Richard Cornish

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Tip: Cooking decimal currency in Christmas puds is a no-no. Photo: Marco Del Grande

Can I boil coins in my Christmas pudding? T. Trewin

In the months leading to Christmas 1966 the nation was thrown into turmoil. For generations, Australians had steamed their Christmas puddings with sixpence and thruppence embedded. But with the change of currency to decimal in February that year, Australians were worried about poisoning their families with the new fangled coins. That year, the Copper and Brass Information Centre announced ''another age-old custom is being threatened!'' It went on to state that the new five and 10-cent coins could ''be inserted into Christmas pudding just prior to serving but they must not be cooked with the pudding'', or they would turn green thanks to the copper and nickel in them. The CBIC was far more concerned, however, with the larger size of the new five-cent piece: ''The throats or stomachs of small children may not be large enough to accept the five cent coins.'' So if you want coins in pudding, insert pre-decimal currency - and ''boil it first,'' my grandmother would say ''You don't know who has been touching it.'' You can buy pudding packs of sixpence, shillings and tuppence from coin dealers. Try perthmint.com.au.

My husband can't have butter any more. Can I make puff pastry with olive oil? V. Pilly

No, you can't make good puff pastry with olive oil but you can make really good short pastry with it. Fats and oils make pastry short. They interrupt the proteins in the flour from joining together to make long elastic strands. These protein strands give strength to doughs. To make puff pastry, a dough is made with water, which starts the proteins in the flour to form long strands. Pieces of butter are then rolled into the dough, which is repeatedly folded to create fine layers of butter in between the dough. When the puff pastry is baked, the water in the butter (about 13 per cent) evaporates and expands into steam, which is trapped by the hardening proteins. Olive oil does not contain water so it does not make the pastry flaky. Consider substituting margarine and chilling it in the freezer for an hour to solidify it before cutting it into pieces to roll into the dough - but the puff pastry will have a slightly waxy mouthfeel compared with that made from butter.

How do I bottle apricots? S. Wah Hing

On their 18th birthday every Australian is given the right to drive, drink, vote - and should be handed a Fowlers Vacola bottling kit. They are part of our national culinary heritage - a range of thick, open-mouthed jars into which the best of the season is preserved using pasteurisation (fowlersvacola.com.au) Alternatively, halve your apricots and pack them into sterilised, large, heavy glass jars. Cover with a sugar syrup made by boiling two parts water to one part sugar. Gently screw on lids. Cover with cold water in a large pot with an old plate on the bottom. Bring to the simmer over high heat then reduce heat to medium-high and simmer for an hour. Remove jars with tongs and tighten lids, protecting your hands with a dry tea towel. You should store them in a dark place but there are some who like to display their jars of preserved fruit like a domestic version of trophy antlers.

I am making mostarda (mustard fruit) and can't find Italian mustard essence. N. Maloney

Try mustard oil instead, from Indian and Pakistani grocers. The concentration of the acrid compound derived from the mustard seeds can differ from brand to brand so add to taste. Be careful handling mustard oil as its concentrated heat can burn skin and eyes.

Letters

On meat in stir-fries, B. Aikenhead writes: ''Slicing thinly is important, even more so to slice 'across the grain' so that the fibres are truncated. Marinating the meat before cooking is also important. My late wife, Cantonese and a stickler for tradition, liked to add a pinch of sodium bicarbonate to the marinade, along with a little cornflour, soy sauce and a small amount of rice wine.''

Send your queries to brainfood@richardcornish.com.au