Celebrate good times, come on!

Here's Daniel with his birthday loot. All three of his presents--giant stuffed sea turtle from us, play camera and drill from Ma & Pa--were huge hits. Before I tell you more, let me acknowledge that I am on (in) a Pop Song Blog Title roll (rut).

Big fun was had at Daniel's shin-dig last night. As promised, I'll recount the making of the Chocolate Lace Cake.

As I have mentioned before, I take as my primary source for cake recipes Rose Levy Beranbaum's peerless Cake Bible. I have no use for flimsy genoises which must needs be infused with syrups simple or otherwise. No. Give me instead either the Downy Yellow Butter Cake or the Chocolate Butter Cake: rich, moist, and yes: buttery. Then frost with Rose's Neo-Classic Chocolate Buttercream Frosting. Ice the top with fluffy flourishes, but keep the sides smooth. This is your result:
Then sprinkle edible gold dust over the fresh frosting and blow gently to disperse the dust:

Melt a 3.5 oz. 70% cocoa chocolate bar; load the melted chocolate into a sandwich-size zipper lock bag and close. Cut the tiniest end off one of the bottom corners of the bag; drizzle the chocolate onto a prepared sheet of waxed paper. (Prepare the sheet by drawing a line equal to the circumference of the cake pan; a 9-inch cake pan's circumference is ~28.5 inches. Then draw a line 5 inches long perpendicular to each end of the long line. This is your guide.) Your drizzle should look something like this:
Now you must wait for the chocolate to harden; the time this takes depends on the temperature of your kitchen. You'll know it's ready when it loses its gloss. Don't wait too long; it needs to be able to hold its shape, but still be flexible enough to wrap around the cake. Once it's ready, fold the bottom edge of the waxed paper under so that the chocolate is right on the edge.

Banish all potentially distracting persons from the room. Carefully lift the paper up and set it on the cake plate right next to the cake. Press it very gently to the cake as you wrap it. Then, while reciting childhood prayers under your breath, peel the paper away from the chocolate, easing the chocolate towards its frosting home as you do so. You will then have this:
That photo is not blurry; it is your eyes, which have misted over with pride and wonder at your accomplishment. Put the cake in the fridge so that the chocolate and frosting can set. As little as a half hour later, serve the cake to a suitably impressed audience:

Other big news in celebrations:

1) This cool writer I know just won a medal--the Best in State Fiction Award! I'm so proud.

2) Four bloggers I (stalk) read daily have recently won The Rising Blogger's 'Post of the Day' awards; Judd clearly has excellent taste, as Radioactive Jam, Bub & Pie, Mental Tesserae, and a-muse-ing are among the best blogs I've found.
**UPDATED: Adriana at What I Made for Dinner is The Rising Blogger's winnner today! Congratulations! And good use of fiddlehead ferns! Yum...

3) Have I mentioned that #1 son Christian got the highest grade in the whole eighth grade on the NY State science test? Or is it just that I am tempted to brag about it every five seconds?

4) Last but most miraculously, I won the Haiku Contest! The competition was fierce, but friendly and hilarious. Here I am, waving to the adoring crowd before walking down the staircase to accept my award:

(Not really. That's me two years ago winning something else. The photo is here mainly to make the fabulous pezmama happy.)

I'll go celebrate all these victories by eating some leftover cake!


A Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On

If idle hands are the devil's workshop, I should be demon-free for the next several weeks. We've got all kinds of doings on the agenda here at the Perkins Homestead. Here's an update on activities recently past and in the immediate future.

Saturday I had huge success tracking down details about my cousin Albert Vanderveer (above) and his family. When I work on genealogy, I feel like a cross between Sherlock Holmes and Lara Croft. Just can't get enough.

My favorite living writer, Mark Helprin, had an Op-Ed published in yesterday's New York Times. Read it here while it's still free. It's so great to read something non-fiction of his that I agree with; he and I are on opposite ends of the political spectrum.

Today a certain sweet toddler turns three. I'll be making my famous Chocolate Lace Cake in his honor this afternoon (I'll post photos tomorrow).

