before, but it tends to separate, so I've stopped. Butter seems fine. The chart in today's paper said "better not freeze" milk sauces, but one of the recipes in the paper that is suggested for freezing has a decent amount of dairy in it(the Cognac Cherry Sauce). So I'm a little confused about freezing dairy.

Just Sunday I decided to try freezing some leftover bechamel sauce. How do you think it'll be when I thaw it? I'm guessing it'll be OK, but would rather not find out otherwise at the last minute.

Thanks for printing the article by the way, it's a lot better than running experiments myself!

Bonnie Benwick: That Cognac Cherry Sauce has some heavy cream in it, but it's mainly a fruit sauce. And I think your bechamel will be okay because it's almost like an emulsion. The trick is to reheat it slooowly, and maybe add some cream/milk to help it along.

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Arlington, Va.: I hope you guys had a great Turkey Day. My mind is now in Hanukkah mode. I'm hosting my boyfriend's parents for the first time ever and they are onion-phobes (tummy issues).

I was going to make these great Cook's Illustrated Orange-Honey glazed chicken breasts, but they recipe includes some browned shallot. Any suggestion for maintaining the savory notes without the shallot? The glaze is sweet as it is.

Also, latkes without onions could be pretty bland. Any thoughts there?

Thanks and happy holidays!

Joe Yonan: Well, leeks are in the same (allium) family, so I don't know if those would also provoke tummy issues, but they're much milder than shallots and so might do the trick.

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Too much cream, too many cranberries: How long does heavy cream last after being opened? And what can I do with the excess I have from T-giving? Drinking it just doesn't seem right.

I also need ideas for fresh cranberries (I know I can freeze them, but I still need ideas to use them up either way). Any cake ideas that will freeze well? I'm open to savory, sweet, whatever (for the cream & crans)

Thanks!

Jane Black: Almost all cream you get in this country is ultra-pasteurized. That means it's been heated to a high temperature to kill bacteria. As a result, it loses some flavor -- some people say it has a "cooked" taste -- but lasts a really long time. A month or more, I think. So you've time. What to do with it? Depends what you're making. Add a little to a vegetable soup, mashed potatoes or make cheesecake or whipped cream. Possibilities are endless.

As for cranberries, here's a fun recipe from our archive:

CRANBERRY CAKE (9-inch Bundt cake, 12 servings)

From "Have Your Cake and Eat It, Too" by Susan G. Purdy (Morrow, 1993). Don't wait for Thanksgiving to make this coffeecake. It's delicious.

Butter-flavor nonstick cooking oil spray and flour for the pan

2 cups sifted all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon baking soda

1 teaspoon cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 cup fresh cranberries or frozen whole cranberries, picked over, rinsed and patted dry

1 cup granulated sugar

2 tablespoons canola or safflower oil

2 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature

1 large egg

1/2 cup apple cider or apple juice

1/2 cup unsulfured molasses

Position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat oven to 350 degrees. Generously coat a 9-inch Bundt pan with cooking spray. Dust with flour and tap out excess flour. (Be sure to grease and flour the pan very thoroughly so the cranberries do not stick.)

Sift together the flour, baking soda, cinnamon and salt onto a sheet of wax paper or into a bowl. In another bowl, combine about 3 tablespoons of the flour mixture with the cranberries and toss well. Set aside.

In the large bowl of an electric mixer, beat together the sugar, oil and butter until well blended. Add the egg and beat well.

In a small saucepan, bring the cider or apple juice to a boil. Remove from the heat and add the molasses, stirring until it dissolves.

With the mixer on very low speed, alternately add the dry ingredients and the molasses mixture to the beaten sugar-egg mixture, beginning and ending with the dry ingredients. Stir in the cranberries. The batter will be quite thin.

Spoon the batter into the prepared pan. Bake in the preheated oven for 45 to 50 minutes or until the top is springy to the touch and a cake tester inserted in the center comes out clean. Cool the cake in the pan on a wire rack for 15 minutes, then invert onto another rack and let cool.

Per serving: 228 calories, 3 gm protein, 44 gm carbohydrates, 5 gm fat, 23 mg cholesterol, 2 gm saturated fat, 202 mg sodium

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Washington DC: Thanks so much for the freezing food article! Very cool graphics and layout.

Have a logistics question---if I wanted to make casseroles ahead and freeze, should I line the pyrex-type casserole dish with foil and once frozen, take out the dish? That way I could use the dish while the food stays frozen until needed? Any other ideas? I am trying to make a few dishes ahead for a friend expecting her first baby.

Thanks!

Bonnie Benwick: You're welcome. That lining with foil idea is crackerjack. Be sure to label, and I'd probably put the frozen foil-wrapped things in freezer zip bags, just to be safe.

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20783: I made both the sweet potato rolls (parbaked a week in advance--and I made the dough in my bread machine) and the pecan date pies (individual ones in graham cracker crusts) for Thanksgiving, and both were fabulous! Thanks for the recipes, and for the variations which I obviously took full advantage of. You guys rock!

washingtonpost.com: Sweet Potato Rolls and Date Pecan Pie

Joe Yonan: Great to hear! Thanks.

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re: veggie casseroles: I made Fine Cooking's Butternut Squash, Leek, and Apple Gratin. I had to cook it a bit longer to ensure the butternut squash was cooked to soft. It was very savory and had a lovely sweet texture to balance it.

Jane Black: Thanks for the tip.

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Cookies - can I roll and cut these?: I have a nice recipe for cardamom cookies that I'd love to turn into roll-and-cut for a holiday party. Do you think this will work?

Recipe: 1 cup butter, 2 tsps soda, 1 tsp cardamom, 1/2 tsp salt, 2 c light brown sugar, 2 eggs, 4.5 c flour, 2 tsp cream of tartar.

Chill, shape into 1/2 inch balls onto ungreased cookie sheet, press a fork onto the tops cross-wise. Bake at 350 for 10 min.

