• baked pasta with harissa bolognese

    Written on Saturday when it was 20 degrees outside and our driveway was a sheet of snow-ice. Today it’s supposed to reach 60, and I’m celebrating by grilling hot dogs for supper.

    ***

    Quick question: how many of you have a tube (bottle? jar?) of harissa paste banging around your fridge? This is not a rhetorical question. I am seriously itching to know how many of you have preceded me into the world of harissa.

    Because, up until a couple weeks ago, I’d never even tasted the stuff. I’d heard of it, though, since for years now, food writers have been going on and on and on about harissa-this and harissa-that. Finally, after reading one harissa recipe too many (a.k.a this one), I sprang for some harissa of my own, therefore successfully propelling myself into the inner circle of harissa-owning food snobs.

    I HAVE ARRIVED.  

    The harissa was good, I decided — thick and smokey, with a pleasant whammy of heat — but not exactly earth shattering. 

    And then I made this pasta dish from the NYTimes (twice) and I’ve come to the begrudging conclusion that yes — sigh — harissa does indeed deserve a place in my kitchen, if for nothing else than to get squirted into this dish.

    harissa poo

    But first. This recipe is a little weird. 

    One: it calls for eight ounces of pasta to two-and-a-half pounds (!) of meat. The first time, I left the recipe as is, but it was, as I’d expected it’d be, too meaty. I like a higher pasta-to-meat ratio, please and thank you. 

    Two: it calls for smashed manicotti. Seriously? Couldn’t I just use noodles instead? Yes, perhaps, but I agree that there is something satisfyingly toothsome about the thick bits of fragmented manicotti. I’m sticking with it. 

    Three: the recipe was written unnecessarily complicatedly. I kept getting confused and doubling back. 

    Four: the specified large roasting pan isn’t something that’s found in every kitchen (and the only reason I have one is because my aunt gifted one to my mom who is, in turn, loaning it to me). Even though I used the roaster both times, I think the whole thing could be just as easily — and maybe more easily? — baked in a large Dutch oven.

    Five: the ingredient list felt fussy. This most recent time, I unthinkingly skipped the onion and used a stalk of celery instead, and I never even knew my mistake until I sat down to write up the recipe. I also got sloppy with measurements — using a cup of tomato sauce in place of paste, a hard sharp cheddar in place of the Parm, a bowlful of canned tomatoes instead of fresh, more chicken broth, etc. Conclusion: the recipe is much more forgiving than one might think. Treat it like a formula.

    Since I have a colon thing going on, I might as well continue…

    A note about flavors: this dish is Italian soul food but with a North African kiss. It’s comfort food with a touch of exotic. It’s familiar enough to feel homey and safe, but with a little something special. You get the picture. 

    And regarding the process: With its slow, languid bake-time, this is The Perfect Dish to make on a blustery, painfully cold Saturday (IT’S SO COLD), but take heart, m’friends. Winter’s nearing an end. Soon enough I’ll be yammering on and on about rhubarb and asparagus, Icannotwait.

    Baked Pasta With Harissa Bolognese
    Adapted from the NYT Cooking.

    The recipe calls for ¼ cup harissa paste. Three tablespoons was pushing my family’s comfort levels; two tablespoons was perfect.

    My younger daughter said this would be good with beans, and I think she’s probably right. Actually, I can see the heart of this recipe (and its method) adapting to a wide range of ingredients: tossing in some lentils and kale and some cubes of sweet potato, or a can of white beans, or cracking in a few eggs a la shakshuka.

    1-2 pound ground beef
    olive oil
    1 cup tomato sauce
    2-4 tablespoons harissa paste
    2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
    1 tablespoon ground cumin
    1 tablespoon ground coriander
    2 cups of a mix of grated hard white cheese (Parmesan, cheddar, Pecorino, etc), divided
    1¾ teaspoon salt
    black pepper
    2 cups chopped tomatoes with juice
    1 carrot, peeled and chopped
    1 small onion, peeled and chopped
    4 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped
    1 stalk celery, chopped
    3-4 cups chicken broth
    ½ cup heavy cream
    8 ounces manicotti, bashed to bits with a rolling pin
    ½ cup chopped fresh parsley

    Into a roasting pan (or a large Dutch oven) dump the following: ground beef, a big drizzle of olive oil, the tomato sauce and harissa paste, the Worcestershire sauce, the cumin and coriander, the chopped tomatoes, a few grinds of black pepper, and one cup of the grated cheese.

    In a food processor, pulse the veggies — the carrot, onion, garlic, and celery (and I bet fresh fennel would go nicely here) — until finely ground. Add to the roasting pan. 

    Mix everything together roughly and pop into a 375 oven for 30 minutes, giving it a good stir every ten minutes or so, and breaking up the meat as you go.

    Stir in the broth and heavy cream, and then add the pasta, pressing it down into the sauce to submerge it as much as possible. Bake another 30 minutes, stirring every ten minutes.

    Sprinkle with most of the parsley and the remaining cheese, and drizzle a bit of olive oil on top. Return to the oven for another 5-10 minutes. Prior to serving, let rest at room temp for ten minutes or so to soak up the last of the liquid.

