Free Range on Food: Mixed drinks, gingerbread whoopie pies, knife sharpening, bundt cakes, breakup comfort food

The Food Section
of the Washington Post
Wednesday, December 16, 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.

A transcript of this week's chat follows.

Check out the 2009 Holiday Cookie Guide for recipes for 25 tasty treats!

Check out the archive of past discussions. Read the Food section blog All We Can Eat. Follow the Food section on Twitter at @WaPoFood.


Bonnie Benwick: Who got thirsty just from looking at Todd Thrasher pour that cocktail on the Food front today? Have you made lists about the list of cookbook and wine-lover book recommendations for 2009?

Welcome to the Free Range discussion, where we're game to tackle all edible-potable issues. Bartender Thrasher and Spirits columnist Jason Wilson are in the house, so fire away in the Drinks Dept.

And we have several (3) books to give away -- books that are on those very lists. Lots of questions in the queue already, so away we go. Winners will be posted at chat's end...remember to send your snail-mail info to to claim the loot.



Drink question: Enjoy the mixed drink article. I'm looking for a recipe for a drink that is more popular in Europe than here, I think - it's called a White Lady, and it tastes like lemonade. The recipes out there really vary in terms of ingredients - can you give me something approaching an authentic one? Bartender Todd Thrasher of PX and Majestic explains how to make homemade mixers (Post, Dec. 16)

Jason Wilson: A White Lady is kind of like a Sidecar, but with gin instead of brandy. 2 parts gin to 1 part each of Cointreau and fresh lemon juice. Of course, just like the Sidecar, you can tweak those ratios endlessly. You could also try a different orange liqueur like Grand Marnier or whatever, as well.

Todd Thrasher: If you like the White Lady you could try a Ramos Gin Fizz it is in the same style but there is an egg white in it!

2oz Gin, 1oz Simple Syrup, .5 oz of lemon juice, 1oz cream, one egg white, a drop of orange flower water. Add all that to a shaker and shake without ice for about 10 seconds add ice to the shaker and shake for 20 seconds, strain into a hi-ball glass and add about 1 oz of cold club soda. It is a very classic drink from New Orleans


Whiskey: Good morning! This is for Jason. I'd like to get the man I'm dating a unique/special bottle of whiskey--but I'm on a budget. Bourbon is nice--but I'm up for anything. Rye? I can't spend more than $50 and would ideally like to spend a bit less. Thank you!

Jason Wilson: Fifty bucks should buy a very nice whiskey for your man. You may remember the column from a few weeks back about Whiskyfest where I recommended a few bottles. Though many of those were expensive, I think you can find a bourbon like Pappy Van Winkle 15-year-old Family Reserve for around $50. Another nice bourbon around $45-50 is Elijah Craig 18-yr-old. Even cheaper might be something nice like Eagle Rare 10-yr-old at around $30. And I really like a new rye from High West Distillery in Utah, called Rendezvous Rye, which goes for around $45. That would be a nice introduction to rye if he doesn't drink a lot of rye. A real splurge might be to get a 375 ml (half bottle) of Tuthilltown Hudson Manhattan Rye for around $40. That would be a happy holiday for me.


Apples for oatmeal: Hi Food Gurus,

First off, thanks so much for the annual holiday cookie recipes - I put at least one new one into my rotation every year and they always get raves!

I would like to start preparing apples somehow to stir into my plain oatmeal to give it some natural sweetness. I would prepare a big batch to then use a little reheated in the morning. What would be the best way to do this? Stewed? Baked? I'm thinking I want a somewhat chunky consistency (not applesauce). Thanks!!

Jane Black: I think stewed would be great. I cut mine into chunks (with peels but you can certainly peel them) and add to a medium sauce pan. I add a little maple syrup and let them cook over medium heat until soft but still firm. A squeeze of lemon juice at the end keeps them bright. You could also add raisins or nuts.


What in the world is a lamb breast?: We love lamb. My dearly beloved acquired one of these at a bargain price. It looked like a torte -- almost a lamb filet on top, layer of fat, then un-frenched rack underneath. He did a great job on cooking both top and bottom (sep meals), middle went to out local (Burke) coyote. Asking after the fact, I know, but revelations (really, what is it?) and suggestions for future encounters. Happy holidays to all.

Jane Black: Lamb breast is a fatty part of the forequarter and contains ribs. I *think* it's akin to the belly on pork or also called lamb belly. But am ready to stand corrected.


Fairfax, Va.: Many recipes require dry white wine (like today's fish dish). Can you suggest one or two that don't break the bank? Can I sub chinese soixang (sp) wine?


Todd Thrasher: On thing you want to remember when cooking with wine is "if you would not drink it with dinner you should not cook with it" I like use Protocolo Blanc, from Manchuela from out side of Madrid it is a blend of Macabeo and Airen. It is about $6.50 retail


Seattle: My husband and I are going to be in Columbia, Md., over Christmas. His mother's birthday is Dec. 25, and she's turning 60, so that's the big deal this year. He wants to make duck for the family. Do you know where we could buy duck in the region (MD preferably; DC is fine; VA might be too far)? We fly late in on the 22, so we only have Dec. 23 and 24, though we could probably send someone else out on the 22, though I don't really trust others when it comes to food. I'm a vegetarian, so I'm not a help at all for this. However, if there's a farmer's market or something similar where we could buy the duck and also winter squash, that would be amazing.

Jane Black: Whole Foods sells duck. So that makes it really easy.


Washington, DC: Hi,

I made the Gingerbread Whoopie Pies from last week's cookie section. I'm a bit of a novice, but Id say overall they turned out ok. I did have a bit of trouble in spooning out the dough onto the sheet as the batter is pretty sticky. This resulted in odd shaped cookies. Any advice in dealing with the sticky batter to create a smoother more uniform set of cookies?

Also, I made two batches, but I only used one batch of frosting. I tried adding more frosting, but it would run out the middle. Could I have missed something in creating a thicker frosting? I did have it refrigerated for the 2nd batch, and this was a bit better, but I still wasn't able to use as much of the frosting as the recipe called for. I don't have an electric mixer, mixed all by hand, could that have been a problem? Id say the frosting was smooth and consistent, but maybe a mixer would give it a thicker consistency somehow?

