Archive for February, 2012

Little Brothers and Apple Pie

Friday, February 24th, 2012

Our family has a long history of volunteering with Little Brothers, dating back about 30 years. We work at our local senior center in Tapiola for the holiday meals, as well as other events as time allows. I got a call last week that they needed help with their pasty fundraiser. They take pre-orders for pastys, and then gather volunteers at the L’anse VFW kitchen to prepare them.

I had helped last year, arriving mid day to help with cleanup. It was then that I met Don, an elderly man that is a member of the VFW, and that understands pasty making on a large scale probably as well as anyone on the planet. Don is also a very fine man, that gives up about 3 days per month making pastys for various volunteer organizations.

The call I got this year requested I come at 6:00 am. When I arrived, the kitchen was already humming with activity, including about a dozen volunteers. Don was among them, and when he saw me he gave me a big grin that told me he remembered me from last year. I got put at the end of the production line. My job was to take the thin circles of dough, stretch them on the table in front of me, put a dinner plate over the dough, and then trim it to size with a butter knife.

This picture shows the dough table where the premade dough balls are flattened and stacked next to the dough roller. This two-pass machine first flattened these dough cookies into a football shape, flipped 90 degrees, and then made into a mostly round flat pancake that went to the trimmers. The man running the dough roller took an interest in me while I was working as a trimmer, and showed me how to run his machine. Then he disappeared! I’d been promoted to dough roller. I was wedded to that machine for about 6 hours. I got pretty good at it too, but I guess after about 1,200 pastys, anyone would develop a knack for that job.

I forgot to mention that the trimmings from the dough pancakes all went to a plastic bag behind the trimming table. Bag after bag of trimmings accumulated. I asked about them, and learned that the volunteers could take some home if they wanted to. A seed was planted.

At the end of the morning, when the last pasty was placed in the oven, I finally shut off my machine and took a break. I’d brought a insulated cup of iced tea along, but hadn’t had the time to sip it until then. After about 5 minutes it was back into the kitchen to start the cleanup process. Unfortunately almost everyone left once the baking was done, so the cleanup was left to a small group of us. We had fun with it though, and by about 3:00 we had the kitchen looking spiffy.

I spoke with Laura, an intern with Little Brothers, at the end of the day, and asked if I could have some of the left over dough. She said sure and gave me some as I walked out to my truck. As I was driving home from L’anse, a plot was hatching in my mind.

I’ll admit to you that I have a weakness for apple pie. When one has a weakness, one tends to study the object of his weakness. Alice and I have learned how to make pretty good apple pies. The crusts are flaky, yet melt in your mouth like butter. The filling, when cooked properly, is a warm sauce of apple chunks suffused with sugar, a hint of cinnamon, and just the right amount of tart that a good pie apple brings. When a properly made apple pie comes out of the oven and is served up on a plate, the world becomes a better place.

There are other apple pies in the world. There are the frozen ones that mimic a decent pie. There are restaurant apple pies that can surprise you. Most are somewhere around the grocery store frozen variety, but now and then, you run across a restaurant that makes decent pie, and suddenly dessert becomes the best part of the meal.

The plot I was hatching on the drive home was to bake an apple pie using the dough I’d scored from the pasty party. After a refreshing nap, I got to work peeling, and preparing the apples. Next I rolled out two balls of dough the old fashioned way, with a rolling pin, placed them in the pie pan, loaded up the apples, and plopped them in the woodstove.

After the first 15 minutes, the crust was already brown on top, which can happen with a wood stove. The temperature can be difficult to control. I moved the pie to the bottom rack, and set the timer for another 15 minutes. This went on for just about an hour until the top was so brown I was afraid it would burn. I took the pie out and put it on the counter just about the time Alice came home from work.

After supper and my walk with the dog, we cut into the pie. It was probably the worst pie I’ve ever eaten. The top crust was more like a cracker than a crust. The bottom crust was like dough. The apples had not cooked through properly. It was sweet and fatty, though, so I finished my piece.

I do think that one of the things I like about pie is that it is less predictable than a cake. It is good to have a disaster now and then. It makes you appreciate the pies that come out right.

Winning

Wednesday, February 22nd, 2012

This morning one of my least favorite weekly slots on NPR news came on as I was puttering in the kitchen. When Frank Deford speaks on his weekly take on sports, I often have neither the context nor the interest to pay much attention. This morning, though, the story drifted into my consciousness, and by the end of it, I was wearing a foolish grin and had tears streaming down my face. Without giving too much away, the title of the piece was, “When there’s more to winning than winning.” Enjoy. Ted

http://www.npr.org/2012/02/22/147186116/when-theres-more-to-winning-than-winning

Ted The Auto Mechanic

Sunday, February 19th, 2012

I can remember changing the oil on my van all those years ago. I’d lay on my back in the snow and wince when some piece of crud fell off the bottom of the truck up into my nostril. I remember thinking right then and there that someday I’d have an inside place to do this sort of work. Well, 20 years ago or so I built my garage with 6″ of fluffy pink fiberglass in the walls, lovely 250 watt halide lights on the ceiling, and a wood stove at the far end. Even on cold days I can warm it up in there enough that I don’t have to wear a coat.

Alice and I are buying a motor home. We are the same couple that would drive by the Baraga State Park, and call the motorized campers “abominations.” Things change I guess. The motor home is located in Arkansas, and we plan to drive down there at the end of spring semester to pick it up. Our problem was how to get our car and the motor home back home. We settled on towing the car, which involves several steps in order to make it safe.

