Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Introducing Boogle-Jinni

After the great success of Beegu, I was commissioned by Little My to make a 'blue Beegu'.  After checking with Alexis Deacon that other coloured Beegu-creatures could exist, I agreed that a blue alien could be made, as long as they thought of the right name for it. And thus Boogle-Jinni was born.  I'm not yet sure of the relationship to Beegu, but we can assume they are from the same planet, and I am assured that Boogle-Jinni is a boy alien.

What I'm most pleased with is that I got to have another go at that muzzle, which troubled me so much with Beegu.  I'm so pleased with Boogle-Jinni's head!

New pattern for head+muzzle below.

Being a perfectionist I wanted to undo Beegu's head and do it again in the new style, but the Bug is having none of that.  She loves her Beegu the way she is.

And Boogle-Jinni is just about as loved as any alien could be.

Head (including muzzle) -
magic circle 5
Row 1: 2 sc in each sc (10)
Row 2: *sc 1, 2 sc in next sc* repeat 5 (15)
Row 3: *sc 2, 2 sc in next sc* repeat 5 (20)
Row 4: *sc 3, 2 sc in next sc* repeat 5 (25)
Row 5: *sc 4, 2 sc in next sc* repeat 5 (30)
Row 6: sc 12, *sc 5, 2 sc in next sc* repeat 3 (33)
Row 7: sc 12, *sc 6, 2 sc in next sc* repeat 3 (36)
Row 8: sc 12, *sc 7, 2 sc in next sc* repeat 3 (39)
Row 9: sc 12, *sc 8, 2 sc in next sc* repeat 3 (42)
Row 10: sc 12, *sc 9, 2 sc in next sc* repeat 3 (45)
Row 11 - 13 (3 rows): sc 45
Row 14: sc 4, *3 sc in next sc* repeat 4, sc 4, *sc 10, 2 sc in next sc* repeat 3 (56)
Row 15: sc 2, *2 sc in next sc* repeat 2, sc 12, *2 sc in next sc* repeat 2, sc 2, * sc 11, 2 sc in next sc* repeat 3 (63)
Row 16: *sc 7, 2 sc in next sc* repeat 3, sc 39 (66)
Row 17: sc 31, 2 sc in next sc, *sc 6, 2 sc in next sc* repeat 4, sc 5, 2 sc in next sc (72)
Row 18 - 28 (10 rows): sc 72
Row 29: *sc 10, dec 1* repeat 6 (66)
Row 30-31 (2 rows): sc 66
Row 32: *sc 9, dec 1* repeat 6 (60)
Row 33: sc 60
Row 34: *sc 8, dec 1* repeat 6 (54)
Row 35: *sc 7, dec 1* repeat 6 (48)
Row 36: sc 48
Row 37: *sc 6, dec 1* repeat 6 (42)
break here to attach eyes and stuff almost to the top
Row 38: *sc 6, dec 1* repeat 6 (42)
Row 39: *sc 5, dec 1* repeat 6 (36)
Row 40: *sc 4, dec 1* repeat 6 (30)
Row 41: *sc 3, dec 1* repeat 6 (24)
finish stuffing
Row 42: *sc 2, dec 1* repeat 6 (18)
Row 43: *sc 1, dec 1* repeat 6 (12)
Row 44: dec 1, repeat 6 (6)
Fasten off.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Piping a Giant Rose

Oh my, when Bug said she wanted a giant flower cake with a bee on it my heart was happy because I had in mind just what I would do.  Something like this:

Which looked super impressive, but when it comes down to it, is quite simple.

However, when I showed her the picture (and it's always a good idea to check first with Bug, her needs and wants are VERY specific) she hated that and explained she wanted a giant flower with a bee on it.  OK I thought, I've seen tutorials online for piping a rose, I just need to do that with a really big nozzle.

Yes.  A really big one.

I had the bright idea that I could bake a hemispheric cake and use that as the base.  Then piping would be child's play, right?  Happily I could actually practise this one on the cake tin.  It didn't turn out too bad! One of my friends gave me the great tip of adding a spoonful of cream of tartar to the butter icing and this really helped give the tips a sharp edge and stiffened up the mixture enough to hold the shape. So when it came to the actual cake, I just did a crumb layer of icing and then went ahead.  The icing is coloured yellow, then I put a red stripe of icing inside the piping bag on the narrow side of the teardrop nozzle to give the petals a dark edge.

