29 April 2013

There's what in my bagel?

On Saturday I needed picnic fixin's for a hike, so we headed to the supermarket. We found some bananas, picked out a small tub of hummus, and wandered toward the bakery racks to find rolls. Since we couldn't fit a whole baguette into the cooler we were carrying, and the supermarket's little sandwich rolls were all white flour, we looked at the mass-produced, pre-packaged options in the bread aisle. And a lot of them had cellulose in them.

I was taken aback. Isn't cellulose wood fiber? As in, the raw material they use to make rayon fabric? Isn't it the main component of cotton, as in cotton balls and Q-Tips, denim jeans and t-shirts? Why would I ever want to consume cellulose? I am not a termite! I am a human being!

Cellulose is the new thing, I understand, for texturizing ice cream and upping the amount of fiber in processed foods. I guess it's gotten to be cheaper than bran or oat fiber, or the psyllium seed husk they put in Metamucil. You find it in white-flour products that want to boast a high fiber content. We found it in some otherwise suitable-looking bagels, as well as some pre-sliced flatbreads, but not in some whole-wheat rolls.

Fiber is important, for reasons I'd rather let other people explain. But is it really so hard to add a couple of pieces of fruit to your daily diet that you decide to resort to eating sawdust instead? An adult should get some 25 to 35 grams of fiber every day. An orange gives you 3 grams; an apple gives you about 5. Add a couple of carrots for another 3 grams. Now you've had 11 grams of fiber over 5 pieces of fresh produce, and you're well on your way to those 25 grams as well as gettng your "5 to 9 for better health" or whatever the current guideline is. And all without eating wood.

Our next idea was to try for crackers. We found a million varieties of American crackers, but they all had funky ingredients, didn't have much whole grain, or seemed more like junk food chips than a grain product. In the end, we gave up and found some imported crispbread to dip into the hummus.

And a timely link that was going around my circle of friends today, a collection of portraits of households with their weekly grocery haul: "What the world eats." Which photo looks like what's in your grocery cart?

09 April 2013

Coffeecake on the cheap

Brunch-time family visit over the weekend means I made a coffeecake. I don't know why I used to think coffeecakes are complicated. They're basically a butter cake -- the same as any ordinary sheet cake you'd make for a birthday -- but a little more forgiving, since you want it to be dense and homey, not bake-shop perfect. The batter can take a lot of abuse and inexpert preparation. I like to boost the nutrition and fiber a little by using some whole-wheat flour, but I wouldn't go so far as to skip all the white flour.

I find that they're an opportunity to use up some fruit I've stashed in the freezer. This time, I used blueberries (natch), pulling them out of the freezer a day ahead of time, letting them thaw in the fridge, and tossing with about a tablespoon of sugar before starting to prepare the batter. Rhubarb is an excellent choice as well.

I'm ballparking that the cake here cost about $2.50, including cooking gas. You can shave about 50 to 75 cents off that cost by using non-organic ingredients.

Here goes:


  • 1 cup white flour
  • 1/2 cup whole-wheat flour
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 stick (1/4 pound) unsalted butter
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 egg
  • 2/3 cup milk
  • 1 cup chopped fruit
  • Sugar for the fruit (optional)


    Pre-heat oven to 375 F, and grease a small cake pan. Sift together the flours, baking powder, and salt. In a large bowl, beat the butter until light. Gradually add the sugar and cream until light. Add the egg and milk and mix well. Add the flour mixture and stir until smooth.

    Scrape the batter into the cake pan and smooth it out. Toss the chopped fruit with sugar, if desired, and spread onto the top of the batter. Bake about 25 minutes. Let rest at least 20 minutes before serving.

    Bon apétit!
  • 08 April 2013

    Surplus jars of jam

    According to the date scrawled on the lid of a jar of last year's strawberry jam, and according to the itchiness in my eyes, it's springtime and we're about six weeks away from starting up the 2013 home canning season.

    And I am nowhere near using up what I canned last year.

    This doesn't necessarily indicate poor pantry planning. In fact, it's lovely to have a well-stocked pantry during the time of year when, traditionally, people would be scrounging for food from half-rotten potatoes and livestock that had grown thin over the winter. And we aren't too many generations removed from the food insecurity that occurred annually in the gap between using up the last of the stored harvest and bringing in the next year's harvest. April, May, and June -- in the northern hemisphere -- used to be very scary months. (There's a phrase for that period of time, but I can't recall it at the moment. Comments welcome.)

