Questions for Nick

Please write to me at nickmalgieri@yahoo.com ask a baking question.  I'll answer you directly, or if your question is of general interest, on the page below.

If you need a recipe, it might already be posted on the recipe page, or I can direct you to one in one of my books, but we aren't able to send out recipes in response to questions.  

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Susie asked:  I have tremendous luck with all of your cookies.  We love them!  However, whenever I make a simple sugar cookie they spread and have ragged edges, almost like petals on flowers.  I have tried everything.  My oven is perfect, my butter is cool, I bake cookies on either parchment or Silpat sheets.

Hi Susie, It's difficult to say without seeing the recipe.  Are you sure you're gently spooing the flour into the dry-measure cup instead of scooping it?  It could also be that your recipe just has too much butter in it.

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Sabine asked:  I grew up in North America, where my German mom used to make a plum cake using prune plums, like in your Zwetschenkuechen. I now live in England, where the term prune plum doesn't exist. Do you know if this is what the British call a damson? Also, would you happen to know of any particularly delicious varieties?  I'd love to grow a prune plum tree in the garden.

Hi Sabine, Prune plums, soemtimes also called Italian plums in the United States, are the ones that become prunes when dried.  They're dark purple/black with white bloom on the skin, amber flesh, and are more egg-shaped than dessert plums.  Here in the New York area, they're only in season from mid-August to the end of September; I've never seen them among the imported plums from South America available here during our winter.  In the European plum section of  http://www.treesofantiquity.com I found French prune [plum] (d'Agen), the tree that produces the most famous French prunes, the pruneaux d'Agen, introduced in 1855.  A Wikipedia entry in French about pruneaux d'Agen states that they were introduced from Damascus, suggesting that they're related to damson plums (damson is a corruption of Damascene).  I would suggest a web search of nurseries in the UK that sell plum trees - I'm sure that a knowledegable nurseryman can clear this up in a few seconds and provide both the definitive answer and the tree you want. 

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Judy asked: A few weeks ago I was introduced to a product on a cooking show. The product is Pane Degli Angeli and I'm trying to figure out just what it is.   I have your How to Bake and see no mention of it in the index...

Hi Judy, Pane degli Angeli is Italian baking powder.  You could open a packet and see how many teaspoons are in it, but I would only use it in recipes that call for it specifically.

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Susie asked:  Your new book BAKE! has a devils food cake using oil.  You say that you published another recipe using oil in another book.  Can you let me know which of your books it's in? 

Hi Susie, I have 2 other oil-based cakes:  Orange Scented Olive Oil Cake in Modern Baker and Horseradish Grill Chocolate Chocolate Cake in CHOCOLATE. 

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Susan asked:   I have the Modern Baker and love it, however I prefer a loaf pan than a bundt, less edges more cake.  I have tried to bake your date and walnut bread in a loaf pan but it is always dry if baked all the way through.  Is there any way around this?

Hi Susan, Try a straight-sided tube pan which would give you the rectangular slices you want and still have the benefit of the central tube to decrease the baking time.

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Lourdes asked:   I have in my pantry the most delicious natural peanut butter that I would like to use in a peanut butter cookie.  The peanut butter has no stabilizers, or added sugar.  It is pretty much just ground peanuts and palm oil, and a bit of salt.  I have read on various websites that natural peanut butter does not work well in cookie recipes.  I wonder if you could shed some light on this.  I imagine that the pure peanut flavor would be something wonderful in a cookie.

Hi Lourdes, Sweetened peanut butter may contain no more than 10% sugar.  So if your recipe calls for half a pound of sweetened peanut butter you could safely use about 7 ounces of natural peanut butter and 2 tablespoons sugar.

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Diane asked:  I am looking for a flourless chocolate cake recipe. Any suggestions?

Hi Diane, Right here on the website, there is a Milk Chocolate Mousse Cake among the recipes.  You could substitute dark chocolate if you wish.  I have several other recipes for flourless chocolate cakes in CHOCOLATE and in PERFECT CAKES.

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Cindy asked:   I was sooo excited when I found this recipe listed on foodnetwork... but when I clicked the link, it was no longer available! I've been struggling with this recipe for a while. Having grown up in the Boston area of Massachusetts... and being accustomed to the awesome Italian bakeries around, one of my favorite things was(IS) an Italian Rum cake... which starts with the sponge layers... I would love to get the recipe you have, and if it is in one of your cookbooks, please tell me which one so I can run and get it! I love baking and do most things well... but trying to get this particlar recipe "right" to my standards has been elusive to me so far!

