Friday, 29 January 2016

Monthly Munch: January 2016

Wow!  The start of my third year doing Monthly Munches!  Hope you're still enjoying hearing what we've been up to.  Sooo... this month, I feel, has mostly been a sorting out kind of one.  I've been doing some new year house cleaning, Graham and I have been figuring out what to do for some kind of gainful employment.  Toby has been practising on his new bike and scooter, and Theo has been learning to talk and going to bed awfully late.

Toby




- had his first 'Forest School' day at school, and came home happily plastered in mud.

- built a snowman with friends and dubbed it Mr Chillyman Coldhead.


- "I want to draw something.  What shall I draw?" is a constant refrain.

- had a great time at our New Year's Day party, having a "chocolate party" with the other kids up in his bedroom.

- is getting better at dealing with things that scare him.

Theo



- is learning numbers ("free, four, free, four") and colours ("reeaaadd, brue!")

- is losing more blonde every time I take him for a haircut


- does this thing where he lets himself fall straight from vertical to horizontal on our bed.  Aren't you meant to have some instinct where you catch yourself?

- waves cheerfully at the dustbin men every week.  I think they look out for him now!

Thankful for:


- the life of our neighbour Dave, whose funeral we sadly attended this month.  Even in the short time we knew him, we had many reasons to be thankful for his generosity, knowledge, helpfulness and cheerfulness.  He will be missed.

Recipe of the Month: Pasta with Brussels Sprouts and Potato



This month I have been trying out some recipes from Nigella's Italian cookbook, Nigellissima.  I can recommend the lasagna with ham and eggs in (Quick Calabrian lasagna), and this is another recipe with ingredients that sound strange but actually work really well.  I like the way that you just boil everything in one pan - no separate frying of onions or anything - and then mix it up in the baking dish.  Her original recipe was to serve eight, so I have reduced the quantities.  I thought some tomato slices on top might be nice too, but when it came to it I forgot to add them.  Maybe next time.

300g brussels sprouts, halved
200g penne or fusilli
1 medium potato, diced
100g Gruyere cheese, in 1 cm cubes
75g ricotta
25g butter
1 garlic clove, finely chopped
4 small sage leaves, shredded
25-30g Parmesan, grated

Bring a large pan of water to the boil and salt generously.  Add the sprouts, pasta and potato and cook for 8-10 minutes.  Pour some of the cooking water into a mug, then drain the rest off.  Tip the pasta and veg into an ovenproof dish (I used a 20cm x 20cm Pyrex dish).  Add the Gruyere, ricotta and a good splash of the cooking water, and mix well together.  Add a bit more ricotta or water if you think it needs it (mine waited a while before it went in the oven, so I added a splash more water just before I put it in).  Preheat the oven to 200°C / 400°F.

Using the same pan to save on washing up, melt the butter and add the garlic and sage.  Cook just for 30 seconds or so, then drizzle over the pasta.  Scatter the Parmesan over the top, and put in the oven for 20 minutes, until golden.  We had ours with garlic bread and green beans, and with similar accompaniments this quantity would comfortably serve four.


Saturday, 23 January 2016

The Normality of Normal

To a child, everything is normal.

Who knows what is normal for an egg?

As a parent, this presents us with quite a responsibility.  Because we very quickly realise that whatever - whatever - we do will be regarded as the way things are.  From bedtime routines to parents arguing, from TV time to what we eat - everything is normal for our child.  They have nothing else to compare it to.

And even when they do get old enough to realise that not everyone lives like we do, it's still the other people that are different.  Not us.  Not for a long time.  Perhaps, for certain things, even for the rest of our lives, even when we know better.

No, this is normal.  Really.

The problem is, as adults, we are still, most of us, trying to work out what's normal.  Especially when we have children, and suddenly a whole host of things become normal that never were before.  Like feeding a baby five times in the night, or negotiating with a screaming toddler in the supermarket, or explaining all of our bodily functions to a curious four-year-old.  It's no wonder we find ourselves surreptitiously looking around: are we doing this right?  does everyone else have this problem?

Because normal, of course, is defined by those around us.  That's where normal gets weird.  For example, we walk to school almost every day.  In this place, at this time, that is not normal.  There are a handful of other families that do the same; most drive.  But in this place fifty years ago, that would be normal.  It would also be normal not to have a TV, a smartphone, or a computerThese days, worries about screen time notwithstanding, that would be a serious disadvantage.  You just would not fit in.

Of course, we don't always want to fit in.  By the time we reach adulthood, we have spent a certain amount of time considering how different we want to be.  We know that being comfortable is more important to us than wearing the same thing as everyone else, or that being vegetarian is more important to us than eating what everyone else does.  But then you have a child, and are forced to consider how much to impose those differences on another human being.

I don't think this is normal, though.

In the novel About a Boy, Marcus, the boy of the title, has a mother who is firm on her views about things like eating at McDonalds and buying fashionable footwear.  Will, the single, commitment-free guy who is unwillingly dragged into their family affairs, immediately diagnoses Marcus as needing a decent haircut and a pair of Adidas trainers.  Through his influence, both Marcus and his mum start to reassess each other's values and decide what is important to them.

We generally don't want our kids to be bullied because of our differences.  But also, we don't want to give up what is important to us in order to fit in with the ever-changing normal.  Engaging with other people provides useful checks and balances - yes, these temper tantrums are usual - but provide us with endless comparison worries (shouldn't he be talking by now?)  We're always questioning ourselves, always trying to find that perfect balance.

Don't worry.  It's normal.

Monday, 18 January 2016

Ha' Bir'da Do Dooo!

