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Holiday cooking and baking
Times food editor Janet K. Keeler answered your questions about holiday cookie baking, menu planning and more. Though we've stopped taking questions, check back often as we continue to add new answers that Janet is still working on.
Questions and answers so far:

Question: I made the "Stuffed Acorn Squash" but my roommate cut the recipe out and I think he omitted something.  It was good and a big hit at our potluck but what is ''Mirin"?

Janet Keeler: Mirin is a sweet Japanese wine made from rice. It is sometimes just referred to as rice wine. It's sweet and adds lots of flavor to sauces and glazes. You can buy it as Asian markets or bigger grocery stores.

Question: My fiancee has asked for gourmet style cooking lessions for Christmas and was hoping you might be able to point me in the direction of a good local source.

Janet Keeler: There are a number of school in the Tampa Bay area that offering cooking classes. La Maison Gourmet in Dunedin (471 Main St.; (727) 736-3070) offers individual courses and a basic skills class. Apron's Cooking School at Publix Supermarket in the Shoppes of Citrus Park in Tampa, (813) 926-4465, offers mostly individual classes. The newest cooking school is the Tampa Bay Cooking Academy at 700 Central Ave., St. Petersburg; (727)
804-8704. The chef there teaches a yearlong, once-a-week intensive class and individual courses. I've seen all three and they are quite nice. There are also caterers, restaurants and markets that offer cooking classes. We list them every Wednesday in the Taste section in a column called Food File. (Shameless plug.) Good luck!
 
Question: The Candy Cane Crisps are the most interesting recipe in the annual Christmas cookie listing. I made them and really have to ask what you used for the newspaper photo with this item.  Mine were definitely crispy (and tasty), but the bare no resemblance to the newspaper photo. I even went to the cited website to see if I missed an ingredient.

Janet Keeler: Well, I can say we did nothing tricky to them. Our only trouble was busting up the Brach's peppermint candy. We started with a rolling pin then quickly advanced to a hammer. Not sure how yours look (maybe you can write and tell me more) but I do know that cookies vary from cook to cook, depending on oven temperatures, ingredients and mixing techniques.

Question: Janet,I''m trying to make sugared pecans and it says to stir until you get a "thread." What temperature will that be on a candy thermometer?

Janet Keeler: That would be 230 degrees. For the non-candy makers out there, this is the softest stage of candy making. When the syrup makes a 2-inch thread when dropped from a spoon (at 230 degrees), it's ready to be poured on the pecans. My mother used to make candy walnuts (we were in California) by using the same technique. Send me some!

Question: Can Christmas cookies be made in advance and frozen?  If yes, are there any tips or guidelines for freezing?  If no, how should they be stored and far in advance can they be made and stored without becoming stale?  Thanks!

Janet Keeler: Yes, most cookies can be frozen. Make sure they are completely cooled and then store them in air-tight containers. Zipper-type bags and plastic containers with tight-fitting lids work well. If you are layering them in large containers, use wax paper to separate layers.

Frosted cookies should be frozen without the icing; ice them after they defrost. I would not freeze bar cookies with cream cheese layers. When defrosted, they'll be soggy.

I've made and frozen Christmas cookies up to a month in advance and they taste delicious. Good luck!

Question: The recipe for Pecan Fudgies in the paper calls for unsweetened condensed milk. Did you mean sweetened condensed or evaporated?

Janet Keeler: The recipe should read sweetened condensed milk.

Question: Every year I make chocolate covered pretzels for Christmas but when I try to add food coloring to the white chocolate it gets clumpy. Any suggestions?

Janet Keeler: I am guessing that you are trying to color white chocolate with red or green food coloring. Adding liquid to melted chocolate will make it sieze (or clump). Basically, it can't be done. Your best bet is to buy candy wafers specifically meant for melting and coating. Merckens is one brand and can be purchased at craft stores, or other shops that selling cake decorating and candymaking supplies. Another source is www.sugarcraft.com. These wafers come in many colors (though you may have limited success in stores. Call ahead and ask what colors they have.) Melting wafers are a confectionary coating amd not real chocolate but they do have a rich chocolate flavor. Good luck!

Question: I would like to know the recipe on how to make pumpkin pie cheesecake.

