Thursday, November 30, 2006

A small chocolate cake that's not so wacky

When I was young, my mom used to make that chocolate "wacky cake" recipe where you make the three holes in the top and pour different things in the holes. This is even faster (no need to dig holes), makes a cake just the right size for a small celebration, can be made dairy-free, and is so idiot-proof that it would make history out of all those jokes about inept newlyweds and other kitchen-phobes baking burned and fallen cakes. Somebody should have given a copy to Arthur too when he was trying to make a cake for his grandma. ("It says put in 1 lb. flour. What's a lub?")

2011 Update: In case anybody wonders if you can bake this recipe as cupcakes...yes! you can! This recipe makes about ten medium-sized cupcakes; you can double it to make more. Bake about 15 minutes at 350 degrees; test with toothpick.

Small Chocolate Cake, from The Kissing Bridge Cookbook by Marcella Wittig Calarco


1 egg
1 cup brown sugar or Demarara sugar
1/4 cup cocoa
3 tablespoons butter or margarine
1 cup flour [You might need a little more flour, as much as 1/2 cup more]
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 cup boiling water
1 teaspoon vanilla


In a large bowl, beat the egg, and beat in the sugar, cocoa and butter until smooth. Add the flour, soda and baking powder and mix well. Pour in the boiling water and vanilla and mix. Pour the batter into a greased and floured 8 inch square pan. Bake at 350°F, 20 to 25 minutes or until it tests done. Leave it in the pan and frost with your favorite frosting.

This cake has had many incarnations at the Treehouse. It was used for Mr. Fixit's Brown Dirt Birthday Cake, frosted with chocolate icing and covered with chocolate cookie crumbs for dirt. Last December it was our Dance Recital and Starting Advent Cake. I was making chocolate chip icing for it (on the stove) but it was kind of thin, so I stirred in some mini marshmallows, thinking they'd melt, but they didn't really. I spread the icing on the cake with all the marshmallows sticking out of it, and it got oohs and ahs from the Squirrelings. ("Like a hot chocolate cake!")

And now you have the recipe too, so there's no reason to go wacky if you have to make a cake.

Book Reviews, Part 6

365 Days of Celebration and Praise: Daily Devotions and Activities for Homeschooling Families, by Julie Lavender

Homeschooling the Challenging Child: A Practical Guide, by Christine M. Field

Homeschooling Methods: Seasoned Advice on Learning Styles, with contributions by Ruth Beechick, Clay & Sally Clarkson, Christine Field, Diana Waring and others. General Editors, Paul & Gena Suarez. Published by The Old Schoolhouse.

With titles like those, you almost don't need reviews. But here are some of my thoughts anyway.

365 Days of Praise: It's not unusual to see almanacs of days; there are places online with lists of odd holidays and anniversaries, and there are books for teachers that suggest activities for Pickle Week or whatever. But two things set this one apart: it's aimed at Christian homeschooling families, and it's set up to be used as a devotional resource. Each day has a short introduction (sometimes with related Bible reading), discussion questions, a related activity, a "curriculum connection", a Bible verse to memorize, and a prayer suggestion. The introduction has some suggestions for using the book; you can pick and choose which days to celebrate (and some of them are weeks or months, such as National Book Month), and you could adapt the suggested activities depending on the ages of your children.

I think the book might work well for a weekly family night or Sunday afternoon time, since some of the activities (such as crafts and outings) will take more time out of a homeschool morning than you might want for devotions. The suggestions remind me of the kinds of things we do during Advent. There are a few things here and there that are a bit strange or seem to be stretching the theme, such as praying for hatmakers on Hat Day. But overall the activities sound like fun, and for those whose homeschool style is mostly rabbit-trail-based, the celebrations might even be the jumping-off point for a whole day's learning (or more).

I even picked up one easy snack idea that would work well for our own advent calendar: December 12th has a peace theme, and Julie's Goose Day activity (for August 29th) is a bagel-and-cream-cheese dove. You slice a bagel across, cut one piece in half (into C shapes), put the two "wings" on a plate facing out from the "body", cover the whole thing with cream cheese, and put a doughnut hole/Timbit where the head would be. We've made Butterfly Sandwiches before, but never bagel doves.

Homeschooling the Challenging Child: This is the book to read "if your kids isn't like all the other kids on the block." The author notes that the book is about learning issues, not physical disabilities; but it does cover a wide range of learning disabilities and differences, discipline issues, and parent/child clashes in personality and learning styles. There are also helpful followup chapters on "Mom, Marriage and Siblings" (families with "difficult children" need support too), on planning a program, and on when and how to seek professional help. The book is about finding creative solutions and getting perspective on problems (which can sometimes be gifts, not problems), whether your child has an official disability or not. (One of Christine Field's children is an energetic boy who might be labelled ADHD in a classroom, but she feels that's just our culture's negative view of energetic boys.) As the subtitle says, there are practical tips all the way through the book, such as ideas for teaching distractible children (if a child is very bothered by the noise of others working in the room, you might consider using industrial-grade ear protectors).