Thanks, regardless, they taste pretty good. Two-Bite Gingerbread Whoopie Pies

Bonnie Benwick: Good for you. That frosting really needs to be whipped in order to reach the right consistency. (In fact, no-mixer might have contributed to the stickiness of the dough.) You can use water-moistened finger or brush to smooth the tops of the cookies, but seems like they should level out a bit as they bake. They don't have to look so perfect.


Fairfax, Va.: Does Costco salmon qualify as "good" farm-raised salmon?

Bonnie Benwick: Have you purchased it/had it before? If it works for you, then go right ahead.

Joe Yonan: Do you mean good as in high-quality, or do you mean good as in better, sustainably speaking? If it's the latter, we'd need to do some more checking.


Dupont Circle, DC: I just asked this in Tom Sietsema's chat, and he suggested a sauce with lemon zest - lemon cream, maybe? Do you experts have any sage (ha-ha) advice?

"Washington, DC: The husband made chestnut-mascarpone stuffed ravioli, but we're at a loss for a sauce to go with it. He's tried a brown butter-sage sauce, but he's unconvinced. What would you do? Brighten it up with lemon or berries? Pile on the fat with a cream sauce?"

"Tom Sietsema: Chestnuts are mellow and starchy. Mascarpone is buttery and rich. I think your mate should consider something acid or tart in his sauce. Lemon (zest) would certainly aid the cause."

Joe Yonan: The lemon idea is a good one (of course -- I mean, it's Tom!). I'd also think about maybe some sharp or smoky little bits of meat, such as crisped pancetta. I know it's more fat, but, well...

Bonnie Benwick: Two more ways to go -- a vanilla-rum sauce (not sweet) or something fruity, like a reduction of pureed cranberry or fig with Marsala. The latter would be best in one of those high-falutin' schmears on the plate, close to the ravioli.


DC: Oatmeal apples: we buy Trader Joe's dried apple slices and snip them up into small pieces, cook them in the oatmeal (use a little extra liquid). Great with a bit of brown sugar and cinnamon!

Bonnie Benwick: Like that idea.

Joe Yonan: My bro-in-law in Maine turned me onto this up there. Of course, given that he and my sister and king and queen of the back-to-the-landers (actually, not really "back," cause he never left), these are apples that they picked from their own property or bought from a neighbor and dehydrated themselves.


Champagne cocktail: I'm looking for a champagne cocktail for New Year's Eve. Ideally I'm looking for a flavored non-alcoholic syrup/juice I can make ahead of time and just pour into the champagne flutes with the champagne that night. Also I'm thinking something fruity but not overly sweet. Thank you!

Todd Thrasher: A great Champagne Mocktail I use the juice from Luxardo Cherries (I think you can get them at the Italian Store) they are sweet and tart. Use 1 oz of the juice and 5 oz of sparkling wine and garnish by rubbing a lemon twist along the rim of the glass, and a cherry.


Jason Wilson: It's non-alcoholic, but Aperol is a very low-proof mixer (11%) that we used in the Aperol Flip a few months ago. You just shake Aperol, lemon juice, and agave nectar, then pour into the champagne flute and top with sparkling wine. (For less fuss, you can definitely skip the egg white).

Jason Wilson: Sorry...I meant Aperol is NOT non-alcoholic...


Help - holiday pie question: I want to make some half-sized pies as holiday gifts. I am unsure what size pie pan is appropriate for dividing a recipe normally intended for a 9" pie. In case it's not clear, I have a recipe that makes 1 9" pie and I want to make 2 half-size pies instead...can you please advise what size the 2 pie pans should be?

Thank you.

Leigh Lambert: I have some lovely 4-inch babies I got from Williams-Sonoma, but I'm pretty sure that once you add crust to that interior measurement it would take three to equal a 9-inch filling. I'm not sure they make 5-inch pie plates, but that would likely be perfect. I would get the "biggest small ones" you can and if you have extra filling you can pour them into lined cupcake tins.


Lamb Breast: My mother made a fabulous stuffed lamb breast (works with veal breast too), with spinach and pine nuts. You have to ask the butcher to make a pocket for stuffing.

Jane Black: Nice idea.


Washington, DC: Hi. Could you please recommend a professional knife sharpening service in DC? I hone my knives about once per week but haven't sharpened them on a stone in the 4 years I've owned them. They are starting to dull. Thanks!

Todd Thrasher: I am not sure about DC, but over here across the river there is a little store named La Cuisine on Cameron Street and they sharpen knives there.

Bonnie Benwick: La Cuisine's a great resource. Maryland folks might want to try the nice people at Sharpen This, who have a stand at the Bethesda Central Farm Market on the first and third Sunday of each month. The good thing about it is they do the knives on site, so you can bring dull cutlery and leave with sharpened stuff.


Rosslyn, Va.: Where do you recommend shopping for meat? Maybe it is my Midwest roots, but I am not impressed with the selection at Safeway or Whole Foods. Are there still butchers around?

Jane Black: I should just plug Organic Butcher in McLean at the beginning of each chat. Because inevitably there's some question that spurs me to recommend them. They are terrific, knowledgeable and...pricier than most. You might also try a farmers market. Many, including Dupont, are open year round.


Bundt cake: I would like to bring a bundt cake for a holiday party. Do you have a recipe for a simple, but rich cake? I'm thinking eggs, butter and vanilla.

Leigh Lambert: This bundt cake is made moist by the addition of pineapple and coconut. I like the contrarian nature of a touch of Gilligan's Island mid-December.


Yams: If I buy Yams at Whole Foods today, will they be fine for cooking on Thursday? I'm thinking yes, but don't buy a lot of potatoes, yams, etc. Thanks for your help!

Bonnie Benwick: Yep, they will be fine. Store away from onions in a cool dark place (not the fridge).

Joe Yonan: The great thing about root veggies such as potatoes, sweet potatoes, etc., is that, properly stored, they can last months...


Arlington, Va.: Happy Holidays all! In the spirit of giving handmade gifts to safe a little on the budget this Christmas I'm making a family recipe book. I've already solicited my favorite recipes from my sister, brother, SIL, grandma, mom, dad, etc. but am now working on compiling the whole thing into a more polished format. Any advice for software that can be used to put this together? Suggestions for a free program would be especially appreciated! Thanks.