    Furthermore, what looks like poor planning can simply be the odd result of windfalls and good deals during canning season. Recall that I went nuts on blueberries last summer, taking advantage of an opportunity to u-pick 12 pounds cheaply, and canned six half-pints of jam. By the end of the summer fruit season, I'd finished three batches of jams, a batch of marmalade, and a batch of apple butter. In retrospect, it was enough for about a year and a half, not a single year.

    Not to beg the question that I should make only enough jam for a single year. Some jams get better with a little more age. Certainly the blueberry jam did: the slightly tart berries mellowed into a rich, intense blueberry flavor. And it's an opportunity to work more protein into my mostly vegetarian diet by adding a tablespoon or so of jam to a teacup of yogurt, yum.

    Anyway, our community-supported agriculture subscription starts up in a few weeks, but I still have a few months' worth of jam left in the pantry. Yikes!

    03 April 2013

    On Drexel Law's two-year J.D. program

    So Drexel University is launching a new two-year J.D. program. Usually, it takes three years to get a law degree in the U.S. Six of the 200-odd American law schools offer a two-year path; Drexel's first two-year grads will start in 2014. It seems like a good deal -- you don't have to get loans for a third year of living expenses, and you can get a job one year more quickly -- but I did the math and found that it's an even better deal for Drexel, where I earned my law degree with the inaugural class in 2009. From e-mail I sent to a fellow alumnus:
    I think the premise is that Drexel's two-year J.D. program addresses the assertion that the third year of a J.D. program isn't necessary. That is, a person should get their two years done (some even say only one year), be awarded a J.D., and then get experience through an internship or apprenticeship, and then sit for the bar. But a two-year J.D. doesn't address that problem, because you still need all the credits of a three-year program. That issue won't be fixed until the A.B.A. and/or state supreme courts allow a two-years-plus-apprenticeship path to attorney licensure.

    Until then, the law schools with two-year J.D.'s reap the rewards of graduating three classes, instead of just two, every six years. Notice that Drexel's two-year J.D. will still cost almost $112,000 in tuition, because it's the same 85 credits as the three-year J.D. (85 credits x $1,315/credit). Yes, the candidates save a year's living expenses and the opportunity cost of being unemployed that third year. But the real answer to cui bono? is the law school. The Class of 2015 (three-year program) is 140 students. If 140 get past the no-refund point in their third year (minus a few for attrition and transfers out, plus a few for transfers in), then that's over $15 million in tuition and fees, or $5 million/year. If one class of a two-year J.D. program is 1/3 the size of a regular three-year program, then a law school gets $5 million every two years, or about $2.5 million every year. But note that that's not 1/3 the amount they get from one year of a three-year program; it's 1/2. Drexel's bottom line is that they gain half a class's worth of tuition every year by adding this program.
    Note: here's where I have to Emily Litella a little bit. Dean Dennis explains that the law school will keep its "current class size of about 130 students, but with a quarter of them enrolled in the new program." However, when I did the math before, I started with the assumption that the two-year students would be in addition to the full classes of three-year students. Rather, they will be a sub-set of the incoming class. To re-do the math, this means that every year once the program is fully implemented, about 33 students will be paying half their $112,000 total tuition, while about 97 students will be paying one third of their $112,000 total. Every year, this means (33 x $112,000 * 1/2) + (97 x $112,000 * 1/3), or ($1.848 million) + ($3.621 million), or $5.469 million/yr. Without a two-year program, all 130 students simply pay one third of their $112,000 total tuition: 130 * $112,000 * 1/3, or $4.853 million/yr. Each year, the school takes in $616,000 more in tuition per class -- it's like growing the class by some 15 students while adding zero bodies to the student body. You can hire at least four law professors with that kind of change.
    To [one colleague's] point, I'm a little concerned about the loss of value in Drexel's J.D. brand. It appears to me that the two-year J.D. is not a trend among top-tier schools (except for Northwestern), even though it's probably inevitable in the very long run. I think the lowered prestige in a Drexel J.D. is a big risk for the school, and not a good deal for the graduates. But Drexel must have done the math and decided that there is a sufficient financial advantage for Drexel to be on the vanguard of this type of program.
    As I concluded to my fellow alumnus, there's a huge reason why I'm certain this is all about the benjamins for Drexel, and not about the students or the profession, which is super-saturated and unable to employ new graduates. Drexel isn't offering a night or part-time program, which would increase enrollment of "students who are a little bit older," as Dean Dennis says. But since a night program takes longer than a three-year program, it doesn't infuse the school with extra cash up front the way an accelerated program does.

    My fellow alumnus wondered if there were any other industry that responds to decreased demand by increasing supply. My answer: one where an invisible hand brings it an extra $616,000 every year.