Christine Field says, "The longer I live with challenging children, the more I truly believe they are a privilege because we are all growing more than we would without the challenges. Our spiritual 'muscles' are strengthened and our creativity is heightened as we find the best way to bring out the best in these children." (page 64) She's done a good job of helping others to do that with this book.

Homeschooling Methods: Many people have tried to do a complete rundown of the major homeschooling approaches, in articles, in books, and at homeschool meetings. They usually fail because a) they don't really know enough about all those different approaches, b) they don't know how the "in practice" side of each approach differs from the philosophical side (what do "real" unschoolers or Charlotte Mason-ites do every day?), and c) of course they're biased towards their own approach, even if they're trying to cover things fairly. I have seen innumerable awful descriptions of CM homeschooling, for example; but if I tried to write a positive description of a popular fill-in-the-blank curriculum, I guess I'd be just as unfair since I've never used it myself.

Anyway, Paul and Gena Suarez have gotten around this by calling on people recognized in ten different homeschooling methods and approaches (if you can count a section on special needs and one on carschooling as approaches). Their choices of methods and contributors are slanted toward Christian homeschoolers: there are no radical unschoolers or homeschoolers of other faiths included here.

You will laugh about this if you know us, but if I was disappointed by one section, it was the Traditional Textbook chapter. If I were a new homeschooler weighing my options, I'm not sure I would be convinced by the reasons given to use that method: mainly familiarity and the fact that you don't have to create curriculum from the ground up. One of my local homeschooling friends, a devoted A Beka user, has given more convincing presentations than that to explain her choices; I wish they'd asked her for her opinion! (Although I know they were going for the "big names" here.) I was also slightly puzzled by the mention of Sonlight Curriculum within the Traditional Textbook section, although I think the writer meant to include it as an example of a curriculum where everything is provided for you, rather than as an equivalent to A Beka or Bob Jones. (Sonlight would probably be more of a literature-based or eclectic curriculum.)

What about the CM chapter? It's written by Catherine Levison and sounds pretty much like everything else she's written about CM (well researched and well written), so there were no real surprises there. The only thing I might wish for there (if there were a little more space) might be just a bit of description about what CM educators are up to these days: the online community has contributed a great deal to CM's continued popularity with homeschoolers, and there are also private schools that use CM methods. There is also at least one annual conference for CM educators, in North Carolina (scroll down through the list of events to see the information for 2007).

The thing I liked best about this book was that it seems to be pretty fair in its coverage of different approaches: the writers contribute from their own perspectives, but they don't bash other methods. As Diana Waring writes (on page 180), "Not everyone is like me."

(Proceeds from Homeschooling Methods are going to NATHHAN, the organization that supports homeschoolers with disabilities and their families.)

(Other book reviews on this blog: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5)

Monday, November 27, 2006

Our Advent Calendar

Every year I find myself looking for Advent ideas. We like having a family gathering time each evening during Advent, and I often provide some kind of related activities for our Squirrelings to do during the days as well. Although I'd like to try Ann Voskamp's new Glorious Coming study, we've done the Jesse Tree-type Old Testament symbols several times over the past few years; we've also done the Names of Jesus and so on. One year we did a four-week look at the Gospels: one week each for Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. (Maybe next year we'll get a copy of Ann's book.)

Anyway, a church bulletin insert last weekend pointed me to the Mennonite Central Committee's printable Advent Calendar (click on the Advent calendar link there). [UPDATE September 2007: last year's calendar is gone, and this year's isn't posted yet. Sorry!] It's a two-page PDF document with brief notes for each day in Advent. Several of the days have notes about MCC projects going on in different countries. It's too sparse for our family to use just as it is, but I'm working on some ways to expand the ideas. When I get my plans together, I'll post them for anyone else who can use them. [Update: our plan for Advent is here.]

Here's a link to last year's post about our family's Advent traditions.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Frugal is good

Dawn at Frugal for Life is hosting a contest, but the deadline is December 1 so you'll have to hurry. She has five questions about frugality that you need to answer in an email (not in her comments section), and then there will be a draw for the winners.

What can you win? 3 names will be drawn, and each person will receive the following:
~$25 Prepaid Gift Card or Gift Certificate
~ The Complete Tightwad Gazette Book
~ A Frugal for Life T-shirt

Good luck!

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Rather Retro Recipe

Tonight is a rare occasion in the Treehouse: a church potluck dinner. Due to a combination of food preferences, intolerances and food poisoning experiences (not at this church, just in general), we usually beg off from these things. However, this is a starting-the-holidays celebration, and Ponytails is reading a poem after the meal, so it's important to go. And I needed to come up with a dessert.

