Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Rocky Mountain Randoms, Part Three

People warned me that three things would happen moving to this altitude: I’d develop a screaming headache for the first few days, would get winded easily for the first few weeks and would lose any tolerance I had for alcohol as long as I stayed here.

"One beer will get you hammered up here, but the good news is you can drink like a fish at sea level," Chef told me, among others.

Well, I got the screaming headache (and the bloodshot eyes, which I still have). And the first week I would get winded going uphill from the parking lot to the kitchen every morning, but apparently my Irish, German, Polish and other drinkin’ ethnicity genes have overruled the whole high altitude alcohol thing. I’m not a big drinker to begin with, and I avoided any and all alcohol my first couple weeks here for fear of being incapacitated as warned by the cooks.

But last week, I opened a bottle of dessert wine with comparatively high alcohol content (17%). I had a glass. Nothing. Not even a buzz. The next night I had two glasses. Nada. I finished it over the course of the week. Then last night, I had two ounces of apricot liqueur with a ginger beer. No reaction, not even a faint buzz. Hmm. There is also enough Sambuca in the fennel ice cream I made at work to qualify it as a horse tranquilizer, and while everyone who tries it speaks favorably of the boozy punch, I only get a pleasant anise flavor.

I’m not about to test my hypothesis by downing a case of beer tonight, but I do think it’s interesting that booze intolerance at high altitudes is apparently one side effect of living at 8500 feet that I don’t have to deal with.

I would trade it to get rid of the bloodshot eyes if I could, though.

Rocky Mountain Randoms, Part Two

I will admit that I miss being able to listen to NPR. Even though it annoys me half the time with its mix of predictable, earnest music choices and smug and/or earnest "on-air talent," when I got a station in range I at least knew what was happening in Kenya and which fish were being sustainably caught.

My need to listen to All Things Considered and Marketplace is that much more acute given that CNN has devolved into a tedious loop of shrill harpies, hyperbole and utterly useless crap like their News to Me segments. If I wanted to watch shaky hand-cam footage of a burning building in Pittsburgh, I’d troll YouTube, thanks very much. Apparently they changed to being the Constant Nonsense Network during the period when I didn’t have cable.

There’s only one radio station I can get on my commute, at least that I’ve found so far, and reception goes in and out several times as I drive through the foothills to or from work. I determined early on that it was a Christian station with a mix of "family values" talk shows and Jesus Bop, that overproduced, generic pop-rock that just sounds like mediocre Six Flags side stage bands until you start listening to the lyrics ("You raiiiiiiise me up!" "I am nothing without yoooooou, my Lord!").

Anyway, I don’t listen to it much, if at all. I only catch moments when I’m changing mix tapes, switching, say, from Rob Zombie to Rammstein. But last night, coming home from work, I discovered that it’s not a Denver or Boulder station as I had thought. It’s based in Wyoming. I don’t know why, but that really amuses me.

I’m still not listening to it, though.

Rocky Mountain Randoms, Part One

This morning at the grocery store, I asked the cashier whether there were any Target-like stores in the valley and she said the only place was an Alco, south of here on the way to Denver, describing it as a "mini-mini-mini Walmart."

I asked if there wasn’t anything to the northwest (where the only road goes, eventually arriving in Salt Lake City) since I haven’t been too far up that way yet.

"Nope," she said.

"Not even in Kremmling?" I asked, remembering on my map that the town of Kremmling appeared in a slightly larger print than the towns I live and work near.

"There ain’t nothin’ in Kremmling ‘cept a lot of DUIs," she replied definitively.

A Day (Or Three) in the Life of a Pastry Pirate

I realize I haven’t been saying that much about work. I guess because it’s pretty intense, and I get very absorbed in what I’m doing when I’m there, then when I come home it’s all about taking care of Wiley and relaxing, so I tend to switch gears and shut off the pastry part of my brain.

That said, I like it, and haven’t had any major screw-ups. Even though I’m based in the original restaurant, I do the dessert prep for the new place as well as the baked goods for the new coffeehouse.

