Thursday, November 19, 2015

Thanksgiving Survey: Numbers

Thanksgiving survey:

It's time!  It's what you have all been waiting for!  It's a semi-reasonable excuse to stop cooking and sit down for a few minutes!

1. Name a mathematical concept for which you are grateful, and explain why.

2. Name a number that will be useful to you on Thanksgiving Day.

3.  What time do you expect your Thanksgiving dinner to begin?

Please include units (inches, years, nanoliters, etc) in your answers, if appropriate.

Both a number and a dessert

How many raisins belong in a pie?

A large number of boiling beets

Not enough Brussels sprouts for our Thanksgiving guests

This many shoes by the front door means a delightful  number of guests
If you just love surveys unscientifically designed by a mediocre statistician, here are my Thanksgiving surveys from past years:

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Apps and Books

Through the wonders of modrun technology, Younger Daughter and I recently had the chance to chat face to face with my son who is away at college.  He told me all about the classes he signed up for next semester, including “Making Really Tiny Things” class, a.k.a. “Chemical Engineering Applied to Microfabrication.”

While he was talking to us, he started fiddling with his phone.  Then he said, “I have to take a break – I’ll be back in few minutes.”  We waited, staring at the empty walls of his dorm room.  He soon returned with a foil-covered package. 

I said, “What is that?” 

He opened the foil and showed us a whole bowlful of chocolate chip cookies.  He said, “I have an app on my phone – whenever I push this button, I get cookies delivered within two minutes.”

Ah, if only!  It turned out the cookies were from Older Daughter, who came over to visit her brother.  So I got to chat with her, too.  I was a very happy mommy, with all three of my kids in the room, if only virtually.

Older Daughter asked her sister, “Have you ever read The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo?” 

She replied, “No, I didn’t want to read it.” 

I asked, “Is there a book called The Girl Who Made Dinner And Then Cleaned Up Afterward?” 

My son said, “Isn’t that called The Little Red Hen?”

* * * * * *

I haven’t read The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and I don’t intend to.  But so far this month, I finished two books that I enjoyed.

The first was Devil in the White City, by Erik Larson.  I did not expect to even be able to get through this book, as it involves gruesomeness.  The main topic of the book is about the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893, but also includes a psychopath.  It’s ostensibly about architecture, landscaping, and one really sick mind, but more broadly it’s about America in that era.  For me, Erik Larson’s prose carried the day – the book reads like fiction, although it is non-fiction (the author admits to doing some educated imagining for some of the parts about the psychopath).  It was cool to be reading it while we were in Chicago.  It looks like Leonardo DiCaprio is going to make a movie out of it.

The second book was The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd.  This is like the flip of Larson’s book – it’s a fictionalized account of real-life people.  The story begins in the voice of Handful, a young girl born into slavery in the household of a judge in South Carolina.  We also learn the story of Sarah Grimke, one of the judge’s daughters.  Sarah Grimke and her younger sister Angelina Grimke have a place in history - they were quite famous in the early 1800s as outspoken abolitionists and feminists at a time when women were not allowed to speak to mixed audiences (men and women). The Invention of Wings is at once heart-rending and hopeful; it's the story of both Handful and Sarah finding their voices, and seeking their freedom. This book was approved by Oprah, which normally would make me wary of reading it, but it was a great read and quite thought-provoking.

What are you reading these days?

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Halloween Parade

It came to pass that it was Halloween.  And the Lord said, These are the laws for middle-aged mothers which I have set before you.

You shall not run downhill when you are 54 years old and out of practice at running.

Neither shall you run downhill when you are carrying an expensive new camera.

Lo, even if you are the marching band photographer and need to move from the back of the Halloween parade to the front of the parade in pursuit of the best photo ever of these my beloved children in the band, you shall not run.  For behold, there are six parades in six hours and you need to be upright for all of them.
This is one-third of the band.  The band splits up, and each third
parades in five neighborhoods, and then we all meet up for one big
parade in the last neighborhood.  It's a logistical nightmare.
See, when the photographer starts out at the front of the band,
 she can take photos of the kids' faces.  But after the band
passes by, the photographer must run to the front of the
band again to get more photos.  Rinse and repeat.

