June 29, 2016

Taffy Pulling, Because Science!

It started with an idle comment. It ended up a many-houred end-of-school-year sugar-coated event.


This goopy stuff is homemade salt water taffy. An exploration of sugar, chemistry, and the relative strength of various arms.

I gave the kids (Caitlyn and some homeschool friends) a short lecture about atomic structure, molecular bonds, solutions (and why it's not a reaction), and what it means to be supersaturated. I'm never really sure how these little talks land with the kids; Caitlyn always says very positive things but the others are often so quiet I'm not at all certain anything sticks. I've decided to take the steady deluge approach: if they are always swimming in lots of knowledge, eventually some of it will osmosis its way to permanence, right?

(Interested in doing something similar? I used this, this, and this to prop up my distant high school chemistry.)

Then, on to the sweet part! Taffy syrup needs to cook over low heat until it's 260 degrees. High heat will scorch the sugar (don't stir or you'll end up with gritty candy), so this process is long and slow. I sent the kids outside and read half a novel.


Two hours later, we finally hit the proper temperature. For taffy, you want the candy to cool quickly, before crystals can form. This is also the point when you add any flavorings. The kids chose peppermint, which vaporized on contact with the molten sugar and cleared the sinuses of everyone in the kitchen.


As soon as you can touch it without injury, you start pulling. The point of pulling taffy (it's stretch and fold, really) is to incorporate air into the candy. This makes it light and chewy in texture.

starting to pull

Of course, it's really sticky. We started with cornstarch on our fingers and that wasn't at all effective. Cornstarch all over the hands wasn't much better, buying you a couple of minutes of reduced stickiness. Butter was more effective, but it also worked its way into the candy, leaving you, well, sticky. I wonder if starting with butter and then having someone sprinkle powdered sugar in as the butter was absorbed would be effective. I'm guessing that if you can pull the taffy long enough, it becomes less sticky, but I'd need to make more taffy to test this theory.


Eventually, it does become white, opaque, and firmer to the touch. And you become aware of which arm is your dominant (the one that hurts less) and how you could probably benefit from some additional exercises to tone up those shoulder and upper arm muscles. There were 8 of us (kids and adults) pulling taffy, and we probably should have pulled it longer than we did. Pulling it all myself doesn't sound like fun at all.

homemade salt water taffy

The final product is pretty fine taffy.  It's light and chewy, pleasantly peppermint without searing your sinuses (having done that already).  Each of the kids involved got to take home a ziploc of candy.  Not a bad way to mark the end of the school year!

June 17, 2016

Thinking about Rocks and Time (Trail of Two Forests)

There's something surreal about rocks that clearly show they were once liquid. Reading about lava flows is one thing. Sure, it says the rock was liquid, and I don't doubt it. But getting up close to a rock, with all of it's solid hardness, and finding a curved and rippled surface not unlike some cake batters kind of puts it in perspective. Once upon a time, this solid surface moved like water.
tree mold, Trail of Two Forests
You can see the ripples in this photo, at about the 2 o'clock position on the tree mold.  Roughly 2000 years ago, Mt. St. Helens erupted lava which engulfed a forest.  Even as the trees burned, they were still cooler than the lava, causing it to solidify around the trees.  The flow moved on, leaving molds of the trees behind, sometimes with detailed impressions of the bark captured in stone.

The idea of Mt. St. Helens erupting lava is strange to me.  I know that all our Cascade volcanoes are composite volcanoes, built of multiple layers of various ejecta, sometimes ash, sometimes lava.  Still, because the 1980 eruption was so heavily ash-dominated, it's been easy to think that that's what Cascade volcanoes do.  It's probably important to compare the south side of the mountain with its lava-based landmarks with the blasted northern face.  One mountain, multiple expressions.

Still, it's surreal.  Humans aren't good at thinking in geologic time.  Our lives are too short to really grasp the scale.  This is a hole that's 2000 years old. (Why isn't it more full of debris?)  Before the hole there was a tree who had lived long enough to gain many inches in diameter, which stood on soil built up after previous eruptions, which built a mountain on rocks pushed onto the margin of the North American continent at a time when that landmass was more tropical than today.  I know this.  But it's only by seeing and experiencing that I begin to understand it, that the relative scale becomes clearer.

It's an understanding that is simultaneously depressing and liberating.  I am so small.  Life goes on, with fragile mosses reclaiming an inhospitable basaltic landscape.

June 08, 2016

A Morning Visitor

Wasabi was on a bit more of a tear than usual this morning, which made total sense once we realized we had a visitor:
raccoon in cherry tree

We spent the rest of breakfast watching her clamber around in the cherry tree, rather systematically eating all the cherries. Good thing I don't expect harvestable fruit from that tree!

raccoon in cherry tree
She (I'm assuming it's female based on this site which says that while commonly nocturnal, raccoons can be active during the day, especially if there are kits back in the den.  Raccoon kits typically arrive in April and May, and Mama tends to stay with them for a year.) walked as far out on the limbs as possible, backing up only when the bend in the limb started to threaten an imminent fall.

raccoon in cherry tree
She never fell, despite precariously reaching for that elusive fruit. 

raccoon in cherry tree
She seemed on the small side (young? female?) compared to the few other raccoons we've seen in the backyard.  And she was missing her tail.  From where we were, it looked like a fairly recent loss.  Did she escape a trap?  Get into a fight?

We must have stood and watched her for 20 minutes or more.  She ate nearly all the fruit in the tree, then cleaned up the ground below.  She seemed remarkably comfortable up there, even engaging in some grooming/itch-scratching a good 10-12 feet up.

Then, having eaten everything, she crossed the yard, squeezed herself through the fence slats, and  sauntered off.