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One of the ways we all express creativity on an almost daily basis is through cooking. Deciding what to cook is a creative process in itself because you draw from memory and experience to identify the meal that suits your preferences and mood for that day or that week. If you have moved past cooking basics, you also likely adapt recipes to meet your own needs. Even if it’s a small tweak or substitution, you are creatively changing a recipe into something new and different from the way anyone else might prepare that meal.

As my confidence in the kitchen has grown over recent years, I’ve become more adept at noticing the commonalities among types of dishes and preparation methods, allowing me to modify a recipe based on the way it may have been done in a similar recipe. I’m confident that the change will work because I understand how the flavors will meld or know that a certain ingredient will act the same way as another in similar circumstances.

As an example, I’m going to show you how I adapted a baked ziti recipe from Jenn Segal at Once Upon a Chef.[1] You’ll notice if you look at the source page that Jenn herself discusses how she swapped out the traditional ricotta for mozzarella and heavy cream.

While I make many of Jenn’s recipes as written because they are perfect as they are, for this one I replaced the original 1.5 pounds of Italian sausage (spicy or mild) with 1 lb. mild Italian sausage and 1 lb. ground beef. My daughter isn’t a huge fan of sausage, and this is the ratio that I use in my lasagna recipe, so I was confident that the mixture would work. Since I added the less flavorful ground beef, I also seasoned the meat the way that I do for lasagna, with some garlic salt and Italian seasoning. If you want to use real garlic, you could certainly do that by mincing it and adding it to the meat as it browns. You would need to add some kosher salt to taste as well.

I have also made this recipe with pre-made frozen mini Italian meatballs from the grocery store, and it’s wonderful that way. You can usually be very creative with meat in an Italian dish. You could use turkey sausage, or as in Ina Garten’s lamb ragù, ground lamb.[2]

When I first made this dish, I didn’t have the time to make the sauce as written, but I had a jar of marinara. I do like to make sauce from scratch when I have the time because it can be adjusted to taste by so many variables. For instance, in Ina’s Baked Rigatoni with Lamb Ragù and other traditional Italian recipes, fennel is used in the sauce. My family does not appreciate the licorice flavor of fennel, so I leave it out without any consequence.

Cheese types and amounts can also be adapted to taste, so long as cheeses with similar melting characteristics are swapped. I discovered by accident that I preferred to use half of a sliced block of mozzarella plus half shredded mozzarella. On one occasion I had only one cup of shredded mozzarella, but I had part of a block left in the refrigerator. I decided to slice it rather than shredding it, and we all loved the way it melted into the pasta.

I hope you enjoy this recipe, perhaps with your own creative adaptations!

Cheesy Baked Ziti

Yield: 8
Prep time: 30 minutes
Total time: 45 minutes


1 lb. | ziti or similar pasta

1 lb. | mild Italian sausage

1 lb. | ground beef

½ tsp. (or to taste) | garlic salt

1 tsp. (or to taste) | dried Italian seasoning (or combination of basil, oregano, thyme, rosemary, and marjoram)

1 jar | high-quality marinara sauce, such as Victoria

1 cup | heavy cream

1.5 cup | grated pecorino Romano, divided

⅓ cup | fresh basil, chopped, or sprinkle dried basil to taste

1 cup | shredded whole milk mozzarella

½ package | block whole milk mozzarella (or shred half of the package yourself and slice the other half, leaving out the pre-shredded mozzarella)


Preheat the oven to 425°F with the rack in the middle of the oven.

Place the sausage and ground beef into a large skillet or sauté pan over medium-high heat and use a wooden spoon to break it apart as it starts to brown. Sprinkle the meat with the garlic salt and Italian seasoning, mixing it in as you turn and break up the meat.

Meanwhile, bring a large pot of water to boil, liberally salted. Boil the ziti until barely al dente, about seven minutes. Since it will continue to cook in the oven, it needs to be slightly undercooked on the stove. Drain the ziti and add it back to the pot, off of the heat.

Once the meat is browned, drain it and add to the pasta in the pot. Add the marinara to the skillet on low. Add the heavy cream, 1 cup of pecorino Romano, and the basil to the skillet, stirring to combine and melt the cheese. Pour the contents of the skillet into the pasta pot and stir gently to combine.

Prepare a 9x13 baking dish or lasagna dish with cooking spray or butter according to your preference.