A plain cake would probably have done fine, but I was looking through some recipes and thinking about all the potlucks I went to when I was younger, at another church. I loved those dinners, even the strange casseroles (well, not the ones with Veg-All in them). (Grandma Squirrel says that she thinks some people would just put their whole week's leftovers in a casserole dish and poured a can of tomato soup over them.)

In my browsing, I came across this recipe for Lemon Delight--one of those fluffy panfuls-of-stuff that I have hardly ever made myself but which were pretty common at those potlucks. And look at that--we had everything right there in the house for it, even on the day before grocery day. Even a can of evaporated milk, which I hardly ever have around.

So Ponytails and I made it. I had my doubts about whether that 2% milk would whip up stiff in the food processor, but it worked. We left a bit of filling aside just so we could taste it first without cutting into the pan--and the Squirrelings agree that this is very good. Sweet, but good.

Ruby’s Lemon Delight (Schmecks Appeal: More Mennonite Country Cooking, by Edna Staebler)

2 cups graham wafer crumbs
½ cup brown sugar
½ cup butter or margarine
1 box lemon Jell-O powder
½ cup boiling water
1 large can evaporated milk (must be icy cold to whip) [I opened a can of 2% evaporated milk, poured it into a shallow container, and let it sit in the freezer for half an hour. By that time, the edges were starting to get frozen. If you had more time, you could just put it in the fridge.]
½ cup sugar
Juice and rind of 1 lemon

Mix graham wafer crumbs with brown sugar and butter. Pack two-thirds of the mixture in the bottom of an unbuttered 9 x 13” pan. Dissolve Jell-O in boiling water and set aside to cool. [A note on the Jell-O: don't make it too soon. By the time I went to add it right at the end, the Jell-O in the bottom of the bowl had started to set.] Whip chilled evaporated milk until stiff [I used the whip attachment on the food processor, but regular beaters might be quicker. It also might help if you chilled the bowl and the beaters as well.]. Add sugar and lemon juice and rind, then beat in the Jell-O. Pour the mixture over the crumbs in the pan. Sprinkle remaining crumbs over top and chill in refrigerator for 3 hours, or in freezer for 1 hour. Cut into squares to serve.

This post is linked from Potluck Saturday at The Common Room.

Friday, November 24, 2006

Answers to the Mama Squirrel quiz

The Answers to "Five Things--tag, you're it"

1. Which part-time/summer job did Mama Squirrel NEVER have?

a) counter help in a fast-food restaurant

2. How many wisdom teeth has Mama Squirrel had pulled?

d) none of them because they never came in

3. Which of these once-trendy haircuts did Mama Squirrel NEVER have?

Both c) Mohawk and e) Ed Grimley

4. Which of these albums did Mama Squirrel NEVER own?

c) Meatloaf, Bat Out of Hell

5. Which of these things has Mama Squirrel never eaten?

c) oysters

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Book Reviews, Part 3

When Homeschooling Gets Tough!, by Diana Johnson

Shepherding a Child's Heart , by Tedd Tripp

When Homeschooling Gets Tough! is one book I would happily hand out both to new homeschoolers and to veterans feeling like they're "not doing it right", that their kids aren't as talented or as mission-minded as someone else's, or that their husbands aren't following the "homeschool dad" script. Without pushing either one particular theological slant or homeschool philosophy, Diana Johnson graciously and good-humoredly manages to make us all feel welcome. I particularly liked her take on 1 Corinthians 12:
"For, in fact, the homeschool community is not one schooling model, but many. If the textbook user should say, "Because I don't use unit studies, I'm not a good homeschooler," is she therefore not a good homeschooler? And if the living book user should say, "Because I haven't tested my fourth grader at all this year, I am not a good homeschooler," is she therefore not a good homeschooler?....But now God has given us all individual interests and abilities just as He pleased." (When Homeschooling Gets Tough!, page 20)
This isn't just a book for homeschoolers facing discouragement or burnout, though. Drawing on her experience working in the homeschool department of a Christian bookstore (and homeschooling for twenty-plus years), the author also includes chapters on "Providing a Realistic Program" and "Defining the Basics." This is a book I would have liked to have read when we were getting started, but I found some good advice in there even though I have my "10-year homeschool pin."

In the same way, I would like to have read Shepherding a Child's Heart before we ever had children. It manages to be reassuring and challenging at the same time, although some people will disagree with the author's use of "the rod." I think the best thing about it is that it acknowledges that the world has changed, for better or for worse; that children no longer sit in rows in school and listen without question to the teacher; that our culture's view of authority has changed so much that, to paraphrase Susan Schaeffer Macaulay, we might have to go back and think this parenting thing through again. If we're too focused on our childrens' outward behaviour and manners, on what people think, we're missing out on the heart issues. If we take away privileges but don't train our children to walk with God, we're missing out as well. There is a lot in here that echoes Charlotte Mason's parenting advice, particularly on learning to step back and let the Holy Spirit work in our childrens' lives.

