Thursday, January 31, 2008

The Cinematic Endorsement I've Been Waiting For

Check this link out! Yay Kazakhstan! (Yes, I know the Oscar nominations came out a while ago... I've been busy.) I haven't even seen it yet (except for the trailer) but I hope it wins. Chinghiz Khan wielding double sabers?? Sign. Me. Up.

The Presidential Endorsement You’ve All Been Waiting For

Dateline: Ogallala, Nebraska (really), January 31: At a press conference at the local Days Inn, held before an enthralled audience of one dog interested in the shredded chicken burrito she was holding, The Pastry Pirate announced her endorsement of a presidential candidate for the 2008 election in typically wordy and roundabout fashion.

"I have always envied the anti-abortionists, gun nuts, creationists and other single-issue voters for the simplicity of their decision-making process," said the Pirate, pausing to drop a small pile of shredded chicken into a dog bowl set on the floor.

"For several months this campaign season, I tried to find a single issue about which I cared deeply enough to use as a litmus test in selecting a candidate. Alas, although I eventually did find such an issue, none of the candidates have announced they are in favor of using fossilized DNA to bring about a second Age of Dinosaurs. Not even Ron Paul."

"Forced to review candidates on their positions across the board, or at least on their personal grooming habits, I immediately rejected all individuals who would not be the prettiest person at a world summit photo op," the Pirate explained, noting that her thoughtful methodology quickly eliminated Rudolph Giuliani, John McCain and Dennis Kucinich.

Bill Richardson, an early favorite, and John Edwards eliminated themselves. The Pirate also removed Mitt Romney from consideration, citing as her reason "I just don’t like the cut of his jib" as well as his disturbing resemblance to a mating of Ted Danson with Satan.

While Mike Huckabee scored points for his big, soulful eyes and willingness to get down with his bad self on the bass guitar, his refusal to accept fundamental tenets of science soured his chances of scoring a piratical endorsement.

"Part of me would love to see Ron Paul in the White House, largely because I think it would freak Putin out, but also because he looks like Ian McKellan as Gandalf, which I find strangely comforting," the Pirate continued. "But I don’t really want a nutball running the United States. At least, not until after I have emigrated to New Zealand."

With the field narrowed significantly, the Pastry Pirate said making her final decision was surprisingly easy.

"Given the quagmire of Washington politics, I don’t pay much attention to any of the candidates’ positions, plans or promises. No one’s going to get anything substantive done, so why look for substance? I am endorsing Barack Obama for president because he and I went to the same college (not Cookin’ School), he’s left-handed, his suits fit him nicely, and I think he would freak Putin out, just a little."

The Pastry Pirate noted a rumored running mate for Obama further cemented her support.

"I’ve read that Wes Clark is on Obama’s short list for vice presidential candidates to make up for his lack of foreign policy experience and military service. If Clark, my choice for president in 2004, were on the 2008 ticket, I would totally vote for him. He’s hot, he’s got cool titles like ‘The Hammer of the Serbs’ and ‘Supreme Commander’ and, most importantly, he once really really wanted to bomb the Russians, just ‘cuz. I support that."

The Pastry Pirate closed the press conference by noting that no candidate she has ever supported in any election has ever won anyway, so she’d probably switch her vote to Ron Paul at the last minute.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Oh yeah...

I keep meaning to post some of the pix I took when my bro and I visited the Castello di Amorosa in Napa, so here they are:

I need this doorknocker/hitching post/curtain tieback. As my brother noted, it looks rather more Scandinavian than Italian, but still. I need it.

An interior shot. It's hard to see, but the black knight on the far wall has a giant raven on his helm. I need that too.

The allure of the misty vineyards and hills doesn't quite translate at this image size, but here's an exterior shot anyway.

Haul This!

Yes, I am still alive. The number of gentle yet concerned emails wondering where the hell I was and what I was doing reached critical mass, so I thought I'd file a quick update.

I am an hour-plus late to pick up my U-Haul truck and tow dolly for my beloved and much abused Ford Focus. I've spent the last week-plus sorting, organizing, tossing/donating and packing stuff, and also vowing Never to Buy Anything Ever Again. The good news is two of my neighbors are buying most of my furniture, aside from things I will not be parted from, like my bed (those of you who have seen the seven-foot-tall "cemetery gate" headboard in all its goth splendor will understand).