Spoon half of the pasta mixture into the dish and sprinkle with half of the shredded mozzarella then space slices of the mozzarella evenly over the top. Add the remaining pasta mixture and repeat with the shredded mozzarella and the sliced mozzarella. Finish with the remaining pecorino Romano.

Bake uncovered for 15 minutes or until the cheese has melted and started to brown. Rest for a few minutes to allow the sauce to thicken and serve with a green salad or vegetable and crusty bread.

[1] Jennifer Segal, “Baked Ziti with Sausage,” Once Upon a Chef, Accessed March 4, 2023. [2] Ina Garten, “Baked Rigatoni with Lamb Ragù,” Modern Comfort Food (New York: Clarkson Potter, 2020), 134.

  • RS Stirling

January 25, 2023

Tonight is Burns Night, a cozy and festive evening devoted to celebrating Scotland’s National Bard, Robert Burns, on what is now the 264th anniversary of his birth. Though he only lived to be 37, he produced over 550 poems and songs and has become an icon of Scotland and its traditional dialect. On this night, many gather at Burns Suppers around the world where the centerpiece of the evening is the piping in of the haggis and the recitation of Robert Burns’ poem, To a Haggis. Burns is credited with popularizing the haggis, which in his time was a cheap and nutritious peasant dish, and is still made from sheep’s offal, oats, suet, and spices.

As demonstrated by his poem extolling the virtues of a common farmer’s dish, a defining characteristic of Burns’ poems is their everyday subject matter. In George Aiton’s introduction to Carlyle’s Essay on Burns, he describes the breadth of Burns’ inspiration, writing, “A mouse, a daisy, a suet pudding, a favorite mare, a calf, the toothache, a stormy night, and even a louse, are made the subjects of poems…”[1] Robert Burns truly found inspiration everywhere he looked.

One of his most famous poems is, in fact, To a Mouse[2], the “wee, sleekit, cow’rin, tim’rous beastie” that was disturbed while he plowed a field. Burns devotes six of his eight stanzas to the straightforward discussion of the mouse’s plight that rouses in the reader a perhaps unexpected sympathy for the small fieldmouse. In the last two stanzas, Burns turns philosophical and provides one of the most famous phrases in the English language, co-opted later by Steinbeck, “The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men gang aft a-gley (go oft astray), an lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain for promised joy.” Burns finds virtue and a freedom denied to humans in the fact that the mouse can only comprehend the present and the immediate, fearing not for the future and regretting not the past.

Burns’ pedestrian subjects reminded me of a much more modern poet, Mary Oliver, who is one of the most plain-spoken poets I’ve read. Where Burns composed in verse, Oliver’s poems are free-form and at times stream-of-consciousness. Oliver, too, wrote about a mouse, but this time it is The Sea Mouse[3] which is really a type of worm (aphrodita hastata) that is known to wash up on the shore of the Atlantic Ocean after storms. Like Burns, Oliver describes her subject with such sympathy that the reader feels sorrow for the dying worm in her hand, perceiving that what she is describing is perhaps our own inevitable death, as in “With the tip of my finger I stroked it, tenderly, little darling, little dancer, little pilgrim, gray pouch slowly filling with death.”

Each poet drew inspiration from the natural world and commonplace things around them. Their creativity lay in making the connection to the human condition that rouses feeling in the reader, whether forging kinship as Oliver did, or showing sharp contrast between human and mouse as did Burns. That emotional response from the reader connects him or her to the poem and to the author.

When we create, it is not enough to describe. Our intended audience may read a line, glance at a painting, appreciate a melody, but only briefly, if we do not give them a “so what”. How does our work connect to their lives and make them stop and think about what they have just read, seen, or heard? These connections do not need to be as profound as the topic of death. It could be the call to live more simply or to find small joys in each day. It could be care for children or the love of family. For a work to show true creativity and make a difference in the world, it needs to connect the creative subject to the observer in a way that will leave an impression.

[1] Thomas Carlyle, Burns, ed. George B. Aiton (Chicago: Scott, Foresman & Co, 1896), 26. [2] Robert Burns, The Poetical Works of Robert Burns (London: Frederick Warne & Co, 1890), 28. [3] Mary Oliver, Devotions (New York: Penguin Books, 2020) 275.

  • RS Stirling


In my introductory post, I explained the inspiration behind the Garden of My Delights and the framework that liberal arts can provide to cultivate creativity through the intentional exploration of new areas of study and new hobbies. To be inspired we need to put ourselves in the way of ideas, perspectives, places, and people that become points that we connect to existing information. Those new connections open the door to creativity.

