Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The Science of Parenting

Like most parents, my husband and I want to give our kids as many opportunities as we can. We want them to experience all of the ups in life, and none of the downs. We want to protect them both from the world and from their own mistakes.

Of course that's not possible, and even if it were it wouldn't make us good parents. Hard as it is to see our kids struggle and fail, we know they have to be allowed to experience disappointments  so that they can grow and mature as individuals.

An issue came up for our family recently that put our parenting philosophy to the test. We belong to a science club. The kids enjoy going, and usually come away having learned something. Our club hosts an annual science fair. We participated last year, and fully intended to do so again this year. We even got as far as conducting some experiments and planning more. That was before the Christmas break.

The glitches started with the new year. When I was planning for the school-year, I assumed that certain activities that the kids take part in would follow the same schedule as last year. I was wrong. Instead of beginning again in late February or March, K-boy and M-girl's drama club started in early January. The science fair itself was scheduled months earlier than it was last year.

These changes left us far more busy, and with less time to finish the science projects than I had planned. BadDad and I told the kids that we'd be pressed for time to get ready for the fair. We also told them that we expected them to do most of the work themselves, with age appropriate assistance from us. The kids insisted that they wanted to do the fair and would get the work done. Against my better judgement, I went ahead and signed them up to participate.

Several weeks went by, during which we were quite busy with school-work and activities. Since M-girl and D-boy are only 8 and 5, I helped them with their experiments. K-boy set up his own (multiple times, as he didn't keep good records of his observations the first time).He had little bags of food all over the house, so he could observe the conditions under which mold will grow. Both BadDad and I repeatedly offered to help him with planning his report and display if he came to us with specific needs. He never did. We became increasingly concerned that he was putting off the harder part of preparing for the fair.

We gave K-boy a deadline. One week before the fair we wanted to see an outline, clearly showing how he was going to set up his display and reports. Against my hubby's wishes, I went so far as to print out information about topics related to his experiment, and handed them to K-boy. I sat him in front of the computer with websites that I found for him, and made him read them. He just didn't seem to be making any real progress on his own.

The deadline came and went. K-boy still insisted he would be done in time. By this point, I knew I needed to help M-girl and D-boy finalize their projects, or we wouldn't have them done in time. It was a typically busy weekend around here. None of the kids mentioned anything about their projects, or spent any time working on them. On that Monday, BadDad and I made an executive decision. We told the kids that we were pulling out of the science fair this year.

The kids, of course, were disappointed. As parents, we felt we had no choice. This is when they need to be learning the values of hard work and time management. Yes, we could have stepped in and rescued them, doing the reports and displays for them. We could have done a great job too! The only message that our children would have received though would have been that procrastination and laziness pay off. Someone will do it for you. That's just not what we want for them.

We're hoping that 'the science fair that wasn't', will prove to be a bigger lesson for them than attending it would have been.  After all it's a lesson that is better taught now, while they're young, than years from now in their adult lives. In the end they accepted our decision with good grace. We've already told them that they can sign up again next year and we'll be there to support long as they're really trying their best.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Crock-pot Greek Yogurt

I've been making homemade yogurt for over a year now, and was thrilled to discover how easy it really is.Our family goes through a lot of yogurt! This past summer, the kids and I were given a free sample of Greek style yogurt at the store. Oh boy! One look at the cost and I knew I had to come up with a way to make it at home.

I've tried different methods of yogurt making, but in the end making the yogurt in a crock-pot seems the easiest to me. One thing I did invest in was a digital food thermometer. The $10 cost was worth it to me, to be able to preset a target temperature and walk away until the signal beeps that the temp has been reached. I have a 7 qt crockpot, you may need to adjust the recipe to fit your own.

Crock-pot Greek Yogurt

12 cups skim milk
1 cup  instant nonfat dry milk
2 tbsp vanilla (optional)
1/2-1 cup honey or sugar, depending on taste (optional)
1/2-1 cup nonfat plain yogurt*

Combine the skim milk and nonfat dry milk powder in crock-pot. Set digital thermometer to 180 degrees. Cover crockpot and turn on low. It usually takes 5 or 6 hours for the milk to reach 180 degrees. It's important to let it reach that temperature, as the heat will kill any bacteria that might interfere with turning it into yogurt.