Jane Black: Ask and you shall receive. I reviewed three popular cookbook software programs last year.


Brussel Sprouts: So I made brussel sprouts for the first time last night (no counting the ones you can buy in a microwave steam bag - which I love) and they were tough and not pleasant. I blanched them for just a minute or two, put in ice water, then sauteed with a little olive oil. I kept them on the heat for at least 10-15 minutes while prepared the rest of dinner. They looked pretty with a few nice brown sautee marks, but tasted bad and tough. Did I overcook or undercook? How do I make them yummy (without added tons of butter and fat)?

Thank you!

Jane Black: Huh. That surprises me. Were they very big? I wonder if they were old. Blanching and sauteing should do the trick. One trick is to look for fresh or smaller sprouts. I cut mine in half or quarters and saute or roast until the leaves get caramelized. If you are the patient sort, you can shred them or pull the leaves apart which will ensure there are no tough bites.


Meyer lemons: Drink ideas with Meyer lemons? Just picked some up at the Silver Spring Whole Foods. First ones I've seen on the East Coast since moving out here from San Francisco three years ago. The first taste brought me back! I love San Francisco! Sigh. OK, now I have to refine my question. Ideas for San Francisco-nostalgia-evoking drinks with Meyer lemons?

Todd Thrasher: I have a cocktail on the Menu at Eve Called the

Sampaloc Sour

2 oz Tamarind Juice

1 oz Meyer lemon juice

1/2 oz Meyer lemon simple syrup

1 oz Zaya Rum

1/2 oz Silver rum

all ingredients stirred together with ice served in a Martini glass.

Simple Syrup recipe

First I peel the lemons and try to get all the Pith off of the inside of the peel (Just scrape it with a knife) use about a cub of the peels with 2 cups of 1:1 Simple Syrup (equal sugar to water)and let it simmer for about 5 minutes

Joe Yonan: My, oh my.


State College, Pa.: Looking through your cookbook recommendations, I noticed that the Beranbaum book is finally out. I currently have (and use) her 'Cake Bible'. Do you think the new book worth upgrading to? Of is it really targeting an audience who doesn't already have the Bible?

Bonnie Benwick: Rose has refined the way recipes are presented in this book, and she also presents some stunning new cakes. She has added more illustrated tips/techniques. I think you'd want this one, too.


Loyal Fan, DC: Every Wednesday without fail, I go straight to the food page, knowing it's the day you update. For the most part I enjoy the articles, recipes and discussions and have learned and made some wonderful things from you. However, and I have been holding back from writing in for months, I really struggle with the layout. for some reason, there is too much text, or something, and I find the front food page, hard to read and quite overwhelming. Now because I am such a loyal fan, I slog through, but I urge you to consider revamping the style to make it a little more user friendly and easier to find. Some of your competitors do a much better job. And I know you are working hard at adding more frequent updates, take the blog for instance, so keep it up! The more you updated it the more I click through!

Please take this as the best kind of constructive criticism, from someone who loves your work.

Joe Yonan: Thanks for the note -- are you talking about the website or the print edition? I think the former, given that you mention updates, but I want to make sure. If it's the print edition, we changed the design recently (along with the entire paper), and that's a separate strategy...


Fairfax, Va.: I'm interested in today's Pasta and Lentils dish. Don't like meat much - can I just leave out the pancetta? Is there a good sub?

Thanks! Pasta and Lentils, Sicilian Style

Bonnie Benwick: I love this dish. You could leave it out, but it adds great flavor to the sofrito.


Petworth: The cocktail article and recipes were just way too cool. Thank you.

I've had Mr Thrasher's cocktails and they are indeed wonderful.

So now having read this, my remaining questions about his work center on bitters. Any thoughts on making bitters, or suggestions on recipes/books/articles?

Todd Thrasher: I think Patience is the main thing with bitters it takes about 25 days to make. I think you should experiment with all different things but remember the key is bitter, I use Quinine, Gentian Root and Burnt Sugar to get the right Bitterness.


Austin, Tex.: I am trying to start baking my own breads and am looking for a good cookbook to get me going. Any recommendations?

Bonnie Benwick: Several good titles in this list, including "The Craft of Baking," "My Bread" and "Artisan Breads Every Day."


Asheville, N.C.: I baked gingerbread last week. The recipe called for an 8 inch square pan but I used a 9 by 4 loaf pan instead. It caved in in the middle. Was that because I used the loaf pan???

Leigh Lambert: Probably due to the pan. A loaf pan will distribute the heat completely differently than a more shallow 8-inch pan. The loaf pan has much more depth and the middle cannot heat as evenly as it could if it were spread out. The leavening doesn't have the power to sustain the lift before the cake can "take over" with it's own baked structure.


Washington, DC: For Christmas dinner I plan to serve shrimp and crab meat in a white sauce, served over rice cooked in Lipton Onion soup. Since I don't want a bland sauce, will it be OK to add sherry or white wine to it? If not, what do you suggest to make this the best-tasting sauce ever?

Joe Yonan: To make this the best-tasting sauce ever, I would first suggest that you drop your plan to serve it over rice cooked in Lipton onion soup. I know y'all think we're snobs, but I say there's really no reason to do such a thing when it's so easy to make a simple rice pilaf with onions, spices, a little butter or oil. Now, on to the sauce: Indeed, sherry can go nicely with shellfish in a sauce, but just make sure that you use decent-quality (though not necessarily expensive) sherry. That is, I'd stay away from the stuff labeled "cooking sherry" in the supermarket, and add it judiciously.


Alexandria, Va.: Hello. I am very interested in learning how to cook Asian-style dishes. I have started making a decent miso soup and expanded to some tasty spring rolls - but I want to go further. Any recommendations for a good cookbook or website to try? I'm happy to focus in on one cuisine (Vietnamese or Korean or Japanese). Thanks!

Bonnie Benwick: "Asian Dumplings" by Andrea Nguyen might be good, and last year's "The Korean Table" by Debra Samuels and Taekyung Chung contains good kimchi-related recipes.


Baltimore, Md.: Any thoughts on a tapas potluck dinner for New Years? I heard that if I'm hosting a potluck I'm supposed to provide the main dish & have others bring sides, desserts, etc. Since I normally cook for one, I'm reluctant to be responsible for the main dish. So, I thought perhaps a party where everyone brings their favorite small dish might work.

