Grief is a funny thing. Initially after losing my Dad (what a silly term – we didn’t mislay him, like a missing phone or a set of keys), we were all in shock. I’m a terrible cryer at the best of times (RSPCA adverts, Cinderella Castle, fireworks, Disney songs, people singing in choirs, people singing Disney songs in choirs, puppies, sad films, stubbed toes…) so the first few days were just basically spent surrounded by a sea of soggy tissues. We would all be okay then one of us would start and set all the others off again. After a while, though, I kind of felt like I was all cried out, and we could think and talk and reminisce about him without as many tears. And then the weirdness set in. I’ve found myself obsessing about teeny, tiny details: exactly what flowers and foliage are going to be in our wreath (pale yellow roses – he loved a bit of yellow – lots of eucalyptus, please, and absolutely none of that frondy asparagus stuff) and – here’s the big one: what do you wear to a funeral? If you follow my Facebook page, you’ll know that we’ve been having chats about it online, and people have been so kind and helpful, giving me all sorts of suggestions (which of course set me off crying again), but I still can’t make my mind up.
Have you seen Trainwreck? There’s a scene in the film where Amy Schumer’s character is giving a eulogy to her father at his funeral. I watched it on a plane and laughed so hard when she said ‘raise your hand if our Dad ever offended you’ and everyone put their hand up. This would literally be me at my Dad’s funeral, I thought. Haha. You never imagine it actually happening though, do you? But then yesterday, at 10.30 am on New Year’s Day 2018, he died, peacefully, with his wife Allison holding his hand. This huge, larger than life character, such a force in my life, is no more. Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone…
If you follow me on Instagram, you’ll see that over the weekend I was chatting about the ‘birthday challenge’. I’m not sure how this started but it’s been going on since the boys were really small. In our family, whenever it’s anyone’s birthday, they get to choose the birthday cake/dessert of their dreams – anything at all – and I promise to cook it for them. When the boys were small, they were always begging for novelty cakes way beyond my level of expertise: Buzz Lightyear and Power Rangers, then when they turned into little pre-teen smart-arses, it was always something really, really complicated – they would research for hours and come back with requests for things they thought were really exotic (my favourite was Sam’s request for a black forest gateau – I’m not even sure he knew what it was). Now, though, it’s all about requesting a big, yummy dessert and that suits me just fine. Sam’s birthday is on Tuesday, and I promised I’d do the birthday challenge last weekend as I’m away again next week (exploring Kissimmee, St Pete and Clearwater – I can’t wait). I was pretty chuffed when his request was for lemon meringue pie too – one of my favourites.
I’ve had a think about it, and I’ve decided that having Mother’s Day and my birthday on the same day is the way to go. I appreciate it’s not something I can dictate, but it made for such a wonderful weekend – full of my favourite people, some delicious food, and many laughs – that I think I’m going to try and swing it from now on. We started the Mother’s Day/birthday weekend (or should that be the Motherbirthday weekend?) with a trip to the cinema to see Beauty and the Beast. Oh, I loved it – I adore Emma Watson anyway and Beauty and the Beast has long been my favourite Disney movie, so the combination of the two of them, along with my three favourite men plus being able to sip a glass of wine (the Odeon MK has a gallery area where you can order a drink before your film) while I was watching was possibly the best thing ever.
Recently, you’ll remember, I shared my little Florida secret with you – a deliciously quirky and lovely little barrier island just off the coast of northern Florida called Amelia Island. The boys and I spent a wonderful week there making some treasured memories together, and I wanted to tell you a bit more about what we got up to. We sat down and had a little head to head and came up with our favourite five things to do when you’re out and about on Amelia Island. And guess what’s number one…?
So here it is, my very last post before Christmas! I’ve been writing this blog for 10 years now (I know!) and every year, I say the same thing: if you’re cooking the Christmas lunch – and getting stressed about it – remember it’s your Christmas too. I’ve got loads of tips here to make the day as stress free and laid back as possible for you, so you can enjoy your Christmas day with your family and friends. So find a quiet corner, Treat yourself to my perfect frozen whipped cream hot chocolate, grab a notebook, have a read through and take few minutes to make a plan. And remember, it’s basically just a big roast dinner, and this guide will help you do most of the work on Christmas Eve so you can spend as much time as possible with the family, and as little as possible in the kitchen on the big day!