When 180 degrees is reached, add the sweetener and flavoring, if desired. Leave the lid slightly ajar, and reset the thermometer to 120 degrees. Temperatures higher than this will kill off the good bacteria in the starter that make the yogurt.

When 120 degrees is reached (usually after 2 or 3 hours), add the nonfat plain yogurt. This is the starter. At this point I usually, turn the crockpot on low, with the lid off, while I stir the starter in very well. Only leave it on for a couple of minutes, as you don't want to raise the temperature too much. Turn off and unplug the crock-pot. Put the lid on tightly. Wrap the entire crock-pot warmly in towels or blankets. I use two, thick, beach towels. Leave it wrapped up for about 12 hours or overnight.

In the morning, unwrap the crock-pot. The contents will have turned into regular yogurt. You could stop at this point. If you want to make Greek Yogurt, there is another step.

Line a colander with four layers of cheesecloth. Put this into a large bowl. Carefully pour the liquid that is on top of the yogurt out. This liquid is whey, and can be used in other recipes.  Pour the yogurt into the cheesecloth lined colander. Cover with plastic and set the entire bowl into the refrigerator.

Every so often, pull the colander out of the bowl, and pour off the whey. The yogurt will become thicker and thicker as the whey is drained out. I usually let it drain for at least four hours, sometimes longer.

Finally scoop the yogurt into a storage container and stir well. This recipe yields approximately 2&1/2 quarts of Greek yogurt.

*Some people save out yogurt from the batch, for starter from the next batch. It works, but I use fresh starter every time (unless I've run out). Starters can become contaminated with other bacteria over time, and cause the batch to fail

**If you have any yogurt making problems, see the links below for what I've tried.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Rescue Kitty

In the wee hours of this morning, as BadDad and I were enjoying our well-earned rest, we were awakened by an ear-splitting yowl. You know the kind only an angry Siamese cat can make. This was unusual, as normally the cats prowl around the house silently at night, and let us sleep. The yowls kept coming persistently, jarring us into full wakefulness.

We had to wonder what was bothering the cats as the screams intensified. If we'd heard one of the kids calling out in the night, we would have both been leaping out of bed to get to them. But this was a cat. I pulled a pillow over my head as my hubby called out, "Be quiet!".

After what seemed like hours, but in reality must have been mere minutes of this, my hubby asked me, "Do you know where Rocco is?". I listened, and realized that it really was only was one cat making all of the racket, Abbey, the girl cat.

Finally BadDad dragged himself out of bed and went to investigate. I stayed where I was, sleeping soundly waiting anxiously for his return. He came back soon enough and announced, "Rocco was locked in the Florida room". Poor thing, the Florida room is freezing cold in the winter!

The cats had been with us all night in the family room. As best we can figure, Rocco must have slipped into the Florida room unnoticed when BadDad let the dog out before bedtime. Then he shut the door and we went to our room at the other end of the house, unable to hear his cries to get back in. So Abbey woke us up to free her pal. She's a little kitty hero! Oh by the way, the dog slept through the entire incident. I'm just saying...

Friday, February 24, 2012

Easy Whole Wheat Pie Crust

Unlike many bakers, I've never had a dread of making pie crusts. I owe the credit for that to a recipe that my mother taught me to make when I was a young girl. She in turn got it in her junior high cooking class. Of course I've tweaked it just a bit!

Using oil instead of shortening or butter makes this recipe extremely simple to mix up, but it's both healthier than the average pie crust and tasty too! It's my go-to recipe for all pies except those requiring a cookie crust. Changes that I have made are the introduction of wheat flour, using skim milk and substituting canola oil for the original vegetable oil. Try it for your next'll be glad you did!

