The Washington Post

Cracklin’ Corn Bread

Makes 8 servings (one 8-to-9-inch round bread). Bake it right before you want to eat it. Order Anson Mills cornmeal at www.ansonmills.com, or look for coarse yellow cornmeal milled regularly near you. Find Allan Benton’s bacon at shop.bentonscountryham.com or Harvey’s Market (www.harveysmarketdc.com) and full-fat buttermilk at Trickling Springs Creamery (www.tricklingspringscreamery.com.)

4 oz bacon, preferably Benton’s, plus more as needed

2 C coarse cornmeal, preferably Anson Mills Antebellum Coarse Yellow Cornmeal

1 tsp kosher salt

1⁄2 tsp baking soda

1⁄2 tsp baking powder

11⁄2 C regular buttermilk (may substitute low-fat buttermilk), plus more as needed

1 lg egg, lightly beaten

Preheat the oven to 450 degrees. Put a deep 8- or 9-inch cast-iron skillet in the oven for at least 10 minutes, leaving it there while you prepare the batter.

Run the bacon through a meat grinder, or chop it very fine. Put the bacon in a skillet large enough to hold it in one layer, and cook over medium-low heat, stirring frequently so it doesn’t burn, until the fat is rendered and the bits of bacon are crispy, 5 to 10 minutes. Use a slotted spoon to transfer the bits of bacon to a paper towel to drain, reserving the fat. (You’ll need 5 tablespoons of bacon fat for this recipe; if you come up short, fry another slice or two of bacon for the grease, and reserve the slices for another use.)

Whisk together the cornmeal, salt, baking soda, baking powder and bits of bacon in a medium bowl, making sure the baking soda and powder are evenly distributed. Reserve 1 tablespoon of the bacon fat and combine the remaining 4 tablespoons of fat with the buttermilk and egg in a small bowl. Stir the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients just to combine; do not overmix. The batter should be loose and pourable; if it’s too thick to pour easily, stir in a little more buttermilk.

Move the cast-iron skillet from the oven to the stove, placing it over high heat. Add the reserved tablespoon of bacon fat and swirl to coat the skillet, getting it up the sides of the skillet if possible. Pour the batter into the center of the skillet (it should sizzle) and let it spread in the pan on its own. Let it cook for a minute or two on the stove top, then transfer it to the oven.

Bake the corn bread for about 20 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. While the corn bread is still hot, place a plate upside down over the skillet and carefully invert skillet and plate together so the corn bread drops onto the plate. Slide the corn bread back into the skillet; the crunchy bottom edge will now be on top. Serve warm from the skillet.

— Adapted from “Heritage,” by Sean Brock (Artisan, 2014)

Q: About a year ago, I took a cooking class in which the chef said you shouldn’t waste your money using extra-virgin olive oil in cooking because the heat kills any flavor or nutrition it had. She said to use regular olive oil for cooking with heat and extra-virgin when there’s no heat involved. In the store, I found only extra-virgin available, so the next time I took a cooking class, I asked the chef about it. He said he uses extra-virgin for everything. Where do you weigh in on this?

A: What the first chef told you is an old-fashioned idea, from back when extra-virgin was more of a specialty product, and more expensive. But as you discovered, it’s pretty difficult to find non-extra-virgin olive oil. So don’t sweat it, especially since EVOO doesn’t have to be super-expensive, and it is beautiful to cook with. To quote Nancy Harmon Jenkins’ “Virgin Territory”: “I take my cue from generations of Mediterranean cooks at all levels … and only cook with extra-virgin olive oil.”

— Joe Yonan

Q: Since I began decanting my everyday olive oil into a bottle with one of those skinny pouring spouts, I have wondered how I ever did without it. It’s not like removing and replacing a cap is that much trouble, but somehow this has (almost) changed my life. Really, try it; you’ll like it.

A: I feel the same. I am a relatively recent convert to this, too, using a snazzy curved red number that looks great on my stovetop. More important, it’s just such a time-saver, eh?

— J.Y.

Q: I made a recipe for quick chicken curry and realized I’d forgotten to add the curry powder until about 20 minutes of cooking time was left. I went ahead and added it then, but the curry flavor, unsurprisingly, seemed diminished. I figured it might be worth asking if there are certain spices that can be added late in cooking time to little or no effect on the dishes.

A: A general thought: When a powdered spice is left out, you can first try to heat it in a small amount of olive oil to bloom it, then add it to the mixture. Adding dry spice at the last minute is ineffective, as you noted.

