Sunday, 31 October 2010

Hallowe'en Pumpkin Cake

The lovely English Mum is running an Autumn Bake-off competition and I thought I would have another go. I don't do pretty cakes but I thought I'd enter anyway.

When I thought about what to do with a vaguely autumnal theme, I was a bit stumped. I made parkin once and it wasn't all that successful. I thought of something appley but again, apple cakes don't seem to do it for me. I like them with blackberries but they are past their best by early September and I refuse to pay supermarket prices for blackberries.

At this time of the year, I normally end up making a cake for Hallowe'en as we do a fundraiser/family event in our NCT branch. So, I set about thinking of a cake to make that would fit both briefs. Of course, pumpkins are a big feature of Hallowe'en so I set about wondering if you could make a pumpkin cake. After all, pumpkin pie is a big thing in the US, right? So pumpkin cake can't be that different. I tweeted this thought out loud and some lovely ladies furnished me with links to recipes. I was sold on this recipe when I realised that it doesn't require the pumpkin to be pre-cooked, thus making the whole process easier and quicker. It's very similar to carrot cake, right down to the cream cheese frosting, which I'll admit now is not my forte.

I actually made this with butternut squash because I had one on I wanted to use. The timings are slightly variable as the pumpkin or squash can vary wildly in water content so it might take a lot longer to cook.

Here's how I made it

Hallowe'en Pumpkin Cake
(makes around 15 pieces)


for the cake
300g self-raising flour
300g light brown muscovado sugar
3 tsp mixed spice
2 tsp bicarbonate of soda
175g dried fruit (I used raisins, you could use sultanas)
1/2 tsp salt
200g butter
4 eggs, beaten
zest of 1 orange
1 tbsp orange juice
500g (peeled and deseeded) pumpkin or butternut squash, grated

to finish the cake
85g butter, softened
200g full fat soft cheese (low fat doesn't work, don't do it!)
100g icing sugar
zest of 1 orange and juice of half

First, prepare your tin. Take a roasting or baking tin around 20x30cm (8x12 in), butter it well and line with baking parchment. Preheat your oven to 180C/350F/Gas 4.

Mix all the dry ingredients for the cake together (not the pumpkin) in a large bowl until combined. Melt the butter (best done in a jug), then beat in the eggs and add the zest and juice. Pour the wet ingredients into the bowl of dry ingredients and stir until well combined, then stir in the grated pumpkin. Pour the cake mix into the prepared tin. Bake for 30 mins or until golden and firm, springing back when touched. I found mine needed much longer as the middle was not cooked so I turned it down to 160C to avoid burning and cooked for about another 15 mins.

Whilst the cake is baking, make the frosting by beating together the cheese, butter, icing sugar, most of the orange zest and 1tsp of the juice until smooth and place in the fridge until needed.

Take the cake when done out of the oven and leave it to cool for 5 mins before removing it from the tin and placing on a wire rack to cool. Whilst the cake is still warm, prick all over with a skewer and drizzle over the rest of the orange juice. Leave to cool thoroughly.

Once cool, you can trim the edges of the cake (the sides of my tin weren't straight so I did, but you really don't have to.). Swirl the frosting over the top of the cake using a flat knife or spatula. Decorate with the rest of the orange zest.

And so, finally, let me unveil my entry to English Mum's Autumn Bake Off. It's shocking photography but I made the cake, went out for a curry, came home and finished off the cake and I remembered late on that I hadn't taken a pic, so it's as bad as, if not worse than my usual standard. Still, it's all I got so this will have to do.

(Late edit, but here is some of the cake cut up and ready to be eaten at the Hallowe'en Party.)

And if you want to have a go yourself, please do. The winner will get a cook book by Diana Henry and there is a kid's prize of a Chef Curly Bear. You've still got until midnight on 12th November to enter the competition so get baking!

Happy Hallowe'en!

Wednesday, 27 October 2010

Desert Island Discs

It's been a while since I last did a music meme so I was both pleased and slightly horrified when the lovely Cass, who writes at Surfacing, tagged me to write about my Desert Island Discs. In other words, the 8 pieces of music or tracks I would take with me to a desert island. I knew immediately it was going to be hard but it's taken me well over 2 weeks to get this far. I keep thinking of songs or pieces and then I think of something else. I suspect, if you tagged me again in 3 months, the answer may well be substantially different. So what have I chosen? Here, in no particular order, is my selection.

The first is Heartbeat by The Psychedelic Furs. This is a song from my student days. I loved everything this band did, but this single really stood out for me. However, it was not a well known single - everyone knows Pretty in Pink or Love My Way - and didn't do all that well in the charts. But I loved it, and I used to play the 12" single repeatedly. The beat and the saxophone is hypnotic. I love how the sax and the guitars clash - it shouldn't work but it does. It's a brilliant dance tune. In this video, of them performing in Spain in the year of its release (1984), you'll also see how Bowie-esque Richard Butler was or was trying to be!

(and thanks to Chris at Thinly Spread for mentioning them on Twitter. Sorry you missed them last weekend)

Next is another student tune. In my opinion, it is the ultimate dance track. It has been released three times. It is one of the longest tracks ever to chart in the UK. I'm fairly sure that most of you have danced to it at some point in your life, however old you are - it just makes you want to dance to it. I'm sat here typing listening to it and my foot is tapping. I don't care it's 7 minutes long. It could be 7 hours long and I'd still want to dance to it.

I give you Blue Monday by New Order. Peter Hook's bass is just genius.

And as I seem to be on an 80s tip, let me move on Tainted Love by Soft Cell, which is only a year or two older than the others. Again, I can't fail to get up for this track. I loved it from the second I first heard it. On the strength of it, I went out and bought Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret. I was 16 years old. I'm sure if it was released today, it would have "Parental Advisory" stickers all over it with some fairly explicit language/concepts in some of the tracks. I wonder if my parents actually realised what the album was like, but they never stopped me listening to it.

It was only about 10 years ago that I realised that it is actually a cover version. The song was originally a B-side of a Gloria Jones single called "My Bad Boy's Comin' Home" in 1964 but became a Northern Soul classic in 1970s where Soft Cell originally heard it. I heard the original at a wedding reception we went to - the happy couple were and are big Northern Soul fans. I still prefer the Soft Cell version - a rare example of the cover being better than the original.

So, enough 80s. At least for now..

I've chosen something quite recent for my next choice, and one of which Nickie at Typecast will approve, because I've seen her tweet links to this song at least twice. It's one of those songs that sticks in your head when you hear it and the band concerned have been a bit of a one hit wonder in the UK, although they are actually Finnish. (And no, it's not Lordi). It is In The Shadows by The Rasmus.

OK, I am back at the 80s again now. Sorry. Something a lot more laid back than the other tracks. In the 80s, I absolutely adored Black. I think I know his Wonderful Life album off by heart, I played it that much. If I hear the tracks in isolation, I can actually hear the opening bars of the next track in my head when they finish! A lot of it is quite sad as it was inspired by his break up of a relationship but the song I have chosen is not sad at all. In fact, it has a great line that I love:

"Just like a forming rainbow, just like the stars in the sky, life should never feel small"

For that reason alone, I'm choosing Paradise from that album as my next selection.

