Tuesday, September 9, 2014

A new toy

I saw a post on the pizza forum that the Black Stone Oven was on sale for $300 and available at Lowes. We were in Lowes for a few other things so I gave the oven the once over while we were there. Two days later I went back and bought. After I put it all together, I was giggling with excitement because I had this in my garage.

I fought getting the stickers off of the shelves but opted against dealing with the one around the thermometer. I figured some use would get that off without scratching it up. Not that it was together, I set about making some modifications I had read about online. The easiest was putting some stainless steel washers under the bottom stone to make an air gap. The bottom can get hotter than the top. Important safety tip: do not use zinc plated washers. When zinc plating gets hot it can put off a toxic gas. Splurge the extra buck for stainless steel.

I also rewired the power cable to the rotisserie motor (the bottom plate spins). With a counter clockwise rotation, you can see the pizza just before it goes through the hottest part of the oven so you can decide to pull the pizza a little easier. To rewire the motor, you just cut the wire, strip the plastic coating and attach the red to black, black to red and cover it all up. Right now it is just covered with electrical tape, but I plan to solder it and cover the wires in shrink wrap to make it look prettier.

Finally, I added a "Chau-flector." It's a little metal shield named for it's inventor on the pizza forum. People have used sheet metal, the end of a spatula or parts of a grater to make the Chau-flector. I went with a little flipper I found in a restaurant supply store.

I broke the handle off and flattened it a little bit. I tried to just bend it, but needed to use a hammer to convince it to bend. You can kind of see it hanging down from the upper stone. It's dark in the oven and the phone flash didn't really get a good shot. So the smaller piece of steel originally near the wood handle is tucked under the upper oven plate, and the longer part of the spatula reflect head back down onto the spinning pizza.

On Saturday, I made 8 dough balls using the Progessive flour I got from Restaurant Depot. Normally, I only make 4, but I wanted to play with my new toy. The plan was to go to Fall Ball softball games all morning, then make pizza all afternoon. But that got cancelled for a birthday party so I got the dough into the fridge and hoped it would still be good on Monday.

On Monday, the workday couldn't end fast enough. I got home and starting putting the toppings together and set up a working table in the garage - a piece of plywood on two saw horses covered with a Halloween tablecloth. I didn't hav enough space for the dough balls on the table, so I commandeered the kids' wagon. Pizza Emergency.

I fired up the oven and let it go until the bottom plate was reading in the mid 700s with my el-cheapo temp gun. You can see the burner is directly above that knob on the front of the oven.

Here we go, the first pizza launch, captured for posterity by my daughter Allison.

You can see the quick oven spring on the rim of the pizza.

About 2 minutes later, here was a lovely sausage and mushroom pie.

I cranked out five more fairly quickly with varying degrees of success.  I need to work on managing the heat and keeping the bottom stone a little cooler. One thing I'm going to do next time around is dial down the heat in between bakes. I did that at the end and I think it helped. I'm also going to adjust the position of my Chau-flector a little. You can kind of see the deflector while this pizza cooks. You can also see that front sticker being abused by the heat of the oven.

After six successful pizza launches onto an 800 degree pizza stone that is rotating counter clockwise, I hesitated while launching the 7th pizza. Here's my undercooked accidental calzone.

But we ended on a high note. This cherry tomato/black olive for the kids was pretty good.

Now I need to focus on oven management and dough. My dough balls were sized for 13.5 inch pizzas. I'm going to scale that down to 13 inches. I also have a list of doughs I want to try out. Definitely a work in progress. I still want a wood fired oven and this will be a good stepping stone.

This is going to be fun...and fattening.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Randomness from the week

Some random things since the last post...
1. Last week the kids found out who there teachers were going to be this year. A few days later, the kids received a letter from the principal asking them to wear school colors on the first day of school for a big assembly. I wouldn't have thought it was a big deal seeing as they had worn school colors to a number of spirit days and other events each year of school...

But never on the first day. They had outfits picked out for the first day. Plans were made before being rudely interrupted. It's been a few days. They are still upset and stressing over the search for new clothes that meet certain set of first day outfit requirements and contain school colors.

