Free Range on Food: Baking bread, a 'bitter' Valentine's Day menu and more

Feb 06, 2013

Baker and cookbook author Marcy Goldman joins us to talk about sponge-based bread, an easy alternative to traditional sourdough. And we offer a few dishes that deviate from typical Valentine's Day food.
Every Wednesday at noon, Food section staff members and guests answer your burning culinary questions. Past Free Range on Food chats

Greetings, all, and welcome to Free Range! We're here to help with any food/drink question that's on your mind. We have two special guests today: Marcy Goldman, who penned today's start-your-bread-with-a-sponge story and fab recipes; and Cathy "Mrs. Wheel--" Barrow, author of today's ode to the Coeur a la Cremsicle, a scrumptious Valentine's Day dessert. Do you have plans to cook for V-Day?

We'll have giveaway cookbooks for the sources of our two favorite questions/comments. So make 'em good!

Thank you to Marcy Goldman for her take on sponges! But I have a question: if both the sponge and the dough spend virtually their entire lives sealed in plastic, when do they have a chance to capture the wild yeast? Most approaches that I've seen leave the sponge out for a while so that the yeast has time to drift by and settle.

You can cover them lightly with plastic - that allows plenty of wild yeast (and the yeast present in the sponge) to do their thing. There is even yeast in the head room in a sealed sponge (set up). But you don't want the sponge to form a crust on top (which might occur without any covering on it) nor do you want fruit flies or dust or whatnot to find its way into the brewing sponge....

They are not completely sealed in plastic - it is more that they are lightly covered. That is enough to allow wild yeast spores in but also negate a crust from forming on top of the sponge.

There seems to be a mistake in the Favorite French Bread recipe: it calls for reducing the temperature to 450 twice. Can you clarify, please?

It should be (depending on recipe) 475 F to start and then reduce to 450F. (Some recipes are 450, reduce to 425F) My apology for the error.

Sorry about the temperature clarity - It should be reduce once (475 F to start, then 450F afterwards). I like a hot oven to allow for oven spring and then a little less heat as bread sets up and browns (and inside bakes). If at any time the bread seems almost done but not quite - you can lower the temp. again (25 F) and allow the bread to finish off (bake through) without undue browning

Ok, Marcy, you've exposed one of the best secrets of breadmaking. Whether you call it poolish or biga or sponge, fermenting some of the dough components ahead of time brings nearly all the sourdough benefits without the pickiness. You can even do it so it fits a working person's schedule (sponge in the morning, bake in the evening after work). Combine sponge with baking in a dutch oven and you have Bread Nirvana for very low effort.

Wow - what a nice note. And that is so-the-point of my feature - there are a few roads to (sourdough) Rome and sponges are one of the nicest yeasty journeys I know. Happy baking to you!

How do you substitute oil for butter and margarine. What kind of recipes are best for this ??

I generally substitue the same amount - cakes, muffins, biscotti all do well with oil for butter (or margarine). Pastry isn't a great canditate for oil but lately, I've been experimenting with unflavoured coconut oil (it comes in a jar and looks like shortening) and that seems to work - same amount of that to butter.


I often substitute cup for cup, oil for solid fat, such as a butter. Lately, I've experimented with unflavored coconut oil (it comes jarred and looks like shortening) with great success  especially in cookies. Muffins, biscotti, quick breads - all do well with oil. Most pastries don't thrive quite so well since their structure depends on a solid fat/air/moisture interplay to actually become 'pastry'. Carrot cake is a great example of a baking occasion wherein oil does a fine job (vs. butter)

I have had mixed results with the "slow"method. Do you think a cold house at nighttime does not allow the sponge to work?

It should still work but you can also put it in your oven (unheated) to keep it free of drafts. It might take an hour or two longer (in a cold house) but most sponges generally rally. Seeing (the foam) is believing.

Cold retards yeast activity but a cold house is not exactly a fridge so you should have some activity and eventually a nice foamy sponge. Cover it lightly and put it in the oven (unheated) overnight and that might help.

I really enjoyed Marcy's sourdough bread story this morning and might be moved to try making my own. I'm a West Coast transplant and, frankly, I've never had sourdough bread here in the East that I've considered to be very good. It's always very bland as compared to what I'm used to from Portland or San Francisco. That said, is there anybody in DC making worthwhile sourdough? I'd be willing to give them a shot.

Hi West Coast transplant - I don't know of DC bakeries but I am sure there are some. What makes sourdough interesting (whether it is sponge based as my recipes are, or your own, or store bought sourdough) is the starter used. Mixed grains in the starter, unbleached white flour with organic white flour - spring water, time and TLC will yield flavourful sourdough with character - so I hope you give it a shot.

A few days ago, when I was at the grocery store, the fire alarm sounded and they asked all of the customers to leave the store. They think it was a broken water pipe, but that isn't the question... We were waiting for 30 minutes and I was wondering if it was safe to return to my cart and continue shopping. I had fresh meats in the cart. In the summer, I always make sure the grocery store is the last stop as I don't want fresh foods that should be kept cold or frozen sitting in the back of a parked car. But, I guess I don't really know how long is fine for keeping food out when shopping.

The food safety standard is to not leave perishable foods at between 40 and 140 F for more than two hours. So there's your window!

What might you suggest for using 1 to 2 oz of vodka lumpfish caviar? We did a Christmas takeoff on the Feast of the 7 Fishes with an appetizer spread featuring various fishes. The caviar -- it is a lovely red hue -- was the perfect topping for tiny potatoes with a hollowed-out spot for a dollop of creme fraice and a dab of cav. But... now we have the rest of the jar to use. A good problem to have, I know. We welcome ideas. Bonus points if we can parlay that lovely red color into a little Valentine-month treat.

The vodka component could be tricky, depending on how pronounced the alcohol is. But you might  try them as a topping for deviled eggs or consider them for a traditional Greek taramosalata dip. As for aValentine's Day idea: How about waking up your loved one with a breakfast of creamy scrambled eggs with caviar? You can modify this recipe from Serious Eats and ditch the toast (or place it on the side).

