Just Ask Dorie: On her new WaPoFood column, Valentine's Day baking, and more

New WaPo Food contributor Dorie Greenspan is taking your questions.
Feb 12, 2015

Beloved cookbook author Dorie Greenspan ("Baking Chez Moi," "Baking: From My Home To Yours," "Around My French Table" and more) answers your questions about her new column, "Everyday Dorie," and everything else she's cooking.

Hello and thank you so much for coming today.  I've been practicing my speed-typing skills for a week now in the hope that I'll be able to keep up with you!

I've loved hearing from you this week and seeing the pictures of your Share-My-Heart Cookies that you've posted. It's going to be fun to be on this adventure together.

Valentine's Day Share-My-Heart Cookies

When I pipe choux for eclairs or little puffs for profiteroles for instance, they are delicious but always have a weird shape. How do you make picture perfect choux?

If you spoon out the dough for your choux puffs, you'll usually get higgledy-piggledy shapes - I find them charming.  If you want picture-perfect puffs, either pipe them out or use a cookie scoop.

Hi Sweet Dorie! When making tart crusts (Pate Sucree), by crust shells often shrink significantly during baking. What am I doing wrong? My guess is either not letting dough test, over-rolling dough, or both? Thanks, Dorie!

Tart dough is a known shrinker, but you lessen the odds of serious shrinkage when you chill the dough.  I roll the dough between parchment as soon as it's made and then, if it's cold enough to handle, I fit it into the tart pan.  If not, I chill it and then fit it in.  Then into the freezer.  Cold, cold, cold is the key.  I bake the shells straight from the freezer - covered with foil or parchment and pie weights - at 400 F.  Hope this helps - let me know.

my cupcakes some times come away from the liners, what causes this and what is a good way to correct.... I have tried taking them out of the pan at various points in the cooling process, it happens mostly with my white cakes including your birthday cake recipe

I think the cause of the cupcakes coming away from the liners has more to do with the type of cake you're making and the baking than it does with the cooling. The test for doneness for many cakes - including the birthday cake - is that cakes start to come away from the sides of the pan.  With cupcakes, it's the liner.  

I've been a fan of yours for some time now. There's an unassuming air about your cookbooks that make anyone, from the most experienced baker to the most new to the kitchen, to think, "Yeah, I can do this!". How do you come up with your recipes? I've been baking for years now and the thought of experimenting to create my own recipes scare me to death. Do you know a lot about the chemistry of baking? Because I figure you HAVE to know what ingredient does what in the baking process to create something successful. Thank you! 

Thank you, thank you for your kind words about my books. I sometimes think of myself as a 'Baking Evangelist' so I love that you find me encouraging.  About creating recipes - yes, there's science involved, but I believe that anyone can personalize a recipe.  There are so many ways to make a recipe your own - try changing the spices in a baking recipe, or swapping dried fruit for nuts or chopped chocolate, or changing the shape.  They're all small changes, but they make a recipe your own.

Baking Chez Moi has several recipes that call for Nutella. What do you suggest as an alternative for folks who don't like Nutella or, more specifically, hazelnuts?

My husband's not a hazelnut-lover either and so I often substitute Biscoff cookie spread for Nutella.

Cooking and baking "in-season" is the norm now- what's something you like to make all-year-round, regardless of the time of year or what's in season?

Chocolate! Chocolate! Chocolate!

Dorie, I am SO excited about the opportunity to chat with you weekly! I always enjoy your writing because it feels like reading recipe notes from a good friend. I have a few girls' weekends coming up and want to bring some treats - what are your "go to's" in situations like this? I feel like I always do brownies and the same oatmeal chocolate chip cookies, so looking for some new ideas. I realized this is a broad question but thought I would just ask whatever comes first to mind.

Thanks so much - I'm also SO excited!  You can never go wrong with brownies or oatmeal cookies - never - but if you want to change it up, why not make the cookies from this week's Everyday Dorie column? Make them in whatever shape you want and call them Chocolate Snaps!

I was wondering if you visit peoples' blogs who leave their links on Tuesdays with Dorie.

I try to visit Tuesdays with Dorie members' blog as often as I can.  Sometimes I don't have time to leave a comment, but I do take a look.  I love what the group does!  Btw, the group is open to anyone who loves to bake, so take a look! 

