Tuesday, April 26, 2016

The other side of the fence


My oldest plays softball. In general, I've always tried to stay out of a coaches way. The league is run completely by volunteers and they really do put a lot of time into making sure kids have a good time playing softball. We've always been a "if you need something, ask" kind of parents. This typically turns into warming a pitcher up or throwing pop ups at practice. I've helped with the bases and putting down the foul lines a few times before a game or covering if someone doesn't show up to work in the concession stand. One time it was pretty windy so I hosed down the infield before the game to prevent a dust storm. I like to think of it as helpful without initiative.  If you need something, let me know otherwise I'm going to sit here assuming you're all set.

On the registration form where it says are you willing to coach or manage I wrote "Will help out as needed." The league runs a pre-season clinic. While checking in my daughter to the clinic, one of the coaches greeted us with excitement and pretty much said (I'm trying for a direct quote here), "My assistant coach hurt her knee and can't really get around, you wrote 'will help out as needed,' I need you. Please, please, please, please."

So I'm an assistant coach. I had to go to tryouts with a clipboard to take notes and rank players as if I had a clue. Seriously, I have no business judging the ability of players. For the most part, my scouting report didn't really matter. Since the tryouts, I've spent a lot of time on YouTube looking at drills and things to do in practice (Anyone have ideas? I am very open to suggestions." We've had two practices so far and for the most part they went well. I tried to run a pickle drill but the team isn't quite there yet. They got the general idea, but couldn't pull it off in slow motion. Full speed in a game isn't going to work.

The next 6 weeks are going to be very busy. We've got 2 more practices and then the season starts. Not sure I'll ever get used to anyone calling me coach. In terms of softball knowledge, I am an imposter on this side of the fence. I'm an out of shape pizza enthusiast. I don't really have any business instructing sports.

Need help cooking dinner, I'm your guy.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Annual Girl Scout Cookie Tally

Ever year I take a look at the Girl Scout cookie sales and every year, they are pretty much the same percentage wise. Looking at the entire troops sales to date:

31% Thin Mint
28% Samoa
17% Tagalong
9% DoSiDo
7% Trefoils
4% Rah Rah Raisin
3% Savannah Smiles
1% Toffee Tastic

And here is all that data in a pie chart because...well it was already in Excel so why not.


Thin Mints continue to dominate with Samoas (a personal favorite) trailing slightly behind. Keep in mind Toffee Tastic is gluten free and cost an extra buck so clearly sales aren't going to be huge. One thing I've noticed, especially at booth sales, is that some people are fiercely loyal to their favorite cookie. For example,  one woman that stopped at the troop's table in Crossgates, said she'd be right back, went to an ATM for cash, and then bought 5 boxes of Rah Rah Raisin cookies.

Cookie Sales Demographic Fact: Men between the ages of 18 and 25 really have a thing for Tagalongs. To the point where when a guy wearing a SUNY tshirt walks up to the table you could say, "How many boxes of Tagalongs would you like?" Usually the answer is 2 boxes. One box is immediately consumed while walking around the mall, and the other box probably gets eat later that night. During the last booth sale, an out of town men's lacrosse team was in the mall killing time. After they walked past the table, they were now killing time with a box of Tagalongs.

It should also be noted that people shopping in Crossgates are very generous with people often stopping just to donate money without buying cookies or spend $5 on a $4 box of cookies. If you are looking for some Thin Mints or Samoas or happen to be a 20 year old guy needing a Tagalong fix, the troops last scheduled booth sale is tomorrow afternoon in Crossgates Mall in front of the Starbucks near Uno's and Best Buy.


Wednesday, March 16, 2016

So long Explorer

We've been vehicle shopping since before Christmas but it really took off in January. Shopping for a car is terrible. Just truly terrible. You constantly feel like everyone you talk to is trying to take advantage of you. The most blatant example of this was during a negotiation on Saturday. If the sales manager had treated us decently, we would have bout a car that afternoon. But he didn't. Felt like he was trying to take advantage of us. His opening offer for our trade-in was $250. We had already been offered $1000 from a car wholesaler when looking at used cars on his lot. The tires on our Explorer are worth more than $250. Donating the car to a charity would be worth more than $250 to us...and a charity. After 40 minutes of "let me talk to my manager in the back" bullshit our trade was suddenly worth $1500. I wish you said that in the first place.

We walked. Probably never to return to that dealership.

But this isn't about getting a new car. It's about saying good bye to our old car. It is very bittersweet.

My first car was a handed down, 2 door '84 Honda Civic hatchback. I loved that car. Even occasionally hugged it. In the winter of '92 when my wife and just started dating, the timing belt broke while I was driving on I-95. The car held on for awhile longer but was never the same. That did some damage. The next car for me was a '95 Saturn. It was 1995. Everyone bought a Saturn. The car was good, reliable and lasted a long time but I never loved it like that Civic. Reminiscing earlier today I said it was my "rebound" car from my first auto love.