So I'd like to roll them out to almost 1/2 inch thick, cut into shapes, and bake for more like 8 minutes. (I use the baking "stones" rather than cookie sheets.)

What do you think? The party is Saturday, so I'm ahead of your cookie special section.

thanks!

Joe Yonan: Yep, you should be fine doing that.

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Silver Spring, Md.: Ideas on where I might find pasteurized eggs? I want to make egg nog without cooking it. Two years ago I could only find it at a local Safeway (Silver Spring). But last year, could not find it anywhere. Thanks.

Bonnie Benwick: I have found Davidson's brand pasteurized eggs at Harris Teeter.

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20202: I recently tried a braised short ribs recipe (not WAPO's, unfortunately), and am a bit confused by the results, which were really, really fatty. As in, I skimmed a full tuna-can's worth of fat from the sauce, and we were hunting for the meat (which was really tasty) through the fat on the ribs. I used chuck short ribs from Whole Foods, seared and braised for three hours. I see four possibilities: 1) I used the wrong "type" of short ribs; 2) I got some poorly-butchered short ribs; 3) I prepared the short ribs wrong; or 4) short ribs are supposed to be this fatty. Which is it? Or am I missing something? Help!

Joe Yonan: I'll vote for mostly #4, with perhaps a teensy bit of #3 thrown in. That is, absolutely, short ribs are unbelievably fatty, but there are some tricks to getting more of the fat to render. Cook's Illustrated has a recipe that calls for searing in the oven before braising -- they say it gets more of the fat to render out. I haven't tried that, but I think it's worth your trying. But even working with the stovetop-sear technique, I almost always try to make short ribs a day in advance so that I can let them cool in the braising liquid, pull them out and then refrigerate the liquid so that all that fat rises and solidifies on the top. That way, you can get much more of it out than with merely skimming. Then, you can also reduce down the liquid to make a syrupy sauce and reheat the ribs. That's what I do with the famous Mahogany Short Ribs you've heard about so often.

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Alexandria, Va.: In the middle of a kitchen redo. Sort of putting a crimp into my usual baking and home-made food gifts. Plus, just a teeny fridge at the moment. What can I make in a microwave?

Also, any other tips from others on how to survive the holidays with just a microwave and a toaster?

Bonnie Benwick: Oy. We need the voice of experience here. Chatters? Meanwhile, we'll think about microwave dishes...I know there's lots of steaming that can be done to vegetables, and pasta/rice is easy to do.

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Washington, DC: I rarely bake, so I always end up throwing out most of a can of baking soda because it has gotten old. Is there a way to prolong its shelf life, or a source for smaller cans? (Or any non-baking uses?)

Joe Yonan: Are you sure the baking soda isn't any good? If it's sealed airtight and in a cool spot, it lasts indefinitely. If you're not sure, take 1/4 teaspoon and mix with a couple teaspoons of vinegar. If it bubbles, you're good to go.

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Washington, DC: I read with interest your article about the wine aerators and I'm hoping someone will buy me one for Christmas. I was concerned though that you wrote it didn't always make the wine taste better. Could you clarify? Did it make it taste worse or rather just no better than if it had been poured out of the bottle with the use of the aerator? When I went to the Columbia Crest winery in October, they were using them in their tasting room (I think only for reds, but I don't recall). They had the Vinturi kind, which did make a funny noise, but it wasn't loud or too obnoxious.

Bonnie Benwick: Dave Mc says -- I tried each of these several times, and often had family and friends try them. Usually we noticed a difference between a glass poured straight from the bottle and one poured through an aerator. Sometimes there seemed to be no difference (and of course, this is inherently subjective). I wouldn't say any aerator made a wine taste worse; only that whatever effect there was didn't seem to be revolutionary, or worth the fuss and expense.

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One year birthday party: My son turns one next week and we're having Florentine meatballs, chicken nuggets, apple bread, cake, etc but I have no real side dishes. Do you have any suggestions for me? Thanks!

Bonnie Benwick: Well, he sounds like a very good eater. :)

Sounds like you're in need of some vegetables. How about a roasted ratatouille? A big ol' winter salad would be nice, too.

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Barbados, The West Indies: I am hosting a buffet dinner for my daughter and her new husband. I would like to do cold foods, just so there is no last minute preparation. I have curried chicken salad and pasta salad so far.. I need a good recipe for pasta salad, specifically the dressing. Any suggestions on that and on the meal generally? Many less common ingredients are not generally available here.

Jane Black: We have a number of pasta salads in our database. They tend to be summery but based on your location you shouldn't have too hard a time getting tomatoes or zucchini I'd imagine. Check them out.

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For the upcoming company holiday potluck:: Our potluck is being held mid-afternoon on a Friday. Aside from the fact that refrigerator space will be at a premium, any heating of foods will be left to 2 smallish microwaves, and maybe Sterno. With that in mind, any ideas for suggestions of a "side dish" to bring?

Bonnie Benwick: Bring prepped salad fixings in a smallish cooler. Make the dressing ahead. Assemble to the wonderment of your co-workers. Or make a rice pilaf or wild rice salad that can be served at room temperature.

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Silver Spring, Md.: I love to cook. But, I do not bake often because I don't like to follow recipes and prefer to experiment, which does not always turn out well in baking. I recently tried baking bread for the first time and was surprised by how easy it really is. I made a very simply white bread and followed the recipe exactly. Now, I want to branch out. I am planning to adapt the white bread into cinnamon raisin bread next. Which I think will be easy since it does not require changing the underlying bread recipe. But, what I really want to know is if I can substitute bread flour in the same recipe for a more chewy texture rather than the softer bread I made before? Are there other considerations when substituting bread flour for AP--different amount of yeast or water? Or, would you suggest that I only use recipes that specifically call for bread flour rather than substituting?