Jane Black: Sure. If that makes you comfortable, it's great.

Bonnie Benwick: Any thoughts, as in, do you want recipe recommendations or further strategic plans?


Maraschino Cherries?: Is there a non-high fructose corn syrup version of these? Or are there such things as "fake" cherries and "real" cherries when it comes to putting them in manhattans? Would it be better to seek out a way to make them ourselves rather than buy the grocery store HFCS kind?

Todd Thrasher: I am not sure if Luxardo uses HFC. But They are very easy to make to most of the work is pitting them. It is very similar to making and canning pickles.


Washington, DC: OK, you have thrown me for a loop. "Good" farm raised salmon? I did lots of reading on farmed versus wild salmon and came to the conclusion that there is no "Good" farm raised salmon. From the fact that it is higher in fat than wild to adding food coloring so it looks like wild salmon instead of it's natural grey color. Enlighten me, please. And I love the food section, best day of the week for me for The Washington Post.

Jane Black: I think Bonnie was referring to taste when she said it was all good. The sustainability question is another one entirely. The Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch folks say that farmed Atlantic salmon should be avoided. But I have heard from others -- okay, they do live in Maine -- that there is a lot more subtlety to this debate.

Some producers do use very clean methods, including no antibiotics, no growth hormones, tightly controlled environments to prevent escapes. But one area that certainly needs to be improved is the food conversion ratio (translation: the amount of wild fish necessary to produce farmed fish).

Seems like it might be time for an article on this.

Thanks for the question.


Butcher: Halalco in Falls Church has a proper butcher (actually a couple of them) who will cut meat to order for Rosslyn.

Jane Black: Another suggestion.


Creme Yvette?: Any word on the pending availability of Creme Yvette? I saw the Rothman & Winter Creme de Violette at a store near Dupont, and they said that the Yvette is coming "soon". Also, what would be the difference between the two, and which would be a better choice as a first bottle?

On a side note, I have a rapidly dwindling 50cl bottle of creme de violette from Belgium, and despite really liking the flavor, it is decidedly very old fashioned. So much in fact, that I have taken to giving it a very naughty nickname having to do with grandmothers. And their undergarments.

Jason Wilson: I would very much like to hear that nickname. The people at Cooper Spirits tell me that Creme Yvette probably won't be available here until January. But I would definitely recommend picking up the Creme de Violette you saw. It really does make a nice Aviation, among other drinks. It's actually really hard to compare that creme de violette to Creme Yvette. Creme Yvette is a little more complex, with tastes of berries and spices, and more pronounced vanilla and honey flavors -- but that may also make it a little more challenging to mix with. Creme Yvette is nice in a Blue Moon


NYC: So....umm, I made some apple butter a few weeks back (ok, maybe a month) and put it into a glass jar and stashed it in my fridge. I'm wondering if it is still good to eat? I mean, as long as there isn't any green fuzz growing on it, am I good to go?

Leigh Lambert: I love a question that starts by discerning edibility by "fuzz factor." That's my kind of intrepid eater. Apple butter is pretty hardy and should be fine... provided no visible fuzz.


Crystal City, Va.: I'm planning to make a tomato/goat cheese tart for Christmas, but I don't have a tart pan. The recipe simply uses puff pastry as the base - could I just do a free-form shape on a baking sheet? Or is it worth it to go buy a tart pan?

Jane Black: You could certainly just cut a rectangle and bake it on a baking sheet. And might a suggest something instead of tomatoes? Spinach, perhaps? Tomatoes are mostly lousy at this time of year, even baked.


You're not snobs: There's no reason to ruin great expensive seafood with Lipton Soup Mix. The flavor of shellfish is delicate and needs fine ingredients. LSM is all Sodium and MSG, it would overpower the seafood and waste your investment. Save the LSM for meatloaf, the ground beef can carry that heavy flavor (or not and save your arteries from the sodium).

Joe Yonan: Thank you.


Honey Girl?: We went to Maui for our honeymoon. At a luau, our server suggested a Honey Girl drink for me. My husband says it's not a real cocktail (at least the name) and the guy was just trying to sweeten me up for a fat tip. Is a Honey Girl real? How can I make one while daydreaming about Maui?

Todd Thrasher: I saw it on a menu in Kona also, it is a Pina Colada with honey added to it.


Washington, DC: The boyfriend just dumped me - a week before Christmas and two weeks before my birthday. Good times. Eating and cooking good food are what comforts me. What would you gurus suggest as comfort food - both easy options for when I don't even want to get off my couch but know I need to eat, and more complicated options for when I want to pamper myself with an awesome meal for my birthday? Thanks.

Joe Yonan: Hooboy. Really sorry about this. After you "cook up a big pot of blech and throw it at his door," as Bonnie just called out, you need to get Suzanne Pirret's "The Pleasure is All Mine," which I wrote about here. She has great ideas for indulgent dishes for one, but perhaps more importantly, she has a very wisecracking, even a touch cynical (without being bitter) attitude about romance that I think might suit your mood right now. Send your mailing info to, and we'll send you my copy of the book. (I have been holding onto it, but you need it more than I do right now.)


Boulder, Colo.: Curious if Jason or Todd have tried Stranahan's Colorado Whiskey and if so, their thoughts on it. I love being able to buy a local whiskey and it's pretty tasty to boot!

Jason Wilson: Stranahan's is excellent. The only problem is trying to find it in DC/MD/VA. You're lucky to live in Colorado where that's the local whiskey.


Rochester, NY: I need a dynamite dessert recipe for a holiday luncheon at work - about 12 people. Any ideas?

Bonnie Benwick: French Silk will earn you rave reviews.


Dupont: I had to chime in about the brussel sprouts recipe. I suggest roasting them with just olive oil, salt and pepper. I love this method much better than blanching or sauteeing. It turns them into a whole different vegetable and they are addictive this way!

Jane Black: Yep. Roasted = good. I think Brussels sprouts are the "bacon" of the vegetable world, ie, foodies are obsessed with them right now. What do you all think?


Champagne cocktails: I have two favorites - one is prosecco with ginger flavored simple syrup and the other is a regular champagne cocktail but instead of agnostura bitters I use blood orange bitters.