2. I set off a little firestorm redirecting the kids' first day outfit anger at me. Allison came up with the idea of making some Italian ice. Unfortunately, there was no time to make Italian ice before the kids went to visit my in-laws for a few days. So on my way out, I told Allison I would have everything at the house when she got back and then asked if she wanted to keep scraping a pan like the recipe called for, or use the ice cream machine. She said she wanted to use the ice cream machine and I headed off to work.

Apparently, the kids didn't remember we had an ice cream maker. They were both there the last time the ice cream maker got used but that was a few years ago. It's one of those appliances that gets used twice a decade. On the ride to my in-laws, my wife was peppered with questions:

Dad said we have and ice cream machine.
Where is the ice cream machine?
What color is it?
Did you know we had one?
What does it look like?
Did you get it before we were born?
You've had an ice cream machine and never told us about it?
Why didn't you tell us you had an ice cream machine?

This isn't going to end well for me. I know that their imaginations have lead them to believe there is a full sized soft serve ice cream machine hidden in the basement when in reality, it is a small little Cuisinart thing the size of a toaster. I've already cleaned out the little freezer insert. I should go put it in the freezer immediately.

4. The bottom rubber thing (I believe that is the technical term) on the bottom of the side door to our garage was falling off. I took the door off the hinges to get a better look. Instead of being able to just replace the unattached bottom rubber thing, I found a lot of dry rot. Turns out the bottom rubber thing was supposed to be attached to wood that had disappeared. Not wanting to have to replace the whole door and deal with realigning hinges, I dug out all the dry rot and replaced it with two types of epoxy, some paint stirrers used as filler and a new bottom rubber thing. In the end, I think it cost about $25. Hopefully this particular "fix" will last a few years.

5. I spend a lot of time thinking about pizza. Probably too much time. Between vacation and a few other things, I haven't spent much time on the pizza forum. I went from being right on top of things to 26 pages of forum threads behind. I was surprised to have found a knock-down, no holds barred argument over leavening agents suitable for a classic New York Style pizza. I was actually taken aback by the fight having never seen anything that mean spirited on the forum. The main participants were two guys that I have never met, but I have come to respect and admire both of them. I was relieved to see it had kind of ended and one of the guys related it to brothers fighting. But still, I've got a shit-ton of catching up to do.

6. More pizza. All of of backyard plans seem to stall out because of pure indecision. We've gone around in circles several times. Doesn't look like the wood fired oven is going to happen in 2014. There's still a good chance we will make progress on the yard and maybe get the foundation set, but I don't want to race winter with a masonry project. I want to be able to take my time. Get it right.

On the other hand, I hate our oven for making pizza. It just doesn't get hot enough. So as a temporary band-aid, I bought a Black Stone pizza oven at Lowes. There's been a lot of beautiful pizza coming out of them on the forum. Hopefully I'll be able to make some too once I get it assembled.

7. Still more pizza. Back when I made the Firedome, I had to trim an inch or two off a peel so it would fit through my makeshift oven door. I've grown tired of only being able to make really small pizza and I'd like to learn how to form larger dough balls. During lunch today, I set off to Bed Bath and Beyond to check out their peels. Have I mentioned I take pizza too seriously?

The only pizza peel they had there was basically a pizza peel shaped cutting board for $35. C'mon.

The peel is made with wood fibers and some kind of resin. It's also dishwasher safe. Not sure why you would want that, but maybe someone out there does. I don't know if you can read the "heat resistant" section out in the second picture. This $35 cutting board is "heat resistant"  all the way up to 350 degrees F. I can even get my crappy oven up to 500 degrees. I see this $35 piece of saw dust and glue melting all over someone's pizza stone or steel. I should be able to take a deep breath and move on, but instead I took pictures and then was pissed for the rest of the day. It's not healthy. I'll see if I can get to a restaurant supply store tomorrow.  I bet I can get a better peel for less than half the cost.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Vacation, all I ever wanted.

If ever there was a good week to be kind of unplugged from reality, last week was it. As luck would have it, we were on the road. In a rented minivan. Because of a fender bender. My wife got hit driving through a parking lot. Just in time for our road trip. Not a big deal, just a pain in the ass. The vacation began with dropping off a car at a collision center and bringing home the rental. We loaded that bad boy to the roof and headed south. Day one, we drove to Maryland and stayed in a hotel. Day two, we continued driving south to North Carolina. Now we knew we were heading through Goldsboro, NC and pretty close to the legendary BBQ joint named Wilbur's. Wilbur's has the best pulled pork I've ever had. We used to stop in when my brother and sister in law used to live in Raleigh. I haven't been there in 11 years. The GPS said we were going to be about 20 miles away. After sitting in a lot of traffic, it was going to take too long to stop in so we skipped it. Until, we came around a corner and it looked very familiar. and then there it was.