    To finish, top with the last of the parsley and a grind of black pepper. Serve with more fresh Parm, if desired.

    This same time, years previous: homemade pasta, steer sitting, the quotidian (2.23.15), Molly’s Marmalade cake, Grandma Baer’s caramel popcorn.

  • the quotidian (2.22.21)

    Quotidian: daily, usual or customary;
    everyday; ordinary; commonplace


    Does salad get any better than this? No, no it does not.


    Beans and greens.


    Test tart.


    My winter office: bakery prep.


    Sweet boy.


    The cuddle corner.


    The bedroom renovation has begun!


    Documenting her documenting me nagivating the driveway on my butt.


    Ice creature.


    Home.
    photo credit: my younger daughter

    This same time, years previous: hello!, jelly toast, a love story, the quotidian (2.22.16), peanut butter and jelly bars, pan-fried tilapia, a quiet day on the ranch, the case of the whomping shovel.

  • quiche Lorraine

    A few weeks ago I decided I wanted to do a quiche Lorraine for the diner (Monday, I make savory pies for them to sell during the week), except I wasn’t sure what, exactly, a quiche Lorraine was. It sounded classy to me — very French and very basic — so I did a little digging around for The Formula.  

    Turns out, there is none. Best I can tell “Quiche Lorraine” is just a fancy name for any old kind of quiche: meat, veggie, cheese, whatever. 

    So I consulted with a few good food writers on their versions, picked one that sounded classy, and then slapped it on the diner menu and called it Quiche Lorraine. 

    And now I make a mean, very basic, very French, and very, very delicious quiche Lorraine. It’s superbly creamy, like a custard almost, and full of all the best things: leeks, Gruyere, bacon, and fresh thyme. 

    It smells like heaven while it’s baking, and I always think to myself, “Of all the things in the bakery, this is what I want to eat the most.”

    Bon appétit!

    Quiche Lorraine
    Adapted from Chef John of Allrecipes (video included).

    Layering in all the ingredients sounds nitpicky, but it keeps the fillings from sinking to the bottom, so do it. 

    Also, if you eat this quiche too warm, it’ll be so incredibly creamy soft that you may be fooled into thinking it’s underbaked. It’s not. Just let it set up a bit and try again. 

    1 9-inch disk all-butter pie pastry
    8-10 pieces of bacon
    1 tablespoon olive oil, butter, or bacon fat
    ½ cup chopped leeks (just the lower half)
    ½ cup chopped onion
    ⅛ teaspoon red pepper flakes
    ¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
    ¼ teaspoon salt
    6 ounces Gruyere
    1 teaspoon fresh thyme (or ¼ teaspoon dried)
    3 eggs
    2 egg yolks
    1 cup heavy cream
    ¾ cup milk

    Parbake the crust: Line a 9-inch pie plate with the pie dough. Press a piece of parchment into the plate and fill it to the brim with dried beans or pie weights. Bake at 400 degrees for 20 minutes or until the crust is beginning to brown around the edges. Remove the parchment and beans and bake another 5 minutes, or until it’s dry on the bottom and beginning to brown. Check for holes and tears: if any, patch them with a little extra pie dough thinned with water. Brush the edge of the crust with egg wash (1 egg yolk beaten together with a pinch of salt and splash of cream) and set aside.

    Prepare the ingredients: Chop the bacon and fry until crispy and brown and then set aside on a paper towel to drain. Saute the leeks and onion in the bacon grease, along with the salt, black pepper, and red pepper, until soft. Grate the Gruyere into a bowl and set aside. In a small bowl, beat together the eggs with the cream and milk. 

    Assemble the quiche: Scatter ⅔ of the onion mixture over the bottom of the pie, followed by ⅓ of the bacon pieces and ⅔ of the cheese. Sprinkle the fresh thyme over the cheese and then gently pour the egg custard into the pan. Artfully arrange the remaining onion mixture, followed by the remaining bacon and then the cheese.

    Bake the quiche at 350 degrees for 30-40 minutes, or until puffed, golden brown, and the center is set. 

    Cool the quiche almost to room temperature before cutting and serving.

    This same time, years previous: the quotidian (2.19.18), doppelganger, lemon cheesecake morning buns, almond cake, in the eyes of the beholder, digging the ruffles, homemade twix bars.

  • Danny Boy

    For months now, my younger son has been begging for a dog. That’s all I want for my birthday, he said, and then to drive his point home, he left notes all over the house. 

    At first, I’d pooh-poohed him. There’s no way, I said. We don’t need more dogs. We already have two. 

    But then I started thinking. We had allowed each of the girls to get their own dog once they were able to financially support a pet (and while Francie was our family dog, she was my older son’s charge, more or less), and as the youngest child in a rapidly-emptying house — and semi-socially isolated, thanks to Covid — he, of all the kids, was perhaps the one most in need of a pet. Plus, he’s the one who actually plays with the dogs, racing around the yard with Coco, and then climbing trees when her back is turned for hide-and-seek (and seek — and find — she does!).  

    So I ran the idea by a couple friends. Am I crazy to consider another dog? I asked. Get it, they said.

