Nigella Lawson celebrates home cooking

It's always a delight to hear from our favorite authors, especially those as charming as Nigella Lawson. Recently she sat down with Francis Lam of The Splendid Table to discuss several topics ranging from the definition of a pudding to her life in food to her views on home cooking.

Nigella Lawson

Part of the reason Nigella has remained popular in over 20 years of cookbook writing and cooking shows is that she connects with home cooks in a way that celebrity chefs can't seem to match. She embraces her defects and acknowledges her weaknesses. When discussing knife skills, for example, Nigella is honest about her abilities. "I call myself clumsy. I am very badly coordinated and when I get nervous I'm worse," she says. "I don't have that wonderful virtuoso skill where people chop amazingly fast; I don't give a performance. But when I have people around for supper it doesn't matter if I take three minutes longer per carrot."

Nigella has long been a champion of home cooks and her ability to relate to them helps encourage them to cook more. If you are only watching TV chefs in cooking competitions chop onions in a dazzling display of deft movements, you might feel intimidated rather than inspired. "It's been a disincentive for cooks because they have felt that they're lesser beings if they can't present their food as beautiful as a chef," she notes. Instead, she would rather encourage someone to focus less on their onion-chopping skills and more on the joy of sharing a delicious meal with friends and family. Read more of this fascinating interview, where Nigella also discusses telling stories through recipes, at The Splendid Table

If at first you don't fricasse, fry, fry again

My husband and I don't always see eye-to-eye on food, but there is one thing we do agree upon: almost every type of food benefits from being deep fried. While deep frying foods can be daunting - with a bubbling pot of hot oil there are many things that could go wrong - if you follow a few simple rules, you too can enjoy the tasty benefits of fried foods. Over at Epicurious, Katherine Sacks lays it all out with tips on achieving deep frying perfection

French fries

Temperature is a critical factor to ensure good results, so be sure to invest in an accurate thermometer. The sweet spot for many fried foods is 350°F, but you might need to go higher on certain foods to avoid a greasy outcome. Check with the recipe and do a test on one or two pieces to make sure you have the proper temperature for what you're frying. 

Another important rule is to keep from overcrowding foods in your fryer. Whether you are using an electric deep fryer or a Dutch oven, only add as many items as will comfortably fit with room enough for expansion. Many fried foods grow once they hit the hot oil (especially items like doughnuts), so be sure to take that into account. Add items one by one instead of dumping them in all at once - this keeps the temperature from dropping too much. 

Other tips include a listing of the appropriate tools you'll need to gather, along with advice on what to do with your foods post-frying. If you follow the rules suggested in the article, you will want to fry, fry again even after you nail the technique. 

Photo of French fries from Pure Delicious by Heather Cristo

Getting to the bottom of pie

Between a coworker picking my brain for Thanksgiving pie ideas and Jenny's wonderful post about the Sister Pie promotion, today left me with pie on my mind. Of all the components of a holiday meal, pie may be the one that strikes the most fear in the hearts of home cooks. People who will tackle a complicated, multi-component entree or side dish often balk at making a homemade pie crust. Visions of leaky fillings, soggy bottoms, and misshapen edges lead them to turn to the safety of a purchased crust or even a prebaked pie. 

tree pie

One of the biggest fears of novice bakers is a pale, soggy, underbaked crust. That is one fear that PJ Hamel of King Arthur Flour can help you overcome, with an excellent article offering advice on how to get your crust as beautifully brown on the bottom as the top. The beauty of Hamel's tips is that they work irrespective of the recipe you use, because they have more to do with your bakeware and the functions of your oven than with the content of your pie. 

The material of your pie plate can make a huge difference in how quickly the bottom crust browns. Metal pans have an advantage here because metal transfers heat much more quickly than glass or ceramic pans. But fear not: if you want to use your grandmother's ceramic pan, a golden brown bottom crust is still within reach. Moving your pan to the bottom of your oven can help, because the heat is more concentrated nearer to the heating element (or burner, if you have a gas oven). 

