- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 4, 2003

Q: I would like to use a fresh pumpkin to make my pie this Thanksgiving. Any hints?

A: Make sure you buy a sugar or pie pumpkin, which is rather flat in shape. Do not use a round jack-o’-lantern type, or the puree will be watery and tasteless. A real pie pumpkin has fairly dry, bright orange flesh. After it is cooked and pureed it looks just like the pumpkin that comes in a can and is identical to it in every way — one of the reasons I always use canned pumpkin.

To cook fresh pumpkin, halve it and scoop out seeds. (Toast them separately with a pinch of salt if you wish.) Place pumpkin, cut side up, on a baking pan and cover loosely with foil. Bake in 350-degree oven about 1 hour, or until tender.

Cool, scoop flesh from skin and puree in the food processor. Remember, baked and pureed acorn squash or sweet potatoes are also good alternatives to canned pumpkin.

Q: A friend told me she adds cooked, mashed potatoes to her bread doughs and gets great results. How is this done?

A: You can add 4 to 6 ounces (by weight) of warm, cooked and mashed Idaho potato to any bread dough for a single loaf of bread and it will improve the flavor and give the bread a great, tasty crust. Add the potato to the other ingredients at the beginning of mixing. Two rules: Don’t add too much potato and make sure the mashed potato is not hot when you add it, or you may harm the yeast.

Q: I make a basic chocolate and cream ganache filling for cakes and would like to add some lemon flavor to it. Should I just add lemon juice to the finished ganache?

A: No, definitely not. The best way to flavor your chocolate and cream filling with lemon is to use some lemon oil or the zest of several lemons and add them to the cream. Bring the cream to a gentle simmer and remove the zest from the lemons in large strips with a vegetable peeler. Add the zest to the hot cream and leave them in for 5 minutes or so, then strain them away and continue with the recipe.

Q: Why is buttermilk used in making Irish soda bread?

A: Aside from being traditional, the acidity of the buttermilk reacts with the baking soda and releases carbon dioxide gas that helps the bread rise so that it has a light texture after baking.

Q: I recently visited an Armenian grocery store and saw something called mahleb among the spices. When I asked, they said it was used for flavoring cookies. What is it?

A: Mahleb is made from the tiny nutmeats inside cherry stones and has a vague flavor of cherries and bitter almonds. It is sold in whole form and looks like irregular white peppercorns. Or it is also sold already ground. In my experience, stores that sell the mahleb whole will grind it for you.

Q: Every time I try to make a confectioners’ sugar icing to drizzle on a cake it turns out too runny. What am I doing wrong?

A: A runny icing may be corrected by adding a little more sifted confectioners’ sugar to thicken it. Also, if you are heating the icing before drizzling it, do not heat it beyond about 100 degrees, or it may become too thin.

Q: Is there such a thing as solid vanilla? A friend told me she went to a baking demonstration and that they were using a black paste instead of vanilla extract.

A: What your friend saw was vanilla bean paste, available from Nielsen-Massey Vanillas (www.nielsenmassey.com).

Q: Are amaretti always made from apricot kernels?

A: No, the industrially made ones are, but amaretti made in pastry shops in the United States and Italy are made from either ground almonds or almond paste.

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