Both books are encouraging, and I'm glad we have them for the resource library.

Book Reviews, Part 2

Terri Camp, like many homeschoolers, has taken Yeats' "Education is not the filling of a bucket, but the lighting of a fire" as her favourite educational quote, and her book Ignite the Fire expands on that idea. This is the book I mentioned before with the puzzling cover: a Norman Rockwell/Ideals-type picture of a boy forking up pancakes, obviously ready to leave for school (his coat and his books are nearby), and cramming from a vintage-looking History of America. Is the point that the book is so fascinating that he can't put it down? Or is it that homeschoolers can offer their children something more than a hurried cramming of history dates followed by a cold walk or ride to school?

Terri has collected enough positive reviews of this book that to criticize it seems pointless; obviously a lot of people like it! My only real problem with it is that, like many of the books I've seen lately, it might have used a bit tighter editing. Not that it's long--only about a hundred pages. But I got the feeling that a lot of it had been collected along the way--that some of it had been previously written as separate articles. Not that writing a book that way is a new idea, or that it can't work--in fact, Charlotte Mason's books were largely written as separate talks and articles, and Karen Andreola's CM Companion also contains previously published chapters. It's just that these books sometimes feel a bit choppy, a bit repetitive, even a bit hard to follow. So I am going to be forward enough to say that with a bit more editing, it might have been even more useful.

Most useful for: new homeschoolers, and those interested in the homeschool approach that emphasizes an individualized, God-directed education for each child.

How the book stack challenge is going

(Update from this post)

I got as far as chapter 9 in The Vicar of Wakefield and then decided that this was too good to read by myself. So yesterday I started back at the beginning of it with The Apprentice. The others will have to wait until I'm done my support group library binge.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Monday, November 20, 2006

These books are not my own

I have two boxes in the Treehouse rec room with forty-two books in them, all bought this month for our local homeschool support group library. I get to babysit them because I catalogue and sticker them and then take them to support group meetings. (Most of the library isn't stored here, just the new books.)

So they're not my own.

And, truth be told, I wouldn't want to own all of them. Our group is (for these parts) fairly large: 130 families from different church denominations, using widely different approaches to school, and with widely different needs. Some of them have special-needs children. Some of them have teenagers, some have babies, some have both. Some of them have been in the group for a long time, and some of them are just starting out. So when we buy books, we try to pick a buffet, something for everybody. I can get very enthusiastic about books I know I will personally never use!

We have a lot of how-to-homeschool books and curriculum guides, and also books for different subject areas like science and English; books on Christian family living, guides to Shakespeare, and Canadian history. Including a stack of videos and a few cassettes, we have over a thousand items in the library.

And now we have forty-two more.

Every month I write a what's-new library column for our group's newsletter. So I'm going to start posting reviews of these books on the Treehouse as well, as I munch my way through this buffet. [Update: the reviews are here: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6.]

P.S. I should add that most of the library fund comes from money raised from our yearly conference.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Frugal gift baskets, and dollar stores

What's not to like about a blog called Not Made of Money?

Their contribution to last week's Festival of Frugality was a post called 5 Christmas Gift Baskets You Can Put Together For An Inexpensive (but thoughtful) Gift, based on items found at a dollar store.

That's a nice variation on an overused gift idea that (as shown in magazines) often ends up being either very expensive or completely impractical. I think the silliest gift-basket idea I've seen was a cookie-baking kit that included tubes of frozen cookie dough--now how is that supposed to survive under the Christmas tree? If someone does happen to notice that frozen dough in the basket and rescues it before it perishes, then they have to wreck the beautiful arrangement and all the bows and plastic wrapping just to get at it, so what is the point? (If that was your idea, I apologize, but maybe you can explain how you'd handle frozen food mixed in with the other things.)

Anyway, I think Not Made of Money has some good suggestions, if you do shop at dollar stores. Some people don't, on principle. Others of us do, also on principle. I've discussed the reasons we do shop there (mostly for our own Treehouse family members) with online friends, awhile back. Some of it comes down to what we expect of kids at Christmas time, and the fact that not everybody wants to make or get macaroni necklaces year after year. (And, if you've never thought about this, it's harder for homeschoolers to keep homemade gifts secret from each other than it is for most people!) There are few yard sales around here this time of year, so we head for the dollar store. (And try to stay out of each others' way while we're there!)

