Tuesday, 13 February 2018

In which Theo turns four and has the most disorganized party ever

I don't know why, but I just did not twig that Theo's birthday was coming up and we might actually want to celebrate, until about two weeks before.  So then I hurriedly scribbled some invitations ("who are your friends at preschool?  Oh yes, I think I remember you mentioning that name at least once before.") and bought cake ingredients.

Theo, somewhat surprisingly, wanted gingerbread cake this year.  I'd seen one once with gingerbread men around the edge, which was cute, so that was easy enough for decoration.  It didn't really lend itself to a theme, though.

Flipping through the craft catalogue, the best I could come up with was a kind of "funny faces" idea, so I ordered a bunch of stuff.  When the box arrived... it was full of someone else's stuff!  They'd sent me the wrong order, and it was too late to send the right one.

So the craft consisted of some bits I found in a drawer, the party bags contained a few things from someone else's online order, and the games were the old stand-bys of pass the parcel and musical statues.

Did the birthday boy care?  No, he ran around with his friends and blew out his candles and opened his presents and ate pizza and had a good time.

Next day he went to another party.  It was Little Mermaid themed, with an Ariel entertainer and sandwiches cut into shell shapes and themed party decor and a most beautiful Little Mermaid cake.  It was lovely.  But you know what?  I don't think he had any more fun there!

So here's to the disorganized party, at least when your kids are young enough not to know the difference.  And here's to our wonderful four-year-old!  Happy birthday Theo!

Tuesday, 6 February 2018

Baking again

One thing I've really enjoyed about working in a cafe again is having a good reason to make cakes.  I've dusted off some of my old recipes and tried out a few new ones too.  Carrot cake and sweet-topped fairy cakes are reliable favourites; a crumble-topped apple cake (with slices of apple pushed into the cake batter) and gingerbread cupcakes have gone down well.

However, I haven't always found much time for baking at home.  This week's been an exception.  Three different bakes have gone in the oven, though you'll have to wait a little longer to hear about the third.

Firstly, I'd had my eye on a recipe for parsnip and pecan loaf for a while.  Yes, parsnip.  Same principle as carrot cake, as in you mostly taste the spices, not the root veg.  Besides, I like cakes with funny ingredients - I've got an aubergine brownie recipe tucked away to see if I ever dare to make it!

Like carrot cake, it uses oil instead of butter, so except for the bit of peeling and grating, it's pretty quick to make.  Pecans aren't cheap on this side of the Atlantic, but toasted pecans are delicious.  I toasted mine several days before I actually got around to baking the cake (so long that Graham asked if they were going to sit on the counter forever, or what) and had to stop myself nibbling at them.

Pecan and Parsnip Loaf (from Nov 2017 Waitrose magazine)

100g pecan halves
150g light brown soft sugar
150ml vegetable oil
2 eggs
170g plain flour
2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
1 tsp mixed spice
200g coarsely grated parsnip

Preheat the oven to 170°C.  Put the pecans on a baking tray and toast for about 10 minutes.  Cool and chop fairly finely.

With an electric mixer, beat the sugar, oil and eggs together until creamy.  Add the dry ingredients and mix, then stir in the parsnip and most of the pecans, reserving about 2 tbsp.

Pour into a lined loaf tin and bake for 1 hour until risen and firm.  Leave in the tin for a few minutes, then tip out and let cool.

If you wish, ice with honey frosting.  Beat together 60g butter, 120g cream cheese, 100g icing sugar, 1 tbsp honey until smooth.  Sprinkle reserved pecans over the icing.

That recipe was pretty much by the book - except that it was half eaten before I had time to think about icing it, so we had the healthy, uniced, version.  This next recipe was a "what can I make quickly with what I've got in the cupboard?" type of baking.  There actually was a recipe for white chocolate cranberry cookies in my Colossal Cookie Cookbook, but it required chilling.  So I used the white chocolate pecan one instead (more pecans!) but substituted dried cranberries.  And halved it.  And converted on the fly from cups to ounces.  Who says baking has to be accurate?

