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Monthly Archives: September 2014

The Teacher Wars + Applesauce

Brian Angell Summer's Almost Over CC BY-NC-SA 2.0Initially, I decided to get my teaching certificate because I wanted to do something more for my “day job” than make coffee at Starbucks. The responses to what I had always considered a rather noble profession were unexpected — ranging from, “But what you really want to do is theatre, right? Teaching always makes me think of little gray-haired old ladies,” to “You want to work with teenagers? You’re brave” to “Remember, kids can sense fear” to “Ginge, stop this teaching business.”

It didn’t take long for me to realize that many people had either a love/hate, or at least ambivalent view of teachers. From the outside, wanting to become a teacher signified a desire to do something inherently meaningful, but it came with baggage, a “those that can’t do, teach” mentality, hence the comment about little gray-haired old ladies. Once I became a teacher, I soon recognized and appreciated the divide between public opinion about education reform and the sound of teacher lounge chatter that spoke to the most practical, on-the-ground, or, to use a more militaristic term, “in the trenches” needs toward reform. The divide was striking.

So my curiosity was definitely piqued when I heard about Dana Goldstein’s new book, The Teacher Wars: A History of America’s Most Embattled Profession. Although in the large scheme of things, I have taught in supportive and peaceful school settings, like all teachers, in every interview or teaching demo or formal lesson plan I’ve ever completed, I’ve had to account for specific learning objectives, accommodations for students with learning differences, and some form of assessment, because it apparently takes a bulwark of best practices to bridge the gaping achievement gaps between students of different socioeconomic backgrounds. Goldstein articulates the contradictory expectations of teachers in the introduction:

“For two hundred years, the American public has asked teachers to close troubling gaps… Yet every new era of education reform has been characterized by a political and media war on the existing teachers upon whom we rely to do this difficult work.”

It’s very hard work with the potential to be very rewarding, and quite frankly, I think the best teachers are the ones that simply enjoy teaching the most, that have the easiest, most natural relationships with their students, often on the basis of charisma. For the rest of us hard-working, ordinary teachers with solid “research-based methods” to draw upon, Goldstein suggests that the most progressive initiatives

“focus less on how to rank and fire teachers and more on how to make day-to-day teaching an attractive, challenging job…We must quiet the teacher wars and support ordinary teachers in improving their skills, what economist Jonah Rockoff, who studies teacher quality, calls ‘moving the big middle’ of the profession.”

The history of education reform, according to Goldstein, does just the opposite — it’s filled with various constituencies hashing out the same issues, over and over. She likens the reoccurring debates over merit pay, teacher tenure, and veteran teachers versus talented newbies from elite colleges to a “Whac-A-Mole game at the amusement park.”

In chapter one, entitled “Missionary Teachers,” Goldstein outlines the series of events that led to the feminization of the profession, including the proliferation of the “motherteacher” idea: According to the Victorian values of the time, female teachers were better equipped to instill strong moral character in their students, alongside academic rigor.

The story begins in the early 1800s with Catharine Beecher, the daughter of a Calvinist preacher who refused to undergo the dramatic religious conversion process at age fourteen. At age twenty-one, her fiancé died in a shipwreck and a sorrowful Catharine sorted through his letters, which contained similar tensions between religious faith and a passion for scholarly pursuits. Inspired by her late fiancé, Beecher wrote to her father that “The heart must have something to rest upon, and if it is not God, it will be the world.” Thus began her career in education.

She used her father’s connections to establish the Hartford Female Seminary, which provided far greater academic rigor than the norm to female students. This attracted considerable public attention, launching Beecher’s career on the national lecture circuit, during which she suggested a myriad of reasons why women should be the nation’s teacher corps. Such reasons included the large quantities of unmarried women who could put their lives to good use as “missionary teachers” on the Western frontier, and the assertion that women were better equipped than men to care for children, due to their virtue.

Goldstein points out that “after rebelling against the harsh Calvinism of their parents, the tightly knit first generation of American education reformers tended to see schools as secular churches.” This applies to the other key player at the beginning stages of the teaching profession, Horace Mann — he too, rejected Calvinism and instead, used his position in the senate of Massachusetts to require compulsory elementary education for all children in the state. In addition, Mann opened teacher training academies called “normal schools” that used remarkably similar methods as ones today, in which apprentice teachers were observed, then coached by veteran teachers.

Mann, like Beecher, promoted the idea of the “motherteacher,” capitalizing on Victorian values to perpetuate the idea that “American public schools should focus more on developing children’s character than on increasing their academic knowledge,” a task best left to female teachers. This set the American school system apart from those of Western Europe, which focused more strictly on academic rigor. By 1890, only one-third of the nation’s teachers were men.

