Wednesday, July 1, 2015

What I think about late at night

The pool is mostly finished. Not quite, but mostly. Work is supposed to start up again soon. Once the pool is done, the patio gets installed. Part of patio plan includes putting in a sub base for the oven oven I've been saving up for, thinking about, talking about and daydreaming about for years. I think the first I wrote about it on the blog was in May of 2010. Well, that's the first time I tagged it anyway.

As I approach the reality of an outdoor oven of my own, my brain has been in overload. In the beginning, there was Phase 1: build it from scratch. Get a wet saw, a pallet of firebrick and start building. The reality of the time needed to build an oven set in and I moved into Phase 2: build a base, install a kit oven, build a quick house around it for weather proofing and get to cooking pizza faster. Then I started pricing out the cost of the gable house around the oven. That cost can be all over the place depending on how you want the house to look. Hell, just the stone veneers at Home Depot range from $4 to are you kidding? For not much more than the cost of the kit and the gable house, I could move into Phase 3: Instant gratification: a delivered, ready to go oven on a cart. Just wheel it into place, and start a fire.

Unfortunately, I have a windmill for a mind so you can probably guess what comes after Phase 3.

We're back to Phase 1: Build from scratch. I keep thinking that this will be the one chance I get to build an oven and I'll regret it later if I don't just go for it now.

Phase 1 has me staying up late reading threads about building ovens. I was reading one last night and then realized it was 1:30. Yeah I was groggy this morning.

I've reached out to handful of people that I've never actually met to ask for their thoughts on ovens. Everyone has been incredibly nice. Here's a typical example: I messaged one guy on the pizza forum with a question about the oven at the center of Phases 2 and 3. His reply was his cell phone number for me to call so we could discuss it. We talked for about half an hour. Then to clarify a few things, about 5 minutes after we ended the call, he sent some oven photos. Pizza people are awesome.

Phase 1 is exhausting. Aside from the sleep deprivation from getting lost online looking at oven construction, there's the mental side. The planning, constantly thinking about the best way to build and the self doubt. The number of bricks I have put mortar on and placed is...well if you count the time, there was no time - it's 0. I am very confident I can build the stand. Maybe too confident. Once the stand is built, that's where I get concerned. I'm starting to think I could build a dome. The entry and vent are where the oven construction loses me. Then the house...some days I think no problem. Others, I'm not sure I could make it weather tight. Especially if the chimney goes through the peak of the roof. I've seen a few solutions but I'm not sure I could build them. Maybe I'll just cover the whole thing in stucco and have it look like an igloo.

While taking a break from the forums and looking for construction grade wet saws on Craigslist, I found some masonry arch design software. I typed in the parameters of the oven du jour and it spit out the dimension and number of bricks to make the arch. I drafted them out and everything seemed to fit. Yesterday, I grabbed some lumber and a few other things at Home Depot to try and make a confidence building arch.

Using a piece of 2x3, I cut out 20 wood "bricks." The cuts on the sides of the bricks are slight angled for the curvature of the arch.

Then I cut up some shims to be the mortar in between the bricks. When I laid it out, I was off a little bit. I think I cut each brick about a blade width too wide. I can either try to shave each brick down a little, or just make the keystone in the center smaller to get the width I want. This current design was for a 42 inch oven and now that I can really see how it would be laid out, I think it might be too big. There's that indecision again.

Since it wasn't exactly how I wanted it, I held off on gluing it together. But once the arch is done, I'd like to glue it together and add some tall, outer "bricks" that would make a cross section of the dome. All in all, not bad. Still not sure I can build this thing. Maybe I should call this Phase 1a: Build from scratch and when the oven falls down, get the kit.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Dave's Not Here

On a work trip at the end of May, I pulled over and took a picture of this barn. It's on Telephone Road (Rt 20) in Caledonia, NY. I'd driven past it a few times before and I'm glad I stopped because I don't think I'll be heading out that way again. Anyhow, the barn door always made me smile.

If you're not familiar with the bit, I found it on YouTube. Everything is on YouTube.

