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Charlie 16th birthday cheesecake

The Birthday Challenge: chocolate peanut butter cheesecake for Charlie

My baby boy is 16. How did that happen?  I’ll save you the ‘it seems like only yesterday’ speech, mostly because it doesn’t seem like only yesterday, in fact, I can barely remember those first few weeks, to be honest, plus it’s a bit yawny when parents start getting all misty eyed.  Suffice to say, we’re the proudest parents, we love him to bits and we’ll move on to the birthday cake of choice.

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Source: http://www.pinterest.com/pin/159596380519079357/

Moments in time

I’m a huge believer in living life to the full.  I’ve written before about how important I think it is to build memories: snapshots we can look back on and treasure.  Years from now, we’re not going to remember the handbag we spent our birthday money on, or the fabulous jumper we spent a month’s salary to buy – what we will remember is holding hands watching a perfect sunset or an evening laughing with friends.

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The big Christmas gift guide: terrific pressies for teenagers

So next to get the Big Christmas Gift Guide treatment are your gorgeous teenagers.

Onesie

First up are the frankly fantastic All in One Company who hand make their fabulous quality onesies in Northumberland.  They very kindly asked me for Charlie’s measurements and made him a special onesie with his choice of purple camo polar fleece.  He’s absolutely delighted with it because, hey, there’s not another one in the world that’s exactly the same.  You can also give All in One Company gift vouchers so that people can design their very own onesie, and they also have an adorable baby section (check it out – the cuteness!)

ColgateColgate’s new ProClinical A1500 electrical toothbrush is a bit more practical but makes a really cool present (and what teenager doesn’t love looking in the mirror let’s face it).  It’s a really clever gadget with sensors that automatically adjust the speed and cleaning action of the brush depending on how it’s held in the mouth, and cleans using sonic vibration (32,500 strokes per minute!) to really attack that plaque.  It also comes with a spare brush head so more than one person can use it, which is handy.  RRP is £169.99 but it’s on a less than half price offer in Boots at the moment!

SchollScholl have got a really nice ColourPop manicure set which is like the the professional shaping machines you find in salons.  It’s got lots of different filing and shaping heads and is rechargeable too.  The little polishing head is useful if you’re not wearing nail varnish to give your nails a lovely shine.  Nifty.  (RRP £24.99)

Toni & GuyTONI&GUY have got loads of amazing hairdryers and gadgets out in lovely kits this Christmas including Twist and Crimp (RRP £50)  with which apparently – if you’re clever – it’s possible to crimp the underneath of your hair to give it more volume, or go all out 70s and crimp the whole lot, or the Reverse Conical wand for gorgeous casual waves and curls.  We love these as they’re all in beautiful packaging and look really special.

The SnowmanThe Snowman is a Christmas classic (30 years young!) and Build a Bear have bought out a special toy this Christmas, perfect for younger teens with a soft spot for film.   He retails at £18 and is actually really gorgeous – you can buy him online or go into a Build a Bear store for the full stuffing experience!  There’ll be a few adults that would rather like him too, we think!

Diva & Me

Excuse the weird ear-selfie, but if you’re looking for beautiful, unique jeweller – for teenagers or anyone else, frankly – look no further than lovely Diva & Me who sent me these gorgeous 14k gold opalite earrings which literally change colour depending on the light – anything from the darkest purple to very light, almost translucent violet. The gold setting is a delicate ‘hand crocheted’ design – have a look at it close up on the website, it’s absolutely amazing.  I adore them, and I’m really not a jewellery person.

LifeproofLifeproof do AMAZING iPad and iPhone cases that make them completely waterproof, shockproof and even mudproof, rendering their gadget pretty much indestructible.  Once sealed (it does take a bit of time to fit, plus you have to test it, but all the instructions are in the box and the test kit is enclosed),  it is shock proof from two metres with an IP level of 68, whatever that is, and is so waterproof it can actualy be used as an underwater camera.  Brilliant.

Stocking filler wise, I’m always keen to keep away from any sort of useless plastic crap that will be broken by Boxing Day, so we concentrate on anything yummy or useful.  The boys get through tons of the Lynx shower gel and shampoo, especially the Apollo scent, so these are always a winner.  We love all the Cadbury Christmas chocolate, especially the Winter Wonderland bar. Yum! and Kleenex‘s lovely Winter Originals Christmas pocket tissue packs are cute and handy too.

Kleenex Winter Originals

English Mum Christmas

Hell and hilarity: the first month with our new puppy

Lyra asleep

So I guess we’ve now had Lyra for about a month – I think we got her on 26th October.  And whereas before we were barely functioning and bleary eyed, things have really settled down.  My Disreputable Dad and his wife are thinking of getting a puppy and I think I probably put them off with my tales of piddles on the carpet and early mornings, but honestly, I’m really feeling like we’ve made progress.

One of the biggest things I’ve learned is that you HAVE to be firm.  It upset me when I popped her in her crate so that I could get on with something, but after a while she settles and especially if she’s got a chew or a kong with a few bits of cheese in, she’s mostly happy in there for an hour while I crack on with cleaning or whatever.  In the evening, she wanders into the crate and settles down without even being asked.

We’re still working on ear and nose biting.  It’s not in anger, more in a licky, excited ‘I LOVE YOU WHERE HAVE YOU BEEN I MISSED YOU! kind of way…

Welcome home Charlie

House training is bloody hard, and there’s nothing you can do except watch the pup like a hawk and take her out a lot.  She’s a clever girl and very eager to please so she’s starting to pick up on the fact that if she ‘goes’ in the garden, she gets cuddles and treats, but in the house she gets ignored and people get all huffy and stomp around with bowls of water and sponges.  We’re three days since our last accident, so we’re definitely getting there!

