Saturday, 30 April 2016

Photo diary: week 17, 366

Last Sunday on Eddie's request we traipsed all the way to Sainsbury's, as he wanted a new pyjama. We had a little break in the cafe, with a latte for me and sweet popcorn for him. We're still looking for a perfect gift for a girl he "is going to marry", as her birthday is coming soon.

On Monday I was testing a recipe for a Corgi cake, created by Ed Kimber. It is a fun cake, but I struggled with it a bit, as the dog's ears kept falling off.

This week we had wet snow and hail almost every day. On Tuesday on the way home from school I kept anxiously looking up, as this big dark cloud was crawling upon us. We didn't make it home in time.

Some little people were happy to see the hailstones the next day, saying Mummy, happy Christmas. They were pretty small, and white, more snow than ice.

I admire these gorgeous white tulips every day on the way to school, they are simply stunning. I edited the photo into black and white so as not to distract from their beauty. When I was taking the photos, some random gentleman stopped by and started a conversation, and I did a hasty retreat. They are not in anybody's garden, just nearby the car parking area.

On Thursday I baked a "cheat" carrot cake, from an M&S carrot cake mix and Betty Crocker cream cheese frosting. It was quite good, Sasha liked it. Carrot cake is his favourite. I still prefer a carrot cake made from scratch, but this cake mix will do for emergencies. Not that keen on the frosting, it tastes nice, but there's a palm oil listed in the ingredients and quite a few of E-numbers, which obviously I wouldn't put in my homemade frosting, so I'll try to avoid it in the future.

Yesterday's hailstones were bigger and heavier. I was worried that they would ruin my pretty tulips in the garden, but thankfully they survived the onslaught.

Ed's very happy with the latest Degustabox, what, with two chocolate bars and a bag of Bebeto fruit strings. I tried a tiny bit of Bebeto, and they have a weird texture. Give me a Haribo pack any time.

Thursday, 28 April 2016

The Tower of London 1000 piece jigsaw puzzle from Ravensburger

best jigsaw puzzles

Years ago, when I was a student in Russia, I was dreaming of visiting London and seeing all the galleries and all the places of interest which we studied in our English language lessons. Fast forward 20+ years, I have indeed visited London on numerous occasions and have explored a good amount of the city attractions but for some reason I have never visited The Tower of London. Perhaps one day I will, when Eddie's a bit older.
In the last week I've been enjoying a new puzzle from Ravensburger - The Tower of London 1000 piece jigsaw puzzle - which is part of the Historic Royal Palaces series.

best 1000-piece jigsaw puzzles

This splendid puzzle is suitable for ages 10+, but can be easily enjoyed by oldies like me. It was a real treat to work on this beautiful puzzle.
It features eight different photos of The Tower of London, taken from the archives of Historic Royal Palaces.
This historic landmark has been a palace for over 900 years, and is of course one of the most popular tourist destinations.

What comes to mind when you think of The Tower of London? The world famous Crown Jewels, the Beefeaters and Guardsmen on duty, and of course, its fame as a prison.
The puzzle has captured all the main attractions of the palace in one colourful collage. There is a Guardsman and a Yeoman Warder, The Traitors' Gate, one of the legendary ravens, the Crown Jewels, the graffiti carved on the stone walls by the doomed prisoners of the Tower and of course the palace itself, with the most spectacular evening view of The White Tower.

Earlier this year I have completed the Hampton Court 1000 jigsaw puzzle. The Tower of London is a fabulous addition to the series. Purchases of the puzzles from the series support the work of Historic Royal Palaces. Not only you buy a treat for someone or indeed yourself, you support a worthy cause.

Like all the Ravensburger puzzles, it has a picture sheet which you can use as a reference. The jigsaw puzzle pieces are made of sturdy cardboard.
This puzzle will make a lovely gift for any jigsaw puzzle addict like me, or a history buff.

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

Wednesday, 27 April 2016

Oriental mushroom and prawn soup

Once my boys are asleep, I'm usually too tired in the evening to watch TV, but I find reading in bed might be conducive to nodding off more smoothly. If not reading the never-ending War and Peace (I swear, the war scenes are the best sleeping remedy), then I pop into one of the famous parenting forums for the latest gossip.
Thus recently I came across a discussion of myths perpetuated on forums, including a never-ending chicken. I confess that it made me smile. I don't doubt that in some families who have hearty appetites or simply  bigger number of family members, there are no chicken leftovers.
In our case, we always have leftovers, I'm not inventing stories just for the blogging purposes.
Whenever I buy a whole chicken and cook a roast, I save the carcass and small pieces like wings to prepare a fresh stock for a soup.

