Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Confessions of a Mediocre Cook: Surprised by Yogurt Success!

This totally should have been a complete failure. It was a yogurt do. Here's what happened.

First off, someone used part of my half-gallon of whole milk. So I had to use approximately half whole milk (that sounds weird!) and half of my watered-down whole milk, which we use daily.

Second, I did not unplug my crock pot after two and a half hours. I thought I did, but I was mistaken. When I finally unplugged it, at least another hour had passed. After consulting a friend, I planned to let the milk cool for four hours instead of the usual three. But I had to leave the house for a few hours, and I'd miss the timing to mix in the half-cup of yogurt (starter). So I only cooled the milk for three hours and then mixed in the starter.

As you can see, I'm breaking rules all over the place. I figured I'd just see what happened.

Due to all the extra time, I had to get up at 1 AM to pour the yogurt into containers and refrigerate. Right away, I noticed it seemed thicker than my earlier batches. This was an interesting development.

This morning, when Tiny Girl and I took a peek, we were delighted with the results. My homemade yogurt resembles more closely store-bought yogurt in thickness. For Tiny Girl's breakfast, we chopped up some maraschino cherries (her choice) and stirred them in a small bowl of plain yogurt. She deemed it not sweet enough, so we added some sugar. Twice. (!!!!!)

I'd expected a total loss, but have now decided to change my original recipe. Since this kind of thing rarely happens to me kitchen-wise (total losses are nothing new), I'm thrilled!

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Confessions of a Mediocre Cook: Our Daily Bread in a Crock

Okay, so you've probably heard about this bread-in-crock thing. I'm a little slow with news flashes. In case you're like me, I'll fill you in. Basically, you mix up a bunch of bread dough, let it rise a bit, and then store it in the fridge to use in the next week or so. One recipe supplies enough dough for several bread needs: pizza crust, rolls, country loaves, sweet rolls, etc. After some research, I opted to give French Tart's (love the pseudonym) recipe a try. I've now made two batches, and here's what happened.

Miss Priss measures the flour.

I read all the comments on French Tart's recipe and printed several of them to help me with my endeavor. I learned I might need to experiment with oven temp and baking times. I also got some ideas on gussying up the basic recipe. With my first batch, I made rolls in a six-cup muffin tin, a round loaf of cheese bread (which was underdone), and cinnamon rolls.

Each time I baked something was a learning experience. I found with each baking that I needed to let my dough rise more than the suggested 20-30 minutes. With the cinnamon rolls, I made them the night before and let the rolls rise overnight in the fridge prior to baking the next morning.

To be honest, after my first attempt, I wasn't sure how I felt about the whole thing. Everything was tasty, but left something to be desired (except the cinnamon rolls, which were fantastic). But I knew I must be missing something because there were so many positive comments on the original website. So I decided to try again.

The remaining two cinnamon rolls. We scarfed the others down immediately.

The mixed dough.

With my second batch, I let the dough rest on the fridge for a few days before I baked anything. Then I tried my hand at parkerhouse rolls. As you can see, I started out with too much dough per roll, because they rose to a massive size.

These look like something out of a science fiction movie.

They tasted pretty good, but still. A few days later, I was tired of having a big bowl of dough taking up so much room in my refrigerator. I pulled it all out, shaped an oval-sized loaf, and set it to rise. I ended up with a gargantuan, flat "loaf" that I almost threw away. Himself said go ahead and bake it and see what happens. So, with a cynical heart, I did.

The blob.

Quelle surprise! The resulting bread may have looked less than I'd hoped, but it tasted wonderful. The several days' rest in the fridge brought out a sourdough flavor, and the crust was baguette-crispy.


I'm still not sure, however. I didn't have as much success as I'd hoped to have, so I'm not sure it's worth the (albeit small) trouble or refirigerator space. Also, I'm not at all certain if I have the heart to continue experimenting with the recipe. Have you tried anything like this? What's been your experience?

