The Golden Circlet

All the good things in life

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Homeschooling: Herbal Marshmallows

Floppy and I have been working through this book, a sort of children’s herbal.


I have mixed feelings about herb books. Part of me loves them, loves the wise-woman magic of making medicines and cosmetics and foods and rituals from plants. One of my failings as a parent is that I don’t do well with Floppy’s little injuries and illnesses. I tend to get irritable with him for having gotten sick or hurt — a blame-the-victim mentality if ever there was one, but to be fair, he usually gets boo boos from doing things like tearing through the house at top speed after having been told 10 times to cut it out. But I think some of the irritability is really just my own frustration with not being able to fix it, not being able to help. I’d like to have a repertoire of wise-woman tricks — even if they are only placebos — at the ready to care for my loves. I love the idea of having a witchy little apothecary of things I’d grown or collected to share in difficult or painful times.

Also, Floppy loves this stuff, in much the same way I did when I was his age. The natural world has magic in it, and making aromatic herbs into mysterious things that you can tell magical stories about is appealing to him as it was to me.

On the other hand, a lot of the medical claims they make in books like these are, you know, pretty much totally unfounded. I get the feeling that most of the adult people who are “into” herbs don’t have a very high standard for scientific rigor of medical claims, you know? And, well, fair enough. Even if you want to be intellectually rigorous about it: There are a lot of legitimate reasons for herbalists to be cynical of science as it is actually practiced, such as the fact that scientific studies of herbal medicine — as with every other kind of medicine — don’t happen unless someone stands to make a lot of money, and are biased in various ways against herbs that cannot be used to make anyone any money. Also, it’s very hard to research herbal medicine and traditional folks beliefs of all kinds, because these things work — if they work — synergistically, embedded into systems that are hard to study. You can’t isolate one active compound from a traditional herbal medicine practice and do a randomized controlled trial on it without feeling like you’re searching for the needle in the haystack. For example: Imagine an herbal compound for blood pressure and cardiac health, let’s say, that works when one part (which part? that’s a whole study right there!) of the whole plant is brewed into a tisane given to you by your herbalist, but does nothing when the compound is isolated from the plant and synthesized into a swallowable pill given to you by your pharmacist. Some plants are perfectly edible, delicious, and nutritious, when consumed by a healthy, non-nutritionally stressed human as part of a balanced diet, and fatally toxic when consumed in quantity by a hungry human. Some medications — not herbs, plain old Western medications — do nothing when the patient doesn’t know s/he’s taken them. This stuff would be terribly difficult to research with enormous resources. But there are very few resources to study herbal medicine traditions, and there never will be.  

So I understand why herbalists are cavalier about science. Nevertheless, using a medication — any medication, even one made out of a plant and brewed up into a mild herbal tea or applied as a wise-woman poultice — that I has nothing more than folk wisdom to recommend it, or even ensure its safety, gives me the creeps. And teaching my son to do this strikes me as unscientific, unthoughtful. So I have mixed feelings!

I’m resolving this in the short-term by sticking to those portions of the book that feature food herbs and somewhat schlocky-sweet magical stories. With which we are having an excellent time!

This week, we made marshmallows using real marshmallow root:

I was SO excited for these marshmallows. I’ve always wanted to make marshmallows with the actual botanical, and the recipe had no gelatin in it, which I also liked, because I dislike the fetid smell gelatin gives homemade marshmallows. But, truthfully, these turned out more like meringues than marshmallows — whipped egg white is the main ingredient — and Floppy thought they were disgusting. I think they might be good floating in hot chocolate — but haven’t tried that yet,

After we stuck the marshmallows in the oven, we read a silly little story about two children exploring a garden where the spirits of herbs grow and beg humans to use them. Floppy thought this story was wonderful, magical and inspiring, and after we read it, he wrote a little plants-and-magic tale of his own. A successful evening all around!


