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{Review} Equipping Kids to Cook with Curious Chef Tools

Curious Chef 16-piece cupcake and decorating setMy kids have expressed an interest in helping in the kitchen practically since they could talk. At times, this was exasperating, but I tried to be patient as there is so much value to letting kids cook. In addition to teaching them a lifetime skill and getting them interested in preparing healthy foods, letting kids cook has been proven to help with math (all those fractions and equations involved when altering recipes), and may even reduce their chances of getting involved with drugs. There are many other benefits as well — improved reading skills, bonding time with family, real-life application of science, and more! So why doesn’t everyone do it?

In my very informal observation of friends who don’t encourage their kids to join them in preparing a meal, there are a few consistent objections:

  • Patience: It can take longer when kids are helping and they may not do everything “right”
  • Mess: Cooking can be messy, and more so with kids
  • Safety: Fears about kids getting burned or injuring themselves with a knife2015-07-07 Curious Chef Making Muffins w Lorelei 044

I had all of the same concerns above when my kids started joining me in the kitchen, but I also have a Montessori-influenced approach to parenting. (My children have a very headstrong approach to being kids — they always want to try everything whether I think they are ready to or not!) In addition to encouraging cooking (Montessori school kids often have to prepare and bring in their own lunches at a very tiny age), the Montessori method encourages providing child-sized tools for any job.

This is why I was intrigued by the Curious Chef line of kitchen tools. Embracing the many benefits of having kids in the kitchen, they produce cheerful, right-sized tools for kids. They asked me to try out their products2015-07-07 Curious Chef Making Muffins w Lorelei 078 and sent me a cupcake set and a 16-piece cupcake and decorating set and a 3-piece nylon knife set.

It turns out that the cupcake set was the perfect thing to cheer up JavaGirl (age 9) while her brother was away at camp. We had a jam-packed schedule, but in between her vacation bible school camp and horseback riding lesson, we quickly cooked up some cupcakes in the six-spaces tin. They have a recipe on the side of the box that is yields six cups, but inexplicably, I had every type of flour EXCEPT self-rising in my pantry that day! So we grabbed a box of cake mix and used that instead. In the interests of time we used pre-made frosting rather than mixing up our own from the directions provided.

What I was most interested in seeing was how the silicone cups would work (separate inserts that went into the metal pan, rather than a silicone pan). I have used some silicone tools, but I have never used these before. And because I’m perpetually curious, I decided to use our leftover cake batter to cook cupcakes in another pan of mine, in paper wrappers, to see if it would make a difference (JavaGirl loves the idea of an experiment).

2015-07-07 Curious Chef Making Muffins w Lorelei 208

The cupcake on the left was baked in the silicone cup, the one on the right was in a paper wrapper.

The cupcakes cooked beautifully and were very moist. The silicone cups kept the pan clean and the cupcakes came out of them easily. (Note the silicone cups can be washed in the dishwasher but are also easy to handwash.) When compared to the ones in the paper cups, we found that the ones in the Curious Chef cups/pan were more evenly baked and much moister. (Which may be true of any brand of silicone cups — these were just the first ones we had ever used.)

Next: Decorating

JavaGirl has decorated cakes using my Wilton bags and tips before, in fact, earning her American Heritage Girls Cake Decorating badge. But the Curious Chef set comes with a plunger-type of decorating system. The tips screw onto the end without requiring additional rings. There are five shapes of tips including one that would allow you to inject something into the middle of a cupcake. I really wanted to try that one, but JavaGirl wasn’t interested in that that day and time was tight, so, um, I may be using her tools another day! Though I was able to use the plunger (to demonstrate how to use it), it is nicely sized for children’s hands and in my opinion, is definitely easier for kids to use than a decorating bag. And also, easier to clean.  If there were one addition I would recommend to Curious Chef, it would be to include a small tip-cleaning brush and mesh bag (to hold tips while in the dishwasher), fortunately I already had both. The sixteenth piece of the set is a packet of blank recipe cards with stickers.

2015-07-07 Curious Chef Making Muffins w Lorelei 159JavaGirl enjoyed working with the decorating set and would’ve happily fiddled with it for quite a while if we had not been in a hurry.

Incidentally, the set also include a nylon mixing spoon, which again, is a nice size for kids, and a nylon frosting spreader which worked well for JavaGirl.

A final note on the set — at first I was a little surprised that the pan was only for 6 servings, but when I thought more about it, I like this. When we are cooking just for ourselves, 6 is just right and none of those extra cupcakes hanging out for days. Also, JavaGirl and I discussed other ways we could use the pan/silicone cups. Of course we could make muffins, but in our family, we’ve been enjoying making some of the many “muffin pan recipes” out there including breakfast eggcups (think scrambled eggs with seasonings and cut up veggies). We plan to try those out in this set soon to see how they come out versus just in our regular pan and the small size is convenient.