If I did it again, I would stop halfway and cool the icing down again before contiuing.  you can see where it all started to go pearshaped, but of course I was doing this the night before the party so didn't have time to be sensible.

I would post a recipe for the cake, but I won't because actually it was rank.  My first attempt at a lemon cake and it was horrible.  Luckily for me kids only want to eat the icing in any case.   I used butter icing with added cream of tartar and of course I added maple syrup as I always do!  The cake to icing ratio is rather outrageous in this case.  Don't look at the cake in this picture.  As I said, it was rank.

And the bee?  A good old cake pop.

There's a million tutorials out there for how to make cake pops so I won't add to the deluge. I used chocolate courgette cake for the filling and white chocolate coloured with yellow colouring for the coating.  I find it best to freeze the pops and coat them straight from the freezer in very small batches.  That way the chocolate hardens almost straight away and you can do another layer. However I will say that an upturned egg box weighted down with marbles makes a good holder for them.

Crochet: Roses and leaves

The Bean wanted some flowers to go on her flip-flops!  Whoop whoop crochet to the rescue, that's right another excuse to learn something new.

Flower (altered slightly from the pattern here):
chain 41
Row 1: (dc, 2 sc, 2 dc) in 4th chain from hook; *sc 1, skip 2 sc, (2 dc, 2 sc, 2 dc) in next sc* repeat to end.
Ch 1, turn
Row 2: sl st into first dc space. Ch 3, 6 dc in same dc space. *sc in next sc space, 7 dc in next dc space* repeat to end.
Fasten off
Curl up and sew together.

Leaf (pattern taken from here):
ch 10
dc into 3rd chain from hook. htr 1, tr 1, htr 1, dc 1, hdc 1, sc 2.
Picot (to turn and begin again along the other side of the foundation chain)
sc 2, hdc 2, dc 1, htr 1, dc 1, sc 1.
Fasten off and thread into the first chain to round off the leaf (it will be obvious what I mean when you are there).

This is my first experience of a picot.  Nice to turn a corner and apparently you use them to edge things.  Not sure I'd totally be in to the bobbly edge.
The leaves are ace, I could do a lot more of them should the need arise.  Not too enamoured with the roses though, they use a disproportionately large amount of yarn.

Crochet: Beegu

As I have probably mentioned before, Bug's favourite colour is yellow.  Yellow yellow yellow.  She'd happily wear top to toe yellow day and night if she could. Perhaps not surprisingly she hit upon Beegu as a favourite book character some time ago. She's read the book numerous times and even dressed as Beegu for World Book Day last year (yellow tights on the head, anyone?).  She's been asking for a soft Beegu for a while so I thought, what the hey I will give it a go.

So here it is, my first big project in crochet and my first original pattern.

I'm still not totally happy with it, the muzzle in particular I think would have been better had it been a single piece with the head, but I need to do a lot more fiddling about to learn how to make more complex 3D shapes.  What I am proud of, is the appearance of this Beegu on Alexis Deacon's blog! Even more than that, the Bug is totally in love with her (I'm assured Beegu is female, which did surprise me for some reason). Also Little My is desperate for a blue version, and now we have Alexis Deacon's permission, I need to get some blue yarn and start on 'Boogle'.

So here's the pattern.  US crochet terms as that is how I learned, and unexpectedly even when I learned the UK ones, I thought the US ones were more logical so I'm sticking with them.  I haven't read too many patterns so to explain: when I say magic circle 6 I mean a magic circle of 6 single chain stitches; when I say repeat 6 I mean repeat the bit between the *s 6 times; the numbers in the brackets are how many stitches you have at the end of that row.  Everything is worked in a spiral, so don't start a new row, just use a marker like a tiny bit of other colour yarn so you don't actually have to keep counting!
Also, I weighted the feet, ears and bottom, so that she sits nicely.  You can buy some polybeads that work well for this purpose (NB not polystyrene, but the polypropylene I assume.  If you search for weighted blanket filling you'll find the right ones).  I sewed some little cotton pockets for them and then just put them in the relevant parts.  Mostly I kept the stuffing to a minimum, just stuffing the head and muzzle full, so that Beegu is nice and cuddly and floppy. I used plain black eyes with a little circle of white round them.  These were simple magic circles of 6.