My pastry dough is always a mess when rolling it out. It cracks and can never get a perfect circle. Any suggestions?

Aarrgh, it's so frustrating, isn't it!  If your dough is cracking, then it might be that it's too dry.  With pie and tart doughs, it's always best to go a little heavier on the liquid -- it will 'steam' out in the oven, so don't worry about it, and it will help make rolling easier.  As for rolling a perfect circle - perfection is overrated.  Roll the dough so that it's as even as you can get it and so that it fits comfortably into the pan and then trim the edges - no one will ever know that the circle wasn't perfect.  By the way, I find that the easiest way to roll dough is to sandwich it between sheets of parchment or wax paper.

hi I had two great successes making the macarons from your book chez moi. Unfortunately on the third batch the top of the macarons cracked and there were no feet any clue as to what might have caused that? I love your book and loved hearing you talk at book larder. thank you

Oh dear!  I'm glad you had two great successes with the macarons from my recipe in Baking Chez Moi, but I'm puzzled about your flop and it's hard to troubleshoot it from here.  It could have been that you overbeat the whites, but I think, had you done that, you'd still have gotten feet.  I'm thinking it might have been an oven/baking problem - wrong temp?  Do you keep an oven thermometer in your oven?  

The idea of tempering chocolate scares me. What does tempering do, and how difficult is it? Thanks, Dorie. Love your books.

Tempering sounds scarier than it is - I'll try to work it into a column one day.  Chocolate is tempered (always by pros and rarely by us homebakers) to give it a shiny finish, great 'snap' and good keeping qualities.  Take a look at Becky Krystal's article about tasting chocolate - when she talks about snap, that's the tempering.

Hi Dorie, am so elated that we finally get to chat with you. You are an amazing writer and your recipes never fail. You know why, because I can actually hear you narrate the recipe everytime I read your recipe. To be able to bake to perfection combined with the art of writing is as good as baking your cookie. And which is why I'm not posting pictures today. But I will over the weekend and #. Cookies are special, because they are petite bites. Every cookie is unique lending itself to many renditions and creative expressions. Which is why your recipes excite me!! What is your favourite cookie and why do you enjoy making it?

A million thanks - this is so sweet.  I love creating recipes, love testing them and really love telling the stories about them.  I'm with you on cookies!  Like you, I like that they're petite bites and agree that they lend themselves to creative expressions.  I love so many cookies, but I really enjoy making sablés, French shortbread cookies, because the are delicious plain and they can be varied almost endlessly.

RECIPE: Dorie Greenspan's Sablés

Dear Dorie, I'm a big fan of your cookbooks! With Valentine's Day around the corner I was thinking of making linzer heart cookies and started researching recipes. It was surprising to see a few recipes (including Pierre Herme's) that call for adding hard boiled eggs yolks to the batter. I've never heard of that before! Could you please tell us the purpose of this technique and why it might benefit the cookie dough?

I think that the use of hard-boiled egg yolks in Linzer Cookies is a technique from Austria, the home of Linzer cookies.  Pierre Hermé taught me to use the yolks and he said it improved the texture.  It's an interesting technique, but you can make delicious ones without it. Post a picture of your cookies when you make them - I'd love to see them.

Hello Dorie! I understand that this might be an extremely unusual question for you, but I decided to take my chance. I am an industrial design student at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, and I am currently working on redesigning a mortar and pestle, after studying the wane in its use in the past 25 years. My aim is to make a product that overcomes the current problems, and you would be an amazing person to shed some light on the matter. Thank you!

So funny - just yesterday, my fabulous recipe tester wrote to me to ask if I would please write about mortars and pestles in my new book.  I love the tools and keep a big one on my counter.  Would be very happy to learn more about how you plan to redesign this treasure and would love for more people to use it more often.

I'm a breadbaker trying to master cookie baking - wow is it different! Much less forgiving. Anyway, if the recipe doesn't say, what temperature should the butter be at? Room temp? Something else? Is it different when the recipe has you cream the butter and sugar than otherwise?

Butter temperature is important in cookie baking.  You never want the butter to be so soft that it's oily.  Colder is better than warmer here.  A good test for butter temp is to press the stick down with your finger - you should leave an indent, not a crater.

