Wednesday, 26 August 2015

The snowman and the snowdog personalised book from Penwizard

There might be still four more months till Christmas, but bloggers have been on the lookout for Christmas gifts wish list ideas as well as attending lots of Christmas-in-July etc events. While I am not that well organised to plan my posts for December, I keep an eye on the latest gifts to add to the wish list. Take my younger son, he likes nothing better than adding the items to his list for Santa which is forever changing. Back in June he wrote a letter to Santa with a modest request of "lots of Lego". He also loves books and films, and we have watched The Snowman and the snowdog so many times, I have lost count. We are both big fans of this warm-hearted story, and I knew Eddie would love a personalised version of The Snowman and the snowdog from Penwizard.
It's not the first time we received a personalised book from Penwizard (three years ago I reviewed the book Peppa Pig Goes to Eddie's Birthday Party, and if you care to have a look at my little man, you'll see how ecstatic he was with his gift, and also how much he has grown up since then. My baby is not a baby anymore).

Creating a personalised book online is an easy and quick process. Visit the Penwizard site and choose a book from a wide range. You could order a hardback at £24.99 or a softback at £17.99.
Choose a gender for your book hero, add their name, and create a character by selecting a skin colour, hairstyle and pyjama style.
You may add a personalised message to the book if you wish (I opted out).

The story is of course well known, and is based on much-loved characters created by Raymond Briggs. It never ceases to move me. When it is retold with a child's name and personalised character, it makes it even more special for children.

When the book arrived, Eddie couldn't wait to open the packet. His eyes were sparkling like stars when he read his name on the cover. He couldn't believe it. Seeing his name printed on the cover was like a mini-miracle for him. I wish I had the camera ready at that moment.

We sat on the sofa in the entrance hall and had to read the story there and then, with Edgar's name appearing through the narrative.
The illustrations are beautiful and warm.

This brilliant Christmas story is poignant and touching, and I find myself sniffing at the end, when the snowman melts, a big softie that I am.
We love the story, and we love the personalised book.
It will make a wonderful gift for any Snowman and Snowdog fan.

Disclosure: we received a free book for the purposes of reviewing. All opinions are Eddie's and mine.

Tuesday, 25 August 2015

'Hippy dinners' and a lemon drizzle cake

Abbie Ross, the author of Hippy Dinners, is a couple of years younger than me, but our memories of the 1970s couldn't be more different. I grew up in the Soviet Union, under the Communist regime.
Abbie's parents moved to rural North Wales from London, swapping a town house in Islington for a farmhouse on a hill. Our childhood realities and backgrounds were completely different.
What we share perhaps is the sense of powerlessness of being a child and a wish to conform, to be like the others.
It was in my pre-teens and teen years that I strived to be different. But when I was in primary school, I liked to be like everyone else. We were also quite brainwashed with this notion, in the nursery and school. Individuality was not encouraged.
I was a big city girl, and detested my parents taking us away for a month to stay at our grandparents' houses in the middle of nowhere, in the Russian steppes. There were fun times of course, like trips to the river, but mostly I resented being away from the "civilization". The geese who started honking at the ungodly early hours annoyed me, I didn't like the smells etc. I'm afraid I was not a countryside girl. To escape it all, I'd spend hours in the hammock in the garden with a book.
So, while Abbie's memoirs have not much in common with my life in the 1970s, I could relate to her in many ways. When we are children, we are completely dependent on the decisions our parents take. We have to follow their choices, whether we agree with them or not.
Abbie's parents chose to live in a rural environment, escaping all the chaos of the city life. Abbie's disapproval of her mother's taste in food and clothes is palpable years later. And then there is a constant dread that her near-hippy parents would abandon their house altogether and move in with the hippy commune. It didn't help that the hippy commune dwellers were all bonkers, and quite irresponsible.
The narrative is a set of stories or novellas, which are inter-laced and share the characters, but tell a new story in each chapter.
There are wonderfully conventional Liverpudlian grandparents who disapprove of the life their children and grandchildren live.
There are delightfully bizarre friends of Abbie, some touchingly vulnerable, some alarmingly bossy bordering on horribly unpleasant.
The book is very warm and a great pleasure to read.

