The youngest children in all families are inevitably influenced by their older siblings, and Mini is no different. She learned to read better so that she could read her sisters’ favourite Harry Potter books. She’s such a huge fan that I am now the only one in the house who’s never read them, nor am mad-keen on everything Harry Potter.
So for her 7th birthday, Mini asked for a Harry Potter-themed birthday party (more in another post) and a birthday cake for her actual birthday that had “something to do with Hermione Granger”. Hmmmm, no challenge for this non-HP fan, then (!)
I decided to do a fairly simple book cake, and call it Hermione Granger’s Diary. I took photos of the process so that I’d remember it for her more complex birthday party cake later that week. And as a bonus, I can use them as a tutorial to show you how easy it was. Remember, I’m not a great cook or a talented cake decorator – if you take your time and follow my top tips, you’ll produce something far, far better. Please share your own hints and tips too!
- OK, start the day before by baking the cakes and preparing a cake board. Don’t bother buying a board. Just get some stiff cardboard (I cut a bit off a packaging box, but have been known to use a couple of empty cereal boxes) and cover it entirely in tin foil. This makes it look good, gives you something big enough to work on, makes the cake portable, and it’s also easy to wipe crumbs and smears off the side.
- Make 2 loaf-cakes and let them cool completely. Maxi suggested I make them both chocolate and orange marble cakes and so I used double the recipe at the link. I didn’t ice them with the drizzled chocolate and I didn’t use food colouring.
- Make up a batch of plain buttercream. I used a block of unsalted butter (250g), 2 cups of icing sugar, and my all-time favourite method of making Whipped Buttercream Icing.
- Using a sharp knife, cut the top off the loaves on a bit of a slant. This shapes the cakes so that they’ll look a bit like an open book when you press them together. If you were neater than me, you would cut the tops off entirely so that there are no curved edges. If you’re worried about the cakes becoming too thin, you could raise them up by slicing each loaf in 2 and filling with jam and/or cream at this point.
- In the interests of thrift, crumble the bits of cake you sliced off and mush them together with a spoon or 2 of buttercream. Effectively you’re making a batch of cake pops, but you’ll use it like mortar to hold the 2 loaf-cakes together.
- Put a smear of buttercream on your cake board and place a loaf cake on top (this will hold it down). Squish the cake-pops mortar along the side of the cake, then smear more buttercream on the board and stick the second loaf-cake to the first. Really squish the cakes together.
- Now cover both cakes in the rest of the buttercream. Don’t worry about getting crumbs in the icing: it really doesn’t matter because it’ll all be covered in fondant icing.
- Roll out some white fondant or ready-roll icing to form the pages along the sides of the cake. I used a 500g block in grand total, but you might need more or less: it depends how thinly you roll the icing. You could be extremely neat and cut them into beautiful rectangles, or you can be slap-dash like me and just wodge them on. I used the excess fondant icing to start to disguise the misshapen bits of loaf-cake, but as I said in (4) above, you could avoid that by slicing the tops neatly and more severely.
- Use a blunt edge (spatula, back of a long knife, etc.) along each side to make lots of page marks. The layer of buttercream under the fondant icing will help.
- Dip a clean paint brush in some cocoa and use it to brush the edges of the pages to make them look old and dirty. I’m not sure that Hermione’s diary would actually be so grubby, to be fair, but I wanted to try out the technique.
- Roll out more white icing and place over the top of the cake. Shape it with your hands so that it looks like an open page. Brush more cocoa along the edges and on the ‘pages’. Roll some coloured fondant icing (or colour the last of the white fondant icing with some food colouring) into long thin sausage shapes and place them around the edges to look like the book’s cover, peeping out from under the pages. Flatten the sausages with a flat edge on top and at the side. If you have any black icing, add a little arch in the middle of the front and back to look a bit like the empty space where the edges of the pages curve away from the book binding. (Or just brush lots of cocoa in that corner to achieve the same / a better effect).
- Decorate! I used a pen that writes on icing to write something, and made a bit of a bouquet of roses with a tiny bit of green fondant icing I had leftover from The Boss’s birthday cake last month and some shop-bought icing flowers. I shook some little white chocolate stars over the top to use them up (they’ve been lurking in my cupboard for too many years… I swear they’re breeding…).
- Add some candles and go!
28 Feb 2017
Start of Week 8 running accountability post.
So in my last accountability post I was telling you about how Mrs P talked me into signing up for a 10k race with bells, whistles and jingles on: the Banchory Beast. Described as “a 10k obstacle race in Aberdeenshire over rough muddy terrain, dirt tracks and forest. It has over 20 mega obstacles on route”. It’s graded as ‘fairly tough’. We are beginner joggers. It’s in 6 months. How? Why?
