May 9, 2022

Easy Faux Boston Cream Pie (including a Ganache Recipe)

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I wanted an easy dessert to take to dinner at my in-laws' house for Mother's Day yesterday, and I spotted Ina Garten's Boston Cream Pie recipe on my Pinterest Desserts board. But I didn't feel like making pastry cream or even a new cake recipe, so I improvised an easier pseudo-Boston Cream Pie.

I started with my favorite yellow cake recipe from Michelle Lopez's excellent book, Weeknight Baking, which I baked in two 8-inch round cake pans.

I whipped up a package of organic Vanilla Instant Pudding using whole milk to use as the cake filling. It's nowhere near as pretty as a good pastry cream, and actually not as delicious either. But it's still pretty darn good. 

And then I made the chocolate ganache (recipe below). Nothing was difficult, and you could even use a yellow cake mix if you didn't want to make a cake from scratch. The hardest part was the assembly, and that was mostly because I didn't let the ganache cool quite enough so it was a little too thin when I poured it on. (My kitchen was pretty warm, so trust your senses rather than the time.)

Here's a step-by-step process for clarity:

Easy Faux Boston Cream Pie
Serves 8-12

1. Make your favorite yellow cake in two 8 or 9-inch round cake pans. Bake according to directions and let cool completely.

2. Make a package of instant vanilla pudding. Use whole milk for the best consistency and let chill for at least one hour.

3. Make a simple syrup: In a small saucepan, combine 1/4 cup granulated sugar and 1/4 cup cold water. Bring to a boil, and stir until the sugar is dissolved. Simmer on very low heat for 15 minutes to reduce the amount of liquid. Let cool. (Note: Simple syrup is just a 1:1 ratio of sugar and water, so you could easily make more and save the extra to sweeten iced tea or coffee.)

4. Approximately two hours before serving time, make the ganache (recipe follows). Let cool for 20-40 minutes, until the mixture is slightly thickened and falls in ribbons.

5. To assemble the cake, use a long serrated knife to split each cake round in two to create four layers. Place one cake layer on a cake stand or serving platter, cut side up. Use a pastry brush to lightly coat the cake with simple syrup. Spread one-third of the vanilla pudding over the cake. Repeat with two additional cake layers. Place the final cake layer on top of the last layer of vanilla pudding cut side down. Slowly pour the ganache over the cake, allowing the chocolate to drip down the sides. If you made an 8-inch cake, you will have enough ganache to fully cover the sides if you wish (though you might need to use an offset spatula to push the ganache off the top in some directions). Let the chocolate set at room temperature for an hour before serving. 

Store leftovers in the fridge. Since my cake stand didn't come with a cover, I use a large mixing bowl turned upside down to cover my cakes. (Plastic wrap would stick to the chocolate and ruin the look but would work also.)

Chocolate Ganache
Makes enough to cover one 8 or 9-inch layer cake
Adapted from Ina Garten's Boston Cream Pie recipe

3/4 cup heavy cream
7 1/2 ounces semisweet chocolate*
2 ounces bittersweet chocolate*
2 tablespoons of corn syrup
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/8 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon instant coffee granules optional**

Combine all ingredients in a double boiler, or a medium heatproof bowl set over a small pot of simmering water. Once the chocolate starts to melt, stir until the chocolate is half-melted. Remove the bowl from heat and stir until all of the chocolate is melted and the ingredients have combined into a smooth mixture. Set aside and stir occasionally until it cools enough to thicken slightly and falls in ribbons.

*I really like Guittard chocolate. I always have their chips and wafers on hand - they are high-quality and free from peanuts, tree nuts, and gluten. Best of all, their chocolate is fair-trade certified, which is no small thing - according to the U.S. government, over 1.5 million children work in dangerous conditions on cocoa farms in Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana. And Guittard chips are widely available, including at Target!

**If you don't want to taste any coffee in the ganache, use a scant 1/4 teaspoon. Use the full 1/2 teaspoon if you don't mind a hint of coffee.