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Adventures in Frugality: Homemade Slow Cooker Yogurt

I love yogurt and eat a lot of it. I eat it straight from the container, I use it in smoothies, I strain plain yogurt to make it Greek-style, I play around with it. But I'm not so jazzed about some brands' ingredients, so I'm careful what I buy. Oftentimes, being careful what one buys equals paying more for what one buys, since quality can cost more than, you know, not-so-quality.

So I was excited to discover Stephanie O'Dea's recipe for slow cooker yogurt on her website. (Thanks to Tricia at Hodgepodge for the link!) I've made two batches and feel confident enough in the process to write about it.

The first time I made it, I used two percent milk and nonfat yogurt as my starter. This was in direct disobedience to Stephanie's advice, which stated whole milk, especially for one's first attempts. The resulting yogurt was tasty but quite liquidy. It made great smoothies without adding any extra liquid. I strained some of it for a thicker yogurt, and this was successful. But I wanted to try whole milk the next time, which I did.

On my second attempt, the result was thicker than the first batch but still runnier than store-bought. Refrigeration helped. But let me hasten to add that the texture and taste are both marvelous. Never has such silken loveliness graced my tastebuds. Tiny Girl and I experimented by adding strawberry preserves to a bowlful and then freezing it. More like a granita than ice cream, our fro-yo was delightfully tangy, sweet, and strawberry-y.

In another experiment, I strained some of the whole-milk yogurt, which resulted in a super-creamy, rich, and thick yogurt for which there are no words to describe its magnificence. It was better than the strained yogurt from my first batch. I swirled a touch of honey atop a dollop of strained yogurt and was in heaven (or at least my imaginary approximation thereof).

I learned that some folks add gelatin or other ingredients to their homemade yogurt to get more of a store-bought texture, but I prefer not to do that. To me, homemade yogurt's texture is far superior to any gelatinous goo from the grocery.

Homemade yogurt is incredibly easy and frugal, but it seems luxurious. What a perfect combination!

Friday, January 27, 2012

Weekly Happenings: Excitement Galore!

We're clicking right along with life. Good stuff going on!

The most exciting news for me: I wrote my first-ever review for The Curriculum Choice website! I reviewed Spelling Power, which we've used for almost two years. If you are looking for an effective and easy-to-use spelling curriculum, pop over and read my review. I highly recommend Spelling Power. I'll be contributing regularly to The Curriculum Choice, so look for me (and other great reviewers) there.

In other exciting news: earlier this week I had my first-ever unqualified bread-baking success when I made sandwich buns. Of course I blogged about it; I had to brag and I also included a link to the recipe. If I can make these well, anyone can. Trust me.

The girls are playing "Fur Elise" for their piano practice this week. I never get tired of listening to that piece. Tiny Girl has selected it for one of her recital pieces. She'll often plop down at the piano and play it. Both my daughters play well, but Tiny Girl plays for enjoyment; Miss Priss plays out of duty.

The weather has not been conducive to riding, so we've stayed home more this week. Today was pretty but chilly, and Tiny Girl opted to wait until tomorrow to ride. We're still searching for a medium pony for her. It's hard to find just the right thing.

The girls have been reading a lot this week. Miss Priss read Savvy, by Ingrid Law; The Wish, by Gail Carson Levine; and In the Face of Danger, the second of Joan Lowery Nixon's Orphan Train Quartet. Tiny Girl read The King's Equal, by Katherine Paterson; Ginger Pye, by Eleanor Estes; and The Mysterious Miss Slade, by Dick King-Smith. I'm thrilled that they are readers, but it can get in the way of actual lessons. Miss Priss in particular is loathe to interrupt reading a "fun" book for something so mundane as lessons. I can empathize, but school must go on.

For Christmas, Miss Priss gave Tiny Girl a Michaels gift card, and with it she purchased a triops kit. Triops, for the uninitiated (which included me before she bought the kit), are freshwater crustaceans (shrimp) that one raises from tiny eggs. Their scientific name is Triops longicaudatus. Some websites refer to these creatures as "prehistoric monsters," which I find hilarious. They are not monsters; they are small shrimp. One of their names, in fact, is "fairy shrimp," a name which does not strike fear into the hearts of humans. Several eggs hatched initially, and the biggest one, whom she named Lionel, after Lionel Hardcastle in the britcom "As Time Goes By," ate up all but one. The remaining victim, Leonardo, was moved to another tank to keep him away from Lionel. This isn't a great photo, but here is Lionel. As you can see, his water is a tad yucky:

See him down in the corner?

