Wednesday, 31 December 2014

How Frozen saved my sanity at Christmas time

So she's a bit of a fixer-upper...

They say Don't build up high expectations for a perfect Christmas day, and I don't. In fact, I am hardly an optimist, I tend to expect the worst. And sometimes those expectations of the worst actually pale in comparison with the reality.
It so happened that back in summer my husband managed to convince me that we should spend Christmas with his parents in Italy. We booked the tickets way in advance, then had to change the return flights for a totally extortionate amount of money. We flew with BA, and incidentally, the food was quite atrocious. If you didn't fancy a chicken sandwich, there was absolutely nothing else. Good saving for BA, as from four of us, I was the only one to try the sandwich. And the coffee was like dishwasher dregs, vile. But that's just a minor irritant of the whole stressful week of the season to be jolly.
With Sasha's autism, everything has to be planned in advance. I took with us all his meds, and food too, like tuna pate and Warburton's sliced bread, because he wouldn't eat any of the wonderful Italian artisan breads and their sliced bread is not very good. We packed his favourite books and DVDs, snacks and of course his ipad. Travelling is always stressful for everyone, but when you have autism, it is treble-hard. Yet Sasha loves being on the plane. It's the airports and waiting that he finds the most difficult to cope with. The crowds and noise make him upset. But we managed relatively well for all these years to travel with him, and were hoping this time would be more or less the same.

I prepared myself mentally and psychologically to any possible eventuality. But the reality turned to be much worse than my expectations.
Sasha fared relatively well through the ordeal of the check-in and passport control, we have to hold his hand as he tries to escape. It's as if he has this strong urge to run somewhere, he knows not where himself. And being almost as tall as me and strong, it is not easy to keep him in one place. Later we had a semi-peaceful lunch at the Giraffe's at Terminal 5. Sasha watched the crowds from above, turning his back to us, and that was the symbol of the week to come.

He spent most of the time in Italy, hiding away, whenever we tried to be with him, he would withdraw into another room to escape our company.
I knew he wouldn't sit with us for Christmas lunch, and I found it very sad that on such a day my beloved boy didn't want to be with us. He was more content to spend the day in his room, with his ipad and tune pate sandwiches and biscuits.
Sasha was very moody and it didn't help that the Internet connection was very poor. Thanks Vodafone for the lousy service - 40 euros for a week of rubbishy connection.
He used to enjoy our walks around the town centre, visits to the book shop and cafes, but this time it felt like he wasn't happy anywhere we went, and this was so sad. I felt like I have failed my son completely by subjecting him to a trip he didn't want.
The whole week we were walking on the eggshells so as not to trigger any meltdown.
I was bracing myself for the flight back. We travelled to the airport in a taxi, and Sash was annoyed with the chatty driver and kept pushing me, as if it was my fault that the driver liked to talk.
We planned to get to the airport with just a spare hour before the flight so that we wouldn't have to spend any extra time there.
All the hell broke loose, once we reached the final boarding area. Sasha had a meltdown of Gargantuan proportions. He screamed, he cried, tears streaming down his red cheeks, he pushed us, trying to run somewhere. God, it was awful. People were staring, not without compassion but obviously dreading to have a neighbour like that on the flight. Two police women came up to us to ask what was going on. It was a grim moment indeed. We were so worried that we wouldn't be allowed on board with such a distressed child. We split the passports and boarding passes. Eddie and I went first, my husband stayed behind with Sasha to be the last ones to enter the airplane.
Thankfully, by the time they got in, Sasha calmed down. He was a total angel during the flight, and kept kissing my husband on the cheek, apologising in his silent way for the stress he caused.
I know he understands the limitations his condition brings along, but he cannot control his outbursts.

And it is with a sad heart that I decided that we won't be travelling together again. Ever. When Eddie is older, I will let him travel to Italy with his Dad to see his grandparents but Sasha and I will stay at home.

During our week of "Italian holidays", when I could hardly relax for a minute, it is small things in life that kept me sane, like a quick cup of latte in the local cafe, beautiful streets of the old Renaissance town decked in garlands of twinkling lights and Frozen.

