Friday, February 26, 2021

60 Hikes within 60 Miles - Minneapolis and St. Paul

 One of the goals I have this year is to do more hiking. The library had a good book - 60 Hikes within 60 Miles - Minneapolis and St. Paul by Tom Watson - that offers a lot of good ideas for hikes within a reasonable driving distance from home. 

Some of the ones that sound interesting include:

- Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge - from the Bass Ponds to Old Cedar Bridge. 2400 East 86th Street, Bloomington. 1.75 mile interpretive loop.

- Carlos Avery Trail - Zodiac Street NE at Headquarters Road in Forest Lake. 8.7 mile loop.

- Coon Rapids Dam - 10360 West River Road, Brooklyn Park. 2.2 mile elongated figure eight on the west bank of the Mississippi River. 

- Hyland Park Reserve - Richardson Interpretive Trail - 8737 East Bush Lake Road, Bloomington. 2.1 mile series of loops.

- Rice Creek North Regional Trail - 1953 County Road I, Arden Hills. 5-mile balloon trail.

- Wood Lake Nature Center - 6710 Lake Shore Drive South, Richfield. 2.2-mile figure eight with outer connecting loop.

- Baylor Regional Park - 10775 County Road 33, Norwood Young America. 4.6 miles.

- Carver Park Reserve - Lowry Nature Center - Tamarack Trail - 7025 Victoria Drive, Victoria.1.5 mile interpretive loop.

- Lake Minnewashta Regional Park - Marsh Trail Loop - 6900 Hazeltine Boulevard, Chanhassen. 1.3-mile balloon with options for shorter loops.

- Sakatah Lake State Park - 50499 Sakatah Lake State Park Road, Waterville. 2.2 miles, 2 stacked loops.

- Afton State Park - 6959 Peller Avenue South, Hastings. 4.3-mile balloon loop.

- Frontenac State Park - Bluffside Trail - 29223 County 28 Boulevard, Frontenac. 2.5-mile short loop.

- Nerstrand-Big Woods State Park - Big Woods Trail - 9700 170th Street East, Nerstrand. 3.1 miles, 2 stacked loops.

- Baker Park Reserve - 2309 Baker Park Road, Maple Plain. 6.2-mile circular loop.

- Elm Creek Park Reserve - 13351 Elm Creek Road, Osseo. 11.25-mile crescent-shaped loop with several spur options.

- Elm Creek Park Reserve - Eastman Nature Trail - 13351 Elm Creek Road, Osseo. 3.8 mile irregular figure eight.

- Tamarack Nature Center - 5287 Otter Lake Road - White Bear Township. 1.3-mile loop from the visitor center, with many optional routes.

Thursday, February 25, 2021

Secrets of a Financial Aid Pro - Book Notes

 As Olivia begins to think about potential colleges to attend starting in September 2022, we need to look at all options for financial aid. A book from the library caught my eye recently: Secrets of a Financial Aid Pro by Jodi Okun. 

The book is written for first-time parents who will be sending a son or daughter to college. However, there is still some valuable information for those who have already gone through the process once (or more). Here are few things I thought would be useful to know during the upcoming year: 

- When looking at your top schools, do a chart with the following categories: name of college, location, what you like about it, type of school (e.g., big or small, public or private), concerns, cost, average financial aid award, best majors offered, student life (e.g., clubs, sports, other desired offerings), companies that recruit here.

- Set a specific amount of time each week to work on the college process.

- Clean up social media pages. All the platforms should be private so that only people a student approves can see posts. 

The rest of the book I was already familiar with (e.g., filling out the FAFSA, types of available aid). So, I skimmed through that. This book would be good, though, for someone who is unfamiliar with the financial aid process and what needs to be done - especially during the high school years. 

Wednesday, February 24, 2021

Star Bread for Mardi Gras

For Mardi Gras this year, I made Star Bread which I saw on Pinterest. The pin leads to Sally's Baking Addiction. The bread was easy to make and tasted delicious. I made the version with crystallized ginger and brown sugar, so it had some spiciness to it. Rather than leaving the Star Bread plain, I put some powdered sugar frosting on it and gold, purple, and green sprinkles on it for the holiday

This is the recipe:

Prep Time: 2 hours, 30 minutes
Cook Time: 30 minutes
Total Time: 3 hours
Yield: Serves 8 

Note: If the bread rises for too long, it could lose its shape. Follow the timing exactly as it is in the recipe.


