Monday, 13 February 2017

Three-oh!


It's hard to believe our littlest one is now a chunky three-year-old who comes up to his brother's shoulder!  Yes, Theo's celebrated another birthday and is still as cute as ever (bed-hair and all).


He will leap into your lap for a hug, is perpetually jumping up and down, and always wants to know what's cooking.  He loves to copy whatever Toby does.  He proudly proclaims himself "all dressed up" when he's put his own hat, coat and gloves on, and can operate the remote to turn his beloved "Paw Taprol" programme on.  He plays with toy hammers, playdough, cars and food.



Theo's one stipulation for his birthday was that it involved "sprinkles and candles".  So we dispensed with any idea of a party, and put our energy into homemade pizza and chocolate cake instead.  I'd say that was a success.

I have to eat the whole thing???
He also opened a generous array of presents in the morning, which kept him pretty busy for the rest of the day.



Happy birthday, gorgeous boy!

Thursday, 2 February 2017

Monthly Munch: January 2017

We celebrated New Year's Day with a party, and my birthday with a visit to the Mug Tug, a paint-a-pot place on a canal boat.  We had about two hours of snow (It fell.  It settled.  It melted.) and some very cold days.  And we made another trip to the children's emergency department.


Toby


- has really got into the latest bedtime book, The Secret Garden.  He drew pictures of it and discussed what might happen next.

 
- thankfully seems to have pretty much recovered from his sickness bug.

though he did feel a little sick after this!

- notices which year every car licence plate belongs to, and which ones are personalised.

- started being allowed to wear slippers at school, which inexplicably made the national press.

- painted a tank at the Mug Tug.



Theo


- fell down the stairs and broke his finger.  OUCH.  Two-year-olds recover remarkably quickly; he still has it strapped to the next finger, but it hardly seems to bother him.

- gave his dummies (pacifiers) away to a friend's baby, with surprisingly few negative consequences.

- calls Scalextric "Scalelec", pajamas "jamamas" and trousers "trow-yers".

- wears his Gruffalo hat everywhere and gets so many admiring comments.


- painted a fire engine at the Mug Tug.



Thankful for:

- a Bible study group I've just joined - we have some great discussions while a lovely lady takes care of our kids!

- a quick trip to the A&E and a Hand Clinic which is apparently the best in the country.

- new bedding and a new tablecloth (I know.  But the old ones were getting so shabby.)

And it'll improve my geography!

Recipe of the Month - Roasted plums with ricotta and honey



There must be a glut of plums somewhere, because they're really cheap at the moment.  I had a tub of ricotta to use up, so this made an easy dessert.

6-8 plums, halved and stoned
Spoonful of brown sugar
150g or so of ricotta
Few spoonfuls of honey
Orange or lemon zest

Arrange the plum halves in an ovenproof dish, cut side up.  Sprinkle the brown sugar over, and put just a splash of water in the bottom.  Roast at 180C for 15-20 minutes or until they're soft.

Meanwhile, put the ricotta in a bowl and add honey and orange or lemon zest to taste.  Beat well.

Put the hot plums in bowls and top each serving with a dollop of ricotta mixture.  Eat straight away.

Friday, 27 January 2017

Matcha Green Tea Cake Mix

Some blogs are full of posts which start: Recently, *big company* sent me three pairs of expensive shoes / five bars of delicious chocolate / a free holiday ...

This is not one of those blogs.

But, recently, a company so small I'm not sure it really exists yet sent me a free cake mix, on the condition that I filled in a survey about it and took a few photos.  Blogging about it was not a condition, but just in case the owner makes it to the big time, you heard it here first!


So the Hope Makes It Easy Matcha Cake Mix popped through my letterbox on my birthday (good timing to start) and the rather pretty package sat on my counter for a few days until I'd assembled the ingredients.  Most cake mixes require a few extra ingredients, but this one needed milk, eggs and butter, plus cream and possibly white chocolate for the icing.  Not exactly all-inclusive.  On the plus side, it helpfully provided a cute origami cup for measuring the milk, a line to show you how much butter to cut off, and baking paper circles for your cake tins.