Talking to your children about stuff like child abuse is really, really tough. I can remember feeling really worried about broaching the subject, but also really wanting to let them know that they can always talk to us, especially if another adult ever made them feel uncomfortable or wanted them to keep a secret. Enter the NSPCC’s very clever Pantosauras campaign. I know this is a bit off topic for me, but I just thought the campaign was SO brilliant, it really deserves to be shared.
So Waitrose have launched a whole lot of yummy food, which they’ve called the Waitrose 1 range, which is basically the creme de la creme of their food: think stylish ready meals, amazing coffees, buttery pastries, extra special meats, fab pizzas, delicious ice creams… Just before I went to Leeds, I went to our local Waitrose and bought an absolute ton of all the Waitrose 1 stuff so I could give it a little try.
As you might know, it was my birthday over the Easter weekend. One of the things I was determined to do was head out for a family meal with NO EXCUSES (we make so many plans only for the boys to suddenly remember that they have to be somewhere else or they’re double booked) with my Dad. We love Pizza Express for relaxed family dinners, so we booked there for Easter Saturday to celebrate and try out their new spring menu.
I wonder if it’s really true that time passes faster as you get older? I’ve been looking back at some of the amazing adventures I’ve been lucky enough to experience this year, and they seem like only yesterday! Here are my highlights from 2015.
My friend Taralara does this lovely photo gallery every week, where she sets everyone a theme and challenges them to find a suitable photo. This week, the theme is ‘Me’. This is one of my favourite photos of us, from Brittany a couple of years ago. I love it because it seems to reflect everyone’s personality so well.
I’ve written before about how gorgeous our local Prezzo is. The staff are lovely, the atmosphere in the place is amazing (helped by an open kitchen featuring a massive pizza oven) and the food is consistently good. Last week we popped in to try the new summer sharing specials.
As a family, we’re pretty divided when it comes to phones. Mr English is a sworn iPhone devotee. The rest of us are mad on Samsung. At the moment, Charlie and Sam both have a Galaxy S4, and I’ve got an S3 (I did have an S4 too, but then Sam dropped his in the sea on a Biology field trip and he was so gutted I gave him mine – motherly love eh?).
Yesterday 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.
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:
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!
There 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:
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
1tbsp caster sugar
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)
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.
There’s nothing quite like a houseful of your favourite people to bring about a warm glow. Admittedly, several glasses of fizz added to my glow, but mostly it was goodwill and stuff, I’m sure.
We really did have a lovely time. Sadly, I’m completely useless and didn’t manage to take any pictures. Ah well. And I made TONS of food, and didn’t take a picture of that either. I am useless. I did a mahoosive cheeseboard, groaning with all sorts of different cheeses and liberally adorned with bunches of grapes and cherry tomatoes, then I did apple and red onion sausage rolls, little parmesan biscuits and later, a big pot of spicy lentil dahl (and yes, it does look a bit like poo, but I like to think that what it lacks in looks it makes up for in taste) and spicy chicken skewers… and not one scrap of evidence. You’ll just have to trust me.
We made some new friends too – The Prof’s lovely friends, the twins, brought their Mum and Dad along and they turned out to be really lovely as well (they’ve just got a brand new Beagle puppy, which they’ve called Lemon. I like them even more because of that). Hubby’s sis and bro came with their other halves, my Disreputable Dad, his partner, my Mum (I know, right? I live on the edge, I do), my gorgeous friends Foxy and The Glamorous Clare and their families and hoards of varying teenagers all clustered upstairs round the Xbox… it was certainly snug. But great fun.
My Disreputable Dad made me laugh. It was his turn to drive, but he kept sneakily getting his glass topped up until his other half admitted defeat and agreed to drive. Sneaky. Sadly my big bro was away on holiday but apart from that we were surrounded by lots of people we love. There was cackling, drinking, and a bit of slopping red wine on the carpet, but hey, it came off. And I didn’t forget too much of the food that I’d made either… only the little mini quiches I made got forgotten, which is always a bonus.
I guess the only disappointment is that we started too early – 2pm – which meant we were all partied out and finished by 10.30. And no dancing! Ah well.
So it’s on to New Year now, then… what a lovely Christmas. How was yours?
- Staying overnight at the airport, BLOC Hotel Gatwick May 22, 2018
- Weekend wishlist: the perfect holiday capsule wardrobe with M&S May 19, 2018
- Breaded baked barbecue cauliflower May 17, 2018
- Why I’m pondering becoming a pescatarian May 15, 2018
- Weekend wishlist: 10 ways to live a more sustainable life May 12, 2018