Weekend Update: Brick Oven Blowout

On Saturday, the Caboose and I finished up a couple details on the brick oven: the Guadalupana shrine and the oven door.

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The Caboose putting on a 2″x2″ framing tile.

 

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Next time I’m doing stucco, I’ll stucco around this, hide the tile set and cinder blocks.

David (that’s the Caboose) was inspired: he tracked down a couple small statues of Mary to flank the big tile, and spotted some Guadalupana votive candles at, of all places, Home Depot. So now the image has candles and little statues, and will eventually have some flowers and plants growing in front.

Don’t think I posted a picture of the little ledge with tiles on it:

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Plan to tile around the edges, too – tentatively scheduled for May, 2020. Only slightly kidding.

Next, if you want to do bread in a brick oven (one that isn’t gigantic, at any rate) you need an oven door. Scrounged up some scrap oak, dragged out the trusty table saw, clamps and glue:

 

What doesn’t show: thin sheet of galvanized steel, 1″ layer of ceramic insulation batting, and another layer of steel bolted to the back of the door. That sucker is heavy! But worked like a charm. Only issue: around the top, the wood is already being charred – heat rising, and the seal not being perfect. All I can see to do is monitor the situation – can’t see an obvious solution at this point, and maybe getting charred is all that will happen?

Fired up the oven a little after noon. By a little after 3, we were cooking. First up: seared flap steak:

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Two steaks, One was a little on the rare side, the other a nice medium rare. Tuck a few slices into half a ciabatta roll, add deli mustard – it was good. Later, reheated the meat in a cast iron skillet, and it was all medium to medium-well done. Still yummy.

Per Alton Brown, you liberally salt both sides, then let sit for an hour to warm to room temperature, spread some 1000F coals, and throw the steaks directly on them! Paleo, dude! 45 seconds to a side, knock off any coals that stick, then lay the steaks on top of each other on foil, wrap snuggly, let rest 15-20 minutes, slice thin against the grain – and super yummy.

Also made pastrami for the less bloodthirsty among us:

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Next up: the ciabatta rolls. Shovel back the coals, sweep the ash to the back, and throw the raw dough right on the bricks:

 

Did you know that ciabatta can catch fire if it gets too close to those 1000F coals?

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I was concerned, a little, about the blackened mess, but – these crispy, chewy rolls were soon gone! Yummy, and I learned a thing or two, mostly about the inflammability of bread dough.

Next up: pizza!

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Goat cheese, tomatoes and basil on pesto. It got et.

Made 5 pizzas, one was a dud – you can’t use very runny sauce, tends to boil and dissolve the crust before the pizza is done – the others were quite good.

Also wanted to try baked potatoes, because it seemed weird:

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Coat in oil, salt, and wrap in foil. Put the dutch oven on the coals to preheat, add potatoes, slide back up against the fire. Takes about 30 minutes to bake. Didn’t try one, reports are the texture came out very smooth.

Finally, spread the remaining coals over the oven floor, closed up the door, let sit for almost an hour while getting the ciabatta dough ready. Then remove all the hot coals and ash (got a cool lidded metal pail for just this thing) sweep, then mop with a dripping rag, check floor temp – should be around 550F – and throw the bread in right on the bricks.

The mopping not only reduces the amount of ash you going to get on your bread, but also raises the humidity in the oven which, paradoxically, makes for a crisper crust. 20-30 minutes later:

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Delicious with a little of the sharp cheddar you can see at the bottom there. Crispy, light and chewy – good stuff! Could have been maybe a little browner. Next time!

To get proper use out of a non-commercial brick oven, one must dedicate half a day to prep, and all of a day to firing/cooking. So, invite a lot of friends over – we did, worked out well, weather was California perfect. Spent Saturday evening making the ‘biga’ – the sponge – for the ciabatta and mixing up some pizza dough.  Then cleaned up and set up and first firing. Guests started showing up around 2, cooking started around 3, and the last guests left after 8. Just hanging out on the patio and backyard, yacking and eating and drinkling.

A lot of fun. It will take me a week to recover.

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Weekend Update: Pizza and Luther

Hectic. Intense. Ready for a break.

But found time for some fun! On Saturday, we had a couple religious sisters over for dinner and the night (they sell books at Catholic events, were over in the East Bay from their house on the Peninsula, had some more gigs lined up in the Concord area for Sunday morning early, and didn’t want to do the drive home late, drive back early thing – if you’ve driven around here, you will be sympathetic). Took the occasion to do more wood-fired brick oven pizza! Woohoo!

