Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Mother's Day Cake

I enjoy Mother's Day in our house - I usually get breakfast in bed brought to me (even better if Mr L has supervised!) and I love seeing what the children have made at preschool/school for me.  I get Sunday lunch cooked for me too! My favourite - roast lamb :o) usually with gin or prosecco aperitif as I'm waiting - this year lemonade or possibly a *small* glass of prosecco.

This year, however, someone (odds on it's a male ;o)) has seen to it that the clocks go forward on Mothering Sunday - cheated out of a lie in!

I was recently approached by someone on behalf of German dessert makers Coppenrath & Weise to decorate a cake with a Mother's Day theme.  They kindly provided me with the cake (chocolate fudge) and some decorations, along with some photographs of cake ideas to inspire me.

Looking for inspiration, I thought of letting the children run riot and decorate it.  Usually this type of situation ends up in a conveyor belt system where at least one of the children eats most of the decoration.  Asking them what they thought I'd like on the cake led to suggestions of Lego, Thomas the Tank Engine and Jacqueline Wilson characters.  I obviously didn't highlight the part where it's what *I* would like!

Sensibly then, I should do it.  I love this time of year, and spring always makes me happy with its bright flowers appearing everywhere.  My own mother is a competent gardener (I am not. I can just about wield a lawnmower) so I decided to make the cake flowery.  Oh, and I love strawberries so they are on there too!  

Apart from needing to colour some white fondant icing to make purple and pink, and use some to cover the cake and make the flowers for the strawberries, the coloured icing (Renshaws) was provided, as were the wafer butterflies (Tesco) and the smarties which I used in the primrose-type flowers.  I'd also been provided with some thread, which I'd intended to use to display the strawberries - but it proved a little tricky so I settled for cocktail sticks pushed into the strawberries and the cake. 

You can see I'm not a professional cake decorator, I think that's clear, but I enjoyed working with the icing, and using a variety of cutters from my stash, along with some freehand modelling, I don't think the effect is too bad.










Wednesday, 12 February 2014

The great toy debate - gender bores

A lot seems to have been happening in recent times regarding the perceived sexism within the toy industry.  From development through to manufacture, from marketing to displaying them, it seems that toys, and how they are displayed, are just TOO sexist.


REALLY?  I mean come on people, let's get something straight here; kids play with what they damn well like.  They don't give a toss if it's in the "girls" aisle or the "boys" aisle.  They wouldn't give a toss if it was in the "pets" aisle.  If they want to play with it, they will.  And do.  These labels are for people who need a little help finding something.  It's a hint, a small arrow, something to say; it might be HERE.  In the supermarket, there's a "baking aisle".  As customers, we are well aware that the products on the shelves can be used for something other than baking.  It's not a statement telling you that these items can ONLY be used for baking.  Do grow up.


What really gets  my goat at the moment is the backlash against Lego for creating Lego Friends.  When I was a little girl, I loved Lego, I built whatever my imagination wanted me to.  I was an average girl, I liked My Little Pony, Barbie, and crafts, but equally loved climbing trees, dismantling things to see how they worked, and making mud pies.  The Lego I had was pretty much the standard sets you see in the old adverts bandied about at the moment along with sneering comments about "steps backwards" and the like.


Yes, you could say it's tailored towards girlie girls who like fairies and fluffiness and pink.  If that's not your daughter, here's the crucial thing; DON'T BUY IT THEN.  I know parents who have boys who love it.  My daughter likes it, just as much as the Harry Potter Lego she has.  She's an average girl too; she likes ponies, and teddies, as much as she loves technology such as her Raspberry Pi, her 3DS and her tablet.  My older son loves Lego; he's nearly as happy building her Lego Friends kits as he is building his Ninjago sets.  Sometimes, they even mix them up a bit and, you know, USE THEIR IMAGINATIONS to create something that suits them. 