Monday, June 8, 2015

You'd be surprised

Whenever I get something in a store that gets weighed, I always pay attention to the scale. I'm not sure why. For the most part, the accuracy of what I'm buying doesn't really matter. I guess I'm watching to see how good a feel for weigh the person behind the counter has. The guy that butchers our steers is amazingly accurate when packing ground beef. A lot of people behind the counter are really good. I suppose I'm just curious to see how close the initial guess is.

Recently, I had asked for about a third of a pound Percorino in an Italian market. Before I could say 0.27 was close enough, a little more was added to the scale. Now it was over 0.33 pounds. A pair of anxious eyes looked at me for a thumbs up or down. I said, "I'm not fighting you over a couple hundredths of a pound." His response: "You'd be surprised."

Yesterday, I picked up some sausage at Hannaford. I had never seen this particular name before. It was Parillo out of Saratoga. I figured I'd give it a shot. I actually prefer bulk sausage like this if I'm not grilling it. I asked for a pound and had a nice conversation about the sausage with the person getting it for me (he likes it and some other Parillo products too). He put the sausage on the scale: 0.98 pounds.

Me: "Damn. That's pretty good."
Him: "Would you like me to top that off for the full pound."
Me: "Within two hundredths is close enough."
Him (while kind of rolling his eyes): "You'd be surprised."

There are people walking among us that apparently berate the staff at deli and butcher counters about hundredths of pounds. These people have thrown enough tantrums over grams of cold cuts and ground beef that the market employees are afraid to be off a tiny amount on anything weighed.

To these people I say: stop it.

Seriously. Stop it.

Monday, May 4, 2015

Preemptive Snooze

Here's my idea for what should be a standard feature on all alarm clocks. We are modern people living in modern times and we need this.

My radio alarm is set for 7:00 AM. When it goes off, I press snooze once. When the snooze alarm goes off, I get up and go wake one of my kids. The other is already up - no idea why. Lately, I've been waking up at 6:55. Then I lie there half asleep, hit the snooze at 7:00, continue to lie there dazed or maybe catch a few more minutes of sleep until the snooze alarm goes off at 7:09.

I want a preemptive snooze button. At 6:55, I no longer need the 7:00 alarm. I want to press a button that bypasses the 7:00 alarm but goes off at 7:09 when that first snooze would have gone off. It's probably easy to program. Something like double tap the snooze button would work.

I actually remember buying the clock that is on the night table next to my bed. It was late August in 1989. I got it at a Caldors while gathering stuff to bring to college in Boston. It's a pretty basic clock but it has served me well. I can set it in my sleep, but if I could get a preemptive snooze button I'd ditch it tonight.

Why don't we have this?

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Pizza from 9 MIles East Farm

I've been really picking up my own pizza making this year. In an attempt to not get larger, I'm trying to minimize the amount of pizza I eat that is made by other people. Before this Saturday, the only pizza I have had in 2015 that wasn't my own was from DeFazio's. An out of town friend wanted to go. How could I say no?

As a wrap up to the Tour de Soft Serve 2.0, several tour goers went to 9 Miles East Farm for pizza. I don't know how you could walk around the farm, see the chickens, see the fields, meet the people working there and not want this place to succeed. It's beautiful and the people couldn't be nicer.

When I was lucky enough to be a judge in the All Over Albany Tournament of Pizza, the judging mantra was "judge the slice in front of you" meaning focus on the pizza being served and don't compare it to what your ideal pizza is. If you are looking for a whole grain pizza with hints of sourdough and incredibly fresh local toppings, you're really going to like this. Seriously, especially the pie with caramelized onions. I'm going to be adding those to my topping rotation.

That said, I've clearly spent too much time reading and thinking about pizza so I have some opinions...personally, this isn't what I think of when I think pizza - it's a little too much like bread for my tastes. In tearing apart some of the rim of the crust, I couldn't help but think a little pad of butter spread on this would be fantastic. If this pizza was a little thicker, topped the same way, cut into squares and served as the bread in a restaurant, you'd be thrilled and ask your server for at least one more plate of it. There was also a lot of extra flour on the bottom of the pizza. A lot of bench flour is used shaping and launching the pizza. I'd be very curious to see how this dough did in the higher temperatures of a wood fired oven. Maybe get a little char on the crusts.

The kids, fresh off the Tour de Soft Serve and still in the mood to rate things, swiped my phone to take some pizza pictures.

