Saturday, 23 August 2014

Theme Week: Plants

This week was the odd one out; plants are not one of the four classical elements.  But they feature in abundance as the British summer shades into autumn, and relate to so many good craft activities.


Activities

1. Leaf collection and leaf rubbing
My parents stayed for a couple of days this week, and they are ideal companions for a plant theme, being far more knowledgeable than I am about both the wild and cultivated kind.  Dad helped us with our leaf collection; on a short walk around the village, we acquired at least ten different kinds.

The horse chestnut leaf was bigger than the paper!
In the afternoon we used crayons to make rubbings.  Toby's friends from next door were around for this bit, and the six-year-old was very keen to label all the different leaves.  This is one of her sheets.


2. Sunflower printing
Another idea from my friend Ellie.  This was great for a plant theme; not only were the pictures of flowers, but the prints were made using vegetables - an onion for the centre and carrots for the petals.  To be honest Toby didn't really get into this one.  He wanted to make "blueberries" using fingerprints, and made a vague attempt at a red and blue sunflower before giving up.

The raw materials (ha ha)
Sunflower (printed by me)
Toby has a go

Outings

1. Rosliston Forestry Centre
A large area south of here is designated the National Forest.  You might be forgiven for expecting it to contain trees, but in fact this used to be one of the least wooded places in the country.  After many years of being exploited for coal, clay. limestone and other materials, a forest is being created from scratch.  Rosliston is one of the main visitor centres, and is much more than a bunch of trees.  We went with my parents and explored a herb garden, a tree trail and a lake.  We stood on a sundial, spotted birds of prey sunning themselves, and ate lunch on a bench shaped like a butterfly.


Toby borrowed Grandpop's binoculars
2. Blackberry picking
Our hairdresser is close to a particularly good patch of blackberries, so when Toby needed his hair cut on Monday, we took some boxes along to fill with beautiful big glossy berries.  Most of the crop this year has gone straight into our tummies or straight into the freezer, as we still had several jars of jam from last summer.  Blackberries are so easy to freeze - just wash and spread out on a foil-lined pan - that I always get hankering for a big chest freezer to put tons of them in.

Food

Flower and tree cookies
I harked back to my Cairns Cafe days with this recipe, when I used the dough to make smiley face cookies.  A Smartie for the nose, with eyes and mouth piped in white icing.  Of course Toby's method of decorating involved sticking as many Smarties on as the cookie would hold.

8 oz block margarine
5 oz sugar
1 egg
10 oz self-raising flour
2 oz custard powder
Smarties or M&Ms, for decoration

Preheat oven to 180°C.  Beat softened margarine and sugar until light and fluffy.   Add beaten egg, flour and custard powder.  Mix until just coming together, then turn out onto a floured surface and knead gently until smooth.  Refrigerate until firm.  Roll out and cut shapes.  Place on baking trays and decorate as desired, pressing the Smarties / M&Ms in lightly.  Bake for ten minutes until just golden.  Cool on the trays for a minute, then on racks.

Yes, a few trains may have snuck in there too.

Saturday, 16 August 2014

Theme Week: Earth

You know how these things work.  The first week you're full of enthusiasm and do tons of stuff, and the second week... yeah.  Not quite so much.  It's not that we haven't done things, it's just that many of them weren't related to the theme.  So we made ice lollies, played with friends, took the car to the garage (not an expensive fix, fortunately), and occasionally squeezed in a few earth-related activities too.

Since I may have less to write about, I'll take a moment to mention my two main mayhem-reducing tools for the summer.

The first is a whiteboard, on which to delineate our day's activities.  The intentions being a) I'm forced to come up with at least a few things to do each morning; b) Toby has some idea what's going on in advance; c) Toby improves his reading skills.  We haven't used it every day, but I think it's achieved those goals when we have.

He's also been improving his writing; that says "car" in case you can't tell.
 
The other is a set of cards which I prepared in advance (get me!), showing things to do and places to go.  They're colour-coded into outings, outdoor activities and indoor activities, and Toby can pick one from the appropriate category (edited as necessary to the ones I'm actually prepared to do on any given day).  He really seems to enjoy that, and it's useful both when we're planning the day and during those moments when we've run out of things to do.  And it's so much easier than coming up with something myself, when my mind's a blank and all I really want to do is hide under the duvet.