Yes, Lego needs more girl Lego people doing more things, such as flying the aeroplanes, being the police officers, and saving the world.  They could create some male figures making the cakes, serving the coffee, being the sidekick.  You could, if it bothers you that much, swap over some of the heads - yes, it really is that simple.  But don't berate them for designing new ranges for other markets.  If your son or daughter likes it, let them.  If they don't, who cares? 


We always tried to let our children choose what they wanted to play with, with no stereotyping from us.  We discovered that our eldest, our daughter, liked cuddly toys, animals, jigsaws and dollies.  Our first son wouldn't give any time to anything cuddly, and loved cars, trains, balls, Lego and so on.  When our second son was born, we thought that this would be the ideal test; both sets of toys in the house, in the playroom.  We found that he too liked cars and trains, but he also loved playing with baby dolls, pushchairs, and has in the past, floated through in a princess dress telling me he was the tooth fairy. 


What really amused me was the doll's house that my niece gave to us when she grew out of it.  Meg used it as a play set with the characters playing family roles, my eldest son played Ben 10 with it, and Alf used it as a car park.  They didn't care what it was originally, they used their imaginations, and that's my point here.  To children, toys ARE toys.  There seem to have been many statements of "let toys be toys" - here's the scoop; kids DO.  It seems, as ever, it's adults who have the real issue. 

Monday, 27 January 2014

Kitchen renovations pt 1

Holy cow what a week! This time last week the people replacing our kitchen came along and knocked our existing kitchen out.  From having a working kitchen to a shell of a room, within the space of a couple of hours. 


Thankfully we'd built the utility room beforehand, so we'd got a sink and running water, the fridge, washing machine & tumble drier and work surfaces, along with enough cupboard space for the essentials.  So, without a cooker, I've been relying on my slow cookers and the microwave for our meals.  Roast chicken in a slow cooker is a wonderful thing, as is pulled pork.  In fact, any joint of meat, especially cuts of meat more suited to slower, longer cooking.  Beef brisket is a prime example.  Curry, stew, even sausages in gravy, or shepherds pie are all staple meals made easy in a slow cooker, but did you know you can make bread, cakes and desserts too?  Or jacket potatoes? 


There are whole pages, forums and cookbooks dedicated to using this cheap alternative, and the best bit, for me anyway, is when you get back from a hectic school run, with tired, hyperactive or stroppy children (or any combination of the above) you haven't got to start thinking about cooking tea.  It's been cooking all day.  So right now, when I have energetic bursts first thing, I can get dinner on the go, and then when we get to teatime and I'm shattered and don't want to do anything, I DON'T HAVE TO.  It's done, and the house smells lovely and I feel like wondermum and best of all, there's not much effort involved.


Another benefit, as far as I can see anyway, is that you don't tend to add fat.  When I make beef stew for example, I throw in a bag of ready prepared casserole vegetables (although chopping a few carrots, potatoes, onions, leeks and swedes isn't too bad if you haven't got access) I throw in the beef, I pour in the seasonings and either water or sometimes even a can of Guinness.  No oil, no butter, no fat, other than what comes off the meat as it cooks.  Slow cook a joint of meat and you don't need to add any fluid, but what you are left with, other than beautifully tender food, is stock.  Use it for soups, gravy, whatever, but it's not salty because you've not added salt, it's packed full of flavour, and it's homemade.


The microwave has also been used more than usual.  Ours is normally just used for defrosting items and heating up porridge, for example.  But recently, I have had cravings for mashed potatoes and without a cooker, the only way to get it is to buy ready made supermarket mash and microwave it.  It's surprisingly good and a good shortcut for when you can't make it yourself. 


But last night was the best triumph where the microwave is concerned.  I made steamed syrup sponge for pudding, using a recipe I found on the internet and wrote down, but forgot to write down from WHERE.  I have a feeling it may have been from www.bbcgoodfood.com 


Anyway, take 100g each of softened butter, sugar and self raising flour and two eggs.  Mix these all together to make a cake batter.  Pour two tablespoons of golden syrup into the bottom of a microwavable bowl, then put the batter on top.  Microwave on high power for 5 minutes.  Voila!