The Farmhouse (cheese pizza)

 The Barnyard (cheese pizza with sausage)

The weekly special featuring caramelized onions

Casey made up some pizza score sheets with some paper in the car. Here's how the girls scored it.

Crust 4
Sauce 3
Toppings 3.5, 4, 3 (cheese, sausage, onion/spinach)
Overall 3
Notes: Little spicy (pretty sure this is regarding the sausage pizza)

Crust 4
Sauce 3
Toppings 4, 4, 5 (the 5 is for the onions, which she didn't realize were onions and tried anyway even though some spinach was present)
Overall 4.7

The visit to 9 Miles East was a really nice end to the Tour de Soft Serve. I'm glad we were able to go. We all had a great day.

Ice Cream Tour

Hard to believe, but this is the first FussyLittleBlog tour that I have been able to attend. I've come close a few times. It seems like there was always something in the way. Luckily, my first tour was one not only the whole family could enjoy, but also really wanted to go on as well: a tour of 5 soft serve ice cream stands.

Here's the idea: you get the same thing at all 5 places, you fill out a score sheet scoring a few variables and jot down any comments you have on the back. I thought we were going to have a family score sheet, but Daniel gave one to everybody. Though the girls hid their excitement pretty well, they were kind of thrilled to have their own score cards. Weights were also taken to so that a "value" category could also be judged. This is what we ordered:

Jon: kiddie cup of vanilla
Amy: kiddie cone of chocolate/vanilla twist with rainbow sprinkles
Allison: kiddie cone of vanilla with rainbow sprinkles
Casey: kiddie cup of vanilla with rainbow sprinkles

I wasn't a very good photojournalist during this tour. My picture taking was spotty at best.

We started off in Clifton Park and DeVoe's on Route 9..

Jon: Texture was a little fake, light and airy, kind of like a creamier Cool Whip, light aftertaste - but I could still taste it at the next stop.
Amy: Chocolate overpowered the vanilla, bottom of the cone was crunchy, had an aftertaste, mostly from the vanilla
Allison: bottom of the cone was crunchy, tasted weird after, large for a kiddie, good amount of sprinkles.
Casey: Hole in the middle, large, good amount of sprinkles, creamy.

You can kind of see what I mean about the extra air. Non of the other stands served something with this shape.

And here's that hole Casey mentioned. That was also something we didn't encounter for the rest of the tour.

Next stop, JJ's in Ballston Spa

This is pretty much what I think of when I think Drive-In. I took a picture of JJ's as we drove away, didn't bother to take a picture while we were there. Here are the comments:

Jon: It was creamy, not airy. Not much vanilla flavor. Much better.
Amy:Creamy and smooth, nice texture, vanilla not as strong flavor, chocolate very good, no bad aftertaste
Allison: Not that much sprinkles, aftertaste better, more kiddie sized
Casey: creamy. good amount of sprinkles, good size

I was stunned at the difference between the first two stops. The differences over the next three stops weren't as big. After two stops under our belts, we did what seems to come natural when being led by Daniel - stop for some food. The tour took a pit stop to Kelly's Mini Hot Dogs. I've heard of it but never visited. We each got a mini dog. If we weren't on a tour, I think I would have gone for something off their griddle. The dogs were good, and in the spirit of the tour, Casey expanded her score sheet to rate her plain mini hot dog.

Dog: 5
Toppings: None
Bun: 4
Value: 5
Overall: 5
Price: $1.00

And her comments:
Hot dog place - great tasting cheese, good tasting bun, nice tasting hot dog. Fast service.

I should ask what caught her attention with the bun and why she dinged it a point.

From Kelly's, we set off for Humpty Dumpty in Saratoga.

Humpty Dumpty had the biggest lines we encountered on the tour. Not Sure if it was location, timing or popularity, but they were running at least a 5 minute wait the whole time we were there.

Jon:  Very similar to JJ's, better vanilla flavor, seemed pricy, small size may have helped with the tour
Amy: Creamy and smooth, strong vanilla flavor, good chocolate flavor, sprinkles OK, no bad aftertaste
Allison: good amount of sprinkles
Casey: creamy, good size, good amount of sprinkles

The kids were really into the tour and took the judging pretty seriously. 

