Wednesday, 31 October 2012

George at ASDA Halloween ‘Spooky Scribes’ Challenge


Do you like Hallowe'en? I must admit, it's not really me. I think it's my age - I used to think of it as spooky, whereas my two just think "sweets!". Hey ho.

Anyway, I shall stop being a miserable so-and-so for a minute. George at Asda invited us to join their Spooky Scribes challenge. The idea is that one of the children writes a very short story about Hallowe'en based on a costume that we've chosen from their Hallowe'en range. Now, writing is something that Monkey needs to work on a bit so I asked him if he was up for it and to my surprise, he was. However it has not been easy but after a few false starts, he's finally come up with something that I can share with you today. As part of this process, I have discovered that a) he thinks he has no imagination (which I find quite sad because he has a good imagination) and b) he writes better on a computer than he does writing it with a pen and paper. In order to finish this off, he did dictate the second half of this story to me but his spelling was noticeably better than when he writes with a pen.

Anyway, here is Monkey's story, which I will call

Hallooooooooooooooooooowe'en birthday

On the day of Halloween, I was extremely happy because I was going trick or treating, but it was also my birthday. I was going to wear my werewolf costume; it has a hairy, itchy chest, sleeves that tickle my elbows and a squished nose. I don’t look very scary with a squished nose.

I am so excited because after trick or treating, I’m going to Grandma’s for a sleepover and she’s got my present. I don’t know what it is, but it had better be good!

I go downstairs and everyone sings Happy Birthday. I open my presents; Lego, cars, and a games console.

The day passes slowly and I have lots of fun. Then it starts raining hard and Mum says I can’t go trick or treating or I’ll catch a cold. I start to cry. “Don’t worry,” Mum says, hugging me. “It’s time to go to Grandma’s.”

Knock, knock, knock on Grandma’s door. “Hello”, says Grandma when she opens it. “Are you here for your sleepover?  I’ve got your present, let’s go inside.”

My present is a bike. I’m so happy, I howl like a werewolf. “Not bad for a werewolf with a squished nose”, says Grandma.


(He insisted I add the words "THE END" bit to the bottom, in case you didn't know that it had finished!)

There is a competition to win a £50 voucher for the post with most comments but I'm not really bothered about that - I'd like people to leave comments to encourage Monkey, to give him confidence that he CAN write and he does have good ideas. I will read all comments to Monkey (and possibly allow him to reply to them too!).

(Asda sent us a free fancy dress costume along with some facepaints in return for a story being written about their costume. They also asked for a link to the fancy dress Hallowe'en costumes be included in the post. All participants in the challenge will receive a £20 Asda voucher and a commemorative book, but the post with the most comments will receive a £50 voucher.)

Tuesday, 30 October 2012

Paddington half term fun at the National Railway Museum

Last Saturday, I took the children back to the National Railway Museum in York to road test their Fun with Paddington Bear event that is running over this half term. We've been a few times now, most recently to their Harry Potter event back in February. However, this time, we decided to try going on the train. It took me a while to realise I could go directly to York by train from here - if I try to search for journeys from my local station, it tells me that it takes 3 hours and requires 2 changes. What it didn't tell me was that there is a direct service from Blackpool to York that passes very nearby and the journey takes a couple of hours. More importantly, with a railcard, it's cheaper than driving.

It was a very cold day in York when we arrived so we were grateful to reach the museum and get inside. Unfortunately, this time, it seemed like all the Paddington related activities were taking place in the Station Hall, with nothing in the Great Hall, a place my two like to inhabit so that we can make our regular pilgrimage to the Bullet Train.

Activities on offer this week include welly wanging, after which you may make a medal to take home. Make is probably an overstatement, as the children chose their medal and someone put it together in a press. You could also meet Paddington himself, something we failed at because when we first passed, Missy Woo didn't want to go near him, then we missed his next appearance, and then it was too late because we needed to get our train back home. This made Missy Woo upset but that was rectified by the purchase of a Paddington bear to accompany us on our train home, and accompanying purchase of model Japanese high speed train for Monkey.

Other activities on offer include dressing like Paddington (although most clothes are smaller sizes, mine just about fitted into everything) and ride on a steam train - this time, Puffing Billy who unfortunately had open carriages which made for a Very Cold Ride. We also had fun trying to spot the teddy bears hidden around the trains, each with a letter to make up the word.

Over lunchtime, we met up with some other bloggers to have a special teddy bears' picnic lunch, including Paddington's favourite, marmalade sandwiches. Missy Woo refused to eat them, saying that she didn't "like the carrot" in them. She's not lived that down since, changing her story to the fact that she doesn't eat oranges, only drink them, even though she does. 

Once again, we ran out of time to do all the things we wanted to do and had to head back to the station to catch our train home, which was enjoyable because we could watch the world pass by and I could keep the children amused. As ever, entry to the NRM is free but some of the activities mentioned do attract a small charge, although across the whole day, it's still much cheaper than other family days out. Although my two are probably towards the higher end of the age bracket at which it is aimed, they still enjoyed the day, and Missy Woo now wants to collect all things Paddington. 

You can see Paddington Bear at the NRM until Sunday 4th November. Get your wellies out, and don't forget your marmalade sandwiches. 

(NRM invited us to the above event and gave us vouchers for lunch and to try some of the activities for free. All opinions are our own.)

Chocolate and Raspberry Trick-or-Treat cake

One thing is for sure - going to Clandestine Cake Club certainly stretches your baking capabilities! Every time I see the theme for our local group, I start thinking about what to do and try to come up with something different.

