Saturday, 30 November 2013

Counting down to Christmas

For the last couple of years we've been away in the run up to Christmas, and before that, Harry was too little really to understand what was going on. It's different this year now that he has started school - they even started rehearsals for the Christmas play as soon as he came back after half-term - and he is well aware of an exciting event not far off.

I love the countdown to Christmas, and we have ended up with a few ways of marking it. A few years ago we bought a wooden Advent calendar, and I wrote a blog post which has ended up being very popular, full of ideas for things to fill a wooden Advent calendar. This year I'm going to keep it simple I think with just a couple of chocolates in each box.

wooden advent calendar

Last year we also made our own simple homemade Advent calendar which was a lot of fun to make and it will be used again this year.

Simple homemade Advent calendar

We also have a couple of Playmobil Advent calendars this year which are something new to us, having stocked up in the sales after Christmas last year. They aren't cheap, but it looks as though you do get a decent amount of Playmobil to play with.

Another Advent tradition that we are starting this year is the Elf on the Shelf. This is something that I've picked up on from Pinterest and it looks like a lot of fun. A little Elf comes to stay with you in the run up to Christmas, and every night he flies back to the North Pole to report back to Father Christmas. When he returns he is hidden in a different place every morning, and the children have to find him. People come up with some really creative ways to entertain their children by setting up their Elf in all sorts of scenarios. I'm looking forward to getting started with it, and I hope that the children aren't too freaked out by it all, admittedly the Elf doll is rather creepy!

Friday, 29 November 2013

My first checker board cake

You might have noticed that I've been trying out lots of different cakes over the last year or so. I've been fascinated by checkerboard cakes for a while now, so for my birthday I asked for a Checkerboard Cake Set so that I could have a go at making one of my own.

How to make a checker board cake

This set lets you make a checkerboard cake using either two or three colours or flavours of cake batter. I must admit that when I received the pans it wasn't quite what I was expecting. The set contains three large cake tins and one plastic divider. The divider does not go in the oven. Instead you need to place it inside each cake tin in turn, fill it with the different coloured batter, then remove it, wash it, and use it for the next pan. This means that quite a lot of the batter is wasted, and also means that the layers of cake don't turn out very neatly.

The cake tins are quite large, and the instructions only gave a vague indication of how much batter would be needed to make the cake. I doubled up my usual Victoria sponge recipe and that made enough, although a bit more wouldn't have hurt. I was sent some Stork margarine to use in my baking, which I am happy to recommend as I always use Stork for my cakes. This is how they went into the oven:

How to make a checker board cake

And this is how they came out. As I expected, the batter spread out quite a lot while they were cooking.

How to make a checker board cake

I carried on though, stacked them up, and the children helped me to slather the cake in butter icing and Smarties.

How to make a checker board cake

Looking good! But of course we really need to see what the cake looks like inside! Fortunately, it actually didn't turn out as badly as I was expecting. It doesn't look as good as the one on the box, but then I didn't expect it to. There is a definite checkerboard effect in there, and most importantly the cake tasted delicious.

How to make a checker board cake

I'm not sure that this was ever going to be the best way to create a tidy checkerboard cake. Next time I'm going to do it a little differently. I'm still going to use the three cake pans, because they are the perfect size for this cake. Instead of using the dividing ring, I'm going to bake each layer in one colour, then use a cutter or template to cut the three cakes into rings and layer them together that way. You can find some instructions for that here - Checkerboard cake tutorial - although mine will just have three layers. I'm hoping that this will make the finished cake a lot neater.

So not bad for a first try, I'm glad that I practised first, and I'll let you know how I get on with my next attempt!



I received some Stork margarine to try in my baking, with no obligation to blog about it, although I am very happy to recommend it as I always use Stork margarine for baking! The cake tin set was a gift, Amazon links are affiliate.

Wednesday, 27 November 2013

Our chocolate making workshop

Recently I was lucky enough to win some Virgin Experience vouchers, and I decided to exchange some of them for a Chocolate Making Workshop, which took place in Brighton. Ram and I did it together and really enjoyed it, so I thought I'd share what we got up to!

The class was led by a friendly chocolatier, and we learned a lot about the history of chocolate and how it is made. We started out by tasting some different types of chocolate, starting with the low grade 'Advent calendar' chocolate and moving on to cocoa in its natural state, which was not very tasty! Then we spooned melted chocolate on to baking paper to make our own chocolate button which we could decorate with various ingredients and enter into a competition.

