Thursday, October 30, 2008

Kitchen reno, or why we're born with two kidneys when we only need one

The most dramatic changes of all, so far, happened this week. The plumbing is roughed in. The old appliances are gone (they were living in the driveway). The drywall ("rock" in construction-speak) is all up, taped and the seams have stuff (Leslie-speak) on them. Fans have been going 24 hours a day for three days now to dry the stuff. Amazingly, it looks like it could become a room, yes, even a kitchen! My wish to have enough lighting to make it look like a prison yard looks like it will come true. The lathe and mud for the stucco patches was applied today. I bet Alan even nailed the lathe to the studs. Wow! It's really coming along.

I have learned that with progress comes check writing, and I keep writing them for things I knew about (Alan) and things I should have expected (the final 20% for the cabinets). Alan is moving rapidly through the job, which is great, but it means he's meeting his payment targets. Ouch.

Every time I think I've selected the last thing I need, something else comes up. This week it was the trim for the tile. Turns out you can't have tile come half way up a wall and not edge it with trim. No way. Nor do you put stupid pieces of framing around windows because you're not sure how to tile around a corner (like the former owners did).  So I trotted off to the tile store on Saturday to select the trim. We found a lovely trim that coordinated with the tile and the granite, and the nice lady gave us two tile samples in addition to the trim sample.

On Tuesday morning, Alan called to explain all the different reasons the trim would not work. It's a quarter round, we need three-quarter round, lots of math involving the mud and the tile and the word "concave" over and over and me finally saying "Just tell me what I need to get." Tuesday night I went back to the tile store, emerging with the trim the nice lady initially told me would work for our job and I rejected before I knew it costs $12-$14 per 8" piece. I mean, come on, it's a piece of glass tile not something that was made by unicorns!

Enter (or exit, as it were) that superfluous kidney. I wonder what they're going for these days?

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

TWD - Chocolate-Chocolate Cupcakes

This week's Tuesdays with Dorie recipe was Chocolate-Chocolate Cupcakes, chosen by Clara of I*Heart*Food4Thought. I actually made these a few weeks ago when I knew the kitchen renovation was due to start. I mean, I love chocolate, and it was going to be a couple of months before I could get back into the kitchen, so it was a no-brainer. This one was the first of my farewell tour of TWD recipes (they're chocolate, so I made them first in case I ran out of time!)
The recipe was pretty straight forward. I baked a double batch so I could take them to work (bringing 12 of something when there are 60 people isn't what I'd call team building). Each time I made something that last week, I would wonder "Is this the last thing I'll make in this kitchen?" It gave me a sense of anticipation and even a twinge of excitement.

Back to the cupcakes. I was a little distracted when I made them, so I didn't pay much attention to, oh, why they smelled so good WAY before they should have been done. Turns out I wasn't the only baker who found they should bake less than specified in the recipe, so even though mine were a tiny bit dry, the ganache made up for that. America wouldn't have a drug or alcohol problem if you passed bowls of ganache at parties.

I'm not the master decorator, in fact, I can't even frost with a small spatula and have it look right. No matter. These are chocolate, and they were delicious. Finger licking, bowl licking, did-I spill-any-on-the-counter delicious. I hope to make them again when the kitchen is finished, and I plan to fill them with Nutella or praline paste, or maybe add chocolate chips and a sprinkling of chopped toasted pecans. I'll take them out of the oven a few minutes early, savor one still warm, and tuck a few in the freezer to enjoy with a cup of coffee. You can find the recipe here. And check out what the other TWD bakers did here.

Ignorance is bliss

We're two weeks into creating my dream kitchen, and there are many positive changes to report. All traces of the old kitchen are gone (unless you look in the driveway). New electrical is in, including more logically situated switches for the new LED lighting. The holes for the new lights have been cut into the ceiling. A lot of the new drywall is up (but still needs taping, etc.) The support for the flat screen TV has been built into the wall, and the electrical for all of that is in, too. I went to the granite yard to see and approve the slab. The new, larger kitchen window has been installed (and it's now at the proper level!) In some respects, we think the worst is over, at least in terms of what we discover has been done wrong by the prior owners.