I’ve started on recall training.  I’ve been using a long training lead and calling her back to me, giving her loads of praise and treats, but I’ve been told it’s best to move it on as soon as possible.  There’s a small area of woods near where I live and I had a good look round to make sure it was pretty well enclosed.  I grabbed a bag full of the smelliest most yummy treats and took a big deep breath and let her off the lead.  She had a bit of a wander and came back to me every time I called.  The I panicked and put her back on the lead.  Still, it’s a start.

But the good stuff, oh the good stuff is magic.  Charlie was away at Vans Warped Tour this weekend and Sam was at his girlfriend’s, and she was wonderful company – we wandered through the woods, snuggled on the sofa and even watched X Factor together (I may have used the sentence ‘yes, I just said that to the dog’ in response to someone on Twitter).  She’s already learned that if someone’s eating, she’s not allowed to have any (she sits very close to me and grumbles), and when you tell her off (her favourite naughty trick is bringing me a filthy welly and dropping it next to me on the sofa) she goes all silly and bouncy and occasionally answers back.  She really is delightful, even when she’s being a massive pain.

Here’s my view from last night.  Whippet bum, eh? Delightful.

Lyra bum

 

James’ birthday double chocolate cheesecake

Chocolate cheesecake This week, one of Charlie’s best buddies, James, turns 16.  They’ve known each other forever, well, since they started school, and James just feels like one of the family, basically.  He had a Halloween party yesterday (his poor Mum) and they also went up to Wembley to watch the Jags vs 49ers American football game too (which was amazing, apparently – ‘apart from the streaker. Legend’).

I promised to make him a double chocolate cheesecake (we class the chocolate in the digestives as the second chocolate – probably slightly tenuous, but hey), and even though it’s not officially his birthday yet, we let him blow out the candle.  We’re good like that.

Double Chocolate Cheesecake

100g salted butter

300g pack of dark chocolate digestives

500g cream cheese

100g icing sugar

200ml whipping cream

200g good quality dark chocolate

Cream cheese and icing sugar

 

So warm the butter in a small saucepan until it’s just melted and in the meantime whizz up the digestives, or if you don’t have a processor, just put them in a plastic bag and whack them with a rolling pin.  Stir the butter into the biscuits then press into the bottom of a springform tin (you’ll never get the bugger out otherwise) and leave to cool.

Now, melt the dark chocolate in a heatproof bowl over a pan of water (don’t let the bowl touch the water), turning the pan off once the water boils.  Put the cream cheese in a bowl, beat it until smooth then beat in the icing sugar.

Now, and this is important, you must wait for the chocolate to cool back to room temperature.  Wait until it feels the same temperature as your finger when you dip it in.   While you’re waiting, whip the cream.

Add the cooled chocolate to the cream cheese and icing sugar.  Stir it in until the colour is uniform, then fold in the cream gently with a metal spoon so you don’t lose all the air you’ve incorporated.  Smooth the mixture over the prepared base.

And that’s it. Just let it set in the fridge.  I decorated mine with a bit of melted chocolate (excuse the rubbish photo – there was a bit of hilarity), but you can add whatever topping you like: grated chocolate, maltesers, raspberries, even a cheeky layer of chocolate ganache.

Happy birthday James.  Sweet 16! xx

Chocolate cheesecake

 

 

In which I inform the school that tie shredding boy needs a break

The lettuce protest

The lettuce protest

He’s a bit of a wag is The Dude.  Not in a bad way.  Oh no, I’m far too scary a parent to allow anything like that.  I do, however, feel that we shouldn’t crush every bit of individuality and personality out of our children.  I want my children to be respectful, kind and considerate, but we do have a bit of a giggle at home, and sometimes there’s a bit of banter and the odd swear, but that’s fine by me too.  On the left, I present his recent protest at being asked to eat lettuce. He hates lettuce.

Since returning to school after half term, Charlie’s been on ‘lockdown’. This is basically because this particular school moves the kids up into their new school years after the May half term.  So Chas is now in year 11.  This year is special because it’s their GCSE year.  They wear a different coloured shirt and tie and are allowed more freedom, including the right to leave the school at lunchtime.  Unfortunately, since the now infamous ‘tie shredding incident‘, his punishment, along with his friends, was to have this freedom rescinded for two whole weeks.  It’s actually a pretty great punishment.  Allow the whole of the school year to leave the premises at lunchtime, leaving the ‘naughty’ ones behind to earn their freedom again? I get that.  I totally do.

Trouble is, the policing of this ‘lockdown’ is all wrong.  On the first day he came back looking less than happy.  I assumed it was the enforced loss of freedom and didn’t say too much.  Actions have consequences, etc and I fully support the school’s right to give punishment where it’s due.  On the second day, I actually asked what was up, and it turned out that the lockdown is being enforced by them having to report to their house office EVERY TEN MINUTES.  Yup, you read that right.  Wherever they are and whatever they’re doing, they have to walk all the way back to a specific office to report every ten minutes.

This is all wrong.  Removing a privilege if they misbehave? Totally fine.  Removing their freedom and their right to a break at lunchtime, when they’re studying hard for GCSEs and working hard in class?  Wrong.  Ten minutes is not even enough time to queue up in the canteen and eat. Had he eaten?  No.  I was fuming.

I sent one of my emails.  I kept it firm.  I expect Charlie to be allowed a proper break to go eat, drink, read a book, revise, muck about, play football… whatever. Just as you, as a teacher, are allowed one.

The reply was a bit sarky: ‘if Charlie’s that keen on revising, he can always go to the library, where the staff there will record his presence’.  Oh I didn’t like that.  I didn’t like that one bit.

My reply, I feel, was firm but fair: ‘it’s not about revision. It’s about giving the kid a break, not making him perform like a trained chimp for the entire lunch period.’

That’s me off the school Christmas list, then.

A triple layer chocolate mousse cake for the Dude’s birthday

Triple layer chocolate mousse cake

Triple layer chocolate mousse cake

I know I’m always complaining about being old but blimey, my youngest was 15 yesterday. The Dude is mahoosive and has turned into a handsome, kind and funny teenager who is American Football mad and a bit of a gym obsessive. We’re all immensely proud of him.