Oriental mushroom and prawn soup
chicken stock made with a chicken carcass + 2 wings
1 carrot
1 leek
1 vegetable stock cube
1tbsp olive oil
200g mixed speciality mushrooms like enoki, eryngii, shiitake and oyster
1 clove of garlic, finely chopped
1tbsp soy sauce
juice of 1/2 lime
200g king prawns

First prepare the stock or broth with the chicken leftovers and peeled whole carrot.
After simmering the stock with the carrots and stock cube, I discard the bones, leaving any pieces of meat for the soup. Take the carrot out and chop it into smaller pieces, put back in the broth together with the finely sliced leek. Cook for about 5 minutes.
Slice mushrooms and give them a quick fry with the olive oil and a clove of garlic. Add the mushrooms, soy sauce, lime juice and fresh king prawns (shells removed) to the soup and cook for another 3-4 minutes.
Serve hot. Sprinkle some chopped fresh coriander or flat leaf parsley before serving.

This is a lovely light soup, flavourful and fragrant. I buy a big pack of Oriental mushrooms at Sainsbury's. The same pack of exotic mushrooms in Waitrose is twice as much. If you cannot find this selection, you can use either oyster or shiitake mushrooms.

Tuesday, 26 April 2016

Clangers magazine

All you Clangers fans, rejoice! Tomorrow is the day when the first issue of the Clangers magazine is being launched.
This brand new magazine is jam-packed with things to do. Go on a visit of the Clangers' little blue planet and do the activities along the way.
Just like all the other popular CBeebies magazines, it is bursting with stories, colouring pages, activity sheets and stickers.

The first issue is £2.99 as it is a bumper issue, but the regular price will be a bit lower at £2.85. The current issue comes with a free Clangers' whistle and a cute little Tiny. Who can resist Tiny?!
If you enjoy colouring, there is a special garden grown by Mother to colour in as you like.

Overall there are more than 30 Clanger things to discover in the magazine. It is cheerful, colourful and entertaining. Take your kids on an intergalactic magical journey.

The majority of the Immediate Media magazines including Clangers support the early years curriculum. So, you get not just the stickers, but a cute Alphabet poster, where you add the stickers and trace the letters.

Children will help Tiny and Small with their counting...

... match close-ups to their corresponding planets. And if you hold the page up to the light you will see...
Well, to find out what you will see, you'll have to buy the magazine.

Please give a warm welcome to the brand new magazine!

Disclosure: I received the preview copy for the purposes of reviewing.

Monday, 25 April 2016

Candy the Corgi cake

Last week Nadiya has presented the Queen with her birthday cake, and goodness gracious, the world of the social media has immediately split into two polar camps, of admirers and haters of the cake. You would have thought there was nothing of importance happening in the world but the Cakegate. The design was a bit strange, but I think the colour palette was inspired by the Royal outfits. As for the shape, the consensus is that it is a pile of hat boxes, which is fine by me. I love hats. The cake did seem a bit wonky, but hey, who am I to cast a stone?! My cakes are far from perfect, and today's creation - Candy the Corgi cake - proved just that.
How did I happen to bake a corgi cake?!

If you read my blog even occasionally, you might already know that I love culinary challenges. When Stork have invited me to recreate the cake created by GBBO winner Ed Kimber, I was glad to take part.
While creating his Candy the Corgi cake (<---check out the recipe, following the link), Ed thought of incorporating the quintessential British ingredients and the personal design. This is what Ed's cake looks like.

Image credits: Stork

I bet Her Majesty loved the cake.

Image credits: Stork

I followed the recipe closely enough, but had to adapt it, as I didn't have all the ingredients like apple sauce (I used the lemon curd instead).  After a search in a few supermarkets I managed to find the candy melts in all colours in Lakeland, but after reading the list of ingredients on the back I saw that they contain GM materials. That has put me off completely. What else could I use to make the corgi's head? I got a box of Renshaw's ready to roll icing (a pack of five colours).