At Jose Andres new BarMini, he's serving an outrageous bar snack - Iberico ham and American paddlefish caviar. He calls it his "taco." I was a little taken aback by the first bite, but settled in after the second bite. It's outrageous, but amazing. Why not do something similar with a dry ham - Iberico or country - and your caviar?

I bought 2 cans of light coconut milk yesterday. Thoughts on a dessert I can make that will incorporate it?

Coconut Rice Pudding With Caramelized Pineapple. Or maybe International Rice Pudding (and please note that I am recommending a dish that has RAISINS in it.)

You've changed, Bonnie.

I often make chicken, turkey, or tuna salads to take to work for lunch. I keep it simple - meat, celery, mustard, mayo, and perhaps some herbs. Lately they are getting way too watery - as if the mayo has deconstructed? The salas just doesn't hold together anymore. Or is my celery too damp? I've been using Hellmans Light mayo, but never had the problem with the regular mayo - perhaps I need to go back to the full strength version. What else could be happening?

The light mayo's probably the culprit; compare labels and I'll bet you'll find that water is listed as the first (most of) ingredient. But celery = water, for sure. And you didn't mention how much salt's in the mix.  It'd be easy enough to use the least amount of mayo mix as possible just to bind the salad, then keep the rest separate and blend in just before you eat the salads. 

A two-parter ... I would be a regular viewer of these shows including the latest one, "The Taste," but it annoys me that we're never given the recipes! Instead, we watch snippets of all the dishes being prepared and learn that contestant X has made possibly the most amazing dish the judging panel has ever tasted, one several of them swear they would happily eat every day -- but there's no way we can attempt to recreate it so we can experience what all the fuss is about? Why can't we also get the specifics? Please give them a nudge! A related question -- How come out of all these shows, you're recapping each episode of Top Chef Seattle? Does it have special relevance to our East Coast Washington? Thanks! I look forward to seeing your responses.

You'd have to put this question to the show producers, but I suspect that many of these dishes are really just plain not practical for the home cook. I'm not watching "The Taste," but aren't these little bites chock full of components? That's not really how I want to cook at home. But have you looked at the web site? I see a couple dozen recipes on there. And "Top Chef" has almost 200 recipes on its site from the Seattle season alone. But let's just say that they're not the best-written recipes I've ever seen, and I have doubts about the testing of them. This one for Grilled Watermelon & Tomato Salad with Charred Tomato Vinaigrette, for example, calls for "1 small watermelon" and calls for 3 cups of olive oil and more than 4 cups of champagne vinegar. Won't be doing that one.

Oh, why do we recap Top Chef? Because we got hooked early on, and it's our favorite of the bunch. At least for now.

This sounds good! Thinking of making individual tarts for a tea party. What do you think? Do-able? Any words of caution/advice? Blood orange curd also going to be on my tea party menu - yum!

Sure! Here's a recipe you can use for a ganache-type filling. As I recall, its cocoa crust was quite lovely and easy to work with. Blood orange curd: I had to bring in my batch for colleagues today because a) it removes it from my refrigerator and b) it was requested! 

We spent about 15 minutes the other day just talking about curd. That's how we roll.

I just paid an exhorbitant amount of $ for 2 fennel bulbs, roasted them (delicious) but what to do with the fronds? These cost too much not to use them but I have no idea what to do with the stems/leaves. And how, and for how long, can I store them? Right now they are wrapped in paper towels, and in a plastic baggie in the fridge.

You might be surprised to learn that fennel fronds are a diverse ingredient, good for many applications. You can use them as a base to roast fish or as an extra flavoring agent for breads. (More bread ideas!). This Chowhound thread is particularly illuminating on the many uses of fennel fronds and stalks.

Can you think of an alternative to the water spraying in the oven that works for your bread recipe -- this will drive the oven temp of home ovens down considerably. I tend to follow bread baker Ciril Hitz's approach of creating steam through placing water in a pan on a rack below the level the bread is cooking. But your recipe may require the approach you recommend. Thank you.


Some bakers throw in ice-cubes at the beginning and a few times during the baking. That offers steam and the open oven door (and temperature compromise) issue is less of an issue. Given home ovens are not ideal (nor professional bread ovens) ovens - we all do what we can to get that crust!

Please help me figure out how to control the sweetness of my home-made gravad lax. My latest fillet came out like candied salmon even though I did nothing different. Other times, it's been sublime. The candied effect went from the thinnest through the thickest part. Does it depend how recently-caught the fish is, or if I push when I dredge, or what? Might switching from a 50/50 mix of salt and sugar to a 75/25 ratio help? I don't suppose there's anything I can do to un-candy what's now in the refrigerator ... is there? Thank you so much!

Try two parts salt to one part sugar, or try replacing white sugar with palm sugar for a less sweet taste. Also, with the gravlax in your refrigerator, some recipes suggest soaking in plain water to get some of the sweet flavor out, but this really changes the texture and I wouldn't recommend it. Instead, try mixing chopped gravlax with an equal amount of poached salmon and soft cream cheese, form into a log or a round, chill, and serve with bagel chips and capers.

Now everybody will know how to make really really good bread without maintaining a starter. WaPo, you've ruined my breadbaker reputation. Alas.

We enhanced it! Expose your inner starter. We're more impressed with you than ever. 

OMG can WaPo please put the chat link back on the main page of the online food section!! The noon chat is horrible to find!!!!

We did. It's right there at, underneath the strip of recipe photo galleries. Nice headline that says "Join our live chat"!

Marcy - Love your cookbooks! How long can you freeze baked goods like cookies, brownies or other bar cookies?

HI - thanks for the kudos on my cookbooks !
I freeze cookie dough (but baked cookies are good 1-2 months) about 3-4 months - Brownies: wrap in wax paper (each one) and then Ziplock bags - they last 2-3 months. Ditto for bar cookies (but I am a big believer in freezing doughs and unbaked/ready-to-bake things - it's almost as easy and fresher)

I see a lot of instruction to put certain things in the coldest part of the fridge. What do I put in the warmest part? I had to toss some moldy dips, hummus and baba ganouj, and they were pretty fresh. No preservatives, but still, it seemed too soon. I have freezer on bottom, double door on top model fridge.

