- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 30, 2003

Q: Are the currants that come in a box near the raisins in the supermarket the same as those used for currant jelly?

A: Definitely not. The currants in the box are tiny raisins made from very small grapes. In French, they are called “raisins de Corinthe” or raisins from Corinth, Greece. “Corinthe” eventually became corrupted to “currant.” Real currants are berries related to gooseberries that grow on small bushes. They come in red, white (fairly rare) and black. Black currants are known as “cassis” in French.

Q: Every time I make an apple pie, there’s a big gap between the filling and the top crust. What can I do to prevent this?

A: When you make a pie with raw apples under the top crust, the apples always lose some volume while baking, producing a gap between the fruit and the crust. There are several solutions. Use a lattice top on the pie. You can gently push the lattice down against the filling when the pie comes out of the oven, eliminating the gap. Or use a crumb topping. The crumbs will descend right along with the filling. Another solution is to cook the apples lightly to rid them of some of the moisture they lose during baking. This will lessen, but not eliminate, the space between the filling and top crust.

Q: A friend told me she had a chocolate dessert flavored with hot pepper. I think she’s just kidding. Is there really such a thing?

A: Chilies are sometimes used to flavor chocolate desserts. The chocolate beverage that was prepared in ancient Mexico was flavored with chilies. The subtle bitterness of a hot pepper can harmonize nicely with the flavor of chocolate, but it shouldn’t be strong enough to cause your mouth to tingle.

Q: I really like nuts in the shell for snacking and to serve after dinner, but they always seem to become rancid after a few months. Is there any way to enjoy them longer than just during the fall harvest season?

A: Nuts contain a lot of natural oil that oxidizes and turns bitter when exposed to air. If you have room, store extra packages of nuts in the shell in your freezer. Just be sure to bring them to room temperature before serving.

Q: I recently made some doughnuts, and they were a little greasy. In fact, I could see a dark line of oil inside the crust when I broke into one. What caused this?

A: The most likely cause is cooking oil that was not hot enough. Next time, use a good thermometer — the kind that looks like a ruler — and make sure the temperature returns to between 350 and 375 degrees before you add more doughnuts to the oil.

Q: Is it too early to start baking for the holidays?

A: It’s never too early to get organized, but aside from fruitcake, which can age successfully for several months, it might be a little early for baking some things, such as cookies. Why not get organized by selecting the recipes you want and making sure you stock up on all the ingredients? Check spices for potency and baking powder for the expiration date. Verify that you have all the correct pans necessary for the recipes, and shop early for containers for storage and gift-giving. The selection will dwindle as we get closer to the holidays.

Q: A friend brought me a gift of something called “mostarda” from Italy. It is a jar filled with a thick syrup and pieces of candied fruit. Is this a dessert sauce?

A: Mostarda, the most famous being mostarda di Cremona, is a condiment used with the great Italian dish of boiled meats called bollito misto. It is definitely sweet, but it also has a musky, mustardy flavor that means it works less well with desserts.

Q: How can I get a nice rounded top on muffins?

A: Sometimes the only adjustment necessary is to fill the muffin pans with a little more batter. Before filling, butter the top surface of the muffin pan to make sure the tops don’t stick to it if they spread a little while rising. This will allow them the freedom to rise.


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