Overall, the set was a huge hit with JavaGirl, despite the fact she already has access to so many tools. She felt pride in this being HER set. And don’t think this is just for girls, JavaBoy tends to cook even more than JavaGirl, so I think he’ll end up using this a lot as well.

Child-sized Cutting Tools

IMG_2377The nylon knife set, on the other hand, got a mixed reaction from JavaGirl. When she was a preschooler, I started her out with a different kind of safety knife, and she has since progressed to using my Wusthof knives. However, I still worry at times about her injuring herself, so I was very intrigued to see how these would workout. Initially, she rejected them, claiming they required more pressure on her part. I tried one out on a few different things such as tomatoes, celery, and peaches — they could cut them all, but did require a little more pressure on harder materials. (Cut the tomato well, however!) Yet just last night, I caught JavaGirl using one of the nylon knives to slice up a peach. So my thoughts are that if you are holding back on letting your child cook due to fear of injury from knives, this is a great option. If your child already safely uses knives, you may or may not be interested in this set — there is some peace of mind with them using a nylon knife, but it has a different “feel” to it. By the way, in holding the knife myself, I oddly found it to be nicely “balanced,” not something I was expecting in a knife like this.

In terms of overall quality, I felt like the pan, silicone cups, and all the nylon tools were great. The decorating plunger was not flimsy but didn’t feel quite as “heavy duty” to me as the other tools, however, this is the first time I’ve used a plunger frosting tool  so I have can’t compare it to an “adult-sized” plunger tool. The finger holes on it worked well for both JavaGirl and I, which is a huge plus because it means parents are able to comfortably demonstrate how to use it to kids. (Also, JavaGirl is left-handed, I am right-handed, and it worked well for both of us.)

The cupcake and decorating set retails for $24.99 on the Curious Chef site, but I also noticed that it retails for less (and is also currently on sale tor additional savings) on Amazon.com (note this link includes my Amazon Associates code. The nylon knife set retails for $8.99 on the Curious Chef (more on the Amazon site, so price shop for any of the tools in this line.) The Curious Chef has many products, including child-sized oven mitts and aprons, food prep tools such as vegetable peelers, and much more. They are all cute and I think any child would feel proud to own any of them.

Whatever tools you use, try to find some time to get your kids in the kitchen with you. You’ll build some wonderful memories together and sneak in some educational benefits as well!

Disclosure: The Curious Chef provided me with the 16-piece cupcake and decorating set and 3-piece nylon knife set for the purpose of review. All opinions are my own (or JavaGirl’s) and were not influenced by receiving the complimentary items. This post contains links that allow you to purchase the items if you are interested in them, including links to Amazon.com, of which I am an Associate. If you purchase these or other items from Amazon.com through the provided link, I may receive a tiny percentage from Amazon, which will help support this site.

{Review} Cirque du Soleil’s “Verekai” Is a Marvelous Flight of Fantasy #Verekai

JavaGirl poses before seeing Varekai.What if things had turned out differently for Icarus, the boy who flew too close to the sky with his wax and feather wings and ended up falling into the ocean? That spark of an idea is what brings “Verekai” to life as a vivid performance of song, dance, acrobatics and even comedy.

JavaGirl (9) and I watched the Baltimore premiere as part of the media last night and as much as I enjoyed the show, I especially relished watching the wonder in her eyes as she experienced it. We’ve seen many live performances together, but nothing is quite like a Cirque du Soleil show — the costumes are straight out of crazy dreams, the make-up is like none other, and the acts are amazing displays of human strength, flexibility, and beauty.

Set in a land of brightly colored, fantastical animals and a roaring volcano, “Verekai” begins by showcasing some of the marvelous creatures. What seems to delight the kids in the audience the most is how the performers interact with the manhole cover size holes throughout the stage. Performers pop up from them, drop down into them, and at times steam emits from the holes. Every shot of steam brought about peals of laughter.

Suddenly, a creature falls from the sky. It is Icarus, who instead of drowning in the sea after flying too close to the sun, falls into this magnificent forest. He is injured and his wings are removed. All seems to be lost for him, until he meets a creature known as The Betrothed. What follows is a love story as the inhabitants of the land ultimately conspire to bring these two together.

