Party ideas for teenagers

April 21, 2014

As a seasoned children’s party giver (mug?) I’ve worked through a wide range of themes, games and food and lulled myself into a false sense of security about how to create a successful kids party.

Until this year, that is, when Elsa turned 13 and still wanted a party, much to my surprise. All my failsafe games and ideas suddenly seemed totally inappropriate – classic party themes are way too much for a bunch of 13 year olds, everything that was fun last year is uncool this and they’re certainly not going to sit down and play pass the parcel.

So how on earth do you keep a bunch of teenagers who are already obsessed with social media and screens of all varieties, amused and engaged at a party? Quite easily it turns out, thanks to a random (and totally accidental) genius purchase in Selfridges January sale.

As I stood by the door watching this group of teenagers looking awkward and totally unready to party, I panicked. What on earth could I do to get them moving? We should’ve sent them home straight after laser tagging. But as I looked at them pouring over their phones (probably WhatsApping each other!) I had a Eureka moment, ran upstairs and retrieved (from the random-emergency-this’ll-make-a-great-present-for-someone-one-day bag) two packs of photo booth props.

photo props on a plate

I ripped the packets open, scattered the contents and within minutes all that teenage awkwardness had evaporated.

teenagers party photo prop pic

What better way to manage all those small glowing phone screens than to incorporate them into the fun. I can’t claim that it was a carefully planned idea but it’s amazing what you can come up with under pressure! Thank goodness I’d had the foresight to spend 50p (25p each) on these two little packets of joy and then remember that I had them!

teenagers party photo prop pic

The particular props I bought; ‘Groovy photo props’ and ‘English Gent photo props’ are, at the time of writing still available here but there are also loads of alternatives widely available, not for 25p of course, but still worth every penny of the £3 or £4 they usually cost.

An even better and more personal idea than these small packets would be to make your own photo booth props using magazine pictures glued onto cardboard and taped to skewers or other little sticks. This way your party guests could become famous actors, film characters, pop stars or (heaven help us) TV celebrities.

teenagers party photo prop pic

So with all this larking about our teenagers became kids again and from that moment the party went with a bang. They were up for playing games (more on those later) and blowing out candles – they even sang Happy Birthday with gusto and I stood back and watched Elsa have a fantastic birthday.

blowing out candles

Of course none of this would’ve happened were it not for the fact that Elsa has a great set of friends who were ready to let their hair down, have a good time and help make Elsa’s day totally special. Lucky girl.

teenagers party photo prop pic

A giant Tunnock’s teacake for a momentous birthday

March 11, 2014

We’ve had another big birthday in our house. That’s two in less than a month. Woo! I’m not sure how we’ve coped with all the excitement to be honest. We’re not used to it.

birthday girl grinning

Elsa’s transition into her teens felt momentous and exciting and scary and right. And although she’s 13 and I thought she might be beyond our usual home-styley party, she insisted on having one. So I had an unexpected bonus year of youthful party planning.

Of course one of the most important elements of any birthday celebration is the cake – it’s the bit of children’s parties we carry on right into adulthood. But ironically, given my prediliction for producing absurd cakes over the years; Elsa, it emerges doesn’t really like cake. On second thoughts, perhaps it’s not ironic at all.

So after her declaration as a teenage non-cake lover, we had to think of something else special to stick candles in, sing around and share with friends.

I began to think about biscuits, which she does like and was heading in the direction of a stack of giant cookies. And then I remembered Elsa’s favourite teatime biscuity treat, which really IS a treat. Drum roll please…

The Tunnock's teacake

The Tunnock’s Teacake

Oh what a wonderful confection, starting with the box – perfect in all its yellow and red retro glory and right through to the six foil-wrapped beauties inside.

Plated up, Tunnock’s teacakes look fabulous. I’d like to think that the Queen offers them on silver platters as an eminently superior alternative to Ferrero Rocher. Perhaps I’ll petition the government to make sure there are supplies in every British Embassy. I’m sure tricky negotiations would be eased considerably with Tunnocks teacakes to hand.

Tunnock's teacakes on plates

On the tea table a plate each of blue (dark chocolate) and red (milk chocolate) Tunnockses (that’s the official term) look wonderfully festive and quaint in a his and her’s, ‘boys and girls come out to play’ kind of way.

The red ones are far more widely available but the blue ones do actually have a certain something. Having bought a packet of them for this very blog post, we all tested them and I’m pretty sure they’ll be in my shopping basket again. I got them in Waitrose. The red ones are available widely, including in Poundland, thank you very much.

Opening a Tunnock’s teacake is sheer delight. Even the foil wrapper merits a few minutes of attention, but only AFTER the main event which of course is the teacake itself.

Teacake collage

Maybe she loves them a bit TOO much!

I’m not sure I should say too much about the beauty of that perfect chocolate dome, the joy of cracking through it with your teeth and the taste of the perfectly white fluffy mallow within. I won’t do it justice with mere words. All I can say is, if you haven’t tried a teacake yet, now’s the time. Email me your address and I’ll put one in the post. I can’t guarantee its safe arrival, but I’ll try.

Incidentally there are pretenders – supermarket own brands and the like, but I did a taste test once of three other varieties against Tunnock’s. Guess who won. By a long chalk.

So anyway, back to Elsa’s birthday non-cake. After much deliberation and a middle of the night Eureka moment the answer became clear: a GIANT Tunnock’s teacake. Oh the excitement.

It occured to me that the giant Tunnock’s teacake might have already been attempted, so I headed straight for ‘Pimp that Snack‘. I was right; 3 people have tried, with mixed results in my view, but well done them for trying and a round of applause to Michelle Kershaw and Nick Dodds for their creation.

While Pimp that Snack was a good starting place for some top tips, I went elsewhere for recipes and techniques. The whole process is perhaps not as hard as you think, but you do need to take some care and time, and it’s not one to cut corners on. Remember it’s perfection you’re trying to recreate.

close up tunnocks teacake

Somehow I think most of you won’t be falling over yourselves or each other to make a giant Tunnock’s teacake but you should if you’re feeling adventurous and you want to make an impression. If you’ve been paying attention you’ll know that I think it’s really important to make birthdays memorable. What better way than a giant version of your loved one’s favourite biscuit.

So I’d like to think that sometime, somewhere the 5th brave giant teacake adventurer will benefit from my experience. Whoever you turn out to be, I salute you. Please do say hello, whenever that great day comes.

boxes of tunnocks teacakes

And now here’s my more or less blow by blow account, because I did a lot of research and I wouldn’t want you to have to do the same.

To get us started; when making a giant Tunnock’s teacake there are four key elements to consider:

  • The chocolate dome
  • The mallow filling
  • The biscuit base
  • The distinctive red and silver wrapper

The super smooth chocolate dome is really the key to it all. Its super smooth, perfectly rounded finish is crucial to an authentic end result. Once you’ve got the dome right the rest will follow, sort of. Hopefully.

unwrapped teacake

The naked teacake

Dome first. I inherited my grandma’s round-bottomed copper bowl which she used to whip up egg whites into a frenzy for meringues. It’s about 8″/20cm across. Perfect. If you don’t happen to have a copper bowl in your cupboard (you don’t?) then a large hemisphere cake tin like this one would be just right.

I used this teacake recipe by Paul Hollywood and doubled the quantities for each giant teacake. (I actually made 2 domes and biscuit bases but more on that later). The recipe recommends dark chocolate but I went for a mix of milk and dark. About 2/3rds and 1/3rd respectively. And supermarket own brand rather than the usual high quality stuff I use. More authentic for this project methinks.

In the name of authenticity I decided to temper the chocolate as I wanted that glorious teacake shine. Without getting too technical (I’ll leave that to the experts) tempering chocolate is a process of developing all important beta crystals. These splendid fellows prevent the characteristic white bloom of untempered chocolate that you may have seen if you’ve stored chocolate in the fridge. Tempering involves heating, cooling and reheating melted chocolate to specific temperatures, reasonably quickly. There are several methods out there, but I recommend David Lebovitz’ guide to tempering chocolate.

Word of warning: you need an accurate thermometer for this. I hoped my jam thermometer would work but it doesn’t go to a low enough temperature. Fortunately our digital cooking thermometer did the job. Just make sure you have one before you start.

peeling chocolate off teacake

Obviously the critical part of this whole chocolate dome thing are the acts of moulding and unmoulding the dome. Scary concepts unless you’re a chocolatier with your own lab in Switzerland. So I did considerable research into making sure the chocolate would form the perfect shape AND come out of the bowl. I wiped around the bowl with a smear of flavourless oil and froze it as well. Allegedly one or other of these measures should’ve been sufficient but I wasn’t taking any chances.

