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Handiwork

The story of a mixer-breaking cookbook, the vault of all practical human knowledge, and what I see when I look at my hands

It all started with an afternoon date.  It ended in grease.

Kat and I took a weekend afternoon by ourselves to head down to University Circle, to have some early tea and macarons at Coquette and to see what we might find for a late lunch afterward.  We wandered up and down the new Uptown section, chuckling to ourselves over the massive changes since we’d each come to the city.  See that bowling alley?  Remember when it was a broken parking lot?  And when this bookstore was a strip of gravel and weeds?

In the window of the bookstore, I was looking askance at a coloring-book-for-grownups based on “The Walking Dead” when Kat exclaimed, “Oh, that looks fabulous!”  It was, I was not surprised to discover, a bakers’ cookbook.  Kat loves to bake, mostly for others.  In this case, it was Uri Scheft’s Breaking Breads: A New World of Israeli Baking.

The bookstore was closed, so I took a picture of the cover and we moved on, eventually ending up at a ramen shop.  I had an unagi don.


I gave Kat the book for her birthday.  It’s one of the few things I got right about that celebration this year.

Not long after, Kat had to work at the clinic on a Friday, and asked if I’d make challah from the book so it was ready for dinner that night.  I figured, what the heck.  What could go wrong?  So I hauled out the stand mixer and digital scale, assembled the various ingredients in a line, and started to work.

The challah recipe is sized to make three loaves, because (according to Mr. Scheft) the dough mixes better in large quantities than in small.  I was pleased to see the recipe gave all ingredients first as weights, so I didn’t have to convert.  I’ve never been great at cups and spoons, especially with baking ingredients, and most especially with flour.  I either leave too much air or pack down too hard.  A kilogram of flour seemed like a lot, but once I realized it was only a bit more flour than in the overnight bread recipe I’d made several times before, I forged ahead.

Everything fit fairly well into the mixing bowl, which had been my first concern.  There was enough room to not have the flour overtop the rim and form a glutenclastic flow over the countertop, at least as long as I started slow.  So I did.

Our mixer is a KitchenAid 325W model, bought many years ago and since put to hard service.  Kat as I mentioned before, enjoys baking, being good enough at it that she can often free-style in baking and produce wonderful results.  I do some baking of my own from time to time, though cooking is more my area of strength.  Carolyn has enjoyed learning to bake, and it’s common for her and a friend to decide to make a cake or some cookies when hanging out together, or bake cinnamon rolls for breakfast on a Saturday morning.  One of the last things Rebecca did entirely by herself was hold the dough paddle and slowly, methodically eat raw chocolate-chip cookie dough off of it.  Joshua isn’t as interested in baking yet, but he’s certainly a fan of paddle-cleaning.

As the challah dough started coming together, it kept climbing the dough hook and slowing the mixer, making the motor whine a bit.  I kept shoving it back down, turning the mixer off occasionally to really get it down there.  I was faintly smiling over the possibility that the dough would end overtopping the bowl instead of the raw flour when the hook stopped dead and a buzzing noise burst forth from the motor housing.

Uh-oh.

After I’d removed all the dough from the hook and set the bowl aside—the dough was basically done at that point, thankfully—I tried flipping the gear-speed lever back and forth.  Nothing but buzzing.  It sounded exactly like what you’d expect an unseated gear to sound like, as the teeth buzzed past the gear it was supposed to turn.

There was still bread to make, so I set the mixer aside and got on with the kneading and stretching.  Once the dough started its first rise, I went back to the mixer.  I figured, what the heck, so I banged on the housing a few times to see if the gear would reseat.  And, lo and behold, it started spinning again!  There were still some odd sounds, but it seemed to be mostly okay.  I decided to clean it off, put it away, and see if the “fix” held.


It was a week later that we found the fix had not, in fact, held.  Kat was making babka—from, once again, a recipe in Breaking Breads—for this year’s St. Baldrick’s event in Cleveland Heights when the paddle seized and the buzzing noise once more erupted.

