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Day 394: Sweet

Hey, look what we made! From scratch!

Image description: a small glass bowl being held in someone’s hand. The bowl has a small amount of brown liquid in it. Wooden countertop in background.

Yup, that’s maple syrup. Remember when we tapped a maple tree in my parents’ backyard? We ended up collecting about 500mL (roughly 2 cups) of sap. Yesterday we put it into our makeshift double-boiler (metal mixing bowl resting on top of a pot of boiling water) and let it evaporate for most of the afternoon. We could see by the residue on the sides of the bowl just how much water had already evaporated.

We ended up with maybe 20 mL of maple syrup… but it looks and tastes like real maple syrup. Even though we knew this was how it was made, it still feels a bit magical and unreal to have made it ourselves from start to finish.

Now the question remains: who gets the privilege of using this syrup on their pancakes?

family fun · Fibro Flares · Jewy goodness · what's cookin'

Day 391: I’ll pay for this tomorrow…

Today was Yom Ha’atzmaut, Israel’s Independence Day. We celebrated in a low-key kind of way. Instead of our usual workout, I taught everyone some Israeli folk dances; we made fresh pita, Israeli salad, and schnitzel with chips for dinner; and we ended the day with more dancing followed by blue-and-white-iced cupcakes.

All of which means that I was on my feet more than usual, what with double dancing sessions and baking pita and cupcakes. Sadly, I suspect that I’ll be paying for it tomorrow. I feel like this flare is better than it was last week, but maybe I’m just getting inured to the constant ache. Anyhow, I think I’d better lay low tomorrow and over the weekend.

Just for the record, though, it was worth it to see Mr. December dancing.

crafty · Holidays Jewish and holidays not. · Jewy goodness · what's cookin'

Day 374: If a picture says a thousand words…

Look, if it’s true what they say about pictures saying a thousand words, you won’t mind if I just post a bunch of photos from last night’s seder and leave it at that. Right?

Oh, fine. I’ll give you my summary. Then I’ll post a bunch of photos.

Last night’s seder was very satisfying. The food was good, the kids participated, the puzzle clues for the afikoman were mostly fun, and we did the whole thing. They key to seder success (defined as doing both halves instead of petering out after dinner) is to withhold dessert until the very end, it seems.

I had fun making the table look pretty and laying out the food; I took enough photos of the food to create my own catering brochure. I used tiny little plates and bowls to create an individual seder plate for each person, and as we all know, anything in a teeny tiny plate looks fancy.

(In case you’re looking at the individual plates wondering why there’s melted chocolate and a strawberry on each one: Karpas doesn’t actually have to be a green vegetable. Apparently anything over which we say the blessing “borei p’ri ha’adama” (creator of the fruits of the earth) counts. And wouldn’t you know, we say “borei p’ri ha’adama” over strawberries! Of course Karpas has to be dipped, so I added some melted chocolate to fulfil that requirement.)

Today I was tired. I’m still tired. I wanted to take tomorrow as a day off, but we’re building a sample river table with epoxy to see how it holds up to heat and scratching; we want to do the epoxy work outside and tomorrow is supposed to be warm and sunny, so I can’t put it off. I guess I’ll rest later, like maybe in 2023.

Photo descriptions, from top left: a stone serving tray with an array of lemon-filled meringue nests topped with blueberries, and brownies in paper muffin cups; miniature square bowls of chopped liver with a mini fork sticking out of each one; a corner where two runs of countertop meet, with the dessert tray, a casserole dish with marshmallows on top, and small round plates with an assortment of items visible; a large oval table set with a turquoise silk tablecloth, plates with black and gold rims, stemless wine glasses, and three bottles of wine; a close-up of dessert-sized plates with black and gold rims, each with a hard-boiled egg in a tiny square bowl, some melted chocolate on a tiny square plate, a scoop of something brown (charoset) on a tiny square plate, and a strawberry, a sprig of parsley, and three small strips of horseradish.

DIY · family fun · Holidays Jewish and holidays not. · Jewy goodness · Kids · what's cookin'

Day 372: Everybody helps

One of my favourite memories of Passover as a child is actually a composite of pretty much every Passover until I left my parents’ house. What I remember most isn’t the seder itself, or the food we made; it’s that everybody was involved in making it together.