One thing the interwebs in their inscrutable majesty tell us is that every brick oven is different, and one must just keep using it to learn how your particular one works. Seems ours is on the large size for a pizza oven, because I also anticipated baking bread in it, and so made it large – it’s maybe half way between a pizza oven and a smallish bread oven, size-wise. This means that heat time is longer – took about 2 hours to get the floor up to 800F, a proper temperature for Neapolitan-style pizzas.  Even then, could probably have used another 1/2 hour to really load enough heat in the 1/2 ton or so of bricks, mortar and concrete that make up the oven, to do more than a few pizzas.

But it worked! Ended up making 4 pizzas, two strictly traditional – simple flour, yeast, salt & water crusts, crushed fresh tomato sauce, fresh mozzarella, fresh basil leaves, and a dribble of olive oil – and two with a little more adventure to them.

At 800F, takes 2 minutes or less to cook a thin pizza. We didn’t quite make it – it cooled to a bit over 700F by the time the pies hit the bricks – so it took 3-4 minutes (That’s why I think we need that additional 30 minutes of heating).

How do I know the temps? This:

Fancy-dan laser infrared thermometer gun! My son and I were taking the temperatures of anything and anyone who wandered into rang. Just don’t shoot them in the eyes! Fun gadget – always impressed by how technology works it way down, so that I have a very sophisticated computer masquerading as a phone in my pocket – with satellite GPS uplinks and access to the WWW.  And it’s just a phone no better than that owned by hundreds of millions of people. Here, we have laser and infrared technology combined into a little plastic gadget that can measure temperature up to maybe 16′ away – for under $30, price of a medium fancy lunch.

Amazing. Life can be fun, if you let it.

Rereading Lord of the World. It stands up to and might even require rereading.

Next up, while shopping for pizza ingredients, got a call from my daughter at Thomas More College where the juniors are now reading Luther.

She was exasperated – people fell for this? Luther is completely unconvincing and is borderline incoherent much of the time!

She said that she at least expected him to be a smart guy, making somewhat sophisticated arguments. She, like her father and mother before her, had been recently reading the likes of Augustine and Thomas right before running into Luther, and so had developed a very high standard for rational argument. It’s hard, in that context, to see Luther’s arguments as much more than the logical equivalent of a monkey flinging poo: you don’t like the Church – we get it. Anyone who disagrees with you is evil or stupid or both – right. Your arguments, such as they are and no matter how they torture understanding and context, are the simple and pure light of the Spirit shining through – gotcha.

So she called me to vent. She’d gotten to the reading – Christian Liberty – before her roommates, and had ranted to the empty dorm room – oh, come on! – then had the experience of hearing her roommates do the same when they got to the reading. And of course she’d grown up hearing me rant about how idiotic and vile Luther’s actual words are, as opposed to what people imagine them to be in that weird space he seems to occupy in Protestant mythology.

The hard part: realizing that the followers are sincere. Educated Catholic reactions to Luther’s arguments and claims have, from the very first, been something like: that’s utterly ridiculous! You have to cherry-pick and torture Scripture to get it to say that! You ignore all context, gloss over all history, dance around basic logical question – and then call your opponents names when they point it out! What a knucklehead!

Yet – yet – those who speak of his fiery style and manly vigor, who see him as this saint who lead the world back to real Christianity, truly do not see the ridiculousness of his arguments and claims. Educated Catholics have a very hard time arguing calmly in such an environment, where each page, each paragraph, presents another absurdity, overreach and attack on opponents.

But we must. I read an essay once by prominent Protestant theologian saying he had a hard time letting go of the beauty of the basic Protestant view of Christian life, and saw it as perfectly viable and comparable to the Catholic view – a matter of taste, as it were.

Wow. Just – wow. But he is an exception – in general, admirers of Luther follow Luther’s own example when reading Scripture when they read Luther – vast amounts of authority and value are given to certain selected passages, while the bulk of Luther’s writings are explained away or simply ignored in light of those cherry-picked passages.

So: I’m going to redouble my efforts to by sympathetic to Lutherans and their Protestant brethren who take Luther seriously enough to have read some of him. I’ll try to listen, and hear where they’re coming from. THEN I’ll start quoting Luther back to them! BUWAHAHA!

No, wait – I’ll be even more patient. I’ll try to plant one little seed – and then shut up, and leave it to God. Because, frankly, this is hard.

Then there’s the rank and file – people who have read little or no Luther, and so imagine him, based on reputation alone, to be sweetness and light itself. They, like the bulk of Lutherans since before Luther’s body was even cold in the grave, more or less ignore most of what he said without even being aware of it. His Bondage of the Will teaches a predestination that is every bit as extreme  as Calvin’s – yet Lutherans don’t typically talk like Calvinists in this regard. For example.