Apr 6, 2022

Book Review: The Price You Pay for College by Ron Lieber

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I just listened to Ron Lieber's book, The Price You Pay for College: An Entirely New Road Map for the Biggest Financial Decision Your Family Will Ever Make. It's a great book, and one that every parent who wants their kid to go to college should read. I wish it had been around when my kids were little, or at least when they were in middle school. But even now, with as much as I've learned over the last five or so years, I picked up useful information that I'll be implementing immediately.

The book covers a lot of ground in five sections:

  • Part I: The Price and Cost of College and the Systems Behind It - This includes discussion about why college costs so much, an explanation about the FAFSA and EFC, and different kinds of financial aid.
  • Part II: The Unhelpful Feelings You May Feel - The feelings are fear, guilt, and "the pull of snobbery and elitism." 
  • Part III: Value - I loved this section, because it asks what is worth paying for, which will differ by family and student. Some families might find it worth paying for a women's college. Others might want to pay for small class sizes at liberal arts colleges. Still others might shell out for robust mental health programs, and so on. The chapters on different considerations contain questions to ask so you can get deeper than the college's public relations message.
  • Part IV: Money-Saving Hacks That Will Tempt You - The "hacks" include community college, honors colleges, college abroad, gap years, and athletic scholarships. I appreciated the hard truths in this section, such as the rarity of getting an athletic scholarship (particularly at one's first choice school), and the importance of immediately identifying one's desired four-year institution upon starting community college in order to be able to transfer in two years (you have to jump through the right hoops). I was pleasantly surprised by the data about gap years. The information in this section is all couched in terms of financial value, which is a different perspective than you'll find elsewhere.
  • Part V: The Plans - The plans include a "big financial plan," talking with your child about money for college, and "shopping" for college. There is also information on college savings plans, when and how to find professional help, appealing financial aid awards, and the basics of student loans. The chapter on "shopping" for college has some very practical tips that I hadn't come across anywhere else, which is saying something.
There is so much information in this book that after listening to it, I got the written version so I could easily make notes on the ideas I wanted to make sure I keep in mind. I especially wanted to get down the questions to ask of colleges to find out where they stand on the considerations that are important to my children and our family, and of course, the "shopping tips," including how to find merit aid data.

Because the focus is on paying for, rather than getting into, college, the book doesn't get into the nitty gritty of the application process. But it does cover a lot of the initial phases of the process, particularly list-building. (In college application parlance, "the list" is the list of colleges a student will be applying to.) For most families, I think this is one of, if not the most, difficult parts of the process because it's just hard to know where to start.

I had listened to a podcast about this book before I listened to the book itself, and there had been a mention that the book includes tips for talking with grandparents about whether they plan to help pay for college. I couldn't help but start at that chapter (Chapter 28, in case you're like me), but it turned out that the conversation was aimed primarily at parents of young children who were just starting out the college savings process. Which made me think at first that the book is aimed at new parents, but it's really not. 

Chapter 28 and Chapter 30 (which is all about 529 plans) are definitely relevant to parents with very young children. But the rest of the book is more useful to parents of middle schoolers and up, especially if money is an issue. Even if money isn't a factor, however, the book would be helpful in identifying schools that are a good fit for a student.

Verdict: I am adding this book to my list of must-reads for parents planning to send their children to college.

Mar 26, 2022

Recipe Roundup: Fish Tacos, 2 Cakes, 3 Dips

It's been a while since I've posted, and even longer since I shared a recipe roundup. So here are some recipes I've made recently that I would make again. Let me know what you've made recently that I should try!

Fish Tacos - Fish tacos often seem to feature breaded fried fish, so I loved that in this recipe, the fish was marinated and then seared. I was surprised at how much my husband liked the fish, and I loved the red cabbage slaw that goes with it. I'm definitely making this again, especially because it worked great with frozen defrosted tilapia.