Hi Dorie, I make your "Grandma's All-Occasion" sugar cookie recipe and love the flavor. I have promised a friend that I will make sugar cookies for her wedding favors and wondered how far you would feel comfortable making these cookies in advance. I need to have several hundred baked, iced with royal icing, and packaged by a Saturday, so do you think that if I bake them on a Wednesday and Thursday (putting them in airtight containers), ice on Friday (leaving them out overnight to dry) and package on Saturday morning, they will still taste fresh by Saturday evening? Thanks so much!

You have a bunch of options - you can make the dough, cut it out and freeze the unbaked cookies; bake them without defrosting.  You can freeze the baked cookies without the icing.  Packed right, the cookies can be frozen for up to 2 months.  Royal Icing will help the cookies keep, so your plan sounds perfect.  Lucky wedding guests!

When attempting to bake macarons at home, I have completely inconsistent results. Is there a way to tell when I've over mixed the batter before I pipe and bake them? Also, do you recommend both food processing and sifting the almond flour/powder sugar combo, or will one method suffice?

The best way to get consistent results with macarons is to make them often and pay attention to what you do - you might even want to take photos of the different stages and then, when the macs are great, you'll know what you did.  This is a practice-makes-perfect sweet.  As for the almonds - it's really important that they be finely ground and yes, you should process AND sift.

Hi Dorie! In your book, Baking from My Home to Yours, you nearly always include directions to place the baking pan on a baking sheet before putting the goods into the oven. I have noticed that in your new book, Baking Chez Moi, you seldom include this direction. Have you learned something new? When is it a good idea to put a cake pan on a baking sheet? 

Okay, here's the funny and true answer: I learned that no one was following my advice!  I always put cake pans - except bundts or anything with a hole - on a baking sheet because I think the sheet evens out the heat under the pan and it certainly makes it easy to get the pan in and out of the oven.  

Convection baking or regular baking? I can't determine which is best for certain recipes. In my head I feel that it's better to use convection for cookies and regular for cakes. Do you have any tips?

I rarely use convection for baking.  I use a still oven for all the recipes that I publish because I feel that that's what most homebakers use.  However, it's nice to use convection if you're baking several racks of cookies - it evens out the heat.  When I do use convection, I always lower the temperature by 25 degrees F.  And, off topic, but ... Convection is great for roasting chickens!

I need a new mini muffin pan. I only use this for jam tarts - open cups of a cream cheese based dough, tamped down, and 1/4 tsp of jam put inside, and baked. The question is silvery or dark finish to the pan. Which is best? Bonus points for non-stick surface.

I use a nonstick mini-muffin pan with a silvery gray finish and love it.  I usually recommend staying away from baking pans with very dark finishes.

When making these, I was intrigued by the use of an egg yolk whisked with cold water. Why this combo instead of using a whole egg? I've never seen this done in a baking recipe before. Thanks!

I wanted the richness that the yolk would provide.  Hope you liked the cookies!

When is it best to use the convection setting on the oven when baking?

I don't use convection much for baking, but I will if I've got lots and lots of cookies in the oven and I'm using all my racks.  The fan evens the heat out nicely.

Do you prefer whites or whole eggs, and why?

It depends on what I'm glazing.  I like to use whole eggs when I want a golden brown color - I always use whole eggs on brioches and breads and often on pie crusts.  Egg whites crack a bit, but they make great glue and they're colorless, so I'll use them on dark and chocolate cookies.

Dorie, You've had such extraordinary opportunities to work with some really remarkable chefs. It must be a real honor to learn with them, but also a lot of pressure to capture their recipes and tips in a way that the every day home cook can replicate. Who have you especially enjoyed working with and do you have any funny stories to share with us?

I have been VERY lucky to work with - and learn from - so many super talented chefs.  My favorite funny story involves Julia Child and it took place the first time I met her.  It was 1991 and we were having dinner together after a cooking-class event.  She asked me if I'd ever seen the imitation that Dan Ackroyd had done of her on Saturday Night Live.  When I confessed that I hadn't, she stood up and did it. The whole thing!  It was fabulous.

Dorie, is there a particular recipe or technique that you struggled with and found a way to master? After many attempts, I still can't figure out how to get a moist loaf-type cake. I can't tell if it's me overmixing/overbaking or if I should modify my recipes.