Here's a better photo from mytriops.com. This is not Lionel, of course. But he looks just like it.

Tiny Girl keeps both small tanks in her closet with three lights on: the overhead, a lamp, and a fish tank light. Needless to say, it's warm in her closet. Just right for egg hatching!

Tiny Girl also took time to tackle a puzzle. She and I enjoy puzzles, but not the insanely difficult 500-piece (or more) variety. We bought this one at Dollar Tree (350 pieces), and she did 99 percent of it herself pretty quickly. It's amazing to me how she can pick up pieces and just know where they go. Sometimes she has to play around a bit, but most of the time she simply fits pieces in like magic. It's kind of weird.

Did I mention she's also a natural with math? Did I mention than I am not? Here's the finished picture. It's called "The Wishing Well." My guess is that the kitten is wishing he could snag those titmice before they fly away.

Look for posts this weekend about my yogurt-making and rustic bread-baking adventures. I've lots to say -- both good and meh -- about those topics.

Happy weekend!

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Confessions of a Mediocre Cook: Quick and Easy Sandwich Buns

On Tuesday, I remembered that I had a container of pulled chicken in the fridge that needed to be used, so I decided to make some chicken barbecue sandwiches. I didn't have any buns, though, so I hit the internet in search of a recipe. Plus, it had to be easy and quick -- look who's in the kitchen, after all.

Shazam! Alisa's recipe from Alisa Cooks is a real winner. I followed the recipe as it's written, except I kneaded the dough with the dough hook in my Red Steel Beauty, and I let the buns rise a bit longer than ten minutes.

Aren't they gorgeous?

Everyone in the family loved them, except for Himself, who abstained. He's not a bread junkie. (Weirdo.)

My delectable chicken barbecue sandwich.

The next morning, Tiny Girl asked for a bun made like cinnamon toast. Miss Priss just ate hers plain.

Cinnamon toasted bun for Tiny Girl.

Today, I had another chicken barbecue sandwich with the last of the buns. Friends, this recipe is a keeper: frugal, fast, and fabulous!

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Weekly Happenings: Getting Back on Track

Despite some lingering illness -- now overcome, thank heaven! -- we managed to get mostly back on track this week. Finally. Here are some highlights:

Both girls have decided to add German into their studies. This year, we've been using PowerSpeak online through our county library system (free). So Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, they'll work on French, and the study German on Tuesday and Thursday. We have a few friends who live in Germany, and we're entertaining thoughts about visiting them next year, prompting a sudden interest in the language. My response? Go for it!

We spent more time this week with our friend, Fuzzworth (lovingly named by Miss Priss several years ago), our nebulizer and Georgette's nemesis. She despises him. Maybe it's his smarmy smile; maybe it's his insipid bow tie; maybe it's the very LOUD noise he makes. But every time we switch him on, she barks and lunges at him. she calms down quickly after her first attack, however.

 Georgette, 8 months

Here is the lovely little Georgette. When we gather in the family room for our readings, the dogs snuggle up with us. A home educating lifestyle comprises so many cozy moments, doesn't it?

In grammar this week, we learned about predicate nominatives. I didn't know these existed until high school, myself. Both girls now have a decent understanding of these; it's not perfect, but it's a good foundation for the years to come.

Jasper, 2 years

And here is Jasper. He and Georgette have very different dispositions. Sometimes he's like a grumpy old man around her! I'm his favorite (she said with a bashful yet proud smile). Update: Tiny Girl read this yesterday and objected to the last sentence. "You are NOT his favorite," she said emphatically.