The instructions looked a little complicated, but were easy enough to follow once you got going.  My little helper broke the eggs and mixed them with the milk for me while I melted butter, then we just had to tip in the bright green matcha tea powder and the sachet of dry ingredients and whisk it all up for a few minutes.  Despite the weird colour, it did smell delicious.



Being an inveterate recipe tweaker, I baked the cake in a rectangular pan instead of sandwich tins, then iced half with buttercream because I knew my family wouldn't eat the recommended whipped cream topping.  I forced a group of friends to be guinea pigs, and after they'd got over the shock of eating a cake that looked like spinach, they all agreed it was very nice.  The only problem was that the sweet icing overwhelmed the delicate flavour of the cake.


For the other half of the cake I tried out the whipped white chocolate ganache from the instructions.  Oh, that stuff was good.  A few spoonfuls may have gone astray between the bowl and the cake.  It still had a tendency to mask the green tea flavour, but the creaminess worked well with the light, fine-textured cake.

I wouldn't usually bother with cake mixes, but it was interesting to try a new ingredient - I never would have gone out and bought matcha green tea - and I was impressed with the quality of the finished product.  So many extra ingredients are needed, though, that you would probably wouldn't pick this up if you didn't already bake, in which case you would be likely to already have a measuring jug and scales.  This suggests it might be worth thinking a bit more about the target customer.

So thanks, Hope Makes It Easy, for the birthday present!  It was fun to try and delicious to eat.  And I will definitely be remembering that white chocolate icing.

Tuesday, 17 January 2017

Be appreciative. Be generous. Be encouraging.

Be appreciative

It had been one of those days where I felt I was dashing around a lot for very little reward.  Tidying, vacuuming, chivvying the kids around - and now I was in the kitchen starting on dinner while the rest of the family was watching TV.  I'd just finished pummeling the pizza dough into submission when Theo wandered into the kitchen.  He looked at the beige blob in the mixing bowl and exclaimed, "Wow, that's amazing Mum!  You made that!"  A smile broke over my face, and I realised: Yes.  I did make that.  And actually, it is pretty amazing.

What is just as amazing is how a tiny pinch of unadulterated appreciation changes how we feel.  Like the yeast in the bread dough, a few kind words turn a sticky lump of a day into something growing larger and lighter.  So I resolved to try and give that gift to myself and to others more often this year.  To stop and look and say, "That's amazing!  You did that!"  To be appreciative.

Be generous


We are in a slightly odd position at the moment.  We have money.  We just don't have much income.  Obviously, if we keep not having income, we will, in the end, not have money.  This is something we're doing everything we can to prevent, which includes trying not to spend too much of the money we do have, so as to have longer before we don't have it any more.

Unfortunately, this tends to result in both of us viewing the other's purchases with suspicion.  Did you really have to buy that?  Are you sure you couldn't have saved money on that?  And we both end up feeling slightly guilty, a little bit defensive, and somewhat resentful.  That's not a particularly good way to feel.  I realised, even though we're budgeting, we still need a generous mindset.  We don't want to cling on to every last penny as though it will save us.  We don't want to be constantly adding up how much you spent and I didn't spend.  So here's another gift to give this year.  To say, "I'm glad this money could buy something you need."  To be generous.

Be encouraging


"Well done, you put your own shoes on!"  "Look at that drawing you did - so colourful!"  "That's great, you got up all by yourself!"  In early life every little thing is a new achievement, and we do our best to surround our children with a blizzard of encouragement. 

As we get older the expectations kick in.  Too often we find ourselves saying, "Why didn't you do that?"  "Weren't you thinking?"  "You never remember!"  Encouragement changes to discouragement, and instead of looking for the good, we see only the ways in which people let us down.  When I realise what tiny things I praise my two-year-old for (and when he praises me back!), I start thinking that maybe some of the other people in my life could use some more positive feedback.  Toby might look at me funny if I tell him how great it is that he put his own trousers on, but he notices when I compliment him for being polite at the dinner table. 

