Sunday, August 28, 2011

Shortchanging our Students. Shortchanging our Future.

Article that prompted this: Shortchanging Students

Classes with 40+ students in them, with teachers that can only make 1,000 copies per month (that's about 12 copies per kid, per month, front and back), broken furniture for the students to sit on...these are all the cherry on top of a struggling school.

That's the image that needs to be shown, and I'm wondering why it's not?

This year, massive cuts were made in many states, Texas as well, to the education system. A number of lay offs have already taken place, and many vital programs, that have shown to be effective, were cut or severely underfunded, like many pre-K programs in Texas. Why?

Because we just can't afford them with the growing state budget crisis. For example, this year, the state legislature allowed Texas schools to open up to our students 4 billion dollars underfunded. Now some districts are thinking about measures to place fees on riding the bus or attending pre-K to make up some ground. But thank god we have our 10 billion dollar rainy day fund in tact, great job Gov. Perry, on your "highest priority". 

Every day in my class, I teach my jaded 9th grade students, already facing the constant stream of gang-violence, teen pregnancy, drug use, and shockingly poor literacy that have become the hallmark of urban schools, that anything is possible if you have an education. If they put their heads down, work hard, and feed their minds, they will get where they want to go. After all, I was raised to believe that people can take anything and everything from you, except your education, and that will build you back up.

But the state legislature is making that a lie for my students, and others like them.

Wake up. Elementary, middle, and high school are not like college. 30+ students do not just come in to class ready to take notes and learn. They talk, they play, they get up and walk around, etc. because, news flash, they're kids. And as a teacher, it is my job to maintain an academic, well managed classroom while still teaching a fun and interesting lesson about the scientific method. With the massive cuts we are facing--teachers are getting laid off, class sizes are getting bigger, and necessary teaching resources are getting smaller--it's getting more and more difficult to properly educate the future generation.

Much of this could have been side stepped had the policy-makers not been too afraid of dipping into rainy day funds and raising state taxes. Amazingly, the opposite happened...taxes were cut in many state, and pledges were made to "balance the budget" with tax cuts alone, and no increase in spending. I'm sorry, that logic just does not add up.

What does add up is that extremists, like the Tea Partiers, have now got state law makers running scared, and spewing lies to the publics about how no increases in spending will actually help in a time like this, and pull us out of the dark abyss of debt. So instead, law makers are short changing our students, our future.

Without properly educating a large part of this generation, the poorest of our students, how to we ever hope to close the gap of education inequity? By slashing funding for important education initiatives and programs, how do we ever hope to instill the value of education in students, so they can actually be whatever they want to be? By firing teachers and increasing class sizes, how do we ever hope to create safe, comfortable, and academic classroom environments?

I guess we don't. After all, that burden will fall to our children.

[This was a very link heavy piece, because I am a quite passionate about it. To get the most accurate picture of what's happening in many states, particularly in Texas, please read those articles. They are very informative]

Saturday, August 27, 2011

The Generosity of Others

The generosity of others always makes me smile. Today, I was on my knees, scrubbing the bathroom floor with Tilex when I heard the doorbell. And poof, five minutes later, I was sitting down with some coffee, taking a much needed break, and munching on a cupcake topped with the most beautiful sprinkles I had ever seen.
 It's amazing how a small thing can take you from complaining about how much hair you shed, much like a sheepdog in fact, to smiling happily as you lick off buttercream. I have always thought food can make someone's day significantly better, but I'm not sure why. If someone I love is upset, my first thought is to make a cake, or cookies, or sweet-bars, something, anything, that could make them smile.

It's a big part of why I give away most of the things I bake. That look of relief that people get when you bring brownies to school and they have something special to look forward too at lunch. The surprise on someone's face when they open the door and you've got a big plate of homemade pretzel bites, still warm from the oven. Or the slow smile that forms when your neighbor asks you, "what did you bring this time?" Adding that small amount of joy to someone's day is priceless.
I am trying to lead a more minimalist, giving life. Not buying things I don't really need, giving away things I don't use any more, and giving a portion of what I make to charities. The first two, because my mother instilled those values in me--think three times if you're going to buy something, it could just crowd your house, and look at something and really think if you use it, or...well, it will just crowd up your house.

