Outbreak Journal, March 25th

When I imagined living through a pandemic, I did not imagine painting my nails to remind me not to touch my face, using all the good face creams because now I’m *definitely* not going to be out in the sun after putting them on, or putting on perfume so I’ll notice if I lost my sense of smell.

My kids are going to remember us stress cooking through the French Chef (not *quite* literally, but I made stuffed eggplant last night, which is not a typical Tuesday night supper), candlelit dinners, and being allowed a little bit of wine because “what if?,” their father home for every meal, and extended bedtime stories.

The things that send shivers through my soul are not the big tragedies unfolding but the one key on the piano sticking and thinking forward to a time when I may not be able to play the piano to unwind, delays on a shipment of yarn and wondering what will happen if I can’t get any once my stash is used up, being down to my last potato with no delivery windows available and the kids singing “Potatoes & Molasses” in the next room. I look at my husband and my sons and think “most of the fatalities are men.”

I have friends in the hospital now, on the working end and the sick end.

As always, we have kept busy. I have been calmer, outwardly, then I usually am. I do not snap at the kids as much when they won’t let me complete a thought, I don’t tell them I’m busy even when I am, I answer their questions until they are satisfied or figure that they aren’t actually looking for answers so I hug them. I’ve stayed the course, maintaining routines so that the rising and falling of their moods can play out on a familiar background like variations on a theme. I have not lied or held back any realities from them and they have risen to my expectations.

There’s minutia I could report, but the only things that seem especially noteworthy are that I have secured the means to an almost normal Easter for us, have video chatted with friends and family frequently, have pursued adopting some cats since we lost Tober and am hopeful we can keep to our time table for that.

The only signs that I’m not at 100% are that I have trouble sleeping and reading for pleasure now.

Homeschooling 101: Skip The Busy Work

This series aims to help out parents who have been thrust into homeschooling by the COVID-19 outbreak.

Yesterday I said to take extra time to practice skills your kid is struggling with, today is the counterpoint:

Homeschooling 101
Drill the skills that need work, not the ones they have down.

There are some advantages to homeschooling, one of them is that a child can and should work at their own pace, not at the average space of a whole classroom. Busy work certainly sounds good when you’re trying to do your job at home while the children are simultaneously learning at home, but trying to get kids to spend more time drilling skills they’ve already gotten down will be a Pyrrhic victory, if its any victory at all. They might put up with it at school but they have the consolation of their peers around them going through the same thing, that’s not working for either of you at home.

If you see, and can quantify, that your child does not need to work on a particular skill, give them a choice between continuing to practice the skill that they already know and practicing a skill they have trouble with. Odds are that younger children will resist both options unless you make the skill they’re frustrated with especially engaging (like you’ll take time to work through it with them or make a game out of it).

What about assignments? If they know it and can prove it, do the bare minimum, keeping an eye out for new skills being introduced so you don’t have trouble down the line. Reach out to the teacher* if there’s a lot of assigned work that your child is already competent in, ask if they can test out of it or do an alternative assignment instead. Since your child’s teacher is no doubt as overworked as you are, try to make it easier on them, make one or two suggestions of your own of the alternative work, ones that won’t take a lot of effort for the teacher to grade.

The goal is to learn not to stay busy.

  • Why do I keep saying to reach out to the teacher? Because I’m a homeschooler, we don’t have a teacher outside of ourselves that will have to grade our child’s work, your child is beholden to a larger system, so you will have to touch base with them. It may happen that they will insist on assignments that you don’t think your child needs, but they are familiar with your child from the classroom and may see a weakness that is not being picked up on the tests. Anyway, if the teacher insists and it is both work the child is proficient in AND work they hate doing, you’re going to have to resort to bribery.

Homeschooling 101: Take Action

This series aims to help out parents who have been thrust into homeschooling by the COVID-19 outbreak.

Homeschooling 101
Don’t “wait and see” if your child is struggling, take action.

First, what a learning hangup is not:

  1. Proof your child has some sort of constitutional inability to do this work.
  2. Proof your child has a learning disability. If you take steps to remedy the situation and they don’t improve in a week, AND you see similar difficulty in other subjects, consider requesting a virtual teacher conference.
  3. Proof their teacher, school, or Common Core is at fault.
  4. Proof that you suck. Give yourself a break, you are not all powerful, and that applies a thousand fold to your children’s learning.