Just a couple things I’ve done in the past few weeks include creating an orange pecan and white chocolate biscotti for the coffeehouse, making fennel ice cream (which Chef loved) and creating two desserts for the fancier of the two restaurants: a warm molten chocolate cake served with orange ice cream drizzled with a bitter chocolate and orange ganache, and a fancy version of strawberry shortcake with sugar-crusted pate a choux filled with whipped cream and strawberries sauteed with a little balsamic, accompanied with a quenelle of black pepper ice cream and a drizzle of balsamic syrup. I also did a rice pudding with toasted almonds and tart cherry sauce for the new restaurant, but it didn’t sell well so we’re going back to regular creme brulee, which I like doing anyway.

I kept the last three days’ worth of to-do lists I scribble on index cards every morning to help me prioritize. Here they are, with some additions:

Saturday - a Fairly Light Day

Take inventory of all ingredients, order as needed. Inventory existing product for restaurants and coffeehouse.

Make four pans of brownies for tomorrow’s ski race luncheon. Glaze with ganache. Cut.

Bake off 12 dozen cookies for tomorrow’s luncheon.

Make and scoop mudslide cookies (we make large batches of cookie dough, scoop them to portion and freeze them, then store them until needed).

Use puff dough scraps to make apple turnovers for coffeehouse.

Make vanilla ice cream.

Make fresh batch of caramel sauce.

Make bread pudding from leftover croissants.

Make cinnamon bun dough, freeze.

Bake two more pans of brownies for restaurant.

Make tart dough, wrap and chill.

In addition, I had to bake off another six dozen cookies (yes, 18 dozen total!) when we learned late in the day that we would have twice the number of race participants as expected tomorrow.

Deliver the Sunday morning products to new restaurant - apple turnovers, scones and cinnamon rolls.

Clean station, sweep, mop.

As I was getting ready to leave, one of the line cooks came running back to the area I work and asked if I could make him bernaise since they ran out. I made it once, two years ago, but said if he could talk me through it I would. So I wound up making a batch of that for the hot line. I like that the place is small enough that I get to do things like that.

Sunday - Attacked by Jackals!

Take inventory of ingredients and product as usual.

Make new batch of puff pastry (yes, by hand... I really got spoiled using the sheeters at school).

Bake and cut three sheet pans of poundcake for new restaurant. Soak scraps in rum syrup.

Make four dozen marble chocolate-covered strawberries for Oscar party that night.

Make regular and mini- size flourless chocolate cakes, one of our signature items, both for original restaurant and for Oscar party. Garnish.

Go through walk-in and find other random stuff to send to Oscar party people, garnish accordingly.

That was my list, but just before noon all hell broke loose. We were hosting a big ski race for the first time, which included a luncheon. Not only did we have twice the number of people show as planned, but one thing no one had really considered was that these would be voracious cross-country skiers who’d just finished 10K or 20K races. People weren’t taking one hamburger or hot dog, they were taking three or four at once. I had to leave my puff pastry in progress (never a good thing with lamination) and help Chef run food out to the masses. We couldn’t replenish the buffet fast enough. People were grabbing food off the platters as I was bringing them out, and peppering me with questions like "Is there olive oil in this?" "Are these beef or pork hot dogs?" "Why aren’t you bringing out more fruit salad?" "Where do I get my free race t-shirt?"


I lost about two hours out of my production dealing with the pack of jackals, so I didn’t get the rest of my list done. Fortunately, none of the items left unfinished were needed for that night, so I was able to roll them over onto the list for:

Monday - The Calm After the Storm

I like Mondays because after the always-busy weekend, it’s like going to the spa. The main restaurant, where I am physically located, is closed, so it’s just me, a dishwasher, and der ErlkonigRedux, the elderly retired Swiss chef who comes in part-time to do a bit of this and a bit of that to stave off the boredom of being a retired Type A personality. Aside from putting away the food orders when they arrive from purveyors, I’m free to structure my day as I please, with little or no interruption.

Yesterday my list included:

Inventory (I try to do it first thing when I get in so I know what’s needed, both for ingredients and product)

Make triple batch of vanilla ice cream since I have the next two days off and don’t want to run out.

Make double batch of caramel ice cream.

Make black pepper ice cream.