magic circle 6
Row 1: 2 sc in each sc (12)
Row 2: *sc 1, 2 sc in next sc* repeat 6 (18)
Row 3: *sc 2, 2 sc in next sc* repeat 6 (24)
Row 4: *sc 3, 2 sc in next sc* repeat 6 (30)
Row 5: *sc 4, 2 sc in next sc* repeat 6 (36)
Row 6: *sc 5, 2 sc in next sc* repeat 6 (42)
Row 7: *sc 6, 2 sc in next sc* repeat 6 (48)
Row 8: *sc 7, 2 sc in next sc* repeat 6 (54)
Row 9: *sc 8, 2 sc in next sc* repeat 6 (60)
Row 10: *sc 9, 2 sc in next sc* repeat 6 (66)
Row 11: *sc 10, 2 sc in next sc* repeat 6 (72)
Row 12: *sc 11, 2 sc in next sc* repeat 6 (78)
Row 13 - 37 (25 rows): sc 78
Row 38: *sc 11, dec 1* repeat 6 (72)
Row 39 - 41 (3 rows): sc 72
Row 42: *sc 10, dec 1* repeat 6 (66)
Row 43 - 45 (3 rows): sc 66
Row 46: *sc 9, dec 1* repeat 6 (60)
Row 47 - 49 (3 rows): sc 60
Row 50: *sc 8, dec 1* repeat 6 (54)
Row 51: sc 54
Row 52: *sc 7, dec 1* repeat 6 (48)
Row 53: sc 48
Fasten off, leaving a long tail for sewing on the head.

Head - note that at some point when making the head you need to attach the eyes, and stuff it!
(ed - for an improved pattern for head+muzzle please see Boogle-Jinni)
magic circle 6
Row 1: 2 sc in each sc (12)
Row 2: *sc 1, 2 sc in next sc* repeat 6 (18)
Row 3: *sc 2, 2 sc in next sc* repeat 6 (24)
Row 4: *sc 3, 2 sc in next sc* repeat 6 (30)
Row 5: *sc 4, 2 sc in next sc* repeat 6 (36)
Row 6: *sc 5, 2 sc in next sc* repeat 6 (42)
Row 7: *sc 6, 2 sc in next sc* repeat 6 (48)
Row 8: *sc 7, 2 sc in next sc* repeat 6 (54)
Row 9: *sc 8, 2 sc in next sc* repeat 6 (60)
Row 10: *sc 9, 2 sc in next sc* repeat 6 (66)
Row 11: *sc 10, 2 sc in next sc* repeat 6 (72)
Row 12: *sc 11, 2 sc in next sc* repeat 6 (78)
Row 13 - 27 (15 rows): sc 78
Row 28: *sc 11, dec 1* repeat 6 (72)
Row 29: *sc 10, dec 1* repeat 6 (66)
Row 30: *sc 9, dec 1* repeat 6 (60)
Row 31: *sc 8, dec 1* repeat 6 (54)
Row 32: *sc 7, dec 1* repeat 6 (48)
break somewhere around here to attach eyes and stuff almost to the top
Row 33: *sc 6, dec 1* repeat 6 (42)
Row 34: *sc 5, dec 1* repeat 6 (36)
Row 35: *sc 4, dec 1* repeat 6 (30)
Row 36: *sc 3, dec 1* repeat 6 (24)
finish stuffing
Row 37: *sc 2, dec 1* repeat 6 (18)
Row 38: *sc 1, dec 1* repeat 6 (12)
Row 39: dec 1, repeat 6 (6)
Fasten off.

Muzzle - this is the bit I wasn't too happy with.  I wish this had actually been a part of the head shape.
magic circle 5
Row 1: 2 sc in each sc (10)
Row 2: *sc 1, 2 sc in next sc* repeat 5 (15)
Row 3: *sc 2, 2 sc in next sc* repeat 5 (20)
Row 4: *sc 3, 2 sc in next sc* repeat 5 (25)
Row 5: *sc 4, 2 sc in next sc* repeat 5 (30)
Row 6: sc 12, *sc 5, 2 sc in next sc* repeat 3 (33)
Row 7: sc 12, *sc 6, 2 sc in next sc* repeat 3 (36)
Row 8: sc 12, *sc 7, 2 sc in next sc* repeat 3 (39)
Row 9: sc 12, *sc 8, 2 sc in next sc* repeat 3 (42)
Row 10: sc 12, *sc 9, 2 sc in next sc* repeat 3 (45)
Row 11 - 13 (3 rows): sc 45
Fasten off, leaving a long tail for sewing on to the head.