After swerving across a lane of traffic, we parked and went in. We had eaten lunch already so I picked up some pulled pork to go. A pound of damn good pulled pork, 4 buns, 2 dozen hush puppies, and a container of slaw...I got change from $11. From Wilbur's, we had about 2 more hours on the road. We checked into the condo and this was the view we were going to have to deal with for a week.

Rough, right? We were down there with another family and we had a great time. A lot of swimming in the ocean. There was a sand bar on this beach so you could be 40 feet out into the water and it was still only 6 feet deep. The waves would gently pick you up and put you back down. The weather was perfect all week and there was only one day that the waves were a little choppy. And this happened too. In front are my kids, my friend Joe and his kids. That little fin in the back is one of several dolphins that swam by.

We saw sea turtles at a rescue center.

And this happened every day at 4:00. Nothing like some beach side grown up quiet time juice.

Margaritas are just better with sand between your toes. I had never heard of this, but apparently sharks go through a lot of teeth. These teeth fall out and then fossilize in the salt water. Once you know what too look for, you can find a lot of teeth.  Some are still pretty sharp and others have grooves. My friend Joe is a shark tooth hunter savant.


We also popped into an old peanut plantation. It was an interesting tour. The family that owned it was pro-union during the Civil War but had about 50 slaves. Here's an old peanut picker. Kind of looks like a Rube Goldberg contraption.

The plantation had a blacksmith shop too. Check out this huge bellow.


One last look at the beach before heading north.

We spent the night in Newark, Delaware. In the morning, we headed to Citi Field for a Mets game.

I'm not a huge baseball fan, but if I'm picking a team, it's the Mets. And while they might be in a new stadium, not much has changed. It was a close game with the Mets down 1-0 for most of it. They rallied in the bottom of the 8th to tie it up. They bring in their closer while blasting Journey's Don't Stop Believin' - possibly the worst song to pump up the crowd. They cut the song off just before the "Some will win, some will lose, some are born to sing the blues" line. Here we go. First pitch...home run. Then they get the next 3 batters out. The Mets go down 1-2-3 in the bottom of the 9th with the last batter being called out on a check swing. What more could you want from a Mets game?

It was a good time. I'd do it again. How's next week looking?

Monday, July 28, 2014

I'll have what he's having

Last week, I was on the road for work and spent a night in Syracuse. Harry, my road trip partner in crime, asked Alicia at the hotel check in desk, "Where is the best pizza in the area? Not necessary nearby. Anywhere in greater Syracuse. Where's the best?" She directed us to Nick's Tomato Pies and off we went.

Unfortunately, Nick's Tomato Pies must be running some kind of summer hours because they were closed when we got there. Nick's is in the Armory Square section of Syracuse and there are quite a few dining options. I had heard someone else at the hotel talk about Pastabilities and after looking around a little bit, we decided to give it a shot. While sitting at the bar waiting for a table, Harry noticed a sign that said "Guy Ate Here." So after we were seated we talked about it with our waitress. Turns out, there was and episode of Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives filmed here. Which is a little confusing because having looked around the place, it clearly isn't any of those things.

After looking the menu over, we decided to try what Guy had. First up, their Spicy Hot Tomato Oil. As soon as you order, you are brought a basket of house made bread and a plate that is thinly covered with tomato sauce. If you want bread and a big bowl of tomato sauce, that's $5. You can also buy this sauce in jars at the restaurant, online and I think they said Wegman's too. Guy gave the sauce and bread combination the Triple D rating, "That's Craaazzzy." The bread was good, warmed up would have been better but it was good. And the sauce is tasty too. Got a little sweet, a lot of fresh tomato flavor, a good amount of oil and a slow after burn of heat that isn't overwhelming, just nice. It's a good sauce but I think you could make something similar at home. When eating it, I thought they had used a chili oil, but after watching the video they used a chili paste. It kind of looks like the Secret Dipping Sauce (SDS) that was going around on Serious Eats awhile back. 