To make the chocolate dome spoon a decent amount of melted ( and tempered?) chocolate into your bowl/mould and swirl it around and up the sides of the bowl. Use the back of your spoon to help the distribution process. Keep tilting and tipping and adding more chocolate until the whole bowl is covered with a reasonably thin and reasonably even layer of chocolate. Return the bowl to the freezer for about 20 minutes. Remove and repeat. I opted for a fairly thick and therefore stable (I figured) chocolate dome, coward that I am. Finally, after another short spell in the freezer check that the chocolate is firm and face the scary prospect of removing the dome from its home.

I’ve mentioned that I made two domes – this gives me the opportunity to tell you that the process of removing the chocolate shell can be either really easy or really not easy. The first shell I made slipped out with barely a word of encouragement. I just slid a knife around the top edge to loosen it, inverted it and the little beaut slid out with no trouble.

Eating a Tunncok's teacake

The second was a nightmare. It refused to budge despite the knife trick, hot tea towels laid on the bowl and a few sharp encouraging taps on its bottom. Leaving the bowl to come to room temperature didn’t help either. In the end we took a palette knife to it, pushed right down between the bowl and the chocolate. This on the basis that there must be a sticking point somewhere. I had visions of the dome’s smooth shiny surface being completely ruined but decided it would be hidden under foil so WHO CARES! Me actually, but we were desperate by then.

Anyway the dome did loosen and slid out. And miracle of miracles it was as smooth as. Not a blemish from the palette knife anywhere. The moral? Get tough if you have to. Tell it who’s boss. And if it tells you who’s boss by breaking. Well then you’ll just have to start again. Remember I made two in one evening and I didn’t find that too arduous. In fact we made the whole kit and caboodle in an afternoon and evening.

The biscuit base is straightforward – just find a circle template the right size to fit just inside your hemisphere. I used an 8″ removable cake tin base. Roll the mixture quite thick – about 1cm and bake longer than the recipe says for a beastie of this size. I confess I can’t remember how long ours took, I just kept checking and putting it back for another 5 mins. Once cooled cover all over with melted chocolate – I had enough left from the dome for this. No need for perfection here. As you can see.

smearing chocolate on biscuit base

THIS is the part Alice volunteered to help with…

Next the all important mallow. It’s basically a meringue mixture with some added syrup. The recipe uses golden syrup but I might be tempted to try glucose syrup next time for extra whiteness.

I always seem to have a problem with egg whites – there always seems to be some egg white that remains liquid in the bottom of the bowl. There’s plenty of advice online about meringue weeping once it’s on the pie, but what about when it’s still in the bowl?!

close up bowl of mallow

Anyhoo, the mallow worked out fine – it tasted and looked perfectly great – but there was some weepiness when we cut into the teacake.

Thanks to this very useful ‘Decoding Delicious’ blog post about foaming egg whites there are two things I’ll do differently next time. First I’ll start beating the egg whites at a sloooow speed and secondly I’ll refrigerate the completed mallow/meringue; warmth causes them to deconstruct.

Once we dolloped the mallow into the chocolate shell we carried out the slightly scary operation of adding the chocolate biscuit base and turning the whole thing over, before sealing the edge with more melted chocolate – rapidly piped and smeared on with a teaspoon. This join is not perfection on the real thing, so smearing is fine! You can’t really do this part without a second pair of willing and able hands.

drawing teacake wrapper

Aside from moral support and extra helpful hands, Danny’s most important and much admired contribution was the fantastic wrapper artwork. He copied the signature design (with personalised messages for Elsa) onto tin foil. Don’t use non-stick foil and do use a permanent marker like a Sharpie.

Lesser mortals like myself would need to draw circles and straight lines to ensure a reasonable result, but being a proper artist Danny drew this freehand. Brilliant! So brilliant we’re going to frame it. I love it.

giant Tunnock's teacake wrapper

And that’s it. We’re there. The giant teacake is ready to serve to our newly teenage daughter and her birthday friends. Ta da!

Giant Tunnock's Teacake

Actually I mentioned that I made two giant teacakes. We presented the second one unwrapped and with a small hammer. It was filled with sweets not mallow. A chocolate piñata if you will. Whoop! Alongside we stuck the requisite 13 candles into some proper teacakes for Elsa to blow out and then she hammered and cut her way into her two giant Tunnock’s teacakes.

pinata teacake

The birthday girl couldn’t quite believe her eyes and a special place for Tunnock’s teacakes has been utterly guaranteed for many, many more birthdays in our household. Now who do I write to at the British Embassy? Wait, I know just the man…

teacake and candles

Happy birthday sweetheart x

 

Oh and by the way, this is not a sponsored post!

50

February 8, 2014

So it’s here. The number 50 birthday bus pulled up outside my house and I jumped on board. I’m sitting upstairs at the front, peering down at the drivers head and so far it’s a perfectly nice ride with comfy seats and plenty to look at.

old image of number 50 bus

Ting, ting, fares please!

As is often the case, waiting for the bus to arrive was painful. It took forever and I got cold and wet, because while actually being 50 doesn’t really bother me, this impeding birthday did provide me with an opportunity to examine all aspects of my own life with a powerful electron magnifying glass.

A friend actually gave me a magnifying glass as a birthday present, but I don’t think I need it. As usual I scrutinised myself and I didn’t much like what I saw. Sigh.

And then when I’d got my knickers in a proper twist about my teeny life and universe I tried to work out how to celebrate my birthday. Party? Dance? Dinner? Day out? Night in? Night away? Grown ups only? All inclusive? Shouldn’t care. Doesn’t matter. Yes it does. Aaaggghhh…

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz WW Denlow illustration

“I’m melting, I’m melting”. W.W. Denlow from ‘The Wonderful Wizard of Oz’.

Eventually I chose my mode of celebration: tea and cake with friends. Phew. And then with perfect timing, my very own knight in shining armour rode in and whisked me off to Naples for a surprise weekend. Oh the excitement!

Naples as I can now report, is a fabulous city that lives and breathes its own history. It stands in the shadow of Mount Vesuvius which could blow at any time. In fact an eruption is overdue, so this great natural time bomb is a powerful presence. And while the streets are coated in a layer of grime, noise and graffiti – all of which I quite like, there is history everywhere; beneath the pavements, behind the walls and in the daily life of the city.

Naples collage

In a dim and dark back alley, we saw a family chapel filled with the most beautiful and extravagant renaissance art, as well as two human bodies stripped of everything but their circulatory systems – a mass of veins and arteries. And inside an anonymous apartment a bed pushed into the wall revealed steps to a roman theatre, recently unearthed in the family’s cellar. Excavations now continue underneath 89 occupied apartments.

Naples collage

We were taken on a candlelit tour through the tunnels and caverns of the old Roman aquaduct that was later used in the last war as a bomb shelter and by nuns to store wine. I also understand it was a place of horrendous torture. That wasn’t on the tour. We came across a shrine to football’s Maradona in a coffee shop and visited an exhibition of tiny nativity scenes that we could only see with a magnifying glass and torch. The smallest was set into a seed and the head of each tiny figure was made with a single grain from a pear’s flesh.

collage naples

And so in Naples I was reminded that there are wonderful things to see everywhere; just look carefully and shine light into dark corners to see unexpected treasures. I think perhaps the magnifying glass I was given will turn out to be a splendid present after all. Note to self: remember to appreciate what I see.

Back home and revitalised, our initial idea to have a few friends over for tea grew like topsy (who’s topsy?) into a vintage afternoon tea for…errr…sixty five people. And we invited guests to bake a ‘Showstopper’ cake as on The Great British Bake Off TV show.

A good party (when you’re under 10 or over 40) starts with an invite to set the scene and inspire. I put mine together on Powerpoint, using lots of fonts that are all listed at the bottom of the post.

bake off birthday invite

On the invite I made it clear that people didn’t have to bake and I’m so glad I did. Not everyone is a born baker or has time. I don’t want people to feel guilty, I just want them to be there. We would’ve had way too much cake anyway and that would just be obscene.

So we ended up with a ratio of one cake to about 6 guests. Maybe this could be supervised (i.e. check who is and isn’t going to bake), but I did a quick guestimate and thankfully it worked out perfectly.

felt bunting

The final week was a blur of organisation and preparation. I kept decs simple; paper balls and fans in the kitchen and homemade triangular felt bunting in the (newly painted) dining room. The vintage china came out, Carole brought her supplies too and so the tea table was ready to receive cake! Lots of cake.

vintage teacups & pot

The fun really started when Fergus and Erin and our girls donned their pinnies and chefs hats and got baking. We set up workstations on trestle tables and they had an adult each to help. We managed oven space amd time carefully, covered the kitchen in flour, had a LOT of fun and ended up with some great cakes.

bake off collage
I can wholeheartedly recommend the bake off idea, whether or not you have children to hand. Guests bringing cake to the table is lovely and it can work for many ages and occasions. Of course it also reduces the cooking workload, but don’t be under any illusion that the party becomes easy. There’s still plenty to do and buy and organise, but it’s all so worth it.