Joe Yonan: I'd invest in a really good bread book, such as Nancy Silverton's "Breads from Le Brea Bakery," Nancy Baggett's "Kneadlessly Simple," Peter Reinhart's "The Bread Baker's Apprentice" or his newer "Artisan Breads Every Day." Why reinvent the wheel, when you can learn from one (or more) of the greats? Then when you get more experienced/comfortable, you can experiment. You could even sign up for the Web-based baking circle that's working on "BBA."

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Buttermilk: I bought some for pancakes, and have most of a quart left over. What can I do with it, other than make more pancakes? (I do not like ranch dressing, so that it out.) I'm happy to use it in veggie casseroles or the like, but have no idea how. Thanks for the help.

Bonnie Benwick: Perfect for scones or pound cake or mashed potatoes. You can freeze buttermilk, in truth, as long as you were just going to use the defrosted stuff for cooking.

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Washington DC: Hello! Trying one last time. Any thoughts on easy-to-make, shelf-stable syrups or tinctures I could make for gifts for the holidays? Trusted recipes? I'd love something interesting and versatile. Have been thinking, perhaps, rosemary, cinnamon, raspberry... Thanks!

Jane Black: Do you mean bitters of some sort? Our trusty cocktail tester swears by P/X mixologist Todd Thrasher's celery bitters.

Or coming up Dec. 16 is Jason Wilson's winter cocktail guide. I know he's got a great recipe for homemade grenadine. Is that what you had in mind?

Joe Yonan: Jason will also have recs for spice rum infusion, habanero-infused apple brandy, homemade tonic water and more.

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Desserts that require chilled butter: Lately I've made desserts that ask me to take chilled butter and chop it up to mix into the flour mixture. This is particularly for any type of crumb/cobbler dessert. What I've found is that when I try to mix the chilled cubes into the flour that the butter still mixes together and becomes bigger chunks of butter. Is there any type of solution to this? Should I take the chopped butter and put it back in the fridge to keep it cold until all the butter is ready to be mixed? I've tried lots of things but can't find that trick that really makes this stand out. If you or the chatters can provide suggestions that would be great, especially as we get ready for cookie season. Thanks!

Joe Yonan: Indeed, I chop up the butter and then chill it, which I think would help you here. And go for the freezer, not the fridge.

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Washington, DC: Make some cornbread with the buttermilk! That is what I did this weekend. It is in the freezer for Christmas. Or you could make more pancakes and put them in the freezer too and reheat them individually. My Giant sells pint size bottles of buttermilk now. I love them.

Bonnie Benwick: Cornbread of course! And I love, love, love those smaller bottles.

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candy thermometer person: Thanks for the suggestions! But perhaps one that is not digital? It seems every time I get a high tech digital gadgeting thingamabob it ends up not working after a year; costs more money than I care to spend and impossible to fix (well, only because fixing it costs as much as a new one and now its just wasteful as why fix it?) - maybe chatters can recommend a brand?

Jane Black: I think their argument was that digital thermometers made them much easier to read than a basic one. But I hear you. Chatters?

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Washington, DC: Regarding freezing, I have finally moved away from using Tupperwares to freeze and basically put everything in freezer bags now. They are easy to label, they stack beautifully, they allow me to force the air out of them (unlike Tupperwares, where I was constantly freezer burning foods), and they thaw perfectly under running warm water. Soups, stews, braised meats, sauces, etc., all work beautifully this way. Plus, since I just cook for two people, if I have a lot left over, I find that the quart-sized freezer bags make a good portion size and so I can portion everything out this way. My freezer is so much neater now that I have been doing this.

Bonnie Benwick: Smart.

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Baking soda: I think the poster meant baking powder, not soda, because he or she refers to it coming in a can. Baking powder definitely does go bad.

Joe Yonan: Baking chatter, are you still here? Clarify, please. Absolutely, if you meant baking powder, I replace mine a couple times a year. (My fab-baking sister, Teri, taught me this: Spring forward, buy new baking powder. Fall back, buy new baking powder.) That said, you can make your own on demand, from ingredients that last longer individually: 1 teaspoon baking soda, 2 teaspoons cream of tartar, 1 teaspoon corn starch.

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Philadelphia, Pa.: Hello!

I'm supposed to bring cheese and crackers to a holiday party this weekend, but I was thinking I'd try do something a little special and make homemade crackers. Do you have any recipes for crackers that would be both good on their own (that is, not too bland), but also with a mild soft cheese? Or would I be better off saving my time and just buying something?

Thanks! Love your chats!

Bonnie Benwick: We're fond of you, too. Our cheese blogger Domenica Marchetti put up this ode to Liptauer last week. That might be something different for you to try. Crackerwise, how about Wine Biscuits With Cracked Black Pepper or these:

GOAT CHEESE AND WALNUT CRACKERS (70 crackers)

1/2 pound goat cheese, room temperature

8 tablespoons unsalted butter, room temperature

2 tablespoons walnut oil

1 1/3 cups flour

1/2 teaspoon dried thyme, crushed

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup very finely chopped walnuts

In a food processor, cream together the goat cheese, butter and walnut oil. Add the flour, thyme and salt, processing until a dough forms. Add the walnuts and process just to blend. Divide the dough in half and roll into 2 1-inch thick cylinders. Wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate for 2 hours, until very firm.

Cut the cylinders into 1/4-inch thick slices. Place on ungreased baking sheets and bake in preheated 350-degree oven for about 15 minutes, or until lightly browned around the edges. Cool before serving. Store in airtight containers.

Per serving: 43 calories, .8 gm protein, 3 gm carbohydrates, 3 gm fat, 1 gm saturated fat, 4 mg cholesterol, 41 mg sodium.

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Raleigh, N.C.: I'm interested in making food gifts for xmas, and am a little desperate for some different ideas--trying to at least get a mix of stuff so it's not all sugar, sugar, sugar. Any recipes you can share for quick pickles, savory biscuits, seasoning mixes??? I'm all ears!

Jane Black: Pickles can be tough because, ideally, you want to do it in summer when so many things are in season. But there's still time to do beets and carrots. Here's a recipe for a simple pickled beets.