For me, the “motherteacher” concept conjures a glossy, nostalgic image of a classroom — a neatly organized desk topped with a shiny apple, a squeaky clean blackboard, and lots of color on the walls. I say nostalgic because this has never been my experience, and I have a feeling I’m not alone in the organized chaos of sharing classrooms, running across parking lots, wheeling projectors down hallways, teaching leotard-clad students in computer labs…

Out of nostalgia for the idea, however bygone it may actually be, here is a recipe for…applesauce. How’s that for a segue way? Lately I’ve had the privilege of helping my sister-in-law with the home schooling of her five kids one day a week. We made applesauce with a food mill, no frills except a little cinnamon and brown sugar, and it was deliciously tart. Here is another version, that I’ll call “desert applesauce” that’s got a little more sweetness added, including several pads of butter…

Desert Applesauce
From Apple Cookbook by Olwen Woodier


Vegetable peeler
Chef’s Knife
Cutting Board
Measuring spoons
Measuring cups
Food processor or potato masher


10 medium, tart apples (don’t use Red Delicious or summer harvested apples)
3 tablespoons apple juice or cider
1/2 cup brown sugar
3 tablespoons butter
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger

  • Peel, core, and quarter the apples. Place them in a large saucepan with the apple juice.
  • Cover the pot and simmer for approximately 30 minutes, until the apples are tender. Either purée in a blender or food processor, or if you’re lazy like me, mash the apples with a potato masher.
  • Stir the brown sugar, butter, cinnamon, and ginger into the warm apple purée.

More to come about the history of education reform, post 1890 — in the meantime, ENJOY!

Andrew Seaman Applesauce CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

It’s All in the Pasta

Screen Shot 2013-12-15 at 1.06.14 PMAuthor Daphne Kingma suggests that we all have a signature strength, or a few, allowing for resilience during times of distress. She encourages her reader to get in touch with theirs, for example:

the ability to analyze things
the ability to look at life from an upside-down or inside-out point of view
the ability to organize and sequence things
the ability to see core truths
the ability to read energy and empathize

How about a deep and abiding love of good pasta? I remember a yoga teacher once saying that “focus is the opposite of depression,” key word being “focus” rather than “happiness” or “optimism,” words that tend to sound phony and inaccessible when you’re actually feeling depressed. But pasta? Pasta sounds delicious when you’re actually feeling depressed. And it takes focus to execute a tasty pasta dish. So, according to my logic, pasta equals the opposite of depression. Am I right?

Kingma articulates the significance of a “signature strength” in loftier terms:

“Just as your spinal cord runs all the way through your spine, there is a through-line of giftedness, a unique and powerful way of responding, that runs throughout your life. Certain things that were true of you at age seven, fourteen, and twenty-one are still true, no matter how much life may be rocking and rolling around you.”

If I really dig deep, there’s a through-line that involves pasta from the age of seven, and then at fourteen, and even at the age of twenty-one. Just recently I spent a long weekend visiting my parents and we made fettucini noodles by hand, something my dad used to do with my brothers and I when I was really little. This time we used a Kitchen Aid Mixer with the fancy attachments.

In recent years, I’ve experimented with various recipes for homemade macaroni and cheese — I’d vouch for both Martha Stewart’s recipe and Cristina Ferrare’s, sans truffle oil — and secretly I want to cook my way through Giada De Laurentiis’s Everyday Pasta, which I’ve owned for a few years. When I’m low on groceries, I like making her rotelli with walnut sauce, which makes a hearty and satisfying meal out of little more than parmesan, walnuts, milk or cream, butter, and olive oil. It’s rather like Smitten Kitchen’s recipe for sphagetti with cheese and black pepper which has been on my “must try” list for years. Okay, there’s another through-line that runs through my life as sure as my spinal cord, and it’s a deep and abiding love of CHEESE. Don’t tell anyone.

To me, Ina Garten’s recipe for pasta, pesto, and peas epitomizes late summer pasta eating at its finest — a balance of fresh, resourceful, and cheesy 🙂 In my opinion, since fettucini noodles are more filling and somehow more elevated than bowtie pasta or spaghetti, they pair well with the richly flavored and textured sauce. Homemade noodles are even better 🙂 When I cooked this meal with my parents, we used all 4 cups of pesto instead of the 1 1/2 cups listed. It turned out delicious.


