Monday, 31 December 2018

Photo diary: week 52+, project 365

And so we come to the last day of the year. A demanding and tough year for us as a family, and me personally as well. I feel emotionally and physically drained, and my photos are as lacklustre as I am at the moment.

I am forever looking up at the skies, noticing the clouds shapes and airplane trails. These were the trails just above our house from the back.

On Christmas eve we dashed to Waitrose for some last minute grocery shopping. There was a stall selling roasted marshmallows just outside the supermarket, and I bought this sweet treat for Eddie for enduring the crowds of shoppers with me.

Our Christmas lunch was a relatively quiet affair, it was just us. I cooked a big side of salmon as the main course, with the gin and orange glaze, and it was delicious.
In the late afternoon our friends came over for drinks and desserts. I have overdone on the dessert front. Apart from the Christmas cake (below) which I made from scratch, I bought a Heston's Black Forest panettone (lovely, but too much chocolate), Heston's very fancy profiteroles which looked like coals and a Black Forest Meringue Wreath from Tesco (would buy it again!).

Eddie got a big bunch of Harry Potter-related gifts for Christmas, and absolutely loves his new night light, with a cute little Harry Potter figure in the dome.

Took a selfie with Eddie, while watching TV, but cut myself out of the picture. Eddie looks as cute as always.

The house by Simon Lelic was one of the last books of the year for me (I did manage to finish one more book afterwards). It is a gripping domestic drama- psychological thriller.

Yet another selfie, with my ever elusive Sash.

Eddie's artwork at school - a Christmas tree ornament.

We've been cooped up for several days now, as my husband is in Italy, visiting his parents. I had a quick stroll in the garden earlier today and spotted these primulas. Totally wrong time of the year for them.

Happy new year!

Saturday, 29 December 2018

Choc chip orange muffins

easy muffins

I've been looking at my blog posts for the last year, checking out which have been most popular. Eddie was watching the one zillion-th episode of Yu-Gi-Oh, while Sash was doing what I call a I'm-feeling-peckish-dance around my table, and pointing at some of the cake photos.
Looks like we need to bake some sweet treats. Muffins are probably the easiest option for an afternoon tea.
I had a quick look around the kitchen, what do I have, what needs to be used? OK, I've got one last orange, and a handful of chocolate buttons, and all the usual cakey-bakey ingredients.

Choc chip orange muffins it is then. I know there are probably one million recipes for choc chip muffins, as it's a classic recipe.

easy muffins

Choc chip orange muffins (makes 12)
zest of 1 orange
juice of 1/2 orange
90g caster sugar
pinch of salt
2 medium eggs
300g self-raising flour
1tsp baking powder
150ml milk
70g butter, melted
60g chocolate buttons

In a big mixing bowl zest 1 orange. Add the orange juice, caster sugar, salt, and beat in 2 eggs. Sift in the flour. Mix in the remaining ingredients, including the melted butter.
Divide the mixture between 12 muffin cases, inserted into the muffin baking tray. Cook the muffins for 18+ minutes at 180C, until they are golden and firm. Check they are cooked with a wooden toothpick; if it comes out clean, they are done.

Eat warm or cold, with tea, coffee or milk.

easy and quick muffins

festive muffins

Now that Eddie is a proud owner of the Hedwig mug, he claims that tea tastes better in it. One of our friends gave him a book shop gift card for Christmas, and he has chosen this mug.
Who am I to argue? I am convinced that tea tastes better, when I drink it from my favourite mug as well.

Top 12 recipe posts for 2018

As the end of the year is approaching fast, just stretch your arm, and you'll be able to grab it by the tail, I usually look at the stats for my posts written through the year, to see which posts have been the most popular ones.
Typically, my food and drink, book and toy reviews do equally well. This year's Photo diary/Project 365 was a consistent source of visitors too, and I'm glad I persisted with it, even if occasionally I was asking myself whether I should stop altogether. I only skipped one week this year, and hope to continue next year.
Writing a family and food-inspired blog, I'm curious to find out which of my posts attract the most interest.

Overall, the number of posts in the last year went a bit down, as I found this year very challenging, mostly to do with our son's 16+ placement and not settling in at his new school, and all the related problems - which means I wrote less. Quite a few times I felt like throwing in the towel, and just giving up on the blog.
It was a tough, overwhelming year. I don't like to moan online, and a lot of staff that's going on is too personal for me to disclose. I know there are plenty of bloggers who feel different, and find it cathartic to open up to the world and bare their soul.

It's been over 8 years, since I started writing this blog. I've long given up on upping the numbers of followers on social media, it doesn't really matter, as I don't monetise my blog, and have no plans to do so. But at the end of the year I do like to indulge myself and look through the last year's blog stats on the most visited posts of the year.