Legs (make 2!) - this is a confusing pattern to read.  If you keep in mind that you are making a sole of a foot to start with, starting with a chain then working along one side and then back again to form an oval shape, it might make more sense!
ch 6
Row 1: sc in 2nd chain from hook. sc 3, 3 sc in last sc
then turn and the following is in the same foundation chain stitches:
sc 3, 4 sc in the first sc (14 stitches in oval)
Row 2: {sc 4, *2 sc in next sc* repeat 3} repeat 2 (20)
Row 3: {sc 4, *sc 1, 2 sc in next sc* repeat 3} repeat 2 (26)
Row 4: {sc 4, *sc 2, 2 sc in next sc* repeat 3} repeat 2 (32)
Row 5: {sc 4, *sc 3, 2 sc in next sc* repeat 3} repeat 2 (38)
Row 6 - 9 (4 rows): sc 38
Row 10: sc 4, *sc 3, dec 1* repeat 3, sc 19 (35)
Row 11: sc 4, *sc 2, dec 1* repeat 3, sc 19 (32)
Row 12: sc 4, *sc 1, dec 1* repeat 3, sc 19 (29)
Row 13: sc 3, dec 1, sc 1, dec 1, sc 1, dec 1, sc 18 (26)
Row 14 - 34 (20 rows): sc 26
Fasten off, leaving a long tail for sewing on to the body.

Arms (make 2!)
Magic circle 7
Row 1: 2 sc in each sc (14)
Row 2: *sc 1, 2 sc in next sc* repeat 7 (21)
Row 3 - 23 (30 rows): sc 21
Fasten off, leaving a long tail to sew on to body

Ears (make 2!)
magic circle 6
Row 1: 2 sc in each sc (12)
Row 2: sc 12
Row 3: *sc 1, 2 sc in next sc* repeat 6 (18)
Row 4: sc 18
Row 5: *sc 2, 2 sc in next sc* repeat 6 (24)
Row 6: sc 24
Row 7: *sc 3, 2 sc in next sc* repeat 6 (30)
Row 8: sc 30
Row 9: *sc 3, dec 1* repeat 6 (24)
Row 10 - 13 (4 rows): sc 24
Row 14: *sc 2, dec 1* repeat 6 (18)
Row 15 - 135 (120 rows): sc 18
Fasten off, leaving a long tail to sew on to head.

Phew! Put in the weights and stuff, then sew it all together and voila!


Oh me oh my, I need to get back on the blogging bandwagon.
I decided not too long ago that crochet was a life skill I did not possess and that perhaps I should do something about it.  A friend of mine made some gorgeous scarves for her girls that I really envied, and the final tipping point was another friend suggesting we set up a stitch and bitch group for crochet, so I had to learn.

I got a few books out of the library, and taught myself.  It is really not that hard when you have a good book to show you how to do it.  I heartily recommend The Crochet Answer Book by Edie Eckman.  All your questions answered (well almost, I didn't find out how to make a htr from her, but I knew enough by that stage to take a wild guess) and lots of nice pictures to show you exactly what she means.

Speaking of wild guesses I must say the best best thing about crochet is that it is very forgiving.  If you lose your place or end up with too many or too few stitches at the end of a row, never fear you can bodge it up and it still looks OK!  Much easier than knitting where discovering a dropped stitch 5 rows down the line is soul-suckingly painful.

So that was it, I was hooked.  Pardon the pun it is rubbish.  I'm not a fan of granny squares I haven't made one yet and so far have no intention.  I got another rather hilariously covered book from the library, but so far haven't tried anything from it.  I think I just loved the title and cover, it still makes me laugh.

I cannot ever imagine creating or wearing the item on the cover.

So more my style is amigurumi.

I got this great starter book by Ana Paula Rimoli and whipped up a couple of the things inside in next to no time.  I liked her stuff, but there were a couple of niggles in it.  Since making her teddy hot air balloon I came across a nice tutorial online for how to prevent your stripes having a noticeable join in them, and also for some reason Ana never uses a magic circle which is strange. However, armed with the knowledge Ana gave me I started work on my great project, a crochet Beegu.

Saturday, April 06, 2013

How to curl little girls' hair

Oh my, it's been a month.  What a lot has happened....we've discovered we must relocate for D's job, and we have sold the house.  We sold it quickly which was a relief as keeping it tidy was basically a full-time job, and our agents did a sterling job.
So this blog post...every time I curl my daughters' hair I get asked about it.  No, I don't use tongs or irons or anything like that, do you think I'm mad?  Having said that, someone once asked me if I straightened the Bug's hair when she was about 18 months old!