Or, if you're feeling adventurous, you might do what I am doing -- shhhh! -- and give kimchee, which uses mostly cabbage. I'm using David Chang's recipe from the new Momofuku cookbook. It requires a little shopping but once you get the salted shrimp and Korean chili powder, you'll have enough for, well, forever. And it's insanely good.

Napa Cabbage Kimchee

Makes 1 to 1 1/2 quarts

1 small to medium head Napa cabbage, discolored or loose outer leaves discarded

2 tablespoons kosher or coarse sea salt

1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar

20 garlic cloves, minced

20 slices peeled fresh ginger, minced

1/2 cup kochukaru (Korean chile powder)

1/4 cup fish sauce

1/4 cup usukuchi (light soy sauce)

2 teaspoons jarred salted shrimp

1/2 cup 1-inch pieces scallions (greens and whites)

1/2 cup julienned carrots

DIRECTIONS

Cut the cabbage lengthwise in half, then cut the halves crosswise into 1-inch-wide pieces. Toss the cabbage with the salt and 2 tablespoons of the sugar in a bowl. Let sit overnight in the refrigerator.

Combine the garlic, ginger, kochukaru, fish sauce, soy sauce, shrimp, and remaining 1/2 cup sugar in a large bowl. If it is very thick, add water 1/3 cup at a time until the brine is just thicker than a creamy salad dressing but no longer a sludge. Stir in the scallions and carrots.

Drain the cabbage and add it to the brine. Cover and refrigerate. Though the kimchi will be tasty after 24 hours, it will be better in a week and at its prime in 2 weeks. It will still be good for another couple weeks after that, though it will grow stronger and funkier.

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Fairfax, Va.: Thanks Joe, loved the tip about vinegar to test baking soda.

Quick question re: cookie baking--

I store my flour in the freezer (another tip from you Food staffers), but should I let it come to room temp before blending it with the other ingredients (like I do butter?). The reason I ask is that sometimes the texture of the cookies seem a little "off" and I was wondering if it was because the flour was cold.

Cheers, thanks.

Joe Yonan: You're welcome.

I don't think cold flour would cause an off texture, no, but if you're worried about it, give it a try. It seems that by the time you take out the flour and give it a whisk or two, it would easily be room temp, wouldn't it?

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Re: Substituting Turkey In Chicken Soup: I have lots of leftover turkey and in worked well in this chicken soup recipe

Joe Yonan: I was being facetious. Of course, I knew why you had leftover turkey!

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Chicago: Ooh, speaking of sauces - I've been meaning to ask this for awhile.

I tried the chickpea burger recipe from a month or two ago (I believe it was in a blog post.) And sadly, I have to admit I found the texture to be less than desirable. The chickpeas turned out too dry and gummy in my mouth. However, I loved the flavors and was wondering what would be a good way to turn the mixture, sans chick peas and rice, into a sauce? Would I need to add some more liquid?

Bonnie Benwick: quick, send the ingredients?

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Langley, Va.: Hi everybody and happy holidays!

Looking forward to the cookie recipes.

And speaking of cookies....I just tried a recipe that calls for dark chocolate chunks (I chopped up two Hershey's special dark chocolate bars) and dried, chopped cherries. Delicious! Even better was substituting dried wild blueberries (no chopping, they are the perfect size! and blueberry and dark chocolate went together well).

Do you all have any other unusual combinations that make great cookies?

Thank you very much!

Bonnie Benwick: That's a good question. Can you re-ask it next week, when we're up to our eyeballs in cookies?

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Washington, DC: PLEASE -- I need some ideas for low(ish) carb desserts that don't use yuck-o chemical sweeteners in lieu of sugar. Please help!

Bonnie Benwick: You could do meringues or floating islands (with real sugar and egg whites), then top with a fruit sauce you make yourself. Or you could just bake fruit this way.

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brussel sprouts: For Thanksgiving I made brussel sprouts in a hazelnut butter, which had a sauce that was a rue that I used vegetable broth for to keep it vegetarian and it called for some lemon juice. It was just revolting. It tasted like brown butter with lemon juice. It was a bit better the next day, but I thought generally disgusting. I wasn't even sure if I should put it out for the guests, but after putting forth the effort, I didn't want to chuck it either.

Joe Yonan: Huh. Where'd you get the recipe? "Brown butter with lemon juice" makes my mouth water, actually, making me think of the classic sole meuniere.

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For the one year old birthday party: How about baked sweet potato fries? Easy finger food and delicious! I actually think any kind of roasted winter vegetable like butternut squash could be good too.

Bonnie Benwick: Good call.

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Buttermilk: I've also used buttermilk to brine pork chops.

Bonnie Benwick: Right. There's also the classic fried chicken recipes, many of which call for a buttermilk bath beforehand.

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chicken strips: A few weeks back you posted the recipe for chicken strips, and I can't remember which week to look in. Could you repost it please?

Bonnie Benwick: I'm stumped. Any more info?

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Washington, DC: so -- a friend gives us a couple quart jars of fresh shucked oysters. since it's only two of us -- how do I keep them? Generally we can manage over two days to consume one of the jars...but then I'm tired of oysters. Can I freeze them to use for oyster stew at Christmas?

Bonnie Benwick: I've never done so, but a quick Web search seems to indicate that oysters can be frozen in their liquid as long as they're completely submerged and you allow for a little headspace (expansion room).

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Baking soda and bread comment: I thought with baking soda you were to keep it slightly open in the fridge or is that something that isn't necessary anymore? I just remember growing up and having the baking soda in the fridge and using it to bake/cook with. Is this wrong?

For the person making bread, I got the Kneadlessly simple bread book based on another chatters recommendation. I wasn't even looking for a bread book but hearing the comment made me buy it that day. It is simple but the only problem is scheduling the time so its ready when you want it. For instance, if you wake up one cold morning (as happened recently) and want raisin bread that afternoon, the cookbook isn't the best b/c you have to wait for all the rises. But if you want to make bread for later in the week or for a specific occasion you can work backwards with the timeframes.