My problem with champagne cocktails (at least if you have more than two)is the extra sugar you get by using a sugar cube is a really bad headache the next day.

Jason Wilson: I like the sound of your prosecco/ginger-syrup cocktail. I'm not a huge fan of the classic Champagne cocktail. I feel like it was invented during an earlier age as a way to "enliven" day-old sparkling wine. Here are some other ideas.


Gingerbread whoopie pies: I also made these this week for a cookie exchange. I mixed the frosting by hand, but it was plenty stiff and could easily be spread nice and thick. In fact, I made a double batch and it looks like I'll have lots of leftover frosting. This might also be because of sizing - I tried really hard for small cookies, and still wound up with only about 30-35 sandwiches per batch (not the 45 listed). Just match the cookies before filling and forget about perfect uniformity.

Bonnie Benwick: Results are somewhat variable!

Joe Yonan: Objects in your oven may be larger than they first appear.


Reston, Va.: I was wondering if homemade Peppermint Bark will melt at room temperature if I give it as a gift along with other cookies? All the recipes I have found say that the Bark needs to be refrigerated. Will wrapping the Bark in parchment paper in a cookie tin with other cookies run the risk of it melting or will it hold its shape/firmness? I plan on using a recipe that doesn't require me to temper the chocolate if that helps.


Leigh Lambert: I think the refrigeration called for in many recipes is for long-term storage. I have always stored peppermint bark at room temperature without a problem, especially in this colder weather. One tip I found useful for flavor is to use peppermint oil instead of extract. You can find it at specialty culinary stores.


Oatmeal add-ins: any one or combo of these:

Dried apples (schnitz in PA Dutch parlance); Dried chopped figs; any dried fruit, actually; nuts; frozen blueberries (I have some from this summer, thawed or un-, both are good); honey; Bosc pear dice; jelly; PB or any nut butter; flax and/or chia seed; bananas and raisins; or, go savory and treat it like cous cous or rice and add fresh herbs, dried Indian spices, cheese, etc

Joe Yonan: I was with you, really with you, until the savory part. But I shouldn't scoff till I try, should I? On the list it goes.


Rhode Island: Here's a nice problem: over the summer, I picked up two containers of frozen lobster meat at a buy one, get one free sale.

Well, the first container was for lobster rolls. I still have the second container in the freezer, and I'm stumped.

Any ideas about an entree or dip I could make with it before it dies of freezer burn?


Jane Black: Lobster pot pie. Lobster pasta sauce. Lobster ravioli, risotto. Here's one recipe for Lobster Mac n Cheese.


13th St. S.E.: Making prime rib for Christmas and we have a new convection oven. Should I use the convection roast setting or just regular bake?

Also, I usually just rub it with cracked black pepper (the roast not the oven) any other tasty ideas? You guys rock, happy holidays.

Bonnie Benwick: I know I'll hear from plenty of chatters who use the convection oven to roast meat, but I'd advise against it --unless you plan to be very diligent about checking the internal temperature. The meat will get done faster....and if you're up for something beyond the pepper, maybe try an herbed salt, or cut shallow slits in the meat and wedge in some slices of garlic.


Washington, DC: Hi! I just had my weekend-o'-cookie-baking-frenzy and have frozen the scant left overs. What's the best way to bring them to a palatable temperature? I don't mind eating them frozen myself, but what if I want to serve them to someone who stops by unannounced, or I want to give someone a baggie of them? By the way, there are rugelach, sugar cookies, Mexican wedding cookies, and spice cookies, if that makes a difference. Thanks!

Leigh Lambert: Provided your guests can stay for a spot of tea, baked goods will defrost very quickly. In 15 minutes you should have room temperature cookies. I wouldn't suggest microwaving or heating them, as it tends to dry them out or make them tough.

You can keep a bag in the fridge for a weekend when the chance of drop-in guests is higher, just to be prepared.


Alexandria, Va.: I tried the slow roasted beef recipe you referred to in a recent chat, and it came out great. There was one part I didn't really understand though...

In the ingredients it lists: 1 head garlic, top 1/2 inch trimmed off to expose the cloves

Then in the sauce directions it says: Discard the garlic's papery skin and peels

So it's not clear to me - are you supposed to take a whole garlic bulb and cut the top off without breaking it apart first? Is this whole bulb supposed to in the roasting pan with the beef too, or is it only used for the sauce? What is the point of cutting the top off the bulb if it needs peeled later - why not just break it into cloves and peel them from the start? Slow-Roasted Beef

Bonnie Benwick: The technique of roasting garlic is easier than dealing with individual cloves and may help keep them more moist. All you have to do is squeeze the softened garlic out of the top.


preparing apples somehow to stir into my plain oatmeal to give it some natural sweetness.: Make homemade apple butter. Core & slice 5 lbs into slow cooker, add 1 t cin, 1 t nutmeg. cook on slow 16 hours, mash with potato masher. I did this last month using fresh apples from Shenandoah and am CLAMORING for more good apples to make another batch. EASY, delicious, natural.

Jane Black: I think the chatter wanted something chunky, not a sauce or butter. But for anyone yearning for apple butter, here's a reader recipe.


Rice with shellfish: If it has to be superfast, At least get one of those Mahatma Saffon Rice packs, it may have salt and msg, but it's at least more compatible flavoring and je ne sais quoi.

Joe Yonan: Or you could just use ... saffron and salt, no?


Under My Desk, Va.: Here's an archive question for you. In the mid-90's, the Post ran a recipe for a "tart cherry lasagne." At the time, I was a college student, still learning to cook, and not that adventurous. But it intrigued me. I saved the recipe for awhile, thinking that I'd get to it eventually. Well, several moves and a dozen years later, I don't have that copy of the paper anymore, but I'm a much better, much more adventurous cook. When you started adding in recipes from the archives to the database, I was very hopeful. Is there any chance that old recipe will be added sometime soon?

Jane Black: When I saw this question, I was thinking "I do not want to make that." But it does actually look good. It's a breakfast lasagna, specially designed for Christmas. (It uses canned cherries.)

The recipe is from 1996 so you certainly saved it for a while.