Well, Mrs P does like a challenge, and I’ve got the breaking strain of a warmed-up Kitkat on a sunny day in the desert, so am easily persuaded. So we joined a team of much-fitter friends and paid up. Nothing like parting with hard cash to focus your mind on getting out the door for a run 3 times a week, eh?
And yes, we started from not being able to jog longer than between 2 lamp-posts, and in 6 months time we’re going to be running one hell of a long, tough obstacle race. What’s the plan, Stan? Well, we’re going to continue with the twice-weekly JogScotland runs for 3 more weeks until the 10 week course is up. Then we’ll swap one of those runs for a local parkrun course that we heard has a beast of a hill in it. And once a week run with the Intermediates in our JogScotland group. We’ll continue our once a week solo runs and work on things like distance and speed through interval training and other things that Professor Google and JogScotland recommend. Or we think up. And training for obstacles? Well, we’ll get the running sorted first, I think, but general MuTu for continuing to strengthening our core muscles in the meantime. More on that in the next accountability post. I shall come up with a cunning plan.
To keep us fully-focused on our 6 months of training, Mrs P found a shorter, entry-level mud fun run to do very soon: the Rebel Dubbit Dash It’s got mud, obstacles, tough terrain, and is only (‘only’!) 5km. However, as sharp-eyed Mrs P spotted, your entry-fee also gets you a bottle of free beer at the finish line. I tell you, you were shang-haiing people to form a team with us! So we’re going to be doing that in April.
At the moment, my goal is to become fit enough not to die on the Beast or Dash course.
Let’s check that objective: is it specific? Measurable? Achievable? Realistic and relevant? Timely? All ticks. Great! And the sub-goal is to get fit enough to actually enjoy them. What’s not to love about slithering around in mud with your pals?!
So: how is training getting on? How much progress have we made this fortnight towards our goals?
Well, I had a wee setback and had to miss a run (and cancel some teaching I was really looking forward to!) when I thought I was coming down with another cold. I normally get one cold a year, so to have 2 within the space of 3 weeks is just not on. When the cold kind of lingered, but didn’t become anything more than mild, I analysed a bit harder. It coincided with me choking on some cake (I know, I know, I’m sure you can’t believe that of me. Ahem). And actually, 3 weeks previously I’d choked on some of my dinner then had 5 or 6 days of sore chest, coughing, congestion, runny nose too. Oh… To cut a long story short, I’ve now added to my training plan: “Stop snorting your cake”. Winner.
And the times? Well, as of last night, I can now run for 6km – 50 mins – without stopping (and that included 6 sprint intervals). The best times are creeping away from total snail pace:
1km – 6 mins 56
1 mile – 11 mins 17
5km – 39 mins 46
Even better, I’m beginning to unlearn some of the unhelpful stuff I’ve believed up till now:
‘You’re a quitter’ – 7 unbroken weeks and 50 mins solid running say that’s not true.
‘You can’t run’ – see the above.
‘You’re so slow’ – partially true for a short while longer. But I can sprint at 16kph and my average pace is increasing every single week.
‘You can’t do it’ – I am.
The Friday before last we tried a run in a local park. It was fun in that the warm-up was a very effective and interesting trot along tree-rooted tracks that I found quite exhilarating, but I wasn’t mad on running the same dark circuit twice. And I think we annoyed the 20,000 dog walkers, as the footslaps, lights, heavy breathing and hi-vis upset some of the dogs. So last Friday we did our usual 6km local run and arrived at the road bridge that’s been closed for weeks at our halfway point. We normally nip between the barriers because we’re not as heavy as cars (!) Only this week, there was no bridge. It was gone. Empty. In its place were a few diggers, workmen in hi-vis jackets and some enormous room-sized grey lego blocks. We asked whether we could still cross. The man smiled and laughed and waved at the sandbag dam across the rushing stream. We thanked him and nipped across, starting our mud obstacle race training a few weeks early. My trainers are not as grippy in the mud as I thought…
Talking of hi-vis, the other big development for me this fortnight is stopping feeling quite so self-conscious about running. Yes, wouldn’t it be wonderful if I could suddenly look like I’m a runner first, before running? As in: having lithe toned legs, fewer chins, cheeks that don’t switch to ‘beacon’ for the rest of the day after the first km? It took a bit for me to properly accept that runners don’t look like runners; they look like people. If you move along the planet’s surface with both feet off the ground at once, you’re a runner (or a crazy, mixed-up jumper, but that’s another story for another time). It takes me a long time to see very obvious things, sometimes.