(I'll just mention Tara at Sticky Fingers at this point, as I tweeted that line one night and she immediately recognised it, which makes her a big fan too.)

Right, back to something more recent again but no less beautiful. I discovered Colbie Caillat through the medium of Twitter, as I follow the music tweets of Garry from Blog Up North and occasionally click on things that look interesting. That is how I discovered Coco, which was her first album, and in particular this track, which is called Realize. I love it so thanks go to Garry (aka himupnorth) for introducing me to this.

The next two tracks I've chosen are ones that I came to love through doing exercise classes. Sounds weird but hey, it works for me. The first is Bring Me To Life by Evanescence. It always gives me goosebumps when I hear it.

And the final one is probably one that quite a few people who went to classes at the same time as me associate with me. We used to have an instructor who would occasionally ask people for favourite tracks as we went through. This track was to a chest routine and I would always ask for it. I think she liked it because I would often get my way. It's a feelgood track so a good way to end on a high for my selection. It is Starlight by The Supermen Lovers. (And I can probably do the routine to this in my sleep!)

Now, I've still got a list of those that nearly made it that I still love (Like Love Shack, Ride on Time, Somewhere Only We Know, Show Me Love, some choral pieces, Tears for Fears, Paul Weller to name but a few) so perhaps ask me again in a few months, eh?! Hope you like my choices that have made a final cut. They all elicit a physical reaction in me when I hear then whether it be goosebumps or the hairs on the back of my neck standing up. I love them for what they are and I return to them again and again. That makes them all great songs.

I'm supposed to tag some lovely people to take this forward so I'm going to choose

Nickie at Typecast
Paula at Battling On
Rachael at InceyWinceyMummy
Metajugglamum at In search of the perfect triangle

I can't wait to see what they come up with. And if you want to do your own, link to it in the comments. Trust me, it's so hard to narrow it down but it's fun trying.

Show me the Funny

This is the prompt for this week's Gallery at Sticky Fingers.

I don't seem to have many truly funny photos, certainly not digitally, that you've not already seen. I scoured my archives for a while, looking back through the children's lives so far. And then, I found this one of Monkey, aged around 15 months old.

I'm not sure if he was trying to help or whether he thought it was a toy. He wasn't even cruising them but he was pulling himself up. And looking at that pic, he looked too big to climb in, which is probably a good thing. And if to prove that he had an obsession with household appliances, I also give you this:

Here he is, a year later, trying to "help" empty the dishwasher. 

Shame he's not as enthused by household appliances now. He could have made someone a lovely wife. 

(And yes, I do know this is a week early. I just have plans for next week!)

Tuesday, 26 October 2010

Competition Winners!

Thanks to all the people that entered my competition over the last week. I had over 200 entries which was a fantastic response. I wish you could all win, but I only have two prizes sadly.

I drew the winners this morning using and I'm pleased to announce that the winners are:

Liz (GeekyMummy) who wins the Meccano Construction Starter Set


Alli Marshall who wins the Snazaroo Girls Facepaints set

Both winners have been notified by email and I've already heard back from Alli so Jesse, please check your emails and send me your address.

Thanks again for entering and don't forget to enter the last few remaining competitions in the Toys R Us Competition Carnival. They are:

Tuesday 26th October     More Than Just a Mother
Thursday 28th October    Flower Fairies and Fairy Cakes
Saturday 30th October     The Babbling Mummy
Sunday 31st October        A Mother's Ramblings
Tuesday 2nd November    Are we nearly there yet, Mummy?

Good luck and congratulations to Liz and Alli! 

Edit - the original winner of the Meccano set failed to contact me, despite me emailing them via the address they left and also via private message on the Money Saving Expert forums. I have therefore redrawn the first prize on 4th November 2010.

Monday, 25 October 2010

A gift for Victoria

One week today, a lovely Twitter friend of mine is setting off with her husband and her three children on an amazing adventure. Victoria Wallop is off on a round the world trip for nine whole months. She's been blogging about their preparations, about why they are doing this trip with three quite young children and will continue to blog during their trip at It's a Small World After All, where you can also read about the route they will be taking. 

In honour of her departure, another Twitter friend, Julia from What Will Julia Do Next? came up with the idea that we all give Victoria a virtual present before she goes. It has to be virtual because they have no space in their backpacks for anything other than absolute essentials. No space for fripperies and trinkets. 

So, what do I choose for this lovely lady that hasn't already been done? She's been given music, a taste and smell of home, friendship (two lots actually), sleep, and a rousing send off by the Smalls already. I could give her cake but that would take up space, make a mess and go off. I could sing a song but I wouldn't inflict that on you. So, instead, I have two things to offer you, Victoria. 

The first is a wish. Actually it's a blessing. An Irish one, for they frequently manage to have the best lines. It's a wish that I hope will set the tone of your trip.

May the road rise to meet you
May the wind be always at your back
May the sun shine warm upon your face
And rains fall soft upon your fields
And until we meet again
May God hold you in the palm of his hand

The second is this: 

It's your guardian angel, Victoria. One to watch over you and yours during your fantastic adventure. To keep you safe, and help you get things back on track when things do go wrong, as they inevitably will. To remind you that your friends back home are thinking of you and wishing you the best of times, and looking forward to your return. 

Bon voyage, Victoria. Have a bloody great one, and keep in touch.

Saturday, 23 October 2010

Tapas Tea

We love tapas in this house. If we go to Spain, we virtually live on it - either hopping from bar to bar, or sitting down and trying all manner of stuff in one place. Over time, we have found particular favourite dishes but have also had some fabulously different ones - like the spinach, bacon and chickpeas we ate sat in Plaça del Pi in Barcelona one sunny day, a dish that sticks in my mind to this day. And there is the awful, like the Russian salad we had in Poble Espanyol, also in Barcelona, which was so bad, it was funny. Never believe anyone that tells you that you can be served bad food is the UK. You can get it anywhere.

At home, we go to the usual chains if we want a tapas fix but occasionally, we like to have tapas for tea on a Saturday. This is a special treat for all of us and is usually timed to coincide with some Spanish football on the telly as we are big fans and have been to matches in 5 different grounds in Spain. Tonight has been one such time. There was a triple header of matches on and as it's holiday time, the children stayed up a little late. So, we had tapas for tea in the living room, watching the Barcelona game.

Tapas is great to cook as the dishes are small, so simple to cook and quick to prepare. Some don't require "cooking" at all - it's a case of putting some lovely ingredients on a plate. This morning, Monkey and Missy Woo came out with me to Booths to buy some of them. We bought Manchego cheese, some jamòn (ham), and some chorizo sausage (see below). The cheese is just cut into thin slices and put on a plate with some slices of tomato. Same with the jamòn. I drizzle some nice olive oil on top if I'm feeling fancy. (I wasn't today, in case you're wondering).

The rest of the menu was all fairly simple. We had:

Ensalada rusa - Russian salad. This requires bit of cooking in advance but not much. I peel and dice a medium size potato and place in boiling water in a pan with about 400g frozen mixed veg (the sort where the veg are quite small) and cook according to the packet instructions. At the same time, I hard-boil a couple of eggs, cool and shell them. Once the veg is cooked, I pour into a bowl and allow to cool. I add a tin of tuna which I've flaked to the bowl, with chopped hard-boiled egg. Then, I add in enough mayonnaise (I use low fat) to cover everything and stir together. Then I place in the fridge as it's best nicely cold. In Spain, they always put mini breadsticks in the top. I only do that if I have some in. I actually made double today as it keeps well in the fridge.

