Sunday, 14 February 2016

Photo diary: week 6, 366

Thanks goodness, the school is over for a week. I feel so tired, we really need this break. My plans? To do nothing and just have a rest. We will have some play dates for Eddie and go out a bit, but nothing major, at least no travelling.
This dove is a local. It makes a nest among the branches of the creeper on one of the houses in our street.

The garden looks quite jolly already, with lots of snowdrops and crocuses. The potted lavender is covered with tiny blue blooms too.

On Tuesday we had fun, making Ninja Turtles for Eddie. I mixed the batter with matcha tea for the green colour, and blue and red food dyes for bandanas. Faces were drawn with chocolate icing.

It's been raining quite a lot in the last week, and we cannot go through the fields into town any longer. The fields look like a big lake.

I picked a little posy of crocuses and snowdrops to cheer me up and bring a bit of colour indoors.

My neighbour asked me to help her decorate the cake. It is for a 2-year-old girl who loves ballet. I used some pink and white sugar paste as well as icing pens.

Say it with the flowers on Valentine's day is usually say it with a chocolate cake in our case. My men wouldn't care for flowers, but everyone likes a cake.

TheBoyandMe's 366 Linky

Friday, 12 February 2016

Baked camembert

With just days left till Valentine's Day, some of you have already sorted the menu if you're the organised type, or are still unsure what you might be cooking if you're more spontaneous.
As my husband is going abroad on Sunday, we'll have our "Valentine's" dinner on Saturday. We don't do big gestures, no surprise meals out or weekends in Paris. What, with two kids, and one being special needs, anything extra has to be organised and planned in advance. We have agreed long time ago not to buy any themed gifts, as neither of us is particularly excited about the heart-shaped merchandise.
But to mark the occasion, I will cook a meal for my husband. I also got him a gift, won't say what it is, just in case he might read my blog. On a different topic, yesterday Eddie and I were browsing a party costumes' online shop and came across the so called bum shorts (literally shorts with a see-through plastic bum on them). Eddie thought they were hilarious and insisted that I should buy them for Papa. Needless to say, this is not my idea of a Valentine's gift (but I did have a chuckle, more at Eddie's uproarious laughter).

Years ago, when we lived in the States, I discovered a recipe for a camembert baked in pastry. If I'm not mistaken it was printed on a croissant pastry tube. I have tried baking cheese in a variety of pastries - short crust, puff and croissant, and they all work.
The recipe, or recipe suggestion, couldn't be simpler.

Get a round camembert, a good apricot jam, a handful of flaked apricots and ready-made pastry, like JusRol. Unroll the pastry, place the cheese on top and cut out a bigger circle.
Top up the cheese with 2tbsp of apricot jam and sprinkle the almonds. I have also added a bit of Parisian spice, but this is optional. Spice Parisienne from Seasoned Pioneers is also known as Epices-Fines - a mix of peppercorns, nutmeg, paprika, cloves, thyme, cinnamon, basil, savoury and bay leaves.

Cut out a smaller circle from the pastry and place over the cheese. Wrap it round the cheese, smooth the edges and smear a bit of butter over the pastry or brush with a beaten egg yolk, or even milk.
Place the wrapped cheese in a tray and then in an oven preheated to 180C.
Bake for about 20 minutes, until the pastry is golden.
Once cooked, don't cut it immediately, or the melted cheese will flow out, leaving the pastry shell (been there, done that). Let it sit under a clean towel for about 10 minutes before cutting and serving.
It will make a lovely starter for 4 people, or eat it as a main for 2, served with a salad.

In this recipe I used an apricot jam from Duerr's. It is a lush amber-coloured jam, sweet and aromatic. Made with ripe apricots, it is like an essence of summer. I do love a good apricot jam. It always reminds me of my aunt's orchard, and her pantry laden with jars upon jars of jam. She made a wonderful apricot jam.

So, if you're still looking for ideas of what to cook for Valentine's day, this recipe might just fit the bill.
Every time I serve it when we have guests, everybody loves it. And as I said, it couldn't be easier to make it.

