Easter ‘break’

Anna breaks up for the Easter holidays today, and I am feeling slightly trepidatious! Usually I really look forward to the school holidays – lazy mornings free from the tyranny of the school run, the chance to travel or spend more time with family and friends, a more relaxing pace of life. But for some reason this Easter break is feeling a little bit ominous.

Possibly because this last half-term I’ve been well into the routine of Sophia going to pre-school three mornings a week, and I have really, really, really appreciated the difference that has made to my energy levels and sanity. This week I’ve missed out on two of those precious mornings, the first because there was an end-of-term pre-school trip to our local city farm which I helped out at, and then pre-school broke up yesterday, so there will be no Friday session this week. I really enjoyed going to the farm, and seeing Sophia’s face as she saw real live bunnies and pigs and even a genuine Baa Baa Black Sheep, but I have missed the me-time and the headspace I get when she is at pre-school, and it has made me slightly wary of the next few weeks, as the next time I have a period of child-free time is when she returns to pre-school on April 21st. Which feels a very long time indeed!

We do have some nice plans for the holidays. Tomorrow is an INSET day for Anna’s school, so husband is also taking a day off work, and we’re going to head to the Science Museum, which is normally unbearably crowded at weekends and school holidays, but we’re hoping will be less so tomorrow when many schools haven’t broken up. Then we’ll have lunch out somewhere, maybe al fresco if the weather continues to be so beautiful, and then spend the afternoon letting the children run free in Hyde Park. I imagine ice-cream will probably be involved as well.

On Sunday I am taking the girls up to Liverpool for a few days to stay with my parents. It will be lovely to see them, have a change of scene, and have another two pairs of adult hands. After that we don’t have any real plans, not even for Easter weekend itself. It looks likely that my husband will be working a lot of the time, and so I need to have a little think about what I do with the children. I’d like to make use of our National Trust membership and visit our most local property, Sutton House in Hackney, and perhaps Osterley Park in the far West of London if I’m feeling more adventurous. Heading to our local playground or park is also guaranteed to please both children.mini eggs

Then of course there will be plenty of down-time at home – making the inevitable Easter nest cakes, messing around in the garden if it’s nice weather, snuggling up to watch a film if it’s less so. And more mundane tasks like getting Anna’s passport photos taken and counter-signed and taking her glasses to an optician to be mended!

What there won’t be any time for, I don’t think, is sitting in a cafe writing, so there will probably be a quite few weeks on the blog! Happy Easter, everyone.

Ups and Downs

The last week or so has been a mixed one. This time last week, Friday afternoon, I got a call from school asking me to pick Anna up because she wasn’t well. The poor baby was in such a state, with a headache so bad she couldn’t move without crying, a stratospherically high temperature, and so drowsy she was drifting in and out of sleep mid sentence. Being a mother and a worrier and a consumer of one too many public health campaigns I immediately thought ‘Meningitis!’ and rushed her off to the doctors. He agreed it could, possibly be viral meningitis, but was pretty confident it wasn’t the ultra-nasty bacterial one, and thought that most likely it was just one of those generic viruses kids come down with, and the only prescription was Calpol, fluids and rest.

We had a very bad night with poor Anna, and then, inevitably, her sister developed a high temperature the next day. That night they averaged a wake-up every two hours between them, and husband and I were like crazed jack-in-the-boxes jumping up and down to look after them. The following night Sophia got croup, which is so horrible for baby and parent. We finally got her sorted and to sleep at 2am, and of course Anna woke up in tears at 5.45am. Add the cumulative lack of sleep to days spent pretty much entirely in the house with two (understandably) grumpy and whingey children, and to be frank you get a grumpy and whingey mummy as well.

However, focussing on the positive, there have also been some lovely bits this week. Sophia is never normally still for more than a second, but being under the weather meant that she was willing to snuggle on my knee for two whole episodes of Charlie and Lola. My parents came down for a brief visit so I was able to have a proper catch up with them, and my dad drove us to our local Mothercare  and Early Learning Centre superstore, which also has a Costa, and after three days entirely in the house this trip felt pretty much as exciting as my first inter-rail round Europe!

By yesterday Anna was back at school and Sophia was well enough to leave with my MIL for a few hours, and so I had a fantastic writing session. #Book3 is about three quarters complete now, in draft form at least, and I’m really pleased with how it’s going. puddlesPlus, having that time away from the children to do something just for me recharges my batteries immeasurably, and yesterday afternoon I felt like Super Mum; booking appointments for both children at opticians and dentists, putting Sophia’s wellies on and taking her out to splash in the puddles, getting both of them to eat salmon, cauliflower and leeks for their tea (a cheesy sauce and some mashed potato can hide multitude of superfoods!), and then helping out a mum friend by picking her daughter up from after school club and looking after her for a while because she and her husband were unavoidably delayed.

