Q: When I make royal icing, either the texture is off or the color isn't uniform. Do you have any tips?
A: Royal icing, made primarily of sifted confectioners' sugar and egg whites or meringue powder, dries hard with a glossy sheen, making it ideal for decorating cutout cookies.
Success in working with royal icing depends on a careful hand. When mixing, use the paddle attachment on low speed and stop once ingredients are fully incorporated. It's essential not to overbeat: Doing so produces a foamy texture that turns brittle and dull when it dries.
Overbeaten icing may also cause blooming - once it sets on the cookie, its color might look patchy. Although this doesn't affect flavor, it can mar the prettiness of an otherwise perfect confection. Unfortunately, there's no good way to salvage royal icing that has been overbeaten. If you've already decorated a cookie, in a pinch you can use a damp pastry brush on the bloomed area and sprinkle it with sanding sugar.
To achieve icing with the right consistency, check its texture intermittently while you're beating. Fine-tune it by adding small amounts of water or sifted sugar. The decorating technique you'll use plays a role in how dense the mixture should be. To "flood" cookies - cover the entire surface - make icing that's fairly thick but loose, about the consistency of honey. You can thin the mixture by adding water one teaspoon at a time. For piping and detail work, the icing should be stiff enough to hold its shape; add more sifted confectioners' sugar, a little at a time, until the icing has the thickness and body you desire.
Use color sparingly, because the hue will deepen once the icing dries. Gel-paste colors (www.sugarcraft.com) are preferable to liquid food colorings. They are more intense, so you need less, which means that you won't change the consistency of your icing.
If you're not using the icing immediately, cover the bowl with a damp dish towel and plastic wrap to keep it from drying out.
You can try these tips by creating colorful holiday cookies or building a peppermint house, or go to www.marthastewart.com/ holiday-a-to-z.
Q: I bought a moth orchid but the blossoms have faded. How can I encourage it to bloom again?
A: Phalaenopsis, or moth orchid, which has exotic-looking blossoms on gracefully arced stems, is the most popular and easiest-to-grow genus available. Blooms can be shades of white, magenta or chartreuse, and the plants range in size from dainty miniatures to multistemmed specimens reaching nearly three feet. When kept moist in cool conditions with bright, diffuse light, the blossoms can last up to four months. Once the blooms fade, you can encourage another round by cutting the stem properly and keeping the plant in a location that is cooler at night. To do this, look for papery bracts encircling the stem every few inches. These cover nodes, small bumps from which new stems may emerge. Cut the stem one inch above the second bract (counting up from the base); a new stalk will grow from this node, usually in about six weeks. If this produces no growth from the node, place the plant in a spot that more closely mimics its native environment: a room with bright light (west-facing windows are ideal) during the day and a 20-degree drop in temperature at night. Although the new stem will probably have fewer and smaller buds, it will give you several more weeks of flowers.
Orchids do best when fed "weekly and weakly." Every seven days, use a 20-20-20 fertilizer diluted to one-quarter of the strength recommended on the box.