As is the tradition at English Towers, he’s been allowed to choose the birthday cakeage. Usually this means they choose the most difficult thing they possibly can and today is no exception. Flicking through my cakey Pinterest pins, the birthday boy opted for a bloody enormous triple layer chocolate mousse cake, but without the white chocolate layer. A mousse cake should be soft and melty, so I decided on a lovely soft flourless chocolate cake as a base layer, then topped with a dark chocolate mousse and then a milk chocolate one. Simples.

One word of warning: sometimes mousse takes a while to set. If you need this cake in the evening, make it in the morning or the night before. If desperation sets in, a blast in the freezer for a half hour will help it along. As you can see from mine, the top layer wasn’t quite set and started to collapse – by the time we’d lit the candles, the Maltesers were sliding down the side of the cake. No matter, we just scoffed it really quick.

For the flourless chocolate cake

This is an easy cake to make and makes a great pudding served with whipped cream. It WILL sink in the middle, but when topped with the mousses of course this doesn’t matter.

As I was trying to build up height I used a smallish (8”) high sided loose-bottomed tin, with the sides lined with cut-to-fit silicone baking sheet. Remember you’re going to add the mousse layers so line the sides quite high. Preheat the oven to 160/gas 3.

125g dark chocolate

60g butter

3 large free range eggs, separated

125g soft brown sugar

So melt the chocolate and butter in a heatproof bowl over some hot water. As soon as the water starts to bubble, turn it off and let the butter and chocolate melt gently together.

Meanwhile, whisk the egg whites until they’re really firm.

When the butter and chocolate are melted, stir in the brown sugar, the vanilla extract and the egg yolks, then gently fold in the whisked egg whites.

Pour into the prepared cake tin and bake for about half an hour or until a knife inserted into the centre comes out clean.

Leave to cool.

Weighing out the chocolate

Weighing out the chocolate

Just thought I’d slip in a pic of my new scales here – I love them. You can find them on Amazon – they’re called Epicurean by Ozeri. Rather lush aren’t they?

For the mousse layers

You only need a thin (ish) layer of mousse. I made my first layer far too thick, so I’ve halved the quantities here.

125ml double cream

150g dark chocolate

2 eggs, separated

So just pop the double cream in a saucepan and break in the chocolate. Put it on a low heat and as soon as the cream is warm enough to melt the chocolate, turn the heat off, continuing to stir until the chocolate is melted and the mixture is smooth.

Leave to cool a little while you whisk the egg whites. Do check that the cream/chocolate mixture is cool enough (it needs to be lukewarm otherwise it will scramble the eggs) before mixing in the egg yolk.

Then just fold in the whites, again take your time and wait until everything is a uniform colour. Pour the mousse on top of the chocolate cake layer and return to the fridge.

When this layer is set, make another batch of mousse with milk chocolate. Pour VERY gently over the first mousse and allow to set.

To serve, you need to be VERY careful – firstly make sure it’s properly set (ahem) and then balance it on something solid and slowly push the tin down. Decorate if you want, or just ram it into your face.

Happy birthday, Chas. We love you loads xx

Charlie with his cake

Charlie with his cake

 

 

The Disreputable One’s wedding: speeches, dancing and the cupcake challenge

Groom and Best ManYesterday was my Disreputable Dad’s wedding.  It started badly, with me still running around covered in icing an hour before we were supposed to leave (I stupidly offered to make them cupcake towers) and Dad arriving to pick the boys up for the church with not one, but both boys still in their pants.

In the ensuing panic, people were jabbed with buttonhole pins, ties were tied and retied, tempers were lost, handkerchiefs were jammed into suit pockets willy nilly and everyone piled into the car still pink faced and sweary.  Luckily, by the time we all got to the church, we’d calmed down a bit.

Cupcake tower

 

 

 

 

 

 

I was really pleased with my dress from Monsoon.  AND after a bit of faffing, I went with the red lipstick in the end (this decision was not helped by my sons who, when I tried it on, cried with laughter), but actually I felt quite glamorous, although I’m not sure how people wear lipstick every day.  It’s kind of like walking around knowing you’ve got jam spread around your lips and you’re not allowed to lick it off.  Here’s a little car selfie:

Car selfie

The service was very nice. My niece wasn’t feeling well so I had to step in and do a reading (my reading included the term ‘brothers and sisters’ – I was tempted to do it in an evangelical style: BRUTHAS AND SISTAS!’, but decided against it) and after a small discussion about who had the ring, the Best Man did his duties admirably, even after still being up at midnight the night before swearing over his speech!

De brevren on the dance floorThere was just a small party in the evening.  My sons monopolised the dance floor with some very odd co-ordinated dancing (even Sam’s poor girlfriend was enlisted), and later, there was a resurrection of the ‘cupcake challenge’, first seen at our very own wedding blessing a few years ago.

He’s got his mother’s gob, bless him:

 

The birthday with NO CAKE!

Aw I had such a fab day yesterday.  Despite their Dad’s absence the brevren rallied well – no cards (‘what, you have to buy presents AND cards?’) but they did get me a voucher for a lovely Clarins facial – will look forward to that.  Mahoosive brownie points go to Mr English for the gift of THIS little beauty:

My birthday pressie

My birthday pressie

Isn’t it beautiful?  After pressies it was off to The Akeman in Tring, Hertfordshire which is really lovely: all squishy leather, dark wood and roaring fires.  The kitchen area is open so you can see the chefs at work, and the staff were so friendly.  I had lunch with my gorgeous friend Glam C .  We had Prosecco to celebrate, plus a delicious Mediterranean salad with Halloumi, roasted vegetables, couscous and chickpeas.  Nomnomnom.  The grin on my face says it all, I feel (and look, there’s The Claw – well, I couldn’t leave it at home on my birthday now, could I?):

Birthday Prosecco

Birthday Prosecco

The reason for the salad (I know, right? Not like me at all) was our evening trip to a local pizza place.  We were accompanied by The Prof’s new girlfriend, who I’m proud to say is utterly lovely – very sweet and enormously good fun – we cackled like loons and, after we’d dropped her off, The Dude was heard to utter ‘wow, there is NOTHING wrong with her’.  High praise indeed.  However, it was only as we were getting out of the car that I realised I’d forgotten the cake.  Ah well.  We’ll scoff it today: think of it as unbirthday cake.

