Thursday, February 28, 2008

Cooking Without Recipes: Chinese Beef and Strawberry Cake

Uh, that's two different recipes--not a very strange-sounding cake.

This is what we had for supper last night...all amounts are very approximate.

Slow Cooker Chinese Beef

1 lb. stew meat, cubed (comes that way in the package)
good squoosh of hoisin sauce
8-oz package whole mushrooms
two cups leftover broccoli
squirt of soy sauce, 1 tbsp. cornstarch, half a cup of water

In the very busy morning, put the thawed stew meat in the slow cooker and add enough hoisin sauce to sort-of cover the top. Let it cook on low for the rest of the day. Or put it in later if you forgot, and cook it for a few hours on high.

Partway through the afternoon (so they don't get mushy), rinse and add the mushrooms.

About half an hour before supper, stir the cornstarch into a little water and add a bit of soy sauce for extra flavour. Turn the slow cooker up to high if it wasn't there already, and stir in the cornstarch mixture and the leftover broccoli if it isn't too mushy. If it's really soft, then just add it at the end. Let the whole thing finish heating together. If it's too thick, you can add more water.

Serve over rice or noodles. This has kind of a nice dark taste, I think because of the beef juices mixing with the hoisin sauce and the mushrooms. Warning: we ate it all, even with the youngest Squirreling offering regrets; so if you have more people or hungry eaters, you'd probably be best to double it. Just use whatever size package of meat you think will be enough and go from there.

Strawberry Upside Down Cake

about 3/4 of a bag of frozen strawberries, thawed and warmed in the microwave along with the end of a container of homemade pancake syrup (optional)

Standard muffin batter:
2 cups unbleached or all-purpose flour
1/3 to 1/2 cup sugar or whatever you like to use instead
2 tsp. baking powder [corrected! 2 tbsp. would be horrible]
1/2 tsp. salt
1 cup milk
1 egg
1/3 cup oil

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Grease an 8-inch square pan and put the warmed berries into the bottom of it, mashing them slightly if they're large.

Mix the dry and wet batter ingredients separately, blend gently and spoon over the top of the fruit.

Bake 30 to 40 minutes, until the cake tests done. I put the pan on top of a cookie sheet because I was worried that the fruit might gush over the side, but it was fine. The cake was delicious but I think we could have happily used the whole bag of berries.

Frozen Fruit (why not, everything else around here is frozen)

Our experiment with almost-zero sugar is officially over, although I think some of its effects (good ones) will hang around. One thing that I did more of over the last couple of months was experiment with frozen fruit (I had coupons!). One of the sugar-free recipe books/sites I looked at did a lot with apple juice--not the concentrate, just the juice--which for me is an inexpensive and very accessible ingredient. I made pancake syrup one morning by mixing a little apple juice with cornstarch and cooking it with a cupful of frozen blueberries; we also made a really good Valentine's Day dessert by cooking a similar mixture but mostly strawberries, adding just a few blueberries at the end (remember they turn things funny colours). Often when you're cooking frozen fruit you can omit the apple juice or thickener altogether--for instance, one night I made what was basically a cobbler by heating up plain frozen strawberries as the base and then (when it was fairly hot) adding dumpling dough on top (put a lid on it and steamed them for twenty minutes without peeking).

All this did not exactly fall in the realm of doing without wanting things sweet (as in learning to crave turnip sticks instead of fruit), but I think it was helpful in finding alternatives to, say, the brown sugar syrup that I would normally put under dumplings.

Another (non-frozen) fruit dessert that the Squirrels really liked was baked apples in the slow cooker. I just cored the apples (Galas) and put them in the cooker for two hours on High. No cinnamon, no nothing else. (Again that was thanks to my friend Mrs. L., although I know that idea has been around for awhile. She pointed out that the longer you cook them, the sweeter they will taste.) I've cooked too-hard winter pears for years in a little apple juice (oops, I mean I've done it that way for years, not that it took years for them to get soft).

Just as a final note--the only kind of frozen fruit we really didn't like was a tropical blend that had melon and kiwi in it. It didn't taste good in milkshakes and tasted absolutely horrible (bitter) in a yogurt-based dessert. So just be careful.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

20 Years Ago Today: Elizabeth Manley's Cowgirl Skate

"This is the big night. She could win a bronze medal."

In spite of that half-hearted introduction, Elizabeth Manley skated her way to Olympic silver, beating out other skaters who had gotten more media attention. I remember that night so well: I probably should have been writing a term paper or something, but I wandered out to the living room to watch the skating instead. It was one of the two most unexpected, electric, unforgettable few minutes of television I've ever watched (the other one was the Challenger explosion, but this one was much happier).

Watch the whole video if you want to relive February 27, 1988.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

This world ceases to be one's enemy

From a rummage-saled book:

"....I wish to place on record that I am in unrepayable debt to Francis of Assisi, for when I pray his prayer [Make me an instrument of Thy peace], or even remember it, my melancholy is dispelled, my self-pity comes to an end, my faith is restored, because of this majestic conception of what the work of a disciple should be.

"So majestic is this conception that one dare no longer be sorry for oneself. This world ceases to be one's enemy and becomes the place where one lives and works and serves. Life is no longer nasty, mean, brutish, and short, but becomes the time that one needs to make it less nasty and mean, not only for others, but indeed also for oneself."--Alan Paton, Instrument of Thy Peace

Rummage sale?

The rummage sale we went to Saturday wasn't a very big one, and we got there right at the end--you could fill up a large bag for $4. Everybody threw in a few things; I found a couple of books although not much, and a turtleneck top; The Apprentice found a few clothing items to deconstruct (she's into creative T-shirt altering right now). Ponytails found a belt.

Ah, but the season of rummage sales and University Women's Book Sales and--eventually--yard sales will soon be upon us. Let the games begin.

