Question: I recently heard that making caramel by boiling an unopened can of sweetened condensed milk is no longer recommended. Would you please explain why? I have done this for years and served the resulting caramel to both family and guests without knowing that the method is suspect.
Answer: Although people have made caramel by this method for a long time, it's a very unsafe practice. JoEllen Helmlinger, manager of product publicity for Borden, the manufacturers of Eagle Brand Sweetened Condensed Milk, confirms that it is very dangerous to cook anything in an unopened can that is vacuum sealed. She points out that when the process takes several hours, enough pressure can build for the can to explode. The company has developed three alternative recipes:
Oven method: Pour sweetened condensed milk into 8- or 9-inch pie plate. Cover with foil and place in shallow pan. Add hot water to bottom of pan to just below pie plate rim. Bake at 425 degrees 1 to 1 1/2 hours or until milk is thick and light caramel-colored. Remove foil and cool, then chill thoroughly.
Stovetop method: Pour sweetened condensed milk into top of double boiler. Cover and place over boiling water. Simmer over low heat 1 to 1 1/2 hours or until milk is thick and light caramel-colored. Cool, then chill thoroughly.
Microwave method: Pour sweetened condensed milk into 2-quart glass measure. Microwave on medium power 4 minutes, stirring after 2 minutes. Reduce to low power and microwave 12 to 16 minutes, or until milk is thick and light caramel-colored, stirring briskly every 2 minutes. (Since microwave ovens vary in wattage and power output, cooking times may need to be adjusted.) Cool, then chill thoroughly.
Q: What is the key to a crispy pizza crust? I've experimented with different crust recipes, thick, thin, prebaking and temperature variations to no avail. My family says I've perfected the topping and need only to attain a crispy crust. Can you help?
A: When Abby Mandel, a pizza enthusiast and author of numerous cookbooks, visited The Times Test Kitchen, she suggested closely approximating the stone-lined ovens found in pizza parlors by lining home ovens with unglazed quarry tiles. Baking on pizza stone, available in some housewares departments, is another way of achieving a professional-style crust. (If your oven is a gas oven, be sure the tiles or stone don't cover the air vents at the back and sides.)
For a crisper crust on pizzas other than those with paper-thin crusts, Mandel suggests sprinkling a well-greased baking pan with cornmeal before adding the pizza dough. She believes black metal pans produce the best crusts, crisp and brown on the outside and still chewy inside.
Q: I love the flavor of fresh ginger in my food, but haven't figured out a way to dice or shred it without getting all those woody fibers. Can you help me?
A: Larger, woody fibers are a sign of very mature ginger root. Younger ginger with thin pinkish skin, available during summer months, is easier to grate or mince. If the local supermarket doesn't stock this variety, try Oriental markets.
Ginger root stores well in the refrigerator crisper for a few weeks, if the cut end is covered with plastic wrap. To preserve it longer, scrape the skin off each piece, then wash and dry. Place pieces in a jar with enough dry sherry to cover, cap tightly and store in the refrigerator.
Address questions on food preparation to You Asked About . . ., Food Section, The Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles 90053. Personal replies cannot be given.