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Don't fear a 'pinch' of salt

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Just be careful of all that sodium in processed food.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013 - 12:01 am

Q: Why do recipes call for salt when I bake sweet things? Can I omit it to make my food healthier?

A: Salt has been the most important spice ever traded. Not the most expensive, but the most important. Not only does it flavor food, people used to pack meat and fish in salt to store them when refrigeration was not around. Remember all the Little House on the Prairie books and their salt-cured beef? Pa Wilder was no fool! Animals will travel for miles searching for salt, and our body needs it to keep us from getting dehydrated. Salt gets a bad rap because we eat so much processed and packaged food where salt and sugar are added in ridiculous amounts.

The amount of salt in homemade baked goods is very small. One teaspoon for 2 or 3 dozen cookies does not add up to much. I have not found a tasty salt substitute to add to table food, but the salt substitutes could be used in baked products if you are on a medically restricted diet. Otherwise, do not worry about it, and use your worry moments for world peace.

It seems a bit hypocritical to preach using unsalted butter and then add a teaspoon of salt, doesn't it? Using unsalted butter in baking is very important. If you have salted butter and add salt, your food will most likely taste a little off or too salty. No good baker would ever chance ruining his delicate concoction by using salted butter. Each brand of butter uses different amounts of salt that can't be measured. So be precise and control the amount of salt in pastries. To be precise you would need to measure on a scale, but this is the U.S. and most people don't use scales. The moral here is to use unsalted butter and then add the correct amount. It is better that you control the amount of salt in a dish.

One time I was making cream cheese frosting, which is butter, a tad of vanilla, cream cheese and powdered sugar. It tasted so sweet. I asked my youngest son to taste it and he said it needs a pinch of salt to tone down the sickening sweetness. I did it and by gosh, he was right! I was so proud.

It also seems a bit silly to add salt when you are making something such as lemon curd, which is butter, sugar, egg yolks, lemon and a pinch of salt. Really, a pinch of salt? Does that really matter? A tiny little pinch? Yes it does matter. That little pinch is enough to balance all the sugar and the acid of the lemon. If you leave it out, the flavors will not meld together as well. I use lemon curd only as an example; it goes for anything requesting a pinch.

Salt is also a little player in the leavening department of things that get bigger, such a breads, cakes and pie dough. It does not have the huge leavening properties of baking powder and baking soda but it has some and its place is key in the gestalt of everything.

Q: How much is a pinch? It seems so inexact!

A: Pour a bit of salt into the tiniest palm of your hand. Grab a bit with your forefinger and thumb and put it in your dish. It weighs about 7 grams.

Q: What's easy to make in the spur of the moment?

A: There are many things that are good to keep stocked in your pantry and freezer. Puffed pasty is one. Here are two simple recipes I make when I need something good and don't want to give all my energy to appetizers. Measurements are approximate. You can adjust ingredients to taste.

Savory palmiers

1 package Pepperidge Farm puffed pastry

1/3 cup fresh sage, cut up

3/4 cup grated Gruyere cheese

5 slices prosciutto, diced

1 egg, slightly beaten

Roll puffed pastry out in a rectangle. Cover with grated Gruyere. Put pancetta over it and then sage. Do not get worried if you don't get this in order. Roll it up from both sides, meeting in the middle. Cut into slices and lay on sides on parchment paper on a cookie sheet. Brush with beaten egg. Bake at 350 degrees for about 18 minutes, or until golden brown.

Sweet palmiers

1 package Pepperidge Farm puffed pastry

1 cup couverture chocolate disks (not chocolate chips), melted

1/4 cup sugar

4 T. butter, slightly melted

Cinnamon to taste

1 egg, slightly beaten

Roll out puffed pastry sheet in a rectangle. Brush with melted butter. Pour melted chocolate over it. Toss some sugar and cinnamon over it. Roll up sides and meet in middle. Cut into slices. Lay on sides on cookie sheet covered with parchment paper. Brush with egg and bake for 15 minutes or until done. This is great with Nutella!

Laura Wilson, owner of La Dolce Vita in Roanoke, is a Le Cordon Bleu-trained chef. She answers questions in The N-S every other Tuesday. Have a question for Laura? Submit it to clarson@news-sentinel.com or call 461-8284. This column is the personal opinion of the writer.