Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Just Because...

I was shopping for a pet flotation vest for Wiley at CampMor (why? Maybe he needs one... that's all I'll say at this juncture) when I saw this photo for a product that was on sale.

Am I the only one who finds it hilarious that CampMor felt compelled to note "dog not included"?

Colorado Geologic Survey Rocks!

I'm sure you've also been losing sleep over my obsession with the rock formation I saw a couple days ago.

I emailed the Colorado Geologic Survey and sent the photos, not really expecting to hear back because I only had the general e-ddress for them. To my delight, I got a reply today... and not just a form letter, but an actual reply from an actual geologist who gave me props! Whoo hoo!

Here is his answer (in my original email, I had mentioned my theory that the formation was a tertiary igneous dike):

[Pirate], good observation. That is a "radial dike," just like at the Spanish Peaks. Magma feeding a volcano filled in fissures that spread radially out from the throat of the volcano. The solidified rock is much more resistant to erosion than the surrounding material so becomes preserved. Those were some great photos, with the snow. I have photographed that feature several times and I never got a photo as good as those. Maybe I can use those sometime (with permission and with credit provided.)

Jim Burnell
Minerals Geologist
Colorado Geological Survey

Yee hah! I don't know if it means my life is so lame that getting a reply about a rock formation can make my day, but I'll take it.

And now I can rest easier know it's just a radial dike and not a portal to a fourth dimension kingdom run by flying monkeys. Because, you know, the thought had crossed my mind.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

A Celebrity Chef to Celebrate

By now you've probably heard about (and seen) Christopher Walken's video of how to roast a chicken with pears on ... if not, check it out here.

I'd watch his cooking show any day.

Chris, if you need an assistant/guest pastry chef, call me.

Monday, April 28, 2008

My New Obsession

On a paved but lonely county road along the Divide, driving just because it was a nice early evening after work and I wanted to let Wiley stick his head out the window a bit, I saw the most fascinating rock formation.

Here it is shot from the southwest:

Here it is from the south:

Here it is from the southeast:

I don't know how much you can tell from the photos, but it is a perfectly straight rock wall that goes all the way up the mountain, perfectly perpendicular to the ground. There was no continuation on the other side of the road, but around a bend I was able to see tips of it continuing north, not as fully eroded.

It was so intriguing, its engineering perfection, the sudden end of it on the south but going on for who knows how long to the north.

I went online and could find zero information on it, which made it all the more intriguing. I did waste half an hour of my life on Google Earth zooming in and out to see how far the ridge continues (Google Earth, by the way, may be the deadliest timesucker ever invented... that's why I'm not including the link. Save yourself. It's too late for me. Ooh! Let's zoom in and out on Ute Mountain and then zip over to Grand Mesa, the world's largest flat-top mountain!)

Anyway, I drove up to Rocky Mountain National Park to see if a ranger up there who's answered all my pesky questions in the past could help. He knew exactly what I was talking about, but not what it was. We paged through a couple geology books in the store but the closest thing we could find was a photo of a similar, though less dramatic formation, labeled as "tertiary igneous dikes" near a mountain in the San Juans.

I emailed the Colorado Geologic Survey but haven't heard back yet. What is it?? I must know!

Okay, back to pastry...

A Few More Photos

Here are a couple more shots of our trip to Four Corners...

Ever vigiliant Wiley looks toward Ute Mountain while guarding the new tent.

We camped at Hovenweep National Monument, which apparently isn't visited as often as Mesa Verde, even though it's only an hour or so away. Hovenweep is surrounded by the Canyons of the Ancients Monument, an area that allegedly includes more than 6,000 known archeological sites. The canyon near the campground apparently has the largest concentration of these sites, mostly from the 11th-13th century, built around the same time as the cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde.

I say "apparently" and "allegedly" because there was something odd about the whole area. Aside from the aforementioned canyon, which was well-marked and right beside the visitor's center, it was really hard to find any maps or brochures or online information or road signs to the other sites. Part of it is that Hovenweep itself is part of the National Park Service, but the rest of the area is under the Bureau of Land Management. I don't know if the BLM is as unorganized as I've heard, but this didn't help their image in my eyes.

I also felt, I dunno, that things are kept intentionally vague because "de Arkies" would rather people go to the carefully controlled Mesa Verde than wander around the desert near where cannibal sites have been found.