Chocolate making workshop in Brighton

Chocolate making workshop in Brighton

I took it very seriously and made a lovely flower. We didn't win, but there was some excellent competition! Then we learned how to make truffles. I was surprised how easy it was. We just mixed two parts melted dark chocolate to one part double cream to make a paste, then use an icing bag to pipe out into little balls. When they had set we rolled them in cocoa powder and dipped into more melted chocolate. Such a simple process, and they tasted delicious! It's definitely something that I'll be trying again, a great simple gift to make. Here are our truffles, can you guess which is which?

Chocolate making workshop in Brighton

Chocolate making workshop in Brighton

We were also given a little block of delicious fudge that we could cut up and dip into the melted chocolate. Then the chocolatier took all the melted chocolate that was left and it was mixed up with flavourings and poured out to make huge bars of chocolate which were cut up and divided between us.

We had plenty of chocolate to take home with us, and we were also given a selection of boxes, bags and ribbons so that we could present them really nicely. The class was timed perfectly and there was always something to keep busy with while waiting for the ingredients to make their way around the table or for the chocolate to set. I'd definitely recommend it, it was something different for us to do as a couple!

Tuesday, 26 November 2013

Review - Wentworth Wooden Puzzles

Updated 6th February 2014 with photos of the completed puzzle, see bottom!

I have many fond memories of doing jigsaws. When I was little we always seemed to have one on the go, and at Christmas time we always worked through our jigsaw collection. The last few years have seen less of an indulgence in my hobby, but as I blogged recently, now that the children are bigger and I can trust leaving out partially completed puzzles, it's a pastime that I'm hoping to rediscover.

Wentworth Wooden Puzzles recently contacted me to ask if I would like to review one of their puzzles. Of course I said yes, and immediately went over to the website for a browse. I quickly realised that these were very special puzzles. The Wentworth Wooden Puzzle Company has been producing wooden jigsaws since 1994, and the high quality jigsaw puzzles are beautifully cut and completely unique.

I chose a puzzle design based on a painting by Monet - Le Pont Japonais from the Fine Art collection. It's a lovely painting with lots of gorgeous colours. I wanted a bit of a challenge, so I chose a cut with 1000 pieces.

The puzzle arrived beautifully packaged in a smart drawstring bag inside a sturdy box.



I started the jigsaw where I always do - with the edges. It quickly became apparent that I was in for a challenge. Some of the edge pieces didn't look like edge pieces, and some of the non edge pieces did!


Even the corner pieces were not always easy to find because of the way that the jigsaw has been cut. Every piece in the jigsaw has a completely different shape, and the pieces also vary in size.



The jigsaw cut is full of the trademark Wentworth 'whimsy' pieces. These are jigsaw pieces which are cut into special, unique shapes, usually to reflect the theme of the jigsaw. I was a bit worried when I first saw them, especially the tiny paintbrushes, as I thought they looked so flimsy, but as soon as I picked one up I realised that because the wooden backing is so thick they are actually very sturdy. The whimsy pieces in this puzzle are all appropriately themed around art and painting.


I know that this puzzle from Wentworth is going to be a pleasure to complete. The pieces slot together beautifully and are lovely to handle. The entire jigsaw is going to take me a good while to complete, and so I will be updating this post with a photograph when it is finished!

Prices for a Wentworth Wooden Puzzle start at around £24.95, although the price depends on how many pieces you choose in your cut. The jigsaw that I received with 1000 pieces costs £99.95. This is expensive, but it's important to remember that this puzzle is a very high quality item. It's worth watching the short video which I've embedded below, which gives an idea of the fascinating process that goes into creating each puzzle.

Wentworths have a wonderful range of jigsaws, including some gorgeous children's jigsaws which would make a lovely, sturdy keepsake gift for a new arrival, or a special Birthday or Christmas present.

 

6th February 2014 - UPDATE!

As promised, I have returned with an update now that the puzzle is complete!