And so here is a dozen of my most popular recipe posts of 2018 (I typically do a top 10, but this year 3 recipes have the same amount of pageviews):

Russian style pancakes - every year I repeat myself, saying that pancakes are not just the Pancake day food, and should be enjoyed more often than once a year.

best pancake recipes

Pine nut and chocolate chip honey cake - I can still taste that beautiful cake in my mind. It was lovely, and why haven't I baked it again?!

best cake recipes with pine nuts

No.8 is shared by 3 posts:

Tuna kimchi soup was a good way to use the kimchi leftovers.

what to do with kimchi

Limoncello and lemon ricotta cheesecake was one of the Easter bakes. It was gluten free and quite fun to make.

Easter bakes and cakes

The recipe for Apple cereal muffins did pretty well, considering it was published in September.

healthier muffins recipe

Shakshuka with falafel is a vegetarian recipe, with a vegan twist, where eggs were substituted by falafel.

easy vegan recipes

Choc chip cashew oat cookies is one of many variations on our favourite cookies, which I bake pretty regularly.

best choc chip cookie recipe

Regency-style lemon almond tart was inspired by The ghost of Glendale, a Regency romance with a ghost story twist.

Regency recipes

Victoria Sponge was inspired by yet another book, The Woman in the Wood, a disturbing family saga by Lesley Pearse.

classic British cake recipes

Moving onto the final top three...

Gluten free potato blini and salmon cured in gin was a popular recipe of the last year.

best gluten free pancakes

Freekeh with aubergines and cashews was adapted from Marcus Wareing's recipe. I love aubergines, and this recipe would please all aubergine fans.

best vegetarian recipes

And finally - ta-da -
No.1 position goes to a Chocolate polenta cake. I'm not surprised by its high ratings, as it was a very tasty cake.

best chocolate cake recipes

Judging by the top twelve, sweet recipes rule.

I want to say Thank you to all my blog readers for visiting and reading! Happy new year!
Here's to a new year of culinary delights!

Friday, 28 December 2018

The House by Simon Lelic

It's been a year of psychological thrillers for me, if you have a look at the list of the books I've read this year (you can see it on Good Reads). Closely followed by children's books - as I read to my younger son every evening, and ghost stories.
I did have a resolution of sorts to try to read more of classics and non-fiction, but it didn't happen. I had such a tumultuous year, dealing with family problems, including our elder son's increased anxiety as well as a mess of a married life, that reading was one of the ways of pure escapism for me.
Reading thrillers and ghost stories distracted me from the distress and unhappiness of my own life.

It's not surprising that one of the last books I've read this year was yet another thriller.

The House by Simon Lelic was one of my impulse purchases at The Works. I can never resist their 3 for £5 offers. This is a dark twisted psychological domestic drama, which shifts a narrative and perspective.

best psychological thrillers

Syd and Jack narrate their story in a series of diary-type entries, as they try to process what's been happening with them. We immediately know that something has happened, as the police are stationed outside their house, and Jack is feeling twitchy.

To make some kind of logical sense of the unravelling drama, Jack and Syd go back to the day they have first seen their house. From the very fist moment Jack is uncomfortable about the whole house business, while his girlfriend is smitten with it.
They make an offer, thinking they don't have a chance. To their surprise, their offer was chosen by the owner, who moved across the world to live with a newly found love of his life and left the house with all the weird belongings to be disposed of.

The blurb on the back of the book is quite misleading: "The perfect couple. The perfect house. The perfect crime".

Syd and Jack's relationship is multi-layered and complicated, and they are definitely not a perfect couple.
The house itself is also a stuff of nightmares. It might be located in a desired neighbourhood, but it's rundown and filled with all kinds of junk, including stuffed birds all over the house. Taking into consideration Jack's initial suspicions about the house, again, nobody would call it a perfect house.

The way the house is described at the beginning, once Syd and Jack move in, with the creepy sounds in the house, the grisly remains in the attic without windows, the mystery box belonging to a little girl, while the previous house owner didn't have any children, the cold hand touching Syd's cheek in the night, all makes you think it might be a horror or ghost story. But that perception is deceptive.
This is not a ghost or horror story, it's a psychological thriller-domestic drama. If anything is haunting in this novel, it's the past. Both Syd and Jack come from very dysfunctional families.

Jacks' parents are the epitome of the hypocritical middle class, with their materialistic aspirations and suffocating social limitations. They seem to have no love for their only child, and look upon him as a disappointment. His choice of a girlfriend is a cause of great tension and disapproval.

Syd's back story is even more complicated. Not to give away any spoilers, her family is toxic and abusive. Her father is a villain who enjoys tormenting his victims. Syd's drug addiction problems in the past make her a volatile companion, but Jack's love is a force of nature, and together they hope for a settled future together.

