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Carbon-steel knives require diligent maintenance

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Question: I have two carbon-steel kitchen knives. The blades have become stained and discolored from use. I have tried various household products, but nothing seems to work. How can I clean them effectively? — Jennifer Morawiecki, Dublin, Ireland

Martha Stewart: Knives forged from carbon steel, a mixture of iron and carbon, were once the standard. They sharpen the most easily and keep the keenest edge, but they also rust, stain and darken when they come into contact with humidity and acidic foods.

When stainless-steel knives became readily available several decades ago, they were very popular, but they're not perfect, either: Stainless steel may not rust, but its hardness makes an edge difficult to sharpen and maintain.

Today we have an excellent compromise: Knives made from high-carbon stainless steel, which combines the strengths of the other two materials. It resists corrosion and rust and also provides increased flexibility.

Cooks who still prefer to use carbon-steel knives must be either extremely diligent in the knives' upkeep or learn to live with unsightly, but not detrimental, stains. To care for carbon-steel knives, keep them out of the dishwasher and never leave them to soak; not only will the blades become dull and rusted, the water can cause wooden handles to rot. Wash by hand with mild cleanser or warm water and baking soda and dry the knives by hand.

Try removing any stains by rubbing the blade with a clean wine cork (which is nonabrasive) dipped in a household cleanser; a mixture of coarse salt and lemon juice or vinegar may also help.

Carbon-steel knives may also pass the flavor of one food on to the next. To rid knives of lingering flavors, rub a lemon slice over the blades and rinse and dry thoroughly.

To protect them from rust, coat them with a flavorless oil, such as vegetable or canola oil, after drying. Don't use olive oil — it's too acidic.

Question: I was given an azalea plant after my mother passed away. She loved gardening, and I would like to plant it in her memory. I don't know what conditions azaleas need. Any suggestions? — Iris Ireland Rogers, Windsor, Calif.

Martha Stewart: A beautiful azalea will make a lovely, long-lasting tribute to your mother. Azaleas are members of the genus Rhododendron, which includes hundreds of species and thousands of hybrids and cultivars. They provide spectacular color — red, pink, purple, yellow and white — when in bloom in the spring or summer, and they are quite easy to grow as long as they are given the right conditions.

Some types are more amenable than others to very cold winters or very hot summers, so make sure yours is right for your zone. They like partial shade, so avoid the deep shade immediately near a tree canopy and full sun.

Shallow planting is essential for these surface-rooting plants. Azaleas prefer well-drained, moist, humus-rich soil that is moderately acidic. A pH of 4.5 to 6.0 is best — alkaline soil can damage or even kill the plants. The soil near a house's foundation may not be appropriate, since the cement leaches alkaline material into the soil. You can improve the soil by adding lots of organic material before planting.

Water the plants regularly, and apply a fertilizer for acid-loving plants (follow package instructions) in the spring. Acidic organic materials such as oak leaves and pine needles make good mulches. Deadhead the spent blooms promptly to prevent the plant from wasting energy on producing seeds.

Question: How do I keep a pie shell from becoming too soggy when I bake quiche or custard pies? — Sharon, via e-mail

Martha Stewart: Blind baking, or prebaking, a pie crust is an excellent solution for single-crust pies with a filling that doesn't need to bake for a long time at high temperatures. These include custard pies, cream pies, chiffon pies, many fruit tarts and pecan pie. Quiche falls into this category, too. It consists of a pastry shell filled with a savory custard made of eggs, cream, seasonings and other ingredients.

There are several other things you can do to help prevent the crust from getting soggy. Always use good-quality pie pans; ovenproof glass may help the bottom crust bake a little more quickly and also permits you to see if it's browning. The pastry must be very cold before it goes in the hot oven, so after rolling it out and lining the pie pan, place the pan into the refrigerator to chill. You can also brush the unbaked crust with beaten egg white, which serves as a sealant, before refrigerating it. Meanwhile, make sure you give the oven plenty of time to heat.

After blind baking and adding the filling to the pie shell, immediately transfer it to the oven's lowest shelf, where the crust will be exposed to the most heat. Setting the pie pan on a metal baking sheet during baking also helps the crust stay crisp.

To blind bake a crust, use a fork to prick the bottom and the sides of the shell. Line pastry with parchment; fill with pie weights or dried beans. For partially baked crusts, bake at 400 degrees (or another temperature specified by your recipe) until the edges take on color. If your crust needs to be fully baked, remove weights and parchment; continue baking until golden brown all over.

Questions should be addressed to Martha Stewart, care of The New York Times Syndication Sales Corp., 122 E. 42nd St., New York, NY 10168. Web site: www.marthastewart.com © Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia LLC