When I got married, I had the Saturn and my wife had a handed down F-150 pickup. My sister-in-law called them Beauty and the Beast. The truck was Beauty. I don't know what was wrong with the wiring in that truck, but every year to 18 months, it would fry a battery and alternator. They would both be under warranty and we got pretty good at swapping them out.

My wife was pregnant with our first child when Beauty went under the weather. We need a good, reliable family truckster. We got this gold 2003 Explorer used with about 23,000 miles on it in the spring of 2004. I drove it to the hospital with my wife in labor for both our children. I vividly remember those drives. Car seats left permanent marks in the back seats. We set up makeshift beds in the back so the kids could take naps down at the lake.  I once got rear-ended with both kids in the back seat. I was a little sore, but we were all fine - I called the accident a successful test of a 5 point harness child seat. Plenty of fun in there too- road trips, a few trips with 3 adults, 4 kids and a dog crammed in there, beach vacations. Here's her good side. The passenger side has a bit of rust at the rear wheel well.


I'm incapable of keeping the same radio station on for more than a song (when I'm alone - I wouldn't constantly scan the stations slowly driving a passenger insane). My hand wore out the plastic beneath the preset buttons.
 

I've been driving that Explorer for two months shy of 12 years and now its future is probably a parts car or scrap. So long Ford Explorer. You were good to us. Thanks for the memories.

We got a minivan. Seems nice enough. I plan to drive it for the next 17 years.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Summer in February 2016



Every winter, we have a Summer in February party where we make a lot of summer/picnic style food and eat too much. Deviled eggs, potato salad, 7 layer dip…the works. The small family winter festival also goes by the name Rib and Pierogi Day. If ever there was a weekend to pretend it was summer, this Presidents Day weekend was it.

The low temperature at my in-law’s house Saturday night was -18. I watched the temperature rise pretty quickly Sunday morning and knew I’d be OK working the BBQ pit. I think it was pushing 8 degrees when I got going. And getting the pit going became much easier when we started filling the pit with coals taken from the wood stove in the garage.  Little side note in case you want to do this yourself: in the summer the coals can go directly on the ground. In the winter, the frozen ground thaws and then puts out the coals. In winter, I have this old cast Iron grate that keeps the coals off the ground. Around 11, armed with a pit full of coals and a burn going for future coals, the ribs went in.


Around 2, I moved the ribs to the side and some sausage went in. At 3, everything got wrapped in foil and went for a rest in a cooler. Also at about 3, Aunt Carol began to work her magic frying up a lot of pierogi.


 


A little after 4, we ate, and ate. Here’s a rack of ribs and half (that’s right half) of the pierogi.



It was a good time. This year it wasn’t as desperately needed as in past years, but a Summer in February party really does help to break up the winter.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Mini Pizza Tour Part 2: Restaurant Navona



The All over Albany crew left Stuyvesant Plaza and headed over to Restaurant Navona on New Scotland. Navona isn’t strictly a pizza place like Blaze. It’s a restaurant that also has wood fired pizza. The restaurant is really nice and this could definitely be a nice neighborhood restaurant. So far, I’ve only had the pizza so I can’t speak to the rest of the menu, but many of the menu items have at least one element influenced by the wood fired oven.

My pictures came out pretty bad.  For much nicer views of the pizza, check out the All over Albany write up here.

On to the pizza: the Navona pizza looks to be heavily influenced by the Neapolitan style although I don’t believe they adhere strictly to the Neapolitan rules and regulations. Certainly not a problem because many of the rules seem to be rules for the sake of having rules and the VPN organization often seems to be more about money than pizza. The wood fired oven is from Mugnaini, a well known specialist in commercial/residential ovens and still had a front landing to be installed. Due to some delays, the oven had only been installed for about a month at the time of our visit.

We sat at the corner of the bar as the restaurant was gearing up for a busy Saturday night. The first pie I tasted was the Cheese Puddle with mozzarella, provolone, ricotta, roasted garlic and olive oil.  I liked the flavor of the dough but there was a little too much char around the outside of the bottom. I thought the cheese had combined and had a beautiful, almost brie flavor. I enjoyed the pie. Not sure this would be a topping combination I’d seek out again, but I certainly wouldn’t turn down a slice if you were offering.


The second pie I sampled was the Valentina – Pecorino Bianco, ham, egg and black pepper. This pie has less char and very pretty leoparding. When egg yolk was broken, the yolk ran and added richness to the pie. I really liked the flavor combination.  Excellent pizza. I’d steal this topping but one improvement I’d suggest is to cook the egg directly on the pizza instead of in a pan. A nice presentation might be to slice the pie table side so the diners can dig in quickly after the yolk starts to run.