In literature, we continued our reading of Pyle's King Arthur and His Knights and began "The Three Worthies." We also began Robert Louis Stevenson's Kidnapped. This selection is part of AO's Year 4, but we are just now fitting it in. The girls were resistant at first, but now we are all enthralled, after only three chapters!

John Greenleaf Whittier continues to make our hearts happy. Our favorite poem this week: "Storm on Lake Asquam," which we discovered is in New Hampshire and is now referred to as Lake Squam, Asquam being its Abenaki name. I thought you might like it, too.

Storm on Lake Asquam

A cloud, like that the old-time Hebrew saw
On Carmel prophesying rain, began
To lift itself o'er wooded Cardigan,
Growing and blackening. Suddenly, a flaw

Of chill wind menaced; then a strong blast beat
Down the long valley's murmuring pines, and woke
The noon-dream of the sleeping lake, and broke
Its smooth steel mirror at the mountains' feet.

Thunderous and vast, a fire-veined darkness swept
Over the rough pine-bearded Asquam range;
A wraith of tempest, wonderful and strange,
From peak to peak the cloudy giant stepped.

One moment, as if challenging the storm,
Chocorua's tall, defiant sentinel
Looked from his watch-tower; then the shadow fell,
And the wild rain-drift blotted out his form.

And over all the still unhidden sun,
Weaving its light through slant-blown veils of rain,
Smiled on the trouble, as hope smiles on pain;
And, when the tumult and the strife were done,

With one foot on the lake and one on land,
Framing within his crescent's tinted streak
A far-off picture of the Melvin peak,
Spent broken clouds the rainbow's angel spanned.

-- John Greenleaf Whittier, 1882.

I also intoduced hymns into our schedule. I'm almost ashamed to admit that we've not done this before. My thoughts were that we sing hymns in church, and the children will learn them there. But then I looked over AO's hymn rotation and was pleased to see some "old favorites" that we don't sing in our church. This month's selection is "What a Friend We Have in Jesus." I love that one.

I also baked bread and made homemade yogurt, but those deserve posts of their own. Keep an eye out!

Thursday, January 19, 2012

A Tale of Two Birds

Tuesday was a dreary day in our neck of the woods. At breakfast, Tiny Girl, who is now suffering from fifth disease, bless her, looked out the kitchen window and exclaimed over three very BIG birds up in the tops of our backyard trees. The birds looked black, but beyond that, identification was difficult due to the grayness of the day and the falling rain. But we persisted.

Tiny Girl Googled "huge black bird" and came up with some possibilities, which we investigated online. Only one seemed likely: the black vulture. We've seen turkey vultures here in our neighborhood before. But we could not get a clear view of this bird's head, so we were still unsure.

However, there were a few other clues. The birds high in the trees were silent. There were, as I said, three of them. They weren't gathered together in one tree, but they seemed "together." Their legs were light-colored in contrast to the rest of their bodies. And there was a murder (or flock, if you prefer) of crows haranguing these large, black birds. We've seen crows behave the same toward other vultures and hawks.

When the rain slowed to a sprinkle, I ventured out, camera in hand. I was able to get a decent shot, much to my delighted surprise. While I was outside, one of the birds spread its wings and held them outstretched, a behavior we've observed in turkey vultures.

In the above photo, you can (sort of) make out the shape of the bird's head, but you can't really see the pattern on its wings. I could see both clearly from my spot in the yard. After I took a few more snaps, the bird silently lifted off and soared away.

With all the information we'd gathered, we positively identified these birds as black vultures.

The second bird in my tale makes me happy every day. It's a solar dancing penguin. I'm fortunate to have two of them in my kitchen window because each of my daughters received one in a birthday favor bag from a friend. When sunlight hits the small screen on the white base, the little penguins rock back and forth. One of them is a sedate waltzer; its rock is in a series of four with a pause between each series. The other is more frenetic, rocking energetically and continuously.

What can I say? It doesn't take much to make me smile.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Is It Worth Reading?

I'm slogging through Wicked, by Gregory Maguire. This book had been recommended to me by several people whose tastes I respect. It's also been lauded by strangers: a lady in the doctor's waiting room saw me with it and said, "You're going to love that book."