We've had some amazing successes and a few duds (ballet slippers that fell apart by the end of the day). The youngest Squirreling has been made happy with play food (including pretend canned things that you open with a plastic can opener), pink opera gloves, and paper dolls to cut out (from the scrapbooking section). The older girls have given each other gel pens, stickers, decorative boxes, and other craft and school supplies. The grownups have been given (on different occasions) giant barbecue tongs (very useful), hand lotion (Mr. Fixit really appreciated it), chocolate bars, and various kitchen thises and thatses. The toy section has also been raided to find grownup stocking stuffers (Mr. Fixit still plays with his tiny motorcycle set).

Yes, I know many of these things are made in factories overseas. I understand why that bothers people.

However, so are many of the things you buy at more expensive stores.

And if you noticed--many of the things we've given are edible or otherwise consumable or disposable (pens, lotion, paper). We try to avoid the stuff that ends up being clutter forever.

Not all our gifts come from the dollar store. There are always a few larger things (like a new snow toy or a CD-Rom, or Crayons' pirate snakes-and-ladders game), there are usually books from Mama Squirrel (I'm not giving away any secrets here), sometimes there are handmade things (The Apprentice has made great bead earrings for everyone who has pierced ears, and last year Mama Squirrel crocheted the girls some Christmas-coloured hair scrunchies), and sometimes there are used things (some squirrel-shaped salt-and-peppers once showed up in Mr. Fixit's stocking). And there are a few family squirrels and the lady next door who add to the things under the tree.

But the fun of exchanging the small gifts--the dollar store items and the Sunday School productions and the all-afternoon-in-the-bedroom projects--is one of the best parts of the holiday for us. Not THE best or the biggest part, because it shouldn't be, and that's another reason we keep things small. It's about the hunt and the surprise, the little jokes, and the quest to find something that's truly appreciated for a small amount of cash; it's not about presents getting more extravagant every year. And for us--dollar store or not--those are the thoughts that count.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Great Books, not so scary

The Deputy Headmistress quoted today from The Delight of Great Books, by John Erskine, published in 1928. "He says in his first chapter that too often, 'a book is famous enough to scare off some people who, if they had the courage to open the pages, would find there delight and profit.' The remaining chapters hold his proofs of that statement as applied to speicfic books- Canterbury Tales, The Faerie Queene, Paradise Lost, Moby Dick, Candida, Modern Irish Poetry and The Ordeal of Richard Feverel, for example."

Mortimer J. Adler says in How to Read a Book that "most of us are not aware of the loss we suffer by not making that effort [to read epic poetry]," although "any of these major epics exerts enormous demands on the reader--demands of attention, of involvement, and of imagination."

Katherine Paterson once wrote that she had just finished reading The Odyssey, and she couldn't figure out why nobody had ever told her before what a great book it was! Not a Great Book in the Great Books sense, but just a great book.

I've been thinking the same thing lately, especially since I started into Paradise Lost. (I've been temporarily distracted by re-reading Breathing Lessons, which is less ambitious but which was calling out for another read.) I keep running into all these marvellous quotes and images, and some of it is really funny--even the parts about Satan. The fallen angels in Hell have a big council about whether or not they have any chance of getting revenge on God, and whether if they storm heaven's gates God might punish them. One of them says something like, "Well, what's He going to do? Send us to hell?" Eventually they decide that they don't have any chance of taking over Heaven, so the best thing they can do is get revenge through this new thing God is making--

"some new race, called Man, about this time
To be created like to us, though less
In power and excellence, but favoured more
Of Him who rules above."

So Satan volunteers to try to blast through the frontiers of Hell, and he runs into a particularly monstrous, ugly fiend blocking the way. He says,

"Whence, and what art thou, execrable shape,
That dares, though grim and terrible, advance
Thy miscreated front athwart my way
To yonder gates?...."

The monster snaps back,

"....Back to thy punishment,
False fugitive; and to thy speed add wings,
Lest with a whip of scorpions I pursue
Thy lingering...."

(I think I'm going to use that line next time one of the Squirrelings sneaks out of bed.)

Anyway, this is real storytelling, even if you don't think you like stories about foul fiends and such things. And yes, Milton does do all kinds of rabbit trails not only into Biblical imagery but into classical mythology; and some of them, if you've read enough of the stories, you recognize with delight. Other references you could look up if you wanted to, but you don't have to--I just keep reading if I don't recognize whatever analogy he's making. (That's partly why I said in an earlier post that I think I enjoy this more now than I did in university.)

And this is the other thing I've found about enjoying books like Paradise Lost and The Odyssey--find an edition (and, for everything except Paradise Lost) a translation that you enjoy. We were given some Harvard Classics recently, including the volume of Milton, but I don't like reading it out of the HCs: the pages are too crispy and the print's too small. I like my big illustrated hardcover with the nice big print. (Makes you feel like a little kid with a big book.) That doesn't apply just to epic poetry, by the way. One of the two books I brought home from the thrift shop last weekend was a very nice edition of Goldsmith's The Vicar of Wakefield, with illustrations by Arthur Rackham. As in, the illustrator of The Wind in the Willows and other childrens' books. We have an Everyman paperback of The Vicar too, which isn't too exciting to look at; but this one almost yells to be read. It's the same with childrens' books, too; we have an oversized hardcover of Charlotte's Web which is much nicer to read than a cheap paperback edition.