I resisted buying a Frozen DVD for a long time, thinking that with two boys I wouldn't need it and that it was only a girlie stuff. Yet Eddie kept mentioning it, as his mates kept having Frozen-themed birthday parties. I bought the DVD, and squirreled it in the suitcase to give to Eddie as a Christmas gift. We watched it first after a Christmas lunch (which left me quite sad, since my older son didn't want to do anything with it). We watched it probably twice a day every day while staying in Italy. By now I know most of the lyrics by heart, and Eddie and I keep singing bits and pieces aloud. I swear its gentle humour saved my sanity in those days, when I was often on the verge of tears.

If only there were trolls who would have fixed our frustrations and angst, and made my boy happier.

My top 10 blog posts of 2014

As a foodie blogger, I suppose I should expect that the food-related posts will be in my top 10 blog posts of the year, yet looking at the data on my blog, I am still surprised to see as which posts exactly made it into the top 10. The places were divided evenly between recipes and reviews (I haven't counted any of the giveaway posts as they tend to be in the lead for obvious reasons).
Some of the posts which were published almost a year ago, had more of a chance of an exposure, but some of the later posts, including November-published were well-viewed and read.
Let's start from the lowest number of pageviews.

Post No.10 is a festive sparkling Elderflower cordial & Prosecco jelly with raspberries and rose petals. It was one of my most favourite recipes of the year as well, so easy to prepare yet delicious.

No.9 goes to a quite recent recipe post - Parsnip & fennel soup with caramelised chestnuts. I love soups, and looks like many people are searching for comfort food recipes at this time of the year, as despite being posted just over a month ago, this recipe made it into top ten.

No.8 - Fruitcake for Mma Ramotswe was a delightful cake, inspired by my favourite heroine, a kind and intelligent traditionally-built detective Mma Ramotswe.

No.7 - San Giorgio, the Dragon and the Princess art project which ran in Ferrara last April brought a lot of visitors to my blog.

No.6 Homemade Jammie Dodgers got its boost from endorsement by Good To Know site, so it's hardly surprising.

No.5 now this was a total surprise for me - I've been dreaming of an Angel Delight post did so well, and again, it went live just less than two months ago. It was a mix of a food review and a trip down the memory lane.

No.4 Polish Food at Tesco: hit and miss was a review of a range of Polish foods found locally. By now I have enough material to do another post, as I have tried more of the Polish groceries since the post went live in January.

No.3 Aunt Giuseppina's Ricotta Cake (I guess a link on The Guardian website helped a lot, though not all of my recipes mentioned by The Guardian got as many views as this recipe). Anyway, it's a great cake, and it also proves that family recipes are in vogue.

No.2 Teapigs review just shows that people love reading about tea, and are curious to discover new brands and kinds of tea.

And ta-da, drum roll, the first place goes to...
 Joining the 5:2 revolution with LighterLife FAST. This has totally taken me by surprise. It has so many pageviews that it competed with the usual high-fliers like giveaway posts, and even outrun quite a few of them. Granted, it was posted in January, but still it has been viewed so many times, it is probably one of my most-read posts of all times. I can only say Wow.

And now it's time to say Good bye to 2014, and wish all my wonderful blog readers a very Happy New Year!

Friday, 19 December 2014

Have a Nibbly Christmas with NibNibs (review + Giveaway c/d 6 January 2015)

Party time = snacking time. You couldn't have a party without nibbles, could you?! Crisps, nuts, cheese and crackers, and all kinds of the other savoury snacks... My family enjoys snacks of all kinds, and we typically have a choice of sweet and savoury nibbles at home.
I have seen NibNibs mentioned online, in blog posts and on Instagram, but haven't tried them until recently, when I received a selection of premium snacks for reviewing.
This award winning range of snacks is made in North Yorkshire. And let me tell you, they are dangerously addictive. If you'd like a chance to try them yourselves, see the end of my review and enter a giveaway to win a selection of NibNibs.

NibNibs mention on their site that they "are passionate about nibbling and love creating moreish quality snacks that are full of the very best of everything". Having sampled a few flavours from their range, I agree - the snacks are very moreish indeed.

Mini Nibs come in such enticing flavours as Exceptional Cheddar Cheese straws, Exceptional Cheddar & Spicy Chilli and Exceptional Cheddar  Cheeky Onion Straws. The tubs are sealed with a pull-back foil lid for freshness, but are resealable with a plastic lid too (that is, if you have any left in the tub).
The ingredients are locally sourced, there is a wheat flour from Yorkshire Mills, mature British Cheddar and British butter. The snacks themselves are hand crafted in Britain.
The mini snacks are packed full of flavour. You get a strong taste of Cheddar, onion and a very good bite of chilli. The Chilli-flavoured nibbles look innocent enough, but eat one, and oh, there's a real mighty kick of heat.