Well. I don't.

I'm in the second part, and I find the book mildly entertaining at best. So what to do? If you find yourself in the same boat, what do you do? Do you hang in there, hoping that you'll end up agreeing with the book's admirers? Or do you throw in the towel and move on to something else. After all, life is short.

Thoughts? Ideas?

Saturday, January 14, 2012

New Books on the Way!

Recently, the girls have hit a wall regarding their independent reading. Perhaps I shouldn't admit this, but they much prefer many of AO's free reads as read-alouds as opposed to personal selections. So I pulled out my much-loved Honey for a Child's Heart and surveyed some options.

 I've always loved poring over this wonderful annotated bibliography of children's books. Of course, it's much more than just a book of lists; Gladys Hunt's opinions and perspectives on reading mesh well with my own, and have actually informed my expanding viewpoint on literature's great value. Of course, she's preaching to the choir when I read her work; I have a master's degree in English. But I find her words exhilarating and empowering all the same.

 I also use Honey for a Child's Heart as a checklist. I mark off those books the girls have read and make note of other works by the same authors. In the past, I've also highlighted those titles that are on other lists I consult, such as AO's free reading lists. These guide me in making informed choices.

 As an added bonus, I've earned an admirable amount of points on Paperback Swap. Time to shop!

 So I sat at the computer and compared Paperback Swap's offerings with my list. Of course, not everything was available. In one or two cases, I chose a title that wasn't on the list but either its author was (other books listed) or one of the girls had already read and enjoyed a book(s) by said author.

 Here's what's on the way to us:

  • The King's Equal, by Katherine Paterson
  • Ginger Pye, by Eleanor Estes
  • Our Only May Amelia, by Jennifer L. Holm
  • The Wizard of Oz, by L. Frank Baum
  • Mysterious Miss Slade, by Dick King-Smith
  • The Children of Green Knowe, by L. M. Boston
  • Bluish, by Virginia Hamilton

Since Miss Priss is on the cusp of teenage-dom (small shudder -- I can't believe it and I'm not ready for it!), I also have on my shelf of resources Gladys Hunt's Honey for a Teen's Heart. It never hurts to be prepared.

 Happy reading!

Friday, January 13, 2012

Weekly Happenings: Illness and Manic Homekeeping

It had to be the caffeine.

This week of damp and now chilly weather is perfect for tea-drinking (frankly, the weather matters not in this household -- we drink tea all the time), and I brewed pots and pots of Yorkshire tea for myself. I needed the extra oomph of caffeine to handle the extra work of sick children.

We hardly touched our scheduled schoolwork. We managed a couple of readings one a couple of days, and Tiny Girl completed two math assignments. That's all anyone felt up to doing, except for naps on the couch and watching movies.

But there I was, all caffeinated up. I had to do something. So I did.

A good friend of mine recently let me borrow, for as long as I want, her KitchenAid mixer. I know! It's like when the Victoria and Albert museum permanently loaned the Marian hanging to Oxburgh House! I'd mentioned during dinner conversation that I'd like to have one, but even on sale they are pricey. She said she never uses hers; but since it was a gift from her beloved husband she can't sell it to me or even actually give it to me; but it now resides at my house for as long as I desire. Ah, how I've benefitted from her largesse.

This week, I've burned some electricity with this baby. I've made forgotten cookies, pumpkin muffins, chocolate chip cookies, and tried my hand at Our Daily Bread in a Crock. (More on the latter later.)

I was on fire. I made homemade yogurt in my crock pot. I started using homemade dryer sheets: I cut squares of fabric from worn-in and worn-out jeans and left them to soak in a small bucket of water-diluted fabric softener. To use, I wring one or two out and toss in the dryer with a load of clothes to dry. I cleaned the kitchen with a baking soda/hydrogen peroxide mixture. I mopped the kitchen floor. I made soup. I baked maple corn muffins.

But it's not all about me. Between doctor visits and when the girls felt able, they entertained themselves with a few easy projects. They worked on friendship bracelets. They played Wheel of Fortune on the Wii. Tiny Girl constructed this foam manor she received for Christmas. Note the penguins on the ski lift.