Next up was the Duck Bacon Pizza. Here's the description:

Pasta's Duck Bacon Flatbread Pizza $15
house-cured smoked duck bacon, Humboldt Fog aged goat cheese, mozzarella, tart cherries, shallots,
pomegranate drizzle, cracked black pepper, on our bakery fresh pizza dough

Alas, no pictures. I tried to take one of this pizza and the flash went off like lightening in the middle of the restaurant. Then I tried to take some without the flash and it was too dark. But here's the photo-less pizza story. After we had each had a slice, our waitress stopped by to ask how we liked the pizza. We said it was good and I think she was a little offended. We were clearly supposed to have had our minds blown. To give credit where credit is due, the flavor combination of the toppings is absolutely inspired. The duck bacon (house cured and smoked duck breast) is something I will try to recreate in my kitchen someday. Who am I kidding, I'm going to try and copy the whole pizza some day. But when I copy it, I will only copy the toppings because that crust doesn't deserve to be in the same restaurant those those toppings. And if you watch the video you'll see why. At about 1:50 in the clip, they start to top a pre-made flat bread that goes into the oven for 12 minutes and then under a salamander to crisp up the top. Guy said, "The crust on this flat bread is righteous." While his looked better than ours, the crust was tough to chew and the bottom tasted like uncooked flour. I think their pizza dough is their bread from the first course pressed into an oval. It is better as bread. Guy goes on to say (of the toppings), "Funkalicious," "One of the best duck dishes I've ever had," and "You jackpot-ted on that one, girl." He's pretty much right. The duck pieces are fantastic and the flavors on top of that tough, hard to chew not-pizza bread are pretty spectacular. Sorry about that last dig on the crust.

Moving on to the main dish: Wicked Chicken Riggies. I'm not sure why Syracuse sometimes seems to try and steal from Utica. Sure, my affection for Utica is unhealthy, but this almost seems like sibling rivalry. In the video, it is described as "an Upstate New York dish" but if Wikipedia can be trusted, the first line of the Chicken Riggies entry reads: "Chicken riggies or Utica riggies is an Italian-American pasta dish native to the Utica-Rome area of New York State. It is a pasta-based dish usually consisting of chicken, rigatoni and hot or sweet peppers in a spicy cream and tomato sauce, although many variations exist."

Anyhow, when Pastabilites says "Wicked," they aren't kidding. While those who are into spicy foods will enjoy this level of heat, I think it is more than the average person wants in an entree. It seemed a little to much for Harry, and he isn't a spice wimp. This version also had more cream than most versions I have had and all the spice was in the sauce - no chunks of pepper. While watching the sauce get prepared, Guy said it looked like "spicy tomato al Fredo" and that's a pretty good description of the sauce. After tasting it, Guy made a few guttural noises and then the cook said "Winner! Winner! Wicked Chicken Dinner!" and robbed of us of whatever bizarre combination of words Guy was about to share with us.

So we had what Guy had. Some of what he said was right on, other things he said were just hype. If I ever returned to Pastabilities, I might give the pizza another chance but I'd go with a different entree. There are better Riggies out there. I'd start looking about 60 miles due east.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Running out of time

When the Hoffman's first announced that they were going to retire and were looking for someone to buy their amusement park, I thought for sure some local, incredibly wealthy benefactor with millions to spare would buy them out and continue to run the park as a long term land investment. This benefactor has millions to spare. As long as the park could support itself and break even, why not?


It didn't happen. And while that didn't happen the lot next door began to get developed. Not sure who planned that, but I have no idea why it is so close to Route 9. Seriously, you should have pushed it back a bit. Looks like there will be a Bellini's (never been), Jimmy John's (never been or heard of), Burger 21 (also never been or heard of), and a Dunkin Donuts which in my mind is incredibly silly since you are already in a car and have either just foolishly driven past Bella Napoli or have about a quarter mile more to drive to enjoy a Bella Napoli doughnut.



During this same period of time when no benevolent multimillionaires stepped up to the plate (this is Albany after all, we know you're out there), I came up with a pipe dream that was just outside the realm of possiblity. I would win MegaMillions and take matters into my own hands. When Liz Bishop arrived to interview me and asked, "What are you going to do with the  money?!?!" I would calmly answer:

"I'm going to buy Hoffman's Playland."

I wouldn't renew Subway's lease and I'd replace it with a small wood fired pizza place. You probably could have guessed that. But for the most part, I think I would try to freeze it in time.


