Monday, January 14, 2013

The Wildlife Experience

The first week The Girl was back in school after the holidays, I received a phone call from her teacher. I groaned inside, worried about what new mischief she had gotten into. My daughter had gone from sweet child to menacing monster in the most recent 3 months of school and none of us could figure out why.

As it turns out, her teacher just wanted to tell me how well she was doing and suggested I come along on their upcoming field trip "as a reward to her". Really, it was "I need another chaperone, please come." Although spending a day with 20 strange kids and trying to keep them calm and quiet was not my idea of fun, spending the day with my daughter was. I agreed to go.

The field trip was to The Wildlife Experience in Parker, Colorado. It's part hands-on museum, part "don't touch" art museum and part natural science and history museum combines with an "Extreme Screen" theater and a gift shop.

The morning of the field trip was cold and dreary. Snow covered the ground. Snow covered the roads. I knew there would be school but I wondered if they might cancel the field trip. We were, after all, riding school buses to get there and in North Carolina, the buses wouldn't take anyone to school if even a single road in the county had snow on it. But this was not North Carolina. This is Colorado. There would be school and there would be a field trip. I wasn't going to get out of this.

The bus handled surprisingly well in the snow
Because it was snowing, The Girl and I walked to school. Because we walked to school, we were almost late. But once we finally made it to her classroom, I learned I would only have to worry about keeping up with 6 children during the day. They were also required to follow the buddy system so that made it even easier on me.

We all crowded onto 2 school buses (there must have been five 4th grade classes going) and headed out.



I wasn't sure how many photos I'd be able to take because parts of the museum have photography restrictions.  I wound up taking several photos outside just so I would have something I could take home to show The Boy and Mr. LH. As it turns out, the photography restrictions were mainly in the "don't touch" art area which I'll have to go back someday to see (the children had no interest in that part).

The museum staff, made up largely of volunteers, split the classes up into 3 groups. Our group gathered in a classroom to first learn about Biomes. Biomes are the major regional groupings of plants and animals discernible at a global scale. We focused on six major types: Coral Reef, Desert, Temperate Forest, Rain Forest, Savannah and Tundra. They also got to meet a large python named "Monty". I don't think any of the children  realized the humor in that.

Once our classroom time was done, we were taken to another room that had demonstration "touch & feel" type tables set up...one table for each Biome. The Girl was excited to see the table for the Temperate Forest. Everything on the table was something familiar to her from living in North Carolina. They even had possum fur (and the other children got to hear how we would have possums constantly on our back deck in NC eating the cat food).

She saw plankton under a microscope...


And a polar bear skull, a narwhal tusk...


...an anteater skull, a piranha, Gila monster skull, a HUGE snake skin...


...a rhino tusk, ostrich egg, and so much more. I would have preferred having more time at each table. I'm sure they would have learned more and retained more information, but there were all those classes to shuffle through after us...

We had a quick lunch on the mezzanine before moving on to our whirlwind walk through the Globeology exhibit.


From The Wildlife Experience website:
"Globeology is a very dynamic and interactive journey along a quarter mile path in an expansion of over 25,000 square feet of new exhibit space. Visitors experience many compelling places that help maintain the planet’s ecological equilibrium. Along the way, they’ll encounter state-of-the-art animatronics and special visual effects, sound effects and interactive touch screens with bio-facts and trivia games that are relative to the different biomes. These features in conjunction with the realistic exhibits provide visitors with a unique and immersive experience with the world’s wildlife and habitats."


When I say whirlwind walk, I mean WHIRLWIND.  We had exactly 20 minutes to get through this exhibit and any other part of the museum before we were scheduled to meet the other classes at the Extreme Screen theater. We started at the top and followed the path through each of the exhibits. I kept ahead of everyone not allowing anyone past me. Another chaperone stayed in the rear so we had all the children sandwiched between us.


Once we got to the bottom, everything was like a maze (it's really amazing how much stuff they could fit into the available space without seeming crowded).


Thank goodness one of the girls in my group had been the The Wildlife experience before. She was able to show us how to get OUT of the exhibit.

