Sunday, August 21, 2016

The end of an era - No more steers

I am no longer a pretend part time cattle rancher.

This past spring was the last go around with the butcher - who jokingly complained he wouldn't be able to take a vacation without our business.

But now it is finalized - all of the fence is down and most of it is for sale.

I still believe the experience - even with its unintended impacts on my wife, my sister-in-law and my mother-in law - was a positive one. I wrote about the experience a few times, probably most extensively here at All Over Albany.

Like Rome, this fence was not built in a day. It look a long time. Way too long if you asked my father-in-law. Other than the pipe that was used as fence post, all of the locust fence post was cut and stripped. There was an auger that went on the back of the tractor but there was plenty of post hole digger work (I have actually become pretty good with a post hole digger). And the back fore arms hurt just thinking about tamping dirt back in the holes around the posts. Father's day was for all day weed whacking, a tradition like no other. But the fence held. We never had a breakout.

The fence was sheep and cattle fence stapled or wire tied to fence posts. Corners were mostly large pipe braced up with more fence posts. About 2 feet above the ground there was a line of electric fence and at the top, there was a single row of barbed wire. The field was about 5 acres. The red line is for the most part what came down this weekend.

My brother-in-law had last week off, so I took Thursday and Friday and the fence got taken down. Most of the electric was already down so each section started with the barbed wire which meant cutting a staple at each post and the very carefully coiling up the barbed wire. We got poked a few times, but no one was cut badly. The El Cheapo 3 pack of Harbor Freight welding gloves eventually fell apart, but they served their purpose of protecting hands and forearms. With the barbed wire down, it was time to really start cutting staples to free up the metal fence. There were a lot of freaking staples. It was easy to tell which sections of fence were built first be cause we went a little crazy with the staple gun. The gun has kind of a hair pin trigger and one could easily put 5 staples where one meant to put a single staple. Once the fence was off the posts, it needed to be rolled up. A full roll is 330 feet. The fence got pulled straight with the tractor and then it got rolled up. To get a tight roll on the fence, we started on our knees, slowly inching forward until there was enough fence to hunch over. I think rolling the fence was the worst part. There was also post removal, bringing the broken post to the dump and a final cleaning of the barn.

It was the kind of weekend that proved I was just a farming tourist. No where close to the real farming deal. Those men and women are hardcore.

And a huge thank you to the two wives who were reluctantly dragged into this. They were a tremendous help this weekend.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Building a Castle

At about 10:00 in the morning on Father’s Day, I was wheeling a dozen concrete blocks out of Home Depot on one of those flat carts they have there. Those carts are a little exciting to steer with the just over 300 pounds of block on them. Well, probably more exciting to stop once you get rolling. Anyhow, as I was leaving, another dad I know was on his way in.

“Building a Father’s Day castle?” he asked.
“Nah. I’m a little bit of a pizza nut and I'm building the base for a wood oven.”
“Alright…have with that.”

So far I am.

Here’s where we are: Last year, the foundation slab was poured.

Relatively recently after a lot of flip flopping on the design, I got going on the project. I opted for slightly modified version of the stand I had settled on this spring. I’m skipping two little bump outs that I think would just be in the way long term. The inside of the stand will be wide open.Turns out a dozen concrete blocks fit very nicely on a 2’x4’ piece of plywood in the back of a minivan.

A handful of trips spaced out at random times I happened to be driving past a Home Depot and I had all of the block I needed. I drilled seven holes in the foundation slab at the middle and ends of the walls. I put some construction adhesive in the hole followed by a piece of rebar. It’s surprising how quickly that stuff sets up and how strong it is. Then I started stacking block. The first four courses were pretty easy. The only cuts I had to make were to split a few blocks in half to get a running bond (meaning there is no spot where a block is just directly stacked on top of another block) in the wall. The wet saw works like a champ. A very loud champ. I’m glad I invested in some hearing protection. The dark gray/wet half blocks in the picture are the ones I cut. Everything was pretty level and flush.