In that spirit of just getting on with it, I’ve added to my night-running lights. I’ve been using the minxes’ shoelace lights that flash with every movement, a headtorch around my wrist, and 2 flashing red clip-on lights on a hi-vis vest. My MIL sent me a wonderful surprise: a proper, real, runner’s hi-vis jacket! To that, I also treated myself to a pair of trainers heel lights and a pair of armband lights (£10 for all 4). I tell you, there are aircraft leaving the Aberdeen Approach paths and setting up their landing patterns on me! But the way I see it, if I fall over into a ditch with only my feet sticking out, I’ll still be seen. My fellow runners sing “O Christmas Tree” as they pass me, but I don’t mind. I don’t care that I’m danger of having ‘All the Gear and No Idea’ because that’s slowly coming together.
And finally, talking of my MIL, she and FIL were visiting recently. She’s known me a very long time and so the running was a bit of a surprise to her, too. Rather than just raise an eyebrow and let me get on with it, as the rest of my family discreetly are, she eyeballed me and told me how much she admired me and was proud of me. What a lovely, sweet thing to say! I was and am really touched. There’s just something about getting praise from your mother / mother in law that top trumps all other possible praise. I’ve tucked that away in my Motivational Memory Banks for long-term keeping.
Oh aye, and finally-finally, with us running over 5km 3 times a week without stopping by Week 7, I think it’s safe to say that we’ve done better and faster than the (brilliant) Couch to 5k plan that I originally thought was beyond me. Big thumbs up! Let’s see what the next fortnight has in store.
13 Feb 2017
Here we are at the start of Week 6 of running. Blimey! Way back, I thought I was agreeing to a maximum of 10 weeks of hellish jogging to accompany my determined friend, Mrs Persuasive. Instead, we’re now both as keen as mustard and have been keeping up our 3 running sessions a week: we run twice a week at night with other absolute beginners in a JogScotland group; the other weekly session is in the morning either alone or with my partner in crime. I prefer those early runs: although they’re hilly, they’re out in the countryside and away from town. Fresh air, birdsong, empty roads, a precise 6km circuit and views of snowy mountains – just heavenly! Mrs P is a bit faster than me, we’ve got similar stamina levels, and obviously I love being able to chat with her or comfortably stay quiet as we run around. The quiet countryside has another advantage – no-one else can hear you f and blind your way round that first 15 minute warm-up (it coincides with a loooong hill). Some people power up hills with pumping arms; others drop their hands and take tiny steps; me and Mrs P turn the air blue. Hey, it works for us…
One of the things that’s been motivating me out the door each time is seeing clear, obvious improvements every single run. To be fair, when you start at the rock bottom of Extreme Sport Biffdom, you’re always going to see an improvement at first! First it was accomplishing moving for any sustained length of time. Then it was seeing ourselves get faster and jog for longer. Finally being able to complete 6km at a jog/walk faster than I can fast-walk it was a big milestone for me! As was running in the rain and a few degrees below 0degC for the first time. On our last run together, we blasted through all of our fastest times for everything with each km run. Tonight, I’m determined to run the entire way up a particular nemesis hill without stopping again, to show it wasn’t a fluke last week.
So how are those stats looking? (Oh come on, you know by now I’m a total stats geek!)
Over 5 weeks and 72km total run, my time for moving over 5km is now 40 mins 31 seconds. My fastest time over a km is now 7m 25; fastest over a mile has been 12m 12.
Not wonderful times I know, but I’m very proud of this progress, and I’m looking forward to the next month. I still can’t believe that I actually feel this way!
The warm-ups are still difficult for me. If I’m in public and can’t swear, then I generally motivate myself over those still-horrible first 15 – 20 minutes by thinking and chatting about what’s for my dinner later. So of course I persuaded Mrs P that we’d reward ourselves for completing a whole month of running with a great big huge Chinese Takeaway. I brought big bowls, napkins and forks with us that night, and we ordered before we ran. I tell you, we absolutely raced that last km back to the start! Then we sat giggling in the car like a pair of schoolgirls playing truant, troughing half our takeaways greedily (kung po chicken and egg-fried rice. Huge chunks of fresh vegetables and enough chilli to make my mouth feel as alive as the rest of me. But the less said about the crispy seaweed the better – I spat it out. Sugary!) Well, we’d figured they’d be freezing by the time we’d driven home. Honest…
This leads me to something that puzzled us briefly this past month. My friend is also doing MuTu to help her strengthen her core, so we frequently compare notes on how our bodies are getting stronger (or not: those sore legs from my idiotic session hurt for 5 days). My friend mentioned she’d put on 2lb. We agreed that it was unlikely to be muscle gain this early on. I guessed that it could be down to all the additional water that she was drinking. I’d also read some articles describing how new exercisers can put on a little weight for the first week or so as their muscles hold on to fluid to help themselves repair. It’s only a little and it soon goes as your muscles get stronger. That all sounded sensible to us. I stood on the scales to see whether I’d similarly gained a couple of pounds.