Joe Yonan: The keeping-it-open-in-the-fridge idea is good, sure, but that's so that it absorbs fridge odors and is not a storage strategy. I guess it'd be OK to use that baking soda to bake with, but I never do because of aforementioned odor absorption.

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Thank you!: Chilled butter poster here. Thanks for answering my question as I was getting really frustrated with hunks of butter and areas that were just flour in baking. I'll try this the next time and see if it works--I'm sure it will. You guys haven't guided me in the wrong direction yet!

Joe Yonan: Glad to help.

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wine aerator report: We have a Vinturi -- it definitely makes a difference, but I'd say it's never clearly better, just clearly different.

It takes the harshness out of cheap wine, but it takes some of the complexity out of a nicer ($15+) bottle, so we hardly use it.

So it's kind of fun to have, and if you open a bottle of something new and it seems harsh I'd run it through an aerator, but overall, my personal experience is that it is not worth having on hand and definitely isn't the "do this instead of decanting" shortcut it's advertised as.

Happy drinking!

Joe Yonan: Interesting. Thanks for, ahem, clearing the air.

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we thank you!: for the person seeking veg Xmas recipes, I just put "casserole" into the search function here and came up with all these. Thanks for thinking about serving all your guests. You are a good host.

Bonnie Benwick: Almost as if you were on staff today.

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Philadelphia, Pa.: Getting ready to move in a few weeks, and therefore am commencing Operation Bake Through the Cabinets. I have a lot of dribs and drabs of things I want to use up. So far it's been mostly quick breads (to use up bananas, canned pumpkin, pecans) and coffee cake (to use up half a jar of Trader Joe's cherries).

Now I have: the rest of the cherries, several cups of cocoa, a huge bar of Ghirardelli semisweet (probably a pound), a cup of dates, and at least a cup of chestnuts.

Obviously I do not think they should all go in the same thing. Any recipes leaping to mind to use up some of them, though?

(Yeah, I'll probably make Man-Catcher Brownies again, but a brownie/cookie/cake recipe to use the solid chocolate is also a good idea.)

Fattening my co-workers with this stuff. It's them or me, so I choose them.

Jane Black: I am intrigued by this question -- and your strategy. Despite myself, I can't think of anything to use all of them. (Bonnie says "some kind of mincemeat pie?") The closest I can come to an answer is biscotti: You can make one dough and make different varieties: cherry, chocolate-date, chocolate cherry...but chestnuts, hmmm.

Here's one more idea that kills two ingredients:

Geraldine's Chocolate-Date Cake. Chatters -- any other ideas?

Joe Yonan: I have NEVER had any leftover dried cherries. I'm just sayin'.

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Upstate, NY: For the persimmon pudding poster, it may have more to do with the ripeness of the persimmons than with the actual recipe. Persimmons that aren't perfectly ripe are going to be tart and make for a more sweet/tart pudding.

Jane Black: A good thesis. Thanks.

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Persimonny: not quite what you asked for, but these are really stellar (addictive, even):

Persimmon-Spice Muffins (Vegetarian Times Issue: January 1, 2001)

To make persimmon puree, slice the persimmon in half and scrape the pulp from the peel. Press the pulp through a strainer or blend in a food processor.

Ingredient List (Makes 16)

3 cups oat bran, 3 tsp. baking powder, 1/2 tsp. ground cloves, 1 tsp. ground cinnamon, 1/2 tsp. ground ginger, 1 tsp. salt, 1/2 cup plus 2 Tbs. persimmon puree, 1/2 cup honey, 1/2 cup plus 2 Tbs. nonfat milk, 2 egg whites (from 2 large eggs), 1 cup grated McIntosh apple, 1/4 cup dried currants.

Directions

Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. Line 16 standard muffin pan cups with paper liners. In medium bowl, mix oat bran, baking powder, spices and salt. In separate bowl, mix remaining ingredients. Add to oat bran mixture and stir just until blended. Spoon mixture into muffin pans, filling to top. Smooth with back of spoon. Bake 30 minutes or until tops are browned. Set pan on wire rack and let cool 10 minutes. Remove muffins from pan and let cool thoroughly.

Nutritional Information

Per Muffin: Calories: 95, Protein: 4g, Total fat: 1g, Saturated fat: g, Carbs: 25g, Cholesterol: mg, Sodium: 147mg, Fiber: 3g, Sugars: g

Joe Yonan: Nice -- thanks!

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keeping half and half: I see that you've said heavy cream will last a while once opened....does the same go for half and half (regular and fat free)? I always thought of it more like milk, only good about a week when opened. If I can keep it longer that's great!!

Jane Black: Look to see if it says ultra-pasteurized. I would think a lot of half-and-half is -- especially the fat-free kind. (But really, what is fat-free half-and-half? What's the other half?)

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Soup question: I'm having a dinner party and want to make a traditional French seafood soup - the kind that is smooth. I've tried pureeing with my immersion blender, and it works for every other kind of soup except, it seems, seafood - it remains a bit too chunky for dinner party purposes. Do I need to puree it and then pass it through a sieve? I hate to leave all that seafood behind! Or should I transfer it to a food processor for better pureeing? Thanks!

Jane Black: A food processor will definitely do a better job. You may have to pass it through a sieve anyway to get the texture you want. But by getting it into the smallest pieces possible, you'll leave the least behind.

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Pudding cake???: Ok, so you guys run the Eating Well Hawaiian ginger chicken recipe and mention the hot fudge pudding cake recipe but don't run that one? What a way to make me want to go out and buy the cookbook!

Bonnie Benwick: Diabolical, isn't it? Remember, the book comes out in early January.

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Alexandria, Va.: I'm wondering if any of you or other chatters have experience with SodaStream systems? I'm interested in making sparkling water and soda at home, to avoid all those plastic bottles and lugging things home from the store.