And one thing I've noticed from the kids' comments - don't skimp on the sprinkles. They'll notice.

Off to the other side of Saratoga and the Dairy Haus.

This stand had a lot of hard ice cream flavors I wanted to try, but it was a day of soft serve. Here's what we thought:

Jon: Really dense and creamy, you have to pull the spoon out, vanilla was a little weak, if I hadn't eaten 3 servings, this is what I think of when I think soft serve.
Amy: great texture, dense, creamy, smooth. best yet.
Allison: Good amount of sprinkles, large for kid's size
Casey:creamy, great tasting sprinkles, good amount of sprinkles, large size

From the Dairy Haus we set off to the final stop on the tour, The Farmer's Daughter. It's a nice roadside kind of joint.

They've even got a cow head on the side of the wall. As we left, a woman was taking a picture of the cow head as her husband pretended not to know her. I told her not to feel bad, I had already taken the same picture.

Jon: this seems pretty similar to Dairy Haus, my cup was cracked
Amy: no additional comments, just scores
Allison:Texture was good, toppings were alright, so was vanilla
Casey: Dense texture, good amount of sprinkles, good tasting sprinkles, good size.

I'll leave the number crunching to Daniel, but here's what we put down as answers to "Which was your favorite, and why?"

Jon: I'd rate Dairy Haus and Farmer's Daughter the same, but the edge goes to Dairy Haus for value
Amy: Dairy Haus - best flavors with the best consistency and texture, good heft and density
Allison: Dairy Haus because texture and toppings were good
Casey: My favorite was Dairy Haus because the texture was very creamy and the sprinkles were great tasting.

The family basically cast one big vote. I hope we didn't throw off the tour's statistical relevance. This was quite a tour. I learned a lot about soft serve. Mainly, that I don't really like that soft serve vanilla cone I've been getting for years and years. It's ok, and some are definitely better than others, but even when it's good, it's not great. Steve pretty much summed it up in his write up of the tour: the experience is better than the soft serve. The hot summer evening, after a softball game, a special stop on the ride home...the experience. I think I'll be taking a break from vanilla soft serve cones for either hard ice cream or at least a soft serve flavor. After the ice cream tour, a bunch of us headed off to 9 Miles East Farm for a pizza dinner. That will have to be a post on its own (Casey made a scorecard for the pizza too). 

After a parental award winning day of feeding our children nothing but ice cream and pizza with a break for a mini hot dog, we headed off to my in-laws for the night. On the way to their house, we made a stop at a long time favorite ice cream stand. Dairy Frost in Perth. After a day of just ok vanilla, would the old standby hold up? There would never be a better day to judge.

We got two kiddie sizes (they are called baby size at Dairy Frost) to share, one vanilla and one raspberry twist. Each cost $1.70. I didn't have a scale, but I know these were the biggest portions of the day. Even though it seemed a little better through rose colored glasses, the vanilla was probably the same as Dairy Haus and Farmer's Daughter. The raspberry twist was great. Our Dairy Haus voting bloc agreed, the best of  the day was Dairy Frost. If you ever find yourself where Route 30 hits Rt 29 north of Amsterdam, stop and pick up a cone.

Many thanks to Daniel. We really enjoyed our first tour.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015


I have very mixed feelings on the round of Common Core testing that my kids took last week, and will continue to take tomorrow. We came very close to opting out.

Really close.

But we didn't. A few nights ago there was a segment on the testing on a show called "All In with Chris Hayes." The segment featured Diane Ravitch (an educator and very well spoken critic of these tests) and Merryl Tisch (the head of the NYS Board of Regents and I suppose an educator too). When given the opportunity to speak, Ravitch was basically shredding the tests, and Tisch was rambling and calling the tests a "diagnostic tool" comparing them to height and weight percentiles during a pediatric visit. This defense of the tests makes no sense to me because do you really care what height and weight percentiles your kid is in?  Do you honestly give a shit if your baby's head circumference is in the 74th or 88th percentile? I just need the doctor to say, "Everything looks good." Tisch closed by saying the kids being opted out were caught in a labor dispute. There's a little truth to that, but does she really think that the head of the teacher's union has enough pull to get this kind of reaction? I don't.