Come the day, the first knock at the door; guests arrive with cake and smiles and tea is served!

tea table

ta da!

There were savoury treats as well as sweet. Carole and Ross rolled up their sleeves and made a shop’s worth of cucumber, ham and cheese sandwiches and stuffed 100 mini bagels from the Rinkoff Bakery with salmon and cream cheese (maybe a little too much Ross) and there were homemade sausage rolls. We served fizz, tea and fruit punch in vintage teacups and lemonade in bottles with straws for the kids.

Oh and the flowers. Marie filled vintage cups with beautiful posies of flowers and dotted them about the place. Everywhere. Beautiful. She’s a professional florist and it shows of course, but you could achieve a similar if simpler effect with little tied bunches of spring flowers.

Vintage flowers collage

I love that the whole party was a group effort and it suited me perfectly that the cakes were the centre of attention, not me. It is slightly (very?) ironic that while I love creating parties I’d rather not be at them! On the day I just want to hide and let everyone else enjoy themselves.

bake off cakes collage

Erin’s white chocolate and raspberry tarts, Fergus’s disco brownies, Alice’s mehndi lime cake and Elsa’s birthday cake biscuits

The true stars were the cakes and their bakers. We even had cakes from two friends who’ve never baked before – yay!

We planned to do some judging but I couldn’t bring myself to choose one over another. They were all winners to me. Judge for yourself.

cakes collage

So cake and friends turned out to be the perfect birthday for me and now here I am sitting on that number 50 bus. I’ve paid my fare and I don’t mind being onboard one little bit. I have opportunities to explore, grow and change right into middle and old age (hopefully!), so the journey promises to be an interesting one. For these days, while our children grow up faster we have the chance to stay young for longer. Three cheers to that!

Oh and three little cheers to Tumblr for easing the path into 50-ness. I’ve just signed up for a Tumblr account and had to write my age to register. Declaring it openly was definitely a test of my cheerfulness at turning 50. This is Tumblr’s response…

Tumblr registration page

Thanks Tumblr. Bring it on!

50 cushion

Credits:

  • Number 50 bus photo by JGS Smith
  • Various birthday pics: Ross Sleight & Miklos Kiss
  • Invite fonts: Cursif, Postino Std, Carnivalee Freakshow, American Typewriter, Ecuyer DAX, Copperplate, Bernard MT Condensed, JFRingmaster, Baskerville
  • Luverly ’50′ cushion by ‘Of Little Consequence’
  • Danny, Carole & Ross – amazing, thank you xxx

Twelfth Night and a new year

January 6, 2014

So Twelfth Night is upon us and it’s time to put everything Christmassy away for another year.

pile of abandonned Christmas trees

No they’re not ours. We didn’t even have a proper Christmas tree this year. How’s that for restraint…

But first there’s still time to wish everyone a Happy New Year, which I will do here with cake, well pie. Alice’s mince pies to be precise which we stamped with my cookie alphabet stamp set. They may not be the most elegant pies but they were deee-l-i-c-i-o-u-s. So Happy New Year one and all!

New year mince pies

Putting Christmas away is a big palaver in our house, mainly because Christmas in our house is a big palaver and you can’t have one without the other.  

So away it all must go and each year we squeeze a little bit more stuff into a loft space that I swear gets a little bit smaller each year. Hmmm. Every year I question the merits of OTT decorations and this year is no different. But this year the whole de-Christmassing is even messier than usual, both literally and figuratively.

String of Christmas cards and merry christmas sign

Literally because there’s the aftermath of two friends’ Christmas parties I decorated as well as our home decs to clear away. At times like this I envy the folk with sheds and minimal festive tendencies – I so wish I could stick to a twig and an artfully arranged biscuit, but I can’t and so there’s a lot to do. Ho ho, blinkin’ ho!

Santas on a shelf

Figuratively it’s messy this year because I start 2014 debating new career options and actually my Christmassy trinkets are at the heart of my big questions for the new year.

As I wrap each bauble in tissue paper, I ponder my future. Should my love of parties and festive sparkle fuel a new career direction? Is this the time to try and create a job from something I love doing? Or is it best kept as an occasional madness at home? Way down at the other end of the spectrum is it maybe such a big (obscene even) waste of energy, money and resources that I should scale down/stop doing this stuff and focus on other, more important things?

vintage glass Christmas baubles

My vintage baubles. I love the little pieces of thin thread they are nearly always strung with…

But I’m supposed to be true to myself right? We all are. And I love, love the sparkle and festiveness of Christmas, and other occasions come to that. I enjoy creating special events and settings. I do wish I could say something more worthwhile about this, but I can’t. It is what it is. So here I am, still a-wondering and a-pondering…

close up bauble

But perhaps this confusion is somewhat justified, after all this is my first new year for more than 25 when I haven’t known what the next 12 months might hold. I know, incidentally that I am lucky to have these choices at all. And sometimes that fact even makes me see sense. Not always though.

candles and christmas trees

The confusion I feel is possibly further exacerbated by the teensy weensy, insignificant point that I will soon be celebrating 50 years on this planet. Ho hum. Lets move on, shall we? Suffice to say it’s quite tricky approaching 50 without knowing where I’m going or what I’m doing and it’s extra tricky being a person with an endless ability to question, cross examine and flay myself at every available opportunity!

Nativity scene

The nativity, placed in a homemade bathroom. My most favourite ever carboot sale find.

Anyway I refuse (today at least) to get the better of myself. Instead I will do as I might tell you to do when you’re being hard on yourself: look at what a fab person you are and remember what you do really well; consider your achievements for last year and pat yourself on the back. Then look forward with renewed vigour (or at least a little less doubt). There. Isn’t that just a bit better? 

So in the spirit of practising what I preach, I shall finish off this 12th Night post with some jars of Christmassiness I (we, of course) made this year, for my friends Sarah and Matt’s party, to bring some extra special sparkle to their already splendid party. I’m quite pleased with these little fellas. There. I said it. What are you pleased about? Go on. Say it. And feel it. Well done you.

Christmas jars

In all we made 16 festive scenes. Here are a few of them and also some tips on how to make your own next year. I mean this year…Eek.

3 christmas jars

Three cute figures, three cute scenes.

Once you’ve found suitable friends for your jars (but therein lies quite a task) they’re pretty easy to make, though surprisingly time-consuming if I’m honest.

A key to success is LOTS of fake snow for an instant festive feel. On some jars we even dotted glue on the insides of the glass and swirled snow inside to look like snowfall.

DSC00982

SO happy to find a skip lorry ready to deliver a Christmas tree!

Ribbons and bells can also bring something extra – but don’t over do it and sometimes just let the contents speak for themselves.

Clockwork santa in a jar

Here’s my favourite clockwork Santa

Skiing santa in a jar

And of course we have Santa on skis, delivering presents to all the little children. Hurrah!

Each jar is lit from within. LEDs are either attached to the lid or hidden in the snow. The right lighting really is important. Use ice white lights sparingly – they tend to glare unkindly.

miniature reindeer in a jar

A herd of miniature reindeer beneath a starry sky

 This fellow (he’s an ink stamper) sits on a bed of snow lit from within.

snowman in a jar

Simple and sweet.

Finally, something all homes should have at Christmastime and that my dear friends, is a Christmas pig. If you don’t already have one then be thankful that you have a whole year, well 352 days to acquire one. Just listen to this: 

Rolf Harris – The Wonderful Christmas Pig

…It’s all in one of our favourite Christmas songs! On the other hand you may or may not choose to buy this book: The Christmas Pig - a fable I just found and which I’m not sure I’ll be buying. No offence Kinky and I know you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover but I think I’ll stick to the song. Though all things considered, maybe I should…

Christmas pig in a jar

Hooray for the Christmas Pig!

So as we begin 2014 I leave you with the wonderful Christmas Pig and I wish you a happy and peaceful new year.

Oh and I hope your thoughts and Christmas dec boxes are neatly packaged and much more sorted than mine! X

Halloween party – how perfectly revolting

November 6, 2013

I’ll let photos do the talking here. An account of our Halloween party of which I’m quite proud. Creative, fun and already over!

Maybe it should be a musical, because as Hot Chocolate once said (nearly); “it started with a list”…

halloween party list

Innocent enough; just a load of ideas of my own and found online; added to, modified, developed and filtered. But before you know it this single sheet of paper becomes a full scale party production.

It’s a while since I’ve produced one of these extravaganzas and before long I’m reminded exactly how much work is involved. Having loads of ideas is one thing; executing them is quite another. Accept upfront that not everything will happen and also recognise that you need time and help to pull everything together. Ask for help from reliable friends and use it wisely. And make it clear to your helpers that you really need their services, it’s not optional!