Jack is a social housing officer, who becomes too embroiled in his clients' lives. He doesn't think twice about committing a fraud, when trying to help the vulnerable family of refugees, whom he befriends.

Syd, on the other hand, befriends a young girl from the neighbourhood. In Elsie she sees her younger self, abused by the domineering cruel father.

Antoine de Saint-Exupery wrote in his famous book The Little Prince: "You become responsible, forever, for what you have tamed".
This line could be written about both Syd and Jack. They get involved in the other people's problems with drastic consequences.

This book explores many an ethical issue. How much do we get involved in someone's life? Do we dispense with legality when trying to help the vulnerable? How can you live with the consequences of the vigilante crime?

There are many episodes of domestic abuse and violence, and it could be triggering for some readers who have suffered it.

It's a gripping and tense psychological thriller, which will play on your mind.

Saturday, 22 December 2018

Photo diary: week 51, project 365

Holy moly guacamole, three days and counting... I keep telling myself No need to panic, no need to panic, but I still haven't sorted out all presents.

This Christmas tree bauble is a blast from the past. My Mum bought it when I was a baby, so it's about half a century old. It survived several moves, including a journey from Russia. Mum brought me a few old ornaments a few years ago. It might not be the most beautiful in my collection, but I love it, as it brings back so many lovely memories of decorating the tree with my Mum.
We always had a real tree then. These days our tree is an artificial one.

vintage glass baubles

In the last few weeks Mondays are days when I watch the next episode of Outlander. I take Eddie to school, then get back home to a nice cup of coffee, maybe some chocolates, and a verra handsome Jamie. I was a bit disappointed with the last episode, as Jamie didn't make an appearance at all. Tut tut.

Eddie is the clown of the family, forever trying to make me laugh. He thought that wearing my hat was hilarious. Well, it did make me smile.

On Wednesday Sash went on his respite overnight stay, the last of the year. Eddie and I arranged to meet with a friend in Oxford. While we were waiting outside John Lewis for our friend, Eddie reclined in the lounge space.

I still haven't put the lights on our Christmas tree. I could only find a garland of green lights, but the lovely twinkling lights have disappeared, and are not where I thought they were supposed to be. Looks like gremlins have hidden them.

Last day of school: Eddie's school had a carol service at St Mary's. It was a dark-ish morning, you wouldn't believe it was 11am, looking at that photo.

Today was a bit of a crazy day: I made pancakes for breakfast. We went in town: library, Costa, charity shop (with a couple of bags of clothes and puzzles I prepared), Waitrose.
In the evening all four of us went to the carol service at our local church. Sasha's been showing me the symbol of the church for the last couple of weeks, for some reason he really wanted to go. We agreed that if he gets anxious, my husband would take him home. But he sat through most of the service, which in itself is a miracle.
Eddie and I enjoyed the singing and actually sang our hearts out.

Friday, 21 December 2018

Christmas gifts for Harry Potter & Fantastic Beasts' fans

Christmas gifts for Harry Potter fans
Harry Potter Living Nature Snowy Owl and Niffler soft toys

Gallopin' Gorgons, it's the 21st of December! Only 4 days left until Christmas!
I have been super disorganised this year. To my defence, I was not sure whether we would be travelling to my in-laws or staying at home for Christmas. And now I still need to do a few things.

Buying Christmas gifts for my younger son is super easy. I know exactly what he would like: anything to do with gaming (Minecraft, Roblox etc), silly Youtubers' trends (a t-shirt with a dabbing Santa, anyone?) and Harry Potter/Fantastic Beasts.

We got this Harry Potter outfit in Sainsbury's before Halloween

If there is a big fan of HP/FB in your life, and you're still undecided on presents, don't panic - here is a quick guide on possible gifts. If you google for HP gifts, the list of suggested sites and ideas could be overwhelming, so I'm keeping my list simple, with the things you can easily buy on High Street, as ordering online today might not get you that gift in time, though still feasible.

First call of port - Waterstone's. Our lovely local Waterstone's team is very much into the world of wizards, and they have a super display of HP/FB gifts, from wands to chocolate, from Cluedo to Hogwarts Express mugs.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them by J.K. Rowling (£25, at the moment you can find it at £17+) is a splendid edition, illustrated by Olivia Lomenech Gill. It features all the fabulous magical creatures.
A must for all HP/FB fans. Available in all good book shops, both on High Street and online.

Christmas gift ideas

I can't wait for my son to open his gift on Christmas. I know he'll be ecstatic. He saw this book at Waterstone's and loved it.
He actually knows he will get a book for Christmas, just doesn't know which one. I ordered it online, and when it arrived, kids were at school and I told my husband it was a gift for Eddie. In the evening he asked Eddie if he loved the book. Cue the questions: what book? Thank you, my dear husband.