So how do you discover what may inspire you? Sometimes we think of inspiration as a bolt of lightning, jolting us into a creative endeavor, but more often inspiration is quiet and elusive, many small points of light that slowly coalesce into an idea that can take us in a new direction. In order to encounter those tiny points of light, we need to put ourselves in the way of things that could help us make new connections or stir our souls.

Of course, it is easiest to start with the familiar, those hobbies or pursuits that we enjoy and make us feel most “like ourselves”. To unlock creativity, we need to connect the familiar with the novel, and I find the liberal arts framework to be helpful in casting a wide net for possibilities. The ancient liberal arts are usually listed as Grammar, Rhetoric, Dialectic/logic, Music, Arithmetic, Geometry, and Astronomy. Those come across as rather obtuse and archaic, so I prefer the categories of the modern liberal arts which are usually grouped as Humanities and Creative Arts, Social Sciences, Natural Sciences, and Formal Sciences/Mathematics. These are all things that interest me, but because I tend to lean into the arts, the framework helps to prod me toward the sciences to maintain balance. Below are some of the topics that are included in each broad category. These are by no means exhaustive lists or rigid categories.

• Humanities and Creative Arts – includes art, literature, music, theater, linguistics, modern foreign languages, classical languages, philosophy, religion, ethics, and speech and debate.

• Social sciences – includes history, psychology, law, sociology, politics, gender studies, anthropology, economics, and geography.

• Natural sciences – includes astronomy, biology, chemistry, physics, botany and horticulture, archaeology, zoology, geology, and meteorology.

• Formal sciences – includes mathematics, logic, and statistics.

If your comfort zone is literature which is in the category of the creative arts, you may want to explore the history of your favorite literary era. That can lead you to learning about a scientific discovery that was also made in that era, and you suddenly make a connection with quantum physics you wouldn’t have otherwise discovered.

Practically speaking, there are many ways to explore a new topic and these are dependent on your personality, history, and environment. The signature quote for the Garden of My Delights comes from Johann Wolfgang von Goethe in Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship, “…one ought every day at least to hear a little song, read a good poem, see a fine picture, and, if it were possible, to speak a few reasonable words.”

1. Arts

As Goethe suggests, music is a fabulous source of inspiration. A great exercise is to put on a piece of music, let your mind wander, and then write or draw the images come to mind. Books, whether classic literature, popular fiction, or nonfiction, particularly a new genre or something outside your comfort zone, can lead your mind down new paths. Poetry, like music, encourages the mind to visualize the world in new ways. Visual art such as paintings or drawings, comics, and theater or film are all great ways to see the world from another perspective.

2. Nature

The arts are rich in inspiration, but a timeless source is nature itself. Take a walk in the woods or in a park, perhaps through a garden. This is what writer Allison Fallon calls “getting limbic” in her book The Power of Writing it Down. Getting out of our prefrontal cortex, the decision-making part of our brain, and accessing the limbic brain where our imagination, emotion, and memories live, is key to creativity. One reason ideas come to you when on a walk or doing other “mindless” physical tasks is that it’s easier to drop out of your pre-frontal cortex and into the imaginative limbic brain.[1]

3. Our fellow humans

Other people are inspiring since we humans are so infinitely varied and constantly changing. New ideas and perspectives come across social media every day, but our own family members, friends, neighbors, and colleagues – even strangers we pass can give us a new way to think about something.

4. Location change

Changing location can be the ultimate way to find inspiration because it can put us in the way of all of the things I just mentioned. A new place removes us literally from our comfort zones, faces us with new people and situations, and can give us the opportunity to explore the arts in new venues. Attending a conference or retreat in our area of interest can push us to meet new people in a new location, sparking new connections and perspectives.


The next step on the path to creativity is identification. You have put yourself in the way of all sorts of new concepts and are veritably swimming in information, but not all of those will “stick” to you and inspire you. Following the garden analogy, what I plant in my garden will not necessarily provide the nutrition you need. You need to identify what feeds your soul so that you can plant those things in your garden.

Whether you choose to keep a journal of the things you have tried or just take time to reflect on your experiences, certain things will resonate with you more than others. While I believe it’s important to revisit each area periodically since we are constantly changing, narrowing your focus to those areas with which you really connected can save time and keep you energized and encouraged.


