Today’s stealth homeschool project: making caramels.

So PK mentioned last night that he wished we had some caramel around. Thinking of my need to become more flexible and get him to do things other than play video games all day, I said “we could make some tomorrow.” Which he bought into.

Then this morning he mentions it again. So, clever me, I hauled Harold McGee down from the shelf (having bought it in the first place on my boyfriend’s recommendation, both b/c it sounded really interesting and thinking PK might learn something from it–but PK never seemed too interested) and said, “here, look up ‘caramel’ in this.”

While he was doing it, I played a little dumb. “I think caramel is just melted sugar, isn’t it?”

“No, mama, it’s not exactly the same as sugar, because there’s a chemical reaction that actually changes the molecular structure.”

“Hm. I wonder how.”

“The heat changes it.”

“No, I mean, I wonder what the specific molecules are.”

“If I remember, I think it’s something like C12H11O10, or something like that. At least they’re all double-digits, and I think it’s carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen.”*

“I’ll be impressed if you’re right.”

From McGee, he learned that caramel is, in fact, caramalized sugar (i.e., melted sugar–the melting is a chemical reaction, but I didn’t fuss at him about that), and that caramel, the candy, is caramelized sugar with milk fat added.

“This says that the more milk fat, the less the caramel sticks to your teeth. So since I have braces, we’ll have to add a lot of milk fat.”

Since PK has expressed an interest in learning to cook, I’m beginning to see how the chemistry component of this, at least, might work.

*I couldn’t get him to look it up himself, or to look up “Maillard reaction,” which is something McGee talks about. Nor has he yet looked up an actual recipe for caramel; as soon as he got back on his laptop it was back to the video games. But baby steps; the summer’s not even over yet.


6 responses to “Sweet

  • Dave W.

    Actually, I think that simply melting the sugar is a phase change, not a chemical reaction – it only becomes a chemical reaction when the molecules change their composition (which I think caramalization does do – the Maillard reaction does involve an amino acid reacting with the sugar, according to Wikipedia). Melting ice is a phase change, which can become a chemical reaction if you throw a bit of sodium into the water – verrry carefully :-). So yeah, chemical reaction, but that’s because the colloquial “melting” of sugar involves more than a physical melting. Maybe a nitpick, but I suspect that a chemistry text will make the same distinction, and maybe that’s what PK was getting on about.

  • Ben Greenberg

    Hey look who’s here! I checked my “blogs-friends” folder in my reader for the first time in many many months—and there were new posts over here. My kid has similar academic challenges but fortunately has not been derailed by the kinds of teachers and the amount of bullying that PK has had to contend with—so some of what you describe taps into my anxieties for my kid. So glad you are settling into something that seems to work for PK and his parents. Sounds like you are doing a great job on so many levels. Looking forward to reading about your homeschooling adventures.

    Not sure if you’ve been on the socnets lately and would have seen that I finally published a big old article on the Clifton Walker case: http://www.usatoday.com/news/nation/story/2012-07-22/clifton-walker/56399378/1
    You are on my list of people to thank for boosting the early stuff that led to my doing what I do now…

  • tedra

    @Dave, yeah, I was using “melting” sloppily–obviously part of what happens is you *dissolve* the sugar, which is different and what I meant.

    @Ben, hi! Thanks for the link and congratulations! I think that a lot of what’s going on with PK is as much about his personality as it is any of the things around him. A more easygoing kid wouldn’t have had nearly his problems, I don’t think–part of what took me so long to realize how frustrated he was was overlaying my own sense of what kinds of feelings would be “appropriate” to what were really pretty mild frustrations. E.g., he was never frightened of bullies and thought the things he was being teased about were ridiculous. Nonetheless, it bothered him enormously, and it took me a while to come round to realizing that he is just a person who gets enormously bothered when his sense of what’s right in the world is being violated. So. Hopefully your son is mellower…

  • Ben Greenberg


    My kid does have a mellower disposition than PK’s; he veers more towards avoiding confrontation or drawing negative attention to himself, which has its own perils. The impatience with showing work in math and the slow writing and meltdowns over writing assignments sounded very very familiar. He’s also imaginative and intellectually curious in ways that often don’t come out at school—but the teacher he has for 3/4 (going into 4th this year) has been reasonably appreciative of his quirks. He sort of hit a stride the last part of 3rd grade, which I’m hoping bodes well for how 4th will go.

  • Elizabeth

    Beginning homeschooling my DS8 who also has an avid love for video games and had a pretty negative public school experience. We have started Chemistry by Real Science 4 kids (.com) and the experiments in there are super easy to do but interesting/relevant. Definitely his favorite part of our first week of homeschooling. But I guess a curriculum isn’t exactly what you’re looking for right now – just wanted to share. HTH.

  • tedra

    Thanks, actually–I’m all about collecting as many ideas as I can right now…

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