Sunday, December 30, 2007

Master Closet Organizer

I've batted around the idea for a few years now of making a closet organizer--I've looked in magazines and Home Centers for ideas, and even fleetingly considered buying manufactured cabinets for it, until I saw 1) the exorbitant price and 2) the shoddy quality. I'm sure that there are nice closet organizers out there, well-built and strong, but I guarantee that they will be lots more expensive than the shoddy ones and I'm too cheap to pay for either. What's left? Do without or build it myself.

So I spent about two hours using Google SketchUp to document a few ideas. I'm still pretty new to SketchUp, and 3D drafting too, so it's nothing glorious but it will be a good rough picture to build detailed plans from. Wish me luck.

Right now, I've got one wire shelf (with attached hanger bar) on each of the two far walls. I plan on taking those out, installing a corner shelf unit, a drawers-and-doors unit, and a few double bars. My side will remain on the right and my wife's side will stay on the left, so I've left a single bar for dresses. Originally, I had intended to make a drawers-and-doors unit on my side against the wall opposite the corner unit; however, there's a whirlpool tub access panel that would block the bottom of the three drawers so I would have to make it shorter. Plus, I think there's enough room in the corner cabinet to put my folded items. I'd much rather have more hanging space.

I have no doubt that plans will change slightly, but I feel confident that the corner unit and the drawers-and-doors will stay the same, although the position of the drawers-and-doors may shift slightly.

I've already got the 3/4" oak-faced plywood for the job. At least, I have three 4'x8' sheets, which ought to do it I think. I'll need to pick up some 1-by solid oak for the drawers and doors, and to face the ply, and some drawer slides and pulls. And a few hanger bars. And figure out a way to mount all this to the wall.


I guess I'd better get to it.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

A Night of Good Eats

I got some cooking gear for Christmas, and tonight was the night to put it to use. My mother-in-law bought me a set of four 6 oz. ramekins and a new torch head for my blowtorch, and my "baby" sis (love ya, Lulu!) sent me seasons 1 and 2 of Good Eats on DVD. Did I mention that Alton Brown is my hero?

Episode 1 of season 1 is all about steak. I've got a freezer full of various cuts, and thought I'd give his recipe for a pan-seared rib eye a shot--it seemed pretty straightforward, and I had all the tools at my disposal. I followed his recipe to the letter and the T-bone and two filet mignon I experimented on turned out divinely! My 7 year old son, J, asked for thirds!

What would complement a nice juicy steak better than a smooth, creamy dessert? Having just watched the My Pod episode, starring creme brulee, I was eager to try out my new ramekins by filling them with vanilla-ey goodness. I once again followed Alton's recipe (except I used regular cane sugar instead of turbinado) and received two of the biggest compliments known to man:

On tasting his first bite, J exclaimed, "Yum! This is even better than candy!"

And my 5 year old, Spencer, when saying his prayers at bed time tonight thanked God for "cran brulay."

Pan Seared Steak

I'm hardly an authority on steaks, but I just used what I had. Alton recommends using a boneless ribeye 1 1/2" thick. Whatever you use, bring it to room temperature before starting.

Steak - see prep.
Canola oil - I used spray Pam. Don't use corn or olive oil since they have very low smoke points.
Kosher salt
Black pepper

Preheat the oven to 500F and place therein one 10"-12" cast iron pan. DO NOT use a Teflon pan.

Lightly coat the steak with oil. Sprinkle on salt and pepper.

When the pan has reached temp, turn the stove burners on high and set the pan on the burner. (We're not done with the oven yet, so don't turn it off.) Set the steak in the pan and sear for 30 seconds each side. Do not peek, poke, or flip that sucker for at least 30 seconds!

After both sides are seared, turn again and set the pan (with the steak in it...) back in the hot oven for 2 minutes. Flip the steak and cook for another 2 minutes. Check for doneness with an instant-read thermometer. AB suggested these times for medium rare and I found them to be pretty close.

Remove from the oven and let the steak rest on a plate or cutting board, covered lightly with foil, for at least 2 minutes to let the juices redistribute.

You can turn off the oven now.

Creme Brulee

You'll need a good torch for this one. I used a torch like this one, ordinarily used for soldering copper plumbing pipes. I can't vouch for those puny kitchen torches, this being my first brulee, but I've heard that they aren't always up for the task. Besides, it's more manly to make any meal with a tool from Lowe's than it is to use a tool from a place that sells throw pillows. This can be made with a broiler, so I hear, but again, you never know when you'll need a blowtorch so why not spring for one now?

Oh, and don't even think about trying this without a fire extinguisher handy. If you don't own one, go out right now and get one, even if you don't try this recipe.