But I digress. The point is that the greatest books of the Western world were never meant to be slow torture by boredom. If you can get beyond being scared off by the foul fiends of English classes past, they make good reading too.

Why is the sky blue?

Because green wouldn't look right in the sky. (Crayons' very good answer.)

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

The Best, bar none

I know maybe three or four things to do with the end of the jar of jam: put it into a peanut butter and jelly sandwich; mix it with a cup of water and a tablespoonful of cornstarch, and cook until slightly thickened--use on pancakes; make Tightwad Gazette jam-and-milk popsicles (I've tried them but I couldn't get the jam really mixed with the milk, so they're not my first choice); or make these bars, which are so accommodating that you can make half the pan one flavour and half the pan another, if your jam jars are really close to the bottom.

Also these have a very nice flavour--I think it's the combination of the almond flavouring and the cloves. They're from the first Harrowsmith Cookbook.


½ cup shortening
½ cup sugar
½ tsp. vanilla
½ tsp. almond extract
1 egg
1 1/2 cups flour (I use unbleached all-purpose)
1 tsp. baking powder
½ tsp. cinnamon
¼ tsp. ground cloves
½ tsp. salt
Jam, any flavour you like--and the amount is up to your sweet tooth. (Apricot is very good.)

Cream the shortening and sugar with the flavourings, and beat in the egg. Sift the dry ingredients together (I just mix them in another bowl) and add to the creamed mixture. You may need to sprinkle the dough with just a LITTLE water if you find it's too dry.

Spread half the dough in a greased 8" square pan. Cover with jam, which isn't always easy to do without messing up the dough--you just have to spread it out the best you can. Cover with the rest of the dough mixture (it's okay if it doesn't quite cover all the jam) and bake at 400 degrees for 25 minutes. Cool before you cut them in squares. Even then, they can be a bit crumbly for eating out of hand--but they're good.


These are a family favourite at Christmas time, and we make only ONE PAN. I linked last year to where somebody had posted the recipe on a message board. Since then that's disappeared, so I decided it was time to post it myself. (We found it in Canadian Living's Family Cookbook.)

1 pkg (400g) digestive biscuits (For those of you who can't get digestive biscuits, you can substitute 1-3/4 cup graham cracker crumbs, or maybe 'Nilla wafer crumbs.)
½ cup finely chopped nuts
½ cup butter
½ cup granulated sugar
½ cup sifted unsweetened cocoa powder

1 Tbsp instant coffee granules
1 Tbsp hot water

2 eggs, beaten
2 tsp vanilla

1 cup semisweet chocolate chips
2 Tbsp shortening


Line 8-inch square pan with waxed or parchment paper, leaving enough paper hanging over the edges for easy removal later.

1. Using food processor or rolling pin, crush biscuits until in fine crumbs (or use a food processor). Transfer to bowl and add nuts.

2. In saucepan or bowl set over simmering water: melt butter; whisk in sugar and cocoa.

3. Dissolve coffee in hot water; add to pan and cook over simmering water, whisking for 1 minute or until thickened and sugar is dissolved.

4. Whisk in eggs and vanilla; cook, whisking, for 4-5 minutes or until thickened slightly. Remove from heat.

5. With fork, stir in crumb mixture. Mix well.

6. Press firmly into prepared pan (lined with wax paper). Cover and refrigerate until cool, about 1 hour.

GLAZE: (don’t prepare this until base is cooled and ready)

1. In saucepan over simmering water, stir chocolate with shortening until melted and smooth.

2. Pour over base, spreading evenly.

3. Cover and refrigerate until set.

4. Using waxed paper as handles, lift square from pan. Cut into small squares or fingers.

5. Keep covered in refrigerator. These will keep for several days.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Why we have bean seeds taped to the window

Our current Botany chapter is online here at Home Training Tools. Good thing we had so many bean seeds left from our garden this year.

Monday, November 06, 2006

"I don't know anything. I never did know anything. But now I know that I don't know...."

Maria at the Homeschool Math Blog discusses that recent study that says "that countries in which kids report enjoying mathematics and feeling confident in it do worse in math than kids who report they don't like math and are not feeling confident in it." According to the report, "American students are much more confident about their math abilities than Singapore students, yet they do far worse: Even the least confident students in Singapore outscore the most confident students in America!"

Maria points out:
"This effect in the U.S. may be due to the fact that by and large, mathematics instruction is delivered as easy, small, bite-size chunks that are easy for students to swallow.....[so] they will obviously be confident of their mathematical abilities and think that they do well in mathematics.

