Tuesday, 30 July 2013

Philips PerfectCare Aqua steam generator iron

I confess that ironing is amongst my least favourite household chores as it is so time-consuming, boring and ungrateful activity. As I do the washing on a daily basis, the pile of things to be ironed never seems to disappear, as soon as one lot is done, there's a new pile ready for ironing. My old (or should I call it vintage?) iron has been on its last legs, and I was delighted to receive an email from Philips offering me to test and review a new Philips PerfectCare Aqua Steam Generator Iron GC8620/02. Will it make my life easier to help with all those pesky shirts and uniforms?

Wouldn't you be tempted by a promise of:
"The Philips PerfectCare Aqua Steam Generator Iron GC8620/02 features OptimalTemp - one setting for all of your clothes: the perfect combination of steam and temperature; is 100% safe on all ironable garments; up to five bars of steam pressure for fast ironing; plus large 2.2 fully visible water tank – to name a few!"
Well, anything that would make my ironing less cumbersome is most welcome. The innovative gadget has duly arrived at the beginning of July, and for the last month I have been testing it.

What did I think of it?
- The speed of ironing is amazing. I was absolutely impressed with how quickly I have done the load of clothes, it would have taken me twice as long with the old iron, if not longer.
- The quality of ironing is also very impressive. Even the stubborn creases disappeared after the ironing.
Even the much hated linen looked as a newly bought variety (I always struggle with making the linen look good). The wrinkle removal is one smooth operation.
- No fuss with choosing the right temperature for the different kind of fabrics. It is adaptable for almost all kinds of textiles.
- You can place the iron directly on the ironing board while adjusting the item you are working with, or if you finished and need to fold it, the iron wouldn't burn the board.
- The design is ultra-modern (and a bit spaceship-inspired). Clean looks, smooth lines.
- The iron has a SteamGlide non-stick ceramic soleplate with a unique steam tip, which allows you to reach and press even the smallest areas, or most difficult ones.
- You can also use this gadget vertically to iron the curtains (though I confess I haven't tried it yet on the curtains, I did try it on a suit on a hanger to give a last minute pressing), now tell me that you are not impressed?

- It is on the big size and takes the valuable space. Unless you have a special utility room (and I don't), it does take quite a bit of space.
- The cord is attached to the iron, so the steam part has to sit pretty close to where you iron, which is not always convenient, if you like to pile things-to-be-ironed on the board itself.
- You have to be extra careful handling the iron. I am used to moving the items with one hand while ironing, and moving the iron with the other hand, but found it a bit tricky with the new gadget, as the steam can easily hurt your fingers. Ouch. And there is a bit too much steam for my liking. As the last couple of weeks were pretty hot, I found it too hot to do the ironing,with an additional steam it was truly sweltering.

For me the Pros outweigh the Cons. The main pros are the quality, efficiency and speed, which are probably the essential features when looking for a new iron/steamer.
I would rate it as 8/10 (2 points deducted for the size and the amount of steam).

Disclosure: I received this gadget- Philips PerfectCare Aqua steam generator iron- to test and review on this blog.  All opinions are mine.

Turkey and seafood antipasto salad

It all started a few weeks ago when I took part in the Talking Turkey Twitter party. I love Twitter parties for the quick succession of ideas and banter, focused on a particular topic. It was then that the idea of a Turkey and Seafood Antipasto salad was born.

That particular Twitter party was organised by the British Turkey site and the questions were answered by some well-known names in the culinary world including the celebrity chef Phil Vickery who is a passionate supporter of all foodie things British, including the turkey.
It was Jaime Oliver's exclamation that she has never tried the combination of the turkey and prawns that made me think "Neither have I. Am I missing something?" And we jokingly pledged among ourselves to try a new turkey recipe and then blog about it.
And imagine my delight and near shock, when the irresistible Mr Vickery himself has replied to my tweet. My heart skipped a beat.

I should have taken notes while preparing this salad, but I didn't, and as it was before our trip to Cornwall, my list of ingredients is a bit on the vague side. But I hope the precise measurements don't really matter.
I just wanted to share the idea with you and hopefully inspire you to experiment with the ingredients.
What I found out that the turkey works really well with the seafood, and that I am going to make this salad again.