We finished the recipe with a hand mixer (my hand ached for an hour) and I retired to the dining room to search Amazon for a replacement mixer.  We could get the same model for about $300, or a more powerful model for more—although that would mean tossing a bunch of accessories, since the more powerful models use a completely different bowl type.  There wasn’t, so far as I could find, a stronger motor in the same form factor.

On a whim, I opened a new tab and typed “kitchenaid stand mixer stripped gear” into the search bar, and clicked the “Videos” tab.  There were, of course, multiple videos at YouTube, that vast repository of all practical human knowledge.  If you want to know the history of stand mixers, you go to Wikipedia.  If you want to know how to use or fix them, you go to YouTube.

I started watching the first result, realized it was for a different mixer model, and skipped to the “Up Next” video, which was just what I was looking for: same model and everything.  I was a couple of minutes into it when Kat walked into the room saying, “Hey, why don’t you see if maybe you can fix—oh.”


I have not, generally speaking, been what you would call a handy person.  Most of my repair attempts made things worse, not better.  On occasion, I managed to turn a minor inconvenience into a major expense.  I was never particularly ashamed of this, although I was annoyed by the cost.  I wasn’t a stranger to manual labor, but I was always better with a keyboard than I was with a hammer—first 88 keys, and then 104.

But for some reason, one of the first things I did to try to manage my grief, late in 2014, was ask my friend Ferrett to help me do some rough carpentry.  He had the tools, having taken woodworking classes in the past, and I wanted to put a bookcase in the wall of our finished attic.  From that first painful attempt—it took us all day to put together a not-particularly-well-made case—we started getting together once a week or so to just build stuff.  Our friend Jim got into the act as well.

A bookcase here, a shelf there, we’ve gotten better at it.  We’ve managed to use every tool in the arsenal, though not always wisely.  We’ve made abstruse jokes based on the biscuit cutter being made by Freud.  We’ve invented hacks on the spot to make cuts easier and figured out later why things didn’t go quite as intended.  We’ve learned that you can never be too rich or have too many clamps.  (We depart from standard societal attitudes toward thinness.)

As we’ve progressed, those attitudes and skills have osmosed into regular life.  Minor home repair is now a thing I do, and approach with confidence instead of trepidation.  No real surprise there: practice at anything, and you’re likely to become better at it.  But when the screen door latch broke, I bought a replacement and improvised a way to make it work when the frame bracket and latch didn’t line up.  I took a Dremel to my aging laptop stand in order to keep it from scratching desks.  I’ve fixed more than one damaged or jammed toy.

So, sure, why not see if the mixer could be fixed with a cheap part replacement?  After all, a handyman told me years ago, if it’s already broken, trying to fix it can’t make it any worse.  Though I remember thinking to myself that he’d never seen me try to fix things.

I assembled my tools, covered the dining room table in several layers of drop cloth, and started the video.  I had real trouble getting out the roll pin that held the planetary in place, but WD-40 and persistence won the day.  I had to stop for a while while I searched for surgical gloves, but eventually they turned up and I got into the great globs of grease that keep the gears going.  And yes, just as the video had prophesied, the problem was the one plastic gear in the mechanism, nestled in amongst the chain of solid metal gears.

A broken worm gear.
Well, see, there’s my problem.

I’m not annoyed by this.  That gear, I believe, is intentionally plastic as a last-ditch defense against burning out the motor or shattering a metal gear or the paddle itself, should somethiing seize up the planetary.  Think of a metal bar that somehow gets thrust into the paddle, forcing it to stop.  Something has to give.  A small worm gear acting as a fail-safe is a better option than most others.

I went back to Amazon, this time to order a replacement part.  When I found out they were $6.24 each, I ordered three.  Until the new worm gears arrive, the various screws and pins I removed are taped in groups to a piece of printer paper, each group labeled according to their points of origin in the mixer assembly.  The gear tower pieces I put in a plastic sandwich bag, also taped to the paper, to keep their grease contained.

The broken worm gear I may throw away, or I may keep as a memento.