Mum and Dad have always hosted at least one seder (and usually both,) and the last couple of days leading up to Passover (as well as the day of Passover itself) were spent in the kitchen, all of us rotating in or out, with Mum and sometimes an Aunty giving instructions. Kids were put to work peeling boiled eggs, making charoset, chopping horseradish for maror, setting the table, and sticking our little thumbs into balls of cookie dough so we could fill the indentations with jam. Dad would usually be busy running to the store for last-minute ingredients or bringing folding tables and chairs up from the basement to accommodate the twenty-or-so people who were invited to the seder.

I want my kids to look back at Passover and feel the same warm fuzzy feeling I do when they think of the preparation. So I give them jobs to do, even when those jobs take them twice as long and leave twice as much mess than if I’d done it myself.

Today K grated apples for charoset and then passed them off to E, who mixed in all the other ingredients before spooning it onto tiny individual appetizer plates. N made a batch of flourless brownies (although I did have to get involved quite a bit at the end.) And Mr. December did his part to keep things moving smoothly by taking apart our kettle.

Yeah, you read that right. Our kettle stopped working two days ago, and Mr. December ordered a set of special screwdrivers so he could take it apart and see if maybe he could fix it. Turns out he couldn’t fix it, but at least the kids got to see how a kettle is made.

Chag Sameach to all my family, friends, and readers. May you have a meaningful seder, and may your matzah never be soggy.

family fun · Holidays Jewish and holidays not. · Homeschool · Jewy goodness · Kids · what's cookin'

Day 356: Matzah baking on an open fire…

For our bread class today we made Ethiopian-style matzah. Ethiopian Jews, like some Sephardic Jews, make a soft matzah that is probably much closer to what the Israelites would have made on their way out of Egypt.

The recipe we used told us to do it on the stove, but after I saw a video of Ethiopian Jews making matzah in Ethiopia I decided that an open fire was much more authentic. I started a fire about an hour before we were to begin baking. I also set our oven thermometer inside the fireplace.

According to our stopwatch, it only took us nine minutes to mix, roll, and bake our matzah. And then we tried some. It tasted just like matzah, only chewy and soft. I think I actually like crunchy matzah better.

We decided to see if there would be a difference in flavour if we let the dough rest for a while after we mixed it (if the Israelites hadn’t been in quite such a rush, would the bread have been different?) In baking terms this is called an autolyze, and it’s supposed to let the gluten develop without too much kneading. The only difference we detected in the second batch was that the dough was pretty wet and difficult to spread out in the pan. When I tasted it I thought that maybe it had a slightly different flavour from the first batch, but nobody else agreed with me. Either I’m a supertaster and they’re not, or I was imagining it.

The kids each took notes in their “Book of Bread” notebooks. Surprise, surprise: K, who abhors writing and will do almost anything to get out of it, diligently wrote down all the particulars, including the fireplace temperature, her observations of the matzah we made, and what we should change for next time. There was no argument; she just did it.

Will there be a next time? Will we be making our own matzah for the seders? Probably not. But it was a cool experiment and a fun way to integrate our Pesach studies with our bread unit. I hadn’t planned for them to coincide, but it’s a serendipitous combination. Next week we’ll learn some of the chemistry behind fermentation, and then after Passover we’ll start a sourdough experiment.

crafty · family fun · Holidays Jewish and holidays not. · Jewy goodness · Kids · The COVID files · what's cookin'

Day 343: We Made Lemonade

Happy Purim!

Know what I did almost all day yesterday? This, four times over:

Yes, those are miniature lemon loaves. I baked almost thirty of them yesterday. I only had eight mini loaf pans, so it took a long time. Never mind how the loaves turned out—the batter was pure silky, creamy deliciousness.

I am never doing that again. From now on, mishloach manot will be cleverly chosen premade goodies, labelled with puns and witticisms.

Since it’s been kind of a rough year in a lot of ways, I suggested to the kids that we call our mishloach manot “When life hands you lemons…”

There had to be a whole lemon—and enough sugar to turn it into lemonade—in each package. Obviously. Then K asked me if I could find a recipe for the lemon loaf they sell at Starbucks. “So when life hands you lemons, you just loaf around?” I asked. The puns spiralled from there.