This time, however, I thought I was going to have to give the group a miss as it fell on the day that husband was due to be running the Guild Marathon. However, he had to drop back to the half due to a problem with his knee swelling up over the summer and we worked out it was just about possible to get me there on time if we did some slightly complicated juggling of children.

This time, the theme was Trick or Treat which posed a problem. I don't do fancy or intricate cake decoration - I'm just not cut out for it. That means no cakes in the shape of witches etc, so I had to take a different tack.

I came up with the idea of doing a normal cake but one that bleeds when you cut into it. To me, that meant raspberry and what goes better with raspberry than chocolate? Chocolate cake it was. I tend to stick to the same recipes so Googled a bit and found one I thought would work. It had a raspberry ganache with it but I thought it looked lumpy so went for adding a bit of raspberry flavour to it whilst keeping it smooth. I've never made ganache before so I was a bit tentative about it. Some more Googling offered up the way to get the blood into the middle of the cake - make some raspberry coulis (easy), scoop out the middle of your cake, and "line" it with some buttercream to stop the coulis soaking into the cake. Phew...that gave me a few things to do, which made planning it a bit of a nightmare as I had no time on Sunday to finish off and I was out all of Saturday. So, I had to make my coulis on Thursday, cake and buttercream on Friday, then make my ganache on Saturday and finish it all off.

When I made the cake, the top went a bit mad and bust away from the rest of the cake, which when picked away, left a big dip in the cake, so all I had to do was add the buttercream, spoon in the coulis and sandwich the cakes together. Some of the coulis dribbled down the edges and I was dubious that this was going to work but having procrastinated all evening, I made the ganache and ended up whipping it to thicken it enough to spread. The result was a normal looking cake which gave no clue to its hidden secret.

At our meeting, the cake looked very plain until people started cutting into it and the dark red coulis started oozing out. I usually try my cake first at cake club (just to taste it's OK!) so it took all my self-control not to do so. And it was a huge success - this is yet another cake not for the faint hearted, very rich and certainly, with four chocolate bars in it, not the sort of cake you make every day. But it's really, really worth a go to trick your friends on Hallowe'en which turns out to be a delicious treat.

This was my most popular cake so far at any of the meetings I've gone to - after everyone had taken cake to take home, there was only a quarter left.

Why don't you give my cake a try? Maybe not if you're on a diet, eh?

Chocolate and Raspberry Trick-or-Treat Cake

Serves 16-20 probably - you don't need a huge piece


For the raspberry coulis:
200g raspberries
50g icing sugar (or to taste)
lemon juice, to taste
1-2 tsp cocoa powder (optional)

For the cake:
200g dark plain chocolate, preferably 70% cocoa solids, broken into pieces
200g butter, cut into pieces
125ml freshly brewed (ie hot) espresso, as strong as you can bear
85g self-raising flour
85g plain flour
1/4 tsp baking powder
200g muscovado sugar, preferably dark but light will do
200g caster sugar, preferably golden
3 eggs
1tbsp natural yogurt (I used fat free Greek)
100g frozen raspberries

For the chocolate buttercream:
100g butter, softened
200g icing sugar
2 heaped tbsp cocoa powder
1-2 tbsp milk

For the ganache:
200g dark chocolate, chopped into pieces
300g double cream
1 tbsp light soft muscovado sugar

1. First, make the raspberry coulis. Whizz the ingredients in a blender or food processor, or mash the raspberries with a masher and stir in the icing sugar and lemon. Press the mixture through a fine metal sieve to  remove the pips. Taste and add more sugar or lemon as desired. Sprinkle over the cocoa powder if using, and stir into the coulis - this will help to darken it slightly to make it more like blood, and it will take a bit of stirring to mix right in.  Refrigerate until needed whilst you make the cake.

2. Next, make the cake. Preheat the oven to 160C/Gas3. Butter the sides of a 20cm deep round baking tin ( I use cake release spray) and line the base with baking parchment. Place the broken chocolate into a heatproof bowl and sit this on top of a pan half filled with hot water, taking care to ensure that the water is not touching the bottom of the bowl. Add the butter and the hot espresso, and heat gently until everything is just melted. You can do this in the microwave by heating on medium for around 4 mins, stirring every couple of minutes.

3. Whilst the chocolate melts, mix together the flours, baking powder, sugars and cocoa in a big bowl until evenly distributed. In another bowl, beat the eggs together and stir in the yogurt.

4. Pour both the melted chocolate and the egg mixtures into the dry ingredients, mixing carefully but slowly and stopping as soon as all the ingredients are mixed together. Scrape carefully because the dry ingredients tend to get stuck to the bottom of the bowl! The cake batter will be smooth but quite runny.

5. Pour the batter into the prepared cake tin, tapping gently to remove air bubbles and level the mixture. Press frozen raspberries into the batter evenly across the tin then place in the oven. Cook for 1.5 hours, until a skewer comes out clean. Don't worry if the cake cracks on top. Leave to cool in the tin for a little while, then remove from the tin and leave to cool completely on a wire rack. Place in the fridge to get it really firm, then slice the cake into two. Scoop out some of the one of the halves - choose the less even of the two halves. Leave at least a 2cm gap all the way around the edge of the this half or your cake will not sit evenly.

6. Make your chocolate buttercream. First, beat the butter until smooth, either by hand or with a mixer. Sift in the icing sugar and cocoa powder, mixing thoroughly. Add the milk until you get a light but spreadable consistency.

