Author Archives: Angelika

About Angelika

Mama, Playground Hunter, Scientist

Maple Sugaring 2015

I got a fair bit of maple syrup from my trees last year – read the post from then here: Maple Sugaring 2014. Turns out that the first tree I tapped by accident (I drilled a practice hole in the first maple tree I walked to and it started dripping sap immediately so I put in a spile), wasn’t actually a sugar maple. Once summer came around I cautiously identified it as a Black Maple. But, hey! it still produced a whole lot of sap and yummy maple syrup.

So this year I tapped three trees I knew were sugar maples. I got a new kind of spile from Amazon: 5 Maple Syrup Tap Spile Kit 5 Taps + Drop Lines

I just dropped the lines into some clean 1 gallon milk jugs – this is an improvement on the sand buckets we used last year ;-).

A few days later the right temperatures were happening (below freezing at night, above freezing during the day) and the sap started moving, and straight into my bucket and jugs.

In my mind, making maple syrup consists of two phases: 1) reducing water content and 2) caramelising the liquid into syrup.

This year I reduced water content by partially freezing the sap and getting rid of the top ice. The lower liquid has the sugary fraction I want. I also used a deep tray over two burners instead of a single stockpot. This gave me a bigger surface area from which to evaporate the water. Out of necessity I didn’t reduce the sap over a romantic fire outside in the snow. Instead I gave my pan sporadic bursts of bringing the sap to a boil. During the times I had to dash off with children I let the pan sit open and further evaporation would get rid of even more water. Then whenever I came back I would fire up the stove again and heat the sap to boiling. One thing I learned this year is to reduce the pot size to fit the liquid. It’s really hard to get 1/2 cup of syrup out of a big tray 🙂

I don’t have a hygrometer to measure water content, but instead just use a thermometer. I’ve noticed that sap will happily boil away at about 210ºF for hours and not go above that temperature. Until the water content becomes low enough. Then it fairly rapidly increases in temperature to 230ºF, which is the required temperature for the caramelization reaction to occur. the most obvious VISUAL change is that the liquid suddenly doesn’t bubble like water any more. Instead there are lot of little bubbles that start to rise out of the pot, unless you add the little bit of butter recommended in the books.

And here to talk about the science of caramelization – from The Science of Cooking:

Caramelization and caramels are not the same.

Yes, it’s a little bit confusing, but you’ll get it in a minute.

Caramels are the chewy candies you are familiar with. They’re made by cooking sugar, cream, corn syrup, and butter to 245° F. Their brown color comes from a reaction between the sugar and the protein in the cream. This reaction is called the Maillard reaction, after the French scientist who discovered it. The rich brown color of toasted nuts and barbecued meats also comes from the Maillard reaction.

Put simply, the Maillard reaction occurs when part of the sugar molecule (the aldehyde group, if you must know) reacts with the nitrogen part of the protein molecule (an amino group). The resulting series of reactions is not well understood even by food scientists, but it leads to the brown color and many flavorful compounds that are yet to be identified.

Caramelization is what happens to pure sugar when it reaches 338° F. A few tablespoons of sugar put in a pan and heated will eventually melt and, at 338° F, start to turn brown. At this temperature, the sugar compounds begin to break down and new compounds form.

As with the Maillard reaction, the details of what happens during caramelization aren’t well understood. But the results are appreciated all the same. For example, caramelized sugar is often used as decoration on fancy desserts. Try caramelizing sugar yourself—it’s easy!

Monkey See

I’ve been doing a bit of cross stitch over the last few months. I started off with a basic kit thing from Michael’s craft store. It took a little while to get used to the back-end mechanics of the thing. Like how do I get the needle over THERE?

After that experiment I started making my own patterns: a honey bee, a cardinal, a chickadee,… Of course it took me a couple of months to complete each cross stitch – they are about 7in across.

I’ve copied photos of the finished products below. I had the chickadee framed, which turned out really well. Alex was apparently so impressed he wanted to do one too. I redesigned the chickadee pattern to be much smaller and simpler. He promised that he would keep working on it even if it took years (it might). Apparently he has to wear a home-made crown while cross stitching.