A photo-taking session was one long struggle. To get a better light, I took my cake into the garden. As soon as I set it on the table, it started to rain. Grabbing the cake, I ran inside the house. Setting up the scene on the table, every time I lifted the camera, the dog's ears kept falling off. So, my corgi definitely looks a bit battered.

But as they say, the proof of the pudding and all that... Did it taste nice? My family gave it thumbs up. Eddie wanted to eat the sugar paste, but I told him it's for decoration only (he did manage to steal the sugary ears). They were kind not to criticize the floppy lop-sided ears.

After struggling with my Corgi cake today, I admit that I would never-ever be critical of anyone's cakes, however wonky they might happen to be.

And my fellow bloggers had fun with their Corgi bakes as well:
If you fancy having a look how Cheryl from Madouse Family Reviews managed with her challenge, check out her Candy the corgi cake post, she did a splendid step-by-step, with a clever solution to the head problem.
Alison from Dragons and Fairy Dust sculpted the corgi's head with melted chocolate and added raisins for the nose, have a look at her lovely Corgi cake.
Wendy from Inside the Wendy's House baked an epic Corgi chocolate traybake. Kudos for a fabulous twist on the task!
MummyBeBeautiful has created a very cute dog with soulful eyes, have a look at her Corgi cake. I love it that all our dogs are so different.

Disclosure: I received vouchers to buy the ingredients for the cake in order to test the recipe.

Saturday, 23 April 2016

Photo diary: week 16, 366

It hasn't been the best week, what with Sash not sleeping well, money worries, and now that our boiler seems to have died, we are without the heating and hot water. And my blogging and photo-taking mojo is hiding somewhere too, if you find it, please send it my way. Our garden seems to be my only source of inspiration.

On Monday our friend Jen took me by car to the Burford garden centre to buy some tomato gro-bags. As my boys were at school, I had a chance to have a good look at the vintage china section. This glorious teapot painted with roses just asked for a new loving home, alas, I'm nearly broke this month, and teapots are not my priority.

I love these beautiful tulips in our garden. Not sure if these are some of the tulips my Mum planted last year.

On Wednesday we built a duvet fort with Eddie. Actually he's been playing forts quite a few times recently. Even today we had to bring the pillows and duvets down for the major construction.

The cover of the Tatler magazine really gives a clue as to what day it was. I have tasted the latest Twinings 90th birthday tea which I got from Waitrose a couple of weeks ago. It's a lovely black tea, albeit a bit boring.

In the night Eddie has suddenly developed a high temperature, so he stayed at home on Friday. I didn't go out either, as my husband was away. Only Sash went to school. So yet again, I only took the photos of the garden.
Garden is a place of my consolation and solace. Whenever I feel like steam would come out of my ears, I escape in the garden to calm down, just for a few minutes of silence.

Today was a busy day. Well, when is it not here?! After grocery shopping, I made a quick lunch of burgers with the aubergine dip and cheese.

Wednesday, 20 April 2016

Building a top secret duvet fort with Sleepy People

Life of a blogger is full of lovely surprises - from testing new foods to building a fort. My son Eddie is a good sport when it comes to testing, and he squealed with delight when I told him we were going to build a duvet fort. To help us with a mission, Sleepy People sent us a cosy lightweight duvet.
When we have taken our Snug Cotton Anti-allergy duvet (4.5tog) out of its bag, Eddie immediately wrapped himself up with it and pronounced it the snuggliest duvet ever.

I think he has a point. It truly is the softest and comfiest duvet. Very light, it is perfect for this season, when it's still cold to sleep without a duvet, but too warm for anything heavier.
Its cover is made of 100% cotton. and the filling is 100% polyester with anti-allergy treatment which protects against dust mites, odour causing bacteria and mould residue. This multi-function anti-microbial treatment offers real protection against the causes and triggers of common allergies.
I've been having sinus problems for years, and have a selection of anti-allergy bedding items, which I believe help me to sleep better.
This double duvet is also a great building material, as Eddie and I have discovered.