7. Next, assemble your cake. Place the scooped out half on a plate or board. Spread the buttercream all over the indentation left by your scooping - not too thickly but ensure you have a solid layer of buttercream or the coulis will leak through into the cake. Spread buttercream around the edge as well as this will stick the cakes together.

8. We're now ready to fill the hole with "blood". First, take out 1-2 tbsp of the coulis and reserve for later. Then, carefully spoon the coulis into the buttercream lined hole as close to the brim as you dare. Top with the other half, press down gently. At this point, some coulis may leak out of the sides so it's best to leave this in the fridge to "set" the dribbles. The cake can be refrigerated until you need it. I also spread some leftover coulis over the top of the cake to soak in and add to the raspberry flavour.

9. When you are ready to cover your cake, make the ganache. Place the chopped chocolate into a bowl. Place the cream into a pan with the muscovado sugar and heat until it is about to boil. Remove from the heat and pour over the chocolate, stirring together until everything melts. Stir in the reserved coulis then leave to cool until it is thick enough to spread. If the ganache is not thick enough, you may whisk it with a balloon whisk for a minute or two until it begins to thicken. Beware as the ganache will continue to thicken after you have stopped whisking so stop just short of soft peaks - I whisked until it felt thicker but was leaving a slight trail in the bowl but it soon firmed up further.

10. Remove the cake from the fridge and spread the ganache over the top and sides of the cake, smoothing it with a palette knife. (If you want to get really fancy at this point, you can grate chocolate over the top or decorate with fresh raspberries but I didn't!). Refrigerate to "set" the ganache then transfer to a serving plate. Take the cake out of the fridge about an hour or so before serving to enjoy it at its best. If you end up with any spare coulis, you can always bring it out to pour over the top once the surprise has been revealed!

Linked up to Dollybakes Calendar Challenge for October.

Monday, 29 October 2012

Meal Planning Monday - the autumn half term edition!

Yes, it's that time again. Half term in our house and not before time. It's been a long few weeks for the children and they need that time to let off steam and not worry about anything for a few days. Husband working evenings means he can spend some time with us during the day without having to take time off.

My meal plan is going to be as little fuss as possible, although I have one dish that I am finally going to make, having finally acquired ham hocks! It's going to be mostly using up freezer things.

Here we go then.

Monday - Sausage and bean cobbler (from the freezer)
Tuesday - Mushroom stroganoff
Wednesday - butties / keeping free
Thursday- Ham hock with pinto beans
Friday - Slow cooker chickpea and potato soup with pesto
Saturday - Thai spiced fish pie
Sunday - keeping free

And yes, all warming things - am sat here on a cold, wet day when it's got dark early for the first time feeling very cold.

What's on your menu this week? Happy half term if you are off too this week! Oh, and Mrs M hosts the MPM linky so don't forget to check her out!

Friday, 26 October 2012

Getting a-head with Lego Hallowe'en storage

Ahead, a-head. Geddit? Oh never mind!

We are a Lego obsessed household. Well, not me. Monkey, mostly, egged on by the other male in the house. New sets make it onto his present list every time Christmas or a birthday come round. But it's overtaking the house, especially his room. Over the summer holidays, the two of them had a sort out and spread all the Lego across my conservatory for weeks until I found a reason to eat in there (we have a dining table in there).

But now, and quite appropriately given that Hallowe'en is next week, Room sent us these to go some way towards controlling this plastic invasion. OK, so the brick isn't Hallowe'en themed (and rubbish photography on my part - you can't see that the brick is actually green. They really are like giant lego as they all fit together!

I'd show you the brick full to the brim with Lego bricks but Monkey, with infinite logic that only a 7 year old possesses, has decided that it is perfect for storing all his Match Attax cards (and that collection is almost as extensive as his Lego brick collection.) It looks and feels study and like it will withstand the worst a 7 year old boy can throw it - and that's quite a lot.

The Hallowe'en heads have also been used as props at the school Trick or Treat Bingo event and were quite a talking point as you can see at the top of this post. I think Monkey's friends were jealous.

I think I may use the orange one as a cheat's way of having a Jack O'Lantern without the pumpking carving bit. Lazy? You betcha!

(Room kindly sent us these products all the way from Denmark. All opinions are my own etc.)

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

How to go from coffee snob to coffee geek in one afternoon

Yes, I am a coffee snob. When I was younger, I drank instant coffee but over time, I have discovered fresh ground coffee and really, instant is not a patch on it. The more I drank fresh coffee, the less I drank instant. Now, I don't drink instant at all unless it is the only option. It's freshly brewed coffee or tea for me. With all these coffee shops around these days, that's fairly easy to do.

Then, when we went to Germany last December, we discovered the joys of a bean to cup coffee machine in the flat we were staying in and made it work by reading the instructions in English and translating the messages on the screen. We were sold and had to have one. We realised this dream in February, thanks to Christmas vouchers and special offers in electrical stores. Now, I drink a couple of freshly brewed coffees each day - two is my limit or I don't sleep - and for a fraction of the price of going out to get fancy coffee.

It was therefore a no-brainer when Taylors of Harrogate invited me to learn all about coffee in a coffee masterclass, especially as it was on a Friday, meaning my husband was off and I didn't need to rush home.

Having arrived a little late for lunch, caused partly by my phone rebooting itself as I used it to navigate my way across Harrogate (by the way, if anyone knows how to make the Navigation app on my HTC phone stop repeating the verbal instructions "Continue on Cherry Tree Avenue for half a mile" for EVERY route change, I'd be very grateful), we were soon being taken to the tasting room to learn about how coffee is made. Our guide Emily is a trainee coffee buyer, who said she had been training for three and a half years! Coffee is obviously more than just a few beans.

