Wednesday, May 23, 2012

I've been thinking about this...

Yesterday I did some baking and a special cooking project for dinner. I haven't allowed myself to bake as often during the last six months unless it was specifically for my husband or for some event; I enjoy my slow, steady weight loss too much to jeopardize it with treats. Which means I love trying on clothes from my own closet and finding that they no longer fit. I was leafing through a magazine we scarfed up from somewhere (buy a magazine? Never!), though, and found a four ingredient cookie recipe. Peanut butter, brown sugar, an egg, and baking soda. Peanut butter, just ground peanuts in a jar, the natural kind, with no other ingredients, is a staple in this establishment. A source of protein with an oil that is one of the healthiest, it is a great dip for celery sticks or apple slices, and it's a treat on Ezekiel bread toast with a drizzle of honey. I don't get many treats these days, so, yes, that is a treat for me. I also like a little Nutella on a spoon then dipped into peanut butter. Mmm.

Now I know you're wondering, what is up with Starwatcher? This is her education blog, not a cooking/baking blog. Please bear with me and I'll make the connection, I promise.

So I combined the four ingredients, the only really bad one being the 3/4 cup of brown sugar, ran the mixer through it for a bit, and popped out little single teaspoons of thick dough onto parchment paper and baked those little buttons for ten minutes. They came out like the peanut butter cookies I so love, but lighter, a little crisper, but not much, and way healthier. No wheat flour, no butter or other animal fats, not that much refined sugar, and my husband and I both agree that I could probably cut back on the brown sugar. For the one large egg, I used two of my dear hens' bantam eggs, free-range, which have less cholesterol than hens-in-a-cage eggs. Wow. I ate a bunch of those little suckers after they had cooled. Light. Delicious. 

Not only that, but they got me thinking of ways to use other ingredients that I know are healthy, like banana and oatmeal, to produce other healthy variations. This is new for me, to think about alterations to a recipe. Somehow, though, that mutation continued later in the day. I had taken a couple of large chicken breasts out of the freezer for dinner, and decided to stuff them with a stuffing that I have invented, after seeing how easy it is to make stuffing from mayo and grated cheese. I think I got that idea from some recipe blog on-line, but I have been changing it up by adding shredded spinach or carrots, or both, and substituting some Greek yogurt for part of the mayo (most of it, actually). Last night I sliced out the breasts and pounded them a little, to make it easier to stuff them, and added sliced almonds to the spinach, mayo, yogurt, and parmesan. 

Where did this cooking maverick come from, this violator of recipes?

I have some idea about this. 

I now have some time. I've been cooking more since I stopped playing out in a band (which can take up a lot of time), studying and finishing coursework for my doctorate (which sucks the life out of one) and searching for the love of my life (which also takes up a lot of time, doesn't it?). I can actually devote several hours, on some nights, to trying out a new recipe, or altering an old one so that it fits our new eating habits limiting animal fats and avoiding white foods except for cauliflower.

I also have a chance to get feedback from someone who loves me and will be gentle in his pronouncements. If the stuffed chicken breasts dry out a bit, he will eat them anyway, but make sure that I hear of it so I can spray them with a bit of olive oil during the less-than-an-hour of baking time. That is the kind of constructive critique that I need and can work from to improve a recipe. He and I are working together to eat healthier, so we value each other's feedback, as he is working on developing recipes for the blended vegetable drinks he makes in his Nutri-bullet. And yes, we do recommend these powerful blenders ($99 at Target) and the spinach- or kale- or collard green-based drinks that can be made in them. Can you say, testimonial?

A third factor that allows me to develop my cooking skills at this point in my life is choice. When I go in the kitchen to cook or bake, it is almost completely a matter of choice. We could go on with the same recipes we've been using, if I were not moved to try something new. My husband is perfectly willing to cook on nights when I don't have time or inclination. But I have become passionate about making or finding recipes that are healthier, and I've found writers of cooking blogs who entice me with their prose.
These three factors, time, response, and choice or passion, were the guiding factors in my classroom, guided as I was by Nancie Atwell's description of a reading and writing workshop. They are not factors in most public school classrooms, and my eighth grade ELA classroom felt the squeeze down from externally-generated curricula, continuous flawed testing, and data-driven fanaticism.

I had thought a bit about this when I contemplated my own skills with numbers. I was a good student in high school and advanced through a calculus class offered to an elite group of seniors. One year of it was not enough; I had to take two more semesters during my freshman year of college, but I actually GOT calculus. All of that GETTING is lost now, lo, these many years later, but the discipline and wonder of numbers and systems of thought is not lost. It took me longer, but I loved what I was studying, somehow, and was willing to give it the extra time.

I had also thought about this with relation to music. As a child, I often picked strange and difficult pieces out of piano books available at my house, and took them to lessons to ask if I could work on them. My piano teacher wisely decided to help me with them, even though they didn't fit into the repertoire she usually chose for a student at my level (by repertoire, I mean curriculum). She used my own motivation and choice to advance my skills. My violin teacher also signed on to this approach when it became clear that I was bored with finger exercises and wanted to try some real music, by real old composers, playing duets with him or with another student. I showed my boredom by engaging in bad behavior: signing my mother's name to my practice slips. Luckily, he and my parents spent more time adjusting my lessons than they did on punishing me for forgery. I loved playing, and I still play my violin today. Not so well as I might, but it is enjoyable for me and for most of the people who hear it. Same goes for the piano and for the music I will never stop singing and playing - because I am passionate about choosing to work on it.

We, as teachers, often see students who have shut down, closing out the noise of public education out of boredom. They are not always our gifted students, who will sustain some form of interest (grade consciousness) long after their brain has rejected the content of our curricula. No, often they are students some might write off as ones who just aren't into school or learning. It is so easier to just let them drift away, and yet a curriculum of choice, with constant feedback and lots of time for experimentation could draw them back in to the joy of learning and the draw of civic engagement. We certainly need more engaged citizens. If only we could break free of this pseudo-scientific data-driven business-generated curricular obsessions controlled by those who have seldom set foot in a classroom with the intent to teach.

So, like the college admissions essay that asks the writer to connect Plato with Play-doh in 500 words or less, I have connected my recent culinary excursions back to my interests in education. As always, I must acknowledge that I stand on the shoulders of giants to develop these ideas, but I can't always specify which giants. I promise I will do better with that in my dissertation, but here in my blog, a more casual genre, such citation is not required.


Kathryn from Schoolmarm Style said...

Good Carol, as one of my own metaphorical (but literally shrinking- hooray for you) giants, I must humbly ask you, may I have that cookie recipe? It sounds amazing!

starwatcher236 said...

Of course, Kathryn! One cup of natural peanut butter (check the ingredients - it should just say "peanuts"), one large egg, three-quarters of a cup of light brown sugar (although I don't think light or dark matters - and I intend to experiment with less and with honey instead) and three-quarters of a teaspoon of baking soda. Blend it all together with a mixer until it is integrated (a good educationese word). Use a teaspoon measure to pop out little buttons. 350 degrees, for ten minutes. I put mine on parchment paper, but then I didn't know if I could use the parchment paper again. They also said to let them cool 5 minutes on the baking trays, but I needed to fill the trays again to bake some more, so I just slide the parchment paper with cookies right off and went on baking. They said it made sixty buttons, but I don't think it made quite that. I'm doubling it the next time I make it so I can freeze some. They are a good source of protein and I'm trying to get my mom (age 90) to eat them in the morning with her coffee. This recipe came from the June 2012 Woman's Day, amazingly enough. I'm sure they meant for us to use regular peanut butter, but it has a lot of sugar and other stuff added.