Friday, February 22, 2008

It's a bella notte here (spaghetti and meatballs)

It was a bit warmer today, the almost-forgotten sun was shining, it's Friday (yes!!!) and things went about as well as things go. The Squirrelings got out on their sleds for awhile. Mr. Fixit got home much later from work than he'd planned, but that was all right too, because Mama Squirrel fixed salad, whole-wheat spaghetti and meatballs and it all kept nicely warm until the Rav4 swung into the slush-covered driveway. We're now watching a beautiful late-winter sunset (at just after 6).

This is our spaghetti-meatball recipe (Mama Squirrel recommends adding more breadcrumbs, though). We prefer to mix up the meatballs, bake them for 20 minutes at 400 degrees on a foil-lined cookie sheet, and then reheat them in about half a can of pasta sauce (rather than using the tomato sauce in the recipe).

For dessert we had canned pineapple (chilled in the fridge, tastes better that way) and banana-blueberry muffins (cut the sugar in half and then made half-size muffins--call it portion control!).
We're going to clean up and then finish watching Toy Story with the Squirrelings. And oh boy, tomorrow's a rummage sale.

(Meredith made spaghetti and meatballs this week too--part of her '50's budget menu.)

"This is the feast of victory for our God. Alleluia!"

"I conclude from this meditation on the nature of worship that the revolt against hedonism has killed the spirit of worship in many churches and many hearts. The widespread notion that high moral acts must be free from self-interest is a great enemy of true worship. Worship is the highest moral act a human can perform; so the only basis and motivation for it that many people can conceive is the notion of morality as the disinterested performance of duty. But when worship is reduced to disinterested duty, it ceases to be worship. For worship is a feast." --John Piper, Desiring God
(The title of the post comes from a hymn that is part of the Lutheran worship service.)

Mr. Fixit's Little Friend

Mr. Fixit found this little guy in his Christmas stocking.

He's good with tools (or is that an electric guitar?).

He was also quick to make friends.

He's a classic model.

(Photo credits: Ponytails. Embroidery: Apprentice.)

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Lunar Eclipse Stuff

So did you watch the eclipse of the moon last night?

If you're not sure what that is, MSN has animation here to show you what was happening.

And Brock and Bodie Thoene's blog has a devotional message about it as well. (Both links were pointed out by a non-blogging friend--thanks, Mrs. L!)

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Pumpkin Cake I Couldn't Duplicake

Well, it isn't our favourite Pumpkin Loaf. That one's without equal.

Unfortunately, Pumpkin Loaf also has a cup and a half of white sugar in it, and I have been trying very hard not to make anything like that lately. Coffeemamma has a slightly healthier version on her food blog.

Today's Pumpkin Cake experiment was at least edible, partially thanks to a few chocolate chips I threw in. I don't think it would be easy for anyone else to exactly duplicate this one, but at least it should encourage you if you're trying to make up your own low-sugar or no-sugar baking recipes: because it's no worse (and somewhat better) than stuff I've made from other people's recipes.

Unduplicakable Pumpkin Cake

Let's see if I can remember everything that went into this:

1 250-g (cup-sized) container of homemade pumpkin butter (I had frozen this; it's canned pumpkin cooked slowly with honey and spices)
1 egg
1/4 cup oil
about a cup of milk
1/2 cup leftover cooked oat groats (hulled oats) (same as cooked oatmeal)

Blend those together with a blender (I used a stick blender). If you're using cooked grains, you need some kind of power tool to blend them in.

Add in:
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
2 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. salt
(I didn't add spices because there were already some in the pumpkin butter)
About half a cup chocolate chips

Blend gently with a rubber spatula, adjusting liquid as necessary.

Pour into greased 8-inch square pan and bake in preheated 350 degree oven for...I checked it after 30 minutes and it was still pretty pale, so gave it ten more. Check it with a toothpick if you're not sure.

Notes: well, it would definitely have been zippier with some sugar and probably some extra cinnamon. I think I prefer the texture of raw oatmeal in baking rather than the slightly porridgy effect of cooked grains (even though Meredith's Kitchen Scrap Cookies are quite good).

But overall it wasn't bad. Creativity wins.

Fresh Air

The 11th Charlotte Mason Blog Carnival: A Good Airing is up now.

Sunday, Monday, Frugal Days

If you haven't been following this--Meredith is trying out some '50's budget menus. This is the first post, but you'll have to see the followups as well.

Just for the record, I haven't been able to make "like the can" baked beans yet either.

Carnival of Homeschooling

Hosted by the Homeschool Blog Awards this week!

Sonofagun, not as much fun

Jasmine wasn't impressed with the Milk Calendar's Jambalaya. I'm with her--no garlic?

Monday, February 18, 2008

Happy 3rd Blogiversary to us

You're all invited over for acorn cookies.
(Like the toy treehouse and the squirrels? Information here and here.)

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Menus for this week

This week I'm planning on trying a few jazzed-up vegetable recipes along with some of our usual main dishes. The supermarket has pork on sale again and we also got some good deals on ground beef and chicken breasts.

Saturday: Chili
Sunday: (probably) Ham, pork or sausages; mashed potatoes; vegetables
Monday: Baked salmon, brown rice, Maple Mustard Carrots (Canadian Living Feb /08)
Tuesday: Ham or pork or sausages; Perogies; Lemon Kale (CL Feb /08) (no chickpeas this time since it's just a side dish)
Wednesday: Chicken salad on a bun (CL Feb /08) (without the apple; I liked it but everybody else complained); Carroty Soup (or tomato soup in a pinch)
Thursday: Meat loaf, Twice Baked Parmesan Sweet Potatoes (CL Feb /08), salad (using parsley instead of rosemary in the sweet potatoes)
Friday: Lasagna, garlic bread sticks, salad
Saturday: Baked orange chicken, vegetable barley pilaf (Canadian Living October /07)

Snack ideas / desserts

Soft pretzels (recipes everywhere, but I found one in CL Oct /07)
Homemade graham bars or Breakfast-in-a-Cookie
Orange-date bars (a sugar-free recipe from Vegetarian Times)
Fruit juice gelatin
Prune-banana loaf (I've found this one doesn't transition well into muffins--the outsides are too tough.)
Cheese sticks, crackers, liverwurst, fresh fruit, carrot sticks

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Way down in Kokomo

"Tropical drink melting in your hand
We'll be falling in love
To the rhythm of a steel drum band"

Click to Mix and Solve

Anywhere there's no snow would be fine with me.