Actually, they aren't really beans. They're the stones in the middle of coffee cherries, so we learned. I learned loads about coffee production - like the cherries have to be processed the same day as they are picked or it rots. A lot of the process is very time sensitive, with the skill of the growers knowing that they have to complete the various steps in just about the right time.

What I also learned was that there are two varieties of coffee - arabica and robusta. Arabica beans are the premium beans, with robusta often tasting more bitter and ashy - and have twice the caffeine of arabica beans. To add to this, the beans produce a different taste depending where they were grown. To demonstrate this, we were given a load of single variety coffees to taste - doing the old slurp and spit routine. I was brilliant at slurping, but kept forgetting to spit so I was probably high on coffee within 10 minutes.

It's true. The difference in taste was amazing - some of the coffees actually had a citrussy taste to them that you'd never expect coffee to have. We tried a robusta alongside the arabica - eurgh! If that's what is usually used to make instant coffee, no wonder I dislike it.

The range of flavours is why Taylors make blends of coffee from different sources - to balance the different flavours available and make a coffee that meets our tastes. And tastes ARE changing. A few years ago, their Lazy Sunday blend was their most popular and trust me, it's quite mild in flavour. Now, their most popular blend is Rich Italian, substantially stronger in flavour. We got to do the slurp-spit routine things again, tasting all their blends ranging from medium to rich roast. There's even a half caff coffee blend too, for those who want to keep your caffeine levels down.

The strongest, Hot Lava Java, is not for me at all - way too strong, and has some robusta beans in the blend that make it taste really smoky. If you are scared of buying a pack of new coffee and not liking it, Taylors have started selling selections of their different blends. It's like variety packs but for coffee - 4 little sachets of different blends of coffee, just enough to make one cafetiere so there is no waste if you don't like it. Genius.

Talking of cafetieres, we were also shown how to make the perfect cafetiere of coffee - 45g of coffee in an 8 cup cafetiere, filled with freshly drawn, freshly boiled water left to cool slightly after boiling, stirred and left to brew for 4 to 6 minutes. Et voila!

Our lesson in coffee ended with a tour of their factory, which involved the requisite hairnet and sexy disposable overalls. We saw the beans coming in and being sorted, mixed together and then roasted for uniform colour, and the whizzy machine that grinds the coffee and packs it all within seconds. The roasting, grinding and packing all has to be timed as carefully as production of the beans. It even weighs every single bag to ensure there is enough in the bags. Some of the machines pack the pallets automatically too. It's automation heaven!

So now, I can start to understand why someone can still be a trainee coffee buyer after three and a half years. I learned a lot, and this knowledge will only fuel the fires of my coffee snobbery, although I am now developing into a coffee geek - I'll be boring anyone who dares to mention coffee within earshot about arabica beans, coffee cherries and coffee production methods.

Oh dear, Taylors, what have you done?

(Taylors of Harrogate kindly paid my travel expenses to allow me to attend this event)

Monday, 22 October 2012

Meal Planning Monday - the last week of half term family favourites edition!

Bit of a long-winded title, but it's all true! Whilst a good part of England and Wales are off on their holidays this week, we're soldiering on for another week and half term is next week, so we have another week of school and it's fairly busy, it has to be said. I have a meeting at school, there is a Hallowe'en bingo event on at school and the usual things that come along with a holiday. It's been a long half term so on Saturday, I asked the children to come up with some things they wanted to eat and I made some suggestions to help them along the way. On Saturday, the children and I are going to York for the day and on Sunday, husband is running the Guild half marathon in Preston and I've got cake club.

You've probably seen most of these recipes on my meal plans before but it's nice to have familiar food from time to time.

Monday - butties
Tuesday - Honey mustard pork, mash and broccoli
Wednesday - Lamb, coconut and mango pilau
Thursday - Fajitas
Friday - Mexican pork burgers
Saturday - keeping free
Sunday - not cooking

And yes, my children really did ask for the fajitas and the lamb pilau. I suggested the pork burgers after Monkey said he wanted to have burgers.

So what is on your menu this week? Are your family on half term holiday? Does your meal plan reflect that? And have you been over to Mrs M's yet to check out the rest of the Meal Planning Monday entries?

Sunday, 21 October 2012

National Baking Week and my attempts to conquer pastry

It's been National Baking Week this week and I've failed to do baking.

Which is a crying shame when I recently acquired a Kenwood stand mixer. As I'm still getting used to it, I thought I'd try to make pastry in it as it is something I struggle with. I was also sent some Trex to try out and the recipes included pastry items so I thought I'd give it a go.

I remember Trex from my childhood but I've never considered using it. It's a vegetable fat so I worried about the fat being hydrogenated but apparently, it's not. It's also dairy free, so great for people who have dairy allergies and want to bake. We decided to make sausage rolls for tea but the children wanted to make lemon curd pies too.

I know that when you use butter for making pastry, it needs to be super cold and cut into cubes. Trex however is not as solid as butter and cutting it up, it felt kind of greasy in my hand. For both recipes, I rubbed in the fat with the mixer which did a fine job of making it into breadcrumbs. However, I think my problem is I add too much water because I think it looks dry.

After a spot of resting, we started putting pastry into my  mini tart tin. I couldn't be bothered rolling it out, so we just used my nifty Pampered Chef tart shaper to bash out the bases.