Joe Yonan: This is the brand (called SodaClub in the US) used by a friend and environmental reporter. I was at dinner when she and hub showed us how it worked. Was very cool: quick, easy, and they love it.

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Holiday baking question: I'm baking for several family members and friends this holiday. I'm not sure how much of each thing I need to make though. Is there a general rule for how much to send to each family? For example, a dozen cookies to one person, two for a family of four? If you're making more than one thing (I'm making four different kinds of cookies/brittle), how do you decide how much of each to send to a family or friend? Thanks!

Bonnie Benwick: In my experience, nobody doesn't like cookies. Rarely does a gift of cookies get eaten all at one sitting (unless there is a teenage boy in the house). Go with an assortment or amount you feel comfortable making and giving.

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Silver Spring, Md.: For bread books, try Bernard Clayton's Complete Book of Bread. Jeffrey Hamelman's book (forget the title) is the very very best first baking book, with a nice balance between fussiness and simplicity.

Joe Yonan: Yes, Jeffrey's stuff is amazing. I think you mean the one called just "Bread."

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Those cardamom cookies to roll and cut: I should have credited the cookbook!

THE SPICE COOKBOOK by Avanelle Day and Lillie Stuckey, 1964.

Joe Yonan: Thanks!

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SAVORY food gifts : Cheese cookies

Bonnie Benwick: Always a hit when I give them.

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Berger cookies: Now that Thanksgiving is over, let's start focusing on cookie exchanges. I found a Berger cookie recipe from KAF, and wondered how it compares to Leigh's.

Bonnie Benwick: Check back next week? Leigh wasn't able to join in today.

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re-freezing turkey: According to the graphic in today's paper, I can defrost my turkey in the refrigerator, then refreeze the uncooked meat. Is this correct? I won't be compromising texture, etc. by cutting the defrosted turkey into pieces then refreezing some portions?

Bonnie Benwick: It is correct. That said, there is a difference between "safe" to eat and best quality. I guess it depends how you would use the refrozen portions.

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Anonymous: Has anyone been able to get a copy of the November, and final, issue of Gourmet? I have been a subscriber since 1966 and I didn't get one. And even the biggest newstands never had them. Is some cartel trying to corner the market on the November issue?

Jane Black: I got my copy. If you are a subscriber and didn't receive one, I'd contact Conde Nast. It's probably not too late. They *should* be able to send you one.

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Fairfax, Va.: Another idea for Christmas food gifts. Southern Living Magazine, way back in 1985, published a recipe for a bean soup where you put many types of beans in mason jars for gifts, and then they included the recipes for the bean soup which I believe included using canned tomatoes, ham hock or smoked turkey parts, water, the beans and the result was a delicious multi-bean soup. Don't have the recipe with me at work, but I'm pretty sure of the source. Whole Foods has lots of beans in their bulk foods department.

Joe Yonan: Fun -- thanks!

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fruit cake: Do Rangers or chatters have a tried and true, favorite fruit case? I can't stand candied fruit, I prefer dried fruit or brandy soaked, etc.

Joe Yonan: We had these great-looking ones many years back from Elinor Klivans. We're going to try to get them in the database this holiday season.

Orange, Date and Coconut Cake (Makes 1 large cake baked in a tube pan)

I use glazed European orange peel from the King Arthur Flour Baker's Catalogue (1-800-827-6836) for this cake. It's the only prepared orange peel I have found that has a good orange flavor.

For the cake:

3 cups plus 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon baking soda

4 cups pitted dates, halved

3/4 cup candied orange rind, cut in small pieces

1/4 pound (1 stick) soft unsalted butter, plus additional for the pan

1/4 pound (1 stick) soft margarine

2 cups sugar

4 large eggs

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

1 teaspoon grated fresh orange peel

1/2 cup buttermilk

2 cups coarsely chopped walnuts

1 cup shredded sweetened coconut

For the glaze:

3/4 cup confectioners' sugar

1/2 teaspoon grated orange peel

1/4 cup fresh orange juice

For the cake: Preheat the oven to 250 degrees. Butter the bottom, sides and center tube of a 9 1/2- or 10-inch tube pan with sides at least 3 3/4 inches high. Line the bottom with parchment or wax paper and butter the paper.

Sift 3 cups of the flour together with the baking soda. Set aside. Mix the dates and orange rind with the remaining 2 tablespoons flour. Set aside.

Beat the butter, margarine and sugar in the large bowl of an electric mixer until fluffy, about 2 minutes. Add the eggs 1 at a time, beating well after each addition. The mixture will look curdled. Add the vanilla and grated orange peel. On low speed, add half the flour mixture, mixing just until it is incorporated. Mix in the buttermilk. Add the remaining flour, mixing just until the mixture is smooth. Use a large spoon to stir in the date mixture, walnuts and coconut. Transfer the batter to the prepared pan. Bake in the preheated oven for about 2 1/2 hours, until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Glaze the cake while warm.

For the glaze: Mix the confectioners' sugar, orange peel and orange juice in a small bowl until smooth. Pour the mixture over the warm cake in the pan. Cover the cake and let it sit overnight. The cake absorbs the glaze as it sits.

Carefully loosen the cake from the sides and center tube of the pan and remove it. Discard the paper lining the bottom. Wrap the cake tightly in plastic wrap, then in heavy aluminum foil. Store in the refrigerator for up to 2 months. Slice the cold cake into thin slices and serve at room temperature.

Per serving (based on 20): 447 calories, 7 gm protein, 66 gm carbohydrates, 19 gm fat, 55 mg cholesterol, 6 gm saturated fat, 143 mg sodium, 4 gm dietary fiber

Black Forest Chocolate Cherry Cake (Makes 2 loaves)

Here's a fruitcake made for chocolate lovers. It's a dark, almost black, chocolate cake packed with chopped chocolate, black cherry preserves and dried cherries. When served cold, this cake has a pleasing firm, fudge-like consistency.