Sunday, 5 January 2014

Saving money with food and telling us something we don't know

It seems every food magazine's New year edition is, as is the case every year, full of healthy meal ideas (for those who have chosen "lose weight" as their new year resolution) and ideas for making food go further, use those leftovers, and save money (for those who need to tighten their belts after Christmas, presumably).  After watching Save with Jamie, I bought his book - in the sales, of course - along with a couple of others to add to the selection Santa left for me under the tree.

In all seriousness, nobody wants to spend more each month.  Any money-saving tips are welcome.  BUT, really, to anyone writing these articles, researching those tips, publishing those books, for God's sake TELL US SOMETHING WE DON'T KNOW.

Sainsbury's have a campaign running to use your leftover Sunday roast to create meals for Monday and Tuesday.  Being honest though, how many of us have leftovers?  On any day of the week?  Most recipes state they are for 4 people.  We are a family of five, soon to be six.  We don't have any leftovers.  A year or two ago, the people at our local district council decided to run a trial to collect food waste separately.  It's fair to say the trial hasn't been continued.  The reason being, at least from our point of view, is that there isn't much waste to be thrown out.  So, whilst I'm sure it's a great tip, it isn't a brilliant one for us.

Another tip is to use cheaper cuts of meat and cook it appropriately; or in other words, invest in a slow cooker (they aren't expensive and are a godsend).  I completely agree with this, and regularly search for new recipes to use in my slow cooker.  You're preaching to the converted, tell me something else.  Perhaps you could include more slow cooker recipes, for example?

Cooking meals from scratch, rather than using ready meals and pre-packaged foods saves you money too; but really, if we buy the foodie magazines, buy the books, aren't we predisposed to cooking from scratch anyway? Or at least more inclined to step away from the over-salted ready meals made with questionably sourced meat?  Find another tip please.

We're told not to shop when we are hungry as we'll buy more.  My mother taught me that as a student nearly two decades ago; I don't think there are many people who WON'T have heard this old adage.

Make use of your freezer; yes, thank you, I do.  Move along.

Make sure you keep an eye on use-by dates.  Have you SEEN my family?  A plague of locusts has nothing on them.  They have... healthy appetites.  Food doesn't reach its use-by date.  Ever.  Our fruit bowl doesn't fill with over-ripening bananas and apples.  I have a lovely recipe for banana cake and a friend who LOVES banana cake.  Can I get the children to leave a couple of bananas to ripen so I can make it?  Nope. 

Buy economy brands of staples like tinned tomatoes.  I do, and am happy with own-brand products such as cereals (other than cornflakes, which MUST be Kelloggs).  Again, this is a tip which we've been told so many times.

There are so many tips out there, but what irks me is that we've heard them all before, and if I pull out last year's magazines (I do keep them!) the articles are pretty much identical. 

So come on, publishers, writers, bloggers and TV chefs; tell us something NEW; something we don't already know.  Regurgitating the same old articles every year is really getting tiresome.  Give us something NEW to read.  Thank you.

Thursday, 5 December 2013

A blog absence and a need for help

Hello!  It seems slightly longer than it actually is that I last posted.  I know that doesn't really make sense, don't worry, this is normal right now.

I apologise for abandoning the blog for a while, you see I've had a lot going on, and I've struggled a bit. 

Firstly, we've been having some work done on the house, including quite a lot of prep work in the kitchen, ready for the new one to be installed in January.  This has meant that I've been unable to bake quite as much as I usually do, because a) I haven't always had the access, and b) when I have, most of the kitchen has been caked in half an inch of plaster dust.  By the time I've cleared all that away, I've more often than not run out of steam.