Sodas and bottle water/juices, vermouth and some wines, hardy condiments, pickled things, capers, tubes of tomato and anchovy paste. 

Read article about Sponge Bread. The recipe is missing.

Sorry, not following. The story has links to all four related recipes at the bottom.

Can you knead these bread doughs by hand? I do not have a machine with a dough hook.

Yes - you can knead them by hand - and the method is similar. Mix up the dough without all the flour - so that it seems like a messy, wettish mixture. Cover and let stand 15-20 minutes. Then start kneading by hand, dusting in more flour as required until you get a soft but resilient dough.


I know it's mostly Tom's territory to do the food reviews, but have you guys ever thought of doing a review of take out and delivery places around DC? At lot more restaurants are offering take out nowadays, and with some online delivery places you can even get higher-end restaurant food delivered to your door. I think it'd be really helpful to have a list of the good, bad and ugly of different delivery/carryout places.

Editor Joe makes all the calls on content for the section, but I'd say this about the idea: While it would be a great consumer service, it would also be fraught with logistical issues. What take-outs would we focus on? Sit-down restaurants? Chinese takes-outs? Pizza shops? The options no doubt would number in the hundreds. We would have to focus on a particular kind of take out/delivery to make this workable.


Interestingly enough, the Food section has been talking about such an idea, but with a completely different kind of operation. Stay tuned.

We could potentially compare the delivery services themselves. I did that once in Boston; was a hoot. I enlisted a group of college students, and they all got their laptops out at the same time and broke up into groups, each logging onto a different service's website. They selected their orders, and they hit the order button at the same time, and the clock started ticking. We wrote about quality, price, and selection, too, but the logistical trick was in testing speed, which we did! Maybe a DC repeat is in order.

This might seem obvious, but what part of the pig do you buy to make pulled pork? I like the idea of making pulled pork at home, but feeling a bit lost on how to pull that off.

Pork shoulder or butt (also called Boston Butt) are the traditional cuts for pulled pork.

I made Martha Stewart's Chocolate Gingerbread cookies over the weekend and the recipe calls for 1 tablespoon of freshly grated ginger. I pulled out my Microplane and used that. However, I noticed it took a pretty long time to gather 1 tablespoon. My concern is that perhaps I need a new/sharper Microplane (I've had mine for about 8 years) or in the alternative, perhaps I just need more patience! :-) Any other suggestions on how to quickly grate ginger?

Ginger is tough. Literally. The best ginger graters are made in Japan (of course), and they're these fantastic little porcelain things that have little teeth in the middle and a moat around the outside, and they pull the pulp out of the fibers, leaving you with perfect juice. And they're much faster than grating any other way I've found. If you use a lot of ginger, they're worth it. Here's one from Kyocera. I <3 mine.

Another possibility, if you're in the market for a new box grater, is this, from Cuisipro. I was delighted to discover that there's a little ginger grater (in the same design as the Japanese but plastic, not porcelain) built into the base of the thing. It pops off for use.

Trying to stay away from artificial foods/coloring (plus I love to cook with my 3 & 4 yr old), I'm thinking to make a pink butter cake for Valentine's Day, my plan is to puree a beet (strain?) add it to the batter. Any other cake suggestions besides plain butter cake to make it more interesting? I'm interested in other menu suggestions and the bread too!

Cranberry and/or blood orange juice might pink things up as well. Ace baker-cookbook author Nancy Baggett got us thinking in natural-coloring mode when she came to The Post to demonstrate her cookies last December. 


These little angel food cakes might be kinda fun to make with your little ones. Like this passion fruit pound cake, too. And how could I forget this Raspberry Frangipane Cake? Awesome, moist, easy to make. I want some right now. 


Love kale chips -- traditionally just oilive oil & salt, but I'm jonesing to branch out, and for fun I took a look around the internet, which may have been a serious mistake. There's a MAD range of advice on temp and timing. The median is probably around 350 for 10-15 minutes, but I've seen temps as low as 250 and as high as 375, timing from 8 minutes to 30, and not much correlation between timing and temp! Some call for parchment paper, some are very strict about drying the leaves thoroughly, some say to salt before baking and some after, most don't recommend turning them mid-bake but a handful do ... Is this because of some folk process where people hand these things around in a strange game of telephone? Or does it maybe trace back to what variety of kale people started with? Or are people's ovens just that unreliable on temp? What have you-all experienced, and where would you come down on these spectra?

I can't speak to all the variations found on the Interwebz, which just seems par for the course. But I can tell you that Elizabeth Petty's Kale Chips are amazing, addictive and I want some right now! The combination of nutritional yeast and jalapeno pepper tricks your tongue into thinking that you're eating pimento cheese.


This recipe does call for a dehydrator, which you can buy for $60 or less. But you can also bake the chips in the oven.

Joe! I'm too eager to wait until NPR posts it on its webpage; I'm dying to know what you talked about regarding gourmet microwave cooking! Just this morning I made my first scrambled-eggs-in-a-microwave ever, and I was pleasantly surprised at how tasty they were. I'm not sure it would pull me away from my traditional stovetop method, but it is good to know that I can still make things like eggs in a pinch if need be. Do you have any other suggestions for foods one wouldn't normally think to cook in a microwave that actually turn out pretty well? Thanks!

It wasn't on this morning! David Greene and I tweeted about it yesterday and early this morning because we recorded it yesterday. Stay tuned! Indeed, the whole thing started because David has been microwaving eggs in an office mug, thanks to a producer's suggestion, pretty much every morning when he gets there (so VERY early). So they called me to help them think of other things. I don't want to steal my own thunder, so you'll have to wait.