Measuring cups
Liquid measuring cups
Food processor
Measuring spoons
Mixing bowls
Chef’s knife
Cutting board
Salad spinner
Paper towels
Small skillet
Lemon juicer or fork
Cheese grater

Pasta with Pesto and Peas
Adapted from Ina Garten’s recipe

Ingredients, Pesto

Fettucini noodles, cooked according to package directions*
1/4 cup toasted walnuts
1/4 cup toasted pine nuts
3 tablespoons minced garlic (9 cloves)
5 cups fresh basil leaves*
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon black pepper
1 to 1 1/2 cups olive oil
1 cup freshly grated Parmesan or Asiago

Ingredients, Sauce

1 10 oz package frozen spinach, defrosted and squeezed dry
3 tablespoons lemon juice
1 1/4 cups mayonnaise
1/2 cup Parmesan
1 1/2 cups frozen peas, defrosted
1/3 cup pine nuts. toasted
3/4 teaspoons kosher salt
3/4 teaspoons pepper

*If the fettucini noodles are homemade, cook for 3-4 minutes in boiling water, or until al dente.

*To clean the basil, place it in a colander and briefly run under cold tap water. Dry the basil in a salad spinner and remove any extra water by squeezing the basil between paper towels.

  • Get out all the ingredients, for both the pesto and the sauce. Measure out the ingredients for the pesto and place set everything out in mixing bowls. Toast the walnuts and the pine nuts together in small, dry skillet, until the nuts are fragrant and warm.
  • In a food processor fitted with the steel blade, process the nuts and the garlic for about 15 seconds. Add the basil, salt, and pepper and process until the basil is cut into small pieces. Scrape the sides of the bowl with a spatula as needed.
  • With the processor running, slowly pour the olive oil down the feed tube until the pesto has the consistency of a thick, liquidy purée. Add the Parmesan and purée until combined.
  • Squeeze the defrosted spinach with paper towels. Repeat this process until barely any water can be squeezed out. Squeeze and measure the lemon juice. Add the spinach and the lemon juice to the pesto in the food processor. Add the mayonnaise and pulse to combine.
  • Measure out the remaining ingredients for the sauce and have them ready. Once the pasta noodles are cooked, combine the noodles and the sauce in a big bowl. Sprinkle with the Parmesan, defrosted peas, toasted pine nuts, salt and pepper.

Screen Shot 2013-12-15 at 1.19.47 PM

Letting Go of Summer with a Sweet Tart

photo My husband tells me that I am a risk taker. I’ve never thought of myself as one, but being in my late twenties with a few big decisions under my belt, I realize that I have a rather high threshold for taking things on and learning as I go. I think my relatively high threshold for risk-taking is buttressed by a strong amount of dogged persistence, which tends to carry me through. In fours of being a teacher, I’ve taught four different curriculums and consulted on a few more, I’ve worked retail, taught ACT classes, group fitness classes, and a little freelance writing… Hmm… what does this say about me? Sometimes I take pride in being able to juggle different things and sometimes I bemoan my lack of a single focus 🙂

The other day I happened upon Live to Write — Write to Live’s post on The Genius of Curiosity, and I thought, yeah, that’s me. I can’t seem to commit to a singular passion in life, so maybe, just maybe, I possess the genius of curiosity? 🙂 In chapter four of The Ten Things, called “Letting Go,” Kingma reminds us that

“As human beings, we are evolutionary animals. There is a push, a draw in us to move toward and become that which we haven’t become yet — more, better, wiser, more deeply loved, more deeply loving.”

The notion of personal evolution does seem to hint at what’s “genius” about living in a state of unfolding curiosity. It’s certainly hard to feel satisfied with yourself, much less stuck in a state of complacency, when you have multiple interests, or feel pulled to spend your time in different ways. And that’s a good thing, right? Writer Suddenly Jamie, in her post on The Genius of Curosity articulates it this way:

“Curiosity is more valuable than passion. Passion is blinding and consuming. It is biased and stubborn. Passion is exclusionary. Curiosity, on the other hand, is playful and open. Curiosity can learn through discovery. Curiosity expands your world; passion diminishes it, closing in around you like tunnel vision.”

I think our society collectively denies so many things that are interesting and valuable about a life that travels in a zig zag pattern, rather than a straight arrow. For example, we often deny that curious people, people that try different things and fail, who go through “phases,” well into adulthood, can lead some of the most passionate lives, despite how things look, in the sense that their lives are always in a phase of growth and expansion. On the other hand, there’s a palpable feeling of freedom that comes from placing limitations on our expectations of ourselves, picking a role or a goal or a direction and pursuing it narrowly, deeply, with passion. Oy.

photo-2You know what I’m feeling curious about these days? Tarts, sweet and savory. Somehow I have a hunch that in putting my perfectly symmetrical, perfectly fluted metal tart pan to good use, I’ll be refreshed, ready to gain insight about “next steps,” and all the necessary soul-searching involved. Today I find myself celebrating the end of a difficult summer, during which I spent considerable time indoors, by making a tomato tart filled with summer’s quintessential ingredient, a product of the SUN.

