The Mordecai Children’s Garden at the Denver Botanic Gardens is a 3-acre interactive learning space. It is a place of great natural beauty, with alpine plants, a pond, stream, grasslands,and a view of the Rockies, but it is first and foremost a place of imagination. On a typical day you will find toddlers running down the path in fairy costumes and kids moving small logs to create fortresses. The energy of kids who are actively learning at the garden is palpable. For Denver-area readers, the Botanic Gardens offer regular programming to teach children, including Seedlings Classes, Homeschool Days, and Family Fun Nights, among others. Today, Children’s Program Manager, Claudia Kiesenhofer draws from the many techniques that she uses at the garden to give us some advice on teaching kids through nature.
Bring the Outdoors into Your Routine
We all know that kids these days are glued to TV screens and iPads, so Kiesenhofer’s first bit of wisdom is simple: “The best advice that I can give is to first of all bring them to nature. Get them outside. Ideally, you have a garden; if not, maybe there is a park close by where you can get them out and get them in nature.”
Help Them Connect to Nature
At the Mordecai Children’s Garden, you will find written prompts posted throughout. Plant beds feature small signs asking kids about textures and shapes. These tools help kids learn about the outdoors but they also get them engaged with their environment. Kiesenhofer claims you can use a similar technique at home. “I think kids are not really used to just playing on their own, so they might need a few questions, like What can you find here? or Which shapes and colors do you see? For little kids, ask them to find a leaf that is bigger than their hand for instance. It allows them to be aware of what’s around them. Or if they are older, you can ask them about a specific plant to find, so they connect with it.”
Engage the Senses
Kiesenhofer claims, “Involving your senses is definitely important for smaller kids. For example, in fall use a pumpkin. Ask the kids to touch it, feel it, smell it. Let them manipulate the material in different ways. A pumpkin looks very different on the inside than it does on the outside and it smells very different. Ask them what they can do with a pumpkin. Let them taste something made of it, draw a picture of it. Use all of the different creative ways to express themselves and use all of their senses because then they really experience what they are learning. I think that’s very important.”
Provide Unstructured Playtime
Kids at the Mordecai Children’s Garden often appear to be in their own worlds. There is a stage for impromptu performances, complete with costumes, and numerous other vehicles for learning and imagination. Kiesenhofer says that this free-spirited play is actually essential for learning. “I think one of the wonderful things we offer in our garden is unstructured playtime. And many parents are very good at that. Maybe the kids need a little bit of input in the beginning, like What can you find here? What can you do here? Is there anything you want to build? Is there an interesting animal you want to be? And then give them some time to actually explore. Have them feel and touch plants out of their own interests and motivations. I think it’s very rare in our children’s lives that they actually have the time to figure out what they want to do. Unstructured time is very rare for kids, and it’s important that they have time to really learn through things. A great deal of learning comes through play.”
Use Tasks to Hold Their Attention
Anyone who has ever taken a class of students outside knows that it’s easy for them to get distracted. Kiesenhofer has some advice for keeping kids focused in nature. “I think it’s good to let them fulfill a few tasks. Set some very basic rules. When we have kids here we give them journals and with the journals they can do activities at different stations. It’s a more unguided experience but they know they need to fill their journals out. So it’s learning through doing. That is something that helps them focus and as a leader you can always refer to that to focus them back on the task.”
Provide Prompts for Imagination
Employees at the Mordecai Children’s Garden station logs, stuffed animals, and other toys throughout the environment. This allows children to tap into their imagination and make things as they play. Kiesenhofer explains, “What we offer here is very simple. There are not any explanations on how to use the materials. They are just there. And if children have the chance to be in these situations they become very creative.”
Last week we introduced you to Denon Moore of Cake Crumbs Bakery and the Denver Cupcake Truck. Moore shared her expert advice with us for moist red velvet cupcakes (click here to read that post). Today she offers her perspective on a hot culinary trend: bacon desserts. Moore is the perfect person to explain the tricks of the trade, since Cake Crumbs’ maple bacon cupcakes are a sweet and savory sensation in Denver. If you have tried bacon candy or cookies with less than desirable results or you have flirted with the idea of bringing this trend to your holiday table, read on for some easy and unexpected tips.
