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Wednesday, November 9, 2011
by Blob

A few years ago, Mrs. Cynical Optimist was diagnosed with a dairy allergy. At about the same time, I started working on my weight. These factors combined to promote a higher interest in cooking and cooking well. As time has gone by, we've discovered a number of tricks and ingredients which work well as substitutes, gradually returning some of our favorite dishes to meal time. It occurs to me that since these are works-in-progress, perhaps a record of what I did and might do differently could be useful. So, I present the first of a series: Dairy Free: Macaroni and Cheese.

Butter was easily solved: Earth balance makes a number of buttery, nicely-cooking dairy-free margarines.

Milk is a bit more complicated. We find soy milk to be good for drinking and with cereal (particularly in sweetened, vanilla flavor), but it has a tendency to break when cooking, making a watery separated mess. Canned coconut milk has become our cooking milk of choice. The light variety can be used in place of milk, and the higher fat in the standard variety can replace cream (to an extent).

Cheese. We've not found very much in the way of a good cheese substitute yet. Soy Kaas makes a decent mozzarella flavor, which we've used in pizza and pasta filling. Their cheddar is okay, but not nearly sharp enough. Unfortunately, I have to go way out my way to get Soy Kaas, so I often pick up Daiya shreds at the local megamart. Daiya melts well, but has even less of that cheesy punch than Soy Kaas.

Having found all the necessary pieces, however, I set out to make one of Mrs. Cynical Optimist's favorite (and much missed) dishes: Mac-n-cheese.

I began with Alton Brown's recipe, but here's my ingredient list.

  • 3 Tbsp Original Earth Balance
  • 3 Tbsp flour (I used (and highly recommend) Montana Sapphire)
  • 2-1/4 cups light coconut milk
  • 2 Tbsp Grey Poupon (less if you don't love mustard)
  • 1 large egg
  • 1/2 tub (4 oz) "Better Than Cream Cheese" (It's not, but it's not bad, either)
  • 2/3 bag (8 oz) Daiya cheddar style shreds
  • Salt & pepper to taste
  • 1/3 bag (4 oz) Daiya cheddar
  • 3 Tbsp Earth Balance
  • 1 cup bread crumbs

In addition to the obvious substitutions, I omitted onion and bay leaf (because I didn't have them - a mistake I won't repeat), paprika (because I didn't think it would help without the onion and bay leaf). I replaced dry mustard with Grey Poupon because I love the way it tastes in grilled cheese, so I thought we'd try it here, too. I was surprised by how much milk the recipe called for. I happened to have an unopened can of coconut milk, and the remaining halfish-can from the weekend's cookery. That made around 2.25 cups, while Alton Brown's recipe called for 3 cups dairy milk. It seems to have been enough.

  1. Get your pasta water started
  2. Melt the Earth Balance in a saucepan, whisk in the flour, keep it moving over medium-low heat about 5 minutes, make a light roux
  3. Realize you should already have your coconut milk ready; hastily open can and retrieve leftovers from this weekend's pancakes from the fridge, while not burning your roux (This step may be optional)
  4. Stir in coconut milk and mustard, simmer for 10 minutes
  5. Add pasta to water
  6. Preheat oven to 350
  7. Temper the egg: whisk it slightly, and then slowly add hot milk/roux mixture to the egg while stirring to gradually bring up the egg temperature without scrambling
  8. Once warm-to-hot, stir egg mixture into the saucepan
  9. Stir in (Not Better Than) cream cheese and cheddaresque shreds
  10. Salt and pepper. More than you think you need, but taste, taste!
  11. I also added a bit of our fake grated parmesan, but I don't think it added much, nor would it be missed
  12. Drain pasta, fold into mixture, turn into casserole dish
  13. Top with remaining cheddarish shreds
  14. Melt remaining Earth Balance, stir in bread crumbs to coat
  15. Top casserole with buttered bread crumbs
  16. Turn oven to bake, put casserole in for 30 minutes
  17. Move close to top of the oven, turn on broiler to brown top for 3 minutes
  18. Wait five minutes (nuclear hot!), serve

The result was a concoction of surprising fidelity to the original, at least in terms of texture. Creamy and smooth, it felt like good mac and cheese. Unfortunately, it's lacking that sharpness real cheddar brings, and overall was just not cheesy enough. However, we both had seconds, and it was difficult to not have thirds. It definitely qualifies as comfort food.

