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Tips and How Tos

A foodie is always on the lookout for a better way
to cook and eat. Here you'll find tips and how tos
from our Culinary Patriots and foodies editors.
Watch the page grow as foodies grows.

Click on tips that interest you or scroll down to browse.

Beef info and advice
Name that beef
Coals hot enough?
How to make hamburger patties
Buying beef

Bread baking advice
How to use gluten in bread machines

Brownie advice
How to properly blend brownie ingredients
How to tell if the brownies are cooked
About cooling and cutting brownies
Help! I'm out of baking chocolate!

Cheese advice
Tips on storing cheese
Tips on melting cheese
Tips on freezing cheese
Tips on serving cheese

Chocolate advice
How to melt chocolate
Maida Heatter
Order Maida Heatter's Brand-New Book of Great Cookies Today!
How to dip in chocolate coating

Cookie advice
from Maida Heatter's Brand-New Book of Great Cookies
How to use baking pan liner paper (baking parchment)
Cookie cutters
Cookie jars

Doing Dishes & Other Cleaning Advice
How to remove baked on food from your baking dishes
How to remove cooked on cheese
How to remove cooked on rice, pasta or other starchy food
How to remove cooked on milk
(Attention Espresso Machine Owners!)
How to guarantee a clean, lint-free window

Egg advice
How to tell if an egg is fresh
How to hard cook eggs without cracking them
How to color eggs without the silly kit
Egg coloring tricks
How to peel a hard cooked egg

Ice cream advice
Tips on using ice cream makers (electric or manual)
How to scoop and serve ice cream

Order The Martini Companion Today!

Martini tips
The measurement
The vermouth
The ice
The shake
More martini resources

Nut advice from Maida Heatter, Our Culinary Patriot
How to skin (blanch) hazelnuts
Tips on storing nuts

Olive oil advice
Tips on storing olive oil from Joy

Pesto advice
How and when to pick and wash fresh basil leaves
How to freeze pesto
Miscellaneous pesto notes
Thinking pesto? Click here for Joy's recipe.

Pie crust advice
How to choose a pie plate
How to use cold to create flaky pastry
Should I use my Cuisinart to make a pie crust?
How to use up pastry scraps
On freezing pastry dough
Click here, then choose PIES for the World's Flakiest Pie Crust recipe!

Pumpkin advice
Cooking pumpkin for pies
More Halloween ideas: a book recommendation
Using ordinary kitchen tools to carve the pumpkin
Using a carpentry tool to carve the pumpkin
Advanced tip on carving pumpkins
How to pick a pumpkin

Tomato Tips
from the Florida Tomato Committee
Buying and Storing Tomatoes
Tomato Techniques
Tomato Equivalents


Beef info and advice
Tips in quotation marks are from the National Cattlemen's Beef Association from their Time Life cookbook America's Favorite Beef Recipes.

Name that beef
USDA Prime, Choice, Select? "Young beef with the most marbling is given the Prime or highest quality grade. Prime is usually sold to restaurants, but may be available in some specialty markets. Choice is the most widely available grade in the retail market. Select has the least amount of marbling, but may not be as tender, juicy or flavorful as Prime or Choice."

"Beef tenderloin steak is also called filet or filet mignon. These extremely tender, boneless steaks are cut from the whole tenderloin."

"Round tip steaks, also called 'minute,' 'breakfast,' or 'sandwich' steaks, cook very quickly; take care not to overcook or they will be dry."

"A Porterhouse steak differs from a T-Bone in that the Porterhouse tenderloin diameter is no less than 1 1/4 inches measured across the center compared to the T-Bone tenderloin, which is not less than 1/2 inch."

"Delmonico" is a fancy name for ribeye. You'll find the word Delmonico more commonly in the Northeast (the original Delmonico's Restaurant was in NYC); ribeye is the label of choice in the Southeast.

Coals hot enough?
"Approximately 30 minutes prior to grilling, prepare the charcoal fire so coals have time to reach medium temperature. At medium, the coals will be ash-covered. To check the temperature of the coals, spread the coals in a single layer. CAREFULLY hold the palm of your hand above the coals at cooking height. Count the number of seconds you can hold your hand in that position before the heat forces you to pull it away: approximately 4 seconds for medium heat. Position the cooking grid and follow recipe directions. (For gas grills, consult the owner's manual for preheating instructions.)"

