Archive for the ‘Family’ Category

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

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.

First to last?

May 24, 2013

So here I am coming to the end of week one of coasting through life with my foot off the pedal. I christened the experience by queuing for tickets to see David Bowie Is at the V&A. I don’t think I’ve ever stood in a queue like that before. I always watch news reports with people queuing for new Apple products or department store sales with a mixture of pity and disappointment (in them, not me). I don’t think I’ve ever wanted anything badly enough to camp out for it. But this week I did. I queued because I could.

Being the V&A this was a very civilised queue and having watched all those news reports over the years I equipped myself with a large coffee, an empty bladder and a big book. I stopped short of a hunting stick. There was no barging and no camaraderie, this was the V&A after all. So I settled down for a long wait; read my book and drank my coffee. And my bladder did what it does admirably. Thank you bladder.

V&A-queue

But I only got about halfway through my coffee and a chapter and we were on the move. Once inside it was a mere 15 minutes more before I secured my tix for next week. As it’s half term we’re all going. I hope the girls love it. I think they will. Good for them to know it didn’t all start with Lady Gaga. Of course I know, having visited the Tudor and Stuart; In Fine Style exhibition last week that quirky style has been around for a very long time. Did you know for example that Charles II favoured a hairstyle with the right side cut shorter than the other. Witness…

Charles II bust

Are those hair extensions?

Fancy that, there really is nothing new. I wonder if he wore his britches back to front as well.

Having reached the end of that V&A queue I realised I had reached the end of a period of transition from work to life after. And here I am now, living the life after. I like it. After the queue I wandered around the V&A – what a treat, to go round the galleries without a purpose, just looking and seeing and admiring – everything from cute biscuit tins to giant replica pillars.

But I’d hate to give the impression that it’s all peace and quiet and calm and tranquility. Is it heck. I have a lovely family to tend – well they’re lovely usually and a pain in the bum sometimes. Life in the slow lane away from work is as busy as ever and sometimes I wonder how I had time to work.

But it’s busy partly because I make it so. Yesterday I made a cake, because I could. It’s a lovely, sticky unctuous confection from Ottolenghi, called Revani though I believe it’s a Turkish classic.

cake

mmmm…. cake

It’s still sitting in the tin because it’s coming away with us this weekend (camping in the rain!), so I can’t comment on its deliciousness but an already moist cake soaked in lemony syrup has to be good, doesn’t it? I’ll report back.

So this is the pleasure I am finding among the busy-ness; doing things because I can and not because I have to. I also think I might try to learn Spanish. I honestly don’t know if I can but I think I’ll give it a go. Elsa loves the idea of teaching me (she’s learning at school), we can have Spanish chats, I can make tapas while thinking in Spanish and of course we’ll HAVE to go to Spain for us to practise!

Reaching the end of that queue in the V&A also made me wonder whether I’ve reached the end of this blog for the time being. It was intended to be about the transition from work to life beyond and I think I’ve done that and in the short term, awarded myself an extended holiday. Because I can.

Of course I could post endlessly about cakes I make, exhibitions I visit and the bits of my own navel fluff I extract while gazing at it, but I don’t think it’s of much interest to anyone else. A blog should have a sense of purpose and something worthwhile to say – something of value to its readers. Of course there’s vanity involved but it shouldn’t be a vanity project.

I could pretend to be a committed domestic goddess or a devoted vintage queen – photograph all my vintage charity shop bargains draped in the only corners of our house that aren’t covered with piles of paper and be sure to bake a cake every day while wearing a gingham apron, but that wouldn’t be right, now would it.

So we’ll see. I shan’t stop right here, right now, I’ll have a think about it and in the meantime I’ll relish the opportunity I’ve had thus far to write these little missives and put them out there in the World…

Happy Friday one and all.

...and look what appeared in the park this week.

Oh and look what appeared in the park this week.

Great Expectations

May 11, 2013

My goodness, how time flies. A whole week has gone by since I heard the dreaded news about the pitch. But I was lucky enough to be away last weekend – glooooorious bank holiday sun and 3 days camping – the perfect antidote to the pain of rejection.

Every new dawn is indeed a wonderful thing. But a new start sometimes brings with it some pain.

tents

Dawn breaks.

It’s 5 a.m. Imagine if you will, those trees are full of birds singing to greet the new day.

No they aren’t. The birds have fled. Those tents contain giggling, laughing and yelling kids. And one by one so do all the other tents in the circle as they all catch on to the delights of early morning frivolity.

Heavy sighs and bleary eyes from every adult present.

Action required to ensure more sleep the next night.

How about a 6 mile hike.

Perfect.

Our girls are members of the Woodcraft Folk and we were camping with our district. Oh what fun we had. Three days of messing about in tents, watching the children play, play, play – their freedom and fun artfully enabled but not controlled by the grown-ups.

camp-wide

The Woodcraft Circle

This kind of freedom is something all children are entitled to, although of course not all get to experience it. And as adults we lose all sense of freedom if we’re not careful. Some people don’t but I know I have. I’m taking action to reclaim it, but it’s an uphill battle.

field-wide

A newly planted field of beans

Mostly it’s me I’m battling. Years of learned behaviour and self-defined rules to try and rewrite. Rules that tell me what I can and can’t do, what I am and am not capable of, what I should and shouldn’t do. How did that happen?