This was not an easy puzzle, and so I must confess that I delegated the challenge to my Mum as I could see that it was going to take me a very long time to finish! So these are her words:

" What a wonderful jigsaw.  Must be the best one I have ever done, for the quality, enjoyment value and challenge. It is cut from wooden pieces, with many unusual shapes, so the pieces fit together beautifully and cleanly, but it takes a lot of thought.  It took me about a month to complete, and several times I got stuck, so it took some perseverance.  Definitely one for the jigsaw connoisseur, and I can see this one coming out again, and being kept as a family heirloom. Would love to try another one!  Of course it is pricy but worth it for the quality.  Wonderful as a special present."

My Mum has a lot of experience with jigsaws, so such high praise does indeed mean that this jigsaw was something special. She kept me updated with her progress, and so here's a little collage showing her progress as she completed it.



I received the jigsaw for the purpose of this review, but all words are my own.

Saturday, 23 November 2013

Mumsnet Blogfest 2013

I'm a little late to writing about this, but a couple of weeks ago I attended Mumsnet Blogfest 2013. I was a bit hesitant about attending, as I needed to carefully consider the ticket cost. What swung it for me in the end was the excellent line up of speakers, as well as the opportunity to meet up with many of my blogging friends.

The only other conference that I've attended was Britmums Live, so I was curious to see how the two events compared, and I wasn't disappointed. Although I didn't spend the sessions writing copious notes about ways to improve my blog, I came away really inspired and motivated, and not just in a blogging way.

I was a bit nervous about going in by myself so I arranged to meet my blogging friend Swazi on the way, who introduced me to her friend Soraya. It is definitely a lot easier to go into an event like this if you have a friendly face or two by your side!

My absolute favourite session of the day was "Cracking yarns and tall tales: how to tell a better story". Lionel Shriver is one of my favourite authors, and it was wonderful to see her up on the stage and hear her talk about her writing. The first keynote session was also very good, and the Think Bombs provided by Tanya Byron, Sue Black and Jon Ronson were excellent. There has been plenty written about the "Can you be a mummy blogger and still be a feminist" debate, so I'll just say that although I feel there is room for a debate around this subject, the title could have been better phrased and the debate taken in a different direction, perhaps about how "Mummy blogging" has changed and improved lives and situations. Then Jo Brand ended the talks on a high.

Mumsnet Blogfest 2013

There was lots of time for socialising, during breaks and over lunch, with a fab drinks reception at the end. I don't see myself as a particularly confident person, but I found that the atmosphere was very friendly and it was great to chat to lots of new people. I found that there was an excellent mix of bloggers from different niches. Of course, the unlimited free gin probably helped a little with my confidence! People do often seem to recognise me at events which is good (I look just like my photographs) and I love when people come up to me to chat, whether they know who I am or not.

I came away with a gorgeous goody bag, filled with things for me rather than the children, in particular a lovely little purse from Boden which has replaced my ancient old wallet, and some chocolates - although these quickly disappeared to my parents, as a thank you for letting me use them as a hotel instead of paying London prices!

Boden wallet from Blogfest

Thursday, 21 November 2013

Spicy Butternut Squash Soup - soup maker recipe

For my birthday, my husband bought me a soup maker. Perhaps not a traditional, romantic gift, but he knows me well. Actually I'm not sure he knew that it was a soup maker when he bought it, as what he was really after was a blender after I broke my old one. But having had it now for a few weeks I am really loving it. I enjoy making soup, but always found blending it difficult, having to transfer the boiling soup into the blender and it never all fitting in at once, and the soup maker makes it all so easy.

Simple spicy butternut squash soup recipe


I've been so pleased with my new soup maker that I wrote a full review which you can read here - Andrew James Soup Maker and Blender. One thing I've found though is that it doesn't make such a large quantity as many soup recipes, so I'm having to scale down my recipes to make them fit. Having been sent some Steenbergs Mixed Spice to try, I decided to try a spicy butternut squash soup.

Butternut squash soup

This simple recipe fits perfectly into my soup maker, and makes two large portions or three smaller portions.

You need:

Half a butternut squash, chopped
One carrot, chopped
One onion, chopped
450ml stock (I use vegetable stock)
One teaspoon of mixed spice
Pinch of salt and pepper

Simply add the ingredients into the soup maker and turn it on. You can make the same recipe on the hob though, just add the ingredients into a saucepan and cook until the vegetables are soft, then blend.

The spices were lovely and gave the soup a wonderful, warming taste. Delicious!