How to make hamburger patties
"Use a gentle touch when shaping ground beef patties. Overhandling will result in a firm, compact texture after cooking. Don't press or flatten with spatula during cooking."

Buying beef
"Make sure the package is cold and has no holes or tears. Excessive liquid in a package may indicate improper storage or beef that is past its optimum shelf life."

"Look for beef that is firm to the touch, not soft."

"Choose beef with a bright cherry-red color, without any grayish or brown blotches. The exception is vacuum-packaged beef, which, due to a lack of oxygen, has a darker purplish-red color. When exposed to the air, it will turn to a bright red."

How to use gluten in bread machines
Pure gluten has the appearance of flour. Add one tablespoon of pure gluten to the flour mixture of a 1
x1/2 pound loaf of bread destined for the bread machine. The gluten feeds the yeast. You will turn out a lighter and better loaf.

How to properly blend brownie ingredients
Most brownie recipes call for melting the chocolate with the fat and adding this mixture to beaten eggs and sugar. Let the chocolate mixture cool completely before adding it to the eggs and sugar as it makes for a lighter brownie.

How to tell if the brownies are cooked
Brownies are cooked when the edges look hard, the top has cracked slightly, and the surface has a glassy appearance. The center should not jiggle when you shake the pan. The toothpick method works on cakey brownies, but not fudgy ones!

About cooling and cutting brownies
As they cool, brownies shrink from the side of the pan and set. Put them out of reach of the thronging hordes and don't cut until they've reached room temperature.

Help! I'm out of baking chocolate!
Substitute 3/4 cup cocoa (unsweetened) and 1/4 cup Crisco for 4 squares (ounces) of chocolate.

See also Tips on melting chocolate

Tips on storing cheese
Store cheese in your refrigerator, which approximates the temperature of our aging rooms. Keep it wrapped tightly in plastic, away from air. Air helps mold grow on cheese. If you get a little mold on the outside, just cut it off. The English say if mold won't eat your cheddar it can't taste very good.

Tips on melting cheese
Bring cheese to room temperature before melting. Melt cheese over a low heat to help prevent toughening and separation of oils and liquid.

Tips on freezing cheese
Most ripened or aged cheese is low in moisture content and can be frozen without drastic flavor and texture changes. Thaw slowly in the refrigerator for 24 hours or more. If frozen for several months, the cheese may dry out somewhat and become crumbly when thawed.

Tips on serving cheese
It's universal thinking - cheese is served best at room temperature. (For a unique and easy meal, go to our Dinner Bell page for Ploughman's Platter.)

How to melt chocolate
Please note that melting chocolate is not the same as tempering chocolate. Tempered chocolate has been subject to certain temperatures and techniques that alter its chemistry. Tempering produces the texture and sheen we expect from fine chocolate candies. To temper chocolate, consult a candy cookbook.

The enemy of melted chocolate is water. Even a hot and humid day can ruin your efforts. Be absolutely sure that hands, utensils, bowls, surfaces - everything that comes in contact with the warm liquid chocolate - are bone dry. One drop of water in warm melted chocolate will cause it to seize (bind, clump and turn grayish in color).

The second nastiest enemy of chocolate is too high heat. It's so easy to scorch! No matter what method you choose to melt chocolate, use patience. Do not take shortcuts.

Microwave Method: Place chocolate (and shortening if you're making candy coating) in a small, deep microwavable bowl. Use a 50% power setting. Nuke in 30 second intervals, stirring between each interval. The chocolate will keep its shape even when melted, so stirring is important. Reduce nuke time to 10 seconds if you suspect chocolate is close to being melted. Alternatively, just let it sit for a minute or two to complete the melting process.

Foolproof Double Boiler Stovetop Method: This method takes more time, but there is actually less for you do than if using the microwave method. And it sure beats the more common stovetop method which calls for simmering the water and invites water droplets to settle in your chocolate! Fill a saucepan with water up to the point that the double boiler bowl would rest its bottom in the water when put in place. Put the lid on the pan and bring the water to a full boil. Remove the lid and don't even think of using it again. Turn off the heat. Place the double boiler bowl filled with chocolate (and grease if you're making chocolate candy coating) on top of the boiled water and set the timer for 25 minutes. Go away. Come back when the buzzer goes off and carefully stir the chocolate. If it still has a way to go, turn the burner on warm or low to help it along. When the chocolate has melted, carefully remove the bowl of chocolate and wipe off the bottom of it with a dry dishtowel. You're now ready to make that chocolate treat.