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I did list these patterns on my super small etsy store: https://www.etsy.com/shop/MothersOfInventions

Climbers

My cunning plan is to have a science-y project ready each day for when the kids get out of school. We have been watching way too much television recently. Today I just looked through a couple of the 1001-fun-things-to-do-with-science type books we have.We talked a bit about how friction helped the shapes to climb up the string. I’ll post the video on Facebook.

Found this in The Usborne Big Book of Science Things to Make and Do:
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I used a cereal box as a thin cardboard and free-handed a couple of shapes: a honey bee and a lady bug. First reaction from Jen was: “That’s nice, Mama”. I didn’t know 5 year olds could sound THAT sarcastic – sheesh.

Alex had some fun finishing the bee.

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And this is what the backside looks like – two 1 inch lengths of straws taped on to run the yarn through, and a coin taped on to give it extra weight.

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For Science

Alex has used the excuse “It’s for science” and “Stand back, I’m going going to make potions” for a while. Here he is doing an actual science experiment: cleaning coins in vinegar.
1/4 cup vinegar with 1 teaspoon salt.

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Belated

I’m back. In case you don’t recognise me, it’s Angelika 😉 .

It has been almost a full year since I have written anything for Playground Hunt. And it has been a year of huge change in my life. Briefly, and without complaining, I got sick last April and spent a week in hospital with kidney issues. I spent the rest of spring on the sofa and in bed recovering, while many of our friends helped looked after Alex and Jen.

I spent most of the summer taking it veeeeery slowly, but taking Alex and Jen to as many fun activities as I could. Luckily my children like playing with each other and they are both now at an age where I don’t need to hold their hands everywhere. I could take them to the playground and sit on a bench, and to the lake and watch them potter around the water edge from our blanket. I did have baby sitters come and help, but at least I could spend time watching my children enjoy themselves and sleep when I needed it.

We did go camping a few times. I posted pictures of these trips on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/PlaygroundHunt), but we went to the yurts on Peddocks Island again (this time with Lindsay and her girls), to Searsport Shores Ocean Campground in Maine where I somehow also spent a week showing campers how to make paints, giant bubbles, playdoughs, bouncy balls, etc. as a follow-on from the Recipes for Disaster Kickstarter *, and to Pawtuckaway Campground in New Hampshire.

Fall and Winter seem to have gone by in a blur. Alex and Jen both enrolled in school because homeschooling became infeasible due to my health (it’s hard to teach when you have to spend so much time resting). It has been a time of reflection on how life will be now that some weeks I sleep 16 hours a day. It has been a time of learning how to parent and have a couple of chronic illnesses (suggestions welcome). I am trying to be at peace with enjoying the present, the calmer, and the smaller things.

One more thing before I go for now… I have joined the Friends of the Fells board in the hopes of getting an outdoor afterschool program started in the Fells. They did a superb summer camp forest Kindergarten last year, and this would hopefully be a natural extension. Check out their website and join the Babes in the Woods hikes – they are hugely popular!

* This project was almost funded when I ended in hospital and couldn’t promote it for the final two weeks to make it become a reality 🙁

Artist-in-Residence

slime?!Pinterest has been the bane of my existence. At first, I was sooo excited at all the inspiration, the creativity, and the awesome ideas of what I could do with my preschool children. Then I tried some ideas. And failed. Quite a lot.
Follow Angelika’s board Ideas for Children on Pinterest.

By training I’m a scientist (Ph.D. in Biology), and with each unsatisfactory attempt at making finger paints that cracked, or colored sand that stayed brown, I got frustrated that the proportions of the ingredients were not great, and that I didn’t know what the variables were that would make each recipe a success.

Sausages

Sausages

So my children and I started testing and experimenting. I am compiling all the recipes I have tested and optimized into a handy, boxed collection: Recipes for Disaster. My plan is to produce this as an actual physical product by fall 2014.

Meanwhile, Last year we stayed at the very kid-friendly, arty Searsport Shores Ocean Campground for a week.  Read my blog post of our trip here.  This year, we will be back showing fellow campers some of the trick and lessons we have learned.

