Friday, June 18, 2010

Fat Friday

Yum, yum, yum! Once again it is time for Fat Friday. I know I originally stated that I was going to do this once a month, and that is still my intent, but I fully acknowledge that I missed doing one in the month of May.

A Passion for Baking by Marcy Goldman is an outstanding baking book. The first chapter is all on baking secrets and should not be skipped. She also includes at the end of the book a source guide so that bakers everywhere can find some of the rarer ingredients she uses. I've only made a fraction of the recipes in this book as many are yeast doughs and I have zero experience with traditional yeast doughs. However, the recipes I have made have all been fabulous.

From the Giant Sweet Cheddar Biscuits, to the Pralines and Cream Pecan Caramel Muffins, to Pumpkin Pocket Cookies, this book is jammed with wonderful recipes. The Caramel Swirl Hunks (which are essentially giant chocolate chip cookie bars with homemade caramel) are out of this world. The Best-Ever Little British Butter Cake is the best shortcake I've ever had and the directions for it are extremely easy. I'm dying to try the Chunky Cheese Bread, the Double Garlic Fougasse, the Brittany Butter Cookies, and the Toronto Blueberry Buns. I'm getting hungry just thinking about these things!

The book has chapters on the following: Loaves, Rolls Baby Breads & Buns, Pizza & Other Flatbreads, Scones & Biscuits, Muffins, Cookies, Biscotti, Bars & Squares, Quick Breads & Coffee Cakes, Pies Tarts & Pastries, Sweet Yeast Baking, Cakes, Cheesecake, Holiday Baking, Grainy Goodness (which has the healthier fare), and Baker in a Hurry.

One of the pitfalls for cookbooks is incomplete directions which fortunately is not the case with this book. Nothing is more aggravating when you trying out a new recipe than to get to a point in the directions and have no idea what the author is talking about. This could be because you have no idea what "soft ball stage" is, or because they simply aren't specific enough with the steps. The only time this comes into play in this book is when she offers alternative baking options (making something smaller, making in a loaf instead of muffins etc.), because she does not always include alternative baking times for these options. (And also, there are no carrots listed in her carrot cake recipe. I thought at first it was simply a typo on the ingredient section, but no, there is no mention of them anywhere in that recipe. Can't exactly be carrot cake without them now can it?). Overall though, I find her directions to be quite complete and easy to follow.

The book is not for everyone. Many of the recipes are fairly labor intensive, although none of the techniques are exceedingly advanced. I'm a primarily self-taught baker and if you take the time to read the chapter on baking secrets you'll be just fine. But if you are looking for quick and easy recipes seek them elsewhere. Also, most of the recipes are not cheap to make. She uses high quality ingredients, and these recipes are laden with butter, eggs, sugars, extracts and where applicable, fruit, chocolate and cheese. However, that's really what I'm looking for in baked goods, explosions of flavor with great texture and heft.

I fully endorse this book, and while I will possibly let friends borrow my copy, (I'm pretty possessive of it, and frequently read it at breakfast) I won't share any of her recipes on here. Recipes can't be copyrighted (which is a whole other issue, and one I profoundly disagree with*), but I still won't do it. I don't think it is fair to her in the least and you really should have the entire book. If you want to check out some of her recipes I can recommend going to her website, Better Baking, and seeing some of the freebies she puts up there. The rest are obtained through subscription or paying per recipe like on itunes. Like the title of the book says, she has a passion for baking, and it shows. Now I want to go home and bake something.

*It makes sense that an ingredient list can't be copyrighted, but I think the procedures that are detailed (which frequently make all the difference) should be. I know that two people can independently come up with the same methodology and I understand that it would be an extremely thorny issue to try and regulate, but for professionals to not be able to protect their work is grossly unfair.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Double Post!

I don't typically post twice in the same day, but I was just reading an article/interview about/with Charlaine Harris in Writer's Digest and she puts somethings really beautifully:

"I really admire good writing no matter where I find it, or even effective hokey writing," she says. "You know, there's gotta be something that grabs you and pulls you in. Even if it's not literature, there's something about it that gets you viscerally, and that really attracts me in understanding that." (page 54 of the July/August edition of Writer's Digest).