That said, now is not the time to stick your head in the sand, if your child is struggling with a concept, it won’t necessarily get better without intervention and the lessons are going to proceed at the assigned pace so your child could be left behind if you sit on your hands. You will need to take steps to help them. Begin by troubleshooting the problem:

  1. Have they been struggling in this subject before? In that case, they may need to strengthen a more foundational concept. Go back over the previous lessons in this area with them (ex.: prior lessons on fractions if they are having trouble with reducing fractions now).
  2. Can they do the work sometimes but they are inconsistent about doing it correctly? Unless there’s some external factor like a failure in their sleep schedule or a missed meal, they probably just need more practice. Common Core has made it much easier to find resources on your own that will help you review and practice skills from school. You can get workbooks such as the DK grade level and subject books to drill the skill, or find numerous websites where you can print your own (I use edhelper.com for this on occasion).
  3. Were they doing fine but now they’re flopping on the first lesson they have to do from home? Ok, this one might be on you since we weren’t raised with Common Core or your skills might be rusty. Go over the lesson on your own and if you aren’t quite getting it, go to a resource like YouTube or Khan Academy (please check your sources to see that they’re trustworthy!) to review and drill the skill, then go over it again with them.

Whatever you do, keep one rule of thumb in mind:

The goal is to instill a love of learning.

We want and need self-motivated learners. Don’t drill them until they cry. Don’t lose your temper. If it’s frustrating, try to look at it as a puzzle you are working out together, let them see your curiosity and problem solving skills in action. This can be a bonding experience like no other if you let it.

Outbreak Journal, March 17th

I never thought I’d be using this little blog Steve threw together for me so much.

Today is St. Patrick’s Day and I made Grandmom’s Oat Scones for breakfast, Irish soda bread, a chocolate stout “Quarantine Cake” (aka a Crazy cake), corned beef and cabbage… and my last potatoes. I squelched the habit of immediately trying to get fresh potatoes. I have potatoes in other formats and I have starches to spare. Everyone is healthy and well, I gave the kids a reprieve from schoolwork for the holiday, but they’ve given me cause to regret it.

Last night I realized I couldn’t hear any cars on Rt. 18 or on Raritan Ave. No planes or helicopters either. We live in interesting times.

Today I returned to social media because there’s no IRL socializing at the moment, it’s less rewarding than the split second, at a distance interaction I had with a neighbor walking down the street early this morning, or the guy who came and operated the robotic crane to pick up our bag dumpster (still working on the basement), but it is good to glimpse others going about their daily business.

I’m struck that this lockdown is essentially a society wide act of altruism. Many, if not most, of the people who would be killed if this blew up are people who are unlikely to contribute more than they take from society, economically, for the rest of their lives, they are retired or on disability, but we have collectively decided we are all in this together anyway, and we are carrying on with a minimum of whining. It’s messy and raw, but I’m proud of us for stepping up after our initial fuck ups with this disease. I truly hope this wakes people up on the value of investing in our healthcare infrastructure and vaccine research (and actually TAKING the vaccines) from here on out.

Welcome to Home Schooling

This series is by request. I was going to do a quick tip a day, but I realized that wasn’t going to be very helpful for those who need it, so here we go:

Homeschooling 101
It can take a LOT less time to get their work done.

You’re not doing anything wrong, and they may even be doing more schoolwork per day depending on what their teacher assigned, there’s just less time being spent in travel, classroom management, and probably in instruction since they have one-on-one access to help.

While you’re adjusting, you may want to add some assignments of your own to keep them out from under foot, my go to suggestions:

  1. Daily Exercise – If they don’t get this, they will climb the walls and may not sleep at night. Assign a half hour to a full hour of exercise a day, outside ideally. Whatever gets it done is all right whether that means a video game like Dance Dance Revolution or Ring Fit, or just putting on cheesy dance music and moshing in the living room. If your kid does a sport, try to keep up some form of practice.
  2. Journaling and Scrapbooking – You need them to burn time and they need to cope with big feelings, set them up with age appropriate journaling materials and require them to do a decent amount each day. I expect a page of journaling a day from my older kids and let the younger ones loose to express themselves with art (it’s very abstract art in O.’s case). If your older kids tend to get their work done so fast you’re stuck with them underfoot all day, have them also do a scrapbook collecting news items about the COVID situation. Do your best to preserve these for them, someday it will be a piece of family history.
  3. Daily Free Reading – Require an age appropriate minimum amount of reading per day, stretch it as much as possible because it’s as good for them as it is for you. This should be screen free if possible because they’re going to get plenty of screen time otherwise. If they grouse about reading, act like it’s no big deal to you if they don’t and hand them dull chores to do like laundry folding. Mine will generally disappear to read. Vital caveat here: this is free reading, let them read whatever they want, this isn’t purely academic but sanity saving, and if they read trash but come out of it with a love of reading, you’ve won the war if not the battle.