Chocolate Stout Cake with Irish Cream Frosting - I've been a Patreon supporter of Hummingbird High for a couple of years now, and it gives me access to exclusive monthly recipes. I made this one for St. Patrick's Day, and it was a hit with my family. I think I overbaked the cake a little because it was a bit dry, and I discovered that I don't love Irish cream. So in a way, it was the perfect cake for me - my family ate it all, and I wasn't tempted!

Pineapple Upside-Down Cake - As classic as this dessert is, I'd never made one before. RecipeTin Eats is one of my go-to sites, and as usual, her recipe was a hit. I loved this cake - it's not one-bowl easy, but there's nothing difficult about it. I did have to get a 9-inch cake pan* because I only had 8-inch pans, but that worked out because I used the 9-inch pan for the Chocolate Stout Cake too. Usually, I only love cake with chocolate, but I will definitely make this one again. (*This is an Amazon affiliate link so I'll earn a small commission if you order anything using it - thank you! Read my disclosure policy here.)

Cannoli Dip - I think this is one of those recipes that's more fun in theory than practice. It tasted good, but you can only eat a little bit. So maybe what I really mean is that this recipe is for a party, not a small family. Even though the leftovers last a while, we didn't finish them. But I could see this dip being a hit at parties, with cookies and even fresh fruit.

Buffalo Chicken Dip - This dip was, not surprisingly, on the spicy side. The teenager who loves spice liked it. The teenager who doesn't like spice hardly touched it. I froze the leftovers and gave the container to my in-laws, and my father-in-law loved it.

Spinach and Shrimp Dip - Recipes from TikTok usually aren't easy to follow, unless there's a link to a full recipe or it's written down in the comments. So I used this video as more of a guide (e.g., I cut the shrimp into bite-size pieces instead of putting them down whole). But it was quite tasty, and I would make it again - it's great as an appetizer or a main dish.

Nov 19, 2021

THANK YOU for reading CFO! (What are you cooking for Thanksgiving 2021?)

I know Thanksgiving isn't until next week, but I love cooking for Thanksgiving, and usually I've planned my menu by early November. For some reason, this year, I haven't been able to get into it until now, but I've finally figured out what I'll be making. 

As always, we'll be eating our main Thanksgiving feast at a relative's house so I don't have to cook a turkey. Since we don't get leftovers, for the last few years, I've made a turkey just for our family anyway. But if I'm being honest, no one in my family actually loves turkey - so I'm going to skip it this year, and make a beef tenderloin or ham instead. 

I will, however, be cooking up a storm for the big day. Since we don't come home with leftovers, I like to prepare all the sides because we do enjoy those - and it doesn't really feel like Thanksgiving without them on Friday and Saturday. Here's what I'm thinking: 

Streuseled Sweet Potato Casserole - I've been making this every Thanksgiving for 20 years. I'll be doubling the recipe, because we'll take one to the family dinner and keep one for ourselves.

Zucchini, Rice and Cheese Gratin - I've recently gone gluten-free on my doctor's orders (a "let's see if it makes a difference" kind of thing), so I can't be eating traditional stuffing this year. I'm thinking this casserole will be a satisfying substitution. (But I'll probably pick up a package of traditional stuffing for the rest of the family, and maybe make some chicken gravy to go with it. Or maybe I'll give traditional stuffing a try with gluten-free bread - Breadblok is always at the farmer's market, and my friend says their bread is pretty good.)

Aunty Toki's Cranberry Sauce - I promised to share the recipe last year, but never did. Instead, I just posted a photo of it on the CFO Facebook page. Not surprisingly, I didn't follow the recipe exactly, so I shared the changes I made to create the best cranberry sauce I've ever had.

Pumpkin Flan - Over the last few years, I've really come to love flan, and this will be a perfect Thanksgiving dessert.

Spinach Artichoke Dip - I've been asked to bring this to the family dinner also, and this is my go-to recipe.