Exceptional Cheddar Cheese Straws are butter and cheese pastry straws. Great for dipping into a salsa, guacamole or whichever dip you prefer.
I liked the packaging of all NibNibs' range - colourful, bright and cheerful.
I haven't found them locally yet, but will surely buy them, once they arrive to our parts.

Just today I popped in to a parents' club at my older son's school for a quick hour to see the other Mums before Christmas holidays, and all the ladies were sitting around the table, chatting and nibbling. I'm sure NibNibs would have been a big hit with my lovely friends, if only I had any left. My guys have gobbled up my NibNibs stash very quickly. And I will surely be on the lookout for buying more of these savoury snacks. They're very addictive.

To win a selection of NibNibs (see the prize below), please enter via the Rafflecopter gadget.

T&Cs are mentioned in full on the Rafflecopter.
The giveaway ends on 6 January 2015.
It is open to the UK residents only.
Please keep in mind that I am only hosting the giveaway gadget, and it will be the representative of NibNibs who will pick a winner and get in touch with them. I am in no way responsible for choosing a winner or sending a prize.

Disclosure: I received a selection of NibNibs for the purposes of reviewing.
And just to clarify, I am not paid for hosting a giveaway.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Thursday, 18 December 2014

Echinaforce - cold & flu herbal remedy from A.Vogel

'Tis the season to be jolly, but alas it is also the season when many people suffer from cold and flu. Now I would rather cut off my arm than have a flu shot. This is a personal choice, of course, and I would never give unsolicited advice to anyone who religiously does flu shots every winter. For me the side effects far outweigh the unproved promised protection. With two kids going to school and catching all kinds of viruses, it is almost impossible for me to avoid catching a cold. Life is miserable when you have a cough and a runny nose, when your throat feels sore and a nose is so congested you can hardly smell anything. Not a big fan of over-the-counter medicines, I am always interested in finding alternative ways of alleviating cold and flu symptoms. Unable to shift a cough for a few weeks on an on and off basis, I was glad to test a new for me medication from A.Vogel - Echinaforce Hot Drink and Echinaforce Forte Cold & Flu tablets.

I have tried Echinaforce Hot Drink first. This soothing hot drink tastes lovely. Sometimes with herbal remedies you almost force yourself to take them, as they taste vile. Not this drink.
It combines Echinacea root and herb extracts with Black Elderberry (Sambucus nigra).
I have had a very sore throat, when I tried it first. It is also good to help fighting off such symptoms as aching limbs and headaches. While my limbs weren't affected, my head was a bit fuzzy.
The hot drink actually cleared my head pretty well, as well as soothed my throat. And though it wasn't an overnight miracle, in a few days I felt much-much better.

As you can see from the photos, the hot drink has a dark ruby red colour. You only need a spoonful for a cup of hot water.
Like all medicines, this product can cause side effects, but I haven't experienced them. My stomach is quite sensitive, and I usually have a stomach discomfort with the usual over-the-counter cold medicines. I can only say that Echinaforce Hot Drink didn't cause me any trouble.

Echinaforce Forte Cold & Flu tablets is made from the same herbal extract of freshly harvested, organically grown Echinacea purpurea. As it comes in tablets, it might be an easier way to carry a pack with you. Very convenient to take on a trip.
This traditional herbal medicinal product is used to relieve the symptoms of the common cold and flu type infections.
Sadly both products are not suitable for children under 12 because of its high strength formulation.

I have been taking both the tablets and hot drink for over a week, and they certainly helped me to shift that darned cold and cough. I am feeling human again.

Disclosure: I received two A.Vogel products for the purposes of testing and reviewing. All opinions are mine.