In addition to the “you could loaf around” lemon loaf, we had “start over from square one” lemon squares, “you might snap at people” lemon snaps, and in some packages, “you may feel like pudding everything off ’til tomorrow” lemon meringue pudding cups. The best part is that I actually remembered to take pictures this year before we delivered all the treats!

Instead of our usual evening at shul followed by carnival-hopping from one synagogue to another, we logged onto Zoom to watch an online Purim shpiel (play) starring families from the congregation. Then I stayed on and listened to the megillah reading while the kids went into a breakout room to play party games with the other kids.

Although it’s a religious obligation to hear the megillah read twice each Purim, I can honestly say that before last night I have never actually heard the megillah read in its entirety. See, normally there’s so much noise from excited children waiting to drown out Haman’s name with noisemakers of all kinds that the readers can hardly be heard and the rabbi has to pound on the table repeatedly to get everyone to quiet down.

Ah, the magic of the mute button! The only people I could hear were the readers chanting the megillah; when Haman’s name came up we all unmuted ourselves and made noise for thirty seconds or so, then politely muted ourselves again. Some people (including yours truly) made signs to hold in front of our webcams when Haman was mentioned. Here’s mine, hastily scribbled at the last minute. The kids especially loved the angry-faced O’s.

Following the reading we had a Zoom dance party where four judges watched all the costumed people dance and then awarded prizes. I’m pleased to report that we were awarded “funniest costumes” for E’s lion, my ladybug, and N’s constantly changing outfits (he kept running back up to his room.)

I hadn’t expected the online programming to be particularly enjoyable; I was wrong. We saw a lot of familiar faces, we danced, we actually heard the megillah, and we all had fun. The kids went to bed feeling like they had just left a party, which I guess they had.

Today we spent Purim day in the traditional way: driving around the city to deliver the goodies we’d prepared for friends and family. This year I limited each one of us to four people, meaning a total of twenty-four packages, max. The first couple of years we did it I had to hype up the delivery aspect to K (who was having really bad Halloween envy.) Now the kids clamour to come with me, and they serve as faithful runners from the car to each front door.

This year I noticed how great it felt to actually see people who don’t live with me. As isolated as we feel now, the bonds we have with friends and family are still alive and well. It made me realize again that when COVID is over I’m going to hug everyone so hard and not let go for a few weeks. You’ve been warned.

So it was a good Purim. We made lemonade (Zoom parties, megillah readings, and treats) out of this year’s lemons (COVID lockdowns.) And if you ask the kids, it was the best Purim, because they got lots of mishloach manot and have divvied up all the candy and Bissli and chocolates—they’re well stocked until Pesach, I think.

education · family fun · Fibro Flares · Homeschool · what's cookin'

Day 335: What passes for school these days

Yesterday morning Mr. December stepped back from teaching in order to focus on his corporate job, giving me the entire day to teach whatever I wanted to. I assigned some writing and then went to work with K on her viola. One thing led to the next, as you read yesterday, until all four kids and I were rehearsing a quintet of “Long Long Ago.”

After an hour of rehearsal, I declared it time to go outside. We had a layer of fresh snow and bright sunshine—a rare treat in February—so we spent almost an hour at the toboggan hill, descending into the inevitable snowball fight before coming home.

After lunch I herded the kids to the computer to watch videos about the Japanese artist Hokusai, and then downstairs to the Makery to try our hand at printmaking. We tried our best, but the results were not great. Still, the kids thought it was fun. Then suddenly it was 3:15 and my clock-watching students ran off to play Roblox with their friends.

I got going with our bread unit this morning. Every child now has a B.O.B. (Book of Bread) where they’ll record recipes, observations, and improvements for next time. We talked a bit about the science behind the perfect baguette, and the criteria of flavour, crumb, crust, and appearance. Then the kids learned all about bakers’ percentages… and had to calculate the percentages for our first recipe, which they did without complaint.

So often I feel like I spend a day teaching the kids and have almost nothing to show for it; tonight I had the great pleasure of seeing tangible results in two subjects. First, of course, was the bread. We evaluated and taste-tested (and polished off) our three baguettes. The kids took notes in their B.O.B.s, noting that the slashes weren’t deep enough, the crumb was random and light enough to see the light shining through our baguette (but it could still be better,) the crust needed to be crustier, and the flavour was excellent. We talked a bit about what we need to change for next time… but any fresh bread tastes amazing, no matter how amateurish.