2 teaspoons instant or active dry yeast
3 Tablespoons granulated sugar 
3/4 cup (180ml) whole milk 
1/4 cup (60g) unsalted butter, softened to room temperature 
1 large egg 
2 and 1/3 cups (290g) all-purpose flour (spoon & leveled), plus more as needed (I needed quite a bit more flour)
1 teaspoon salt 
filling (see recipe note) 
egg wash: 1 large egg beaten with 1 Tablespoon (15ml) milk 
2 Tablespoons confectioners’ sugar 


Make the dough: Place the yeast and sugar in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a dough hook or paddle attachment. Or, if you do not own a stand mixer, a regular large mixing bowl. 

Heat the milk on the stove or in the microwave until warm to touch, about 110°F (43°C). Pour warm milk on top of yeast/sugar. Whisk gently to combine, then loosely cover with a clean kitchen towel and allow to sit for 5-10 minutes. The mixture will be frothy after 5-10 minutes. 

If you do not have a mixer, you can mix by hand in this step. Add the butter, egg, flour, and salt. Beat on low speed for 3 minutes. Dough will be soft (note: at this point, I added more flour since it was not at a workable stage). 

Using lightly floured hands, form it into a ball. If the dough is too sticky to handle, add 1-3 more Tablespoons of flour, but you want a very soft dough. 

Place the dough in a greased bowl (nonstick spray is fine) and cover with plastic wrap or aluminum foil. Place in a slightly warm environment to rise until doubled in size, around 60-90 minutes. For this warm spot, I suggest using the oven. Preheat to 150°F, then turn the oven off after preheating. Place the covered bowl inside and shut the oven door. This is your warm environment. 

Prepare filling: Line a large baking sheet with parchment paper or a silicone baking mat and prepare your star bread filling. See all the options in the recipe notes below. 

Assemble the bread: Watch the video on the link above to guide you through this step. Punch down the dough to release the air. Place dough on a lightly floured work surface. Divide into 4 equal pieces and, with a floured rolling pin, roll each out into a thin 10-inch circle. 

Place the bottom circle on a prepared baking sheet. If it lost its circle shape, use your hands to form the edges back into a round shape. Top with filling, then layer the remaining circles and filling on top. The top layer does not have filling on it, so only 3 of the 4 circles will be topped with filling. 

Using a sharp knife or pizza cutter, cut any scraps around the edges so you have an even circle. Place a 3 inch round object or bowl in the center and make an indent. This is the center of the star. Now it’s time to cut strips from the edge to the center 3-inch circle. Using a pizza cutter, cut 16 even strips. 

Using both hands, grab two strips and twist them away from each other twice, then press the two ends together to make a point. Your star bread will have 8 points. Cover the shaped bread with plastic wrap or aluminum foil and let it rest for 20 minutes. 

Preheat oven to 350°F (177°C). Bake the bread: Using a pastry brush, lightly brush the star bread with egg wash. This ensures a beautifully-shiny golden brown bread. Bake for about 25- 30 minutes or until golden brown on top. If you notice the top or points browning too quickly, loosely tent the star bread with aluminum foil. 

Remove from the oven and cool for 5 minutes. 

Dust confectioners’ sugar on top and enjoy warm. Cover and store leftover star bread at room temperature for 1-2 days or in the refrigerator for 4-5 days. 


Layers: The top layer does not have filling on it, so only top 3 of the 4 shaped circles. 


Cinnamon Sugar: Spread 1 Tablespoon of very soft unsalted butter onto each of the 3 circles. (3 Tbsp total.) Mix 1/4 cup (50g) granulated sugar with 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon. This is the total amount and you will divide it between each circle. Sprinkle evenly over butter on each circle. 

Nutella: Spread 1 heaping Tablespoon of Nutella onto each of the 3 circles. Nutella is difficult to spread onto soft dough, so warm it up in the microwave for a few seconds until it’s a spreadable consistency. 

Your favorite jam: Spread 1 Tablespoon of jam onto each of the 3 circles. 

Butter, Brown Sugar, + Ginger: Spread 1 Tablespoon of very soft unsalted butter onto each of the 3 circles. Mix 3 Tablespoons packed light or dark brown sugar with 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon and 1 Tablespoon finely chopped crystallized ginger. Sprinkle evenly over butter on each circle. 

Apple Butter or Pumpkin Butter: Spread 1 heaping Tablespoon onto each of the 3 circles. 

Chai Spice: Spread 1 Tablespoon of very soft unsalted butter onto each of the 3 circles. Mix 3 Tablespoons granulated sugar with 1/4 teaspoon each ground cinnamon, ground ginger, ground cardamom, and ground allspice. Sprinkle evenly over butter on each circle. 