Edible chocolate cups, mini-disasters and hot chocolate from Gü

"Anything is good if it's made of chocolate" (Jo Brand, British comedian)

I am one of those enthusiastic foodie bloggers who cannot resist a cooking challenge. When Gü Puds asked me if I'd like to create an edible cup for their new hot chocolate, of course, I jumped at the opportunity. What's not to like? A cooking challenge - Yes! Chocolate - a double Yes!
First I watched a few tutorials online on how to make edible chocolate cups. I did have a suspicion that what looked effortless, might be less easy in real life.
I melted a bar of dark cooking chocolate. Dipped the Askeys cup cones (those short ones that you buy for serving ice cream), sprinkled with Bronze Crunch (found in Waitrose Cooks' Homebaking range), left the cups to set on a piece of foil. That was the easy part.
Now let's make the saucers. As suggested in one of the video tutorials, I have wrapped a piece of cling film around the saucer, smoothed the edges, poured the melted dark chocolate over the film, cleaned the edges so that the end result will be perfectly shaped, sprinkled with more Bronze Crunch and place the saucer in the fridge to set. It set all right. Removing it from the saucer was a completely different matter. The crisp edges started to crumble, as they were too thin. Well, the tutorial said, they should be thin. I managed to peel off the cling film, but my chocolate saucer looked quite lop-sided now.
Will I be able to fix it? I took the saucer carefully in my hand, and tried to "glue" the bits that have fallen off with melted chocolate. The end result was even worse. It looked like made by someone who has imbibed a good amount of sherry shots at a Christmas party, i.e. a complete disaster.
Frustrated at my inability to make a decent chocolate saucer, I decided to cheat.
Out came the pack of Digestives, the wobbly saucer was remelted and poured over the biscuits. Yes, that looks better. And sturdier. I have added a few soft silver pearls from Dr Oetker around the edge.
While the mini-saucer hasn't set yet, I placed a cup on top of the saucer.
Once set, the edible cup was filled with a hot chocolate from Gu. And a big marshmallow, snipped with scissors at the bottom, was placed over the rim.

You might have seen Gu Hot Chocolate Milk Drink - a new product from Gu in Waitrose, Tesco, Sainsbury's or Booths. When I agreed to take part in the challenge, I started looking for it, but it was as elusive as a famous Scarlet Pimpernel. After visiting half a dozen of supermarkets, I have finally found it in the local Sainsbury's.
Gu Hot Chocolate comes in 3 tempting flavours - Hot Chocolate, Mocha Flavour Hot Chocolate and Salted Caramel Hot Chocolate. The only one I managed to find was a Hot Chocolate.
It comes in a 750ml carton, and you can find it in the milk aisle, next to the flavoured milks and iced coffees.
Drink it cold or hot. Pure bliss! It is thick, velvety smooth and very chocolatey.
Have you tried a new drink? And have you ever made edible cups?

I was waiting with great interest to see what other bloggers would come up with. Alison from Dragons and Fairy Dust has baked delicious gingerbread cups to serve the hot chocolate. I love the sound of that, I bet the combination of gingerbread and hot chocolate was delicious.

Cheryl from Madhouse Family Reviews has created a drinking cup from an apple - see her edible cup challenge. It looks very Gu-d, decorated with icing and flowers.

Disclosure: I received Tesco vouchers for the purposes of testing the product and trying to make an edible cup. All opinions (and disasters) are mine.

Wednesday, 17 December 2014

Christmas treats from Bluebird Tea Co

Still looking for Christmas gifts? Do you know someone who loves tea? Bluebird Tea Co offers beautiful and inspired Baubles to hang on your Christmas tree. That's the kind of Christmas tree ornaments which will appeal to tea lovers. They are quirky, charming and filled with oh so tasty treats. A lovely gift for a neighbour or a teacher, an office secret Santa or tea-loving family member, it makes a perfect stocking filler.
Each bauble contains 10 luxury tea parcels.

I was lucky to try both Christmas Cake and Gingerbread Chai flavours, but understand that the Christmas Cake tea is not available any longer as a Bauble. You can still buy it loose or in a packet of 15 tea bags, but hurry up, tomorrow (18/12) is the last posting day for Christmas delivery.

Christmas Cake tea

Christmas cake is a luxurious festive blend, evocative of Christmas and all the pleasures of the season. It looks gorgeous too, there are tiny snowflake sprinkles inside. They sparkle in a cup, and make you go aw-so-cute. I loved the fact that the super-busy elves at Bluebird tea added actual Christmas tree spruce needles.
What do you find inside? Ceylon black tea, Vanilla pieces, Almond pieces, Cinnamon, Cloves, Orange Peel, Spruce Needles, Snowflake sprinkles (which contain peanut oil), Stevia, Flavour - a real Christmas in a cup.

