Bonus column: Martha Stewart
Liquid dye, gel, paste or powder? Here's how to choose the best food dye for your purpose, plus answers to other questions, including picking the right ham.
Q: There are so many variations of food coloring. Can I use them interchangeably? — Melissa Biscoe, Newton, Connecticut
A: All can be used interchangeably, but the different forms are best suited for different tasks. Liquid dyes are the easiest to find (check the baking aisle at supermarkets) and are good for soft shades that don’t require too much dye. Liquid gels contain a higher concentration of pigments and gel pastes add very saturated color (so a little goes a long way, and doesn’t dilute frostings as much). Powders — typically used in professional kitchens — impart hues to ingredients that need to be kept dry. Find the last three types in baking-supply stores or online.
LIQUID DYE: Perfect for dyeing Easter eggs and for use in royal icings and sugar glazes.
LIQUID GEL: Take advantage of its wide color range to make ombré cakes, or to tint buttercream frosting for piping on cakes.
GEL PASTE: Apply it to batters that require a lot of color (for instance, for red velvet cake, instead of a whole bottle of liquid dye) or moisture-sensitive confections, such as macarons.
POWDER: Whisk it into dry ingredients like granulated, sanding or confectioners’ sugar; sprinkle it onto cookies; or sift it over cakes.
Q: I’m interested in adopting a cat. What advice do you have? — Tiffany Rose, Brooklyn
A: The number of cats in shelters peaks in spring, so now is a good time to start looking. Inga Fricke, director of shelter and rescue group services for the Humane Society of the United States, suggests the following:
Visit the Shelter Pet Project (theshelterpetproject.org), an online directory of nearly 14,000 reputable animal shelters and adoption groups, organized by zip code. If you’re visiting one that’s not on the list, confirm that it’s a valid animal-welfare operator by checking the criteria described at humanesociety.org.
Ask questions. The shelter should be able to tell you about a cat’s activity level and temperament, so you can know if it’s compatible with your lifestyle. Inquire about medical history and vaccination records, too.
Q: I’ve noticed recipes calling for different types of ham. What distinguishes them? — Lois Piper, Hamden, Connecticut
A: Ham comes from the upper portion of the back leg of a pig. The different names refer to the way it’s been prepared. Pamela Johnson, director of consumer communications at the National Pork Board, explains the most common types:
FRESH HAM: This is a piece of raw uncured pork, also often called a “green ham” or a “fresh leg of pork.” It has not been prepared; you can cure it yourself or just season and roast it like a turkey. Fresh ham tastes much like a pork roast, without the usual smokiness of other hams.
CITY HAM: This is the type most often found in supermarkets, labeled simply as “ham.” It has been wet-cured (in a solution that contains salt, sugar and spices), then smoked. The salt pulls out moisture and concentrates the pork flavor. Tender and succulent, it’s the traditional Easter ham. Be sure to save leftovers for sandwiches.
COUNTRY HAM: Also called “southern style” or “old-fashioned” ham, it is dry-cured — rubbed with salt and spices — and often smoked. It’s typically aged for six months, so it’s drier. It is very salty, so it’s usually soaked in cold water before cooking, and eaten in thin slices.
For more preparation details, go to marthastewart.com/ham.
NEVER A DULL MOMENT: HOW TO SHARPEN A KNIFE
Few tools work as hard as kitchen knives. They slice, dice, chop and mince — until they don’t. To keep them sharp and ready for action, it’s important to give those steely blades the proper tender, loving care. Here’s how to maintain their edge.
Harsh detergents, heat and jostling can wear on blades, even those labeled as dishwasher-safe. Chef Howie Velie, an associate dean at the Culinary Institute of America, in Hyde Park, New York, recommends placing yours flat in the sink, then tilting it a bit so its sharp edge presses gently against the surface. Clean it with a soft scrubby sponge, warm water and mild dishwashing liquid. Dry it with a dish towel immediately to avoid water spots and bacterial growth.
1. POSITION STEEL AND BLADE. Hold steel and knife with sharp edge of knife pointing away from you. Keeping sharp edge in contact with steel, tilt blade up 20 degrees.
2. WORK ON ONE SIDE: Drag blade from handle of steel out to its tip. At the same time, slide blade from heel to point against steel, so that steel has made contact with entire length of blade by the time you reach steel’s tip.
3. THEN WORK THE OTHER: With heel of blade under steel near its handle, tilt blade 20 degrees and slide sharp edge toward tip. At the same time, drag blade from heel to point. Repeat honing 10 times on each side.
— Lubricate an oilstone with food-grade mineral oil. If you have a whetstone, submerge it in water until there are no visible air bubbles.
— Position stone horizontally, coarse-side up, on a damp towel to prevent sliding. Lay upper portion of blade’s sharp edge against surface of stone, near its left end. Tilt blade 20 degrees, with sharp edge in contact with stone.
— Slide sharp edge to right, across stone, applying pressure with help from your free hand, as shown. At the same time, move knife toward top edge of stone so that blade’s lower edge comes in contact with stone by the time you reach its right end. To work on blade’s other side, start at stone’s right end and tilt blade in opposite direction. Repeat sharpening 10 times on each side.
— Give knives their space! Keeping them loose in a drawer isn’t just dangerous for those reaching in; it’s a hazard for the blades: All that moving around can dull them and loosen them from their handles. Try storing knives in an in-drawer tray. You can also place them on a magnetic wall strip or in a knife block. If you choose the latter, says Velie, a wooden block (as opposed to stone or plastic) is gentlest on the blades.
(Questions of general interest will be answered in this column; Martha Stewart regrets that unpublished letters cannot be answered individually. For more information on the topics covered in the Ask Martha column, visit www.marthastewart.com.)