Butter + Cinnamon Sugar + Walnuts + Dates: Spread 1 Tablespoon of very soft unsalted butter onto each of the 3 circles. Mix 3 Tablespoons packed brown or granulated sugar with 1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon, and 2 Tablespoons each finely chopped walnuts and pitted dates. Sprinkle evenly over butter on each circle. 

Cinnamon sugar + Orange Zest + Fresh or Dried Cranberries: Spread 1 Tablespoon of very soft unsalted butter onto each of the 3 circles. Mix 3 Tablespoons packed brown or granulated sugar with 1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon, 2 teaspoons orange zest, and 3 Tablespoons finely chopped fresh or dried cranberries. Sprinkle evenly over butter on each circle. 

Savory: Reduce sugar in the dough to 1 Tablespoon. Spread 1 heaping Tablespoon of tomato sauce or pesto onto each of the 3 circles. (Try my kale pesto!). Top each with a light layer of shredded cheese, herbs, and/or chopped pepperoni. 

Friday, February 12, 2021

College Admissions During COVID - Book Notes

It's time again for college visits, but this time for Olivia. Having gone through college visits with Sophia in 2018, I can say that this round is substantially different. Masks, social distancing, Zoom meetings, not bringing outside food and beverages onto campuses during college visits, no handshakes - all make for quite a uniquely memorable experience. 

Given how everything is different than in the past in terms of admissions, I was happy to come across College Admissions During COVID - How to Navigate the New Challenges in Admissions, Testing, Financial Aid, and More by Robert Frankek. 

Although some of the information was general and I already knew because of having one daughter in college (e.g., what the FAFSA is, test options, financial aid), there were some things that are helpful to know:

- A best fit for college rests on four things: academic fit, cultural fit, financial fit, and career fit.

- Ask about on-campus research experiences such as working alongside a professor in a lab, writing a thesis, or completing a capstone project for a major.

- Practice taking the ACT while wearing a mask and at the time that the test will be held. 

- If an ACT score is low, remember that a college application also includes essays, teacher recommendations, and extracurricular activities. These all set you apart from other applicants.

- Timeline:


- Take the ACT when you are ready

- Balance schoolwork and outside-school interests

- Take the most challenging courses available to you.

- Start gathering teacher recommendations

- Make virtual campus visits for a narrowed-down college list

- Research available scholarships


- Start working on your application and prewriting college essays

- Make a calendar of all application deadlines (college and scholarships)

- Consider visiting colleges that are on the top of your list

- If you are applying for Early Decision, take the ACT no later than September

- Create your own project. Turn your interests and talents into a summer-long project (e.g., practicing creative writing and submitting your work to journals that publish the work of high school students)

- Become an entrepreneur - start a business that offers a service to your community

- Volunteer locally - commit to volunteering for a few hours a week from now through senior year

- Find a research opportunity. Use a platform like Zooniverse to contribute to scientific research or transcribe historical documents 


- Apply early if you're a strong candidate

- Finish applications and stay on top of deadlines for scholarships and financial aid

- Keep focused and study. Senior grades matter and can affect financial aid


- Send thank-you notes to your recommenders

- Talk to family before making a final college choice

- Read through your college's course catalog and start planning for your next four years!

- Your GPA and the rigor of your high school courses are the most important factors on your application.

- Find and commit to the extracurricular activities that you find meaningful. Look for activities through community organizations

- Find ways to further your passions on your own initiative, apart from school settings

- Look at websites for engaging in service that helps others:

- All for Good

- Catchafire

- Crisis Text Line

- Points of Light

- Project Gutenberg

-Smithsonian Transcription Center

- United Nations Volunteers

- World Family Children Foundation

- Earn money by creating art or graphic designs and selling them to others. Check out CafePress

- If you're an artist, meet online with an Art Club to share and critique work for your portfolio, or deliver illustrations and photography to brighten up a local hospital or nursing home.

- Send in a financial aid appeal as soon as possible after the financial aid package arrives.

- Be honest about any claims you make about your finances with the financial aid officer. 

- Finish college in three years, if possible. Take the maximum number of credits each semester and earn credits via online courses.

- College essay: tell about something that is important to you - an experience, a person, or a book. It shows colleges the unique qualities you will add to the incoming class.

- Take the opportunity to really examine how an experience taught you something you didn't previously know about yourself, got you out of your comfort zone, or forced you to grow.

- Always send thank-you notes to people with whom you've interviewed.

- Asking for a letter of recommendation

- Ask early - either in your late junior year or senior year

- Get detailed - provide a resume so the person doing the letter of recommendation has something to work with

- Let the person know when you need the letter of recommendation