Thank you for all your birthday wishes on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.  What a perfect day.

The Photo Gallery: Boys

One of my best buddies, the lovely Tara, runs an online photo gallery every week over at Sticky Fingers.  People from all over the world enter photos into the gallery every week to a specific theme.  This week, the theme is ‘boys’.  Well, I had to, didn’t I?

They make me laugh until I cry (at a recent parents’ evening, one of Charlie’s teachers said: ‘I love him.  I could strangle him occasionally, but I love him’), give fabulous hugs, eat vast amounts of food, use vast amounts of hot water, send me tweets that say ‘you are a poo’, make me worry about them constantly (you have to let them go…) and always, always make me proud.  They’re kind, thoughtful, frustrating, messy, always late (Sam!), weirdly nocturnal but always fabulous.

Ladies and gentlespoons, I give you: my boys (with their long-suffering Dad):

The Dude, The Prof and The Daddy.

 

A cunning plan: the Death Wish Dude’s strategy for parents’ evening

Trying on suitsDuring a recent shopping trip to find him a suit for my Disreputable Dad’s upcoming wedding (the girl in the shop was rather taken with my handsome boy and I was laughing as she practically climbed into the changing room with him), we were discussing parents’ evening, which is fast approaching.  And while he’s doing well at school, I’m under no illusion that my youngest enormous offspring is any sort of an angel.  I did ask him, somewhat nervously, what I was to expect at parents’ evening.

He’s obviously been giving it considerable thought: ‘well I’m going to skip the RE teacher completely, then start you with my biology teacher, Miss C, who hates us all… then I’m going to make sure the appointments are in the order of how well I’m doing and ending at my drama teacher Mr G, who is a legend and who absolutely loves me.  By the time he’s finished, you’ll waft out of the door and won’t even remember the others.

Then I thought we could go to Tesco and buy you some wine’.

Gorgeous nutty golden syrup flapjack

Flapjack

Ahhhh golden syrup. Is there a nicer smell?  I wondered aloud recently (well, on Instagram) why someone had never created a perfume based on the sweet scent of it.  I mean, come on! Someone’s already done a gin perfume..

Talking of gin, alcohol free January is miserable.  Last year, I said never again, and yet this year here I am nursing a sad, lukewarm glass of squash every night, instead of a sparklingly refreshing glass of mother’s ruin. It’s no life, dearest reader.

Anyhoo, to keep me company on my alcohol free quest, Charlie, the Death Wish Dude has vowed to give up crap.  As long as I stay off the gin, he’s promised to stay off the crisps and chocolate.  A noble deed, but one which leaves him sadly lacking in snackage when he gets home from school hungry enough to look at the Ninja Cat of Death in a whole new light.  So I decided to make him some healthy-ish snackage until he’s back on the Frazzles.  Flapjack: gorgeous golden syrupy, crispy on the outside, soft in the middle nutty flapjack…

Nutty Golden Syrup Flapjack

So this is another one of those recipes that, as long as you stick to the basic proportions, you can fiddle with endlessly…  Add nuts, sultanas, dried cranberries, chocolate chips… whatever you fancy.  Don’t like golden syrup (what’s WRONG with you?) use honey.  Like it plain?  Covered in chocolate? That’s fine too.

For the basic recipe, you’ll need:

170g butter

115g brown sugar

4 tablespoons golden syrup

400g rolled oats

Melt the butter, brown sugar and golden syrup in a saucepan on a low heat until it’s all runny and combined, then take it off the heat and stir in the oats.  And that’s it.  This is the time to add your extras: dried fruit/nuts/chocolate chips/whatever.  I used a large handful of almonds, roughly chopped, but whatever you use, a good handful will probably be enough.

Now press the mixture into a buttered cake tin and bake at gas 4/gas 180 and bake for 15-20 minutes.  Cool completely before removing from the tin or it’ll fall apart.  Fab for lunchboxes, rushed breakfasts and after school snackage.

Mind you, I’m tempted just to buy him a six pack of Walker’s crisps and a Double Decker and be done with it.  Gin o’clock, you say?

Happy New Year! And another alcohol free January.

New Year's Eve

We had a such a lovely new year.  Turtle, my gorgeous niece, made the most amazing cocktails, we had a scrummy dinner cooked by my very clever sister in law (the sweet potato and chorizo was a revelation), and then Sam, Charlie, Jackson and even, hilariously, my brother IJ and I had a mad dancing competition on the Wii. A fab time. It ended with champagne and cuddles with velvet nosed doggies on squishy sofas watching the New Year fireworks on the telly. I couldn’t have been happier.

Last year at this time I vowed to be completely alcohol free in January.  I’ve got to be honest, it was tough, but I DID end January feeling amazing (and a whole 8lb lighter – without even trying!).  I also said I’d never do it again (and I got a special edition bottle of Bombay Sapphire for Christmas – sob…), but here we are again after two back to back holidays during which I overindulged in both the food AND the booze, and then Christmas and its associated gluttony.  And frankly, after my disgusting behaviour on Christmas Eve (there was singing.  And I don’t even remember going to bed), I probably owe it to my liver to give it a holiday.

If you’d like to join me – and my friends Laura, Dellers, NotSupermum and, I think Rachael (yes Rach?) – doing alcohol-free January, do let me know (or tweet me @englishmum).

Bring it on, then, 2013, I’m ready and raring to go!

 

A 2012 roundup – with no resolutions, but a few lessons learned and some good intentions.