It's very very easy, it just requires a bit of pre-planning.  So she needs to dress up as a princess for the Reception class ball?  Well, everyone knows princesses have curly hair, so the night before the ball you put her hair in rags.  Yes rags.  Just get some old cotton item and tear it into strips about 1 inch wide and 4 or 5 inches long.

You need the hair to be just a bit wet.  You can either spray it with some water, or I tend to use a detangling/conditioning spray.  Start at the front and take a small section (the amount you take will control how tight the curls are.  Practice makes perfect) and spray it, then wrap the ends around the middle of one of the rags, and start to roll it up (folding the ends under).

Roll it right up to the scalp and then tie in a granny knot (the only knot I know).

Do this for the whole head! Don't do it too tight, remember she's got to sleep with her head like that!

Send her to bed.

When you unwrap the secret is to do it slowly and DO NOT BRUSH!  Just run your fingers through it a bit and maybe put some anti-frizz in there.

Here's the before and after shots:

This will work even on poker straight hair, I promise.  It just won't last as long.  Bug's hair will stay like this for one day, but the Bean's will be curly for 3-4.

Friday, March 01, 2013

Film Review - Never Let Me Go (2010)

Oh it's another film review of a reasonably old film!  I'm wondering if I should re-consider my no plot spoilers or description rule...but no, I do like to see a film where I don't have any preconceptions, so I shan't spoil anything for you. Having said that the problem here of course is that this is one of my favourite books. So you know what I'm going to say.  

I thought perhaps if you hadn't read it you might think it was ok, and I was pretty happy with the casting of Keira Knightly as one of the central characters because she plays Ruth, the repulsive one. But D didn't think it was that good either, and had a lot of questions about bits of the plot that were unexplained.

Kazuo Ishiguro's book is however, very very good.  What the film lacked was the feeling of looming, confusing tragedy. Because of the time constraints it really had to cram in the Hailsham days, which I think in the book is a really wonderful evocation of how normality is whatever you experience as a child. The film did attempt to put all the important bits in, but it felt a little bit like a montage and failed to build an atmosphere. To little time spent here, and to much spent as an adult. 

Carey Mulligan put in a great performance, and Izzy Meikle-Small was a real find as the child Kathy. I felt that Andrew Garfield was mis-cast as Tommy, and it jarred the whole way through.  

Having said all that, the scene where Kathy and Tommy are trying to justify addition to the Gallery as adults is so well done.  Absolutely perfect.

In short, read the book and don't bother with the film.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Eat This! - Mayonnaise

I know, I don't either.  It's just that today I had a real craving for a tuna mayonnaise sandwich, and I didn't have any in the fridge.  Also I have two sick kids at the moment so couldn't just pick it up at the shop, as I CAN'T LEAVE THE HOUSE.  Well, except on the school run with the two sick ones quarantined under a raincover.
The point is, maybe some of you like a bit of homemade, and you like getting a sore arm, and you are really going to eat all this mayonnaise in 2 weeks (I'm not, what a waste)... here you are.

2 egg yolks
large dollop of English mustard
1tsp sugar
1tsp salt
splash of Worcester sauce
300ml oil
3tsp lemon juice or white vinegar or a mix of the two
1tsp hot water

whisk the egg yolks, mustard, sugar, salt, and Worcester sauce together in a bowl till smooth. Add 150ml oil SLOWLY (dribble it in) while whisking fast. Add half of the lemon juice and the hot water and whisk in.  Add the rest of the oil in larger splashes while whisking. Add the rest of the lemon juice. Season to taste and if you are me, add more mustard.  Cover and keep in the fridge.  Use within 2 weeks.

On the point of tuna, I must say it is one of those foods I find quite repulsive on a usual day. Sometimes, however, it is the only thing that will hit the spot.  Sardines are the same.  Is this a uniquely fish-related phenomenon?

Monday, February 18, 2013

I-spy at Waterperry Gardens

Today we spent the morning at Waterperry Gardens near Oxford. It's the first time I've been and it seemed like a lovely place with plenty to see and a really lovely garden which must be a great place to take the kids in the Summer.  I'm not sure if there is a membership which makes the entrance cheaper, as it was one of those standard places where it costs a bomb to get in and then the cafe is also extortionate.  I have no idea why places need to charge so much for entrance and then still insist that a sandwich should be £4.  The (lovely) venison and juniper stew was almost £10 for a rather measily portion. But I digress.