This dish can be assembled the night before and baked in the morning, baked and reheated the next day, or baked, frozen and reheated. Choose the option that best fits your schedule.

2 pounds part-skim ricotta cheese

1/2 cup plus 3 tablespoons sugar

1/2 teaspoon vanilla

1/4 teaspoon salt, plus salt for boiling the noodles

1-pound can tart cherries, drained, juice reserved

2 teaspoons cornstarch

1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

3/4 to 1 pound lasagne noodles

Butter for greasing pan

Combine the ricotta cheese, 1/2 cup of the sugar, the vanilla and 1/4 teaspoon salt and mix well. Set aside.

Place the cherries in a small saucepan. Combine the cornstarch with 1/4 cup of the reserved cherry juice. Discard the rest of the juice. Add the cherry juice mixture and the cinnamon to the cherries. Bring to a boil over medium heat. The mixture will thicken. Remove and set aside to cool.

Grease a lasagne pan. Place a layer of noodles on the bottom. Cover with 1/3 of the cheese filling, then scatter 1/3 of the cherry mixture over the cheese. Cover with another layer of noodles and repeat once. Cover the top layer with noodles and cheese, making sure to spread the cheese over all of the noodle layer. Then spread the remaining cherry mixture on top, leaving a 1-inch border around the dish.

Cover and refrigerate overnight (if desired). When ready to bake, preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Bake for 35 to 45 minutes, until heated through. If reheating, bake at 350 degrees for 45 minutes.

Per serving: 334 calories, 14 gm protein, 44 gm carbohydrates, 12 gm fat, 49 mg cholesterol, 7 gm saturated fat, 187 mg sodium


Brussel sprout: Slice shallot thinly and cook until golden in saute pan. In last few minutes add just a bit of diced pancetta. Slice the sprouts thinly and toss in, just heat until warm. Season with salt and pepper.

Jane Black: Yup. Great.


Ahhh!: I reminded myself to presubmit a question so I wouldn't forget last the last two weeks and I still managed to forget. Hopefully I'm not too late.

My sister is a college sophomore and has recently got really into making stir fries. (When she was in high school, she would eat chili mac made with Hormel chili every day of the week so this is major progress) I was think I should get her a wok or a cookbook for xmas. My budget is $25 or so. I have Breath of a Wok by Grace Young but I've never used it. Oh, she also has gotten into Thai food lately if that helps any.

Thanks for your help!

Joe Yonan: Breath of a Wok is a fantastic book. There's a great primer in there about buying a wok. I'd say stay away from nonstick, go for carbon steel, which will season up nicely, as Food section contributor Scott Reitz and I agree. For a Thai cookbook that might delight her, look at "Hot Sour Salty Sweet" by Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid.


Comfort after being dumped: Splurge on some awesome steaks, invite your best friends over and celebrate being single with good food, good friends and a bottle or two of champagne. Watch a tear-jerker chick flick and hugs all around.

Joe Yonan: Absolutely. I quibble with "a bottle or two," though. I believe a case might be in order.


Vegan, NJ: So, my father-in-law decided to switch to a vegan diet shortly after his 70th birthday after a long life as a meat-eater. He still eats animal products "in public" but at home limits himself to two vegan meals a day. One consists of what my husband and I refer to as "breakfast gruel" - a bunch of high-fiber cereals mixed together with soy milk - and then has vegetable soup for dinner. He prepares these two meals in giant batches that lasts him for weeks. After a couple of years of this type of diet, he's finally realizing that 1) it's really boring to eat the same two meals every day and 2) that vegans don't have to just eat gruel and soup. He's asked for a vegan cookbook for Christmas. Any thoughts? He's definitely going to want something that features health-conscious traditional foods (not something Asian or Indian) but we (being non-vegans ourselves) have no clue where to start. Help!

Jane Black: There's a book out called New Vegetarian by Robin Asbell. It's not 100% vegan; there are a handful of recipes with cheese. But by and large it is vegan, including the desserts. There are recipes such as Sri Lankan tempe rolls, French lentil croquettes, and Moroccan squash tagine.


Pine Plains, NY: A few problems with your site: The front page announcement for Free Range says 11PM instead of 1. Also, on the book feature, the only controls that are working for me are the>> for next set and the previous set controls, so only 1, 20 and 19 will display. Is this dependent on some software I need to update? Same thing happened for the cookies feature. Thanks we've fixed the time on the live online schedule. You should be able to navigate through the Cookbook guide using the arrows to the left and right of the entry or by clicking on the individual numbers above. If you're not seeing the arrows or not able to navigate using them, you may need to update your Flash player.

Joe Yonan: Thanks for letting us know! Glad you found the chat anyway. There are many things I can imagine having fun doing at 11 p.m., but chatting is definitely not among them.


Silver Spring, Md.: I want to make all of the drinks in today's column - they look yummy. Making my list of ingredients for the holidays now.

I was successful in making cranberry puree for the cranberry bog martinis and the drinks were delicious. I used much less sugar than called for in making the puree as I prefer the taste of berries to sugar.

Todd Thrasher: I have tried using less sugar but I let the staff taste everything first and they said it was too tart. If you would prefer not to use sugar you can also try agave nectar.


Annandale, Va.: Not really a cooking question, but my wife and I welcomed our first child into the world a couple months ago. We would like to get a small, live, potted 'xmas' tree we can move to our balcony after the season is over, then use it year after year as it grows. Where is a good place to get one of these live trees?

Joe Yonan: You're right. Not a cooking question.


Washington, DC: Do you have a recommendation for a cook book that focuses on healthy cooking? Not so much looking for a diet book, just recipes that aim to be healthy. Thanks!

Jane Black: OK, I can't say I've cooked from this but I've heard a lot of good things about it: Ellie Krieger's So Easy: Healthy Recipes for Every Night of the Week.

Other suggestions, chatters?


Meringues: I made the Saturday night meringues that I found in the WP database, and while they were tasty, they were a complete flop. As in, flat as pancakes, and totally crumbly the next day. I used a hand mixer to beat those egg whites until they were thick and shiny and they seemed to have hard peaks. But they still turned into thin disks in the oven. Any ideas of what went wrong?

Leigh Lambert: It might be the sugar. Granular sugar can "weep" more liquid in the baking/drying process causing the meringues to loose their shape and flatten out. If you used regular sugar, try super fine or confectioners' sugar.