Steenbergs' Organic mixed spice

If you are looking for more recipes which are suitable for a soup maker you might like my post Five simple Vegetarian recipes for a Soup Maker

I was sent a jar of Steenbergs Organic Freetrade Mixed Spice to try.

Wednesday, 20 November 2013

Review - Cadbury World

At the weekend we had a great day out at Cadbury World. My last visit to Cadbury World was a long time ago - in Freshers Week at University I joined ChocSoc and they organised a coach trip there during the year for a bargain price. I even dragged Ram along with me, I think he was the only man on the coach full of chocoholic girls! I had fond memories, so when Superbreak contacted me recently asking if I would like to review an attraction I thought it would be great to visit again, and this time take the little ones along.

Cadbury World review

We combined it with a visit to Ram's parents, who live in the Midlands (or Up North as I tend to call it). It's a good idea to book tickets to Cadbury World in advance, as they are only able to admit a certain number of visitors in a day. When you book you are given a time slot to visit the exhibition, which is the main part of the attraction. Our slot was quite late in the day, so we arrived earlier to visit the areas that are separate to the main exhibition. We went round the back of the building to the adventure playgrounds, which are very good and suitable even for little ones. At the moment there are also special events on at weekends, and there was a short children's entertainment show in a marquee in the grounds which they both enjoyed.

Then it was time for our tour. You begin in an Aztec Jungle, learning about the origins of chocolate, before following the Cadbury story through a series of displays and a couple of short shows. There is a chance to visit the production plant, although unfortunately they seemed to have finished for the day and there wasn't anything to see. There is a smaller area though where you can see some chocolates being made and try some delicious cups of melted chocolate with a choice of topping. There are also a few chocolate bars handed out on your way around which went down well.

Cadbury World review

The children enjoyed a little car ride through a little village of cheerful chocolate beans and I really liked the exhibitions focussing on Cadbury advertisements over the years. There are some green screen areas where you can have your photograph taken against some chocolatey backgrounds, but we kept it simple by just turning the children into Freddos.

Cadbury World review

We enjoyed our visit to Cadbury World. We perhaps would have got more out of the visit if our children had been a little older, as they didn't have enough patience for some of the exhibits and we did rather rush through, so that's worth thinking about if you are wondering whether to visit with the family.

Superbreak provided us with complimentary entry in exchange for this review.

Tuesday, 19 November 2013

Ladybird Tuesday - Lives of the Great Composers Book 1

When I find Ladybird books to buy, although I'm buying with my children in mind I also look for ones that represent my own interests. I love the way that the Ladybird books are easy to read, yet so comprehensive that they contain a wealth of information on a subject. If you are looking for an overview on a topic they are brilliant.

Lives of the Great Composers is in Series 662 - History of the Arts. I have Book 1, and there is also a Book 2. Book 1 covers Bach, Mozart and Beethoven and was published in 1969. I recently wrote about The Story of Music, which is also found in this series.

Ladybird Lives of the Great Composers Book 1

There is a lot of detailed information in this book. Each composer is given a detailed biography, beginning with a history of their family and details of their early childhood. There are also little anecdotes about their lives, for example a story about how Bach was able to fit his hand through a grille in a cupboard to copy his brother's sheets of music, and there are some lovely, lively illustrations to match the stories.

Ladybird Lives of the Great Composers Book 1

At the end of the book is a list of well-known pieces by the composers in the book with a few notes about each. The whole thing is written in a really descriptive and engaging style which makes it a pleasure to read, and once again I learned a lot from reading this book!

Ladybird Lives of the Great Composers Book 1

If you love Ladybird books, do pop over and visit Ladybird Tuesday, where Being Mrs C is assembling a really comprehensive catalogue of Ladybird books and reviews.

Below you can find links to all my Ladybird Tuesday book posts.