For the cake:

2 cups (about 10 ounces) dried cherries

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa powder

1/2 teaspoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/2 pound (2 sticks) soft unsalted butter, plus additional for the pans

1 cup sugar

3 large eggs

4 ounces melted semisweet chocolate, plus 8 ounces chopped

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1/4 cup black cherry preserves

1/4 cup kirsch liqueur

For the syrup:

1/4 cup sugar

1/4 cup reserved soaking water from cherries

1 tablespoon kirsch liqueur

For the cake: Put the cherries in a small bowl and cover them with hot water. Let the cherries steep for 30 minutes. Drain the cherries, reserving 1/2 cup of the now cherry-flavored water. Pat the cherries dry with paper towels. Set aside.

Preheat the oven to 300 degrees. Butter the bottom and sides of 2 loaf pans, each measuring about 9-by-5-by-3 inches, with a 6-to-7-cup capacity. Line the bottoms with parchment or wax paper and butter the paper.

Sift the flour, cocoa powder, baking powder, baking soda and salt together. Set aside.

Beat the butter and sugar in the large bowl of an electric mixer until fluffy, about 2 minutes. Add the eggs 1 at a time, beating well after each addition. The mixture will look curdled. Mix in the melted chocolate. Add the vanilla and the cherry preserves. On low speed, add 1/2 the flour mixture, mixing just until it is incorporated. Mix in the kirsch and 1/4 cup of the reserved soaking water from the cherries. Add the remaining flour, mixing just until the mixture is smooth. Use a large spoon to stir in the reserved cherries and chopped chocolate. Transfer the batter to the prepared pans. Bake in the preheated oven for about 1 hour, until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.

For the syrup: Heat the sugar and the remaining 1/4 cup cherry water in a small saucepan to dissolve the sugar. Stir in the kirsch. Pour the warm syrup over the warm cakes in the pans. The cakes will immediately absorb the syrup. Cool the cakes thoroughly in the pans.

Loosen the cakes from the sides of the pans and remove them. Discard the paper lining the bottoms. Wrap each cake tightly in plastic wrap, then in heavy aluminum foil. Store in the refrigerator for up to 6 weeks. Cut cold cake into thin slices and serve cold.

Per serving (based on 20): 276 calories, 4 gm protein, 39 gm carbohydrates, 13 gm fat, 47 mg cholesterol, 8 gm saturated fat, 62 mg sodium, 2 gm dietary fiber

Pear and Currant Cake (Makes one 9-inch round cake)

Using cake flour for this cake produces an exceptionally tender-textured cake, while almond paste makes it particularly moist. Use scissors to cut the pears easily into the desired pieces. 1/2 pound (2 sticks) soft unsalted butter, plus additional for the pan

8 ounces almond paste

1 cup sugar

1 large egg, separated

4 large eggs

1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

3/4 teaspoon pure almond extract

2 cups cake flour

3 cups (about 1 pound) dried pears, cut in 1/2-to- 3/4-inch pieces

1 1/2 cups currants

Preheat the oven to 300 degrees. Butter the bottom and sides of a 9-by-9-by-2-inch cake pan. Line the bottom of the pan with parchment or wax paper and butter the paper.

Beat the butter, almond paste, sugar and 1 egg white in the large bowl of an electric mixer until smooth. Slowly add the egg yolk and 4 eggs, beating well after all of the eggs are added. The mixture will look curdled. Add the lemon juice, vanilla and almond extracts. On low speed, slowly add the flour, mixing just until it is incorporated and the mixture is smooth. Use a large spoon to stir in the pears and currants. Transfer the batter to the prepared pan. Bake for about 1 hour and 20 minutes, until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.

Cool the cake thoroughly in the pan. Loosen the cake from the sides of the pan and remove it. Discard the paper lining the bottom. Wrap the cake tightly in plastic wrap, then in heavy aluminum foil. Store in the refrigerator for up to 2 months. Slice the cold cake into thin wedges and serve at room temperature.

Per serving (based on 16): 402 calories, 6 gm protein, 60 gm carbohydrates, 17 gm fat, 98 mg cholesterol, 8 gm saturated fat, 25 mg sodium, 4 gm dietary fiber

Golden Tropical Fruitcake (Makes 2 loaves)

Dried pineapple and mango, banana chips and toasted coconut make the "fresh" tropical fruit for this cake available any time of year.

For the cake:

1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour

1/2 teaspoon baking powder

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/2 pound (2 sticks) soft unsalted butter, plus additional for the pans

1 cup sugar

5 large eggs

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

2 tablespoons dark rum

2 1/2 cups dried, sweetened pineapple, cut into 3/4-inch pieces

1 cup (about 4 ounces) unsalted, sweetened, dried banana chips

1 cup dried mango, cut into 3/4-inch pieces

1 cup toasted sweetened coconut

For the syrup:

1/4 cup water

1/4 sugar

2 tablespoons dark rum

For the cake: Preheat the oven to 250 degrees. Butter the bottom and sides of 2 loaf pans, measuring about 9-by-5-by-3-inches, with a 6-to-7-cup capacity. Line the bottoms with parchment or wax paper and butter the paper.

Sift the flour, baking powder and salt together. Set aside.

Beat the butter and sugar in the large bowl of an electric mixer until fluffy, about 2 minutes. Add the eggs 1 at a time, beating well after each addition. Add the vanilla, lemon juice and rum. The mixture will look curdled.

On low speed, slowly add the flour mixture, mixing just until it is incorporated and the mixture is smooth. Use a large spoon to stir in the pineapple, banana chips, mango and toasted coconut. Transfer the batter to the prepared pans. Bake for about 1 hour and 30 minutes, until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.

For the syrup: Heat the water and sugar in a small saucepan to dissolve the sugar. Stir in the rum. Pour the warm syrup over the warm cakes in the pans. Cool the cakes thoroughly in the pans.

Loosen the cakes from the sides of the pans and remove them. Discard the paper lining the bottoms. Wrap each cake tightly in plastic wrap, then in heavy aluminum foil. Store in the refrigerator for up to 2 months. Cut the cold cake into thin slices and serve at room temperature.