The last part comes from a lot of self-reflection...but it's a simple conclusion: I can afford it. I can save 100 a month and give it to charity. Money can make a huge difference to charities like the Human Rights Campaign, Nothing but Nets, or Plan India, so why not? Makes me feel good, and they need it.

Anyways, this was not meant to be preachy, just when my neighbor came over with those cupcakes, well, I had some time to self-reflect while I was munching on one.

So, even a small amount of giving--cookies to your neighbor, cupcakes to your co-workers, or hey, a dollar to the homeless guy on the corner because heck, it's 109 degrees outside, it'll make you smile, so try!

Maybe try with these pretzel bites...which are AMAZING. They taste like the kind you get in the mall. Except healthier, since they're half whole wheat flour!

Pretzel Bites
Adapted from What's Gaby Cookie

2.5 tsp active dry-yeast
1.5 cups warm water
2.5 tbsp. brown sugar
2.5 cups all-purpose-flour
2 cups whole wheat flour
Vegetable Oil for the bowl
0.67 cup baking soda
5 tbsp. melted butter
2.5 tsp salt
kosher salt for garnishing
1 egg yolk for a wash

In a mixing bowl fitted with a dough hook mix the warm water, the brown sugar, and yeast. Let it sit for five minutes until its bubbly. Then add the salt and melted butter and mix. Turn on the machine, and while the dough hook is rotating, add the all purpose flour, and then add the wheat flour until it forms a huge mass. Then take it out and transfer it to a bowl coated with the vegetable oil, and cover that up with a cloth...let it rise for an hour.

Then preheat the oven to 425, and split the dough into 8 different parts. Roll each part into 14 inch ropes, and cut it into 1 inch pieces.

Then boil 10 cups of water in a large pot. Then add in the baking will bubble up as baking soda tends to do, so be ready for a little spillage. Toss in about 15-20 pieces at a time with a slotted spoon, and then after about 20 second, or when they float to the top, pull them out and put them on napkins to drain.

Then put them on a parchment-paper lined baking sheet. Brush with a the egg yolk, mixed with a little water, and the sprinkle with salt. Pop them in the oven and bake for 10 minutes or until golden brown on top.

Pop them out of the oven and eat them when they're warm with some mustard! :-) 

Monday, August 22, 2011

Creme Brulee and a New School Year

So there's been a lot going on in the news lately what with the straw poll in Iowa, and Governor Perry entering the race for the Republican Nomination while Pawlenty drops out. The Texas Legislature approving massive slashes to the family planning budget (2/3s of the budget), and President Obama going on a three day bus tour in the midwest. I could talk about all that, but I'm just going to say two things:

1. Perry rhymes with Scary (thanks Sam) 
2. Let's think of happier things, no? Like Creme Brulee and a new year!

Yep, I made creme brulee. First off, terrible idea. When you make something, you learn what goes into it. But it's so....goooooood. Seriously. Each bite is just so luxurious you just want more. So while I lament actually knowing what's in each bite I'm taking, I revel in the pleasure of the creaminess while Jacques the dog looks on with pleading puppy eyes. 

Don't worry, I let him lick the bowl. 

Don't worry, I clean the bowl well. 

Anyways, it's not hard, trust me. You just have to be careful how you bake it. As with all custards, the concern with baking is that it will cook too fast on the top and you'll come out with a scrambled egg mess. Refer to my lemon bar flop for an example. 

The way to do it with custards, cheesecakes, etc. Is to cook it at a lower temp, for a long time, in a water bath. Water retains heat very well thanks to its high  specific heat, and as a liquid it moves to fit its container (throw back to CHEM 105, ahhh the college education at work). 

Why is this good for custard? Well, cooking something in a water bath ensures that you get an even temperature on all parts of your dessert. And things come out beautifully. 