And it's a lot! The kitchen outlets were not wired to code. In fact, they were "daisy chained," or wired from each other rather than running power to each one. The stucco for the house is another problem. It seems they nailed the lathe on to the sides of the house (great!) but didn't do it into the studs (not great!) So the stucco is being held on by penny nails driven through the plywood. My natural impulse is to fix things that are wrong, but Alan the contractor adamantly said not to do it. I can see his point. It isn't just wrong in the's probably wrong throughout the entire house. Correcting it would mean pulling off all of the stucco, mud and lathe and redoing it. Incredibly expensive and just not worthwhile. He is hopeful that we won't ever need to restucco the house, and I am too.  

On the agenda for this week is taping and applying the texture to the drywall, painting, roughing in the plumbing (including moving the gas line for the cooktop), and delivery of the cabinets. Cabinet installation and installation of the sink and faucet should happen the following week, and then we can have the granite templater in to measure for the countertops. Then the countertops and appliances will be installed. The finishing touch is tiling the backsplash, which I hope will be done by the deadline. Alan is managing my expectations by telling me he said I could bake pies by Thanksgiving, but that I don't need tile to do that, so we'll see if it all gets done in time. 

Many people ask how one manages without a kitchen, especially someone who cooks and bakes as much as I do. I do have a grill, which I use for most cooking, and supplement it with the microwave. This is the one time that I tolerate using paper plates and disposable cups, forks and knives. I made a few things and froze them before this all started, so we're eating reasonably well. I find myself daydreaming about baking more than I ever have before, and several people have offered their kitchens in case I want to whip something up, including one friend who offered to let me come over and bake the pies if we don't make the schedule.

Here are a couple of photos showing some of the changes.  Allie continues to supervise the job and is seen here inspecting the new drywall.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

TWD - Pumpkin Muffins

This week's Tuesdays with Dorie recipe was Pumpkin Muffins, chosen by Kelly of Sounding My Barbaric Gulp! My kitchen remodel started last week, so I baked these before the kitchen was demoed. It was kind of funny because the whole time I was supposed to be packing the kitchen, I was obsessing about how many weeks of TWD I'd have to miss. I'm so happy I fit these in before the excitement began.

The recipe "looks" like it will be one of those good-for-you ones that can't taste yummy because it's too healthy. Not this one. Even though it does have pumpkin, nuts and sunflower seeds, it still tastes like an indulgent treat you can enjoy while feeling smug about consuming something that is healthier than most muffins. I chose to bake the recipe as written, but I loved reading about all of the possible variations (check out the blogroll for what the other TWD bakers dreamed up).  

I baked a double batch so I wouldn't have leftover pumpkin (check out the pumpkin gnocchi Kristen made here). I was tempted not to fill up the muffin cups in case they rose a lot, but they didn't. I was rewarded with big muffins that were subtly flavored and delicious with a cup of coffee. I'm not a huge fan of pumpkin or raisins, but I LOVED these. For a decadent treat, try them with Trader Joe's Pumpkin Butter. They were very popular at work, even with people who don't gravitate to sweets. They were done before the recipe indicated I should check them, but they weren't overly dry. 

These will become a staple in my baking rotation. They're easy to make, delicious, quasi-healthy and offer lots of room for variation. Some variations I'm toying with include adding chocolate chips (big thumbs up from the other bakers), topping with granola instead of sunflower seeds, grated apple in place of the raisins, toasted pecans for the walnuts I used, and subbing crystalized ginger or Craisins for the raisins (Craisins were another hit with the TWD bakers).

If you're interested in the recipe, you'll find it here. Better yet, check out the book that inspired Tuesdays with Dorie, Baking: From My Home to Yours. If you want to join this great group of bakers from around the world, now is the time.  After October 31st, the group won't be open to new members. Here's how to join the fun.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Kitchen no more

Day one of the new kitchen dawned at 4 AM with a migraine.

