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?
The packing isn’t going well. I keep having mad panics and throwing things out that I shall probably need, like all the ice cream cartons I keep to put stock in, and about 75 glass jars waiting to be filled with jams and marmalades. And I can’t get the order right – yesterday I packed all the glasses, so we’re now drinking juice out of mugs, which is ‘common as muck’ as my Grandma Maudie would say. I also packed all my underwear, but then I realised that two weeks of rummaging in a suitcase for a pair of knickers would drive me barmy, and totally cancels out the satisfaction of having one more drawer emptied. So back they went.
De brevren are the polar opposite when it comes to packing. Little Chas has his entire room packed into boxes and ready, was counting down the days in his homework diary (which must have pleased his teachers no end) and spends hours glued to Facebook chatting to his mates. The Prof, admittedly somewhat distracted with his exams, wants nothing to do with packing, so I’ve mostly left him alone to study (occasionally emerging to create vast sandwiches from the contents of the fridge and head back upstairs balancing teetering towers of said sandwich, crisps, packets of biscuits and glasses of milk) and spend hours talking to his mates on the Xbox (see the common theme here?). I did nab him for half an hour to try and explain to me what all the wires were near the Xbox. This did not go well. Apparently he ‘needs it all’ and nothing must be packed. Awkward.
Every day, I’m thinking of things I will do – the things I haven’t been able to do for a long time – things I’m planning and things I’m looking forward to. Here’s my top ten:
1. Walking to the shop on a Sunday morning, buying an armful of papers and lolling around reading, with endless cups of tea.
2. Shopping in Waitrose with my Mum. Oh I know, snobby and all that. But I bloody love Waitrose. And I love shopping with my Mum. It takes us ages because we pick things up, have a chat about them, then put them down again – planning dinners and discussing ingredients. I love it.
3. Hugging my Dad. He always pretends that he hates to be hugged, so when the boys and I give him a massive cuddle he stands all stoney like a soldier, but for some reason that makes us all want to hug him more. Look, he’s doing it here:
Oh and happy Fathers’ Day for this weekend, Dad. This counts instead of a present right? Right?
4. Going out to dinner. I miss restaurants. And wine. I miss mulling over menus and dithering over starters surrounded by the people I love.
5. Cocktails! I shall go for cocktails with my favourite girlfriends and talk waffle until we’re blue in the face. Cannot wait.
6. Chatting with my nieces and nephews. I have two nieces. I adore them both – they are sassy, cool, funny and – as a mother of boys – they are the girly lights of my life. I miss them so much. My lovely nephew Jackson is a mean cook already and often tries my recipes for me. I can’t wait to catch up. On Hubby’s side, he also has a brand new grand-niece that we haven’t even met yet.
7. Going on a family day out to Whipsnade Zoo. When my cousin Moon‘s baby, Matej, is christened in June, our family will be together for the first time in a long time – my cousin Deb is coming over from Canada, and Moon and his lovely wife Miska are travelling from Slovakia. We’re planning a mahoosive day out, with picnic, at Whipsnade – I’ve probably spent hundreds of days out there, and it was a big part of our childhood, and that of my boys.
8. Talking of the christening, I’m going to make cupcake towers for Matej – blue and cream, with little sugar stars and cars… big mountains of them. Then I’m going to drink too much champagne, laugh with my wonderful brothers, giggle with my nieces and be all proud of my big strapping sons, home again in the midst of all their family.
9. Giving Ellie a cuddle. Ellie is my Mum’s old labrador, once black and glossy, now grey and a little stiff in the legs, but still gorgeous. It feels like she’s a million years old, although she probably isn’t. Still, she loves a cuddle (demonstrated here by Charlie) and rushes to meet us, bowling us over with our suitcases and bringing us her ‘baby’, a stinky old stuffed cat.
Ellie’s ‘best friend’, Harry, is an equally old ginger cat who loves Ellie with a passion – even though she often sits on him by accident -and drools excessively. He’d love to be cuddled more often, but frankly the drooling thing is a bit unpalatable. When we first see him, we forget the drooling and give him a cuddle – then when the drool starts, we put him down again. The worst bit is when he shakes his head and everyone gets a dribbly shower. Poor Harry.
