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Tete-a-tete: Youngest Brother finds a hobby thanks to ‘The Great British Baking Show’

Over the past few years, I have developed a talent for finding binge-worthy shows on Netflix and getting the rest of the family sucked into them. Often, the only result is hours of entertainment, but my recent discovery of “The Great British Baking Show” has led to tangible benefits for 20-year-old Youngest Brother.

If you have not had the pleasure, “The Great British Baking Show” features a dozen talented amateur bakers vying to be named the U.K.’s best. Each week, the show’s judges, renowned cookbook writer Mary Berry and top artisan baker Paul Hollywood, assign a new set of challenges to test the bakers’ skills.

With the exception of the final week of competition, which is among three remaining finalists, one competitor is eliminated each week and one earns the distinction of being that week’s star baker. The tension is diffused by the wonderfully dry observations of hosts Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc.

What makes “The Great British Baking Show” so delightful to watch is the attitude of the competitors. Though all of them want to be the last baker standing, they want to win because they baked well and proved they deserved that honor rather than because others baked poorly and were eliminated.

There seems to be a genuine air of camaraderie among the bakers. They cheer each other on, sincerely compliment each other’s work, offer comfort over the judges’ criticism and even lend a hand if someone else is in trouble. It’s quite refreshing, especially when you’re used to competitive cooking shows like “Hell’s Kitchen.”

When I first began watching “The Great British Baking Show” on Netflix, there were no takers among the family. I eventually converted Mom, who found it absolutely enchanting after she realized it wasn’t an instructional cooking show.

Enter Youngest Brother, home from college on his winter break and looking for quality time with the family and a quality viewing experience. Quickly swept up in the British baking awesomeness, he found one competitor particularly impressive: Andrew, a 25-year-old aerospace engineer.

In the course of a single episode, Andrew modified his rolling pin to achieve a more uniform thickness of dough, used the word “tessellate” properly and constructed a three-dimensional gingerbread scene according to detailed schematics he drew up himself, accompanied by a checklist that allowed him to track the status of all his gingerbread components.

Youngest Brother, a second-year electrical engineering student, was inspired.

It must be said that Youngest Brother is no stranger to the kitchen. He started cooking as part of Boy Scout campouts in elementary school, and in high school, one of his merit badges required him to plan and prepare three days’ worth of meals for at least two people.

I was one of the beneficiaries of the fruits of his labor, and I still remember the tuna salad he made that had shredded cheese and raisins in it. Youngest Brother, please consider this my official request that you make this again the next time you’re home.

His cooking skills fell by the wayside during his first year of college due to his dining hall-based meal plan and adjusting to the rigors of the electrical engineering major, so last semester was his first time being responsible for his own meals. Regrettably, he wasn’t able to do much advance planning on that front and ended up getting by on cereal, instant ramen, and smoothies purchased at a beverage stand on campus.

When he came home for winter break, he had hopes that perhaps he could recalibrate and get organized enough to eat better next semester, but given how stressful his course load was looking, he wasn’t very optimistic.

And then, he watched Andrew bake a set of savory, hot-water crust pies inspired by a da Vinci spiral. The gear-shaped pies were of different sizes and presented on a series of platforms in such a way that when he turned a mechanism, the pies all rotated like an interlocking set of gears – and they tasted wonderful, too.

If Andrew could accomplish such an incredible feat of pie engineering, why not Youngest Brother? At the very least, he felt confident he could manage more than instant ramen and was excited to explore the possibilities.

It helped, too, that Mom and Dad were supportive of his culinary aspirations. A few days before he went back to school, they reminded him of a cookbook of simple recipes they had given him when he started college and took him to Costco to stock up on easy-to-prepare staples like tuna fish and oatmeal.

Youngest Brother expressed a desire to pick up some ingredients for baking, so Mom suggested they stop at Sauders in Seneca Falls, NY on the drive back to school. It was his first time in what is essentially the Mennonite equivalent of Walmart, and he was astounded by the variety of spices he could buy in bulk – and their very reasonable price tags. He may be the only student on his campus whose post-vacation move-in involved huge sacks of flour and brown sugar and a tub of apple butter.

Cooking has now become part of Youngest Brother’s daily life as well as one of the ways he manages stress. In addition to making his meals, he’s made apple streusel muffins for his friends and a pumpkin Swiss roll for a party. He’s become quite popular at his on-campus job (everyone loves a good and generous baker), and his roommate even bought him an apron.

Should anyone try to convince you that there are no benefits to binge-watching a TV show, please feel free to present Youngest Brother as a binge-watching success story. Thus far, there have been no negative effects.

Well, except for his tendency to speak with a British accent while baking, but that’s a consequence we’re willing to live with.

