Q:After arriving home from marketing one day, I discovered that my five-pound bag of granulated sugar had been packed next to some frozen fish. Some of the fish's moisture had permeated the sugar bag. I poured the sugar into a metal can and discarded any lumps that had formed. The next day, when I opened the can to get a teaspoon of sugar for my coffee, I discovered that the sugar had turned into a single lump. Is there a solution other than the pickaxe?
A: The moisture has redissolved some of the sugar, which has then acted as a sort of mortar, binding the sugar crystals together. Since moisture was the initial cause, one would think that drying the sugar would be the solution. That doesn't work, however, because the mortar between the crystals just turns harder as it dries.
Instead, place the can of sugar in a large container with an inch of water at the bottom. Cover the large container with a plate and let the sugar sit in this moist atmosphere for 10 or 15 minutes -- until the sugar lump softens. Do not expose it to more humidity than is necessary to loosen the sugar.
Spread the damp sugar out over a cookie sheet with edges (a pizza pan or jelly roll pan, for example) to a depth of a quarter-inch. Store in your turned-off oven overnight. The sugar should now be dry and free-flowing. If not, at least it'll be in a very thin, flat lump. If that is the case, run a rolling pin over it, pour it through a strainer, and crush the remaining lumps with another run of the rolling pin. Store in the metal container, which should be clean and very dry.
Q: I usually roast beef twice: once to very rare and then, when the guests have arrived and have started their appetizers, I slip the roast back into the oven a second time in order to reheat it. By the time the roast is hot again, the meat is medium at the ends and medium-rare in the center. Sometimes, however, I misjudge the meat's doneness and it ends up way too rare. Other than starting another round of conversation while the roast continues to cook, is there a way to change the meat's color in a jiffy?
A: The color of meat is really a very subjective gauge of doneness. It's due to the conversion of myoglobin, raw meat's red pigment, to hemichrome, the brown color of cooked meat.
You can make a roast appear more cooked than it really is and therefore save yourself time and anguish by doing the following: Slice the meat and arrange it on the platter or in a very flat pan. Pour over it a little broth, stock or pan drippings. Heat gently and briefly either in the oven or on top of the stove. Transfer each of the slices to tray or plate, flipping each over so that the side that was facing down is now facing up. This side appears more cooked and has a nice sheen to it as well.
Q: I have been trying to reproduce a creamy, sweet champagne mustard sold in gourmet food stores. Do you have any suggestions or recipes?
A: Producing a mustard as refined in taste and texture as those one can purchase is not all that easy. It's much like trying to produce your own flour from wheat berries.
Prepared mustards are made by milling mustard seeds -- in a fashion similar to the milling of wheat to produce flour. The bran is sifted out, leaving the inside, starchy endosperm that has been reduced to a very fine powder. Unless you have such machinery in your basement or garage, you will not be able to produce a similar product.
That doesn't mean one can't have fun trying, however. First, you have to purchase a Jupiter poppy seed grinder in a gourmet equipment store. Imported from West Germany, this piece of equipment should be relatively inexpensive -- about $30. The price is probably this low because you supply the energy, which is considerable.
CHAMPAGNE MUSTARD (Makes about 2 cups)
1 cup ground yellow mustard (from 3 ounces seeds)
1/2 cup ground black mustard (from 2 ounces seeds)
1 cup champagne (a cheap brut)
1/2 cup white wine vinegar
1 teaspoon honey
1 tablespoon salt
Grind yellow and white mustard seeds into a mixing bowl. If the grinder handle won't turn, loosen the nut -- but not so much that half seeds start coming through. Add the remaining ingredients and set the mixing bowl in a bath of boiling water. Stir and heat the mustard until it is warm to the touch.
Remove the mixing bowl and transfer the mustard mixture to a sieve with a mesh size similar to that of a tea strainer. Good, hoop-shaped strainers called tamis (pronounced tommy) can be purchased at most gourmet equipment stores. Just place the tamis over another mixing bowl, pour the mustard mixture into the tamis and scrape it around with your hands or with a rubber spatula. Do this until you're left with a with a very dry paste inside the tamis. The larger pieces of mustard endosperm and the bran will stay behind. Inside the mixing bowl, you should find a semi-liquid that very much resembles prepared mustard. If the mustard is too spicy for you, place the newly prepared mustard in a small saucepan and heat over a low flame. Taste it periodically (this is painful) until it reaches the desired mildness. Heating destroys an enzyme that causes the hot sensation.