White chocolate and cranberry cookies (adapted from The Colossal Cookie Cookbook)

3 oz butter, softened
3 oz light brown soft sugar
3 oz white sugar
1 egg
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
6 oz plain flour
1/4 tsp baking powder
Probably 3 oz Craisins (half a packet or so)
3 oz / 75g white chocolate, chopped

Preheat oven to 160°C.  I should line my baking sheets because my cookies always come out dark on the bottom, but I never do, so let's pretend you're better than me and actually do it.

Beat the butter and sugars together until well mixed.  Add the egg and vanilla and beat until fluffy.  

Add the flour, baking powder, dried cranberries and white chocolate and stir with a spoon until combined.  

Dollop spoonfuls of the mixture onto the baking sheets.  I got about 20 out of this; I think the original recipe made much larger cookies!  Give them 10 minutes in the oven and see how they look; they might need a couple more minutes to finish off.  Cool on the tray for a minute, then move to a rack to cool.

The third lot of baking was Theo's birthday cake for Saturday.  Surprisingly, he asked for ginger cake.  But you can hear about that one when it's been decorated and done its job for the celebrations!

Tuesday, 30 January 2018

Light and shadows: The forgotten festival of Candlemas

We're almost halfway there!

Halfway, that is, between the dark and the light.  Halfway between the shortest day and the spring equinox.  Halfway through winter, and heading towards spring.

There has been a festival around this date since ancient times.  If you're in America (or remember the film) you might know February 2nd as Groundhog Day.  According to legend, if a groundhog (or bear, or badger) emerges from its burrow and can see its shadow in the sunlight, there will be six more weeks of winter weather.  If the day is cloudy, the forthcoming weather will be mild instead.

via Wikimedia Commons

On the Christian calendar, however, the 2nd of February is Candlemas.  It's a rather forgotten festival - we don't get a day off or anything - but I found out a little more about it recently.

Candlemas is forty days after Christmas and, technically, the end of the Christmas season.  The festival commemorates the baby Jesus being taken to the temple by his parents for a ceremony a little like a baptism.  Mary and Joseph, however, had to sacrifice a couple of pigeons - and I'm sure the Church of England is very glad they don't have to do that!

When Jesus was brought into the temple, a man named Simeon was there; righteous and devout, and looking forward to the consolation of Israel.  He came forward, took the month-old baby in his arms, and prayed, "Lord, let your servant now depart in peace, according to your word, for my eyes have seen your salvation... a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel."

That connection with the light has given Candlemas its name, and its main tradition: blessing the candles that will be used in the church for the year ahead. In my Bible study group this morning we prayed this prayer, taken from thisischurch.com:

A Prayer to Bless Candles.
God our Father, whose Son was revealed to Simeon as the light of the nations, and the glory of Israel, let these candles be to us a sign of his light and presence, that, guided by the Holy Spirit, we may live by the light of faith until we come to the light of glory, through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Let the flame of your love never be quenched in our hearts, O Lord. Waking or sleeping, living or dying, let us delight in your presence. Let the flame of your love brighten our souls and illumine our path, and let the majesty of your glory be our joy, our life and our strength now and for ever. Amen. Johann Arndt, 1555-1621

By Richard W.M. Jones, via Wikimedia Commons

But if you don't feel like blessing candles or looking for groundhogs, there are all manner of other traditions associated with Candlemas.  The Mexicans eat tamales, the French eat crepes or boat-shaped biscuits named navettes.  Catholics celebrate the purification of the Virgin Mary after Jesus' birth, which probably explains some vague references to a "Wives' Feast" on this day - a girls-only party.

Navettes by VĂ©ronique PAGNIER, via Wikimedia Commons

So, however you want to celebrate this Friday, go for it!  Light a candle, fry a crepe, and don't forget to watch out for small furry animals.

Tuesday, 16 January 2018

All my writing is talking

I would not describe myself as a gifted public speaker.  Watching the 2017 Great British Bake Off, I empathised most with Steven, who went brick red at the slightest opportunity.  Me too, Steven, me too.  I prefer beavering away behind the scenes to bounding on to stage, and I have yet to master the art of the dramatic pause.



Despite that, I somehow ended up delivering several talks during the autumn term.  Writing talks is a slightly different thing to crafting stories or blog posts, but it's all words.  So that's where my writing efforts have gone, these last few months.