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Tu Bishvat Seder

Last weekend was the Jewish holiday of Tu Bishvat, the “New Year of the Trees” — a Jewish Earth Day, or Arbor Day. It’s not a major holiday, but has some lovely ritual associated with it, especially the seder, which was created by Isaac Luria in 17th century Israel as a mystical, kabbalistic way to celebrate the Tree of Life.

Just for fun — and because we were missing the Tu Bishvat seder his Hebrew school hosts — we had a seder at home, loosely following this outline. Most Tu Bishvat seders eat no fruit with the fourth cup of wine, as this is meant to evoke the realm of God, but I like the idea alluded to in the outline I linked to of choosing as a fourth fruit a “fruit of the Gods.” Chocolate, for example. We also tried to include the seven species, as well as a fruit none of us had eaten recently (papaya), so we could sing the shehechyianu.

Here was our menu:

  • First Cup: Pina Coladas in Coconut Shells
  • First Fruit: Mixed Nuts
  • Second Cup: Pina Colada mixed with a bit of Sparkling Grape Juice
  • Second Fruit: Olives
  • Third Cup: Sparkling Grape Juice mixed with a bit of Pina Colada
  • Third Fruits: Dried Figs, Red Grapes, Strawberries

  • Dinner: My Grandmother’s Special “Orange Mud” Soup (which contains barley, one of the seven species), Bread Drizzled with Honey

  • Fourth Cup: Sparkling Grape Juice
  • Fourth Fruits: Guacamole with Chips
  • Papaya, Kiwi, Pomegranate, Mango, Chocolate

It was really a lovely seder. We’ll definitely do it again next year.

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Homemade Golden Grahams for a New Year

The boy woke up wanting Golden Grahams, which is not something we buy, well, pretty much ever. (I just asked him where he got the taste for them in the first place. Apparently a free sample came in the mail three years ago or so. Golden Grahams are just that delicious, I guess.)

New Year’s Day deserves a few treats, and his father wanted to sleep in, so I figured I could get up to this sort of mischief. A little googling brought me to this recipe, which we made with some modifications.

Homemade Golden Grahams (adapted from Mary Voogt’s recipe):

  • 1.5 cups whole wheat flour
  • 1/2 cup white flour (I would have used all whole wheat, but I ran out. But 2 cups of whole wheat would be fine, I would think)
  • scant 1/2 cup dark brown sugar
  • 1/2 tsp. salt
  • 1/4 tsp. cinnamon
  • 1/2 tsp. vanilla
  • 1/2 cup honey
  • 1/2 cup butter

Preheat oven to 350, and move the oven rack to the uppermost position (yes, really. Otherwise it will burn). Melt butter. In a mixing bowl, stir together the dry ingredients and add the liquids. Stir until combined and then knead briefly just to develop a nice ball of dough. (It will feel greasy and slick.)

Split dough into 3 equal parts if you have large cookie sheets. Mary suggests parchment paper, but I didn’t have any, so I used wax paper. I’ve never had this problem before, but these stuck like glue to the wax paper and therefore we ended up eating our U.S. RDA of waxed paper with our cereal. Next time I’ll try greasing the paper. I’m not sure parchment would have worked any better, but you can try it. Anyway, cut wax paper to fit the cookie sheet (and grease it). Lay the cookie-sheet-sized paper on a slightly damp, clean table (the damp keeps the paper from slipping  as you roll). Put 1/3 of dough on the paper (or less if the cookie sheet is tiny). Lay a 2nd piece of paper on top of dough, and with a rolling pin roll the dough between the paper out very thin (1/16th” or so). Remove the top piece of parchment paper, and use a pizza wheel to cut into small squares. Then lift the bottom paper, grahams and all onto the cookie sheet. Bake on the top oven rack 9-10 minutes until — hah — golden. Then turn off the oven, crack open the oven door, and let crisp in there 10 minutes more (a bit less if your oven holds heat so well they appear to be on the verge of burning).

Let cool and then break apart into squares. My family thought these tasted nothing like Golden Grahams, but were utterly delicious all the same. This makes about a box worth, and my family of three ate nearly the whole thing at one go. So I guess it’s a keeper.