I'm going to try this again, putting the onion and bay leaf from Mr. Brown's recipe back in, and using Soy Kaas cheddar and omitting the creamish cheeseish. I will report back on the result when it's done.

Brand names are included herein because these are the things I've found to work best from much trial-and-error. I've not been compensated in any way by the makers of these products.

Friday, November 2, 2007
by Blob

Fig. 1
The floor, the carpet, some drop cloths, and a 120 gallon fish tank being siphoned out through the mail slot.

Fig. 2
More carpet gone. Note that the old finish on the floor was probably salvageable.

Fig. 3
Carpet: gone. Floor: cleanish. Misc. Crap: laying around. Doorways/Vents/Outlets: masked.

Fig. 4
The next morning. Furniture's gone, Floor: ready. Sander: rented. Crap: still laying around.

So, you know you've got hard wood under your nasty old carpet and you're thinking to yourself, "I can probably yank the carpet, sand that sucker down, apply some finish and have a great-looking living and/or dining room floor." This is a friendly guide to doing that very thing, based on my personal experience.

Step 1: Don't.

Step 2: Seriously, call somebody who knows what they're doing.

Step 3: If you are, like me, foolish enough to skip steps one and two, read on.

I had decided to use some of my accumulating vacation before I lost it and spend it on this exciting project since I had no money for a real vacation. I figured $300-400 in supplies should do the trick, and I could just about swing that. So, we began.

    What you will need:
  • A carpet knife/box cutter/liberty killer
  • A device for prying carpet, nails, tacks, and staples
  • A shop vac and a swiffer/mop
  • One or more generous and very understanding friends
  • More money than you expect
  • More time than you expect
  • Patience
  • Floor sander
  • Lots of sand paper
  • Hand-held random orbital sander
  • About six hundred tack cloths (Estimate. Probably closer to fifty.)
  • Stain and applicator
  • Polyurethane and applicator
  • Lots and lots of mineral spirits for cleaning the above
    What you may want, but hopefully not need:
  • A cyanide capsule

First, yank up the old carpet. This will take longer than you expect. We began at about 8pm on Friday, Oct. 19th. I had a wife and a friend to assist; we finished at about 5am. That was about 400 square of carpet stripped from our living room, dining room and stairs leading up and down (we've got a split-level), cut into sections for garbage removal, padding pulled and put in garbage bags and/or vacuumed, nails, staples, and tacks all pulled.

Next, remove the furniture. This will probably take about as long as you expect. This is where the friends come in. Thank you ever so much, Wesley and Sam. This begins our Saturday.

Next, tape off everything. This will take longer than you expect. Any place that sawdust can go, you almost certainly don't want it to. Particularly your HVAC system. If it does not pose a fire hazard (it will), it will certainly kill your filter.

Next, acquire a sander. I rented a Varathane floor sanding system thingy from Lowe's. Don't do this unless you know you have an easily-sanded finish. I understand you can rent sanders that will strip more readily, but must be more carefully controlled to keep from over-stripping. I would like to have dealt with that problem. There are two good things I can say about the Varathane: 1) The sandpaper pads can be easily removed and reapplied. This will become important in a moment. 2) The integrated vacuum really does a great job of minimizing the sawdust.

Fig. 5
Uh-oh. What the Hell is that!?

Fig. 6
And that!?

You will want to begin with a coarse sandpaper to do most of the cleaning/leveling, then move to a medium grit for prepping, and a fine grit for finishing. Unless you have a floor covered in shellac, or whatever sticky finish they used on my floor. After just a few seconds of sanding, the sander started bucking and making an unpleasant grinding sound. I immediately shut it off and turned it on its back. It had thick brown streaks, the consistency and color of dried chocolate all through the sandpaper and had left a brown muck apparently glued to the floor. See Figures 5 and 6 to the left.

