A: Different bakers swear by different materials and pans. Here are some advantages and disadvantages of the more common materials:
Aluminum is an excellent material for bake ware and is often used by professionals. Though the rumors about its toxicity persist, research has shown that the amount of aluminum that leaches into food is minimal -- and, more important, normal intake of aluminum is not harmful.
Aluminum does, however, react to acidic foods, and the reaction can discolor the food or give it a metallic taste. This is why aluminum pots are often lined with a non-reactive substance, such as stainless steel, or are anodized, which means that they've been treated to make them non-reactive.
Aluminum prevails in kitchens because it conducts heat well and is durable, inexpensive and relatively light. Look for medium- or heavy-weight pans, as the thinner ones may warp over time.
Steel pans may be tinned, black or blue, or stainless. Tinned steel is a good conductor of heat and is inexpensive. If the tin coating scratches, however, the scratches can rust. Black or blue steel has been treated to make it turn dark in color and also to make it resist rusting (unless scratched). It also reacts to acidic foods. Stainless looks good and won't rust, but it doesn't conduct or retain heat well.
Glass is non-reactive and attractive, but it heats so quickly that a crust may bake faster than the filling.
Nonstick coatings are easy to use and to clean, but even a small scratch can cause the coating to slowly peel away. I prefer to line my cake and cookie pans with parchment paper, creating a nonstick surface.
Relatively new on the market is insulated bake ware, which has a thin layer of air between two layers of metal, which insulates the bottom of the baked good.
Bake ware is generally functional rather than decorative, so having a matched set isn't important. I recommend buying pieces according to what you like to bake, but I do believe that every home should have the following: two round cake pans, 9 inches across and 2 inches deep, with straight sides. Use these for layer cakes.
For brownies, gingerbread and other square cakes, you need an 8- or 9-inch-square pan. You'll also want two cookie sheets, which come in various sizes. Large ones are most efficient -- just make sure they're several inches smaller than the inside of your oven so air can circulate around them.
Finally, every kitchen should have two pie tins. I like the classic metal ones, but glass and ceramic also work well. Nine inches is the most common diameter, but 8- or 10-inch pans are also versatile.
Other basics include muffin tins, half-sheet pans, loaf pans, spring-form pans, tube pans, tart tins and Bundt pans.
Buy what you need and, as always, purchase the best quality tools you can afford. When you're still using them years from now, you'll be glad you spent a little more.
Q: What is the proper way to care for piano keys?
A: Whether antique ivory or plastic, piano keys usually don't need more than routine dusting and the occasional wipe-down with a barely damp, soft cloth. If the keys are especially dirty, you can add a drop of a mild household cleaner to the cloth, then "rinse" each key by wiping with another damp cloth. But you may not want to do this too often because many pianists find very clean piano keys to be slippery and difficult to play.
Never use a dripping cloth or spray liquid directly onto the keys, since any water that runs down between the keys can damage the instrument. It may be tempting to keep the key lid closed to keep out dust, but this can be a mistake: Keys left in the dark often yellow over time.
If you own an antique piano, the keys may be made of ivory. The use of ivory has been banned in the United States for many years, and today no piano with ivory keys can be imported unless it is proven that the keys are more than 100 years old. For this reason, ivory replacement keys are nearly impossible to come by, so it's important to treat them carefully. You can perform surface cleaning yourself, but if the keys are very dirty or stained, have them professionally buffed.