Per serving (based on 20): 343 calories, 3 gm protein, 50 gm carbohydrates, 14 gm fat, 78 mg cholesterol, 9 gm saturated fat, 74 mg sodium, 1 gm dietary fiber

Kentucky Bourbon Cake (Makes 1 large cake baked in a tube pan)

At first glance it looks as if this cake calls for way too much bourbon, but most of it is absorbed by the fruit as it steeps in the liquor. Both fruit and cake will give only a hint of bourbon. This adaptation of a traditional recipe comes via Sammye Williams, a native Kentuckian, who now lives in the Washington area.

For the cake:

1 1/4 cups bourbon whiskey

1 pound red candied cherries, halved

1 1/4 cups golden raisins

4 1/3 cups all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon baking powder

2 teaspoons ground nutmeg

3/4 pound (3 sticks) soft unsalted butter, plus additional for the pan

2 cups granulated sugar

1 cup packed light brown sugar

6 large eggs, separated

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

4 cups (about 1 pound) pecan halves

For the syrup:

1/4 cup water

1/4 cup sugar

3 tablespoons bourbon whiskey

The day before making the cake: Pour the bourbon over the cherries and raisins in a medium bowl and stir the mixture occasionally. Cover and let sit overnight.

For the cake: Preheat the oven to 250 degrees. Butter the bottom, sides and center tube of a 9 1/2- or 10-inch tube pan with sides at least 3 3/4 inches high. Line the bottom with parchment or wax paper and butter the paper.

Sift the flour, baking powder and nutmeg together. Set aside.

Beat the butter and both sugars in the large bowl of an electric mixer until fluffy, about 2 minutes. Mix in the egg yolks 1 at a time, beating well after each addition. The mixture will look curdled. Mix in the vanilla and bourbon-cherry mixture, including any liquid that remains in the bowl. On low speed, add the flour mixture, mixing just until it is incorporated. Set aside.

Beat the egg whites with clean beaters in a clean large bowl of an electric mixer until firm peaks form. Stir about 1/3 of the egg-white mixture into the prepared batter. Then use a rubber spatula to fold in the remaining egg whites just until no white streaks remain. Stir in the pecans. Transfer the batter to the prepared pan.

Bake for about 3 hours, until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Cool thoroughly in the pan. Loosen the cake from the sides and center tube and remove it from the pan. Discard the paper lining the bottom.

For the syrup: Heat the water and sugar in a small saucepan to dissolve the sugar. Stir in the bourbon. Soak a large piece of cheesecloth in the bourbon syrup. Wrap the cake tightly in the cheesecloth, pressing some of the cheesecloth into the center hole. Wrap in plastic wrap, then in heavy aluminum foil. Put into a large tin, if desired. Store in the refrigerator for at least 2 weeks. Check the cheesecloth every 2 weeks and moisten with additional syrup if it becomes dry. Refrigerate for up to 2 months. Cut the cold cake into thin slices and serve at room temperature.

Per serving (based on 24): 519 calories, 6 gm protein, 63 gm carbohydrates, 26 gm fat, 84 mg cholesterol, 9 gm saturated fat, 24 mg sodium, 2 gm dietary fiber Fruitcake Tips

If a fruitcake should overbake and become dry, poke a few holes in it with a toothpick and saturate it with double the amount of the syrup called for in the recipe.

Since fruitcakes slice easily when cold, cut them into thin slices when cold, then bring the slices to room temperature for maximum flavor.

Fill pans about 2/3 full with fruitcake batters.

Bake fruitcakes in the middle of oven where the heat is most even.

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Washington, DC: Greetings, food folks, Thanks for all your Thanksgiving suggestions; everything was delicious! I just discovered a problem when I went to make turkey chili -- some sort of small bug somehow got inside the sealed storage baggies where I keep dried chili peppers (guajillo, ancho and Anaheim, if that matters). I threw out all the bags and their contents but I'm wondering if I need to inspect all the food in the cupboard, including boxed pasta, and also, how did bugs get into sealed bags? Do I need to put everything in glass containers? Thank you for the advice!

Bonnie Benwick: Bummer. Is it possible the bugs were in the dried peppers to begin with? I'd vote for a general inspection, sure.

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Washington, DC: I'm hoping you all can help me out with some party planning. My husband and I are hosting a holiday party for friends, family and neighbors in a few weeks, and we're expecting about 40-50 people to filter through over the course of the evening. While we agree on what to serve for drinks to keep things simple, we just can't agree on what food to serve. The party starts at 7, so I think some people will have already eaten before they come. I would like to put out an assortment of heavy hors d'ouevres that can be at room temp for a few hours. My husband wants to do more hot stuff. I don't want to be in the kitchen baking up a new batch of something every hour (and neither does he, but he doesn't realize that that's what he'll have to do). Any ideas for room temperature bites for the buffet that I can use to sway the hubby??

Jane Black: I definitely would side with you. Best to have it all made in advance. We're almost out of time so I'm going to send you to the best cheat sheet around: Mark Bittman's 101 appetizers, which he published in the NYT two years ago. They can all be made in 20 minutes or less. Some won't be as heavy as you like but there's plenty to pick from.

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SodaStream: Have it. LOVE it. No more carrying heavy bottles and can, less waste and dozens of their flavored syrups, plus you can make your own flavors with juices. LOVE LOVE LOVE it.

Joe Yonan: Great!

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Joe Yonan: Well, you've submerged us in leakproof bags in a bowl of cold tap water and thawed us, allowing 30 minutes per pound, so you know what that means -- we're done! Now, time to cook.

Thanks for the great questions today, all. Hope we helped with our answers. Now, for the book winner. The DC chatter who wrote in about converting to freezer bags will get "500 Best Sauces, Salad Dressings, Marinades & More." Send your mailing info to food@washpost.com, and we'll get you the book.

Until next time, happy freezing, thawing, cooking and reading.

_______________________

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