Sunday, December 27, 2009

With Cherry on Top

It's one of those projects that's taken years rather than days or weeks to execute, and it's still a long ways from done, but at least one major step was accomplished in the last few days.
When we bought our house with its interesting hexagonal living room, one of the areas that I thought could be improved was the wall with the fireplace. It was divided into two halves, one side brick to the ceiling with the fireplace and hearth, and one side covered with rough cedar planking as a sort of paneling. The most important omission of course, was a mantel, someplace to hang the Christmas stockings from and display a few knick-knacks. I never took any photos of the wall in its original form; you'll have to get this picture from the younger set's second birthday as an approximation.

I thought something more like a Craftsman style would go nicely, something simple and not too ornate, and I drew up a plan that would put some paneling over the brick with an opening around the fireplace and a simple shelf between the wall on one side, and some new cabinetry that would go on the other side, someplace to hold all the DVDs and CDs and stereo bits.
Starting in December of 2005, I went to work on the brick side of things. I drilled some holes in the brick and epoxied in some bolts to hold some plywood in place that would in turn have some paneling and the mantel attached.

I cut some plywood to fit and installed it, then put some thin prefinished cherry veneer ply over the top. I figured a new mantel would be held up by the wall on one side and the cabinets on the other, but put some more bolts sticking out through the plywood in case I thought of a way to float a shelf instead. We didn't actually need a place for the stockings that year, as we spent Christmas in Boise with my family, so the mantel got put off for a bit. A long, long bit. By the next Christmas, we needed something for those stockings, so I hacked together a bit of pine board as a temporary solution. Here's a picture, from our curly-haired offspring's fourth birthday party in 2007. I'd moved the thermostat into the hall, but thermostat bits remained behind for the longest time.

And there the project sat. Until early in 2009, when I decided to tackle the other side of the wall, the one with all the cedar planking. I was curious what was behind it; from what I could see, it looked to be ordinary drywall. I pulled all the planks off, and sure enough, it was drywall, full of holes from the nails that held the planks on, and with about a three inch gap to where the fireplace brick started. Curious. It looked like the chimney had been built after the space had been drywalled. I spackled the holes and wedged a 2x3 into the gap so it would support a bit more drywall, and this picture of a certain someone's sixth birthday party has a bit of the result in the background.

Once my work contract ended a couple of months ago, I figured I would have plenty of time for finishing off the project, but various other tasks, sickness, sleeping way in, more sickness, and a general lack of tuit intervened, until a couple of weeks ago, when I finally got to putting up the drywall bits to cover the gap, which a summer energy audit from the power company had shown to be a major heat escape route. Our gas bills are high enough, thank you very much. I considered repainting, and then thought I'd just run the paneling all the way across. It was intended for the back of the eventual cabinetry anyway. I cut and installed some more cherry veneer plywood, then got to work on the all-important shelf.
In the interim between putting in bolts for the mantel and actually doing something with them, probably sometime in 2007, I'd discovered that IKEA had a floating shelf as part of their LACK line that was very similar to what I wanted. They didn't have one in cherry, but I bought one anyway, thinking that perhaps I could either veneer it or just use the mounting hardware, especially as it was only $30. It didn't fit the space exactly, but it was close, and I could have tried either method. I wound up deciding to build my own shelf over the steel hardware. I had to drill some new holes in the mounting bracket to fit my bolts, but that part worked out very nicely. I made a simple torsion box with some light plywood, like so.

This is the glue step with more of my thin cherry plywood for the top and bottom of the shelf.

And this is what it looked like after I applied some 2" cherry veneer tape to the front and side edges, and applied some corbels I purchased from a woodworking supply store. I think I'd purchased these materials back in 2007 as well, around the time I picked up the shelf from IKEA. I applied some finish so they'd look roughly like they belonged together.

The next day, Christmas Eve, with the assistance of my short helper, we put up the mounting hardware.

Fitting the shelf over it was a little trickier on the wall than in the garage, since the wall was not entirely flat despite my best efforts, and hitting the internal holes in the shelf with the support arms was a bit of a challenge. I wound up sticking some pointed bits of wood in the ends of the support arms to guide them into the holes deep inside the shelf. After more fiddling and trips to the garage for sanding and fitting, the shelf was finally installed and screwed into place, just in time for our guests to arrive. We put up the stockings, ready for a visit from St. Nick that evening. He did not disappoint!

Now there's still a bunch of trim to add, and the whole cabinet plan may or may not happen, but hey, a mantel! And it only took four years (so far)!