Make double batch of cinnamon roll filling, roll out dough, fill and cut rolls, freeze.

Make batch of sugar cookies.

Make sugar-crusted pate a choux, bake.

Unmold and portion bread pudding and arrange on trays for service, wrap.

Make fresh batch of creme anglaise.

Bake two more pans of brownies for new restaurant.

Roll out tart dough from Saturday, line individual shells and bake for later use.

Take scraps of poundcake that were soaking in rum syrup and flatten, press down with weights in attempt to make a dense cake Chef had in Europe once and wants me to recreate. Actually, despite his vague recollections, I really like the idea of using rum-soaked cake scraps to make petit fours, which I think is what he’s talking about. We’ll see.

Convince Paolo the Brazilian dishwasher to try the black pepper ice cream. Bask in ensuing complements.

Bask a little more when der ErlkonigRedux, unprompted, tells me how much he loves the fennel ice cream.

Start prepping "concepts" for original restaurant’s dessert menu, which Chef wants to revamp entirely next week.

Clean out walk-in and make sure all pastry products are wrapped and labeled.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Random Asides

I’m spending my day off moving to a different unit in the apartment complex (the address I may have emailed you won’t change, however) because the owner of the unit I was originally supposed to get balked at the idea of allowing a dog, even though the dog in question is the superstar, superfluffy love monkey that is Mr. Kittenheads. So anyway, they moved me into a temporary unit that was a timeshare not being used for a couple weeks until a permanent spot opened up, which is today.

After enduring yet another schlep of my stuff (though this time only down one floor and to the opposite end of a building, thankfully), I’m taking Wiley to Bullwinkle Ranch (my place of employ) so we can bark at the skijoring snobs. What is skijoring? Well, it’s where the human straps on cross-country skis but no poles and hooks their dog(s) on to a harness and lead. The dog then theoretically pulls the human along the ski trail and much enjoyment is had by both human and canid.

Skijoring is one of the major activities offered at Bullwinkle Ranch, and has been recommended to me every time someone there learns I have a dog. And every time, I laugh so hard at the notion of Smalls and me attempting to skijor that I nearly wet my pants. Forget that I am as coordinated on skis as a walrus on a skateboard. Forget that Wiley is 13 years old with an arthritic back and hip. Just the idea of him running in a straight line forward and not stopping to smell, pee, eat snow or back into me and do the "Gimme a Butt Rub" dance is most amusing.

And nevermind that the skijoring snobs I’ve seen on the grounds are all extremely fit and color-coordinated and have Labs and Huskies and Bernese Mountain Dogs that all have their own snow booties and doggie backpacks and an air of smugness to them (the people and the dogs). Yeah, not our scene.

Anyway, after Wiley has raised a sufficient ruckus, he’ll snooze in the car while I eat dinner with a couple other Cookin’ School grads who work with me at the ranch... the new restaurant on-site is having an employees-eat-free night.

As promised by the subject line, here are a few other things I’ve been meaning to post:
My apartment building is next door to the county rodeo grounds, open in July and August. I plan on Wiley raising a ruckus there, too, once it’s the season.

We found a back road near the apartment that’s plowed but doesn’t get much traffic, so we’ve been having some nice off-leash walkies (free-rangin’ it, as I call it) of a couple miles or more. But only in daylight. In addition to boots, canid and deer tracks, I spotted mountain lion tracks. Yikes! One of the maintenance guys at the apartment complex told me he’s seen them in the parking lot several times during the wee hours of the morning, especially in winter and early spring.

In other wild news: I’ve seen two foxes now on the side of the main road (alive and waiting to cross). They are so beautiful and sleek and much bigger than the ones I occasionally saw back East. Also: the crows. Good Lord, the crows. There are some ravens and a lot of beautiful black and white magpies that are much prettier and well-behaved than the ones I had to deal with in Moscow, but there are also a lot of huge crows around my apartment. Some of them are nearly the size of wild turkeys! They hang out around the snow piles and dumpsters and croak to each other.