Turkey and seafood antipasto salad
about 250g turkey breast fillets, sliced
1/2 orange (use the juice and zest)
1 apple, sliced
2/3 jar of seafood antipasto (I used Waitrose Seafood Antipasto and vegetables jar with extra virgin olive oil)
a handful of rocket
1 red sweet pepper
a handful of fresh peas
olive oil and lemon juice for the dressing
Fry the sliced turkey breast dipped in flour & orange zest in the olive oil and orange juice until golden brown. Season well. Mix in a deep bowl with the sliced apples, podded fresh peas, sliced sweet pepper and seafood mix (squid, cuttlefish, olives, carrots, gherkins, prawns). You can use the infused olive oil from the jar to add to the salad, and a generous squeeze of lemon (at least 1/3 of a lemon). Place the rocket leaves on the plates and pile the salad on top.
It was a light dinner meal, perfect for the summer weather. And a glass of wine wouldn't go amiss.

I wonder how Jaime Oliver and Gourmet Mum fared with their turkey recipes?
If you'd love to read what Gourmet Mum cooked, check her recipe Mozzarella Stuffed Italian Herb Turkey Burgers.

Monday, 29 July 2013

One happy boy and a Peppa Pig cake

"Mama, can I eat the cake?"
"No, Eddie, we are waiting for your guests and I will cut it later"
"Mama, can I lick it then?" And "Please, please... please!"

Peppa Pig and Eddie: it's a love from the first sight. Mama could be a good baker, but I cannot compete with the shop-bought Peppa Pig cake. Eddie's been talking about getting it for his birthday for days and days. We failed to find it in Penzance (we stayed in Cornwall on Eddie's birthday) but the trip to the local Sainsbury's saved the day, for Eddie's mini tea party we acquired the much coveted treasure.

Eddie loved it. The Lightbody Peppa Pig Celebration cake itself is a plain golden sponge with a bit of jam between the layers. But of course, the full glory of it is the favourite characters on the icing. And that you cannot beat, can you?!

Just look at this happy face! So much genuine joy and happiness! When do we lose that elusive overwhelming feeling of pleasure from simple things which you can experience in childhood? When do our emotions become jaded and we lose the talent of expressing our joy so sincerely and openly? A plain balloon brings a wave of ecstasy, a supermarket-bought cake leaves you deliriously happy... How wonderful! Truly magic moments.

blogbadge photo badge_zpsf0b88074.jpg

Unique gifts from Lily Charmed

My Dad was a skilful artist who created some amazing pieces of jewellery, and I consider myself to be rather spoilt when it comes to jewellery. It is not easy to impress me. However, Lily Charmed managed to do just that. When I was browsing their range of charms online, I thought that their artwork is truly original and stylish.
Lily Charmed was launched in 2011 by cousins Marcus Pearce and Lucy Lee, and named after Marcus’ daughter Lily. They say:
"Our desire to create beautiful and original jewellery that celebrates special occasions and relationships lead us to create our unique message cards. The message card frames the charms you choose, and shares the meaning behind your gift – making it one which will be treasured forever."

How many times have you being stuck, thinking of buying a meaningful gift for someone you love, or a dear friend, and dismissing one idea after another?

Lily Charmed gives you an opportunity to buy a stylish personalised gift. Their selection of charms, necklaces and bracelets is varied and impressive. The quality of artwork is high (in fact every charm goes through the quality control).

As I was perusing the online store, I was presented with a very difficult choice. I loved the beautiful ethereal feathers... A tiny crown was darn cute and very tempting... A teeny-weeny teacup screamed "Get me!" (it will make a fantastic gift for any tea lover).
Seashells and anchors reminded me of the Cornish seaside and would look stunning with the summer dresses and open tops.

Image credit: Lily Charmed

At the end I opted for a silver jigsaw charm necklace. As you might know, a jigsaw/puzzle piece is often used as a symbol of autism. Autism is a big puzzle, and as a parent of a child on the spectrum, I am proud to wear this beautiful symbol. To me it represents what it is to be out of the ordinary. There are so many pieces to this puzzle that we need to solve to understand the condition. The pieces of the puzzle are all different and in my opinion they signify the differences between the people and the misunderstanding that comes as a result of them.
Of course, if you start to ponder and philosophise on the matter, you might say it could be applied to the human beings in general. We are all different.

This dainty and exquisite necklace arrived beautifully presented in a gift box. Once you open a stylish white box, you "receive" a card with a meaningful message. Mine said "You... were my missing piece". A lovely sentiment. And a card that would be greeted with delight by anyone.

Have a look at the best sellers
The sterling silver charms have been lightly sandblasted to give an elegant matte finish. The chain is very delicate, and the necklace is very light, it is like wearing a snowflake.
Lily Charmed also offers a range of charms in gold, but I prefer to wear silver. However, if you are a gold lover, Lily Charmed has recently launched a gold vermeil range of charms. Or go for a mixed combination of gold and silver. The choice is yours.