Secondly, and here's the biggie (as far as I'm concerned, anyway) I'm pregnant.  Yes you read right, soon there will be a fourth child in our family (a fifth, if you count Mr L as a child -  which I tend to) so as well as plaster dust, builders, plumbers, electricians, decorators and floorers, I've been struggling with quite horrific morning sickness and walking-through-treacle-tiredness.  And joy, obviously, because we are quite definitely over the moon and after the year we've had, it's just amazing.

However.  This has come at a cost.  I've lost my baking mojo.  Seriously, I need help.  I've not wanted to bake/been too tired/there's been too many workmen in the way for a while, and then the other week I needed to bake for a preschool Christmas Fair.  Well, I had decided to make bagged goods, because lots of people make cakes and anyway I'm rubbish at swirly icing.  So I made fudge, honeycomb and cheesy shapes, which are all deceptively easy to make (although the fudge can prove temperamental) but I had so many baking ideas, and I just didn't want to.

I ordered Christmas cutters from America AGES ago and they've just sat there, unused.  I want to make gingerbread with the kids for them to decorate and hang on the tree.  Thank GOD my 9yo daughter is currently obsessed with baking (honestly, her Christmas list is awash with Mary Berry and Paul Hollywood books) so I might just "let" her make it.

So, I'm throwing the doors open.  I need a couple of guest posts, even if it's just until I get my mojo even semi-returned.  If you think you'd be interested in this, please email me on sian.lennon@hotmail.co.uk thank you :o)

Tuesday, 29 October 2013

My own opinion of food matters

As the President of the Faculty of Public Health makes his sweeping statement that reports of companies cutting the saturated fat in their products is just a "drop in the ocean" I get aggravated.  Especially when debates start raging on twitter about whether or not more regulations should be put in place.  I find it increasingly common that certain people are all to happy to blame anyone but themselves for their predicament. This culture of irresponsibility drives me mad. Let me put my view in simple terms. You, and you alone, are responsible for what you put into your body.

I speak as someone who is not a skinny-Minnie. I grew up with a lovely slim figure, and never needed to watch what I ate. However, once I fell pregnant with my eldest child, that all changed. Changes in my metabolism, along with quitting smoking, and a craving for sweet foods, all contributed to me putting some weight. It's taken me nearly 10 years and I still haven't lost it all. I don't think I ever will lose it all.   That's no-ones issue but mine. I am well, I eat healthily & now we have a dog I'm walking a good few miles a day.

I have instilled healthy eating habits in my children, and they eat more than their 5-a-day of fruit and vegetables. I cook all our food from scratch and don't buy ready meals, meaning I have better control over fat, sugar and salt content. Don't get me wrong, we have plenty of treats in this house, but because we have a good foundation of healthy eating, the treats don't have a negative impact.  There are children, I am aware, who bring lunch boxes to school full of chocolate and not much else. But is the answer to ban all chocolate, or just help and educate those parents who need it?

I don't think the answer is ever to remove the choice altogether.  Our local schools and preschools have created rules meaning that children may only drink water at school. Now whilst I agree that fizzy drinks are a nono, and strong squash can contain a fair amount of sugar, why is weak squash or fruit juice not allowed? I'm more concerned that my children are getting enough fluid, rather than what it is they are drinking.  Again, my kids will drink water, but I have seen children who have developed real health issues because they've not had enough to drink on a regular basis.  Why is this more acceptable than allowing a drink of squash? And if the child has hot school dinners, a variety of drinks are available to purchase, including squashes and milkshakes. Why is that acceptable, yet children eating packed lunches have no choice?

And whilst we are on the subject, who else feels that the generalisation that hot school dinners are more nutritious and healthier than packed lunches is unfair? I have no say in where the school sources the ingredients for their hot school dinners. I don't know if it's ethically sourced, free-range, genetically modified, or contains MSG. I have absolutely no say in what is fed to my child whilst they are at school, and whilst I'm not a control freak, I don't think that's a step in the right direction.

I may be alone in my views; I hope I am not. I just believe that nannying us, taking our decisions away from us is never going to be a long-term solution. What do you think?