What with the cake, the Weed Dragon, the Trek, the book, not to mention Little League, dance, the piano recital, and several Memorial Day social engagements, I'd better get on the stick right away. I'll be back soon!


Our Family Motto

A couple of years ago, Patrick went to a workshop for men at our church which focused on sharing ways for fathers to create and enhance family unity. One featured speaker had brought his teenage son; together they disclosed the steps they had taken in this regard. They had made a poetic Family Creed, memorializing in verse their values. They had a Family Song that they sang together which expressed why their family is great. And they had made up a Family Motto: "H______s Make It Happen." Father and son agreed that these simple things had strengthened the loving bonds in their home.

Now, I think this is very sweet. Good for them. But earnestness sometimes brings out the smart alec* in my good husband, and this incident was no exception. During the workshop, he texted his awesomely brilliant smart alecky friend (not me, a guy friend), writing, "Our motto is 'Perkinses Eat a Lot.'" Whereupon his friend responded, "Ours is 'F_______s Blow Stuff Up.'" (His boys had had many an explosive adventure in the basement slop sink when they were teenagers.)

Our little circle of friends now has mottos like "There's No Problem Ice Cream Can't Cure," "The Fewer, the Merrier," and "S______s Never Ask for Directions." I'm sure these fall beyond the scope of the H_____ family's intent, but they have created bonds of their own.

All this is a very lengthy prelude to telling you that I was musing ecstatically upon our treasured Family Motto just last night. Patrick and I went to dinner in the City with two lovely friends from our congregation after visiting the temple, and our meal was exquisite.

We went to Picholine, where Terrance Brennan's cuisine reigns supreme. We've been there several times before; this sublime restaurant features a cheese cave tended by a full-time fromager, Max McCalman. At Picholine, our turophilia can be indulged to the fullest extent allowed by law. The other food has always been lovely as well. But I wouldn't have rated it as highly as that of, say, Chanterelle or Bouley--until last night. I don't know what Terry's been up to, but he has kicked it up a notch.

Patrick's aunt says that you can tell how nice a restaurant is by how much extra stuff they bring you; Picholine excels in this area. The waiter brought us a plate with a shot glass full of a chilled Cucumber Cumin Soup, a tiny 'tot' of Brandade, and a Mushroom Panna Cotta Tartlet with a Parmesan Cracker. The Brandade was like tasting God's recipe for fish sticks.

After these amuse-bouches, my appetizer came: Frog Leg Tempura with Foie Gras and a Curried Mayonnaise. I will confess that I'd never eaten frog's legs before, but I'll eat just about anything with foie gras in or on or near it. Guess what? Frog's legs don't taste like chicken. They have a sweet, smoky, tender flavor all their own, and I was wishing for about 24 more when I was done. Patrick had a Sea Urchin Panna Cotta topped with Caviar--sweet cream o' the sea.

Oh, have mercy. My main course was Lamb Saddle with Artichoke Hearts Barigoule and Garlic. Succulent, with perfectly balanced, complex flavors. I tell you, Terrance Brennan is a chef like Monet was a painter. Patrick had Veal Medallions with Morels, Peas, and this gorgeous cheese called Brescianella Stagionata. I can't tell you how his was, because at this point we weren't even offering tastes to each other the way we usually do. But it looked fantastic.

Ahhh, the cheeses. We told the fromager that we love all cheeses and asked him to make a tasting plate for the table. He did not disappoint. My favorite of the eight was the Fium' Orbu, a sheep's milk cheese made by a little old man on the island of Corsica. The fromager told us this cheese might die with its maker, which I fervently hope will not happen. All the cheeses were lovely.

Dessert. Folks, I make really good apple pie. My apple crisp rocks (the secrets are to use local apples and to double the topping). So when I tell you that the Warm Caramel Apple Brioche with Apple Salad and Salted Caramel Ice Cream was the best apple dessert I've ever consumed, know that I do not speak lightly. I'm serious; I almost broke down crying at the first bite. My lemon verbena tisane was the perfect complement to the brioche's light richness. Or rich lightness. As you can see, it defied my pathetic attempts at description.