Tonight I asked the kids if they wanted to perform a concert for Mr. December. The buy-in was unanimous. We spent almost an hour rehearsing in the library, and I saw some beautiful things happening, like K reassuring R and pulling her out for a private rehearsal when R wanted to quit.

N and I performed a viola and piano duet of Schumann’s The Happy Farmer. K and I performed a viola duet based on Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star. Then came the finale: a quintet of T.H. Bayly’s Long Long Ago, arranged for two violas, piano, guitar and Toot. Mr. December gave us a standing ovation (I don’t think our performance justified it, but the kids seemed to like it.) He also took pictures:

And now, after two days of activity, my body is sore and begging me for sleep. I regret nothing, though. We did no history, grammar, or literature, and minimal writing; somehow, there was plenty of learning anyway.

DIY · education · family fun · Homeschool · what's cookin'

Day 332: Carbivores

“Eema, can we make some wheat thins?”

“Sure. Google the recipe and get the ingredients together. Let me know if you need any help.”

It started out well. R measured all the ingredients, even doubling the recipe (adding fractions.) I showed her how to pulse the food processor and she set up the pasta roller. For a short time she was in charge of rolling the dough. And then, suddenly, she needed to go swing in the attic.

(Do everyone’s kids need a break every ten minutes? Or is it just mine?)

So there I was, with E’s assistance, rolling out a double batch of cracker dough, cutting it, salting it, turning the pans every four minutes. Where was R? Up in the attic, swinging.

We started this endeavour around 1:00. It’s now 3:00 and I just sat down after almost walking into a wall. The oven is off and the crackers are cooling. The kitchen is still a mess. I told R that she’s on cleanup duty; she shook her head and walked out of the kitchen. The joke’s on her, though. I’m going to go hide the crackers so she can’t find them.

I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time in the kitchen this weekend: yesterday N and I decided to try our hand at baking baguettes. We made two batches of dough and spent an hour at the dinner table discussing which one was better.

At one point I said something like, “This one had a very sticky dough, and the oven wasn’t quite as hot so we baked it longer.”

“We could try it again with a different recipe,” commented N. “It’s not as good as the stuff we get at Thobor’s [local French bakery], but I bet we could get close.”

That’s how I started thinking about the amount of math and chemistry involved in baking, not to mention the history of bread. We could do geography, too: different countries have different bread recipes, probably for a variety of cultural and geographic reasons. That would be neat to learn. Yummy, too.

Here’s my plan: I’ve downloaded and printed a whole bunch of articles about the science of baking baguettes, a glossary of bread terms, and some videos on the Maillard reaction. I’ve also got some information on how breads are classified and described. I think we’ll start with the latter: We’ll look at a few different types of bread and see if we can classify and describe them. Then we can decide what characteristics we want in our baguette. We’ll try recipes, maybe two in a day, and write down our description of the results. Then we’ll take a look at our outcome as compared to our goals, make adjustments, and bake again.

It’s easy to see how people slide down the slope to unschooling. What I’m describing doesn’t really sound like school. There’s no math lesson, history class, or writing assignment; still, I think the kids will learn a ton from this. And if they don’t… well, at least we’ll get a great baguette recipe out of it.

el cheapo · Keepin' it real · well *I* think it's funny... · what's cookin'

Day 325: I really need to stop shopping at Costco.

Is it just me, or does every Costco order end up costing $400?

I just need fruit and vegetables and some milk, I reason, shouldn’t cost me more than $100, even at Costco.

Then I realize that I need flour… might as well get two bags because it’s the softest, nicest flour I’ve ever worked with. We go through about a bag a month anyway.

And we’re almost out of coffee beans, and since only Costco seems to carry this brand, I’d better order them now, because I don’t do Costco very often. Hmmm… might as well order two. Future Me will appreciate that.

I need cream, of course, and milk. I buy two of each because we’ll definitely use it all before it has a chance to go bad, as long as the kids have cereal most days.

Thinking about cereal makes me think of oatmeal, and that’s when I realize that I only have a quarter of a bag of pecans (a favourite topping in our house) left. This time I resist the urge to buy two, though. A whole bag will see us through about four weeks.