Gambas al ajillo - garlic prawns. Just some prawns fried in olive oil until they turn pink with some garlic added to the oil. Careful not to burn the garlic or it tastes bitter.

Chorizo al vino - chorizo in red wine. I slice the chorizo sausage and cook in a hot pan to render the fat, and let them sizzle for a while, turning occasionally. Once they are looking "cooked", I add some red wine to the pan and let it reduce a bit.

Meatballs - I cheat for this! I always have catering packs of Ikea style Swedish meatballs in the freezer, so I just use those and microwave them at the last minute. Proper albondigas are a mixture of minced meat and spices, and they can either be simply fried or cooked in a tomatoey sauce. I prefer my way just to keep it quick and simple.

Spanish omelette - tortilla española. This is the most involved dish of all but worth it as it is fantastic hot and cold. I have tried many recipes but this seems most successful. I peel, halve and slice 2-3 medium onions and peel and thinly slice about 300g potatoes, then heat about 2 tbsp olive oil in a medium deep frying pan until it's smoking. I add the potatoes and onions then immediately turn the heat down, stirring to coat everything in the oil. These are then cooked, covered for about 25 - 30 mins - the idea is to cook them slowly without browning but I rarely manage that - shaking the pan occasionally and turning everything over at least once. Whilst they are cooking, I crack 5-6 eggs in a bowl and beat together, then season with pepper. Once the potatoes and onions are cooked, I add them and mix with the eggs. The pan gets wiped out, put back on a medium heat and more oil added. Once the oil is heated, everything is tipped back into the pan and the heat turned back down. I leave it to cook for about 20 mins on the lowest of heats, occasionally running around the edge with a fish slice, until most of the egg on top has set. At this stage, I put the grill on high and put the whole pan under it. (If you're clever, you can slide the tortilla out of the pan onto a plate and then flip it back into the pan.) It only needs a couple of mins under a grill before it's browned and ready. The Spanish love it in sandwiches - if you go a La Liga match of an evening, the sound of foil being unwrapped from sandwiches at half time is deafening, particularly if you go to places like the San Mamés in Bilbao or the Anoeta in San Sebastián.

And that's it! None of it terribly complicated, most of it pretty quick to make, but a bit heavy on the washing up - thank goodness for dishwashers! I do a lot of wiping out and reusing of pans, plus there is a last minute scramble with the hot things, not unlike finishing off a roast dinner and trying to get everything ready at the same time. There are more complicated recipes but we don't find we need anything fancy. The only other thing I often make is patatas bravas - for which I make jacket wedges in the oven and a spicy sauce on top. I accidentally discovered that mixing barbeque sauce with mayonnaise gives the closest result to what you can get in most parts of Spain.

Before I go, handy hint for you if you do tapas at home. Write a list of what you're making, because it's really easy to forget something in the last few minutes. Many's the time I've found something in the fridge uneaten afterwards. Doh!

Friday, 22 October 2010

One down, five to go - stumbling over the finish line

Twitter this week has been awash with parents tearing their hair out. Home life can best be described as "tears and tantrums" with a bit of hyperactive giddiness thrown in. Their children have been veering wildly between joy and sorrow, one minute laughing manically, the next in floods of tears over the slightest thing. The dawdlers of the world are dawdling more than ever, and even the placid even-tempered types are awkward and difficult to the point of driving their parents to near insanity. Sibling rivalry has descended into all-out war.

Parents in Scotland will recognise this episode in their lives from a week or two ago. Because the reason for all this is tiredness - half term starts tomorrow for most of the country and the children have had enough. They've been back in school for around 7 weeks now, with maybe some time off for good behaviour for the reception class newbies. Brains are overloaded with lots of new information, experiences and routines. We're all there, stumbling over the finish line, even though it's only the first leg of six.

Butter wouldn't melt, would it?
To top it all in our house, this week has been a busy one. Monday has so far been the only day where nothing was going on after school. On Tuesday, Monkey had golf after school - something he asked to do. On Wednesday, they both had swimming lessons and then went back to school. The school ran a workshop for parents about supporting your children with their reading. It was run by the county adviser on literacy and it was excellent, but it was on from 6.30 to 8.30. Both of us wanted to go so Monkey and Missy Woo went to the creche they put on, meaning they went to bed nearer to 9pm. And Thursday? Well, that was the Halloween Disco (you can tell it's not a church school) which they have been looking forward to for weeks. When I say "disco", I actually mean about an hour of them manically running around a darkened school hall with flashing lights and maybe a few games. Dancing has little to do with it, judging by the reports from the parents overseeing the event. After school tonight, I swear we are going nowhere. I may even suggest pyjamas are put on when they come home. I might join them.

They are shattered. Missy Woo is one of life's dawdlers and has perfected her dawdling skills this week. We're up to 5 mins per sock. Monkey is more highly strung and everything is a drama for him. He blows up at the smallest imagined slight - like asking him to eat his food. We've eased off on thins like reading this week, after we could see that Missy Woo just hadn't got the concentration for her new book. We've been letting them off if they say they don't want to.

And what is it with tired children that makes them wake up so early? They have often been awake an hour earlier than normal, sneaking in and out of each other's rooms, sometimes waking each other up and causing mischief. Don't they know that more sleep is good?!

Of course, coming to an end of the first half term where they are both in school is a time for reflection too.  We're enormously proud of both of them. Missy Woo has taken to school like the proverbial duck to water and has come on in leaps and bounds. She loves it all and has made some good friends already.

Monkey has also progressed really fast this term. In fact, it's been amazing. This has been because he's been part of a group working daily with the deputy headteacher on reading and writing for the last few weeks. If ever there was someone who you would want to teach your children to write, it is him - he has the most beautiful handwriting. Monkey has gained so much from this; his writing in particular has been transformed, but his reading has progressed quickly too. He worships the deputy head and it's a shame that this time is coming to an end, as he'll be working with another group after the holiday.

In addition, they have both been recognised for their efforts at school. Missy Woo came out of celebration assembly after a couple of weeks clutching a class award certificate for "super letter sounds and word building." Then, last week, Monkey ran out of school with the "Star Pupil" trophy in his hands, which was given for "good manners at all times, and for tackling tasks and challenges with enthusiasm". Perhaps not the child we know out of school sometimes but we were so pleased that he behaves so well at school. He was very proud and put the trophy in his bedroom. He earned himself a new kit for that - but unfortunately, it's a Blackpool one. I fear I have definitely lost him to the PNE cause for good now.

But for now, they need to have a well-earned break. Maybe they will get that sleep they need, to process all that extra stuff crammed into their brains these last few weeks. Maybe just having a different routine is going to be enough of a break. I hope so, because it is just going to be a family week at home. Missy Woo has some extra swimming lessons arranged and Monkey a couple of football sessions. We have some friends coming round to test some toys. And that's it.

We're almost there, mums and dads. We've survived the first half term. Hope your little devils turn back into little angels soon and don't drive you all to distraction over the next week.

