Monday, December 01, 2003

Range wars

I like raving about things that are great and ranting about things that stink. I don't like talking about things that are just vaguely creepy. Like our new Kitchen-Aid stove.

I've always taken stoves for granted. As a child, I grew up in houses with gas ranges. They had pilot lights, and at Cape Cod we kept all the crackers in the oven so they wouldn't get soggy in the damp sea air. I think there might have been crummy electric stovetops in a few apartments I rented after college, but mostly there were old gas ranges and they were great. When I finally bought a house 15 years ago--an old bungalow in Wallingford--it had a cheap but adequate gas range.

About 12 years ago I was out for a walk along the Cut (aka the canal between Lake Union and the Ballard Locks leading to Shilshole Bay) with my friend Bob, whose many-faceted career at that point included several years as a chef. We stumbled upon a yard sale in a warehouse occupied by an odd artist and his even odder girlfriend. "The stove," Bob hissed, pointing at a beautiful old range in the corner of the warehouse. It had a nickel-plated cooking grill, big black grates, and a folding cover that either folded down on top of the burners or arched over the range to form a shelf. As it turned out, the stove was not for sale. "Leave your name with them," Bob insisted. "Offer $500."

I did, and two months later I got a call that the stove was, indeed, for sale. My friends John and Jim moved it (Bob was no longer in the picture) and the cooking adventure began. The stove was an O'Keefe and Merritt, one of the Cadillacs of the World War II era. I had the chrome re-chromed, the copper grill re-nickeled, and the grates re-enameled. I learned about gas fittings (in fact, I shipped some of the piping off to The Homestead in Skykomish to be re-done, as well). It was all worth it. That stove really cooked! It made farinata and pizza just as wonderfully as the wood-burning ovens in Italy. The grill was perfect for six grilled cheese sandwiches (you scraped the grease into little trays that could be cleaned later). The gas jets adjusted from a little interior circle of blue flames for melting butter to a roaring inferno for quick frying.

Two years ago we moved to a beautiful house in Ballard that had only two drawbacks: Uncontrolled bamboo in the sideyard and no gas line. Despite pleas from us, and from three of our neighbors, the gas company has no interest in extending the gas line from any of the surrounding streets. Thus, when we built our new kitchen nearly two years ago, we installed an electric stove. It's a Kitchen-Aid, and it wasn't cheap.

I loathe it. I've learned to compensate for the unresponsive electic stovetop by moving pans around to two or three locations to "adjust" the heat. But I can't compensate for the oven, which is pathetic. It roasts and broils adequately. But baking? Everything comes out dry and hard as a rock on the exterior, and raw on the interior. Pizza is pathetic. I've tried using the convection settings, pizza pans with perforated bottoms to let the air circulate, and baking stones that you preheat for an hour. Nothing works. Nothing even helps slightly.

The only clue I have to the situation is that the temperature in the oven fluctuates quite a bit--set it to 375 and it goes back and forth between 350 and 400. That certainly did not happen with my old gas oven. Yet when I called the appliance store where I purchased it, and Kitchen-Aid, the polite reponse was that they'd never heard of such a thing and had no idea how to adjust it. My reading on the Web indicates that oven temperature fluctuation is considered normal in run-of-the-mill ranges and that I'd need a quasi-professional one, or an older model like my O'Keefe and Merritt, to avoid that.

On Wednesday Kitchen-Aid will be sending a repairman out (for $60) to "test" the stove. I'm not expecting much. I suspect they'll tell me everything is normal and I'm crazy. But I'm going to put up a fight, anyway. I just bought two frozen pizzas and am going to bake one before they arrive to illustrate the problem. If they can get one the second one to come out edible, and tell me how they did it, I'll be content. Otherwise, my next call is to the gas company.

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