During my week as Artist-in-Residence at Searsport Shores Ocean Campground (July 6 to July 12), I will have a different theme each day. I will show you how to make colored sand, pasta, rice, and sugar, several different kinds of paints, doughs, clays, slimes, and BUBBLES. We will measure and cook and mix all these recipes from scratch and I will have several suggestions on what to create from our concoctions – making marbled paper, making your own bouncy ball, a colorful salt mandala…

My sessions will be perfect for all ages – we have been trying  these recipes since my children were toddlers. At the same time, using some of these basic materials is only restricted by your creativity. I will be taking pictures to add to my blog Playground Hunt, so please join us in making some of our Recipes for Disaster art.

Recipes for Disaster

Creating Creativity

I have two very active and creative children. We used to go through a lot of store-bought playdough and paints until I decide they were too expensive. Over the last 5 years I have tried out a lot of recipes for play dough, different kinds of paints, slimes, goops, and lots of other basic craft supplies to give my children the ingredients for their creativity.

I have put together a collection of fifty of the easiest and best craft supply recipes that, for example, made the best playdough or finger paint for the least amount of work. My children have tested all the results for how well they work, whether they stain skin, clothing, or work surfaces, and for how long they are fun.

The Product: 50 Craft Recipes on Waterproof Cards in a cute Box

The recipes for homemade craft supplies are printed on durable, waterproof cards that can be used for years in kitchens at home or schools.  They are packaged in a sturdy recipe box that will also make a good gift.

If you think a set of recipes for playdough, different paints, and a whole lot of other craft supplies would be great to have either at home or school, please pledge now for this kickstarter campaign. You will get one of the first edition sets mailed to you by August. However, the printing and making of recipe boxes only become financially viable if we print 100 sets. So, please pledge today 😀

Why these are so good to have:

“Play to learn” has been the foundation of my child raising philosophy. I like to provide basic ingredients so that my two preschoolers can independently explore textures, colors, and smells. In creating this compilation, my children and I have spent many hours experimenting: measuring liquids, mixing colors, watching chemical reactions,… We have learned to play.

I have hugely enjoyed Jen’s and Alex’ jaw dropping expressions when we made shrinky plastic, extra gooey slime, and bouncy balls. But the biggest reward for me has been their constant stream of questions: How do you make that? Can we make that ourselves? I smell something – is that a chemical? What color do I get when I mix blue and green? Can I paint my belly? Can I paint the dog? Can we go to the supermarket and get more cornstarch? Seriously!

I have learned a lot testing these recipes and even dusted off some long-forgotten chemistry. My children spent many happy hours creating and being curious. We hope you find these recipes useful and inspiring.

Drink your Trees – making maple syrup

I won a maple syrup making kit at a charity auction. AND GOT VERY EXCITED. I had never made maple syrup before, so I was super glad the kit came with these three books (pics link to amazon.com).

The kit I got came with a metal spile, a hook, and an aluminum bucket and lid – like this kit on amazon.com :Maple Sugaring / Syrup Tapping Starter Kit with Metal Buckets. The only other thing you need is a drill to make a hole in the tree. 7/16th drill bits are a bit hard to find, but that’s what the old fashioned metal spiles need.


(Aside: there are lots of different spiles, taps, lines, and collection vessels available on Amazon.com. For two spiles we used sand buckets, for one a plastic drinking jug – just need something to catch the sap)

I used my cordless power drill to drill into the bark. You’re supposed to do it between a big root and the first big branch, because that’s where the sap will flow the strongest. I kinda just drilled in where it was convenient to stand. The hole is supposed to be 1-2 inches and angled slightly upwards. I think I got that more or less.

I cleaned to drill dust out of the hole and was pretty much amazed that sap started leaking out immediately. I guess I got there just at the right time. Stuck the hook over the spile and hammered the whole thing into the hole. Attached the bucket and lid, and then waited.

The sap flowed at different rates over the next few days. A couple of days it filled the whole 2 gallon bucket, on others 1/4 or 1/2 a gallon. The sap flow is super dependent on the air temperature. For the sap to flow well, it needs freezing temperatures at night, and about 40 deg F during the day. There seems to be some wiggle room. I just checked the bucket a couple of times a day (mostly because I was curious about what was going on).