We all like to have our efforts noticed and our failures overlooked.  And that's one more gift to give.  To say, "Well done, I saw what you did."  To be encouraging.

What gifts will you give this year?

Saturday, 7 January 2017

12 photos of Christmas

It's time for some Christmas photos!  Not the best photos in the world, it has to be said, and remarkably lacking in all the other people we saw over the season.  We spent Christmas with Graham's family, getting very well cooked for by his sister, his parents, and his aunt and uncle.  My parents came to stay the day after we got home, and left the morning of New Year's Day.  A quick tidy-up and we were ready for our second annual New Year's Day party, catching up with friends from the village and from church.  But here's some photos of other things...

Our treat before Christmas was a visit to Lichfield's A Cathedral Illuminated.  Six projectors provided an awesome 20-minute light show on the west front of the cathedral, including giant rolling baubles and singing angels.
 Inside were dozens of decorated Christmas trees (I liked the one with teabags), a nativity and hundreds of paper angels.

Look at all those presents!  Toby especially was very excited for Christmas this year, and could hardly wait until everyone was up and ready to open presents.  This is his and Theo's collection.


OK, so we were all a little excited.


The highlight of my Christmas - straws!  The boys had been fighting over sharing one red twirly straw for weeks.  Now they have two each, and I don't have to remember whose turn it is any more.


Toby's space station, which was the subject of several letters to Santa.  It required more building than I expected, but at least it kept us awake after Christmas dinner.


Theo is all into his playdough, so he was pleased with some new moulding tools.


Party hats at Christmas dinner!  Toby had fallen over in the playground just beforehand and felt a bit funny, but he'd definitely recovered by the time we got to the pudding stage.



More presents: we all rather enjoyed Theo's new marble run.

And one of Toby's favourites was a kitchen science set.  Here's the classic vinegar-and-bicarb volcano.

And finally, a Christmas pie.  We didn't have leftovers, of course, but minced beef together with some onions, carrots and parsnips which didn't get eaten before Christmas made a delicious pie.  And I had to have some fun with the spare pastry!


Wednesday, 4 January 2017

Paying for a pink razor

How much would you pay for a pink razor?



Not as much as before, fortunately, with Tesco's recent announcement that it is reducing the cost of its women's disposable razors to match men's ones.  However, you're probably still paying over the odds if you favour shampoo, deodorant or body wash aimed at women.

In fact, once you open your eyes, it appears that the number of products that women pay more for is simply staggering.  If you can bear to read it, the New York City Department of Consumer Affairs put together a 76-page report detailing just how much more a female customer is likely to pay over the course of her lifetime.

Perhaps, like me, your initial reaction is, "Why don't you just buy the men's version then?"  But of course, the issue runs much deeper than that.  Paula Cocozza, in The Guardian, comments that spending 50p less for men's shaving gel just "make[s] you smell like a cheap man".  Cheap or not, the all-pervading fear these products are playing on is the idea that you might be mistaken for the wrong gender.  If you don't smell right, wear the right thing, or have the right bottles in your bathroom, you somehow become less womanly.  Or manly.

It runs deep.  I have to confess that all my razors (of the non-disposable sort) have been purple, curvy, and probably more expensive than the chunky blue kind.  It would feel a little odd to go out and buy a designated men's razor.  From a biological point of view, it's obviously quite useful to be able to tell which sex a person is without actually having to peer down their trousers, so the innate preference for identifiers of your own gender is not, as such, a problem.

The problem is that this preference is being gouged deeper and deeper by forces seemingly outside our control.  As the New York City study points out: " Individual consumers ... must make purchasing choices based only on what is available in the marketplace."  Anyone who has raced round shops trying desperately to find just a plain red T-shirt will vouch for that. 