    And so I started shopping. Daily, I checked the classifieds and Craigslist. I put in an application to the SPCA. I contacted dog-owning friends. I messaged people who knew people who had dogs. But no luck.

    For his birthday, we ended up just giving him a leash and some money — and the permission — to get a dog. It was a bummer, having the birthday without the gift, but he handled it well, and, birthday over, the search continued. His preferences were clear: a lab mix, female, and a puppy. But still, there was nothing. With each passing day, I grew more and more frustrated. Where were all the dogs?

    And then I found an ad on craigslist for a chocolate lab mix. Problem was, it was six months old, and a he, but I contacted the owners anyway, just to see. They sent photos and explained that there’d been some changes in the family and a doubling up of jobs — they just couldn’t keep up with a puppy. 

    My son was interested, but hesitant. Look, I said. It’s a gorgeous dog. It’s sad to miss the first cuddly months, but they’d fly by anyway, and six-months old is still very much a puppy. Plus, he’s free and he’s fixed and he’s a lab.

    Can I meet him first and then decide? He asked. 

    So Saturday afternoon in the middle of an ice storm, we hopped in the van and set off to see the puppy. Once he met him, of course he said yes.  

    My son considered keeping the pup’s original name but, after a number of prolonged discussions, he finally came up with one he liked: Danny Boy, from a book I recently read to him for the second time (and no, Schitt’s Creek fans, this has nothing to do with funerals and Moira). 

    Gangly and big — he’s bigger than Coco already — Danny Boy is still very much a pup. He doesn’t know his strength, plus he’s clumsy, so he occasionally crashes into walls and people. He tries to climb into our laps. He bounces and falls over, and he gets distracted while eating. He’s eager and rammy and enormously energetic and super people-friendly. 

    And because he’s a lab, he’s awfully much like Francie: the same gentle, intelligent eyes, the same heavy tail thump-thump-thump, the same wiggly eyebrows. He even sleeps in the same spot where Francie slept: curled up on the mat right outside the door.

    I snapped a picture and sent it to the older kids. Does this remind you of anybody? I asked. FRANCIE, they both wrote back immediately.

    Already he’s quite attached to my son. He slept on my younger son’s bed the first couple nights, but now he sleeps in the crate at the foot of the bed. (Once it’s warmer, he’ll join the other dogs in the kennel.) 

    We’ve never gotten an older dog before, so it’s a bit of a learning curve. Danny Boy’s old enough that he’s got some habits that require retraining — barking to be let in, drinking from the toilet, jumping — but young enough that I don’t think it will be too terribly difficult to fix.

    Complicating matters is the weather: it’s so icy and cold that it makes it hard to exercise the dogs. Plus, Danny Boy doesn’t know limits, or how to play with other dogs, and his persistent wrestling matches with Coco often threaten to devolve into a flat-out fight.

    And then the kids bellow at the dogs to behave and I yell at the kids to mind the dogs and, well, it’s all a bit much.  

    But that’s okay, because once again we have a lab.

    Which is pretty darn awesome, I think.

    This same time, years previous: the quotidian (2.17.20), in my kitchen: 11:50 a.m., the quotidian (2.17.14), Monday blues, chicken pot pie, snippets, creamed chicken with cheese biscuits, tortilla pie.

  • the great courses

    I’d never heard of The Great Courses (that I know of, anyway) until we got an ad for it in the mail. I glanced at it briefly, chalked it up as junk and made to throw it out — but my husband stopped me.

    Have you looked at it? He asked. It could be worthwhile. 

    So I gave the glossy magazine a once-over, read about the discount — 25 dollars a course for 5 courses — and then thought, Why not? It might be fun and if not, it wouldn’t be too much money down the drain. 

    I told the kids to pick out the classes that interested them, and then we all sat down together and chose the ones with the greatest overlap: Spanish I, Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, Native Peoples of North America, Western Civilizations I, and Building a Better Vocabulary. (And then we opted to pay ten dollars more for each class to get the version that came with a DVD.) 

    I had my reservations. You can learn just about anything online (via YouTube and Khan Academy, etc) and there’s the public library and all sorts of fun TED talks and podcasts. Would this be any better than all that free stuff? 

    My older daughter took the Molecular Biology DVD with her up to Massachusetts, but my younger son sneaked in a few lessons before she left. He was glued to them — completely absorbed — and when I asked if he was understanding any of it, he laughed sheepishly and said, “Some.” (And then one night at supper he regaled us with a long tale of science-y information, the details of which I no longer recall except for the fact that he was so thoroughly excited about it that he was bubbling over.)

    Biology, in her new digs.

    The two younger kids are watching the Western Civilization lectures with my husband. My daughter takes notes (it helps her focus and retain), and my husband hits pause every now and then to summarize or elaborate or review, or he might pull out the atlas to help them get their bearings. But mostly they just watch. My husband says the class is good — comprehensive, engaging, and informative.