Unusually for me, the girls are on hand for Halloween this year and thank goodness they’re willing to help a lot, amid all the other exciting possibilities of half term. I also have invaluable help and extra creativity from Danny (oh please can it be Donny) and Marie, without whom this party wouldn’t have happened. Certainly not with as much panache and possibly not at all.

Halloween pumpkin

Danny’s brill-o carving. Perfectly evil!

The theme this year is revolting. Revolting Halloween that is. We’ve done cute and funny Halloween, now it’s time to get down and dirty, though remembering that we will have guests as young as two, so no gore fest thanks. But revolting it is. A theme with ageless appeal, even for teenagers hopefully!

Food is at the centre of this revoltingness.  I want to mess with people’s heads about what they see on their plates and put in their mouths. The food should be emminently edible, delicious even, but definitely offputting and with more than a touch of humour and niftiness about it.

The decor will vary from room to room, but hopefully reflect a more grown up approach to Halloween than in years gone by. In any event it will, as always be based on the principle of “more is more”. I have tried “less is more” on many occasions, honest I have, but I just can’t seem to get the hang of it.

halloween-y items

The devil IS in the detail.
Top left: a new addition gargoyle for a whole 99p
Top right: shrunken heads made from apples last week
Bottom left: my favourite wax tealight holders, about 5 years old
Bottom right: Danny’s 30 year old mangy cat. I love him.

Over the years I’ve collected Halloween decorations that come down from the loft annually to get used and re-used and each year I add a few new bits from my high street expeditions. In this World of Online-everything I still rely on and love a few real foraging trips to find the unexpected.

Miss Haversham's halloween decs

Red candle wax dripped onto white candles makes for a sinister effect, as do dead roses from the local florist. All draped with spider web. The lace mats were my Grandma’s. She’ll be turning in her grave, bless her.

So here it is; a pictorial account of it all, with ideas and useful tips. Wherever possible I’ve credited original ideas but many are repeated widely (once you look!) and I’ve been unable to trace back to the original idea. If anyone can find original sources please let me know, otherwise the particular references I used are all on my Pinterest Halloween board. So, enjoy and don’t hesitate to ask if there’s anything you want to know.

Decorations begin outside with bags of Autumn leaves borrowed from our roadsweepers, thanks chaps – we’ll bag them back up after, plus pumpkins and chinese lanterns, all artistically arranged by Marie.

Autumn leaves and pumpkins outside house

Autumn leaves – free and abundant!

Once over the threshold, guests are greeted by our undead Victorian children…

Halloween girls

“Welcome… to our humble abode”

..who open the door with a self-penned script and deadpan expressions. They had to practise not laughing. It took a while to perfect.

The hall is hung with little body parts, skulls and skeletons, all swinging at irritating heights so guests can’t help but walk into them. We don’t want their entrance into the house to be easy, now do we.

halloween decorations skulls and skeletons

Black ‘web’ and dim lights create a sinister atmosphere

Then into the kitchen for some suitably tempting snacks.

halloween sticking plaster bics

Ouch…

Key to success here is suitable crackers and as the idea hails from the U.S. I cant use the ones they recommend. So after some searching (!) I found these Sky Flakes crackers in our local Tesco World food aisle which are also available online. Or maybe you can find something different/better.

Anyway a careful wipe of cream cheese makes an excellent wound dressing, topped here with ketchup blood. For others we used barbecue sauce which produced a darker and I think better, blood red. Then to something sweet…

edible halloween q-tips

Ear wax never tasted so good!

Delicious but revolting, these cotton buds with ear wax caused howls of disgust – hooray! Mini-marshmallows are simply pushed onto rolled paper lolly sticks and dipped in caramel and a box of ear buds on the plate completes the scene perfectly. I tested various makes of caramel and after my survey can recommend Bonne Maman caramel for the best deep colour and just the right texture for authentic, thick ear wax. Mmmm…

Other splendid opening snacks included…

  • Meat and quorn sausages on sticks – well, 4″ nails actually. Cooked in a honey and sweet chilli sauce glaze.
  • Cockroach carapaces – halved dates. These particular dates had shiny ‘shells’
  • Bloody (non-alcoholic) cocktail: a mix of red grape and cranberry juice with a hint of pineapple juice, served from a drinks fountain. It frothed and foamed perfectly. Revolting.
  • Popcorn: two varieties – ectoplasm – with green ice cream sauce drizzled over and goo – delicious if supremely unhealthy popcorn topped with melted marshmallows, butter and brown sugar.

halloween snacks collage

Oh blimey, I almost forgot the edible ashtray. Crushed Oreo cookies mixed with icing sugar make great cigarette ash that really looks the part when served with candy stick ‘cigarettes’. It has to be presented in the perfect ashtray of course and guess what, I already own it! It’s a coughing lungs ashtray given to me by my luverly brother many moons ago, which coughs when you put a cigarette down and is still I see, available on ebay. Perfect.

lungs ashtray with candy cigarettes

cough, cough…

Pinterest has become an invaluable resource for me (and millions of others) to collect and collate ideas.  Pretty much everything you could wish for exists online somewhere these days, but the skill is in knowing how to search effectively and how to find the really great things. For a party like this it’s about curating and picking ideas that will work really well together, to create a whole that is coherent and hopefully impressive. Good research skills are key, as is a tenacious (borderline obsessive) attitude, both to finding what you want and also discovering what you don’t know you want until you see it. It takes effort, but it’s worth it I think!

halloween: kids on the stairs

The kids are the coolest

Decs should work with their surroundings. Our kitchen is modern and bright, so here, large skeletons and fantastic new white webs from our local 99p Store set the scene – very different to Miss Haversham’s parlour in the front. But on to that in a mo.

halloween skeleton collage

The green skelis are old but given a lick of paint. The brilliant masks are new and from Wilkinsons.

We provide a few games on the night; apple-bobbing of course and most notably a revolting food tasting game. Eat, if you dare from jars of mysterious and yukky (but edible) halloweeny substances.

We stuffed strange looking food stuffs, mostly from Asian supermarkets (strange tinned and dried fungi, fruit and noodles) and a few edible insects into jars and bottles of all shapes and sizes and Alice spent a whole morning writing suitably gruesome labels (onto tea stained paper) with her new quill pen. I disguised the jam jar lids with covers made from coffee filter papers also soaked in tea.

halloween tasting game collage

Well done Alice!

And then we let our jars of horrible edible body parts loose on our unsuspecting guests. Deep joy! The desiccated zombie brains (a mystery Vietnamese dried fruit) won the prize for most disgusting taste, while the Cyclops vomit (sandwich spread) went completely untouched, it looked so wrong. Science teachers’ intestines (wide, floppy noodles) caused a stir and the innocent children’s fingers (pickled asparagus) slipped down all too easily. It was mainly the adults who tucked in with gusto and special awards go to Jeff and Chris.

halloween tasting game collage

Can I tempt you with a slice of teenagers lung? Or how about a warlock’s diseased finger? Or maybe some belly button fluff from a ginger kid? No? Oh.

Of course Halloween isn’t Halloween these days without trick or treating, so a few (ir)responsible adults were despatched with our gang of 20 or so kids, big and small to roam the local streets in search of sweets, while Marie and I finalised the main food. We could’ve done with them getting lost (!), but an hour later they were back brandishing their treats.

kids trick or treating collage

You better watch out…

First, a little surprise for their return…

glow in the dark skeletons and web

Boo!

Yay! UV heaven in the kitchen. Last year we installed blacklight in our kitchen, I’m not sure why – my mind on an overexcited decorating ramble I think, but I’m very glad we did and of course now it’s the perfect backdrop for a halloween spectacle.

Those 99p Store webs glow in the dark beautifully and glowsticks taped to them add little dashes of colour all over the room. My old green skelis have been overpainted with green UV paint (thanks Elsa and Myrtle) and UV spiders and bats hang everywhere, many of those handpainted with UV markings. The whole room is transformed into a glowing Halloween wonderland and I’m very excited!

The atmosphere here is completed with a suitably spooky Spotify playlist we assembled that includes a few lesser known but perfect spooky tracks – try the Tiger Lillies out for starters. Snip, snip…  A brilliant addition now that Alice is old enough not to be frightened of their songs!

halloween uv collage

Meanwhile down the hall in Miss Haversham’s parlour the atmosphere is quite different.  Endless candles and judicious use of spider web makes for a dusty, old and gloomy atmosphere to perfectly match the hosts!

collage halloween decs

We are delighted…

And after Chris scared off the last of the trick or treaters at our door, with plastic rats in the bucket of sweets and a well-timed shriek to send them running (brilliant Chris), it’s time for the centrepiece food and so we bring you…

vomiting halloween pumpkin

Guacamole anyone?

For the first time this year Danny used wood-carving tools and they’ve transformed his pumpkin carving, though of course the talent is his, not the tools.