You'll also need a baking pan and a tea towel. Fold up the towel so that it fits inside the pan, lining the bottom.

Final note: This recipe is for six 7-8 oz. ramekins. I had four 6 oz. ramekins, so I halved the recipe with no ill effects.

Really final note: I forgot to get vanilla beans, so I added 1 tsp. vanilla extract after the cream had cooked but before the cool-down time.

1 quart heavy cream
1 vanilla bean, split and scraped
1 cup vanilla sugar, divided
6 large egg yolks
2 quarts hot water

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees F.

Place the cream, vanilla bean, and its pulp into a medium saucepan set over medium-high heat and bring to a boil. Remove from the heat, cover and allow to sit for 15 minutes. Remove the vanilla bean and reserve for another use. Meanwhile, set the 2 quarts of water in a pot, saucepan, kettle, etc. to boil.

In a medium bowl, whisk together 1/2 cup sugar and the egg yolks until well blended and it just starts to lighten in color. Add the cream a little at a time, stirring continually. Pour the liquid into 6 (7 to 8-ounce) ramekins. Place the ramekins into a large cake pan or roasting pan.Pour enough hot water into the pan to come halfway up the sides of the ramekins.

Bake just until the creme brulee is set, but still trembling in the center, approximately 40 to 45 minutes. Remove the ramekins from the roasting pan and refrigerate for at least 2 hours and up to 3 days. (I found them to be better after 24 hours of refrigeration than after 2 hours. They were more flavorful and more firm.)

Remove the creme brulee from the refrigerator for at least 30 minutes prior to browning the sugar on top. Divide the remaining 1/2 cup vanilla sugar equally among the 6 dishes and spread evenly on top. My 6 oz ramekins took about 1 to 1 1/2 tsp of sugar each. Using a torch, melt the sugar and form a crispy top.

Hold the ramekin at about a 45 degree angle (relative to the countertop) in the fingertips of your left hand and hold the torch in your right hand. As you turn the ramekin slowly with your left hand, let the tip of the torch flame lick at the top-center of the brulee, gently moving the flame back and forth to avoid scorching. When the sugar is all melted and has achieved a golden brown color, remove the heat and keep turning for a few seconds to help distrubute the sugar.

Allow the creme brulee to sit for at least 5 minutes before serving.

Friday, December 7, 2007

Finished Chair

It's alive! IT'S ALIVE!! Well, maybe not alive, but it is definitely fully-built...

I have finished my Adirondack chair, and am very proud of my handiwork.

I like these plans because they only required 3/4" wood, which is available from my local Home Center--no driving around looking for special thicknesses of wood required.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Dutch Oven Chicken Supreme

I went on a campout this last weekend and I found out on Thursday night that I'd be feeding 5-6 adults dinner on Friday and breakfast on Saturday. Oh geez. Simple is King.

So I flipped through my Palm, where I keep all of my best recipes on hand *ahem* and found Dutch Oven Chicken Supreme. It sounded simple and quick, with a minimum of preparation, so I figured I'd give it a shot. I'd love to credit the recipe's author, but I'm just not sure where I got it. If this recipe looks familiar, gimme a shout and I'll acknowledge.

This was a big hit, and I'll absolutely do it again.

At home, I thawed and precooked the chicken (as much as time would allow) on the gas grill, and cut it (the chicken, not the grill) into 2-3" chunks--not quite bite-sized, but something quick to cook and easy to dish out.

When you get to camp, preheat a 12" dutch oven using about 10 coals below and 14 above. (That's about 350F.)

5-6 chicken
1/4 lb. sliced ham
1/4 lb. sliced swiss
1 box dry stuffing mix
1 10.75 oz can cream of soup

Arrange chicken in the bottom of the DO. Cover chicken with slices of ham. Cover ham with slices of cheese. Cover cheese with stuffing mix. Spoon soup over stuffing mix. Cover and cook 30-45 minutes or until chicken is cooked throughout.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Adirondack Chair

Shortly after I got my first job out of college I picked up a few power tools, namely a cordless drill, cheap table saw, cheap band saw, and a router. With those basic tools, I made a practically -proof Adirondack chair from plans on the web. The designer's intentions were to create a chair with:
  • Level arms reinforced to withstand the weight of a child "perching" on them;
  • Arms that extend forward to assist in rising from the chair; that permit placing a beverage without bending the wrist;
  • Contoured seat and curved back that is "just right" for use either with or without a cushion;
  • A deep well at the base of the back to eliminate the "lump" from the bend of a cushion and to prevent its movement;
  • Arms that are at "reading height" for holding a book;
  • Good stability. . . and above all - comfort!
  • The ability to STACK two or even three chairs, to save floor space when storing them for the winter.
Those points all sounded good to me, so I built one out of pine acquired from my local home center. I brushed on one coat of white primer and one coat of white exterior latex paint. (You could still see the brush marks years later.) It was a good chair for many years, and held up to much abuse and weather. But when I moved from Dayton, I gave it to my next door neighbors who were very generous to my family while we were there. Now I have no chair.