The first was a cake decorating demonstration for a social group called Choices.  They have a different speaker at each meeting, and the lady who organises it had asked me months ago if I could explain the art of icing cakes.  I started off with a brief chat about the different types of icing and what you can do with them - which was a chance to show lots of photos of my creations - then got out a real live cake.

I'd never decorated a cake in front of an audience before, and wondered if my hands would be steady enough to pipe a straight line!  But the demonstration went well and was watched with keen interest, as far as I could tell.  My favourite comment afterwards was, "Your talk must have been good because S didn't go out for a smoke - and he always has a cigarette in the middle of the talk!"  It's an odd compliment, but I'll take it.


The next opportunity was a Sunday morning slot at my "other church" about the cafe I am now managing there.  I'd been formally welcomed the previous month, but there hadn't been much of a chance to explain who I was and what I was doing there.  So I gave them a potted history of my catering career to date (starting with a chemistry degree, I explained, is not the recommended method!) and talked about a few changes that I'd made in the cafe so far.  I finished off with a short reflection on 1 Peter 4:
Practise hospitality ungrudgingly... that in everything God may be glorified.
It's pretty amazing to me that one of the things which glorifies God is simply this: practising hospitality.  But it's more than just inviting someone in for a cup of tea.  It's sharing all the gifts that the church has been given, not hanging on to them for ourselves.
There's that wonderful word "ungrudgingly" in there.  Ungrudgingly is hard.  Ungrudgingly means not getting upset when people make a mess of our clean building.  Or complain about something.  Or even come in just when we thought we could finally sit down for lunch ourselves!
 That's why we need God's love, to cover sins, and God's words in our mouths and God's strength which he supplies.

Finally, I somehow talked myself into creating a nativity scene for the playgroup I help to run on Mondays, along with a short talk at the end of each session.  I tell you, if ever someone suggests you talk to a group of preschoolers, just don't.  Either they don't react at all to your cheerful questions and colourful pictures.  Or they have to tell you, right now and at great length, about something only vaguely relevant to what you've just said.  Meanwhile the mums are sitting there hoping you'll start Wheels on the Bus soon.

I have no idea whether anyone got anything out of my little talks about the Christmas story.  But we decorated the nativity characters every week, and they looked fantastic!  Either we have some very neat three-year-olds or the parents got more into it than the kids did.

My new career as a public speaker is seemingly not over yet: I've signed up to present a beginners' guide to blogging at the writing group I go to, in June.  That's one good incentive to actually do some blogging over the next few months, though!  And I'll keep practising my pauses.

[dramatic pause]

That's all for tonight, folks!

Tuesday, 9 January 2018

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Blog Post

In theory it shouldn't be that hard to keep up with a weekly post on one blog.  In practice, these last few months, it just. did. not. happen.

So, new year, new resolution to do more writing.  I'm starting with Christmas.  Because it's easy.  And you're not all ready to forget about Christmas quite yet, are you?  If so, shut your eyes now, because here come lots of photos.

This Christmas....

...we had snow!  Well, not on the day itself, but in December, which is unusual enough.  And there was plenty of it - enough for a giant snowman.

Snowman and snowdog (or perhaps sheep)

...we went to the Christingle service at our local parish church (the proper dangerous kind with kids waving lighted candles at each other) and to see the lights at Calke Abbey (for the 4th year running - must count as a tradition by now).

...we had a real tree as a present from Graham's boss, which was thoroughly decorated and surrounded by gifts.

...we spent Christmas Day at home, which turned out to be a good thing when Graham woke up that morning feeling grotty.  He spent most of the day lying down trying to be enthusiastic when the boys got excited.  I called off Christmas dinner and defrosted some chicken casserole instead.  Nice and easy!

...it was the year of the board games.  Hungry Hungry Hippos, Minions Monopoly, Rebound, Kerplunk and Pieface all turned up underneath the Christmas tree.


and Pieface!

...this was Toby's big present.

It's a desk!

...and this was Theo's big present.

Yep, that really was his top request this year

...we made it to my parents' on Boxing Day, despite Graham not really being better yet. We had Christmas dinner with them a few days late, went for some cold walks, and met up with some friends to go bowling.