Wednesday, 20 October 2010

The Colour Red

This week's prompt from Tara for The Gallery at Sticky Fingers was the colour red, a theme for Halloween and again, there are prizes on offer of some Halloween face paints.

Monkey loves the colour red but strangely there are very few photos of him wearing it. There is one that I've featured in a previous week's Gallery. We bought new Halloween costumes a few days before the prompt was published and of course, we had gone for non-red options.

And then I found this picture, and thought I'd tell you the story behind it. It has no Halloween slant at all but it does feature some red.

This is the first picture I have of Missy Woo standing up, wearing her lovely red dress which sadly didn't fit her for that long. It took a long time to get to this point. She was a late developer (like her mother), preferring to talk (like her mother), and bum-shuffling instead of walking (you get the picture). She did learn to crawl after starting nursery one day a week so she had a mode of transport for all eventualities - crawling for real speed, and bum-shuffling for those times she wanted to carry something with her. Why on earth did she need to walk?

Despite my arm nearly dropping off carrying her as she was never the lightest of babies (yeah, that too), I was not bothered because I know I got there in the end (I can confirm I do not bum-shuffle anywhere). Her brother was a demon crawler and late walker, refusing to walk unaided until he was 18 months old. Missy Woo left it a bit longer. This picture was taken just 2 months before her second birthday and she had just started to walk. In other words, she was 22 months old. I got very bored of people if she was walking "yet" and was I worried? Answer - no. I could see she was developing in other ways, and I was not ready to sign her up for the baby Olympics. There are no prizes for coming first.

We bought her some shoes quite early and I seem to remember she helped to choose them because they were pink and oh yes, she had an opinion even then and wasn't afraid to express it (yeah, yeah - I know).

I think in the picture, she is more interested in Monkey's trainers (which are not red but he was very proud of them because they had flashing lights!). But this represents a major milestone in her life - upright and walking at last.

And, over two years down the line, does it show that she was a late walker? Does it heck!

(Why not pop over to The Gallery at Sticky Fingers to discover other entries and perhaps some blogs that are new to you?) 

Monday, 18 October 2010

Toys R Us Competition Carnival - Win a Meccano Construction Starter Case or a Snazaroo Girls Face Painting Kit

The Great Toyologist Competition Carnival has arrived at The Five Fs blog. It's been running throughout October and is being run on blogs by many of the Official Toys R Us Toyologists.Up for grabs today are two great prizes that we have received in our parcels over the last couple of months. And boy, do we have piles of toys - we are slowly working our way through them so keep an eye out for more reviews here on the Five Fs blog.

The first prize in my competition is a Meccano Construction Starter Case, worth £14.99. This is very different to the stuff most of us remember from childhood. This has plastic parts, coloured in red and yellow as it's from their 5+ range - the 8+ range is fully metallic and the 7+ range a mix of the two. This set has 60 parts, which you can use to make 5 models and all the pieces are stored in a bright red toolbox which I'm sure budding builders will love. Speaking from experience, Monkey loves anything red! It looks a good introduction to building models.

Coming from an all-girl household, we didn't really play with Meccano as children so I looked up some Meccano related trivia for you. (Pay attention - ahem!)  Meccano was invented by Frank Hornby who also produced Dinky toys and Hornby model railways. Meccano was his first invention, more than 100 years ago. It's a toy that has truly stood the test of time.

The second prize is a Snazaroo Girls Face Paint Kit worth £9.99, which includes 8 hypo-allergenic water-based paints, a sponge, a brush and a step-by-step guide. The paints are easy to wash off little faces, they are all very girly glittery colours. All you will need to paint faces is a child that will sit still long enough to create your design. I'm totally rubbish at any craft activity, hence why this has ended up put to one side. It's a real shame tho, as Missy Woo loves having her face painted and is quite happy to sit like a statue. It's just she's likely to be disappointed if I was doing the painting.

In order to win one of these prizes, all you need to do is leave a comment below (don't forget contact details via twitter or email - if you're registered with Disqus, you should have given them an email address to do so; if not, ensure I have some way of contacting you) and answer the following question:

What was the name of the inventor of Meccano?

Leave your comment before 23:59 on Monday 25th October 2010 to be in with a chance of winning one of the prizes.

Why not enter the other competitions coming up in the Great Toyologist Competition Carnival on these great blogs?

Tuesday 19th October      Glowstars Reviews
Friday 22nd October         Sarah Cookson
Sunday 24th October        A Modern Military Mother
Tuesday 26th October      More Than Just a Mother
Thursday 28th October     Flower Fairies and Fairy Cakes
Saturday 30th October      The Babbling Mummy
Sunday 31st October         A Mother's Ramblings
Tuesday 2nd November     Are we nearly there yet, Mummy?

Thanks for taking part - and good luck! 

Terms & Conditions
The competition is open to residents of the UK only. (Sorry!)
There is no cash alternative offered.
To enter, please leave a comment below giving the answer to the question and leave contact details via twitter or email. 
The winners will be drawn at random from all correct entries. The first winner drawn will win a Meccano Construction Starter Case and the second a Snazaroo Girls Painting Set. 
The competition will close at 23:59 on Monday 25th October 2010.
Prizewinners will be asked to provide a full UK postal address with postcode. I will endeavour to post the prize within 1 week.
If a prizewinner does not provide a full UK postal address within a week of being contacted, the prize will be re-drawn and a new winner will be contacted.
One entry per person only. If you enter more than once, only the first entry will count.

Sunday, 17 October 2010

A soupcon of something

At this time of year, as the temperature starts to drop along with the leaves on the trees, soup becomes the perfect lunch. It's warming, and generally a healthy option. It's quick to heat up, and even if you don't have access to a microwave or cooker, you can take it in a flask.

I have a serious soup habit and am quite fussy. Only fresh soups will do for me these days. They are expensive, so I often make my own to save money. Making soup is the easiest thing in the world if you have a blender. A hand blender is best as you can blend in the pan, making less mess.

I do, however, get in a bit of a soup rut. I often end up just making soup from the leftover veg at the end of the week. This means that most end up tasting quite similar and looking distinctly orange from all the carrots and swedes that dominate this time of year.

So, I'm starting another meme. A soup recipe meme. The idea is we all share a recipe for a soup. It can be anything - a new recipe you've discovered or designed yourself, your ultimate recipe for a particular soup, an unusual soup or just an old favourite. It just has to be soup. I've designed a badge and everything. And yes, I know that soupcon has a fancy cedilla thingy under the c, but the application I used to make the badge wouldn't allow me to enter fancy schmancy characters. I'm hoping we've all got different favourites and we'll be able to discover new soups to keep us warm in the colder months.

So, the guidelines for this meme are as follows:

1. Write your post including recipe and add my spectacular badge.
2. Mention this post so your readers can find other blogger recipes for some fab soups.
3. Tag some other bloggers to join in and share their favourite soup recipes.
4. Once you have published, come back and add a link to your recipe below. The Linky tool is set up to stay open all Winter so there is no rush, but please let me know if it's not working properly.