Thursday, 11 February 2016

Budget fish soup and Knorr Soup Personality Quiz

I confess I have dreadfully overspent on presents at Christmas time.
When you are counting pennies, either after over-spending or on days before pay day, you're looking for ways of cooking something on a tight budget. In my student's days I often cooked soup from tinned fish. Some days just a big potato, an onion and a tin of fish would do. If you have a dried bay leaf and some peppercorns, then you're in for a really decent soup. And if you have some other vegetables available, it's almost a feast. I used to buy really inexpensive tins of fish (not in oil, but in spring water or brine).

Many supermarkets were running half price promotions in January, so I spent my limited budget on staples and got a couple of tins of pink salmon for cooking soup.

Budget fish soup
1 tin of salmon
1 red onion, finely chopped
1/2 green chilli, deseeded and sliced
1 celery stalk
2tbsp olive oil
1 tomato, chopped
1 cube Knorr fish stock
1 bay leaf
1 medium potato
2tbsp rice, basmati type

Fry the finely chopped onion and celery with the green chilli in the olive oil for 5 minutes, then add to the pan with tinned salmon and chopped tomato.the fish stock. Crumble the fish stock cube in. Add a bay leaf and sliced potato and a bit of rice. Simmer for 15 minites.
Serve hot, with some fresh herbs like coriander or parsley.
I often buy chicken or vegetable stock cubes or powder, but as I recently got a selection of Knorr stock cubes, I used a Fish stock cube in this soup. It added a more concentrated deeper fish flavour to the overall dish.

Recently Knorr has emailed me with a Knorr Soup Personality Quiz. If you fancy to have a go, here it is:

Which of the following are you most likely to be described as by your friends and family?
A. Extrovert and risk-taker
B. Kind, generous and helpful
C. Quiet, romantic and thoughtful
D. An ambitious, high-achiever

Which of the below activities do you enjoy the most?
A. High-adrenalin activities like bungee jumping, car racing, skiing etc.
B. Spending time with your family
C. Relaxing and peaceful activities such as reading or walking in nature
D. Socialising with friends

Which of the following aspects of life do you value most?
A. Going on adventures
B. Being appreciated and liked by others
C. Having time to yourself
D. Achieving your professional dreams

Which of the following best describes your character?
A. Fun and daring
B. Friendly and kind
C. Thoughtful and quiet
D. Successful and social

What is your best quality?
A. You’re always open to new experiences
B. You get on well with others
C. You put a lot of thought into what you do
D. You work hard to get what you want

Mostly As
You are fun, adventurous and open to new experiences. You are likely to have a daring, exciting and risk taking persona, enjoying thrill seeking activities like bungee jumping and riding a roller coaster. Your personality is best suited to hot, spicy soups like chilli con carne and spicy fish soup.
Mostly Bs
You are kind, friendly and get on well with others. You are likely to be described by your friends as generous, with strong family values and a preference for more peaceful activities like walking. Your personality is best suited to sweet soups like butternut squash and sweet potato soup.
Mostly Cs
You are quiet, romantic and thoughtful, and likely to be described as emotional by friends and family. You enjoy reading books in your spare time. Your personality is best suited to bitter soups like broccoli and stilton.
Mostly Ds
You are ambitious, social and a hard worker. You are likely to be described by those close to you as an ambitious go-getter who can sometimes be impatient – unsurprisingly you can often be found tucking in to your soup at your desk. Your personality is best suited to salty soups like pea and ham.

According to my answers, I got mostly Bs, and my soup is a butternut squash and sweet potato soup. And you know what? That's spot on. This is one of my most favourite soups, which I cook very often. I was surprised, as usually these amusing questionnaires never ring true.
Now, have a go and tell me which Soup personality you are.

Wednesday, 10 February 2016

Curd cheese pancakes

Eton-mess style pancakes

I make pancakes almost every weekend, and don't quite understand how some people eat pancakes only once a year on Pancake Day. It is tantamount to the attitudes of people in Middle Ages who washed once a year, and thought that was enough. How can you possibly avoid pancakes for the rest of the year? Incomprehensible. That's one of the easiest meals, and one of the most versatile too, as you can vary the ingredients and toppings ad infinitum.
Anyway, to please my younger son I baked a very small batch - let's call it a limited edition - of Ninja turtles pancakes, using matcha tea and food colouring. Eddie participated by adding touches with a chocolate icing pen. And here is our result, ta da! Have to say that the blue food dye didn't survive the heat and got very pale, almost grey. The red one was OK, and green matcha was the best colour.