In any case, here's a shot of "Hovenweep Castle," one of the larger sites within the main canyon:

And here's a look at another portion of the canyon to give you an idea of how closely the sites are clustered. Check out the "Boulder House" in the left-center of the shot, below the rim. It's actually a house built into a partly-collapsed boulder lodged precipitously on a ledge. Oh yeah, I would have had more than one sleepless night living in that thing!

Especially knowing there were cannibals nearby...

Friday, April 25, 2008

Cannibalism Alert

The lovely and talented Dr. Virago recently questioned Ranger Craig's claims of cannibalism among Chaco culture outlier sites, pointing out in a comment to the post, and rightfully so, that tour guides are not always to be trusted.

I should know. I've been a tour guide and oh, the tales I've told. Not only that, but when she and I went hiking on the Isle of Man, we did have a couple of tour guides at medieval sites who excelled in truthiness.

So I did a little research. If, like me, your interest in Mormon chick hair and making homemade skyr is bested only by a deep fascination with cannibalism, here's some, er, food for thought that supports Ranger Craig's statements.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Mormons, Kivas, but Not Nearly Enough Cannibals

Here are some shots from the Mesa Verde trip mentioned in a post on Tuesday from the middle of nowhere! I would have posted them that night, but my laptop battery decided that 10 p.m. was lights out time. As with the previous shots of Wiley, you should be able to click on each image to enlarge it, if you so choose.

This is the Cliff Palace, the largest of the Ancient Puebloan (Pueblan?) cliff dwelling complexes and the only one of the ranger-guided tour ones open this time of year.

I was really surprised by how much both the general landscape and architecture reminded me of similar dwellings I've seen on Sardinia... one major difference is the number of people. I had the Sardinian sites to myself, but here, even on a weekday in mid-April, there were about two dozen people on the tour. And the ranger said it was nice to have such a small group. In summer, he said the "tsunami" arrives and 60 people go down every half-hour all day. Yikes.

I really liked our ranger, Craig, but for the first half of the tour I was trying to figure him out. He had blue eyes and red hair and a lot of sun damage, very Anglo, but he had that great cadence and enunciation that a lot of Native Americans have. As an aside, that's one of my favorite American accents, if it can be considered that (or is it its own dialect?). There's something very appealing about it. And yes, Ranger Craig is the guy who told me I looked like I knew what I was doing.

Anyway, eventually he started mentioning his "people" and his "clan" and said at the end of the tour that he was Zuni, with "some Scottish and Irish somewhere along the way." Nice guy, but after that all I could think of was how much it had to have sucked being a fair-skinned redhead growing up in the Four Corners without sunscreen. Ouch.

Sure, this is a shot of a kiva, the ceremonial underground chamber that had an ingenious ventilation system... or is it?? It's also a shot of the Mormon not-quite-fundamental family on the tour with us. They also had Gramps and Granny in tow, though Gramps stayed in the minivan for the tour. I ran into him on a trail later in the day and said hello and he just glared at me. Maybe his daughter or daughter-in-law or whatever told him I had been staring at her hair for much of the tour. It wasn't quite as lush as the Texas compound Mormon chicks, but it was close. I do believe, however, there were styling products involved.

Would Jesus Use Mousse?

In any case, I took this photo as Ranger Craig was informing us, complete with hand gestures, about how the Pueblo culture regarded the earth as mother and womb and female and the sky as male and the spring rain as consummation. I can only guess what they were thinking.

Here's a shot of the ladders and general trail getting in and out of the site. Really not that big a deal, and nothing compared to some of the stuff I've encountered hiking. Remember, the Mormon chick did it too, in a skirt, with 20 or so kids clinging to her. I was dying to see how she went up the ladder modestly in a skirt, but I wound up talking to the ranger and a bunch of old people got ahead of me, so I missed it. But I'm sure it was chastely.

Another view of the Cliff Palace, taken from the Sun Temple, giving you a little more context to the site. Craig the Ranger dismissed Sun Temple as "one of those Chaco sites," a tribe he seemed to pawn off all the nastier bits of history on. He mentioned one intriguing nearby site... there is a mountain called The Sleeping Ute, because it kinda, if you really use your imagination and don't have cable, looks like a sleeping man (Ute is one of the regional tribes, or nations... not quite sure of the correct terminology). Archeologists (or "de Arkies," as Ranger Craig called them) found a site in the "toe" of the Sleeping Ute that had human bones that had been split with axes, cut up and also "stirred in a pot." Ranger Craig swore that science had proven conclusively that the bones had been stirred in a pot, though I would love to know how they figured that one out.