Ohhhh yes. And some! I’d gained 6lb.
Now, I rarely gain or lose more than a lb. Even over Christmas or summer. It just stays static. So a gain of nearly half a stone over 2 weeks is very significant. The cause? When I come home after a run at around 8pm and I haven’t eaten since midday, you need to lock up the fridge and hide slow-moving animals or I’ll hoover it all up. I’m so, so hungry! Yeah, I must have been eating 4000 calories to replace the 400 I’d burned off on my gentle little jogs. My appetite and exertion are not exactly balanced…
Meh. Uber eejit.
I stopped eating extra, made sure I ate lunch much later, and luckily the extra chub has sorted itself out. I didn’t cut down or (rinse your mouth out after saying it) diet. So as of today, weight-wise I’m back to where I started (11st 2. And whilst I’m recording stats, my waist is an unhealthy 33” but I’m not panicking because surely running will do something about that).
More importantly than weight gain or loss, though, I’m feeling a bit stronger in my legs (regaining muscle and stamina are my main goals), and my general mood has definitely improved. I’m less likely to spiral into a hard to shift gloom. Can’t say my temper’s calmed down any, though, as The Boss can attribute (from inside his fallout shelter). The minxes have stopped giggling at me in my running clothes and take it as read that on Monday and Wednesday nights, Mummy goes out to have fun running. They actually paid attention when I explained why warm-ups take so long and feel so horrible, and why I want them to persevere on their Daily Mile at school.
And actually, that’s the thing that my mind has really been chewing over this past week especially – what effect my running is having on the minxes. I thought going out 2 nights a week to run would be a bit of a general ‘good influence’ on the girls, and dismissed it as not being anything important. Now, though, as well as them quizzing me on how I could possibly be enjoying it so much, they’re offering up observations. Maxi said that I still shout as much, but the lead-up to the shouting is much longer. She asked whether running was making me more patient, or was it from me sleeping better? All 3 girls know I was the worst runner in my school (if not entire district) and are genuinely intrigued as to why I’m doing it, what I’m actually enjoying and how I’m managing to improve. They sat open-mouthed like baby birds when I described how I feel like I’m hurtling through space when I sprint, now (I know! Me! Sprint! Hahahahaha! It’s just when we did a little introduction to fartlek training and I discovered that I could run an awful lot faster than I thought I could. It was only over maybe 20m, so don’t get all excited…).
There’s that Nike advert and hashtag, #thisgirlcan. I’d always huffed and thought, aye, not me! despite telling my 3 girls that of course they and all girls certainly could do anything they wanted. Well, between us, Mrs P and I are showing 5 impressionable little girls that even us old birds can! It’s never to late to give it a try and just do it (to use another hackneyed advertising phrase. Sorry).
So: lots of introspective analysis going on in my little bubble this month, but it’s all good.
Lastly, to keep us going and on track, Mrs P talked me into signing up for a 10k mud obstacle race in the autumn. I’m easily led. I’m also so frightened by the prospect that Endomondo has recorded my running pace pick up every time either of us spoke the words ‘Banchory’, ‘beast’ or ‘September’.
I’m scared but also have a cunning plan. I’ll tell you about our plan to actually achieve this race without killing ourselves in the process in my next accountability post.
3 Feb 2017
That’s the end of Week 4 of me and my partner in crime, Mrs Persuasive, learning to run with our local JogScotland group. I’ve now completed 9 runs (and a replacement MuTu Intensive session at home today because 2/3 minxes are off school ill and I can’t go out).
New things this fortnight: me and Mrs P went for our first run by ourselves last week because we want to up our sessions to 3 times a week. We happened to stumble on a wee circuit along single track country roads that is hilly and exactly 6km long. Perfect!
I’ve not been finding it hard to motivate myself to go running at all. Partly it’s because me and Mrs P car-share to get to the JogScotland group in a nearby town, so we’d need a cast-iron excuse to dodge going; partly it’s because I do love how good I feel at the end of each run. I’m sleeping better, too. Though that should be a no-brainer – the minxes need to be sufficiently active during the day to not transform into wide-awake devils that night, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that it works for insomniac adults, too.