The first step was to purchase and install a towing bar. These are custom made for each kind of car. It requires a reasonably significant disassembly of the front end of the car, some serious hole drilling, other fiddly jobs, and then hopefully putting the thing back together without having too many parts left over. In this picture I have the parts layed out on my shop cart and am reading the instructions.

The instructions that came with the kit were fairly typical for such things. I often wonder at the companies that consider themselves as top of the line suppliers. The product is often good quality, but it seems they then have the office boy spend a half hour with a camera, laptop, and no editor in order to produce the instructions. The pictures were crappy, and the steps often failed to include basic important information, such as the location of the screws that need to be removed.

I got the car up on the ramps with Alice’s help. I had her on the ground spotting me so I don’t drive off the end and wreck everything. Once up I laid out some large pieces of cardboard I keep for that purpose, plug in my trouble light, and get to work.

This project went very well indeed until near the end. It was one of those rare projects that was a series of problems (like they all are) but where the solution that came into my mind involved tools and skills I possessed. I do enjoy working in my shop, and with my tools. I can pretty much remember where I acquired each tool, and enjoy the feel of them in my hands. I spent about 5 hours out in the shop working on this, and the following picture shows the tow bar installed.

It is not obvious in the picture, but if you look at the metal bumper of the car, the tow bar is installed just below. The protrusions are where the towing and safety hardware will be installed. It was at this point I had my mishap. I was carrying the front fascia of the car back over so I could line things up for the reinstallation. I tipped it in my hands and heard a crash. The passenger side fog light housing fell out of its slot and the lens broke. Examining the aftermath led me to believe this lens was not designed to be replaced, so I’ll have to buy a new housing. I plan to stop at the junk yard in the morning where they’ll hopefully have something in stock. In the meantime, I’m basking in the glow of having accomplished a fairly complicated mechanical job with a minimum of problems.

Spongy

Thursday, February 16th, 2012

I was carrying firewood from my woodpile near the garage along the well-worn path to the east porch of our house the other day. The snow had melted back from the south side of the house, so I walked along the melted part for a ways with my load of wood. The ground had thawed enough that the earth was spongy under my feet.

I’d like to suggest a metaphor like “astonished,” but, truth be told, I just kept walking. My body made note of the transition, though. I have walked so many miles in the summer months, often barefooted, on the lovely spongy earth that my joints were surprised while my brain didn’t seem to be. It seemed kind of nostalgic.

I like winter and always have, but the feeling of the give of the earth brought back a longing that us usually bottled up while the earth is frozen. So, happy pre-spring to all of you who share that connection with the earth. In about a month, the sap will start to run in the maple trees, and after that spring is well and truly around the corner.

Getting Ready For the Grand Canyon

Tuesday, February 14th, 2012

The next Grand Canyon hike starts in a little over 2 weeks. Every one of these I do teaches me another lesson. This year’s lesson seems to be about food. For the last hike, I had discovered a book called “Backpack Gourmet,” which I used to make several suppers. The food was spectacularly good, and there was plenty of it. So this time I used the recipes in the book to make all our suppers. Part of the process involved dehydrating the food. The picture shows the dehydrator in action with our spaghetti meal.

Another lesson I learned last time involved the weight of food. My luggage was over weight at the airline, which cost me an extra $90 on the outbound part of the journey. This time I made the food up a couple of weeks early, and shipped it via UPS. I sent it out this morning, and felt a real sense of relief. The night before the hike, Steve and I are staying at the Maswik Lodge on the South Rim. They offer the service to guests of storing a package for you that can be claimed on arrival. I wonder if I’ll get money back from the airline if my luggage is under weight? The black cylinders in the picture are “bear canisters,” into which I pack the food. They are designed to make your food impossible for bears to get, although they work equally well against ground squirrels and ravens; two dedicated food snatchers in the canyon.

Conditioning for the hike is also going well. I’ve been carrying my backpack with a 50# sack of sand in it for months now just about every day. This in addition to my normal morning exercises, and the normal activity of my day. After all the hikes I’ve done, I’m not very worried about my muscles, but the joints are another question. I plan to take it very easy, especially on the downhill portions. With care, I think this will be a spectacular hike.

Whisk Broom’s Smoke

Sunday, February 12th, 2012

I’ve been working pretty consistently on my conditioning now for several months. The next Grand Canyon hike is coming up in a few weeks, and I’m feeling pretty confident. Besides the sit-ups and pushups in the morning, I’m hiking about a mile a day with 60# in my backpack.

A couple of Saturdays back, I asked Alice if she’d like to accompany me on a longer hike. I figured 3 miles would be doable with the backpack. I like to do a longer one each year if I can just to be sure there are no surprises. She agreed to go along, so we started getting ready. One thing I wanted to do was get a fire going in the small Jotul stove in our livingroom. The ash shovel and whisk broom were leaning against the chimney, so I grabbed both, lay the whisk broom down, and walked over the the big Jotul stove and got a scoop of hot coals, which I transferred into the little Jotul. I then opened the air, piled in a couple of sticks of wood, and went about my business getting ready for the hike.

We were soon out the door and enjoying the lovely crisp winter air. With my backpack, 3 miles takes me over an hour to accomplish. When we walked in the door after the hike, we both noticed it smelled smokey in the house. This is not terribly unusual when you heat with wood, but an immediate investigation is called for just to be sure nothing serious was happening.

This smoke smelled unusual to me. Alice got into the living room before me, and she said, “uh-oh.” On the little Jotul stove lay the remains of the whisk broom I’d left there just before starting the fire. That poor broom roasted on top of the little Jotul as it caught and burned its cheery fire. The smoke it made was pretty acrid too. It took us a while to clear out the smell, and I hope an important lesson got learned to boot.