...I made my first ever Christmas pudding, complete with suet and hours of steaming, but no brandy butter.  I also made a chocolate Malteser Christmas pudding alternative.

Proper Christmas pudding

Chocolate Christmas pudding

...we finally ate our turkey on New Year's Eve.  Much better time to have a festive dinner, I think!

Happy 2018 to you all!

Thursday, 9 November 2017

A brand new bed

...of the garden variety, that is!


...and AFTER!

The posts surrounding the raised bed at the back of our garden were decidedly past their best.  Some had toppled of their own accord, and some more only needed a sharp tug to come out, like a loose tooth.  I decided to flatten the whole thing, do away with metres of weedy gravel, and create a big vegetable bed where beans, carrots and cabbages could roam free.

Graham accordingly ordered a ton of topsoil from the horticultural company he works at, borrowed a rotavator and a wheelbarrow, and we set to work.  The boys enjoyed helping to tip the topsoil off the truck.

operating the tipper

Like all these jobs, there's always more to it than you first think.  The posts which weren't rotted at the base turned out to be embedded a foot deep, requiring a good deal of hammering and levering with a garden fork.  Then the hundreds of bulbs in the old raised bed had to be fished out and stored somewhere, and the two large sedums moved to a new home.

Once we'd cleared the area, Graham wrestled the rotavator across the compacted soil.  It skidded and complained and gradually dug in and carved out lumps of clayey dirt.  I helped with a fork until the whole bed was dug over.

Surveying the mangled mess that used to be a neat flowerbed, we weren't at all sure we had done the right thing.  However, a bit of edging and a few barrows of topsoil improved the look no end.  Finally it started to look like a proper vegetable patch, and I was ready to plant.

So far strawberry plants and purple sprouting broccoli have gone in.  I might add some kale for the winter, and then... wait for the spring...!

Thursday, 2 November 2017

Transforming into a 7-year-old

Well, our big boy is now seven!  Like the Transformers toy he was begging for, Toby is changing rapidly from one thing to another.  He's gone from just starting school to the top year of the Infants, from hanging onto my hand to going round the block by himself, from sounding out letters to devouring Roald Dahl books.  He can beat any of us at Mariokart racing on the Wii (due, no doubt, to far too many hours of practice), wants to be in the Guinness Book of Records (for the fastest spinning hands) and likes maths the best at school. 

You won't convince Toby to try it your way unless he's tried it his way first.  But he'll always be trying something, that's for sure: making, writing, building, experimenting.  Sometimes he'll dash through it.  Sometimes he'll storm off in frustration.  Then other times he'll persevere, and produce something amazingly intricate.

Toby celebrated this year by having a few friends over for a birthday tea.  Seven-year-olds, we discovered, are a lot easier to entertain than five-year-olds!  Within minutes of arriving they had all vanished upstairs, with only a few muffled giggles and thumps to give them away.  They then spent most of the rest of the time on the trampoline, with a brief break for pass-the-parcel and pizza.

The cake this year was Transformer-themed.  That's Bumblebee's vehicle mode, if you didn't recognise it, with Bumblebee in robot mode perched on top. 

He got his coveted Transformer, by the way - Optimus Prime, who turns into a truck.  But, being Toby, he just had to take a moment to read a few facts from a book before opening the big present.

Happy birthday, Toby.  We're glad we get to watch you transform.

Monday, 23 October 2017

You are Christ's letter: acting from the heart

You know how sometimes you have to do something because it pleases you, even though you know no one else will notice? 

Maybe you carefully colour-code the office stationery cupboard.  Or line up your children's games according to size.  Or keep your spice rack in alphabetical order.

Or peel your apple all in one go (Imgur)

In my case, it was matching Bible verses to the weekly theme at toddler group.  I've recently become part of the leadership team for Little Creations, and one of my responsibilities is updating the Powerpoint slides which scroll on the big screen while the group is running.  In an effort to have some slight Christian input (most attendees have no church affiliation), we have a Bible verse on one of these slides.