Anyway, the ever-thorough Arkies went one step further and analyzed feces found in the site's fire pit and concluded it was not only human poop, but that the human poop had human proteins in it that could only have come from eating other humans.

Ranger Craig emphasized that the Toe site had nothing to do with "his people" and that it was an outlier site of Chaco culture. Of course. There's apparently a whole gory book on the site, but I don't know the name. "Toe of Death" comes to mind as an obvious choice.

I asked later at a tourist info center on the road to Four Corners how I could get to the "toe" because I'd heard there were some interesting archeological sites there, but the women behind the counter blanched and told me it was on Ute land and off-limits to outsiders.

"They found bones that had been, you know, cannibalized there!" one said breathlessly.

Yes, and stirred in a pot!

Wiley Goes Camping

I didn't resize either of these photos so you should be able to click on them to enlarge 'em.

This is one of my favorite photos of Wiley ever, taken at Four Corners Monument:

Barking in four states at once. That's living the dream. (I'm not surprised I got him to bark on cue... this is Wiley we're talking about, after all, but I am delighted that I got him to stand right on the actual Four Corners.)

Here he is in the new Kelty Grand Mesa tent I ordered from Camp-Mor in New Jersey... only days before learning Kelty was based in Boulder, about 15 miles from me as the crow flies (but on the other side of the Front Range, so it's a two-hour drive each way):

"Hmmm... comfy... but I wonder where the human will sleep?"

Can You Read Me Now?

Ok, I am officially impressed.

I am stretched out in my sleeping bag, beside a very smelly (great night to have gas, Wiley), very tired dog who is managing to take up about 2/3 of the small two-person tent I recently bought to replace my coffin-sized (really) Tomb Tent. We are in the Hovenweep National Monument Campground, about 80 miles from anything else in any direction, on the Colorado-Utah border.

And I, my friends, am online.

I brought my laptop and nifty Verizon wireless card just to see how good the network was and, whaddya know, that geeky guy with the glasses apparently did come out here to check if it would work.

I have a couple days off from work because of the notoriously slow Mud Season, so I came down here to the Four Corners area to visit Hovenweep, known for its 13th century stone Puebloan towers, Four Corners itself and Mesa Verde National Park, famous for its cliff dwellings.

I have photos to post, but for now just let me say I was paid the ultimate compliment this morning while taking the ranger-led tour of The Cliff Palace, the largest of the complexes.

After explaining to the group that the trail involved tight squeezes, uneven surfaces and ladders, the ranger opened the gate down into the site and said he'd stand there to take tickets and then bring up the rear.

No one moved. Eager to avoid fanny packs in my photos, I started heading for the gate. The ranger smiled as he took my ticket and said "I'm glad you're going first. You look like you know what you're doing."

Hell yeah!

Two other people were right behind me and the three of us made it down to the site about five minutes ahead of everyone else (and it's a short climb down). As we stood around taking pictures for each other and talking, I learned the woman was from Dusseldorf and the guy, also traveling alone, was from Tokyo.

Not to stereotype or anything but... the Japanese, the German and the Pirate. I think we all knew what we were doing.

Now I'll post some pictures if I can do so without disturbing Wiley, whose nose is almost in the USB port.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

I Saw A Mountain Lion! I Saw A Mountain Lion! Maybe.

I took today off because the sun was shining, business is slow and I just needed to get out of the valley.

As Wiley and I were heading to Denver, nearing the start of the incline up and over the pass that gets us out of the valley, the pick-up driver ahead of us hit his brakes. Just at that moment, from the corner of my eye I saw movement at the side of the road (I'm guessing he did, too).

I looked just in time to see an enormous tawny haunch disappearing into the trees. The leg was too thick to be that of a deer. I saw it just for a moment, but if it wasn't a mountain lion, than it had to be a tiger dressed as a mountain lion.

One thing I do know that we saw... bighorn sheep, grazing right on the shoulder of I-70 on the way home. It was amazing to see them so close, but I also worried that one of them would get itself killed so near the road. Wiley stared intently but didn't bark like he usually does. I'm guessing the horns freaked him out.