The other thing that’s motivating me enormously is seeing steady, obvious progress each run. It’s not just subjective improvement: once I figured out how to work Endomondo on my brick of a phone, I can see my speed and the length of time between walk-portions increase with each running session. I’m still only around the pace I can fast-walk, though: my latest personal best is upping my 5km jog/walk time to 46 minutes (4 mins faster than I walk it, and 10 minutes faster than a fortnight ago).
Early days, early days…
A huge epiphany for me this fortnight is what warming-up does. I don’t mean the general ‘prepare your body for exercise’ – we all know that. It was when the group leader explained why warm-ups feel difficult (it’s all about the acceleration involved from moving your heart rate from resting to working. It’s a really big increase. After that, any increases in effort as you run for the next half hour or so are much smaller, so are less uncomfortable). This makes logical sense to me. But I suddenly understood why I find the first 15-20 mins of each session really unpleasant, but after 30 minutes I feel like I could keep going all night. If only I’d sussed this before, I’d have persevered past those first 20 minutes of previous exercise sessions over the decades…
Anyway, we’ll see how it goes. I never thought I’d still be doing this jogging lark after 4 weeks, still be enjoying it, and still be in one piece. Though stupidly I overdid this morning’s MuTu session and am starting to hurt a bit – I made a rookie error of jumping into one of the tougher Intensives with ridiculously heavy weights. I was also a bit slack in maintaining good form. Eejit! I know better than that. So right now I hurt, but it’s not from running…
20 Jan 2017
It’s now 2 weeks since I started jogging with JogScotland, and I thought I’d start to write reasonably regular howgozit accountability posts.
So, how’s it been going?
Well, I’ve now been out jogging 5 times and (whisper) I’m really enjoying it. Remember I thought I’d hate it and be in bits? Well, I also thought each running session would only last around 20 minutes or so. I was wrong on all counts. The first session was just over an hour of walking / gentle jogging. Although I was a bit stiff the next day (hey, I’m 45, unfit and overweight!), nothing actually hurt. Subsequent sessions have been just under an hour.
This week I felt that there was a big jump in difficulty in terms of walking less and jogging for longer in one chunk. The first 3 sessions I felt a bit torn: on the one hand it was marvellous that I could keep up with all the other absolute beginners (a first for me), and that we were actively encouraged to keep on chatting and use the difficulty in maintaining a conversation as a guide to getting the effort right. Not a problem, I can do that! The group leader kept our speed slow and steady. But on the other hand, I felt a bit frustrated that I can walk our usual 5.5km route faster than we jog/walk it. Still, I trust the group leader. It’s a new and different way of doing things. And the old way I’ve always done things hasn’t worked up till now (go full tilt. If no success, beast self harder. If still no success, increase beasting until physical breakdown. If still no success, sulk and give up).
I worried a lot about my feet: despite being a beginner runner, I’ve chosen to run in barefoot-style shoes. I’ve been walking in them for 8 or 9 years to (successfully) strengthen very weak ankles that used to suffer sprains and twists every few months. I tried on a very old pair of old-fashioned wedge-heeled trainers I found at the back of the wardrobe (about 15 years old, but worn only twice). They felt awful, like I was wearing tight platform boots. But I’ve had to run often enough in the past to know that as well as running like an egg-whisk (think flappy knock-knees), I also have a very, very heavy heel strike. Bash-heel-then-flap-sole-down-splat. I can’t afford to splash out on new running shoes just now, even though I know that these and a good sports bra are the only running essentials all newbies need. Well, I got the sports bra in the M&S half-price sale (hooray!) and decided to wear my comfiest Vivobarefoots and just concentrate on placing my feet a bit more softly than usual.
I was very bemused to discover that I must have got a free upgrade to ‘normal feet’ at some point in the past decade without me noticing: it feels that l pretty much land on the ball of my foot and push off on my toes. I don’t get sore feet (though sometimes the back of my toes ache a little). I certainly don’t get backache from jarring my heels on the pavement. This is amazing!
So how are the old stats? Well, after 5 sessions I can jog/walk 5.5km in 55 minutes. It’s maybe 50/50 jogging and walking. The first 20 minutes feel horrible, then after 30 minutes I start to feel quite normal and even happy. The warm-down feels fantastic – I can’t get enough of the bend over and stretch your lower back stretch.
It’s very early days yet, and the minxes are still giggling at the sight of their old ma heading out the door encased in tight leggings with a smile on her face, but so far so good.
I’m sat at home, feeling deeply apprehensive, and typing to occupy my racing brain.