 I remember the forts and homes my younger brother and I built when we were kids. We used chairs as well as tables plus a lot of pillows and blankets to create our own micro-cosmos. And taking in the torch inside and reading a book while stuffing ourselves with cookies felt like a great fun and adventure.
We had a Siamese cat then who was the most ferocious beast. My brother and I used to tease him and then run and hide inside our tent. Memories, memories...

Eddie built his fort with two chairs, a comfy cushion, a couple of duvets and a fleece, and declared he didn't want to undo it when it was time for bed. "Mummy, can we keep it like that forever?"
He had a little blue dragon light inside, and said it was his magic fort, where the dragons keep the treasure.

Our fort was a very simple den, but if you want to become a pro in building secret duvet forts, Sleepy People have come up with a whole list of tips:

Get stocked up

Building a top secret duvet fort is no mean feat, and you’re going to need a good stock of building materials.
Obviously the building blocks of your fort are going to be duvets and sheets, and the more the better! Although, beware of robbing any bedding from an unsuspecting big brother or sister who might not take too kindly to having their bed turned into a secret hideaway!
To make things a little more comfy in there, throw in some pillows and some cushions off the sofa, and maybe even a sleeping bag.
To keep everything solid and secure, make sure you have some clothes' pins and rubber bands and maybe safety pins, but of course exercise caution using these around small children!
But it’s not just the construction itself you need to prepare for! Hang up some fairy lights or other lanterns to create a really magical atmosphere.
Fort building can be hungry work, so make sure the cupboard and fully stocked with all kinds of treats to keep you and your builders going, and make sure you have some entertainment ready such as a mini DVD player or iPad that you can snuggle up with once you’re in your new fort.

Scouting out a location

First things first, you’ll need to find the perfect location for your secret fort. A kitchen or dining room table works a treat as you can drape the duvet right over it and hide away underneath.
If the weather does decide to play ball, why not take things outside? Trees, swings and garden furniture can all become parts of a magical outdoor hideaway.
One thing to bear in mind though is that you need to build your fort somewhere out of the way.
Not only do you not want any uninvited visitors, but family members probably won’t take too kindly to tripping over your masterpiece as they shuttle back and forth in the kitchen trying to master that lamb roast.

The construction process

Half of the fun of making a duvet fort is experimenting and seeing what works and what doesn’t work, so we don’t want to ruin it too much for you!
Working as a team to try and create something is all part of the challenge so keep at it!
You basically just need to drape your sheets and duvet over your chairs, table or whatever furniture you’ve chosen.
Of course, this isn’t quite so straightforward and you’ll find the blankets will often fall off, so you’ll need to make use of rubber bands and clothes pegs to keep everything in place.
Once you’ve got your fort looking fairly sturdy you can think about adding a door. After all it’s a fort, it has to be secure!
This can be made using some cardboard boxes or maybe just an opening in your blankets.

Let the kids be in charge

While you may think you’ve got a slightly better knowledge of architecture than your little one, make sure you don’t overtake the construction process!
While the results may wind up being a bit of a disaster, letting the kids take creative control is what it’s all about.
Let them explore their own imaginations, and only jump in to guide things in the right direction when necessary.
Of course… this is all assuming that you even have kids, and you’re not just trying to escape from adulthood for the day!

Get inspired

Is your fort looking structurally sound, but a little bit…bland? Why not check out these duvet fort ideas from Pinterest for a little inspiration?
So there you have it. The perfect way to spend a rainy day with the kids, and to have a little bit of fun yourself!

(Tips featured courtesy of Sleepy People)

Our den might not be as glamorous and sophisticated as the Pinterest creations, but my son enjoyed it very much. And I will enjoy a good night's sleep with the snugliest duvet. In fact, I like it so much, I'm going to buy a couple of single ones, for my sons who love their creature comforts as well.

May Bank Holidays will be soon upon us, and in a typical British fashion, I bet it will be raining. So how about building a duvet fort with your kids?

Disclosure: We received an anti-allergy duvet for the purposes of testing, building a fort and reviewing. All opinions are Eddie's and mine.