Bonnie Benwick: Hmm. I tested those. I remember the batter being quite light. How vigorously did you fold in the chocolate and nuts? Maybe oven temp is an issue?

Joe Yonan: Here's the recipe, btw, for the crowd.


Washington, DC: Anyone know where I can buy Chimay cheese in DC? My husband and I had some in Brussels on our honeymoon in October, and I'd like to buy him some for Christmas so we can recreate our beer-and-cheese dinner. Thanks!

Bonnie Benwick: Cheesetique in the Del Ray 'hood of Alexandria should have it (703-706-5300).


Chestnut ravioli idea: What about roasted or shredded and sauteed Brussels sprouts in a nice light olive oil as a "sauce" for the chestnut ravioli?

Joe Yonan: Hmm, that has potential.


Madison, Wis.: I'm getting my boyfriend a meat grinder/sausage stuffer for Christmas, as he's been expressing interest in making his own sausages lately (no jokes, please, let's be adults). I wanted to get him a book of sausage recipes to go along with it and wondered if you have any recommendations. I was thinking of Michael Ruhlman's "Charcuterie" but I think it may be too geared towards smoked and cured meats, which we don't really have the proper equipment for (yet). I want something more along of the lines of interesting sausages from all over the world - merguez, spicy thai, german, etc. Any ideas? Thanks!

Jane Black: Bruce Aidell is your man. He's got a bunch of meat books including his Complete Sausage Book. It's a very good place to start.


apple butter: I also make apple butter in a crockpot and it keeps pretty chunky as long as you don't put it in a food processor.

Jane Black: Point taken.


Washington, DC: Save my Silpat!

Does anyone else suffer from a permanent wave in their Silpat? I have two: one I purchased came rolled up in a paperboard container, the other in a flat paperboard container. The one that was rolled up has never really flattened out, which makes it impossible to use when I bake delicate, thin cookies because the cookies come out wavy. Anyone else have this problem? Better yet, anyone have a solution?

Bonnie Benwick: Is it the honest-to-goodness Silpat brand? Those usually have a wide band around the edge that helps the thing lay flat. Take it back to the store....


Washington, D.C.: Were making a boneless rib roast this year and want to try slow-roasting it. Of course, the thermometer will tell us when it's done, but is there a general guideline for how many minutes per pound? I don't want my guest to be languishing all evening or eating cold beef the minute they walk in. Also, I've heard that slow-roasting at 200-225 degrees means that the roast should come out of the oven when its temperature has reached the desired doneness since there is much less carry-over cooking at that temperature. Is this true?

Bonnie Benwick: You will be glad you did, it's a very good recipe. It's a little difficult to gauge the per-pound, per-temp because older home ovens are notoriously unreliable at low temperatures. There is no discernible carry-over cooking at that temperature with the slow-roast method, it's true. I've put in a 6-pound roast at midnight and removed it from my oven (after slow-roasting at 180 degrees which is as low as my oven goes) at 7 in the morning, and the meat is perfect.


Upstate, NY: I made that cherry lasagna one year for Christmas breakfast and it really is very good. Maybe I should make it again this year!

Jane Black: I love when people hold on to recipes for that long. Good for you.


Bellevue, DC: Loved the articles on cocktails today. Do you have a recipe for an all-purpose sours mixer?

Todd Thrasher: 1 cup lime juice, 1 cup lemon juice, 1/4 cup orange juice, 1/4 cup of water and 1/4 cup simple syrup (1:1) you can adjust the sweetness by not adding all of the syrup.


70 year old vegan (!!): Love that guy! Get him Veganomicon. If that doesn't get him fired up, nothing will. Fabu book.

Jane Black: Another good idea for the vegan cookbook question.


Washington, DC: Any suggestions for a great Strata recipe for Christmas brunch? I saw the one on your recipe search, but not into the ingredients. Thinking maybe bacon, cheese, other? But I've never made a strata before, so not sure what will work. Thanks for any suggestions!!

Jane Black: Anything and everything works in strata. That's the beauty of it. I'd advise using our recipe as a guide, just to get a sense of proportion, then add whatever you like. Bacon and cheese sound delicious. A little green in there might help too. Spinach, perhaps?


The "root" of the question: I have a question for Todd! I read about a liquor called "Root" in a magazine; it is basically the old recipe for root beer before it became non-alcoholic. I was so intrigued by the description (smoked tea, cardamom and wintergreen flavors) that I ordered a bottle online. Have you tried Root? Any serving suggestions?

Todd Thrasher: I have tried it once, but just straight over Ice and if you like root beer you will love it. It is based on a old drink coal miners used to drink to keep them sober while on the job. I have not seen it around here.


limoncello: I'm working on a batch of limoncello. Other than drinking it straight up, got any drink suggestions for it?

Jason Wilson: There's not too many cocktail uses for limoncello, but I have seen some punch and sangria recipes that use it. This one, for a so-called Tuscan Sangria calls for limoncello as well as Punt e Mes and Tuaca -- and then the usual citrus juices and wine. It's a pretty killer recipe actually.


Re: Family Cookbook: My uncle did one of these, and I'm pretty sure he just used Microsoft Word.

As a funny side note, my uncle is a born salesman. So, after all the trouble he took of making the family cookbook and distributing complimentary copies to family, he also sells them! He has displays at several stores around his town and gives a cut of the profits to the store owner. I'm more amazed that anyone would actually want a cookbook from another family.

Jane Black: Hilarious. Not least because it's such a basic format. People have come to expect such gorgeous photos in cookbooks. Well, good for him!


Annapolis, Md.: I'm intrigued by the azorean spice cake recipe in today's Food Section. I'm thinking of making it to bring to my husband's family next week. Can I cut the recipe and just make 1 cake (the recipe seems easy to halve), and can the cake be frozen? Also, I have a lot of pecans left over from another project - how do you think they'd be instead of the walnuts? Azorean Spice Cake

Bonnie Benwick: I would not recommend cutting the recipe in half -- mainly because I've never made anything quite like it and couldn't vouch for how it might work. Sure, freeze the cake. And pecans would be fine. Everybody, try this cake! Such a better option than regular fruitcake.


