How to Teach Kids Through Nature, with the Denver Botanic Gardens

Photo Courtesy of The Denver Botanic GardensThe 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.”

Click here for more information on the Mordecai Children’s Garden!

Tips for Using Bacon in Desserts, with Cake Crumbs Bakery


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.

IMG_8197Use 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.

Click here for more information on Cake Crumbs Bakery!

Click here to read Moore’s advice for red velvet cupcakes!

All photos by Margarita Mosina

Mistakes You Didn’t Know You Were Making With Your Morning Coffee, featuring Kaladi Coffee Roasters

mark 2 bwMark 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.”

Click here for more information on Kaladi Coffee Roasters!

All photos by Deborah Walden Ossi