I love my stylish jigsaw piece, and it means a lot to me too. What would you choose?

For more information check Lily Charmed on Facebook and Twitter.

Disclosure: I was offered to choose a charm for the purposes of reviewing, all opinions are mine.

Sunday, 28 July 2013

Lemon polenta gluten free muffins

As we were still celebrating Eddie's birthday today (every morning for the last week Eddie asks if it is his birthday, bless him), for our mini-tea party we had a shop-bought Peppa Pig cake and lemon polenta muffins.

Lemon polenta gluten free muffins
2 medium eggs
100g caster sugar
100g butter, melted
75g ground almonds
75g polenta (I use Polenta Valsugana for all my baking, cannot recommend highly enough)
100g gluten free flour
1tsp vanilla essence
2tsp essence of orange blossom water (The English Provender: optional but so very moreish)
juice of 1 lemon
zest of 2 lemons
1tsp baking powder, gluten free
flaked almonds (about 3tsp)

Cream the eggs with the caster sugar. Add the grated zest of 2 lemons and juice of 1 lemon. Add the ground almonds, polenta, gluten free flour, vanilla essence, essence of orange blossom water, baking powder and melted butter and mix well.

Preheat the oven to 180C. Spoon the mix into 6+ muffin cases (we got 6 muffins and 2 mini cupcakes). Sprinkle the flaked almonds on top. Bake for about 18 minutes until golden brown (check with the wooden skewer, if it comes clean, the muffins are ready).
Very easy, quick and lovely.

Saturday, 27 July 2013

Penzance, here we come: £50 Road Trip Challenge

You might have noticed that not much has been happening on my blog in the past week. The reason for my silence was that we went to Cornwall for a week. We tend to go to the same area not far from Penzance. We stay in a small village of Perranuthnoe which boasts a fabulous beach, not too touristy and frequented mainly by the locals who every year ask themselves what has hit them when the Varese family is around. I will post more about our trip and will show you the fantastic views of St Michael's Mount, but today I would like to tell you about our trip to Penzance.

Every year on a car trip from Oxfordshire to Cornwall we admire the changing landscapes. The Cornish countryside is very distinct, this year it had lots of lilac blooms of fireweed.  This beautiful plant reminds me of Russia. When you travel by train in Russia, the fireweed (Epilobium) is growing like weeds everywhere around the rail tracks. Did you know that it used to be a very common herb for making tea?! It was exported to England from Russia in huge quantities (this has stopped during the WWI). I wonder looking at the vast amounts of fireweed in Cornwall as to why the British needed to import it, was it not so prolific in the old days? 

I enjoy the rides around the Cornish countryside and never get tired of watching the changing views.
It was Eddie's birthday on the 25th of July, and as he insisted on getting a Peppa Pig cake, we decided to travel from Perranuthnoe to Penzance in  search of the much coveted cake.
The ride takes about 15 minutes, and in this short time you see the coast and the green countryside, the sheep and the helicopters taking the visitors to the Isles.

It wasn't the warmest day, in fact we managed to get soaked in the heavy rain later that day, but we shrugged ourselves like the wet dogs and ran laughing.
Penzance is a lovely old town, with a busy harbour. It is sprawling up and down the hills, boasting a lot of Regency and Georgian architecture. 

We are creatures of habit, and on most visits to Penzance we usually visit the Renaissance cafe, which offers the views over the harbour and St Michael's Mount, some splendid Cornish ice cream and some of the most infuriatingly slow service as well, you need oodles of patience and lots of spare time (if you want a meal in a hurry, better not to visit this place). 

We admired the views, we ordered our drinks, ice cream and chips, we waited and waited and waited.
Eddie decided that some colouring was just the thing to do to fight the boredom. Sasha watched the boats.

Finally our ice cream arrived. The Cornish ice cream is absolutely delightful, creamy and full of flavour.

An abundance of mismatched clocks showing different times is probably an ironic reference to the unhurried approach of the staff.

After the cafe we trawled through High Street in search of the Peppa Pig cake. To Eddie's big disappointment, we couldn't find any (don't worry, I bought him one today). 
Being a child, everything seems brighter and more excitng. Eddie got a helium balloon, and he
was ecstatic with it. He kept telling all the passerbys in the street that it was his birthday and was bursting into a jolly rendition of "Happy birthday to me!" just in case someone was in any doubt.
Aww, to be young again and so happy with a simple balloon!