For some unknown reason even I don't understand, I felt compelled to bake this week's Tuesdays with Dorie recipe (Lenox Almond Biscotti).  I mean, I was up at 4 anyway and the kitchen was boxed up and sitting in the living room, so why not?

I dropped the biscotti and yesterday's double chocolate cupcakes off at the office and came home to find Alan the contractor and the electrician already at work.  This was the best part of the day, and it would soon to go downhill.

We're replacing the electrical panel because adding new appliances is the perfect time to correct a wrong in the house--namely, too many appliances on the same breakers. See, you're not supposed to have the washer, dryer, microwave and dishwasher (plus a couple of outlets) on the same breaker. The plan was to install a recessed circuit breaker box; the existing box is situated under a gutter. That's not such a big deal, except that the previous owners ran the wiring from the pole THROUGH the gutter. It's in a steel pipe, but if the gutter were to leak (which, uh, it does in several spots around the house), it could leak into the box. That would be a bad thing.

Once they started breaking through the stucco to recess the box, they ran into (this will shock you) an unusual arrangement of studs, plywood and framing. The electrician suspected there used to be a window where the new box is supposed to go. They asked me if there used to be a window there. Like I know. But I remembered one of my former neighbors had video taped the house during its renovation, and I found the tape and we watched it. Sure enough, there used to be a window smack dab in the corner of the house next to the old chimney. Alan confirmed that the framing and stud configuration was fine and he could build a frame for the new box, and everyone seemed happier, if a few hours behind schedule (at 2:30 the power was still on). In the meantime, Alan found termite damage (old) and asbestos. The electrician found the fuse box from when the house was first built, still buried in the wall. All kinds of wires that go nowhere. We also discovered that the washer and dryer electrical wasn't wired properly (rewiring it was already on the agenda before we discovered it was wrong). I love this house, but there are so many things that were done wrong.  At least we know about these problems so we can fix them.

On days two and three, Alan demoed the kitchen. I think it went well since he didn't call me with "news." We now have a large empty room that I like to imagine having lots of promise.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

TWD - Lenox Almond Biscotti

This week's TWD recipe was selected by Gretchen of Canela & Comino. Gretchen blogs from Peru. Check her out here...she has an awesome blog!

My kitchen renovation starts tomorrow (today if you include the upgrade of the circuit breaker box) and I had decided that baking biscotti while everything from the kitchen sits in boxes in the living room was not going to happen (I'd already made the next two TWD picks over the weekend). But when I woke up at 4 AM (!) and wasn't able to go back to sleep, I knew I had to make the biscotti.

I'd never made biscotti before, but that's one of the great thing about baking with the other TWD bakers. Many of us are trying techniques for the first time. Check out the P&Q for the questions and tips posted for this recipe by the TWD bakers.

I'm not a fan of almond extract, so I decided to take this recipe in another direction. I kept the almonds but only had slivered almonds, and I added dried cherries (which I cut in half) and chocolate chips. I replaced the almond extract with vanilla extract, and since I was out of granulated sugar, I used light brown sugar. I didn't have cornmeal, so I used polenta instead. The recipe came together quickly, and I spread it in two logs on a Silpat. I didn't measure exactly 12", but I was happy with my dimensions. If I make this again, I will leave a little more space between the two logs because they spread A LOT.

The logs were a little underdone when I pulled them out after 15 minutes, so cutting them after the rest period was challenging. I didn't transfer them to the cutting board because they were, well, still raw in the middle. Brown sugar is wetter than granulated, so if I use brown sugar next time, I will reduce the eggs by one egg white to compensate for the added moisture in the brown sugar.  

After baking the sliced biscotti for 15 minutes, they were still soft.  Back in for another 5 minutes. Then another 2 minutes. Then another 2 minutes. Finally, they were firm as Dorie said they should be.  The finished product was tasty and popular at work. Personally, I didn't like the extra crunch the polenta gave. I would like to make these again and use more of the suggested ingredients (sugar, cornmeal, sliced almonds) and bake them longer (especially the first time). I think it would give me a more consistent result. I think I'll also try other biscotti recipes and play around with some of Dorie's suggested flavor combos. If you're looking for the recipe, you can find it on Gretchen's blog, or even better, check out Baking: From My Home to Yours by Dorie Greenspan.  