Homemade Golden Grahams


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Silver and Gold Thanksgiving

Our Thanksgiving this year reminded me of this old camp song. We had two families over — the family of one of my very oldest friends, a woman I went to summer camp with when I was a kid, and some friends of theirs — an amazing art-music-geekery-thoughtfulness-activism-dancing family whom I hope will end up being our newest friends. It couldn’t have been more wonderful to spend the evening with all of them.

One problem that occurs when you invite generous people to dinner is food. Plenty of it. It’s a good problem to have on Thanksgiving!

We contributed:

  • A bread cornucopia (except we used homemade No-knead Challah dough rather than commercial breadsticks)
  • White bean and rosemary dip (based loosely off of this recipe) and salsa with chips
  • Garlic mashed potatoes
  • Vegetarian and turkey gravy (we never even served the veggie gravy, because our friends brought their own)
  • Salad (which we then completely forgot even to serve)
  • No-knead challah drizzled with honey
  • Pumpkin packed with bread and cheese
  • Cauliflower cake
  • My husband’s famous and much coveted veggie pot pie
  • Homemade cranberry sauce (Our son made this, using the recipe off of the back of the cranberry bag, to which I suggested he add a chopped, unpeeled orange and a handful of chopped candied ginger, which makes a nice sauce).
  • Black olives, the ordinary kind, from a can, which is how I like them. I could eat the entire can, in fact.
  • Mini tartlets filled with coconut cream (Robin’s favorite) or lemon curd. (For the crusts, I just make Betty Crocker’s standard pie crust recipe, with butter substituted for lard. Do they even still publish this recipe with measurements for lard? They don’t online, but an old version of the cookbook will have it. I bake them at 350 for 20-25 minutes or so, in an assortment of sandbakkels tins from my grandma and some strange-shaped tartlet pans that my aunt handed me down to be playthings for my son when he was small. I don’t do anything fancy like use pie weights or prechill the dough. My tarts turn out misshapen, but who cares?)
  • A couple bottles of Clos du Bois Riesling (2007 and 2009, for those who care, which does not include me. I do like this Riesling OK, though)
  • Some “kid wine,” like so:

Then my old friends came, carting an amazing heater-cooler which plugs into the wall and does whatever you need it to do and would be awesome for a pop-up dinner party like this one. And they added:

  • Bumps on a log, cran-cream cheese and PB&raisin versions.
  • A “meat” pie made of seitan and mushrooms, which I haven’t even tried yet.
  • Green bean casserole
  • Veggie gravy
  • Homebrew IPA
  • A bottle of Bella Sera Pinot Grigio
  • A bottle of Rosenblum Cellars Zinfandel

Then our new friends came, and at this point I just rolled over and died laughing, because they brought:

  • A huge, beautiful local roast Vermont turkey
  • Another container of homemade cranberry sauce, which we didn’t even touch
  • Another container of gravy (at this point, with two different meat gravies and two different veggie gravies, I’m thinking we should bring out the shot glasses and have a gravy tasting)
  • Homemade rolls
  • Stuffing
  • A gorgeous, cranberry-topped cheesecake
  • 2 lovely pomegranates
  • And a whole bunch more wine and beer

The kids ate 6 tartlets a piece and screamed and jumped on the beds. We grownups sat around the table and yakked and yakked and ate and ate. It was ridiculous. It was epic. It was bountiful. A good time had by all.  I hope I know these people forever.

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Thinking About Lunchbox Trees

I’m plotting how to plant myself a lunchbox tree.

It’s the wrong time of year for gardening of all sorts, including the fantastical type, but even though the seed catalogs haven’t had their turn yet, it’s not too early to dream about a garden.