    I’m doing the Spanish DVD with the two younger kids. Each lesson — there are thirty in all — takes us about four sessions (or days) to complete, and we break them down like so: 

    • The lectures: we watch them together, with me hitting pause frequently to give them time to formulate answers or repeat phrases. 
    • Speaking exercises: I hit pause constantly so it takes awhile. 
    • Workbook: we photocopy the lessons and they each work their way through the written work, after which I check it and have them read everything out loud. 
    • Practice, above and beyond (but necessary): I make flashcards and randomly yell at them to conjugate “ser,” or to rattle off the pronouns, or to tell me the present tense ending to -ar verbs. 

    It’s a lot of information, and excellently presented — like, really excellent (and I’m learning/relearning an awful lot) — but I do wonder what it’d be like to try to absorb all of it without any background in Spanish. Even though my kids’ knowledge of the language feels minimal, thanks to their months in Guatemala and Puerto Rico, they’re already familiar with the sounds and cadence, which has gotta be a big help. Plus, it helps that I know enough Spanish to be able to coach and correct. In any case, the kids are absorbing a tremendous amount of Spanish in a way that will stick with them better than any other language learning program I’ve seen (not counting their immersion experiences, of course). 

    Update: We just got a letter from The Great Courses with another discount (pricier than the first but it applies to all the courses, not just a select few) and my husband is urging me to buy more. Even though I like that the kids are being exposed to college-level lectures, that the material, like any college course, digs in deep enough to get a good taste for the subject matter, and that I don’t have to source the content (but can supplement as much as I want), I probably won’t. We’ve hardly made a dent in the courses we’ve already purchased, and I don’t want to take on too much right at the start and then stall out. 

    But I am tempted. There is that mental math course that my younger son wants to try…

    This same time, years previous: collard greens, Thursday thoughts, Jonathan’s jerky, the quotidian (2.16.15), buses, boats, and trucks, oh my!, cornmeal blueberry scones, just stuff.

  • the quotidian (2.15.21)

    Quotidian: daily, usual or customary;
    everyday; ordinary; commonplace


    The boy eats.


    Extras from the bakery: bag of gold. Which I used to make….


    Baked French toast studded with jammy blueberries for our V-Day breakfast.


    Look what I found! At the local grocery! For three-something!


    Care package for the far-away wean.
    (“Wean,” thanks to my current Scottish read.)


    And quiche Lorraine for the boy and his mates.


    Wind break.


    He loved this.


    Behind the sofa: impeachment.


    Choir auditions.


    Studying for a pediatrics exam and lecturing me about the dental hygiene of infants.


    Big-ass snowman.


    Sorry-ass snowman.


    Change of scenary (and some sunshine!): lunch and reading at the GP’s.


    Because the rest of the time, it’s this.


    This same time, years previous: kitchen sink cookies, the quotidian (2.13.17), the quotidian (2.15.16), it gets better, chocolate pudding, how we do things, sweet, the outrageous incident of the Sunday boots.

  • how we homeschool: Amber

    I first learned about Amber through my interview with Terra. Ever since, I’ve been devouring Amber’s meaty Instagram posts: they’re delightful snapshots — honest, vulnerable, and insightful — into the ups and downs of parenting (and so I’ve sprinkled a few throughout the post).


    Hi! I’m Amber, and I live in Georgia, nestled among the pine trees, hammocks, and ziplines, with my husband Scott and our four children: Nina (11), Sasha (9), Beckett (7), and Brooks (5). 

    Tell us a little about yourself.
    My happy place is the back porch on a rainy day, preferably with a giant mug of hot tea and a good book. Although I was raised in the air conditioning, somehow the woods is where I feel most at home these days. I have a small business called Heritage Mom where I write and speak about homeschooling, homemaking, and adding multicultural mirrors and windows to our children’s education. I also write and speak for the Wild + Free homeschooling community, which is an organized group of mothers and homeschoolers who want their children to not only receive a quality education, but also to experience the adventure, freedom, and wonder of childhood.

    Do you have a homeschool philosophy?
    I usually describe my philosophy as “Charlotte Mason with an afro.” We swim in literature, history, poetry, music, art, nature study, and narration along with math, science, geography, and other interesting ideas and subjects. We also spend time learning and engaging in handicrafts and life skills of all sorts: cooking, sewing, leather work, wood carving and burning, cross stitch, beading, clay modeling, etc. With short lessons and a good rhythm, we’re able to enjoy these riches along with plenty of free time to visit with friends, explore our community, and just hang out at home. Since this is all my children know, it doesn’t actually feel like we’re doing a “thing.” Our days flow, and this is just how we do life. 

    Instagram (1/24/20): If I make her do it, the project is no longer hers.⁣⁣⁣ In September, I shared how my oldest chose a queen-size quilt for her first ever quilting project. She was on a roll and then progress slowed before coming to a dead stop.⁣⁣⁣ I told her not to pick such a big hairy pursuit in the beginning, but once she started I REALLY wanted her to complete it.⁣⁣⁣ It’s taken everything (and I do mean EVERYTHING!) to keep my big mouth shut, but I’ve been silently mourning the incomplete process.⁣⁣⁣ And then I walked into the craft room and saw this. ⁣⁣⁣She easily and happily picked up right where she’d left off after abandoning the crumpled strips on the sewing table for months. When will I learn???⁣⁣⁣ Our lessons are scheduled into weeks and terms, but our children are not.