If you keep this statute, then shall you walk (not run) long in the land, both uphill and downhill. But take heed, if you will not hearken unto me; I will bring seven times more plagues upon you.

And yet, you would not listen to me.  Lo, though you are out of shape and have not run since that game of ‘Capture the Flag’ in 2007, during which you fell down and contracted your second frozen shoulder, you remained a stiff-necked and obstinate woman who insists on running to the front of the parade.

The backs of the people in the front of the parade.
Your foot shall stumble and you shall fall, as an ass falls into a pit, or in your case, as an ass falls on the sidewalk.  As you fall, you shall regret that this neighborhood actually has a sidewalk, because you shall fall onto the hard pavement, not the soft earth.  While you are yet falling, you shall think with bitterness, “But I just bought this camera” and “I am going to break my kneecap.” As you fall, you shall repent mightily of your running.

Thus says the Lord: I shall let you fall just hard enough to remind you of your iniquity.  O foolish person and unwise, your knee shall be grievously bruised and the palms of your hands shall pour forth blood on the pavement. 
After I fell, I was pretty sure I was going to look like this the
next day.  Please click to embiggen, to get the full effect.

But lo, I shall be merciful unto you.  I shall not permit your kneecap to be broken, neither shall your camera be crushed.  Your forehead will not be smote in two, nor shall your lens shall be shattered.  I shall lift you up from the gates of death. My ministering angels in the form of band chaperones in bright yellow jackets shall come rushing to your aid.  And it shall come to pass that the band medic shall treat your wounds with antiseptic numbing spray and Very Large flexible fabric bandages, both of which are miraculous inventions. 

You shall arise, and take up your camera, and walk.  And walk, and walk, and walk, with the band for the next 4 hours of parades.  Though you limp, yet shall you walk with the parades.

You shall be heard to say the same thing your 83-year-old mother says:  “Once I really get moving it hurts a little less.”
There were few areas of flat ground in any of the
neighborhoods. This is Western PA.

When you get home you shall seek to change your bandages, and shall find that the box which says “first aid” is practically useless, because there are no bandages big enough for your wounds.  You shall bind your wounds with gauze pads and bandage tape; lo, you shall resemble a half-hearted zombie, which is appropriate for Halloween.
$30 worth of bandages and Wound Care Items
On All Saints Day I shall cause you to remember to buy $30 worth of Bandaids of Unusual Size.  And you shall rejoice that the prophecy of the marching band medic did not come to pass – your knee is not bruised and swollen beyond recognition, and you can actually walk on flat surfaces fairly well.

But remember this well: Thou Shalt Not Run Downhill.

                                                                               - The Book of Admonitions 3:1-35
If I hadn't run up to the front of the band, I would have missed
this photo of this wonderful face.

* * * * * * * * * *
That happened ten days ago, and I am almost all healed.  But I had to put off my Thanksgiving pie-making for a while, as it wouldn't do to have bandaids in the pies.

It really was a miracle that the camera wasn't broken.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

How Pumpkin Saves My Sanity

It’s my favorite season, although I have to say that what I am most fond of about seasons is that each season actually occurs, at least where I live. 

There is an undercurrent on the internet of impatience with autumn and its major gourd, the pumpkin.  Sorry, all you fall-haters, but in the Common Household we love pumpkin.  A long time ago, our pediatrician approved homemade pumpkin muffins as a reasonable (ha!) source of vitamins for my son, who since the age of two has refused to eat any vegetables.

But sometimes a homemade, vitamin-laden pumpkin muffin can’t be had, and a desperate person must turn to Dunkin Donuts.  
Dunkin, I don't like your spelling and doughnuts are
 not my favorite carbohydrate, but your pumpkin muffins
 have saved me more than once.  Thank you.