Christmas Cake tea

Gingerbread Chai is an award-winning rooibos chai. It was created by Bluebird tea mixologists as a homage to the Nordic tradition of Christmas gingerbread. You can buy it both in loose and teabags variety. Its ingredients include: Rooibos, Cardamom, Cinnamon, Ginger and Mallow flowers.
This blend is perfect for winter, it is comforting, tasty, full of flavours, with just the right amount of heat and a good balance of spices.
Enjoy it neat or with a spoon of honey and a dash of milk.

Disclosure: I received a selection of Christmas baubles with tea as seasonal greetings. I wasn't asked to write a review.

Tuesday, 16 December 2014

Wild game stew with cheesy dumplings

Chinese Five Spice blend is traditionally used in the Chinese cuisine, as well as in many other Asian recipes. It is a great ingredient in red meat and poultry dishes, and is well known for its rich flavour. When I received a fat little pouch of Chinese Five Spice from Seasoned Pioneers, I cooked a Chinese-inspired stir fry with chicken and oyster mushrooms, and it was very nice. But I also wanted to try it in a European-style stew, maybe even with dumplings, as the cold weather often makes me crave comfort foods like soups and stews.

Wild game stew with dumplings
2tbsp olive oil
500g wild game mix
1 big carrot, peeled and chopped
1 big onion, finely chopped
2tsp Chinese 5 spice
1 Knorr beef stock pot
1 orange, zest and juice
500ml red wine (I used pinot noir)
350g butternut squash, cubed
1 tin (400g) peeled plum tomatoes
10 dates
10 dried apricots
for dumplings:
100g self-raising flour
50g cold butter, grated
50g cheddar, grated (I used Applewood cheddar)
1tsp dried mixed herbs

Pan fry the pieces of wild game mix (mine came from Abel & Cole) in the olive oil for about 5 minutes. Add the chopped onion and carrot, sprinkle with the Chinese 5 spice, fry for another 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Once browned nicely on all sides, remove the meat from the frying pan and place in a deep pan. Add a beef stock pot (or stock cube), zest and juice of 1 orange, and red wine. Pour hot water, enough to cover the meat and vegetables. Bring to the boil, then lower the heat. Cook on low for 20 minutes. Add cubed butternut squash, 1 tin of plum tomatoes, dates and apricots. Season with sea salt. Cook for about half a hour, until the squash is soft.
To make dumplings, mix together self-raising flour with grated cod butter and cheddar cheese, as well as a bit of dried mixed herbs. Place a bowl of cold water nearby to dip your hands in, to make it easier to roll the dumplings from the dough. I made 11 dumplings. Put them half-way deep in the stew, cover the pan with the lid and cook for the last 20 minutes of cooking.
Serve hot with a nice chunk of bread to dip the sauce.

Chinese Five Spice blend might be not an obvious choice for a stew, but it worked really well in this recipe, having added the depth of flavour and richness.
Chinese Five Spice from Seasoned Pioneers is an excellent blend, with a beautiful aroma. It is traditionally dry-roasted and blended by hand to a genuine Chinese recipe. It includes such ingredients as star anise, Sichuan pepper, fennel, cassia and cloves.

If you enjoy world cuisine, you might want to check out Seasoned Pioneers with its inspiring range of spices from all over the world.

Cheryl from Madhouse Family Reviews has tested two different varieties of spices from Seasoned Pioneers - Herbes de Provence and South African Curry Powder, have a look at her mouth-watering globe-cooking recipes.

Disclosure: I received a couple of pouches of spices for the purposes of testing and reviewing. All opinions are mine.

Monday, 15 December 2014

Beauty and the Beast, Playhouse (Oxford)

"Mummy, is that a real dog?" (Eddie, 4)

Beauty (Sammy Andrews) and Princegeorge (Michael Pickering)