Pop! Need I say more? Personally I'm not the biggest fan, but these vinyl figures are super popular with both children and grown-ups. Just have a look at Instagram feeds, they appear in so many book-related posts.
Available widely - Waterstone's, Game, Entertainer etc. There are many different figures in the series, so you can pick up your favourite character.

Baby Nifflers look so adorable! Give me half a dozen. These ones can be found at Waterstone's. Go on, you know you want one.

gifts for Harry Potter and Fantastic Beasts fans

Harry Potter: The Postcard Collection (£14.99) is a beautiful set of 100 quality cards. Your recipients will love receiving these cards, that is, if you can part with them.

LEGO - again a popular choice, and a huge variety of sets and minifigures. They are highly collectible, and some of the older sets are offered at totally insane prices on amazon or ebay. Old style Lego Harry Potter: Hogwarts castle for £652 anyone?
The current HP Lego series is available at more affordable prices. We've already collected the whole set of minifigures.

LEGO Fantastic Beasts Grindewald's Escape Carriage Toy (£15 on amazon at the moment) is a beautiful set, and I hope my son will enjoy it. You can find it at John Lewis, Argos, Sainsbury's etc.

Christmas gifts for Fantastic Beasts fans

Harry Potter Mini Bell Jar Light - you can find it in Debenhams, Argos, Robert Dias (best price at the moment - £6.99) - is super cute. Don't forget to buy the batteries (you will need 2 AAA batteries).

Christmas gifts for Harry Potter fans

An this is the light, out of the box.

Christmas gifts for Harry Potter fans

Browsing at Lakeland yesterday, I saw this lovely Harry Potter egg and toaster cutter set. I also saw it in Sainsbury's.

The egg cup includes glasses and hair. Set comes with a spoon and a toast cutting template

Image credit: MenKind
There are also edible HP/FB gifts. You might have seen chocolate wands and Hogwarts house badges.

... and chocolate frogs, of course...

If it's something to wear that you're after, you can find all kinds of pyjamas, tops, scraves etc.
EMP has a good selection of HP merch and clothes.
M&Co has Hogwarts children's tops and pyjamas.

As you can see, you can still make someone special very happy.

Are you a HP/FB fan? What gift would you choose?

P.S. This post has not been sponsored by any of the above mentioned brands. I just enjoyed going around the shops and browsing (well, and shopping too).

Thursday, 20 December 2018

Let's Visit Santa 1000-piece jigsaw puzzle from Ravensburger

Christmas gift ideas

"I know what I really want for Christmas. I want my childhood back. Nobody is going to give me that. I might give at least the memory of it to myself if I try. I know it doesn't make sense, but since when is Christmas about sense, anyway? It is about a child, of long ago and far away, and it is about the child of now. In you and me. Waiting behind the door of our hearts for something wonderful to happen. A child who is impractical, unrealistic, simpleminded and terribly vulnerable to joy."
Robert Fulghum, All I Really Need to Know I learned in Kindergarten

Let's Visit Santa 1000-piece jigsaw puzzle from Ravensburger will thrill anyone who has fond and funny memories of visiting Santa as a child or taking your children to a grotto to meet the old chap with a fluffy white beard.

best Christmas jigsaws

I remember taking little Eddie to the grotto in Oxford, and he was rather shy, hiding behind my back and refusing to come and say Hello to Santa.

Working on this puzzle, I thought about my own childhood new year's eves parties and Russian Santa called Ded Moroz (Father Frost).

This festive jigsaw puzzle shows a very busy scene: there is Santa himself with his visitors, a cheeky elf, a kind snowman, a magic merry-go-round, three kings in the background, and lots of animals of all sizes. A little boy hugs Santa and whispers his Christmas wishes in his ear. His older sister seems to be happy to wait for her turn, enjoying the warmth of the fireplace and twinkling lights.

Christmas gifts

The Christmas tree is festooned with candy canes, baubles and other ornaments.

There are so many wonderful presents scattered around. The puzzle is exceptionally detailed and colourful, and captures the spirit of the season perfectly. It is such a kind, nostalgic scene.

This is the 22nd Limited Edition puzzle designed and developed by Ravensburger's UK team.

The puzzle measures 70x50cm when completed. It's suitable for ages 12+.
Like all Ravensburger puzzles, it's made from strong premium grade cardboard, with linen finish print to minimise the glare on puzzle image.

This is the last jigsaw puzzle of the year for me. And what a lovely puzzle to end the year with!

If there is a jigsaw puzzle fan in your life, they will be thrilled with this gift for Christmas. 

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