Just like the first time I saw a Cirque du Soleil show, my personal favorite was watching the aerialists, especially when they made heart-stopping, dramatic rolls with scarves, straps, or a net. A close second in “Verekai” is the acrobatics from the Russian swings to the hand-balancing on canes. Something I’ve never seen before was an act with a performer on special curved crutches — apparently this being also fell from the sky, but did not fully recover from his injuries, and he performs an acrobatic dance to show Icarus that there is life after falling.

There are more than 130 costumes in “Verekei,” all of them stunning, but my favorite is those of the Volcano Leapers. Hats are a big part of Cirque du Soleil’s costumes, but these creatures have a hat with a stone-like face on top, so when the dancers bend their heads, the hats become their faces. They are a wonderful personification of lava.

JavaGirl enjoyed it all (though noted she wanted more acrobatics in the opening scene), but I think if you pinned her down on her favorite element, it may have been the “clowns.” These clowns do not have white faces and red noses like other circus clowns, but are character actors who serve as comic relief throughout the show. JavaGirl especially enjoyed when they worked as a magician and assistant, but I think my favorite act was when the male clown, looking like a young Wayne Newton, has to chase a spotlight all over the arena during his song.

If you’ve never seen a Cirque du Soleil performance, “Verekai” is a great one to see! And if you have seen a performance, “Verekai” is likely to include the elements you love while still providing a fresh, exciting show. Either way, I recommend purchasing one of the programs ($20) to enhance your experience, especially if you have young children who might find it hard to follow the storyline. It is a deconstructed program — instead of a booklet there are a series of double-sided color photos of the show, with captions explaining what is going on, and a poster.

“Verekai” Locations and Tickets

Verekai” is in the metro DC area in two different venues:

Baltimore, MD
Royal Farms Arena
July 8-12

Fairfax, VA
Patriot Center
July 22-28

Tickets can be bought online, starting at $36 (prices go up for weekend shows). There happens to be a Living Social ad for the Fairfax performance. A quick web search for coupon codes may be worthwhile.

Disclosure: My family was given two tickets in the media section to watch the show. Writing a review was not required and all opinions are my own (or JavaGirl’s).

{Review} Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy: Action and Wit Translates Across the Generations

GuardiansoftheGalaxySome of my favorite childhood memories included going to the 7-11 with my father and picking up a comic book (or two or three) and reading them not just once but over and over. But over time, the Marvel Universe and I lost touch, and it is only via references via The Big Bang Theory and when I remember to actively seek out comic books for my own kids (alas, they are not as easy to pick up as they were in my youth), that I sometimes get a glimpse of the continuing storyline. So the true test for me about Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy was if I could enjoy this movie without knowing the slightest thing about any of the characters — I deliberately did NOT read up about them ahead of time. The answer is a resounding YES. The second question in my mind was whether the PG-13 rating was going to be problematic for my kids, ages 8 and 10. They are mature for their ages, but I tend to be a bit protective of them — however, I knew they would want to accompany me to the media preview so with some quick research, I found the rating was due to action, violence and language and decided they could handle it. More on this further in the review.

The only other piece of the Marvel franchise I have seen is Iron Man — I haven’t seen Thor, Captain America, or The Avengers. So for comparison’s sake, I would say that while there is a lot of similar humor, I would say that Iron Man skewed to a far more mature audience (Tony and Pepper’s relationship being a major plot line) and that Guardians of the Galaxy, while requiring the ability to keep many characters straight and following a lot of double-agent type of scenarios, had a storyline my 8-year-old daughter could follow and enjoy.

I’ll admit, sometimes *I* got a little lost with some of the characters/species names, but not so much that it really mattered. I was also sitting between two kids, managing popcorn, and had some (funny, but talkative) reviewers sitting behind me, so that may be more a reflection on my situation than the move or… ahem… my brain cells. (Side note: my son also fractured his nose and I had to deal with taking him to the doctor, getting him x-rays that day and setting up an ENT appointment — all while there was no power in my neighborhood — so yeah, I was also a little frazzled that day.)

The movie centers around Peter Quill aka StarLord, a rakish mostly-good-but-sometimes-bad adventurer who travels through space finding/stealing valuable items and chatting up the female gender of all species. The Walkman and mix tape his long-dead mother gave him plays prominently in the movie, so unless you want to have a lot of whispered conversations during the movie with your kids about this, if you haven’t already explained what this mysterious object is to them, do yourself a favor and show them a picture of one. Sound track note:  if you like pina coladas… you’ll like the sound track!

As a result of stealing a mysterious orb, Quill sets of a chain of events that ends up attracting the attention of a beautiful but very deadly Gamora, a smart-talking, MacGyver-sih raccon named Rocket, a tree-like humanoid named Groot, and a revenge-driven “friend” whose species causes him to be overally literal, Drax the Destroyer. This unlikely quintet, uncertain of their own status with each other, soon find themselves in charge of protecting the galaxy from destruction.