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Decisions, decisions

We did finally decide on cabinets a few weeks ago.  It took a weekend trip to Tiburon, lugging my backpack of kitchen stuff. All weekend, I tried to lure M into looking at cabinet pictures. After a nap on our second day, he suggested we look at the choices. I had been subconsciously trying to pick something I thought he would like (this, after he told me "Get what you want" at every turn). It turned out I was dead wrong about what he liked. We both liked the same design, in the same finish. It really didn't take much time. And it was a huge load off my mind. With the appliances and cabinets chosen, there couldn't be much left, could there?

Not so fast.  There's the countertops, backsplash, paint color, pulls, lighting, and on and on. We both felt strongly that the kitchen is smallish and won't be getting any bigger from the remodel. Dark cabinets or dark counters would make it even smaller. We knew from the moment we decided to do the kitchen that it would have granite, and now we knew we wanted a light-colored granite. I didn't go a ton of places since I am not the world's most enthusiastic shopper. In fact, I hate shopping. I would take pictures of the small strips of granite at the showroom and bring them home to show M. It's very hard to tell what the color is from pictures, so one evening we headed to the showroom. Fortunately, they also had a sample of the cabinet door, and we used that to make our decision (it's the one in the middle in the photo).

Again, I thought I was done making decisions. I ordered the granite, ordered the cabinets, narrowed down the paint color. And I waited a lot, mostly patiently, for our contractor to call. At this point, I hadn't done any packing, and there's a lot to do since I will be eliminating two china cabinets in addition to packing the contents of the kitchen. But I figured, hey, I still have time since the contractor still hadn't called me back with the proposal.

Until tonight. He heard my plea--I want to be back in the kitchen by Thanksgiving. He called tonight to ask if I want a portable toilet for the workers to use. He's coming on Friday to go over the proposal. He plans to start Tuesday, God willing.

TUESDAY?!! Yikes, why am I writing this when I need to be packing everything in that kitchen and finding space for it in my already-full house? Peel me off the ceiling, I could positively float to bed tonight thinking that we're maybe going to start on Tuesday. And yes, I know that means the refrigerator in the dining room and doing dishes in the bathtub for more weeks than I care to think about. I know it means no vacation (which I really really need) until it's done (and by then, we probably won't have any money left for a vacation!) It means countless strangers in my house, maybe lifting the toilet seat (or maybe not). Worrying about the cat being let out. Angst about this silly house and its hidden defects. Second guessing whether doing this is a good idea as we hang on the precipice of the greatest economic meltdown in generations. But I know I have to get through all those things in order to have the double oven and the cooktop with six (working) burners. The dishwasher quiet enough to turn on before we go to bed. I know it will be painful and it will test my patience and my resolve (not to mention our savings), but I hope to weather it without losing any of the three.  

This weekend will be a kitchen-intensive weekend. I had already committed to make quiches and lemon squares for our PEO event. In between packing and moving boxes, I'll try to bang out a couple of TWD recipes so I have something to post while I am kitchen-less. I'll reflect on the past ten years and all this kitchen has produced. I'll say goodbye to it by testing its limits. And I'll pack and visit Goodwill a lot. I'll let you know what happens as we progress.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

TWD - Caramel Peanut Topped Brownie Cake

This week's Tuesdays with Dorie recipe was chosen by Tammy of Wee Treats by Tammy. This is the kind of cake that begs to be made and shared. This was my first week as a TWD baker and I was so excited to make this recipe!

The cake itself is easy to put together. The recipe suggests using a whisk to mix it, which was a refreshing change from using the KitchenAid. It came together quickly and easily, though mine was less glossy than the recipe indicated. I didn't have an 8" springform pan, so I used a 9", mentally urging myself not to forget to check it early for doneness (I forgot). When I did check it (after 40 minutes), it was already done/over done. I wasn't too worried because I was planning on pouring an obscene amount of caramel with peanuts over the top (over the top, indeed!)