The point of this post is to talk about what we did there.  They had a half term activity which was an A-Z I-spy in the gardens.  Easy to organise and administrate! Just an A4 sheet with all the letters on and a space to write in what you see.  No wrong answers!

They'd made life a bit easier with a couple of posters of things like X-rays and Queens, but all in all there was plenty to find.  The Bug enjoyed thinking of what letter things began with, and the Bean happily worked out how to write things down.  We spent over an hour walking round the garden which is pretty amazing on a cold day.  And there was a free flapjack in the cafe as a prize.

I will certainly be making up some sheets like this to take with us on days out. What an easy way to keep their attention while you get to have a look around.  The girls loved it.

Book Review - Winter in Madrid by CJ Sansom - Kindle

556 pages

***currently 20p on Kindle!***

Oh CJ Sansom how I love you.  What a joy to read his books are.  This is the first book of Sansom's  that I have read that is not in the Shardlake series. I embarked with trepidation, because, as I have previously mentioned, I think that series is pretty near perfection.

Well, I wasn't let down. One thing that you can totally rely on Sansom for is characterisation. Every one of the characters, be they major or minor cast, are totally 3 dimensional and believable.  I've said it before in reference to Shardlake, but it is so refreshing when even the ones you are meant to love have periods of unlikeability.  

I'll admit it, recent history in Spain is not something I am knowledgeable about.  I don't even know a lot about what went on there in the second world war.  It could be that this is total nonsense, but it didn't read like it.

And the thriller part is actually thrilling.  I didn't see the twist coming at all.  That's right, I actually gasped!  Hoorah for that kind of experience when reading a book!

The one downside is the epilogue.  I strongly advise you to not bother reading it. It isn't necessary to tie all the ends up and it certainly isn't necessary to have the characters suddenly possessed by Basil Exposition in order to do it.

If you liked this try another CJ Sansom, or Robert Harris

Book Review - The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver

616 pages

I've been putting off reviewing this book, because I know it's going to be a hard one.  On the one hand I found it absolutely absorbing and couldn't put it down for the 3 days it took to read it. On the other hand there were several issues I had with it that riled me.  I'm going to do a lot of moody complaining in this review, so let me just say before I start that I did actually like this book.  It annoyed me, yes, but I am certainly going to be reading it again.

I was given the book by someone that didn't enjoy it at all, but when I mentioned I was reading it I had several friends tell me it was one of their all time favourites so I didn't know what I was going to think.

In a nutshell the book follows the Price family as they are transported from America to the Congo by their maniacal father who is on a mission to save the natives. It discusses three generations but really focusses on the children. In terms of plot I had a lot of time for this book.  You need to totally suspend disbelief, and I mean totally. It is astounding to the reader that a religious zealot could have been given support by any organisation to carry out a personal quest when so clearly mentally ill.  It is astonishing that such a man could drag his wife and daughters along with him with never a word of dissent from them prior to the event.  It is truly unbelievable that all of these characters come from the same family.  But then again, maybe life was just like that in the 50s and 60s, what would I know?

Barbara Kingsolver can write, she really can.  There are passages in the book that are almost painfully beautiful. The book is so evocative of a time and space in rural central Africa you can almost taste and smell it.  Why on earth she decided to employ the rather irritating plot device of writing each chapter from a different person's perspective I will never know.  The problem with this is that every single one of the central characters is a caricature.  The stupid one is an imbecile, the clever one talks in riddles, the 'normal one' is dullsville, the tragic poet spots rare animals in the forest, the religious zealot uses everything for a sermon, the cad is a irredeemable rake, the one that married a villager is perfection itself, the baby forms a natural bond with the natives...BAH! The most believable people are the supporting cast which is quite irritating.

My other annoyance?  So desperate is Kingsolver to let us know that she has researched the history of the Congo thoroughly that she has her characters mention lots of world political events, and local political events 'in passing'.  This is most irritating towards the end of the book where it really does become nonsensical the include it in the conversations. Let's just say I'm almost surprised she didn't have one of the supporting cast turn out to be the real culprit in the murder of JFK.  I really wish she had limited herself to the one generation.  After about page 400 things got rather dull and contrived as we start to follow the children when they are grown up. But who can complain really when they've been given 400 good pages!

OK gripes over.  This book is a keeper.  I don't want to let it go and I do want to re-read it.  For all that it annoyed me, it totally captured me and I suspect it's going to be on my bookshelf for many years to come. I'd love to hear your views on it, if you have read it, this is a book I wish I had read with my book group as I think it would stand up to a good afternoon of dissection, wine in hand.