We've got a lot more Hoffman's pictures but they reside on a different computer that currently isn't hooked up. My absolute favorite picture is of a friend's kid while she was making an angry face on kiddy boat ride. It is priceless and I look forward to showing it to her future husband in the receiving line at the wedding. Alas, time is running out on Hoffman's Playland. I don't have that many more chances to win the lottery and buy the place.

But there's still some hope. I have tickets for tonight and tomorrow's drawings. And should you win Powerball this month, consider buying Hoffman's. I'll help you run the pizza joint.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

IRS Scam

Earlier in the week, I came home to an almost completely unintelligible voice mail. Originally, all I could get out of it was a menacing "Internal Revenue Service, the IRS" and after a few more listens there's a veiled threat to arrest me.

Let's see if I can upload a video. Take a listen yourself:


Here's my best shot at a transcript

This message is intended for Jonathan $%^$.
Hi, Jonathan, my name is Rian Cruz. I'm calling you from Internal Revenue Service, The I!R!S! -garble- purpose of my call is to certify that we have receive a legal petition-autics against your name under your Social Security Number regarding a tax fraud. So before this matter goes to federal claims court house and you get arrested, kindly call us back on our number 202-719-0249. I repeat the number, 202-719-0249. Good bye.

At first, you hear anything involving the IRS and you get a little wave of panic. But this message was just so over-the-top ridiculous. So I looked up IRS scam. Seems to be a lot of this going on these days. I also learned that the IRS's first contact with you will be in the mail. They may be intimidating, but they don't use "call us back immediately or you will be arrested" as an opening move. That's a little comforting.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

The Spotted Zebra

I going to bury the lead here and start with some history. After my wife's maternity leave was up, the kids went to a daycare center. As my oldest left the pre-k and headed off to kindergarten, we weren't as happy with the center as we were two years earlier. We found The Spotted Zebra and really liked the space and the staff seemed great. It's an integrated program meaning special needs kids and kids without special needs were in the same classroom. And I'm going to be honest, I had some concerns that this was a bad idea. Would my daughter be on track for kindergarten when she left? I was assured by her lead teacher that she would be ready to go in the fall, and she was clearly ready for school when she left. But it's not just that The Spotted Zebra got her ready for school, they were fantastic.

Let me give you an example. My daughter went through an "I hate sunscreen" phase. She's a fair skinned redhead. She needs sunscreen. Since everybody brings in sunscreen for their kids, the teachers basically had some of every brand/type of sunscreen on the market. They set up kind of a sunscreen "tasting"for her and determined the brand of sunscreen that was the least offensive to her. That's the level of care The Spotted Zebra staff has for the kids they have been entrusted to teach. My daughter's time there was great and if you ask her what she wants to be when she grows up, there's a 90% chance she'll tell you she wants to be a special needs teacher. Probably not the most common answer you get from an 8 year old.

Onto the actual story: The Spotted Zebra just got bigger, moved to a new location and invited everyone with a connection to the school to the Grand Opening yesterday. It was a very nice opening complete with touching speeches and a very cute ribbon ribbon cutting which involved lots of kids and safety scissors.

The new space is huge compared to the old space. Plus, they've added a Bizzy Beez center which looks like it will be very well used. They've got a balance skills surfboard, new tactile centers, a wall with lit targets to hit with balls, a very cool exercise bike...

They also have a something that I could only describe as a calming room. If a kid is all worked up and needs to be away from it all for a few minutes, there's padded seats and lots of calming lights that are just relaxing. Here's me and Casey lying down on a a mat looking up at the lights and our reflection.

To me, the biggest "tell" if something isn't quite right in a child care center is staff turnover. At the center we left, the director had changed a few times in a few years and staff seemed to be leaving and getting replaced fairly frequently. My daughter left The Spotted Zebra 3 years ago to go to kindergarten and I was surprised how many faces I remembered.

So if you have a kid that needs a little extra attention or you are interested in an integrated program, you might want to check The Spotted Zebra out. Their new location is on Computer Drive East off of Wolf Road. The old school was a special place. The new school will be too.

Here's a link to their website.

And a confession: About 5 minutes after the doors opened, I dropped a cracker covered with artichoke dip on the floor. I cleaned it up pretty well, but I think I may have been the first person to spill something in the new school.