Potato Candy

In time for St. Patrick’s Day: a historic, child-friendly candy recipe using pantry staples you probably already have. Happens to be gluten free.

Adapted from the Hershey’s 1934 Cookbook, Eleventh Printing, page 87.

Candy Potatoes


  • 1 med. baked potato, mashed*
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • 1/3 Cup cocoa OR 1/3 Cup chocolate malt mix and reduce the sugar by 1/4 Cup
  • 4 1/2 Cups confectioner’s sugar
  • add’l cocoa or Chocolate Glaze or cinnamon sugar.


  1. Fold mashed potatoes, salt, and vanilla together in large mixing bowl.
  2. Slowly beat in the cocoa, and the sugar until the mixture is stiff enough to be rolled into balls.
  3. Either roll immediately in cocoa (or chocolate malt mix) or chill and glaze.
  • NOTE: No need to waste a fresh potato (unless you have leftovers, of course), instant potatoes will work just as well, follow the directions on the box and do the math to get the right amount, or make your child do the math as a distance learning exercise with a built in reward. Avoid using garlic flavored mashed potatoes…

Pantry Chocolate Glaze


  • 2 Cups (about 12 ounces) semisweet chocolate chips or chunks
  • 2 Tablespoons shortening or coconut oil


  1. Completely melt chips and shortening together in top of double boiler over hot -not boiling- water. [NOTE: Ha! Ok, just use the microwave setting for this, microwave slowly, it should be done when there are still softened but distinct chocolate lumps and it all looks glossy, then just stir it smooth, don’t overcook or it burns. Alternately, rest a metal mixing bowl over a pot with an inch of hot water in the bottom, instant double boiler.]
  2. Cool, stirring occasionally, until coating is lukewarm and slightly thickened (98° F). Dip.
  3. Maintain the temperature while dipping by occasionally setting back over the pot to warm up.
  4. Place dipped candies on a wax paper lined baking sheet and cool in the fridge.


  • Flavor potato candy faux-dant with mint extract and shape into patties.
  • Chill and form around maraschino cherries then dip.
  • Stir in peanut butter to stretch the peanut butter filling for peanut butter cups.
  • Raid your liquor cabinet and use your under-utilized liqueurs as flavoring extracts: creme de cacao, creme de menthe, cherry cordial, Chambord, Bailey’s, honey bourbon, all will make terrific candies and won’t be enough to get your kid tipsy (unless these aren’t for your kid and that’s what you’re going for, of course).

Think Ahead

Easter is three weeks away, times are uncertain, and this makes a BIG batch of candy, consider dividing the batch into several flavors and form half into egg shapes instead of potatoes. Your eggs will need to be chocolate or candy coated or else they will dry out, allow them to cool slowly and completely at room temperature, then store in the fridge. Don’t allow to freeze or the shell will break and the potatoes will weep liquid inside.

Quarantine Cake

We are not professional bloggers with professional cameras, but I assure you it’s tasty.

No eggs, no milk, no problem!

Quarantine Cake, aka Crazy Cake, Wacky Cake, Depression Cake, and who knows what other names. I originally got this recipe from my grandmother, who probably got it from my great grandmother, and it was a standard homemade birthday cake when ice cream cake wasn’t on the menu. The recipe rose to prominence during the Great Depression and only became more popular during World War II. There are no eggs or dairy in the recipe, no exotic ingredients, it’s fun for kids because it relied on the reaction between vinegar and baking soda to get its lift. Works fine with gluten free flours and works better than standard recipes for a microwave mug cake.

Without further ado, the base recipe:

Crazy Cake


  • 1 1/2 Cups flour
  • 1 Cup white sugar
  • 1/4 Cup cocoa powder
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1 Tablespoon white vinegar
  • 6 Tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 1 Cup water


  1. Preheat oven to 350° F (175° C), find your 8×8 pan (or use a 9×13 and double the recipe).
  2. Whisk flour, sugar, salt, soda, and cocoa together in mixing bowl. Make three depressions then, pour oil into one well, vinegar into the second, and vanilla into the third. Pour water over all, and stir well. I prefer to use a fork for all of this. NOTE: The traditional way to do this is to sift all the dry ingredients directly into the baking pan and proceed in the pan. Kids think this is cool which is worth it, but you’ll get a mouth full of unmixed flour at some point.
  3. Bake for 30 to 40 minutes (it’s very wet) or until a toothpick/skewer/fondue fork/piece of spaghetti, comes out clean.