Last year, I made a template from some 1/4" hardboard I had left over from a previous project. I picked up some rough cedar boards from my local home center, planed the one rough side,
and roughly cut out the parts. I intended to do the finish "cutting" with my router and a flush-trim bit; however, I ended up breaking several pieces because the bit caught the grain. Grr.

I was frustrated and tired, and left the chair partially done after that, until now.

This weekend, I changed from finishing the parts with a router to using a belt sander--I paid careful attention to which way the grain was going and made sure to keep it with the direction of the sander. I cut out pieces I hadn't yet cut out. I bought new wood to remake the pieces that were broken. And this time, I didn't screw up...I screwed in! (Into predrilled holes, no less!)

I'm not sure when I'll have time to finish, but I've got it well under way!

Skookie Update!

I experimented today and thought I'd bring a little skookie hope to those unfortunate readers of my blog who are cast-ironless: skookies can be made into regular cookies without any ill effects!

I decided to make a batch of sourdough bread (but that's another post...) and I needed to use my KitchenAid mixer; however, the bowl was full of skookie dough! So I transfered almost all of the dough into a Tupperware, but was left with about a cup's worth of dough. What to do...what to do?? When life gives you cookie dough, make cookies!

I scooped cookie-sized mounds onto a cookie sheet and cooked them up--12 minutes at 350F. They're not as good without a scoop of ice cream on them, but a tall glass of milk is an acceptable alternative in this situation.

Friday, November 23, 2007

"I want 600 of those!"

Since my previous batch of skookies went so swimmingly, I thought I'd have another go at it. This time, I figured I'd use my other recipe, Annie’s Amazing Triple Chocolate Chunk Cookies. When my 5-year-old son took his first bite he said, "I want 600 of those!" so I guess I'd call them a success!

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Gather up 2 or 3 cast iron skillets, or any other pans that will handle the oven's heat. (But cast iron would be best!)

Assemble ingredients.

Unwrap and chop peanut butter cups. What? One is missing? It must have...umm...fallen out of...something or other...mumble...mumble...slipped into my mouth accid entally...
Unwrap and chop Hershey bars. What? There were three bars in that first picture? No, I'm sorry. You must be mistaken...or...mumble...mumble...slipped into my mouth accid entally.
Now mix them all together into one big happy chocolatey family. (Note: I would have included the chocolate chips, but being from Nestle, they don't really like to mingle with their Hershey's cousins very often. And I forgot to ask them to the party until later.)

Now all is prepared.

1 c. margarine
2 lrg eggs
3/4 c. brown sugar
1 tsp vanilla
3/4 c. granulated sugar
1/3 c. cocoa
3/4 c. peanut butter
2 1/4 c. flour
1 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
6 oz. chocolate chips
5 - 2 oz Reese's peanut butter cups (chopped)
3 - 1 1/2 oz Hershey bars (chopped)

Cream margarine and sugar.
Add peanut butter, eggs, and vanilla. Mix well.
Add all other dry ingredients. Mix well.
Stir in chocolate chips, peanut butter cups, and chopped Hershey's bars.
Spray some non-stick coating on the skillet. Measure out 1/2 cup of the skookie mix and place in the middle of the skillet then spread evenly on the skillet until the mix nearly touches the edges.
Place skillets in the oven and bake at 350 degrees for 12-14 minutes then remove skillets from the oven and let cool for a couple minutes. These are a bit rich, so you really must serve them with ice cream and toppings. Whipped cream is mandatory.
Yield is about 8 8-10" skillets. And just in case you don't have 8 cast iron (or other acceptable substitute) handy, this dough refrigerates well. Make a few each day, so the calories have a chance to settle between servings. ;)

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Brig's Practically Perfect Piecrust

Every baker worth his or her salt (ahem) has a favorite piecrust recipe. This is mine. I got it from Betty Crocker's 40th Anniversary Cookbook back about 15 years ago and have used it faithfully ever since.

Two Crust, 9-inch Piecrust

Prepare enough space on a counter or table that you can roll out a 9" piecrust. Although I haven't had one for years, I have had good success using a pastry cloth and rolling pin cover like this one found on Amazon. They hold flour, and help prevent the dough from sticking to the work surface or the pin.