    What do you most enjoy about homeschooling?
    That’s easy. I love spending so much time with my children. My years as a mother have been the best and most fulfilling years of my life, and I’m just soaking in this time of mothering and homemaking. This is exactly what I dreamt of, and although it can be challenging, I wouldn’t want it any other way.

    At what point did you realize you wanted to homeschool your kids? 
    My husband actually researched and recommended homeschooling before it was ever even a thought in my mind. After he brought it up repeatedly, I met a mom at our local playground who was homeschooling. We would run into each other frequently, and eventually she invited me over to her home during the day to see what homeschooling was like. It was AMAZING. I just loved everything from the materials she used to her routine and the vibe in her home. Even the tea and cookies she served were wonderful. My conversations with her and the time spent in her home led me to take a more serious look at homeschooling. I paid my deposit for Pre-K for my oldest but she never made it to the program because, before the summer ended, we decided to try homeschooling. It clicked with me immediately, and I’m so thankful for my husband’s vision and my park friend’s graciousness and generosity.

    Where do you get your support?
    That’s a good question. I reluctantly started a homeschooling support group in my area back in 2016 because my family wasn’t getting the support that we needed in some aspects of our journey. As I look back now, it was probably the single best decision I’ve ever made related to home education. The families in our group are amazing, and we spend a significant amount of our free time with them. The children are all friends and the parents lean on each other for encouragement, camaraderie, and support.

    How did you start the group?
    I was planning to have a small group of about five families, so I didn’t do much to get started. I put up a basic website, started a Facebook page, and announced the group on social media. Four years later we’re going strong with 90+ member families. Even so, my family still participates in other groups including the very first homeschooling group we joined when my oldest was four. For us, all of our needs are not met in a single space, but the combination of groups (which changes from time to time) has been a great thing for our entire family.

    What are Georgia’s homeschool requirements? 
    We have to submit a simple form declaring our intent to homeschool once a year, homeschool for 180 days (or the equivalent), cover a minimum of basic subjects, and test every 3 years. Aside from the form, none of these things have to be submitted — they are requirements that we are to keep in our personal records. Georgia is an awesome place to homeschool!

    What have been some of the challenges?  
    My biggest homeschooling challenge is balancing the needs of all my children. They have wildly different personalities, abilities, and desires, so I spend a lot of time trying to make sure everyone is getting what they need and that they feel valued and heard in our home.

    My biggest personal challenge is sleep. When the house is finally quiet at the end of the day, I need to go to bed so that I can be fresh, well-rested, and patient the next day. However, those silent nighttime hours are so precious to me because I can just sit and…be. I can work on projects, read, write, listen to podcasts, or whatever I want. I am constantly battling between being fulfilled and tired, or frazzled and perky. Tough choice!

    Instagram (12/4/20): We have moments of sparkle and wonder during our weeks, and sometimes I remember to capture it in a great photo.⁣ This is not one of those times.⁣ Our furnace is out so all of the day’s magic is happening an arm’s length from the fireplace. ⁣The one wrapped in the red cocoon stayed up too late so he fell asleep as soon as he stopped moving.⁣ The other boy is eager to listen to and narrate ANYTHING with enthusiasm if it means delaying copywork.⁣ Mismatched socks, layers of clothing, holey fur-lined slippers, and a sleep cap. ⁣I asked Hubby why on earth he took a picture of this mundane scene, and he said, “This is real life. This is what you should be talking about.”⁣ So here I am talking about it. ⁣There are ornaments to be made, great books to be read, holiday goodies to be baked, candles to be lit, and so much more. But usually homeschooling is just…being.⁣

    How are your kids different?
    Oh boy. How long do you have? Generally speaking, my oldest is a free-spirited creative who starts talking when she wakes up and puts a period on that very first sentence when she falls into bed at night. She’s usually still talking when I slowly back out of the room and turn the light out. She excels in language arts and is quite good at math but does not enjoy it at all.

    My second is a tender-hearted peacemaker with a sensitive spirit and a strong sense of justice. She enjoys gobbling books of all sorts, including fantasy books, animal stories, and old-school Peanuts cartoons.

    My oldest son is a straightforward supercharged leader who fancies himself a nerf gun ninja. He is independent and able to do his own thing, but he’s also the only child who runs to me for a hug and a big kiss every single day of the year. He’s a numbers guy who is very particular about what he reads. He enjoys books about boys solving mysteries or going on adventures. He’s also a daddy’s boy.

    My youngest is 100% about his mama. He comes to my lap for a cuddle multiple times during the day. He has not started formal lessons, but his favorite things are helping me in the kitchen, storytime, and playing in the creek. He wants to be an astronaut fisherman in space when he grows up.

    What has homeschooling taught you? 
    Homeschooling has taught me to slow down and smell the roses. I have always been very driven, and when I started homeschooling I realized that everyone, including me, is so much happier when I just take a chill pill. I value my children’s free time and ability to learn more than I value organized activities and my ability to teach. I guess you could say that I’m much more of a wildflower now, and I really like it.