Last week there was some discussion about making hummus. I try not to buy much canned food due to the BPA in the can lining. Can you tell me how to prepare dried beans to use in hummus (I don't have much experience cooking dried beans)?

Chickpeas are one of the easiest dried bean to prepare. Soak 1 cup overnight in water to cover by two inches. Drain the chickpeas, place in a 3 quart pot, add 1/2 teaspoon of baking soda and stir well. Heat the peas up dry with the baking soda until the skins begin to slip off, then add six cups of water. Cook for 20-40 minutes until a chickpea smooshes between your fingers.

It was not there on my page...sorry.

It should be on everybody's page! Do you see it now? It got changed yesterday, so maybe you need to clear your cache if the page hasn't updated, or try checking with another browser.

Thank you, Joe! I hadn't thought to check the website for recipes (d'oh!) and you're right -- "chock full of components" is an understatement, at least for the rave-producing Bi-Bim-Bap. Some things are just easier to eat out ...


I've used several kinds of sponges for bread. Some of them use a lot of liquid, like your recipes shown here, and some are quite dry. They all seem to work. Is there a reason you prefer the more liquid, "puddinglike" sponge? Also, it seems to me that almost any recipe could be adapted to start with a sponge, and should result in a loaf with improved flavor. Do you agree? Do you have any general recommendations for how much of the flour/water/ yeast in a conventional recipe I should use to start a sponge? I see that in your recipes here that you used varying proportions of yeast in the sponge and in the dough. Thanks.

Hi - those are great questions. At the least, a pudding-like sponge incorporates really easily into a new dough (the sponge dissolves into the water and blends well with all else you will add).
I agree that many recipes profit from a sponge (cinnamon buns, challah) - it's a matter of adjusting things to accomodate a sponge and knowing if you have the time (sometimes you might simply want a straight dough - because you want bread in 2 hours).
I typically use 1 cup of water, 1 cup of flour or as required to get a pudding-like mixture and 1/8 - 1/4 tsp yeast (depending on how much time I have to create the sponge). Multi grain doughs tend to get more lively than all -white doughs and that's when I start playing around with the time and the yeast used. But overall, sponges are pretty flexible - You will get varied results but all (to my mind) good.

My wife's care giver pointed out to me that the cooking surface on one of my pans was scratched. She was concerned that it is dangereous to continue using a non-stick pan after it becomes scratched. Is this correct?

This is a much debated topic, but this well-researched story from Psychology Today (of all places!) indicates that non-stick pans and pots should be safe unless you leave them unattended over high heat in your kitchen.

Now it's there...changed browsers. THANKS!!!!!

Glad to help.

Hi. For the super bowl I made some "wings" (used chopped pieces of breast meat instead) with a sauce primarily made of butter, miso, and some chilli powder. I have ~2 cups of sauce leftover (more than half the original!) that was not in contact with the chicken in any way. Any thoughts on how to use it? Thanks so much!

That's a lot of sauce! Well, you could freeze some of it for a few months -- stall for time! (Just make sure to label it, or you know what happens. A year hence, a mystery find.)

It sounds like it'd be a lovely glaze for baked eggplant rounds and for fish or shrimp. And 1/4 cup or so could be the base for a vinaigrette -- just whisk in oil and vinegar to taste. (I'd try some olive oil and some toasted sesame oil, plus rice vinegar, to keep with the Asian style.)

I like the looks of the eggplant & prune recipe, but neither have nor want a slow cooker. Can you suggest a rule-of-thumb temperature to set my oven at if I wanted to try to re-create slow cooker recipes in my le creuset-type lidded pot?

You have a keen eye -- it's a favorite of Jane Touzalin's and mine. Slow-cooker cookbook author Marlene Koch says that each hour on the stove top or oven = about 6 hours on LOW or 3 hours on HIGH in your slow cooker.  I think a slow-cooker HIGH translates to 300 degrees or so.... and in general, slow-cooker recipes need about half the liquid a stovetop/oven recipe would. 

I thought "those characteristic big, gaping holes inside" were the result of over-kneading. At least in non-sourdough yeast breads. Wrong?

The gaping holes are actually a result of both the dough (sinewy resilient sourdough that is quite high in water content - making for a slack dough) as well as gently kneading which allows some air pockets to remain. The particular dough, as well as some pockets remaining- translate into those nice gaping holes later on.

Joe and Bonnie, I'd love to see your video chat come back!

Aw, shucks. Thanks. I'm afraid the video chats were an experiment that didn't draw enough of an audience. And this year I'm not watching!

I purchased a sourdough starter from King Arthur a while back and have had great success making bread with no additional yeast. I keep her in the fridge and feed/bake with her weekly. Now, I am going to have to find a place for a sponge in my cramped kitchen though I doubt anyone who gets the end results will complain. Thank you for keeping us challenged and interested in the kitchen.

Hi and thanks for such a nice note. I like all my 'yeasty offspring' - whether they are bigas, dissums, sponges, starters or levains or whatnot. More the merrier - and the more yeast in the air. It also (whether you feed starters or opt for a lower-rent sponge) keeps you, as a baker, more flexible, learning and appreciating different approaches. And as you say - no one complains when some sort of freshly baked bread is in the offing.

Try beet juice - doesn't take much. Just don't used the pickled kind (you'd be surprised!).

I'm eager to try these breads, but I have two questions about the recipe. When should the oven be turned down from 475 to 450, after putting the dough in the oven or after the first 15 minutes (the recipe says both)? Also, I went to King Arthur's to find malt powder and they have two kinds: diastatic and non-diastatic. Which kind should I use and what is the difference?

I turn the oven down using both methods -depending on the bread. But if I had to choose one method it is hot oven, and the after 15 mnutes lower heat. You want a blast of really hot oven to get the bread to spring forth but then a little less hot as the bread bakes through and sets up. But you can always play with your own oven and see how your breads respond - ovens vary quite a bit.
You can use either malt and more often than not, one finds non-diastatic - that's perfect. It is more used (in my recipes) for flavour and colouring of the crust (not really, as some malt is, to feed the yeast)

My husband requested pot pie for Valentine's Day. I'd love to make something other than the traditional chicken- or turkey-filled. Any suggestions? Thanks, you all are fantastic!

