Sunday, 30 November 2014

The Light of Hope

All of a sudden, the sun breaks through the clouds.

In an instant, the world around you is transformed.  The sleepy browns and beiges awake to shimmering gold and bronze.  The green grass glows as if lit from within, while the red bricks of the houses brighten from chestnut to crimson. 

You lift your head as the grey sky above you becomes the backdrop to this technicolour display, its contrasting darkness making the colours shine brighter.  You gaze, letting the light fill your eyes.

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light;
those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shone.


Why should Christmas bring hope?  It comes around, year after year; we have seen the lights, heard the carols.  Twenty, thirty, fifty times.  Surely if anything was going to change, it would have changed by now.  Yet still death haunts us, despair assails us, disasters appall us.  Where now is the light, as the darkness presses in? 

Yet still those first notes of the carols tug at our hearts.

Yet still the shining tree in a darkened room kindles a small glow inside.

Yet still we see a baby in a manger and remember: we are not alone.

And the light shines through the clouds.



 
...and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit.

Friday, 28 November 2014

Monthly Munch: November

Fireworks: We went to a local fireworks display with a spectacular bonfire, enjoyed burgers and a somewhat more manageable bonfire with our church small group, and Graham and I escaped for a date night and watched fireworks from Breedon Hill.

Bonfire at Hartshorne fireworks display

Frost: and rain.  The weather has definitely turned Novemberish.  We've been scraping car windscreens, donning hats and mittens, and occasionally getting severely soaked.

Fatigue: It's "that time of year" as everyone keeps saying, meaning that all the kids are ill.  We had an emergency trip with Theo to the hospital when he woke up coughing and struggling to breathe (he recovered very quickly), and some very unsettled nights.

Toby

- is a fan of spaceships and planets.  He got me to make some toilet roll rockets to fly from planet to planet on his space playmat.


 - helped make hedgehog bread rolls from a recipe in the Peppa Pig magazine.  He enjoyed the kneading and they came out really cute.

adding raisin eyes and noses

 - read a whole letter from Grandma, only needing help with a few words, and keeps hoping there will be something else for him in the mail.

- got a jigsaw of the UK and took about a hundred photos of it once completed (most of which were blurry!)

Quotes:

"This is the first time I've peeled a carrot in my whole life!"  Four isn't a bad age to start, I guess.

"Pudding face!  Pudding face!  Pudding face!" over and over.  Theo giggled at him the first hundred times but I think the repetition bored even him in the end.

Theo


- wants to stand up all. the. time.  Occasionally he forgets he can't quite do it without holding on yet.


 - loves having baths with Toby - even if he's not quite sure about the bubble hats.


- charmed all the nurses at the hospital and didn't sleep one bit, even though we were there till 2 am.  Unfortunately he keeps waking up hoping for a repeat performance, now.

Thankful for

- some beautiful starry nights

- the boys' illnesses mostly being limited to coughs and sniffles

- that when I got the wrong day for the cupcake competition, we turned up the day before and not the day after!

Recipe of the Month - caramel chocolate bar cupcakes



This was one of my winning cupcake flavours, meant to evoke the kind of sweet snack you might have while out for a cycle ride.

Cupcakes
160g butter
160g sugar
3 eggs
100g plain flour
100g self-raising flour
1/4 tsp vanilla
2 tbsp cocoa powder

Mix cocoa powder with a little boiling water and set aside to cool.  Beat butter and sugar until light and fluffy.  Beat in eggs, one at a time, then add flour, vanilla and cocoa and combine thoroughly.  Spoon into cupcake cases, filling about 2/3 full.  Bake at 180C / 350F 15-20 minutes until risen and firm.  Meanwhile, make the caramel.

Caramel filling
100g caster sugar
50 ml cold water
100 ml double cream

In a small saucepan, heat the sugar and water over a low heat until the sugar has dissolved, swirling the pan to help but not stirring.  When it's all dissolved, increase the heat and boil until the liquid turns dark golden.  Take off the heat and slowly add the cream, whisking it in as it froths up.  Heat through for another minute, whisking until smooth.  Leave to cool.