They also drank a lot of tea. Tiny Girl switched between peppermint sweetened with honey and (decaf) chai with sweet cream. Miss Priss stuck with decaf chai (sugar only).
The doctor's visit today yielded good news. Miss Priss has really improved, AND we can discontinue the oral steroid -- which resulted in behavior somewhat akin to Linda Blair in The Exorcist (a movie I ill-advisedly watched when I was sixteen. What a dumb idea.). She's still on the antibiotic, of course, and breathing treatments will continue for the next few days. Tiny Girl shows no signs of pneumonia, so her ailment is just of the virus type. She's now on the oral steroid (fingers crossed for her reaction to be better!) and will continue breathing treatments all next week. But after one day of steroid use, her cough is already MUCH improved. We are very thankful.

I'm linking up with Weird, Unsocialized Homeschoolers, so pop over for some fun blog-reading!

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Adventures in Frugality: Multi-Mealing

Most frugal souls out there will tell you that multi-mealing (I just made that up -- clever, eh? But I bet someone else beat me to it) is a subject that is near and dear to our hearts. You know, cook something once then make other meals with the leftovers. Since I like to get the most bang for my grocery buck, I tend to multi-meal whenever I can.

For example, I cooked up a mess of collards for New Year's. (Yes, I am the only one who eats them, but why not? Greens are good for you.) After eating them a couple of times as is, I tweaked them to make something a bit different. I drained a can of great northern beans, tossed that in with the collards, and then covered everything with some water. I stirred in some ham base and onions. Ta da! Soup!

That was no big deal. A couple of days ago, I oven-roasted a nice, bone-in pork shoulder, which I'd bought on sale. Despite my following the directions, it was not cooked through at suppertime; so I sliced off some, zapped it in the microwave for a minute, and we ate it for supper. The next day, I put the remaining roast in my cast iron Dutch oven, poured in two cups of water, and put it in a 325 degree oven for a few hours.

Friends, it was amazing. It fell off the bone and was so meltingly tender I nearly swooned. I shredded the meat, which we ate on buns with barbecue sauce.

Two days later, I chopped some of the meat finely in my food processor and then added some of its broth and some spices: chili powder, cumin, onion powder, garlic powder, salt, and pepper. I didn't measure a thing. After heating the meat, I spooned some onto warm tortillas and served with chopped tomato, lettuce, taco sauce, sour cream, and shredded cheese.

I still have quite a bit of pork left, which I'm going to freeze. Talk about multi-mealing!

Now. Keep in mind that I have a smaller-sized family: two children, both of whom eat small helpings of most things except dessert and popcorn, and two adults. So I may get more meals than your family would.

Multi-mealing does require a bit of thought, but it becomes more natural the more you do it. With my multi-mealing perspective firmly in place, I now tend to re-think leftovers. Instead of simply serving that chicken again, as is, I might boil the meat off the bones (I detest picking meat off bones -- it grosses me out), which rewards me with a nice broth for soup (or cooking veggies) AND chicken, which I either use right away in a casserole, dumplings, or pot pie OR freeze for later use. Leftover spaghetti sauce gets tossed in the freezer for use in soup, chili, or as pizza sauce.

My guess is that you already know all this stuff. I grew up with parents who'd been raised on farms. Farm people multi-meal naturally. But for me, there was a gap between knowing it and making an intentional effort to do it.

Another bonus: throwing out spoiled leftovers that languished in the fridge for far too long is a wasteful thing of the past.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

A New Diagnosis

I may as well give up for the week! The doctor diagnosed Miss Priss with pneumonia this morning, and now Tiny Girl is also on breathing treatments for her cough. I am so thankful for a lot today:

- good medical care
- medicines in our reach, like Orapred and Augmentin
- home nebulizer machines that keep children out of the hospital
- the girls feel well enough to continue our readings (with my reading aloud)

Situations like these clutch at my heart for those who are less fortunate than we. What if I couldn't get the medicine? Or it was too expensive? What if a home nebulizer machine was out of my reach? How would I face a restrictive list of options while my child struggles to breathe?