Me and Flo

Meeting Flo from Cars at Disney’s Art of Animation resort, Florida.

So how was your Christmas?  Mine was, well, interesting.  A rather over-exuberant Christmas eve, during which we stayed up singing, dancing and drinking until 2am made for a hideously hungover Christmas morning, in which I kept having to abandon my turkey duties to revisit my breakfast (thank goodness for my Mum).  Still, self to blame, and I felt better by the time dinner was on the table.  I got some lovely pressies: loads of scented candles, my favourite Redken shampoo and conditioner, books, DVDs, CDs (ONE DIRECTION, oh yes I did), and a pasta machine from my Mum. I feel really blessed.

So this time last year I was talking about how 2012 was going to be about building memories… snapshots, and not stuff… and I think I managed it.  Oh, there was stuff as well, there’s no doubt, but my year was full of amazing experiences.. plenty of snapshots to add to my collection:

January was the month I gave up booze and took up healthy eating. For a whole month. Never again.  In February, I got together with my wonderful friends for Bloggers on Tour: the West Yorkshire leg, and visited Yeo Valley’s wonderful Holt Farm too.  In March, we were lucky enough to attend the opening of the new Legoland Hotel and meet one of our heroes, Tim Minchin, who turned out to be even lovelier and funnier in person.  I also attended the very glam Tesco Mum of the Year Awards along with several of my friends.  A fabulous day.

In April, the Death Wish Dude and I spent the weekend in Paris, celebrating the 20th Anniversary of Disneyland, and hobnobbing with the likes of, well, Mickey, obviously… and in May I jetted off to both Tenerife, where we joined in with the May festivities and were gobsmacked by the firework wars AND Florida, where my friend Laura and I toured Clearwater, St Pete’s and Florida’s gorgeous space coast, as well as visiting Universal Studios and drinking butter beer at The Wizarding World of Harry Potter.

In June, we celebrated the Jubilee in grand style, and in July I looked after my Dad’s gorgeous garden (and made some lovely raspberry sorbet too).  I grew sweet peas and filled the house with scented blooms. I’ll definitely be doing it again next year.  In August we went Olympic and Paralympic mad – we stayed up until silly o’clock waiting for the Paralympic flame to come through our town, and we cheered on our amazing athletes at the Olympic Stadium.  Amazing memories.  English Mum also turned six.

In September, we got a visit from my cousin Moon (and helped him smuggle sausages through customs), and the Mad Professor started sixth form over again.  October saw us visit Guernsey and beautiful Herm Island, and in November we spent a lovely week in Gran Canaria.  I also had laser eye treatment, something that’s changed my life forever.  Finally in December I was back in Florida for the launch of Walt Disney World’s New Fantasyland… an experience I’ll never forget (more of this very soon) and my little kickboxing Death Wish Dude passed his grading and got his orange belt.

I’ve learned a lot this year too (proving that you’re never too old).  I’ve learned that some people – people that you might have known and looked up to your whole life – are actually not worth looking up to.  This was a shock.  But hey – people should EARN respect, right?

I’ve continued to believe that you should really try not to judge other people.  I’m often saying to the boys that there are maybe things going on behind the scenes that you don’t know about, but hey, even if it’s just as simple as people doing things differently to you, that’s fine.  This goes both ways, what you do is YOUR business.  Do what YOU feel right doing, and don’t listen to anyone else if you don’t want to.

I’ve also learned that it feels fabulous to pay it forward.  I’ve learned that my friends, my true friends, are always there for me (you know who you are) and I’ve learned that all relationships take a bit of effort.

The nicest things this year have been really small, but very important: someone saying ‘thanks so much for that recipe’, or ‘your children are a credit to you’, so I’m definitely going to be going out of my way to give credit where it’s due in 2013.

DD & A

So that’s it, then.  No resolutions, but  in 2013, I’ll be having fun, paying compliments, adding to those precious snapshots and looking up to people who deserve it – like, for example, my wonderful Disreputable Dad who is perpetually kind, funny, a wonderful Grandad, and a tiny bit naughty, who got engaged on Christmas Day.  *cough BRIDESMAID cough*. Congratulations Dad and my soon to be stepmum (she hates that, sorry)! xx

 

 

Sad news

Last week was strange and sad.

It started relatively well, but then on Wednesday, we received news that Charlie’s martial arts school was closed for the week. Charlie was disappointed: he’s mad into kickboxing and as many of you know is very proud to have received his yellow belt quite recently.

Friday, the school emailed to tell us that the reason they’d closed was because of the death of Charlie’s Sensei, or teacher, a lovely young man named Henry.  Henry was only in his early twenties.  He was a huge role model to Charlie, who often jabbered on about how cool Henry was and how he was hoping to emulate him by achieving his black belt by the time he was 21.  Without thinking, I rang Charlie, who was out with friends, and told him the bad news.  With hindsight, I should have done it in person. He was devastated.

We’re not sure what happened, but it’s a tragedy.  This young man had a huge impact on the life of my son. Kickboxing is very strict about etiquette, manners and respect.  It’s changed him in lots of ways, not just physically – he’s calmer and more confident too.

As a parent, I think we’re sometimes a bit full of our own self importance, and often forget the enormous effect other people can have on the lives of our children.  I’m so grateful to Henry for being such a fabulous role model, and frankly to everyone at the Martial Arts School for the care, attention and effort they put in with other people’s children.

Charlie will go on kickboxing, but I’m not sure it will ever be quite the same.  Rest in peace, Henry.

Berry meringue pie for Grandma’s birthday (alternatively titled: when Freddy Mercury came for dinner’)

Yesterday was MENTAL.  The mentalness started early when we woke up to find that our poor Mad Professor, Sam had had an allergic reaction overnight to the plaster on his face and now had a chin full of blisters.  This caused so much hilarity ‘stop making me laugh, you bastards… OMG my chin looks like lasagne‘ that we were all late for school.