Once you have narrowed down your list of inspiring sources, it’s time to go deeper. Appreciation involves learning the craft of something that catches your interest. Whether it’s understanding how a painter captured the light in a famous work, the difficulty of a section in a piece of music, the skill it takes to build suspense in a novel or movie, or the level of mathematical expertise required to work out a scientific formula, getting inside a process can give you a sense of awe and a desire to learn more. Having a better picture of the inner workings of a craft or pursuit will also enable you to make creative connections more easily.

One of the easiest ways to start digging deeper on a topic is to Google it. Start down the rabbit trails of the Internet, and you will be introduced to videos, books, and experts on the topic that will inform you further and set you on subsequent paths of discovery. Looking for books and attending lectures will help you to learn from those who have already thought deeply about the topic and can already show you connections to other subject areas. If you really want to get inside a subject or process, take a class to learn how to paint, or golf, or write, or play an instrument, or do higher math.

Creation – Do the work!

The purpose of increasing your creativity is to create, but that can be the hardest part. Particularly for certain personality types like mine – analytical Enneagram 5 – it’s much easier to continue to gather more information, soak in oceans of books and articles, feeling creative, than to actually put words to paper and create something.

Steven Pressfield has written several of the more kick-in-the-pants books on creativity and writing that I’ve come across. A prolific author of deeply-researched historical novels, he lays out the battle between the creator and Resistance in his book The War of Art and the subsequent manifesto Do the Work! Resistance is an active force keeping us from sitting down and creating, and it can manifest in any person or situation that convinces us there is something more important than doing the creative work we have been called to do, that we feel compelled to do. One of the best ways to beat Resistance is to have a mindset of showing up every day at a certain time in a certain place to work, what Pressfield calls “turning pro”. He says, “Don’t Think. Act. We can always revise and revisit once we’ve acted. But we can accomplish nothing until we act.”[2]

My schedule is as packed as anyone’s, and it took some adjustments to carve out time every morning to write. I found that as I spent ten- or twenty-minutes writing in a journal or working on a blog post, my desire and drive to find extra minutes grew in proportion. When we put in the time and start to feel connected to and invested in our work, it self-perpetuates.

Iterative and parallel

While I have laid out the process of discovery, identification, appreciation, and creation in a linear manner, it’s important to state that the process is not linear or uni-directional. Increasing our creativity is an iterative experience and usually parallel. We discover and identify and then we discover something else as we’re appreciating the first topic and so on.

It is also very important to accept that small points of light may give us the initial inspirational jolt to sit down and create, but it is through the cultivated discipline of creation that inspiration becomes a regular companion.

In her book Walking on Water the great writer Madeleine L’Engle talked about showing up as a technician of the craft in chronos time, the time according to the clock, in order to experience Kairos time, the time when

“we are completely unselfconscious…When we are writing, or painting, or composing, we are, during the time of creativity, freed from normal restrictions, and are opened to a wider world, where colours [sic] are brighter, sounds clearer, and people more wondrously complex than we normally realize.”[3]

To get to that point, however, the creator needs to exercise discipline.

“Inspiration far more often comes during the work than before it, because the largest part of the job of the artist is to listen to the work, and to go where it tells him to go…The moment of inspiration does not come to someone who lolls around expecting the gift to be free.”[4]

Pressfield felt the same way about working for inspiration, describing the professional as having a “lunch-pail mentality, the hard-core, hard-head, hard-hat state of mind that shows up for work despite rain or snow or dark of night and slugs it out day after day.”[5]

Just as we will seek more time for the work when we spend time, we will find that inspiration comes more easily when we show up ready to receive.

Let’s Grow!

The subsequent posts on this site will introduce you to creators and their creations spanning the liberal arts. Use them to discover, identify, and appreciate. Then, sit down every day and create!

Image source: Author, Château d'Igé, Igé, Burgundy, France. [1] Allison Fallon, The Power of Writing It Down (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2020), 54-56. [2] Steven Pressfield, Do The Work (North Egremont, MA: Black Irish Entertainment, 2011), 13. [3] Madeleine L’Engle, Walking on Water (Wheaton, IL: Harold Shaw Publishers, 1980), 93, 98, 101. [4] L’Engle, Ibid, 149. [5] Steven Pressfield, The War of Art (New York: Black Irish Entertainment, 2002), 74.

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