In other wildlife news, the bears are coming out of hibernation. No sightings yet, but I'm looking forward to it.

Anyway, we went to Denver for a couple reasons. First, I wanted to check out the site of the Denver Danskin Triathlon. Yes, I signed up for another one. Like I need more free water bottles.

I was a little apprehensive about it because I thought hmm, a tri in Denver? I imagined swimming across an icy glacial lake, biking up and down mountains and then running through bear and moose-infested woods. But the tri is actually on the southeast side of Denver, out in the nearly flat prairie lands. Whoo hoo!

Here's a shot of the reservoir I'll be swimming across and the blissfully mountain-free terrain I'll be biking and running over.

I also wanted to stop at the nearest Cost Plus World Market to buy my French Roast coffee in bulk, but most of all I wanted to experience H Mart. Ghostdog had told me about it... it's a Korean super grocery store with terrific produce and fish. I stocked up on baby bok choi and thick fresh noodles and fish balls (I'm a big fan. Really.), but I also tried a few new things, including tiny "indian eggplant" and these "indian bitter melons."

They're supposed to be a cure for diabetes (not a concern for me) and for "a failing appetite" (also not an issue!), but I'm just intrigued with the alien look of them. Stay tuned.
In the meantime, ogle the Zopfe I made (essentially, Swiss Challah) with whole wheat.

How The West Was Named

Growing up in the East, I thought all towns and places had to have dull names like Patterson and Edison and Brooklyn. Why does the West have such better names? Like the hamlet of Troublesome, in the shadow of the Never Summer Mountains. How much cooler is that than, say, Hoboken?

Friday, April 18, 2008

Meet My Weather Pixie!

How cool is this?

The WeatherPixie

Go to WeatherPixie to get your own weather pixie, weather goth or even weather geisha to reflect the weather conditions of wherever you live!

Now, if only I could figure out how to put my pixie in the sidebar... I've tried a bunch of different things on the Blogger Dashboard, but nothing worked. Any tips?

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

I Skyr! You Skyr! We All Skyr... Oh, Nevermind. It doesn't work.

I know my foodie friends are familiar with creme fraiche, but for the uninitiated, imagine the most creamy, luxurious dairy product possible. It's cultured cream and I love the stuff, but it's expensive to buy, nevermind hell on your arteries.

I make a cheater's version that approximates the real thing: pour a pint of heavy cream into a container (I like to use glass) and stir in a few tablespoons plain yogurt. I like a tangier creme fraiche, so I use more yogurt. Cover the container and let it sit out overnight at room temperature until it is thick and luxurious and makes you want to roll around in it. Or maybe that's just me. In any case, once it sets, stick it in the fridge and it's yours to use with fresh strawberries, in omelets, on fresh-baked bread, straight from the fridge with a spoon...


Anyway, aware of the trans-fat-palooza creme fraiche offers, earlier this week I tried to make a healthier, or at least less evil, version, using fat-free yogurt, half and half and reduced fat milk (as an aside, I always use fat-free yogurt, as it's all I ever have on hand). It wouldn't set, so after 24 hours at room temperature, I stuck it in a 175F oven for a couple hours. It got thick and delicious, but a day later, after resting in the fridge, the top also turned green and black. I scraped that off and have been eating it without dire consequences, but it's not as creamy or delicious.

My semi-failed experiment got me thinking about my favorite food: skyr. It's an Icelandic thing, and essentially, it tastes like creme fraiche only it's really low in fat. All the goodness, none of the guilt. I eat embarrassing amounts of it whenver I visit that wonderful little pile of rocks and sheep in the North Atlantic.

As neither my budget nor work schedule will allow a trip to Leif Eriksen International Airport anytime soon, I did some research and decided I'm going to make my own damn skyr.

Step one: get my hands on some rennet. I ordered two kinds from a Vermont cheesemaking company, both animal-based and vegan, because quite frankly when I think about what traditional animal-based rennet is, I get a little grossed out. And I'm thinking, since I've got the rennet, I might as well explore cheesemaking, which quite frankly is a little like a crystal meth addict deciding to set up a home lab.

So look for posts in the coming weeks about adventures in skyr- and cheese-making!

Unless, of course, I succumb to the bacteria rampant in my low-rent, low-fat creme semi-fraiche.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

So, I've Been Wondering...

