Memorial Day, 2017

Memorial Day. A time to remember the more that a million Americans who have died in the line of duty. People who made the ultimate sacrifice so I can enjoy freedom in this country that I love. A somber holiday, but also a time for hope and for looking forward to the future. I just don’t say “Happy Memorial Day.” It feels wrong somehow.

That being said, it is a time to get together with family and friends and, after a time of remembrance, to celebrate the life we have and the love we share. And food. Don’t forget the food. Hubby and I went to the parentals, as usual, and had a chance to celebrate with all the neighbors. There was enough good food to feed about three times the number of people, but that’s no surprise. Leftovers, here I come!

This year I contributed my favorite little Lemon Cream Cups. They’re always a winner, so I’m sharing the recipe here. They take maybe an hour start to finish and, while they seem a little fussy, really are pretty easy.

Lemon Cream Cups (serves 12)

4 sheets phyllo dough, thawed
1/2 c. butter, melted
1 c. heavy cream
4 egg yolks
1/3 c. honey, plus extra for garnish
1/4 c. fresh lemon juice
Fresh fruit as desired

Start by making the cups. If you’ve never worked with phyllo dough before, it’s like super thin sheets of tissue paper. There is often nervousness among newbies that they will tear the fragile dough. So let me set your mind at ease. You WILL tear it. Probably more than once. And that’s okay. We’re using multiple layers and the butter will help stick it back together. So don’t worry about it. Perfection here is totally not important. However, you will want to dampen a kitchen towel (just a little…you don’t want it actively wet) and place the sheets of dough on it. Cover with another slightly damp cloth or paper towel. If you don’t keep the dough damp, it will break apart, you will cry, and I will get hate mail. So, please. Don’t skip this step. 😁

Preheat the oven to 425°F. Take one sheet from the stack of dough and place on a counter or cutting board. Recover the stack of dough with the towel, and use a pastry brush to coat the individual sheet lightly with butter. Peel off another sheet, place it on top of the first one, and coat with more butter. Repeat for remaining sheets, ending with a layer of butter. Butter. Yum.

Use a sharp knife to cut the stack into twelve squares, then press the squares carefully but firmly into the cups of a muffin pan. Use a fork to stab the bottom of the cups just a little so they don’t puff up during baking. I forgot this step when I was baking this batch, and you can see in the finished product that the middle was a little puffy.

Bake for 7-9 minutes or​ until the cups are golden and crispy. Watch them closely, because they burn quickly at the end. Remove the muffin pan from the oven and allow the cups to cool. Once they’re cool enough to handle, remove the cups carefully to a cooling rack. Set them aside until ready to fill.

While the cups are cooling, whip the cream until soft peaks form. If you have a stand mixer (I adore my KitchenAid!), this is the time to use it. There’s an interesting book called A Fine Dessert: Four Centuries, Four Families, One Delicious Treat, in which the author talks about how people had to whip cream in the olden days. It really made me appreciate my mixer, that’s for sure! But that’s neither here nor there. However you whip it, get it nice and thick, then pop it in the fridge (another amazing invention!) to keep it cool until you’re ready for it. It only takes a couple minutes with the stand mixer and should look about like this.

Now go ahead and put all remaining ingredients except the fruit into the top of a double boiler, if you have one. I don’t, so I use the “metal bowl in pan of water” method. More on that later.

Using a whisk, mix the ingredients together until everything is well combined. Since I used raw, unprocessed honey (that strange, beige lump you see in the picture…) for this part of the recipe, I whisked until the honey was all dissolved. It took a minute or two. It was done when it looked all frothy.

Bring the water in the bottom part of your double boiler to a low boil, then place the top part into place. If, though, you don’t have a double boiler, that’s okay. As I mentioned earlier, I don’t, either. It would be nice, yes, but I have limited space, so it doesn’t make the cut. Instead, I use a metal bowl and place it into a medium sized pan filled half full with boiling water. Then I just hold the bowl with a good pot holder while I cook. It looks like this:

Keeping the water at a steady boil, whisk the egg mixture constantly for 8-10 minutes, or until it is thick and creamy, almost forming soft peaks. I do mean constantly. If you answer your phone, get a drink, or go read a blog, you’ll end up with lemony scrambled eggs, not a delicious custard. Fair warning! If your arm starts to get tired, just think about those women in the past who had to do this with whisks made of twigs! lol Anyway, when it’s nicely thickened, remove the top bowl from the heat.