Now, although this recipe calls for shortening or lard, I always use butter-flavored Crisco brand shortening. The butter flavoring adds a good buttery taste to the crust without having to negotiate using shortening and butter.

To cut the fat into the dry ingredients, I use a pastry cutter like the one on the right. I find it easier than using a pair of knives, and it doesn't smoosh the dough like using just a fork would.

2/3 c. plus 2 tbsp. shortening or 2/3 c. lard
2 c. all-purpose flour (if using self-rising flour, omit salt)
1 tsp. salt
4 to 5 tbsp. cold water

Using a pastry cutter, cut shortening into flour and salt until particles resemble small peas. Sprinkle in water, 1 tablespoon at a time, tossing with fork until all flour is moistened and pastry almost cleans side of bowl.

Gather pastry into a ball. Shape into flattened round on lightly floured cloth-covered board. Roll pastry 2 inches larger than inverted pie plate with a floured rolling pin. Roll one edge of the crust onto the rolling pin, and continue to roll until the entire crust is wrapped around the pin. If you're using a pastry cloth, you may find it helpful to lift the cloth to help the rolling process get started. Drag the pin over the edge of the pie plate and gently unroll. Roll the top the same way.

One down, a million to go!

This weekend, I knocked one thing off my punchlist: putting up more shelves in my hall closet. Admittedly, it's not on the scale of bathroom renovation or adding a room, but it was sorely needed. Imagine all these games stacked on top of each other on the top shelf. There was barely any room at all and the kids had to get my wife or me to get games for them (or put the games away, but those requests were far fewer...) any time they wanted to play.

A quick trip to Lowe's and I had two 4' shelves, a pack of retainer clips (for against the back wall), and two front ledge...cups?...for the front edge of the shelves. I think I spent all of $25. And look at how useful this closet is now!

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Skillet + Cookie = Skookie!

In August, I had my first real experience with dutch oven cooking; I went camping with my two older boys (5 and 7 years old) and cooked in a DO every meal for three days and two nights. The food turned out pretty darn well, including a cake I baked in the DO. That success led me to join a Yahoo group for Dutch Oven Cooking. I've been faithfully copying down recipes that look good or that I wanted to try.

So last night, I planned a "Date at Home" with my wife--dessert and a movie. The movie we watched was The Cutting Edge, more of a chick flick, but still pretty good. The dessert was Ultimate Skookie Toffee Chunk Cookies. What's a skookie? In a nutshell, it's a cookie made in a skillet--I used cast iron skillets. The ingredient list and directions were a bit skewampus, but they turned out magnificently, if I do say so myself. Here's a rewickered version of the recipe:

Ultimate Skookie Toffee Chunk Cookies

Use an 8" cast iron skillet for "human-sized" portions, or a 10" cast iron skillet for "teenage-boy-sized" or "Brig-sized" portions. Have several skillets on-hand, since you'll probably be eating right out of the skillet...these things are not quite firm enough to stand on their own. And you don't have to use cast iron, but you will need to use something oven-safe.

If you end up with leftover dough, (yeah, right!) refrigerate it in a tightly closed container for up to a few days.

Spritz whatever it is you're using with some non-stick cooking spray and preheat the oven to 350 F.

2 1/4 c. flour
1 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. salt
1/2 c. butter or margarine (softened but not melted)
3/4 c. granulated sugar
3/4 c. light brown sugar (packed)
1 tsp. vanilla extract
2 eggs, lightly beaten
1 1/2 c. toffee bits

In a medium bowl, stir together flour, baking soda, and salt. (This is the dry mixture.) In a large bowl (or mixer), beat butter or margarine, granulated sugar, brown sugar, and vanilla. (This is the wet mixture). Add the eggs to the wet mixture and beat until smooth. Gradually add the dry mixture to the wet, stirring constantly, until well blended.

Measure out 1/2 c. of the dough into the center of an 8" skillet or 3/4 c. into a 10" skillet. Spread the dough evenly over the bottom of the skillet until the dough nearly touches the edges. Place skillets in oven and bake for 10-12 minutes or until the tops turn golden brown. Remove from the oven and let cool for 5 minutes or until you can't restrain yourself any longer. But watch out! The skillet will probably still be very hot!

Serve with ice cream.

Friday, November 9, 2007

First Post

I'm not sure if I'll get around to posting much...I've got too many hobbies and too little time to be a "regular" blogger. But mayhaps I'll find some time in between family, Scouting, work, and my multitudes of projects to chronicle some of the less-dull bits of my life.