Food experts Joy Wilson, Cathy Barrow, Ellie Krieger and Dan Souza recently joined The Washington Post staff in answering questions about all things edible. Here are edited excerpts from that chat.
Q: What’s the best way to make mashed potatoes a bit ahead and keep them edible?
A: Mashed potatoes suffer when they cool down and then need to be reheated. (The starch firms up during the cool down and never fully softens to its original silky state upon reheating.) So your goal is to make them and then keep them warm until serving time. Place the finished potatoes in a large bowl and place that over a pot of just barely simmering water. They will be nice for well over an hour held that way. If you have a sous vide device, this is the perfect use for it. Set it to 135 degrees, and place the bowl in the water so that the water comes up to the level of the potatoes. — Dan Souza
Q: What does shortening do in cookie recipes? I do not usually have it on hand and I think of shortening as “fake” while butter is “real.” Can shortening be easily substituted for butter in recipes that call for both shortening and butter? (So 100% butter.) I am looking at a recipe for cucidadi (Italian fig cookie) which calls for ½ cup shortening and 2 tablespoons butter. I also face this decision when making New Mexican biscochitos. Thank you for your help.
A: Shortening is 100% fat so it will make for a much more crisp cookie, which is sometimes what you want from a cookie texture. In the case of your Italian fig cookies it looks like you’ll get the proper texture from the shortening and a hint of butter flavor from the 2 tablespoons, so I would go with the shortening in this recipe. It’s not that shortening is fake — it’s more that it’s doing a different job that butter. Bringing the fat without the water or milk solids. — Joy Wilson
Q: We’re low on allspice, and our grocery store was all out yesterday. Is there any good substitution?
A: When describing the flavor of allspice, I always read that it’s reminiscent of clove, nutmeg and cinnamon. Why not just up or add those flavors to your recipe? — Cathy Barrow
Q: I’m making a pie crust that calls for roasting then grinding up hazelnuts, and since I already have an open bag of hazelnut flour I was hoping to use it instead. Realizing the texture will be a little different because the recipe has it at “coarse cornmeal” consistency and the flour is finer, can I just make a 1-to-1 swap, or would you recommend altering quantity? Also is it worth trying to lightly toast the flour or no?
A: I would use a weight rather than a volume measurement, if possible. And yes, toast the flour! Try 250 degrees for 30 minutes. — C.B.
Q: I saw a coupon for Domino Golden Sugar, which says on the package is less processed sugar. Do you have any info what this is? Is this the same as regular sugar and will act the same in a recipe? I would love to know before I make a baking mistake!
A: This new sugar product is just like regular white sugar, but it is somewhat less processed so it retains some of its color. As I see it, it is meant to appeal to consumers seeking less processed foods. But it is not significantly better for you health-wise than regular granulated sugar. The company says on their website that you can use it as a one-for-one replacement for regular sugar, but I am guessing it will impart a subtle brown-sugar flavor. This could be nice, or not, depending on the recipe. — Ellie Krieger
Q: I have small jars — 200 grams or 7 ounces more or less — of Biscoff Spread (also known as Speculoos Cookie Butter) and Nutella. I must be one of the few people on Earth who do not like either one of them. I tried on toast and in oatmeal and found them just… meh. So how can I use these in other recipes? Bonus points will be awarded if they can be made into something that I can give away in the spirit of the season.
A: Swirl them into brownies or blondies and it’ll be a great treat to give away. — Kari Sonde
Q: When pre-cooking apples for apple pie, should I be cooking them on the stovetop or roasting them in a casserole dish? Does it matter? Once I’ve done that, can I just dump into the pie crust and bake for 40 minutes or so to cook the crust? I am very into the idea that I won’t have apple soup in my pie.
A: Either technique will work. though I like to cook my apples on the stovetop in a bit of butter and spices. It’s just easier to keep an eye on and stir them around a bit. The heat is also nice to help bloom the flavor of the spices. — J.W.
Q: Do you think the TSA will take away a pumpkin pie?
A: TSA permits cooked pies to be carried on. Not, however, a rolling pin. — C.B.
Q: I know, it’s probably weird, but I want lumpy mashed potatoes because it’s how my mom made them when I was growing up. She’s now gone and I want to recreate them. They didn’t have large chunks but little small lumps that gave the mashed potatoes texture. The lumps also didn’t taste raw. I’ve tried a few different approaches with no success. Any ideas on how to get to my idea of mashed potato heaven?
A: Have you tried a wooden spoon? You’ll get a nice mash but plenty of texture left, too. — Becky Krystal
A: Me too! Honestly? We use a large fork. — Kari Sonde
Q: Our butternut squash froze in the refrigerator (a flaw we’re working on). Can we still use it? Since it hadn’t been peeled yet, is there a way to do that while it’s frozen?
A: It should be fine to use. I always struggle to peel butternut squash as it is, so I feel like it might be extra-tricky frozen. Usually I punch a bunch of holes in the squash with a fork and microwave for a few minutes. I find that helps with peeling, and if your squash is frozen anyway, can’t hurt. — Becky Krystal