It started with being handed a heavy, generous bag of tomatoes by my father-in-law, and wanting to find a tart recipe that didn’t smother the tomatoes in cheese — though this tomato crostata still catches my eye — but showcased their fresh, juicy flavor in the form of pretty, roasted slices. I found what I was looking for in The Martha Stewart Baking Handbook, simply, “Tomato Tart” on page 268. Speaking of curiosity, this book is an endless source — going through its recipes, cover to cover, could easily be my vocation for a while (oh, lookee here) It’s been my baking bible since college, the source of what I consider to be, hands down, the best chocolate chip cookie recipe, and true to Nigella Lawson’s conception of the “domestic goddess” baker “trailing nutmeggy fumes…” which I cited in my most recent post.

Matter of fact, I think I was gifted the book at some point during college, another time rich with curiosity and uncertainty and anxiety about where I was headed next, which proves Nigella Lawson’s other claim about baking, and cooking: It’s “a way of reclaiming our lost Eden… Cooking, as we know, of cutting through things, and to things, which has nothing to do with the kitchen.”  ‘Nuff said — the process begins with the making of pâte brisée, which literally translates into “broken pastry,” used for savory pies and tarts:


Oven thermometer
Chef’s knife
Cutting board
Tart Pan
Measuring cups
Measuring spoons
Food processor
Liquid measuring cup
Sheet pan
Aluminum foil
Large mixing bowl (optional)
Pastry cutter (optional)
Plastic wrap
Rolling pin
Small mixing bowl


Pâte Brisée
(Makes 2 13-inch rounds)

2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
2 sticks (16 tablespoons) unsalted butter, cold, cut into small pieces
1/4 cup ice water (4 tablespoons), plus more if needed


Head of garlic
Olive oil, 3 tablespoons
1/2 recipe Pâte Brisée
3/4 cup Fontina cheese
3-4 ripe but Roma tomatoes
Salt and pepper
Fresh thyme

  • Dice the butter into small pieces and place it in a small tupperware container with the butter wrapping over the top. Place the tupperware in the freezer to get the butter really cold (it warms up as you’re dicing it). Put ice water in a liquid measuring cup and place it in the refrigerator.
  • Measure the flour and salt into a food processor fitted with the steel blade. Pulse to combine. Grease the tart pan.
  • Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F and place a whole head of garlic on a small sheet pan covered with a medium sized piece of aluminum foil. Cover the head of garlic in one tablespoon olive oil. Loosely wrap the oily garlic in the foil.
  • Take the diced butter out of the freezer and add all of it to the flour/salt mixture. Pulse to combine, about 10 seconds, or “until mixture resembles coarse crumbs with some larger pieces remaining.” If, like me, you have a small food processor that “mists flour” when it’s full, use a pastry cutter (or two hands) to mix the dough by hand. Add 4 tablespoons of ice cold water in two batches, “just until the dough holds together without being wet or sticky.” If the dough is still too crumby, add water by the tablespoon, until the dough holds when you squeeze it together.
  • Place a large piece of plastic wrap on the counter and turn the dough out onto the plastic wrap, shaping it into a disk with your hands. Place another piece of plastic wrap on top, and wrap the dough in plastic, refrigerating at least 1 hour or overnight. (You can freeze this dough for up to 1 month — before using it, thaw overnight in the refrigerator).
  • Place the garlic in the oven and roast for 45-60 minutes while the dough sits in the refrigerator. Check the garlic after 45 minutes; it’s done when you can easily insert a paring knife into the side. (It took 60 minutes for me). Unwrap the garlic and allow it to cool. Set the oven temperature to 450 degrees F.
  • Lightly flour a clean work surface and rolling pin. Remove the chilled dough from the refrigerator and roll out the dough into a large, 13-inch round, about 1/8 inches thick. Roll from the center out for even thickness.  If like me, the consistency of your dough was less than perfect, cracking as you rolled it and yielding a lopsided circle, you can always cut off the longer parts and press pieces of the dough into the tart pan. If needed, you can grab a pinch of dough from the second pâte brisée, since the recipe makes two. I am still trying to perfect the art of not over mixing dough but getting it pliable and solid enough to roll out evenly… I like to err on the side of under mixed dough that requires some cutting and pressing into the pan (you can’t tell once it’s baked)…
  • After pressing the dough into the tart pan, refrigerate the dough in the pan for 30 minutes. Meanwhile, once the garlic is cool enough to handle, press it with the side of a chef’s knife to loosen the cloves. Slice each clove at the top and squeeze the pasty, roasted garlic into a small mixing bowl. Mash it all into one paste with a fork. Slice a few roma tomatoes into 1/4-inch thick slices. Grate and measure the cheese.
  • Time to assemble the tart. Remove the chilled dough and using a small spatula, spread the roasted garlic paste all over the chilled pastry. Sprinkle 1/4 cup cheese over the garlic paste. Then lay the sliced tomatoes in a circular pattern and sprinkle with the remaining 1/2 cup cheese. Drizzle the tomatoes with 2 tablespoons olive oil and sprinkle with fresh thyme (gently pull thyme leaves off the stem by pinching two fingers and running them down the stem).
  • Lower the oven temperature to 425 degrees F. Bake for 45-55 minutes. Ta da.