Tuesday, 19 April 2016

Be the Jungle VIP - Morphsuits giveaway (c/d 10 May 2016)

Oh, ooh-bee-doo. Oop-dee-wee
I wanna be like you-hu-hu (Hop-dee-doo-bee-do-bow)
I wanna walk like you 
Talk like you
To-o-oo! Wee-bee-dee-bee-dee-boo

For the last couple of days Eddie and I have been singing "I wanna be like you" song after seeing the remake of The Jungle Book in the cinema at the weekend. Its spectacular visuals have received raving reviews and comparisons to the clever 3d world of Avatar.
This remake is called a live action, though the only live action is provided by Neil Sethi who plays Mowgli. All the other characters and amazing scenery are digitised. And that is truly awe-inspiring.
It's tricky to make animal characters talk in a believable way, and at times their facial expressions were quite weird, but the jungle was a fantastic creation, a real work of art. The foliage, the river, the ancient temple, it all was perfectly executed.
This Disney's version of The Jungle Book is much more sinister and thought-provoking than the original cartoon.
Directed by Jon Favreau, this version is a more grown-up film in comparison to the original Disney's production. It kept two of its most famous songs - Bare Necessities and I wanna be like you, which made it more tense and dramatic. I'm not the biggest fan of musicals, so for me two songs plus extra singing during the final credits was plenty.
The film makes you think about the fragile balance of life. Young Mowgli loves his adoptive family, a pack of wolves, and tries his best to fit in. But he's different, and he knows it. He's a man-cub. To save his wolf-family, he has to leave them and grow up.
At the end of the film he steals a torch from the village and runs in the jungle to accost the bloodthirsty predator Shere Khan. While he runs, he accidentally sets the jungle on fire. Thus someone who loves the jungle, can also be a symbol of its destruction and death. He's a child, but he also represents a great danger. You almost sympathize with the disfigured veteran of the jungle, tiger Shere Khan, he knows exactly what he talks about. Humans are not to be trusted.
Beautifully reconstructed, The Jungle Book will appeal to children and grown-ups alike.

P.S. My son Eddie asked why while some animals speak "human", some (like monkeys) only make animal noises? Answers on a postcard please.

To go along with the Jungle theme, Morphsuits who are known for their versatile party costumes and outfits have kindly offered a fantastic prize for my blog readers.
One lucky person will win an animal-themed Morphsuit of their choice. These animal costumes are made of polyester (93%) and Spandex. The result is a body-hugging suit that is easy to breathe through. They include a velcro hood for easy removal.
Great for any Book Day or a Halloween party, they are quite realistic and slightly scary.

Image credits: Morphsuits

To be in with a chance of winning, please fill in the Rafflecopter form.

The winner will be able to choose a Morphsuit from a selection of animal planet outfits (apart from the "demented" rabbit for Halloween as it is not a morphsuit).

The giveaway is open to the UK residents only.
Once the Rafflecopter picks the winner, I will contact them regarding address details, if they do not reply within 28 days, the prize will be allocated to another person.
Please don't forget to leave a comment, as it is the only mandatory step, I will make sure the winner selected by Rafflecopter has complied with T&Cs.

The giveaway will close on 10 May 2016 (at midnight)

Good luck!

  a Rafflecopter giveaway

Monday, 18 April 2016

Healthy Speedy Suppers by Katriona MacGregor

I consider myself a good cook, and can raise to the challenge and prepare a several-courses meal from scratch. I also like cooking quick and simple meals, with tray bakes and one-pot dishes being my favourites. As a busy Mum and a carer, I am sometimes too knackered to cook a meal which needs a very long list of ingredients. For busy parents like me there is a new cook book Healthy Speedy Suppers by Katriona MacGregor (published by Nourish).
The author started her culinary career under the helm of Clarissa Dickson-Wright. Her cook book contains over 100 tried an tested recipes and showcases a selection of recipes which are inspired by different cuisines around the world.

Katriona has been writing a column Speedy Weeknight Suppers for The Telegraph. I confess, I hardly ever read this newspaper being more of The Guardian and The Indie reader, so wasn't aware of this food column until now.
The cook book was developed with the time-pressed cook in mind, so I'm the perfect audience for a book titled Healthy Speedy Suppers. Except that we don't use the word "supper", it's a dinner here.
The range of recipes is impressive and covers soups and salads, poultry, meat, fish, grains, pluses and vegetables etc.
While some recipes fall under the category of speedy, some of the recipes included cannot quite fit the notion of speedy. They might be ready in 40 minutes, but that doesn't include the prep. Also I would cook some of the dishes for much longer, for example, a turkey ragu. A proper ragu should be cooked slowly for all the flavours to develop.
For being a book of healthy recipes the author is quite generous in her use of double/heavy cream. Now I'm probably the last person to criticize for that, as I prefer to use a real butter in baking, but then I honestly admit that I'm not a poster girl for a healthy food movement.
Katriona uses a lot of fruit and vegetables in her recipes, so your 5-a-day can be easily covered.

