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Ask Martha: Holiday Questions Answered

Martha Stewart Living, December 2008

This month, we've compiled some of your frequently asked queries relating to the season's festivities. 

Q: How should I clean and store the glass-globe ornaments I inherited?
A:
If your glass ornaments seem dirty, hold each up to a light to look for "crizzling," or fine cracks. This is a symptom of "sick glass" (a term for glass with a permanent loss of clarity), and it may first appear as a cloudy haze. Don't try to clean crizzled or otherwise damaged glass yourself; you might accelerate the deterioration. Instead, leave the job to a professional conservator. To find one consult the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works.

If there are no signs of crizzling, see if the ornaments are painted. Some, particularly those made before the 1960s, are painted on the surface. These and more-ornate ornaments shouldn't undergo wet cleaning. Instead, dust lightly with a soft sable brush (available at art-supply stores). If your ornaments are unpainted (or painted on the inside), you can use a cotton swab moistened with distilled water; first test on a tiny area, and then roll the swab gently around the glass. If any dirt remains, use a mild solution made from one part ethanol (also labeled denatured alcohol), one part water, and just a few drops of ammonia, applying it in the same fashion. Never use commercial cleansers, which are often too strong for vintage glass.

To store the ornaments, wrap them individually in acid-free tissue paper, and place them in a compartmentalized, archival-quality box. Choose a location that has stable, cool temperatures and low humidity, which may exclude basements and attics. Instead, designate a closet shelf for your decorations.

Q: Sometimes my fudge turns out gritty. What am I doing wrong?
A:
Achieving the perfect consistency for rich, velvety fudge can be an elusive goal. Fudge is a crystalline candy, meaning that when heated, sugar molecules are broken down to form (when cooled) the crystals that make up the candy. Crystal size can range from large particles, such as those in rock candy, to extremely fine grains, which are the ones that give fudge its smooth texture.

The key is to keep an eye on the fudge as it cooks. Check the recipe for required temperatures, and monitor the mixture with a candy thermometer. Before the fudge boils, wash down the sides of the saucepan with a pastry brush dipped in water. Otherwise, sugar may crystallize on the sides and fall into the mixture, yielding an uneven, grainy texture. Also, do not stir the fudge too soon, or crystals will form prematurely and continue to grow. Let the fudge cool to the specified temperature and then stir. This will create many fine crystals, producing an even consistency. Always follow the recipes instructions because another stirring procedure may be used to create a different texture; penuche fudge is one such example.

Also, make sure your candy thermometer is accurate. To test it, put it in a pan of boiling water; it should read exactly 212 degrees. Timing can vary in candy-making, depending on the weather and your equipment, so follow the thermometer readings precisely, using the times given in your recipe as guidelines. 

For a delicious chocolate-fudge recipe, visit marthastewart.com/holiday-fudge.

Q: What kind of baking sheet do you suggest using for cookies?
A:
Baking sheets generally come in two finishes: shiny and matte. Those with shiny, silver-colored surfaces work best: The finish deflects some of the ovens heat rather than absorbing it, resulting in cookies that bake evenly and are less likely to burn on the bottom. For this reason, avoid nonstick baking sheets, which tend to have a dark matte finish and thus absorb more heat. As a rule, line sheets with parchment or a nonstick baking mat; the latter is especially important when making cookies, such as tuiles, that require a nonstick surface.

Aluminum, which conducts heat well, is a good material to look for. Purchase a sturdy sheet; flimsy ones are prone to warping and then wont heat uniformly. Insulated, or double-layer, sheets contain a built-in air cushion that is designed to prevent overbrowning.

The size of a baking sheet is another factor. It should fit in your oven with at least two inches to spare on all sides, so that air can circulate. Also consider the size of your refrigerator and freezer, since some recipes call for chilling rolled-out dough or preshaped cookies. Whether to opt for rims is a matter of preference. Rimless ones allow cookies baked on parchment to slide off easily; rimmed versions provide a better grip.

Q: I'd like to decorate a live tree in my home. How should I care for it?
A:
A live Christmas tree is a wonderful way to enhance your holiday decor as well as your landscaping. Even if a cut tree is the focal point of your Christmas celebration, smaller live ones can provide additional charm.

In order for a tree to survive an indoor stay and subsequent replanting, some special care is required. This time of year, Christmas trees often can be found at local nurseries. The specimens sold there are probably hardy enough for your climate, but confirm this with the nurserys staff, a cooperative extension service, or a gardening reference book.

The tree's roots will be surrounded by a ball of soil, usually covered in burlap. Without removing the burlap, place the tree in a large, sturdy pot or bucket. Keep the tree in an unheated but sheltered place, such as a porch, until you're ready to bring it inside, and check it daily to see if it needs watering; the roots should be damp at all times but not flooded. When you move the tree into your home, continue to water it as needed, and mist the greenery to prevent it from drying out. For best results, a live tree should remain indoors for no more than 10 days, although a shorter stay is better. Maintain a relatively low temperature in your house, and keep the tree away from heat sources, including decorative lights unless they are specifically designed to stay cool.

If the ground outside your house isn't frozen, prepare the hole now. It should be as deep as the root-ball and twice as wide (for a 4- to 5-foot-tall tree, plan for a root-ball 2 feet in diameter). Fill the hole with loose, dry leaves, and cover it with a tarp; store the excavated soil where it wont freeze. This way, you'll be able to plant the tree whenever you're ready. But don't shock the tree by moving it directly from the house into the cold ground. First, transfer it to an unheated, sheltered spot for a few days. Then plant the tree so that the top of the root-ball is level with the soil surface; peel back the burlap, and refill the hole with the excavated soil. Mulch generously to prevent the roots from freezing, and water thoroughly. If the ground is already frozen, care for the potted tree in its sheltered location until spring, and then plant it.