You see what I mean.  Most parents, on constant alert for two-year-olds misbehaving, will hardly spare a glance for words on a screen.  Of those who do, even fewer will consciously register a saying from the Bible, and practically no one will think, how clever, that relates to the craft activity today.

But it made me happy.  So why not.

Our theme for the half term was People Who Help Us.  It started off easy, with firefighters and paramedics - plenty of verses in the Bible relating to fire or healing (Proverbs 26:20 and Matthew 14:14 did the job).  Lollipop ladies were unknown, of course, in Biblical times, but I was pleased to find Psalm 138:7 - You stretch out your hand, and your right hand saves me.  The police obviously called for a verse on justice (Psalm 11:7), and dentists needed a reference to teeth (a comment on social justice from Proverbs 30:14).

Our final week's subject was postal workers.  I was expecting to use a somewhat tangential reference to deliveries (deliver us from evil, perhaps?), but I discovered an image from Paul that I had never noticed before.  Writing to the church in Corinth, he says, You show that you are Christ's letter, delivered by us.  You weren't written with ink but with the Spirit of the living God.  (2 Cor 3:3 CEB)

Paul is the Bible's letterwriter-in-chief.  Half of the New Testament is his letters to various people -  arbitrating church disputes, clarifying the new Christian beliefs, and simply overflowing with amazement about who Jesus is and what he did.  So it's not surprising that he uses a letter as an illustration at least once. 

The context is a reference to the letters of recommendation which, presumably, most itinerant preachers of the time carried.  Something to say, yes, this person has preached in Jerusalem, or Ephesus, or wherever, and knows what he's talking about.  Quite a reasonable custom, you would think, when churches were far-flung and communication was limited.

But Paul says scathingly, we don't need a letter to recommend ourselves to you, do we?  You're our letter!  The changes in your lives, by the Spirit of God, are what guarantee us as genuine, not some grubby piece of paper.  God himself is writing on your hearts.

Our cautious times require lots of pieces of paper to recommend us - DBS checks, references, certificates, qualifications.  Like in Paul's day, most of these are not unreasonable.  But what we're aiming for at Little Creations goes beyond all those bits of paper.  It's that genuineness that actually makes people's lives different.  That's what will make them recommend us.  And that's what they will notice, even when they don't read a word of our Powerpoint slides or our carefully prepared literature.

So I guess it's OK to do my happy things that no one else notices.  As long as I make sure to do some things that people do notice, too.  Not, as Paul is quick to point out, that I'm at all qualified to change anyone's life.  But because by my actions, I can show how God is writing on all of our hearts.

Sunday, 1 October 2017

Comments on a walk

"I love going for a walk," said Theo, "It's so beautiful."

A few minutes later, both boys' legs looked like this.

Beautiful is NOT the word.

However muddy it might have been underfoot, though, our surroundings merited Theo's description.  We wove our way between rocky walls where tufts of grass grew like floppy hair, and moss-covered trees dripped rain down our necks.  Then came a narrow path with grassy slopes rearing up on either side.

Slipping on damp limestone, we reached a cave with a square mouth narrowing down rapidly "to a miners' tunnel," said Toby excitedly, and he bounded straight in to explore.

Emerging from the darkness, we discovered that the sun had come out and Lathkill Dale was opening out before us.  It was the perfect time for a picnic.

We trekked on a little further, to the place where water quietly rose up between the grass and creeping plants, and formed the beginning of the River Lathkill.  A few metres on, it was big enough to have a footbridge over it.  It was starting to turn into a proper river.

But the pace of Theo's short legs, and the endless pauses to inspect rocks, sticks, caterpillars and cowpats, was becoming wearisome.  We decided to turn back.

The valley, which had been silent that morning, had got much busier.  We passed a group of students carrying enormous backpacks, a dog which neatly swiped Theo's cheese sandwich, and finally, a family with older children than ours.  The mum gave us an encouraging grin, and said, "Don't worry - it gets easier!"

That's undoubtedly true.  For now, we were happy to get our mud-plastered children back to the car just as the rain came pouring down again.  From a parent's point of view, the walk had had its frustrations.  But Toby leaned back contentedly in his seat and said, "That was just like Wallace and Gromit."

"What?" we said.

 "It was A Grand Day Out."