Here's one: Beef Tenderloin and Mushroom 'Pot Pies' With Cheddar-Crusted Tops.

For something really different, consider Chicken Bistilla, a Moroccan dish that uses phyllo instead of a traditional pastry crust.

Chicken Bistilla


I just purchased yeast in bulk (1 lb package). What is the best way to store it, and how long will it keep? Thank you.

Hi, I put my yeast in a vacuumn sealable jar (or even a Mason jar) and keep it in the fridge. If it is bread machine or instant yeast it lasts 3-4 months.

Hi guys - I've been obsessed with Barolo risotto after having an amazing one on vacation in Piedmont. I think I've finally summoned the courage to make one - I've made risotto before (so am fine with that process), but am stumped on what Barolo to use, given how expensive the bottles tend to be. Any recommendations on a specific wine? Can I even get away with using a moderately priced nebbiolo from the region? Thanks!

I'm not going to besmirch the reputation of any particular Italian restaurant, but I have heard that some places don't actually -- gasp! -- use Barolo in their risottos. And who can blame them (well, you can, if they advertise the dish as a Barolo risotto and charge accordingly, but that's another story)? 


Because Barolos are so expensive, I would tend to go with its nebbiolo cousins, like Langhe or Nebbiolo d’Alba. Jason Wilson has some good, cheaper nebbiolo suggestions in a column from 2011.

what bread would you suggest for a beginner? I do have a cast iron dutch oven and heard that I could bake bread in those. Is that true? Thanks

You can get a great bread in a dutch oven but the sponge-based breads I offered in today's feature allow you to simply bake a bread, free-form, on a baking sheet. It's one less step (and one less thing to clean up) and yields a find round country loaf -without any extra bakeware. 

... between Italian eggplant and the larger variety? Are they used for different purposes, do they have different tastes? I noticed at my local store, Italian eggplant is twice the cost of the other. Is it worth it? I love eggplant, but don't know that I've ever had the Italian variety.

Italian eggplants are typically denser and less seedy than the fat globe variety. Some people think the Italian eggplant flesh is more "delicate" and some think it's more "intense." I haven't tasted it in awhile, so I can't pick a winner here.


Whatever eggplant you use, consider following Kenji's advice on Serious Eats about roasting them beforehan to compress the plant, which is like a sponge otherwise.

I have a bottle of Manzanilla and I have two questions: 1) What do I do with it? 2) How long does it last once it is opened? Thanks!

1) Open it and drink it! It's wonderful as an aperitif. You can always tru it in cocktails, such as the Duke of Marlborough (pictured below) or The Dunaway or the Sargasso. (All those recipes call for other sherry styles but they all work with manzanilla).

2) Once opened, I would usually keep a bottle -- in the fridge -- for about a week. Some believe it keeps a little longer and some a little less.

So during the cold snap a few weekends ago, my bottle of olive oil froze solid. It has since defrosted but are there going to be any permanent effects in terms of taste?

Should be fine. Olive oil fares better when stored at a relatively cool temp, in fact.  Filtered oils tend not to cloud up when chilled, did you know? 

Just had to share that in the two years I've been reading this chat I could click on the front page link and it worked! Maybe the bugs are gone!

I really enjoyed Cathy's Valentine's Day themed dessert and love reading her blog. I find a lot of V Day stuff is all red hearts and chocolate, so it's nice to have something different. I worked up a sundae that uses burnt and smoky flavors--thinking about a romantic setting by the fire--browned butter blondie with maple-bacon ice cream, caramel sauce and smoked whipped cream. I'm not anti-chocolate, I just wanted something different.

Thank you! I love chocolate, but I also love dessert, so I like options. I vote we make everything.

Hello, Foodies! Posting early because boy, do I need your help. My roommate and I are hosting a party for about a dozen on Friday night. He was going to make paella and went to the market yesterday to get the ingredients. When I got home last night, I found a note that he had to go to Dulles and catch the first plane to Paris for work (the poor guy)! Now I'm stuck with about a pound each of shrimp, scallops, clams, and some sort of tentacled horror in my fridge. I've never made paella before, and I don't know if I should try it or just throw everything into the freezer and make something else. I need to come up with something good fast, because those guys are going get hungry. Any ideas?

Hmm. How about grilling that tentacled horror or trying your hand at this lovely salad with chickpeas, sun-dried tomatoes, herbs and a Greek-style lemon-mustard dressing; marinating the clams for this quick appetizer (bottom pix) and using the remaining ingredients in this quite doable seafood sausage

I generally applaud the movement toward weight-based measurement in recipes, except that I'm not sure what to do with really small measurements, which many weight-based recipes often put in teaspoons anyway. I'm making something tonight that calls for 11 grams of sodium citrate (no surprise--It's the mac & cheese in Modernist Cuisine at Home). My digital scale, which is great for measuring flour or sugar, doesn't seem calibrated for accurate measurements that small. This ingredient resembles table salt and I see that a teaspoon of table salt is about 6 grams. So do you think I'd be okay with using 2 teaspoons of this stuff? Am very excited about the fact that this will be the first thing I make from this cookbook.

This is a popular recipe. And because of the detail-oriented nature of the cookbook, I'll say that you should pose this question to the MCaH people, or to that community. Why not put a comment on the recipe on this website? Someone who asked something similar said people have been adding it slowly, or experimenting with trial and error, to do a volume measure for the sodium citrate.

I've had a lot of fun making cocktails with ingredients like Cynar, Campari and Aperol, which seem more popular than ever lately. The problem, however, is that since they are low-alcohol they have to be refrigerated, and my fridge is now full of those plus Lillet, sweet vermouth, madeira and several sherries. Any suggestions for good cocktails that might allow me to use up some of these wonderful ingredients? I'm running out of room for milk. Thanks.