Because we didn't have a lot of pastry left over, we just cut out stars to put on top. My only problem was that the pastry just didn't really colour. It remained very pale indeed and even though I cooked the tarts for a bit longer, the tops still didn't go very golden. I think it was the Trex because even my pastry made with butter goes browner than that. At least there were no soggy bottoms!

Once we'd made the pies, the children abandoned me for the television whilst I made the sausage rolls.

The recipe suggested adding spring onions but I decided to add a bit of tomato puree, some sage and some finely choppped onion to the sausagemeat.

Again, the pastry didn't colour well and these were even glazed with egg wash. The picture at the top makes them look more golden than they appeared in real life. I think my pastry technique still needs some work you know.

Not that anyone is complaining - there are only a couple of sausage rolls left and the lemon curd pies are disappearing rapidly. What can I make next to practise my pastry making?

(Trex sent me 3 packs to try. I have not received any further compensation. All opinions are my own.) 

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

What's in your boot?

In mine, I have five shopping bags. Empty ones, of the reusable sort. And that's it. Yes, really. When the kids were smaller, we used to keep the buggy in the boot too. Apparently, I'm quite unusual. There are a whole load of you driving around with the kitchen sink (or garden shed) in it.

Don't just take my word for it. Take a look at this.

The reason I'm mentioning this is Shell invited us to an event at Aston University in Birmingham to talk about their Target One Million campaign. Their aim is to reach one million people with advice on how to save fuel and drive more economically.

As I was on my own with the children, we actually travelled down to Birmingham by train. There's fuel saving in action for you. Seriously, they love trains and it was good for me to keep them amused.

The event was opened by the above Quentin Wilson, who I have met before at a previous Shell FuelSave event in Manchester last year who is master of a bit of hyperbole to launch the campaign, and then handed over to Punk Science to demonstrate what factors can affect fuel economy and they asked for a volunteer. Whose hand shot up? This handsome young man.

Those flippers caused no end of trouble, he kept falling over. They also had grown men wearing ponchos and riding Space Hoppers. No kidding. 

One of the ways Shell is aiming to get the message out there is through a series of games on their website called the FuelSave Challenge. Monkey had a go at playing some of the games using the iPads. 

Don't think it kept them occupied all the time though - over lunchtime, Monkey brought over one of the iPads and asked me to help him find Gangnam Style to show the others!

We also got to see the Aston Shell Eco Car, which was designed by some of the Mechanical Engineering students to take part in the Eco Marathon which is a competition to go as far as possible on 1 litre of fuel. The car, designed to be as sustainable as possible, won the design award at this year's competition. 

During lunch, those of us that wanted to got to take a spin out with Quentin around Birmingham in the Shell FuelSave car to see how economical we could drive. I was doing really well until I had to do a hill start - I wasn't confident enough to stop the engine and get started again. Apparently, my overall MPG was the third best out of the drivers that had a go. I was quite proud of myself, although too preoccupied with wondering where our taxi back to the station was by this point. He did eventually find us but he was so late that a run for our train was necessary at New Street -  we just made it before the doors closed. 

Keep an eye out on the Shell FuelSave page as more games will be launched over the coming weeks. In addition, if you register and complete the games, you will be entered into a draw to win one of 10 iPad3s, which is not a bad return for learning a few fuel saving tips. 

Oh, and don't forget to check what's in your boot - clearing it out could save you fuel, and a lot of cash. What IS in yours? 

(Shell kindly paid our travel expenses to attend this event, gave us lunch and a goody bag to take home containing snacks for the trip home. They have provided me with some images and videos from the day, but all opinions, as ever, are my own.)

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

How to be a great volunteer and get the most out of volunteering

Copyright (c) 123RF Stock Photos

Before you click away thinking "Oh, how boring", just ask yourself if you are a volunteer. You might think you're not but you probably are. If you help at your child's school or preschool, you are a volunteer. School governors are the largest force of volunteers in this country. If you're on the PTFA, PTA or whatever it's called, or have even ever stood on a stall at a fete, you are a volunteer. If your child or children are still too young for school and you help at a toddler group, you're a volunteer - even if it's just putting out the chairs and tidying up the toys. If you've ever hosted a coffee morning at your house, you too are a volunteer. If you help at a child's sports session, dance school, cub pack or guide company, you're a volunteer. And they're just the examples I can think of that most parents are likely to do.

Volunteers are a huge force for good. If people didn't volunteer, then quite simply, lots of things wouldn't run so smoothly, or at all. They raise much needed funds for community projects and charities. But it's not all one way traffic. Volunteering can really help people develop new skills that can be transferred into the workplace, it can help improve confidence and give you a sense of belonging. Just look how well received the Games Makers were during the Olympics and Paralympics!

But how can you get the most of volunteering? Having been a volunteer, managing other volunteers, an employee working with volunteers, and still volunteering myself, I have some views on that and some tips you might like to consider.

1. Don't be scared to offer your services. People often look at voluntary organisations and think they have it all covered, but the fact is they may be struggling with people doing multiple roles and they just need a break. New volunteers with fresh perspective and enthusiasm are always welcome.

2. Consider what you have to offer and what you can commit. There are volunteering opportunities that may take a few hours every now and then, ones that can be fitted in around very small children and can be done from home, or ones that are restricted to an hour at the same time each week. Go for the ones that fit you and your lifestyle in the best possible way. Choose things you enjoy doing because you'll enjoy it more and that way, you'll do it for longer. There are voluntary roles out there doing lots of different things, and using lots of different skills. If you want to develop a skill, volunteering is a great way to do that if you can find the right role - your local CVS can help you find something specific if you are struggling to find something.