There were quite a few contenders for #ReadCookEat recipe recreation in this book. I didn't quite fancy "hippy dinners", and decided to cook a lemon drizzle cake. It is Abbie's Nana who baked this cake in the book.
I don't know the exact recipe which Nana used for her lemon drizzle cake, and I guess it might have been baked in a loaf tin rather then round-shaped, but I hope little Abbie would have approved of my version too.

Lemon drizzle cake
2 lemons, zest and juice
120g butter, softened
200g caster sugar
3 medium eggs
150g self-raising flour
50g cornflour
4tbsp milk
for icing:
6 heaped tbsp icing sugar
lemon juice (about 2/3 of a lemon)
Dr Oetker lemon meringue sprinkles.

In a medium bowl beat together the zest of 2 lemons with the softened butter and caster sugar. Add the eggs, and mix together. Then add the flour and cornflour, a bit of milk and juice of 1 lemon. Mix well.
Pour the cake batter in the round spring form tin. Put the tin in the oven preheated to 180C.
Bake for 40+ minutes, until the top is set and is golden brown in colour. Check readiness with a wooden toothpick. Take the tin out, and carefully remove the cake while still warm.
Make the icing and pour over the still warm cake. Decorate with Dr Oetker lemon meringue sprinkles.

This is such a simple yet moreish cake. My husband ate three pieces in one evening.
Eddie and he said that this was my best cake ever. As much as I appreciate the compliment, I was a tad peeved, as I think in my life time I have baked prettier and tastier cakes. Though I agree, it was lovely, very moist and zingy.

Disclosure: I received a free book as part of BritMums Book Club.

Sunday, 23 August 2015

Ravensburger Twitter Party

If you were on Twitter last Tuesday between 2 and 4pm, you might have seen lots of tweets with the hashtag #RavensburgerPuzzles. Several bloggers were holding Twitter parties for their children and friends, and tweeting at the same time, describing all the activities taking place and the puzzles they were solving.
Our house was a pretty noisy place on that day. It was very hectic but also full of fun and laughter.

A week or so before the party we received a huge haul of Ravensburger puzzles, it was like Christmas in August. The party box included a set of party invitations, goodie bags for all guests, a wrapped up Pass the parcel packet, colouring sheets and felt tips, A6 Printed puzzle card, rulers, scissors for the puzzle making activity, and 14 (yes, 14!) boxes of Ravensburger puzzles to suit several age groups and abilities.
Eddie couldn't wait for the day of the party.

The activities were timed, and as agreed, we didn't do all the puzzles in two hours. To start with we had four different puzzles to choose from - Farmyard Friends, Thomas & Friends, In the Night Garden and Alphablocks. As all our guests (except one) were the same age as Eddie (i.e. 5 year olds) they have chosen puzzles which were more suitable to their age.
We have a couple of Thomas the tank engine-themed puzzles, they have been much loved and played with. The boxes are pretty battered, but all the pieces are still in good shape.
Thomas Night Work, Glow in the Dark is a 60-piece jigsaw puzzle. 

The design shows Thomas working alongside Skarloye and Sir Handel. Once finished, the puzzle measures 36x26cm. Like all Ravensburger puzzles, the pieces are made of durable recycled card.

Another puzzle which is a great fun to assemble was Alphablocks Giant Floor Puzzle. It is a bright, colourful puzzle which depicts all the well known characters from the much loved children's TV show. Earlier this year, Eddie has been working with the Alphablocks magazines set and enjoyed it very much. The show introduces the pre-schoolers and Reception year children to the alphabet and teaches them how to read and spell. The puzzle features all the funky letters, doing different activities. 
As Eddie and his friends were assembling the puzzle, they were reading the words aloud.
This is a super puzzle for younger kids, and we will give ours to Eddie's old nursery for the other children to enjoy it.
It is a big size puzzle, perfect for the floor.

Alphablocks puzzle completed

Alphablocks puzzle close-up
Both of these puzzles were a big hit. 
The next slot in the busy schedule was dedicated to two biggest phenomena in the recent animation - Minions and Frozen. Both have fans worldwide, and both movies broke records. The spin-off merchandise is flying off the shelves.
We have split into two teams - Minions vs Frozen. Team Frozen had to complete one of the three puzzles from the set Frozen Fever.
Frozen Fever comes with three puzzles showing Elsa and Anna, adorable Olaf and the girls again.
It was a hoot. I was asking the teams questions relating to the films, but each time I asked a question, everyone was trying to outdo each other. So, it was a very boisterous activity.