For grown-ups I have made curd cheese pancakes and offered them with a selection of syrups and toppings.
My favorite toppings are maple syrup and honey. I prefer to buy honey which is not a blend of different countries, so usually go for either Greek, Australian or English wildlife when buying in supermarkets or buy the local honey from the farmers' market.

I also served a few pancakes with crushed meringues, strawberries and whipped cream.

Curd cheese pancakes
2 medium eggs
 4 heaped tbsp curd cheese
1tsp freshly squeezed lemon juice
4 heaped tbsp self-raising flour
1tbsp caster sugar
75ml milk
butter for the frying pan
a selection of honeys and syrus for pouring (optional)
strawberries, meringues and cream (optional)

Mix all the ingredients together to a thick consistency. Butter the pancake pan slightly, pour a tablespoon of batter per pancake. You will get about 12+ pancakes, depending on the thickness you want.
Serve hot with any syrup or honey, or just dusted with icing sugar.

What are your favourite ways of serving pancakes?

Adding my recipe to this month's Tea Time Treats linky hosted by Lavender and Lovage and The Hedgecombers  which is all about Pancakes, Hotcakes and Waffles

Tea Time Treats

Andy's Amazing Adventures magazine launch

"Mummy, I wish I could travel with Andy. If he takes me to see dinosaurs, I will bring a baby T-Rex with me back home and call him Baby T"

Oh, the excitement, the excitement! Andy's Amazing Adventures - a brand new magazine from Immediate Media is launched today.
The magazine is based on a series of much loved CBeebies shows Andy's Wild Adventures, Andy's Dinosaur Adventures and the forthcoming Andy's Prehistoric Adventures.

Many a parent with a preschooler or primary school child knows exactly who Andy is. His cheeky grin enchants children and grown-ups alike.

Even I am, ahem, a fan. Eddie and I like to watch Andy's adventures together. I love the fact that there is so much information crammed into each episode. Eddie has learnt a lot of difficult, almost unpronounceable dino names and trivia on their eating habits and habitat. We always root for Andy, cheering him to get back to the Museum before he's been "caught" out, time-travelling.
When I told Eddie about the new magazine, he could hardly contain his excitement.

Each issue will come with a super free gift. The first issue had a super duper T-Rex Grabber...

and five mini dinos to play with...

It is jam-packed with stories, stickers, colouring pages and puzzles.

"The magazine is based upon the 7 key areas of learning that support early years development so it's full of fun things while also supporting readers' learning".

There is a poster of a ferocious T-Rex, complete with a Gizmo report.

Besides all the fun and informative stories and activities there is also a book token for the coming World Book Day which you will be able to exchange for a book. There will be 10 books to choose from, including Supertato and Kipper's Visitor.

As you can see, this wonderful magazine is a treasure trove of fun and knowledge. This is the only magazine which brings millions of years of natural history to life for pre-schoolers.
This is also the only dinosaur magazine which is created in collaboration with the BBC's Natural History Unit.

Disclosure: We received the magazine for the purposes of reviewing. All opinions are Eddie's and mine.

Sunday, 7 February 2016

Sweet and sour chicken

While I was cooking Sweet and sour chicken for lunch today, I thought of the times when I tried the sweet and sour sauce in a jar for the very first time. Chinese food was almost unheard of in my hometown in Russia (then the Soviet Union), probably until mid-to-late 1980s. I must have been at Uni, and when a famous American brand started selling their sauces in jars locally, we were very excited. Sweet and sour sauce sounded so exotic and so different. I remember actually eating the sauce straight from the jar or spooned on a slice of bread. At that time my friends and I thought it was simply heavenly.
These days I am perfectly capable of making my own sweet and sour sauce from scratch, with sweet peppers and pineapples, but I also buy jars of sauce to keep on the kitchen shelves for a quick and easy meal. 
I have already told you that Wing Yip asked if I would be interested in trying some of their products and getting creative during the festivities. Wing Yip is widely recognised as the UK's leading Oriental grocer with four sites in Birmingham, Manchester, Croydon and Cricklewood. They also have an online store, thus "bringing traditional Oriental cuisine one step closer to UK homes".
We absolutely loved Chicken fried rice, which I cooked with Wing Yip rice fried sauce.