My soup is an unusual one.  In the mid 90s, I went to work for a company that ran a chain of American themed diners and nightclub, looking after their IT. I would visit venues who had problems I couldn't solve over the phone, or to install new equipment and software. One day, I was called to Basingstoke to fix a major problem. Whenever you turned up to fix the computers at a venue, nothing would be too much trouble. The staff would offer you drinks or food if the kitchen was open and bring it up to the office. On this occasion, they offered to get me some lunch. I asked what their soup was and was intrigued by the answer. It sounded odd but I decided to try it.

The soup was peanut butter and pumpkin. You're probably pulling faces right but trust me. It was so good that I remember that soup to this day and wanted to recreate it. After a quick Google , I found a few recipes and decided to have a go. All the recipes give measurements in cups so I've adapted it for UK foodies with the help of the good folk of Twitter pointing me at great resource like this. This soup is easiest if you can get canned pumpkin, but it's not widely available in the UK. It's not that hard to cook the puree, it just takes a bit longer. Use peanut butter that doesn't have added sugar.

Peanut Butter and Pumpkin Soup
Serves 6

25g butter, unsalted best
900g canned pumpkin or fresh pumpkin (not a carving one), peeled, deseeded and cut into cubes
400g sweet potato, peeled and cut into cubes
250g smooth peanut butter
1.4l chicken or vegetable stock
Ground black pepper
Snipped chives
Sour cream or low fat natural greek yogurt, to garnish

1. First, make your puree. Put the pumpkin (if you don't have canned) and sweet potato cubes into a saucepan and cover with water. Bring to the boil and simmer until the cubes are soft. Drain, then whizz to a puree with a hand blender or place in a blender.

2. Melt the butter in a large saucepan over a medium heat. Stir in the puree, the canned pumpkin if using, and the peanut butter. Add the stock, and season with pepper. It should not need salt! Stir well until smooth. Bring to the boil, then reduce to a simmer and cook for 20 minutes.

3. Serve, garnished with the sour cream or yogurt and the chives.

This soup tastes better the day after it's made so it's worth making in advance. When I made it, I had to use butternut squash as Asda didn't have any pumpkins - a shocking state of affairs for mid-October! It was pretty much as I remember it and unless you really hate one of the ingredients, I recommend you give it a try. And yes, I realise it is another orange soup - but it is definitely not run of the mill.

So, now I must tag some lovely bloggers to carry forward my newly birthed meme. They are:

Cass at The Diary of a Frugal Family
Kerry at And Then All I Thought About Was You
Nic at Nic's Notebook
Kirsty at Imperfect Pages

If you're not tagged, either ask one of these lovely ladies to tag you, or just blog and add your own link here. All contributions are more than welcome.

Don't forget to check back here for links to other great recipes here soon!

Thursday, 14 October 2010

Review: Boost Your Wash

My kids are not the cleanest. Despite reminding them to eat carefully, they frequently come home from school wearing some of their lunch - usually pasta sauce. Missy Woo has a serious drawing and colouring in habit and although her propensity to draw on herself has receded in recent months, she often gets felt pen on her clothes. And Monkey, well, he's a boy and does boy things - play football, ride his bike, run around, get mucky. I'm constantly dealing with stains. And I want the uniform I've just paid hard cash for to last more than a few weeks. I'm forever using stain removers. The one I use is hit and miss - I won't name it but it rhymes with banish - and it's a nuisance having to go through everything to spray it on.

I was asked if I'd like to review something called Boost Your Wash, which is designed to do just that - work with your soap powder to make it more effective at cleaning and removing stains and smells. I got sent a bottle, along with a very pretty polka dot peg bag. Said peg bag was very useful as my pegs have been residing in a small Ikea blue bag (and I mean small, so small they don't sell them in the shops - don't ask) after the carrier bag they used to reside in started to decompose without being buried.

Boost Your Wash comes in a bottle so I thought that meant the product was a liquid - but it's not. It's a powder. You use 1 - 2 caps in your washing machine when you need boosting, depending on how filthy your little darlings have got their clothes. A 500ml bottle should be enough for about 16 washes. Now, I use all detergents sparingly - given that half a washing tablet produces quite a lot of foam in my machine so I erred towards the 1 cap option so it may last longer. It can also be used in hand washes but you do need to remember to wash your hands well afterwards - which sounds scary, but I do still have hands so maybe it wasn't so bad after all.

The results have been pretty good so far. In a hand wash, I found it helped to remove marks without as much rubbing as usual. When used on the weekend uniform wash, all marks and stains appear to have gone. It also appears to have worked on some older stains that have been in previous washes. My whites haven't turned grey either, which is always a bonus. And it's easy to use - just add it to your powder drawer, rather than rooting through the dirty pile of laundry to find anything offensive.

Boost Your Wash costs £3.99 for a 500ml bottle, meaning it costs around 25p per use. That might seem a lot - I reckon my detergent costs me about 10p a go although I buy them cheaply - but compared to the cost of having to buy new clothes because the old ones are ruined, that's cheap. I don't think I'd use it for every wash, but for regular washes of school uniform, which costs a bomb to replace, it's perfect. On that basis, I'd definitely recommend you give it a try if you feel like you're losing the battle with your laundry mountain.

Boost Your Wash is available from Waitrose, Tesco, Robert Dyas and Ocado.

(I was provided with a full size bottle of Boost Your Wash to review and a peg bag. I have received no other compensation. The opinions stated here are my own, and have not been influenced by the aforementioned compensation.)

Wednesday, 13 October 2010

The Gallery - My favourite photo

This one's a particularly tough call and no mistake. The prompt for Week 31 of the Gallery is  "My favourite photo. And why". Now, I have lots of photos I love, but to pick out a favourite? Hmm...

And this week, there are two pieces of art up for grabs for the two best entries. The stakes are high, so it means making a choice. No more sitting on the fence for me; I have to make a decision for a change and blog about it.

First, I whittled it down to three pictures - which was not bad at all for a first cut  - then to two. Both of them have appeared on this blog before. One of them has been used for a previous Gallery entry. Predictably, both are of my children. But it meant choosing between them because one is of Monkey, and the other of Missy Woo. I don't like to choose between them but I've made my choice. In the interests of impartiality, I will include both pictures. I will be announcing them in the traditional fashion of reverse order.

The runner up is...

Missy Woo on Christmas Day 2007, with her new toy. I just love the look of sheer joy, mixed with more than a tinge of mischief, in her eyes. Iggle Piggle was one of the toys of the year that year but I got lucky and bought it in October when she (and I) first saw it in a shop. I managed to buy it when she wasn't looking and she was less curious in those days.

So, which means that the winner is...drum roll please...

Monkey! I've blogged about this picture before on this post, and I said at the time that I thought it was my favourite picture of him ever, but I've decided it is my absolute favourite photo of all.

The photo was taken of him by my husband on a coach going from Blackpool to Wembley. It was Monkey's second ever football match - and a trip to Wembley to the play off final. It was taken quite early in the morning on the coach down to London. What I love most about this photo are his eyes. I can almost feel the excitement and anticipation that he is feeling in this picture just by looking into them. I love the perspective that this gives - taken looking over the top of the seat behind where he was sat, which gives it a real 3D feeling to the photo. I love that it looks totally different if you turn the photo at right angles to the way it was taken. Most of all, I love that it is a picture of a little boy on a big adventure having a ball and that the promise of a special day was fulfilled.