Alexandria, Va.: I plan to make a cheese souffle for Christmas, along with lump crab salad on toasted bread triangles with dill & cayenne. What else should I serve with this - something green maybe? Dinner is casual, just for husband and me..thanks..

Jane Black: Yes, a green salad sounds great. Or if you like more bitter flavors, you could use endive and radicchio. Add a little blue cheese and pear to it and it will be decadent too.


Bitters Lover: Jason (and Todd):

Your readers (and fans) want bitters recipes! Homemade versions are so much better than what you can purchase. And let's face it, DC-area liquor stores don't offer vary many options.

Jason Wilson: I hear you loud and clear! I promise to post a couple bitters recipes over the next few weeks on the blog. Maybe today Todd can share his excellent recipe for celery bitters (which is excellent in Bloody Mary variations).

Todd Thrasher: Maybe you should do a bitters article Jason!

Joe Yonan: I've tasted Todd's celery bitters -- not just at PX, of course, but made by a colleague from Todd's recipe -- and my word they're good. We'll get that recipe out there.


Cookie exchange: Afternoon rangers. Do you have a recipe for chocolate crinkle cookies please?

Leigh Lambert: I believe what we call Chocolate Snowflakes are what you're thinking of as "Chocolate Crinkle Cookies."


Herndon, Va.: For us folks living in VA, what are some good spirits we can find at an ABC store?

Todd Thrasher: Just recently the ABC stores are starting to carry some very good rums. Also you can go to your local ABC store and they have a special order book in the back you can ask to see, some even have a special shelf that restaurants special ordered and never picked up.


re: champagne cocktail: I was hoping for a non-alcoholic mixer to add to the champagne to cut down on total alcohol consumed over the course of a 6 hr party. More of a 50/50 mix between mixer and champagne.

Todd Thrasher: It is pomegranate season you can juice some and use the seeds as garnish, floating on the bubbles!


healthy cookbook suggestion: If you like the Cook's Illustrated style of writing, they have a book called The Best Light Recipe that covers healthy versions of everything from vinaigrette to cheesecake.

Jane Black: Good thought.


Under My Desk, Va.: RE: Tart Cherry Lasagna Recipe

That's it! Thank you very much. I'm definitely going to make this over the holidays this year. I'll report back.

Jane Black: Absolutely let us know how it goes.


Washington, DC: Great holiday cocktails story today! Quinine powder sounds hard to find and potentially expensive for how little I would expect to use. How awful would it be to make the syrup without it and mix the syrup with tonic water (which already has quinine)? Also, how much as 1/2 ounce vanilla bean. Is that about what you'd get in one vanilla pod?

Jason Wilson: Hmmm. I don't know that I'd do that. The commercial tonic waters are really using different type of quinine. It's actually not that expensive or hard to get quinine powder. You can order it online from several source. You'll be able to make lots and lots of batches with one half-pound bag. I still have some left in mine from like a year ago.


Washington, DC: My parents are celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary on December 27 with an open house at their church. My sister and I are preparing the food and we need to keep it very simple because there are no cooking facilities at the church and we need to keep the costs down (and my parents don't want a big fuss). Right now we are planning on a cake and cookies, vegetable tray, cheese and crackers, and a really nice dip with crackers. We may do some kind of meatballs with a chafing dish and sterno. But can you recommend any other simple appetizers that we can prepare the day after Christmas and won't need heating?

Jane Black: Check out David Hagedorn's ideas for Thanksgiving appetizers that includes Indian meatballs, deviled eggy spread and a few more. One of them will work well.


savory "oatmeal": Look up haleem. It's a fantastic Indian "savory porridge" with meat, even! It's not oatmeal, but it's the closes I can come to describing it. SO good-- one of my comfort foods.

Joe Yonan: I'm on it.


Clifton, Va.: Roasting Prime Rib. Don't use the convection until you have more experience with it. Prime Rib costs too much.

Roast prime rib at 475 degrees for first 20 minutes and then turn down to 325 degrees to finish cooking figure about 15 minutes per pound for medium rare but take its temp after the first hour. Season the roast with just good sea salt and good pepper freshly ground for both.

You want a center cut roast. Dry aged for at least 28 days and prime. Remember there nine grades of prime in the US. Organic and humanely raised if you can get it. Chine bone removed. You want fat and marbling.

Make Yorkshire pudding to go with it.

Joe Yonan: We were starting to miss you, Clifton!


Clifton, Va. One final comment on prime rib. It should never be cooked beyond medium rare. If you do you are wasting your money. The ends of the roast will be closer to medium anyhow.

And grassfed over cornfed finished is my personal preference.

Joe Yonan: Natch.


Washington DC: Ack! I was too late last week and am about to be too late this week as well: Please, advice for freezing butter correctly, even if that means never freezing it at all! It always tastes a bit rancid after I've frozen it, no matter if salted or not, store brand or super-expensive. But I'd love to keep a supply available for last-minute cookie- baking, and since butter doesn't last that long in the refrigerator, I think that means I need to freeze it. Or should I just whip some cream until it turns to butter? Thanks so much!

Bonnie Benwick: Place the sticks in a freezer-safe resealable plastic food storage bag and seal; they'll be good.


Today's chicken-thighs recipe: Is it okay if I leave the skin on?

Bonnie Benwick: Sure. No longer as "healthful," though.


Joe Yonan: Well, you've cooled us down in a bowl seated within a large bowl filled with ice cubes and water until we have cooled, then you've strained us through a fine-mesh strainer at least twice, discarding any solids, so you know what that means - we're done!

Thanks for the great questions today, and thanks to Jason and Todd for shaking and stirring up some great answers. I'm going to let Bonnie announce the giveaway books because she's all over that, but I'll add that until next time, happy eating, drinking, cooking, mixologizing and reading...


Bonnie Benwick: About today's winnerz -- Arlington, VA. gets rewarded with "Martha Stewart's 52 Dinners at Home" for his/her efforts at making a family cookbook; Washington DC, gets the new Lidia Bastianich book because he/she needs comfort food, and Pine Plains gets "The New Portuguese Table" because he/she is always helpful on our chat, and particularly so today.

Remember to send us your mailing info so we can get those books out to you asap.

Joe Yonan: WDC, you're getting two books from us! All, that email to send us your mailing info is


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