In one of those odd confluences so typical of Real Life(tm), on Catholic Radio this morning was an interview with a bunch of converts from Lutheranism and Protestantism in general who are recently back from taking a tour of Germany to visit the various sites associated with Luther. Needless to say, they were not your typical such tourists. As converts from the mish-mash fathered by Luther, they were much more prepared than I would have been to engage – and they, by the accounts they gave, were at least as brutal as I would have been.

One point one the guys made to a tour guide at a Luther museum: 60% of the people of Germany claim to be irreligious. Well? If Luther were such a positive religious influence, why have the sheep so relentlessly fled the fold, rejecting any fold? When the guide answered that it was Communism, he replied that Poland, right next door, suffered at least as much as Germany did under the Communists – yet, united in their Catholic faith, they remain a strongly religious people. Strong enough to lead the way throwing out the Reds.

So, there is that. I, on the other hand, have to reign in my tongue. Fortunately, I suppose, have not had occasion to discuss Luther with any of his admirers for a number of years now.

Reading/Writing/Home Improvement Saturday Update

Daughter of Danger: The Dark Avenger's Sidekick Book One (Moth & Cobweb 4) by [Wright, John C.]

A. Reading Daughter of Danger out loud to the Caboose. He is a big fan of the Swan Knight’s Son series, which I’ve previously read out loud to him. Highly recommend the whole Moth & Cobweb series by John C. Wright, especially if you have children, who need to hear stories of people being good and heroic in the face of implacable evil. Characters wrestle with their consciences, and their consciences win!

I’m halfway through Machiavelli’s History of Florence and the Affairs of Italy, which is free on Kindle at the moment.

Swan Knight's Son: The Green Knight's Squire Book One (Moth & Cobweb 1) by [Wright, John C.]

The first part was fascinating, covering the Fall of Rome, the murder of Stilicho, his family and the families of the Goth legions and the subsequent sack of Rome by Alaric. I’ve now recently read Belloc’s, Lafferty’s and now Machiavelli’s accounts of the same events – very nice to compare and contrast.

Then Machiavelli covers the 6th – 13th centuries, a period that is to me and I imagine many people a bit of a blur – the various Germanic conquerors staking claims to Lombardy and Naples, emperors and would-be emperors coming to the pope to be crowned or not, popes getting involved in worldly affairs, the Avignon Captivity, rise of the Guelphs and Ghibellines, then the White and Black Guelphs –  I hope by the end of all this to at least remember which was which (and perhaps spell the words correctly).

One striking thing is how often the popes come off as sympathetic, as being forced to take action, of acting as peacemakers, as sending legates to try to prevent violence. Sure, Machiavelli, who no one ever has accused of being a softy or wearing rose colored glasses, tells plenty of appalling tales of greedy, worldly and violent popes – which is what one would expect. But he’s also willing, in passing, to acknowledge the good or at least well-intentioned actions of popes. I did not expect this.

Finally, about 40% of the way in, we reach another period of Italian history where the names and some of the stories are familiar to me. Dante, Brunelleschi, and, of course, the Medici. All those family names and many of the characters from the Divine Comedy put in appearances. Cosmo di Medici comes off as a near-saint – but the bar is pretty low among Florentine politicians. Still, his generosity and failure to hold grudges are in sharp contrast to the other leading historical characters – even if he’s doing it as part of a strategy to keep his head down and his family in power. That’s Machiavelli’s take, at least in part. Haven’t gotten to the attempted murder of Lorenzo and successful murder of his brother yet (a Murder in the Cathedral!) and his extraordinarily adroit handling of the situation which left him and the Medici much more firmly entrenched than they already were.  I’m eager to get Machiavelli’s take, which I assume he would have gotten more or less first hand as a young man.

Otherwise, I get the same general sense from Machiavelli as I do from Tacitus and Thucydides – hubris, blood lust, petty egomania and the violence, political failures and brain-dead stupidity they engender are eternal – as is the desire for the well-governed city.

B. Collected my first rejection letter. I will therefore not be joining the ranks of authors who got their first submitted story published. Feedback was promised, which I eagerly await. Then, as soon as things calm down a little (they will, surely) I’m getting back in the submit stuff saddle! Right now, things truly are extraordinarily complicated, I’m not just being a sissy.

C. At the moment, it is 102F outside with a bullet, on its way to a forecast 113F. This not only harshes my mellow, it seriously hampers my ability to work on the Brick Oven of Doom. Even I, a maniac of epic proportions, won’t try to work in the sun when it’s over 100 outside – at least, not for long.