How to dip candy in chocolate coating
Don't even think of making chocolate dipped candies on a hot and humid day. See notes above on melting chocolate and moisture.

To create a chocolate coating of manageable consistency for candies and other treats, add shortening, peanut or vegetable oil in a ratio of 1 tablespoon grease to 6 - 8 ounces of solid chocolate and melt them together (see tips on melting chocolate above). Food grade canning wax may also be used (To find Coconut Creme Eggs, go to our Recipes page and click on the Desserts button.) The wax method creates the best consistency for dipping and the loveliest luster, but then you are eating a small portion of wax!

Special candy coating chocolate ("couverture") is available commercially. While the chocolate available in the supermarket is both economical and easy to find, you may enjoy experimenting with "professional grade" chocolate next time around.

Do not use butter or margarine in your coating mixture. Butter, particularly American butter, contains water. (Joy's Note: If you're doubtful, wring out a stick like a washcloth and watch the water drip out. I discovered this in the process of making brioche and croissant years ago.) All margarine is not created equal - don't trust it. A Hershey cookbook says even oil can contain some moisture and to use only shortening - our tests were successful with oil, but, admittedly, oil from a freshly opened bottle.

Melted chocolate may also be brushed on a candy center with a pastry brush. Think chocolate paint! Two or three coats may be needed.

Tools? Read on. Real candy dipping forks have tines as thin as needles, but you don't need to use one. Do you have a long-handled, two pronged meat fork in the house? Or a set of fondue forks circa 1968? We found a meat fork at the supermarket for $2.79 and it worked famously. Only use a table fork as a last resort. Why? We're not using the fork to pierce the candy center but to cradle it. Thus the chocolate needs to drip through the cradle of the tines back into the bowl. Too many tines inhibits draining!

Once your candy is coated and resting on the fork, tap the fork on the side of the bowl to shake off extra chocolate. Small, tight circular motions may also help to remove excess chocolate.

Ready to try your hand at candy? Check out our recipes for Peanut Butter Eggs and Coconut Creme Eggs From our Recipes page, click on the Desserts button.

How to use "Baking Pan Liner Paper, A.K.A. Baking Parchment
"
This is paper that is coated on both sides with silicone, which prevents cookies from sticking. It also controls the cookies' shapes (if you butter the cookie sheets, the cookies might run out and be too thin on the edges). These are the reasons I use it. But also, I don't object to the fact that I hardly ever have to wash a cookie sheet. And if I have too many sheets of cookies, I prepare the cookies all at once on pieces of baking pan liner paper, and then just slide a cookie sheet under the paper, and it's OK if the sheet is still hot.

In many or most of these recipes [Maida's] the directions say to line the sheets with baking pan liner paper or aluminum foil. Aluminum foil usually does almost the same thing that the paper does.

The baking pan liner paper comes on a roll like wax paper and is generally available in kitchen shops and hardware stores. It also comes in very large sheets in a big box available at wholesale paper companies and wholesale baker supply stores. I bought a box about ten years ago and I recently used the last sheet and had to buy another box. Unless you have a bakery, or unless you write cookie books, a box might be more than you want. But it's such great stuff, it's worth trying to find someone (or some two or three or more) to share it with.

The large sheets are twice as large as most cookies sheets. I work with ten or twenty pieces of it. I fold them in half, and then with a large, heavy, sharp knife, cut through the fold. I then have enough for several days of baking.

If you do a lot of cookie baking, try to get the large box. You'll love it."

Cookie cutters
"Cutters should be sharp, with no rough edges. If the cutter sticks to the dough, dip it in flour each time you use it. Always start cutting at the edge of the rolled-out dough and work toward the center, cutting the cookies as close to each other as possible."

Cookie Jars
"Cookie jars should be airtight. Many of the charming and artistic colorful ones I have seen are not. Glass jars with ground glass around the rim and the cover are airtight. Some plastic or glass jars with a rubber ring around the top are also airtight. But if I have a choice, I use Rubbermaid containers--these are airtight for sure."
Reprinted from Maida Heatter's Brand-New Book of Great Cookies with kind permission from the author and publisher.