Snow White and Rose Red
Hansel and Gretel
Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves
The Three Little Pigs
The Old Woman and her Pig
Little Red Riding Hood
The Ugly Duckling
The Railway Children
A Little Princess
A First book of Aesop's Fables

A Ladybird Book about Knitting
More Things to Make - For Special Occasions
Easy to Make Puppets
Learning to Sew
Stamp Collecting
Tricks and Magic

Prehistoric Animals and Fossils
Dinosaurs
Stone Age Man in Britain
Great Civilisations - Crete
Charles Dickens
Nelson
Lives of the Great Composers Book 1
Lives of the Great Composers Book 2
The Story of Music

Plants and How They Grow
The Ladybird Book of the Night Sky
Sea and Air Mammals
The Farm

The Story of Nuclear Power
The Motor Car
How it Works - The Computer
How it Works - The Rocket
The Story of Ships
The Postman and the Postal Service
People at Work - The Nurse

Understanding Numbers
Talkabout Clothes
Going to School
Teaching Reading

Stories of Special Days and Customs
Christmas Customs

Girls and Boys - A Ladybird Book of Childhood

Monday, 18 November 2013

Taking a city break with small children

Tips for taking a city break with small children

We recently braved our first city break with small children - a short break to Berlin which I've written about in some detail on my blog, in particular visiting Berlin with young children. I've written about it so much, because despite our reservations we had a wonderful time! It was a real change from the typical family friendly holiday that we've taken in the past, and although it was hard work we all enjoyed it a lot.

We travelled with a four year old and a two year old, and I will admit that there were some challenges, so I've put together a few hints and tips if you are considering a similar holiday yourself.

  • Stay in accommodation that is either central or easily accessible, so that you can return easily during the day if you need a break.
  • Consider taking a pushchair, even if your child doesn't use one at home.
  • Try and stay somewhere with a fridge in the room, and pack sandwich bags, plastic boxes and some cutlery. Then you can make up sandwiches and snacks to take out with you or to eat in the room. Remember to pack a night light too if you use one at home.
  • Don't try and fit too much into a day. Keep the focus on child friendly activities and attractions, and take your lead from your child. If they start to tire, don't keep pushing them or else it will end in meltdown.
  • Make a point of noticing all the things that are different from home. For example, in Berlin we saw trams, double decker trains and sausage sellers on the streets.
  • Enjoy the slower pace necessitated by a small child, and see your surroundings from a child's point of view. As an adult, it's easy to miss things when you are rushing about, and there is always something interesting to spot, whether it's some beautiful carved railings, an unusual statue or an enticing shop window.
  • You are probably going to be very reliant upon public transport. It's worth checking out the ticket prices in advance to see if there is a daily or weekly card that you can buy to save some money. If you need to take a pushchair, do some research as to how accessible the public transport system is. For example, Berlin was fantastic, London is very difficult with a pushchair.
  • Don't feel frustrated if you can't see everything that you want to, remember it's a family holiday and it's all about spending time doing things together.

For us, the biggest advantage to taking a city break was the fact that we were able to take a reasonably priced holiday during the school holiday, instead of the more traditional family friendly options which increase their prices so much. City breaks are definitely something to think about if you have children that are in school and are looking for a short break, try browsing through some of the budget airline destinations.


Children on the U-Bahn in Berlin

Have you tried a city break with young children? Could you add any more tips to my list?

Image courtesy of Hannes Wolf via Unsplash.

Sunday, 17 November 2013

Visiting Berlin with young children

We recently returned from a family city break to Berlin, and discovered that Berlin has a huge amount to offer families, even if you are travelling with very young children. We visited with a four year old and a two year old. There is so much to do with the family, but here are our absolute highlights:

Tips for visiting Berlin with young children


For free city views

The historic Reichstag Building in Berlin has a large glass dome which can be climbed for 360-degree views across Berlin. It is free to visit the dome, although a visit must be booked in advance. You can find details on how to book here - Registering to visit the dome of the Reichstag building (in English) - and I would definitely recommend a visit. It's an easy sloped walk, fully pushchair accessible, and for older children and adults there is a free audio guide sharing facts about the building and the sights that you can see.


Reichstag Building Berlin

To get close to some exotic animals

The Berlin Zoological Garden opened in 1844 and is famous worldwide. It's compact, ideal for children that can't walk too far, and you can get very close to the animals which include all the zoo favourites like elephants, giraffes, lions and apes. There is also an Aquarium as part of the zoo complex, and combined tickets are available.