Nevertheless, got up early and, with an hour break for Mass, worked until 11:45 A.M., when it hit 98F – and got the first coat of stucco on!

 

Getting the insulation on and especially the chicken wire on and tight enough was a bit of a pain, but the stucco itself was about the first part of this project that actually went better than I’d anticipated. I’ve stuccoed a bunch of walls when I’ve gone house building in Mexico (church groups build small tight houses for the folks working at the machiadores just over the border) so I knew how to do it. It just went really, really smoothly, especially with the Caboose helping with the stucco supply – didn’t need to climb down and up to reload.

If things go perfectly – ha! – we might have pizza as early as Monday!!

Frou Frou Office Snack Update: Seaweed

Sanity, as much as is ever found in the La-La land of tech, has prevailed. The late and lamentable Virtue-Signal ™ brand snacks dissected here and here have been burned through, and a brief chat with the office manager has discovered that they will not be being reordered. (She did mention that each species is available separately and much cheaper via Amazon, if there’s a particular kind anybody liked. Not going there myself, unless there’s some sort of delayed addiction coded into the Blueberry/Vanilla/Kale skeet that causes cocaine-level withdrawal symptoms – I almost wouldn’t put it past the hippies that make these abominations. But I digress…)

Turns out the seaweed snacks I’d seen previously had not, in fact, been a part of that particular order, but some had migrated, somehow, to the snack-food Serengeti that was the Cardboard Box of Virtue Snacks, from whence they were consumed – before I got to try them. In the name of Science! and all.

Well, well – a fresh snack shipment came in today from CostCo, which included:

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The open package to the left is Ocean’s Halo Maui Onion flavored seaweed. First up for testing.

The operative word here is weed, as in a plant that’s in the way of whatever you’re really doing. But Science! must march on!

As a kid, went to the beach a lot (1), as it was 20 minutes away and I was a kid with older siblings dying to use that fresh driver’s license at any occasion. There were even Whittier to Huntington Beach buses one could catch, but we rarely did that. Instead, I and a bunch of kids from the neighborhood would just pile into the back of our old powder blue station wagon – older sis who was driving and her friends usually got the seats. We were sliding loose in a way that would horrify modern safety-niks as we drove down the 605 singing along with the radio as loud as we could. (Somehow, we all reached adulthood anyway.)

I mention this because the smell of the seaweed when I first open the package reminds me of the areas of the beach we would avoid. The areas where seaweed had washed ashore.

Seaweed was gross! Stank, covered with little flies, and would get tangled on your feet. Eat it? I think not!

But for Science! my love:

It’s – OK. The good parts are that it can curb your salt jones at only 20 calories a box. On the downside, it tastes like seaweed.

So far, I’ve eaten the Maui Onion sheets, and have tasted a couple of the Sea Salt offering. Seems an acquired taste. I think I could acquire it (love sushi rolls, and they have this exact stuff in them often as not…)

Further updates as events warrant.

  1. Such that, as an adult, I’m on way too familiar terms with my dermatologist, who regularly gazes, pokes and prods and has cut chunks – once, and alarmingly large chunk – of ME off my body.

Back Home/Brick Oven Update

On Tuesday, we toured the Nevada Northern Railroad yards in Ely (pronounced Eel-ee) and took a little train trip up past McGill. It was pretty:

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On Tuesdays, it’s the #204, an old diesel locomotive from the 1950s, pulling the train:

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We did get to tour the engine house, and see the old steam #40:

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While it’s cool to see people keeping up old trains – the Ely yards are so isolated that, when the copper mining petered out, it just got abandoned instead of scrapped, thus accidentally preserving a piece of history – it saddened me to see all the beautiful tools sitting idle. 75 years ago, dozens of men spent their days running those huge lathes, a couple forges and smithies, a huge steam-powered wrecking crane (for lifting the inevitable wrecks when you’re running copper ore day in day out) and otherwise doing the sort of blue collar work of which a man could be proud.

Now? It’s a passion for a few hobbyists and obsessives, who keep a couple very cool steam engines running and few miles of track maintained. It’s nice, but it seems like a mausoleum to a better age.

Then we drove to Carson City down 50, “the Loneliest Highway in America” according to the signs.  This stretch alternates between winding through mountains and crossing breathtaking plains.  On this particular afternoon, thunderstorms were rolling through – or we were rolling through thunderstorms – so that the already beautiful scenery benefited from beautiful clouds, rainbows, and that lovely lighting that seems to accompany desert storms. Lonely but lovely, at least on this day. My Honest State Motto for Nevada (not a favorite state) is now Nevada: Not as Ugly as You Remember.