Next up was the firth and final course. This was going to be a little harder and require more cutting. To span the openings, I am using 2”x2”x3/8” pieces of angle. The angles are a nice and shiny white because I put three coats of Rustoleum on them. To get the blocks to fit, I had to shave some off the sides and bottom of the blocks that sit in the pairs of angles. Originally, I had just shaved it off the sides and was quite prod of myself because I did a very nice job….only to realize I needed cuts on the bottom too. I considered using mortar to raise the rest of the blocks up 3/8th of an inch but decided I could do nicer work with the saw than trying to level half the stand with mortar. After a bunch more cutting, I ended up with a bunch of blocks like this.

There was also one corner that required some custom cutting to sit nicely with the angles. If I had to do it again, the front angles would be about 6 inches shorter and I could have saved an hour. Once everything fit nicely, I still had a little more cutting to do. I want to put some reinforcing steel in the blocks over the angles and fill them with concrete at the same time I pour the concrete slab that will support the oven. To do this, two 4 inch deep cuts were made in the block walls. Once the cuts were made, a light tap of the hammer knocked out a chunk of concrete. The blocks over the angles now look like this.

Next up is a consultation from a friend on the best way to run some conduit then I’ll start filling some block cells with concrete. Then it’s time to form and pour the concrete slab. I have a few ideas to test to see if I can make that a little easier on the back. Once I test the idea out I can decide between bags of Quickcrete for the slab or should I have premixed concrete delivered from on a truck. Today, I'm leaning to mixing it myself. That is very subject to change. Probably daily.

In other oven news, I have completely redesigned the oven hearth. I’m going to go for the best of both worlds. I want to be able to cook Neapolitan style but I also really want to be able to chase down the New York-ish wood oven style I ate as a kid. So here’s the plan: Italian Saputo Biscotto floor on one side and American brick on the other. Build a fire on the right for Neapolitan style or build the fire on the left for a more American style pie.

I put some drawings up on the pizza forum and no one came out and said it was a stupid idea so I’m going for it. I already ordered the Italian Biscotto. The last I looked they were in Tennessee and due to arrive in Albany on Thursday…All 160 pounds of them. Yes, I basically mail ordered a large box of rocks.

I’ve been enjoying the build. one of my favorite parts was when I was checking the fit of a few blocks over those angles and my daughter Allison asked if she could help. Geared up with hearing and eye protection, she helped cut and tap out a few of the knock outs. I wonder if she’ll want to stack some bricks.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Tour de Soft Serve

Saturday was a little overcast and threatening to rain, but it didn’t mater to the group of people that went to FIVE soft serve ice cream places to see which spot they like the best. For the most part. I am just going to be the reporter here. In looking over my notes, my comments were generic like “nice texture” or “good.” And I’m also cheap so whenever we get soft serve, I think to myself, “we could have gotten 3 half gallon’s from Stewart’s for the same price and I would have like it better.”

But putting that aside, I will start you off with these two things that I think are worth mentioning. First, I liked the ice cream at each and every one of these places more than all the places we visited in the Saratoga County tour we did last year. And second, I have always been a vanilla soft serve guy. Comparing all the vanilla soft serve last year showed how mediocre soft serve vanilla can be. Often with a weird metallic after taste too. So this year, I went with a chocolate/vanilla twist so I could taste both the chocolate and the vanilla soft serve. I think the twist actually covers up some of the sins of each flavor. The vanilla mellows some of the overly sweet chocolate, and the chocolate overwhelms the weaker vanilla flavor, but it wasn’t that good to begin with and it seemed to eliminate the weird aftertaste. I only noticed the weird aftertaste when eating the vanilla alone.

Here’s how I’m handling our score sheets. The categories (each worth up to 5 points) were: Vanilla, Chocolate, Toppings, Texture, Value, and Overall. And here’s what we ordered:
Jon: Kiddy Chocolate/Vanilla Twist in a dish
Amy: Kiddy Chocolate/Vanilla Twist with caramel in a dish
Allison: Kiddy Vanilla with Rainbow Sprinkles in a cone
Casey: Kiddy Vanilla with Rainbow Sprinkles in a dish

At the first stop, Allison and Casey were accidentally given twists so they have sores for chocolate at Mac’s. I dropped the chocolate from their scores. I didn’t rate any toppings and Amy only wrote in 3 of the 5 overalls when I took a picture of her score sheet (Daniel caught the error and I think she fixed it, but that was after my photo) so I dropped the Overall from her scoring. Also Allison and I each put an enthusiastic "6" in a box - those were reduced back down to the upper limit of 5. That left 100 available total points for any ice cream stand to score. One other note, Casey was filling up so we stopped ordering an ice cream just for her. She still tasted vanilla and rainbow sprinkles at every stop though. Except the last one because the shop ran out of sprinkles.