Two Brownies You’ll Love to Hate

Peter Pearson Chocolate There’s a special joy in preparing something for the second time — or maybe the thousandth, whatever the case may be. It has to do with a flow, an organization, an ease in the kitchen, feeling a command over the various elements at play. I’ve heard Ina  Garten say something to the effect of, “Every cook needs just needs a rotating repertoire of about 10 recipes.” This tends to happen naturally when you enjoy home cooking, but I like the idea of being more intentional about the process of testing new recipes, and the process of organizing and refining the keepers.

What I do know for sure is that it’s essential for brownies to be a part of the rotation. Otherwise there’s a voice in my head that pushes me out the door and along the all-too short path to a convenience store, where I will buy a pack of m&ms and I will graze on them in a manner that is unhealthy. I’m working on that. I am learning that according to Buddhist principles, cravings are inherently toxic to general well-being because they indicate a lack of mindfulness, that is, a disciplining of the mind to discern the difference between reality and the subjective thoughts and feelings that we project onto reality. But enough of that high brow talk — back to brownies. And chocolate. And baking.

Baking is kind of like penmanship. It’s a bit old-fashioned, it requires steady hands, and the ability to follow instructions well. Baking is not life-changing. But baking is life sustaining, feeding us, literally, but on another level, guiding us to toward the present, physical moment, which heals.

I’m really attached to the role that baking has in my life. There was a preteen summer of my childhood during which I requested to my mom that we bake a cobbler most days, and most days we did. My mom was cool like that. Still is. These days, I make enough of a mess cooking, so I have less patience to hand make my own baked goods, special occasions notwithstanding. But I’m no less obsessed with baked goods.

There’s a running list of “stuff I want to make” that I e-mail myself whenever I’m early for an appointment or an exercise class or you name it. There you go — that’s my secret — that’s what I’m doing when I look so “busy” on my phone. For a food obsessed soul who doesn’t always like to be alone with her own worries, perusing food blogs is what I do best. And it pays off. It really does. I tend to know what I’m bringing to the next potluck, or meeting, or family party. (For example, I think it’s about time to test out my mini donut pan and Joy the Baker’s Baked Brown Butter Pistachio Donuts.)

Most recently, I found myself perusing The Vanilla Bean Blog, and in particular, this chocolate loaf cake, adapted from celebrity chef Nigella Lawson’s book, How To Become a Domestic Goddess. (How’s that for a title.) At the top of the post for this “sunken, squidgy, chocolate masterpiece,” blogger Sarah quotes Lawson’s book on the draw of baking:

“In a way, baking stands both as a useful metaphor for the familial warmth of the kitchen we fondly imagine used to exist, and as a way of reclaiming our lost Eden. This is hardly a culinary matter, of course; but cooking, we know, has a way of cutting through things, and to things, which have nothing to do with the kitchen. This is why it matters… Sometimes, we don’t want to feel like a postmodern, post-feminist, overstretched woman but, rather, a domestic goddess, trailing nutmeggy fumes of baking pie in our languorous wake.”

Amen sista. Here are two recipes I tried this past week and then consumed with a fervor. Now I hate them, because even my gym clothes are feeling a bit tight. (It’s probably telling enough that I made both in one week and I live in a two person household.) So dive on in, but watch out — these brownie beauties are goooood.