The madness continued into the evening when we realised that we’d better tidy up in readiness for our celebration for English Grandma’s birthday.  Stinky socks were thrown into bedrooms, balloons were hastily inflated (‘not two pink ones, they look like… erm… well, y’know…‘) and bags containing humming sports kits were hurled into the garage.  We spritzed a bit of air freshener around. It was fine, honest.

My brother, IJ, is my wine guru (he is generally cursed for our regular and massive Majestic Wine bills) and brought along a delectable bottle of Aussie Shiraz: Jim Barry The Lodge Hill 2010 (highly recommended). We then ordered the biggest Chinese takeaway known to man (the woman at the takeaway nearly passed out as she took the order).  My nephew and niece, the gorgeous Jackson (who was a bit late after taking part in a Queen tribute band at his school music evening) and impossibly glamorous Turtle joined the hilarity and soon we were wrestling (well, THEY were wrestling), laughing, cracking backs (the Death Wish Dude is good at this, but it made me feel a bit faint) and generally jabbering away.

Turtle and the DWD did an impressive job of lighting about a thousand candles (luckily, Grandma wasn’t offended) and in the process managed to burn a bit of meringue and quite a lot of each other, but no matter, soon we were gathered round the table, squeezed in on random garden chairs, Sam with his lasagne chin and Freddie Mercury with his sharpie moustache, singing happy birthday.

It took a while to blow all those candles out, mind you..

Berry Meringue Pie

For the sweet shortcrust pastry, you’ll need:

200g cold butter

400g plain flour

Pinch salt

1tbsp caster sugar

1 egg

2 or 3 tbsp cold water

Firstly, preheat the oven to 180/gas 4.  It’s easiest to do this in the food processor but you can do it by hand if you’re not as lazy as me.

Chop your cold butter into squares and add it to the flour, salt and sugar.  Process it until it looks like breadcrumbs.

Now plop in the egg and pulse slowly, adding a tablespoonful or two of water until it just comes together.

Flour the work surface and squish the mixture together into a ball.  Wrap in clingfilm and let it rest in the fridge for about 20 mins.

When it’s rested, flour the work surface, and your rolling pin, and roll it out to about 5-6mm thick, then roll it onto your rolling pin and unroll over your flan dish or baking tin  (about 24cm should do it).  When it all breaks apart, swear a bit and kind of patch it together. Nobody will notice.  Push it in to the edges and trim the top.

Now to bake it blind: scrunch up a bit of greaseproof paper, then smooth it over the pastry and pour in some baking beans – you can use ceramic or whatever. I’ve got some old dried beans – for about 15 minutes.

Then, take the baking beans out and pop it back in the oven for another 5 minutes, just to crisp up the base.

For the berry curd:

Couple of handfuls of berries (fresh or frozen)

100g butter

150g caster sugar

2 eggs, plus 1 yolk (save for the meringue)

For this curd recipe, you need roughly 6 tablespoons of concentrated, sharp juice.  I had a small bag of mixed berries left over from fruit picking during the summer, but you can use lemon juice, lime juice, whatever…  For the pie to work well, the juice needs to be acidic, so if you’re using fresh, sweet fruit, add a little lemon juice. Just keep the quantities the same.

It’s easiest to extract the juice by heating the berries up in a pan.  Once they’re going squishy, let them sit in a sieve over a bowl so you can catch the juice.

Take a saucepan and bung in the butter, juice, zest (if using citrus fruits) and caster sugar.  Melt it all together slowly until the sugar is all dissolved.

Meanwhile, in a bowl, whisk the eggs and yolk until well combined.  Now, take your warm juice/butter mixture and gently pour a little bit into the egg, whisking all the time, then a bit more, then a bit more, until you’ve combined about half of it with the eggs.  Now bung that lot back into the saucepan and keep whisking and simmering until the mixture thickens.  As usual, make sure there’s someone behind you at this point shouting ‘WHISK! WHISK FASTER!’ – I’m SO going to record myself doing this so you can play it as you whisk.

Turn off the heat and leave to cool.  Remember to just stir it occasionally to keep it from getting a skin on.  When it’s about room temperature, pour it into the pastry case and pop into the fridge to cool.

For the meringue:

4 egg whites

225g caster sugar

Pinch of cream of tartar if you have it

Whisk the eggs in a very clean bowl until they form firm peaks, then keep whisking while you add the sugar, spoon by spoon, until it’s all incorporated and the meringue is thick and glossy.  Give it a pinch between your fingers – it shouldn’t feel gritty.  Now pipe (or just spoon) it all on top of the pie.

Bake in the very low oven (gas 2/150 degrees) for about 40 to 50 minutes, depending on how squelchy you like your meringue.   If it’s a Special Birthday Meringue Pie, you can decorate it (we frosted some berries in granulated sugar) and add candles.

 

Review: Tesco’s barcode scanning and the Gatwick virtual store

So you know the feeling, you return from holiday, suffer the Gatwick Express, then the tube, then possibly a taxi too, finally open the front door and the first thing you can think of is a nice cup of tea.  But the problem is that the milk you left in the fridge two weeks ago now resembles furry blue yoghurt.

During the summer, Tesco tested out  a brilliant service at Gatwick Airport’s north terminal: the Gatwick ‘virtual store’.  Customers could view a range of products by whizzing through some very flashy moving screens on large virtual ‘fridges’.  They could then scan the barcodes (iPhone or Android) to put goods into their online baskets, then book a home delivery and pay.  With hour slots, you could practically predict that your shopping would arrive home at the same time as you.  Here’s a link to the video of the ‘virtual store’ in action:

Tesco let me have a dabble with their online app, available here, so I could see the technology in action.  I’m not massively techno-fabulous so I enlisted the help of the Death Wish Dude (my first mistake).  After an easy (and free) download, he set about roaming the house, randomly scanning barcodes, to see whether we could arrange an entire shop using just the barcode scanning.