3. Don't be afraid to try different things, especially if you don't really know what it is you want to do.

4. Get training if it's offered. Some volunteering opportunities (I'm thinking Samaritans here) have a compulsory training course that you must complete. Others may offer regular but not compulsory sessions. Even if it's optional, it will benefit you and the organisation you're volunteering for to attend some training, even if it means taking a little time out. Usually, the organisation will pay for your travel so don't worry about being out of pocket. Even if there is not structured training on offer, ask if someone can show you what to do if you're not feeling confident.

5. Don't be afraid to admit if you've bitten off more than you can chew. This is one aspect of volunteering that, as a manager of volunteers, I struggle with regularly - people take on something they can't (or don't want to) do so instead of telling someone or asking for help, they just go silent, do nothing or very little and cause no end of problems. Be honest with yourself - and if it's not working out, ask for help, there is no shame in that. Nor is walking away if you really can't do it. People will appreciate your honesty. No-one is indispensable. No-one.

6. Don't be a martyr. Don't take on lots of different tasks or roles because it looks like there is no-one else to do them and sigh about how there is no-one else to do them. I have known at least one person who had multiple roles who ended up dropping them all because it was negatively affecting their relationship. They believed that there was no-one else to do those roles but there are now several people are doing the things they were doing alone before. If it becomes too much and is affecting your health or well-being, it's probably not the role for you. Be honest with yourself, and with others.

7. Don't allow yourself to be treated as a second class citizen. Employees are not a better class of worker - they are paid for what they do, volunteers do it for nothing. You're amazing. Employees are usually there to help you. Tell them what you need and they will usually do their best to provide that, within limits of course, because charities are not awash with money. Don't be afraid to give constructive feedback if you are encountering problems with what you do.

8. Understand your role. Being a volunteer doesn't mean you don't have responsibilities - some voluntary positions come with a lot of responsibility indeed. If you have a responsibility, do your best to fulfill them and just like at work, do let someone know if you can't, for whatever reason.

9. Have fun! Volunteering is something you do in your spare time so it'll feel all the more rewarding if you enjoy it. If you have meetings, make them fun whilst getting the business down. This usually involves cake. Or wine. Or both.

10. Just do it! You have nothing to lose. And if it doesn't work out, just try something else. As I said before, it can be extremely rewarding and improve both your skills and confidence. And you might even enjoy it too.

Good luck!

Monday, 15 October 2012

Meal Planning Monday - the distinctly Autumn edition!

Yep, definitely Autumn out there even though we have had a, few nice days recently. I've just looked at the meal plan and the food reflects the season - cobbler and soup to name but two. The ham hock from last week never got made, partly because I didn't manage to get hold of a ham hock. I need to go to a proper butcher's to buy one, I think.

Apart from the fact that I am out most of Friday and therefore not cooking because I won't be home until nearly 7pm, it's a pretty uneventful week for us.

Eyes down, here we go.

Monday - Sausage and bean cobbler
Tuesday-  Turkey tortilla pie
Wednesday - Low fat chicken biryani
Thursday - Curried root vegetable soup
Friday - keeping free
Saturday - Ham hock with pinto beans
Sunday - keeping free

(There's no links because most of the recipes are from this month's BBC Good Food and they take a little time to get them onto their website.)

Is your menu feeling distinctly autumnal? Tell me what is on your plan this week and then head over to Mrs M's to find more MPM entries.

Wednesday, 10 October 2012

How not to write a manifesto

Who couldn't fail to be swayed by this?
Both children were on School Council last year and apparently, they are holding elections again this week. The children have decided they would quite like to do it again so they started work tonight on their election posters. This involves them coming up with ideas about what sort of thing they would like to change about school and why they would be a good person to represent their classmates. Kind of like a manifesto.

To say that this was at first difficult is an understatement. Policy meetings at the National Apolitical Party (note - does not exist) would have been more exciting. I like to ensure I don't suggest things so I tried to prompt their thinking by asking them questions about what they liked about school, what they didn't like and how it might be better.

Suddenly, Monkey's face lit up. "I know!", he said excitedly and started scribbling something down. "I think the breaks should be shorter, so we can get more learning in."

Somehow, I don't think that's going to be a vote winner or make him popular with his classmates, do you?

Tuesday, 9 October 2012

A foodie round up

People like to send me stuff from time to time and y'know, it's quite nice. I like trying out new foods and all that. But really, quite often there is not a lot you can say about them so I tend to save them all up for posts such as this.

First off, the lovely people at Bear Nibbles who celebrated their 3rd birthday by launching a new YoYo snack in mango flavour. Now, I actually didn't get to try this because the children snaffled it up before I had the chance to do anything, but they assure me it was "yummy". They were also rather taken with the lunchbox they sent us.

Next, Waitrose invited me to an event trying out drinks for that time of year that is coming up. As I couldn't go, they sent me this little lot.

Hubby tried the Jaipur IPA and said it was nice if you like that sort of thing. The bottle with the label is Heston's Earl Grey and Lemon Gin which was quite nice with the tonic water although I am not a huge gin fan. The popcorn was very popular with the children, unsurprisingly. However, I cannot bring myself to try the Bloodshot which I think is vodka or a liqueur infused with Bloody Mary flavours. Ew..