I have fears for my child's health, of course, but I also know she's getting the best medical care. And that certainty is priceless. What if I knew more could be done, but I couldn't afford it? What would it be like to suffer that particular certainty? I could attempt to empathize, but that's just Method acting and guesswork.

So while I snuggle with my precious children, I can't stop thinking about other precious children who suffer. I know the Lord is at work within me.

"Do you see the least of them?" He asks me. "Do you see them?"

Monday, January 9, 2012

Foiled Again! When Life Gets in the Way of My Plans

Today was the day we were going to get back up to speed after a three weeks' holiday. The study was reorganized, the plans were revamped a wee bit, and everything was in place for a triumphant first week of lessons for 2012.

So of course something had to go wrong.

This past Friday, Miss Priss awoke with a mild fever, congestion, and complaints of chest tightness. She suffers from asthma (not acute, but she does take two meds every day for ten months out of the year), so any chest issues make her mama nervous. Off to the doctor we went. After a strep test (negative), blood test (counts were a little off), and a chest X-ray for pneumonia (also negative), we trooped back home with instructions to use her nebulizer machine every four hours and come back on Tuesday.

We tussled with a fever all weekend; last night, it reached a high of 103.3, but today the highest was 101.5. She had chills this afternoon and generally feels yucky. We'll see what the doctor says tomorrow morning.

Not to be outdone, Tiny Girl suffered her first migraine last night. It didn't completely disappear until this afternoon. Now she too has a mild fever and chills. So I'm taking her to the doctor with us tomorrow.

I ask you, ain't that always the way?

Instead of twirling into our second term, today saw me brewing herbal tea (which I do all the time, anyway), dispensing medicine, fetching cool cloths for foreheads, rewetting said cloths, and snuggling with pitiful babies on the couch. I also tried hard not to feel a tad tetchy.

But why, oh, why is it that my best-laid plans go awry? Not my fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants "plans." Not my let's-see-what-happens "plans." And certainly not my let's-just-get-through-this "plans."

(Aside: it occurs to me that it's a good thing these so-called "plans" see us through when I need them to do just that. Otherwise, I might not be able to hold everything together on those days/weeks. But that's beside the point here.)

It's the plans I'm proud of, the ones I've mapped out on a spreadsheet, the ones that inspire visions shining in my imagination like the cover of a Sonlight catalog -- those are the ones that seem to beckon trouble with an irresistible bull's eye. And before I know it, I'm making new plans that have nothing to do with our lessons and everything to do with life.

Educating my children at home teaches me, too. I've loved learning academic material along with them and also seeing things I'd already learned come alive again in their eyes. But some lessons are more for me than for them. I've had to learn to be more flexible and to roll with it, baby, as Steve Winwood sings (his best song, in my opinion).

My best-intentioned plans will lose none of their glow after a few days' time on the shelf. The babies need tea, medicine, cool cloths, and their mama right now. So I changed my plans.

I squelched my tetchiness and snuggled on the couch, sipping tea as my girls napped.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Tea, the Blessed Elixir: Matcha at First Sip

"When tea becomes ritual, it takes place at the heart of our ability to see greatness in small things."
-- Muriel Barbery, The Elegance of the Hedgehog (one of my favorite books)

The girls and I were at the mall a couple of days ago and stopped in at one of our favorite stores, Teavana. Since we visit the mall a handful of times per year, we stocked up on an old favorite blend of ours, Youthberry and Orange Blossom, and we tried a new herbal tea: Citrus-Lavender-Sage. They were holding a sale on all tea accoutrements. I've been interested in trying real matcha tea, so I purchased an Imperial Matcha Collection, which included a tin of ceremonial matcha tea powder, a bowl (chawan), and a whisk (chasen), at a 75 percent discount. Yay!