 How to remove baked on food from your baking dishes
Scrape off loose bits of food. Put a couple of tablespoons of dishwasher detergent in the dish and add hot water. Stir the solution - a small wire whisk helps. The solution should be so heavy with detergent that it doesn't all quite dissolve. Leave it overnight. By morning, the baked on food will have lifted right off the surface of the dish. This works particularly well with glass baking dishes. Don't use this method on non-stick surfaces.

How to remove cooked on cheese (and other fatty foods)
Scrape off loose bits of food with a spatula or wipe them off with a paper towel. Then, blast the cheese with blazingly hot water while scraping with a brush or spatula. Be careful! What you don't manage to remove leave to the dishwasher. Leave the brush to the dishwasher, too. It will take care of those gummy bits of cheese better than thou.

How to remove cooked on rice, pasta or other starchy food
You left the stove to catch the Local on The Weather Channel and OOPS! First of all, if the rice has scorched, remove all the nicely cooked rice to a serving dish before the scorched food imparts a nasty flavor. Then, soak the pan in cold water. Cold, not warm, not hot. By the time you finish eating, your pan should have released the cooked on food. If not, try the method above for removing blackened, baked on food.

How to remove cooked on milk
Use the cold water method above (How to remove cooked on rice...). Attention Espresso/Cappuccino Machine Owners: You may know the trick of blowing a shot of steam into a towel and wiping down the steamer with the cloth to keep it clean. This doesn't work well if the milk has caked on. Soak the steam wand in a tall glass of cold water to soften the hardened milk, then wipe with a towel to remove it.

How to guarantee a clean, lint-free window
Run out of Windex? Don't panic. Don't even put it on the shopping list! Fill up the bottle with 3 parts of water and 1 part vinegar (don't waste the balsamic - use white or cider vinegar) and start spraying. Wipe your windows clean with newspaper. You'll be amazed!

How to tell if an egg is fresh
Old wives' tales? Maybe. Lower uncooked eggs into a bowl of water. If the egg settles horizontally, the egg is fresh enough for human consumption. If it settles vertically, feed it to the dog. If it rises to the top, feed it to the hydrangeas.

How to hard cook eggs without cracking them cute egg
Cold water method or hot? Room temperature eggs or cold eggs? Cold water plunge or no cold water plunge? Here in the foodies kitchen, we tested every possible permutation-- this is how to hard cook an egg:

  • Use fresh eggs, preferably organic or grain fed, as they peel more easily once cooked. They also have better texture
    and flavor.
  • Handle like eggs. Or nitroglycerin.
  • Bring eggs to room temperature before cooking. This helps prevent cracking due to the sudden shock of temperature change and ensures a properly cooked egg. If you do use eggs right out of the refrigerator, add a minute or two to the cooking time.
  • Simmer eggs. A roiling boil is too violent. Call them "hard cooked" instead of "hard boiled" and you'll remember
    this hint.
  • Don't crowd the pan. The eggs will knock each other and crack.
  • In a saucepan, bring enough water to cover the eggs to a boil. With a slotted spoon, lower the eggs into the water. Quickly, bring the water back to a boil. Lower the temperature to medium heat and simmer exactly 10 minutes. Remove the eggs with a slotted spoon and plunge into a bowl of cold tap water. The cold water will stop further cooking and create a gap between shell and egg for easier peeling. You may put the eggs right into a color bath now if you wish.

How to color eggs without the silly kit
In a bowl (not metal), pour in enough water and white distilled vinegar to cover the eggs. For pastel colors use one cup of water to 1 tablespoon of vinegar. (Intensify the color by reducing the amount of water used or leaving the eggs in the dye for longer periods of time.) Using basic food coloring, mix your own shade in the water and vinegar. Be sure the food coloring is completely blended so there are no "stains" on the eggs. Carefully submerge hard cooked eggs in the color bath, rotating frequently, until of desired intensity.

Egg coloring tricks

  • For an easy tie dyed look, wrap the egg with rubber bands before coloring.
  • Take a candle or other piece of wax and draw whatever you fancy on the egg-- the dye will not be absorbed by the wax.
  • Mix some offbeat colors. Or use a very strong solution of dye and leave the eggs in it for a long while-- a deeply colored egg is gorgeous.
  • Fashion a ring to hold the egg at the end of a handle out of some seizing wire (or other stiff wire) and lower the egg very, very slowly into the bath to create a striated effect.
  • Let kids decorate the eggs. Set some eggs aside that will not be eaten, collect odds and ends from house and garden, provide glue sticks, and let the little ones put Fabergé to shame.