Then, PeerIndex sent me a little perk just because. It was some Cravendale Epic Straws and vouchers for a month's supply of Cravendale, which actually turned into two weeks' worth as we use so much milk in this house! The straws are like those Connecta Straws that were all the rage in my childhood and the kids had a blast building with them. I don't think they have actually used them as they were intended - for drinking but they can make some very long straws!

Finally, Kellogg's sent me a couple of boxes of Special K Cracker Crisps to try. A bag of these crisps - or 21 if you buy the bigger boxes - is just 95 calories and only 3% fat. I am usually a bit dubious about diet food because they usually replace one lot of rubbish with another. However, I did like these - I was sent the sweet chilli and sour cream & chive flavours to try, and much preferred the sweet chilli flavour. They are quite moreish but what crisps aren't? I didn't like that they were potato and wheat based because those with wheat or gluten intolerances couldn't have them but they were and are a decent option if you need to have a low fat snack (although you are only saving yourself about 35 calories compared to having a packet of regular crisps, so it's your decision whether you think it is worth it or not!).

I think that's it for now! Thank you to all the above companies for sending us such lovely treats.

Monday, 8 October 2012

Meal Planning Monday - the emptying my freezer edition

I have these moments every now and then when I decide that some things have been in my freezer for far too long so get round to planning in meals that will use them up. Not that I ignore what's in my freezer, it's just there are a few bits that have been languishing for a while and need using up. It also keeps the food bill down for the week. It's a fairly standard week for us, apart from the fact that Missy Woo has a friend coming for tea on Friday and I'm off to Blogcamp in Manchester on Saturday.

Here's what I've cobbled together.

Monday - Red lentil loaf with mash and peas
Tuesday - Slow cooker lamb chops
Wednesday - Pea and pesto soup with fish finger croutons
Thursday - Crock pot hoisin chicken
Friday - Meatball pasta bake
Saturday - Green pork chilli tacos
Sunday - Ham hock with pinto beans (if I can get a ham hock!)

That is our menu, in a nutshell. What does yours look like? Remember I'm after some nice things to make that can be reheated now that husband is working twilight shifts Monday to Thursday.

And don't forget - Mrs M has all the Meal Planning Monday entries over on her blog.

Saturday, 6 October 2012

My MAD Weekend part 2 - getting Set4Sport with Judy Murray

Judy explaining Set4Sport to the parents
After a fab night on Friday at the MAD Blog Awards, I woke up on Saturday morning early with a dry mouth but thankfully, no hangover. (And no hiccups - I'd had hiccups for about an hour before I went to bed, but thankfully sleep cured them!)

After a shower and a breakfast, I said goodbye to everyone and left the hotel for London Zoo. Not your average venue to turn up at with a trolley case, but I had a purpose. I'd been invited to an event where Judy Murray, mother of Andy, was to demonstrate her ideas for getting kids active and practising the skills they need to be good at sport.

When I was first invited to this event, I knew I couldn't say no. I was in London anyway, so why not? I had time before my train to get there. I am a huge fan of Andy Murray as well. The only problem was that the children weren't able to come with me as they were still 200+ miles away at home.

On arrival at the venue, the Mappin Pavilion in the middle of the zoo, I went straight to find a place to put my case and coat. Who should be a few feet away but Judy herself. Within seconds, we were shaking hands and chatting. We actually got talking about Myleene Klass and how lovely she was. Then I told her that I had lived every moment of the US Open final that Andy had won just a couple of weeks before, and she told me that she got really worried when it went back to 2 sets all as she was worried he was going to lose. I can sympathise with that - you always want your child to do as well as they can in such situations and you want to protect them at the same time. Judy was really lovely and friendly - I felt she was as genuine and lovely as Myleene had been.

After a brief introduction, everyone started to try out the games that had been set out at stations around the room. This is when it became slightly odd for me as I had no children to watch, or play with so I just watched from the sidelines and generally felt a bit of a spare part. I don't have too many photos of the event because I didn't want to take pictures of other people's children but I did get one when the children were busy eating food.

The premise of Set4Sport is that when Judy's boys were young, she developed games to play with them and without realising, helped to develop their coordination skills. This was even before she trained to be a tennis coach - Judy is from a sporty family so it was just natural to her to play games with them.

The games in the programme help to develop what she calls ABCs - agility, balance and coordination, which are critical to all physical activities, as well as passing and catching for ball sports. Developing the skills at an early age gets children set for sport but also helps confidence and self-esteem, as well as learn how to set goals and challenge themselves. Everything is designed so that most of the equipment you need, you probably already own. Everything can be learned without going to gyms, clubs or without a trainer and so are very low cost activities.

Watching the children play the games set out reminded me of when my children used to go to a club called Storybook Sport which is very small and very local to us. Monkey was one of the first children to take part in classes and Missy Woo joined in, even though she was only two when she started. They only stopped going when they got too old. During the sessions, the group leader Scott would tell them a story and the children would be part of the story using standard sports equipment to do various activities involving running, jumping, hopping, throwing and catching. They loved every minute of it, and it definitely helped them as it was noted that they both had good coordination when they started school. I even managed to tell Judy about it during the latter part of the session when she came to ask me if I had any questions about the programme. I think Scott was amazed when I told him on Twitter a few days later that I'd told her about it!

After everyone had had fun trying all the games, they demonstrated how you could set up a tennis court at home using canes for the lines and tying some string or rope between two chairs for a net. All very simple, all very low cost. Even in a tiny room, children can learn how to control a ball with their racket. That is how two   Grand Slam winners (Jamie won the mixed doubles at Wimbledon, remember?) started out, so there has to be something in it.