Like many parents, I have snorted disbelievingly at the toy shops selling girl and boy versions of everything from trampolines to push-along carts, but until now I hadn't considered that it might be cynically setting us up to make gendered purchase decisions for the rest of our lives.  A little girl who has everything pink and sparkly from babyhood is surely less able to resist the messages that tell her she must pay extra for the beauty-enhancing women's cosmetics when she grows up.  And a little boy who rather likes pink will quickly squash it down in favour of the comic book heroes and macho packaging that he's told he should prefer. 

An article from The Atlantic claims that gender stereotypes in marketing are as strong as they've ever been, merely "repackage[d] ... to make them more palatable".  If it's not OK to think of a woman as only a housewife, let's make her a princess instead.  If a man isn't just about working with his muscles any more, he'll still be flattered if we pretend he's a super hero.  We can only buy what we're being sold.  And what we're being sold is a whole idea of who we are, and of what being a woman or a man in today's world means.

So how much are you paying for a pink razor? 

More, it seems, than you might think.

Image attribution: By David Monniaux (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC BY-SA 2.0 fr (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/fr/deed.en)], via Wikimedia Commons

Wednesday, 21 December 2016

Monthly Munch: December 2016 (pre-Christmas edition)

Well, I know it's not the end of December yet, but I thought we'd have a whole bunch more photos once we'd got through Christmas.  So here's the rest of the month (also quite Christmassy).

Christmas lights at Calke Abbey


Toby


- has been really struggling with illness, poor boy.  He's had several occurrences of being sick in the night, plus hives and swollen eyes, plus a cold.

- was pleased to meet Marshall and Chase from the Paw Patrol at Markeaton Park.


- enjoyed a Christmas-themed Inspire Day at school - I got to go and do lots of crafts with him for a morning.

- managed not to eat all the sweets before making a christingle with them.



Theo


- was a sleepy shepherd in his first pre-school nativity.


- describes anything he likes as "so beautiful".

- carefully hung as many baubles as possible on the bottom branches of the tree.



- can tell you all the names of the Paw Patrol characters, but was not so sure about having his photo taken with them!

Thankful for:

- a lovely time at the Radio Derby carol concert, which I went to at Graham's suggestion (my husband has some of the best ideas).

- celebrating my friend Vivian's birthday with some delicious Indian food.  We went to the restaurant at 5:30pm which was brilliant - even after a leisurely meal I was still home before bedtime!

- both boys behaving perfectly at the barbers, resulting in some very smart haircuts.



Recipe of the Month:  Marzipan Cake


This is from a Nigella Lawson recipe which is very handy for using up leftover marzipan, should such a thing ever occur in your household.  The original recipe uses six eggs, which seems extravagant unless you're also trying to use up lots of eggs, so this time around I thought I'd try four instead.  It turned into one of those times when nothing is quite correct -  not enough butter, the last few drops in the almond essence bottle - but it still worked.  So much for all that stuff about baking being super-scientific.  Nigella's recipe is here (with a pretty picture); this is my adapted version.

200g softened butter
250g marzipan
120g sugar
1/2 tsp almond essence
4 large eggs
150g self-raising flour
1/2 tsp baking powder

Chop the butter and marzipan into rough cubes.  Put in a food processor with the sugar and whizz until fairly smooth.  Add the eggs a couple at a time, blending between each addition, then put the flour and baking powder in and whizz one more time.  Pour into a greased 25cm Springform ring pan, or similar-sized round cake tin.  Bake at 170C for about 45 minutes or until firm.  Leave to get fairly cool in the tin.  It usually takes some gentle persuasion to come off the ring, if that's what you've used, but it should get there eventually.

Sunday, 18 December 2016

Jesus came to earth... to be glorified over us




Finally.  Jesus got through the suffering and the death, and reached the glory.  The happy ending – or possibly the happy beginning.  This is what it’s all been leading up to.  Did he really have to go through all that hard stuff first?