Hi Cindy, The recipe is right here on the website.  Go to recipes on the navigation bar at the top of the page, then scroll to cakes, and click on Trionfo di Gola, a Sicilian cake.  The recipe is also in Perfect Cakes (HarperCollins, 2002) and A Baker's Tour (HarperCollins, 2005). 

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Heidi asked:  Is there any way to prevent the static electricity that makes tiny shards of chocolate fly everywhere when I chop it?

Hi Heidi, My guess is that it's very dry in your house - the same phenomenon that causes little electric shocks when you touch something at this time of the year.  The easiest solution is to purchase chocolate in pistoles or calets so it doesn't have to be chopped.  Another would be to buy one of those 4-pronged ice picks that divides chocolate into chunks rather than tiny pieces.  Having the chocolate slightly softened by leaving it in a warm room for an hour or so would also cut down on the fragmenting.

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Terry asked:  Please let me know if it's ok to divide a recipe in half if it contains yeast - for instance, if a recipe makes 2 loaves of bread, can I divide the entire recipe in half and still get good baking results?

Hi Terry, Yes, it should work the same way as it does with the full recipe.  The amount of yeast in a bread recipe can be infinitely variable.  More yeast makes the dough rise faster but doesn't contribute as complex a flavor or texture as a smaller amount of yeast would.

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Bernard asked:  Saw you on Martha Stewart and we were intrigued. What are the differences between these two books [BAKE! and Perfect Pastry]? I am somewhat more experienced that a beginner and can buy only one; which would you recommend?

Hi Bernard, I think BAKE! is the book for you.  It has a wider range of techniques and recipes and the photography is much more appealing than my "home made" step-by-step photos in Perfect Pastry.

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Hope asked:  Thanks for answering my last question!  I am dying to make the Zuccotto alla Ricotta from Perfect Cakes for a friend's party. Since you say the cake should be finished very close to serving, what else can I use to finish this cake (or how can I make it more stable) for serving after a few hours of finishing (5-6?).  I know how to make a stabilized whipped cream, would love your help, and would that help?

Hi Hope, Five or six hours in advance should be fine as long as you can make some room in the refrigerator for the cake and loosely cover it with plastic wrap before chilling it.  The chopped pistachios on the outside of the cake will keep the wrap from sticking to the whipped cream which doesn't need to be stabilized in any way - just don't overwhip it. 

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Barbara asked:  I like to weigh my ingredients and notice that the weight of a cup of flour can vary a lot, depending on how you measure it. What do you use as the standard weight of a cup of all-purpose flour? And while we're at it, what about the weight of a cup of confectioners' sugar? Thank you!

Hi Barbara, I agree, which is why I include the "spoon and level" instructions every time I have flour in a recipe.  When I measure flour that way a cup is 4.25 ounces, so you can safely use that guideline for weighing.  A cup of confectioners' sugar measured the same way is 4 ounces.

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Vivian asked:  Can I use Pernod instead of anisette in the pizzelle recipe?

Hi Vivian, Of course you can.  Pernod has much less sugar in it than anisette, but the quantity is so small that it won't make any difference since the flavor is so similar.

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Marie-Claude asked:  I have a great Christmas log recipe that my relatives long for every year. It is so popular that friends are now asking me to prepare it for their Christmas reception. The log is filled with a Chantilly cream and covered with a mocha icing. What could I use in lieu of the Chantilly cream that would not compromise the lightness of the flavour and insure that the cake would not turn soggy if prepared ahead of time?

Hi Marie-Claude, My only suggestion would be a vanilla mousse, but I guarantee that everyone will say that it's not as good as the original.  Why don't you roll the sponge cake layer(s) with the whipped cream and refrigerate them early in the day of the party.  Then finish them off with the icing right before they pick them up or you bring them over.  I wouldn't worry about their becoming soggy if they're served the same day that they're filled.

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Shannon asked:  Recently I have been trying out different jelly roll recipes. Some of the cakes end up splitting or breaking apart completely when I roll it up. So far angel food cake is the only one I haven't had problems with. I have tried pre-rolling in a towel, making sure not to over bake, and taking it out of the pan right after baking, and trimming the edges. I recently read that the cakes with fat in them shouldn't be pre rolled because they are delicate when hot.  Any truth to this? I could use some helpful hints.

Hi Shannon, I always use a simple genoise layer, plain or cocoa, for rolled cakes.  Here are some iron-clad rules for successful baking and rolling:

Always bake the batter in a pan that has been lined, bottom and sides, with buttered parchment to facilitate lifting the cake from the pan after it's baked and eventually peeling away the paper.