Easy Whole Wheat Pie Crust

1 cup all purpose flour
1 cup whole wheat flour
dash salt
1/2 cup skim milk
1/2 cup canola oil

Combine flours and salt in large bowl. Add in milk and oil and mix with fork until combined. Do not overmix. Divide dough in half and shape into balls. Roll out on floured waxed paper. Bake pie according to recipe directions.

Makes 2 pie crusts

Thursday, February 23, 2012

The Perils of Learning History

Ash Wednesday only comes once a year, so yesterday before we went up to get ashes I explained to the kids what to expect to prevent any surprises at church. D-boy isn't the biggest fan of having to go to church when it's not the weekend, so I wasn't surprised when he looked a bit hesitant. What took me aback was when he asked, "But don't the ashes give you a disease?'. I must have looked puzzled because M-girl explained, "He's thinking about the song about rosies.".

At last, light began to dawn. K-boy once, in a study of Tudor history, revealed the fact that the children's song 'Ring Around the Rosie', has rather grisly roots. The verses are referring to the appearance of plague victims right before they succumbed to the disease. No wonder poor D-boy was worried, "Ashes, ashes, we all fall down", is quite enough to scare a discerning five-year-old!

After I reminded him that I am a total safety mom, and would never take him to get a disease on his head, he was fine. We went up to the church and he ran around happily with his ashes on his forehead for the rest of the day.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Meatless Meal Ideas for Lent

It's Ash Wednesday. Naturally that brings thought of self-sacrifice, and Easter. For those of us who are responsible for getting dinner on the table each evening, it also brings thoughts of, "What can I make tonight?". This week is particularly challenging for Catholics, as both today and Friday are supposed to be days of fasting and abstinence from meat. That's fine for the adults in the house, but I also want to serve something that my kids will actually eat.

We like fish fry as much as the next family, but I'm not willing to wait in the long lines that form during Lent, so unless BadDad is offering to pick some up, I need other options. My usual meatless repertoire includes homemade macaroni and cheese, pizza, scalloped potatoes, sweet potato soup, and omelets.  I know I can come up with more options, but that's off the top of my head, after a sleepless night, and a half cup of coffee. Give me time.

 Oh I know, the kids love breakfast for dinner but my hubby thinks that's unnatural. Yes, I married him anyway. The rest of us just indulge in pancakes at 6pm whenever he's away on business.

As for tonight, I think I'm going to go with the macaroni and cheese option. It's a family favorite, even when it's not Lent. My favorite recipe originated on the back of a San Giorgio Pasta box, a loooonnnnng time ago. I've changed it a bit in the ensuing years, but I want to give credit to their wonderful recipe that inspired mine. Here is my version:

Whole Wheat Macaroni and Cheese

1/2 box whole wheat pasta
1/4 cup butter or olive oil spread
1/4 cup flour
2&1/2 cups skim milk
1 cup shredded extra sharp Cheddar cheese (optional use 1/2 tomato basil cheddar)
1 cup shredded Colby-Jack cheese
dash of salt and pepper
2 tbsp butter
1/2 cup whole wheat bread crumbs

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Spray a 2 quart casserole dish with cooking spray. Put pasta on to boil, and while it is cooking, melt the 1/4 cup of butter in a medium saucepan. Add the flour, salt and pepper. Slowly stir in the milk. Stir constantly, until the mixture thickens and comes to a slow boil. Remove from heat, add cheese and stir until melted. Drain cooked pasta, and pour into casserole dish. Add the cheese sauce and stir until combined. In small microwavable bowl, melt the 2 tbsp of butter. Stir in the breadcrumbs, and sprinkle mixture on top of casserole. Bake for 25- 30 minutes, until breadcrumbs are golden and cheese is bubbly. Serve with a side of vegetables. 6-8 servings

Leftovers reheat beautifully.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Two Evil Kitties and One Dastardly Dog

Before our latest move, we were blissfully pet-free. Well, BadDad and I were blissful but the kids were constantly begging for a cat or a dog. Or both. After completing the worst of the renovations on our new house, we were out of excuses and reasons not to get a pet. The pros and cons of a cat versus a dog were hotly debated by the kids while BadDad and I feebly suggested goldfish.