In addition to these considerations, time is also important. If the top of your fruit pie is starting to get brown but the filling isn't bubbling and the bottom crust is still pale (easy to see if you use a glass pan), you can just cover the top with foil and wait as the bottom catches up. As Hamel notes, it is difficult to overbake a fruit pie, although custard pies are a bit more sensitive. Hamel offers additional strategies to deal with those, including a few tricks for baking in a metal pan and transferring to a ceramic one for serving (we won't tell if you don't). 

The case for not lining your sheet pan

When you pull out a sheet pan to make cookies, you probably line it with parchment or foil to keep the delicate items from sticking. So it makes sense to do the same when you are roasting meat or vegetables too, right? Perhaps not, says Anna Stockwell at Epicurious. She makes the case for not lining your sheet pan

sheet pan chicken

As someone who purchases parchment paper in 1000-count boxes, I admit that I almost reflexively pull out a sheet any time I get my sheet pan out of the cupboard. I hate to clean up sticky messes, so I use parchment to avoid a big cleanup. But as Stockwell points out, often times butter, oil, and juices end up running underneath the parchment (or foil), rendering it ineffective for the very purpose it's being used. 

Another big problem with using parchment in all cases is that it can inhibit browning and evaporation. If your goal to is have crispy edges and caramelized crusts, parchment is not your friend. Stockwell did a side-by-side comparison of a lined versus unlined pan, and the results were definitive. An unlined pan is superior. So the next time you pull out a sheet pan for roasting veggies or meats, feel free to skip the parchment or foil.  

Photo of Sheet pan chicken meatballs with tomatoes and chickpeas from Bon Appétit

How to fix a stuck Bundt cake

With all of the gorgeous Bundt pan designs available now, it's never been easier to create a stunning cake without a ton of work. Usually if you grease and flour your pan according to the instructions, the cake will slide right out and all you have left to do is slice and serve. Sometimes, however, despite your best efforts the cake stubbornly remains in the pan. If this happens to you, don't panic - instead, following the advice offered by King Arthur Flour on how to "unstick" a stuck Bundt cake

Bundt cake

First, make sure you let the cake rest for several minutes before attempting to unmold it. The cake needs time to shrink back slightly, making for an easier release. If it's been more than 10 minutes and the cake still won't let go, there are a few options you can try, depending on the type of cake you are making. You can attempt to give the cake a "steam bath", which might loosen it enough to pop out. 

Sticking it back into a low oven for a few minutes might also do the trick, but a few cakes call for the opposite treatment. If you have used a liquid oil to grease the pan, placing the cake into the freezer for a few minutes can cause it to shrink enough to release. If you used a solid fat such as shortening or butter, the freezer will likely make the problem worse, so don't do it in those cases. 

If all else fails, no one will blame you for doing what you have to do. Take the broken pieces and use them to make a trifle, or mash up the crumbs to make bourbon balls. You can also freeze the crumbs for later use. If you need a quick dessert, pull out the frozen crumbs, mix with a little butter and place them on top of frozen fruit (berries or peaches work well) in a shallow ceramic dish. Pop it into the oven until the crumbs are golden brown and the fruit is bubbling. Serve with lightly sweetened whipped cream or sour cream. 

Find ways to use leftover Easter eggs

 strawberry shortcakes

If you're among the millions of people who dyed a bunch of eggs to use as decoration for the Easter holiday, you are probably facing a conundrum of what to do with all of them now that Easter is behind us. Egg salad sandwiches and deviled eggs might work for some, but there a dozens of more interesting options. To get you started, the LA Times has 38 recipes to use leftover hardboiled eggs, including egg salad but also some novel concepts like Latkes a la huancaina (Latkes with Peruvian pepper and fresh cheese sauce). 