Back in November, in a fit of bravado, I agreed to accompany my friend on a 10-week block of running sessions for beginners, through JogScotland. We’d encourage each other. We’d motivate each other to keep going. I’d be the Eric to her Ernie; the Ball to her Cannon (I run like a hand-whisk). The idea made us chortle, over a gallon of coffee and a mountain of biscuits and scones. Not so much ‘New Year; new me’ (I rather like the Old Me, thank you very much! It’s taken 45 years of grafting to get me like I am today!), more: this might be funny, what can possibly go wrong?
Well, it’s Day 1 Week 1 for us in just over an hour. I didn’t even ask how long the session will be, because it’s mere numbers: my flabby, middle-aged body will just respond with ‘too bloody long!’ no matter how many minutes it lasts. I haven’t run since I failed a bleep test spectacularly back in 2009. I think this is going to hurt. A lot.
On the positive side, unlike in 2009, I no longer have a big diastasis recti to battle against, nor crunches and sit-ups. I worked hard at the 12 week MuTu System and now my DR is only about a finger-width apart at its widest (where I have an umbilical hernia that’s not causing me any bother at all, so I’m leaving it alone). So my core muscles are stronger than they were 7 years ago. Years of wearing barefoot / flat shoes have given me far stronger ankles and feet than I had back then.
But I’m 7 years older and a whole stone heavier.
Yeah, this is going to hurt. And be cold! It’s windy, rainy and it’s currently 3degC and falling.
Have you any top tips for a beginner jogger before I go?!
I think I’ve written thousands of words about Midi Minx and her love of cooking and baking (and my love of troughing her creations). Ha, my Instagram page features more of her baking than my own! Recently, she’d been grizzling about Maxi’s speedier accumulation of Cub Scout badges than her own. I can see why: when she’s in Cubs uniform, Maxi looks like she fell out of a cornflakes packet… I explained to Midi that she’d need to be patient and earn her badges slowly, as she learned new knowledge and skills. No, she wants more badges NOW. She asked whether she could get any badges for existing skills. For instance, was there perhaps a baking badge..? Crafty minx! I explained that she wouldn’t get badges just for turning up and that all work for badges has to be equally taxing for everyone. I had a chat with her Akela, who was game for her to work on the badge at home. After a quick check that Midi planned to make something that would be appropriately difficult for her current skillset, she was off!
We checked the requirements of the Cubs Chef Activity badge and any available resources – no point reinventing the wheel, eh? The online pack certainly contains lots of activities (pretty handy, as it appears I’ve now merrily volunteered myself to help other Cubs get their Chefs badge!). Like her sisters, Midi’s been drilled in food hygiene and safety since she was tiny, so we just quickly looked at the relevant exercises in the activity pack and discussed them so that I was certain she’d sufficient knowledge of the areas covered. We didn’t do the food techniques game, as I felt that was a bit too easy for her. Instead I grilled her (badoom-tish!!) on which cooking techniques she’d choose to best cook different foods that I listed.
When it came to planning the menu, I know that the Eatwell Plate listed in the pack was updated and replaced in March 2016 by the Eatwell Guide, so I used that instead as a basis of discussing the food choices with Midi. We talked about food groups and proportions, and because this was already old hat to her, I added the challenge of also varying the flavours, textures and colours of the food. She’s only 8, so I didn’t enforce The Boss’s suggestion of also only choosing seasonal or local produce (!) Maybe next time…
I ended up cutting her a fair bit of slack when it came to actually cooking things up and changing the menu: the preparation took far, far longer than expected, and she desperately squeezed in a quick bike ride with her Dad in the middle of the cooking before it got dark. As a result, there were fewer fruits and 1 less vegetable than she’d originally planned. I helped her change her plan for a seasonal fruit salad into a quick yogurt, honey and nut side-dish with just the one fruit to go with the biscotti. And the swede mash didn’t happen at all because her chopping skills aren’t yet safe enough to slice the thick skin off the swede (and not her hand) competently. Maybe if we’d had (much, much) more time
So what was her Showstopper Menu for 5, then? Midi chose to make a vegetable and lentil soup for a first course to show that she can prepare vegetables, follow a recipe and safely use a liquidiser; she decided on cottage pie and mixed greens for main as they’re quite easy to cook, used different cooking techniques, and are a standard winter dinner in our household; for dessert she made some super-crunchy hazelnut, chocolate and lemon biscotti, with Greek yogurt, honey, nuts and pomelo segments alongside, just because they’re her favourites. They all tasted fantastic, but the best bit for me? She had to serve, clear up and wash everything up afterwards. What a treat for the rest of us!