Oh yeah... I almost forgot. Where am I lugging all my stuff? The Rockies. Yes, I took the job offered there after my stage, without even going to the third place, in Virginia, that wanted me to visit. They were even willing to pay my travel expenses, but in the end I knew it wasn't right for me and I didn't want to waste anyone's time, mine included.

So I am headed out to Colorado, departing New York Sunday or Monday, depending on how quickly I can pack the U-Haul. I promise much more when things are a bit settled. Until then, thanks to everyone who emailed and wanted to know if, given my uncharacteristic silence, all was well. Yes, it is, and I'm very excited, just a little stressed and low on time at the moment.

More soon! Swear!

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Exit Stage Left, Part Two

From my most excellent stage in the Rockies, I headed for the San Francisco area to visit with my brother and sister in law and stage for a couple days at a Big Deal Silicon Valley company that has won raves and awards for its employee food service program. The executive chef I had interviewed with at school was very upbeat and talked up all the cool things the program offered, including organic and seasonal menus, restaurant-style rather than a cafeteria, everything from scratch, yadda yah. He also talked about hiring me for a baking position doing pretty interesting breads and pastries.

Yeah, whatever.

The whole thing was a nightmare from the start. After a nice visit with my fams in the Central Valley, I drove to Silicon Valley, got lost despite having downloaded directions (Curse you, Mapquest!), and arrived nearly half an hour late. The pastry chef to whom I had been told to report was okay about that, mostly because I think he was so out of his wits stressed already. Without any introduction or the briefest of kitchen tours (as in, "this is the walk-in, here’s the oven") he told me to slice and bake-off several dozen cookies. I did, and was immediately handed a crate of pears to peel, core, quarter and saute.

Then he disappeared. I later learned that he had barricaded himself in the walk-in (literally... in order to clear a place to sit he had to move racks around so no one else could get in) to scoop ice cream for lunch service. I also learned he was not the pastry chef, but the sous chef, who was stuck doing pastry because the people hired for the position "didn’t work out" or "couldn’t be trusted."


Meanwhile, looking around myself as I sauteed a cauldron of pears, I saw that everyone else there was there because it was a job, nothing more, that the food itself had no interest to them, and that they might as well have been slinging hash at whatever places around there still slung hash for all it mattered to them. It was an employee cafeteria. Yeah, the food was fresh and a step up from some places, but it was still cafeteria food.

The chef, by the way (not the exec chef I had talked to), was a jerk, mocking customers within their earshot, making smartass, frat boy comments as if anyone gave a crap what he thought and generally puffing out his chest like some dimwit jock who thinks being captain of his JV football squad puts him on the same plane of Importance as Ghandi.

When he deigned to speak to me, it was to say, no lie, "Anyquestionsaboutworkinghereno?good!" and continue walking past, pleased with himself that he had made such a witty comment.

Things were not going well.

I knew within five minutes of walking in the door that this was not for me, but I stayed in hopes of asking the sous chef about the position I thought I was being considered for, which was not this. After he disappeared, I decided to finish the pears instead of leaving them on the flame, which would have been unprofessional.

When the pears were done and I had finally found him, I asked him about the baking position the exec chef had been talking up.

"If they put you there instead of here where you’re needed, I’ll be pissed. I’ll raise hell," he snapped.


Okay, so, where do you see me being in two or three years if I were to take this job?

"Well, uh... the woman who used to do this works in HR now."

Ah. I see.

How much does this pay, anyway?

When he said $14 or $15 an hour, I smiled and told him not only no, but hell no, thank you and good-bye. Okay, I am a professional, so I didn’t say that exactly. I mentioned other offers (true) and the desire not to waste his time (or, more importantly, my time), and did thank him.

I did not graduate first in my damn class for a crappy, low-paying job working for muttonheaded jackasses in an expensive, congested area of the country that is seismically active, thank you very f’in much.

"So, you’re not coming in tomorrow, are you?" he replied glumly.


He called the HR chick who came down as I was changing and said, rather snippily, "Well, I guess you have to do what’s best for you."

Why yes, yes I do.

Once I was back in street clothes, I stopped by the kitchen one more time to say to the sous chef, who seemed like a decent guy, however overworked and underappreciated, "hey, if nothing else I hope I made your day a little easier."

The chef was standing next to him as I said this and made a point of turning his back with ridiculous "you are dead to me" melodrama. As I was walking out, I heard him say something to my back. I couldn’t hear what it was, but I heard the snotty, dickhead tone of it.