    Some people mistakenly think that a lack of rigor equates to kids being allowed to do whatever they want, however they please, in any old crazy kind of way. I don’t know any families like that. Whether they unschool or have specific learning styles/plans, all families have their own flavors and rhythms. I think more and more families are finding that they want to slow down, savor childhood, spend time in nature, and keep a feeling of wonder in their homes.

    If you could start over again, what would you do differently?
    I have been so happy with our journey, so there are few things that I would change, but there is one area. In the beginning, I was following plans for a curriculum that included many wonderful lessons, but it entirely lacked diversity: there was NONE. I wish that I had infused more of myself and our culture into our daily lives from the very first moment. We remedied that issue pretty early on, but it was a blind spot born of ignorance and insecurity that I wish had not been there. 

    How did you remedy the issue?
    One of the ways that I began infusing more of ourselves into our days was by putting together my own reading lists and videos that highlighted different aspects of African and African American culture and history. Once my kiddos got a little older and I had some room to breathe, I took the time to write up all the notes scattered throughout my notebook so I could offer them to other moms. I started a book club for our local homeschooling community and began sharing many of our favorite books. My Heritage Packs are available on my website and are designed to help round out other booklists and lesson plans that are often missing Black voices.

    Instagram (5/12/20): Nope, not Laura and Mary. “Meet” Stella and Naomi Tann, daughters of Dr. George Tann — the black doctor who delivered Carrie and nursed the Ingalls back to health when they had malaria. “Then the doctor came. And he was the black man. Laura had never seen a black man before and she could not take her eyes off Dr. Tan. He was so very black. She would have been afraid of him if she had not liked him so much. He smiled at her with all his white teeth. He talked with Pa and Ma, and laughed a rolling, jolly laugh. They all wanted him to stay longer, but he had to hurry away.” (Chapter 15 “Fever ‘N’ Ague”) Dr. Tann (records show a different spelling that Wilder used in the book) was a real person — a neighbor of the Ingalls family — and learning more about him has helped the girls connect to Little House on the Prairie in a new way. They never used to role-play from those books despite the detailed stories with so much to draw from and imagine. After seeing how much they’ve taken to it AFTER learning about the Tann family, I suspect they hadn’t connected to the story in the same way as some of their friends because they couldn’t see themselves in it. It all matters.

    Can you recommend some favorite titles?
    My children and I really enjoy historical fiction, especially books covering the late 1800s and early 1900s, and some of our favorites are:

    How do your kids feel about being homeschooled? 
    They love it! I’m often asked whether I would allow my children to attend school if they asked, but that’s just never something that comes up. We have a tight-knit community of homeschooling families that they’ve grown up with, and my oldest is well-aware that many of the freedoms she enjoys most would be the very first things to go in a school environment. My children don’t think school is a bad place; they just aren’t interested in it.

    Instagram (11/29/20): Our neighbor said, “It’s too bad you can’t have a party this year, buddy.”⁣ But my son quickly corrected him.⁣ “I DID have a party…with my best friends!”⁣ I started to clarify so the neighbor wouldn’t get up in arms about us gathering during this time, but I decided that it wasn’t worth contradicting my sweet boy who feels like the plainest of plain homemade cake surrounded by siblings is a “party” with best friends.⁣ 2020 has been a doozy, but my little guy has remained happy as a clam with all his peeps. And that is all this mama can ask for.⁣

    What advice do you have for parents who are considering homeschooling their children?
    The primary caregiver or teacher — usually the mom but not always — ought to spend some time figuring out what she can do and how she works best. I think moms often jump in with grand plans of exactly what they think will be perfect for their kids, but they fail to consider if they will be able to remain consistent with waking up early, following a schedule, reading aloud, etc. In the families I’ve seen, consistency and passion seem to be bigger indicators of homeschooling success than the type of homeschooling. Find something that works with your beliefs about family, community, and childhood, and pursue it with gusto — whether it has an official name or not.

    Also, don’t feel like you always have to stick with the same thing. We’re always rooted in certain ideas in our home, but the way they play out varies from year to year, and sometimes month to month. Have a plan of some sort, but hold it loosely. 

    Be kind to yourself and your children, and try to have fun!


    Thank you so much for sharing yourself with us, Amber! Your family is lovely, and it’s been such a delight getting to know you a bit more through this conversation. xo!

    This same time, years previous: the quotidian (2.10.20), the quotidian (2.11.19), bits and bobs, one-pot macaroni and cheese, life, interrupted.

  • what we ate

    Repeating myself here, but: I’m a bit sick of food. There’s just so much of it, all the time, and we don’t eat a great deal anymore. Plus, everyone’s plenty happy with the simplest of fare — eggs and toast, baked mac and cheese, granola — and some of us would eat popcorn every night for supper if we could, so why bother cooking? Not complaining; explaining, blah, blah, blah.

    But we need a balanced diet. We need vegetables. We need to not always eat our favorites — some less-than-exciting food helps to keep consumption in check — so I play the Mean Mom and cook boring meals like baked potatoes and green beans and corn, or zucchini parm and toast, or vats of Italian Wedding soup. It’s not that nobody likes these meals (except for the one child who would rather skip eating altogether rather than have a forkful of zucchini grace her mouth — but a little fasting here and there is good, right?), it’s just that they’re not the kind anyone’s inclined to gorge on. 