I was a complete scaredy cat when it came to rolling dough, a fear I overcame by doing it every day for a long time (much to the delight of my husband and neighbors).  

Loaf cakes can be difficult. Often the problem is the recipe not the mixing, although overmixing is a hazard.  

Here's my trick for baking loaf cakes - I double-pan them - I stack two baking sheets one on the other or use an insulated sheet.  It helps the bottom brown slowly enough for the rest of the cake to bake nicely.

And here's a favorite loaf cake recipe of mine - The French Yogurt Cake from my book, Baking From My Home to Yours.

Hi! So glad you'll be with us! I'm starting with a sad question -- my oven doesn't work but I'd still like to make cookies. Can I use the microwave or stovetop? Thanks so much! Happy Valentine's Day!

Oh, this is so sad. No oven. I've never baked in my microwave, so I can't help there.  How about saving the cookie idea until the oven is fixed and go for something wonderful like chocolate mousse or the fabulous Marquise au Chocolat - a frozen chocolate dessert - neither of which need an oven.  Both could make Valentine's Day very happy and very delicious.

I'm making a birthday cake for a friend of German heritage. Her grandma was a chocolate importer. I'm thinking a chocolate almond cake, layer of raspberry preserves, ganache. But is a sachertorte a better idea? I usually find them dry, and I like raspberry better than apricot. What is your favorite old-world chocolate cake recipe?

As I was starting to read your question, I thought "Sacher Torte!" Sachers are often dry - it's not considered a fault, but it's not the way lots of people love cake.  And, while apricot jam is the standard, raspberry is a great choice (it's what Pierre Hermé used in his Sacher).  Why not choose your favorite chocolate-almond cake recipe and fill it and finish it your way?  If you decide to go with the Sacher, you might consider soaking the layers with a syrup (maybe one with a little alcohol) to moisten the cake.

Hi Dorie, I love Baking Chez Moi, but I'm not sure if I'm getting the weekend cakes right. They taste great, but they're not as moist as i thought they'd be. Is it me or is that the nature of the weekend cake?

Hmmm.  In general, European cakes are not as moist as American cakes.  (I just mentioned this a few minutes ago vis-a-vis the Sacher Torte - another delicious, but not very moist cake.)  For this reason, you need to be careful about baking times.

I just joined late and read through all the Q&As. I learned some great things from your answers. Thank you so much for being generous with your time and insights!

I saw an ad this week for a (super-expensive) flour made from various non-wheat ingredients that claimed to be a perfect substitution for regular, wheat flour. Have you heard of such a thing, where no recipe amounts need to be altered? If not, do you have a rule-of-thumb for transforming recipes into gluten-free equivalents? I'd love to know!

I have not had enough experience with gluten-free baking to answer you. I used that special flour once, but I made the recipe on the back of the bag.  Several cookbooks have make-it-yourself gluten-free mixes.  Take a look at Glutenfree Girl's blog and books (Shauna Ahern) and America's Test Kitchen's new book on gluten-free baking.

Hi Dorie! So glad to see you have a baking column in the WaPo. My question is about cutting recipe yields when baking. We have a small family and while I love to bake, I don't really need a huge cake or dozens of cookies and living in Europe, we only have a tiny freezer. Is it as easy as just dividing everything by 2? Are some recipes easily scalable and some just don't work in smaller quantities? I adjust yeast breads all the time with good results but am leery of experimenting with expensive baking ingredients for cakes and the like. Thanks!

Thanks - I'm thrilled to be writing this column, which, by the way, will also have savory recipes.  Even I don't live on sweets alone :)

I know the problem of limited freezer space in Europe - I live part-time in Paris and my freezer is the size of a mailbox.

Most recipes can be scaled down - and it's especially easy if you're using metric rather than volume measures.  So scale away.  

This has been wonderful - thank you so much for coming.  I'm sorry if I didn't get to answer all of your questions.  Come back again and I'll learn to type faster.  For now, I wish you everything sweet - xoDorie 

In This Chat
Dorie Greenspan
Dorie Greenspan is the award-winning author of 11 cookbooks, the most recent of which is "Baking Chez Moi." Read more on her Web site, doriegreenspan.com, and follow her on Twitter: @doriegreenspan.
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