I think most people chose to opt out because they believe it is in the best interest of their kids to skip the test for a variety of reasons. Mainly, a basic disagreement in education philosophy. Ever hear two kids discuss a correct constructed response?  No topic, just the proper form of a response. I have, and it's a little disturbing. Add in these tests are unproven to produce meaningful results, the tests appear to be generally flawed, there are many examples of questions not suited for the targeted grade level, unnecessary stress...the list could easily continue before you get down to labor dispute.

One common complaint about these tests is that may questions are not age appropriate. I don't have a background in education, so I'm not a good judge of what words a 5th grader should or shouldn't know. The internet is filled with so much stuff, it's hard to tell what's true. Especially in an issue like this where emotions are running pretty high. I saw a link to a blog highlighting a number of reasons why these tests are useless, all from anonymous sources which is sadly necessary because no one is allowed to talk about the content of the test. This quote is from the middle of the post:

"As far as developmentally inappropriate goes, besides the actual length of the test, the word "acrid" was in one passage, and one of the multiple choice questions required students to choose a definition for it. How many adults know what "acrid" means, even with context clues?"

I asked my 5th grade daughter.  This is true. This was on the test. She didn't know what acrid meant. She didn't remember much about the context or which answer she put down. I asked the next two adults I saw if they knew the definition of acrid. They didn't.

So do you know what acrid means?
Would you expect a 10 year old to know?

How about these examples (taken from a Washington Post article)? I don't have 8th or 6th grade kids so I can't confirm them, but I bet they are accurate.

A reading passage from the 8th grade test included this from a New York Times article:
"Paradoxically, we posit that our fear of children being harmed by mostly harmless injuries may result in more fearful children and increased levels of psychopathology."

I hate it when I'm harmed by mostly harmless injuries. My psychopathology levels go through the roof. Paradoxically speaking, of course.

One from the 6th grade test:
As a result, the location of the cloud is an important aspect, as it is the setting for his creation and part of the artwork.  In his favorite piece, Nimbus D’Aspremont, the architecture of the D’Aspremont-Lynden Castle in Rekem, Belgium, plays a significant role in the feel of the picture. “The contrast between the original castle and its former use as a military hospital and mental institution is still visible,” he writes. “You could say the spaces function as a plinth for the work.” 

No one should have to read that, not even the author's mother. But I suppose all 6th graders would agree that the spaces obviously are quite an excellent plinth, if they had access to a computer and could Google "plinth definition." I just did...but I didn't have to look up acrid. So I can pass 5th grade, but not 6th.

Yes, these may be extreme examples. But someone was supposed to spend a lot of time developing a good test. Not most of the test. All of the test. After seeing these examples, how can I or any other parent have confidence in these test developers? Did any one at the Board of Regents preview this? Were they allowed to see it and comment? Am I an idiot for not knowing what "plinth" means?

Politicians and the Board of Regents are kidding themselves if they think children don't feel the stress of these Common Core tests. There is definitely pressure. And that pressure looks to be self imposed to me. Think I'm full of it? Then I wish you were at our house last Saturday night at bedtime while my 9 year old 3rd grader was sobbing out of fear that she wasn't going to do well and her teacher (that she adores) was going to get fired. I know for a fact she isn't the only kid with that fear, including kids in other districts.

Here's an actual conversation from a car ride earlier today. I was driving a handful of Girl Scouts to a troop event.

My Wife: How's it going, girls?
5th Grader: Terrible.
My Wife: What's terrible?
5th Grader: The testing starts again tomorrow.
Other 5th Grader: At least it's math. Math will be better than the English.

The only positive takeaway from this is that some 5th grade girls appear to like math - the subject, not the common core test. And I hope the math test is better. I'm not sure it will be. If the English section is a preview, there may be some alternate interior angle geometry questions on the 3rd grade test.

I'm not sure what we will do next year opting out-wise. As a parent of school aged children, I don't approve of the direction the Governor and Board of Regents are going. While I think these Common Core tests actually started with good intentions, I believe they have devolved into a money grab. I think the State is paying $39 million to Pearson for this round of tests. Next year, give me $20 million, skip the testing completely and I'll supply the Board of Regents with a shit-ton of meaningless numbers. Hell, I'll even throw in a really nice plinth.