Berlin Zoo with children

Berlin Zoo

For indoor construction fun

The Legoland Discovery Centre is located in the Sony Centre in Potsdamer Platz. It covers two floors and is packed full of Lego attractions, as well as plenty of Lego for the children to play with. It's worth planning a visit for a less busy time as I would imagine that it would get very crowded - we visited mid-afternoon during the week and it wasn't too bad. Our favourite parts were the Factory Tour - where you can learn about how Lego is made and children can receive their own Lego souvenir brick - and the Duplo building area. There are a couple of small rides, some soft play areas, and lots and lots of Lego for the children to play with, build with and race with. We also spent a lot of time exploring Miniland - seeing the most important and famous buildings in Berlin constructed in Lego, including a little re-enactment of the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Legoland Discovery Centre, Berlin

Legoland Discovery Centre Berlin

For some historical background

The Brandenburg Gate, a former city gate of Berlin, is a world famous symbol for the city. You can take the U-Bahn close by and walk under the gate, continuing along Under den Linden, a leafy boulevard with plenty of historical sites along its route.
Small children at the Brandenburg Gate, Berlin

When visiting Berlin, you can't avoid being reminded of the Berlin Wall, as well as some of the darker times in German history. It's up to parents to decide how well their children will understand and cope with some of this, but I think that it's important that even younger children are aware of some of the history about the places that they are visiting. The Berlin Wall Memorial contains a long stretch of the Berlin Wall with the preserved ground behind it and is a free outdoor museum, aimed at making the history of Germany's division comprehensible to visitors.

You can also visit Checkpoint Charlie, the best known Berlin crossing point between East and West Berlin, and there is plenty of information here about attempts to cross the wall in a free open air exhibition.

Berlin Wall Memorial 

For whole family play and exploration

We loved the afternoon that we spent at the Labyrinth Kindermuseum, and you can find a full report of our visit here - Labyrinth Kindermuseum Berlin. It's an absolutely wonderful place to visit with young children, and a great way to enjoy playing and exploring alongside your children.

Labyrinth Kindermuseum Berlin

Labyrinth Kindermuseum Berlin

To test your willpower

Since spending some time living in Germany I have been a huge fan of the German chocolate bar Ritter Sport, so we couldn't miss a visit to Ritter Sport Chocoworld - the Rittersport flagship store. You can learn a little bit about the history of the bars and how they are made, and even order your own customised bar of chocolate. We enjoyed browsing the shelves for new bars to try, and Harry had fun making up a pick and mix bag of miniature bars.

Ritter Sport Chocoworld Berlin

For miniature railway enthusiasts

LOXX Miniatur Welten is a huge indoor model railway, with miniature replications of many of the famous Berlin historical and modern sights. We enjoyed it here so much that I wrote about it in more detail here - LOXX Miniatur Welten. Definitely worth a visit, children will be enthralled and it's also a great introduction to the city.

LOXX Miniatur Welten, Berlin

LOXX Miniatur Welten Berlin

For hands on science play

The Deutsches Technikmuseum (Museum of Technology) is spread across several buildings. The main museum is very interesting, with lots of exhibits including trains and planes. If you have younger children though I would recommend heading straight to the Spectrum building which is packed full of interactive experiments which children will love, even those too small to fully appreciate the science behind them.

Deutsches Technikmuseum

Getting around

Travelling around Berlin with small children is very easy. The public transport system is quick and efficient, and never seemed too busy. All the railway stations are well provided with lifts, in many cases taking you directly down to the platform. Children aged up to 6 travel for free.

Visit Berlin kindly provided us with a Berlin Welcome Card for the duration of our visit. The Welcome Card allows you unlimited use of the public transport system in Berlin as well as generous discounts on many of the main attractions, including all the paid attractions mentioned above, and I would definitely recommend it.

What did we miss? I'd love to see you share your suggestions in the comments!

Disclosure - We paid for our trip to Berlin ourselves, but as well as a Welcome Card we were also provided with complimentary admission to some of the above attractions (LOXX Miniatur Welten Berlin, Labyrinth Kindermuseum, Berlin Zoo, Technikmuseum)

Saturday, 16 November 2013

Italian Breadsticks

The Great British Bake Off may have finished on television, but the Great Bloggers Bake Off is still going strong, and I'm so glad because I enjoyed taking part in the challenges so much.

Although the weekly challenges have finished, The Crazy Kitchen and Mummy Mishaps are continuing to host linkys for us to share our baking achievements, and this month we will be attempting bakes from the show that we didn't get chance to try out first time round.