More extras: little trays of truffles, nougats, and fruit gums followed the dessert. Call it 'second dessert.' The grapefruit fruit gum was like a rarified Sour Patch Kid. It tasted like real grapefruit, but it had a big, sweet-sour intensity that belied its baby size.

We left the restaurant pleasantly full, still mulling it all over as we drove home. Our two friends also enjoyed the meal very much, but I don't want to double the length of this post describing their great choices.

Perkinses Eat a Lot. And they love their food, be it a Sloppy Joe or an evening's bounty like last night's. I don't hold with demonizing food, or feeling guilty about it, or talking about how unhealthy or sinful it is to indulge in it. Food is a blessing, a gift from God.

I do not believe food makes us sick or fat. I believe that what is going on in our minds and spirits has far more to do with metabolism or the body's other functions than science can yet measure.

All I am saying is, give peace a chance. End your war with food. Don't worship it, but do savor it with thanks and praise to its Creator. Share it with as many people as you can; let's take the energy we used to spend on ambivalence over food and use it to find ways to feed the world. And if you ever get a chance, go to Picholine and raise a glass in memory of me.

*The fact that P is sometimes a smart alec makes him exponentially more attractive to me.


Poetic Mercy

I've been having a grand time with Radioactive Jam's Titanium Haiku Contest. It brings back sweet memories of adolescence; I'll sketch a couple of scenes for you.

In eighth grade I had a friend named Monica. We were in the G&T program together; in California in the late 70s, "Gifted & Talented" meant "tons of field trips." It was excellent. Our most frequent destination was the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco, where we saw a boatload of Shakespeare and other great plays.

On the bus rides from and back to Rancho Cordova, Monica and I collaborated on a very specific subgenre of poetry. We had studied "The Raven" early in the year, finding Poe's meter of choice compelling to the point of addiction. Monica and I took turns writing stanzas about whatever occurred to us. Monica was obsessed with the TV show "Dallas." Many of her verses speculated on the marital strife between Pam and Bobby and what kind of evil conspiracy the Cartel really was.

I, not being allowed to watch "Dallas," had no such bounteous muse, but I found plenty of fodder in hot topics such as:

Whether Mr. Scimemi Hates Me Specifically or All Students Generally;
The Comparative Merits of a Hostess Cherry Pie or a Lemon Pie for Lunch;
Would I Have Made Frodo Female, Had I Written The Lord of the Rings; and
Will Ian R. Ever Return My Affections?

Here's a sample of Monica's work:

While J.R. employs his cunning, poor Sue Ellen sits out sunning,
Hoping for her tan to bring her new love through the open door--
But at South Fork, many worries: This affair will bring more flurries!
Cliff should really try to hurry, take his Sue away before
J.R. finds out their betrayal, calls his Beauty Queen a whore!
Quoth Miss Ellie, "Nevermore!"

And mine:

While I sit here, hoping, dreaming, Ian doesn't know my scheming,
How I try to catch his fancy, make him mine forevermore.
Two-faced Heather looks so trashy. How can Ian find her flashy?
Can't he see I'm so much smarter? How in common we have more?
Both of us like books like Tolkien's. He must know I'm not a bore.
My love cuts me to the core.

Chief among our challenges were finding new, workable rhymes for 'nevermore.' Our poems were a sort of group therapy; the bonus was that I stayed in the loop on the hippest TV gig of the decade, a key to social success in junior high.

Three years later, my Debate and Reader's Theater partner, Jim Orlando, was one of my best (read: only) friends. Traveling to and from Speech and Debate Tournaments, Jim and I kept stage fright at bay by composing outrageous blues verses. These were in A-B-B-A (not the supergroup), call and response form:

Jim: Really late last Saturday night-nah nah na-na-na naaaah-nah.

Luisa: Joanie and me, we had a fight-nah nah na-na-na naaaah-nah.
She told me my speech was bad-nah nah na-na-na naaaah-nah.

Jim: I gave her a slap like she'd never had-nah nah na-na-na naaaah-nah.

...ad infinitum.