10. Enjoying being a family again. Living apart from one another is hard. English Dad has a demanding job and isn’t a big texter or emailer. Things are often lost in translation and honestly, I’m not sure that we would have survived this long-distance family life for much longer. The boys can’t wait to be back with their Dad. Recently he texted me: ‘can’t wait to have you all here then I can annoy you all in person’. Me neither.
Firstly can I just say that I hate Ryanair? Hate, hate, hate Ryanair. I know, I know, it’s dirt cheap and all that, but when you’ve walked miles, queued for hours and then find you can’t sit anywhere near your children in a hot, sweaty cabin and there’s no room in the overheads for your hand luggage? Grrr, I could kill that feckin’ Michael O’Leary.
Awwww, we had such a lovely time. We went out for dinner with the Disreputable One when we arrived on the Friday night (after he picked us up from the airport in his swanky new 4×4 – thanks Dad!), then stayed at me Ma’s for the weekend. Arriving in the pub before the wedding was fantastic, seeing all my friends and family, my much-missed sisters in law, my lubly brothers, my beautiful nieces and big strapping nephew was just amazing. The church service was surprisingly emotional although I have to say that it was the adults that did the naughty giggling – the kids all stood together and shot us withering glances as we misbehaved – it was Hubby’s fault, he did silly singing, and then some little teeny girl went ‘I WANT A WEE!’ in a really loud voice which set us all off again. All went swimmingly apart from some rather bizarre parental goings on (note to my parents: I love you both madly but jaysus, go out for a coffee together and sort yourselves out already).
Mrs M looked absolutely stunning in a slinky green silk fishtail dress – I don’t care what anyone says there wasn’t a single pair of eyes that weren’t glued to her fantastically peachy bottom as she walked down the aisle.
The evening bash was full of fun and laughter. We had a total riot and the boys had loads of fun with their cousins. Mad Uncle A behaved himself (almost) – actually, Sensible Uncle I was just as naughty – and Mrs Sensible was challenging Hubby to down shots of Mrs M’s traditional 80% proof fire-water. Wow, it took your taste buds clean off.
Moon gave the longest, most boring speech I’ve ever heard (nah, not really – he made me cry twice which is probably a record) and then we all clinked glasses and shouted ‘Nastrovya!’ and downed the traditional Slovakian shot things (wow!) before stuffing our faces at the buffet, then dancing the night away. The Slovakian contingent held their own admirably in both the drinking and the falling over on the dance floor, but in true English fashion, it was all wrapping up by midnight – in Ireland we’d only just be getting started!
We rounded off a manic but happy weekend with one of my Ma’s epic Sunday lunches and then it was back to the airport with our Disreputable Chauffeur for another wrestle with our hand luggage. We arrived home, tired but elated, to find an ecstatic Bert who sang us a little whiny song, he was so happy to see us.
Highlights of the weekend, then:
- Stealing me Ma’s car and rushing round to my friend J’s beautiful new house to catch a glimpse of scrumptious little J and her new baby, M, who I’ve never even seen – we both stood and burst into tears, which made us laugh.
- My mate, C, taking the time to pop to the church to wish Moon luck and say a quick hello to me and Hubby (I wanted to cry again – I’m getting old, I think)
- The photographer shouting ‘No! look at her face!’ when Moon’s gaze kept wandering downwards
- My nieces, who have turned from cute little girls into beautiful young ladies.
- Above-mentioned niece, A, being bribed by Sensible Uncle I’s mates to balance sachets of mayonnaise on the head of Moon’s brother-in-law who was asleep in the corner after coming over all ‘tired and emotional’
- Boogying on the dance floor with my boys, me Ma, Mrs M and a gaggle of her Slovakian mates
- The scary amount of people who came up to me and said ‘ooh, I read your blog!’
- Moon, staggering around with a box of Montecristo cigars saying ‘this is the happiest day of my life’ in a somewhat slurry fashion.
So there you have it. A lovely weekend, a perfect wedding, and a very deserving couple. Here’s to you, Moon and Mrs M: wishing you a long, happy and very giggly life together. Mwah!
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