While sorting through a variety of recent wire stories about food and cooking that I received from newspapers across the country, I started compiling answers to questions from culinary experts at papers like the Washington Post and the Detroit Free Press. With Lent here and Easter not far away, I thought some of this advice suited the season and would help local cooks.
Susan Selasky of the Detroit Free Press answered questions about the proper use of flour and offered a great Lenten fish taco recipe.
Q: When it comes to sifting flour, do you sift first and measure or measure and sift?
A: When it comes to sifting flour it all depends how the word sifted is used in the ingredient list or recipe directions.
If a recipe calls for “1 cup flour, sifted,” measure the flour first and then sift it into a bowl. If a recipe calls for “1 cup sifted flour,” sift the flour first and then measure. What sifting does is aerates the flour (and other ingredients) to make them light. One cup of unsifted flour weighs 5 ounces, and 1 cup of sifted flour weighs 4 ounces.
Sometimes recipes call for sifting flour with other ingredients such as baking soda and powder and salt. You do this to blend the ingredients together.
Now, sometimes you will see flours with “pre-sifted” on the label. Pay no attention to this because flour settles and can pack down when it’s shipped and stored.
The best way to measure flour out of the package or container is also important. First, be sure to use measuring cups for solids when measuring dry ingredients like flours and sugar. Next, give the flour a little stir with a spoon to loosen it in the package. Dip a spoon into the package and spoon the flour into the measuring cup until it’s slightly mounded. If you dip and scoop a measuring cup into the package you'll most likely pack more flour into the measuring cup.
Once the flour is mounded into the measuring cup, level it off with an unsharpened edge of a knife or wooden Popsicle stick.
It’s not just flour that often needs sifting. Cocoa powder should be sifted to prevent lumps. Confectioners’ or powdered sugar should be sifted if you are using it to make a glaze. If you’re mixing it with butter or cream cheese to make a frosting, you don’t have to sift it.
Q. Why do recipes call for the flour mixture to be added alternately with the liquids?
A. When alternating, there are a few reasons why it’s done by adding dry-wet-dry-wet-dry to the creamed mixture. “These steps prevent the fat in the batter from separating from the liquids, breaking the emulsion and releasing the air bubbles so essential to a cake’s goo taste and texture,” writes Sarah Phillips in “Baking 9-1-1.”
First you add about one-third of the dry ingredients to the creamed mixture to set the emulsion. Next add half of the liquid. Once that is mixed in you need to quickly add the second one-third of the dry ingredients, Phillips writes. If you take too long to mix in, the cake may end up tough. Finally add in the remaining one-half liquid followed by one third dry ingredients, doing so quickly. Adding these wet and dry ingredients this way also helps the air incorporated in by creaming and bubbles that have formed keep from popping.
Try this technique on the Sour Cream Coffee Cake recipe included here from the Detroit Free Press archives.
Q. On Fridays during Lent, many Christians are avoiding meat. And while there are lots of fish fries around town featuring traditional fish and chips, I’d like to make them at home.
A. Fish Tacos with Cilantro Tartar Sauce is a nice way to spice up the routine. The fish in this recipe (see below) is battered and served on warm tortillas with crunchy cabbage and topped with a cilantro tartar sauce. Any firm fish such as tilapia or mahi-mahi can be used in place of cod. You can also substitute any variety of tartar sauce.
Washington Post culinary writers talk food
Food writer Emily Horton recently joined The Washington Post Food staff to answer questions from readers. Here are edited excerpts from that chat.
Q: Assuming you measure out your ingredients before cooking, where do you put them? I end up using lots of tea cups for spices and seasonings that need to be added to a stir-fry or other dish one at a time, even if there's only a spoonful in each. Then they all have to be washed. I suspect there's a better way, but I can't think of it.
A: If you prep things, you're going to have to put them in something that needs to be washed. There are little glass prep bowls made for just this purpose, but I've never bothered to get any. I use little bowls or plates. Doesn't much matter to me as long as I can toss them in the dishwasher when I'm done.
Becky Krystal, staff writer
Q: I needed some fresh rosemary and parsley for a recipe and now I have a ton extra. What should I do with it all? I also have some extra tarragon from a different recipe, too. Hate to have it all go to waste.
A: When I have fresh rosemary I tend to dry it. A sprig is great tossed in a pot of beans, chicken soup, or braised or roasted potatoes. To dry it, just tie it in bundles and let it hang upside down in an airy spot. It takes maybe a week to dry, and then you can store it in a zip-top bag or glass jar for a year. Or for almost any herb — saying “almost” because I haven't done it with every herb — you can finely chop the leaves and mix with some olive oil, then freeze the herb-flecked oil in ice cube trays. Use the cubes in sautes, in roasts, or wherever.
Kara Elder, staff writer
Q: I followed a recipe that called for roasting pecans in a 375-degree oven for 8 minutes; that didn’t work, they were dark and bitter. What would you recommend?
A: Sounds perhaps like your oven is a bit hot. I toast most of my nuts at 350, so try that and start checking sooner. Most of the time it's in the 8- to 10-minute range for me, but I open the oven about halfway through, shake the nuts around and smell to see how they're coming along.
Q: I used to spit lima beans into a napkin and toss under my little brother's chair. (He dutifully ate his and was always stunned when our parents discovered them.) But I must ask: How in the world do Peruvian cooks peel lima beans? The image conjured in my brain is a teeny, tiny paring knife?
A: While I have never peeled lima beans myself, my impression is that the process is similar to peeling dried fava beans. When they have been soaked, the skins come away from the bean enough so that peeling them may be tedious, but not technically difficult.