The technology, though fabulous for when you get back from holiday, is also fabulous when you’re stuck at home.  Someone on Twitter asked me if you could scan goods as they run out throughout the week, and yes, you can.  It remembers the goods in your online basket, ready for you to ‘check out’ at the end of the week.  No more shopping lists stuck on the fridge.

The dude’s verdict? Generally positive although it didn’t recognise the barcode on Nutella and we noticed random things like if you want to re-order a box of Bud, you can’t do it unless you kept the box as there are no barcodes on the bottles. Still, easily searched for on the search engine.

The delivery: spot on time, VERY friendly and helpful, took away all my plastic bags for recycling, gave me loads of tips about busy/quieter delivery times, and my order was perfect, not a single replacement.

A massive thank you to Tesco for letting me have a go with the app, and huge apologies for the randomness of my order which, thanks to my youngest son, included such delights as two massive jars of coffee (‘what? It was buy one get one free.’) a large amount of Double Deckers, and some David Beckham aftershave.  I vote to make the service permanent at Gatwick too.  I, for one, could do without furry blue tea after a week away.

 

George at Asda’s new schoolwear gets put through the wringer… and the tunnels… and over the combat wire…

Recently, Charlie, our very own Death Wish Dude, was invited by Asda to come and test out their new school uniforms on an army assault course: the best casting ever, as far as we were concerned.  Asda have put their new uniforms through 3000 days of testing with 100 kids, and this assault course day was going to put it to the test in the worst conditions possible.

Sadly, the boy and his skates did their usual thing and after a front flip gone wrong, he ended up laid on the sofa with ice packs on his knees instead.  Still, some other kids tested the uniform and here’s the result.  I think: ‘chosen by mums, tested by kids and guaranteed by George’ just about sums it up, don’t you?

 

Hugs

Him: ‘Alright ma?’

Me: ‘Yeah you?’

Him: ‘Yeah I’m cool. Gissa hug.’

Him: ‘Laters then ma.’

Him (as he walks off): ‘Good talk.’

My Dad’s gorgeous garden, and The Icecreamists’ raspberry sorbet

My Disreputable Dad and his other half have been away on holiday this week (to the same place in the South of France that they go every year, to eat at the same restaurant every night – he’s a man who knows what he likes)….  I was left in charge of the garden, which basically meant I had free rein to go in and nick all the strawberries and raspberries.  While I was in there pilfering I took some pictures. It really is an extraordinarily beautiful garden, and he has a skill with roses that I’m sad I haven’t quite inherited.  There are entire beds of the same coloured, ruffled peach roses, and deep scarlet ones too… and around every corner a surprise – a trellised gate wound with delicate pink climbing roses that leads on to a hidden part of the garden with apple trees already groaning with baby fruit (I’ll be back for those)…. and, of course, those raspberry canes – protected with fake birds of prey, painful when you’re collecting raspberries and one bashes you on the back of the head, but they do the trick.

 

Charlie and I crept in one lovely evening and gathered an enormous punnet of raspberries.  Back at home with our spoils, we decided to make raspberry sorbet.  The recipe is adapted from The Icecreamists (out now priced £16.99, published by Octopus Books) – a wonderful book which, when you look past the ‘I’m mad, I am’ over the topness (breast milk ice cream, anyone?) contains some amazingly clever and easy to follow recipes.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We made ‘Glastonberry’, a seasonal berry sorbetto, and jolly nice it was too.  Scoffed in the garden, watching the sun go down, and wishing my roses were as good as Dad’s.  There’s always next year…

Swimming against the tide: parenting teens and other house-related waffle

Recently it seems that everything’s been ‘up in the air’.  I’m not good with change, and I don’t handle chaos very well either.  I like calm, with the occasional nice thing to look forward to (and cake. Lots of cake).  So these have been quite difficult times.

As it turns out, after the sheer panic of being told that we’ve got to move, and several weeks of fruitless searching for something suitable, a bit of lateral thinking (and, admittedly, some begging) has meant that we can stay.  I’m heaving a huge sigh of relief and doing a bit of nesting at the same time, resettling myself into this house, which I love (though, it seems it took the threat of leaving to make me realise): cleaning up, clearing out, and wandering round my little garden in the long-awaited sunshine, grass tickling my toes, smelling the roses and tending the tomatoes.  But that’s for another post.

Family-wise we’re battling on.  I think one of the hardest things about parenting teens is letting go.  And during the letting go process, there are the inevitable crises and mistakes that need to be handled.  I’m not good with that either.  I’m a worrier – a ‘worst case scenario’ kind of girl.

When they were little it was about whether they had their bike helmet on tight enough, and whether they’d fall off the wall they were climbing (with Charlie, he inevitably did).  Now it’s about whether they’re strong enough to follow the right path, pick the right friends and be sensible enough to make the right decisions.  I have to learn that I can’t do this for them, but hope that I’ve given them the right tools along the way.  We’ve provided a ‘get out of jail free’ card, which means that they can ring, anytime, anywhere, no questions asked, if they feel things are getting out of control.  This has made me feel better.  The waiting up until 1am never gets easier, though.  Having friends really helps – sometimes just hearing someone say ‘don’t worry’ or ‘we went through that too’ is everything you need to hear.  And now the holidays have started, I’m grabbing my ‘taxi’ hat and preparing myself for six weeks of duty, along with the inevitable six weeks of trade offs and bargaining ‘yes you can go, but you can’t stay late’… ‘I’ll take you but I can’t pick you up too’ type conversations.

My lovely friend Lulu recently wrote a post about her own domestic situation, and about how she’s learning to embrace the chaos and stop beating herself up about not being perfect.  I think I need to do this a bit more too.

So I’m counting my blessings – something I often write about but forget to do – baking biscuits, giving big, huge hugs, putting up whacky new curtains and – for once – enjoying the sunshine.

So that’s me, then.  How are you?