One area where you might not expect to find a use for hardboiled eggs is in desserts, but there are a surprising number of pastry and cookie recipes where the yolks contribute to a tender, melting texture. Bon Appetit explains how you can harness the power of hardboiled egg yolks to make delicate shortcakes, sables, and moreCooked egg yolks prevent excess gluten development without weighing down the batter or dough.

The EYB Library contains over 1,300 recipe that incorporate hardboiled eggs, either whole or just the yolks. You'll find everything including empanadas, Sabih from Jerusalem by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sam Tamimi, Son-in-law eggs: Thai fried hard-boiled eggs in tamarind sauce from Serious Eats, Remoulade sauce, and, yes, shortcake. With all of these options, you might find yourself boiling more eggs when you run out of the leftovers. 

Photo of BA's best strawberry shortcake from Bon Appétit Magazine

Tips on choosing the right flour

flour

If you aren't already a dedicated baker, you may only have one or two types of flour in your pantry. When you do decide to dip your toe into the waters of breads, cakes, and pastries, the numbers of different flours can be overwhelming, and using the wrong flour can lead to lackluster results. To help you avoid baking disaster, Becky Krystal at The Washington Post provides a handy guide on how to choose the right flour for your baking needs

Her guide is a very basic one, focusing on the differences between all-purpose flour (aka plain flour) and other varieties such as bread flour (aka strong flour), whole wheat (wholemeal) flour, cake flour and pastry flour. The main differences between the white flours are the amounts of protein found in each type. The strength of the protein is related to the amount of gluten produced when the flour is mixed with a liquid. More gluten leads to more chew, so you'll want to save the higher-protein flours for things like rustic breads and use the lower-protein flours for delicate items like cakes and pastries. 

Of course there are many other types of non-wheat flours (which have less or no gluten, depending on the type), and specialty flours like Italian 00 flour. Nigella Lawson provides a good explanation of the latter. The 00 flour "has a fairly high gluten (protein) level but the gluten in durum is not the same as that found in regular wheat in most western countries. So the gluten in durum does not strengthen as much when liquid is added or when the dough is kneaded and the resulting dough is not as tough." That's why Italian 00 flour makes good pasta, says Nigella. 

There are websites dedicated to non-traditional flours used in gluten-free baking, such as the indexed blog Gluten-Free Girl by Shauna James Ahern and Daniel Ahern. Other sites explore the interesting flavors, textures, and purported health benefits of flours made from ancient grains and other plants. For example, author Nadia Lim has a guide to using non-wheat flours on her blog.

For an in-depth analysis of the many alternative flours, you might want to try one of several cookbooks that dive into the details. Some of our favorites are Flavor Flours by Alice Medrich, The Homemade Flour Cookbook by Erin Alderson, and The Gluten-Free Almond Flour Cookbook by Elana Amsterdam. We're also eyeing the upcoming Flour: From Grains and Pulses to Nuts and Seeds by Christine McFadden, which will be released in May.

How to use the other side of your chef's knife

 knife

We're all familiar with how to use the business-end of our chef's knives. But did you know that the back of the blade, also known as the spine, is also very useful? Joe Sevier at Epicurious does, and he tells us six ways to use the other side of a chef's knife.

The blunt side of your knife is perfect for tasks like bruising lemongrass to get rid of its tough outer fibers. It's easier to just flip your knife over instead of digging through the drawer to find a separate tool like a meat tenderizer (which also means one more thing to clean). 

You can also use the dull edge to scale a fish or to "milk" an ear of corn. Any task that requires this sort of dragging or pulling is better suited to the dull edge, which is sturdier than the thin cutting side. Keeping this thought in mind, let's turn to the most common scraping task - sweeping the foods you just cut off of the cutting board and into your pan or bowl. Most people just use the blade to do this, but that is hard on the cutting edge. You can keep the knife sharper longer just by flipping it over before scraping the foods into the skillet. 