Ha, your refrigerator sounds like mine. I gave a few sherry recipes to the other commenter, including the Duke of Marlborough (which also calls for vermouth) and the Dunaway (which also calls for Cynar). Our archive of cocktail recipes has many uses for Campari and Lillet Blanc. As for cocktails that call for more than one of these ingredients, there is a multitude of Negroni variations, including the Unusual Negroni (gin, Aperol, Lillet), the Boulevardier (bourbon, Campari, and vermouth) or the Old Pal (rye, vermouth, Campari). Happy mixing!

Hi - my boyfriend and I want to cook Valentine's Day dinner together but are completely stumped as to what to make. We aren't advanced-level cooks but would like a nice meal that we could prepare after coming home from work. We would love any suggestions!!

I would go with almost any shaped pasta - fry up quality sausages (Italian or Bratvurst) and toss sliced sausages into the cooked pasta; add grated asiago or Parm. garlic, salt, pepper and some herbs and a green side salad and you're done. Or pan fried cracked pepper steaks - Easy, (quick).

Hi! Loved your article about the health potential of "returning" to traditional African foods. For me, I just love love love the flavor. I've tried to make it at home but it's always disappointing. Do you know if there are any _serious_ cookbooks that will help me master this cuisine? I'm looking for an author that really champions the food the way Julia Child or Paula Wolfert have others.

Thank you. It was a blog item over on the Going Out Guide.


As for African food sources, it all depends on what kind of cuisine you'd like to cook. Chef Marcus Samuelsson has an excellent cookbook devoted to his approach to African cooking.  Author and teacher Fran Osseo-Asare also has an terrific blog dedicated to West African cooking. I relied heavily on her expertise for a story I wrote about the cuisines of West Africa.

Any chance you're going to go back to the old design of the Food section webpage (and the Style/Lifestyle page as long as I'm asking)? The only reason I found the Morton's article was because Tom linked to it in his chat; the GOG restaurant blog doesn't have it listed. Subscribing to the print edition is not an option for me, and it makes me sad that I can't read all the stuff I want to from the paper without either an intensive search or without having 15 bookmarks that take me to the pages of the columns or authors I want to read.

We're not going back anytime soon, no. But on Tuesdays and Wednesdays you should be seeing everything that's in the section, either in the group of stories on top, or in the constantly updating feed of stories that scrolls down the middle of the page. Tom's First Bite sometimes shows up later because of Going Out Guide production issues, but it should be there today. The Food landing page is representing food coverage from all over the paper; the best way to see exactly what was in the print section is, well, look at the print section. That's what it's for!

Thanks for the suggestions. It's very thick (solid when cold) so I'm not sure a vinaigrette would do, but I'll see what I can glaze it with hot!

You can heat it up just enough to liquefy it before making the vinaigrette, and it might solidify in the fridge, but that's no biggie -- you can reliquefy it when you want to use.

I am right on board with Kate Parham - I just don't have much of a sweet tooth. I actually will eat chocolate cake, but my reaction generally is "meh." And I almost always prefer to eat the cake sans icing. This got me thinking - could this mean I have too many sweet taste buds? Because it just seems I'm much more sensitive to sugar than other people. Other people will tell me a dish has a nice balance of sweet and sour, but I usually find it to be disgustingly sweet. I can't tell if this is just because I'm a picky eater (which I admittedly am) or if there's an actual biological reason for it.

It could very well be biological, yes. The number of taste buds we have (not just on our tongue, btw) is hugely variable. And our sensitivities are variable, too.

Pour some into lentil soup just before eating. Wow! It also works as a substitute for Chinese rice wine in recipes.

I had an aunt who was (to say the least) very, um... frugal. She didn't believe in buying plastic ziplock bags when she could just as easily rinse out the bag her newspaper came in and seal it with a twist tie or some other method. One time when I visited her, she told me she had some great starter for a delicious new bread she was making and she wanted to share it with me. I took it home and the next day, when I went to knead it in the bag, I noticed what I thought was some sort of spice or seasoning. Upon closer look, I saw there were actually hundreds of dead ants in the starter! Yum! Needless to say, I didn't make the bread; nor did I ever eat any at my aunt's house again!

Yeah, that's the kind of food story that tends to stay with a person. You get extra credit for aunts w/ants. (Starter ants?)

My husband is working across country next week and I'm going to join him for a long Valentine's Day weekend. Can you think of any homemade "fancy" goodies that would travel well in a carry on? If not, I think I'm just going to make some Valentine's colored M&M cookies or cookie bars.

I've used the disposable baking pans with covers at the grocery store - perfect for a pan of brownies. (Family favorite here are swirled with peanut butter.) Another favorite traveling sweet - pound cake. Make the cake in a round bundt pan, slice, then pack in a round deep cookie tin lined with wax paper.

My local bakery claims there are two kinds of holes in bread: the good ones caused by a wet dough and the bad ones caused by bad loaf formation which she calls "bakers' caves".

I agree with your local baker -It depends on the dough though - There are the noble 'gapes' in a great sourdough (wet dough) and then the occasional inconsistency in a dough that wasn't sourdough that should have had more consistent gas deflation /handling. Worse are the occasions of unblended baking soda in a muffin!

I have taken to soaking old fashioned oats in milk for an hour or so and then adding a sprinkling of trail mix (dried fruit and nuts). However, it does take a bit of time to chew through it and I was wondering if you had suggestions for super healthy breakfast on the go?

I make my own healthy English muffins or spelt/flax bagels (without holes).  I make a large omelette and then cut in portions to make a breakfast sandwich of my own (with the healthy breads/bagels I bake). Add some cheese or crisp turkey bacon. These can be made ahead and frozen and microwaved as you need them. Another approach is to pour a western omelette filling into muffin wells. Bake and voila! You have a 'quiche muffin'

Have a cocktail party!