I have made caramel many times, usually by melting sugar in a pan, then adding an equal amount of cream once the melted sugar has achieved the right color (recipe courtesy of Jim Dodge from his American Baker cookbook). This was a fussier caramel and I wasn't as wild about the flavor and consistency. It had a lot more sugar than cream, so it was very chewy (and challenging to clean up spills), but it was still DELICIOUS!

The finished cake was beautiful. Even though it was dry, it was still tasty. I will definitely make this one again, but I may experiment with the caramel and the nuts (I'm thinking about a version with macadamias). If you're interested in the recipe, I would encourage you to buy the book--it's outstanding. Or you can check it out at Tammy's blog here.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

My love/hate relationship with my kitchen

I love to cook, and I especially love to bake.  I just wish I didn't have to do it in this kitchen. Although it has a great pantry, the stove doesn't work so well, the tile grout never looks clean (the previous owners painted it instead of using colored grout), the sinks are too small for my sheet pans, the dishwasher isn't next to the sink...I could go on for hours but that's no fun for you.

We live in an old house renovated by well-intentioned people who didn't do a very good job of it. During one vacation, something in the house broke each and every day, and I couldn't wait to go back to work. By broke I mean the shower head falling off the wall and the garage door falling down. Big repairs.

Houses like this are challenging to remodel. You never know what you'll find when you uncover what's hidden. You allocate a nice chunk of your budget for the unexpected. You pray a lot. You rationalize ("Aren't you glad they found the problem with that pipe so we could replace it?")

Over the years, I've accepted the limitations of my kitchen and not thought much about changing it. A couple of months ago, M suggested out of the blue that we remodel the kitchen. I said no. In my mind, there wasn't enough money in the world to get me the kitchen I wanted in this house. M, a very savvy man who undoubtedly sensed my sadness at working in this kitchen of endless frustration, declared the kitchen reno my number one project and sent me shopping.

I started at Lowe's. They carry it all. I saw cabinets, counter tops and appliances. Then, out of the corner of my eye, I spied them. Sleek and inviting, they called to me, showing a peek of blue in the light.  

Electrolux double ovens with convection. With ball bearing-mounted racks. And a temperature probe. I think I gasped. It was almost like the first time I spotted M, waiting for me on our first date. I was 20 minutes late, and he was still waiting for me. When I saw him, my heart stopped. 

Just as I was after I met M, I became obsessed by these ovens. I visited the website to peek at them. I researched reliability for the brand. I imagined taking trays of perfectly baked cookies out of the ovens. Crispy roasted chicken. Roasted vegetables in half the time.

The ovens hooked me. Other appliance picks followed. A six burner cooktop. A french door refrigerator. A sleek and powerful hood. An ultra quiet dishwasher. Then I picked the sink, faucet, disposer and microwave. Almost every day M asked if I was close on the cabinet decision. 

Not really.  I was paralyzed.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Happiness is a warm cookie

I was overcome with an urge to leave work early the other day and make cookies. I managed to duck out of the office at 3, and once home, I went straight for Baking: From My Kitchen to Yours by Dorie Greenspan. I zeroed in on My Best Chocolate Chip Cookies. I had everything I needed (I used Ghirardelli 60% chocolate chips instead of chopping chocolate as Dorie suggests) and the recipe came together quickly. I made a double batch and scooped out and froze half of what I made. This morning, I baked off the frozen dough and took warm cookies in to work. Is there anything better than warm chocolate chip cookies? These were rich and buttery, with the chocolate chips oozing when broken free from the crisp cookie.

This cookie is delicious as is, but if I were to play with this recipe, I would cut back on the vanilla and add a teaspoon of cinnamon and dried cherries. Or I would chop up some peanut brittle and add it instead of the nuts and chocolate chips (maybe adding cinnamon too). Or toasted coconut and salted macadamia nuts. It's a great springboard to creativity.

Updated 10/28/08

I still get swoony comments about these cookies from some of my coworkers. When the kitchen gets put back together, I hope to bake these again with some variations. Of course, the list of recipes I plan to make when the kitchen is finished grows each day, but these were good and popular. Make them!