They’re not healthy guidelines within which to play and explore, which is what I saw Woodcraft Folk achieve for the children at camp. Theirs are guidelines and principles that enable freedom of expression, rather than stifle it. Inspiring indeed.

bluebells

My first ever sight of a bluebell wood

We saw an amazing array of vistas on this one walk. Surprising and quite beautiful landscapes around every corner. Like life itself I guess, if you look at it with the right eyes.

tunnel-of-leaves

A tunnel of fragrant hawthorn blossom

Of course not all landscapes are as immediately arresting as this. But that doesn’t mean they’re not beautiful. It’s just a matter of perspective. Mental note to self: remember to enjoy the view whenever possible.

My favourite part of the walk was the last. A long tramp across soggy marshlands as we neared our final destination. A dramatic, desolate landscape oozing (quite literally) with its own mysterious history and mud. Lots of mud.

swamp-wide

Bleak and beautiful

I almost expected Magwitch from Dickens’ classic story ‘Great Expectations’ to appear from behind a soggy hillock demanding wittles and a file with menaces. We had biscuits for the kids and we certainly could’ve spared one or two for a needy convict. Alas, we didn’t meet any escaped prisoners, however we did meet our own adversary.

The deep and watery gulleys that surrounded us in this marshland began to cut through the neat green pathway marked on our map. The first of these gloopy stream beds was relatively easy to cross and the kids continued onto the path beyond with little fuss. But the second was more of a challenge – a deep scar in the wet earth, about 15 feet deep and 20 feet across, with steep and extremely slippery banks and up to a foot of sticky mud at the bottom.

Th first couple of people to cross lost their shoes, their dignity and their balance. So we adults found ourselves having to consider quite carefully the best course of action to get our 20 children across this steep, deep, slippery, muddy, sodden gulley. For a while it seemed quite daunting, but once we reminded ourselves and the children that the worst that would happen was that we’d get very muddy, it suddenly became a lot more doable. Something I need to do more often – remind myself that outcomes are unlikely to be catastrophic.

swamp-feet

Look, no feet!

Eventually and after investigating alternative routes each one as impassable as the last, we elected to form a human chain and pass the children across the divide, one by one. Just as we began the job at hand, the next group with younger children turned up. So our human chain was strengthened and so was the challenge.

It was great to see different people’s responses to the situation. Most were practical, one or two were natural leaders, nearly all were happy to be part of the team and there were only one or two who insisted on doing their own thing, regardless of the best interests of the group. Fascinating stuff. I wasn’t one of the leaders, but I played my part as a fully committed member of the team – a valuable link in the chain.

swamp-chain

We carried the littlest children – passing them from one person to the next and we held the hands of everyone else – big children and adults alike, until about an hour later we had all 30 or so children and accompanying adults safely across; muddy, tired and relieved. Never was a post-walk ice cream so gratefully received as it was by those children!

ice cream

Earned and deserved

And come the next morning, They slept. They slept like babies.

And so did I. The pitch put in its place, buried in the mud and marked up as one of life’s experiences from which there is much to learn and nothing to regret. As Eleanor Roosevelt said;

“You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you stop to look fear in the face.”

So thank you Woodcraft Folk, for a wonderful and uplifting weekend.

swampwide

Mission accomplished. The Crouch Estuary at Brandy Hole

Oh and in case you’re wondering, all this wild beauty was in Essex. Deepest, darkest Essex. Lovely isn’t it.

We’re on!

April 26, 2013

Tomorrow we three E3 girls are going to swim 159 lengths of our local pool, or 5km, in aid of Marie Curie Cancer Care.

Elsa and Alice want us to swim equal thirds, so that’s 53 long lengths each. Blimey.

girls in their googles

Go on girls!

If they do it it’ll be an amazing achievement for them and if they don’t it’ll still be an amazing achievement for them and it’ll be an amazing achievement for me too, ‘cos I’ll have to make up the difference!

Either way we’re looking forward to it and we need all the support we can get.

So while we limber up here in E3, all you need to do is press a few buttons and splash a little cash.

If you haven’t already and you feel so inclined, please…

Sponsor us!!!!!

If, on the other hand you don’t feel so inclined, then…

Sponsor us anyway!!!!!!

And of course thank you, thank you to everyone who already has dug deep X

Postscript… The postman just came. He rang twice. He always does. He delivered us a card. A lovely watery good luck card.

good-luck-card-2

Awww, shucks…

Thank you Grandima and Grandipa. We shall sweeem like feeeesh X

Post, post, script…

us 3 girls with medals

Hooray!