So, back to Earth...

Activities

1. Papier mache
Believe it or not, there's actually a whole website devoted to papier mache, and I probably should have read their tutorial first.  We were aiming to make a globe using a balloon mould, but it's taken a long time to dry and sagged a bit at the bottom.  Looking at the instructions, I should have diluted the PVA glue less, and put on fewer layers.  Also, I should not have given Toby a bath before trying this activity.  You live, you learn.  Maybe we'll paint some rough approximations of continents on it one day.

No good taking photos when your hands are covered in glue, so this is the aftermath.
Drying in the garden

2. Chalk target game
This just sounded easy and fun, and you know, chalk's from the earth and we were drawing on the ground, so I shoehorned it into the earth theme.  The only thing I had to do in advance was buy some cheap sponges, but beanbags would be great too, if you had any.  We dipped the sponges in water to give them some weight - and besides, wet sponges are way more exciting.

My super-artistic target
Actually I think he may have been dropping the chalks in the water, which wasn't the idea at all.

Outings

1. Sharpe's Pottery Museum
A few miles away in the town of Swadlincote, there was once a thriving industry making... toilets.  And sewage pipes.  Oh yes.  The excitement never ends.  But the museum is free, child friendly, and has a cheap cafe serving rather yummy cake, if you can face that kind of thing after learning all about toilets.  We met some friends there and spent more time sipping coffee than studying sanitaryware, but that can't be a bad thing, can it?

2. Arbor Low Stone Circle


Not in the original plan, but Graham was looking for a place to walk this Saturday, and discovered that the Peak District has its very own version of Stonehenge!  Big rocks!  Earthworks!  Hills!  Beautiful fit with the theme, thank you.  Also it's very close to the top end of the Tissington Trail, which gave Toby a chance to whizz along on his balance bike, Graham and I a chance to have a decent stroll, and Theo a chance to snooze.

None of the stones are still standing, unfortunately
There's a circular bank, a ditch, and the ring of stones within that.
 
Theo, taken by Toby

Food

Well, it's got to be Mississippi Mud Pie, hasn't it?



9" pie crust (we used pastry but a biscuit / graham cracker base is an alternative)
4 oz / 1 stick butter
3 oz / 100g dark chocolate
3 eggs
8 oz / 1 cup sugar
3 tbsp golden syrup / corn syrup
1 tsp vanilla

Melt the butter and chocolate together.  Meanwhile, whisk the eggs and stir in the sugar, syrup and vanilla.  Pour the melted chocolate mixture in and stir to mix.  Pour into the uncooked pie crust.  Bake at 180°C / 350°F for about 45 minutes until set.  Serve warm.

Eat with ice cream and a big smile

And I almost forgot to mention - this is my two hundredth published post!

Wednesday, 13 August 2014

Plummy Accents

Last year it was cherries.  This year it's plums.

For some reason we didn't spot any cherries this summer.  Do the trees take a year off or something?  We'd resigned ourselves to the only free fruit being blackberries - as prolific and delicious as ever - when I happened to notice a couple of plum trees dripping ripe fruit onto the pavement.

I summoned the troops and we made a raid.  Between us we gathered over 6 lb of plums, without even needing recourse to a ladder.  Some were low enough for Toby to pick, although I doubt many of those made it into the boxes!  Occasionally a gust of wind brought a shower of purple fruit down on our heads, which he found extremely funny.  Once we'd packed the basket of Theo's pushchair as full of plums as we could manage, we set off home to work out what to do with them all.

Jam!


The great advantage of plum jam is that you don't have to take the stones out first.

2.4 kg/ 3 lb plums
450 ml / 15 fl oz water
2.4 kg / 3 lb sugar
knob of butter
1 1/2 tbsp lemon juice

Put the plums and water in a preserving pan and simmer gently for about 30 minutes, until the fruit is well softened.  Add the sugar and stir until dissolved, then add the butter and lemon juice.  Bring to a lively boil and boil for 10-15 minutes until setting point is reached.

Take off the heat and skim off the plum stones.  Because I hate recipes that say things like this as if it involves a couple of quick flicks of the wrist: be warned.  This took me ten minutes of  fishing around with a slotted spoon, teaspoon, and potato masher (for breaking up the plums).  But you're supposed to leave the jam for ten minutes before potting anyway, so that was OK.  When you think you've got all the stones, pour the jam into sterilised jars, cover and leave to cool.