Keep It Together
It may be tempting to select the savory and sweet elements for your bacon desserts by simply using your favorite products in each category. But buying your favorite bacon and your best tasting milk chocolate might ruin the outcome of your dessert. Moore explains, “What we get into trouble with is tasting things separately. You really need the salty and the sweet.” When selecting the ingredients for Cake Crumbs’ maple bacon cupcake, Moore and her team paired numerous products until they landed on the perfect combination. A similar process at home might lead you to more satisfying ingredients.
Go Easy On Sugar
Bacon pairs beautifully with maple. It’s true for both breakfast and dessert. But Moore warns that adding maple syrup to a dessert like cupcakes is a sure way to ruin them. “If you add the syrup it gets really sticky. You can overdo it on the sugar, so we add maple extract.” Moore has another useful tip on this front: only use pure, high quality maple extract, instead of artificial, since this enhances the flavor (Cake Crumbs uses Colorado-based Savory Spice Shop extract).
Watch the Fat Content
Bakers know that balancing the sugars and fats in desserts is a fine science and most recipes have careful ratios of these ingredients already in place. So, if you dice up some bacon and toss it into your vanilla cupcakes, it will upset this delicate harmony. “We cook our bacon before we make the cupcakes. We bake it twice and drain it because we don’t want to contribute any extra fat or oil,” Moore claims.
Use Uncured Bacon
Although the magical combo of salty and sweet is the thing that makes bacon desserts special, you can have too much of a good thing. “You have to figure out how to make the saltiness balance. We have had to do research on bacon. We actually use uncured rather than cured bacon because it is less salty.”
Don’t Forget the Frosting
Moore says that the flavor and texture of frosting in bacon desserts can also be undermined by sweet ingredients like maple syrup. She uses maple extract in cream cheese frosting for her bacon cupcakes for the same reasons that she uses extract in the cakes themselves.
Keep It Simple
Part of the beauty of dessert lies in its simplicity. When we opt for unusual flavor profiles like bacon and chocolate or bacon and maple, Moore claims that keeping it simple is a key to good results. “Don’t use anything too strong.” So if you are tempted to add some rosemary to your bacon cupcakes or coffee, caramel, and black pepper to bacon cookies, try scaling it back a little.
“A man’s work is nothing but his slow trek to rediscover, through the detours of art, those two or three great and simple images in whose presence his heart first opened.”
This weekend I had the pleasure of attending the Colorado Art Education Association conference in gorgeous Breckenridge, CO for some volunteer work I am doing with the organization. I met so many amazing educators and left feeling energized about the future of art in our schools. I wanted to share an image from a short hike on my way home (at 9,500 feet). I would also like to stir your imagination and get you thinking through the quotation above by Albert Camus. Legendary Colorado artist Charles Parson shared it in his keynote address at the conference. What simple images first opened your heart?
Mark Overly, owner of Denver’s Kaladi Coffee Roasters, is like the Alton Brown of coffee. He delivers flavor by understanding the complex science of coffee roasting and brewing. He is also quite the historian on the evolution of coffee in the United States. At Kaladi, Overly uses a nontraditional method of air roasting high quality beans to achieve maximum flavors. He also leads regular cupping classes for coffee enthusiasts and runs The Coffee Heretic blog. He shares his views with us today on ways to improve our morning coffee by exploring common brewing mistakes and some simple fixes to make it all better. Read Overly’s list below:
1. Buying Ground Coffee
“If you take the thousand plus identifiable compounds that make up a flavor of coffee, 80 percent of those are aromatic volatiles. It’s the aroma of coffee that gives it its own unique personality. That’s what makes one coffee different from another. They are aromatic volatiles because they are created by the application of heat during roasting. They do not exist in the green bean; they are brought out through temperature. It’s why we use temperature to brew coffee. We don’t use cold water to brew coffee–we use hot water. We are talking about releasing those aromatic volatiles. At room temperature, coffee beans will lose 85 percent of those aromatic volatiles over the course of five days. Ground coffee, 30 minutes. So if if you’re buying your coffee pre-ground you are already missing out on over 80 percent of the flavor of coffee.”