This is totally off-topic, but I know I'm not the only one who's noticed that all the women/older girls at that polygamist sect compound in Texas look like Nellie Olsen. I've been kind of obsessed by it... that hair, especially. If I joined their whacky Talibanesque cult, uhm, excuse me, totally legitimate sect, would I also have thick luxurious tresses that I could sculpt into massive old-timey pouf-braids?

In any case, if, like me, you are fascinated by the fashion coming out of that compound, check this out. If you have somehow missed it, YahooNews has a great slideshow. It's like the spring collection at Milan, only not.

Tomorrow: polygamy-free news about creme fraiche and an intern cook-off! (No, sadly, we did not cook the interns. They cooked for us, which wasn't nearly as exciting.)

Friday, April 11, 2008

First the Stick, Now the Carrot

I'm still waiting for The Consequences of My Actions from my Ramsay Moment yesterday, but so far no one has said anything. If nothing else, Chef was unusually solicitous of my mood and well-being today, and offered to loan me some murder-mysteries his wife is reading.

Having gotten the Despotic Baker Tirade out of my system yesterday, and having seen that the cinnamon rolls were properly baked this morning, I felt freer to work with the intern currently assigned to me and also try out a few new menu ideas.

A sidenote: in addition to live target practice with pastry yesterday, I also made a killer sorbet out of random things I found in the kitchen. I realize that sounds totally full-of-myself to say, but kitchen survey says it's a winner. Someone left frozen mixed berries thawing overnight but never claimed them, so I mixed them with simple syrup, candied Meyer lemon peel and a splash of raspberry vodka, spun it in the machine and wound up with a sexy deep burgundy sorbet that tasted like berries soaked in love and sunshine. One of the line cooks who tried it said "berry sorbet" didn't do it justice and we should call it "Magic Mountain Berry." So we did.

Today, in addition to showing Bubba* some bread braiding techniques, I worked on a carrot cake dessert.

*Bubba is the intern currently working with me, a good ol' Southern boy who claims to have no talent in the baking and pastry arena (shades of Honorephobia!) yet has put in terrific effort. He hasn't had to remake a single thing once, and his piping is nearly as good as mine.

The carrot cake is still in play, but so far it consists of layers of a moist cake with carrots, of course, raisins and spice, apple cumin butter and a cream cheese frosting I actually like -- I hate the kind made with confectioner's sugar, but the one I came up with is creamy-cheesy yet light. There are egg whites involved. Chef suggested adding grilled pineapple and a spicy ice cream, so tomorrow I'll be experimenting with Sichuan pepper ice cream.

Why? Because I can.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

My Ramsay Moment

It was going to happen sooner or later. This morning I had a Gordon Ramsay moment, on par (nearly) with his infamous brow-beating of a line cook by getting in his face and endlessly repeating "do you know how to cook an artichoke?!"

Background: despite my best efforts, I've been frustrated with the quality of the baked products served in our coffee shop. I (and sometimes my temporary minions) make the scones and cinnamon rolls and then freeze them and send them to the other kitchen, which does breakfast service and therefore has staff on hand to bake the items off at six in the morning. Day after day, the croissants are overproofed and underbaked, or the cinnamon rolls sloppily glazed, or the scones overbaked. The sous chef who runs that kitchen, known as LouReed on this blog, has Issues With The World and cannot be reasoned with. He has a whole passive aggressive thing about baking and pastry in particular, and dumps the coffee shop products off on the nearest hapless (and often clueless) intern with no instruction. I've tried arguing, pleading, ratting on him to Chef and nothing works. Sigh.

Today, when I dropped off the second delivery of baked goods (the ones I not only make but also finish, the brownies, cream puffs, cookies and eclairs), the woman who runs the coffee shop showed me the morning's cinnamon rolls and asked if I thought they should be sold.

Ho. Ly. Crap.

They were burned. I don't mean overbaked. I mean actually charred.

Anyone standing near me that moment might have heard the actual snap of my last straw regarding the AM bake-off. I took the rolls from her, marched over to the other kitchen and demanded to know who'd baked them. LouReed wasn't in, as luck would have it, but an intern (from my own alma mater Cookin' School, no less!) copped to the deed. I haven't worked closely with her yet, but my general observation is that she is cute and pretty and uses that to her advantage, and also that she thinks she knows everything, and anyone who disagrees with her simply hasn't noticed how cute and pretty she is.