"If it pleases you and you can write at all, it's gonna please somebody else." (also page 54).

And that's really what reading is about isn't it? Finding something you connect with and that you enjoy. To me, reading is so personal, that while you can find others that share similar tastes with you, you are never going to find someone whose taste is exactly the same as yours. And that's fine.


Five Academic Regrets I Possess
1. I wish I had had a different third grade teacher. Don't get me wrong, Mrs. Kent was an extremely nice woman, but I don't feel I learned all that much during third grade, beyond how to spell mountain and bacteria, cursive handwriting (mine has never been pretty), and multiplication tables. I was in a very fortunate position at my elementary school in that not only did I have an older sister who served as the guinea pig for the teachers, but also because my mother was able to request which class I was placed in. For two years in a row though, I was placed in the less challenging of the two classes. In second grade she made the right decision, even though I was terribly bored in Mrs. Smith's class. (The next year she went on to teach kindergarten). I laugh to imagine the chaos and scenes that would have ensued had I been in Mrs. Stedham's class though. The first time she told one of my classmates that the question he/she had asked was stupid I would have been up in arms, raising Cain. However, I think my mom missed the mark in third grade as I got on really well with Ms. Green when three years later she was my social studies teacher. I know my sister hated being in her class, but Bird went on to major in art, while I did not. We have very different personalities, and I think I would have been fine. Although, my childhood nemesis was in that class.....hmm....third, sixth, and tenth grade were the only years I had a break from him. Maybe Mom made the right decision after all.
2. I wish I had not taken GT English in 7th grade. Seems counter- intuitive that I would express a desire to have been in a less challenging class in 7th grade when I just expressed a desire to have been more challenged in third. The thing is, that English class wasn't very challenging, nor were the assignments especially clever. I disliked the teacher, particularly after she told me that "feline is the word for female dog," and being in that class meant I was forced to take pre-algebra with the absolutely worst teacher I have ever encountered as a student. Ever. In my entire educational experience. Had I been in a regular English class, I would have taken pre-algebra with Mrs. Mehal, who wound up being my teacher for regular 7th grade math for the second half of the year after I switched out of the class from hell. Of course, that would have meant I missed out on one of my all time favorite teachers, Ms. Hartley in 9th grade. Oh well.
3. I wish I had studied Latin. The more I learn about it, the more I feel cheated that I didn't study Latin. Not because of the extra boost my verbal scores on standardized tests would have received, but because it is the primary origin of our language. Also, had I studied Latin I could have majored in Classical Civilizations, which brings us to number four.
4. I wish I had majored in Classical Civilizations. I ended up with a minor in the program because of how many of the courses I took to fulfill my elective and feminist studies requirements. I was inducted into their honor society my senior year, three of my favorite classes in college were in that department (Hellenistic Greece and Republican Rome, Greek and Roman Myth, and The Classical Tradition), and I had a great relationship with three of the professors, as compared to one in the department for what I actually majored in.
5. I wish I had taken the opportunity to study abroad during college. I honestly never even looked into studying abroad because I was a Speech and Communication major and the two didn't seem to make sense together. I felt you needed to be majoring in something international to justify it. Had I only known! Still, if I had studied Latin and therefore had a different major I could have gone to Italy or Greece.

Five Academic Joys I Have
1. I am so happy I studied French. I know that in this day and age that Spanish is far more practical, but I adore French and I'm glad I took so many years of it. Sunshine and I really wish we could afford Rosetta Stone for French so that I can refresh my memory and he can learn it.
2. I am so happy I took creative writing in 8th grade. Not only did it give me an opportunity to become friends with the person who would be my closet friend for the next three years, but that is also where I met Sunshine! (No, we haven't been together since that time, but we are getting married on the 20th anniversary of when we first met.)
3. I am so happy that I took AP English in high school. As I stated in my last post, this course was as hard or harder than anything I took in college until I was a junior. I think I would have had a much harder time in my classes had I not had this experience. Thanks Mrs. Rennar!
4. I am so happy that I had a difficult instructor for Core in college. Core was this hideous course in college that all incoming freshman were required to take. At the time of my enrollment the teachers were allowed to teach it however they saw fit, as long as they had us read all of the same books. Therefore you had the art instructor who allowed his students to make clay pinch pots (you know, like you did in elementary school) as their final, and the philosophy instructor who gave everyone A's because he resented being forced to teach the course. My professor taught Russian and he had us write papers (bare minimum of two pages) for everything we read, and we read a lot! At the time, I really disliked him, but he really made us think and for that I thank him. Here's to you Joe! (I can't remember how to spell his last name. I wonder if he still teaches there? I will look him up.)*
5. I am so happy that I have parents who not only valued education, but encouraged me to take classes on other things besides academics, such as art and dance. Do I need to elaborate more? They made me a life long learner and for that I am eternally grateful.