Why not take a look at some of the other entries to this week's Gallery? There is bound to be a wide range of entries this week. Or maybe, have a go yourself. 

Tuesday, 12 October 2010

Less Stepford Wife, more Slummy Mummy

I've realised looking through my blog posts, that if all you knew of me was from reading them, you might think I was a bit of a Stepford Wife. Well, apart from my really rubbish photography; I fear there may be no hope for me on that front. I remembered a post from my lovely blogger friend Rachael on her blog about this very subject - although she aspires to a Martha Stewart existence, even if the reality doesn't live up to the picture in her head.

On the face of it, my Stepford credentials seem impeccable. In recent years, I have started to make stuff that most people of sound mind prefer to buy in a supermarket - like bread, jam (not always that successfully), and chutney from time to time. I bake cakes or make puddings. I plan weekly menus in advance, cook from scratch and try new recipes every week. All I need is twinset and pearls, kitten heels, and shampoo and set and my transformation would be complete, like this lovely lady. So you would think.

The reality is somewhat different. This may come as a shock, but my Slummy Mummy credentials are far, far more impressive. If there was an interview for the position, I would surely ace it. Here's the supporting statement I wrote for my application.
  • I frequently do the school run wearing my gym gear. I fall out of bed, throw on some trackies and a t-shirt, put a fleece or coat over the top and off I go. And that's the afternoon. Classy and stylish, it is not.
  • I am rubbish at stacking the dishwasher. At least that's what my husband says. This normally means he does it wherever possible. I like this.
  • I don't iron. Well, sometimes I do, but they put the flags out to mark the occasion.
  • I don't paint my nails. Painting nails is something I class as a "craft activity" which means it is Something I Am Rubbish At, so I don't do it.
  • On a similar front, I rarely wear make up. I forget to do it quite a lot. I wear it for special occasions. 
  • And don't talk to me about eye-liner or mascara, we're back to craft activities.  The effect is more panda bear than sexy siren. 
  • And hair? I have straighteners. I have hairdryer. I'm lucky if I use either. 
  • The only designer clothing item I own is my wedding dress. As that is not really suitable for everyday use, I own no designer clothes at all, unless you count George as a designer.
  • I don't wear matching underwear. In fact, I'd go so far as to say I am deeply suspicious of anyone whose bra and pants always match. What's that about?
  • Put me in high heels and I waddle like a duck, before adopting a fetching hobble after walking approximately 0.125 miles. Killer heels? Yes, if you count my feet and ankles. 
  • I don't think I could pipe swirls onto cupcakes to save my life. Making any cake look pretty is a tough call for me; yet another craft activity. Piping is likely to be a step too far. I may give it a whirl at some point, then take pictures so you can all laugh.
  • And whilst I'm on craft activities, I can't sew, paint, knit or crochet. Let's not go there. The only hand-crafted gifts you are likely to get from me are food-related, and then they'll be misshapen.
  • I am a messy cook. By the time I've finished, all the cupboard doors are open and there's barely a worktop unmolested by the detritus of my cooking. Thankfully, if I set my mind to it, the kitchen is usually found underneath the mess after some not inconsiderable effort.
  • I have children so I am adept at turning into Shouty Mum when stressed.

So, don't let me fool you. I am far more Slummy Mummy than I am Stepford Wife. Read my posts with that in mind. Imagine the mess that went to create the culinary disasters delights, imagine the children that go unwashed whilst I blog or tweet, and you won't go far wrong. 

Sunday, 10 October 2010

Review: Bakugan 7 in 1 Maxus Dragonoid

Do you get Bakugan? I confess I knew little about them before this toy arrived on our doorstep in our last Toyologist parcel. I'm not sure I know much more, even now. 

Apparently, there's an anime series that runs alongside it, but the game was released a good year beforehand. Fair enough. I looked into how to play the game and found this on Wikipedia. That clears it up, doesn't it? Erm, no. There's also a whole Wiki devoted to it: 82,000 pages and counting. Always a worrying sign, I feel. Not your average kids' game.

Monkey was keen to give this a go. In the box are six different "traps" that you can use to play the game and they connect up to the Bakugan to make the Dragonoid. The traps are rolled onto the gate card and transform into action figures. There is only one gate card, as well as one ability card (which affects various things; yep, don't understand that bit either). This limits the amount you can play the game unless you already have other Bakugan sets. Monkey enjoyed clipping the parts together to make "the robot" . Beyond that, there wasn't much more for him to do with it beyond taking it apart again and rolling the traps onto the gate card. Monkey doesn't really grasp the concept of the game, and to be honest, neither did we - but without more equipment, we can't fully try that out. 

The pieces are pretty solid and I would imagine this is why it costs £39.99. I think that's quite expensive, especially as you cannot play the game without other pieces. It's suitable from 5 years old, but I suspect older children will get more out of this than a 5 year old as they can learn how to play the game.

I think this could be better value. It needs pieces from other sets (a Bakugan starter pack, for example, costs around £12) to make full use of it. Although Monkey enjoyed it, I think it could either be more straightforward for his age, or merely aimed at a slightly older market.

Oh, and if you know how to play the Bakugan game, could you spare an hour teaching us?

(I was provided with this toy to review and have received no other compensation. The opinions stated here are my own, and have not been influenced by the aforementioned compensation.)

Thursday, 7 October 2010

My news (or what I was going to blog last night before sleep took hold of me)

I took my first radical step a few days ago. I stood down from my main volunteer role and it feels like a weight has been lifted.

I was the Regional Coordinator for the NCT in the North West. It was a role I had taken on by default, in the absence of anyone else and initially, I was just helping organise a training day for volunteers but I ended up taking on the whole role. It hadn't meant to be that way as I had wanted to stick to helping other branch treasurers, sharing the experience I had picked up doing the same role in my own branch.

I've been doing the job for two years. Some of it was hard work, some of it was a doddle. I became part of a fantastic, if disparate, group of ladies who do the same role in other parts of the UK. We regularly swap emails and occasionally met up at quarterly meetings; something not so easy for me due to the distance and the difficulties of arranging childcare if my husband was working the weekend (and there's a 50:50 chance of that).

I experienced some great highs and some awful lows. My high was organising a training day which was attended by over 40 people in March. We'd never had that many people turn up to such an event. Forty fantastic volunteers giving up their Saturday; barely a negative comment and lots of positive ones about how well it was organised and how much people had got out of it. My low point saw me in floods of tears over an email I received, which berated me and everything I stood for. Luckily, that low was a one off; it was soon dealt with and forgotten.

The problem is, as I've blogged before, I'm moving on now. I hinted at it, but didn't directly mention that I was thinking of giving it up. But it was becoming too much effort, and I have a growing interest in doing other things, like this. Tasks I was supposed to be doing were being left. My enthusiasm to get them done was waning.

And yet I felt guilt. I'd taken on the role because there was no-one else doing it, and hadn't been for some time. There wasn't anyone else coming forward to help me that could take my place. However, I knew from my experience as a volunteer, that guilt alone is not a good enough reason to stay, and that it is the wrong thing to do - to keep doing something that you're not paid to do, to which you are no longer fully committed. Far better to create a vacancy - because others will step in and cover - than to mess it up royally by being half-arsed.