Q: Tim Carman (author of “Cheap Eats”) wrote that for 1 cup of coffee, “Grind 4 tablespoons of fresh coffee beans, to a medium-fine grind.” Do you really use 4 tablespoons of coffee per cup? I think I’d be as jumpy as a kitten swatting at a dangling string. Isn't the old rule to use 1 tablespoon of beans per cup, plus “one for the pot?”
A: Yes, Tim really uses 4 tablespoons — and so do I. But keep in mind that this is for whole beans, not ground. And recipes for coffee have gotten a lot better than the old rule!
The Best Ever Sour Cream Coffee Cake
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 cup sour cream
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
1 cup sugar
2 cups cake flour, sifted
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 large eggs
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/4 cup brown sugar
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 cup chopped or finely ground walnuts or pecans
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease a Bundt pan or a 9-by-13-inch baking pan and set aside. In a small bowl, combine the baking soda and sour cream. Let sit and foam.
In a large mixing bowl, cream together the butter and the sugar for three minutes. In a separate bowl, combine the flour, baking powder and salt. Set aside.
Add the eggs to the butter mixture one at a time, beating well after each addition.
Add 1/3 of the flour mixture to the butter mixture and then add 1/2 of the sour cream mixture. Add another third of the flour mixture and the remaining sour cream and then the remaining flour. Add the vanilla.
In a small bowl, mix together all the topping ingredients.
Add half of the batter to the prepared pan. Sprinkle the batter with half of the streusel mixture. Add the remaining batter and carefully smooth it out, being careful not to mix it in with the streusel mixture. Sprinkle the remaining streusel on the batter.
Bake 35 to 45 minutes, or until a wooden skewer inserted near the center comes out clean.
Remove from oven and cool in the pan about 15 minutes. Invert onto a serving platter and continue cooling. Cut into slices and serve.
Yield: 16 servings.
Tested by Susan M. Selasky in the Free Press Test Kitchen
Fish Tacos with Cilantro Tartar Sauce
Use any firm fish for this recipe. Mahi-mahi and tilapia also work well.
CILANTRO TARTAR SAUCE:
1 cup low-fat mayonnaise
1/3 cup cilantro, freshly chopped
1 tablespoon lime juice
2 tablespoons capers, plus a little caper juice
1 small jalapeno pepper, minced (with seeds, if desired)
1 1/4 to 1 1/2 pounds cod fillets
1 cup favorite fish-fry mix
1/3 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper or more to taste
1/2 teaspoon favorite chili powder
Salt and pepper to taste
1 cup oil for frying
12 flour tortillas (5- to 6-inch size)
2 cups finely shredded cabbage
4 green onions, thinly sliced
1 avocado, halved, pitted, diced
To make the tartar sauce: In a small bowl, combine all the ingredients. Set aside. You can make this a day in advance.
To make the fish: Rinse and pat dry the cod fillets well. Cut fillets into 2-by-1-inch pieces. Set aside.
Place the fry mix in a bowl. Whisk in 1/2 to 3/4 cup water. The batter should be very thin, like pancake batter. On a shallow dish or pie plate, mix the flour, cayenne pepper, chili powder and salt and black pepper.
Preheat the oven to 300 degrees.
When ready to fry, in a large nonstick skillet, heat the oil over medium-high heat. The oil should cover the bottom and come up at least 1/4 inch in the skillet.
Working in batches, dredge several pieces of fish in the flour mixture and then dip in the batter, allowing the excess batter to drip off.
Place in the hot oil and fry on all sides until browned, about 5 to 6 minutes. Transfer to a baking sheet and place in the oven to keep the fish hot. Repeat with remaining fish.
Microwave the flour tortillas to warm.
To assemble, place some cabbage on each tortilla. Top with 2 to 3 pieces of fish and a dollop of tartar. Garnish with green onions and diced avocado.
Yield: 12 tacos.
Per serving: 290 calories, 15 grams fat, 27 grams carbohydrates, 15 grams protein, 644 mg sodium, 29 mg cholesterol, 3 grams fiber.
Tested by Susan Selasky in the Free Press Test Kitchen
Toasted Pecan Chicken Salad
Two things that make this chicken salad different using roasted chicken, which adds a richer flavor than poached chicken meat, and the addition of crunchy toasted pecans.
4 skin-on, bone-in chicken breasts
1 1/2 teaspoons butter
1/2 cup pecans, chopped
2-3 stalks celery, finely chopped
3/4 to 1 1/2 cups mayonnaise
1 cup halved red grapes
Salt and pepper to taste
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line a roasting tray or cookie sheet with parchment paper.
Drizzle the chicken on both sides with olive oil and sprinkle generously with salt and pepper. Place breasts skin side up in preheated oven and cook until chicken is done all the way through. It will take anywhere from 35 to 50 minutes depending on the size of the chicken breasts. Remove the chicken from the oven and allow it to sit until it’s cool enough to handle.
After removing the chicken from the oven, put the butter into a small baking pan and place the pan in the oven until the butter melts. Remove the pan from the oven and add the pecans, stirring to coat them well with the butter. Cook until the pecans are toasted — about 5 to 6 minutes. Remove pecans from the oven and set aside.
When the chicken has cooled, remove the meat from the skin and bones, shredding it some with your fingers as you go. Discard the skin and bones. Chop the chicken into small pieces.
In a large mixing bowl, combine the chopped chicken, toasted pecans, grapes and celery.
Add the mayonnaise starting with 3/4 cup and adding more as you feel the mixture needs. You just have to use your judgment as to the amount you need. Keep mixing and tasting until you think it’s right. You may also need to add more celery. It just depends on your personal preference. Be sure to give it a taste and add salt and pepper as needed.