04 May 2017

Roman-style gnocchi

Yesterday was my birthday, and to celebrate I made bolognese and gnocchi alla romana for supper. They're very different than what I think of as "regular" gnocchi, baked instead of boiled, but they're so good!

The kids aren't fond of any form of gnocchi—something to do with the rich+creamy texture, I think, since risotto is also firmly in the (very small) category of foods they don't like—so I can't make these often, but last night we had my sister and brother-in-law over to share them with us and gave the kids Italian bread to go with their bolognese instead.

Gnocchi alla Romana

3 cups milk
1 teaspoon salt
1 1/4 cups semolina flour
1 cup freshly grated parmesan or pecorino cheese*
2 egg yolks
3 Tablespoons cold unsalted butter, cubed
3 Tablespoons butter, melted, for the top
more grated parmesan for the top

Line a large baking sheet with plastic wrap, enough that it comes up the sides if not overhangs. 

In a large saucepan, combine milk and salt over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally. As soon as you see bubbles forming on the top, stir in the semolina. It will thicken up quickly. Once it's thickened, stir in the cheese, egg yolks, and cubed cold butter. 

When the "dough" is homogeneous, spread it flat on the plastic-lined baking sheet. You want it to be no more than 1 centimeter thick. Cover with more plastic wrap, and chill for at least half an hour.

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees F and butter the bottom and sides of one large or two medium-sized baking dishes (we always use two). Removing the top layer of plastic, cut the dough into 2" to 2 1/2" diameter squares or circles.** Place them, overlapping, in the baking dishes. Brush with the melted butter, and sprinkle with shredded cheese.

Bake 25 minutes, or until edges begin to be golden.

*I accidentally bought pecorino instead of parmesan this last time, so I can confirm that pecorino does work okay; it just didn't melt as smoothly as parmesan does.

**Circles seem to be the traditional shape, but squares are much easier (you just divide up the pan into a grid, instead of cutting out circles and rolling out the scraps to cut again), and it's not like circles taste any different than squares, so we just make squares.

03 May 2017

School year wrap-up

I know it's a little early yet, but Little Bear finished the last few lessons in our books for the year last week, so here's a look at how our first school year went.

This year Little Bear was 4, and we were doing preschool. Although looking at these books, I'm realizing that at least half of our work was labeled as kindergarten this year. Regardless, he was 4, and we did school. (We're on paper as doing kindergarten next year, so I'm going to stick with the past year having been preschool.)

What we used:

Handwriting: Catholic Heritage Handwriting, Level K, from Catholic Heritage Curricula (CHC)

Phonics/Reading: Little Stories for Little Folks, from CHC

Science: Earth Science & Earthquakes: Hands-On Activities, from Ring of Fire
First Encyclopedia of the Human Body, from Usborne

Math: RightStart Mathematics, Level A

Religion: Who Am I?, teacher's manual and workbook B, from Ignatius Press

Plus a subscription to Raddish kids' cooking class, which included science, geography, world cultures, and other lessons along with the cooking lessons

What worked, and what didn't:

The handwriting book was on the short side, just 16 weeks; I think it was intended to be started partway through the year, after the students had spent a while working on letter recognition. We didn't need that practice, so I had Little Bear do half-pages each day instead of full pages, and in the last month or so we stepped up to 2/3-pages and full pages. He was almost always enthusiastic about starting out the school day with his handwriting, and I really liked that it's spiral-bound at the top, so the pages lay flat and there isn't a binding on the side getting in the way.

Little Stories for Little Folks is awesome. I'm so, so happy with it: we went through the first two levels of phonics readers in it this year, and will be doing the other two levels next year. (It's marketed as a two-year program, K-1.) Little Bear is now reading well enough that he can pick out Level 1 I-Can-Read books from the library, etc., and read through them all by himself, maybe needing help with one word every other page or so. We were looking at books at the thrift store earlier, and he was so excited to be able to find Level 1 books on the shelves and know that he'd be able to read them.

This was the second year that I put those two "hands-on activities" science books on my list of "things we're doing this year," and the second year that we stopped using them after one or two lessons. There's nothing wrong with them, necessarily; they just weren't a good fit for us. I'm going to find someone else to pass them on to, because I know I won't use them.

The Usborne encyclopedia on the human body, though: Little Bear picked that off a shelf of free books a couple of weeks ago, and has been SO INTERESTED in it. We're reading a two-page spread a day, and he makes sure that I don't forget! We've since found a copy of Usborne's First Encyclopedia of the World, and Little Bear is excited about starting to read that as soon as we finish the human body one.

Oh! I also picked up a DVD on Alaskan wildlife at last year's curriculum fair with the idea that we'd use it for science. It's just instrumental music with a collection of photographs and short video clips of animals and some plants from around the state, separated by region. We've mainly wound up using it once a month or so for times when the kids are making me crazy as I'm trying to make supper, so I turn it on and ask them to tell me all the animals they can identify. Little Bear can name a lot of them now, and while Kit doesn't usually sit still to watch, she'll come running whenever he tells her there are squirrels or bears or puffins. I should look for some Alaskan bird and animal guidebooks, so that we can look up the different animals we see and learn something about them.

The RightStart Mathematics book is another I'm certain I'll use again with Kit, because it worked so well for us. After finishing Level A, Little Bear can quickly solve simple math problems in his head, has a good understanding of coin values and adding with coins and dollars, can explain halves and quarters, and can read an analog clock (with a little prompting if the minute hand isn't right at :00, :15, :30, or :45). Matt was recently driving home with Little Bear from a trip to town, and Little Bear, apparently hungry, informed him: "Dad, it's 2:00. That means that it'll be supper time in four hours!" We didn't actually have the full set of math tools that goes with it, so I wound up using whatever we could find that was close enough, and it usually worked okay. We did have the geoboard and abacus, and couldn't really have done it without either of those; there were some learning games that we couldn't do because we didn't have the right equipment, but he seems to have gotten the concepts well anyway. We'll move on to Level B next year, and this time we'll be able to get everything that goes with it! I'm looking forward to that. 

The religion program worked really well for us, too. I was impressed by the content, the way it engaged the kids, and how Little Bear learned the material each week. Kit loved the action rhymes with each lesson, and was excited to be able to participate in those. Little Bear liked the workbook (partially because it was a little bit too easy for him, I suspect), but did a good job of paying attention and answering questions during the actual lessons, too. I'm planning to stick with this same program for kindergarten-level religion lessons next year.

And lastly, Raddish. The Raddish program is going to have to get its own post, because this one is getting long, but for now suffice it to say that Little Bear has learned a lot from Raddish this year and we'll definitely be continuing our subscription. In addition to making both kids even more interested in helping in the kitchen (and actually able to help), it also took up the slack for me on science, geography, and "social studies."

We're coming up on the annual curriculum fair here in town in another week or so, and I'm so happy to already have a handle on what curriculum I want to use with Little Bear next year for math, reading/phonics, and religion. I do need to put thought into science/geography/history/etc., and I'm hoping to find another kindergarten-level handwriting book with a spiral-binding at the top; hopefully there are other publishers doing that! I suppose I could also go with a PDF version, which I could take to the local print shop and have bound the way I want it. 

If you've homeschooled a kindergartner and have any suggestions for me, I'd love to hear them! Especially if you have any advice for doing so with antsy toddlers... Kit was all over me every time I sat down to do a math lesson with Little Bear this year, and I expect it'll be even more of a frustration for her next year.