Place the hot bowl into a big bowl full of ice. Then keep whisking until the mixture is cool.

This part only takes a couple minutes, so your arm should hold out. When it’s cool, scrape the lemon mixture into the whipped cream and fold it in very gently with a spatula so the whipped cream stays fluffy.

When you have it all integrated, you’ll have a bowl of tangy-sweet lemon fluff! Scoop the fluff into the waiting cups, filling them nice and full. Add the fresh fruit and a drizzle of nice, runny honey. Perfect summer dessert!

Homeschooling S.T.E.A.M.: Fruit – Blueberries

We continued on with our unit of fruit this week, using blueberries as our theme. Blueberries turned out to be a very easy topic, with lots of great book choices available.

We read four books again this week. I like to do between two and four, since that’s about as long as the little ones can pay attention. We started out with the absolutely adorable Blueberry Mouse by Alice Low. The little ones thought it was hilarious as the little mouse ate her house away and even funnier when they learned what her next house would be. We followed that up with two books about blueberry picking: The classic Blueberries for Sal by Robert McCloskey (which I remember from my own childhood…) and a newcomer to the literary scene Blueberry Shoe by Ann Dixon. These two worked surprisingly well with the kiddos, actually keeping their attention all the way to the end. We finished up with a book that isn’t really about blueberries but led to some very interesting discussions about how we see the world. This was White Is for Blueberry by George Shannon, a “two-second” read that the kids wanted to look over again after I was done, so I know it was a hit.

We continued our haiku discussion, with each of us writing a few blueberry-themed haiku.

As you can probably tell, this topic made all of us very hungry! From now on we need to eat before we talk about fruit!

Luckily, science today involved edible results, so we were okay. Yep. Today we made blueberry muffins. They were a great introduction into two scientific topics: the three states of matter and the difference between physical and chemical changes.

We started out by looking at the different ingredients and voting on what state of matter was represented in each.

We had a bit of a debate about a few of the ingredients, though, leading to the conclusion that they are a mixture of solid and liquid. I thought this was quite insightful, especially coming from the six year old. Kids never cease to amaze me!

We did all agree that the powdery ingredients were solids, so the kids took turns measuring one ingredient each. 

We then used our hands to mix them together, noting how they mixed but didn’t really change. Definitely a physical change, the kids agreed.

Then we added the wet ingredients, again deciding this was a physical change. We also had an interesting discussion on how similar to the yogurt the coconut oil looked and how awful it would be if you ate the wrong one by mistake. These kids crack me up sometimes!

Pouring the batter into the muffin cups? Physical change. And they decided that the batter was a mixture of solid and liquid. I tend to agree, but I did require them to justify their conclusions​. That’s what makes the science stick, after all!

Half an hour later, we pulled the muffins from the oven. This time, they felt a chemical change had occurred, since everything about the muffins seemed different. They sure smelled great, that’s for sure!

Before I let the kids eat anything, we did a little dissection of a fresh muffin. We looked for examples​ of all three states of matter.

Solid was easy, since that’s most of the muffin, but they found liquid inside the blueberries, which was pretty exciting for them. Gas was a bit trickier, but the oldest one finally noticed the little air pockets and realized that they must have been made by gas released during the chemical changes that occurred in baking. Pretty astute observation, if I do say so myself. And then? Well, dear reader, we ate them. And they were perfect. Happy kids, happy teacher, happy family. They even cleaned up the mess without complaint. It really was fantastic.

Overall, this was a fun and educational topic… and quite delicious, too. Looking forward to next week, when the topic will be…LEMONS! 

You Know All Those Books You Are “Supposed” To Read?