So I decided to have a go at bread sticks. I'd seen a recipe in my Kenwood Chef recipe book, but without pictures I didn't feel confident enough to attempt it. Despite feeding my children bread sticks almost daily since they were six months old, I was imagining that the recipe would create large, puffy ones in the style favoured by Olive Garden restaurants in the States. Having watched the contestants bake bread sticks early on in the series, I decided that I wanted to give them a go.

After taking part in the original challenges, I was lucky enough to be sent various different ingredients to try out in my baking, so look out for those over the next couple of weeks. This week, I tried some Tesco Finest Bread Flour for my bread sticks.

Making Italian breadsticks

I used a recipe from my Kenwood Chef Recipe Book and you can find it online here - Kenwood Chef Recipes. It's a very simple recipe, and for once no purchasing of unusual ingredients was required! Making the dough was easy, but making the bread sticks themselves was a bit of a faff. I didn't have enough baking trays or space in the oven so I had to make them in two batches, and I got very bored of rolling out and shaping all those individual sticks - they would definitely not pass muster according to the strictly measured Bake Off rules!

Making Italian breadsticks

I was pleasantly surprised with my finished bread sticks. They make a nice 'snap' if you break them across one of the thinner bits, so really they needed to be thinner all over, but they are still tasty and would be nice for parties. But although I'm glad that I gave these a go, unlike some of my other Great Bloggers Bake Off bakes I don't think I'll be bothering with these again - far too fiddly!

I was sent the bag of Tesco flour to use in my baking

Friday, 15 November 2013

Meeting Father Christmas at Squire's Garden Centre, Washington

This year, Squire's Garden Centre in Washington, West Sussex, has introduced a brand new 4D Christmas Experience for children to enjoy as part of the traditional Christmas visit to Father Christmas, and we were really excited to be invited along to experience it.

I took along Harry, 4, and Mia, 2. We were greeted by Santa's Elves for some colouring and biscuits before we were taken into the attraction. The experience begins with a 3D film about Boris the dog and his adventures as he rescues a lost teddy on Christmas Eve. Everyone wears 3D glasses, and the film is enhanced with lots of special effects, it's a real delight and a lovely festive story. We all really enjoyed it, even Mia sat quietly all the way through it which is most unlike her!

Then we joined a queue to see Father Christmas in his grotto. I wasn't at all sure as to how the children would react - previous Father Christmas meet and greets have been rather unsuccessful. But he was lovely and friendly, and Harry warmed to him almost immediately, telling him what he wanted for Christmas and speaking for Mia who was still rather shy. Father Christmas gave them a lovely gift each, then we all posed for a photograph and wished each other Merry Christmas.

Visiting Father Christmas at Squire's Garden Centre, Washington

I was really pleased with how well our photograph turned out and so I bought a print for £5.99. There are various photograph bundles available and there are also other photographic mementoes which you can purchase, like baubles and snow globes.

We were invited to the press launch of the experience, so our visit to Father Christmas was complimentary, but I couldn't resist buying the official photograph of them with Father Christmas!

Wednesday, 13 November 2013

How to bake simple ice cream cone cupcakes

Making ice cream cone cupcakes

As a member of the Zanussi Easy Team I was sent the ingredients and instructions to make my own ice cream cone cupcakes. These are something that I've often admired on Pinterest but was never really sure how well they would work out, so it was a great opportunity for me to try and make some!

I made up the boxed cake mix following the instructions and divided it between nine flat bottomed ice cream cones, placed inside a silicon cake case in a muffin tray. The batter came about halfway up the cones and I wasn't sure how well it would rise inside the cones. I was also worried that they would burn, so it was with some trepidation that I placed them into the oven.

Making ice cream cone cupcakes

To my surprise, the ice cream cone cupcakes worked perfectly! The cakes rose to just above the height of the cone and were beautifully cooked all the way inside. I finished them off with icing and sprinkles, and I was really pleased with how they looked.

Making ice cream cone cupcakes

They tasted lovely too. The ice cream cones were a little softer after cooking, but the combination of flavours worked really well. This would definitely be a more unusual treat to bake for a child's birthday party, and you could really get creative with the icing. I couldn't resist slicing one in half to see what it looked like inside, for some reason it surprised me that the cake went all the way down to the bottom!

Making ice cream cone cupcakes

As a member of the Zanussi #easyteam I was sent some of the ingredients to make these cupcakes. 