Moneysupermarket has challenged the bloggers to write about their ultimate road trip. They invited the bloggers to go on a road trip somewhere in the UK and prove that there are fantastic days out to be had right on our doorsteps.
"What about if we challenged you to go on a great road trip somewhere relatively local to where you live? That’s exactly what we’re doing with our £50 Road Trip Challenge (link removed as expired). We want bloggers of the UK to show everyone that there are fantastic road trips and days out to be had right on our doorsteps."

The best road trips are not all about visiting the exotic places, for me it is spending time together with my family, laughing our socks off and having an ice cream or two.
Our trip to Penzance was a happy one, despite the rain and the lack of the Peppa Pig cake. We shopped, got lots of presents for Eddie, had a lovely treat and admired the town.

I sooo want to live there.

Disclosure: all bloggers who applied for the challenge, got £50 for the trip expenses. Thank you, Moneysupermarket, for an enjoyable trip!

Wednesday, 17 July 2013

Precious memories with Love2read

Are you children struggling with reading? Or are they just beginning to read and need all the possible encouragement? There are many ways to help your child, and a personalised book is one of the great props which will boost your child's interest in reading.
When the opportunity arose to review a book from love2read, I jumped at the chance. Caroline Edwards, the brain behind this business has background in teaching and knows exactly how to help the young readers.
She has started the business initially to inspire her own child with special needs "to start picking up books and to help her to recognise words".

The site is very easy to navigate. Customers can upload up to 10 digital images to create their own unique reading book.
The choice of titles is pretty amazing: you get all the possible family members and occasions. I loved that you can choose the word that you use the most at home, for example, you could do a book about Daddy or Dad, Papa, Dada...

Caroline says:
"The aim of each unique book is to help your child develop a love of reading. It does this by presenting photographs which reflect your child’s world and relating them to simple words. Research shows that if your child loves books they will learn to read much faster and you will be encouraging a lifelong love of reading.
The key words in each book are known as “high frequency ” words, which are some of the first words your child will be taught to recognise when they start school."

I wanted to make a book for my younger son. I was torn between so many good topics to choose from. Should I make a book about our holidays in Cornwall? About our stay at the grandparents' in Italy? A book about Papa? Choices, choices. I have finally decided that Eddie will love to read about about his older brother and himself.

It is very easy to add the photos to the book template once you pick your title. You can adjust the photo to fit in the given frame and choose the colour of the frame. You can then personalise the text and make it relevant to your young reader. The personalised front cover is automatically generated from the photos you have added to the first four pages of your book.

Let me tell you, we love the book. My Mum who is visiting us this month was going Oh and Ah, and "Could I have one as well?" And wouldn't the Italian grandma love one too? Eddie was delighted to see a book where he and his brother appear on every page.

The final result reminded me of the social story book we have done at home for my older son who has autism. We made a book for him "When Papa is away" to help him cope better with his Dad's business trips. I imagine that love2read books could make excellent social stories, if they expand the possibilities of the blank book template, so that the customers could choose their own titles and key words (at the moment every sentence starts with the same word. For example, our book starts with "My brother". I appreciate that the repetition here works for a young learner, as they gain confidence with their reading, but social stories could be another venue to explore, and as far as I know nobody does customised social stories that you can do in the similar fashion).

It is a beautiful little edition that we'll treasure forever. A brilliant way to preserve the precious memories and encourage your little one to read at the same time.

The book costs £14.99 each + postage, there are discounts if you order more than one.

To find more about Love2Read visit Love2Read books Facebook page.

Disclosure: we were offered a free code to create a book and write a review, all opinions are my own.

As rated by the Varese family: 10/10

Monday, 15 July 2013

One sizzling hot day: The Charcoal Challenge

We are bang in the middle of a real summer now. What do you do during these hot days? Are you enjoying the meals outdoors? Having picnics and BBQs?

summer meals

I have applied to take part in the Charcoal challenge sponsored by Moneysupermarket.com, even if we don't have a BBQ in the garden. Or at least one in a good working order, we have a couple of ancient stands left by the previous owner of the house, and I use them to burn the leaves and twigs in the autumn and early spring. Thankfully, our friends Jay and Annette came to the rescue and arrived to our house with their own BBQ, so that we didn't have to spend any money on the disposable one and could just splash on food and drinks (all applicants were given £50 to host a BBQ party).

For me the BBQ is not just about meat, but also about eating lots of vegetable dishes. One of my favourite aubergine dishes can be used as a super accompaniment to the meat, or eaten on its own. I love it on a chunk of nice bread, cold from a jar in the fridge. But it's lovely piping hot as well.