A Love Story (review of A Severe Mercy)

(repost from 2007)

The best book I've read so far this year isn't on my Bookstack Challenge List, but it was on the shelf, so I guess it counts. I'd seen it recommended in one of Terry W. Glaspey's books, and had been meaning to read it for awhile--and one night I just picked it up and started in.

The book is A Severe Mercy, by Sheldon Vanauken, published in 1977. The plot of the story is no secret (just read the back of the book): Van (the husband) meets Davy (the wife); they go sailing; they become Christians; Davy dies; and life goes on.Oh, and the middle of all that they go to Oxford and become friends with C.S. Lewis.

This is a book about falling in love: intensely, desperately, "intoxicatingly" (to quote Terry Glaspey). With another human being, and with Christ. Van and Davy don't do anything by halves. At the beginning of their relationship, they set up rules that most of us would find extreme: they will do nothing apart, they will have no separate interests or activities that would interfere with or change their love. In their view, that includes having children, since children might cause an imbalance in their two-ness. They are more interested in pursuing both outdoor and intellectual adventures--together, of course.

However, this isn't a brief "Love Story"; the Vanaukens' marriage lasts for about eighteen years, and they become Christians in their thirties. When they start to consider Christianity, naturally they turn to books: the whole Christian literary canon, C.S. Lewis, T.S. Eliot's later poems, Chesterton, Sayers, Newman, the medieval writers. But, interestingly, it's Christians rather than books that help convince them that Christianity might be true. The Christians they meet at Oxford are intelligent, joyful, and not very "Puritan"; they drink wine, spend evenings (often at the Vanaukens' flat) discussing everything in creation, and sing liturgical goodnights to each other at unholy hours. This is community; this is a kind of magic circle that's all the more magical because of the realization that it's both temporary and eternal. Most of the people involved will leave Oxford for whatever comes next; but at the same time there are bonds being formed that will last the rest of this lifetime and into the next.

In the same way that Van and Davy first fall in love with each other, the two of them fall in uncontested, unswerving love with Christ; and one of the only points of friction between them is that Davy seems to take her new relationship with the Lord even more seriously than Van does, if that's possible.One might ask if this love story with Christ is just as much about falling in love with England, Oxford, and stimulating friends, including Lewis, as it is about God. Does that make it less true? Obviously not, because the real test comes when the Vanaukens return to the U.S. (Van gets a college teaching position). Although they are disappointed by mainstream churches and miss England a lot (they drink a lot of tea and find the houses way too warm), God begins to build a growing circle of believers and seekers around them.

This part of the story sounds much like the beginnings of L'Abri: a student has questions and comes over to talk; then she brings a friend...I found this fascinating because it proves you don't have to live in the Alps to reach out to people, or even hang a "Knock for Christian inquiry" sign on your door. If God's writing the story, He opens the door at the right time, or at least provides the right person to knock.

All too soon, the partnership comes to an end with Davy's illness and death at the age of forty. In some ways, I found this less interesting (or at least less surprising) than the first part of the story, although it continues to show the Vanaukens' devotion both to each other and to the Lord. (At one point, Van coaxes Davy out of a coma by talking to her for hours on end.)

The last part of the book focuses on the period afterwards, especially on Van's continuing correspondence and friendship with C.S. Lewis, through the time of Lewis's marriage and then his death.Would I want a marriage as intense as the Vanaukens'? Not if it meant forgoing our children--but they made that decision long before they became Christians. (Did they ever reconsider their choice?)

Still, there's much to learn from them about love that serves the other person's needs and pushes aside a lot of the small daily irritations, just for the sake of the relationship. The detailed discussions on faith (including C.S. Lewis's letters to Van) are worth reading and re-reading; we are privileged to observe great minds sharpening themselves on each other. Sheldon Vanauken's descriptions of that time at Oxford are so good that we can almost feel like we were there, on one of those unforgettable winter nights with bells ringing out all around.

love is more thicker than forget

This was one of our favourite love poems when we were courtin'.

love is more thicker than forget

by e.e. cummings

love is more thicker than forget
more thinner than recall
more seldom than a wave is wet
more frequent than to fail

it is most mad and moonly
and less it shall unbe
than all the sea which only
is deeper than the sea

love is less always than to win
less never than alive
less bigger than the least begin
less littler than forgive

it is most sane and sunly
and more it cannot die
than all the sky which only
is higher than the sky

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Wherever you are--be frugal

A great post at Frugal Hacks--hat tip to Meredith and I hope you are all feeling better soon.

(Oh my--board games out of cereal boxes? I am not THAT frugal either.)

Monday, February 11, 2008

Healthy and wealthy (groceries at the mini-mart)

Buying healthy groceries at Giant Tiger sounds like an oxymoron. Not that we don't like Giant Tiger, but it isn't usually your first stop when you think "healthy eating." Before Giant Tiger sues me for saying that (whaddya mean our food isn't healthy?), I'll explain. Giant Tiger is a Canadian discount chain that doesn't specialize in groceries at all; a lot of people don't even know that they sell food. You go to Giant Tiger for flip-flops, dishcloths, and boxer shorts with Valentine hearts on them. I don't know what the American equivalent would be--smaller than W-Mart, bigger than a 7-11, more expensive than a dollar store, less expensive than a lot of other places.

The grocery department at Giant Tiger is what I think of as limited-choice; a small amount of fresh produce, a few freezer compartments and refrigerators, and several aisles of canned and boxed foods. Maybe not that different from what some smaller grocery stores used to be like!

But even at a limited-choice store, you can still make some good food choices. Not if you're expecting anything exotic or organic; the peanut butter is going to be the kind with sugar in it; but you don't have to be limited to TV dinners and packaged cookies, either. Some of the decent things we've found are: frozen fruit and vegetables, dried fruit, dairy products, eggs, whole wheat bread, Triscuits, liverwurst, canned fish, frozen perogies without too many additives, oatmeal, Muffets, unsweetened puffed wheat cereal, apples, bananas, juice, and canned beans (occasionally dried beans too).