I am, in my way, pleased with myself about all this.  Proud both that I may be able to fix a problem for $7 and an hour or two of time, instead of having to replace an entire appliance for a few hundred dollars; and also for having developed the skills and familiarity to let me try it in the first place.  True, I likely couldn’t have done it without YouTube, but in years past, even with YouTube I’d have been hesitant to try, for fear of making it worse, or just being hapless and frustrated by the feeling that if I only knew more, I’d be able to do it right.

Now I know more.  I’ve learned—not at internet speed, but at slow, methodical, human speed.  I’ve changed, but in ways of my own making instead of ways that circumstance thrust upon me.

When I look at my hands now, I see tools that not only create, but can also repair.  They can put to right at least some things that have gone wrong.

There is much more solace in that than I would ever have guessed.

I don’t know, as I write this, whether the mixer will work again.  I may reassemble it incorrectly, or even correctly but without success.  Sometimes that happens.  Sometimes you do everything right, and still have no path to success.  But if we do have to junk it after all, I’ll know it wasn’t for lack of first trying to correct the situation.

I will draw pride from that, just as I did from the challah I made for my family and friends, an entire loaf of which was quickly devoured.  Just as I have drawn pride from things I’ve written, shaping words that have helped others in ways large and small, and sometimes in ways completely unexpected.

The difference is that when I fix things, I fix for myself, not for others.  One small repair at a time, I fix myself.

Odd Seating Arrangments

This evening, we decided to cap off the weekend with dinner out.  Carolyn was in the mood for french fries, and the rest of us were looking for decent dinner fare, so we decided to hit Brennan’s Colony.  This is one of the more fascinating restaurants on our side of town.  From both the outside and the inside, it looks like a low- to middle-rent bar, all uncushioned wood benches and odd angles and dimmish lighting.  The baseline menu is burgers and fried food at very affordable prices.

And then you get the dinner menu, and you wonder from which other restaurant they swiped their menu.  Chicken breast stuffed with goat cheese in a bearnaise reduction, or words to that effect.  Mint-crusted New Zealand rack of lamb.  Et cetera.  It is, to use a word I picked up on my last trip to Ye Jolly Olde Englande, a gastropub, only with really good food.

We hadn’t gone for a while because, being a bar, smoking was permitted, and while they had an area labeled “No Smoking” it was about as effective as setting up a ring of buoys just offshore and marking that area “No Water”.  We used to go every now and again in olden days, but after Carolyn’s arrival, it was stricken from our dining list for the obvious health reasons.  However, Ohio voters passed an indoor smoking ban late last year, so we could once again eat and breathe.  Everybody woohoo!

Only when we arrived and asked for a table on their newly opened outdoor patio, we were told Carolyn wasn’t old enough to be seated there.  We could eat indoors, but the patio was off-limits to anyone under the age of eighteen.  This baffled us just a little all by itself, and then we turned around to behold a pre-teen boy sitting at the bar, eating a sandwich and drinking a Coke.  At least we hoped it was a Coke.

We brought this oddity (and, if I’m not mistaken, violation of Ohio state law) to the staff’s attention, and were told that he was seated there because they were so busy.  But no kids on the patio!  No no!  That would be, um, whatever they feared would come of allowing children to eat at an outdoor table.  The apocalypse, no doubt.

So we ate at The Tavern Company a little way down the street, where they were more than happy to have us sit wherever we liked, indoors or out—the presence of a smallish, well-behaved child notwithstanding.

I think we’ll keep to that seating arrangement for as long as the policy at Brennan’s remains.

Come Tuesday

Some news for folks in London (UK) and Cleveland (US).  If you don’t fit either of those descriptions, well, I don’t know what I can do.

For those of you in or near London, I’ll be at a Geekminidinner the evening of Tuesday, 14 August 2007, which you can read a bit more about over here.  (Apparently, I need to print out an article I wrote a while back and staple it to Ian‘s forehead.)  Come on ’round and join us!

About four and a half hours after that starts, I’ll be missing (in both senses of the word) the Cleveland area Web Standards/Web Design Meetup.  Once left for dead, this group has come roaring back thanks to the tireless efforts of a COBOL dude who is much less scary than his profile photo would seem to indicate.  He does run the Ubuntu Satanic Edition, but I’m sure that’s just a coincidence.  Seriously, he’s a great guy.  I have never once heard him say “SATAN!” in a deep growly voice, no matter how many times I ask.