When Eddie's school  announced they were planning a trip to see Beauty and the Beast at Playhouse in Oxford, I offered my help as a volunteer. As my son has never been to a theatre before, I have told him what to expect, and he was looking forward to his first visit to the theatre. On Friday, when I got a call from his teacher that my help was not needed after all, I had to rethink our plans. I know my boy is shy, and I wanted to make his first time at the theatre as smooth as possible. If I couldn't accompany his class as a volunteer, why don't I just buy tickets online. Thankfully, there were a few tickets still available.
We got on the bus to Oxford, and every time we passed a big building, Eddie kept asking if that was the theatre. The traffic was horrendous, and we spent an anxious hour on the bus, wondering if we were going to make it in time.
We arrived just ten minutes before the start of the performance. It was the performance chosen by several schools, and the foyer was crowded.
My little man immediately got all emotional and started to cry. It was a bit overwhelming, I agree, so many people, talking loudly.
Holding my hand tightly, he hesitantly followed me inside. We found our seats, Eddie looked around in wonder, and felt better.
As soon as the first sound and visual effects appeared, he was mesmerised. "Amazing", he whispered to me.

I thought the panto would be based on Disney's Beauty and the beast, but no, the script and music were completely different.

Beauty (Sammy Andrews)

The plot is based on a classic fairy tale, well known in many languages and cultures. In fact, there is a Russian fairy story called "Alen'kii tsvetochek" or "The scarlet flower", but I am digressing from our Oxford panto.
Eddie followed the story with great interest, even if at times he was a tad confused about the dream scenes and flashback moments.

There was a lot of acrobatics, with the very agile and cute Tumbletoes (Beauty's dog) who was the heroine of the show, according to my son.

Tumbletoes (Kate McWilliam) is soaring above the circus

While Eddie's heart was won over by talented Tumbletoes, I thought it was the Dame who totally stole the show. Dame Jolena Jollychops as played by Leon Craig kept changing outfits, one more outrageous than another.

Jolena and Beauty's father

There were a lot of smutty jokes, intended for the adult audience only. One can hate them, or one can argue that this tradition of coarse jokes and sexual innuendos goes back in history to the times of Ancient Greece and its classic comedies, well known for their colourful language, crude jokes and phallic symbols. In less distant times, it would have been Rabelaisian bawdy and risque puns and exaggerations.
In a way, it wouldn't be a British panto without spicy adult jokes.
Going back to our resplendent Dame, she excelled in keeping the audience in stitches. This was a cross-dressing magic taken to a level of divine.

All the costumes were colourful, and the scenery was impressive. Eddie loved the falling snow flakes in the storm scene, and the floating lights. He was quite scared of the big witch's eye, and spent half of the show on my lap, just in case.
He was so enthusiastic, shouting with the audience "Behind you" and pointing to where Beauty has gone. It was so touching when he asked me if the dog was a real one, and later if the Beast was real too, bless him. To be 4 years old and so trusting.

Behind you! 

The panto was directed by Peter Duncan.
There was a bit of Bollywood, and a bit of Hollywood. There was a circus, and a lot of singing.
Beauty and the Beast sang beautifully together.

There were a few uneven bits in the show, when the children from the audience were invited onstage and were telling about where they came from. That I found rather tedious.
Someone asked us after the show if we caught any sweets, but no, there wasn't any sweets-throwing.
It was a very enjoyable show, and Eddie now wants to go to the theatre again.

It was such an emotional event, that on the way home Eddie fell asleep on the bus. But since we came home, he has talked about our trip non-stop. What a way to introduce my little man to magic of a British panto!

All the images from the show are reproduced with the kind permission from Oxford Playhouse.

Saturday, 13 December 2014

Are You Here

Winter time seems always be a good time for a romantic comedy. When you put together such cinematic "ingredients" as a well known comedic cast like Owen Wilson (The Grand Budapest Hotel, The Internship), Zach Galifianakis (The Hangover Trilogy, Due Date) and Amy Poehler (Parks and Recreation) and a script written by talented Matthew Weiner (creator of Mad Men) that sounds like a winning combination, right? What could possibly go wrong? I was very enthusiastic to watch the latest comedy Are You Here (Lionsgate), especially that my husband mentioned a comedy with Owen Wilson he saw at the last film festival in Venice, which he said was very funny.
I made myself a big cup of tea and sat comfortably on a sofa to enjoy the film which was hailed as a fantastic comedy.