You know the ones. The books they assign you in school. The ones that people assume everyone smart around them have read and are embarrassed to admit they’ve never picked up, or, even worse, that they’ve tried to read and just couldn’t stomach. Books like “War and Peace,” “Moby Dick,” or “Pride and Prejudice.” Well, it’s confession time: I’ve only read one of those. Can you guess which one?

Most people I talk to seem to assume that all of us library folks have read these classics, and it’s hard for us to admit we haven’t. The truth is, we’re just normal people who like the same fun literature as everyone else. Me? I’m pretty much a YA fantasy/sci-fi junkie, with a bit of mystery and historical fiction thrown in for good measure. Have I read some of the classics? Sure, I have. But they aren’t what I pick up for a relaxing evening after work. Check out my Goodreads page if you don’t believe me!

Despite all this, there is something to be said for reading the classics, and I’ve often wished I was willing to make the time for them. And it looks like that time has come. I’ve already been making progress on reading kids’ classics, since hubby and I are reading one together each month (Post coming on that one…), and now it looks like I’ll be jumping firmly into the adult classic realm.

You see, my oldest homeschool student is officially thirteen now, and we have come to the realization that it’s time for her to start reading some of the unabridged classics. She can still read Warrior Cats, of course, but she also needs to step it up as she gets ready to head into her high school years. Because I want her to be invested in the process, I let her pick where to start. We looked through piles of the classics, discussed the pros and cons, and narrowed it down to three. What were her top picks? Interestingly, they were Seven Novels Complete and Unabridged by Jules Verne, Les Miserables by Victor Hugo, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream from The Oxford Shakespeare: The Complete Works. Not what I would have picked, but it just goes to show that you should never try to guess what might interest the kiddos!

After much deliberation, she finally settled on Jules Verne. Then came the hard part for me. I had to admit to her that I had never read anything by him, so I was going to need a week to get in a little of the reading so we could discuss it. Because it’s a whopper of a book! Almost twelve hundred pages!

This is going to be an interesting challenge for her. The vocabulary and language style is a good deal more complex than anything she’s attempted before. Let’s be honest, I haven’t read elevated language like this in a while, either, so getting back in the flow is going to take a few chapters! Please tell me I’m not alone in this! Am I the only one who doesn’t use “physiognomy” in everyday conversation? lol

I’m coming to the realization that homeschooling a high schooler really is quite different from working with the younger ones. It becomes more and more likely that she’s going to want to learn things I don’t actually know. I’m going to have to admit this and hope I’ve trained her well enough that she’ll be able to find the knowledge elsewhere. Instead of a teacher, I’m becoming a guide, and this is turning out to be a scary thing. But it’ll be okay. I have faith in her and in the woman she is becoming. And, in the meantime, I get to finally make progress on some of these classics. Maybe I’ll get lucky and she’ll pick “Anna Karenena” next. I’ve always wanted to give that one a try!

Thursday Craft Program: Foam and Bead Birds

We do a school-age craft program at my library every Thursday. It’s fun! It’s a place where kids and their parents can hang out, do a craft, and maybe make some new friends. Libraries aren’t just about books, after all. We’re community gathering places. And it’s a role I find very satisfying. Not that I don’t still find ways to put the right books in the hands of the right readers, of course. I do love books!

This was a fun little craft. I pulled it from a lovely little book called 20-Minute Crafts put out by Sterling Publishing.  Using simple supplies such as foam sheets, a little cording, and some beads, we got what is, I think, a pretty cute little bird. What do you think? I think he looks pretty good up in that tree!

For the kiddos, I traced the templates onto card stock, cut them out, and let them trace their own into the foam. Actually, I tend to be pretty free form when it comes to giving the kids directions. I really prefer that they use their creativity instead of just copying me. And this time, they did get rather creative! I love that none of them look like mine!

Of course, as I mentioned, I still do love books, so I put out a few of my bird-related favorites: There’s the classic Feathers for Lunch by Lois Ehlert, the almost nonfiction Birds by Kevin Henkes, North, South, East, West by the consistently wonderful Margaret Wise Brown, and a new one for me that I highly recommend, Shy by Deborah Freedman.  All four of these made great read-alouds to kids who had finished the craft, making for a truly wonderful afternoon.