I might also make some Instant Pot Mashed Potatoes, mostly so I can use the leftovers to make cheesy Mashed Potato Puffs.

And of course, I'll make some green vegetables, probably some roasted Brussels sprouts and maybe some roasted carrots.

What's on your Thanksgiving menu? Anything I should add to mine?

Most of all, I want to say THANK YOU to YOU because you are what keeps this site going. THANK YOU for being a CFO reader!

Oct 29, 2021

Why We'll Pay for Our Kids' College Education + Tips for Paying for College Without Loans

My oldest child is now a junior in high school, so many of my friends also have juniors and seniors. Not surprisingly, a common topic of conversation is college. What does it take to get in, but especially, how are we going to pay for college?

Most of my friends seem to feel the same way I do: we'll pay as much as we can afford for college, but we don't want to take out loans, and we'd prefer that our children not take out loans either.

Some friends have saved some money in a 529 account, and don't intend to contribute any more toward their kids' college expenses. A few of my friends take a more hardline approach and have told their children that they won't pay for college at all. 

From talking to my friends and researching the subject, there are a lot of reasons why parents don't contribute, or contribute more, to their kids' college education. Among the most common reasons are: 
  • Not being able to afford it (and not wanting to take out loans themselves)
  • Feeling that graduation from high school is the demarcation for adulthood (therefore, college expenses are the student's responsibility)
  • Believing that kids need to have "skin in the game" - i.e., if they don't bear the financial responsibility of college, they won't take it seriously and will waste their time there
I think how a person grew up has to do a lot to do with how they view paying for college. Talking with other parents, it seems like those who had to pay their own way through college or couldn't afford to go (or didn't view it as an option for themselves) are more likely to think their children should at least contribute to their college expenses. Although there are parents who paid their own way who are happy to be able to pay for their children's education, because they remember how hard it was for themselves.

In my own family, my husband and I were both fortunate enough to have parents who paid in full for both of our college educations, and that's a big part of why we want to do the same for our own children. We know what a gift it is to be able to go to college and not have to worry about where the next tuition payment is coming from, and to graduate without any debt. We also know what carrying student debt feels like, because I took out loans to pay for law school.

We also remember how immature we were when we graduated from high school, and how college was an integral part of our maturation. Because of our own experiences, we really want our kids to have the opportunity to go away and live in a dorm their freshman year. 

Paying for college is obviously difficult, so we've been planning for many years now. We even refinanced our mortgage recently to bolster our cash flow. Nevertheless, we haven't saved up enough to pay for any college our kids might want to go to. So finances have been a part of the college conversation in our house from the beginning.

That's really important, because the last thing any parent wants is to never talk about money but then break their child's heart in April of senior year and say, "I know you worked really hard to get into College X but you can't go because we can't afford it." The better way to do things is to talk about cost before the student even starts putting together the list of schools where they'll apply. And then incorporate cost into the application process, so that the student isn't applying only to schools that are academic and social fits, but also a financial fit.

There's no way to know for sure if a school is a financial fit before you receive the financial aid package, but there are ways to roughly predict if a school will be affordable. Here are my best tips:
  • Start by assessing your finances. You can't know if a school is affordable if you don't know how much you can pay.
  • Determine your family's EFC, or Expected Family Contribution (soon to become the Student Aid Index in 2024). Read this discussion about EFC first so you don't go into shock when you do this.
  • Understand the different types of financial aid - schools may offer need-based financial aid and/or merit-based financial aid. There's more information in this post about paying for college.
  • Run a college's Net Price Calculator (NPC). Every college is required to have one on their website, so a search for the school name and "NPC" or "net price calculator" should take you to that page. Unfortunately, not all NPCs are built the same. In general, the more information the NPC asks for, the more reliable the result. Note that most NPCs don't seem to include merit scholarship information, so you'll have to dig deeper for those.
  • Create an account at TuitionFit. This is a new site and should become more reliable as more people use it. The site collects information from financial aid offers, so you can enter a student's stats and get information on the offers received by students with similar stats. The last time I checked, there was a free version and a premium paid version, but that was about a year ago when it first came out.
There are also paid services like Road2College's College Insights, which purport to show you which schools offer the best financial aid packages. I've followed the site's founder, Debbie Schwartz, for years, but I can't endorse the service since I've never actually used it (although I'm considering it for next year when my son is in application mode).