2. Grinding It Too Fine
“The next biggest mistake that people make is that they over-grind the coffee. The grinder is probably the most overlooked device for making coffee. It has as much control over the coffee quality as the brewer does. In industry terms it’s particle distribution. What we want is even particle distribution. With many grinders, no matter what you do you always have powder at the bottom, chunks up top, and something in the middle. When you have powder you’re going to get over-brewed, bitter coffee. The big chunks are going to allow too much water through. It’s invariably going to make a bad cup of coffee.
“The investment into a great coffee grinder is critical. What you are looking for are good grinder burrs–a conical burr grinder. You want to spin it at a low rpm so it doesn’t mash the coffee. It should slice the coffee. You will end up with a very even distribution of particles that have been sliced.”
3. Using the Wrong Brewing Apparatus
“The brewing apparatus itself can also be a problem. Good coffee is a function of two things: dwell time and brew rate. Dwell time is all of that time that the coffee grounds and the water are together. Brew rate is the entire process.
“Essentially you want everything done in four minutes. That’s if you are making a half-gallon, a gallon, or whatever. That function doesn’t change. The dwell time and brew rate doesn’t change. We have to change our filter baskets and delivery to meet that. The problem with home coffee makers is they don’t have giant water heaters in them. They have tiny water heaters that heat a little water up then send it through, then repeat. So, there’s no dwell time. The water is going to pass through the path of least resistance so it’s going to pass through the same grounds over and over again. You’re not infusing all of the coffee grounds, so you end up with a weak, acidic kind of coffee.
“What we recommend is a manual coffee brewer rather than an electric coffee brewer, and the one I recommend is a Chemex.”
3. Using Too Much Coffee
“The correct amount is 2 tablespoons per 5 ounces of liquid. According to the coffee industry, a cup is 5 ounces. For me I like to add one tablespoon for the pot itself. It’s a personal thing for me because I like a slightly stronger cup of coffee.”
4. Drinking It Too Hot
“You use heat during brewing to release the flavors, but coffee’s best flavor comes at body temperature. That’s when it’s most enjoyable. Honestly, I think we drink coffee too hot.”
Overly’s Advice on Bitter Coffee:
“The traditional approach has been to grind it too finely and to use too much coffee. Nine times out of ten whenever somebody says my coffee is too bitter, it’s because they have ground it too finely or used too much coffee or both. Often it is both.
“Whenever your coffee is bitter, it’s because the water has not passed through properly and it’s created that bitter edge to the coffee. Ground too fine has a real biting kind of bitterness to it. Too much coffee has a range of acid sweetness at the end that’s also bitter. Unfortunately, a lot of people have been doing it for so long that they have come to associate this with the flavor of coffee.”
Incorporating art into our many school subjects is one of my passions–art works well in classrooms and at-home learning for any age group. Next week I will post an interview with the Denver Botanic Garden on teaching kids through nature. As a teaser for that story, I would like to share a wonderful lesson plan resource I came across earlier this year. I found it on Thinkfinity, a free online resource for all educators sponsored by the Verizon Foundation. You can find tons of resources on their website, but this one on Beatrix Potter is especially lovely. It features a lesson plan (complete with downloadable worksheets) from EDSITEment aimed at grades 3-5, which combines themes on nature, art, and literature.
Potter had a fascinating life and is enjoying a renaissance in popularity as a nineteenth-century female artist. We all know her from her Peter Rabbit tales, but Potter’s art spans a wide range of subjects, including the beautiful botanical study at the top of the post.
Whether or not you are an educator or parent, you will find many enjoyable links to other Beatrix Potter resources at the bottom of the lesson plan page. You can explore a collection of Potter’s charming, imaginative picture letters, a comprehensive resource on her work by the Victoria and Albert Museum, and links to in-depth articles on the artist.