If you liked this one, try The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell or Cutting For Stone by Abraham Verghese.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Film Review - Wanted (2008)

This was D's film choice and to be honest neither of us knew anything about it except D had seen a tiny bit of it involving a sort of gun-holder with an LCD screen that let you shoot round corners and thought it might be good.

Um.  Well.  
I need to start out by saying that in my film reviews I like to give NO SPOILERS.  This means I don't discuss plot.  At all.  I think the best films are when you go and you have no idea what is about to happen.  It does make it rather hard to discuss something critically though.  So here goes...

The main character is played by James McAvoy which is fine.  You are watching it quite happily thinking 'well this is a bit rubbish, but you know, he wasn't always a star', and then next minute Angelina Jolie and Morgan Freeman turn up.  And you look it up and it's from 2008, which is, you know, not that long ago. And it's a really crazy mix of people.  It's got Marc Warren in it, which I always find a bit strange because he's a very weird looking man, and a good TV actor, and I'm sure everyone deserves their chance, but really Marc, stick with Hustle.

I know, I'm rambling here, but it's hard to find what to say about this film.  It's very violent, when you aren't expecting it, and it's very post-Matrix which is also strange because the Matrix was in 1999 for goodness sake!

Apparently it's based on a comic series.  Which is probably it's saving grace.  Visually there are some really beautiful scenes which must have been lifted straight of the page.  It's based loosely on a comic series.  Very loosely it turns out.  It's a funny thing to make a movie based on a comic series but completely make up the key component. That's right I'm talking about The Loom Of Fate.  Was ever a more bizarre plot device invented?  That wasn't taken from the comic?

Look at it!  This scene is beautiful and D and I even commented on how graphic it was.  But no, totally made up!  Disappointing.

All in all, unless it is your mission to watch the entire filmography of James McAvoy...I wouldn't bother.

Parent Hack - Keeping Your Car Seats Clean

I'm talking about your actual car seats, not the ones your toddlers sit in,  I have no idea how to keep those clean.  I saw a parent hack about wrapping the whole thing in clingfilm once, and I just thought 'really?  they are machine-washable you know!'.

We bought a new-ish (pristine) car a couple of years ago when baby number 3 (Moon) arrived.  It was so beautiful I didn't really want to sit in it myself, let alone have half-chewed bread sticks smooshed into it.  So what to do?

1) buy a fleece throw
2) cut holes for the head rests and seat belt buckles
3) Bob's your uncle.

Why fleece?  Well, you can get it quite cheap in throw form; you can cut holes in it and it won't fray, so no sewing required; it washes easily and dries quickly; and it is slightly water repellent, so this will even save you from an upended FruitShoot if you are reasonably quick.

Accuracy is not important.  I've been using this for a couple of years and it works wonders.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Perfect Pancakes

I LOVE PANCAKE DAY!  They are an evening thing for us, so we are not quite there, but we are getting ready...

Here's the perfect recipe:

8oz plain flour
2 eggs
1 pint milk
pinch salt.

Once you've weighed out the flour, dry whisk it a few times with a balloon whisk.  Make a well in the centre and break the eggs into it.  Pour in the milk and then carefully whisk with the balloon whisk, drawing more flour into the well gradually.

Leave it to settle for half an hour or so and then go for it.

My favourite is banana-mars bar-chocolate spread.  But of course the first one is always lemon and sugar: sugar on first and then soaked with lemon juice.  ~Yum.

In the Night Garden Cake

Yes, another novelty cake. I'm on a bit of a mission to show people that it isn't that hard to make a cake that's impressive looking! Although if anyone's got any tips of photographing cakes I'd love to hear them as I just don't seem to be able to get them to look good on film, as it were.

I'm going to take this opportunity to talk about the type of cake you have inside all that icing.  For most of my novelty cakes I use a simple Madiera recipe because it is easy to carve, you can freeze it, and you can colour it.  However I'm not a huge fan of how it tastes so whenever possible I try and use something else.  My favourites are carrot cake and chocolate courgette cake, which I know sound rank when you think too much about it, but they are actually lovely.

For this cake I wanted something quite tall, as I wanted to decorate the sides.  The problem with stacking up cakes is that if you go with a standard sponge recipe you end up trying to cut them to make them flatter or fit together better.  So here I will give you a recipe for a chocolate cake that gives you a lovely tall, flat-topped cake with no carving.  What could be better.