Of course, there's no way to know for sure how much a college will cost until a student is admitted and has received the financial aid package. I know families who have gotten shockingly generous aid that they didn't expect, and families who were deeply disappointed at the lack of aid offered. Again, the best thing you can do for your child is make sure they know that cost is a factor that has to be considered in deciding where they will ultimately attend.

Sep 28, 2021

Why We Refinanced Our Mortgage Again (Should You?)

My husband and I just refinanced our mortgage for the second time. We started the process back in May, so it took four months - these days, that seems to be typical. I have friends who've been in the refi process for months, too. I thought I would share our reasons, because it goes beyond straight finances, and has a lot to do with planning ahead.

First, the basics: What is a refinance? It's when you pay off the existing mortgage by taking out a new mortgage with new terms, especially a new, lower interest rate. This should lower the monthly payment. It also resets the clock - so if you had a 30-year mortgage and refinance to a new 30-year mortgage, you have another 30 years to pay it off. In order to refinance, you'll likely have to pay closing costs, which can be rolled into the new mortgage so you don't have to pay it out of pocket.

The most common reason for refinancing a mortgage is to lower payments and save money in the long run. And of course, that was a huge motivator for us. Our interest rate dropped from 4.125% to 2.875%, lowering our monthly payment by over $300. 

There are calculators that will help you figure out how long you need to hold a new mortgage, but basically, you take the closing costs and divide by the amount you're now saving per month. The result is the number of months you need to hold the new mortgage to recoup the amount of the closing costs. Once you do that, the monthly savings are just that - savings.

In the case of this refi, our closing costs totaled $2,340. (We didn't have to pay almost $600 for an appraisal because the loan amount was so much less than the value of our house.) If you divide $2,340 by $300, you get 7.8 months. So after 8 months, we will pay less with our new mortgage than we would have with our old mortgage.

That makes it easy to see why people refinance - who wouldn't want to end up paying less in interest if you can?

Sometimes it takes longer to recoup the amount of the closing costs. The first time we refinanced our mortgage was back in 2010, when I quit working as an attorney and cut our income in half. If I recall correctly, we reduced our monthly payments by $200 but paid between $4,000 and $5,000 in closing costs - so it took us between 20 to 25 months to recoup the closing costs.

If we had planned on selling our house in less than two years, refinancing wouldn't have made sense because we never would have made up the closing costs. But since we knew we were staying put, I wanted that extra $200 per month for the sense of security. (I knew we could get by on just my husband's salary. But I also knew that "things happen.")

The main reason I wanted the current refi to go through is that our oldest child will be heading off to college in two years. And his brother will follow two years after that. An extra $300 per month will obviously be helpful - especially because I will probably sign up for the college's payment plan, which lets you make monthly payments instead of paying the full bill all at once at the beginning of the semester. (I don't where my kids will go, but as far as I know, every college offers a payment plan.)

The kicker is that we've always paid extra on the mortgage to pay down the principal faster. So if we start paying just the minimum on our new mortgage, we'll actually be paying $600 less per month. That's an extra $7,200 per year to put toward college. That could end up being the difference when it comes to choosing one school and its financial aid package over another.

If you're wondering if you should refinance your own mortgage, here are a couple of questions to ask yourself:

Will you hold onto the property long enough to recoup the closing costs? Keep in mind that you can shop around for the lowest rates and lowest closing costs.