We rushed from the exhibit with only a few minutes to spare before we needed to be at our next destination...Under Antarctic Ice showing in the Extreme Screen theater. It was a PBS film just under an hour long that documented photographers going to Antarctica to capture photographs under the Antarctic ice.  It was really fascinating.

Immediately after the movie, we boarded the buses to head back to school. I shared my seat with a couple of very sleepy girls.


Most of the snow had melted off the roads but the view outside the bus window was still lovely.


Although I was disappointed we couldn't enjoy the museum at a more leisurely pace, I had a good time. The children seemed to enjoy themselves, too. The Girl and I decided we would definitely go back there someday - with Mr. LH and The Boy in tow.



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Sunday, January 13, 2013

Italian Bread - From Scratch


We were spoiled. After years of serving homemade garlic bread alongside every pasta dish, we couldn't eat our pasta without the bread. I always headed straight for the clearance section in the grocery store bakery department to get the Italian bread I used to make my garlic bread. They would have the previous day's baked goods marked down - everything from doughnuts and cookies to artisan breads and croissants.

But management at our grocery store must have gotten better. Food waste was down and the selection of leftover baked goods was starting to get smaller and smaller. More often than not, I was having to pay full price for our Italian bread. Full. Price. And with pasta dishes being a frequent thing in our household, those full price pennies started adding up quickly.

As fate would have it, we needed bread one day and snow kept me from the grocery store. When I mentioned it to Mr. LH, he said "Why don't we just try to make some?"

Italian bread is one of those things I was intimidated to try making myself. I don't know why. Yeast dough no longer bothered me but for some reason, I just didn't make Italian bread. I guess because it wouldn't come out of my bread machine looking like it should. I searched the internet for a simple, easy-to-follow Italian bread recipe...and I found it.

I wasn't looking for "authentic" Italian bread. I was looking for something that tasted like Italian bread and looked like something I could make in an afternoon.  The recipe I originally found was adapted from a Basic Italian Bread recipe by Emeril Lagasse on FoodNetwork.com. Of course, I had to make my own changes as well to adjust for the ingredients I had on hand, the altitude, etc. What you see below is my revised version. You can find Emeril's original version on FoodNetwork.com

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Homemade Italian Bread

Ingredients

2 cups water, lukewarm
Pinch of granulated sugar
2 1/4 tsp dry active yeast (or one package dry active yeast)
5 cups bread flour plus more for dusting
1 tablespoon brown sugar - I used light brown sugar because it's what I had on hand. The original recipe calls for dark brown sugar
2 tablespoons vegetable oil - I used regular vegetable oil because that's what I had on hand. The original recipe calls for extra virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon salt
1 egg white, lightly beaten - optional though necessary if you want a golden "shiny" crust. The picture at the top had the egg white applied. The picture at the bottom did not.


Directions

Place the water, granulated sugar and yeast in a bowl/large glass measuring cup and set aside for 5 minutes.

Using a dough hook attachment on a stand mixer, combine the 5 cups flour, brown sugar and salt. Add the yeast/water mixture and the oil and mix on low speed until a dough starts to form. Mix the dough at a medium-low setting (I use #2 on  a KitchenAid mixer) for 5 to 7 minutes, or until a smooth, firm, elastic dough is formed.

Transfer the dough to a lightly oiled bowl and spray the dough with a thin coating of cooking spray. Wrap the bowl with plastic wrap and set aside to proof in a warm, draft-free place until doubled in size. Remove the plastic wrap, punch down and flatten the dough on a lightly floured surface into a rectangle (if you are going to make 2 smaller loaves, divide the dough evenly and press into 2 smaller rectangles). Roll the dough up tightly into an elongated, oval shape. Seal the seam well.

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees F.

Place the dough seam side down on an inverted baking sheet dusted with flour or covered with a silicone mat (if you are making two loaves, you will probably need 2 baking sheets or one large baking sheet). Allow the dough to proof, loosely covered with a towel, until doubled in size. Brush the dough with the egg white (optional). Using a razor blade or sharp knife, score three or four (1/4-inch deep) slashes across the top of the dough at a 45 degree angle.