Mild criticism aside, I liked the book and have bookmarked quite a few recipes, for example, a Moroccan fish tagine with chickpeas and apricots; duck breasts with peaches and balsamic vinegar as well as chorizo, leek and cider-braised lentils.
The photos are beautiful, and I wish there were more of them, I like seeing the final result of each recipe.

I liked the simple design of the cover, being slightly fed up with covers showing glamorous sexy chefettes who display their cleavage while pouting prettily and holding a plate with food.
I think this book will appeal to a more advanced cook who is comfortable in the kitchen and is happy to use a variety of ingredients.

I read an amusing thread on one of the parenting forums recently where the poster bemoaned that meat and fruit combination is wrong. That's half of my blog recipes are going in the bin then. I love fruit added to meat, and Katriona MacGregor's recipes have a lot of inspired meat and fruit combinations.

In fact, one of the recipes from the book that I have already tried is exactly that, a combination of poultry and fruit, and very tasty it was too.
I have slightly adapted it. I shopped for ingredients on a Sunday before closing time, and all basil was gone, so I got a bag of rocket instead, thinking it's another Italian ingredient which will work well in this recipe.
I used single cream rather than double to slightly reduce the amount of calories, and as it happened, I didn't find any white wine at home and used a bit of brandy instead. All the chicken breasts in the shop were skin-free so that's exactly what I used.

Chicken with ricotta, lemon and basil rocket (recipe reproduced with permission)
a small bunch of rocket (basil in the original recipe)
100g ricotta cheese
4 chicken breasts
2 lemons
rapeseed/olive oil, for cooking
1 onion, sliced
1 garlic clove, crushed
170ml white wine or 50ml brandy
125ml chicken stock
2 bay leaves
1tbsp double cream (I used single cream)
sea salt and freshly ground pepper

Chicken with ricotta, lemon and rocket
Preheat the oven to 200C/400F/gas 6.
Finely slice half of the basil (rocket) leaves, leaving the other half on their stems for later. In a small bowl mix the ricotta cheese with the herb, the zest of 1 lemon and a little salt and pepper.
Use a sharp knife to cut a horizontal pocket into each chicken breast, being careful not to cut all the way through. Stuff a little of the ricotta mixture into the pockets with a teaspoon, being careful not to overfill (I had some stuffing left over, as I couldn't fit it all in, maybe the chicken breasts I used were smaller in size).

Heat a little oil in a large frying pan and add the chicken breasts, skin-side down. Fry for 2-3 minutes until the skin is golden and crisp.
If you use chicken breasts without skin, just fry them for 2-3 minutes on whichever side you choose.
Flip on the other side and cook for a further minute to lightly seal and then remove to a plate.

Return the pan to the heat and add the onion and garlic. Cook for about 5 minutes until well softened. Pour in the white wine and stock, add the bay leaves and bring to the boil. Simmer for a few minutes to reduce the liquid to a syrupy consistency. Add the double/heavy cream, stir well and season with salt and pepper.

As I mentioned above, I didn't have any white wine, so I used a smaller measure of brandy, about 50ml, and added more stock (a stock cube dissolved in more water). I also used single cream.

Pour the contents of the pan into a casserole dish and place the chicken breasts on top, pushing them down into the sauce. Cut the remaining lemon into wedges and nestle them around the chicken along with the remaining basil (rocket).

Place on the middle shelf of the oven and cook for 15-20 minutes until the chicken is cooked through. Test if cooked by cutting into one of the breasts with a sharp knife to make sure the juices run clear.

It was a delicious chicken dish, with lots of creamy and tangy-lemony sauce. Serve the chicken breasts with lots of sauce spooned over and a good chunk of bread to mop up all the juices.

Chicken with ricotta, lemon and rocket
Disclosure: I received the cook book for the purposes of reviewing. All opinions are mine.