We did it! The pool turned out to be 33cm longer than advertised, so we did a straight 50 lengths each. Home and dry. A fab achievement all round. Home afterwards to celebrate with fine fish and chips from the Britannia Fish Bar on Grove Road, E3. The BEST fish and chips in East London by the way. And now a movie: The Cat Returns by Miyasaki

A good day. And a good day to you too!

Much ado about nothing…

April 21, 2013

You know when you have a lovely day planned and then it all goes horribly wrong? Welcome to our Saturday. We visited our friends Rachel & John in the Cotswolds and went with them and their wee boy Ollie, to Stratford-upon-Avon to join in the celebrations for Shakespeare’s 449th birthday. So far so lovely.

RSC theatre exterior

The sun is out. What could possibly go wrong?

But then. Well then Danny and Elsa decided to have a bit of a row; a lot of a row actually. One of those typical father-daughter encounters; “I’m your father…”, “But it’s not fair…” “Don’t speak to me like that…” “You never listen to me…”  etc, etc… It spiralled and spiralled and got very unpleasant until they actually started scrapping. I thought they were joking to begin with – hence the photo, but then I realised it wasn’t funny.

Elsa and Dan hairpulling

Awful. What do you do when your supposedly mature husband starts fighting with your first born? No one wanted to step in, least of all me, but I had to do something, FAST, before someone got properly hurt.

Oh I can’t keep this up! Actually we joined a fantastic workshop at the RSC theatre to learn stage fighting: how to pull hair, slap, punch and strangle one another with dramatic effect but no injury whatsoever. Great fun and a neat way to release some pent up emotion. We learned an impressive array of techniques and I also realised I was doing something that I wouldn’t have contemplated a year ago. Woo hoo.

I can’t possibly tell you all the secrets from the class – I’d have to kill you afterwards (which I can now do in a variety of ways of course – you choose). But suffice to say you need bunny ears to strangle someone properly, sometimes you need to hand over the nap and it’s not essential for your victim to have any hair in order for you to pull them by it.

RSC fight collage

After the class we shared our new skills with the rest of the gang, who’d been off listening to enthralling Greek myths and soon we were all attacking one another with gay abandon.

I am  a little worried about the kids going to school next week and showing off their newly learned fighting skills around un-suspecting teachers who might wade in before they realise the full story. Especially Ollie. He’s only 6.

kids on trampoline

trampoline + sunshine + friends = heaven

A weekend away is such a wonderful thing. So nice to get away from the inner-machinations of my own head and focus on some important stuff like good friends, family and simple pleasures. And of course I always like a celebration.

Stratford-band

Oompa, oompa! Happy Birthday Will!

And who’d have thought we’d come back to London’s East End after a weekend in the genteel English countryside with impressive fighting skills.

Creativity and confidence

April 17, 2013

This evening I went to a private view of a painting exhibition by French-London artist Lorraine Fossi. Lorraine studied architecture in Paris, but has since become an accomplished painter.

Breaking waves painting

Lorraine Fossi – Breaking Waves, oil on canvas

Lorraine’s show is inspired by The Royal Iris; one of the original Mersey ferries and host to the Beatles and Gerry and the Pacemakers in her heyday. She now languishes on the Thames at Woolwich, slowly decaying and with an uncertain future; but here brought back to life on Lorraine’s canvases.

Royal Iris boat

Royal Iris at Woolwich 2013

This evening it was amazing to see all Lorraine’s hard work and her talent writ large on the walls. I guess this is what anyone who sees themselves as creative wants; first they want to be able to express their creativity and secondly they want it to be recognised and enjoyed. Lorraine certainly seems to be a woman who has found her path.

Lorraine's show

In my new freelance life I’ve just done some PR for Lorraine’s exhibition and it’s been great to be around her creativity and exuberance. I’m not as talented as Lorraine, nor as confident – I conversed more with the paintings than the guests this evening, but I’m still hoping I can find my own creative way in this new chapter of life.

Lorraine Fossi painting

It’s not that easy though is it. What if the big idea doesn’t present itself? What if this notion of combining natural talents with daily work is an unrealistic myth and a path to unhappiness when it (probably) remains unrealised? Perhaps it’s as nonsensical as the notion of ‘work-life balance’. And while we’re at it, what is creativity anyway?

Exterior art gallery

Is this modern pursuit of happiness just a nice middle class, pre-occupation that we indulge in because we can? I’ve spent a considerable amount of time naval-gazing and considering my new ‘creative future’. Lucky me. Maybe it’s time to get real. Maybe it’s time to recognise that happiness (if it exists) actually lies closer to home. Perhaps I should express my ‘creativity’ through hobbies and voluntary work while reserving the day job for, well, for work really; largely as a means to an end. And be content with that.

In a serendipitous way I found a copy of ‘Affluenza’ by psychologist Oliver James in a charity shop today. I think it explores this same notion, probably far more eloquently than I. In between contemplating these two entirely different versions of my own future, I’m looking forward to reading it and will report back.

In the meantime I do know that when I got back from this socially ‘challenging’ (for me) evening I was restored as soon as I walked in the door…

girls-reading


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