On the wealthy/frugal side: the catch at a place like Giant Tiger is that--like any store--not everything is necessarily a good deal. The sales are good but if you don't watch out you can get caught by other things that (for some reason) are way more expensive than a regular discount supermarket would charge. So we watch the sales and go there every few weeks--spacing our GT trips between stops at other stores such as the discount supermarket, the bulk food store, and another slightly more expensive grocery store that carries organic foods and some other favourite things that we can't get at cheaper stores. From spring through fall, we also go to the farmstand for fresh things.

This is what we bought there on the weekend (with notes on planned use):

6 lb. bananas (snacks, shakes, baking)
bag dr. apricots, block pitted dates (baking--they got partly used in the Breakfast-in-a-Cookie recipe)
bag apples (lunches)
2 x 540 ml jars unsweetened applesauce (used at meals and in baking; they didn't have bigger jars so I had to buy two)
bag frozen blueberries
bag frozen strawberries

2 L apple juice
1.75 L carton orange juice

1 kg frozen peas
head lettuce
box of potato flakes (on sale, will use in the future)
1 can pasta sauce, 1 box ww pasta

4 L 2% milk (will probably last us most of the week)
package cheese strings (special treat for snacks)
250 bag cheddar cheese curds (snacks)
750 g plain yogurt, 750 g vanilla yogurt (snacks, baking, and making more yogurt)
1.89 L carton soymilk (for Mr. Fixit)
small container cream cheese spread
2 x 500 g cottage cheese (scrambling, dips, eating)
1 dozen eggs

500 g creamed honey (mostly for Mr. Fixit's toast)
can of hot chocolate mix (a compromise: the weather's been very cold)

several packages bread, bagels, burger buns
2.5 kg white flour (they didn't have anything else and I did have whole wheat at home)
1 bag quick oats
box of Muffets

2 170 g cans tuna
250 g liverwurst
175 g sandwich loaf (cold cuts) and 500 g bologna

package potato-cheese perogies
package frozen fish sticks

and several non-food items. (If you're interested, the total cost minus the non-food items was $105.04 Canadian.)

This isn't everything we're planning on eating for the week; we keep quite a few things on hand in the pantry and the freezer in case we can't get to the store at all some weeks. This week we already had the following things that we planned to eat soon:

bacon, sausage, a bit of leftover ham, 1 lb. ground meat, frozen chicken wings
canned salmon
peanut butter
lentils, canned kidney beans
grape juice
milk powder, some cheese, butter
canned tomato soup (that turned out to be not so good)
whole wheat flour and other grains (barley, rice, couscous, 10-grain cereal)
liquid honey
graham crackers
Cheerios, Shreddies
cabbage and Manwich sauce (for cabbage rolls),
squash, carrots, celery, peppers, broccoli
canned pumpkin
a frozen pizza
canned pineapple
frozen green beans, frozen fries
frozen English muffins
misc. condiments and baking supplies, drinks

(You could find most of those things at the discount store too, except for the meat, milk powder and a couple of other things like couscous.)

Breakfasts and lunches here are made out of whatever people want to eat: hot/cold cereal, eggs, muffins/toast, bagels, waffles (with frozen fruit or maybe pineapple sauce); sandwiches, macaroni, homemade lentil-barley soup, reheated leftovers.

Additional snack or breakfast possibilities using our ingredients: Chef Brockett's Peanut Butter Balls (natural peanut butter blended with a little margarine, then enough milk powder added to stiffen and raisins added in; most versions add honey but Chef Brockett left it out and they're still pretty good); applesauce and leftover sausage; cottage cheese with pineapple; hard-cooked eggs with carrot sticks; apples with peanut butter; Dad's Egg-on-English-Muffins; cheese and crackers; liverwurst on crackers

These are the menus I came up with for dinners this week. They're not terribly exciting or meant to illustrate extreme health-consciousness either. Most of our healthy efforts so far have focused on breakfasts, snacks, and desserts.

Saturday: we ate the fish sticks with couscous and peas.

Sunday: Mr. Fixit made cabbage rolls. We were going to have the perogies with them but the cabbage rolls seemed to be enough. Dessert was graham crackers layered in bowls with vanilla yogurt and frozen blueberries.

Monday: salmon loaf, squash, green beans

Tuesday: sausage baked in a casserole with barley; whatever vegetables seem to work

Wednesday: wings and fries, raw veggies and dip

Thursday: Whole wheat spaghetti with sauce; frozen pizza

Friday: Cook's Choice (that might mean leftovers or might mean using up what needs to be eaten)

More food ideas that we could make out of things we have:

Sugar-free peanut-butter-banana squares
Grape-juice gelatin (maybe done firm and cut in hearts)
Yogurt pie with frozen strawberries on top (maybe for Valentine's Day)
Chicken-broccoli pizza
Apples and leftover ham baked with eggs
Pumpkin pancakes
Anna Lou's Broccoli-Tuna Casserole from the More-with-Less Cookbook

Saturday, February 09, 2008

Here's one to try (Low-sugar cookies)

I just made this version of Breakfast in a Cookie (with adjustments) and I think they turned out pretty well. (Note they can be dairy-free too if you substitute for the butter.) I chopped up the dates and apricots with scissors and added them to a container of raisins in the amounts directed: but my baker's instinct told me (rightly) to hold back on adding the full amount of dried fruit. You want some batter around all these add-ins, after all! I kept the rest for another time.

I also used margarine (because that's what I had); cut the honey in half (to a quarter cup) and changed the flour to whole wheat. I think they're sweet enough with only a bit of honey, because you're adding all that dried fruit (even if you cut the fruit back). I also cut back a bit on the spices (personal taste). Also you might want to check before the 15 minutes are up, depending on how big you've made them--my rodent nose told me they were done a couple of minutes ahead of time.