And then there’s meat, because I just realized that our downstairs freezer is absolutely empty, and I’d rather just do everything in one big shop.

I’m starting to see the problem: at Costco, every food item seems to cost either ten or twenty dollars, with the exception of milk. So apples plus oranges plus grapes plus tomatoes equals almost forty dollars. Yes, I’m getting a lot of fruit for that price, and I might not need to shop at all next week, but boy does it all add up. And even though I’m stocking my freezer with a month’s worth of chicken and beef, I’m still unconvinced that the next grocery bill will be any lower.

As I’m clicking around, I notice the “non-food” section. Good idea, I think. Do we need anything? Printer paper? Pyjamas for the kids? Socks?

And then I see the iPad. We do NOT need that. Although… actually, that could be kind of useful. In the end I resist, because we really don’t need it. But holy cow, is it easy to buy unnecessary stuff when it’s all conveniently in front of you!

With that in mind, I go back through my cart and take out a few things. Croutons, because we don’t have lettuce and I won’t buy lettuce from Costco because it would go bad before I ate it all. Naan, because I’m really not going to make tandoori chicken this week and there’s plenty of other bread in the house. And the blueberries, because it’s February—how good could they possibly be?

So it is that I manage to keep my total just under $400. I wouldn’t say that I’m particularly proud of myself—it still feels like a lot—but I’m resigned to it. At least I didn’t buy a six-pack of grand pianos…

family fun · Fibro Flares · Keepin' it real · Kids · mental health · The COVID files · what's cookin'

Day 298: A Mixed Bag

This morning I announced that there would be no computer use after 12:30 p.m.

There were moans and complaints, but we stood firm. They got off the computers, went upstairs, and started playing. It was the kind of play I love to see from kids: there was an imaginative storyline, there were props, there were roles and rules. Every so often I heard snippets of conversation, but for the most part it was the four of them in the attic.

That’s right, four. For reasons unknown to me, K joined their game today. They were all laughing and having fun and there were no major fights or calls of “Mo-om! He hit me!” They played like that for hours.

Mr. December and I spent an hour going over our financials from 2020. We concluded that, among other things, ordering in pizza was too frequent and too expensive last year. Mr. December suggested that we go back to making homemade pizza.

The kids cheered when they heard we were having pizza for dinner. Then I revealed that we were going to make it ourselves, and they booed. The complaints started:

“I hate pizza!”

“I can’t eat it. Every time I eat pizza that isn’t from Pizzaiolo, I throw up a little.”

“I don’t like cheese! You know I don’t like cheese!”

And so on.

I quickly scrapped my make-two-large-pizzas plan and announced our first “family make-your-own-pizza” night. I divided the dough into sixths, distributed them, and told everyone to do whatever they wanted with the dough. E wanted garlic bread, so I showed her how to make garlic breadsticks with pizza dough. R and I made fairly conventional cheese pizzas; I also used half my dough to make an olive oil & za’atar flatbread. N made a weird deep-dish type pizza, and K made a pizza crust topped with melted chocolate, bananas, and strawberries.

Mr. December challenged the kids to make him “something weird.” They added all sorts of things like mango, olives, and hot sauce; then they insisted that he wear a blindfold while tasting their creation. He successfully identified four of the five toppings, and pronounced the pizza “really good!”

Image description: a man seated at a wooden table, wearing a blue scarf as a blindfold. A plate in front of him holds a pizza with many toppings. Two girls observe, smiling.

I got a plant dumped on me tonight. E was climbing up on the windowsill behind my desk chair. She must have reached up to the ledge by my desk to steady herself, and the trailing plant I have on the ledge came down on me. There was soil everywhere. I vacuumed up most of it, but as I sit here I can see that I forgot the surface of my desk, so focused was I on the chair, the floor, and my clothes. To E’s credit, she did do some of the vacuuming up.

Everything hurts. I did something to my left arm on Friday night, and now it hurts if I bend my hand forward. And the fibro pain has also migrated to my arms, along with a fatigue that made it hard to hold my cards during our evening board game. The pain makes it hard to distract myself with my usual activities (viola and quilting—not at the same time,) but between the board game and make-your-own pizza night there was enough going on this evening to keep me from feeling too bad.

Still, this lockdown can’t possibly end soon enough.