Cake!


From the recipes I unearthed, it seems that plums and almonds go well together.  So... lump of leftover marzipan, half a packet of ground almonds... voila!  Plum Bakewell Slice.

Base
60g / 2 oz sugar
125g / 4 oz butter or margarine
190g / 6 oz plain / all-purpose flour
190g / 6 oz marzipan
190g / 6 oz plums

Grease and line an 8" x 12" pan with non-stick baking paper.  Rub together sugar, butter and flour to form a crumbly mixture.  Tip into the pan and press down firmly.  Grate or roll the marzipan (mine was a bit old and dry so it grated well; if it's softer you may find it easier to roll it out to slightly smaller than the pan) and spread over the shortbread base.  Halve and stone the plums and arrange on top of the marzipan.



Topping
190g / 6 oz butter or margarine
190g / 6 oz sugar
3 eggs
1 tsp almond extract
125g / 4 oz ground almonds
60g / 2 oz plain / all-purpose flour
(or 6 oz ground almonds if you prefer)

 Beat together the butter and sugar until light and fluffy.  Beat in the eggs, one at a time.  Stir in the almond extract and ground almonds, or almonds and flour.  Spoon over the plums and spread out carefully.  Bake 40-45 minutes until golden and set.


Freezer!


My ancient copy of Good Housekeeping Cookery Book (revised 1985.  Hey, that's younger than me!  Not that ancient.) advised me to freeze plums in a sugar syrup.  I duly dissolved half a pound of sugar in half a litre of water (mixed units, anyone?) and poured the cold syrup over the halved and stoned plums.  They look OK in their frozen state - I'll let you know how they come out when defrosted.

And yes, we do still have a few left to eat!

Thursday, 7 August 2014

Theme Week: Water

As we were hurtling towards the summer holidays, I started panic-planning.  What was I going to do with Toby at home all day every day?  And would I ever get anything done that I wanted to do?  With the horrifying prospect of six weeks of "I'm bored" before me, I decided it was time to resurrect my toddler theme weeks.  I can hardly call my long-legged almost-four-year-old a toddler any more though, can I?

This time round, I've gone elemental, with Water, Earth, Air and Fire, plus Plants just for good measure.  Water filled a week and a half, because Toby's preschool finished on a Tuesday, and there are almost endless things you can do with water when it's warm and sunny.

Activities
1. Defrost the freezer!  
Well, that was my job.  Can you believe I spent my last few hours of preschool freedom defrosting a freezer?  And as I scraped the chunks of ice off, I thought: Toby would love this.  I hoped it might amuse him for ten minutes; he was out there for over an hour!  Once the ice melted, he filled the bowl with water and carried on.

Theo liked it too


2. Water Music.  
 Not Handel, unfortunately.  A selection of jam jars to fill with water and hit with a spoon provided some entertainment.  And listening skills, and pouring practice, and volume measurement, and all good stuff.

Equipment: jars, spoon, jug of water. (Ignore the fruit)

Making different notes

Topping up the water level
 3. Ice painting.
I think Toby was a little confused that we were actually painting the ice, rather than painting with the ice.  This was an idea borrowed from Ellie's blog.  She went all natural with her colourings; I just used food colours (hey, I'm a baker).  Nice and simple: We made some highly-coloured water and froze it.  Next day we used the ice cubes to make pretty patterns on an old muslin.




 Outings
1. Feeding the ducks at a local park


2. Meeting some friends for a walk and a play at Foremark Reservoir

3. Admiring the fish at the garden centre in the village


Food
I have to admit to having no photos of my attempts at themed food.  We had fish tacos one day - chunks of fish and vegetables in a tortilla - but we were too busy eating them to take a photo.  We also made blue jelly, to resemble a pond, from gelatine, blue food colour and one of those clear flavoured water drinks.  Then I put some supposedly fish-shaped fruit snacks in, but they were tiny and just looked like weird blobs.  It tasted OK but I deleted the photos.  Just imagine some kind of great artistic jelly fish pond, in a glass bowl with red and green and yellow fish sweets, and maybe even a lily pad on top.

And that won't be what it looked like at all.