Fast forward a year and a half and now our furry family includes a nine pound Hunt Terrier and two (yes two) Siamese cats. The kids were overjoyed with each addition, and absolutely love the pets. What they don't always love is the care and clean up that goes into pet ownership. I saw that one coming.

Overall they are good pets, and I love them. Except when they're bad and I don't. So far the dog has chewed lots of cushions, and various small toys. The cats got sick once and wracked up quite a vet bill...ouch! It is funny to see them all together though. It's like having eternal toddlers in the house, with all the joy that toddlers bring.

Lately there's been talk from the junior people in this house that we should get another dog to keep the dinky dog company. When they catch him at the right moment, BadDad is in agreement with them. No way, not a chance. If only the pictures weren't so darn cute!

Monday, February 20, 2012

Day Off

It's President's Day so we're taking the day off from schoolwork. My darling hubby went to the office so that means I have lots of free time... to catch up on housework and organizing. Oh the luxury! I've really got to start planning a summer vacation. Soon.

The kids got to sleep in this morning. Now it's lunchtime and they've officially played too much Wii. As soon as I kick them outside, I'll be able to really get some work done. This is how my efforts have gone so far:

 Me, "I want you to turn off the TV and go outside for some fresh air."

 K-boy, "What's for lunch?" Me, "You just finished breakfast." K-boy, "I'm hungry."

 M-girl, "I'm going out right now!" Me, "You need to wear socks and a coat, it's February." M-girl, "Oh, I forgot."

 D-boy, "No, outside is boring! I want to play Wii."

 This might take a while.

 It's time to de-clutter the schoolroom, and re-shelve some books. Somehow, mid-way through every week, everyone forgets where their book cubby is.

I let M-girl mix up homemade oatmeal packets this morning, so there's the kitchen to clean up too. I never fully realized before just how many oats are in a 42 oz canister of oatmeal. Now I do, as half of it is currently covering my kitchen island and floor. She ate a healthy breakfast though, so my goal was accomplished, sort of.

Yesterday, BadDad was painting the basement, so I didn't get to my usual quota of laundry. Today I get to spend a good chunk of my day down there making up for lost time.

Days off are the best!

Saturday, February 18, 2012

My Valentine

Valentine' Day was this past week. We didn't do anything major, we never do. My hubby is of the opinion that Valentine's Day is a commercial holiday, that forces men to overpay for flowers and such. He's right, I know. It's still fun though. He always comes through with something anyway. He knows better than to be the only man in America who doesn't!

M-girl was excited all day, wondering what he would bring us. Yes, I said us. Ever since she was tiny, he's brought her flowers on Valentine's Day too. This year she commented in K-boy's hearing, "I wonder why Dad doesn't get something for the boys too?". I told her that BadDad knows that I always get a little treat for all three of them, and the boys wouldn't want flowers anyway. I mentioned it to BadDad and he replied that he wants M-girl to grow up used to having a man treat her right. He figures that girls often subconsciously grow up to choose men who share some of the same qualities as their fathers, bad or good. Is it any wonder why I love this man?

Review of Naughty in Nice

My trip to the library last week yielded a happy surprise, a new book by Rhys Bowen, one of my favorite authors! 'Naughty in Nice', was released by the Penguin Group in 2011, but it was brand new to me this month.

This book is another featuring Bowen's feisty protagonist, Lady Georgiana Rannoch, the nobly bred but impoverished thirty-fourth in line to the British throne. Young Georgie finds a chance to escape the dreary London winter and travel to the French Riviera. Modern readers will be fascinated by the allusions to the lifestyles of the privileged class in the 1930's. Bowen skillfully weaves true events and people through her story, giving it an authentic feel.

As usual, Georgie finds herself smack in the middle of mystery and intrigue.She is forced to use her wits to keep both her freedom and her life. Georgie is so likeably awkward and down to earth, that it's impossible not to root for her.  Bowen fans will be happy to find familiar characters also vacationing with Georgie, as well as several new acquaintances to keep things interesting.