From here on out the commentary is from the notes of my wife Amy and daughter Allison. Casey kept score but didn’t do much of a write up.

Mac’s Drive In, Watervliet
Allison: Very creamy texture, vanilla got lost. It turned into mostly chocolate. Chocolate was too flavorful. I asked for vanilla but the lady gave me a twist. Sizes were really big.
Amy: Very creamy ice cream, soft texture, melted nicely on tongue, nice heft to ice cream, chocolate over powered vanilla, caramel was soft and smooth, sweet, very good.

Lickity Split, East Greenbush
Allison: Wasn’t as creamy as Mac’s. Kept melting easily. Vanilla needed more flavor. Value was great!
Amy: Amazing value, caramel sauce very thick and stretchy, not easily in each bite, vanilla/chocolate more balanced with each other, good smooth texture, creamy.

Big Dipper, Wynantskill
Allison: It wasn’t very creamy which made it hard to eat off the cone. Sprinkles had a little less flavor than they did at other places. I think I like it better that way. Vanilla ice cream barely had any flavor.
Amy: Just OK, nice and creamy and nice texture but lacked taste, caramel very super-sweet and thick.

Snowman, Troy
Allison: The texture was really creamy. The sprinkles still taste the same. The vanilla was really rich in flavor. I think it was definitely worth what we paid for.
Amy: did not like the caramel sauce, tastes sweet with depth to flavor, vanilla had stronger flavor but with an after taste.

Chrissy’s, Schaghticoke
Allison: The texture was not creamy at all. The vanilla was alright. They ran out of rainbow sprinkles so I didn’t get to try those. I don’t think it was worth what you paid for.
Amy: It was butterscotch and not caramel-so yuk, they were out of sprinkles, ice cream was creamy and tasty, nice heft, but overall value not as good as Lickity Split.

So the way our family scored it, Lickity Split was the best by three points over Mac’s and third place went to the Snowman. Chrissy’s took a hit for running out of sprinkles. Had they had the sprinkles, I’m pretty sure they would have edged out the Big Dipper for 4th place. I'm curious to see how much our family skewed the overall results. We're kind of a voting block or probably not quite a third of the entire tour group.
The tour was a fun way to spend a Saturday afternoon. If you get the chance, try to make one of the Profussor’s Tours. Trying several versions of the same thing back-back is interesting and you might learn something about your preferences. I got twists on the tour just to try both flavors. In the future, it will probably be what I order...unless I can talk everyone into going to Stewarts and getting 3 half gallons.

Also, if Rochelle offers you some of her fermented papaya, take it. It's delicious.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

12 Quick Years

My oldest daughter turned 12 today. So I'm flipping though some old pictures on the computer and sipping Scotch poured from the bottle I got for Father's Day.

Twelve years ago, she fit in a basket. She's taller than a lot of adults now.

Look at those itty bitty toes. That foot fits into a cleats and plays softball now. She made some really good plays this season.

Over the past few months, there have been two occasions centered around Allison that made me overcome with emotion. The first was was a red hot rage that I didn't know I was capable of feeling - and none of it wasn't her fault. I had a whole post written about it but decided to let it go. Mostly let it go. Let's just say I wanted something done for my kid who was in orthodontic pain, was flatly told "NO" and then I almost completely lost my shit. I felt my pulse go up, my cheeks got hot, that forehead vein was probably throbbing and I was rapidly blinking in disbelief. I don't remember if I clenched a fist but I was a single deep breath away from throwing a lengthy F-bomb laden tantrum. I knew there was a parental "you mess with my kid, you mess with me" protective instinct in me, I just had no idea how quickly, and possibly out of control, it could wash over me. I still get worked up thinking about that morning.