This recipe makes 3 cakes to stack on top of each other, and comes from the Practical Encyclopedia of Baking by Martha Day which I highly recommend. I've had it for years and it has some excellent fail-safe recipes in and lots of pictures.

Best-Ever Chocolate Sandwich

4oz unsalted butter
4oz plain flour
2 oz cocoa powder
1tsp baking powder
pinch salt
6 eggs
8oz caster sugar
2tsp vanilla extract

Preheat the oven to Gas /350degF/180degC. Line the base of three 20cm sandwich tins with greaseproof paper, grease and dust with flour.
Melt the butter.
Sift the flour, cocoa and baking powder together three times.
Place the eggs and sugar in a large heatproof bowl and set over a pan of hot water.  Use an electric mixer to beat until the mixture doubles in volume and is thick enough to leave a ribbon train when you lift the beaters out.  It takes about 10-12 minutes. Then whisk in the vanilla.
Sift in the dry ingredients in three batches, folding carefully in.
Fold in the melted butter.
Divide the mixture evenly between the tins.  If you find it hard to judge this, use a cocktail stick to measure how thick each one is and adjust accordingly.
Bake until the sides of the cake pull away from the sides of the tin.  About 25 minutes.
Turn them out as soon as you can onto a rack.
I've mentioned before how much I hate regal icing.  The fact is it's really easy to make 3D models of things with it though, and for some reason the kids will gobble it up, so for now I use butter icing as much as possible and regal icing as little as possible. I this case I used chocolate butter icing for in-between the sandwiches and maple syrup butter icing for the outside (coloured green).  Maple syrup butter icing is SO GOOD on carrot cake, by the way.

If you are making characters or 3D things to go on top of a cake it's best to do them in advance and let them sit around for a few days to harden up.  Otherwise they will sag and get fatter and fatter.  If you are sticking them on top of a cake I advise using a cocktail stick to keep them secure. So these In the Night Garden characters were copied from here.  You can see they are caricatures of the originals and instantly recognisable but much easier to model.  It's just play-dough people.  I used Wilton colours again, as they are the best in my opinion.  In each case make the tummy, then the legs, then the head and finally the arms. Stick all the bits together using a paintbrush and water.  They need to harden up lying down for a couple of days.

The flowers on the outside were made using regal icing and these cutters from Lakeland.  I really like these type of cutters and they have a spring mechanism to push the cutting out.

Finally, I've piped some flowers on in yellow butter icing.  This masks the bottom of the cake where it joins the board.  I also went a bit mad on the top of the cake because I like piping.  It's fun!

...and that's the whole point really.  Making these things is good fun.  Don't let yourself get stressed out by it, just try and enjoy it.  I made the figures while watching TV during the week before, and put the cake together in a couple of hours the night before the party.  Go on, have a go and enjoy it!

Friday, February 08, 2013

Honey and Lemon

Ok it's Friday afternoon and I'm struggling.  I've been ill for a couple of weeks and you know what?  It's honey and lemon o'clock.

The simplest recipe in the world but it really does the world of good.  Juice of a lemon or two, a big spoon-full of honey (I prefer the set sort) and fill her up with boiling water.

Lidl certainly has its downsides, but their blossom honey is one of the things that I pick up without fail on my once-a-month trip to the next town.

Softs Tea Party

Now I don't want you to think that this is the sort of thing I usually do.  I don't, because it takes ages and the kids are pretty crotchety after school.  However having rediscovered the tea set before school and been desperate to hold a softs tea party, I promised that we would do one after school.  It does have a pretty high stress rating at that time of day, but the thing that I like about this kind of activity is that the kids can totally run it.  All it really takes from me is a bit of umpiring and asking 'what shall we do?' or 'how shall we do that?' every so often. I've got 3 little organisers in my family, so they are full of good ideas.  Plus the Bug had been thinking about it all afternoon waiting for Bean to come home from school, so had already planned some of it out.

So first up, the decision over cakes or biscuits.  Either can be quick and fun to make but today the girls chose biscuits.  Recipe here.

Next up, invitations.  We used some gold and silver card, funky scissors, stickers and pens.

A list of softs to be invited was drawn up and invites written.

Then all the softs were lined up and as their names were called they were brought forward, given their invite and seated in their place.

Finally, the payoff! Tea and biscuits and lots of silly photos of softs enjoying their treat.