Monday, 26 October 2015

Jungle Animal Birthday

Finally!  It feels as if we've been saying that Toby's "nearly five" for the whole year that he was four.  But now he is well and truly five years old.  To celebrate, he requested a jungle animal themed party.  We decided to risk inviting seven children to our house - which seems relatively unusual.  Most of the parties Toby has been to have been at the village hall or a soft play area.  Admittedly this way did involve a little more planning, preparation, and moving of breakable items upstairs, but we enjoyed it.  Oh, and the kids did, too.


So, the games.  Some party games are non-negotiable; so I spent half an hour entombing a present in many layers of jungle animal wrapping paper, and Graham spent fifteen minutes sweating over the music player, trying to make sure that every child got a turn to unwrap it.

Apart from that, we had:

- wooden animal shapes to decorate with pens and stick-on felt pieces;


- Crocodile Swamp - jump on a piece of wood when the music stops, to escape the hungry crocodile;

- Guess the Animal - each child had the name of an animal on their back, and had to ask questions to find out who they were;

- dancing to Gangnam Style, the Superman Song, and Music Man (I think the adults may have enjoyed themselves more than the kids);

- and the pi├Ęce de resistance: giant bubble wrap!  SO LOUD! but they loved it.  Eight children jumping on bubble wrap sounds like fireworks exploding indoors, but if you cover your ears for a moment, it doesn't last long.

We didn't have enough table space for so many children, but they didn't bat an eyelid at having to picnic on a plastic tablecloth.  The pizza, mini sausages and grapes vanished quickly and without major incident.  And then it was time for... the cake!


I'd originally thought of a jungle scene for the cake, but getting a miscellaneous collection of animals into artistic positions is actually quite difficult, even in icing.  Especially when you discover you can't actually draw a monkey.  Then I spotted a design with tiny animals peeking out from behind the letters.  Perfect for a short name like TOBY!


Of course I forgot about candles until the last moment.  I hurriedly dug out four.  Four?  Oh no, we need five now, don't we?  Five candles were lit and ceremonially extinguished.  And Toby was well and truly five years old.

Wednesday, 21 October 2015

On the gift of a skipping-rope

"Martha, tha's brought me thy wages like a good lass, an' I've got four places to put every penny, but I'm just goin' to take tuppence out of it to buy that child a skippin'-rope."



So says the warm-hearted Mrs Sowerby to her daughter in Frances Hodgson Burnett's classic The Secret Garden.  And the gift of a skipping-rope begins a change in Mary Lennox, helping to transform her from a spoilt and sickly orphan to a strong and spirited young lady.

This quote was jiggling around my mind the other day, because life was hectic.  "I've got three places to put every minute," I thought.  If I wasn't doing this then I could be doing that, and if I wasn't doing that then I could be doing that other thing...

But sometimes, even in those kind of times, there is something that makes you say, "I'm just going to take two minutes out."

Money and time share some characteristics; a certain rigidity and a certain flexibility.  They are rigid because there is, incontrovertibly, a fixed amount of each.  If you have £100 you cannot spend £101.  Even more so, you cannot add even a minute to your day.  You can, if you wish, account precisely for every last penny, every last second.

And yet... when I moved into a student house with friends at university, we made a deliberate decision to be generous with this wonderful, characterful property we had found.  I don't know how many cheese toasties were consumed that year, how many cups of tea were made, but somehow, the food money in the old jam jar always seemed to be enough.

And yet... when I think I don't have time to pray, but I take ten minutes to sit down and do it anyway, everything else still, somehow, shuffles around to fit into the remaining time.

We can't do everything.  Maybe sometimes we don't have money or time for everything we need, never mind everything we want.  But even then, just sometimes, we need to take tuppence out to buy someone a skipping-rope.

Tuesday, 13 October 2015

Up the apples


Autumn is for apples!  Our generous neighbours across the road have once again been setting out trays of windfalls for anyone to help themselves.  After I'd stewed and frozen a few bagfuls, I decided it was time to try out some new recipes, which you are welcome to peruse below.

We also went along to Calke Abbey's Apple Day, where we got to wander round the orchard and taste some of the dozen or so traditional varieties that they grow.  We enjoyed the Ribston Pippin enough to buy a bagful.  The bag then broke in the unlit and sloping Gardeners' Tunnel, and we had to chase runaway apples down the hill in the dark! 