"In contrast, their peers in Singapore probably encounter challenging problems and frustration over those.

"In the long run, those students don't feel so confident about math because they have gotten a glimpse about the fact there is a lot they don't know."
To sum up and mix movie quotes: having confidence in confidence alone may not be what students need, if we're hoping to see future Marie Curies and Galileos.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

The mind of Crayons

After drinking a glass of cran-apple cocktail: "Mommy, can I have some more of that cottontail juice?"

Thoroughly Modern Priscilla

The DHM has been chatting about old cookbooks, and I mentioned that I own my great-aunt's copy of The Modern Priscilla Cookbook from the 1920's. Other than the fact that it has strange-sounding recipes (meant for those 1920's gas cookers, undoubtedly), I didn't know anything about it or its origins, including the name. I always assumed that maybe The Modern Priscilla Cookbook was an update of something else, like maybe The Old Out-of-date Priscilla Cookbook.

Now it turns out that Modern Priscilla was a magazine, and the cookbook was published as a subscription gift. Who knew?

I'll post more about the book when I get a chance. (Today we're running out for groceries and probably going to check out a brand-new monster thrift shop near here.)

P.S. If you catch this Ebay listing before it runs out, there's a whole table of contents for an issue of Modern Priscilla. Here are some samples:

"The ways of the draped hat- No 11 of a series of articles on hat making"

"A Paris frock copied in every charming detail, Ready to wear after you do the embroidery"

"Quaint patchwork landscapes to grace your walls" Four Cape Cod pictures.

"Shall we have a Breakfast room"

"Women and the need for more money"

"High school: the breaking point" Medical director for Mental Hygiene, Boston

"Readers recipes" Bean and Ham Loaf, Asparagus Salad, Cheese Sandwich filling, Cornflake Apple Dessert, Pineapple Pikelets, Graham Muffins, Green pepper Salad.

"A Valentine Luncheon party with Menu and Recipes"

"Silver Resist designs for China"

"Designs of dresses for 1925"

Thursday, November 02, 2006

"Pizza with the works" curriculum

There has been much written, and much of it wise or at least well intended, about the value of simplifying young childrens' schoolwork, and about not trying to teach them physics before they've mastered phonics. A recent post to that effect on another blog got many positive comments from veteran homeschoolers. They agreed: take it easy on yourself and your kids; don't try to do too many subjects too early; stick to the "3 R's" until the junior grades. And if you do teach science or history in the primary grades, don't expect the children to remember much of it.

This isn't so much a rebuttal as just another way to look at things.

In Ruth Beechick's booklet A Home Start in Reading (part of her 3-R's series, but we won't hold that against her), she describes the following experiment carried out by a school district:
"Some kindergartners in the district received extensive instruction in reading. Others spent the same amount learning science. They melted ice. They observed thermometers in hot and cold places. They played with magnets, grew plants, learned about animal life, and so on. Books and pictures were available for these children if they wanted them, but no formal lessons in reading were held.

"And what did the school district learn? By third grade the ‘science’ children were far ahead of the ‘reading’ children in their reading scores. The reason? Their vocabularies and thinking skills were more advanced. They could read on more topics and understand higher level materials. The ‘reading’ children, by starting earlier, used up a lot of learning time on the skills of reading, while the ‘science’ children spent the time learning real stuff. And when they did begin reading, they were older and knew more and learned in a fraction of the time that the others took.”
(Ruth Beechick unfortunately doesn't provide any footnotes or verification for this study, so we'll just have to take her word for it.)

Now this may sound like an argument for the don't-teach-them-to-read-early camp, and in fact that is the context in which Dr. Beechick was writing: not to pressure children to read until they're ready. However, all the Squirrelings have happened to be early readers. By kindergarten age, they have all been reading fairly fluently, which, ironically, gives us the same curriculum problem we would have if we didn't want to teach them reading early: what else to do during school time if much reading instruction isn't needed or wanted?

Well, we read books. Out loud, silently, together and alone. Narration of one kind or another often follows.

We do copywork and work on handwriting skills; Crayons practices making her numbers right way round.

And, like the kindergarten experimenters, we "do." Especially this year, with a fourth grader (with a late-in-the-year birthday) and a kindergarten-age child at home during most of the day, I'm trying hard to keep a balance between reading and "doing." Some days feel like we're eating a curriculum pizza with the works (and the kids are helping make it).

We have a big map of the world on the kitchen wall (which Crayons loves to look at and find places she knows, like Poland), and an edible-ingredients model of the atmosphere on the kitchen counter. (We may have to borrow back some of the Thermosphere if we run short.) Already this fall we have had leaf lessons on the back porch (with samples all around us); have acted out (more than once) a favourite story about King David; have made file-folder pictures of the characters from "As You Like It"; and listened to Leonard Bernstein's orchestra demonstrating how Haydn added humor to music.

