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.

Thursday, February 07, 2013

Eat This! - Swirly Biscuits

We needed to make some biscuits at quite short notice, and with kids these are the easiest thing in the world, and very satisfying.  You don't need to use cutters (hooray!) and they can play with the dough like playdough.

I feel I should apologise for the rather hideous plate, but as I said these biscuits were for a purpose which shall be revealed in a later post.

3 ingredients:

2oz caster sugar
4oz butter
6oz plain flour.

Couldn't be simpler.

On a side note, I don't spread butter on my bread, but I often need it for cooking (but not often enough to keep it in the fridge).  I keep it in the freezer but then this raises the problem of remembering to get it out in time to warm up before baking time.  Except it doesn't. If you grate frozen butter it warms up super quick and is ready to use in no time. If you aren't using a food processor for the recipe, just use the microwave, no-one wants to grate frozen butter by hand!

OK, cream butter and sugar and mix in flour.  Divide the dough into an appropriate number of balls and let each child choose a colour.  If they're old enough (mine aren't) let them loose with the food colouring.  I highly recommend gel food colourings rather than the liquid ones. You get a much better result and they don't make the dough/icing/whatever too soggy. Wilton do some nice ones which are available in cake decorating shops, Hobbycraft etc. Once the dough is all coloured, squish each ball into a pancake and then pile them up on top of each other.  We did double the recipe here and made two piles with different order of colours to make two kinds of biscuit.

The best idea here is to put a sheet of clingfilm underneath and then one of top.  This makes is easy to roll out and very easy to move it round the table so everyone has a go.

If I'd have thought about it beforehand, I'd have tidied up the kitchen for the photoshoot.  You take us as you find us.

Once it's rolled out (not too thin, somewhere between 5 and 10 mm) you need to roll it into a sausage.  It's pretty hard to take photos of the process when you have 3 kids having fun!

Cover the sausage in clingfilm and put it in the freezer for 10 mins or so until it is solid.
Then the fun bit.  Slice the sausage up (about 5 mm thick) and reveal the swirl!

Bake at gas mark 4 or 5 for 10-15 minutes.

Honestly these are serious fun. I wish all biscuits looked like this!

Sunday, February 03, 2013

The Saltmarsh Murders by Gladys Mitchell - Book Review (AUDIO)

288 pages

If you like Agatha Christie, but wish it was a little more unusual and comedic, then this one is for you.   Yes, some of it is a little out of kilter with modern views (it was written in 1932 and the black characters are as you can imagine), but it is genuinely funny.

A blandings-esque (and I say that in the Jeeves and Wooster sense rather than the more recent adaptation) jolly romp through a complex mystery.

The audio version is read by Gordon Griffin.  He's done a marvellous job here, setting exactly the right tone.  Sometimes you listen to a book that is totally ruined by the reader, but when you get a good one the result is better than when you read it yourself.

A keeper.

Eat This! - Snow Eggs

My friend Jodi from Little Fishes playgroup told me about these and I said I'd try it and blog.  So here we are...

A new (to me) way with eggs. I've called them snow eggs, but I don't know what the proper name is.  If you do them with duck eggs they are called fluffy ducks apparently.

So the first step is to separate the eggs and whisk the whites up to soft peaks. Now come on, don't say that's going to take forever, it takes a minute at most with an electric whisk. Then take a slice of toast (I put a bit of marmite on mine) and put a couple of spoons of the egg white on the toast.  Make a well in the middle and pour the yolk in. I accidentally popped the yolk when I was seperating it, but it didn't matter.

Then put the rest of the egg white on the top, and top with cheese.

10 mins at gas mark 4 and there you have it, crispy and fluffy and then beautiful soft yolk.

Saturday, February 02, 2013

Novelty Birthday Cakes

I know that buying birthday cakes is lot less work, and that you can get some lovely ones in the supermarkets now, but the fact is I like making them.  I relish the challenge and it's a creative outlet. Moon's birthday is next week so I'll be blogging again soon about her cake, but the Bean has just had her birthday so I thought I'd do a little post about hers.

I've written before about my adventures in cake making: Peppa Pig, Pingu, cupcakes, and a Dinosaur.  Since she loved her 2nd birthday dinosaur so much, the Bug asked for another one for her third birthday.  Well that's easy!  Pushed the boat out a little more on that one, and went for diplodocus rather than triceratops, and made it her favourite colour.

These cakes are easy, people.  There's a tutorial for the dinosaurs in the link above.

The Bean last year requested a butterfly and flower cake and asked that it be pink and purple.  Well the butterfly was pretty easy, just a sandwich cake cut in half with cupcakes down the middle.

And yes, it's pink and purple the whole way through.  How to do that? Split the cake mix in two and colour it, then put dollops of each in the tin.

The flowers were so popular I only got time to take this rubbish photo before they were gobbled.  Yes they are cake pops with regal ice petals.  I made them buy 'threading' the petals onto the dried cakepop while it was upside-down and letting them set before turning them the right way up again.  I wasn't too pleased with them to be honest, they were a bit too big and next time I'd do them smaller and take a bit more time.

As an aside I do like cakepops, but I don't like the new cakepop makers.  They do defeat the point a bit.  In a proper cakepop you have a mixture of cake and butter icing inside and that is what makes them so marvellous.

Now, those of you that know me, know that I'm not a big fan of pink.  Or fairies.  So when the Bean said she wanted a fairy cake for her birthday this year my heart sank.  Still, I believe very strongly that the kids should have their own opinions and likes and dislikes, so a fairy cake it was to be.  However there is room for a bit of sneaky influence when you are a Mum.

Yes, it is a fairy cake, but it's hardly pink at all!  And she loved it.  I'm quite pleased with this dumpy little fairy actually.

 She's made totally out of shop-bought regal ice, and is holding a little butter icing flower.  I made the dress using this fab little leaf cutter set from Lakeland. I did find the head a bit difficult though.  I need more practice with that, but D did point out the first head was way to big and she looks infinitely better with this one.

You know what?  This was one of the quickest novelty cakes I have done.  It's just two hemisphere cakes on top of each other.  I secured them together with a couple of BBQ wooden skewers just to be on the safe side and then iced her up.  I like the little butter icing snails too.  The little mushrooms are made from shop-bought snowflake cake toppers with a ball of icing underneath.  Sainsbury's is still selling these of in packs of 16 or so for 20p after Christmas. They basically last forever, so worth getting a few, I'm sure they've got lots of uses.