Don't overbake!  The drier the layer becomes while it's baking the more it will crack when you roll it.

Lift 2 corners of the paper on the baked layer and slide it to the work surface to cool.  This creates a little condensation inside the cake as it cools and also helps to keep it moist and flexible.  DO NOT try to pre-roll the cake.

To unmold, fill, and roll you'll need 2 cardboards the size of the layer or 2 lightweight or flexible cutting boards.  Slide one under the layer. Touch the top of the layer with a fingertip and if it feels sticky, sprinkle it with a little sugar.  Cover with a piece of parchment paper a little larger than the layer and another board.  Grasp the whole sandwich of boards and layer and invert it.  Remove the top board and peel away the paper that the cake baked on.  Replace with clean piece of paper and the board again and invert again.  Remove the boards and top paper and voila! the cake is now sitting on a clean paper to which it is not stuck.  It will roll like a dream... Good luck!

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Hope asked:  I am having a New Year's Party of wine and desserts. I would like to start my baking now, but don't know what things freeze best and for how long. I have all of Nick's books, and love them. Please help!

Hi Hope, I would start to fill the freezer soon with bar cookies (cut them only after you defrost), a couple of strudy cakes such as pound cake or a crumb cake, then leave all the soft and delicate desserts for up to the day before the party.  You can also make biscotti and other cookies that you won't need to freeze up to a week before.

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Hal asked:  Some cakes call for cooking oil instead of butter. It seems that they're heavier cakes, or those that contain a lot of apples or other big ingredients. What does the oil do that butter wouldn't?

Hi Hal, In general oil contributes tenderness to a cake batter and retains moisture well, two things that butter also does but with one big difference - the oil won't solidify on cooling the way butter does.  In bake! I have a whole chapter devoted to oil-based cakes and while you're right about the apple and pear cakes, there's also a devil's food cake that's really moist. 

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Fran asked:  I was surprised to read that lard has less saturated fat and less cholesterol than butter.  How does lard compare to butter in baking? And when is it OK to use one in place of the other?

Hi Fran, Lard can be a great substitute for butter in a flaky pastry dough but I wouldn't use it in a cake batter or buttercream for example.

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Sylvia asked:  It has happened already a couple of times that my cakes come out of the oven fully baked in their circumference but raw in the centre. I've checked the temperature of my oven and also renewed my baking soda and baking powder thinking these may have been a little stale, but it still hasn't corrected the problem and has made baking for an event quite a stressfull endeavour!! What am I doing wrong?

Hi Sylvia, Before you take a cake from the oven, test the center with the point of a paring knife or a toothpick - it should emerge with no wet batter clinging to it.  If it looks wet, bake a few minutes longer and test again.

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Jill asked:  I'm sure someone has already asked/pointed this out, but in your Maryland Brownies recipe in How to Bake, you mention a variation of adding espresso with the vanilla extract. Except you don't mention vanilla extract in your recipe. I'm a firm believer that vanilla makes everything taste better, so I just want to know how much you were advocating for your Maryland brownies . . .

Hi Jill, 2 teaspoons should do it...

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Dell asked:  I want to make mince tarts, but if I use cup cake liners, will the paper separate easily from the tart shell?

Hi Dell, It should, but you can give them a spray with vegetable cooking spray just to be on the safe side.

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Arlene asked:  About Darina Allen's soda bread, is it ok to use whole wheat flour instead of A/P flour? If so, do I need to add more liquids? Please advise. I'm excited to try this Irish soda bread recipe for breakfast.

Hi Arlene, I've never tried an entire whole wheat version.  See the answer just below for guidelines.

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Deborah asked:  I have your Bake cookbook and really enjoy it but am looking in addition for a 100% whole wheat bread receipe. Any suggestions?

Hi Deborah, Try the Perfect White Pan Bread on page 72 but substitute whole wheat flour.  Whole wheat flour might make a drier dough so hold back a cup of the flour and only add it if necessary after the dough has come together and if it seems too loose.  Your bread will be more dense and cakey than one made with a mixture of white and whole wheat flour.

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Cheryl asked:  I'm looking for something to bring to an open-house party. Finger-food type, so as to minimize dishes for the host. And I need to prepare it completely the day before!  Any suggestions?

Hi Cheryl, Your best bet is bar cookies, brownies, and sturdy cookies, like chocolate chip or biscotti.  Check out the Ginger Squares on a recent post here - just make plenty!