Pizza number 3 was the Navona which is essentially a Margherita. In speaking with Jay of OG Woodfired in Buffalo, he told me that what he loves the most about a Margherita is the simplicity. There is nowhere to hide. If anything is off, you know. This pie had a little bit of a gum line. The bottom of my slice was a little too charred – it’s a difficult line to walk, some char is delicious, too much is burnt. Even thought my pictures stink, you can see a big difference in char compared to the Valentina. I liked the sauce. It tasted like good tomatoes and salt, as it should be. The cheese and basil were good too. I would try this one again and I bet it is better in a month with more dough and oven experience.


The final pizza was Fire Roasted Eggplant with tomato jam, roasted fennel R&G goat cheese and house harissa. There was a gum line again. I think there is a little bit of an oven/dough learning curve that will improve the pizza as time passes and experience is gained. I liked the flavors on this pie but I doubt I’d go pick it again with the other options available.This is the worst picture I took that day, either the camera didn't focus or I had a minor seizure.


After the tasting we had a conversation with the chef. He clearly is passionate about the food he serves his guests. During this conversation, I felt like I put my foot in my mouth (for the 2nd time of the day) talking about the oven. The first time was at Blaze when I made a comment about the artichoke pizza before Deanna tried it. Kind of a judging faux pas. We were talking about the oven construction and the chef was describing the 9 inch concrete slab below the oven floor. I’m not sure if I made a confused face or what, it’s kind of a blur, but I said something like, “and insulation, right?” Nope. No insulation under that floor. From everything I’ve read on ovens, that’s a huge error. But I am unfamiliar with this particular oven, maybe an insulating layer is built into the floor. Or maybe it isn’t as big a deal for an oven that is fired daily. I don’t know. I can say with the oven I am planning, the oven floor with have a minimum of 2 inches of ceramic fiber insulation. I'm leaning towards 4 inches of insulation depending on how tall the oven stand ends up being. But that heat balance and the conductivity of the floor is very important for an even bake.

I think the pizza dough could actually use a little more salt. I’m taking a wild guess here, but I’d say the baker’s percentage of salt is under 2% and raising it a little to 2.5%, maybe even up to 3% would add flavor to the dough.

Overall, I really like what’s going on here. It’s good pizza with the potential to get better. In fact, if the restaurant was open on Sundays, I would have brought the whole family for dinner on Super Bowl Sunday to give some more of the menu a try. And the Mister Bill pizza too - meatball with fennel salami, tomato and mozzarella.

Monday, February 8, 2016

Playing with blocks



Last week I picked up a dozen full sized and two half sized concrete blocks to mess around with the stand layout of the oven. If this is how winter is going to be, I might as well get going. This weekend was perfect play with blocks outside weather. I had three options in mind. I laid out the first one, Option A, kind of a horseshoe pattern. The tape measure in the picture represents the size of a 2 foot log to be stored under the oven.



I thought this might be a good layout if I were going to use full sized bricks on the outside to cover up the blocks. There is just about the exact amount of space full sized bricks to sit the on the foundation slab. The wall also hugs the electrical conduit. The downside with Option A is there is a lot of wasted space in the back.

Option B takes up a bigger foot print but allows more access to the back. Because the walls are close to the edge of the foundation slab, the blocks would have to be covered with a veneer, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The electrical inlet might need a little protection but that should be easy enough to handle. Also, this set up is wider and I think forming up the slab the oven will rest on will be easier since it will be flush with the sides of the stand.


Option B1 is similar basically Option B but with the smaller foot print.


Option C is two “C” shapes of the left and right sides of the foundation slab – open in the front and back. I didn’t even set it up. After looking at Options A and B, I knew I didn’t want a straight flow of air under the oven. Wind mostly comes from the fence side of the pad. I could have added a wall in the middle, but that messed up the space for a two foot log.

Option B wins and it is kind of a relief to be able to focus on one layout now. When I was done, I stacked some blocks to look and the actual height of where the oven floor will be – 50 to 52 inches high. I’ve got to tell you, actually looking at the blocks is very different that looking at a scaled drawing. I was getting nervous at having to build the dome at that height. I’ll need to be on something, maybe a mini scaffold or bunch of small step ladders. To try and shake the nerves off, I broke out the arch I built out of wood a few months. It’s not centered and one of the glued joints is starting to fall apart. But that 2x4 is at the right height to represent the floor and the arch is a cross-section of the oven.
 