I’ve written this post partly because I’m desperately proud of her emerging cooking skills and am constantly encouraging her independence, and also so I can send a link to her Akela as proof of what she produced. The photos got fewer as she needed closer supervision / time was running out! I’ve added 2 of the recipes she used (weeeeell, one recipe and one set of directions), so I hope you give them a try, too.
Vegetable and Lentil Soup For 10
tablespoon of olive oil
- 2 small / 1 large onion, chopped
- 3 carrots, roughly chopped
- 2 celery stalks, roughly chopped
- crushed clove or 2 of garlic
- teaspoon each of ground cumin and ground coriander
- 175g lentils (we used a mix of red and white because it was all we had)
- 2 pints of chicken or vegetable stock
- salt and pepper
- scant tablespoon of tomato puree
- tin of chopped tomatoes
- bay leaf
Heat the oil in a saucepan. Fry the onion over a medium heat for about 10 mins till it’s soft and transparent.
- Add the carrots and celery, and sweat for a few more minutes.
- Add the garlic and ground spices. Stir for a minute.
- Add the lentils, stock, tomato puree, tinned tomatoes, a bit of seasoning, bay leaf. Bring to the boil, then cover and simmer for 30 mins till the veg is soft.
- Cool slightly, then liquidise. Check for seasoning. Serve. We stored half in the fridge for tomorrow’s lunch!
Cottage Pie and Mixed Greens
- tablespoon of oil
- 1 large / 2 small onions, chopped
- 3 large carrots, diced
- 750g beef mince
- pint of beef stock
- dash of Worcestershire sauce
- about 500g potatoes
- large knob of butter
- about 500g brussels sprouts
- about 300g frozen peas
- Peel the potatoes, chop into even chunks. Place in cold, salted water, bring to the boil, simmer for 20 mins or until soft enough to mash.
- While the tatties are coming to the boil, put the oven on to heat to 210degC / gas 7.
- While the tatties are simmering, heat the oil in a large saucepan. Fry the onion till soft, then sweat the carrots. Tip onto a bowl.
Turn the saucepan heat to high. Fry the beef mince till browned. Add the vegetables, stock, Worcestershire sauce. Bring to the boil and simmer gently while you’re getting on with the tatties.
- Drain the potatoes when they’re ready. Mash roughly with a large knob of butter and a little pepper.
- Put the mince in a deep ovenproof dish. Put the mashed potato through a potato ricer and squeeze it in noodles over the mince. Place in the hot oven for 15 – 20 mins until the potato has browned and gone crunchy.
- While the cottage pie is in the oven, cook your brussels sprouts (trim the tails, cut in half, pop in a little saucepan. Cover with boiling water, bring back to boil and simmer for 5 mins. Drain, serve with a small knob of butter swirled over them.
- While you’re serving the cottage pie and brussels sprouts onto plates, cook the frozen peas in the microwave according to the package instructions.
Hazelnut, Chocolate and Lemon Biscotti
I promise to add more details for this when I check what amendments Midi and The Boss made to the original Paul Hollywood recipe. I can’t reproduce his recipe because it’ll be copyrighted, but I’ll at least link to it.
The Finale… tidying up!
And she’s still smiling. Will she willingly tidy up from now on? (Don’t be silly – you can’t get a badge for that!)
I made the minxes a right old carb-fest lunch today: baked tatties followed by baked rice pudding. Weeeeell, I figured the oven was on anyway, it’s the easiest baked pudding in the world, and the cold and miserable weather justified the comfort food.
Over the hour in the oven, it developed a very golden-brown skin. So I put a photo of the finished pudding up on Instagram and asked that perennial old question: do you love or hate the skin?
While you’re having a think about that, here’s the recipe. It’s unbelievably easy!
Baked Rice Pudding
- 100g flaked pudding rice
- 25g sugar
- 580ml milk (a smidge over a pint. I use whole milk for everything anyway, and in this pudding it will make it creamier)
- big knob of butter (about 20g)
Preheat your oven to 180degC / Gas 5. Mix the rice, sugar and milk in a deep ovenproof dish. Put in the oven for 15 minutes. Take it out, give it a stir, then drop little knobs (knoblets? Knoblings?!) of butter on the surface. Put back in the oven for 45 minutes. Serve immediately.
The pudding baked for the same length of time and temperature as the tatties because I threaded the tatties onto metal skewers to cut the baking time. The minxes mixed up some tinned tuna, tinned sweetcorn and mayo in bowls themselves before plopping it onto the tatties and devouring them. They’re all lovers of baked rice pudding skin, so wolfed their lunches down faster than usual so they could choose the pudding with the most skin (Do you do that? Serve up dessert in unequal sizes and let the first finished their main meal choose, to encourage them to eat up / eat faster? Or is that just me…?)