I found several versions of this via Pinterest and while I left the real artistry to Danny I focussed on making the guacamole as lumpy and sicky as possible. Roughly chopped skinned tomatoes and some barely chunked avocadoes give the perfect texture.

Then alongside, for your delectation and delight…

halloween rubbish bin food

Tuck in!

..a mini dustbin overflowing with ‘rotting’ food. The main constituent here is potatoes interspersed with all manner of other, ‘rubbish’ food spilling out of the upturned bin, including:

  • cabbage leaves (wilted first)
  • ‘worms’ made from hotdog slivers
  • black beans, green lentils and gravy to provide a slimy, oozing base
  • a few sprats cooked whole and stripped back to the skeleton with head and tail attached
  • a whole roast quail and another stripped of its meat
  • dollops of sandwich spread and hummus
  • a mini pizza cooked with green food colour added to the topping
  • I meant to make some cooked rice maggots, but forgot amid the chaos of the day. Would be worth it though.
  • a mini coke can
  • a few date ‘cockroaches’
  • mini dustbin

Once the coke can, quails and sprat bones were moved aside guests could move in and eat up.  And we served these two delights alongside spare ribs and chicken pieces, all sticktious and hot from the oven. Oh and a plate of worms and dirt (veggie hotdogs & smushed up black beans) for the vegheads, courtesy of Martha Stewart as well as a platter of hummus vomit with chickpeas and tiny cooked diced carrot pieces mixed in. Turkish flatbreads complete the spread.

The whole edible ensemble causes delight and disgust in equal measure. My barometer for success is my friend’s son Fergus, who LOVES his food. Once this lot comes out he slopes off upstairs and proclaims himself unable to eat ANYTHING. It’s all TOO disgusting. Sorry Fergus, but hooray; mission accomplished!

And to end this celebration there has to be cake and of course it has to be revolting. So without further ado, I present…

cat litter tray cake

Cat litter tray bake

I think it speaks for itself really, though this pic really doesn’t do it justice. It’s a point to note – that when you’re hosting a party like this, ask someone to be court photographer to capture everything properly. It’s so busy that it’s difficult to do yourself.  Anyway the cake was a resounding success and very delicious too, for those who could get beyond its physical appearance that is. Sorry Carole. Sorry Albi. Tee hee.

I think I’ll write a separate post about how to actually make this cake – I’ve got lots of tips and ideas and of course you’ll all be wanting to make one now, but suffice to say here that it was a perfect end to a perfectly revolting evening.

Next year I think we’ll be heading down Mexico way, for a Day of the Dead celebration. Maybe we’ll see you there or here or maybe you’ll be holding your own Halloween party. If you do just remember to stay within the boundaries of what you can achieve and enjoy it!

Party time

October 24, 2013
Alice and 1st birthday cake

Alice’s 1st birthday. I know it doesn’t look as though she likes cake, but she does. A lot.

So our little girl, our little girl is 10 – years – old.

How did this happen? How did we get here so soon? I can hardly believe it. Her childhood, which at one time seemed like a new permanent state of being, is slipping by as she grows up. In the distance I can already see an end to this hands-on parenting, though I’ve no doubt it will be replaced by another, more subtle but equally important (and difficult) variety.

It seems like a lifetime ago that we were changing nappies and experimenting with strange vegetable purees. So long ago that when I meet new babies I scarcely know what to do with them, though maybe I’m less scared than I used to be. Clearly I am not from the ‘mother earth’ mould, rather I occupy a parenting world in outer space that involves aliens and strange planets, small steps and giant leaps.

Talking of which Alice recently expressed a desire to start walking to school on her own.

“Okay” said I

…sadly and nervously.

But next morning, after sleeping on the idea she had revised her plan. She suggested that we should both go, but on opposite sides of the street.

A fine idea.

“Which side do you want to walk on?” I asked her.

“Ummm, I don’t know, which side do you want to walk on?”

“I don’t know sweetheart, you choose”…

Silence, as we walked to the end of our street.

And at the top of the road when the decision needed to be made, her hand slipped into mine.

“I know Mummy. Let’s walk together”.

Yes let’s.

But already her big sister Elsa, aged 12 and 3/4s (she’s not too old for the months to count) is armed with mobile phone and bus pass to take her to and from secondary school every day. And so the land of looking after two independent Misses draws ever nearer. But while they might be ready to take on the World, I’m not. Really I’m not.

So at this important birthday for Alice I am reminded to enjoy these final young years before they disappear forever.

pink birthday rubber duck

I think it’s important to mark time by celebrating. We humans have done it since… well for the longest time and I think it matters; to mark our development and our journeys through life, in style.

Very soon after Alice was born I calculated that there’d be very limited opportunities to celebrate these special birthdays and Christmases with excessive frivolity and sparkle. Here’s what I worked out…

celebration formulaI hope you can all see that the amount of time we spend celebrating these very special occasions with our children is tiny and therefore not to be wasted. 0.6% for heavens sake! Plus of course a year is a very long time when you’ve only got four or five of them under your belt, so each birthday has increased significance for a young child. If I was worth my mathmatical salt I’d be able to create a formula with ‘n’s and ‘x’s to include this ‘increased significance’ factor, but I’m not so I can’t.

party dishes

For me, this all means parties – proper parties with homespun themes, decs from the loft (plus a few new ones), some great games and delicious food. Over the years we’ve been under the sea with dolphins and fish and then over it, on a pirate adventure. We’ve stopped off at the seaside, complete with sand and beach huts in the kitchen, walked through a magic sweet garden and explored a wild jungle.

It’s been brilliant fun, but it’s hard work and I don’t suggest everyone should do it, or feel like they should. In fact my one hesitation when putting on these big parties has been that I might make other parents feel they’ve got to match up. I hope they don’t – I just want their kids to dive in and enjoy it all while they’re here.

Parties can be a very expensive business too, but I avoid commercial themes and we try to make stuff, recycle and reuse, borrow and lend. Our children have made great things at school that we’ve been able to use – I saved about 50 metres of skull and crossbone bunting from the school bin and rescued 20 sets of fairy wings the kids had made. I also love researching online, compiling and creating ideas and then pulling it all together, down to the littlest details.

Of course this world of party madness isn’t for everyone; but whatever your particular approach, try and find a way to make these occasions special and memorable.

sweet party decorations

The majority of our themed parties have been for Elsa, because actually Alice isn’t one for big parties.  But while Alice’s celebrations are a lot more, well… small, she still likes (and expects) all the trimmings and plenty of cake.

So this year we began as ever, with decs galore. Of course having started on decoration heaven all those years ago, we have a high standard to live up to so it’s become the norm for Danny and I to be up ’til 3am the night before a birthday party. As the years wear on this increasingly takes its toll, so consider upfront what you’re letting yourself in for! It’s so worth it though and I hope we’re creating really great and enduring memories for our girls and their friends, come to that.

birthday banners

Alongside the decs and atmosphere, the party games really matter, but I don’t find them nearly so easy. There’s a pressure to keep everyone entertained and happy that I find quite hard at times. However, over the years we’ve tested lots of party games, so here are some of our favourites – some classics and one or two that are not for the faint-hearted:

1. The chocolate game: essentially the children have to try and eat pieces from a large chocolate bar using a knife and fork while wearing a selection of hastily added clothes. Assemble a pile of clothes such as a wig, hat, gloves, scarf, sunglasses and ear muffs. There must be some oversized gloves and ideally everthing should be bright and/or ridiculous. The children sit in a circle and take turns to throw a dice until someone throws a six. That child must don ALL the special clothes provided and then start trying to eat the chocolate using only the cutlery. Meanwhile the rest of the children continue to throw the dice. When another six is thrown the next child dons the clothes and so on…

2. Lucky (face) dip: Three washing up bowls containing a number of sweets and each filled with a sticky, gritty or other suitable substance. E.g, Bowl 1 is full of squirty cream, bowl 2 contains feathers and bowl 3 is full of sugar. In turn the children dip their head into each bowl in an effort to retrieve the hidden sweets. By the end they are effectively tarred and feathered! Towels and wet wipes essential.

Girl with face smeared in cream

3. Musical statues with poses: a classic with a twist. While the music is playing tell the children that when it stops they must strike a pose in the style of… It could be an animal, an emotion, a job, a famous person etc. The poses can be tailored to fit any theme. The poses are usually great fun and mean interim prizes can be awarded, otherwise I think musical statues can be disappointing for the first few out.

4. Pass the Parcel: no party would be complete without it. As often as not one of us has to dash off in the middle of the party to wrap it ‘cos it got forgotten amid the chaos. We’ve often done it with dares/actions between the layers which works really well. Oh, along the way I’ve seen parents rig Pass the Parcel in the birthday child’s favour. Please don’t.

