Cooks Corner

Making the case for cast-iron skillets

A cast-iron skillet is the ideal vessel for these pepperoni pizza rolls.
A cast-iron skillet is the ideal vessel for these pepperoni pizza rolls. America’s Test Kitchen

If I could only have one tool from my kitchen, I’d choose my 16-inch cast-iron skillet, handed down from my grandfather to my mother to me, and no doubt at least 100 years old.

It has survived floods and fire and even my husband, who can’t get it through his head not to douse it in dish soap when it needs to be cleaned. I use it most days, even though it weighs a ton, because it is just so versatile — and I swear it cooks more evenly and produces a better crisp than even the costliest of modern cookware.

I didn’t think I could learn anything new about my skillet until I got a copy of Cook It in Cast Iron, just published by America’s Test Kitchen (Boston Common Press, $27).

The cookbook is full of great tips, explains the science to why cast iron naturally is nonstick when seasoned properly, and why it makes a better sear on steak or a crisper cornbread. The straightforward explanations take a lot of the scariness out of using cast iron for novices, and the recipes are both easy to follow and attuned to the skillet’s attributes. And I truly enjoyed cast iron hacks like these:

Make a panini press: Set a large, seasoned, oiled cast-iron skillet over medium-high heat; place your assembled sandwiches in the middle, and top with a smaller skillet that will act as a press. Cook until the bottom of the sandwich is golden brown, then flip and repeat the process on the other side.

Use it as a flame tamer: Keep sauces and the like over gentle heat for a long time without scorching. Simply place the skillet over a low flame, then place your pot or saucepan right in the skillet. The skillet will moderate the heat.

Give pie crusts a better chance: A seasoned cast-iron skillet can be the perfect cooking vessel for just about any pie. Just make sure your skillet is 9 or 10 inches in diameter to keep the recipe volume and baking times consistent.

The recipes tell you why cast iron is the best choice. For the recipe here for pizza dip, cast iron is best for baking because it gives a crisp golden bottom to the pull-apart rolls. Serving it in the skillet, with its natural heat retention, ensures that the cheese doesn’t separate or become congealed but stays warm and gooey until the last bite.

Reader Questions

Q. My grandmother made a chocolate cake for every birthday that started out with her mixing the ingredients in a saucepan on the stove. I’ve searched for this recipe for years but have never found one that calls for cooking the ingredients like that before you baked. My daughter who goes to FIU told me to ask you, so here goes.

A. I think I’ve got the recipe, which came from a reader long ago when I was looking, like you, for a chocolate cake that haunted my memories. My Aunt Lucy made it at her farm in Iowa with leftover oatmeal, right in the pot she’d used to make our breakfast. I happily got a cooked oatmeal chocolate cake recipe, and lots of others in the process.

I adore this cake for its simple goodness. It goes together in no time and to my mind needs no adornment. If you like, go decadent with a dark chocolate ganache but my favorite way to serve it is with a dollop of soft whipped cream while the cake is still warm.

Q. Is there a way to rescue a dish when you’ve made it too spicy?

A. The best you can do is add more of the non-fiery ingredients — make a double batch with everything but the hot stuff. If that’s not an option, sometimes a shake of sugar or a dash of vinegar can help douse the flames. I know some chefs swear by a gastrique made with equal amounts of vinegar and sugar as a chile tamer, and my best friend who lives in Arizona and grows a zillion types of chilies says her best go-to when a salsa or enchilada sauce goes volcanic is to add ketchup.

Depending upon what you’ve made, add a starch — mashed beans to chili, mashed potato to a stew — and that may disperse some of the fire. If it’s compatible, say with a curry or a sauce, add some plain yogurt. Or be creative. I once made a huge batch of a jalapeño-cilantro condiment for grilled meats and the chilies seemed to get hotter by the hour. I threw my green sauce into the food processor with a brick of cream cheese and came up with a pretty fantastic dip.

Linda Cicero: @TasteMemories. Write to Cook’s Corner at Food, Miami Herald, 3511 NW 91st Ave., Doral, FL 33172.

Baked Pepperoni Pizza Garlic Rolls and Dip

Recipe from America’s Test Kitchen. To soften the cream cheese quickly, microwave it for 20 to 30 seconds.

3 ounces thinly sliced pepperoni, quartered

1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil

3 garlic cloves, minced

1 pound pizza dough

8 ounces cream cheese, cut into 8 pieces and softened

3/4 cup pizza sauce

4 ounces mozzarella cheese, shredded (1 cup)

2 tablespoons chopped fresh basil

Adjust oven rack to middle position and heat oven to 400 degrees. Cook pepperoni in 10-inch cast-iron skillet over medium heat until crisp, 5 to 7 minutes. Using slotted spoon, transfer pepperoni to paper towel-lined plate; set aside. Off heat, add oil and garlic to fat left in skillet and let sit until fragrant, about 1 minute; transfer to medium bowl.

Place dough on lightly floured counter, pat into rough 8-inch square, and cut into 32 pieces (1/2 ounce each). Working with 1 piece of dough at a time, roll into tight ball, then coat with garlic oil. Evenly space 18 balls around edge of skillet, keeping center of skillet clear. Place remaining 14 balls on top, staggering them between seams of balls underneath. Cover loosely with greased plastic wrap and let sit until slightly puffed, about 20 minutes.

Remove plastic. Transfer skillet to oven and bake until balls are just beginning to brown, about 20 minutes, rotating skillet halfway through baking. Meanwhile, whisk cream cheese and pizza sauce together in large bowl until thoroughly combined and smooth. Stir in mozzarella and three-quarters of crisped pepperoni.

Spoon cheese mixture into center of skillet, return to oven, and bake until dip is heated through and rolls are golden brown, about 10 minutes. Sprinkle with basil and remaining crisped pepperoni. Serve.

Yield: 10 servings

Saucepan Chocolate Cake

2 cups sugar

4 ounces unsweetened chocolate, broken into pieces

1/2 cup (1 stick) butter

1 cup water

2 cups all-purpose flour

2 teaspoons baking soda

1 teaspoon baking powder

¾ teaspoon salt

1 cup milk

1 teaspoon vinegar

2 eggs

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

Generously grease and flour two 9-inch cake pans or one 9-inch tube pan. Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Measure the sugar, chocolate, butter and 1 cup of water into a heavy saucepan. Stir over medium heat until all ingredients are melted. Set aside to cool to room temperature.

In a mixing bowl, whisk together the flour, baking soda, baking powder and salt. Combine the milk and vinegar in a glass and set aside. When chocolate mixture is cool, beat in the eggs and milk. Stir in the dry ingredient mixture. Finally, stir in the vanilla extract

Spoon into prepared pans and bake on the middle rack until a tester inserted into the center comes out clean, about 25 minutes for layer pans, 30 to 35 minutes for tube pan. Cool on wire rack for 10 minutes then invert to cool completely. Frost as desired, or simply sprinkle with powdered sugar.

Yield: 12 servings