Also, really do spring for the vanilla bean for this recipe. My reasoning for this is three-fold:

1. It gives the custard a totally different flavor than regular vanilla extract would. 

2. Seeing those black vanilla bean seeds will make you feel fancy. Totes worth it when you're eating it in your work out clothes on your couch. 

3. You can re-use the vanilla bean pod to make awesome vanilla sugar. Great in my fake-espresso, as it will be in yours too. 

Make it for yourself and eat it over the course of a week and a half (that's how long it'll stay really can keep it for longer, but it won't taste as good) or make it for a dinner party to make your guests think you're a master chef.
PS -- about school -- I'm starting a new year on Monday. Yep, second year! People say it's better than the first. This is me taking a break from mad lesson planning--writing this post. I'm excited, and scared, and little more excited, then scared again. I'm scarited. It'll totes be fine :-) 

Creme Brulee
modified from Alton Brown

6 egg yolks, room temperature
1.5 cups granulated sugar
2.5 cups heavy cream
1 vanilla bean
2 quarts hot water

Preheat the oven to 300F.

In a medium saucepan, heat all your cream. Take your vanilla bean, slice it down the middle, and scrape the seeds out of it with your knife. Place the seeds and the vanilla bean shell in with your cream. Allow it to come to a boil, then turn off the heat and let it steep for 15 minutes. 

Meanwhile, in an electric mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, put in the six egg yolks with 0.5 cups of sugar. Whisk on medium-high till it turns light-yellow, like the color of unsalted butter.

When the cream is done steeping, remove the vanilla bean shell and reserve it for later. 

Turn your mixer back on to medium, and slowly pour the cream into the yolk mixture. Do it slowly, because the cream is still hot, and you do not want to cook the eggs. I actually transferred my cream into a pyrex liquid measuring cup, and pour from there. 

Then pour your mixture into little ramekins until they're about half or 3/4 full (depending on how you want it). Put them in a baking dish, and put them in the oven. 

Once its in the oven, carefully pour the hot water around your ramekins into the baking dish, making sure not to spill any into the creme brulee mixture. Close the oven, and bake for 40 min. You'll know they're done when they're firm, but a bit jiggly in the middle still. Allow them to cool for 2 hours before eating.

While it's baking, in a small container, put the rest of the 1 cup of sugar, and the reserved vanilla bean shell. Mix it a little and cover it. 

Now comes the fun part....when you want to burn the sugar on top, take a tsp. of the vanilla sugar you made, put it on the custard, spread it around, and either stick it in your broiler on high for a minute or so, or if you have a handle held flamer, just flame it! 

Serve immediately with fresh berries on top, you know, for the healthy aspect. 

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Rosemary Lemon Shortbread

So Thop and I had some friends over for dinner on Thursdays, H- and J-. Tyler met them last year when we started going to the rock climbing wall. I had met H- before, a great chica with amazing rock climbing abilities and a fun personality, but I hadn't met her boyfriend J- yet, also a baller rock climber and a generally cool person. Anyways, dinner was a success. The menu? 

Spinach Salad
Beet and Mascarpone Salad (AMAzing) 
Fresh Pasta with Homemade Pasta Sauce
Lavender and Walnut Scones with Lemon Curd and Fresh Berries 

Overall, the night was filled with yummy tastes, good conversation, and a plan to go rock climbing! 

For those of you who haven't rock climbed before: 

1. Do it, it's super fun.
2. The people that are making it look easy are LYING. They just practice a lot.
3. It's scary when you get up high and look down. No matter how ballin' you are, it's scary. 
4. Seriously do it. It'll be an experience that's simultaneously heart-pounding and addictive.

So we went out yesterday night to the site, our backpacks packed with various and sundry items, including multiple nalgenes, over 4.5 gallons of water, climbing ropes, shoes, and a tooth brush. We were well packed. Setting up the tent was loads of fun, I realized both A) how useless I was in that matter B) how much I am definitely from the city. But we managed, I learned, and Tyler and I fell asleep under the starry Texas night with Jacques standing guard. Honestly, he woke me up every hour on the hour by growling at a shadow in the distance. Our protector--a 12 lb. neurotic poodle. 