Turning Sap into Syrup

So maple sap only has a slight sweet taste (that’s me drinking it straight from the pot). It looks and tastes like water otherwise. If you collect it in the morning and some of the sap has frozen, that is the BEST! The ice is mostly water, the sweet part gets concentrated in the part that hasn’t frozen.

Then I filtered all the sap through a cheese cloth into a giant pot and boiled it. A lot. It’s a huge reduction and quite steamy.  I’m trying to work out how to do it in the crockpot, so I don’t have the gas stove going so much.

The books say to reduce the sap until it looks like syrup – light brown-ish, slightly sticky. And if you want to get precise, you can use a thermometer and hygrometer. I have a candy thermometer so I used that to heat the syrup to about 215degF. I also took some of it higher to make maple candy – mixed success there, though all was delicious (just some was too soft, and some too hard).

I then poured the boiling hot syrup into clean mason jars and sealed them up. They seem sterile and nothing has grown in the first batch, which has been at room temperature for over a week.

Things I learned: sap is yummy, and there is a lot of it. Maple syrup is much yummier but more precious that platinum. You just need a way to make a hole in a tree and a way to catch the copious amounts of sap.

And here are some photos of me making maple syrup:

MIT Museum

The MIT Museum is another one of the endless superb museums in the Boston area. We went to a free day at the end of February – there is free admission on the last Sunday of each month until June 2014. Otherwise admission in $10 per adult, $5 for kids, free for under 5 years old.

The museum is on Mass Ave, near MIT, and even though the area is busy, I have always found on-street parking nearby. Bring quarters.

The exhibits are not hugely made for younger kids and there are not too many things for the under-5-year-olds to poke. There are lots of buttons to push, but a lot of those move some delicate wire contraptions.

Oddly, my children found the extensive hologram collection totally uninteresting. I hope it’s just that they don’t understand the cool-ness of it, rather than that children are now so jaded by technology and touch screens that that is no longer fascinating for hours on end. Or maybe the hologram thing was only ever me? 😉

The biggest fun was had by my 4 and 6 year old with a conveyor belt machine that took pictures of small items and projected them onto the conveyor after they were removed. It think that was worth about an hour, and the source of all the high pitched squeals that day.

Downstairs is another large area, that had a bunch of robots and high tech stuff that mostly was beyond even my 6 year old, so I’ll have to come back sometime by myself for a closer look.

Be warned – the MIT museum has a really cool shop with really cool gadgets and toys. And it cannot be avoided.

Einstein’s Workshop in Burlington

Still somewhat catching up on all the awesome places we’ve been to recently: Einstein’s Workshop in Burlington. http://www.einsteinsworkshop.com. This is a space for older kids – definitely for over three year olds up to adults. They have all the construction toys you have ever heard of and then some. There is a laser cutter and 3D printing (which I’m personally drooling over). They do classes in everything and birthday parties.

Einstein’s Workshop is an amazing space for kids to explore the creative side of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). Our goal is to expose young children to fun and engaging STEM activities so that they remain interested and engaged in STEM subjects as they progress from elementary school through high school. In addition, we are working particularly hard to inspire both girls and boys by creating classes for electronic fabric art and through a lasercut dollhouse/model home construction and decoration class. We currently offer science project classes, programming classes (Lego NXT, Scratch, etc), engineering classes such as 2D and 3D CAD design, electronics and circuit project classes, 3D printer and laser cutter project classes, math classes, and more. We offer classes to kids from kindergarten through high school and beyond, including training for FLL and JrFLL coaches. Einstein’s Workshop also features a drop-in creative/maker space for kids, where kids can build with various construction toys such as Legos, K’Nex, Anchor Blocks, Kapla Blocks, and where qualified kids can access our CAD lab, electronics workstations, Arduino projects, 3D printers, and 80-watt laser cutter.

You can get discount tickets for Einstein’s Workshop at https://www.livingsocial.com/deals/1026599?rui=4566718 (that’s a referral link if you are in the mood to give something back to the blog 😉 Many libraries also have free passes