 

Ten reasons why my life is on a loop: get well cheese and crossed lines

It dawned on me today, while I was ironing a t-shirt, and dwelling upon the fact that I swear I’ve ironed the same t-shirt (black with a blue Cylon on it if you’re interested) three times already this week, that I live my life on a bit of a loop.

Week in, week out, the same things happen to me.  For example:

1.  I spend a ridiculous proportion of my time in the car.  

I do the school run a gazillion times (okay, ten, but then there are extras because the Mad Professor never really seems to be at school that much and does things like going in at 8.30 then being finished by 11am, but mysteriously still needing lunch money), and the twice weekly trip to kickboxing, then pick up an hour later, for the Dude.  Which reminds me, I need a new CD.  Maroon 5’s new one is very good but I know all the lyrics now.  If you’d like me to sing them to you, just give me a ring, kay?

2. We laugh at the same old jokes.  

Our in jokes are recycled hundreds of times.  The fact that we call Blockbusters ‘Blockbastards’ for instance, and our Volvo is called the ‘HAHA VULVA‘ after the lady with Tourettes in Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo (if you haven’t seen it, you’re missing out.  Rent it at Blockbastards, quick).

3.  I get this look.  A lot.

This is the look that says ‘bloody biscuits?  You know I hate biscuits’ and warrants the same response from me every day: ‘the vet says they’re good for your teeth, so eat up and stop giving me the face’.  I then sleep fitfully and with one eye open in case she comes in the night to take her revenge.

4. I act like a bit of a tit

This week, on being asked to rinse and spit at the dentist, I spat all over the floor (in my defence, the anaesthetic had kicked in and I couldn’t feel half my mouth).  To add insult to injury, I then dissolved into helpless giggles for ten minutes while he stood patiently, holding his drill (not a euphemism) waiting for me to recover.

Oh, and not forgetting the old ‘get to the top of the stairs then forget what you came up for’ routine. Several times a week.

5. I laugh like a loon

Happily, one of my favourite Groundhog Day moments is a good cackle.  There’s not much in this life to make you feel better than a good belly laugh.  This week there have been lots of belly laughs, from noticing that my Dad’s tractor has ‘SeaBiscuit’ sign-written on the side (for some reason, this completely floored me), or a coffee with a friend where we cackled, snorted, shared hair-raising personal secrets and basically behaved like ten year olds for a couple of hours.

6. I watch crap TV to keep myself awake

Ahhh, waiting up for partying teens to return: surely one of motherhood’s shittest jobs (and one they sneakily forget to mention at ante natal classes).  I spend vast amounts of time waiting for people to come home from parties, trying to keep myself awake by watching early Kardashians episodes, texting them things like ‘don’t drink too much.  You puke, you die’ and random movies like Hostel 2 (don’t bother – there’s gullible girls, evil  murderers, a few bits of DIY machinery and, well, a bit more blood.  You’re welcome.)

7. Something REALLY weird happens

This week it was getting a crossed line while trying to ring a travel company and being dropped into the middle of a conversation between an old lady and her doctor.  Even more mortifyingly I thought she was actually telling ME about her terrible Psoriasis and had answered her several times before I realised she couldn’t hear me.  Just call me Dr English.

8. My boys make me go WOW!

This week it was this amazing pic from Sam’s Biology field trip of two of his mates Mick and Brendan skimming stones on Broadhaven beach. Just beautiful:

9. I buy weird presents for people

This week it was ‘get well cheese’ for my Disreputable Dad, who is very poorly.  And partial to a bit of Suffolk Blue.  What?  Cheese cures all ills.

10. I’m happy

Really, really stupidly happy.  I have fun, don’t take myself too seriously (see number 4.) and have the best family in the world.  Now what the hell did I come up the stairs for?

The Knorr recipe challenge: roast chicken with creamy tarragon sauce

The very generous and lovely people at Knorr recently sent me a parcel of goodies and challenged me to cook up something lovely using the ingredients and their new stock pots.  The ingredients came beautifully packed from Forman & Field and, amongst other things, included:

1 Rhug organic chicken

2 shallots

Biddenden Ortega white wine (from Kent!)

A bunch of tarragon

A bunch of parsley

I also used a Knorr chicken stock pot and a couple of tablespoons of sour cream.

On to my recipe, then. Frankly the chicken looked so beautiful: plumptious breasted and yellow skinned that I decided to simply roast it, then make a delicious sauce to accompany it from the ingredients.  There were mushrooms in there, but the Death Wish Dude is a mushroom hater, so I had to leave them out.  Feel free to add them in if you like while you’re frying the shallot.

This is a lovely way to serve a roast chicken and different from my normal ‘stick a chicken up its bum’ method,( or ‘poulet avec citron au derrière’, to give it its full title – which, hilariously, Google translates to ‘chicken with lemon behind’).

First, then, roast your chicken.  This one was quite small, about 1.5kg, so I just roasted it for an hour and 15 minutes (see my rule of thumb on the other post) at 190 degrees/gas 5.

By the way, if you’d rather do this with chicken breasts, just roast them in the oven for about 20-25 minutes (check they’re done by pushing on them – they should feel firm – or if you’re worried, cut them in half and have a look – you can always serve them in slices) and prepare the sauce in the same way.

On to the sauce, then.  Drop a knob of butter into a heavy based saucepan and add in a finely chopped shallot.  Fry gently until translucent then add in a glass of the delicious English wine (drink the rest) and about 150 ml stock.  Leave it to bubble and reduce right down to at least half, if not more.  Finally, add in the tarragon (don’t use too much, it’s quite strong – a level tablespoon of chopped leaves is enough), and a handful of chopped parsley, then the sour cream.

Serve with the roast chicken, a fresh green salad and maybe some baby new potatoes.

Many thanks to Knorr.  By the way, if you’d like to win one of these lovely seasonal boxes, leave a comment here or pop over to my Facebook page, where you can enter too.

 

**************THIS COMPETITION IS NOW CLOSED – THANKS FOR YOUR ENTRIES! *****************