Potter left quite a legacy in art, literature, and science, making her work a treasure trove for any educator or lifelong lover of learning. It’s well worth your time to take a look at her interesting life, and this lesson plan is a good place to start.
Do you have a favorite Beatrix Potter story or resource? Share them in the comments below!
Cake Crumbs Bakery and their popular food truck, The Denver Cupcake Truck, serve up happiness in the form of from-scratch sweets, which has made them a favorite among locals. Today, we introduce a two-part series with owner Denon Moore that features life-saving advice for those of us who love a good cupcake (Check back next week for Part Two). Moore, who grew up cooking with her German grandmother, approaches baking as an art and a science: she plays up the whimsy and fun of desserts, but each recipe is the result of rigorous testing. She shares some of the wisdom she has gained from all of those hours in the kitchen with advice for perfectly moist red velvet cupcakes.
It’s What’s Inside That Counts
Those of us who have enjoyed mouthwatering red velvet cupcakes at Cake Crumbs know that something special is at work there. These cupcakes are dense yet springy, perfectly red, with a fluffy, tart cream cheese icing. Moore claims that the look and feel of the perfect red velvet cupcake is a product of good ingredients. “Use really fresh buttermilk,” she advises. As buttermilk sits in your fridge, it loses some the tanginess that makes for exceptional cupcakes. Opting for fresh is a simple way to boost flavor.
Moore says that butter is often a go-to fat for other cupcakes…but not red velvet. Keeping your recipe oil-based will help you achieve a moist texture. “It’s the traditional way to make red velvet. You have to use oil,” she claims.
Moore also asserts that food coloring is often overlooked as a component of the flavor and texture in the perfect red velvet cupcake. She warns, “You don’t want to skip out on the food coloring. It will change the taste.”
Time in the Oven Is Key
Many of us labor over the ingredients for our cupcakes, adding milk, oil, and anything else that will help keep them moist. We don’t often look to our oven as the culprit when our desserts come out dry. Moore claims that making sure your cupcakes don’t overcook is one of the most important factors in keeping them moist. Not paying attention to the oven, she says, is one of the biggest pitfalls in cupcake making. “No brown on the bottom” is a rule for Moore’s red velvet cupcakes. “You want them red, with just a little brown on the top.” She cautions that the size of the cupcake plays an important role in whether or not your end product will retain its moisture. “The size matters, especially with the mini ones.” If you are making mini red velvets, keep an eye on your oven window.
Ensuring even heating is another important factor for cupcakes. “Midway through, gently open the oven door and rotate everything.”
Avoid Moisture Loss
Moore has learned that part of the secret of keeping cupcakes moist is in protecting them from dry air. This is especially true for Colorado bakers, since our climate is so dry. “What we have learned is that cupcakes need to be wrapped right away when warm. Put them in the fridge if you are not going to serve them immediately.” Moore wraps all of her baked goods in plastic wrap when warm (not hot) to seal in their moisture.
A Tip for Better Cream Cheese Frosting
When frosting red velvet cupcakes, Moore claims a 1 to 3 ratio for frosting to cupcake yields the most satisfying results. “I don’t like it to be like an ice cream cone,” she says. Moore also has a secret weapon for delicious cream cheese frosting: lemon juice. It’s a natural pairing–we often enjoy the tartness of lemon juice in cheesecakes. That same flavor profile amplifies the creamy goodness of frosting.
For Colorado Bakers
As a longtime Denver baker, Moore has great advice for cupcake lovers in Colorado. “My number one tip for anyone doing Colorado baking is to start with the original recipe. When you’re baking at altitude, don’t adjust your recipe until you have tried it.”
With the start of November and the ending of daylight savings time, I thought it would be fun to share some paintings that capture the colors and atmosphere of fall. Hopefully, these images transport you to the perfect autumn day–no matter what the weather is like where you live. Enjoy!
This week I’m including links to help you rest up! Holiday stresses begin in earnest this month, so these tips will come in handy as we enter November. Treat yourself to some some indulgent relaxation this weekend!