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Cookie Monster's Favorite Candy Corn

I've been wanting to make some more pastel cookies for a while, but haven't felt like there was time to complete them - they take rather more work than most sorts of cookies, and they have to chill for quite a while to make the dough stiff enough to work. It's good to pop the dough you're not working with back into the fridge, to keep it chilled, too. I decided it had been long enough and I'd make some cookies even if it kept me up late, and it has. The problem is, pastel cookies are best when made into interesting shapes, and I didn't have a good idea of what to make. I could make something like checkerboard cookies, but that seems kind of dull. Here's a picture of my first idea for something season-appropriate:

As you can see, this idea didn't work out so well, as you might not guess what the cookies are supposed to be if I don't tell you. No, they are not pork chops. These are my attempt at pumpkin pie slices, as seen from the side. Yes, I know. Needs whipped cream.
The Highly Capable Mrs. had a good idea that would work with the dough I'd already colored if I just colored another part of it yellow - Candy Corn! She's brilliant, why didn't I think of that? I put the idea into practice immediately.
Here's a picture of the cookie making in progress. It's a lot like working with Play-Doh, but a heck of a lot tastier.

And here's the finished product. Don't these look yummy?

You should try some. Go on, try some!

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Pretzel Logic

Kids from our son's school had their annual skating outing at Skate King today, and I tagged along to encourage the boy to do more than eye the video games, and possibly actually get out on the floor in skates. I don't think I've been on roller skates in most of a decade, but it was not especially demanding. We did a few loops, slowly, then he wanted a snack. We'd gotten a little fruit punch and popcorn when he noticed another kid had a soft pretzel from the concession counter. I opined aloud, we do not need more snacks, and besides, maybe we could make some of those at home. Naturally, that became a must-do activity according to the younger set, who insisted we get started not long after our return. The Formidable Mrs. found a recipe for giant soft pretzels online, and we got the bread machine started before dinner. An hour and a half later, the dough was ready, so we rolled out long ropes, twisted them into shape, then boiled them for about fifteen seconds in water with baking soda. They looked a bit like this after boiling:

When we had them all boiled and ready to bake, we popped them in the oven for about ten minutes, until they were nicely browned. We hauled them out then brushed them with a little water and sprinkled on some kosher salt, because it's just not a giant pretzel without those big salt crystals. The end result looked something like this:

It was a bit of a mess to clean up afterward for a mere eight pretzels (we remembered to take another picture after eating a couple), but also pretty cool to make our own, and they were quite tasty. I'm still intending to make my own bagels one of these days. It can't be that different.

Friday, June 26, 2009

The Flavor of Childhood

I like pizza. I don't like all pizza equally well, but the basic idea can be executed in a lot of different ways and still turn out fine. Pizza made with focaccia is pretty good, the sort I remember from San Francisco, probably at Boudin's. Deep dish style stuff is fine. Limp pizza doesn't do as much for me, the sort turned out at Pagliacci or Pizza Schmizza (a favorite with the junior member of our household) or the execrable Chuck E Cheese. But it's still pizza, and I'll eat it unless it's been contaminated with some unpalatable topping or other.

The pizza ideal, though, is tough to come by. My favorite is the pizza I had at Shakey's when I was a child growing up in Boise. My memories of the place are probably faulty, but I remember the door and windows had those multicolored round glass panes like bottle bottoms, and didn't admit a lot of light to the interior. The kitchen where the dough was tossed was behind glass, and there was a raised platform and a rail where we could stand and watch them twirl the pizzas and then brush on the thick sauce with a fat mop brush and sprinkle cheese all over and deal out the toppings like so many cards before sliding them into the giant oven with the peel that had a handle as long as a broomstick. The other entertainment was a movie projector playing Our Gang or Little Rascals shorts on a continuous loop. The pizza parlor was halfway across town, and I don't recall going that often, but I liked it when we did, even if I had to peel off the tomato slices that Mom liked on the Canadian bacon pizza.

The pizza had a crisp, crackery crust, and a sauce so viscous that it was almost solid, like tomato paste, with a hint of spice, in a thin layer under the cheese and toppings. Perfection! Sadly, the Shakey's chain was never especially well run, and I understand they changed hands several times in the Eighties and Nineties, losing lots of franchisees in the process. I discovered one in Bellevue when we'd been living in the area for a couple of years, but not long afterward they changed their pizza recipe to something with a thicker crust and a runnier sauce and not nearly as good, making it no longer worth seeking out in preference to the mediocre Round Table or Pizza Hut stuff. Then they closed, and a Mongolian Barbecue place opened in the building which was worth going to again, but I missed the pizza place.

When we went to vacation at Cannon Beach, Oregon the first time, the hotel we stayed in had a pizza place right next door, Fultano's. Naturally, we tried it, and it was the first time I'd had a pizza comparable to the old Shakey's recipe in quite some time. It became a favorite spot, along with the great beach, and added to the vacation draw of Cannon Beach. We've been back every year or two ever since.