The Apprentice was doubtful about adding in the Cheerios, but they seemed to work fine. The whole effect is a kitchen-sink type oatmeal cookie. If you didn't want to go to the trouble of chopping things, you could use packaged trail mix instead.

I got about three dozen cookies out of the recipe.

Bubba and me think that homeskoolers are not so freaky

(A slightly riled apology for what shouldn't need to be apologized for.)

I try to stay away from most of the ignorant anti-homeschool articles and letturs-to-the-edditor out there; and heaven knows, there are lots of them, especially after any homeschooler gets into any trouble with the law or does some other antisocial thing. Occasionally I've posted my own rebuttals about homeschoolers/homeschooling not being so weird/scary.

But it's time to set things straight.

The question is, who's weird here?

First, you go ahead and define weird. OK...

"Synonyms: These adjectives refer to what is of a mysteriously strange, usually frightening nature. Weird may suggest the operation of supernatural influences, or merely the odd or unusual: "The person of the house gave a weird little laugh" (Charles Dickens). "There is a weird power in a spoken word" (Joseph Conrad). Something eerie inspires fear or uneasiness and implies a sinister influence: "At nightfall on the marshes, the thing was eerie and fantastic to behold" (Robert Louis Stevenson). Uncanny refers to what is unnatural and peculiarly unsettling: "The queer stumps ... had uncanny shapes, as of monstrous creatures" (John Galsworthy). Something unearthly seems so strange and unnatural as to come from or belong to another world: "He could hear the unearthly scream of some curlew piercing the din" (Henry Kingsley)." (Bolds are mine.)

You know what's really weird, is that a lot of people looking up those synonyms (if anybody did) probably wouldn't have read anything by Conrad or Dickens or Stevenson. Whereas some--not all, mind you--of our unearthly and unsettling homeschoolers will take those books as their common currency.

If you read, you tend to go looking for friends who read...or you like to read about people who like to read, like Father Tim in the Mitford books who hangs out at the bookstore, pondering Churchill's History of the English-Speaking Peoples and waiting for obscure books by John Buchan to arrive (also one of Mr. Fixit's favourite writers).

Not that Father Tim is a homeschooler. Just that he's weird in kind of the same way as some homeschoolers. (Not all homeschoolers are bookworms, just not all vegetarians eat nutritiously.
Some homeschoolers would rather be doing than reading.)

Weird is listening to little kids at the park talking about the sexy hot singers they're supposed to like.

And the rest of us just go on scaring people (unsettling them?), just by doing our thing. My six-year-old kind of blew some people away at church when she did a reading with her sister a couple of weeks ago. I don't think they've ever had somebody under seven lead the responsive reading before. But she would have done that even if she wasn't homeschooled. It's a famly thang.

Weird is standing behind mothers in line at teachers' night and hearing them talk about how they get up to commute at 5 or 6 in the morning, drop the little ones at daycare, get home at 5 or 6 at night, and still have to make dinner for everybody including the teenagers. [Oh--you want to know what I'm doing at teachers' night? If you've just climbed up here, our teenager takes most of her classes now at the public high school. Homeschooling-all-the-way isn't a doctrinal thing with us; figuring out what works best for our own kids takes priority over dogma.]

So here's my request: Stop writing those letters telling the powers-that-be to swing their blackjack a little harder at us. Stop writing the breathless articles that always have something in them somewhere about how deprived of real lives homeschooling moms are, or how we'll suddenly become incompetent once the kids get to algebra, or how we need to be sending our kids into the school system so that they'll absorb whatever version of socialization you think is best for my family. It's not like your deathless prose is going to give me the sudden revelation that I've totally messed up my kids' lives. (Although the collective blast of them might eventually make homeschooling more difficult or in some places illegal, depriving the world of some great independent thinkers and people who would have dropped through the cracks, educational and otherwise.)

Some of what's fantastic (unbelievable) to behold in homeschooling is truly fantastic (unbelievably great). Not everything about homeschooling is wonderful. Not every homeschooler is wonderful--kid or parent. What else would you expect?

But we're not all weird either. Some of us watch the Three Stooges. Some of us listen to KISS (as if that defines normal, but for some people it might). Some of us can even read, write, spell, and think through what the the world can offer to our kids--and what we can offer back.

And that's the trooth.

Family-friendly old movie: Pot O' Gold

Just thought I'd mention this one if you like Jimmy Stewart and don't mind musicals: I'd never heard of Pot O' Gold before we found it on a dollar-store DVD. The plot is a bit silly (one Amazon reviewer pointed out that the solution to the movie's big problem turned out to be exactly the thing they weren't allowed to do in the first place); there's a bit of racial stereotyping (grinning shoeshine boys and Chinese laundry men) and there's one slightly strange musical number (you can fast-forward through it). But other than that--it's funny! No shooting, no love triangles, the boy-girl stuff is limited to about one nice hug, the ending is totally happy, and the mixups create the sort of plot that even a six-year-old Squirreling can get.

Jimmy Stewart's rich uncle owns a health-food factory and hates music. Unfortunately, he has a neighbourhood band practising right outside his window. More unfortunately, when his nephew arrives in town, he gets there in the middle of a confrontation over it all, and ends up accidentally throwing a tomato at Uncle Charlie (who can't see who threw it for the tomato juice). The tomato splat makes nephew Jimmy a hero to the band (as well as the lovely lady singer and her very loud Irish mother) and he's dashed off to dinner (and band practice--he plays the harmonica) at their boarding house--without being able to explain who he really is. Predictable crises follow, the funniest of which is Uncle Charlie's sojourn in a jail cell full of music-loving lawbreakers. Or--from our snow-beleaguered point of view--it might be Uncle Charlie's arrival, with the Largest Backpack You've Ever Seen, at a trading post "somewhere up in the wilds of Canada," after being convinced that he's going insane and needs a holiday. You can tell that I think Uncle Charlie is one of the highlights of the movie.