The point being, 18 people have already said they’ll be at the Meetup, and you should absolutely add yourself to that list.  Assuming you will actually be there, of course.

As for London, I don’t know how many will be there, but probably not as many as the Cleveland gathering.  Hey, it’s okay, folks.  Don’t feel down about it.  Not everyone can be as cool as Cleveland.  We’ll do our best to have a good time regardless.

High-Profile Cooking

Kat and I were watching “Good Eats” the other night, and as Alton slid a dish into a nice toasty warm 350-degree oven, I suddenly sat bolt upright.

“Hey, that’s our oven!” I blurted out.

Kat and I (okay, mostly Kat) recently decided that enough was enough, and that our old oven had to go.  It was a Jenn-Air that came with the house, and frankly, it was either not very good in the first place or else had just been beat all to hell.  Cramped, dark, and uncalibrated—and with an unreadably worn set of control dials to boot—it was time for the warhorse to go.

After a good deal of research, Kat settled on a GE JK955 electric double oven, which we were relieved to find fit almost exactly into the space where the old oven was, once we removed a couple of drawers.  It’s got all kinds of toys and features that would send any food-porn addict straight into overdrive, including a built-in probe thermometer.  It even has a nice warm proofing function, which is one of the reasons Kat picked it.

There is one thing about it that cracks me right up, and that’s the Sabbath mode.  Seriously.  When you put it into Sabbath mode (the display reads “SAb bATh” when you do so), it will help you observe Orthodox Jewish law as regards the Sabbath.  Really!  See, you’re not allowed to do any work on the Sabbath, which includes things like turning lights on and off.  Ovens fall under that restriction as well, which makes cooking dinner a bit tough.  However—and here’s the funky part—you get off the hook if you don’t directly cause the work to occur.  If the work happens indirectly, then you’re okay.

So when the oven is in Sabbath mode, you input the temperature and cook time you want.  Then you press start, and for a random amount of time that ranges from 30 seconds to a minute, nothing happens.  Then the oven kicks on.  Ta-daaa!  Indirect action!  Sure, you pressed all those buttons, but the random time delay is enough to get around your religion’s restrictions on Sabbath work.  It’s all, pardon the term, kosher.  Check out the Wired article about the man responsible for Sabbath mode, if you don’t believe me.

I’m still trying to decide if this letter-of-the-law approach lessens my respect for Orthodox Jews’ conception of religion, or if I have more respect for their pragmatic willingness to hack the problem.  I think it’s the latter.  Apparently there’s still no progress on a molecular screen that will prevent the insertion of porcine products into the oven, so I guess some things are still up to the individual.

So not only do we have a frum oven, but without realizing it we had settled on the same model that A.B. himself uses, which is about as weighty an endorsement as we can imagine.  (Of course, his is the larger unit, but that’s okay—ours fills its space very nicely, thank you.)  The degree to which this makes us feel all smug and superior is probably cause for alarm.  If you hear our friends are getting ready to stage an intervention, well, that’s probably why.

Bread, Soup, and Love

A couple of weeks before Christmas, Kat and I held our annual Bread and Soup Party.  We started it the year we moved into our house, and it’s still going strong.  We’re to the point now of luring attendees from other states: in the past, we’ve had people from New York, Illinois, and Oregon fly in to spend a long weekend and be at the party.  Had you been there this year, you’d have gotten to meet Molly, as well as have a chance to video chat with Andy.  We also got blogged here and there by attendees, all of whom seemed to have a great time.  Our guess is that in the course of the party, close to 90 people passed through our doors.  This is a good turnout, though well below our high of 150 from last year.

Why am I bringing this up?  Because several people, upon hearing about this party from the bloggers and other guests, have expressed interest in holding their own version of the party.  To which I say: hey, you slackers, come up with your own damn party idea!