  1. Apple Cake – Substitute 1 Tablespoon apple pie spice for cocoa, apple cider vinegar for white vinegar, and applesauce for half the oil.
  2. Cider Donut Cake – Make the apple cake above, and sprinkle with cinnamon sugar like a farm stand cider donut.
  3. Red Velvet Cake – Honestly? Do as above but dump in a ton of red food coloring and top with homemade cream cheese frosting. Replace the water with thin buttermilk (either half-and-half buttermilk and water or buttermilk made with the powdered buttermilk) if you have it.
  4. Peanut Butter Chocolate – Frost with 1/8 cup PB, 1/2 Cup brown sugar, 1/8 Cup milk, and 1/8 Cup softened butter, creamed, spread, then placed under broiler until brown and bubbly.
  5. Graham Cake – 1 Cup all-purpose flour, 1/2 Cup whole wheat flour, sub light brown sugar for white sugar, 1/2 Tablespoon cinnamon for cocoa, and optionally add 1 Tablespoon honey.
  6. S’mores Cake – Make graham cake but stir in chocolate chips. Top with marshmallows or marshmallow fluff spread and broil briefly until the top is brown.
  7. Pumpkin Cake – Sub 1 Cup light brown sugar for white sugar, 1 Tablespoon pumpkin pie spice for cocoa powder, 1 teaspoon almond extract for vanilla (or do both if you’re me), sub apple cider vinegar for white, and optionally sub pumpkin puree for half of the oil.
  8. “Gourmet” Crazy Cake – Substitute 1 Cup of hot coffee or espresso for the water and whisk the cocoa into it to bloom the cocoa for a stronger chocolate flavor. Allow the liquid to cool before adding to the other ingredients.

If you glance at the variants you can see the proportions that need to stay the same for this to work and make your own versions, which brings us to our version for tonight:

St. Paddy’s Cake

Simple replace the water with flat stout, Guinness will do fine, or I have a chocolate stout I’m planning on using. Leave out the vanilla. Top with a cream cheese or boiled frosting heaped up to look like a head of beer.

Before I go and actually bake this cake today (the kids want to help so I’ll update with pictures later), there’s this for folks who are self-isolating alone: Microwave Mug Crazy Cake from Sweet Little Blue Bird. I actually have to divide this recipe into three regular sized coffee mugs, so it is generous.

Good luck, have a merry St, Patrick’s Day.

Outbreak Journal, March 16th

The kids did the math this morning – to wit if we follow the CDC’s advice to avoid gatherings of over fifty people for eight weeks, and continue practicing social distancing, that will take us past Easter. They were chagrinned and then they just bounced back. I think they adapt to the temporary new normal faster than I do.

So far as they’re concerned, life goes on and their biggest concern is that I let the household run out of mint chip Yasso bars. We’ll have to make our own desserts soon, and the truth is that I don’t keep that much sugar in stock. Then we may actually feel the bite a little.

Outbreak Journal, March 15th

Broke my Facebook break to join in on the church’s Morning Prayer livestream. I miss the music, the Eucharist, and the coffee hour mingling afterward. Actually, and this is shocking to me, I miss casual handshakes and hugs. Me. With the startle reflex that once led me to duck under my own husband’s arms when I wasn’t expecting a hug.

I found a cabinet in the basement while I was demolishing moldy old drywall with Steve yesterday, it’s in pretty good shape and I have this bottle of stout I promised to set aside to share with friends when this is all over. I think I’ll spend this afternoon cleaning up the cabinet and putting it somewhere prominent to hold the stout, some champagne, and anything else I want to reserve for the celebration when this is over. Anything can be borne with something to look forward to.

In my brief visit to Facebook trying to find the link for the service, I spotted a tip I plan to put into practice: if you want to support your favorite businesses through this without running out and exposing yourself to the plague, buy gift certificates now. I have a few places in mind to support like Yestercades and Alfonso’s in Somerville.

Outbreak Journal, March 14th

Curiously, the number one complication in my life, during self-isolation, is neither food nor toilet paper, it’s still other people – both inside the house and out. People I can yell at if necessary, like the squirrelly children who want to shove their hand in a steaming quiche; and people I can’t, people I love who put themselves at serious and unnecessary risk.

It’s Saturday, the kids know how to do Saturday whether they’re stuck at home or not, so we mostly left them to it after lunch and decided to work out our anxieties by cleaning the basement out. It was a disaster that resulted in tearing down a ceiling and some walls looking for the source of a burning smell (apparently one cloth wrapped wire was left behind and live by the last owner’s handyman, and we managed to turn it on), but we were successfully distracted. I imagine there are lots of households who are making use of their time the same way.

E. tried her hand at making a quiche from scratch so we’re not missing takeout at all.