How to peel a hard cooked egg
Cold eggs peel more easily than room temperature eggs. Gently tap the egg shell on the counter along the egg's "equator." Place the egg between hands and roll back and forth as if you were making a hot dog out of clay. You should feel the shell and membrane loosening from the egg white. Peel off the shell. If the shell is still coming off in irritating bits, peel under running water (this is the last resort).

ice cream cone

Tips on using ice cream makers (electric or manual)

  • To ensure that the egg yolks and sugar of the ice cream base are completely mixed, do it by hand.
  • Let the base flavors develop overnight in the refrigerator. Adjust the flavor before churning.
  • Don't chintz on the flavorings - why risk the rest of the expensive ingredients? Choose natural, top quality flavorings and extracts.
  • Consider adding flavorings with alcohol toward the end of the churning process - alcohol freezes at a lower temperature than the other ingredients and may slow the process.
  • What NOT to do with salty waste water from the ice cream maker - don't dispose it on the grass or any living thing! (The Romans dumped their nasty old saline on Carthage in 146 B.C. decimating a perfectly good city, but the gelato sure hit the spot!)

How to scoop, serve and serve ice cream
A crust of ice crystals on leftover ice cream is sure a let-down for that midnight hankering! Follow these tips to prevent crystals from forming.

  • "Temper" ice cream before you scoop - leave it at room temperature for 8-10 minutes before serving. Return ice cream to the freezer immediately after it has been served to minimize the formation of ice crystals.
  • Forget what your brother-in-law told you about nuking it for 10-20 seconds. Resist the temptation for immediate gratification! Ice cream is a good enough treat on its own!
  • Serve ice cream in chilled bowls, preferably glass. Not only is the frosted bowl refreshing to look at, but the ice cream will retain its shape longer.
  • Scooping ice cream: A variation on a theme. Try this! Have a large Pyrex measuring cup or other heat proof container filled with just boiling water standing by. Dip the metal scoop into the hot water, let it heat up for a moment, and then DRY the scoop on a towel. Quickly drag the hot scoop across the ice cream creating tight rolls of the divine stuff. Do not smash the ice cream with the scoop. Think ribbons, not chunks. Repeat the process for each serving.
  • To store opened ice cream, first place a piece of plastic wrap on the surface and smooth it down lightly with your fingers. Then close the lid securely (use a rubber band if you have to) and return to the depths of your freezer.

Martini Tips
Advice from Martini Master Flick Eggleston

The measurement
"Be scientific. Use a jigger. If you don't know what a jigger is, use a measuring cup. 8 ounces = a cup. You figure it out. Record what works."

The vermouth
"Buy the smallest bottle of vermouth that will support your habit. Refrigerate after opening. After the bottle's been open more than a month, use it for cooking. Buy a fresh one for the bar."

The ice
"One often overlooked ingredient in the perfect martini is the ice that goes into the shaker. As we all know, ice absorbs the flavors around it. First, clean out the freezer. Give Aunt Edna's soup and everything else whose vintage is suspect the heave-ho. (Editor's Note: Jam a freshly opened box of baking soda between the frozen fish sticks.) Fill several children's ice pop molds with your favorite bottled water. Still water, not bubbly. I prefer the kind of long plastic mold that comes in a holder of six or eight. Three sets of this sized mold is enough unless you're having the House majority leader and his girlfriends over. Put a sheet of plastic wrap over the tops of the trays just in case your freezer is channeling the spirit of Aunt Edna."

"If you have a source for bagged party ice that you trust, go ahead and take your chances. I've always been wary of commercial party ice...is it tap water?...filtered water?...is it even clean water? It always tastes slightly metallic to me." (The Editor again: I recommend the Brita system for a quick tap water fix.) "Remember, you want the largest possible pieces of ice in the shaker. Do not use chipped ice. You'll pour out a martini that is about half water." (Egads!)

"This is a good time to frost some glasses. I douse them in water before I put them into the freezer. Filtered tap water works just fine for this purpose. Make sure you put them in upside down if you've used the water trick; otherwise, you'll end up with a little disk of ice in the bottom of the glass that will dislodge itself after the first sip, float to the surface of your drink, and paddle around staring at you."

"If, as a very last resort, you must use old ice, dump it all into a large bowl, fill with clean water and stir. Drain off the water and place the ice back in the freezer to 'set.' If the purity of your ice is suspect, use a few more drops of vermouth. Vow never to let it happen again."