I have always known that the treasury work is my strength. In NCT circles, I am famous for it, strange as that may seem. A lot of it is about how to use an accounting application, which I've used for years now, and I worked for several years supporting accounts systems. Some of it is training - again, something I have done in my working life. Some of it is just common sense, although you wouldn't believe that sometimes. I can help other people in other branches quite easily, without thinking too hard about it. In other words, I can still make a difference without putting in too much effort. That sounds perfect to me! I decided I would ask to step back and just do that.

It didn't make the process of resigning any easier. I had let it drag for a while. I attended a training weekend last month, which was enjoyable and useful but at the end of the first day, I was returning to my room feeling very emotional without knowing why. I got back to my room, lay on the bed, and just cried. I knew at that point that stepping back was inevitable; it was just a matter of when.

I finally decided to do it this weekend. I had wondered if I should stay for a few months, hope to find a successor and hand over to them neatly. I don't like leaving people in the lurch. The risk was that I would let it drag even further. I arranged another training day and I couldn't attend for childcare reasons. I could have booked a babysitter but it was all day and I wasn't comfortable with that, as it would have had to be a stranger. I lay in bed one morning thinking about when I should go when I realised that there was no point in delaying any further. I was making a hash of it now, so why stay?

I got up and I composed the email. I had tears in my eyes as I typed the words. It isn't a full resignation - because I offered to do the treasury work. Other parts of the North don't have any extra help with their accounts and so I can reach further than my own region. I said that in my email; that I still want to help with that, because that is what I'm good at. I told myself I wasn't completely walking away whilst I was writing it. I delayed hitting send, using Twitter as a distraction for a while until I could delay no further. The moment of truth. I cried. Whether it was with relief or with sadness, I don't really know.

I got a reply back the same evening and I even delayed reading that too, but the reply was polite and positive, if regretful at my decision. It asked if anything could be done or could have been done differently, but the answer is no. It's not that the role is horrible, it's just that it's no longer for me. My offer of helping with treasury stuff has been accepted and after a chat on the phone with someone yesterday, I've handed over pretty much everything else I had on my plate. I'm still helping my local branch too - although I am naturally moving away from that now that the children are at school and I don't regularly go to activities. The relief is enormous but I'm still feeling emotional about it all. To blog about it last night would have been a step too far and even writing this today has been hard.

It's been fun and I had a ball at times. It wound me up at others, and it made me cry just once - except for the process of making the decision to step back, which has been one of the hardest things ever. I achieved some things of which I will be forever proud. I will miss being part of the fab team that is Karen, Helen, Joanne, Elaine, Geraldine, Miriam, Lonnie, Claire and Hayley (and just recently, Caitlin) but for now, I am still allowed to play alongside them. If you read this, ladies, thanks for the support and the laughs (and late night wine-fuelled chats at conferences). If truth be known, I still feel guilty about going now, but I know that that will pass.

As one door closes, another should open, right? Let's see where this one leads.

I was going to blog tonight.

But it's late. I have tried starting a couple of posts. They went nowhere, so they got trashed.

I know now what I want to blog about, but it's late. I am sat here in my chair, my eyes genuinely drooping, and I'm all restless - which, for me, is always a bad sign. And there goes a massive yawn. My jaw nearly fell off.

Sleep wants to steal me away tonight. I can't even type. I've typed some words about 4 times and still not got it right.

So, you'll have to wait. Sorry about that. I'll try to make it worth it. Right now, I just have to sleep.

Come back soon, there might then be something coherent for you to read then.


Wednesday, 6 October 2010

The Gallery - Here come the girls

So this week's prompt should be easy, right? I have 3 sisters, a mother and a daughter. I grew up surrounded by females. I am a mum, and hang out in NCT circles, with lots of other mums hang out too and have become my friends. There are lots of "girls" featuring in my life, which should make this a doddle, right? Wrong!

The trouble is, I don't take lots of pictures and also, I feel a bit odd putting pictures of just anyone on my blog. I always ask before putting pictures on my blog, except where it's not possible to ask - like ones of my Dad - or they're of my children. I don't see my sisters or my mother very often - Mum and two of my sisters are 200 miles away and my youngest sister lives in Devon, almost as far as you can get away from me in England. So.... you got Missy Woo again. I'm sorry about that but she's very photogenic and she loves having her photo taken, as does her brother. But today is about girls. My girl, in fact. My beautiful, funny, clever little girl. You may switch off now if cute girly pictures are not your thang.

This was taken at Missy Woo's nursery graduation ceremony in July. They'd been learning dances with a teacher most of their preschool year and performed a few for the parents at the start before the certificates were handed out. Here she is processing past our seats. All the children had to wear black and white (Why? They are not colours that children often wear!) but Missy Woo had the added accessory of a pink cast, after she fell off a slide in a neighbour's garden and cracked a bone in her humerus on Father's Day. After crying a lot when she first did it, she was a real trooper once her arm was in a cast; first a temporary one, then got to choose this fetching pink number. As you can see, it was not bothering her one bit.

So when you say "Here come the girls", I think of her. My daughter, my girl. My Missy Woo.

(This is my entry for Week 30 of The Gallery at Sticky Fingers. Please pop over and take a look if you can, there's always some great entries.) 

Tuesday, 5 October 2010

Mum's cooking... Coffee Cake

I'm writing this post in response to a new challenge out there in Blogland called Oui Chef! on the Beckicklesie blog, written by the lovely Beckickles and her other half, Cheffy Daddy. It's a challenge about, obviously, food, and entrants earn points to ascend through various levels.

This month's prompt is "Mum's Cooking". Now, this is not that straightforward for me as my mum is not one of the world's great cooks. If anyone did "proper" cooking in our house, it was my Dad. Mum did the basics but didn't really like cooking. It stemmed from a thyroid condition that she had before I was born, which took away her appetite. She found it easier to eat if someone else cooked for her so Dad did. By the time I came along, my Dad often worked late into the evening to repay a loan so Mum had to cook. Nothing fancy - mostly mince in its various forms, the odd roast, rissoles and stuff out of packets like fishfingers.

There is, however, one thing that Mum could make. She wasn't a big baker but she made coffee cake from time to time. It was just a Victoria sponge with coffee added, with coffee buttercream icing. As kids, we would obviously get to lick the bowl and the taste of the sponge mix with coffee added was divine.

I decided to recreate mum's sponge on a whim this evening but I decided to do it the quick way as an all in one sponge. For each large egg, you need 2oz (55g) of soft butter, self-raising flour and caster sugar. To make an 8-in sandwich, you need about 3 eggs, so you need 6oz (170g) of each. After sifting flour in to a bowl, adding in a rounded teaspoon of baking powder and a couple of teaspoons of instant coffee, you add all the other ingredients to the bowl and mix, preferably with an electric hand mixer. It takes about 1 minute, longer if you are having to use a manual whisk or spoon . If the mixture easily drops off a spoon, its fine, but if it's too stiff, add in a couple of tablespoons of milk or water to loosen it until that consistency is reached. Then divide the mixture between two greased and paper lined sandwich tins, level the tops and bake at 170 C / 325 F / Gas mark 3 for 30-35 mins until the mixture springs back when lightly pressed. Leave them in their tins for 5 mins before removing and leaving to cool on a rack completely.

