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Originally published Tuesday, December 14, 2010 at 5:00 PM

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Recipes: Joy of Almond Bars and more

Readers requested several recipes including one for a squash soup, mashed potatoes and Joy of Almond Bars.

McClatchy Newspapers

Q. .

Could you get the pumpkin soup recipe from the News Cafe? It is the most decadent I have ever eaten.

A: Thanks to general manager Tony Magaldi and prep chef Carlos Garcia, you can enjoy the soup whether or not it is on the menu. Garcia uses calabaza, the Latin American squash also known as West Indian pumpkin, but you can use sugar pumpkin or winter squash. To make the purée, cut the pumpkin in half, scoop out the seeds and bake, cut side down, at 350 degrees until soft, 45 minutes to 1 hour. Scoop out the flesh and process. You can also substitute canned pumpkin purée.

News Cafe's Pumpkin Soup

Makes 10 1-cup servings

5 ounces butter

1 large onion, finely chopped

2 carrots, peeled and thinly sliced

1 (1-inch) piece fresh ginger, sliced

1 tablespoon chopped garlic

3 bay leaves

6 cups puréed calabaza or winter squash (or three 15-ounce cans plain pumpkin purée)

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1 quart chicken stock

White pepper and salt to ta

1. In a saucepan melt the butter over medium-high heat. Add the onion, carrots, ginger, garlic and bay leaves and cook, stirring, until vegetables are tender, about 3 minutes Stir in the pumpkin purée and cook, stirring, for 2 to 3 minutes. Stir in the chicken stock and bring mixture to a boil, stirring all the while.

2. Remove from heat and, working in batches, purée the soup in a blender or processor. Reheat, and season to taste with white pepper and salt. Per serving: 229 calories (50 percent from fat), 12.8 g fat (7.6 g saturated, 3.5 g monounsaturated), 33.4 mg cholesterol, 4.2 g protein, 25 g carbohydrates, 3 g fiber, 233 mg sodium.

— — —

Q. I have a couple of questions about what should be a foolproof part of Thanksgiving dinner, mashed potatoes. Last year I made them the way I always do but instead of fluffy and creamy they were like glue, sticky and heavy. Is one kind of potato better than another for mashing? And is it possible to overcook or over mash?

— Michaela Cord

A. Funny how you can make something a zillion times, and then something goes wrong. We've all had it happen. Your question arrived as I was reading a fascinating new book, "Cooking for Geeks" by Jeff Potter (O'Reilly, $34.99). Potter, a computer scientist, has written a cross between a science textbook and a recipe book, complete with experiments, that explains what happens and why in the kitchen.

I've always known that if you cook potatoes too long or beat them too much, particularly with an electric mixer, or, perish the thought, use a food processor, they turn gluey. But until I read Potter's book, I didn't realize that any of those factors can literally cause the starch to explode out of the potato, rather than doing what it should do, which is trap air.

He tells readers that "cooking a potato — or any other starchy root vegetable — requires gelatinizing the starches in the vegetable." For this to occur, the starch granules need to get hot enough to literally melt. To make the best mashed potatoes, Potter suggests it's therefore better to microwave than boil.

He also says that different varieties of potatoes do indeed have different amounts of starch. Russets, for example, turn out fluffier because they have a high starch content. Red or yellow skin potatoes are lower in starch. But knowing the science doesn't mean you do away with personal preference. Potter prefers "a coarse texture to the creamy, perfectly smooth potatoes so often seen in movie scenes associated with Thanksgiving, so I tend to use red potatoes."

I'm sharing his recipe for mashed potatoes. If you're not a rosemary fan, skip the herb.

'Cooking For Geeks' Mashed Potatoes

Makes 4 servings

3 to 4 medium red potatoes (600 grams or about 1 1/2 pounds)

1/2 cup sour cream

1/3 cup milk

4 teaspoons butter

2 teaspoons finely chopped fresh rosemary (optional)

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon ground pepper

1. Pierce each potato several times with a knife. Place the potatoes in a microwave safe dish and microwave until cooked, about 6 minutes. After cooking, cut the potatoes into small pieces that can be mashed with the back of a fork. Add and mash together the sour cream, milk, butter, rosemary, salt and pepper.

Per serving: 199 calories (42 percent from fat), 9.5 g fat (5.6 g saturated, 2.4 g monounsaturated), 24.5 mg cholesterol, 4 g protein, 25.8 g carbohydrates, 2.8 g fiber, 20 mg sodium.

Q. I have lost my favorite cookie for Christmas exchanges, called Almond Joys. Can you help?

— L.T.

A. There are a couple of cookies by that name, a crisp drop cookie that is made with coconut, chopped almonds and chocolate chips, and the one here, which is an amazingly rich and attractive bar cookie.

A tip for holiday bakers: Hershey this year has a Web page with lots of cookie recipes and tips for those organizing cookie exchanges: www.hersheyscookies.com

Joy of Almond Bars

Makes 72 bars

1 box chocolate cake mix

1/2 cup vegetable oil

3 eggs

11/3 cups water

Filling

1 can (13-ounce) evaporated milk, divided

24 large marshmallows

1 package (14-ounce) flaked coconut

Topping

1 1/2 cups sugar

1 stick butter

2 cups chocolate chips

1 teaspoon vanilla

1 cup sliced almonds

1. Heat oven to 350 degrees. Lightly coat two 9-by-13-inch pans with vegetable oil spray and dust with flour, or line with parchment paper.

2. Place the dry cake mix, oil, eggs and 1 1/3 cups of water in large mixing bowl. Beat 1 minute on low speed then increase speed to medium and beat 2 minutes more, scraping sides. Divide between the two pans. Bake 15 to 18 minutes, until cakes test done. Cool on wire racks.

3. The filling: Place 1 cup evaporated milk in a saucepan over medium-high heat and bring to a boil. Remove from heat and stir in marshmallows until they melt. Stir in the coconut and set aside.

4. The topping: Place remaining evaporated milk with the sugar in a medium-size saucepan over medium-high heat. Cook, stirring constantly, until mixture comes to a boil, about 5 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in the butter and chocolate chips until melted and incorporated. Stir in the vanilla. Place the pan over low heat to keep at pouring consistency while assembling.

5. Divide the coconut filling between the two cake pans, spreading with a spatula to keep top even. Immediately pour on the warm chocolate topping and spread to reach the edges. Distribute the almonds on top. Chill at least 2 hours and preferably overnight. Slice into bars (I cut it into thirds lengthwise, then into 12 portions widthwise). .

Per bar:148 calories (48 percent from fat), 8.4 g fat (4.1g saturated, 2.3 g monounsaturated), 13.8 mg cholesterol, 2 g protein, 18 g carbohydrates, 1.1 g fiber, 99 mg sodium.

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