I am slightly prone to getting despondent when things start going badly, and this week has been  good reminder that I should try and see the cup as half full more often, and realise that some things going pear-shaped doesn’t necessarily mean that everything else will do likewise.

muffinsHopefully this weekend will be more enjoyable than last – I’ve just kicked it off by making a batch of a friend’s favourite muffins for his birthday, and doubling the quantities so we get some too! The house smells warmly chocolatey and there is cake to be eaten, so we’re off to a good start!

Twenty-Fourth Day of Advent: Christmas

xmas cakeWell, I had to end with Christmas, didn’t I? Regular readers of this blog and my Advent posts in particular will probably have picked up that I absolutely adore Christmas. I don’t want anything Christmassy to intrude until December because I feel it spoils it, but from 1 December, bring it on. I love the carols, the candles, the cooking, the eating, the choosing gifts and receiving them, the little family rituals, the cheesy Christmas tunes, Anna’s palpable excitement (which is about to shoot off the scale). Everything.

I also love the message of Christmas. I blogged before about my ambivalent relationship with Christianity, but equally how can I not warm to the message of Peace on Earth? One of my absolute favourite carols is It Came Upon the Midnight Clear and I can’t hear it without crying. Partly because it was my Nanna’s favourite and so reminds me of her, and partly because of the verse

Yet with the woes of sin and strife
The world has suffered long;
Beneath the angel-strain have rolled
Two thousand years of wrong;
And man, at war with man, hears not
The love-song which they bring;
O hush the noise, ye men of strife,
And hear the angels sing.

Somehow Christmas brings alive the possibility that we might hush our noise and listen to the angel song. There is so much redolent symbolism. Stars and candles giving light, angels giving messages of peace and love, the evergreens with which we decorate our home reminding us even though the days are the shortest and darkest new life will return.

I love spending time with family and friends. Of course that isn’t, and shouldn’t, be confined to Christmas. But life can get so busy that it’s great when Christmas forces us to pause and take time away from work and day to day responsibilities and worries. In fact, Christmas brings together almost everything that makes me happy which I’ve blogged about this Advent. Family, friends, husband, daughters, food, home, baking are all crucial to making my Christmas special.

Thank you for reading my blog this Advent. I’ve been so touched by all your comments and the positive feedback I’ve had. I’ll be back after Christmas, but in the meantime I and going to turn on the TV for Carols From Kings, and wish you and your families a very happy Christmas however you are celebrating.

Thirteenth Day of Advent: Baking

This is not the post I intended to write today, but the one I had almost finished writing vanished without warning or trace into the WordPress equivalent of a black hole. And as today is Sophia’s 1st birthday tea party, I don’t have a super-abundance of time or, to be frank, inclination, to re-write it.

Sophia's birthday cake, illustrating perfectly that presentation is not my thing!

Sophia’s birthday cake, illustrating perfectly that presentation is not my thing!

So instead I am going to write about baking briefly, before getting back to actually doing it!

Baking was on my list anyway. I enjoy a lot of cooking, but baking is undoubtedly my favourite. I have also discovered that it is cheaper and less time consuming than therapy. If I am feeling stressed or depressed, heading to the kitchen and rustling up a batch of brownies, or a few muffins or a coffee cake inevitably cheers me up and puts things back into perspective. Plus if the actual baking hasn’t worked, eating the results will definitely do the trick.

December is peak month for baking. So far this month I have baked:

  • 2 batches of mince pies
  • 24 cup cakes for the school Christmas Fair
  • 1 batch of rocky road for Sophia’s tea party today
  • 1 batch of iced biscuits to decorate the Christmas tree
  • Sophia’s birthday cake
  • The Christmas cake

But I’ve barely started. Still to go I have:

  • A batch of fudge for presents
  • 3 more batches of rocky road for presents
  • At least one, probably more, batches of mince pies
  • Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer cookies for Anna’s school party
  • Cinnamon buns to freeze and have for breakfast on Christmas morning
  • The traditional Christmas Eve Yule Log
  • Something for pudding on Christmas Day – none of us like Christmas pud, so I’m exploring alternatives. Any ideas, let me know.

Oh yes, and the Christmas cake to ice. It sounds like quite a lot, and it does represent many, many hours in the kitchen, but give or take, it is time I will very much enjoy. If I’m on my own while Anna is at school and Sophia naps then I’ll put Radio 4 on as I potter round. If Anna is home then she’ll help me, which means things tend to get a bit messy, but we have fun. And by Christmas Eve itself I will have abandoned Radio 4 in favour of wall-to-wall carols on Classic FM. I will also have banned everyone else from my kitchen by then as my control freakery approaches its zenith.