When the cupcakes are cold, slice the tops off with the knife at an angle, so that you cut out a little cone shape.  Cut off the point of the cone.  Put a teaspoon of the caramel into the hole in the cupcake, and replace your now flat lid to conceal the sweet surprise.

I then added the fondant icing and decoration, but I would suggest chocolate ganache (because you're bound to have some cream left) or chocolate buttercream as delicious alternatives.

Saturday, 22 November 2014

Competitive cupcakes

On a happier note...

Blue minty swirl; ponds and lakes

...I won a cupcake competition!

Apple and blackberry; trees and plants

The theme was 20 Years of Rosliston Forestry Centre, in half a dozen cupcakes.

Vanilla supreme; Happy birthday!
I had fun creating six different flavours, based on a Madeira sponge recipe...

Caramel chocolate bar; outdoor activities
...and moulding sugarpaste decorations for the top of each one.

Hazelnut and honey; wildlife
 Once I managed to turn up on the correct day (I don't know why I had Saturday fixed in my head instead of Sunday)...

Choc chip and cherry; children's fun
 ...I got them safely delivered to the competition.

All together now...

And the judges were impressed!

Article in the Burton Mail
 We now have 6 months of free eggs!


Friday, 21 November 2014

Family

Family is a funny thing.

As I grew up, we made regular but infrequent visits to my aunts, uncles and cousins.  My dad's side of the family - the English half - we would usually see once a year, at Christmas.  Every three years, usually in the summer, we would go spend a few weeks with my mom's family in the USA.  When you have memories of little Lizzie slipping her hand into yours as you walked down the street, or of baking Lucky Charms cookies with Eva, you feel like you should know these people.

With my American cousins, 1994
Then you start counting, and realise you barely need ten fingers to add up the number of times you have seen them.  Not just in the last ten years.  In your whole life.

And now, some of them are gone.  There never will be a chance to get to know them better.  And although you can hardly grieve a person you knew so little, they were family.  Those nebulous threads stringing us all together have just tweaked and tightened a little; and like a spider's web catching the sun, you suddenly see the strength and fragility of a line you hardly knew was there.

I mentioned a few weeks ago that my Uncle Ben, my mother's oldest brother, passed away at the end of September.  At the beginning of this week his youngest son died of a heart infection.  William was 26, and his wife had just had a little girl.  These two blows, so close together, have by no means been the only difficulties the family has had to face these last few years, but they are certainly some of the hardest.

You all have families of your own.  And you know I'm not in the habit of using this blog to solicit donations.  But I hope you also understand why I feel like I want to do whatever I can to help out my family in a hard time.  If you are able to offer a little blessing to them, I know they would appreciate it.  The link is here: William's funeral fund.

 
Image credit: Luc Viatour / www.Lucnix.be

In memoriam: Ben Blake, William Blake.
And for all those who love them.

Thursday, 13 November 2014

Working on sunshine

Freeeee electricity! 

No, seriously.  This guy came and knocked on the door one day, and I don't usually pay any more attention to random strangers trying to sell me something at the door than you probably do, but I guess he must have said "free" enough times to penetrate my consciousness, so I found myself agreeing to have someone check our house's suitability for solar panels.  And another guy turned up, and measured; and another one, and we signed; and a few more, and put up scaffolding and panels and meter boxes and cable; and suddenly, if we're careful, we can avoid paying for any electricity during daylight hours, because it's all generated right up there above our heads.


Of course, we have the British government to thank for this, which probably means we're paying for it somewhere along the line.  The Department for Energy and Climate Change (presumably it's actually against climate change rather than for it, although you never know) has mandated a wonderful thing called a feed-in tariff, which means the power companies have to pay you for any electricity you produce by environmentally friendly means.  A few years ago, they paid quite a lot, which meant that lots of companies jumped into the gold mine, which predictably means that the rate is now quite a lot lower.