After some research, we found that this is common if you have shellac or lac-based finish on your floor. The solutions are to either 1) Sand anyway; this will take longer than you expect and use a lot of sand paper, or 2) Strip the finish first with some nasty chemical. I actually went back to the store and bought some nasty chemical and tried it in my pantry (which is also part of the floor I did). It didn't work.

The solution is to sand about half a square foot, when the machine starts to complain, stop, take the pads off, knock the crap off of them (I accomplished this by slapping them against hard things I could find outside), then repeat with another, cool set of pads. They heat up very quickly and that seems to be when the stuff starts sticking. I ultimately had about 9 sets of pads in a rotation. Gum one, clean it, grab the next, repeat. This will take very much longer than you expect. I actually wanted to buy more sand paper pads, but all the Lowes in the area ran out of them. I bitched and got a second rental day gratis, since the old sandpaper becomes less and less effective with use and cleaning.

I was done with the rental sander on Monday at about 1pm, this was pretty much exactly when I had to have it back to avoid being charged another day, and also represented about 50 hours of work since Friday night. Finishing your own floors is only a bargain if you assume your time is worth zero. Which, considering I can't really get a second job or paid overtime is effectively the truth. I took the rest of Monday off because it was likely the last good weather of the year. We took a motorcycle ride. I had another day off on Tuesday because I was scheduled to babysit nephews.

Fig. 7
Done with the floor sander. Click for full resolution to see the old finish remaining in the depressions.

Fig. 8
Sanding finished, at last. The floor is ready for stain (optional) and finish. Note the water stain from around the fish tank on the far right. Some dumbass forgot he was running water into the thing one night. The wood stain I applied did not hide it very well.

Fig. 9
Applying the stain. The additional dark spots are where the stain dripped from the applicator on its way to the desired work area. These were wiped up as well as possible before the actual coat was applied.

Fig. 10
Applying more stain. The ghostly circular apparitions on the later photos here is from very small particles of sawdust that settled on the camera lens.

Next, you will need to do the corners and clean-up with the orbial sander. This will take longer than you expect. If you look at Figure 7 in the full resolution, you'll notice that where one floor board was slightly offset in depth vs. its neighbor that there was old finish remaining in those nooks and crannies. Trouble is there's a lot of them. Fortunately, Renee suggested that I could just attack them with the fine sand paper on the orbital and she was right. That saved me a bunch of time and effort sanding with the coarse and then graduating to the fine. It did, of course, gum up more 120 grit sandpaper, but it was way worth the expense. Unfortunately, I had already done the perimeter edge where the floor sander couldn't reach in the coarse grit, so I did have to go over that with the fine. This took me all of Wednesday and Thursday, with just breaks for meals.

Next, you will clean the floor thoroughly. You need to remove every trace of sawdust that you just got done filling your house with. This will take longer than you expect. We spent most of Thursday on this. First with the shop vac (very helpful!), then the swiffer, then tack cloths on the swiffer, then tack cloths by hand.

Next, if desired, you may stain the wood. I had already decided to do this, and decided on the color (Olympic's Antique Maple). But when I saw how good the floor looked au naturel I almost didn't use it. I was very proud of myself at this point. I applied the stain using a mop-like applicator, then wiping off the excess with rags by hand. This worked better than I expected, and the overlap marks I feared where one section stopped and the next began did not materialize. When this dried, I was extremely pleased with myself. Be sure to paint yourself into an exit.

Next, you will wait for this to dry a while. We waited overnight.

Depending on the darkness of the color you want and how much time you allowed between application and wipe-off (we went for about 10 minutes), you may want to do a second coat of stain. This was already slightly darker than I wanted (and fairly even, thankfully), so we did just the one.

Next you will lightly sand the floor, clean it, and apply the finish, we chose polyurethane for its durability. We did this on Friday morning. I used a lamb wool applicator, also mop-like, and the first coat went on very well. They tell you to maintain a wet edge on the applicator, which basically means you want to be sure to have enough liquid to be able to push a wave of the stuff ahead of the applicator through the stroke. I had very long strokes since I wanted to get even coverage go with the grain of the wood. The applicator did about four boards at a time and I went the entire length of the floor at any particular part in one long stroke. I actually daubed a bit of polyurethane at strategic points in the anticipated path so that I could maintain the aforementioned wet edge all the way through the stroke. The first coat went fairly smoothly (the applicator caught a piece of wood that had been "lifted" by the stain and ripped it out before I felt a thing; this left a slight gouge a half inch wide, three inches long, and a couple of millimeters deep) and I painted myself into the stairs going down.