My job continues to be challenging, but it’s more fun now that I’m getting settled in. In addition to devising a new menu for the new restaurant, I’ve had to work on one for the new coffeehouse, and a couple days ago Chef said we’re going to revamp the menu for the old restaurant, which was upscale ranch food but is transitioning to fancy-pantsed Continental with a ranch twist. He’s been really receptive to my ideas and the desserts and baked goods I’ve presented him, though my biggest fans are still the line cooks and servers, who devour my experiments and scraps like Wiley attacking a piece of salmon. It’s a challenge right now figuring out how much each outlet needs, the production schedule and so forth, as well as ordering ingredients and equipment, but I feel like it’s also a great learning experience.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Best In Snow

Wiley and I watched the Westminster Kennel Club Show Tuesday night, though to be fair he showed little interest in it and sat up only when Law and Order: Criminal Intent came on.

Aside: am I the only one who gets all teary-eyed and choked up during those Pedigree "Dogs Rule" commercials?

Anyway, I’m glad Uno the beagle won Best in Show, especially because he beat not one but two poodles (I know their froofy cut has a practical application, keeping the joints warm when swimming in cold water, but I don’t want any canid with a grooming routine more elaborate than Paris Hilton’s named top dog, you know?)

But as beautiful and impressive as those Westminster dogs were, none can compare to Mr. Kittenheads, who seems to be recovering from the shock of moving to 8,000 feet above sea level. Wednesday I had off, and woke to bright sunshine, so instead of doing laundry and taxes, we went for a drive.

Here’s a shot of my apartment complex (my building is the reddish-brown one near the center of the photo) with Rocky Mountain National Park in the background. This was the first day since moving here that the skies were clear enough to see the mountains, even though they’re less than 20 miles away.

Wiley romped a bit off-leash on a frozen, snow-covered lake with Indian Peaks in the background.

I stopped at a post office to get some stamps and couldn’t resist taking this shot of Smalls expressing his opinion about being left in the car.

A sidenote about the post office... no line, and the postal worker asked me where I was visiting from. When I said I’d moved there, she asked where, when, where I was working. Not in a creepy way, but in a social manner. When I got my Colorado plates last week, the same thing. No line at the county courthouse, and the woman helping me was far too pleasant to be a civil servant.

And Tuesday, I took Wiley to meet his new vet and get registered as a Colorado dawg. The vet, recommended to me by one of the sous chefs at work, has a one-room clinic in a wooden building that dates from the 19th century, and his own dog, Squirrel, has free reign of the place. The vet was laidback as can be, went over Smalls’ medications and told me he could stop taking his tick and heartworm preventives "‘cause we don’t have none of that out here."

Yeah, it’s a different world.

Here’s a shot of one of my favorite mountains that I can identify by name so far: Shadow Mountain (center of shot, overlooking Shadow Mountain Lake). There are a lot of cool names out here: Cutthroat Bay (arr!), Isolation Peak, Troublesome Valley and the Never Summer Mountains, which to me sounds like something Tolkien thought up.

We drove to Rocky Mountain National Park and along the main road as far as we could go... the road is the highest continuously paved highway in the country, and tops out above 12,000 feet, but we could only get about a third of the way before twenty-foot snow drifts blocked our path. It was far enough to get a shot of these mountains. I don’t know their names yet, but I will.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

...And Another Thing

Also, here's a view from the employee parking lot of Bullwinkle Ranch of the Continental Divide. Yes, the actual, honest-to-God Continental Divide.

What a Long, Strange Trip It’s Been

Yes, I made it to my new home and my new job in the Rockies at, well, I’ll call it Bullwinkle Ranch (get it? Rockies... Bullwinkle...). I arrived in the area on February 1st and started work the following Tuesday... and have been working ever since. Today is my first day off, and, as I wrestle for bandwidth with all the South American snowboarders hogging the free WiFi offered in the lobby of my apartment building, I hope to get this update online for all.

First, to recap Lessons Learned from the move. Never, ever think it’s a good idea to rent a U-Haul truck, pack all your worldly belongings in it and tow your car behind it on your own, cross-county, in winter, with an elderly dog for whom getting in and out of said truck is comparable to you or I jumping in and out of a second-story window. To repeat: don’t do this. I did, hoping to save some money, but in the end, I feel it was a Bad Decision.