Like I said, you can skip the big Caballero dance routine (I didn't get it and neither did the Squirrelings). But the other swing songs are pretty family-friendly--they're all about things like fairy tales (skip that one though if you don't allow genies), banging forks and spoons, blowing bugles in the army, and dancing to Pete the Piper; no "love done me wrong" numbers here. You can even check out some of the lyrics here.

Overall, it's a pretty decent family choice.

A post from our past: Valentine's Pizza

(Reposted from Feb. 2007)

Last Sunday night we made a special treat for dessert: Pizza Cake. We adapted our recipe a long time ago from an April Fool's idea in Family Fun Magazine. We don't use red frosting for the tomato sauce, though; I prefer to make a sauce out of jam or preserves.

This is how we do it: I bake half of a white cake mix in a foil pizza pan. (You can bake the rest of the batter in a cupcake pan at the same time and save it for another time, if you want just one. One pizza cake serves about six eager eaters.) Usually I like to make cakes from scratch, and you could use any plain cake recipe you like; but for this recipe it seems the toppings are the exciting part and a mix will do fine underneath. If it bakes slightly unevenly, that's okay.

I make a sauce from a good dollop of red jam (say half a cup), enough water to bring it up to a cup, and a tablespoonful of cornstarch, cooked together until thick and clear. You might want to double that if you like lots of sauce (I did). (Note: jam thins as it heats, so you might want to try a bit less water than the math would say; I think my water level came up to about a cup and a half rather than two cups.) Raspberry and strawberry jam both work fine. This time around I used about half a jar of E.D. Smith Triple Fruits Raspberry. You could probably just use straight preserves too, if they're thin; but I think that would be too sweet.

When the cake is baked and fairly cool, spread it with the fruit sauce. Sprinkle it with something to resemble grated cheese; some people might like coconut, but we prefer a square of grated white chocolate. You can sprinkle it on after the fresh fruit (see below), but we think it looks better sprinkled on first. And then decorate, randomly or in lovely patterns, with your choice of fruit toppings.

Since our grocery store featured blackberries this week (an unusual treat, even in the summer), we got a small box of them and put them on the cake along with sliced bananas and canned pineapple chunks. But you could also use kiwi fruit, strawberries, small orange sections, or whatever else is available. (Note if you're using bananas or anything else that might turn brown: serve as soon as possible after decorating. We made the cake in the afternoon and refrigerated it until dinner, and the banana slices were already starting to discolour just a bit.)

If you're feeling creative and have a pizza box, you can serve it from the box as Family Fun shows; but otherwise it's just fine from the foil pan. Actually I baked it in three foil pizza pans stacked together, for stability; and when I served it I had the foil pan sitting on top of a glass cake plate. I put our pizza cutter out for fun, but a cake lifter will do just as well.

Now Ponytails and Crayons both want pizza cake for their birthdays.

The Blogosphere

Across the world and into the culture shock of...Texas. Lindafay describes Arrival and Adjustment at Higher Up and Further In.

Becky posts a Truly Canadian Poem about Truly Canadian Winter. And yes, I am gritting my teeth as well just about now; more snow is falling, and more's on the way. I wouldn't mind so much (except for how much work it is to shovel it out of the driveway and keep the steps clear); but every time we get a storm this winter, it plays deep havoc with Mr. Fixit's weather-sensitive head, and that's not nice. But I still laughed when I read this--apologies to Kipling.

Here, Mrs. Mouse--you want a cookie recipe? Like Becky, I live in a country where Girl Guide cookies (check out the vintage package!) traditionally come only in chocolate and vanilla (and I haven't had one in years). These Samoas (is that a pun on S'Mores?) look much more interesting. Maybe for Valentine's Day.

And this is turning into the Becky-sphere rather than the Blogosphere: she also has some news on the Anne of Green Gables prequel and AGG-anniversary events.

Friday, February 08, 2008

Dear Mama Squirrel

Dear Mama Squirrel,

What's with you all lately? No chocolate recipes? No cookies? We Treehouse readers tune in expecting to get our fix and we find you are no fun. Lighten up, why don't you?

Annie Mouse

Dear Mrs. Mouse,

I guess we just started Lent somewhat early...we're in the middle of a family-wide eating-better campaign, and I just haven't been able to get enthusiastic about trying dessert recipes that might break the spite of the fact that my sugar-free creations haven't all turned out at all well lately, and last night's dessert was well on the way to Putrid...and in spite of the fact that I've been craving chocolate all day.

When I come up with some edible baking, I'll share it. In the meantime, how about a link back to this chow mein recipe and the beef stir fry that inspired it? I made yet another version of it last night with chicken breasts (and chicken broth instead of beef broth), and it was very good. I also cheated a bit by using frozen Zen Garden vegetables.

Hope that holds you over,


Happiness is, happiness isn't

Someone at church handed me a book to read called Happiness™ by Will Ferguson (Penguin Books, 2002) . I knew it was meant to be satirical; I didn't know just how much off-colour stuff I was going to have to muck through to get to the heart of it. Hip-waders would be advised.

However, I do like the premise of the book, and it did try to make some good points. It’s a novel about an (imaginary) self-help book called What I Learned On the Mountain that--astonishingly--works. And its impact (mostly negative) on the editor who discovered it and society in general. Some of the initial effects:

“People no longer felt estranged from their bodies. They felt connected. For the first time, possibly ever, Americans began to feel comfortable with who they were. Cosmetics went unsold; department stores stood half-deserted. Expensive perfumes were marked down and sat gathering dust. GQ magazine switched its emphasis from men’s fashion to articles on ‘fostering happiness.’ Dour Calvin Klein models stood on street corners holding up signs: ‘Will pout for food.’” (Happiness™)
Unfortunately, the spreading move of “happiness” not only begins to destroy the economy (the alcohol and tobacco market dries up alongside the cosmetics industry), but it (whatever it is) destroys people's minds and emotions as well. The editor, Edwin, comes to this conclusion:

“[It’s] a world without a soul. A world without laughter. Without real laughter. The kind that makes your heart ache and your eyes go blurry….we need our vices….because life is sad and short and over far too soon.”
One could argue that this version of happiness isn’t happiness at all, but some kind of selfish, mindless seeking after bliss. (bliss n : a state of extreme happiness [syn: blissfulness, cloud nine, seventh heaven, walking on air]) Edwin pleads for what he calls “joy” instead of “happiness.” However, you could also argue with Edwin’s definition of “joy” since it seems to be based only on celebrating the ugliness, pettiness and vices of humanity (accepting and enjoying what makes us human) rather than looking outwards from ourselves (e.g. to a supreme Being).