We've played domino concentration and Pico Fermi Bagels, looked forward to the next chapter of Peter Pan, and memorized Emily Dickinson's poems. (Crayons liked Michael Bedard's picture book Emily, and also the poem that starts "I started early, took my dog and visited the sea; The mermaids in the basement came out to look at me.") We make up new verses to songs, and try to answer Ponytails' Big Questions about everything. The girls mess around with a keyboard and a lap harp. They make up ongoing doll stories, radio shows, and hospital dramas. When the Apprentice comes home from school, she teaches them games she's learned in drama class. Mr. Fixit also lets Ponytails help (as the Apprentice did) when there's a tape recorder or some other piece of electronic stuff to be refurbished.

Now this may not be very different from the daily experience of homeschoolers who say "stick to reading, writing and math for the first few years." Maybe when people say that, they're not including all the things they do with their children and which their children do spontaneously. (I'm typing this while listening to a Squirreling who chooses not to be identified vocalizing at the top of her lungs while playing under a card table tent. They've been opera divas singing "The Voices of Spring" all day after watching The Three Stooges' "Microphonies.") When they put together a very short list for first-grade curriculum, maybe they're not including the books already on the shelf and the games and puzzles they pull out of the closet, and all the other resources they have in their kitchens and workshops.

At the same time, it worries me that "cutting out all those extras" could also mean subjecting primary-age children to an (unnecessary) hour daily of math and the same amount of time spent on phonics AND spelling AND language. No wonder some people can't even imagine adding more to a young child's schedule.

Was it a waste of time for the kindergarten classes to melt ice and play with magnets? According to Dr. Beechick, no; the "real stuff" stirred their imaginations and gave their minds something to work on. (Charlotte Mason would say that they were learning from Things and Ideas.)

Is it a waste of time to do botany and geography and poetry with kids who still play with Polly Pockets? Will they remember everything? No. Will they learn something about their world, that it's a much bigger and more interesting place than the tiny corner of space and time that we inhabit, and yet that even our tiny corner has enough to keep us going for a long time? I hope so.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

All Saints' Day

In some countries and in some churches, November 1 is a day to remember the dead.

In our house, All Saints' Day is a day to celebrate eternal life, and those people who have been part of the "cloud of witnesses" in Christian history. Every year we choose one person to be our dinner "guest," and plan table decorations, a devotion and maybe the food around that person. We've had Noah, with a toy Noah's Ark on the table; C.S. Lewis, with a stuffed lion and some books; and Queen Margaret of Scotland, with tartan trimmings and a fancy medieval-looking covered book.

Tonight's guest is going to be George Washington Carver. Not every Christian hero is a missionary or a pastor; God uses us, if you'll excuse the expression, "where we're planted."

I liked this quote from an Amazon review (of George Washington Carver: His Life & Faith in His Own Words):
In 1921, Carver addressed the U.S. House Ways and Means Committee regarding the endless uses of the peanut. At the end of his address, the chairman asked:

"Dr. Carver how did you learn all of these things?"

Carver answered, "From an old book."

"What book?" asked the chairman.

Carver replied, "The Bible."

The chairman inquired, "Does the Bible tell about peanuts?"

"No, sir" Dr. Carver replied, "But it tells me about the God who made the peanut. I asked Him to show me what to do with the peanut, and He did."
Now, what are we going to serve tonight? Unfortunately, Mr. Fixit can't eat peanuts, so we can't try Carver's original peanut recipes (check out #59--Peanut Butter Sandwiches). Don't have any cowpeas, either. Sweet potatoes? Soybeans? Durn, I was going to pick up some tofu at the supermarket last Saturday, but one of the packages had leaked all over the others so I passed on it.

Well, some kind of beans or nuts, anyway. We do have some cashews...

[Update: well, our Carver meal wasn't too authentic. I did make Bean Balls with a can of romano beans; I thought that was somewhat in the spirit of Carver's leguminousness. So we had pasta with spaghetti sauce (or blood sauce, nod to Coffeemamma) and Bean Balls, and the Hillbilly Housewife's Garlic Breadsticks which we haven't made for quite awhile, and raw veggies, and chocolate pudding. Ponytails was a big help getting all this ready, and vacuuming, and even helping get some extra dishes done before the meal--blowing kisses your way.]

We Celebrate the Saints, no matter what's on the menu.

[Update: We played a couple of peanut party games after the meal, except that we didn't have any peanuts so we used other things. Everybody got a drinking straw and a dish of big dried squash seeds, and you had to suck on the straw to pick up a seed and move it to another dish. Mama Squirrel thinks she holds the record for sucking the most seeds in thirty seconds. The other game was a peanut rubber ball race--you had to put a straw in your mouth and push a small rubber ball to the finish line.

I hope the Saints were laughing.]