Today I used a jar of Wing Yip Sweet & Sour Stir Fry Sauce. This is a classic Cantonese sauce from South Eastern China made with a unique and delicate blend of contrasting fruit flavours. It is perfect with pork, chicken or fried fish. This sauce is best used in stir-fry.
It's suitable for vegetarians, contains no hydragenated fat or added monosodium glutamate.

Sweet and sour chicken
2 chicken breasts
80ml+ sparkling water
50g self-raising flour
35g cornflour
groundnut oil for stir-frying, about half a bottle
1 tin of pineapple slices in light syrup (227g tin, or 140g drained)
1 sweet pepper
1 medium onion, finely sliced
tender egg noodles, to serve with

First prepare the batter. And turn the oven on, it has to be warm.
Whisk together the flour, cornflour and sparkling water until you get a batter of smooth consistency. Slice the chicken breast, dip in the batter in batches. Pour half a bottle of oil in a wok. It has to be very hot when you put chicken pieces in it. Cook in two batches for about 7-8 minutes, turning pieces over while you cook. Once the batter is lightly golden, take the pieces carefully out with a slotted spoon and put on a paper kitchen towel to get rid of the excess oil.
While you are cooking the veg, keep the chicken (without paper) in the oven.
Finely slice the onion, and cut the sweet pepper in about 10 pieces. Fry in the wok with about 3tbsp of oil. Once the onion has nicely browned, add the pineapple chunks (or slices), pour the light syrup too. Take the chicken out of the oven and mix with the vegetables and noodles. Pour the sauce over, and stir fry for a minute. Serve hot.
It was a tasty Chinese meal. The sauce is smooth, so if you prefer yours chunky, add the pineapple like I did.

And if you're adventurous in cooking and like trying new ingredients, how about a Sweet and sour chicken with goji berries, as cooked by Cheryl from Madhouse Family Reviews? That's an inspired twist on a classic dish.

What are you planning to cook tomorrow to celebrate the Chinese New Year?

Saturday, 6 February 2016

Photo diary: week 5, 366

We rarely go out together, so it was a real treat to have lunch all four of us. It was quite a spontaneous decision, we first ventured into Frankie and Benny's, but they said we'd have to wait for half an hour for a table, and we didn't want to wait in the bar with two kids. We went to the Huffkins instead and got a quiet table in the corner which suited us perfectly. Boys wanted their chips, I ordered toast with smoked salmon and scrambled eggs, while Papa fancied an afternoon tea, with sandwiches and scones (very British and very quaint, if you ask me). While we waited, I gave my mobile to Sasha to play with, and he took several photos during the meal, including this one of Eddie.

On Monday I baked a carrot cake with caramelised carrot as a decoration. It was a tasty cake, Sasha loved it a lot, and methinks I'll have to bake it again soon. He didn't mind that the icing was applied in a rather haphazard way. I don't think I'd be applying for MasterChef any time soon.

I love discovering new teas, and this beautiful 1000 Day Flower tea was a lovely surprise. It looked gorgeous and had a delicate taste.

My strange son likes going to the dentist for two reasons: he enjoys cuddling the gigantic teddy bear and he always gets a sticker. Plus the dentist always makes him laugh, so make that three reasons. I wish I were so relaxed going to the dentist. I usually have panic attacks, and feel like running out of the clinic screaming.

On Thursday I cooked chicken fried rice with exotic mixed mushrooms. It was very tasty.

All the school kids from Eddie's class ran out of the classroom wearing the masks they made. Eddie was mighty proud of his artistic creation, and refused to take it off, so we marched home just like that.

Doesn't he look like butter wouldn't melt in this photo? We do have a problem with a child in Eddie's class who's not a good influence. This boy scratched Ed's face in the past, spat on him, pushes him regularly around, yet my silly child keeps playing with him, saying he's a friend. Even the teachers are not happy about it, and try to keep them apart, at least during the class. Now that my husband has seen them in action at a birthday party of another class mate, he came home huffing and puffing, saying we need to do something about it. But what can I do? I keep telling my son not to play with that boy. What would you do in this situation?