– Teresa Santoski

Originally published March 1, 2018


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Tete-a-tete: The ins and outs of the college moving experience

Given the option, most of us would not choose to move four times in as many years. Packing and unpacking, protecting delicate items, moving large pieces of furniture – it’s a stressful process. And yet, it’s considered perfectly normal for college students to move in and out of their living arrangements each year as dorm assignments change or apartment leases expire.

This usually ends up being a family endeavor, with parents and siblings pitching in to help the move go as smoothly as possible. Unfortunately, there are always things you can’t prepare for that inevitably complicate matters.

Architecture poses one of the biggest unexpected challenges. In my sophomore year of college, I lived in a dorm that was entered by walking down a flight of stairs. This was not a mere two or three steps down – we’re talking about a good two dozen steps.

This flight of stairs did not appear to serve any significant architectural purpose apart from being part of an incredibly dysfunctional design, for they only led to the lobby, which included the elevator and stairs leading to four floors of dorm rooms.

The day we students were scheduled to move in, the elevator happened to be out of order. And guess whose room was on the fourth floor? These circumstances led Dad to question whether I had employed my critical thinking skills when I had selected my dorm. (I believe the exact turn of phrase was, “Are you an idiot?”) I chose to live in a different dorm for the remainder of my college career.

Oldest Younger Brother fared well with dorm living, having been graced with a functioning elevator when moving in and moving out. Impractical architecture reared its ugly head once again, however, when he began living off campus as a sophomore.

That year, he and his roommates rented the top floor of a triple-decker. There was no elevator, which was fine because we hadn’t really expected one, but the architect had seen fit to design a narrow staircase that had a landing, immediately followed by a 90-degree turn, every five feet.

Dad and Oldest Younger Brother labored valiantly to heft his new-to-him loveseat up the stairs by passing it from landing to landing, up the center of the stairwell, only to discover it wouldn’t fit through the doorway of the apartment.

They borrowed a hacksaw and cut off the legs of the loveseat, but it was still too tight a squeeze. Dad and Oldest Younger had to remove the doorframes in the apartment – yes, the doorframes, not just the doors – before they could settle the loveseat in its new home in the living room. Even then, it barely made it.

When it was time to move out, Oldest Younger Brother opted to leave the loveseat. There was no way they were getting it back out of the apartment unless it was in pieces, and it might just save the next renter some hassle.

Another unexpected challenge you might encounter is the unpreparedness of your college student. My junior year, I was living in a dorm with a reasonable arrangement of steps and a functioning elevator, so Dad figured the two of us could handle the moving-out process by ourselves. He told me to make sure I obtained boxes so I could be all packed up when he arrived.

I don’t know really know what my thought process was, but I didn’t get boxes. Nor did I tell Dad I didn’t get boxes.

I do remember he thought I’d be able to get them on campus. Apparently, some colleges sell boxes and other packing materials at the end of the school year to make things easier for their students. Given that my school did not consider a broken elevator on Move-in Day to be an issue, it was no surprise that boxes were not being sold on campus.

Getting boxes would have involved taking the college shuttle to the mall, walking to the home supply store several plazas over and carrying the boxes back to the mall without getting flattened by unconcerned urban drivers. It was not a risk I was willing to take.

So when Dad arrived, expecting to load up the van and go, he was shocked to find that I was, by and large, not packed. He made an emergency run to a nearby drugstore and returned with a pack of lawn bags – big, heavy-duty paper bags used for grass clippings and other byproducts of lawn maintenance.

I don’t think a dorm room has ever been packed up so quickly. Parental frustration is an excellent motivator.

On the plus side, we did discover that the lawn bags were more durable (and easier to store) than the banker’s boxes we had been using previously. I was glad my lack of preparation had resulted in some sort of positive outcome, but I didn’t mention that to Dad until, like, next year when I was packing to move in.

We just moved Youngest Brother out of his dorm after his first year of college, and I’m pleased to report that this was quite possibly the easiest move-out process we’ve ever had. Neither architecture nor student unpreparedness interfered – there were no inappropriate stairs, the elevator worked properly and he did some packing beforehand. The half-dozen large tote bags Mom brought easily accommodated everything else.

Our cousins who live nearby volunteered to help, and between the five of us, everything took three trips, the last trip being devoted solely to the refrigerator. We were even able to go out to dinner afterwards without anyone being grumpy or frustrated due to moving day mishaps.

I hope things will go as smoothly for Younger Sister when she starts college this fall and we move her into her dorm. She’s a very responsible young lady, so I doubt preparedness will be an issue, and the dorms appear to be laid out in a logical fashion.

But then again, there’s always the elevator.

– Teresa Santoski

Originally published June 1, 2017


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