When They Wake Up Cranky

Here’s how the morning is supposed to go. I wake up, eat breakfast, have my quiet time, and then get ready for lessons with the kiddos. On their end, they’re supposed to get up, tidy their rooms, eat breakfast, and show up for lessons at 8:15. Timing matters, because since I work a “real” job, things can’t go too late. But what happens when things don’t go as they’re supposed to?

Well, sometimes it isn’t too big a deal. Sometimes we school while the kids eat. Or they take turns eating so I can work with one at a time. Sometimes we shorten up a lesson here and there. But what to do when the kids are just plain having a bad day? Do we push through, anyway, knowing full well they probably won’t retain anything…or hope that talk of Julius Caesar will somehow snap them out of their funk? Or do we skip the schooling completely and come back at it fresh tomorrow? Is there really a perfect solution?

Today was one of those days. The kids were cranky, the room wasn’t getting tidied, breakfast wasn’t eaten, and Mama was getting pretty grumpy, too. We decided that this was a good time for a mental health day. Since the kiddos are still little (Kinder and 1st), missing a day here and there doesn’t matter too much. We’ve elected to school through the summer, anyway, so they’re getting plenty of school time. Sometimes, though, we decide to push on through. But not without help. I have some secret weapons. Let me introduce you to them.

Meet Soba and Udon. They are The Library Auntie’s cats. (And, yes, they and their brother Harusame are named after Japanese noodles. But that’s a story for another day.) My nieces, you see, don’t have cats, so getting to talk to mine makes school time special. And, really, who wouldn’t be happier after hearing a cat purr for a while? Never underestimate the ability of an animal to raise the spirit.

I know that the kids are still little, and the ability to distract them out of a bad mood will become more difficult as they age, but I don’t think it’s impossible. After all, I’m quite a bit older, and it’s still possible to pull me out of a funk with a good distraction. The trick is to find the right distraction. And to find it, you have to listen to, observe, and really get to understand the kids. And isn’t that really what homeschooling is all about?

Homeschooling S.T.E.A.M.: Fruit – Melon

Homeschooling is a lot of work, but it does leave room for a great deal of creativity and flexibility in catering to the interests of the kids. While we use set curricula for math and history, I create fun unit studies to cover literature, writing, science, and art. So when we finished up our science unit on farm animals, I let the kids vote on the next theme that we would use. I did not expect them to choose, of all things, fruit! I figured books would be easy to find, but science and art? Well, I told them they could pick, and I wanted to keep my word, so I started to delve into the world of fruit. This week: melons! Okay, so they really wanted cantaloupe, but books for kids about cantaloupe were very hard to find. So it became melons in general. Nobody complained. Kids really are pretty understanding.

We started out with our books:
The Antelope Who Loved Cantaloupe by Celeste Halata, Anansi and the Talking Melon as retold by Eric Kimmel, The Cantaloupe Cat by Jan Yager, and The Watermelon Seed by Greg Pizzoli. The kiddos really liked the Anansi book, which gave me the chance to talk about how he shows up in other traditional tales. The top pick, though, was definitely The Watermelon Seed. They just howled with laughter…and walked around burping for the next half hour. That’s boys for you!

After we finished our reading, we worked on melon-themed haiku, which is a new poetry form for us.
Okay. It might need a little polishing. But it wasn’t too shabby for a first try! And counting out the syllables was good practice.

Next, we moved along to the science portion of the lesson. Today’s experiment? Cantaloupe Sorbet! We used this recipe, and it came out beautifully. As one of the boys said, “It tastes like summer!” And it really did. Perfect, since the thermometer outside was inching toward triple digits! As part of the process, we practiced measuring with the little ones and discussed solutions and ice crystal formation with the older ones. It froze up beautifully but didn’t last very long! I barely had a chance to snap a picture!
If there had been any left, I would have popped it in the freezer to harden a bit, but it never made it that far. Oh, well. At least I got a bite before it was gone!

Overall, it was a fun and satisfying lesson. Next week: blueberries!