    And so, therefore, I make them.

    Now. Forget everything I just said for a minute because we had a birthday and spent the whole day feasting on all the favorites. For his breakfast, Birthday Boy (he’s 15!) chose Dutch Puff with warm vanilla pudding and sugared strawberries from the freezer. 

    Lunch was what he has every year for his birthday lunch: subs with all the fixings and chips. Those pickled peppers make the sandwich, I think. I can’t get enough of them.

    And supper: bacon cheeseburgers with grilled onions (for me), more chips, tons of shrimp, and steamed broccoli.

    To cap it all off, a very sloppy-looking ice cream cake: coffee, chocolate peanut butter, vanilla, and cookies and cream. Instead of a brownie layer that turns rock-hard in the freezer, I used oreo crumbs. I made a copycat DQ fudgy chocolate sauce which worked great, but the caramel sauce turned into caramel toffee in the freezer and we once again had to hack our way through. 

    (And no, we didn’t eat more than half in one night. The photo above is from a later eating.)

    One of these days I’m gonna get it right. (Maybe.)

    Upon the recommendation of a friend, I checked this cookbook out of the library. Flipping through it, the farro fennel salad caught my eye. I had one bag of farro left (from a whole bunch of bags that my aunt gave me), and I love fennel. Plus a whole lemon and garlic? It sounded wonderfully simple and delicious.

    But nope. While it was beautiful, it was also horribly bitter, thanks to the whole lemon, and way too mild/boring tasting. I’d followed the recipe exactly, too. Made me mad, it did. I ate two helpings though, stayed mum about my disgust, and then watched in amusement as my husband quietly, diligently, and painfully chewed his way through his serving. The meal over, I pulled out a bag of leftover lettuce and told everyone to make themselves salad and sandwiches. And later there were bowls of cereal and, when I confessed that the salad was a bust, a roar of indignation and incredulity from my husband, ha!

    This morning for my breakfast, a banana muffin from a coworker’s test bake yesterday. 

    Bakery leftovers are a huge part of our diet and one of the reasons I’m not cooking as much. I bring home all sorts of things: sourdough heels, random pieces of leftover quiche and pie, egg whites, pie crust scraps, croissants, loaves of multigrain, cheese rinds, caramel sauce, toffee cake, the dregs of a container of pie filling. And then my daughter sometimes comes home with leftover biscuits, sausage gravy, fresh-squeezed orange juice, chopped cucumbers, pancake batter, etc.  It’s great, and a huge financial help, but then we’re eating Magpie food and not the food that I’ve canned and frozen, and after a bit I start feeling food overwhelmed. 

    I have a new favorite granola recipe (with pumpkin seeds!) that my husband and I are nuts for.

    I can’t share the recipe because it’s a Magpie classic, but if they ever give me the go-ahead to write about it, you’ll be the first to know, pinky promise.

    For supper tonight, grilled cheese using a loaf of failed sourdough I made months ago (cleaning out the freezer, yay!), and tomato soup.

    Also, we had sweet pickles and then, for dessert, leftover ice cream cake. (I scooped mine into a cone.)

    P.S. As I finish up this post, both kids are in the kitchen making — you guessed it — popcorn. I hope they share.

    This same time, years previous: stack-of-books birthday cake, snake cake, good morning, lovies, crispy baked hash browns, a horse of her own, the quotidian (2.9.15), gourmet chocolate bark, addictive and relaxing, corn and wild rice soup with smoked sausage.

  • lemon coolers

    About a month ago when I went over to my mom’s for a chat, she served me some hot tea and lemon cookies.

    Actually, there may have been other cookies artfully arranged on the cookie plate, but I only remember the lemon. They were crispy and buttery and delicious, but it was the powdered sugar that got my attention. 

    “How is this so lemony?” I asked, examining the white sugar for tell-tale signs of lemon zest, of which there were none. 

    And then she told me about her special little bottle of lemon crystals (which makes it sound like my mother has beaded doorway curtains, troughs of smoldering incense sticks scattered about the house, and horoscope readings magnetted to her fridge — but she doesn’t) and how they get mixed with the powdered sugar for a kick of lemon.

    Back home, I looked into buying some for myself, but when I couldn’t find any at the grocery store (and didn’t feel like trekking all over town to track some down) and saw how pricey the stuff was on Amazon and how long it would take to get to our hosue, I shelved the idea. But then Mom said I could use some of her crystals, lucky me. 

    Confession Number One: I’m still a little cookied-out from Christmas. With no holiday parties and gatherings upon which to unburden myself of excess confectionary treat, we’re still slogging through the stash — just today I dug out a box of gingerbread men. I miss having an excuse to bake!

    Confession Number Two: I’m sick of food. Our freezers are full, half my kids are gone, and I need almost nothing upon which to subsist so, more often than not, any cooking I do ends up feeling like overkill. It’s depressing and boring and will probably be a persistent problem for the next few years as I try to figure out how to downsize my culinary customs. 

    But! On the off chance you’re looking for a bright pop of buttery citrus to go with one of the many countless cups of herbal tea you’re using to self-soothe your way through this long, cold winter, here you go. 