Spray the dough generously with water from a water bottle and place in the preheated oven. Immediately close the oven and bake for 3 minutes. Open the oven door and spray the dough again with the water bottle. Close the oven door and bake for an additional 3 minutes before spraying the dough for a third time (the spraying of the dough will ensure a crisp golden brown crust). Bake the dough for 45 minutes*, or until a hollow thud is heard when the bread is whacked with the bowl of a wooden spoon. Allow the bread to cool slightly before serving.

* I found I preferred my crust a little "less crisp" so I only sprayed the dough 2 times. I also only needed to bake the loaves for about 30 minutes instead of the 45 minutes called for. You may want to check your bread around the 30 minute mark.

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I am a believer.  Homemade Italian bread is possible...and the results...outstanding! It was crusty on the outside and soft and warm on the inside. We didn't even make it into garlic bread...we just sliced it and served it with butter. Oh, I wished my mom was still visiting so she could celebrate this bread with me. It was SO GOOD! I don't think I will ever buy a loaf of Italian Bread from the grocery store bakery again.



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Sunday, January 6, 2013

Garden Of The Gods

Garden Of The Gods. It's one of those places we always had on our "list" but never actually visited...until now.

My mom was visiting from Texas and we were trying to think of some places to take her. Mr. LH suggested Garden Of The Gods. The park was given to the city of Colorado Springs in 1909 by the children of railroad magnate Charles Elliot Perkins, in fulfillment of his wish that it be kept forever open and free to the public. So here it is, 2013, still open and free to the public. Approximately 1,700,000 people visit the park every year.

The weather had warmed up nicely from its sub-zero temperatures a few days earlier. The sun was shining. Garden Of The Gods was on our "list" of places to see. It was free.

There was no reason we shouldn't go.

It's a beautiful scenic drive down I-25 from Denver toward Colorado Springs. It's the farthest south we've traveled so far in the state and I hope we can visit the area many more times in the future. Colorado Springs has so many places to visit and things to do.


Finding the park was easy. There are signs on and off the highway directing you straight to the park. We stopped at the welcome center where we found a park map. The Girl explored the gift store...


and The Boy took in the view...


Of course we had to get a smooshed penny for our collection...


We always wind up with two because the "Pickles" can never decide which one they want.


We came across a guy with a telescope letting people get a glimpse of the flares coming off the sun.


He was gracious enough to let me attempt to take a photo through the telescope (it was much harder to do than I thought it would be).


Garden of the Gods is a park...just a park...


with rock formations...lots of rock formations...


We hiked. We climbed. We breathed in the fresh air and took countless photos of rocks.


It's a really fascinating place.



It's hard to put into words just how great Garden Of The Gods really is. Even in January. It's one of those places you have to see to believe.





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Friday, January 4, 2013

Brown Sugar Cookies

Last April, I had 94 cookbooks. I have since lost count. I've added to the collection so quickly...like this monstrous stack I received through Freecycle.


 I am a self-proclaimed cookbook junkie. If I come across a cookbook that intrigues me, chances are, I'll take it home with me. I'll go through the entire cookbook at least once before I decide whether to keep it or not.  Most of the time, I keep it. And so it was with this hardcover collection of 2007 Cooks Illustrated magazine issues I found at Goodwill (on 50% off day, no less).


Thumbing through it, I found plenty of "try someday" recipes. But then I came across the Brown Sugar Cookie recipe and knew I had to make it...now.


I'm not a big fan of sugar cookies. They just don't have much taste to me. But BROWN sugar cookies...especially with dark brown sugar in them...I could just taste the bold flavor! The promise of a chewy center and crisp exterior just sealed the deal.


These cookies were FANTASTIC!!!  They delivered on their promise of a crisp outside and chewy inside. Everyone in the family loved them and even my mom grabbed up her notebook to copy down the recipe.

It took a little more prep than other cookies because you have to brown the butter (which really comes through in the finished cookie) but it was so. totally. worth. it.

If you happen to be a member of Cooks Illustrated online, you can find the recipe on their website. Or, you can find it here on BigOven.com.



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