Apple tasting.  Yes I know I have grass all down my back.
Toby helped out with some apple pressing.  The machine chewed up and squashed down a mass of apples to produce juice, all run on manpower (or childpower) alone.  The juice tasted mostly of bruised apple though, I thought.  Perhaps it would be better fermented.

He pushed the handle round to compress the apples.

Was it worth the effort?

Theo was just excited about the tractor and trailer in which they were putting all the leftover apple bits.


And so to the recipes...

Apple Meringue Pie

I adapted this from a recipe called "Apple Amber" in the classic 1000 dessert recipes.  It tastes really good, but be warned - the filling is not set when it's hot!  If you leave it to cool it will slice in a proper pie fashion; or you can leave out the pastry, as in the original version, and just scoop it out with a spoon.  Either way this is a great autumn alternative to a lemon meringue pie.

mmm, pie!

Pastry
3 oz butter
6 oz plain flour
iced water

Filling
1lb 8 oz cooking apples, peeled and sliced
3 oz sugar
1.5 oz butter
1/2 tsp cinnamon (or a cinnamon stick)
3 eggs, separated
3 tbsp caster sugar

Make the pastry, either by rubbing the butter into the flour or using a food processor.  Add enough iced water to bring it into clumps, then turn out onto a counter and knead lightly to bring together.  Put in a bag and leave in the fridge for half an hour.

Put the apple slices in a saucepan with the sugar, butter, and cinnamon, and cook gently until the apples have broken down.  Give it a good stir to get rid of any lumps.  At this point I put mine in the fridge overnight, and beat in the egg yolks the next day.  The original recipe suggests that you can beat them straight into the hot mixture, but it's the kind of book that doesn't always go into detail.  You may want to leave it to cool first.  Anyway, let's assume you've got the egg yolks in there at some point.

For the meringue, whisk the egg whites until stiff.  Whisk in half the caster sugar until glossy, then gently stir in the rest.

To put it all together, roll out the pastry to line a 9-inch pie dish.  Line with greaseproof paper and add baking beans, then bake at 200C / 400F for 10 minutes.  Remove the paper and beans and cook for 5-10 minutes more until just done.  Turn the oven down to 150C / 300F.

Pour in the apple filling.  Top with the meringue and bake at the lower temperature for about 35 minutes until the meringue is golden.  If it's getting too dark you can cover it with foil.  Serve warm (with the caveat about the runny filling) or cold.


Chocolate Apple Betty
This was an extremely delicious-sounding recipe from the Autumn 2015 National Trust magazine.  I wouldn't usually put dark chocolate and apples together, but why not?  I reduced the sugar content slightly, as brown sugar and chocolate and golden syrup sounded awfully sweet.  And I only had wholemeal breadcrumbs, so you can use those if it makes you feel virtuous.


Filling
1 lb 8 oz cooking apples, peeled, cored, and cut into chunks
1 oz butter
2 tbsp water

Topping
4 oz fresh white or wholemeal breadcrumbs
3 oz light soft brown sugar
3 oz dark chocolate, roughly chopped
2 oz butter
1 oz golden syrup

Put the apples in a saucepan or ovenproof dish with the butter and water.  Stir over a moderate heat until they start to soften, but aren't completely mushy.  If they're in a saucepan, tip them into a baking dish.

Mix the breadcrumbs, sugar and chocolate and sprinkle over the apples.  Melt the butter and syrup together and drizzle over the top, trying to coat as many of the crumbs as possible.

Bake at 190C / 375F until the apple is soft and the topping is crisp and golden.  Serve with cream or ice cream.

Thursday, 8 October 2015

National Poetry Day: Light

Today is National Poetry Day

Poetry is the fine dining of literature.  We spend most of our days tossing together the everyday pasta of prose, finding a few quick metaphors in the fridge and splashing in a dash of humour to add to the flavour. 

But sometimes we want to spend the extra time to make a meal to linger over.  We pick out the best of our rare similes and assemble them artfully, paying careful attention to rhyme and metre.  The restrictions force us to pare down to the essentials, letting the flavour of the ingredients speak for themselves.  The intention is not just to sate the appetite for words, but to stroke the senses and stir the imagination.  To create an occasion.  A poem.

I'm afraid my blog is not a fine dining establishment this evening.  I tried to put some ingredients together, but they somehow failed to produce anything worth keeping.  Fortunately others are better poetry chefs than I am, and they have left a menu.  You can enjoy the free National Poetry Day book here, with poems new and old on the theme of light.

Bon appetit!