There are many times this movie reminded me (and as I discovered, the kids as well) of Star Wars and this included several action scenes, the interplay of Groot and Rocket (only Rocket understands him), and sometimes Gamora reminds me of Princess Leia. I would be curious if you see the same parallels? Quill is a bit of Han Solo and Luke Skywalker combined to me.  I haven’t done any research to see if any of this was intentional — maybe it was.

Let’s talk about the PG-13 rating. Yes, there are definitely some swear words I don’t want my kids using but it is not over the top and I could talk to them both before and after the movie about it and felt like it was handled — I don’t recall any f-bombs being used, if there were, it slipped past me, these were more along words that rhymed with “ick” and “itch” and had the word “hole” in them. There is use of the middle finger. There is very mild romance in this, most of which will probably fly right past them. There is, of course, some violence and action scenes. There are fight scenes, spaceship shooting scenes, an implied beheading scene — that kind of stuff. My daughter, who is the more sensitive of my two kids when it comes to this stuff, did quite well and actually said to me after the movie (quite indignantly), “I don’t know why they rated that PG-13, I was the youngest one in that theater other than babies and it was fine!” (She wasn’t but that’s not the point.) As always, you need to use your own discretion. It could be scary to your kids, and you have to decide what is comfortable in terms of your own parenting style. We usually can talk things through.

We saw the movie in 3D and yes, the visuals were lovely, especially since the many galactic species were colorful and delightfully textured. But I will note that having seen so many movies in 3D lately, I did not find the 3D to be as eye-catching as say, Maleficient or Planes: Fire & Rescue. I can’t really explain why, it just was something that I noticed.

My final verdict: As a family, we enjoyed this movie and we think other families would as well. If you are an adult seeing it on your own, whether you are a comic book fan or not, I think you will be entertained. It is funny, adults will enjoy the retro references (especially if you were old enough to own a Walkman), and it is not overly-reliant on graphics to make the movie work. By the way, the media preview did NOT include the after credits scene, but there IS supposed to be one, so stay for it!

Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy opens August 1, 2014. Check your local listings for times and theatres.

Disclosure: My family attended a complimentary media preview screening for the purposes of this review. All opinions are my own. Images provided by the movie’s PR team.

{Review} Planes: Fire & Rescue

planesfireandrescueThe JavaKids and I were able to attend a sneak preview of Planes: Fire & Rescue earlier this week for the purposes of giving our review of the movie. Amongst the other invited guests were area firefighters, as the theme of the movie centered around the vehicles who fight forest fires and the opening credits dedicate the movie to the men and women who save lives every day as firefighters.

This movie is of course a sequel to Planes, where we first met the main character, Dusty Crophopper (voiced by Dane Cook).  Now a world-famous racer, Dusty discovers that he has a failing part that may soon end his racing days. As a result of testing his limits, he accidentally sets his hometown’s airstrip on fire, attracting the scrutiny of the safety department, which informs Dusty and his friends that the airport will be closed until improvements can be made, including updating the current fire engine and finding a second firefighting vehicle.

This sets the stage for a guilt-ridden Dusty to go off to Piston Peak National Park to learn how to be an aerial firefighter. Here we meet the brave crew who fights fires, the legendary fire and rescue helicopter Blade Ranger, scooper Dipper (voice of Julie Bowen), heavy-lift helicopter Windlifter, ex-military transport Cabbie, and the Smokejumpers, a team of  all-terrain vehicles who jump out of Cabbie and fight the fires from the ground by creating “breaks” and clearing paths.

Fires aren’t the only enemy the team faces. The Superintendent, who runs the National Park and more specifically is interested in his pet project the newly renovated lodge, is less concerned with safety than with dazzling VIP guests. Do kids in the audience understand the theme of bureaucracy and budget cuts and what happens when money is diverted to build pet projects? Well, maybe not as well as adults, but my kids (ages 8 and 10) understood it enough and it opened the door for some conversations, and to me, any time a movie does that, it’s a win.

Like the other movies in the Cars and Planes franchise, there are some jokes thrown in there that only the adults will get. There are a couple of romance themes. And there are times when the stories get a little clunky. For example, it took me a little bit to realize that Windlifter is supposed to be an Apache helicopter and therefore his off-the-wall-sounding stories are supposed to be Native American lore (I think?) so the way the characters respond to him (“Oookay…”) are not necessarily the most appropriate. But translating lore to vehicle-speak comes out sounding very bizarre. So it may be worth discussing that with the kids.