The second, much happier emotion, was how proud I was of Allison. At the elementary school graduation ceremony last week, a few awards were given out to the 5th graders. My daughter was presented with one of the awards. No one was told about the awards before the ceremony so it was a complete surprise. There was a 6th grade picnic after graduation and other parents congratulated me on her award. I thanked them, but it was all her.

Alright, I've gone on enough. Time to go make some pizza dough for a sleepover party she's hosting.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016


I saw something last week and I'm still trying to wrap my head around it.

I've never liked pizza screens. Lots of places use them but I believe their main purpose is to take some pizza making skill out of the recipe. Since the dough isn't actually on the floor of the oven, the bottom of the pizza is cooked at a lower temperature and I believe that impacts the quality of the crust. Plus, the screen leaves unattractive hash marks on the bottom of the crust, but that's less important.

I also know there are a lot of places out there that do not make their own dough. They either buy dough or par baked shells. I wouldn't have guessed that this is a big market, but I'm told I'd be surprised by how big it is. It doesn't really make sense to me because I would have thought most of the profit from a pizza would come from making the dough yourself. Flour, water and yeast are cheap.

On to what I saw...there was a gas fired dome oven. A worker was taking tortillas out of a plastic bag and placing them on a screen. The tortilla was topped and it was slid into the oven. When it was cooked, it was sliced Chicago thin style into small pieces - 9 square-ish pieces.

I didn't take any pictures or taste the tortilla pizza although I did get a pretty good look at one and skipped the piece that was offered to me from another.

Out of curiosity, I looked at the YELP reviews to see what other people thought.

Here's an oven picture from the owner. The photo caption says, "Enjoy fresh baked pizza from our authentic Wood Stone oven." Looks nice enough.

This one is from Isabella S. The caption is "'Margherita pizza' WTF????"

And another photo from Isabella S. The caption is "Thin as a tortilla."

After some service bugs, Nancy S. said the pizza "was disappointing as well. It was paper thin, almost like tortilla shell, and lacked depth and flavor." Now on the other hand, Scott S thought the "wood fired pizza was very fresh, with aromas of garlic and basil predominant. The sausage was spicy, but not overly so."

I believe this is a used, similar model of oven on Ebay. It might actually be a little bigger than the one I saw. The asking price is just under $17,000. No idea if the oven I saw was new, but I've got to believe buying that oven cost a minimum of 15 grand.

Probably cost significantly more than that delivered and installed.

It's being used as a very expensive toaster oven for tortilla pizza.

I can't wrap my head around that.

Monday, June 6, 2016


Turns out, I'm a bit selfish. I don't want a dog. Everyone else in the house does. I'm the holdout.

Which is weird, because my younger self had always wanted a dog. Really wanted a dog. I like dogs. There have even been a few dogs I'd say I loved. All of them, though, have been other people's dogs. I'm a great dog uncle. I'll play with a dog all day. Need someone to go outside and throw a ball at 11:00 on a cold, February night? I've done it....and then I went back to my dog-less life. My in-law's dog was perfect. Visit for the weekend, play with dog and then leave. No vets, no poop picking up, no getting up early to let him out. Only the fun stuff.

But I'm older now, grumpier now, and I don't want to pick up dog crap on a daily basis. Plus, I'm of the mindset that we are never here and that's not really fair to a dog. We're all gone before 8 and usually back around 5. Unless we have somewhere else to be and that seems to be the case more often than not. And there's the sleep. I don't really need a lot of it, but those precious hours of rest need to be in a row.

And even though I'm older and grumpier now, I caved a little and we fostered a puppy while the actual fosters were gone on vacation. Originally named Cilantro from a litter named The Spice Puppies, here's Charlotte.

The fosters didn't like Cilantro (can't blame them - it's a crummy dog name) and have been calling her Charlotte. Cute little bugger, right? Very friendly although she's still a puppy so she's got that teething/nippy thing that puppies do. She's even getting better with a leash and if she could, she would have absolutely followed the kids onto the school bus.