I hear echoes of Brave New World in this--the Noble Savage "claiming the right to be unhappy." However, Edwin isn't the Noble Savage by any means, or even Brave New World's questioning Bernard; he's a frustrated Gen-Xer who can't stand his wife, or his cat, or his boss, or his job, or the city he lives in. His only redeeming characteristic is that--somehow--he's one of the few people who read What I Learned On the Mountain and aren't taken in by it. This implies that he's worthy of telling the rest of us what supposedly makes life meaningful.

And I suppose he's right, in a general way. Too much seeking after "happiness" is just self-seeking and self-defeating; yes, there's something deeper out there. But I felt reluctant to accept much of his pontificating on how life was meant to be lived, considering the mouth it was coming from. I think you can get a just as good a read on happiness-as-human-experience in Ray Bradbury's Dandelion Wine, and without the profanity.

Right as I was finishing Happiness™, I thrift-shopped a copy of John Piper’s book Desiring God (Multnomah Publishers, 2003 edition; the link is to the e-text) . The motto of Piper's ministry: "We take happiness seriously."

Piper, who calls himself a "Christian hedonist" says this:

"I had never in my whole life heard any Christian, let alone a Christian of [C. S.] Lewis's stature, say that all of us not only seek (as Pascal said) but also ought to seek our own happiness. Our mistake lies not in the intensity of our desire for happiness, but in the weakness of it." (Desiring God)
As I posted yesterday, I've also been profoundly touched over the past month by the Mitford novels. Perhaps they're too good to be true. On the other hand, they illustrate two truths about happiness that seem to escape Will Ferguson's theories. One is perhaps a cliché, but it's true anyway: that you create your own happiness around you; if you want a friend, you have to be one. Mitford's mayor wins elections based on slogan "Mitford takes care of its own," and the books constantly repeat this theme of human love and concern. The best that Ferguson's Edwin comes up with is deciding to kill the author of the self-help book (to save the world from Happiness); his concern for others is limited to another editor (his sometime girlfriend) and, eventually, to that same author (probably the most interesting character in the book, and we don't get to meet him until the end). In other words, he doesn't do a whole lot to make his world a better place.

The other is, as I suggested before and as John Piper preaches, that happiness--or joy--or whatever you want to call it--may not be complete until we find it in a relationship with the One who created us. It's all very well for Edwin to celebrate our human weaknesses along with our good; but that doesn't seem to take into account the genuine pain caused by sin and suffering in the world, and our need for an answer that lies outside of humanity altogether. Belief in God doesn't have to be as mindless as Belief in Happiness.

And when I get done with Piper's book, I think I'll pass it on to my friend at church.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

On the Mitford books

Now that Mama Squirrel is up to the last couple of books in the Mitford series (having skipped #2, which wasn't available, and A Common Life, which doesn't fit right into the sequence anyway), she has come to some conclusions about the books. Remember that Mama Squirrel usually avoids both preachy books AND "women's books" (from Grace Livingston Hill to Danielle Steele). [She also consistently mispunctuates "women's."]

Meaning no disrespect to Jan Karon, it's not necessarily the writing that draws me into these books. As a matter of fact, after you've read a few of them, you could almost write a parody full of some too-often-repeated phrases like "his good dog," "Consider it done," and "Well done!" Throw in a bit of nature description (not as bad as Hessie Mayhew's, of course), a Reader's Digest joke, and a couple of coincidences, and consider it done. It doesn't seem too complicated. You can read an excerpt from Out to Canaan here.

It's not the writing. It's the feeling that--book after book--I am being personally ministered to as I read them. Not preached at, although some people might feel that way. It's a sense that a lot of the people in these books, although they have their struggles too, have their spiritual acts together, and that you can learn an awful lot by hanging around them for awhile. Even if you disagree with some of the theology--and I actually like it that the main character is a priest in a liturgical church. It does away, right away, with some of the Bible Belt stereotypes (not everybody in the South is Baptist). I like it that, even in a small town, there are several churches, and that there's even some church-hopping among them; people aren't bound to one or another for life. I like it that Father Tim has lunch at the diner with the same two guys for twenty years, and that it's still only in the last book that he gets into any serious God-talk with one of them. That's called extreme patience.

I like the way these people pray with each other. I like the way some of the characters move towards faith, and the places God takes them. I like the way Father Tim draws on Scripture. I like the way he manages to talk to some of the difficult and unlovely people, and to genuinely love them even if his responses are of the "Imagine that" variety. I like his struggles to get into e-mail. I like the way he buys lipstick--he even remembers the favourite shade--for an old lady's Christmas present. I like it that he adores his wife with such passion. I like it that many of the people in the book--including Father Tim and his wife--aren't quite as young as they once were, and that they deal with some very relevant issues of aging.

I like the hard-won words of wisdom that come in one of his sermons:
"Some of us have been in trying circumstances these last months. Unsettling. Unremitting. Even, we sometimes think, unbearable. Dear God, we pray, stop this! Fix that! Bless us--and step on it!....

"I want to tell you that I started thanking Him last night--this morning at two o'clock, to be precise--for something that grieves me deeply. And I'm committed to continue thanking Him in this hard thing, no matter how desperate it might become, and I'm going to begin looking for the good in it."
I started with the Christmas book Shepherds Abiding, several books in. I didn't realize it followed so closely on the heels of In This Mountain, the book that contains the sermon I just referred to. Those two books together are my favourite of the series: In This Mountain because of its struggles and triumphant faith; and Shepherds Abiding because of its beauty. It's something like an unexpected sunny winter day (today) after days of unending storms; it's like snow on Christmas Eve, and a candle in the window. Like Good Friday and Easter, it's difficult to fully appreciate the second one without having experienced the first.

