Originally created 12/05/01

Small portions

Americans today are obsessed with suspicious grainy powders.

The same was true 100 years ago. Except that those mysterious granules weren't anthrax.

The turn-of-the-century obsession was called Jell-O - innocuous-looking sugar dust that could be magically transformed into a wiggly, jiggly treat that became America's most famous dessert.

Who could have guessed that a little box of powder - essentially the byproduct of boiled cow parts - would wind up a national icon, found in 72 percent of American pantries? With 10 boxes sold every second, Jell-O is among the country's most widespread food staples.

And yet, how much do we know about the origins of this wobbly matter that has such a firm hold on our pop culture? Very little, it seems.

Until now.

Author Carolyn Wyman has written Jell-O: A Biography (Harvest/Harcourt, $15), the definitive look at the history and cultural significance of this sweet, colorful food-as-plaything known to practically every child in the country (and anyone who has ever had to stay overnight in a hospital).

The publication of Jell-O has good timing going for it. Since Sept. 11, according to some analysts, Americans have been turning to childhood comfort foods - foods that not only make us smile, but remind us of less complicated times.

"Sales go way up at the holidays," Ms. Wyman also notes."

Rise rates

A standard procedure when making breads or other yeast-rising foods, such as pizzas or rolls, is for the dough to be set aside for an hour or more, covered, until doubled in size. In a busy kitchen it is easy to forget the initial size and time the bread started proofing. A good way to remember is to cover the bowl with plastic wrap, and with a marking-style pen make an outline of the dough on the plastic and note the time, as well. An appropriately warm place to proof a bread, free of drafts, is in a turned off oven.

Better burgers

For the juiciest hamburgers, use a light touch when forming the patties. If the meat is overworked and crammed into a too-tight patty, they render more during cooking. Form the meat into the desired shape (thicker is better) by gently tossing it from one hand to the other. Whether pan-frying or grilling, avoid the temptation to repeatedly squish the burger with a spatula, since that presses the juices out of the meat.

Fall fruit

Pears, like their cousins apples, come in many sizes and types. Fall is the time to take advantage of these fruits, but sometimes picking the right one can be a little daunting. Choose ripe pears, those with a slight give at their base and a pleasant floral aroma.

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