"Asshole," I said, loudly enough that I’m pretty sure he heard, and kept walking.

I won’t be invited back, I’m sure. No loss.

I consider the visit an absolute success. Going out to Cali to stage makes the trip tax-deductible (job hunt-related expense!), I got to spend quality time with my brother and sister in law and see their cool house and sweet cat, I also had a great visit with a former professor of mine and his wife, and I got to eat at Citizen Cake in San Francisco, which was, er, interesting (thyme and agar ravioli with quince and manchego cheese ice cream? The thyme-infused pastry cream gave me good ideas, but agar is not an appropriate substitute for pasta and the ice cream was way the hell over-churned. Oh, and their bread sucked). Far better than Citizen Cake was a little Austrian konditorei near my bro that did a most awesome green apple mousse cake and tasty whole wheat danish with quark, a German cheese that’s one of my favorite things.

And the awful time at Big Deal Company made making my decision about where to go that much easier... stay tuned for more on that.

Instead of staging that second day, by the way, I went to Napa, where I’d never been, with my brother. We stopped at a couple wineries and checked out the bakery at Thomas Keller’s empire (my lamination is better...), but I think the highlight was, on a tip from my professor and his wife, the Castello di Amorosa. We thought it might be a little touristy, but they did a pretty good job of building a fairly authentic Italian castle in the middle of Napa just ‘cuz they could. I tried to post a couple pix, but Blogger is being uncooperative, so it will have to wait till next time...

And until next time...

Beyond Awesome!

I'll get back to recounting part two of my Job Safari (doesn't that sound more exciting than a job hunt?) shortly, but right now I wanted to pass along the most awesomest link, courtesy of my brother, to whom I recently confessed that I had built financier and marzipan replicas of Isengard and Bara-Dur, from The Lord of the Rings, for my own amusement using my Nordic Ware castellette cake pans.

(I didn't post any pictures of my creations on here because, er, they were devoured, er, by a dreadful beast that, er, broke in to my apartment and demanded almond products before I could photograph them. Burp.)

Anyway, here's the link, which proves that I am not alone in thinking that making edible recreations of scenes from Tolkien is normal, totally normal.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Exit Stage Left, Part One

I’m back in Cookin’ School Environs after staging at two places out west. First, I went to a place in the Rockies, as intimated in an earlier post with my reference to a high altitude headache.

I started the trip with much trepidation: a blizzard that had just walloped the Sierra Nevada was rolling in, I was in a periwinkle PT Cruiser rental (good God!) and the only way in or out of the valley where this place was located was over a 13,000 foot pass with more hairpins than a beautician’s tool box. On top of that, I’d never staged before as a, you know, graduate (I had gone out to Vegas to stage before my externship), and wasn’t sure what would be expected of me.

Well, I had a great time. I really like the property, the chef, his ideas about food and how he runs his kitchen. There were a couple grill monkeys in the kitchen, all attitude, but most of the guys (and yes, they were all guys) were friendly and helpful, including an old Swiss chef who retired from running his own restaurant but comes in a couple times a week because he can’t bear to be idle at home.

Nearly all the back of house staff worked for the chef before, at other places back East, and followed him here, which I think is always a good sign.

Interesting note: both of the dishwashers are from Chile and have German names and blue eyes. Discuss.

The surroundings are, as you might expect in the middle of the freakin’ Rockies, gorgeous. Here’s a shot of the parking lot as the storm was rolling in; it might not look like much, but I hope it conveys the specific property and area around it is so not about designer stores and celebrity photo ops... this is a year-round resort for people who like to ski, fly fish and hike and just happen to be rich.

Some of the stuff I did, both my seat-of-the-pants experimentation (juniper and lemon granita) and a chef-directed conconction ("I want you to make a chocolate-jalapeno mousse and pipe it into a tuille shaped like a box..." uhm, okay) wound up on a tasting menu he was doing for a group booked into the private dining room after "purchasing" him at a charity auction. I figure the fact that he served the stuff I made was a promising sign.

Some of the other stuff I did, including tragically flat cranberry-almond scones (still tasty! just a bit leaden) and less than stellar cheese puffs suffered from the high altitude, but the chef didn’t seem surprised or annoyed. Apparently, when he’d come out to stage for the exec chef position himself, he also had run in to the whims of creating food in thin air.

