Food chat: Sichuan peppercorns are optional, but they lend a numbing sensation to mapo tofu

THE WASHINGTON POST – The Washington Post Food staff and food journalist Kristen Hartke recently answered questions about all things edible. Here are edited excerpts from that chat.

Q: I love mapo tofu, but Sichuan peppercorns give me terrible indigestion. Please suggest a recipe that allows a substitution,  also spicy.

A: Basically any mapo tofu worth its sauce will include Sichuan peppercorns. It is what gives you the numbing sensation, rather than spice. I think this just comes down to you finding a good recipe and just leaving out the Sichuan if you cannot tolerate it. If you want, you can swap in your choice of hot pepper (cayenne, red pepper flakes, etc), the flavour will just be different. -Becky Krystal

Q: I used a bread recipe the other day that gave rising times for rapid rise or active dry yeast. I have instant, so I did some Google searching to find the equivalent. The only thing I was able to find said subtract 15 minutes from the active dry time. I did that but I am not sure it was accurate. The finished loaf is delicious, but I think it is flatter than it should have been. I was afraid of waiting too long – is that a legitimate fear? Can bread over-rise?

A: While I have seen some advice that you can subtract 10 minutes or so from the rise time when using instant yeast instead of active dry yeast, I found that sticking to the normal rise time usually works just fine. I generally like to use the “ripe” test with dough, however, which comes from Red Star Yeast – just stick two fingers into the risen dough, up to the second knuckle, and if the indentations remain, then the dough is ready to punch down. That always works well for me! – Kristen Hartke

Sichuan peppercorns. PHOTO: THE WASHINGTON POST

Q: I make bean soup regularly. I always consider it “soup” when the liquids turn creamy, which, I assume, is from some of the beans disintegrating. I really love it this way. But I keep seeing pictures of recipes that show the individual ingredients floating in a clear broth base that look really good as well. As an alternative to my traditional favourite, can you suggest what technique I should use to maintain a clear broth and not a bean-cream liquid? (My current technique is to saute the veg and meat (if using), add the beans, Penzey’s soup base, and water. Bring to a boil, then simmer until that hearty bean-cream shows up.)

A: Hi! It is the starch from the beans that adds creaminess and body to your water. I am assuming you are using cooked beans. I think if you want to keep the liquid clearer, try adding the beans at the end of cooking and just warming them through instead of boiling/simmering them. -Joe Yonan

Q: I made a lemon meringue pie for my husband’s birthday. The meringue was unusually difficult to spread this time – stuck to itself rather than the pie – but the volume was spectacular and the pie was picture-perfect when I pulled it out of the oven. However, after cooling for six hours, the meringue was much reduced in volume by a half or maybe more. What went wrong? I followed the Betty Crocker recipe (four egg whites, one eighth teaspoon salt, whipped to soft peaks, then add half cup sugar and four teaspoons cornstarch dissolved in water and boiled for one minute, whipped to stiff peaks).

A: Meringue is a tricky one, since so many factors, especially temperature and humidity, can play a part in how it turns out. In this case, it could have been a number of different things, but the boiled cornstarch, which is meant to protect against excess humidity, may have instead incorporated too much water into the meringue. This would not affect it immediately, but it could have caused it to weep or deflate over time. I would be sure to beat the egg whites, salt and sugar until they were nice and fluffy before adding the cornstarch mixture. Was the cornstarch mixture translucent when you added it, and was it cool? That can help prevent the meringue from deflating later, too. -Daniela Galarza