Image credit: Lionsgate UK

There are two main protagonists - an immature Ben Baker, whose purpose in life seems to be to get high, and Steve Dallas, a womanizer and a semi-successful weatherman. When Ben receives the news that his estranged father dies, both men travel to the funeral. At his old home, Ben meets his mother-in-law Angela. With Angela, I had a feeling the script writer wasn't quite sure whether to portray her as a positive role-model or a wanton man-eater. She works with disabled children (this was mentioned once, but never actually shown), weds an elderly man and is quite free with her favours. She is like an unbaked baguette, i.e. there is a promise there which is not quite fulfilled. Apart from obvious bodily assets, there is not much substance in her.
Then there is a money-driven sister Terry who hates Angela (for all the right reasons, if you ask me).
After discovering just how much he inherits from his father's will, Ben dreams of a commune of free people and wants to change the world.

After the first ten minutes, I was left more puzzled than amused. I wasn't sure why it was supposed to be a romantic comedy. Would it get funny further along? I carried on, and when the film ended, I asked myself, Is that all?

The actors try their best to do a good performance of rather flat role parts.
And then there was a horrible scene of a chicken being butchered. I'm glad I wasn't eating anything at that point, as it was truly sickening. This is not even remotedly comic or romantic.

This comedy didn't appeal to my sense of humour, but other people might find it amusing. That is, if a naked bum and a sight of an Amish pinny covering one's family jewels makes you chuckle.

Lionsgate UK presents Are You Here starring Owen Wilson, Zach Galifiakis, Amy Poehler and Laura Ramsey to watch on demand and download to own from 25th December 2014 and in cinemas January 2nd 2015.

Image credit: Lionsgate UK

Friday, 12 December 2014

Chicken curry with sambhar

When Seasoned Pioneers have queried whether I'd like to try some of their spices, I asked them to surprise me. And surprise me they did indeed. I got two fat little pouches of spices, one of them - Sambhar powder - was something I have never tried before. I loved the aroma of sambhar (or sambar) as soon as I opened the sealed pouch.
Seasoned Pioneers describe this spice as having a "great nutty taste of roasted spices and dal overlaid with hot chillies, popular in South Indian Brahmin vegetarian dishes".
This beautiful spice mix is traditionally dry-roasted and blended by hand to a genuine South Indian recipe. Its ingredients include channa dal, urad dal, turmeric, red chillies, coriander, cumin, black peppercorns, mustard seeds, fenugreek, asafoetida. The texture is fine, with chilli flakes scattered around.

Not quite knowing what was the best way to use it, I asked a fellow foodie blogger - Monu from Recipes Passion blog. Monu's blog has lots of mouth-watering posts, she is truly passionate about cooking and baking. Monu shared with me a recipe for a chicken curry dish, with sambhar powder.
I have slightly adapted Monu's recipe, as I didn't have all the right ingredients, but I kept pretty close to her suggested recipe.

Chicken curry with sambhar
1 big white onion, finely chopped
2tbsp olive oil
1tsp mustard seeds
1tbsp ginger garlic paste
3tsp sambhar powder
1/2 tsp coriander, ground
4tbsp coconut milk powder (e.g. Maggi, which I used isntead of coconut paste)
150g tomato sauce or paste (I used Sacla Pronto tomato and garlic sauce)
2 medium tomatoes, sliced
2tbsp olive oil
500g chicken, sliced
1 medium parsnip, peeled and chopped
1 medium carrot, peeled and chopped
salt, to taste
I didn't have curry leaves or fresh coriander, but I imagine they add colour and flavour.

Heat 2tbsp of oil in a big frying pan or wok. Saute the sliced onions for 5+ minutes, add the mustard seeds, and keep stirring, until the onion is translucent. Add the ginger garlic paste, sambhar powder, coconut milk powder, tomato sauce and sliced tomatoes. Cook for another 5 minutes, stirring.
Put chicken slices in the curry sauce, add water (about 500ml) and more olive oil, add the chopped carrot and parsnip, cover the pan with the lid and cook for half an hour or more on medium low, check that the chicken is cooked through.
If you have fresh coriander, garnish the curry with coriander before serving.
Serve with basmati rice.

We had it yesterday for dinner, and it was delicious, if a tad too hot for me. Next time I will probably add just 2 tsp of sambhar rather than 3. If you enjoy hot food, you might want to increase the amount of sambhar to 4tsp.

I am also going to try the sambhar powder in a vegetarian recipe.

For a full range of spices from around the world, visit Seasoned Pioneers.