That's Theo's attempt at Happy Birthday To You, if you can't quite make it out.  He's got the tune down to a T, so we'll give him some leeway on the consonants.  He's had plenty of opportunity to sing it, as it was my birthday recently.  Breakfast in bed seems to have become the custom, so I was proudly presented with cereal, toast and a boiled egg.  I managed the cereal in bed but thought the rest might be safer eaten downstairs.  Toby also drew me two very nice birthday cards.


So, apart from having to figure out your age when people ask you (what year is it again?), how do you know you've reached your mid-thirties?  Well, one reliable indicator is that you are actually pleased - possibly even delighted - to receive a vacuum cleaner as a birthday present.  Graham has already been gently mocking me for enjoying my new toy so much, but look!  It actually picks the dirt up!  And my stairs don't have dust in the corners for the first time in two years!

Okaay, moving swiftly on... Just to prove I can still have fun, I also purchased Qwirkle and Bananagrams with some of my birthday money (thanks John!).  Toby and I had a go at Qwirkle, which is a strategy game with coloured shapes, and found it easy to get the hang of and quite absorbing.  He's probably too young for Bananagrams, which is a bit like fast-action Scrabble, despite protesting that he "knows how to spell lots of words".  So if you come to visit any time soon, expect to be coerced into playing one or the other - or if neither appeals, we can offer Guess Who?, Jenga, dominoes or plenty more!


For dinner we went to a local pub/restaurant which is enlightened enough to provide a children's play area.  It was pleasantly quiet, and we enjoyed the carvery and finished off with a massive chocolate brownie sundae.


Everyone enjoyed that!

Thursday, 7 January 2016

Epiphany: Galette des Rois

The sixth of January marks the Feast of Epiphany, otherwise known as Twelfth Night, or the end of the Christmas season.  It is the day when we celebrate the visit of the three wise men to Jesus, and traditionally the day when Christmas decorations are taken down.  So we ate galette des rois for dessert and then proceeded to undecorate the house.


The two taken together made a kind of solemn celebration; almost an anti-festivity.  The sweet French pie consists of layers of puff pastry surrounding an almond filling.  Its light flakiness is the opposite of the dense richness of Christmas cake; its plain burnished finish so different to colourful icing.


Likewise, as our living room shed its lights and tinsel and returned to its everyday state - as everyone helped to remove baubles, gently wrap the precious ornaments, and wind up the strings of lights - I found myself reflecting on the ritual.  I'd never thought of the taking-down being as important as the putting-up, but somehow, this time, it felt that way.  We made a gentle end to the season, and celebrated the return to normal life.  Just as the wise men made a fleeting visit to the baby before taking up their journey again, so we too, having rejoiced at the manger again, will carry on with the daily task of following Jesus.

But don't forget the cake!

Galette des Rois
1 packet puff pastry
50g butter
50g caster sugar
50g ground almonds
1/2 tsp almond extract
1 egg

Roll out the puff pastry (if not ready-rolled) and cut out two circles, about 18cm and 20cm diameter.

Make sure the butter is soft.  Put it in a bowl with the sugar, almonds and almond extract.  Beat the egg in a cup, then pour most of it into the bowl, saving a teaspoonful for an egg wash.  Beat the almond mixture together to form a smooth paste.

Put the smaller pastry circle on a baking sheet.  Pile the almond paste in the middle and spread it out evenly, leaving a border round the edge.  Brush a little water onto this border, then drape the larger pastry circle over the top and smooth down.  Use your thumb to press the edges together to make sure it's completely sealed.  Make a pattern on the top with a knife.

Put the pie and the leftover egg in the fridge for half an hour or however long is convenient.  Preheat the oven to 180C.  Brush the pie with egg and bake for 25-30 minutes until risen and golden.  Let cool for a few minutes before serving.


(Adapted from a recipe by Raymond Blanc)

Saturday, 2 January 2016

Monthly Munch: December 2015

It really does seem to have been a month of Christmas stuff!  Nativity plays and Christmas parties, wrapping presents and writing cards, mince pies and Christmas cake, driving north and driving south and celebrating with family.  Thanks to everyone who hosted us!

Seeing the lights at Calke Abbey

Toby

 

- wrote all his own Christmas cards to give to his school friends

- enjoyed a school trip to the Snowdome at Tamworth (real snow!) but was a bit fearful about going to see Beauty and the Beast pantomime.


- showed off his new scooter at the Christmas Day church service.


- isn't quite sure what to think about Santa Claus, but was very excited about presents!

Theo

 

- is very tidy-minded.  He likes putting cups on coasters, and finds a cloth to wipe up if he spills something.

- made it up and down a small but steep hill on his own two legs.


- was grabbed by my Dad in the nick of time when a wave came in a little further than expected!


- liked seeing the Christmas lights around the village.


Thankful for:


- safe driving around the country.  And we just missed the floods in Yorkshire.  Fortunately family there was not too badly affected, but overall it sounded pretty awful.

Yorkshire on a sunny day

- a date night in (it's surprising how putting on smart clothes and lighting a few candles can change the atmosphere) and a date night out (far. too. much. curry.)

Look!  Romance!

Recipe of the Month: Coconut Macaroons



I'd been wondering about making these for a while, and finally fitted them in on the last day of December, ready for a New Year's Day party the next day.  They're simpler than you might think, and have the added bonus of being gluten-free.

2 egg whites
4 oz icing (confectioners) sugar
4 oz ground almonds
4 oz desiccated coconut
few drops of almond extract

Preheat the oven to 150C / 300F and line two baking sheets with nonstick paper.  Whisk the egg whites until stiff but not dry.  Sieve the icing sugar over and gently fold in.  Add the almonds, coconut and almond extract and stir in gently.  Spoon walnut-size lumps of the mixture onto the lined trays (they hold their shape, so make them fairly neat).  You should get about 24.  Bake for about 20 minutes until browned but still soft.  Cool on a rack.