Tuesday, 12 November 2013

Ladybird Tuesday - Christmas Customs

It's Ladybird Tuesday! I'm starting my post this week with a proud picture of my new wall display:

Ladybird book cover postcards on wall display

A few weeks back I received a lovely kind gift from a blogging friend - Katie at Randomnest. A box set of 100 postcards, each one a copy of a vintage Ladybird book. It's a wonderful collection, and it's also a reminder of just how many fantastic Ladybird books have been published. I bought four little frames and chose four of my favourite postcards, with the intention of working my way through them. Definitely a great gift for a vintage Ladybird book lover!

Now onto this week's book. It's well into November now, so it must be time to start thinking about Christmas! The Ladybird book "The Stories of Our Christmas Customs" is from Series 644 - Customs. There were only two books in this series - this one and a more general book titled "Stories of Special Days and Customs" which covers other special days such as Shrove Tuesday. You can find more details about this series here. "The Stories of Our Christmas Customs" was published in 1964 and is a look at the origins of our familiar Christmas traditions.

The Stories of our Christmas Customs a Ladybird Book

The book begins with the reason that Christmas is celebrated - to mark the birth of Jesus Christ. But the origins of Christmas go back a lot further than that, and many of the traditions that we carry out at this time of year have nothing at all to do with Christianity. Long before Jesus was born, the 25th December was the shortest day of the year and people worshipped the sun, praying for it to return for another summer. Because Christians knew that God made the sun, they chose this day to worship the son of God. The shortest day now falls on the 21st December due to changes in the calendar, but the 25th December has remained as the day for celebration.

The Stories of our Christmas Customs a Ladybird Book

Even the Nativity scene has existed from times before the birth of Jesus, when clay dolls were sold in the streets of Rome at the Roman winter festivals to be given as presents. When Romans became Christians they bought dolls which looked like the people of the Nativity story, and so in time they were created specifically for this purpose. This book is filled with fascinating information!

The Stories of our Christmas Customs a Ladybird Book

The book looks at some of the things that people do at Christmas time, for example a trip to the pantomime or circus. The pantomime is a British custom, although had beginnings with the eighteenth century dancing of French comic dances from the Paris fairs, with stories from fairy tales and nursery rhymes added in to give the dancers a rest. This book suggests that the Christmas circus has become more popular than the pantomime. I'm not sure if this is still the case today, certainly I never went to a Christmas circus when I was little, although I've noticed more of them around over the last few years.

The Stories of our Christmas Customs a Ladybird Book

The book continues on from Christmas with a comprehensive look at Boxing Day, New Year's Eve and New Year's Day, finishing with Twelfth Night. Twelfth Night doesn't have the importance in the calendar that it once did, and so the traditional Twelfth Night cake has now become Christmas Cake, eaten on Christmas Day.

This is an absolutely fascinating book, I can't believe how much I have learned from reading it! It is so interesting to learn about where all these customs come from, and of course even though the book itself was published a few years ago it is still absolutely relevant today.

If you love Ladybird books, do pop over and visit Ladybird Tuesday, where Being Mrs C is assembling a really comprehensive catalogue of Ladybird books and reviews.

Below you can find links to all my Ladybird Tuesday book posts.

Snow White and Rose Red
Hansel and Gretel
Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves
The Three Little Pigs
The Old Woman and her Pig
Little Red Riding Hood
The Ugly Duckling
The Railway Children
A Little Princess
A First book of Aesop's Fables

A Ladybird Book about Knitting
More Things to Make - For Special Occasions
Easy to Make Puppets
Learning to Sew
Stamp Collecting
Tricks and Magic

Prehistoric Animals and Fossils
Dinosaurs
Stone Age Man in Britain
Great Civilisations - Crete
Charles Dickens
Nelson
Lives of the Great Composers Book 1
Lives of the Great Composers Book 2
The Story of Music

Plants and How They Grow
The Ladybird Book of the Night Sky
Sea and Air Mammals
The Farm

The Story of Nuclear Power
The Motor Car
How it Works - The Computer
How it Works - The Rocket
The Story of Ships
The Postman and the Postal Service
People at Work - The Nurse

Understanding Numbers
Talkabout Clothes
Going to School
Teaching Reading

Stories of Special Days and Customs
Christmas Customs

Girls and Boys - A Ladybird Book of Childhood
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