The shake
Again, Flick Eggleston: "It's all about your own personal rhythm. I get sixteen shakes into ten seconds. That works for me. Don't shake too vigorously or too long or you'll break off shards of ice. They'll melt faster and dilute your drink. Much less than ten seconds doesn't get the mix cold enough. Experiment."

More martini resources
If you enjoy blatant commercialism (and who doesn't!?), point to Smirnoff for twelve more amusing and enticing recipes. Vodka martinis shaken, not stirred, of course. For a good old-fashioned book, Mr. Eggleston recommends The Martini Companion - A Connoisseur's Guide by Regan and Regan.

How to skin (blanch) hazelnuts from Maida Heatter
"To skin hazelnuts, spread them on a jelly roll pan and bake at 350 degrees for 15 to 20 minutes, or until the skins parch and begin to flake off. Then wrap them in a towel and let them stand for 15 to 20 minutes. Then, working with a small amount of the nuts at a time, place them on a large, coarse towel (I use a terry cloth bath towel). Fold part of the towel over to enclose the nuts. Rub firmly against the towel, or hold that part of the towel between both hands and rub back and forth. The handling and the texture of the towel will cause most of the skins to flake off. Pick out the nuts and discard the skins. Don't worry about the few little pieces of skin that may remain."
Reprinted from Maida Heatter's Brand-New Book of Great Cookies with kind permission from the author and publisher.

Order Maida Heatter's Best Dessert Book Ever Today!
Tips on storing nuts from Maida Heatter
"Nuts can turn rancid rather quickly--walnuts and pecans more so than almonds. Always store all nuts airtight in the freezer or refrigerator. In the refrigerator nuts last well for nine months; in the freezer at zero degrees they will last for two years. Bring them to room temperature before using, smell and taste them before using (and, if possible, when you buy them)--you will know quickly if they are rancid. If you even suspect that they might be, do not use them. They would ruin a recipe. Always store nuts in the freezer or refrigerator."
Reprinted from Maida Heatter's Best Dessert Book Ever with kind permission from the author and publisher.

Tips on storing olive oil from Joy
Olive oil, like all organic oils, will turn rancid over time if not properly stored. Keep it away from heat, air and light. Don't be tempted to store it in the cupboard over the range or above the refrigerator. Most cooks like to have some handy at the stove. Keep some in a pretty opaque container with a pouring spout within reach of your hand but not of the cooking heat.

Do not store olive oil in the refrigerator--it solidifies at 36 degrees Fahrenheit. If you find your olive oil contains a layer of white solids, the bottle has been chilled. Leave it to reach room temperature-- the olive oil will not have suffered. Joy

How and When to Pick and Wash Fresh Basil Leaves
If you are fanatical, water the plant a few hours before picking to perk up the leaves. Use only fresh basil from a plant that has not yet gone to seed. The leaves are at their sweetest before flowering. Pick just before preparation, bathe tenderly in cold water, and dry by gently blotting between layers of paper towel or dishtowels.

Freezing Pesto
As the best basil is seasonal, you may wish to freeze batches of pesto for a welcome return to summer in the colder months. Before preparing the pesto, have a sterilized glass jar with a lid and a roll of plastic wrap handy. The jar should hold only slightly more than the amount of pesto you are making. Prepare the pesto. Leaving a little space in the jar, pack in the pesto and cover the top with a 1/4 inch layer of olive oil. Press a piece of plastic wrap evenly over the surface of the oil allowing the wrap to hang over the sides of the jar. Screw on the lid and freeze immediately. Pesto will keep for weeks, if not months, if prepared properly. Thaw to room temperature before adding to a recipe.

Miscellaneous Pesto Notes
Pesto and pine nuts. May the two never be torn asunder. Forget what you read about substituting walnuts, almonds or hazelnuts. Pignoli is the only ingredient that provides the creamy texture that binds this sauce.

Never heat pesto sauce - the basil will turn black and taste bitter.

Never use dried basil or you're in for a rude surprise.

Experiment with pesto - add it to soups, soft cheese, sandwiches, life.

When cut basil is exposed to oxygen, it eventually blackens. If you must make pesto ahead of time, cover the top of the batch with a light layer of olive oil and press a piece of plastic wrap evenly over the surface. Refrigerate. Leave the pesto out to reach room temperature before adding to a recipe.