Occasionally someone has been kind enough to enjoy something I’ve made, and suggests I go on Great British Bake Off. It always makes me laugh, because with absolutely no false modesty, I can say that presentation is very, very, very far from being my thing. I’m far too slapdash and impatient, not to mention cackhandedly incompetent.  Watching Bake Off is a huge pleasure, simply because the amazing creations on there are so very far from anything that comes out of my kitchen. I don’t mind, though,  apart from the annual stress of providing Anna, and now Sophia, with birthday cakes to be proud of. It just makes me happy mess around with flour, sugar, butter, eggs and witness the alchemy that transforms them into delicious and welcoming treats for family and friends

The Food of Love

I love food. No big secret there. I spend a very large proportion of my waking hours either shopping for food, cooking, eating or thinking about what I want to buy, cook or eat.

The last couple of months, though, have challenged this love somewhat. Sophia is now eating three meals a day (and by ‘eating’ I am using the baby definition, which actually means throwing to the floor or smearing as widely as possible across face, hair, clothes and anyone unwise enough to be in her vicinity), and so in addition to all the other family meals I have to think about what she is going to eat. If there’s one thing hungry babies don’t like, it is mummy vanishing into the kitchen to spend ages cooking, so Sophia’s food needs to be planned and preferably cooked in advance.

My husband and I have always eaten separately from Anna during the week. There are several reasons. One is that my husband is almost never home before 7pm, often much later, and, in my opinion anyway, that is far too late for a young child to be eating and going to bed. There is the option of me eating with Anna and husband eating alone later, but that would still be two  separate meals, and it is not something we’ve seriously considered as we both feel that taking the time to sit down together for a proper meal, sometimes a glass of wine, and really catching up on each other’s days, however dramatic or mundane those days have been, is a real cornerstone of our marriage. I sit at the table with Anna, and chat to her, and sometimes have a snack to keep me going until dinner at 8.30pm, but I am always glad to have that adult time to look forward to. Another, more prosaic, reason for our decision is that we (especially I!) love spicy food. Rarely a week goes by without us eating Thai. Indian or Mexican style food, and Anna has made it abundantly clear that she is not a fan, and I’m not prepared to give up my curries in the interests of a family meal.

My plan was (and is) that now Anna and Sophia can now eat their evening meals together. This is working a lot of the time, but they’re not always eating the same food, so often I’m cooking separately for them. Sometimes this is because Sophia is still on a strict(ish) no salt, no sugar regime, and I don’t want to deprive Anna of reasonable treats for the sake of eating the same as her sister. Sometimes Anna has eaten a big school lunch and only wants a sandwich. And sometimes I want to take advantage of the fact that Sophia is yet to develop an intolerance for green veg and cram as much spinach and broccoli into her as I can before she decides they’re inedible. Anna has been of that view since she was about fourteen months. Meals I have discovered which work for both of them are eggy bread, beans on toast, macaroni cheese, pasta with tomato and veg sauce, baked potatoes, and chilli (without the hot spices). I’m working on increasing that repertoire, but in the meantime, a standard day can see me making porridge and toast for breakfast (having previously batch cooked the granola my husband eats), then something for mine and Sophia’s lunch, then a snack for Anna when she gets home from school, then an evening meal for Sophia, an evening meal for Anna and an evening meal for us. Throw in a play date guest, or a bake sale at school, or an ungovernable yearning for chocolate brownies, and you can see why I’m never out of the kitchen.

I still love food and cooking. I love the sense of nurturing and providing for my family. And I am thankful daily that we are lucky enough to be able to afford plenty of good, safe, nutritious food and the fuel to cook it with. But. But. Sometimes it just all feels so relentless. It’s not just the cooking, it’s planning it, and making sure we’ve got the ingredients in stock, and then clearing the kitchen, loading and unloading the dishwasher, picking up the discarded food from under the table and wiping everything clean, washing the filthy bibs and muslins and mopping up the spilt milk. There is a certain, inescapable, amount of drudgery involved, and it can be difficult not to feel overwhelmed by it, and lately I have been.

cinnamon bunsOn Sunday, though, I surprised myself by trying a new and fairly complicated recipe for cinnamon swirl bins, just for the fun of it. I’d got the recipe from Jenny Colgan’s novel The Little Beach Street Bakery (if there’s one thing I love more than a good chick lit novel, it’s a chick lit novel with ace recipes in it!), and I was a little trepidatious because dedicated viewing of the Great British Bake Off has taught me that sweetened, enriched doughs can be very tricky. I could almost see the sceptical look on Paul Hollywood’s face. But, do you know what, they worked! They were absolutely delicious if I do say so myself. Their appearance could probably be tactfully described as rustic, and I may have been a bit heavy handed with the icing (although no one complained), but they tasted incredible – so much nicer than anything similar you can buy. Along with an omelette they made a fantastic lazy Sunday brunch which we all enjoyed (I stretched the no sugar rule sufficiently to give Sophia a taste), and I rediscovered my love for pottering in the kitchen. Perhaps simply because they weren’t an essential meal it made baking them all the more enjoyable. The food I make generally comes out of love for my family, but it was nice to reignite my own love of food too.