Charlotte is very good with kids and was hugely popular at the softball fields the both times we brought her there. She also likes being under things like tables or chairs. Here she is on the lower shelf of a table. I mentioned she's cute, right?

Alas, there's that sleep thing. I don't know if I read it or heard it or really even if it's true but I'm working under the assumptions that young dogs can only hold it for an hour for every month of their age. I think Charlotte is a little less than 4 months. I'd take her out around 11:30 or 12 and then we'd go to sleep. She'd usually get up before 5. Sometimes earlier. Saturday night I kept her up until 1 AM and she almost made it to 6. There was a day last week that I almost completely melted down from sleep deprivation - blurry eyed tired, headache, nauseous - I was a mess. My wife handles the early bathroom break but it was enough to wake me up and I didn't sleep right after it.

My youngest daughter promised she would do everything she could to take care of a puppy. And she did. From the second she woke up she was right there taking care of Charlotte. She took these pictures (and about 75 more).

Not sure how big Charlotte will get. The most educated guess I received was about 50 pounds. I am certain, she will be a very friendly and loyal dog wherever she ends up. It will be nicer too when she is fully trained to use a lawn instead of a carpet. And do they make glow in the dark collars? This dog is invisible at night.

The original fosters picked Charlotte up this afternoon. The house is much quieter now and it is a little weird. Nothing is lying across one of my feet sleeping as I type, which was not the case last night. I suppose you could say I miss her a little, but selfishly I doubt that will be the case as I'm snoring straight through the night.

If you would like information on adopting Charlotte (aka Cilantro), you can find information here. She'll be a good pet, and that's coming from someone that doesn't want one.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Meet Ron

A lot of oven builders go with a Harbor Freight 10 inch wet saw because you can be set up to cut bricks for under $300. The only problem with a 10 inch wet say is that you can really only cut bricks up to about 4 inches. Probably a little less. A standard firebrick is 9”x4.5”x2.5” so there would be a lot of brick flipping to cut all the way through. My plan was to buy a bigger 14 inch saw, use it to build the oven and then sell it for a little less than I paid for it. Kind of like a long term rental.

I first saw Ron last summer on Craigslist. For a little over a year I’ve been scanning the Craigslist sales within a 150 mile radius of Albany for 14 inch wet saw. I hemmed and hawed and there was another saw for sale near Syracuse but it didn’t have a picture…and then within a week of each other both saws were gone from Craigslist. Oh well.  There was another tempting, but very pricey, saw in Elmira and a surprising amount of wet saws are for sale on Long Island. Then in November, Ron was back on Craigslist. This time I called.

The owner is contractor and hadn’t used Ron on a job in two years. He figured he’d sell it and get it out of his shop. But he was a little reluctant to sell thinking that as soon as he sold the saw, he would need it again. A number of things delayed me in making an offer again – replacing one of our vehicles took a lot of time this winter. And then in January, Ron was gone from Craigslist once again.

My search continued. There was decent looking saw in Andes, NY that was a little cheaper than Ron. But by the time you factor in a 2 hour drive each way to even look at it, it didn’t seem worth the $100 in savings.

Through the magic of cell phone logs and a saved Craigslist search, I still had Ron’s owner’s phone number. In late April, I gave him a call to make sure Ron was sold. Seemed like there was a good chance he just took down the ad again. We played a little phone tag and yes, he did still have Ron and even better, he was still willing to sell.  He’d have his mechanic give Ron a once over and get back to me. A few more phone calls and we agreed on a time for the sale.

With a little bit of effort I managed to get Ron set up in my garage. He’s really big. And he can run on 120 or 240V. Apparently on 220V he can really slice. I’ve ordered a new blade for him and started working on a few jigs. I’ve built one that can cut an adjustable angle with a set 5 degree bevel. The hinge has a pin so I’m going to make a few more jigs that can slip into the same base.


I’m also debating on repainting his tub. Get rid of a little rust and make the basin shine. Normally I wouldn’t really care, but I want to keep the firebrick shavings that will settle in the tub to help level the oven floor.

Nice to meet you, Ron. I look forward to working with you.