I’m kidding.  I kid!  You should absolutely feel free to copy the idea, or come up with your own variant.  Here’s the not-quite-a-recipe we follow for this event.

  • We invite just about everyone we know, regardless of how close or far away they live.  In fact, we put an invitation in the mailbox of every house on our block, and it’s a semi-lengthy block, so in many cases we’re inviting people we don’t know.  That’s okay.  The people we know are always welcome to bring people they know, but we don’t.
  • The party has a start time, but no end time.  The format is open house: people come when they can, and leave when they like.  We start at 3:00pm on a weekend day, and usually the last guests are out the door by 9:00pm.  The first year it went a bit later, and people still speak in hushed and shuddering tones of the “Truth or Dare Jenga” game that was played that night.
  • The time of year is important.  Bread and soup in the middle of summer doesn’t work nearly as well as it does in winter.  Being in the Northern Hemisphere, which puts the holidays in winter, is a bonus, but not crucial.
  • We state right on the invitation, and as many times as we can think to do so, that guests should bring nothing but themselves and some good cheer.  No gifts, no bottle of wine, no food.  We haven’t yet started a policy of turning away gift-bearers, but we’re considering it.
  • Children are welcome.  They were even before we had our own, but this is key if you want to draw families.  Which we do.
  • We get help from our friends.  We have cooks beforehand, and a cleanup crew after.  This is essential, because otherwise we’d never be able to manage it.
  • We use paper plates—nice heavy laminated paper, but paper nonetheless—and styrofoam cups with plastic spoons for the soups.  This makes cleanup a whole lot easier, plus it means we don’t have to buy place settings for 128, or worry about dropped bowls shattering.  We’re seriously thinking about going to small styrofoam bowls next year, but the principles basically the same.

Okay, so those are the parameters.  The content, though, is what brings ’em in:  we provide five pots of soup and from five to seven loaves of bread, each one cooked entirely from scratch.  Here’s this year’s lineup.

  • Soups:
  • Breads:
    • Cornbread
    • Challah
    • Eggnog bread
    • Oatmeal bread
    • Gingerbread (the real stuff, not the thin house-building kind)

To make things extra-tasty, we try to coordinate soups and breads.  For example, this year we made gingerbread because it seemed like a good match for the pumpkin soup.  (And wow, was it ever.)  Similarly, the cornbread was an excellent partner to the black bean soup.

Remember: these are all cooked from scratch.  The closest we’ve gotten to pre-made soup was the year we had clam chowder, when we bought the clams in cans.  The  breads are all done from first principles, even the cornbread, which is made with real cornmeal and not a bunch of boxes of Jiffy corn mix.  Nothing wrong with Jiffy, which I love, but it just doesn’t yield the kind of hearty, rustic cornbread we were after.

This sounds like a lot of work, and it is, but that’s why I made the point about having friends help.  In the past few years, we’ve set things up so that each pot of soup has its own sous chef.  (This year, the soups were actually chefs’ choice, so that made them rather less sous-y, I admit.)  Cooking starts around 10:00am, with all of us gathered in the kitchen chatting, laughing, tasting, and adjusting as we cook.  It’s noisy and cozy and smells amazing, and honestly is more fun than the party itself, at least for us.  It’s a shame that the cooking experience doesn’t scale up to a full party, or else we’d just do that.

In addition to the soups and breads, we also set up a cheese board with several different varities, crackers, summer sausages, and grape clusters.  For drinks, we provide eggnog (both spiked and unspiked) and hot mulled apple cider; and for dessert, a selection of petit fours and candies.  But those are reflections of our profound yuppiehood, and not really integral to the core party experience.

Once everyone’s left besides the cleanup crew, we start washing and storing any leftovers (this year, there were hardly any) and doing a post-mortem of which offerings were popular, and why.  This stage is a lot quieter and more reflective than the cooking part, but it’s no less enjoyable.

I’ll throw open the comments to observations from guests from this and previous years, and questions from anyone who’s curious to know more. 

