Tony Cenicola
Achieving an ideal flaky, golden crust can be more difficult in the summer.

Dear Martha: Why does baking often seem more difficult in summertime?

A: When it's hot outside, chances are it's hot in your kitchen, too. This spike in the mercury can wreak all sorts of havoc on baking. Ingredients such as butter and chocolate chips can melt prematurely and combine poorly with other ingredients. Softened dough spreads out on baking sheets, resulting in flat, ill-formed cookies. Pie crusts are more difficult to shape and often turn out less flaky.

The best solution is to cook in an air-conditioned kitchen, or to reserve your baking for cool and arid days. If this is not possible, be sure to keep ingredients chilled before baking. Cookie dough and pastry dough can be prepared ahead of time, wrapped in plastic and stored in the freezer for up to three months.

Dear Martha: Are there any guidelines for determining how much luggage an average person should own?

A: It depends on how much you travel and what kind of distances you cover. Frank Fine, executive director of the American Luggage Dealers Association, offers this rule of thumb to regular travelers: Purchase one large rolling suitcase, one wheeled carry-on suitcase and one tote bag. That will accommodate long trips and weekend getaways alike.

If you're buying luggage for the entire family, choose a uniform color so that the pieces will be easy to spot at airport carousels. Monograms or tags will make the baggage even more recognizable and less susceptible to theft.

Dear Martha: What is fish sauce? How is it made and how should I use it in my cooking?

A: Fish sauce is a quintessential Southeast Asian ingredient. It's almost impossible to enjoy a dish from that corner of the world — whether Thai, Vietnamese, Burmese, or Cambodian — that doesn't contain this salty, pungent liquid. Fish sauce is often likened to soy sauce in Chinese and Japanese traditions, or table salt in Western culinary culture.

Although fish sauce varies from country to country, depending on the choice of herbs and spices, its traditional seafood base remains the same. Small fish, usually anchovies, are rinsed, drained, mixed with sea salt and packed in wooden barrels or earthenware jars. After fermenting in the tropical sun for anywhere from three months to one year, the light-brown liquid is drained off, filtered and bottled. This process is often done more than once with the same batch of fish, a method akin to steeping the same tea bag for multiple cups.

Fish sauce has a pungency that's apparent as soon as you open the bottle. But don't be turned off by the odor; it does not reflect the taste. Rather, when a few drops of fish sauce are stirred into soups, stir-fries, curries and marinades, the liquid provides a foundation for the surrounding flavors.

Once you get used to the complexities of cooking with fish sauce, experiment with it in salad dressings and dipping sauces, other common Southeast Asian applications. A bottle will stay fresh in the pantry for years, so you'll have plenty of time to use it.

Dear Martha: My husband and I have a secondhand suede sofa. It's beautiful and in good shape, except for a few small stains. Can they be removed?

A: You should be able to rejuvenate this piece of furniture and enjoy its new life. Whenever you need to clean suede, start by going over the material with a nylon-bristle brush, which you can find at hardware stores and shoe shops. Suede is fairly delicate, so apply very light pressure.

If stains persist after brushing, you often can remove them with a rubber eraser designed specifically for the fabric; they're sometimes referred to as suede stones. You might even have luck with a clean pencil eraser.

Another alternative is to dab the stain with a soft white cloth and a solution of equal parts white vinegar and water. Test the solution in an inconspicuous area to make sure it won't discolor the fabric. Again, do not apply a lot of pressure. Once the sofa is clean, spray it with a professional suede protector that does not contain silicone.

Questions should be addressed to Ask Martha, care of Letters Department, Martha Stewart Living, 11 W. 42nd St., New York, NY 10036. Questions may also be sent by electronic mail to: [email protected] Questions of general interest will be answered in this column; Martha Stewart regrets that unpublished letters cannot be answered individually. For more information on the topics covered in the Ask Martha column, visit

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