This did not help matters.

I won't go into the specifics, but let's just say that the 15 minutes that followed included me pelting her with one cinnamon roll after another while roaring "do you think we can actually sell this?! Did you notice it was charred when you took it out of the oven?! How about this one? Were you making Cajun blackened cinnamon rolls?" I repeated this with each individual roll, noting that they were rock-hard enough that, if I threw with serious force and directed it at her head instead of her shoulder, I would actually give her a concussion.

She got defensive. Not hands-up-shielding-her-cute-and-pretty-face defensive, but "I'm not a baker!" defensive, which only made me lose it more. I don't expect the cooks, especially the students, to know about gluten development or starch gelatinization, but Christ on a crutch a learning-challenged lower primate would have noticed the product was suffering from third-degree burns. The rolls were black! I also snapped that when Chef has told me to plate a salad course or make bernaise sauce, I don't whine "I'm not a cook!" I do it and, if I don't know how, I ask so that I can do it.



When the carny-dishwasher with multiple piercings in his face stops what he's doing to come over and watch the drama, you know you've stepped over the line.

Anyway, I had Delilah with me because, in addition to my smackdown of the unrepentant non-baker, we were there to steal stuff. So after I dealt with Britni (not her real name, but it fits), we took all their ramekins (I had a creme brulee order for a party) and platters (we had to plate-up for a conference luncheon). Out of pure spite I also stole a dozen of their half sheet trays.

And I'm not sorry. I'm also not sorry for throwing blackened cinnamon rolls at Britni in front of all the other line cooks and aforementioned dishwasher, either. It felt good to wipe that cute and pretty arrogance off her face and replace it with alarm.

The only fallout was from Fredo, the sous chef I like, who came up from that kitchen in the afternoon to tell me "you've got a psycho-bone in you."

He said it approvingly.

Friends Don't Let Friends Drink and Sephora

After two months of attempting to use the "free wifi"* in my building, I abandoned all hope.

(*Technically, the resort/condos complex where I live offers free wi-fi in the lobby, but I discovered that my laptop can only get a signal when I sit on the floor beside the reception area and log on before noon on a weekday before all the kids with more powerful laptops log on and stream videos non-stop.)

I bought a Verizon Internet Access acount, essentially a cell phone for my laptop, on Wednesday.

The good news is that I can now get online anytime from the comfort of my sofa, so both my blogs and emails should be more frequent.

The bad news is that, after opening a bottle of Herding Cats Merlot/Pinotage to celebrate my newfound online freedom, I wandered back to my old addiction, Sephora, and quickly ordered all sorts of sexy fragrance, lipstick and eyeliner that I really have no need for, considering my life consists of: wake up, put on snow boots, walk Wiley, drive to work, put on baggy pants and baggy jacket and non-skid clogs and pull hair up to affect appearance that is as sexy as a cafeteria hash-slinger, clock out, put on snow boots, drive home, walk dog and squander evening watching back-to-back episodes of Law and Order: SVU and Law and Order:CI on the USA network.

In the spirit of total disclosure, I also visited Aveda to order their Intensive Hydrating Masque, which I've found to be, without question, the best remedy for bad oven burns (even though it's intended as a facial for sensitive and/or sunburned skins). This week, I needed it.

Yesterday, Delilah, one of the interns, was trying to bake the goat cheese tarts needed for starters for a wedding dinner. After expressing uncertainty to me over whether the tarts were done (I told her no), she attracted Chef's attention. He came over and, made some whitheringly sarcastic comments. Delilah became upset. Upset enough that, as I was defending her, she threw the oven doors open and returned the questionably baked tarts to the oven.

Unfortunately, I was standing beside her, and my forearm took the full force of the oven doors. After just a couple hours, a dollar-bill-sized spot on my arm was blistering nicely. Delilah felt terrible about it and offered to leave work early to buy me some natural, homeopathic burn cream at a co-op ten miles away (she and I share the same appreciation for overpriced "natural" remedies), but I knew all I needed was Aveda. And a bottle of Herding Cats.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

My Life In Six Words

My pal Dr. Virago threw down the gauntlet, or at least let a mitten drop gently to the floor, earlier today with her post on writing a six word memoir. After devising her own, she suggested that I would not be able to fit my life into a mere six words (whether that suggests I've led an interesting life or am hopelessly wordy, I don't know).