But there are still a few companies around that reckon they can make money by renting your roof (technically, the space just above your roof, which sounds like the most dodgy thing you ever heard, but presumably avoids any difficulties associated with separating the roof from the house), putting photovoltaic panels on it and raking in the feed-in tariff cash.  As an incentive to you to rent out that precious layer of fresh air, they not only install the whole lot for free, but you also get to use as much of that photovoltaic power as you want.  That bloke who knocked on our front door was from a company called A Shade Greener, so that is who owns the sun-absorbing sheets that now adorn our roof.

The panels have only been up there a month, but so far, so good (she says cautiously).  All the installation happened with remarkably little fuss.  We have experienced the enjoyable sensation of seeing our mains electricity meter at a standstill, and we're trying to make the most of the diminishing daylight (October wasn't the best time to start on solar, was it?)

Of course it helps that I'm around during the day.  I can do washing and ironing in the morning, put something in the oven in the afternoon, and maybe even flick the electric fire on if it's cold.  It might be harder to reap the benefits if you worked all day, especially this time of year.  The panels' output seems quite variable - according to the figures we are generating anything from 14 kWh per day to zero, so perhaps I'd better check the weather forecast before slow-roasting a pork joint!  It'll take a little longer to work out exactly how much we're saving, but with no up-front costs, every little bit is a bonus.

Disclaimer: A Shade Greener is entirely unaware that I am writing this post, and have not offered me any money to do so.  They do offer a referral bonus, so if I've made you wonder about contacting them, let me know first and we might both get some cash.  Or you can just come over one sunny day and do your ironing.


Tuesday, 4 November 2014

Monthly Munch: October

The big event was Toby's birthday, which somehow took over most of the month!  Graham's parents visited the weekend before it, when we had his party; then he opened presents on the actual day; then my parents visited the week after, which involved more cake and gifts.  We saw fire eating and live music at the local marina; survived all of us having colds at once; started attending a baby group in the village with Theo; painted a fence and made a Christmas cake.

Toby


- turned four years old!  (I feel like I've been saying he's "nearly four" for months now.)

He said the strawberry plants needed sheltering from the rain

- finally plucked up courage to try the big swings, and discovered he's really quite good at them.

-suddenly decided he would have a shower instead of a bath, which he has never done before.

- enjoys going kayaking with Graham...

The intrepid mariners set sail
...and playing on the playground in his lifejacket afterwards.

Hard a-port!
- drew a bus and said it needed to say London on it.  So I described the letters and he wrote them.


- still entertains his little brother


Quotes:
"Those people are talking tripe!" - about some actors performing Shakespeare

"I'm looking forward to Christmas." - as soon as his birthday was over.

Theo


- is still a smiley chap who now sits up extremely well

- says "mum-mum-mum" very plaintively when he wants something

Modelling a lovely coat made by my friend Sharon

- sees absolutely no point in trying to roll over

Why would I want to do that?
- but will happily pull himself up if you give him a hand, and is just able to stand up while holding onto a sofa or bed for balance.


Both boys keep taking their socks off, so there are constantly small socks lying around.  Here they're both trying the "one on, one off" look.

Thankful for:

- free electricity!  We had solar panels installed completely gratis.

- a visit to Hardwick Hall, which I've been wanting to see for a while

Recipe of the Month: Potato Bake


When I was trying to use up potatoes, I often made one of those dishes where you slice them thinly and layer them up to bake.  The layering stage seemed like a hassle, though, so recently I had an epiphany: why not just dice them and stir everything together?


3 largeish potatoes, in 1 cm dice
1 small carrot, diced
1 onion, diced
1/2 red pepper, diced
1/2 green pepper, diced
100g / 4 oz Gouda or other firm cheese, diced
handful of frozen sweetcorn
250 ml / 1 cup chicken stock
mixed herbs and black pepper

Stir all the diced ingredients and sweetcorn together in a large casserole dish.  Season with herbs and pepper (I found it didn't need salt).  Pour over the stock.