Last night I made Chard Saag Paneer and had some trouble with curdling at the end of the recipe. You fold Greek yogurt into the warm vegetable mixture then add lemon juice off heat. When I added the lemon, the lovely creaminess that I had achieved with the dish vanished and the sauce broke. It tasted great but looked less great. What did I do wrong? Recipe is here:

You turned down the heat after you added the yogurt, as the recipe indicates?  Or did it break once you added the lemon juice? 

No sweetie for V-day AND I am having a minor procedure on my eyelid so I will be swollen, bruised and possibly covered with a bandage that makes me look like a swollen, bruised pirate with an absorbent eye patch. Any suggestions on what I should cook up for myself ahead of time? I'm thinking that chewing anything crunchy might be uncomfortable with an incision in my eyelid. Gosh, this is depressing.

Something with rum! Argh! (Sorry.) Honestly, sounds like a soup is in order, no? Something hearty and soft, like 30-Minute Red Lentil Soup?

I keep my yeast in the freezer. I've never had any trouble getting it to activate, and it's kept longer than a year.

I confess - the yeast I buy and keep fridge or freezer, has uncanny life in it. It always seems to work - but these new yeasts are state of the art and pretty resilient.

Maybe you could follow Tom's general idea of the Seasonal Review? Have a rating system of how hot the food was when it got to you, if the order was right, timeliness, etc.? I know my office would love to hear about it for all the late nights we put in!

Maybe! Appreciate the suggestion.

Good morning! I have a bottle of dry sherry just waiting to be used. I plan on using it to deglaze the pan, but am wondering what types of foods work well with it. I've never used it, aside from the lone recipe.

Sherry pairs very well with mushrooms, especially as a base for a cream sauce. If that's too decadent, omit the cream, or just add a dollop to the final dish. On cold nights, we enjoy a vegetarian dinner of sherry creamed mushrooms on toast.

Often when reheating chicken in the microwave, it ends up tasting terrible. Why is that?

Sigh, so many reasons. What kind are you reheating, and in what kind of container? Bone-in? 

I recently had a wonderful grilled Octopus appetizer at a restaurant that I would love to try to recreate. I know the octopus had been cooked and than grilled. Do you have a basic recipe I could start with, this would be my first time cooking octopus and I'm a little concerned. Thanks!

     I don't have a recipe for you, but I can give you an idea. The first thing you want to do is tenderize the octopus. Bring to a brief boil a pot of water with the octopus and seasonings, such as some peppercorns, a bay leaf or two, a lemon (halved or quartered), a stalk of celery and a carrot, along with some parsley and thyme. After about an hour (could be as long as two), remove the octopus. Cut into bite-size pieces, brush with olive oil and grill quickly over a direct fire (about a minute or so per side).

      I have found it very challenging to get the octopus as tender as I want. The key is the simmering.

They don't call octopus the brisket of the sea for nothing. Here's a recipe for Octopus and Chickpea Salad that's a little cheffy and involved, but you could pull out the octopus-cooking technique.

My mom always make raspberry or strawberry cakes. She added them to the batter before blending with a mixer. It gave the cake a light pink color.

There you go! 

I have one, hopefully simple ask, which is if you would somehow highlight the DInner in MInutes and Nourish recipes, even if it was to add that to the titles in the list of recipes that's displayed. I really like those, since they are a little more than just recipes, but at present they are hard to find.

Thanks. Bonnie and I will discuss.

I want to make vegetarian stuffed cabbage for my Valentine, and was hoping you had some ideas of what to fill it with. Also, what would be a good accompaniment?

How about a combination of cooked barley, white beans, tomato, and feta? A good accompaniment would be a nice crisp salad.

I love to make my own bread - largely because I'm gluten free. And I love sourdough! Any idea if these recipes need to be altered for gluten-free flour?

Hi - I don't think these would work gluten free since they need the structure glutenous flours (regular wheat flour) offers. 

Can bulgur wheat be used in recipes other than tabbouleh?

The Kitchn has collected a number of tasty-sounding recipes from around the web.

Do you have a recipe for peeps? ;)

Not quite. Make some homemade marshmallows and then use a cookie cutter to get shapes! I did that for the little hot chocolate bags I handed out this year. Just be sure you frequently wipe the cutter and dip in it confectioners' sugar. You'll end up with lots of oddly shaped scraps, but I call those the cook's reward.

English or black walnuts? Can another nut be substituted, for nut allergies?

Artisanal Walnut Bread

I used English walnuts (although they hailed from both California and China). As a mom of a nut allergy kid, I would avoid nut alternatives if only because if you are allergic to peanuts but not walnuts (let's say), there still might be crossover nut traces in any nut used.

Since the weather has gotten colder, I've been craving chowders. Plenty of them use smoked fish. However, other than salmon, I haven't been able to find smoked haddock, mackerel or trout anywhere. Any suggestions where I can find smoked fish in the 270 corridor? Thanks!

Both Whole Foods and Trader Joes sell smoked trout. I agree, it's harder to find a good complement of smoked fishes, although the Parkway Deli in Silver Spring has a pretty broad selection.

I just threw away several bags of flour that had expiration dates for last Aug-Oct. Was that foolish? I didn't check them for freshness because I don't know what I'd be looking or sniffing for. What's best practice? There's no room in the refrigerator so the replacements will have to be stored in the pantry, too. Flowery thanks to you.

The consensus is that properly stored white flour will last in the pantry for about eight months (a year in the fridge). Whole wheat has a much shorter shelf life because the unsaturated fat in the wheat germ will go rancid; its shelf life is about 2 or three months in the pantry and about eight months in the fridge. Freezing flours will extend their shelf life considerably. Here's a handy chart.

This pot pie is REALLY good! You can add sausage if you need some meat in there too!

We don't like to go out for V-day..but as in most years the day falls during the work week. What is a simple recipe that can be made after commuting 1 hour or more and dinner will be ready by 8 PM (get home around 6). Chicken, shrimp, rice or pasta dishes are good.

Bonnie's Dinner in Minutes recipes fall into that category -- an hour or less. I liked the sound of Lime and Fig Chicken.