Walnut brownie Dana Lipárová

Walnut Brownies, Rich and Chocolaty
Adapted from Big Bowl of Love by Cristina Ferrare
Makes 12 large brownies

1 stick unsalted butter, room temperature
Extra butter for greasing the pan, or baking spray
1 8 oz box of Baker’s unsweetened baking chocolate
1 cup sugar
2 pinches of salt
2 large eggs, slightly beaten, room temp
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
3/4 cup cake flour
1/2 c. walnuts, chopped and toasted in a dry skillet for a few minutes

Things You’ll Need
Wax butter wrap
8-inch square baking dish
Spatula or wooden spoon
Chef’s knife
Cutting board
2 mixing bowls
Whisk or fork
Vanilla extract
Measuring spoons
Measuring cups
Sifter (for homemade cake flour)
Small skillet
Pot holders
Butter knife

  • Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. (I use an oven thermometer, and I’d highly recommend it. My oven is never accurate and I’d be lost without it. For these brownies I had to press 400 and keep checking the  internal temperature. Ugg.)
  • Unwrap the stick of butter and slice it into tablespoons. Place the sliced butter in a saucepan. Use the butter wrap to grease the baking dish, using extra butter if needed.
  • Coarsely chop 3 ounces of the bittersweet chocolate. Add the chocolate to the saucepan. If needed, place the 2 eggs into a bowl of warm tap water for five minutes to bring them to room temperature. (If not, set them out an hour before you start baking.)
  • Place the saucepan on the stove and over low heat, melt the stick of butter and the chocolate. Regularly stir the mixture, but do so gently. I like to use a heat-resistant, silicone spatula, but a wooden spoon also works. Remove the saucepan from the heat and set a timer for 10 minutes, allowing the mixture to cool (I like to use the kitchen timer on my microwave).
  • Meanwhile, crack the 2 eggs into a small mixing bowl and gently beat them together with a whisk or a fork. Set aside.
  • Measure the cake flour into a separate mixing bowl. If you don’t have cake flour on hand, make your own by following these simple instructions: Measure 1 cup of flour and place it in a sifter over a large bowl. Measure 2 tablespoons from the 1 cup and toss them back in the flour bin. Replace those 2 tablespoons with 2 tablespoons of cornstarch. Sift the flour and the cornstarch together about five times.
  • Measure the walnuts, chop the walnuts, and toast them in a dry skillet over medium-low heat until they taste fragrant and extra nutty.
  • Coarsely chop the rest of the Baker’s unsweetened chocolate.
  • Add the eggs and vanilla to the chocolate/butter mixture and stir until all of the ingredients are fully incorporated.
  • Add the cake flour (if you made it yourself, 12 tablespoons equals 3/4 cup) and stir until just blended.
  • Add the coarsely chopped Baker’s chocolate and the walnuts. Stir to combine.
  • Pour the batter into the baking dish and spread it evenly. Tap the dish on the counter to get rid of any bubbles.
  • Bake for 30 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the middle comes out almost clean. Don’t overbake. Cool on a wire rack for 30 minutes, if you can resist ‘em. Run a butter knife along the outer edge to loosen the brownies from the pan and then slice into large pieces.

Single-Serve Brownie Pudding
Adapted from Back to Basics by Ina Garten
Makes 6 servings

1 stick unsalted butter, room temperature
Extra butter for the dishes
2 large eggs, room temperature
1 cup sugar
6 tablespoons good cocoa powder
1/4 cup flour
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
Vanilla ice cream, for serving, if desired

Things You’ll Need
Wax butter wrap
6 crème brulée dishes, or single-serve gratin dishes
Mixing bowls
Measuring cups
Electric mixer, paddle attachment
Paring knife
Cutting board
jelly roll pan
Large liquid measuring cup

  • Preheat the oven to 325 degrees F.
    If needed, place the 2 eggs into a bowl of warm tap water for five minutes to bring them to room temperature. (If not, set them out an hour before you start baking.)
  • Unwrap the stick of butter and slice it into tablespoons. Place the pieces of butter in a mixing bowl. Melt them in the microwave. Set aside the melted butter and grease each dish with the wax paper. Make sure all the dishes are generously buttered.
  • Place the eggs and sugar in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Beat for 5-8 minutes on medium-high speed, or as long as it takes for the mixture to get very thick and light yellow.
  • Meanwhile, place the cocoa powder and the flour in a sifter over a mixing bowl. Sift them together and set the mixture aside.
  • Add the vanilla extract and the cocoa powder/flour mixture, mixing until just combined. Then slowly pour in the melted butter, mixing until just combined.
  • Use a 1/4 cup measure to fill each dish with the batter. Place the dishes on a jelly roll pan and place the pan on the stovetop. Fill a large, liquid measuring cup with hot tap water and fill the pan with enough hot water to come halfway up the side of each dish.
  • Carefully lower the sheet pan into the oven and bake for 20 minutes, or until a cake tester comes out mostly clean. They are supposed to be underbaked in the center. Carefully transfer the gratin dishes to a baking rack using a large set of kitchen tongs.