Tips for cleaning silicone baking mats

 silpat

Silicone baking mats and other silicone tools are indispensable to chefs and home cooks alike. They allow you to roll out dough using less flour and to bake gooey items without fear of sticking. The downside to these wonderful tools - besides a fairly steep price tag - is that they tend to absorb odors. Indexed blog Food52 provided several ideas on how to clean silicone mats, and I decided to put a couple of them to the test. 

Before we get into the testing, let's start with the information that Food52 provided about why the mats collect odors in the first place. The answer is simple enough - silicone expands when heated, allowing oils and their accompanying odors to seep into the mat. This can lead to an unattractive oily sheen as well as a funky smell. 

The first tip involves everyone's favorite deodorizer: baking soda. The instructions are to make a paste with warm water and baking soda, rub it into the mat, and let it sit for ten minutes. I proceeded to scrub my several-year-old Silpat with the baking soda paste. I let the mat sit for twenty minutes because I was busy doing other tasks. After a thorough warm water rinse, I gave the Silpat a sniff. While the odor was not entirely eliminated, it was significantly reduced. 

A second tip involved heating the mat in an oven to let the silicone expand (although it doesn't specify at what temperature or for how long), then plunging it into a bath of warm water mixed with vinegar or lemon juice (again with  no instruction as to how much to use). I heated my generic silicone mat in a low oven for a few minutes until it was warm but not too hot to touch. I soaked the mat in a water and vinegar bath - approximately 1/4 cup vinegar in a gallon of water) for about ten minutes. The result?  After rinsing, the mat's odor was reduced, but not as much as the Silpat's was. 

I decided to try a combo of the two methods, returning both mats to the oven for a couple of minutes to warm up, then scrubbing both with the baking soda paste. After sitting for 10 minutes, the mats received a warm water rinse. Once they were dry and cool, both mats had almost no residual odor. I applied this treatment to the silicone ring of my travel mug and its lingering stale coffee odor was virtually eliminated as well. This tip proved to be a winner. What's your favorite method for cleaning silicone kitchen items? 

Tips for your improving your holiday cookie tray

 Punition sandwiches

It's the home stretch for bakers intent on making holiday cookies. The recipes are printed or bookmarked, the ingredients are at hand, and now the fun can begin. Sometimes the fun turns to frustration, however, when doughs stick unexpectedly, gorgeous designs go cattywampus, and things that are supposed to be soft get crunchy and vice-versa. 

We've lined up a few resources for you to avoid these pitfalls, starting with great tips from Deb Perelman of Smitten Kitchen. She has perfected a technique for making perfect cut-out cookies that not only makes for a better finished product but saves time in the process. Skipping the step of softening the butter makes for a firmer dough that doesn't need to be chilled, and rolling between parchment sheets allows for the scraps to be used without the cookies getting tough. 

Over at The Washington Post, Bonnie Berwick has a bevy of tips concerning cookie ingredients and more. There are several helpful reminders, ranging from the best way to separate eggs, the differences between baking powder and baking soda, and wax paper and parchment. Berwick also shares David Lebovitz's admonition to not overbeat your cookie dough, which can lead to excess spreading.  

Indexed magazine Fine Cooking also provides advice from professionals, featured the hard-earned wisdom of several pastry chefs. I found the advice from Scott Green of Travelle Kitchen + Bar in Chicago to be useful. Green advises to add flavorings like salt, vanilla, extracts and citrus zest to the butter when creaming it at the start of the dough-making process. Says Green, "Fat absorbs flavor better than other ingredients, so you'll get more bang for your buck." 

Taste of Home brings us the keys to making soft, chewy sugar cookies. If you've ever been disappointed that a cookie turned out crisp instead of invitingly soft, these tips will help your baking immensely. Many factors go into determining how crisp any cookie will be, including baking temperature, the type of flour you use, how much egg is in the dough, and what type of sugar is included. Tweaking one or more of these items can turn your cookies from being shattering chunks into pillowy bundles of goodness. 

Photo of Punition sandwiches from Smitten Kitchen by Deb Perelman

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