*Troncale! And he still teaches there.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

A Bone to Pick with Newsweek

Yesterday I encountered an article in Newsweek that really got my hackles up. Newsweek creates a list every year of America's Best High Schools. This, in and of itself, is not what bothers me. No, what bothers me is how they determine the rankings. Newsweek uses tests to come up with their rankings. Not just any tests, but AP and IB tests. In their FAQs the creators of the list explain it thus:

"We take the total number of Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate or Cambridge (AICE) tests given at a school each year and divide by the number of seniors graduating in May or June. All public schools NEWSWEEK researcher Amy Novak and I could find that achieved a ratio of at least 1.000, meaning they had as many tests in 2009 as they had graduates, were put on the list on the NEWSWEEK Web site. Each list is based on the previous year's data, so the 2010 list has each school's numbers for 2009."

Waiting to find out what they use? Nothing. That's it. They don't even look at passing rates of these exams since schools can skew those results by only allowing the best of the best to take the exams. me crazy, but don't you think passing rates reflect on how well the teachers did their jobs? Sure, every senior at a school may take an AP exam, but if only five of them pass I would not say that this is a great high school. But wait, it gets better! (Or worse, depending on how you look at it.)

Also from their FAQ section:
"5. How can you call these the best schools or the top schools if you are using just one narrow measure? High school is more than just AP or IB tests.
Indeed it is, and if I could quantify all those other things in a meaningful way, I would give it a try. But teacher quality, extracurricular activities, and other important factors are too subjective for a ranked list. Participation in challenging courses and tests, on the other hand, can be counted, and the results expose a significant failing in most high schools--less than 6 percent of the public high schools in the United States qualify for the NEWSWEEK list. "

Wow. Just wow. Really? You can't think of any way to evaluate other areas in a non-subjective way? What about using any of the following:

Age of the facility.
Student to teacher ratio.
Graduation rates: which can be done two ways 1) by comparing enrollment at the start of the year with how many graduate, or 2) going back four years to freshman class size compared to how many graduating seniors they have.
Number of scholarships awarded to graduating seniors
Number and variety of electives offered
Number of foreign languages offered
Number and variety of extracurricular activities offered
Number of computers per student
Crime rates for the area surrounding the school
Number of registered sex offenders living nearby
Number of lockdowns the school had to have in one year
Amount of money spent per student
Are they ranked in their state or nationally in any of the following programs: art, band, chorus, debate, drama, sports?

The last time I checked colleges look for well-rounded students, not just academic excellence.

The creators of the list further explain why they chose such a limited criteria:
"I think that this is the most useful quantitative measure of a high school. One of its strengths is the narrowness of the criteria. Everyone can understand the simple arithmetic that produces a school's Challenge Index rating and discuss it intelligently, as opposed to ranked lists like U.S. News & World Report's "America's Best Colleges," which has too many factors for me to judge for myself the quality of their analysis."

Really? So having a chart that show the scores for the different categories would be confusing? Ideally the top schools would score highly in those areas I mentioned. This is how Consumer Reports does rankings and people understand those. Now, I'll admit, that finding this information will be a lot trickier than simply getting the statistics of two areas that schools are happy to divulge, but almost everything I mentioned is something you can find out by looking at either the school's website, or through the websites for the county schools. As for crime rates and such, the local police can provide that, as can a number of websites that allow you to type in an address and get information.