The key to this game was coming up with a perfectly scanning and rhyming line to the one first set out without any kind of pause. The scat breaks gave us a little extra time to think. Beats could be subdivided, if necessary. We never got tired of this, and it had the added advantage of keeping us mentally in sync; that year the two of us went to State Championships in the Model Congress event.

My takeaway on these images of versifications past? A) I'm a doggerel junkie; and B) road trips seem to be conducive to inspiration. Next time I feel any writer's block, I'm heading for the parkway.


It's the most wonderful time of the year....

I love it when my kids get out of school and are around all summer long. I love that they can play and read for hours on end. I also love what has become a family tradition: we have had a home-summer school every summer for the past nine years. We spend two to three hours together each weekday with structured schedules and high expectations.

Every May I take inventory of what we have, figure out what we need, then order it so that we'll have it by the end of June when 'regular' school gets out. That's what I'm doing today.

Here's what we use:

Overall Guiding Syllabus and Inspiration: The Well-Trained Mind (TWTM)
Grammar: Rod & Staff Building English series
Spelling: Spelling Workout series
Penmanship: Rod & Staff Penmanship series
Math: Saxon series
Art: Drawing with Children, Drawing with Older Children & Teens, museum websites
French: The Rosetta Stone program

A caveat on the Rod & Staff curriculum: These are scripture-based books published by devout Mennonites in Kentucky. I use them because they are the most rigorous, thorough texts available. Because we are Bible-readin' Christians, I don't mind assigning my children to write out or diagram sentences like "John, the son of Zacharias and Elizabeth, was the forerunner of Christ" or "Abraham, trusting in God's promise, obeyed His command"--but you might.

Usually we follow TWTM's comprehensive four-year rotating History/Science curriculum, but this year we're taking an interdisciplinary approach to that carrot of all carrots: The School of Rock. Yes, just like in the fabulous movie, we'll have courses in Rock History, Rock Theory, and Rock Appreciation. It may sound like a boondoggle, but we'll be working hard on analytical skills and expository writing, with daily, level-appropriate essay assignments.

Luckily, I've already prepared the School of Rock syllabus. My uber-friend Shauna has created 17 CDs to supplement our own collection for the listening/appreciation sections. We started the School of Rock last summer, but chose to abort the mission due the insanity of the house renovation. The kids are raring to go this year and are especially excited about our culminating Road/Field Trip to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland at the end of August.

We use a very effective reward system, with the kids earning stickers for every subject assignment accomplished every day. At the beginning of the summer, they each choose something they'd like to earn, a Harry Potter book on CD, for instance, then we figure out how many pages of stickers they'll need to fill up to earn it. Piano practice and a minimum of a half hour of independent reading are also mandatory, daily sticker-earning activities (independent reading is always a slam dunk).

There is occasional grumbling, but for the most part our program runs smoothly. I always have the kids start with math, grammar, and penmanship, since these are the least liked subjects. Science and history (and School of Rock this year), being the most fun, are saved for the end of the school 'day.' The baby naps, then plays with math manipulatives, pattern blocks, or puzzles while the rest of the kids study.

We all sit around the kitchen table; I travel from chair to chair as needed, spending the most one-on-one time with the youngest. The older kids can work independently on quite a few of their subjects at this point.

Special foci this year will be intensive work on essay construction for Christian and James; having Hope memorize the multiplication tables; and teaching Tess to read. I'll also get some Elton John, Billy Joel, and other piano-heavy sheet music for the boys to explore as part of both the School of Rock and their piano time.

I've got composition books full of the kids' work from summers past; it's satisfying for all of us to page through them and see their progress from end of June to end of August as well as from year to year.

Why do I do this? Because I believe knowing the difference between an appositive and a noun of direct address is important. Because as good as our school is, my kids won't learn how to parse sentences, who the Merovingians were, or how Earl King influenced Led Zeppelin during their time there. Because it gives some structure to our otherwise free-flowing summer days. Because I like being involved in my children's learning processes. Because I cherish the hope that they will become lifelong learners, and I want to give them the tools to be able to do so.

But mostly? Because I said so.