I had to make a quick exit with my trolley case as lunch came to an end. Sadly, I didn't have time to explore the zoo like everyone else did, I had a train to catch from Euston. As I left and said goodbye to everyone, Judy said I looked like I'd just been sacked by Lord Sugar! I certainly did look slightly out of place walking through the zoo trying to find the exit trailing a case behind me, but I can report I didn't get into the back of a taxi to be filmed. It was definitely an amazing weekend - meeting two celebrities who more than lived up to their billing. The only disappointment was that the children were not there. They would have loved playing the games and the zoo, but it was not to be, plus they were back home having fun without me.

If you want to learn more about the Set4Sport programme, visit their website or you can download a free Set4Sport app from the App Store (for iOS devices) or Google Play store (for Android).

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

My MAD weekend part 1 - Myleene and me

You may remember I was a finalist in the MAD Blog Awards last year and this year, I was a finalist in two categories. The awards ceremony last Friday so off I set to London on a train. The journey down was torturous as I ended up sharing a table with a Geordie and two Norwegians, who all appeared to be born again Christians and one of them tried to convert me by giving me a leaflet to read. I declined and instead tweeted to pass the time to London. My timeline was certainly an interesting read. 

Being one of the earlier arrivals, I had been lucky enough to get myself hair and make up appointments but they were a good couple of hours ahead of the festivities starting. I strolled down and a lovely lady from Regis Salons straightened my hair in the blink of an eye. Next, I waited in a busy hotel room as the ladies from Arbonne got ready as I'd arrived a little early and so I became the first to have my make up done whilst the consultant told me about their products (Swiss) and their business (all the consultants work through recommendations). 

By 4.30, there I was, all made up but nowhere to go so I headed back to the room I was sharing with Elaine who was a finalist in the best business blog category and is also an NCT friend of mine going back several years. I hadn't seen her in 18 months but this was the second time in two weeks! Still, we managed to spend the next hour and a half putting the worlds to rights in the room before we got dressed in our finery.

Once finally fully glammed up in our outfits - mine was a lovely red dress that the lovely people from Simply Be kindly sent me along with a fab pair of silver shoes - we wandered downstairs to join the waiting throng, accessorised by a Seksy Sekonda watch from Find Watches. Luckily, arriving a little late meant we weren't waiting too long before we were ushered through to the reception. I decided to wander over to look at the table plan. I found my name and looked to see who else was on my table. There were a few names of people I knew, or wanted to me but one name on my table stopped me in my tracks. 

Oh my goodness me. 

Not only that, I then found out she was brand ambassador for Start-Rite Shoes who were the sponsors of the Best Schooldays category. And the sponsors wanted a photograph of us with her too. Within a few minutes, I found myself sat next to a very beautiful (and very slim!) Myleene on a couch. Very unreal. In my head, I was screaming "oh my God" whilst trying to smile and look vaguely cool at the same time. 

Over dinner, she was opposite me on the table but during the ceremony itself, she ended up this close again. 

Tweeting on her Blackberry, my kinda girl! Honestly, she was totally lovely - she was prepared to chat with people about anything and everything, have her photograph taken, and showed a real interest in people. When one of the categories for which I was a finalist came up, she was excited for me and when I didn't win, she patted my arm in consolation. 

And no, I didn't win either category. I hadn't expected to. In both categories, I was up against some bloody great bloggers. I hadn't expected to win; I just went to have a fantastic evening. The winners of my two categories were firstly Multiple Mummy, who has been very ill in hospital following a brain haemorrhage caused by an aneurysm. Her husband was there to accept her award and there wasn't a dry eye in the house.  And in the schooldays category, the lovely Actually Mummy won against some very stiff opposition. 

It was fantastic night. I met some lovely bloggers I hadn't met before as well as renewing the friendship with some I've seen here, there and everywhere - and yet there were still loads that I never got to speak to that I would have loved to have met. It was a true celebration of blogging where I felt everyone was genuinely pleased for the winners. 

Huge, huge thanks to Sally and her team for organising a fantastic awards ceremony. Thanks to those lovely people who sponsored awards or gave me lovely things to wear on the night. I had a brilliant time and was made to feel very special. Not everyone won an actual award last night, but we were truly all winners. 

(I was sent the items mentioned above to wear at the ceremony and my hair and make up were also done for free for me. All opinions, as ever, are mine!)

Monday, 1 October 2012

Meal Planning Monday - a late-night, cobbled together edition

So it's 13 minutes to midnight on Sunday and I still don't have a meal plan together yet. For that, you can blame my mad weekend during which I met both Myleene Klass and Judy Murray, then spent today catching up. This evening, instead of meal planning, I followed the Ryder Cup, first on Twitter then on television for the last hour or so. Now I'm in a state of mild panic as this is not like me.

Cobbling away merrily, here is my meal plan. By the way, from this week, my husband is working evenings Monday to Thursday so won't be around for teatime, so everything is going to be reheatable for him to eat the next day.

Monday - Cauliflower cheese soup
Tuesday - Cheese whirls (a request by Monkey)
Wednesday - Curry in a hurry
Thursday - Minced beef cobbler
Friday - Mauritian Pork Satay
Saturday - keeping free
Sunday - I might just get that flipping chicken in my freezer roasted!

What's on your menu this week? And do you have any suggestions of meals that reheat well for future weeks? Let me know... then pop on over to Mrs M's for some more Meal Planning Monday action.

(Edit - this apparently is my 600th post on this blog... go me!!)
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