Anyways, we woke up at the ungodly hour of 5AM, with the sun still down, but the coffee definitely on, and were packed up and headed out to "demon mountain" by 7:00. It's not really called demon mountain, but I shook my fist at it vigorously several times, so I decided to name it that. 

Man alive was that hike hard! Seriously, I was like, "oh cool, a fun little hike, how nice" LIES. H-, J-, and Thoppy were running up that beast of a mountain, while I was huffing and puffing like a 40 year old smoker with emphysema behind them, flashing the thumbs up sign when they looked back so as to not look like a lost and confused puppy. Meanwhile, the real puppy, Jacques, who was on a leash in my hand, was bounding around, jumping gleefully from rock to rock. It was as though the "wilderness" had turned him from normal poodle-dog, into poodle-wolf, capable of a great many feats of jumping that his person was clearly incapable of doing. 12 lb dog > me on a hike. 

We finally made it up to the top of the mountain, where I spent my time vacillating between admiring the gorgeous view of the desert-area, greenery, and sunrise, and looking over the precipice trying to internalize my impending doom. Clearly unable to comprehend my deep-seated fear, H-, J-, and Thoppy happily went along setting up the rock climbing gear, and made their way individually up the climbing routes. I must say, I gained a new respect for Thoppy--he showed that mountain whose boss...until he twisted his ankle, and a bit after too. I, in turn, simply stared at the whole situation of them climbing the demon-mountain, paralyzed with fear. I politely declined climbing, saying "who would look after the dog? He's clearly afraid" [Reality: poodle-dog to poodle-wolf transformation was complete. He was not afraid.]

My big accomplishment there: I actually stood up on the slanty mountain by myself, and looked over the edge. I think that me and that mountain are going to become friends some day. Don't the best friendships start with rooted fear? 

Anyways, long story short, we hiked down again, and I climbed a smaller mountain [Reality: not a mountain, a large rock]. Yes, that's right, victory was mine. I took on my fear by climbing, and claiming, my very own rock. I grabbed on to "holds," I maneuvered, and I learned how to do it properly and better, so that next time maybe I will go on demon-mountain. 

After that crazy day, what do I need to do to unwind? Make rosemary, lemon shortbread cookies! I got the inspiration from this lovely lady, but I didn't have any thyme, so I figured I'd try rosemary and see how it worked out. 

GREAT. That's how. These cookies have a light flavor of rosemary (if you want it heavier, use more than I used) with the lemon kicking in later. Great for afternoon tea, a thank you gift for someone, or just a snack. 


Rosemary Lemon Shortbread
Modified from

1 cups of granulated sugar
3 cups flour
3 sticks butter
1 tsp. vanilla
0.5 tsp. salt
2 tbsp. lemon juice
1.5 tsp. lemon zest (one medium lemon) 
1 tbsp. fresh rosemary, chopped up

Preheat the oven to 325. Attach the paddle attachment to your mixer, and blend together the bugger and sugar until it's light and fluffy, about 2 min. Then add in the vanilla, the salt, the lemon juice, the zest, and the rosemary. Mix on medium-high until incorporated. 

Then, turn your mixer down to slow, and add in the flour. When it's all added, turn your mixer up to high for 30 seconds, to make sure all the flour is mixed in properly. 

Divide the dough into two equal balls. Get some plastic wrap, and wrap the balls up and refrigerate for at least 30 min. 

When you want to bake it, role it out to about 1 in. think, and either cut it into square, or cut out shapes (I used hearts). Be careful, if the dough gets too warm, it'll be hard to work with. It's better to do it when its cold. 

Place them on a parchment paper or silpat lined baking sheet, and cook them for about 10 min, or until they are golden brown on the edges. Pull them out, let them cool for about 5 min. and then try one!