Does your pesto taste a tad flat? Add 1/4 teaspoon of high quality balsamic vinegar to round it out.

How to choose a pie plate
foodies east
suggests glass plates. The crusts brown better on the bottom and can be monitored more easily. Buy standard-sized plates (8", 9", or 10") if you're plateless-- deep-dish and other specialty plates can be added to the collection when you're ready to branch out. Most recipes call for standard sizes so you won't have to finagle the recipe.

foodies west prefers the good heavy ceramic plates. Kauffman's Hardware on Main Street in New Holland, PA, was always the place to find them. Glass can brown too quickly. The ceramic ones that are glazed inside and on the rim (but left unglazed outside) are the ticket. They discolor and improve with age and repeated apple filling spilling over the edge. As a kid, I got 1st prize for my crust in every New Holland Farm Show for a long time. So there!

How to use cold to create flaky pastry
Cold, cold, cold --the pastry, the marble slab (if you're lucky enough to own one), the water in the recipe. Cold fat congeals! Rumor has it some chefs even chill the flour, but be mindful that condensation can create lumps.

Should I use my Cuisinart to make a pie crust?
It's tempting to use a food processor to fling together a crust. In this foodies editor's experience, it is impossible to do so and create a pastry as flaky as one made by hand. Despite that caveat, an acceptable crust can still be made, so, if time is short, pull out the trusty Cuisinart. Chill the bowl and blade. Feather that pulse button! Inspect the texture of the dough carefully during pauses. As soon as the dough begins to form a ball, remove it from the machine.

How to use up pastry scraps
Butter scraps, sprinkle with cinnamon and sugar, and bake like cookies. The chef deserves a snack!

foodies west, once again, begs to differ: "Like cookies"? No, no. They are spread with butter, cinnamon and BROWN sugar and then ROLLED into little loose tubes. They are called "Schnukerhiesen". No kidding.

On freezing pastry dough
Pie crust dough freezes better in a ball than rolled-out dough. A ball takes up little room in the freezer and it won't be broken when you shove in another half gallon of ice cream. Wrap the dough tightly in plastic wrap. Thaw at room temperature, in the plastic to prevent it from drying out, until only slightly chilled. Proceed with your pie.

Cooking pumpkin for pies
Cut off the top of the pumpkin and scrape out all the seeds and strings (an old-fashioned ice cream scoop works great). Cut it into sections and with a paring knife, cut the skin off the flesh. Steam the flesh until tender and puree. (Do NOT immerse the pumpkin meat in water and boil - it will soak up the water and make a watery pie.)

Be sure to read our tips on choosing the best pumpkins for pie below in How to pick a pumpkin.

More Halloween ideas: a book recommendation
Cindy Blandino, the foodies producer, is legendary for her Halloween ingenuity. Cindy recommends Donata Maggipinto's book Halloween Treats - Recipes and Crafts for the Whole Family.

Cindy writes: "One great idea from Donata Maggipinto's book is using bat and other Halloween cookie cutters to create cute little flying, edible creatures. Place the cookie cutters on a baking sheet. Fill them with Jolly Ranchers or Lifesavers and bake until melted. Make hole in top for hanging, let cool and bingo, scary candy! The process involves a bit more than this, but you get the idea. So get the book! Clever spider web icing design, too." Click here to learn more or order Halloween Treats at Amazon.com.

Using ordinary kitchen tools to carve the pumpkin
Chances are you have some kitchen tools other than the paring knife that will help you carve the Halloween pumpkin. . Your resident ice cream scoop, especially the old-fashioned metal kind, will do a terrific job of scraping out the seeds and strings. A grapefruit knife (the double-edged serrated type) is helpful for carving out large areas. After you've cut the big chunk out with the grapefruit knife, smooth out the edges with a sharp, thin blade. An apple corer makes a clean and perfect circle. A simple vegetable peeler, if inserted into the pumpkin flesh and rotated, carves the perfect nostril. Have fun and be careful!

Using a carpentry tool to carve the pumpkin
From a foodies fan in California, Land of the Cutting Edge:
"After you have scooped out your pumpkin, thin the wall down as much as is practical. Take a coping saw blade (an old worn-out one will do) and wrap about half its length in heavy tape to create a handle. Wrap it tight so the blade doesn't slip inside the tape. If your blade has a small pin through the end (for mounting in the saw), cut or break off about a half inch to eliminate the pin. Push the end of the blade through the pumpkin wall and start cutting. The blade is thin enough to turn sharp corners, allowing you to get some incredible detail. I find it helpful to sketch the design on the pumpkin first using a dry marker or ball point pen. Make sure you don't use a jeweler's saw blade. They're too thin and will just bend.

