You've written to her with questions about what you'd like to learn how to do in the kitchen, and she has responded.
Sara Moulton Answers Your Questions
Sandra Quirt : I love to cook for my family. What is the best way for me to get better without attending a world class cooking school. I'm 66 yrs old and it is mostly for enjoyment.
Oddly enough, the best way to learn to cook is to cook. The more you do it the better you get. It is the old practice, practice, practice, adage. There are many good basic cookbooks out there. Having said that the one class (which is usually a one-day class) that you might want to invest in is a knife skills class.
Kathy Steigert: Whenever I make a cheese/cream sauce, it's so nice and creamy on the stove top while mixing, but when I, say, top it with cheese and bake it in the oven to crisp the topping, it comes out curdled. What changes it?
When cheese is exposed to extreme heat it can curdle and/or separate and the oil will come out. If you toss the cheese for the topping with a little cornstarch and/or lemon juice that should help it to stay creamy.
Ronda DiTirro: Is it true that if you cook or soak beans in water with baking soda it removes a lot of what causes bloating and flatus (or gas). Thank you, Sincerely, Ronda
I have heard that too but the problem is that baking soda destroys important nutrients and vitamins and can impart a vaguely soapy taste. I have also heard that soaking the beans and discarding that soaking liquid helps to remove some of those unpleasant gassy side effects.
According to Harold McGee (the food scientist), "The main reasons for presoaking beans are to shorten the cooking time substantially, and to leach out the indigestible carbohydrates that make beans gassy." If you discard that liquid and start with fresh you will lose some of those indigestible carbs. Of course he suggests that you might lose some of the vitamins in the soaking as well.
There is always Beano.
Connie Nygren: What is the difference in pumpkin pie and pumpkin custard? All pumkin pies have eggs and some kind of cream or milk, so that makes all pumpkin pies a custard to me? Please help me with this answer, no one seems to be able to tell me the difference -- to me there is no difference.
I am guessing that the main difference is the amount of pumpkin. A pumpkin pie is mostly pumpkin, with a little dairy, egg and flavorings, whereas a pumpkin custard is mainly a custard with a little pumpkin thrown in for flavoring. The former is more intensely pumpkin and the latter is more silken.
Sharon Hanson: What is the difference between Puff Pastry and Phyllo?
Puff pastry is a very rich dough made with roughly equal parts flour and butter. It is rolled out and folded over itself many times to equally distribute the butter and create many layers of alternating butter and flour (as the French call it, millefeuilles or a thousand leaves, a thousand layers). The end result comes out very light and flakey because when the cold dough hits the oven the butter melts and gives off steam, which makes the dough puff up.
Phyllo dough, on the other hand is a very lean dough, which is mixed, allowed to rest and then stretched until it is paper-thin. I am sure it is mostly done by machine these days but I have seen it done by hand. The dough is placed in the middle of a lightly floured muslin lined table, and then several people position themselves at different parts of the table and start pulling on the outside edge of the dough. As they move around the table they stretch the dough and pull it up in the air much like they are throwing a table cloth up and down.
After the dough is stretched and cut into paper-thin sheets, it is layered. Each layer is brushed with butter before another is put on top. Then it is shaped and baked. All these buttery layers produce a unique crispy crumbly texture.