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Crisis Pregnancy Centers, San Francisco, and My Thoughts

Summary: The article explains that, like other areas of our country, San Francisco is trying to pass a law that makes it illegal for "crisis pregnancy centers" make false claims about the services they provide and to mislead women about their choices. 

My Thoughts

Crisis pregnancy centers and other free clinics are frequently used by low income girls and women when they think they might be or are pregnant. These are places they feel they can go to learn about and weigh their options about this life-changing event. 

Low-income communities usually have little access to health clinics or health care professionals, so crisis pregnancy centers in these communities can be seen as a boon for many women. Pregnant, scared, and able to turn to a health care professional that can assess my situation and tell me what I can do? Great!

You walk into a crisis pregnancy facility where you are greeted by people in scrubs and other medical-wear, looking very professional. You sign in on a clip board and you go sit down in what looks like a doctor's waiting room. You pull out a magazine, and wait for your name to be called. When it is, they take you back, weigh you, take your height and blood pressure, and write it all down and say "someone will be with you shortly." Sounds like you're in a doctors office, no? 

No. These centers frequently lack even a single licensed medical professional on staff. Not a doctor, not a nurse, not a medical assistant, not anyone. The entire above scenario is a facade, meant to fool women into thinking they are about to receive information from a professional that is going to give them all their options. 

In fact, most are run by religious groups whose primary goal is to lead women away from abortion. That's not a bad thing necessarily, except when they purport to be neutrally providing all the options. Many have been caught providing false and incomplete information their "patients". That's where it become totally unacceptable.

Not providing a complete picture or selectively providing information strips an individual of control over their own choices and life. The low income women these centers service have lost control over their own lives in many ways already: poor public education leading to limited social mobility, limited access to health care leading to uncontrolled chronic diseases, and more.  As a community we have the responsibility to protect these individuals from the false claims of predatory facilities. 

So I whole-heartedly agree with many of the states and cities that have chosen to take actions to regulate these clinics. Why not make it so that any clinics that claims to provides information and services to pregnant women, have to place a sign in their waiting rooms that says whether or not they have trained medical professionals in the clinic, and what services they provide. This would include Planned Parenthood and other family planning clinics, and is a completely reasonable demand to protect women at a time when we may be at our most vulnerable. 

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Carrot, Fennel, Red Onion Salad. And I have a Husband.

I made this salad. My husband loved it. 

Yep, that's right, my husband. He's pretty awesome. He's this nice guy I talked about before. Now he's a nice husband. 

Our wedding was wonderful. I felt so blessed to have such loving family and friends come and see us. More so, I felt lucky that this guy that I got to saw at 9:06 AM on July 16th was going to be my husband. He is going to be mine, forever, and I'm going to be his. It's exhilarating, wonderful, happy, and smile-y all at once, and not in the least bit scary. 
Now on to food. I tried writing about the economic situation of the country right now, but my irritation just prevented me from producing a good critique, explanation, analysis, etc. I figured writing in a childish way would muddle my point, and there was no point doing that because I felt that my point was important. So, maybe later eh? 

Anyways, the salad! It's easy, it's simple, and it takes like...10 minutes. I whipped it up from stuff we had in the fridge, just lying around. It goes great on top of lettuce, with some cherry tomatoes, cheese, and a homemade buttermilk ranch dressing (made especially awesome by my husband's homemade mayo...yes I use that word as often as possible now :-D). 

I'll post about the ranch dressing later, which also takes about 10 minutes or so to make. 

The carrot salad also tastes great just by itself OR topped on a pita with hummus and cheese OR with a dollop of creme fraishe on top!

Enjoy :-) 

Carrot, Fennel, Red Onion Salad
3 carrot, peeled, sliced into half moon shapes
0.25 red onion diced finely
4 tbsp. fresh fennel greens
2 tbsp. Fresh Lemon Juice
1 tbsp. Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Salt and Pepper to taste

Mix together the veggies, toss in about olive oil and lemon juice. Add in salt and pepper to taste.