Lady Georgiana's love interest, the dark and dashing Irishman, Darcy O'Mara appears again in this book. Bowen keeps the reader guessing almost until the end whether or not their love will survive their time in France. The final pages will have you yearning for the release of the next book in the series.

Rhys Bowen has created such an appealing character in Lady Georgiana, that whenever I stumble across a new novel in which she's featured, I feel like a dear old friend has come to visit. I look forward to reading more about Georgie's adventures.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Healthier Chocolate Chip Cookies

Growing up, the ultimate treat that my mom could make was fresh, homemade Chocolate Chip Cookies. Back then she used fresh eggs and let us lick the bowl clean afterward. Eww! I've never let my kids do that! As a cookie loving mom myself, I've experimented until I could come up with a recipe that is similarly delicious, but at least a bit healthier than the old version. It was brutal work believe me. My kids haven't forgiven me yet for baking so many batches of cookies!

Beside the eggs, the old version had shortening and only all-purpose flour. My new version cuts out the shortening, and introduces Canola Oil in place of it. I added part White Whole Wheat Flour to give the cookies some fiber. Finally I replaced the fresh eggs with Pasterized Egg Product. After all, who doesn't love to eat cookie dough, I just don't want to risk getting sick from doing it.

Here is the recipe. Try it and see what you think.

Healthier Chocolate Chip Cookies

1/3 cup butter
2/3 cup canola oil
1/2 cup pasterized egg product
2 tsp vanilla extract
1 cup granulated sugar
1 cup brown sugar
1&1/2 cups all purpose flour
1&1/2 cups white whole wheat flour
1 tsp baking soda
2 tsp salt (I use reduced sodium salt)
1 cup (or more chocolate chips)
other mix ins if desired (chocolate candies, nuts, oatmeal, etc)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
In large bowl combine the butter, oil, eggs, vanilla and sugars. Add the dry ingredients, and mix well. Stir in chocolate chips, or other mix-ins. Drop by rounded teaspoons on ungreased baking sheets. Bake for 8-10 minutes.
Yeild: somewhere around 5 dozen cookies. My kids eat them so fast, I can't keep track.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Review of 'The Butterfly Cabinet'

Once I picked up 'The Butterfly Cabinet', by Bernie McGill, I could not stop reading it. I finished it in one day, which is not an easy feat with all that I have to do everyday! Though it was published in 2010 by Free Press, I only just found it last week on my library shelves. I am very glad that I did.

McGill has woven a haunting tale of fiction out of a real-life tragedy that took place over a century ago in Ireland. She cleverly moves the story along by using the voice of a nineteenth century mother convicted of murdering her child, interspersed every other chapter with the voice of a now elderly former servant of the house, in the 1960's. The reader is allowed a glimpse into the life of a Victorian great house, from the perspective of both the privileged mistress and that of a teenage maid-servant. History buffs will relish the everyday details of life in the 1890's.

The tale gets quite dark at times. Any parent that has ever struggled to deal with a willful child will relate to the mother's despair of ever teaching her children to behave. The anguish and remorse she feels after her daughter's accidental death will make you cry even while you are repelled by her actions. As an observer to the drama, the reader can see that this young mother was really overwhelmed and lacked a role model in her own life of a loving maternal figure.

No one in the story emerges unscathed after the death of little Charlotte. Servants and family members struggle with guilt. It seems everyone knew that something was going wrong in the house, but most were powerless to do much to intervene. It is truly a story that makes you realize that many of the ills that our culture suffers from today, have long been part of society. It made me wish that I could reach through the pages to offer help.

I devoured this book, so eager was I to get to the end and 'solve' the mystery of what really happened to the little girl. In that, McGill leaves the reader guessing, but with enough clues that a probable ending can be pieced together. This book left me saddened for the characters that I felt like I had come to know. I will definitely be on the lookout for more novels by Bernie McGill.