We were fortunate that during all the drying periods we were able to move from the downward stairs directly to the kitchen or to the upward stairs (I had decided to do the stairs at a different time for this reason). So we had our whole house available to us during the process, which was nice. The prospect of sleeping on the couch with my back aching after a week of hardish labor was not appealing.

We waited all day for the stuff to dry and by the time we had decided to go to bed, around 2am, it surprised us by feeling dry everywhere I checked. I was as proud of myself as I had ever been when I looked around; the urethane had dried evenly and clearly (lots of people apparently experience bubbles: never shake your urethane, and stir it gently). The floor looked fantastic.

Fig. 11
The first coat of Urethane is dry! Oooh, purty.

Unfortunately, the instructions call for three coats and sanding between each coat. So, we dutifully sanded the whole floor lightly and a little more aggressively where there were minor imperfections. Sadly, this led to us finding that it was not fully dry everywhere. The sanding led to some portions having to be left somewhat rough because you can't sand goo. I hoped that the second coat would fill in these imperfections.

Fig. 12
Done! If you look closely, you can see the curve of my foot print in the middle of the image.

After cleaning again with swiffer and tack cloth, I began to apply the second coat. Unfortunately, I made two crucial mistakes at this point. 1) I missed a stripe, all the way across the floor. That wasn't really the mistake. The mistake was going back to try to fill it in because I didn't notice it until I was several feet past it when the light struck it at the right angle to show it off. I decided to step, in my bare feet, in the still wet urethane to get the area I missed. Don't do this. Just let it go and get it on the next coat. I could not get a good drag of the applicator because I would slide in the opposite direction. Fucking Newton. So, I made myself stepping stones with paper towels. Unfortunately, while all this was going on, the part that I was stepping in was slowly setting, so if you look closely at the floor in the area just this side of the dining room, you can actually find a couple of my foot prints and paper towel impressions even though I went back over it with more urethane during that coat. Mistake 2) I decided that since I could access the family room downstairs through the garage, I would paint myself out the front door. This had two problems that I didn't find until I got there. One, there was very little room to maneuver in the front, as you can see in Figure 1. And two, I stepped outside briefly to set up the tray. I then realized that I had all kinds of dirt and crap on my very sticky urethane-covered feet and there was no way to clean them enough that I could finish applying the second coat at the front of the house. So, the front six to eight boards really only have two coats. Whoops. I went to bed around 4am, exhausted and frustrated, kicking myself for basically ruining a week's worth of hard work in twenty minutes.

On Saturday evening, having given the floor a full twelve hours to dry (the instructions said four), we proceeded to try to sand out the aforementioned imperfections in anticipation of the third coat. Don't do this. Even with twelve hours of drying, we ran into the goo problem again. After giving the rest just a light surface sanding and cleaning up, I applied the third coat, taking the lessons of the previous night to heart. This went very smoothly, I painted myself into the kitchen, and all was well.

Sadly, when I checked it out the next day, I found that the third coat did not fill in the paper towel marks and foot prints as well as I'd hoped. They're not obvious at all if you're just walking around, but if you know what to look for, you can find problems. I suppose I shouldn't be looking for perfection, particularly on my first effort, but after the elation at how great it looked after the first coat of urethane, it's a bitter disappointment.

And finally I had Sunday to myself before having to resume my day job the following Monday. We needed to wait at least 72 hours for complete drying before the next step: fixing the walls and painting. I bought Guitar Hero III and rawked all day long. It's hard work, but somebody's got to do it.

*I totally should have spent this time working on my NaNo, but I wanted to get this out there before I forgot the details. If it comes down to it, I'm going to claim the approximately 2,400 words as part of my novel. Nyeah.

Tuesday, July 12, 2005
by Blob

Because riding fifteen miles on Saturday wasn't enough exercise, I took it into my head to fix up the back yard a bit.