Breakfast Bliss

One of my long-time favorite places to eat is Yours Truly, which is a local chain of sorts—well, to be honest, they’re more of a local institution in seven locations—and whose Web site lends serious support to my theory that site quality is inversely proportional to food quality.  They also have free WiFi at the location nearest us, not that I ever happen to have my laptop along when I’m there.  But there’s always the possibility of using it.

In a menu full of good things, one of my favorites is their Notso™ Fries (“They’re notso common!”).  To make a plate of Notso™ Fries, you first pile up some cottage fries, which are those little round crinkle-cut jobbies.  To the fry pile, you then add a whole bunch of cheese.  Then crumbled bacon, and I think more cheese.  The whole plate is then broiled until the cheese is golden, and just before serving you plop on a generous dollop o’ sour cream.

It’s like a heart attack on a plate.

I had long thought that this wonderful dish represented, in some sense, the apex of cholesterolicious cooking, but this morning I discovered that I was wrong, that the fine folks at Yours Truly had gone themselves one better and given us…

The Notso™ Omelet.

Substitute hashbrowns for the cottage fries but keep everything else the same, stuff the result into a three-egg omelet, and put the sour cream on top.

Oh yeah.

On A Roll

Last night we went out for dinner with some of the other kids in Carolyn’s playgroup (and their parents) at default favorite Matsu.  Carolyn, as usual, had miso soup with extra tofu cubes and nori, some steamed sticky rice, and half a harumaki.  All very much as normal.  But then, as Kat started on her Manhattan roll with citrus tobiko, Carolyn grabbed a piece and stuffed it into her mouth.

Her first sushi—I was so proud.  We know she liked it, too, because after demolishing the first piece, she grabbed another one and ate most of the contents.

<tear type="joyful" />

(And did I have the camera with me?  Of course not.  One of the other daddies had a camera phone, though, so hopefully I’ll be able to update this entry with a picture.)

Great Big Food Show

Today, Kat and Carolyn and I spent all day at the Great Big Food Show down at the I-X Center.  This is the Food Network‘s road show, and it was held in exactly two very hip and happening cities this year: Philadelphia and Cleveland.  The show ran here for three days, and every day there were multiple appearances from Food Network stars Marc Summers, Mario Batali, Rachael Ray, and Alton Brown.  Oh, heck, who are we kidding?  The only real star in our personal cooking firmament is Alton, deeply wacky dude and hacker cook extraordinaire.  A photograph of Alton Brown with his arms around Eric and Kat.  We stood in line to get our copies of his books signed, and also to thank him for his Thanksgiving turkey recipe, which quite literally changed how we cook.  I also told him his Web site (specifically, the wonderful Rants & Raves) needs an RSS feed.  He told me he had no idea what the hell that means.  That’s all right.  Until Alton explained it on his show, I couldn’t have told you what a Maillard reaction was, let alone how it related to cooking.

So, clearly, I need a TV show, so I can return the favor.

We also saw Alton’s final stage show, where he did a sort of live-action espiode of “Good Eats” involving custards, eggnogs, ice cream, and other foam-based foods.  It was a lot of fun, with probably one or two thousand people in attendance.  I’ve heard that the other live shows were similarly popular, and with six shows a day over three days, that’s a lot of people.  Even if you figure some repeat customers, that’s still well over fifteen thousand.

What wasn’t fun was the show floor, which was far too cramped and therefore choked with crowds of attendees.  The only reason I can imagine things were so tight is that they didn’t want to pay for more floor space, because the show area was completely surrounded by empty space.  Rumor has it that next year they plan to make it even bigger, and I certainly hope that’s the case.  It was clearly a popular event, so I think they can afford to bump up the surface area.  That may mean a slight bump in ticket prices as well, but honestly, they weren’t terribly expensive so I think a small increase would be totally acceptable.  Especially if it yields more elbow room.

There were also vague promises of turning the live shows into a TV special.  I hope they make it two hours long, and call it the “Great Big ‘Great Big Food Show’ Show”.  The name actually rolls off the tongue more smoothly than you might expect.

In all, we really enjoyed ourselves.  Hopefully those of you in less-hip cities will have a chance to see the show next year.

August 2017
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