I should have known things would go badly when they gave me a truck with the Eye of Sauron on the side:

Yeah, I got the U-Haul with a giant Mississippi Sawbill painted on its side, which, when viewed through my apartment window, was nothing short of startling. At least to me, early in the morning, pre-latte.

A couple neighbors helped me get my enormous bed down the stairs and into the truck, as well as my two huge and unstable Ikea bookcases, but otherwise I did all the packing and moving myself, which was not the carefree, fun time one might imagine it would be.

It took an hour to get Wiley into the truck cab the first time, and he only got in when he realized there were no other options. Getting out of the cab was its own adventure, as he refused to let me carry him (he got in by climbing with his front legs while I cradled his back half). After he fell out a couple times attempting to get down, we settled on him launching himself out of the truck, me catching him mid-air and guiding him down to a mostly-soft landing, which provided much amusement for truckers at various rest stops along I-80.

Day One on the road was a nightmare, partly because it involved crossing Pennsylvania (I have a deep aversion to driving across that damn state... I would rather drive across Nebraska or Iowa. There, I said it.) but also because the whole way it was dark, sleeting rain. I made it to a crappy town in Iowa the following night, and Ogallala, Nebraska the next night. In the morning I saw this t-shirt at a truck stop, which I found really, really amusing (though maybe it was just the stress of travel):

By late afternoon of the fourth day, I made it to the place I’m renting month-to-month. It’s a ski resort hotel/condo/rental complex, so some people come for a couple days, some for a month or the whole ski season, or some just live there permanently, either as renters or owners. I’m in a studio apartment with a Murphy Bed and a kitchenette that costs as much as my two-bedroom, two-story apartment in New York did, but it was the only pet-friendly option I could find mid-ski season. I’m hoping to get a rental closer to work and cheaper in the spring or summer, once all the ski monkeys leave at the end of the season.

As you can see from the expression on Wiley’s face below, he and I have had a rough time adjusting to the high altitude (the apartment is at about 8500 feet). I can only guess he had the same screaming base-of-the-skull headache I had for the first four or five days, and both of us still have bloodshot eyes all the time. I’m told it takes a couple weeks to adjust to where your body is comfortable, and a couple months for the body to change physically (our vet back in New York, who went to school out here, said that within six months Wiley and I would both have thicker blood, though the change is temporary and reverts to normal once you’re at or near sea level for a couple days).

On the plus side, I’ve got free cable, semi-reliable free Internet and I’m living across the highway from the only supermarket for about 50 miles in any direction. One thing I noticed my first time here back in early January: the subtle way high altitude affects everything. All the potato chip and other snack bags inflate to almost-bursting because of the air pressure, as shown below (chips purchased for research purposes only, of course):

Then, there’s the job. You knew I’d get to that eventually, right? Well, here’s my morning commute:

The first couple days on the job were super-stressful. For starters, other than me, all the kitchen staff are lanky guys, they did not have uniform pants that would fit bootylicious me, so I’ve been wearing my old kung fu pants. Also, I walked in at a time when the second restaurant onsite was opening, a new coffeehouse onsite was opening and we had events for 80 and 120 people, as well as catering for an offsite party for 40. Oh, and I am the only pastry person period, which is kind of cool, but not when I walk in to a new kitchen with no pants, a screaming headache, bloodshot eyes and no real idea of Process or Where Things Are.

On my first day, for example, one of the sous chefs barked at me "Stables need four dozen cookies now!" and I could only think... is the dough made? Is it portioned already? Where is it? What temperature do I bake them at (altitude affects temp and baking times for everything, too)? Does he mean "stables" as in the place where they keep the horses or is it the name of a guest? Do I take the cookies somewhere or leave them on the rack or what?

Chef was also stressed with the new venues opening, and just kept throwing things at me (not literally): You need to come up with a new menu for the new restaurant in two days... we need A.M. and P.M. baked goods for the coffeehouse... I need five different kinds of desserts that will travel well for the catered event by 4 p.m. ... Instead of doing creme brulee, I want you to do an espresso creme brulee... Don’t forget to take inventory... Organize the walk-in... Help them plate all the courses for the dinner... I want to put a chocolate pudding cake on the menu tonight so find a recipe and make it for 120... Make three quarts of cream cheese anglaise for the line tonight... What do you mean you've never made creme anglaise with cream cheese?