Lovingkindness and Positive Psychology

vice1, Buddha in a car, Traffic jam with a camera in Bangkok. Everything seemed to move except the Buddha.

vice1, Buddha in a car, Traffic jam with a camera in Bangkok. Everything seemed to move except the Buddha. CC 2.0

It seems appropriate, following the anniversary of so much death and destruction, to share the Buddhist Lovingkindness meditation, something I’ve been practicing lately in honor of September being National Yoga Month. Just kidding — I only know that September is National Yoga Month because of a few instructor shout-outs at my gym, whose classes, if we’re honest with ourselves, definitely lift our collective mood for their powers to tone and tighten, but can also remind us, spiritually speaking, of our inherent interconnectedness, even if it’s just a momentary “ohm” that does it.

The lovingkindness meditation falls into the category of “psychological Buddhism,” where we integrate certain principles and practices of the Buddhist religion into our lives for therapeutic purposes. On September 11, 2001, I distinctly remember being despondent and silent as I rotated through my set of high school classes, and being unable to stomach any food. As a matter of fact, I remember my mom made lasagna that night. Hah, my sharp memory for all things edible has been with me long before I became one of those people who takes pictures of food and blogs about recipes. As I pushed it around on my plate, my dad, with his characteristic rationality, put things into perspective by pointing out that this was the first national tragedy that my brothers and I had lived through. Actually, I think he used the phrase “our generation,” words that somehow normalized the awful, horrific events of the day.

Earlier that afternoon, my AP European History teacher had asked me and a friend if we were okay, that we seemed quiet and scared. A classmate cracked a joke about my demeanor, and then, in a rare instance for my high school self of not caring what my peers thought of me, I snapped back about how I was “empathizing with all the people in that plane.” Everyone sort of stiffened, respectfully, and then another friend after class approached me, saying “I can’t believe she asked you why you were scared.”

Undoubtedly, we all have our own distinct memories of what that day felt like. Looking back, I’m almost proud to share that I was viscerally affected by what happened, even if my rational understanding of the international politics was null, and AP history classes were the bane of my high school existence (until I took elective history classes, and then grew to really like history, especially historical fiction, and then taught high school history, if dance history and theatre history count…)

Lately I’ve become interested in practicing positive psychology. According to “Psychology Today,”

“Positive psychology is the scientific study of what makes life most worth living. It is a call for psychological science to be as concerned with strength as with weakness; as interested in building the best things in life as in repairing the worst; and as concerned with making the lives of normal people fulfilling as with healing pathology.”

“Pathology” is the study of diseases. The lovingkindness meditation falls into the category of positive psychology, with its emphasis on recognizing our spiritual interconnectedness with people and the environment, and by reminding us of our potential to subtly affect the outside world by projecting positive energy.

In this article, Buddhists and psychologists compare beliefs about managing emotions in order to achieve overall well-being, comparing the tenets of Buddhism and the status quo in modern psychology. According to the authors, Buddhists view emotion and cognition as part and parcel — they don’t even have a word for “emotion.” In Buddhism, what’s more important than shifting through distortions of thought is cultivating suhka, a state of general happiness and emotional equilibrium. Suhka

“includes a deep sense of well-being, a propensity toward compassion, reduced vulnerability to outside circumstances, and recognition of the interconnectedness with people and other living beings in one’s environment.”

To achieve this state of mind takes decades of mindfulness training — mindfulness, I also know from personal experience, from practicing “psychological Buddhism,” means to observe your experience in the moment, from your environment to your own thought process, and distinguish between reality, versus subjective ideas or beliefs that you are projecting onto that reality.

Buddhists categorize negative emotions more broadly into three fallacies: cravings, animosity or hatred, and the belief in a fixed, concrete self, apart from the world. I find it so interesting that these emotions are viewed as inherently toxic because they inherently deny our interconnectedness with other people and our environment. When we crave something or feel strong hostility toward someone, in both cases, we exaggerate the qualities of the object we desire or resent, and we seek to claim ownership of it in some way. In reality, according to Buddhist philosophy,

“the self is constantly in a state of dynamic flux, arises in different ways, and is profoundly interdependent with other people and the environment.”