And as for that question, do you love or hate skin – me, I hate it. I’d rather eat warm sick than eat rice skin. But I tell the minxes I’m giving them my portion of skin only because I love them so much. Some lies are ok. Honest. And everyone’s a winner, eh?
I’ve been driving everyone demented in the house over the past few weeks, insisting on playing HeartXmas on the radio whenever I’m at home. The unrelenting barrage of Christmas-themed music was surprisingly soothing. Well, to me at least. I’m a grumpy old sod who always, always hates the overly-commercial and overly-long build-up to Christmas. Perhaps after the 12 months I’ve just had, I think I needed a nudge into feeling faintly ridiculous and a bit happy. Even if it’s artificially and commercially produced by silly songs with inane lyrics and cynical producers.
Anyway, I like to sing / screech / croak along to the radio. Not knowing the words or tune has never slowed me down, oh no, I just crack right on with my own version, the ruder the better. Though admittedly that made learning the correct words to their school carol concert a wee bit trickier for my trio than it should have been, but that’s another story… So the minxes were getting fed up with me imitating Bruce Springsteen, moaning about how gravelly and awful his voice was and that his Santa Claus is Coming To Town sounded like more of a huge parody than my send-up of it. I’m not a big fan of his work, to be fair, but do have a very soft spot for Streets of Philadelphia. So I decided to play the girls it, the version at the link. Personally I love the way it sounds like he’s walking along the street, singing it. And I love the sound of his voice in that particular song. However, I didn’t expect the reactions I got from the girls…
I guess they’ll not be big fans, then.
We had some friends over today for lunch. Their girls are the age of Mini and younger and a real joy to be around. We finished off a huge meal (brisket that had been in the slow cooker for 12 hours and Midi’s best savoury dumplings) with my friend’s delicious pavlova, then emptied an entire can of shaving foam playing Pie Face. Ahhhh, you can’t get kids too hyper on Christmas Eve!
Well, I say that… They were all bouncing off the walls. Properly going bonkers. ‘Unable to speak an entire sentence’ level of excited. I didn’t hold out much hope of them ever getting to bed. Then The Boss had a brilliant idea of breaking out the tubs of gingerbread dough his mum had given them – get them to bake gingerbread biscuits, decorate 7 shades of living hell out of them, then leave them out for Santa. Awesome! I watched the 3 of them slow down, start of concentrate, calm down more and more, get engrossed in their decorating, focusing on their creations. They stopped moaning about my Christmas music radio station and even joined in singing, while me and Mini went all kitsch on this year’s Christmas cake (those blobby things are robins. With their wings and tails outstretched. Of course they are. You see it now, don’t you?)
After a few hours, they were done. I openly admitted how impressed I was with their artwork. I’m sure Santa was, too. So in a fairly calm state, they laid out Santa’s and Rudolph’s snacks, milk and whisky, posed gamely for the annual Christmas Eve photo, said goodbye to Edbie the Elf*, then went to bed without arguing.
*The elf went back to Santa, of course, leaving a thank you note that included some insults to Elsa, and leaving behind some Santa hats, Christmas joke box and some elf cupcake toppers I found a few months ago.
Around midnight, me and The Boss got out all the minxes’ presents from their hiding places. This year I was smug as a smug thing because I kept an Excel spreadsheet listing everything I’d bought for them, roughly how much it was (so I could make sure they’d roughly the same spent on them, and that I didn’t go overboard), and (crucially) where I’d hidden it.
So there I was, hissing: “Gas Out… Midi… blue ikea bag behind the stripey bag in the wardrobe” like a mad game of Twister to a hapless Boss who was tiptoeing around helping me fetch things. He picked up said Gas Out game and gave it an innocent prod. It came with batteries already fitted. It let out the most massive, long, wet-sounding fart I’ve ever heard that reverberated noisily along the hall. Have you ever tried not to die of laughing silently?! I swear, I lay on the floor outside Midi and Mini’s room, doubled up, dry-snorting about the noise, the terrible timing, and his face looking like a rabbit caught in the headlights. A guilty one. So that nearly started our Christmas morning earlier than we’d planned!
As it was, we first heard the pitter-patter of tiny jack-boots running around to see if Santa had visited just before 4am. I persuaded Mini to snuggle in with me for 20 whole sleepy snoozy minutes before I heard the other pair of tricksters giggling in the hall and gave up. I happily accepted the payback for the past 10 years of post-7am Christmas Day waking. It’s 0420hrs, Santa’s been, and the kids are shrieking and laughing and smiling over their presents – let the festivities commence! Merry Christmas!