As you can probably guess by now, the answer is a resounding yes.  Across the pages of the New Testament, it rings like a clanging bell:  “Cross… glory.  Cross… glory.  Cross… glory.”  It was only through the humiliation that Jesus obtained his exaltation.  Only through being born in a stable that he became king of the universe.  Only through dying that he gave eternal life.

And the amazing thing is that once again, we can share in this.  Jesus was glorified as a person; the whole point of his coming was to bring our humanity back into the presence of God.  We are human whether we like it or not.  He is human because he chose to be; and in that choosing he showed us the path to redemption.  We share in his suffering, we are baptised into his death, we are raised with him in glory.

Sometimes that glory can be hard to find.  The world around us, and indeed our own lives, don’t seem to reflect much of it.  Jesus may indeed be sat at the right hand of God, we feel, but in that case he is way up there, and we’re still struggling down here.  “As it is,” admits the writer to the Hebrews, “we do not yet see everything in subjection to him (that is, Jesus).”  If everything is meant to be under his control, sometimes there is precious little sign of it.

“But,” the writer continues, “But we see Jesus.”  We do not yet see everything in subjection to him; but we see Jesus.  The world is not as we hope it will be; but we see Jesus.  And the more we look for him, the more we look at him, the more we see his glory filtering into even the darkest of times.

When God seems far away, we see Jesus, who came to reflect his love to us.

When our burdens seem too much to bear, we see Jesus, who came to suffer with us.

When the fear of death casts a chill over our hearts, we see Jesus, who came to die for us.

When all we can feel is the humiliation of the cross, we see Jesus, who came to be glorified over us.

And as we see more clearly, we find ourselves sharing more deeply with the one who came to share with us.  

And as we share in his love, his suffering, and his death, a transformation happens, and we find our way to glory.

And in a blaze of golden light, the sun rises on Christmas morning.  And we see Jesus.

Photo attribution: Mhuntington1689 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Sunday, 11 December 2016

Jesus came to earth... to die for us




Outside, a white frost covers the ground.  Shrivelled brown stalks stick up out of the bare earth, and the trees stand leafless against the steely sky.  The light comes late, and leaves early, casting long shadows as it goes.  Life and colour has faded away.  This is the season of death.

Yet we know that under the frosty soil, seeds and roots are preparing for their rebirth in spring.  Green shoots will sprout, dancing daffodils appear, and the world will come to life once more.  And between the death and the life, we celebrate Christmas.

We don’t fear the death of winter, because we know that it is only the prelude to new life.  Jesus, too, spoke of his death as the means to glory, and used the analogy of a seed in winter.  If a grain of wheat isn’t buried, he said, it stays just that: one solitary seed.  But when it dies, it can bring forth a whole new plant, bursting with heads of grain.  And he issues a challenge, recorded by all four gospel writers: Do you value your life enough to risk losing it?

But then we learn that our lives have already been lost.  “Don’t you know that everyone who has been baptized, has been baptized into Jesus’ death?” says Paul.  That decision to follow Jesus has already taken us through death and into a different kind of life.  The symbolic burial of baptism – in many churches, shown by a plunge into a pool of water – unites us with Christ on the cross and gives us the gift of his resurrection.  Although winter is still all around us, we know that spring is coming.

So now we have new eyes to look at life and death.  Jesus’ coming reduced our lives to worthless husks, yet gave them more value than we ever imagined.  And death is no longer the ultimate and fearful doom.  Its sting has been pulled; it is now merely a pause on our journey to eternity.

We still grieve, of course.  We still get angry, we still mourn, we still weep.  We still cry out over the unfairness, the insanity of it all.  We still miss the ones we love.

But now we have a hope that can overcome the fear of death.  The hope that Christmas marks the crossing point from winter to spring.  The hope in a baby who brought life into the world – and who died, and who brought life again.  The hope that there’s a new plant inside every buried seed.

This Christmas, may the fear of winter be taken from you, and the hope of spring be planted in your heart.