In my opinion, there’s something so eye-opening and soothing about this concept of the self, however much it clashes with Western culture. It’s so refreshing, may because of “the dynamic flux,” element, which suggests that the self is eclipsed and the universe at large is broadened, buzzing. At church, I often find myself wrapped up in my own, individual worship, and then it takes a conscious internal reminder to simply look up and acknowledge the other Christians who are present with me, undergoing the same weekly, re-conversion. Psychological Buddhism, and the lovingkindness meditation in particular, gives me a chance to broaden my immediate awareness. I think it benefits us all, so here are two versions, borrowed. (One’s a transcript and the other is an audio download.) Namaste.

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Sergiu Alistar, YOGA 2, CC 2.0

Warrior One, Cinnamon Bun: Going with the Flow in the Kitchen

Screen Shot 2014-09-05 at 4.56.55 PMI was recently introduced to the concept of “flow” while watching the documentary, Happy on Netflix. Formally, that is — I realized that I regularly experience flow while chopping onions or stirring risotto. The movie debunks many familiar misconceptions about happiness, but uses hard science to back up its claims, shedding new terminology and a new, well-researched framework on many tried-and-true pieces of wisdom that your grandmother and your five-year old could probably tell you. For example, the “hedonic treadmill” is a psychological explanation for greed and “ennui,” or boredom. It’s the idea that money can’t buy happiness past basic shelter, food, and financial security because no matter how fortunate our circumstances, we have a nagging tendency to adapt to the events of our lives and pursue further gratification.

Flow, however, is central to happiness. It can happen at work, at play, even in a high pressure situation, like a dance performance or an athletic event. Simply put, it’s the experience of getting lost in whatever you are doing — whether you are line order cook, a Brazilian surfer, an Indian rickshaw driver, or an elderly farmer in Okinawa, Japan. People who regularly experience flow tend to be happier, whether they experience it in their jobs, their personal life, or as part of their culture, in the case of the Bhutanese, a Southeast Asian country that has centered its economic policy on gross national happiness rather than gross national product. I have a hunch that our favorite cooks and domestic goddesses inspire us with their flow: Julia Child, with her high-pitched, pot-smacking exclamations, Ina Garten, with her understated, pleasantly-surprised-with-herself remarks (“how easy is that?”) and Martha Stewart, whose love of lemons crosses prison walls.

Many of us who find flow at the stove also tend to find it on our mat — yoga mat, that is. I imagine that choppers and whiskers of the most vigorous, scrupulous variety might also be fans of vinayasa “flow” yoga, where the zen feeling takes over by moving through a series of poses in coordination with our breath. Which has me thinking… Sometimes I encounter little problems in the kitchen, minor events that nevertheless, interrupt my flow. Things like unexpectedly coating myself in flour or becoming blinded by tears midway through chopping an onion or getting a muscle cramp as I cleave my way through a large butternut squash. In case similar hiccups have ever plagued your me-time at the counter, I invite you to try these three yoga-inspired practices. Why not honor our inner divinity in the making of our mess?

Airplane to the Rescue

This pose is an excellent strengthening pose for the Instagram user who likes to take pictures of his or her food but can’t seem to get the right angle. Avoid the temptation to doctor your photos with an iphone and instead, honor your core, back, and hamstring muscles while striving for a close up. Gently pour your weight into your standing foot, pulling up out of your hip, and lean forward with your torso as your working foot lifts parallel into the air. Keeping your gaze fixed on the dish and making sure not to fall headfirst into your dish, reach your arms forward and snap.

Clean Updog

This pose is useful for crumbly cookies, soup recipes involving blenders, and unsteady hands. To complete the pose, simply whistle for your dog, close the kitchen door, and give the dog space to lick up your mess. Meanwhile, unroll your yoga mat and come to a tabletop position, placing your hands and feet hip distance apart. Press the balls of your feet into the ground and push into a downward dog position. Take five deep breaths, breathe into your lower back and hamstring muscles, and give thanks for your dog.

Onion Eye

If onions make you cry, practice breathing through the discomfort. Inhale deeply before you commence chopping. Tightly pinch one eye and scrunch your nose so as to shut out the sulfur compounds being released from the f*** onion, similar to a stank face. You might even try pranayama, alternate nostril breathing, to achieve a balance of calm and energy as you chop. Of course, you need both hands for chopping, so instead of pressing your nose with a finger, you might try plugging your nostril with a paper towel. If your scrunched up state prevents you from safely wielding a knife, gently pull back, pause, and proceed with the use of a prop, such as a pair of sunglasses or onion goggles, available at Bed Bath and Beyond, until your knife skills become more rote.

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