What will you do with the monthly savings? I think it's important to have a plan for the money. I've always continued paying the original mortgage amount, which means that our monthly expenses stay the same and the mortgage just gets paid down faster. However, if the boys' college costs mean we need the extra $7,200 per year, I can lower our mortgage payment to the minimum and put the difference toward college. Other ways you might plan for the savings include building your emergency fund or putting the money in a 529 plan for your child's future college expenses.

I also want to note that because it took so long to process the refi, the amount we borrowed ending up being several thousand dollars more than the total payoff of our old mortgage plus closing costs. I was told that lowering the loan amount would result in the loan being sent back to the underwriting department, which would basically start the process over again. I wasn't doing that! We ended up getting some of the extra money back as cash (even though it wasn't a cash-out refi) and some of the money was applied to the principal of the loan. I was told we couldn't avoid the cash back - I could have made an extra payment on the loan to pay down more principal, but I just put the money in savings, since the whole point of the refi was to have money available to pay for college.

It was a four-month odyssey, but it was well-worth it. I'm happy we're maximizing our ability to pay for the kids' college educations - and in my next post, I'll discuss why we're willing to pay.

(Note: Apologies if you got a notification about an old post about looking forward to March. I'm doing some housekeeping and accidentally republished a post from 2005!)

Sep 9, 2021

How to Enroll in Los Angeles Community College Courses While You're in High School

Are you a high school student in Los Angeles, or do you have a child who is? If so, did you know that you can take community college courses for free?

I've helped my son through the process several times now, so I've put together a step-by-step guide to walk you through the process.

1. Create an OpenCCC account here. You’ll receive a CCCID number, which you'll need for the next step. 

2.  Apply to the community college that you want to attend at A few days after you’ve submitted the application, you’ll receive an email with your Student ID number and LACCD email account info, which you’ll use throughout your community college experience. 

3. Activate the Student Portal. The login information will be in an email you receive after submitting your application. 

4. Submit your K-12 Form for dual/concurrent enrollment using the college’s website. You'll be directed to an online portal called Dynamic Forms (search the college's website for a page for high school students or dual/concurrent enrollment). The K-12 form must be submitted each term at each college you plan to attend. Once the student completes and submits the K-12 form, their parent/guardian will receive an email and need to electronically sign it. The form will then be submitted to the high school counselor. Once the counselor has signed it, the form will be submitted to the college. Once you receive the email that says “Your school has completed their portion” of the K-12 form, you are able to enroll in the classes listed on the form. 

5. Clear any prerequisites. If you want to take a course that has prerequisites that you took in high school, know that those need to be cleared separately from your K-12 form before you will be allowed to enroll in the class. Each college has its own way of clearing prerequisites, so you'll need to search check their website. 

Other things to know:

  • Once you have an LACCD Student ID number, you can take a class at any of the Los Angeles community colleges without re-applying. Just log into the Student Portal and click on manage classes. You'll be able to search for a class at any of the LACCD colleges.

  • You need to complete a new K-12 form each semester or summer session, and you'll need a separate K-12 form for each college you attend. For example, if you want to take a class at Pierce College and another class at Valley College in the same semester, you'll need to fill out K-12 forms at both of those schools.

  • If you want to talk to someone at a college, use the Online Services & Chat link in the Student Portal. LACCD uses a system called Cranium Cafe, and it actually works well once you get used to it. Depending on your needs, you can choose to chat with someone in a specific department. If you need to talk to someone about your K-12 form, chat with someone in Admissions and Records. If you need help clearing a prerequisite, chat with someone in the Counseling department.

  • You can take classes for free! As a high school student taking community college classes, you don't have to pay for tuition, but you may have to pay for books. 

  • Keep in mind that unless the textbooks/material are digital, it can take some time to get them, whether you order them from the college bookstore, Amazon, or elsewhere. Textbook information is often listed in the Details section when you look up a class in the "Manage Classes" section of the Student Portal.

  • Information listed here is subject to change, so you should always check with the college and/or your high school counselor for the latest.