But wait, there's more!
While they have restricted their list to public schools, and they didn't include any charter or magnet school "that draws such a high concentration of top students that its average SAT or ACT score significantly exceeds the highest average for any normal-enrollment school in the country," they did include charter and magnet schools. As in, schools that don't have to take everybody who lives in a given area. No surprise that all of the top ten are either magnet or charter schools, and that only two in the top twenty are regular high schools. That's hardly comparing apple to apples now is it? Take for instance, their number one school The School for the Talented & Gifted in Dallas Texas. It has been number one on their list for last four years. According to the Dallas Magnet School website "To be eligible, students must show good conduct and meet academic and assessment entrance requirements." Lovely. I'm sure my school would score a lot higher if we didn't have to take all the kids who were kicked out of private schools for bad behavior, or who didn't care about school. (And by the way, my high school came in 179th.) In my opinion, there should be two lists done: one for regular public schools and one for charter and magnet schools.

Also, they don't take into consideration programs like the one in place here in North Carolina where students take a course through the community college that counts towards both high school and college. Frankly, I'm not a big fan of that program since I feel it short changes the students, but for people looking at the list who are wondering why there are so few North Carolina schools on the list, compared to say, Northern Virginia, that's your answer.

I'm really not trying to dump all over the creators of this list. I think their goal is admirable. I agree with their statement that "AP, IB, and Cambridge are important because they give average students a chance to experience the trauma of heavy college reading lists and long, analytical college examinations. " My AP English class was as hard or harder than anything I took in college until my junior year, and I didn't attend a school that was considered academically lightweight. And I think it is a shame that more schools don't offer these courses, but you also have to have teachers who are willing and capable to teach these classes, and they don't get paid more for the extra work.
I find their stance regarding the criticism about not using passing rates or scores as a factor, to be admirable. They say:
"(T)hese are all schools with lots of low-income students and great teachers who have found ways to get them involved in college-level courses. We have as yet no proven way for educators in low-income schools to improve significantly their average tests scores or graduation rates. Until we do, I don't see any point in making them play a game that, no matter how energetic or smart they are, they can't win."
But ultimately, it makes their list misleading. These aren't the best high schools in a America. These are the best high schools in terms of academically rigorous curriculum being available and utilized in a very defined way (ie AP and IB) with no regard to performance.* To view the list click here.

*Although, I am sure, that many of the schools that score highly on this assessment will also score highly in the areas I listed.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Book Review: Twenties Girl

So, I finally managed to finish reading The Elegance of the Hedgehog, and while I didn't hate it, I certainly didn't love it, and I was left feeling highly disappointed by the ending. Don't get me wrong, the book uses beautiful language, but overall it is fairly cold and then once you finally start warming up to the characters-wham! Badness. But this isn't a review of that particular book. No, this is a review of the book I used as a palette cleanser: Twenties Girl by Sophie Kinsella.
Sophie Kinsella writes what most people call Chick Lit, and while I hate the term, it is rather fitting. I first became familiar with Kinsella (like most people) through her very popular Shopaholic series. I've also read her stand alone novels, Can You Keep a Secret and Undomestic Goddess. Suffice to say that she tends to be a tad formulaic in her writing. Typically, things are only going okay for our heroine, something happens that brings her world crashing down in some sort of comedic way, and ultimately she ends up finding love, happiness and a better paying/more fulfilling job. Happiness ensues. Pure cotton candy. And every once in a while you need some cotton candy.

I purchased this book at a bookstore that was going out of business for a ridiculously reduced price. I kept it tucked away for when I needed something really frothy, and fortunately my sister was able to return it to me this week because I really needed something frothy after Hedgehog. Twenties Girl does in fact contain the parts of Kinsella's formula (or more accurately, the chick lit formula), but she changed things up a bit with this one. The comedic disaster that causes our heroine's world to come crashing down is the ghost of her great aunt Sadie. Sadie needs Lara's (our heroine) help to find her missing necklace or else she can never rest. Madcap adventures and a pretty good mystery follow. The dialogue between Lara and Sadie is delightful and funny. I wasn't bothered at all by seeing some of the plots points clearly illuminated as other plot points were clever surprises. Kinsella's books aren't for everyone, but if you enjoy a comical romance with a touching and happy ending you will like Twenties Girl.