Matcha, in case this is new to you, "refers to finely-milled green tea, most popular in Japan. The cultural activity called the Japanese tea ceremony centers on the preparation, serving, and drinking of matcha. . . . Matcha is a fine ground, powdered, high quality green tea and not the same as tea powder or green tea powder" (Wikipedia article).

Following the directions on the tin, I mixed one teaspoon of matcha with eight ounces of hot water. Then I whisked it until frothy-ish. I don't think I whisked it long or briskly enough, though. Next time I'll put more effort into it.

I was surprised at the bright green color and opaque quality of the prepared tea.

According to the Wikipedia article, matcha comes from shade-grown tea leaves; the tea bushes are covered to protect the leaves from direct sunlight. After harvesting, the leaves are laid out flat to dry. They are then called tencha (碾茶). The tencha is deveined, destemmed, and stone ground to powder (matcha).

Looking for more info, I hopped onto Teavana's matcha webpage. You can see a photo of matcha in its powder form there. Apparently, the directions on the tin are the "contemporary brewing" method, which produces a thin tea (usucha). The traditional preparation calls for one teaspoon of matcha to four ounces of hot water, resulting in a thicker tea called koicha.

Matcha is touted for its health benefits, including fiber, antioxidants, and amino acids. But I must be honest; its flavor did not knock my socks off. Teavana describes matcha as having a "smooth, complex vegetal flavor with a full palette and a silky finish." I can attest to the vegetal character. Spinach came to mind. I actually like spinach, both cooked and raw. (In fact, I regularly add raw spinach to my breakfast smoothies, along with the yogurt, water, and frozen fruit.) The "vegetality" of the matcha didn't disgust me; however, it's not something I've come to expect or anticipate in my tea.

So I added some sugar, which improved it immensely.

Will matcha replace my favorite brew? Nope. But I enjoyed learning about it. And I can always spoon some into my smoothie.

One more thing occured to me. As I stood in my twenty-first-century American kitchen, heating water, carefully measuring, and whisking my new chasen, I thought about a Zen tea master -- who had trained for years -- presiding over a somber tea ceremony in  fifteenth-century Japan. We couldn't have been more different, he and I. But my actions, a mere shadow of his ritual, served as a sort of thread connecting me with the tea master in my imagination.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Some Thoughts on the New Year: Refining

A very happy New Year!

My last post focused on my decluttering activities, which were an unqualified success. As far as they went. But at my house, some decluttering is far, far better than none.

Now I'm thinking about our home school. Barb, at Harmony Art Mom, recently posted this excellent article about minor changes she's making to their lesson plans, i.e., improvements and refinements, as well as helpful links to resources they are using. Both the girls and I feel we need to do some revamping and refining around our house and school, too.

Here are my targets:
  • Be more organized. This fall, we all felt less organized and more scattered than we have in years past. It did not help matters that the study was a disaster. Also, I fell asleep at the wheel on our chore rotation, figuring I'd just ask the children to attend to chores as they arose. Let me now proclaim loudly that This Does NOT Work Well.
  • Be more liberal. We did no Shakespeare, artist study, or composer study this past term. I hate that, because, for me, these pursuits are the hallmark of a well-rounded education. I cannot say for certain why we neglected them, but my guess is that bullet point number one may have had something to do with it. Hmmm.
  • Be more intentional. The girls read more "fluffy" books this past fall and fewer (what I deem) quality selections. I like cotton candy now and again, myself; but one cannot make a steady diet of the stuff and come out better for it. To be honest, they gave me more grief about some of the titles I suggested, and I gave in. No more! Going foward, I will assign a literature reading from the AO free reads list; they can read fluff on their own time.
  • Be more focused. In the past few months, I found myself scurrying around doing too much and not doing any of it well. I tended to squeeze lessons in with my home management activities. Some of you may do this effortlessly; I felt as if I were spinning plates -- badly. While multitasking is a useful skill that has its place, it's out of place in our home school.

I know some of these are a bit vague -- like #4. I'm not certain exactly how I'm going to accomplish all these goals. (Any advice will be appreciated, by the way!) But I am uncomfortable enough to want to make the changes; for me, that's the essential step.