    If ever February needed a cookie, it’s these.  

    Lemon Coolers
    From my mother’s recipe and she, in turn, got it from Who Knows Where.

    10 tablespoons butter
    ½ cup white sugar
    1 ¼ cup confectioners sugar, divided
    1 ½ cups flour
    2 tablespoons cornstarch
    ¼ teaspoon salt
    ¼ teaspoon baking powder
    ½ teaspoon baking soda
    2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
    zest from one lemon
    1 egg yolk
    ¾ teaspoon lemon crystals

    Beat the butter, white sugar, and ½ cup confectioners sugar until fluffy. Beat in the egg yolk and lemon juice and zest. Add the dry ingredients — flour down through baking soda — and mix just until blended. 

    Shape the dough (there is no need to refrigerate it first) into small balls, 15 grams each. Place the dough balls on a prepared cookie sheet — my mother likes to butter hers for added flavor; I was lazy and lined mine with parchment. Gently press the cookies flat using the bottom of a floured measuring cup or drinking glass. 

    Bake the cookies at 350 degrees for 10-15 minutes — they ought to be golden brown around the edges, and maybe on top, too. The browning gives flavor and crunch. (Although completely done, mine weren’t quite brown enough.) 

    While the cookies are still warm, dip them in the remaining ¾ cup of confectioners sugar that’s been mixed with ¾ teaspoon of lemon crystals. Save the leftover sugar and, before serving the cookies, coat them once again.

    This same time, years previous: the least we can do, the quotidian (2.4.19), twelve, the quotidian (2.6.17), timpano, cheesy bacon toasts, eight, seven, travel tips, the perfect classic cheesecake.

  • a family milk cow

    Remember back when, upon returning from Puerto Rico, we got three bottle-fed calves to raise for beef? And then remember how, a couple days later, we went back to the farm to pick up a heifer calf because we (I) thought it might be fun to maybe have a milk cow someday? 

    Welp, Daisy’s preggo, thanks to a little rendezvous at a neighboring farm last summer, and now her sides are bulging out most alarmingly. I don’t know anything about pregnant cows — and her size is probably perfectly normal — but as any pregnant person, or person around a pregnant person (or animal) will tell you, there always comes a point in the gestating process when one begins to question just what, or how much of whatever it is, is growing inside there, and right now it looks like Daisy’s gonna be popping out a set of twins come April. Doubtful, I know, but she’s HUGE.  

    Regarding the encroaching milk tsunami, I vacillate between excitement and profound dread. Having a milk cow is kinda a big deal, I think — everyone talks about it in hushed, knowing tones — and here we are just kind of sliding into it sideways, fingers crossed. There’s a very real chance that we’re in well over our heads.

    Take, for example, the following reasons why a milk cow is most definitely not a good idea:

    • A Holstein (mix?) cow does NOT a family milk cow make. One is supposed to thoughtfully acquire an appropriately dainty breed of cow, not one that’s bred to be a milk producing machine, squirting out 5-9 gallons of milk daily. Oops. 
    • My husband’s lactose intolerant and hates farming.
    • Half the children — in other words, half the milk drinkers and half the chore dooers — no longer live here.  

    BUT IN MY DEFENSE: What better time to tie ourselves down with a little farm project than in the midst of a pandemic? Also, my younger son thinks this is a fantastic idea and has agreed to spearhead it. Also also, a family milk cow is endlessly educational, providing a cross-disciplinary venture in horticulture, nutrition, husbandry, cooking, economics, and The Art of Waking Early. Plus, we have the land, the animal, the time, so why not?

    (Don’t answer that.)

    Not that it really matters how I feel — it’s happening — so we’re gearing up (some of us more begrudgingly than others). A couple weeks ago, my husband and son visited our neighbor-friend to observe his one-cow milking operation. My younger son has read a couple articles and made a supply list. Plans for the milking set-up are being cobbled together. I’m considering (or beginning to think about considering) purchasing a second fridge for out in the barn. And we’ll need a bunch of glass jars. Also, starter stuff for homemade sour creams and cheeses and such — once the milk hits the house, it’s MY domain.

    For now, though, the biggest task is prepping Daisy for milking. She’s actually already pretty docile, but each day my younger son spends some time taking her halter on and off, leading her around, feeding her treats, and grooming her, especially around her back end so she gets used to having a human hang out back there. Next step: set up a stanchion to get her used to putting her head through and holding still while eating and being groomed. 

    Once the calf is born, the (loose) plan is to, as per our milk cow-owning friend, separate Daisy from her calf every evening, milk her in the morning, and then leave the calf with her all day. Depending on how much milk Daisy gives, we may need to get a second calf to help drink it all (if Daisy doesn’t let it nurse, then we’ll have to bottle-feed the calf . . . I guess?), or we might have to get a couple pigs and feed them the extra. And we’ll probably be sharing lots of milk with family and friends, and I’ll be making tons of yogurt and ice cream.

    To sum up: This could be loads of fun or it could be a disaster. Either way, we’re bound to learn something. Wish us luck!

    This same time, years previous: object of terror, the quotidian (2.2.15), how we got our house, wheat berry salad, advice, please.