That's the way my Mum taught me to cook them, a cooking tradition from the south of Russia: you need to slice the aubergines, and put them under the heavy lid for a couple of hours with a sprinkle of salt. Cook them in the deep pan with plenty of oil until brown and soft. Chop the tomatoes and garlic and give them a quick fry, add a generous squeeze of lemon juice. Layer the aubergines in a deep dish, add the tomato sauce, then aubergines and tomatoes again. If you have fresh parsley chop it and add on top.

summer meals
Aubergines  à la Russe worked well with the BBQed meat

Jay was in charge of the BBQ and it was he who did all the lovely marinades for the chicken wings (with sesame oil) and the pork ribs. They were smokey and juicy, and utterly delicious to eat sitting on the lawn in the shade of the apple trees and rose bushes. He also BBQed big shallots, which turned rather sweet and sweaty under their skins. And we had sausages and burgers too. All the meat came from the local butcher and cost about £20 for the whole lot.

We were sitting in the garden and enjoying the evening, as it was getting cooler. It is amazing how quiet and peaceful it is in the garden among the big trees. You don't hear the cars, and the world seems to stand still (that is apart from our kids).

I prepared two simple salads: a tomato, cucumber & feta salad with the coriander, and a warm potato salad with the plain yogurt and fresh mint. Jay and Annette brought a very fancy green papaya salad (it was a type of a coleslaw, thinly shredded and well seasoned). I have never had a green papaya salad before, it definitely added an exotic touch to our table.

summer meals, BBQ side dishes

Kids were munching on the crudites with houmous and beet dip. We had juice and lemonade, and a jug of Pimms with strawberries, mint and orange for the adults.

By the end of the evening, when we felt absolutely stuffed, we were chatting and watching the little robin dipping in the water in the bird bath.

We were so full that I don't think anyone fancied a dessert (well, kids did have lollies at the start of the evening), so made a jug of mango lassi (2 cubed mangoes, yogurt, milk and a bit of vanilla ice cream).

All in all, it was a lovely evening. It was so nice to sit with the friends in the garden, enjoying the company and great food. And we couldn't have chosen a better evening for the BBQ.

Want to read what the other bloggers served for their Charcoal Challenge?
Visit Madhouse Family Reviews
and Over 40 and a Mum to One.

Thursday, 11 July 2013

Teapigs iced tea

Whenever we go to Italy in summer, we inevitably drink gallons of iced tea. My mother-in-law makes her own very zingy lemon tea, so tangy and sharp, it is a great refresher. We also buy iced tea in bottles, mostly in peach and lemon flavours. When Teapigs asked the bloggers to come up with a few ideas for serving iced tea, the first variety I made was inspired by our Italian holidays.

1. Darjeeling Earl Grey iced tea with lemon and apricots

Ingredients (makes about 4 glasses)
2 bags of Teapigs Darjeeling Earl Grey
2 slices of lemon
freshly grated zest of 1/2 lemon
juice of 1/2 lemon
3 apricots (fresh)
2tsp sugar
Boil the water, add the teabags, sliced apricots and lemon, sugar, lemon juice and zest, bring to boil and leave on low for a couple of minutes. Let it cool.
Serve in glasses with ice cubes and lemon.

You get the classic flavours of Earl Grey (bergamot-citrussy and floral) with the fruity tones of apricots and the lemon adds a necessary zing.

2. Fruity Everyday Brew (English Breakfast)

2-3 bags of Teapigs Everyday Brew (English Breakfast)
slices of lemon
about 7 dried apricots
4 dried figs
a handful of dried cranberries and raspberries
a handful of dried pineapple
Lemon zest (in strips)
about 5 glasses of water
This drink has been inspired by the Russian compote drinks made with lots of dried fruit and berries, sweet and flavourful. First bring the water to boil and add all the fruit/berries, cook for about 15 minutes on low, add the teabags at the end. Drink cold.
My kids loved it. The colour is intense ruby red.

3. Darjeeling Earl Grey with Rooibos ice cubes

Teapigs Darjeeling Earl Grey teabags (1 per person)
1 bag Teapigs Rooibos
Make a cup of Rooibos tea, once cold, pour in the ice cube tray and place it in the freezer. You will get flavoured pink ice cubes. Make tea as usual using Darjeeling Earl Grey, once cold, serve in glasses with the Rooibos tea ice cubes and a slice of lemon. When the ice melts, your Earl Grey will get infused with the Rooibos flavour.
Very refreshing.

I have opted for refreshing drinks that all the family could drink, but of course, if you fancy a drop of alcohol in your iced tea, go for it.