I know the boxes should be bright white, like these:

At least, the ripe ones should be. But they also need foliage, like any good plant. But the lunchbox tree bears fruit year round, so there should also be small green ones, unripe and empty of lunch. Probably there should also be lovely white paper blossoms, like so:

In my magical greenhouse, I cultivated this green, unripe lunchbox today. Maybe I can graft this one to an apple tree on the rail trail next summer?

Unripe Lunchbox
Here are some other visions I’m using for inspiration. From Giverslog:

The cupcake tree reminds me of General Jinjur’s cream puff bushes, and I would like to grow a cream puff bush, too. Would cream puffs be encased in parchment-papery shells, like ground cherries, do you suppose? Or would they fruit in the middle of winter, straight from long stems like winter roses?

L.Frank Baum’s world is chock full of magical trees and amazing orchards, and all of them are growing vigorously in my imagination. Check out the army of Oogaboo, for example, full of reservist soldiers — all named Jo — whose regular jobs include tending to orchards full of trees that grow apples, clocks, books, buns, ice cream cones, etc. Or Ozma, who gets dangerously transformed into a peach pit made of gold at the center of the only peach in Ugu the Shoemaker’s vast forest of fruit trees. I’d like to get some seeds from Tim Walker, because his dress tree must surely grow in Oz, and belongs in the orchard I am planning.

Then there’s the question of what would be growing inside the lunchboxes. L. Frank’s vision suggested standard box lunch fare — sandwiches, pickles, a slice of cheese. But surely hybridizers would have improved the fruit by now, don’t you think? I’ve always guessed Luxirare must have picked some of her creations from magical trees, like her bento box or her seafood squares or her trompe l’oeil avocados….

And everything from Made From Scratch’s Urban Garden Party seems like exactly something you’d eat in an Oz orchard, but especially these syllabub tulips:

I’m guessing that I may not be able to ape the very best of the hybridizer’s magical art, so the tree I’m growing may bear shrimp spring rolls and pocky. Or bagels and herring and lox. Something along those lines, anyway….

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Birthday In A Box

So, my favorite aunt turned 70 on Thursday. We can’t be there to celebrate with her, so we sent her a birthday party.

In the upper right corner, in the gold MMA box, is a unicorn cup. My grandparents used to own this set of mugs, but now all that’s left is the monkey one, or the lucky mug, as my aunt calls it. I finally went to the Cloisters this spring to see the Unicorn tapestries in person, so I thought I’d get her a unicorn mug to replace it. But it seemed a small thing for 70 years by itself.

So I added a mug cake mix. I wanted a recipe that A) tasted amazing, and B) required minimal addition of liquid ingredients, so she could have a little birthday cake in her new mug right out of the box. I adapted the mix from this recipe. Here’s what was in the mix:

Molten Chocolate Mug Cake Mix

Mix in a mug and then put into a plastic bag :

2 tablespoons flour
1 and 1/2 tablespoons sugar
2 teaspoons unsweetened cocoa powder
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
Pinch salt
2 teaspoons dry milk powder
1/8 cup chocolate chips

Also include in the package one of these:

(A single-serve package of chocolate peanut butter).

To make the cake up, you put the dry mix in a mug with 1 tablespoon oil and 2 tablespoons water and stir well. Then you plop half a tiny package of chocolate peanut butter in the middle of the mug and submerge it in the batter. Microwave it for one minute, and you have a lovely, delicious, molten little cake, much more delicious than any other of this type of personal cake I’ve tried. I made two little packages of this, with fancy tags, and put them in the birthday gift bag you can see above. Here’s what the packaging looked like:

(The fonts, if you’re curious, are Silvestre Relief and Nickelodeon, both free downloads.) We added some really tall skinny rainbow-colored birthday candles for the cake, too.

The rest of the package is just more swag to make a happy 1-person birthday party. There are gold fourth-of-july sparklers, a vial of pink bubbles to blow, a plastic birthday tablecloth, a canister of light-up bracelets, some Lindt chocolate, and a kid-made birthday card, all wrapped up for maximal unwrappy bliss.

Here’s how we packaged it:

Hopefully my aunt will have a happy birthday!