The visuals are stunning and yet not frightening. Hint: Stay a little bit through the credits for one last joke.

Overall, there are several good themes you can pick out in the story. The kids and I discussed several, including the fact that there can be more than one solution to a problem; the benefits of opening up and telling someone when you are afraid of something; what it means to be brave; and what the Superintendent was doing that was wrong.  There are more, but I don’t want to spoil things.

Is it cinematically perfect? No. Professional reviewers will pick apart elements of the storytelling and characterization. But from a family’s point of view, it was entertaining, provided a platform for deeper discussion, and we walked away smiling. The only regret I have is that I didn’t think to ask any of the firefighters in the audience what THEY thought of the movie.

Planes: Fire & Rescue opens today, July 18 and is rated PG. You can learn more about the movie on the web site or Facebook page.

Image copyright of Disney, provided as part of media kit.

Maleficent: Refreshes the Tired Tale of Sleeping Beauty #Maleficent

Press photo courtesy of Disney.

Press photo courtesy of Disney.

Of all the Disney princess stories, Sleeping Beauty was never my favorite. After seeing the press preview of  Maleficent, I think I understand why — in my childhood mind, the story was filled with scary scenes and no context, whereas Maleficent has provided a backstory so interesting that I now want to rewatch the classic 1959 animated film.

It is important to note that the live action Disney Pictures film bears little resemblance to the original movie. And that is the point. This is meant to be the story of what makes Maleficent (sounds a bit like “magnificent”) so villainous and causes her to utter the curse that will cause Princess Aurora to fall into a deep sleep upon her sixteenth birthday. This is her story, not Aurora’s.

But more than that, this turns out to be a movie about relationships. The relationship between two types of lands — the kingdom of the humans and the moors of the fairies and magical creatures; Maleficent and the lover who betrayed her; the three fairies entrusted with raising the princess in the hopes of avoiding the curse; Maleficent and her sidekick who often serves as her voice of conscious; King Stephan and his own guilt; and other relationships that I won’t spoil for you. Naturally, one of the most prominent ones is the tug-of-war between good and evil — often even within the same being.

The crux of this story is Maleficent’s transformation from a pure-hearted guardian fairy to frighteningly vengeful force to be reckoned with after she is cruelly betrayed. Her body transforms as well as her soul. The animated Maelficent is one of the most frightening villains in childhood tales, so I know one of the most burning questions for parents is, “Will this movie be too frightening for my child?” The answer is two-fold. It depends on the child, and yes, certain scenes may.

Maleficent’s appearance is striking but in my opinion, not nearly as frightening as the cartoon version. The twisted horns are there and quite realistic, so that may be frightening, but if your child has already seen the animated version, probably not. She is not green-faced, but pale with extremely sharp cheekbones and her eyes change color over time. She is mesmerizing and powerful. Inanimate objects come to life onscreen (trees, rocks, and the like.)  However, to me, the most disturbing scene was the act of betrayal, fairly early on in the movie — partially because of how effectively Angelina Jolie conveyed the physical and emotional pain involved.  There are several fight scenes, and magic, and a fire-breathing dragon — only you will be able to tell if your child is up to that kind of action. The special effects are impressive and if you see the movie in 3D, then the impact is amplified — watch some of the trailers online with your child, for example, to get a sense of his/her reaction. I would not take very young children, but my 10-year-old was fine and I think I will take my 8-year-old now. Note that this movie is rated PG.

As intense as this movie is, there is humor throughout, which both my son and I enjoyed. Some may be annoyed with changes made to the Aurora part of the story line (i.e. the curse is delivered a little differently), instead, I took this as further support to the premise of “not everything is as you have been told.” The title character definitely overshadows many of the others — in some cases I’m okay with that; for example, there was no real need to see much of the queen in the land of the humans. In other cases, it may have been a matter of the actor’s creative choices more so than the storytelling, for example, I just didn’t connect well with Sharlto Copely’s portrayal of the king. Could Aurora’s character have been more developed? Sure, but again, she is really not the main focus of this story. I think we see enough of her for the purposes of the plot.

Overall, the movie was beautiful to watch, the story was compelling, Jolie was a pleasure to experience in the role, and the end result made me want to revisit the original animation as well as to read the French fairy tale on which both are based. To me, that’s the sign of an entertaining movie.

Maleficient opens in theaters today. I recommend seeing it in 3D.  Check your local theater for showtimes.

Website and mobile site:  http://disney.com/Maleficent

Note: I was invited to attend the press preview screening of this movie with a guest. All opinions are my own.