Oh yeah?

As I commented on her blog, the perfect six word memoir for me already has been written (by Tolkien):

Not all who wander are lost.

What? I can't have my six word memoir ghostwritten, as it were, by one of the greatest authors in the English language, who also gifted to me my enjoyable Boromir/Faramir/Eomer/Witchking crushes? (Oh yeah... Witchking? Totally hot. Like Darth Vader but medievally.)

Well, okay. Then here it is, in my own (six) words:

It seemed like a good idea.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Of Frustrations and Flowerpots

Aside from the wedding for 120-odd Lebkuchen-loving guests, this week was a pretty quiet one at Bullwinkle Ranch, so I had some time to play. And I remembered my camera!

But first...

I’ve mentioned in previous posts that the interns get to work with me for a couple weeks. My first minion was Delilah, the southern girl who was very anxious about baking but, by the end of our time together, seemed to really warm to it.

My current henchcook is a guy I’ll call Ghostdog (yes, after the underappreciated Forest Whitaker character). He’s very cute, and smart, and quiet, and decent, an ex-military dude who served in Iraq and grew up on a farm but has been working in restaurants for most of his life. And I like him (no, not that way... I like him as a person, and as a henchcook).

But wow, this has been a frustrating week.

He knows his way around the kitchen. He has a good work ethic. He is a bright guy with a particular interest in the chemistry behind cooking.

But sadly, Ghostdog suffers from Honorephobia (ON-a-ray-FO-bi-a).

That’s the term I’ve just coined to explain the condition I have witnessed among many, if not most, cooks. In some, it presents as a mild anxiety, such as my fave line cooks Jerry and Keanu (named for their respective resemblances to Jerry Cantrell and Keanu Reeves), who wander past my station frequently, looking for (and getting) scraps, declaring their love for me and my pastry wizardry (I know they want me only for my brownies), and then... pausing a moment to watch me pipe or knead or whatever I’m doing, saying nervously “I could never do that. I don’t have the patience.”

In others, such as Delilah, Honorephobia is a moderately debilitating but treatable anxiety disorder where the simple act of removing a cheesecake from its springform pan causes trembling and audible wincing.

Poor Ghostdog has full-blown, severe Honorephobia, symptoms of which include a complete loss of basic knife skills and common sense. I asked him to supreme oranges for my cardamom and roasted orange creme brulee that sold out (hell yeah!) and he gave me a pint of segments full of membranes and pith. When he was making a batch of cookie dough for the third time, having improperly mixed the first batch and erroneously scaled the second, I peeked in the bowl and asked if that was all the sugar.

“Yep,” he said, re-reading the recipe aloud.

“Is that really six cups of brown sugar?” I prodded.

Ghostdog looked in the bowl for a long moment. “Uh, no. I guess I forgot five cups. Good catch.”

Good catch?!

Thing is, I know he’s not doing it intentionally. I know he’s not trying to sabotage our damn cookie dough or make some kind of statement about working as the Pastry Pirate’s lackey for a fortnight. Just like I know he knows how to supreme a freakin' orange (he has excellent knife skills when cooking). It’s the Honorephobia. When many cooks I’ve met have to do anything baking or pastry related, they freeze. They lose half their IQ points. Their hands shake, they sweat. They make ice cream but forget the cream, or confuse the salt with the sugar.

I’ll set aside the why of it, because I don’t understand that (I mean, when Chef asked me to do the salad course or whip up some bernaise sauce, I did. Nothing in the kitchen is rocket science.). But what I do know is that, as the sole pastry person here at the ranch, I need to figure out how to deal with Honorephobes*.

(*St. Honore is the patron saint of bakers and pastry chefs. Naming the condition after him just felt right.)

With Delilah, a nurturing, “hey I made mistakes too, but eventually I got it right” big sister approach worked, but Ghostdog’s more severe case bedevils me. I tried the big sister approach. I tried the demanding “do it again until it’s right” chef strategy. I tried the scowl-and-silent treatment. I even tried to be a therapist (actual words: “so, when you started making the dough, how did you feel? What was going through your head?”). Nothing seems to work.

It bugs me because if he were one of those swaggering grill jockeys or simply a moron, I could just write him off, but he seems to be a good guy with talent (at least in cooking) and an interest in learning.