Lime and Fig Chicken

It was ridiculously easy, and as FOF Betsey Garland pointed out, it kills off/uses up that half-jar of preserves lingering in the refrigerator.  

Question re. ragus (sp?) -- what are they? how do they differ from other dishes that might be similar? Seems I keep seeing this term come up by can't really tell what exactly it is....thanks!

A ragu is an Italian meat-based sauce that typically is served with pasta. Check out one of our favorites: Pork Ragu for a Crowd.


Huh. I use lard to make tamales. I need a substitute so that I can make vegetarian tamales. I won't use Crisco (of any brand). Do you think the coconut oil would work for that?

Apparently so. Here's a vegan tamale recipe that includes masa made with coconut oil.

For Lent, I'd like to incorporate two meat free days however, I can't for the life of me imagine such a life. I love beans - peas, snaps, black-eyed, pinto, etc. but don't cook them without at least a little meat. Same with cabbage, collards, etc. - this is how my parents did it and my grandparents. What does eggplant taste like anyway? I love cabbage and hate broccoli. Any ideas? Websites? Thanks for being here every Wednesday.

Don't have time to answer this properly -- my apologies! But first, get cookbooks by Kim O'Donnel: "The Meat Lover's Meatless Cookbook" and the new "Meat Lover's Meatless Celebrations." Good stuff. You'll be inspired. Second, we'll be having more veg recipes in WaPoFood soon, so hopefully you'll have inspiration here, too!

What is the difference between a vinegar and vinaigrette? How do I turn balsamic vinegar into a vinaigrette?

Vinegar is just that -- vinegar. The acidic stuff. Vinaigrette is the dressing, made with the vinegar, oil and other seasonings, as in here and here.

Do you have a recipe, that doesn't have a lot of garlic? has a basic vegetable broth that has nary a clove of garlic.

The King Arthur bakers told me to keep my yeast in the freezer when I buy it in large amounts. It lasts a lot longer and works great for me straight out of the freezer. Love the sponge. My handed down oatmeal bread recipe uses a sponge, and it is the bread my entire family requests me to make the most.

I think the freezer is fine advice although the fridge also seems quite adequate and I use that - taking out yeast as I need it.
That oatmeal sponge breads sounds like a winner!

How about a cioppino, the tomato seafood soup? It's easy to make and a great comfort food.

Usually it is chicken with little to no sauce, that tastes awful. Chicken coated in sauce or usually something Chinese comes out OK.

Please don't eat octopus. They are very intelligent animals that are being severely over-fished. Substitute squid instead - tastes the same, not sentient, and not endangered. Google the video of the octopus who steals the diver's camera if you don't believe they have a sense of humor.

Here's the You Tube video of the theft, complete with dramatic Bond music.


My pet peeve is any recipe that specifies garlic powder. It is so easy to smash and mince garlic, why bother with powder? At least with real garlic you know what you are using. My question is, how much real garlic would you use if a recipe calls for say, 1 tsp garlic powder?

Okay! Life's too short for this to show up on your pet peeve list.  I'm not saying garlic powder's an equal substitute in flavor to fresh. But benefits to using it include avoiding botulism in long-lived products; using it as a flavoring agent instead of or to cut down on sodium; you don't have to cook it;  it's easily blended into things where fresh garlic wouldn't go so well (such as dry coatings); I'm sure there's more but our time grows short. Buy a good product and you'll know what you're getting.  For equivalents, think about 1/4 teaspoon powder = 1 fresh garlic clove. Give or take. 

My fiance requested a good bread and olive oil to dip it in as an app (it's amazing how far he's come!). Now that we have the bread picked out (THANKS!), can you recommend some good olive oil? We'd like to keep it under $25 if possible.

Depends if you like grassy or buttery....go to an olive oil store and taste to find ones you like, then buy $25 worth of that. The main thing, I think, is that the oil is as fresh as possible. Makes the biggest difference, to my mind. 

Something I learned from Julia when she was The French Chef--for a better flavor, always remove the skin of leftover chicken before you refrigerate it. Don't know if that had anything to do with the flavor of the OP's chicken, though.

Have you tried baked oatmeal? I have made this before (and added walnuts/left out sugar) and it is super healthy and holds for a few days:

(now you'll know how old I am!) Before slow cookers, I used to brown a pot roast in a dutch oven, add vegetables and liquid and stick it in the oven at 450 while I took my shower and dressed. Turn the oven down to 250 and go to work. When we came home, not only did we have a wonderful dinner ready, the house smelled divine!

recipe, please! It sounds wonderful.

We'll ask!

Well, you've baked us until brown and crusty, and we're cooling on a wire rack, so you know what that means -- we're done! Thanks for the great questions today -- and thanks to Marcy and Cathy for helping our team answer them.

Now for the giveaway books. The chatter who talked about a "super healthy breakfast" of soaked oats will get "Sodium Girl's Limitless Low-Sodium Cookbook." The chatter whose husband requested a Valentine's pot pie will get "Pies: Sweet and Savory." Send an email to with your mailing address, and we'll get you your books!

Until next time, happy cooking, eating, and reading!

I have a big bag of dehydrated shiitake mushrooms. Sometimes I will come across a recipe that calls for, say, a half pound of fresh shiitake mushrooms. Since dehydrated mushrooms don't weigh as much, I assume I am not going to weigh out a half pound of dried mushrooms. Is there some sort of conversion factor I could use? For every half pound of fresh mushrooms, use a quarter pound of dehydrated mushrooms? Any thoughts are appreciated.

A standard conversion is 3 ounces dried mushrooms, reconstituted, equals 1 pound fresh. So for 1/2 pound, you're talking 1.5 ounces dried.

In This Chat
Joe Yonan
Joe Yonan is editor of the Food section; joining us today are deputy editor Bonnie Benwick, staff writer Tim Carman, editorial aide Becky Krystal, Smoke Signals columnist Jim Shahin and Spirits columnist Jason Wilson. Guests: Montreal baker and cookbook author Marcy Goldman; blogger Cathy Barrow.
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