Cover and bake at 150°C for 2 hours (or a higher temperature if you want it quicker).  Uncover and grate Parmesan or Cheddar over.  Bake for a few more minutes to melt cheese.  Serves 2.

Sunday, 2 November 2014

Two birthday cakes

Yes, Toby got two birthday cakes this year.  I was flicking through my children's birthday cake book to see if it had a pirate ship or something, and he got all excited about the frog cake.  So, because I am a pushover an enthusiastic baker, I agreed to bake a frog the week after his birthday, when my parents came to visit.  Because it's pretty hard to work a frog prince into a pirate theme.

But look, he's so cute!

First, the treasure chest.

The cake book came up zero on pirate cakes, but fortunately the amazing Ellie gave her daughter a pirate party a few years ago - and blogged about the cake she made.  The recipe sounded tasty so I thought I'd give it a try in place of my standard chocolate cake.  I doubled it, which gave us a lot of cake, but all the party guests were quite happy to take some home.

Chocolate Date Cake
450g dates, chopped
2 tsp bicarbonate of soda (baking soda)
250g butter
250g caster sugar
6 large eggs
370g self-raising flour
80g cocoa powder

Place dates in a saucepan and just cover with water.  Bring to the boil, then remove from the heat and add the bicarbonate of soda to give a nice fizzy effect.  Let cool for a few minutes.

Cream the butter and sugar, then add the eggs two at a time, with a little of the flour.  Fold in the rest of the flour and add the date mixture to give a runny batter.

Divide the cake mixture between two greased and lined 9" x 13" pans.  Bake for 20-30 minutes at 180°C until firm.

Chocolate buttercream
250g butter
450g icing sugar
50g cocoa powder

To assemble, trim a few centimetres off the ends of each cake.  Place one cake on the board and ice with chocolate buttercream.  Arrange the trimmings of cake on top to support the second cake at an angle.  Ice all over with the remaining buttercream (it's the first time I've tried to ice the underneath of a cake!)  Cut the straps, handles and keyholes out of yellow fondant.

I used an icing tube to make the round imprints

Finish with gem sweets, chocolate coins, and brown sugar for sand.


And some biscuits...

Graham's dad brought some delicious shortbread biscuits, the decorated ones of which disappeared rather quickly at the party.  I added some leftover yellow fondant to the others to make pirate treasure for Toby to take to preschool.  The imprints were made using one of the chocolate coins; this meant the image was reversed, but I doubt many of his classmates noticed.


Finally, the frog!  This is simply a round cake sliced in half and set up on end.  I made a plain Madeira sponge, but filled and base-iced it with some leftover chocolate buttercream.  Layering fondant over buttercream does mean the fondant gets stickier with time, rather than setting hard, so we were eating it with a spoon by the end.

Madeira Cake
155g butter
155g sugar
3 eggs
100g plain flour
100g self-raising flour
1/4 tsp vanilla
2 tbsp milk

Cream butter and sugar.  Add eggs one at a time.  Fold in flour, vanilla and milk.  Spread in 9" sandwich tin.  Bake 20-30 minutes at 180°C until risen and springy.  Cool in tin for a few minutes, then on a rack.

Cut cooled cake in half to give semi-circles.  Sandwich the two halves together with buttercream, and stand up on a cake board.  Cover with a thin layer of buttercream, then with green fondant.  Form the features out of white, black, pink and green fondant, and stick on.

Legs and feet: Roll out fondant to a 1/2" diameter sausage.  Rear legs are 8" lengths, folded in half and then shaped; front legs are 4" lengths.  Feet are slightly thinner sausages cut to 2" lengths.  Fold in half, flatten, and pinch slightly to form the toes.

I thought we might get away without a crown, which was supposed to be formed from fondant shaped around a glass and left to dry, then painted gold.  Toby, however, assured me that the crown was important, so we made one from shiny cardboard.

The crowned prince
Frog leg, anyone?
Now to make sure I don't end up doing three cakes next year!