It’s vexing, terribly vexing. I’m terribly vexed.

On a lighter note, here are some photos of what I’ve been up to the past few days:

In addition to our signature petit fours with the ranch’s brand piped on it, rumballs, shortbread and chocolate-covered dried apricots, this weekend I added mini-flowerpots (below) to our after-dinner treat selection. Why? Because I can, dammit! Bwaa ha ha ha ha!

For a sense of scale, it’s 1.5" tall and yes, I got them to stand on their own. It’s a simple matter of cake batter, pate a glacer and Frangelico, some of which went into the cakes.

I mentioned Delilah earlier, and for her dessert, she did a cheesecake that turned into something of a disaster.

(For the time I have them, I make the interns create a plated dessert over the course of a week that we put on the menu as a special. I tell them “I’ll be the midwife, but you’ve got to do the pushing,” because I personally find the most challenging part of creating a dessert to be reigning in my ideas and narrowing down the flavor profile, the neat techniques I could use and what the dessert is really supposed to be, in a Platonic ideal kinda way, if that doesn’t sound too pretentious. I want them to have the same experience of figuring out what fits together and what should be left off the plate, because any monkey can make a mousse. It’s how you flavor the mousse and what you put with it that separates the good from the ugly.)

It’s a long story behind Delilah’s cheesecake, but let’s just say that, at the end of the day, she’d made two five-inch tall, enormo cheesecakes with a thick chocolate poundcake base but utterly no flavor. She wound up glazing one with raspberries and selling some of it, but the second was sitting naked in the freezer.

Monday afternoon, Fredo, who now runs the more casual restaurant onsite, asked Ghostdog to do a dessert of the day. Under the weather physically and worn down mentally by his Honorephobia, he told me he’d really rather not. So I offered to do it.

I didn’t have a lot of time, but I did have that big ass frozen, tasteless cheesecake.

It was round, but I cut it into 2.5x2.5x5 towers, poked vertical holes in it with a chopstick and piped in soft caramel, then glazed it with chocolate and drizzled more caramel on top. A little caramel on the plate with some candied hazelnuts and voila... recycled cheesecake gets an extreme makeover.

The angle doesn’t quite show it’s Tower of Power-like quality, but judging from the lustful looks I got carrying it to the restaurant, it’s gonna be popular. I’m just glad I was able to do something with JumboCake instead of letting it sit in the freezer.

On a related note, I really want a cheesecake on the fancy-pants restaurant menu, but since Chef and I still have not had our meeting about silicone molds he will buy me, I’m at a severe equipment disadvantage. I tried baking a rose-and-orange blossom cheesecake I came up with (yes, shades of my infamous kenefeh obsession!) using a pistachio crust in little square forms the cooks use for risotto. It souffled and collapsed ridiculously (damn altitude!) and the butter in the crust leaked out from the bottom.


Round two was more successful... I call it “Pistachio and Orange Blossom Cheesecake Napoleon with Rose Sorbet and Saffron Gelee.” Why? Because I can:

I left it in the freezer for Chef, who’s been on vacation the past few days, to sample.

He got some Meyer lemons in last week and told me to do something with them, so it seemed the right time to make a dessert I’ve been thinking of for a while... My Darling Lemon-Thyme. Ha! Ha ha ha!

It’s Meyer Lemon panna cotta, thyme custard, lemon reduction and a few dots of raspberry sauce for color. In my original “vision” it started out as a tart, but I think those mini-flowerpots put me over the edge and I went a little cute-crazy. Wheeeeee!

Originally I wanted a bottom layer of pecan joconde (a thin, nut-based cake), and decided to put a candied pecan on top to bring the flavor profile together, but when it came time to assemble the thing, the joconde didn’t seem to fit, so I scraped it off. But I left the candied pecan. It doesn’t fit, and I should practice what I preach and reign myself in, but gosh it’s so cute!

I don’t know if either will make the menu, but it was nice to have time to play around with a couple ideas I had in my head.

And finally... we got another foot of snow Monday, though to be honest I don’t even notice it anymore. What’s more white on top of white, anyway? But I did take a little longer driving home because it was so damn beautiful. The photo doesn’t do it justice, but low clouds just above me were backlit pink and lavender against the dark and ominous snow clouds moving in. Again.