Q: I’m one of the two or three people on the planet who do not like Nutella. I love chocolate; it’s hazelnuts that I can’t stand. Is there a comparable chocolate-only spread that I could substitute?
A: One word: ganache. Lots of great recipes out there. It’s super easy, and it’s exactly what you’re after: a chocolate-only spread.
Q: Do you have suggestions for creative ways to use a batch of lime or lemon curd?
A: Having extra curd is a treat. You can use it on toast, of course (if you have brioche, it’s an extra treat); fill a crust with it and top with meringue or whipped cream (curd is good in a store-bought graham-cracker crust); use it as a dip for cookies (meringues are wonderful with curd); or make an ice cream cake (use a springform pan) and use curd for one of the layers.
Q: I’m interested in expanding my knowledge of gins and wonder which brands you recommend for which cocktails. We tend to stick to Gordon’s for pink gin or gin and tonic, but I’d like to try genevers and learn about the differences between, say, Tanqueray and Bombay Sapphire without having to buy a fifth of each one.
A: See what you can find in mini bottles, also, check out a local bar that has a gin selection and get to tasting.
Q: I bought some small, white eggplants from my local farmers market grocery store. When I went to cook them, they seemed unusually hard, so I’m wondering if they were picked too soon.
How do you tell if eggplants are ripe, and if they are not, what is the best way to ripen them?
A: It’s pretty rare to get under-ripe eggplant, so this is a question that doesn’t come up too often. Most of the time, it’s overripe eggplant we have to deal with: It gets spongier and more bitter.
Perfectly ripe eggplant will have glossy, smooth flesh that will slightly indent when you press it with a finger, but the indentation will vanish quickly. Underripe eggplant will see no indentation when you press, and overripe will have an indentation that stays put.
The thing is, eggplant won’t ripen off the vine, so there’s nothing to be done if it’s underripe. But here’s another thing: For the most part, the smaller, the better when it comes to flavor. And before it’s picked, eggplant can be ripe enough to eat before it’s fully grown.
Q: I bought culinary lavender buds in bulk. They seem to keep well and I’ve put them in iced green tea, honey mead, sugar cookies, lemonade and cupcake frosting over the last several months. Do you have other ideas, or should I freeze the rest?
A: Freezing is a great idea because, with lavender, a little goes a long way. Lavender is good with anything made with white chocolate — think cookies, cakes and frosting. Also, you might consider candying lavender buds: Dip them into very lightly beaten egg white, then dredge with sugar; dry overnight on a rack (in a non-humid place). You could also make a lavender syrup; it will keep in the refrigerator indefinitely.