Wednesday, 11 September 2013

Biscuit by Miranda Gore Browne

I LOVE a biscuit.  There's nothing more homely than to be able to delve your hand into a biscuit tin and enjoy a homemade treat or two.  If you make a cake, it's for sharing, and it tends to need eating quite quickly (which sometimes puts me off making one - not very often, mind) whereas biscuits are a whole heap of fun to make with the children, they can be enjoyed and easily stored to come back to.  It can be messy and not common sense to include a slice of cake or a fairy cake in with a packed school lunch, whereas a biscuit or two fits nicely and doesn't make a sticky, icing-related mess all over the inside of a tub.  I have a good collection of biscuit cutters, which I keep adding to, including a few which have just arrived from the US.  (www.cheapcookiecutters.com - have a look at their cutters, they are brilliant and mine arrived within 10 days)


New cutters from America arrived today


The other thing I like collecting is cookbooks.  Mr L is forever rolling his eyes and asking where I'm going to store all these books - well, the kitchen is being redesigned and part of that is a rather large bookshelf to accommodate all my lovely cookbooks.  That being said, I did try to cut back a bit, so when Miranda Gore Browne's book Biscuit came out, I refrained.  It wasn't easy, but I held off buying any books for a good long while. 

Anyway, I filled in a competition form one day (on www.peachtreesandbumblebees.com) - the question I had to answer was about your favourite biscuit creation.  My daughter and I had made up some cranberry and macadamia nut biscuits drizzled with white chocolate the other year and they have become a firm favourite, especially with the kids teachers.  So that was my answer, and to my surprise we won.  The astute of you may have realised what the prize was, but for those of you who can't guess, it was a book.  A certain book which I'd had my eye on for a while.  The title of this blog in case you need it spelling out further. 


Now, I can't include all the recipes that I've made from this book, because a) I've made a few, and b) you NEED to get this book.

The recipes are divided into categories such as Biscuits for Beginners, Cup of Tea and a Chat Biscuits and Seasonal Biscuits, and there is a chapter on decorating biscuits too.

My children have all had fun looking through the book and deciding which biscuits they want to make (and which they want mummy to make them) and so far we've made the Fruity Little Teds in both strawberry and banana flavours, the coconut jammy thumbprints, the biscuits for adventures and coat pocket biscuits (how they ever make it to anyone's coat pockets is beyond me - they're lovely).  You need a small 2cm cutter for the coat pocket biscuits, and as I didn't have one, I happened to find a kinder surprise inner egg (the bit where the toy is) and that worked perfectly - go figure!

Biscuit for Adventure with a mug of latte
 

Making fruity teds - Lewis made banana flavour, whilst Meg opted for strawberry

Coat pocket Biscuits


We've also got a massive list of ones still to try, including my favourite bourbon biscuits, and I'm intrigued to know if Miranda's custard creams are as moreish as Jo Wheatley's are (they are a firm favourite in this house). 

The only problems I have come up against so far are to do with the fact that I can't seem to source a small ice cream scoop, which is used to divide up the mixture in several of the recipes, and when we went to make the shortbread (page 51) the sugar is listed in the ingredients but I can't see where to add it.  Now I can GUESS where it is supposed to be, but the amount of sugar is listed and the only time it's mentioned is for dredging so I don't know if the weight of sugar is all supposed to be in the mix or whether some is reserved for dredging purposes.  Anyway, it shouldn't be too hard to clarify before I attempt it - I have willing shortbread tasters on hand waiting for samples.

What I really like about this book is that it's written so nicely, and there are plenty of photos.  But what I like best is the recipes themselves.  They aren't fiddly, or full of hard-to-get ingredients, in fact the majority of the time the ingredients are already in the baking cupboard.  There are plenty of recipes to please most people and handy hints and tips on everything biscuit-related.  This is a book which does exactly what it says on the tin, and there are so many recipes to try that I doubt I'll get bored of it anytime soon.

Biscuit by Miranda Gore Browne is available from Amazon now for only £5 - get it whilst you can here