Janet Keeler: There are many recipe for pumpkin cheesecake on the Web. Here's one from Good Housekeeping.

Pumpkin Cheesecake

  • Serving: 16
  • Cook Time: 30 minutes plus chilling
  • Total Time: 1 hour 50 minutes plus chilling

Crumb Crust:

  • 1 cup graham-cracker crumbs
  • 3 tablespoons margarine or butter, melted
  • 2 tablespoons sugar

Pumpkin Filling:

  • 2 packages (8 ounces each) cream cheese, softened
  • 1 1/4 cups sugar
  • 1 can (16 ounces) solid-pack pumpkin (not pumpkin-pie mix)
  • 3/4 cup sour cream
  • 2 tablespoons bourbon or 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground allspice
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 4 large eggs

Sour-Cream Topping:

  • 1 cup sour cream
  • 3 tablespoons sugar
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • Crystallized ginger strips for garnish

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. In 9" by 3" springform pan, with fork, stir graham-cracker crumbs, melted margarine or butter, and sugar until moistened. With hand, press mixture onto bottom of pan. Tightly wrap outside of pan with heavy-duty foil to prevent leakage when baking in water bath later. Bake crust 10 minutes. Cool completely in pan on wire rack.

2. In large bowl, with mixer at medium speed, beat cream cheese until smooth; slowly beat in sugar until blended, about 1 minute, scraping bowl often with rubber spatula. With mixer at low speed, beat in pumpkin, sour cream, bourbon or vanilla, cinnamon, allspice, and salt. Add eggs, 1 at a time, beating just until blended after each addition.

3. Pour pumpkin mixture into crust and place in large roasting pan. Place pan on oven rack. Carefully pour enough boiling water into pan to come 1 inch up side of springform pan. Bake cheesecake 1 hour 10 minutes or until center barely jiggles.

4. Meanwhile, prepare Sour-Cream Topping: In small bowl, with wire whisk, beat sour cream, sugar, and vanilla until blended. Remove cheesecake from water bath, leaving water bath in oven, and spread sour-cream mixture evenly over top. Return cake to water bath and bake 5 minutes longer.

5. Remove cheesecake from water bath to wire rack; discard foil. With small knife, loosen cheesecake from side of pan to help prevent cracking during cooling. Cool cheesecake completely. Cover and refrigerate cheesecake at least 6 hours or overnight, until well chilled. Remove side of pan to serve. Garnish with crystallized ginger.

Question: Home for Thanksgiving. Mom had two tubs of cookies waiting for us. One the butterscotch chip, chocolate chip, coconut thing you mention in today''s article and the other standard tollhouse chocolate chip cookies. The winner was the basic chip cookie. The coconut chip bars were just too sweet. I could handle only a one inch square at each tasting. The basic chip cookies you could pull up a glass of  milk and chow. Mom, being the trooper that she is, baked up another tub of  chocolate chips after our family polished off the first one. Meanwhile the butter/choco/nut bars sat lonely. I like the coconut chocolate combination. Do you have any ideas for a less sweet bar? I think  mom made them more intense with a bottom layer of semi dry chocolate cake mix. Is she trying to kill us?

Janet Keeler: She's not trying to kill you, that's how Moms show love, sugar. It's a can of sweetened condensed milk that's makes the seven-layer magic bars so sweet. Here's an easy recipe for chocolate coconut bars that won't send you to the dentist. I don't know about the milk, but I think they go well with martinis.

Easy Chocolate Coconut Bars

  • 2/3 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1/3 cup vegetable oil
  • 1/3 cup flaked coconut
  • 1 1/2 squares unsweetened chocolate, melted (1 1/2 ounces)

In a medium bowl, combine flour, baking powder, and salt; set aside.

Combine eggs and sugar; beat at medium speed of an electric mixer until thick and lemon-colored. Add oil and flour mixture; beat just until blended.

Combine coconut and 1/2 cup batter; set aside. Stir chocolate into remaining batter. Pour chocolate mixture into a greased and floured 8-inch square pan. Dollop coconut mixture on top. Swirl with a knife or narrow metal spatula to give a marbled look. Bake at 350° for 20 to 25 minutes or until a wooden pick inserted in center comes out clean. Cool in pan on a wire rack; cut into bars.
Makes about 16 coconut chocolate bars.

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