5. Edible nappies: one of the best, undoubtedly. Kids who’ve come to our parties talk about it to this day. Open up about six disposable nappies and (in the microwave) melt a different chocolate bar into each one. The children have to identify the chocolate bars by whatever means: sniffing, proding or even tasting the oh-too-realistic chocolate poo. This game results in equal measures of hilarity and disgust. I often bring the opened poo-ey nappies out on a silver tray. You can give each child pencil and paper (or divide them into teams) and have them write down their answers, or just make it a revolting free for all!

nappy game collage

6. Cheese ball relay race: two teams, a straw per person, two bowls of cheese balls and empty bowls at the other end of the room. Suck the cheese balls onto the ends of the straws and transport them one by one to the other bowl, in a relay race. Shrieking and cheating usually ensues. Great with extra long straws if you can find them. Other relay races work well too. We played ‘sandy pants’ at our seaside party; kids donned swimming trunks over their clothes into which they scooped handfuls of sand to carry from one bucket to another. At Halloween we’ve transported handfuls of goo between cauldrons…

The final element of course is the birthday tea. Over the years we’ve done all sorts, from make your own pizzas to a pirates feast and an ice cream parlour, but this year Alice asked for a classic old-fashioned birthday tea; tiny triangular sandwiches; white bread (crusts off, natch) lightly buttered and filled with thinly sliced cucumber, marmite (Nigella’s tip: smush the marmite and butter together before spreading), egg and cress and cream cheese. Also crisps, twiglets, jelly and ice cream and cake, LOTS of cake.

Alice loves cake. Which is fortunate since I quite like making it.

First, in Alice’s honour I massacred a sophisticated coconut and marscarpone cake by Dan Lepard. He baked it beautifully for his very own wedding and I wrecked his lovely creation by baking it in brightly-coloured layers. The garish sponges were tinted to match the 10 owl birthday candles on top and then hidden beneath a delicous cream marscarpone icing.

owl cake

Colourful? Yes. A surprise for Alice? Yes. A big hit? Yes. Delicious? Yes. Recommended? Yes. Sophisticated? No. Sorry Mr Lepard.

striped birthday cake cu

And was this the most kitsch offering on the birthday tea table?

Nope. That accolade would go either to the jelly or the cupcakes.

I found a giant jelly baby mould online and in order to make it chewy like the real thing added lots of jelly babies to the packet of proper jelly. Actually I ordered some special chewy Japanese konnyaku jelly but it didn’t arrive in time so this was my solution.  We loved this and I think Mr Giant Jelly Baby may become a new tradition in our house – wibble wobble, wibble wobble… Sorry ’bout the pic, it doesn’t do him justice.

giant jelly baby jelly

And so, finally, on to the cupcakes. Bubblegum cupcakes. I woke up in the night dreaming of these. Next day I discovered they’ve been done before (of course), but unperturbed I made them anyway. Classic vanilla cupcakes piped with bubblegum buttercream and flavoured with a few drops from a little bottle of magic bubblegum flavouring. Oh how I love the interweb.

bubblegum cupcakes

They were glorious; more bubble-gummy than bubblegum itself, and surprisingly delicious, considering I don’t like bubblegum. Mind you one is definitely enough. Two would certainly necessitate a lie down.

And lie down we did at the end of the weekend – happy and tired. Alice proclaimed it one of her best birthdays yet – hooray!

And then, the very next morning

I kid you not.

Alice came downstairs

Aged 10 years and 1 day

And she said to me,

“I’m going to walk to school on my own today”.

“Oh. Okay…”

Alice walks IMG_5695

Gulp.

Unwelcome guests

October 4, 2013

I am surrounded by people more intelligent, more creative, more beautiful, more socially able and more witty than I. These nagging self-doubts are my demons. They loiter in my mind like little hoodlums and take it in turns to cause trouble.

Unfortunately they turn up more often than I’d like and when two or more of these unpleasant ‘friends’ rear their ugly heads together, my fragile ego and self-regard is toppled.  When all of them arrive at once I am totally floored.

Of course my aforementioned lack of intelligence and social ability means that once they arrive I can’t get rid of them! So they stay as long as they like; drinking my drink, eating my food and generally wreaking havoc.

Most recently they gatecrashed a lovely family wedding I went to when Danny’s cousin Al married her Andy. She deserves this happiness so much and the day was full of joy and emotion and colour.

wedding cards collage

Beforehand a small group of us worked hard to help Al and Andy create their special day. I made cakes (the best use yet of our crop of blackberries) and arranged flowers. It was great to get my baking mojo back and after creating 20 table arrangements of herbs and wax flowers I think I can now create an adequate tied bunch.

wedding collage

Danny was my invaluable backup as ever. He lets me shine and create while he quietly beavers away and helps make my good things happen. By the end of Friday I felt great about what we’d achieved and like everyone was excited for the next day. I couldn’t sleep for goodness sake!

But I was aware that my unwanted friends were also smartening up and getting ready for the big day. I think perhaps their invite arrived at just about the time I felt good about myself?

Come the day, Al and her daughter Isabel, who are beautiful on the worst of days, surpassed even themselves. They looked stunning.  Andy, the guests (and their super cool vintage cars) looked amazing and our lucky girls were bridesmaids, along with little Ruby. They joined the ranks of the beautiful and I was almost overwhelmed.

wedding bridesmaids

And as we (I at least) often do at such occasions I held a mirror up to myself and I did not like what I saw. That’s when those unwanted friends of mine arrived. They came while I was getting ready, stayed all day and gradually pushed the other wedding guests away. As the day wore on I saw less of the celebrations and more of my uninvited friends.

wedding band

The Carraways play their hearts out.

Unfortunately, like most unwanted guests they then refused to leave. And since I don’t know how to despatch them, I just waited and hoped for them to go, wishing they’d leave me alone. Eventually they did but it took about a week. I’m not sure what made them go, I just realised one morning that they’d gone. A relief.

I think most of us have unwanted guests like these who come to visit from time to time, but some people are able to overcome them or ignore them more easily than others. So I’d like to develop a strategy for dealing with these unwelcome friends in future, or rather, develop some strategy which would be better than no strategy at all, as I’ve had until now.

Perhaps this blog post is a start? This is the first time I’ve ever viewed these self-confidence issues of mine as unwelcome guests. Maybe giving them an identity will help me deal with them in future. Maybe I can just tell them to leave. I’ve never been very good at telling people to go away but maybe I need to learn.

Then perhaps one day they’ll leave me alone to celebrate and enjoy occasions without their interference and maybe one day they’ll stop coming at all. Now wouldn’t that be nice!

Finally, it is important to say that despite these unwelcome wedding guests of mine, it was a beautiful day that I wouldn’t have missed for anything and will remember for all the right reasons.

wedding group

Big love and congratulations Al and Andy x

Autumn riches – blackberry heaven!

September 27, 2013

Summer in all its glory, has come and gone. And as if to make sure we understood, the weather turned bad overnight and gave us all a nasty turn. This week though we are back to lovely Autumnal days; cool sunshine, turning leaves and ripening fruit.

Living as we do in the big metropolis with a weeny (but so glad we have it) garden, our fruit-growing abilities are somewhat limited, however we do have a thornless blackberry, which always provides us with heavy crops of delicious blackberries in the late Summer and Autumn.

blackberries in a colander

All you folk who live out of London will be laughing into your tea at the idea of planting a blackberry bush. Is she mad? Just go blackberrying. Well yes I would, but I haven’t found a reliable crop near us and anyway there’s something quite lovely about striding (all of a dozen steps) to the end of our garden and plucking a few ripe juicy fruits to add to my breakfast bowl each morning.

Don’t get me wrong, if we’re in the countryside then I love nothing more than scratching my arms to pieces in order to gather a bowl or bagful of lovely ripe blackberries, but this is our easy urban alternative.

As a fruiting plant to cultivate, a blackberry bush has to be the easiest as it requires barely any maintenance. Each year it puts forth two, or when it’s feeling particularly happy three, new shoots from the base. In their first year these new shoots grow and climb and sprout leaves. They are eager to please and grow vigorously. In their second year these same branches will flower and then bear fruit, while down below another two branches begin sprouting ready for serious growth the following year.

All I do each year in late Autumn is cut down the two or three branches that have just fruited, leaving next year’s growth ready to flower (and then fruit) the following Spring. I also clip the ends of those new branches so that they bush out rather than continuing to fire out longer and longer stems. How easy is that! I have never fed it – well maybe when feeding other nearby plants, but not because it needs it.

branch of blackberries

Of course it’s quite unruly, especially if left completely to its own devices, but I can tie back the branches easily enough and its somewhat random and wild growth suits our somewhat errr random and wild garden.