We made some pizza at home a couple of weeks ago, and I made up some sauce based on a couple of recipes I found online, roughly equal parts tomato paste and tomato sauce, with some garlic and oregano and minced onion and salt and pepper, and left to simmer on the stove for a while. I was thinking about the paste-like sauce on Shakey's pizza and wondering how to recreate it. The result was pretty good, if I do say so myself. A while later I thought to see if maybe someone else liked Shakey's style pizza and perhaps had a recipe or two to share online. That's when I discovered that the greater Seattle area was still home to a couple of Shakey's franchises, which I thought had all dried up and blown away at least a decade ago. The nearest one was in Renton, a couple of miles east of Ikea. Not exactly close, but not out of the realm of possibility if traffic wasn't too bad.

Wednesday, the Formidable Mrs. had a dinner event for work, leaving me and the boy to our own devices. I packed him up in the van and we hit the road for Renton.
I'd looked up the location on Google's street view, and had a good idea of what I was looking for. It's your basic hole in the wall strip mall location, not a distinctive building with those multicolored glass panes, but you can't have everything. We got there in about twenty-five minutes in lightening traffic, and ordered up a large pie and some mojo potatoes to go. While they cooked it up we made a quick stop at the golden arches next door for the boy who was not as enamored of the pizza idea as I was, then came back to pick up our finished pizza and hit the road for home. Total time away, door to door, was about an hour and ten minutes. Impatient to try it, I shoveled some in my mouth while driving, which may not have been the most attentive thing to do, but there were no accidents, and it was so worth it. They had the original recipe going again, thin crust, paste-like sauce, and all. I stuffed myself with half of a large pizza, and found the belly distension a little uncomfortable afterward, but my mouth was not complaining.

I'm sure my wife is dreading being dragged for miles down south so that I can relive a little of my childhood in a vinyl and formica strip mall eatery, but it's a lot closer than Oregon. Sadly, there's no beach.

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Crimp My Ride

My dad isn't going to like this post, so I apologize in advance, Dad.

Whenever I am reminded that my dad traded in a '64 Chevy Chevelle Malibu SS

for a '72 Vega Panel wagon (ours was green, but this was the best picture I could find online)

I wonder what the attraction was, other than maybe it would be nice to have a working transmission, and it must have been cheap.

Of course, I wasn't into cars much as a kid (or as an adult, for that matter), and I wouldn't have known what to do with what was later regarded as a minor classic car if I'd had one. I drive a seventeen-year-old Japanese subcompact (like I stole it!), after all. On the other hand, the stories are too rich not to share. The Vega was the original mixed bag for me and my brother and sister; it got us where we wanted to go, but the cost in effort and aggravation was ridiculous. It taught me far more about what goes on under the hood than I really cared to know, and it's been the source of endless tales of automotive misadventure ever since.

I actually like the Vega panel wagon's looks, it was relatively cool for the time and the econo-box class, with styling echoes from the Camaro:

The next year they gave it an ugly grilled nose and it wasn't nearly as pretty. Looks were one thing, but the problems under the hood were quite another.

The Vega's engine sucked so hard that weather maps would have a low pressure system marked on them wherever we drove it. The aluminum block just wasn't hard enough to keep cylinder wear from making the thing burn oil in no time at all. I started driving the beast when I first got my licence in 1978, while I was in high school, and by then it had maybe 60K miles on it, which was considered past the upper limit for most Vega engines of that vintage. I wasn't going to let that stop me, though. It ran on about the same mix of gasoline to motor oil as a lawn mower. If it didn't have enough high-viscosity stuff in it, it'd smoke worse than a bingo nun with a three-pack habit. I kept a case of Valvoline SAE 50 in the back along with a pour spout and ran through the stuff like it was ginger ale.

After a while the 50 weight wasn't enough and I started pouring in STP or Motor Honey. I got a little behind on the oil one time and actually got pulled over by a state trooper who pointed at the blue cloud I'd left rising over the road, as far back as I could see, and he told me to get out and walk the rest of the way unless I could fix it. No ticket, just a warning. I walked across the street to a service station and picked up a two dollar bottle of motor gunk and that did the trick for the next few miles.

Naturally, the spark plugs got fouled in a hurry on that kind of diet, so I was unshipping them and cleaning and regapping them on a regular basis - the socket set slid around in back with the empty motor oil cans. Every once in a while the engine would go from firing on four cylinders to three, and I knew I'd need to fix it when I got home. Once it got down to two cylinders, and I had to pull over and fix it right there, 'cause it couldn't do more than about 25 mph and was rattling like a stepped-on snake.