— Lisa Yockelson

Rotten potatoes

Q: Every summer I grow a ton of sweet potatoes, and every spring I throw out most of them, uneaten and starting to rot. What should I do with them? Can I make soup?

A. I’m not even sure where to start! Soup, pies, rolls and so much more! Check out our recipes for Brown Sugar-Sweet Potato Cake, Sweet Potato Samosas, Persian-Spiced Sweet Potato Pie, Sweet Potato Rolls and Thai Sweet Potato Soup, for starters, at washingtonpost.com/pb/recipes.

— Becky Krystal

V-Day meal for two

Q: I would love suggestions for a nice meal to cook for two for Valentine’s Day. I cook a lot, but it’s a lot of hearty, more basic foods, and I’m looking to step up my game to something more sophisticated than pastas and stews.

A: Chicken piccata — lovely and lemony — is sophisticated without breaking the budget and not stew-y at all!

— L.Y.

DIY yogurt

Q: I’m going to dive into making yogurt and am looking for advice as to how to best add additional flavors. My guess is I should make it plain, then scoop out a bit of the plain to use as starter for the next batch, then add whatever I’d like to the rest (I’m thinking some sort of fruit compote). Good plan or bad plan?

A: We did some experiments in DIY yogurt-making last year. Suggestion: Perfect your plain yogurt first, so you understand the conditions in which it turns out best in your kitchen. Then you can work on flavored yogurts. The main thing to remember with adding fruits is to make sure they are not fresh, but frozen or in jam form. The fresh fruit could contain acids that curdle the milk.

Once you’ve got the plain yogurt-making down, do fruit-on-the-bottom yogurt, not blending it in.

— Tim Carman, Joe Yonan

Soft-scrambled eggs

Q: I had soft scrambled eggs at brunch, and I decided I was never having normal scrambled eggs again. The problem is, using the recipe I tried (which seems to make sense, at one tablespoon of milk per egg), it never seems to have the right texture or flavor. What’s the secret?

A: I like to do it in a double boiler so the heat is really low. I use cream and/or butter with the eggs, and they can take as long as 20 minutes to cook. You stir constantly with a flexible spatula, and it seems like it’s never going to happen, and then it finally starts to form these big, soft curds. It’s a glorious thing.

— J.Y.

Sweet potato oven fries

Q: I would like to make your oven fries using sweet potatoes instead of russet, but I can never get sweet potatoes crispy. They taste good, but they’re mushy. What’s the secret?

A: It’s true that sweet potatoes have so much more moisture in them, it’s harder to get them crisp in the oven. I use a perforated baking sheet, which helps because of the air circulation. You also need to make sure there’s no overlap of the potatoes in the oven. And spread them on a cooling rack rather than a lined plate. High heat, too!

— J.Y.

Firm up your jam

Q: I’m hoping you can answer a canning-related question for me. Although I have made lots of jam over the past few years, over the weekend I made it for the first time without using pectin. It was a strawberry/blueberry mix, and I had frozen the berries a few months back. The set was softer than I wanted. Should I perhaps have boiled it longer to get it to firm up a bit?

A: Sounds like that might be the case. Did you test your set? Check out the tips from canning maven Cathy Barrow in her recipe for Just Right Strawberry Preserves.

— B.K.

Super-soaker onion soup

Q: When making French onion soup, I’ve had a problem with the bread soaking up all the soup. How can that be prevented?

A: I find that if the pieces of bread are very lightly toasted beforehand (and preferably a little stale!), the bread does not absorb a lot of liquid.

As well, it is a good idea to assemble the bread/cheese just before the final heating of it all, to melt the cheese.

— L.Y.

Pie-making for Pi Day

Q: I’m hosting a party for Pi Day, March 14, and would like to get a jump-start on my pie-making. How early can I make and freeze crusts?

A: A pie crust can be made, rolled out, placed in the pan and refrigerated, lightly covered, for 36 hours. You can freeze the crust in the pan about two weeks, well-wrapped.

— L.Y.

Love to bake, hate the oven

Q: I just moved to a new place, and while I love to bake, the oven seems not to love me as much. I suspect it’s going at a bit higher temperature than what’s stated on the reader, so I’ve been baking things for a shorter time. However, whenever the inside of, say, a cake is done, the batter that touched the pan is always very dark brown, hard and burnt. How do you fix this?

A: It may be a case of your oven not maintaining a steady heat, or it has “hot spots,” or the rack is not level. Possibly, it may be that the batter and the pan are incompatible. If you use a very thin-weight pan, the heat will absorb quickly and the edges may over-brown.

— L.Y.

For your baking needs, a corn bread recipe follows.

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