This year we’ve had a bumper crop; all that Summer sunshine has produced an abundance of plump sweet fruit. In the countryside blackberries can vary from tiny, hard, hairy fellas to sweet, round juicy beauties, and the two can be in brambles right next to each other – overall I think there are around 150 varieties of wild blackberries. Of course the glorious challenge is in reaching the juiciest, which are inevitably the ones that are tantalisingly just out of reach. Those fellas are definitely worth fighting for, but there’s also something very nice and London-ish about being able to pick a bowlful of consistently big and juicy blackberries from our garden without spending time removing small thorns from our forearms afterwards. It’s theraputic as, although we’re in the middle of London, our garden is very quiet and to lose oneself in something so sweet and satisfying is a joy.

bowl of blackberries and a book

The book is a great read: Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver

So what have we done with this year’s lush fruit? Well apart from eating them straight off the bush, I have as I mentioned, been scattering them on my summer breakfast oats for the past few weeks. I soak oats and some chia seeds with milk and a squeeze of lemon juice overnight and serve them cold with fruit and yoghurt.

overnight oats with blackberries

The basic recipe is courtesy of my favourite cookery blog: My New Roots written by Sarah-Britton who-is-a-culinary-genius. Her recipes have had greater influence on my diet in recent years than anyone else’s. So if you’re in the mood for a dietary revamp head over to My New Roots and dive in. Highlights for me include her totally addictive kale crisps which are and her best lentil salad ever, which is. Oh and I must mention our most recent find: Flavour Bomb Greens and Noodles. Go on, you won’t regret it!

Alongside the daily blackberry pickings we’ve also had 3 bumper crops so far. With the first, in the heat of summer, I made a blackberry sage water – fruit and sage leaves muddled together (with a muddler – woo hoo!) and topped up with sparkling water.

blackberry sage water

While I sipped on my delicate flavoured water I made a batch of blackberry ripple ice creams that went down a storm with the troops. A simple concoction of custard, condensed milk and of course blackberries, these beauts are based on a recipe for raspberry ripple ice creams. They would be good to make with the children, if any of the mixture made it into the moulds that is. Although we loved them there’s still one left in the fridge because none of us can bear to eat the last one. Maybe we’ll put it out for Father Christmas – it’ll make a nice change from mince pies.

blackberry ripple ice cream

With the last of that crop I made an upside-down blackberry cake, courtesy of Mr Fearnley-Whittingstall. I forgot to take a picture. A nice alternative to a classic apple and blackberry crumble or pie but there’s a reason why those two are classics.

Fast forward a couple of weeks to harvest number two. I’ve made blackberry cordial before and homemade mure – a blackberry liqueur but this time I fancied blackberry jam. A peruse online and I found a recipe for blackberry jam with mint and ginger. End result: delicious but a bit runny and not particularly well-spiced. I couldn’t taste the mint or the ginger, though Danny could tell there were other flavours. Not convinced, I re-boiled the jam with some more ginger and mint. Now it zings and sings!

Crop number three has given us more breakfast berries, as well as an intense smooth blackberry puree for ice cream and finally blackberry five spice sauce to accompany grilled chicken (duck or pork). Delicious. It shall be repeated. Incidentally the recipe requires the sauce to be made in a Vitamix. I made it in a pan and strained it afterwards. Easy peasy.

As an extra special addition we sprinkled on some freshly ground szechuan pepper – our first crop EVER from our very own szechuan pepper tree.

As you chew Szechuan peppercorns (the pink shells actually) they release fascinating flavours known as ‘ma’ and ‘la’. They are a complex taste sensation that left my bottom lip partially numb for half an hour after trying my first one! Try it, it’s amazing. Oh you don’t have a szechuan pepper tree? Really? Oh, right, well my mistake…

szechuan pepper bush

I love our little peppercorn tree – its leaves smell citrusy (because it’s a citrus) and deserve a little rub on the way past. It came from Otter Farm in Devon which is run by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s farming chum Mark Diacono. Mark has a lot to say about szechuan pepper just here. He has made it his mission to grow more unusual crops and fruit trees, especially now that things are hotting up a little in the U.K. Have a look online and see if you can’t be tempted…

blackberries tipped into a bowl

Overall I’ve come to the conclusion, that having a small garden, we are better off growing fruit and veg that aren’t easy to buy. Last year we grew strawberries, but what’s the point when we can buy punnets of English grown strawberries in season? So instead we’ve switched to growing alpine strawberries. We don’t get many but each one is a little powerhouse of intense flavour and a really special treat, especially eaten straight off the plant.

So as we come to the end of this growing season, I am looking forward to the next with eager excitement. Time to consult some books, do some research and buy some seeds. And in the meantime I feel a blackberry and apple crumble coming on. Why don’t you get out there and do some blackberrying too – there’s still time for one of the best seasonal treats there is and it’s totally free! Quick, before it starts raining again.

I had too much to dream last night…

August 4, 2013

Last night I had a dream that presented a pinsharp, disturbing reality that I lived in until I awoke. And it has left me with a mixed feeling of distress and serenity which will probably last a while. I hope it does.

Electric Prunes EP cover

The Electric Prunes, “I had too much to dream last night”

In short I dreamt that I was on my deathbed, soon to die (from illness, not trauma) and struggling to breathe. There’s the distressing part.

And while living these last moments, I dreamt about a conversation I had with someone, I know not who, about how it felt to be dying.  This was my reply, to my own surprise…

“Oh it’s okay, there are no regrets” I said, “Everything I’ve done has made me who I am and has led me here to this very point at this very time and it’s all okay. Really. Everyone has their time and this is mine. It’s alright.”

And as I sit here now in the garden with an early morning cup of tea, I am very surprised by this response and it is this that has induced a sense of calmness in me. This feeling of acceptance about my own mortality is new, something I’ve never experienced before. Prior to this I’ve considered death largely with fear and loathing and I’ve imagined the horror of it.

garden wide_4724

Of course as I wait for the number 50 birthday bus to pull up outside our house next year, my own mortality is something I’ve become more aware of lately. I am definitely no longer a member of the invincible and eternal youth club and actually I’m very glad about that.

But until this dream I have viewed my own death largely with dread and its bony hand has also made me feel guilty; guilty that I should be doing so much MORE with my life, be a BETTER person while I’m here, be MORE GRATEFUL for all that I have and that I should be STRONGER than I am.

But this dream has given me a new sense of calmness; about the life I lead now and what my future decisions might be.  It will be okay and I am okay. I don’t have to fight and I don’t need to spend quite so much time thinking about what I should and could do or plotting a new career trajectory, I can be me, accept being me and maybe even enjoy being me.

gdn blackberry_4716

Actually the dream has made me think that I need to enjoy being me as much as possible. And if that doesn’t involve saving the World and/or conquering my fear of scary roller coasters, well that’s fine. In an almost reckless way it makes me think ‘sod it girl, just do what you do well and what you enjoy to the very best of your abilities – have fun with it and stop trying to be someone else, someone better. Indulge almost, in yourself and accept that while others may think differently of you – that’s okay. Stop worrying about what they all think”.

And if my way of making a mark on the World will be just a little thing or two, then that’s fine too. Of course I have my two lovely children, but I didn’t have them in order to make a mark (at least I don’t think I did); they are their own people and they have their own lives to lead, their own marks to make.

Of course I don’t mean that I should live a selfish life – whatever I do I should be mindful of others and hopefully helpful too, sometimes if not always. I am part of a family, a community and a society and my mission, should I choose to accept it, is to contribute to those groups as well as stand up as an individual and of course from such contributions, satisfaction and fulfillment comes. But that dream last night and my feelings this morning and this post are about me.

A counsellor I know once told me that each of us is like a precious, cut stone with many facets, some of which shine in the light and some of which stay in the shadows. And she told me that we can turn our stone so that different facets glint in the light while others recede into shade. But while we can change the position and angle of our precious stone we cannot change it – we are who we are.

garden pink flower_4699

To take this analogy which I like a lot (but liking is not the same as living) a bit further, perhaps I could also try a touch of polishing; bring out the shine a bit more.

This new morning sense I have that maybe I can (and should) enjoy who I am, as I have that opportunity, is of course borne out of self-acceptance. And this for me is the holy grail – acceptance. Not happiness, but acceptance. Who came up with happiness as the ultimate goal anyway? Personally I think that ‘happiness’ as a state of being is a myth. Just like ‘work-life balance’; another nonsensical nirvana that very few, or even none of us is able to reach. They are over-used terms that leave us all feeling like we’re failing. Or is that just me?!

Pah! to happiness. Pah! to work-life balance. Acceptance is where it’s at!

Acceptance of who we are as individuals, what we are formed of – good points and bad, talents and shortcomings.

gdn yellow flowers_4731

It has also made me think that when I consider my possible future career or job, that maybe I don’t need to conquer the world with a small business idea, or push to find a fancy pants role in a shiny company. Maybe a decent-ish job to which I can contribute something genuinely useful will be quite sufficient thank you; a job that forms part of my life not all of it and leaves enough brain space to enjoy the rest of life, spend more time with the girls as they grow up and hone my practice of enjoying being me.