TheBoyandMe's 366 Linky

Friday, 5 February 2016

Chicken fried rice

Chinese New Year is just a few days away.
Will you be celebrating it by ordering a takeaway or buying ready-made meals? There are lots of promotions in supermarkets at the moment. But cooking your own Chinese feast could be a great fun, throwing together delicious meals, where you know exactly what goes inside the dish.
Chicken fried rice is absolutely delicious, yet so easy to prepare. You can always double the quantities if you are cooking for a bigger family.
A couple of days ago I had an email from Wing Yip, asking if I would be interested in trying some of their products and getting creative during the festivities. Wing Yip is widely recognised as the UK's leading Oriental grocer with four sites in Birmingham, Manchester, Croydon and Cricklewood. They also have an online store, thus "bringing traditional Oriental cuisine one step closer to UK homes".

I was already planning to do a feast for the Chinese New Year. The year of the Monkey is coming, and being a Monkey according to the Chinese horoscope, I consider it my year, and a good occasion to celebrate.

I googled for fried rice dishes, and came across a tasty recipe for Chicken fried rice on The Telegraph site. I have adapted the recipe, changing some of the quantities and adding mixed mushrooms. The author of the recipe starts by cooking rice. I used pre-cooked rice. Basically it is a glamorised version of an egg-fried rice, but while the egg fried rice is more of a side dish, this recipe is a meal in itself.

Chicken fried rice
3tbsp groundnut oil
1/2 medium onion, finely chopped
3 spring onions
2 cloves of garlic
fresh ginger, about half a finger long
250g chicken breast
100g fresh peas (or frozen)
300g mixed exotic mushrooms (shiro-shimeji, shiitake, golden enoki and eryngii)
2tbsp Chinese fried rice sauce
300g cooked rice
2 medium eggs, scrambled with 1tsp of oil

Heat the wok really well, add the groundnut oil. Finely chop the onion, white bits of spring onions and grate the ginger, put all the ingredients in the wok and stir fry for a couple of minutes. Then add the cubed chicken and sliced mushrooms (smaller ones should be left whole). Season with a bit of salt. Cook for 5 minutes or longer.
In a smaller pan cook scrambled eggs with a teaspoon of oil, or make the flat omelette and then slice it. You will add it later to the rice, just before serving.
Add the rice to the chicken, as well as the Chinese fried rice sauce. Add the peas and sliced mushrooms (smaller ones should be left whole) and stir fry for another 5 minutes, make sure the chicken is cooked through.
Chop the green part of spring onions, scatter over the rice and serve it hot.

Wing Yip Chinese Fried Rice sauce made this recipe more authentic. This sauce is a flavoured soy sauce, with added garlic, black pepper, ginger and other ingredients. It is suitable for vegetarians and has no added monosodium glutamate.

I buy mixed exotic mushrooms in Waitrose, it is a 300g box with a variety of mushrooms. If you cannot find these mushrooms, use shiitake and oyster mushrooms which are available more widely.

Disclosure: I received a selection of Wing Yip products for the purposes of testing and reviewing. All opinions are mine.

Wednesday, 3 February 2016

An Evening Walk (500 piece) puzzle from Ravensburger

My Grandma used to say "To see Paris and die". While she never had a chance to visit a city of her dreams and never travelled beyond Russia, I've visited the capital of France years ago and would love to go back one day. I thought of my Grandma and Paris, when I was assembling a new puzzle from Ravensburger.
An Evening Walk 500-piece puzzle is a charming scene. It comes in a sturdy box, like all the Ravensburger puzzles.

It is aimed at older children and adults. At 500 pieces it was a mere doddle in comparison to trickier 1000-piece jigsaw puzzles.

The nostalgic vintage scene is set in Paris of the 1950s. Flowers in buckets, a fruit and vegetable stall in the foreground are bursting with colour. An elegant Parisian lady is taking her dog for a walk. The evening sky is a melange of grey and pink. The Eiffel Tower is in the background.
I enjoyed piecing this beautiful puzzle together.

And now that I have finished it, I am ready to tackle a new one.

For a full range of Ravensburger puzzles visit Ravensburger.

Disclosure: I received this puzzle for the purposes of reviewing. All opinions are mine.