That view made me smile (even though one of my badly glued arch joins is failing) and brought me back to the task at hand. I found a supplier for the firebricks I want to use - Duke Concrete in Queensbury. It's a little bit of a haul but they are the only local supplier of Whitacre Greer low duty firebrick. All my research says that's the way to go, at least for the floor. Next step is finding the right used wet saw. I almost pulled the trigger on one, but I chickened out. And more planning. And reading. Lots of planning and reading.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Mini Pizza Tour Part 1 - Blaze



On Saturday, I was invited to join some contributors to AllOver Albany for a quick pizza tasting. Great people, good conversation and pizza…how could I say no to that?
 
The first stop on this mini pizza tour was the new Blaze Pizza in Stuyvesant Plaza. There was already a Blaze open in Schenectady but I had never been. I think Lebron James is one of the chain’s backers. Anyhow, it’s chain pizza and I’m a pizza snob so my idea was to go in with low expectations and hopefully be pleasantly surprised.

After entering the shop, my eyes were glued to the dough press. I had never seen one in the wild before.  This Blaze has two of them. The digital temperature on the side read 242 degrees F. I asked the press operator if that was a steam temperature and she said it was. I asked someone who looked managerial on the toppings line and he said something about air pressure. Looking online afterwards, I believe it is the temperature of the platens (the actual plates in contact with the dough). To make a pizza, the bottom platen is sprayed heavily with a Wesson bake release spray, a portioned ball is placed in the center, more spray and then smush. I didn’t time the length of the smush, but during the smush the temperature is all over the place. When the press is opened up, there is a perfect circle of dough with a little lip around the perimeter. It’s kind of Play-Dough-esque. Based on the markings on the dough bins, the dough is a little over 24 hours old before being served. The dough also looked like it was pretty wet and sticky. 

 
From there, the dough is put on a peel and you follow it past a lot of topping options customizing your pizza. We wanted to try there set topping combinations and I think we may have caused a little confusion since everything going on the pizza can be customized. And one thing I will say about the people working there: I’m not sure they could be nicer.


 

I tasted a slice of 4 Blaze pizzas. Here’s a rundown in the order that I ate them. First slice, the Link In: sauce, mozzarella, sausage, red pepper, sautéed onion. The crust was well cooked, didn’t have much flavor but there was a little bit of an off after taste. The sauce wasn’t bad. I thought the sausage tasted like a meatball. There was meatball on a later pizza so it wasn’t a mix up, they’re different. The cheese was good too. I think the option sprinkle of coarse salt and oregano helped the cheese out. I liked the pepper and onion, they had good flavor but if I found myself in Blaze again, I think I’d try something else. I messed up and didn't get a picture of this pie.


Slice two for me was the Meat Eater: sauce, mozzarella, pepperoni, meatball, and red onion. Same crust and still without much flavor. I’m really starting to notice that the press gives the dough a weird texture. More like a flatbread/tortilla-ish thing going on.  The sauce is growing on me with a good tomato flavor. The meat ball taste like meatball but different than the sausage meatball, the pepperoni is very salty and the onions were a nice touch. But still, this isn’t a pizza I’d order again.
 

Slice three was the Art Lover: mozzarella, ricotta, artichoke, dollops of sauce, chopped garlic – but they were out of garlic.  I get that it is a few days into being open so things happen, but send someone to go get more garlic. It is a topping on more than 1 of your signature pizzas. Garlic is sold everywhere. The crust is starting to grow on me a little but the texture is really weird.  I’m not sure if the garlic would have helped, but this pizza tastes like right out of the can artichoke and nothing else. I’d skip this one. 
 

Slice four was the White Top: cream sauce, mozzarella, bacon, chopped garlic (missing), oregano and arugula. Back to the flavorless crust but still consistent with the off texture. I didn’t like the white sauce and the bacon was very salty. I did like the arugula but the pizza was mediocre at best. 



In the end, Blaze isn’t for me. I pretty much knew that walking through the doors, going back to that snob thing. The foundation of pizza is the crust and I really don’t like the texture the dough press creates. If I found myself in a Blaze again, I think I would try to come up with my own topping combination probably starting with the tomato sauce and mozzarella and skipping the meats.  There is definitely worse pizza on the market and I would pick Blaze over other fast food places like McDonald's, Burger King Taco Bell or KFC to name a few. However, at a similar price point, I think the food at the higher end chain burger joints like Five Guys or BurgerFi is better. But that's not pizza so it isn't an apples to apples comparison. 

As someone who believes in the pizza cognition theory, I hate that this is going to be many kid's first memory of pizza. All future pizzas for those kids will be judged against Blaze. And that's too bad. While Blaze might be super convenient, there is a LOT of better pizza. The bar should be higher than "it doesn't suck." Unfortunately, I don't think it is. And if you think I'm being hyper-critical of a chain, I'm hyper critical of my own pizzas too. I made a white pizza with kalamata olives this weekend and I would be embarrassed to serve it to anyone. The topping combination was awful. My sausage/bacon/pepperoni pie, on the other hand, was pretty damn good.