And in fact, I wouldn't have cared if the series had ended there. For me, that was enough. But there is still Light from Heaven to read.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Trust and thankfulness

Ann's post today at Holy Experience speaks to the things on my own heart.
"Daily gratitude establishes a foundation of faith, trust, for whatever the path holds ahead. In the remembering, the looking back at the blessings, I see what God has done. But more. I see who God is. Loving. Sustaining. Faithful. The One who fills wandering ones with faith."

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

CM Carnival is up!

Our Journey Westward hosts a Valentine-themed edition.

Things get remixed up

How you know times have changed: a Squirreling wants to know why the song that's playing suddenly changes to a different tune, and you say that it's called a medley...and the Squirreling responds, "Oh, I get it! A remix."

Grammar grabber

Squirreling old enough to know better: "I didn't used to do that."

Mama Squirrel: "Could you find a more grammatical way to say that?"

Eager smaller Squirreling: "Yeah, that's not right, because you did used to do that."

Monday, February 04, 2008

Multiplication without vexation (CM and Math)

Multiplication is vexation,
Division is as bad,
The rule of three doth puzzle me,
And fractions drive me mad.

- Author unidentified

Last weekend Coffeemamma, Birdy, PirateMum and I got together and talked some CM--mostly math. How do we apply Charlotte Mason's ideas to our math teaching?--especially when "what Charlotte said" ranges from saying that she had no special insight into teaching mathematics, to making very pointed comments about the overemphasis on pure mathematics in the English public school system, to setting out bean exercises, and recommending domino games for flittery little girls.

I mentioned how the first chapter of Galileo and the Magic Numbers has such a wonderful description of Galileo being taught about triangle numbers by his new tutor, using a bag of white pebbles; and how (when we read the book, usually in about grade 3) I try to incorporate the Miquon Math lessons on triangle numbers into our Galileo readings. That's one connection I've found between "everyday math" and people who've done wonderful things with numbers and equations--and the fact that this part of the story is about a young boy makes it even more relevant. But I wish there were more opportunities like that...

Afterwards I had time to think about some of what we talked about, and it occurred to me that Charlotte Mason herself--and I could have this wrong, I'm just positing something here--may not have been that different from many of us in her attitude toward mathematics. That is, although we know she was very well versed in literature, history, and botany, she may have been limited either by education or simply by a slight lack of interest in things mathematical.

That is not to say that I don't think she had some excellent insights about math teaching: for instance stressing problem-solving skills rather than doing rows of repetitive sums; and having children work through things themselves (such as writing out their own times table chart) rather than giving them pre-made manipulatives and charts that take the teeth out of the learning experience. However, doesn't this still apply mostly to arithmetic rather than to the larger world/universe of mathematics?

We know that she enjoyed keeping up with the latest scientific and archaelogical discoveries (and encouraged her students in those areas), but is there any evidence that she had as much enthusiasm for mathematics (and, by extension, physics)? Was she interested in what Einstein was doing during her lifetime?

And if Charlotte Mason felt like this, must this then be typical of a CM education?

Some might say yes: you can't be everything, and one must admit that the classical loop into which CM fits seems to encourage literature and history majors (or perhaps entomologists and ornithologists) rather than future mathematicians and physicists. Perhaps parents whose own bent is in those directions will naturally find themselves drawn more to other styles of homeschooling. Don't forget, though, that CM's own high school students studied three branches of mathematics at once--the subject was not neglected, although it would be interesting to see whether it was handled with as much imagination and insight as the other courses were. It would be worthwhile to search through the online Parent's Review articles from that time (mostly written by CM's colleagues) and see what their collective approach was.

On the other hand...I would say no. The sense of wonder that Charlotte Mason encouraged can be brought into mathematics as well; and a CM education in general can benefit "non-typical" CM students whose first love is not history. I say that because I have such a student. The education that she received at home benefitted her by teaching her that the world is "so full of a number of things" and that she was capable of learning about whatever interested her. Unfortunately, that doesn't particularly include history; but it does include chemistry and aesthetics and computer systems and a number of other things. She's also developing a good writer's voice.

If we want to teach mathematics or at least arithmetic CM-style, are we limited to either picture-book-math or Victorian arithmetic textbooks? No, I wouldn't want to put such limits on what CM math teaching is when there are so many good approaches out there (besides some of the public-school math mess). I would say that any approach claiming to be CM-friendly must balance the fun picture book side of things with a cumulative teaching of solid arithmetic skills, not too heavy on re-inventing every wheel but still allowing students to reason things out. I would definitely recommend what my own school days missed completely: books of math history and biographies of mathematicians; true accounts of significant developments; readable, interesting stories for younger children comparable to the wonderful books that are out there about Marie Curie, Thomas Edison and Galileo. And for the upper years, not just puzzles, which mostly just irritate the less mathematical of us; but any kind of "popular mathematics" writing that would give us a sense of what and why it's all about. The weekend newspaper book sections often review such books--the kind written for the general public. Good libraries will have a shelf of them too, or can get them for you. There really are books out there that are written to make what happened (and what's happening) in mathematics accessible and even interesting for the masses of us who graduated feeling rather clueless about higher math (and not caring much if we did).

Maybe I'm wrong about Charlotte Mason's interest (or disinterest) in what mathematicians were up to. I wouldn't have blamed her, either, if all she ever heard about in math class was theorems! But I think we can use her larger philosophy, and her methods, to open up an even bigger world for today's students. And perhaps we'll have a little less vexation for the next generation.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Sock monkey puppet

Sneaking in for a minute (from our blogging holiday) to post this. I followed a thread of crochet cotton from The Bonny Glen over to, and found a crochet pattern for anyone who ever loved a sock monkey.

Friday, February 01, 2008

Taking a blogging break

What with snowstorms of one kind and another--we need to catch up on life-unplugged around here. We'll be back in a few days.
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