Wednesday, 10 December 2014

Lemon Angel Food slices

I've bookmarked a few Angel Food recipes found on Pinterest, those which promise a light fluffy sponge by mixing a cake mix with just one or two extra ingredients.
As it's impossible to find Angel Food cake mix in the British supermarkets, you can buy them online or find in a deli. I bought a box of six from the devil incarnate also known as amazon. I used Duncan Hines brand, but I suppose any other brand of Angel Food cake mix would do. The cake mix doesn't require anything but water.
The original pin which I used as my reference brought me to the post - see Two Ingredients Lemon Bars - it asked for a tin of lemon pudding filling, another American product which is not easily available in the UK.
Thankfully, Waitrose sells a powdered Green's Lemon Pie Filling. It comes in a small box containing two sachets, and requires an egg yolk and water.

Lemon Angel Food slices (makes 28+ slices)
Angel Food cake mix (453g), for example, Duncan Hines
1 sachet of Green's Lemon Pie filling
2 lemons, zest and juice
icing sugar (about 8 heaped tbsp)

First mix the contents of one sachet of lemon pie filling with the water (280ml) and 1 egg yolk, beat them together, and stir over a pan of boiling water for about 3-4 minutes. It only needs to get creamier rather than cooked to a thick consistency, as when you cook it as a separate dessert. Let it cool a bit.
In a big bowl mix the Angel Food cake mix with lemon pie filling. Add the juice and zest of 1 lemon. It immediately fluffs up and grows in size considerably.
I used two brownie trays (medium-sized) for baking the angel slices. Plus I had enough for six cupcakes. Bake the slices/cupcakes at 180C for about 25 minutes.

Remove the trays from the oven, let them cool before turning out onto a flat surface.
Mix the icing sugar with the juice of one lemon and cover the big cakes with it. Then slice into smaller size portions, a bit like Mr Kipling's angel or lemon slices.

Traybake before being iced and sliced + sliced pieces

The resulting slices were delicious, very light, airy, fluffy and moreish. You wouldn't believe that they were made, using two packs of mixes. I will definitely be baking them again. Next time I will try to use an orange zest and juice, or a mix of lemon and orange.

Monday, 8 December 2014

Have yourself a Half-Shell Heroes Christmas!

Funnily enough it was my son Eddie who got our first Christmas card of the season, and he is mightily proud of that. Not only he beats us in receiving his first festive card, it shows his favourite characters - Half-Shell Heroes aka Ninja Turtles.

Eddie was very excited to open an envelope addressed to him, and whopped with joy to discover a small-sized box with a Christmas tree bauble which contained one of the ninja turtles.
The Half-Shell Heroes is a new range of toys, aimed at the younger children. This is the latest collection from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, colourful and entertaining. These chunky mini-characters are perfect for little hands.
Now that my son has discovered a new range, his wish list for Santa has doubled, as he wants all of the figurines and vehicles.

At the weekend we set up our Christmas tree, and lovingly decorated it with all our ornaments, some going back to my childhood and kept safe by my Mum, some made by my boys at school and nursery, so it's all a bit of a mish-mash, Nothing like the glamorous trees set up by the big windows by some of our sophisticated neighbours - clearly for everyone to admire in the neighbourhood - with the stylish colour scheme, like black and white or classic green, red and gold. Yet give me our tree any time over the posh trees with their limited palette. Ours is a splash of colours and textures (felt, glass, plastic, dried fruit, crystal etc), full of sentimental mementos and trinkets. As Eddie said "Mummy, our tree is the bestest in the whole wide world", and I quite agree with him.

Christmas tree decorations

Ninja turtle toy in a see-through plastic bauble fis perfectly among the branches, laden with ornaments.

Christmas decorations

It is the 8th day of advent competitions, and by now, I am a bit sick of them have lost my enthusiasm already. Not winning anything doesn't help of course (if you don't count a bubbly mini-Santa from M&S which probably everyone got). Yet there is one advent competition which I plan to enter religiously every day, as the prizes it offers would make my little man simply ecstatic. This is of course, Half-Shell Heroes Advent Calendar as seen on Evolution Comps. Fingers and toes crossed, Eddie and I will be lucky.
If your little people love Ninja Turtles, head on over for your chance to win. There is a new prize every day.
Good luck!

Disclosure: we received a Christmas card and a Half-Shell Heroes bauble for the purposes of mentioning the new range and Evolution competition on my blog. All opinions are mine, and Eddie's of course.