Of course finding that mythical job is another thing, and it’s also another blog post, but for here and now just indulge me in the thought that this exists as a concept and maybe it’s what I want. Perhaps I can stop chasing dreams that don’t exist.

I can’t say I embrace the idea of death, but this morning I feel a new sense of calm about it that I’ve never experienced before. Death is, inevitably, something that will come to all of us. And while we’ve become used to controlling (or believing we control) most things in our lives; this little number keeps us guessing, which bothers us no end. And of course for some people death comes all too soon and all too painfully. But maybe when we consider it we can at least hope to feel at ease with it, not afeared by it.

gdn hydrangea_4713

Having written all this (and on my third cup of tea in the garden) I suddenly remembered a Guardian article I read a couple of years ago about dying patients greatest regrets, as recorded by an Australian palliative nurse, Bronnie Ware. There is a book; “The Top Five Regrets of the Dying” too, but for now, here are the headlines.

The Top Five Regrets of the Dying…

1. I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.

2. I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.

3. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.

4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.

5. I wish that I had let myself be happier.

It sent a shiver down my spine just now – I’m clearly on the right track. Now all I need to do is stay on it. Let’s all try… x

Down the rabbit hole. And back again.

July 19, 2013

I met an old friend for coffee the other day and was extolling the joys and virtues of blogging to him. I told him how it stretches my mind and how writing it takes me along pathways I don’t even realise exist, until I put virtual pen to virtual paper.

At its absolute best that’s what blogging does for me – takes me on surprise journeys through my own mind, creating links where I didn’t realise there were links and taking me along avenues of thought I wouldn’t otherwise visit. Nothing profound you understand, I’m not smart enough for that, but meandering, ambling strolls that I enjoy and always hope others will too.

tudor canal narrow boat

It’s amazing how the act of writing a few particular words at a certain moment can take me off down a certain little track. And had I written different words at that very moment then the pathway would be completely different. Without getting too deep and meaningless, it makes me think that maybe I should be able to influence how I feel and react to stuff that happens in life by crafting my response to it. But that’s a post for another day…

After I left the coffee shop and my friend Jon, I thought to myself, so if it’s so great why haven’t you written a blog post for ages, missus? I could contemplate my navel here and come up with complex reasons why, and indeed there are some questions in my mind about audience, expectations, hopes and self-doubt, but in the main, life’s just been too busy, so I lost sight of the blogging thread for a while. Anyway I’ve found it now, it was in a corner, peeping out from beneath some must-do paperwork that I still haven’t done.

So what busy-ness is that then? Is that where the word business comes from by the way? Well; husband absent for over 3 weeks, a loooooong weekend at Glastonbury and then friends staying with us for nearly two weeks out of three (they arrived on the doorstep 30 minutes after I downed my Glastonbury backpack!) and now a cling-on ride on the ‘end-of-term-comet’ that we parents board before the Summer holidays.

All this has meant I’ve had my head down for several weeks now, pulled along by everything going on around me. Mostly it’s been okay and sometimes great, but at other times I’ve felt like I’m being dragged along. So I fight against the tide. I’m not sure why really.

It’s true that it has been tricky at times, with all this stuff going on, but it’s also true that I have a tendency sometimes to make life harder for myself (and no doubt others) than it needs to be. I find that if my hopes and (high?) expectations aren’t met I’m crestfallen, dismayed and upset. Not sure why. And of course this takes me back to the first paragraph. Couldn’t I change those moods and influence those feelings by choosing how I interpret events and happenings; choosing which path I follow. Certainly in principle, but in practice…?

In any event it’s been full on and I do feel like I’ve been down the proverbial rabbit hole for a bit too long. So it’s nice to be back in the fresh air, especially as I can see that with all this sunshine, the lettuces are doing rather well up here. Mmmm…

Glastonbury sign

Before the crowds!

At Glastonbury we were literally down a rabbit hole, well not literally, literally you understand, but in a weenie club called the Rabbit Hole where we witnessed one of my aforementioned wished for festival highlights. In this instance Keith Allen and his famous-actor-y mates performing “Hit me with your Rhythm Stick” in Japanese and Welsh, though not at the same time. They made a fine job of it and such is Keith Allen’s charisma and joie de vivre that the tiny audience of about 40 (out of 170,000 Glasto punters) enjoyed themselves very much indeed.

Rabbit hole club with Keith Allen singing

Down the rabbit hole with Keith Allen and friends

I could talk about Glastonbury for a loooooong time, but I’ve been so remiss in filing my report that it is most definitely yesterday’s news. In fact that particular newspaper has been used for chips and recycled into toilet paper by now.

But while I don’t feel a blow by blow account is in order, I will give you a taste of my Glastonbury Festival; which was bigger, bolder and brighter than I imagined it could be. As it’s 13 years since I last went (B.C.), the sheer scale of it now is mind-blowing. And yet while there are missions and must-see moments to pursue and long journeys to make across field and hill, there’s also (if you allow yourself) plenty of opportunity to hang out and just be; watching the Glastonbury World go by; dipping in and out of the madness as you see fit.

Board man at glasto

Board man

I think so long as you don’t try and see it all then you won’t be disappointed. Danny for one refused to go to the John Peel stage because it was just too far away, but with about 99 other stages to visit, stumble upon or avoid it’s probably good that we struck one off our list!

I daresay we missed some cracking music there but we had our own musical highlights including Alt-J (twice), the Hives (with a frontman who knows how to play a festival), daily breakfast with our friends Foghorn Leghorn on stage, the glory of Nick Cave on the Pyramid stage (who needs the Rolling Stones) and our finest musical moment of all: Nile Rodgers and Chic.

If I could write ‘Chic’ in sparkling, glittering, shimmering colours right here and now, I would, but I can’t, so instead I’ll just tell you: Chic were amazing and fabulous and wonderful and had the whole crowd dancing and singing to their parade of endless hits.

Glastonbury sign post at night

This long weekend was peppered with weird and wonderful sights, sounds, tastes and experiences to behold, but for me the bestest part of all was Shangri-la – a mind boggling world of fantastic clubs set in a post-apocalyptic World. Each club was crazier than the last: try the Horse Meat Disco with obligatory ‘taches for all and a transvestite catwalk show in which half the contestants looked like they’d spent all day creating their look while the other half looked like they’d backed out of their tents and were wearing whatever got attached on the way out.

Day of the Dead dancers at Glasto

Danny taught them the bus driver dance. Their repotoire is complete.

Then there was the Copper Dollar club with Day of the Dead dancing skelis whooping it up to fine electro-swing tunes. Of course obligatory in any post-apocalyptic World there was also Heaven, Hell and Purgatory to visit. We spent Saturday afternoon in Hell, except it was heaven: dancing to Norman Jay tunes in the sun. That was the first real day of scorching sunshine, it felt amazing and special – little did we know!

Heaven (you had to win to get in) was entirely white inside! Wellies off at the door please! And the piece de resistance: a row of white porcelain toilets right in the centre of the club. Heaven indeed in the middle of Glastonbury!

Underground club Glastonbury

The London Underground club in Block 9. Glad we missed the last train home.

And after another dance, some tea and a cheese toastie at the House of Ideas (Jules Verne rusting submarine-ish club complete with tunnel to the bar and leather wing-backed chairs should you want a nice sit down!), guess what? Non-drinking, non-smoking, non-anything me was the one still dancing and whooping it up at 4.30 a.m… Woo hoo!

Glasto Peely's dog_4241

And I can’t tell you how wonderful it was to wake up each day knowing I wasn’t going to have a hangover. Do you know that moment? The one when you first come to, where you first check out the state of your body and mind, before you actually wake up. Too often in the past, that moment has been defined for me with ‘oh no, I’m going to have a hangover’. Well not any more! I can so recommend it. I know I’m getting all evangelical here, but I hope not preachy – it wouldn’t do any good to preach anyhow, would it. All I can just say is that for me life after drink is a lot easier and better than life with it.

Cloud 9 sign at Glasto

Cloud 9 indeed

Ironically what one might do here is offer a toast, a ‘cheers’ to that! Because that’s what we do of course, celebrate everything with a drink! Ee gads. Well instead I shall celebrate with cake.

This is a ‘cake’ I invented, that you can EASILY reproduce, providing you have access to a watermelon. It’s perfect for this beautiful summer weather and best of all it requires NO BAKING whatsoever. Who wants to bake in this heat? Me sir. I want to bake myself, but I don’t want to bake cakes. No sir.

Watermelon cake

What could be easier!

So get making, not baking and allow your creation to cool in the fridge before you cut yourself a large slice, pour yourself a glass of lemonade and enjoy this wonderful sunshine. Cheers!

Slice of watermelon cake

Happy sunny weekend one and all!


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