Make sure the blade teeth are pointed toward you so the blade cuts on the pull stroke (rather then the push stroke). Much better for control. Obviously, this also affects the way you wrap your tape handle. My favorite reason for coping saw blades vs. knife blades? It's almost impossible to sustain a life threatening injury while wielding a coping saw blade. Not true of knives and I have the scars to prove it. Happy carving!"

For those of you who braved the tape-wrapped coping saws in that last paragraph back in 1998, good news in 1999. For 99 cents and with some luck, you'll find the "Creative Pumpkin Carver" (Made in China) at your local supermarket or dime store's kitchy Halloween display. It is essentially a coping saw mounted in a bright orange, pumpkin-patterned handle. "Create Thousands of Designs!" it says. "Créez une multitude de motifs!" it says in French.

We could have been billionaires.

Advanced tip on carving pumpkins
For the serious carver: Hollow out the pumpkins and then let them sit around for a few days to soften them up. Stagger this process in the several days before Halloween - start with the biggest pumpkin first as it will have the thickest walls. Be careful - if you thin the walls too much, or if the gutted pumpkin gets too warm and rots, the walls may collapse. (see our tips on How to pick a pumpkin

How to pick a pumpkin
There are two types of pumpkin available commercially. Sugar pumpkins are usually the smaller, deep orange variety. Field pumpkins - also known as jack o' lanterns - are larger, a brighter shade of orange, and more suitable for carving. Although both varieties are edible, sugar pumpkins have a sweeter flesh and are better for cooking.

Jen McAllister, who seems to know more about fruits and vegetables than Mother Nature herself, suggests pie bakers be on the look out for a variety called "cheese pumpkins." She writes: "They're on the flattish side, are somewhat rust-colored (as opposed to bright orange) and extremely dense, meaty and sweet. Do NOT use them for jack o' lanterns; they'll just make you weep."

Buying and Storing Tomatoes
As long as they are kept at room temperature, tomatoes picked at the mature green stage will finish ripening in supermarkets and after you purchase them. Within a few days, they will soften slightly, turn red and—most important of all—develop their full flavor and aroma.

To avoid interrupting this process, place the tomatoes on a counter or in a shallow bowl at room temperature until they are ready to eat.
DON'T REFRIGERATE THEM.
When tomatoes are chilled below 55° F, the ripening comes to a halt and the flavor never develops.

To speed up the process, keep tomatoes in a brown paper bag or closed container to trap the ethylene gas that helps them ripen. Adding an ethylene-emitting apple or pear to the container can also hasten ripening. Store the tomatoes in a single layer and with the stem ends up, to avoid bruising the delicate "shoulders."

Once they are fully ripened, tomatoes can be held at room temperature or refrigerated for several days. When you’re ready to use them, bring the tomatoes back to room temperature for fullest flavor.

Tomato Techniques
To peel: Fill a saucepan with enough water to cover tomatoes; bring to a boil. Immerse tomatoes about 30 seconds; drain and cool. Remove stem ends and slip off skins.
To seed: Cut tomatoes in half crosswise. Gently squeeze each half, using your fingers to remove seeds. To reserve the juice for use in dressings, sauces or soups, seed the tomato into a strainer held over a bowl.
Tomato Shells: Cut a 1/2 inch slice off the stem end of each tomato. Using a spoon, scoop out the pulp.
Roast: Preheat oven to 450° F. Halve tomatoes crosswise. Place halves, cut side down, on a shallow baking pan; brush with oil. Roast until lightly browned, about 20 minutes; cool. Remove skins and stem ends.
Slow-Cook: Preheat oven to 300° F. Remove stem ends; slice tomatoes. Place slices on a shallow baking pan; brush with oil. Cook until tomatoes soften and shrink, about 45 minutes.

Tomato Equivalents
1 small tomato = 3 to 4 ounces
1 medium tomato = 5 to 6 ounces
1 large tomato = 7 or more ounces
1 pound of tomatoes = 2 1/2 cups chopped or 1 1/2 cups pulp

 

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