The Dunkin Donuts pumpkin muffin saved my sanity in September 2011 when I was helping my aunt get ready for her move to the retirement home.  I was having difficulty facing the task ahead of me, but a cup of hot tea and a pumpkin muffin at Dunkin Donuts made it possible to move forward.  We all know we should not turn to food to try to solve our emotional problems, but I tell you, that pumpkin muffin was positively therapeutic.

Earlier this month Dunkin Donuts came through for me again on my way home from the retirement home.  Yes, this muffin is basically mass-produced cake with sugar on top, but sometimes that’s what a person needs.
Pumpkin muffin on the left.
The chocolate chip muffin on the right is inferior.
When I took this photo I was so smitten with my pumpkin muffin
 that I did not notice the creepy way the library books by
Brian Selznick were arranged, looking hungrily at the muffins.

On the homemade front, I bring you an astonishing concept: Pumpkin Challah!  I know this is a thing that exists, because I made it at a cooking class at synagogue.  This pumpkin challah is not overly pumpkiny, but delightfully subtle.  It is delicious toasted with a bit of butter or cream cheese.  It would be great on the Thanksgiving table, in dinner-roll format.

Kneading bread is also sanity-saving.  Pretend that dough is your worst enemy, and pummel it!

If you are turned off by autumn and pumpkins, then, because this blog subscribes to the Pumpkin Fairness Doctrine, here are a few places you might feel more at home:

Pumpkin Challah

This recipe makes one large loaf (congregational size) or two household loaves.
Based on the Meg Marshak Challah Recipe.

1 ½ cup          warm water (hot bath temperature)
2 packets        dry yeast (quick rise is also suitable)

¼ cup             Sugar
¼ cup             honey
1 Tbsp            salt (kosher recommended)
2 Tablesp       vegetable oil
1/3 cup           canned pumpkin
1 tsp               pumpkin pie spice.
3                     eggs (at room temperature if possible)
2 cups            All Purpose flour
4 cups            Bread flour (if necessary, All Purpose can be used in place of bread flour)

Optional:        raisins or Craisins, ½ cup or more if you prefer

Egg wash:       1 beaten egg with 2 Tbsp water

In a large bowl, stir together the water, yeast, and some of the sugar (2 Tbsp or so).  Let the mixture stand for a few minutes until frothy and “yeasty” smelling.

Stir in honey and remaining sugar, salt, and then the oil and eggs.  Stir in the pumpkin and spice.  Fold in the All Purpose flour and most of the Bread flour.  If you are using a mixer with a dough hook, add the flour gradually to avoid lumps. 

Once the dough clings to the hook in a lump or is too hard to stir by hand, turn out onto a lightly floured board or countertop.  At this point the dough will be a shaggy mess.  (If you want to add raisins, this is the time to add them –  ½ cup or more.) Knead for 8-10 minutes, adding any remaining flour as necessary. The dough should be soft and elastic and NOT sticky. 

Shape the dough into a ball and place it in a lightly greased bowl.  Turn the dough over to coat the entire surface lightly with oil.  Cover with a damp towel and place the bowl in a warm spot.  Let rise until almost double (about 30-40 minutes).

Gently deflate the dough and knead slightly (to remove large air bubbles).  Divide into three equal parts.  Roll and form into 3 strands.  Put parchment paper on a large baking sheet.  Using all three strands, brad loosely on the parchment.  Brush egg wash over braided bread (make sure you get all the nooks and crannies).  Let rise until puffy and almost double in bulk, usually 35-45 min. 

Preheat oven to 350F.  Bake for 35-40 minutes until browned and hollow-sounding when tapped.  Let cool before slicing.
Just reaching the shaggy mess stage.

After the pummeling.  Ready to take a nap in the bowl.

Napping under a damp towel.

Nap time for the dough is over.  Time for the final formation.

Three strands, with the longest in the middle.  
Braided and ready to rise one last time.

Done!  Two pumpkin challah loaves.