I also did a caradmom creme brulee with roasted oranges that looked and tasted beautiful going in to the ramekins, but alas, though I put it in the oven at 200F, when I took it out the oven dial had magically moved to 325F and I had cardamom scrambled eggs on my hands. No one would fess up to changing the temp, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the chef or one of his minions did it just to see how I would react to ruined product. Well, there’s no crying in pastry, so I soldiered on.

The snowstorm came barreling in the evening the day before I was supposed to fly out of Denver. I was in the kitchen until about midnight, then got in my ridiculous rental (I mean, periwinkle, honestly?) for the drive back to my hotel. I slept for a little over an hour but, anxious about the roads and the forecast of four feet of snow, I threw my stuff in my car and set out around 0400.

The snow was heavy but fine and powdery, and I’ll say this for the Colorado folks: even on a fairly remote road in the wee hours of a Sunday morning, they were ready for it. I passed dozens of plows on the road between my hotel and the pass, one every couple of miles.

The pass itself was a nightmare partly because I had an idiot in a red van ahead of me whose driving-in-snow strategy seemed to be: careful, careful, ooh! going uphill! better slam on the brakes!

What galled me to no end was that the van had Wisconsin plates. Hang your head in shame, cheesehead, for driving in snow like you’re from Florida.

To make matters worse, I had another guy tailgating me the whole time I was stuck behind the red van, as neither of us could pass.

And, for the record, there is a reason you never see PT Cruiser commercials featuring the vehicle negotiating hairpin inclines (and descents) in heavy snow. It doesn’t really work well.

So, yeah, it was stressful, but thankfully I apparently had my guardian angel, Allah, Buddha, Krishna, Fortuna or Darth Vader riding shotgun because I made it. Though I never, ever, ever want to do that again. Ever.

Once out of the mountains, the weather was nearly clear so I was able to take a couple photos of my favorite Interstate signs ever. I saw them driving back East after Vegas earlier this year, but was unprepared. This time, as I descended onto the front range, I had my camera ready:


This one isn’t quite so ominous... "TRUCKERS YOU ARE NOT DOWN YET!"

On a related note, I am not done yet relating my stage-a-thon, but stay tuned for part two.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

Is It Just Me Or...

Checking in for my flight earlier this morning, I was listening with half an ear to the Terribly Serious messages about which line to stand in for people just arriving to the airport. Both of the lines were at least as long as Disney's Space Mountain during Spring Break, but those of us considered "normal" were sent "to the right." All the troublemakers were sent "to the left" (of course).

The Sinister Line, according to the announcer, was for:

"Anyone traveling with a pet in cabin, anyone carrying a firearm and anyone traveling with an unaccompanied minor."

Set aside the whole firearm bit and ask yourself: if one is traveling with an unaccompanied minor, can that minor be considered unaccompanied?

Just wondering.

Much more on Stage One, as well as a drive that confirmed to me I am an excellent driver... and also a drive I hope never to repeat. But now I must show my ID once again to board the plane. Because everyone knows terrorists always misplace their fake IDs between the security checkpoint and gate. Hey, it happens.

Friday, January 4, 2008

At Least I'm Not A Lobster

I'm sitting here in a cushy chair at a locally-owned coffee house, a light snow falling, my high altitude-induced headache eased slightly by a 20 oz, triple-shot Cowgirl Cappuccino (actual menu name), using the establishment's free WiFi to check on the weather before setting off for day one of my job interview, and I get an email from the lovely and talented Dr. Virago about a post I should read on another blog about an academic's worst job experiences.

And now, I say, you must read it, especially if you have ever worked, or thought of working, in a library, on a farm or in a kitchen. Hilarious, sad, frighteningly true. And now, no matter what happens in the kitchen today during my stage (rhymes with the "Taj" in Taj Mahal), I can take comfort in the fact that at least I won't be dressed like a lobster.

And for those of you whose curiosity has been peaked by my reference to a high-altitude headache, yes, my potential place of employment is at about 8,000 feet above sea level, which is not only enough to give this flatlander a headache, it's enough to cause headaches in the kitchen, because sugar reaches its various stages (soft ball, hard crack, etc) at different temperatures, cakes don't rise and souffles deflate due to the thinness of the air. Of course, I am all geeked-out and excited about the prospect of learning high-altitude baking and pastry, frustrating though I'm sure it would be. Stay tuned.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Just Like Buddha Said...

"Nothing is forever except change." It seems an appropriate way to start my first post of 2008, not just because of the new year but because of all the changes around me.