This was the car that I and at least a couple of my siblings learned to drive in, and it got all the abuse that you'd expect from inexperienced drivers. It had a three-speed stick, and we destroyed the clutch at least twice, including once while I was in rush hour traffic on an arterial and barely managed to coast it from an inside lane over to the side of the road between some passing cars. My sister managed to kill second gear one time, and we drove it like that for a while after, just revving it really high in first then lugging it in third. My brother and I got reasonably adept at fixing it, including unshipping the tranny and replacing bits, but they got harder to come by in the '80s. I snapped the clutch cable on it once on a freeway onramp, which in the days before cell phones meant I needed to hike a ways, but fortunately a cop showed up before I'd gotten a hundred yards. Officer Friendly put in a call to my dad, who came out and in a virtuoso effort managed to drive the thing five miles back home just manhandling the gears, and getting some lucky timing on stoplights.

My brother drove it while I was away at college or driving the other car we inherited, and he managed to get the thing past 100K miles before it gave up the ghost completely. I think it died in a grocery store parking lot, and we hauled it home behind the van with our tow strap, which had seen a bit of use in that capacity by then. I called around to a few yards, and one of them offered us twenty bucks for it over the phone if we had the title. We figured what the hey and towed it over there, and got a bit of an argument when we arrived, from someone who loudly asked his colleagues what idiot made the mistake on the phone and for a while assured us they could offer little more than a plugged nickel, but I managed to talk them out of the twenty, since it probably had half that in gas in the tank anyway. And that was the end of the Vega, but the stories live on.

And the next car my dad got? An '82 Chevette Diesel. Oh, my.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

The Propagation of Memes in Cyberspace

You know those bits where you post a random picture, list your favorite whatever, tag somebody else to do it? Yeah, those. I don't do those. Except sometimes.

Here, for example, is the sixth photo from the sixth folder, sorted back to front; it's the Extremely Capable Mrs. along with our boy on snowshoes last month:

And here's the list of 25 random things about 25 random things I didn't post on Facebook:

1. The random beauty of "25 Random Things"
2. Charles Darwin Tagged You in a Note on Facebook
3. 25 Random Things About 25 Random Things on Facebook
4. Is that '25 Things' meme driving Facebook growth?
5. 25 Random Tips for the Busy Facebook User
6. Ah, Yes, More About Me? Here Are ‘25 Random Things’
7. 25 Things I Didn't Want to Know About You
8. 25 More Things I Didn't Want to Know About You
9. '25 Random Things' Lists Are Last Vestige of American Literacy
10. Have You Heard of This Facebook '25 Things' Thing?
11. We Never Do Random Things. Until We Do.
12. Facebook friends share '25 Things' with the world
13. Millions expose themselves online with '25 random things'
14. 25 Things--The modern day chain letter
15. Facebook fad gets personal
16. 25 Things Articles Arriving as Fast as 25 Things Lists
17. 25 Random Things Meme Is a Boon for Facebook
18. Deconstructing “Random Things About Me”
19. Facebook Mystery: Who Created “25 Random Things About Me”?
20. Facebook members make their innermost thoughts public
21. Facebook users spark craze for 25 Random Things lists
22. 25 things I don't want to know about you
23. Facebook's '25 Things' are life stories in miniature
24. The value in Facebook's new craze
25. 25 random things about Donny & Marie

I'm sure I'd be sorry I asked if I asked if you were sorry you asked. Sorry.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

What I Did On My Winter Vacation

Back in November or so when Sam booked our vacation to the mountains of central Washington for a "snow getaway" we had no idea that we were in for a humongous heaping helping of the stuff right at home. We didn't need a snow break so much anymore, but it was nice to get out of the house and enjoy a trip with our friends the Sathers to a little place in Plain, Washington called the Black Forest Lodge. It was a little over two hours by car, and more than comfortable enough once we arrived. They had snow on the ground, but it had been rained on and was hard as ice, so good for sledding, not so much for snowmen and igloos. But we've done that.

We did a bit of horse-drawn sleigh riding out in the countryside at the Red Tail Ranch,

accompanied by the ranch dog, reportedly part coyote.

We wandered into the big city of Leavenworth (well, compared to Plain, anyway) and did some sledding,

as well as some lunch, where Max showed us how he lost a tooth,

but no fear, the tooth fairy still managed to find us.
We tried out the snowshoes in town,

and watched some fireworks in the afternoon - in the winter, the fireworks can start at six o'clock.

We did a bit more trekking in the snowshoes in a park on our way back home.

Max mainly was interested in the hot chocolate part of snowshoeing.

We got back and things were pretty much just as we'd left them, and the cat greeted us enthusiastically until we fed her. That's what we did on our winter vacation.