I tasted a bit of the cake mix when I was making this, and was transported back to my mum's tiny kitchen - it tasted exactly the same. This cake must have been my first experience of coffee as a child, and I just thought coffee was sweet like the cake mixture. Well, I guess it was in those days - everyone had sugar in their coffee!

Onto the icing. I dissolved a couple of teaspoons of instant coffee in a little bit of hot water whilst the cakes were baking so that it could cool down to use in the icing. Then I just mixed 4oz (115g) of softened butter and 8oz (225g) of sifted icing sugar together then added the coffee mixture. Half was used to sandwich the cakes together and the rest spread on top of the cake. Mum used to add walnut halves sometimes but I hadn't got any in. Excuse the picture - I took this on my phone, which has no flash. Yeah, yeah, I know - rubbish blogger.

My verdict? Just like Mum used to make! This is pretty close to her version. Whenever I have coffee cake, as it's an option I frequently choose, it always reminds me of my childhood. This is Mum's cooking.

Monday, 4 October 2010


Boobs are a big issue for me, for obvious reasons. *looks downwards* For years, I hated mine because bras never felt comfortable. This was, in part, due to going to a bra shop once, asking for a fitting and the woman looking at me saying "You're a 34DD" and handing me a bra. I took her word for it but seriously, I'm not that dumb, I could have figured it out for myself that it was not right.

Then, one day, I discovered Bravissimo. I love their bras and they opened a shop near us in Manchester. I went and it was a revelation. They didn't use a tape measure, and they fitted by eye. Unlike that woman in the bra shop, they don't just look at you and hand you a size. They look at the bra you're wearing, check the fit of that, and based on what size they think you are, bring bras for you to try on. If they don't fit, they move up and down the back or cup sizes until it fits, just right. I wear a totally different size to what I measure, and it was lovely to have pretty bras that fitted me properly. I went back after I lost weight and my size changed slightly but they sorted me out again.

And then I got pregnant. We all know what happens to your breasts in pregnancy and I knew that the after effects vary. Thanks to my two being quite close together in age, I think I wore maternity or feeding bras solidly for nearly 3 years. I thought - or at least I hoped - that I would go back to nearly my pre-pregnancy size after I'd lost some weight. I seemed to fit into my new bras and after I'd lost a bit of weight, I got fed up with the ones that were starting to fall apart and decided to go back to Bravissimo and get a couple of bras to tide me over.

I was wrong. The fitter kept bringing me bigger and bigger cup sizes until she got one that was obviously too big so we reverted to the size below. It would appear that, despite losing a good half of my "baby" weight, several cup sizes extra have taken up residence on my chest, and they seem to have no intention of leaving.

Dressing when you have big boobs is a trial. If you wear baggy clothes, you lose any waist you might have as everything hangs off them. Anything too tight and too high necked and you look like someone has stuffed two balloons up your jumper. Anything too low cut and you look like a hooker or at the very least, slightly precarious. Well, maybe not quite as precarious as Marilyn in this still from Some Like It Hot, but then she's braless too. Mind you, I think I'd rather look like Marilyn than Jordan but her boobs defy gravity thanks to a high proportion of silicone. So, I could probably add trashy to that list.

A substantial décolletage can get you unwanted attention at times which can make you self-conscious when you are displaying any kind of cleavage at all - because I don't seem to do a little bit of cleavage. It's slightly uncomfortable when someone is having a conversation with your chest instead of your face although it can often be much more subtle than that and its only when someone makes a sideways reference that you realise. Or that's just me and I'm a total innocent.

With weight loss comes greater confidence - or at least it does with me - so I'm wearing closer fitting tops that might be considered more "revealing", particularly since I bought my new bras - and another one since, oops! I don't want to look all Carry On or Page 3 model, but I do want to look like a woman with a feminine shape. And I can't hide these, she says, pointing at her bosom, so I may as well work with them. So, expect pictures of my cleavage in future on this blog. S'alright, there won't be any topless ones. I am not yet that confident, nor will I ever be.

And don't start me on sports bras. I am not built for running. Fact. I did have a great bra called an Enell which kept everything as still as it's ever been or likely to be - even if it doesn't look that attractive - but I don't think I'll ever fit into it again. Looking at their fitting guide, I am not sure I will fit into any size! I'll just have to stick to short runs as part of my workout combined with lots of lower impact stuff. I don't need the black eye, thank you.

Why am I wittering on embarrassingly about my boobs? Because, now I've got your attention, I wanted to tell you that October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month - Breast Cancer Care, who support breast cancer sufferers, say that 46,000 people are diagnosed with breast cancer every year. My friend and fellow blogger, Nickie from Typecast is running a series of posts called Pink Fridays to coincide with Breast Cancer Care's fundraising initiatives. Nickie runs a series of guest posts on her blog called Cancer - Your Story, inspired by her own family's encounter with cancer, so it seems fitting for her to feature posts and information about breast cancer in this series during October. The first post is about how to check your breasts, known delightfully as Cop A Feel. It's a humorous name for a serious subject, for I'll bet there are times when we all forget to do it when life gets in the way. I know I do, for shame, but I'm trying to get in more of a routine with it, particularly ever since my sister found a lump, which later turned out to be benign.

If you get a chance, please check out Nickie's post and the rest of the series as they appear. Helping to raise awareness means earlier diagnosis, which improves survival rates. That has to be a good thing. Even one life saved is worth it.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I must go and try to get these two balloons out from under my jumper...

(I didn't get paid to mention Bravissimo, Breast Cancer Care or Typecast, by the way. I mention them all, because I think they're all bloody brilliant.)

Saturday, 2 October 2010

Review: Sprayza Studio

The latest episode in the Toyologist series!

Do you ever have one of those moments when you think "Why didn't I think of that?" Well, I had one of those moments whilst we were playing with this. When I first saw it, I just thought it would make a mess but gave into pester power last Sunday afternoon to allow the children to play with it, and realised how wrong I was. Mind you, I still used the messy mat to cover the kitchen table.

The set is unbelievably simple. The "airbrush" is actually a small plastic tube. You attach one of the felt pens to the end so that the tip sits across the bottom opening of the tube and you blow through the tube to airbrush. I was dubious that this would work at first. You also get various cardboard stencils and some paper. The stencils need pressing out on first use but were easy to do although a bit fiddly for little hands. If you're that way inclined, you could create your own, but I'm not.

Once you're ready to go, you point the tube at the stencil and paper, blow and hey presto! It works. It took a little while for the children to work out the right amount of puff to do it well and I did have to help a bit. They blew a bit hard sometimes, leading to a few splodges and you do need to take regular breaks from blowing but they loved it. So did I!

It took about 5-10 minutes to make a picture and that was with a lot of colour changes! That's perfect for Monkey and Missy Woo - what I found was they would draw with the pens on the design whilst the other was using the airbrush. We played for about an hour with it and they have asked to play with it again. For its price (£9.99),  I'd say it's good entertainment value for that price and I'd definitely recommend it for children of a similar age (5 and 4) or older.

Have a look at our slideshow below to see pictures of some of our creations and the children creating them.

(I was provided with this toy to review and have received no other compensation. The opinions stated here are my own, and have not been influenced by the aforementioned compensation.)
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