Just as I was getting sentimental about my odd little ski chalet apartment in the woods, thinking about how I’ll miss watching the deer and heron and Wiley’s feline friend Dash, I got new neighbors.

I have the end unit, and for two months the unit next to mine has been vacant, ever since the little old lady who lived there for 28 years moved into a senior home around Halloween. She was a generally very quiet neighbor, and friendly but not too friendly, but she was an insomniac who often watched "Law and Order" at all hours of the night. She was also mostly deaf, so she had the tv on loud. Not a big deal, but every now then the "CHU-CHUNG!" would startle me out of sleep. Anyway, she had already left by the time I was doing the hellish 0200 breads class, so I was able to enjoy two months of quiet just when I needed it most.

Now, as if Fortuna is saying "it’s time to move on, Pirate," my new neighbors are a young couple whose hobbies are having their friends over to drink, arguing and having loud sex. They’re also not particularly friendly, though they did fawn over Wiley when he ran up to them hoping to score some of the pizza they were bringing home. When they choose to play beer pong or recreate their favorite moment from Jenna Jamison’s screen career, I retaliate with either bagpipe music or Jocelyn Pook, a sort-of New Agey world music chick really into harmonic minor scales, Gregorian chants and traditional Middle Eastern music. I happen to like her stuff a lot, which shocks many people, but she is definitely an acquired taste. In any case, if I needed a sign that the time has come to set sail for a new adventure, there you have it.

Tomorrow morning I leave for part one of my job safari... two different possibilities in two different states, very different situations. I’ve never "staged" before, the industry term for basically an in-kitchen audition for the job, so I’m a little anxious about what to pack (do I bring my entire 50 pound baking kit and look like a dork and crowd the kitchen or do I just take the essentials and then look like a dork asking to borrow stuff from others?), what to expect, and so on. I come back briefly and then next week leave for another potential job in yet another state. All three potential jobs interest me and could be great... or horrific. All three are also as different in particulars as they are in geographic location. We’ll see.

But before I take flight to the west, I just wanted to post a few random observations/experiences that I’ve been meaning to share:

– Both my local Starbucks had a CD retail display with the sign "Music to Make the Season Merry." Beside the sign in both stores, a Nirvana album was the displayed item. Baristas with an ironic sense of humor or mere chance?

– My favorite moment, hands down, of watching the extended version DVD of The Two Towers with "Actors’ Commentary" is when the army of the Haunted Mansion... uh, I mean the Dead Dudes, are swarming through Minas Tirith and wiping out the orc army. Bernard Hill (Theoden) says ever so drily "Hmm. Reminds me of the stuff you pour down the toilet to get out the lime scales." It was a beautiful moment.

– And finally, a mystery solved!! Sort of. One of my favorite places to walk Wiley is a nearby state park that’s home to a Gilded Age mansion but also a lot of odd old stone walls and ruined outbuildings, as well as a seriously creepy monument, shown below. It’s in the middle of the woods. Some playground. (In case you can't read it, it says "This Playground was given to the People of Staatsburg in memory of Lewis Gordon Norrie and His Happy Youth, Dec 25, 1901 Sept 23, 1923."

From the front of the monument stretches a dead and overgrown tree-lined road leading to... The Building (below, glimpsed through trees)

It’s a very sinister place, set on a ridge, with no windows on the bottom floor and only a shabby little entrance. For a long time I puzzled over it... the line of trees connecting the monument and building led me to the conclusion that it must be where they kept Norrie after he went mad or grew an extra limb or whatever. It’s a good mile-plus from there to any other building of consequence and, while high on a ridge over the Hudson, is not easily accessible from the water.

I did some research. No one at the mansion proper would admit knowing about the building (see! It must be where they kept the Norrie ManBeast!), but finally I found a trail hiking site online that listed it as a disused well house that once supplied water to several other outbuildings in the area which no longer exist.

Oh, of course... but wait... It’s on what appears to be a ridge of solid rock, while there are wet draws all over the area, one of which would make, one would think, a much better well site. And that still doesn’t explain need for the grandiose "European castle-like" architecture (as described on the site), nor its location relative to the Norrie monument. I still think there’s more to the story, but for now enjoy the creepy photos.

And, oh yeah, here’s the White Tree of Gondor:

And no photos from a walkies excursion would be complete without Wiley hearing the call of the wild:

Happy 2008, everyone!