Wednesday morning, drove up to lake Tahoe to catch mass at St. Theresa’s in South Lake Tahoe. The drive up to the lake from the east side takes 20 minutes; from the west side almost an hour. That’s partly because starting from Carson City is starting at much higher altitude, and partly because the Sierra are much more abrupt on the east side, which is the leading edge of a massive granite uplift. A beautiful drive.

I’ve mentioned St. Theresa’s before. I managed to not get too obsessed over the horrible woodwork this time.

The two remaining kids wanted to jump into the lake before we headed down:

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Verdict; Not as cold as feared. I will note that 10 minutes of wet was plenty, however.

Then back home, about a three hour drive.

Took today and tomorrow off to work on the Brick Oven of Doom. Back to working with regular clay brick and nice cheap regular mortar – turns out to be a lot more fun than those expensive refractory bricks and even more expensive refractory mortar. Here, take a look:

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That’s the finished front arch. The door fits underneath it up against the slightly smaller inner arch, thus sealing off the heat and smoke better. Wanted to see if I could cut a stone keystone using a diamond blade on my 4.5″ angle grinder:

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Cool, huh?

So this project has gone back to being fun. Tomorrow, I throw on 4″ of ceramic insulation, tie it down with chicken wire, and throw on the first coat of stucco. Then, between coats (I am anticipating two undercoats and a brown finish coat) I’ll install the Mexican tile.

Fun, right?

Eclipse in Idaho

After a couple semi-grueling days of driving, all of us are in Idaho, 11 miles south of Salmon in this lovely cottage:

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The scenery is nice:

Saturday, we went river rafting on the Salmon River:

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It was pretty. There was enough white water to drench (and therefore satisfy) the Caboose. There were a couple ‘holes’, one part of ‘the Table’ which was the most ‘whoa!’ part of the trip. It’s like these river raft types have an entire vocabulary to describe what they love. Lots of wildlife – mountain sheep, deer, elk, grouse, very impressive bald eagles, some native waterfowl or other.

Tomorrow: Mass at St. Charles in Salmon, then exploring, resting up, making sure our eclipse-viewing gear is in order (I’m going to try to assemble a viewing box out of cardboard boxes, a monocular, an old rake handle and duct tape – wish me luck). Then, Monday, crack of dawn or earlier, drive south about 100 miles to be in the center of the Zone of Totality (which would make a good metal band name).  Find a spot, watch the eclipse, pack up, head to Salt Lake City to put two of the kids on a plane back to LA for school/work. Then, down to Ely just because. Tuesday, over to Carson City. Look around, spend the night, then head home over the Ebbetts Pass – beautiful drive.

A lot of fun so far.

Home Improvement Projects: The Pizza Oven of Doom

So, this actually doesn’t happen all that often, but I’m pretty much completely funned out on the brick oven. Building the vault was just too darn difficult and time consuming to be much fun. Now, I need to A. build the front arch out of regular bricks; B, put on the insulation and chicken wire over that; C. stucco over that; and D. install and stucco around the decorative tiles.

Over the weekend, added the chimney base and the – what do you call that thing? – the slightly smaller front arch that acts as a lip to help the smoke go out the chimney and for the door (ultimately) to fit up against.

Looks like this:

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Front. Those semicircles are pieces of the support for the vault, and are here deployed to block off the opening for the smoke test. 
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Back. While the actual firebox is sealed up using refractory mortar, I went over the outside with regular mortar just to smooth it up some. Probably meaningless, seemed like a good idea at the time. 

We smoke-tested it, meaning we built a small fire inside to see if smoke leaked out anywhere it wasn’t supposed to. Not too bad, a few minor easily plugged gaps.

It will look pretty once it’s all stuccoed and the nice Mexican tiles are installed. This one goes on the side:

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11″ square – large. 

Wish I could find a nice San Jose tile for the back.

Thursday, we all – all four kids + parents + a sweet woman who lives with us, 7 total – leave to drive up to Idaho for the eclipse. We’ll stop in Elko, NV that evening, then leave for the Salmon River Friday. Saturday, we river raft; Sunday we find a church; Monday we drive for an hour or two down near Rexburg to maximize totality. Then it’s down to Salt Lake City to put two of the kids on planes to SoCal for school and a drive to Eli, NV for the night. Then it’s on to Carson City, NV, where we’ll probably sightsee and putter and spend the night. Finally, we’ll take Highway 89 to Highway 4 over Ebbitts Pass and past Lake Alpine – scenic doesn’t do it justice, 8,000’+ up in the forested granite mountains of the Sierra.

I’ll try to get my head cleared.