The previous owners (Renee's aunt and uncle) put in a neat little garden area behind the house. It's got a bunch of paving stones placed around flower beds and a smallish plastic pond. Well, we haven't much of anything with it for the last six years, and so the flower beds had become weed beds and there were also weeds —and herbs; oregano, basil, rosemary that were also planted back there that seem to grow like weeds— growing up around the pavers.

In addition, we had a row of shrubs on the south side of the yard, providing some privacy to/from those neighbors, but the shrubs were overgrown and causing the neighbors problems, so a couple of years ago, I, along with my professional landscaper friend Dan, cut them down and began digging up the stumps. Dan had to leave before we were done, but left me with one of his fancy mattocks to finish pulling them. Well, I managed to break his fancy mattock. Snapped the steel handle right off. I'm good that way. So, I put plastic down for the rest of the year and tried to kill and decay it all off. Well, of course, I didn't do a very good job with the plastic and several of the stumps wouldn't stay covered and some even managed to survive. The following spring, we took up the plastic, intending to plant something else there, but the money wasn't ever there, and so it became a very large weed bed itself.

Flash forward to this Saturday. We took the SUVoID down to Home Depot, picked up a non-fancy mattock, some heavyish plastic, and 10 ½-cubic-foot bags of gravel and two bags of sand. Total cost: $85. Most expensive item: 10'x100'x4mil black plastic. Total weight: Fucking heavy. I'd guess each bag of gravel/sand weighed at least fifty pounds and maybe closer to 70. I had to lift each one out of the bin and into the "cart", then I had to lift each one out of the cart and into the car, then I had to lift each one out of the car and into the yard. I'm fucking He-Man.

We'd already talked about what we wanted to do with the flower bed/paving stone area: rearrange the stones so there's one large gap, rather than several smaller ones, and put a Japanese zen garden-like thing in. So, Renee went to work prying up and moving the pavers while I went to work on the remaining shrub stumps. That process probably only took about 45 minutes, during which I managed to create and rip open a large, nasty blister on my left hand, just below the wedding ring. I had to spend the rest of the day without that ring. That's the longest it's been off in fourteen years. Weird. After I got done ripping up stumps, I helped Renee with the remaining pavers. We were fortunate that most of the weeds were actually growing on sediment that had collected on top of the old plastic the pavers were resting on.

We pulled up the old plastic, mattocked the heck out of the flowerbeds, smoothed everything out as best I could with a leaf rake that I immediately broke the handle of, put new plastic down, then the pavers, then the gravel. It actually looks fairly nice, if I do say so myself.

Then, the pond. The pond originally had fish in it. They lasted a year or two under our stewardship. Then came the big West Nile Virus Scare of 200(1?2?), when the neighbors insisted we put a pump/filter in there to keep the mosquitoes from breeding. Being a nice guy, I complied, and cleaned out the pond at that time as well. We've got a nice little fountain on the pump and it looks pretty cool. Well, we'd like to get some more fish in there, so we needed to put down a new substrate and stuff, so we cleaned out the pond again. When it was nearly out of water, it was loose in its hole, so I pulled out the entire plastic tub (thinking this was a shortcut) and poured out the rest of the water and hosed it down. Then I got to dig out the sand which had collapsed into the area the tub used to occupy and re-create the hole for the pond to sit in. To my surprise, the tub went back in fairly easily and we loaded it up with some of the sand, some of the gravel, and a lot of water and got the fountain started again. It, too, looks nice with its fresh, clean water. We'll let it naturalize for a few weeks before we buy some koi.

Then I dug up the rotting railroad ties which lined the old shrub area, put down more of the plastic, and used the railroad ties to hold it down.

Whew. It was almost as exhausting to write about as it was to do it. Hopefully next spring we'll have to money for some new shrubs.

The whole process was roughly equivalent to putting a spit shine on a turd, but it was rewarding nonetheless.

The best part, though, was that I got to drive the SUVoID into the back yard. I had previously thunk that it wouldn't fit between the trees and the A/C, but I was wrong. There's maybe even a foot to spare. But I sure as heck wasn't going to lug all that gravel from the driveway to the back yard by hand. Youch.

Okay. That's the end.

I'm really done now.