Yeah, it was not so much baptism by fire as baptism by fire, hurricane and machine gun all at once.

The good news is, once I figured out things like where the bathroom is and how the ice cream machine works, everything else got easier. The workload lightened as well once the banquets were over, so I got to experiment a little and figure out things like what temperature to cook my sugar to when making pulled sugar. Water boils here at 198 degrees F, so all the sugar cooking stages like soft ball and hard crack are different and need to be figured out.

I worked seven days straight, about ten hours a day without a break, which I was expecting. Once I’m at work, now that the initial maelstrom has passed, I don’t mind the long hours, but I feel it when I get home and put my feet up.

The kitchen staff itself is the usual cast of characters. There’s an ancient Swiss guy I think of as Der Erlkonig Redux... grandfatherly and charming if he likes you, but Gott im Himmel help you if you’re not on his good side. He was the chef of his own restaurant for years before retiring. He got bored, so now he works at the ranch part-time, pretty much whenever he feels like coming in. He has a lot of awesome old-school recipes and, fortunately, he likes me so he’s been sharing them with me. On Monday, for example, I went in an hour early so he could teach me how to make strudel. But he also wanted to see how I made puff pastry.

"Zat’s not how I fold it," he said, making a dismissive face.

"I don’t fold it that way, either," added Chef, who happened to be walking past.

I said "it’s interesting how many different ways there are to fold puff dough," to them, but what I really wanted to say was Do Not Question The Laminator!

I baked some off as apple turnovers and am proud to say they were fabulously flaky, particularly great since I haven’t made any laminated doughs by hand (without the sheeter) in more than a year. They met with approval from Chef (Der Erlkonig Redux had already gone home for the day) and great enthusiasm from the line cooks, most of whom I really like. They’re basically a bunch of guys who like to ski and like to cook and play paintball and do other dudely things. Most of them are laidback and funny and hard workers who blast Korn and Metallica and even Hayseed Dixie on the boombox all day. I throw them my baking scraps (literally) and we get along.

This post has gone on forever, but I’ll just add one more tidbit: the weather. The last couple days have been fairly mild, but my first few days on the job, when I had the most stress, we were getting dumped on with snow. Then the wind. My God, the wind. You may have heard about winds of more than 100 mph clocked at a pass in the Rockies last week. That was the pass I had to drive over in the U-Haul, towing my car behind me. Good times. There were also a couple nights when the pass was shut down, as was the pass north of here, effectively sealing off the valley where I live and work from the outside world completely. This happens a couple times each winter.

One night, heading home from work, I hit a patch of black ice and spun downhill, crossing the road until my Focus smashed into a snowbank. I had to climb out the window because the driver’s side door couldn’t open. As luck would have it, a guy passing in a pickup used a tow strap to pull my car out. The following morning, when I popped the hood to give a neighbor a jump, I found the entire engine compartment packed with snow.

I went off the road the following night too, trying to make a turn into the employee parking lot, and again found a guy with a pickup and a tow strap able to pull me out.

It’s not my driving or my car at fault, either. Most mornings, as all the cooks arrive, the greeting is not "Good morning" or "How are you?" but "I went off the road at the junction of 40 and 83, how about you?" And, I reason, if I had a bigger car or SUV, the pickup Samaritans probably wouldn’t be able to haul my car’s sorry ass back onto the road.

The worst though is the blowing snow. Sometimes it creeps along the road like dry ice, sometimes it comes in airborne walls, like a thick fog bank that sweeps or just sits on the road, reducing visibility to nil. It was especially awful driving home one night with blinding snow, not knowing the roads yet but remembering "ok, there’s a steep downhill and a curve somewhere around here..." and being able to see nothing but white.

I’ll end here, since it’s finally sunny and Wiley deserves another walkies. Thanks for all the e-mails and comments... don’t forget to tell me what’s new with you, in detail at least as tedious as I have offered above!