Team Frozen was faster, but their puzzle was easier to complete. Minion 3d puzzle is more tricky. We have several Minions 3d puzzles in our collection, they are all on display among the children's books. Our guests haven't had a chance to try a 3d puzzle before, but were quick to grasp the idea, looking for the numbers on the back of each plastic piece. 54 pieces are made of durable curved plastic and once assembled, make a great gift for any Minions' fan. The puzzle is about 12cm in height, and will look lovely on the window or shelf in children's bedroom.

After an hour of frenetic puzzle building and tough competition (and oh my, some of our Mummies were as competitive as the kids, if not more. We don't name names, but you know who you are - insert a lol here), we were all ready for a tea time.
That is, Mummies had tea and coffee, while kids enjoyed a variety of junk food snacks. To be frank, I offered a wide choice of healthy and not so healthy snacks including veggie crudites with dips, crisps, ice lollies and sweets. Knowing that there would be a Frozen puzzle to assemble, Eddie insisted on buying a tin of Frozen-themed cookies for the party which we spotted in 99p shop.

The next activity - colouring -was a quieter one. The party pack included a lot of colouring sheets with the images from Inside Out and Shopkins. I probably live on a different planet, as I haven't heard of Shopkins before, and our guests have "educated" me on the matter. We added our own crayons and even paints to the arty stash so that everyone could join in at the same time.

I think all our kids did a great job, but one of them was particularly creative.

The bigger Shopkins colouring sheet had lines for cutting it into a jigsaw puzzle. But we also made our own puzzles. Using the rulers, we drew lines on the back of each coloured card before cutting it into pieces. Every guest put their own puzzle in the small plastic bag to take home together with their goodie bags and puzzles.

This activity has taught us how to make our own puzzles, and I think we'll be doing something similar again. A perfect activity for a rainy day.

Believe it or not this Shopkins puzzle sheet was coloured in by a 5-year-old girl (with a teeny weeny help from her Mummy).

Pass the parcel is everyone's favourite. Little gift in each layer included sweets and Shopkins mini-bags, with the final winner receiving a Disney Pixar Inside Out puzzle.

Our last puzzle of the day was Inside Out puzzle. It is aimed at children aged 6+ and consists of 100 pieces. It was deemed a little bit tricky, and needed some adult help.

And of course, everyone was eagerly awaiting for a goodie bag, which didn't disappoint. Each bag had more colouring, sweets, Shopkins and Ugglys (apparently another must-have toy, which I haven't been aware of).

I have been tweeting along with the party, offering a prize for my Twitter followers. It was a great success on all levels. We had fun at home, our guests left very happy with the activities and the gifts.

Many thanks to Ravensburger and UKMumsTV for sending us the gifts and the instructions for the fun Twitter party. Our guests had a puzzle each to take home, and I have already promised Eddie's old nursery to bring in all the puzzles which we have solved at the party for the children at nursery to enjoy. The only puzzle which Eddie asked to keep is a Minions 3d puzzle. It will go on the shelf with the other 3d Minions puzzles.

Saturday, 22 August 2015

Blackberry and apple pie

It's the season to be blackberry-picking, yay! My favourite kind of foraging. We are so lucky to have fileds nearby which flood, and thankfully they are left as they are, without greedy builders ruining the quiet peaceful location. There are lots of brambles and wild roses, and even more of nettles. I have seen families with big baskets picking juicy blackberries. It is great fun. last week Eddie and I picked a small container of berries, just enough to eat and bake a blackberry and apple pie.

Blackberry and apple pie
1 block of sweet pastry
80g butter
2 apples, peeled and sliced
300g blackberries
100g caster sugar
1/2tsp cinnamon
1/2tsp cloves
3tbsp cornflour

If you are a GBBO worshiper and find the idea of using ready-made pastry an abomination, look elsewhere. If you read my blog regularly, you know that I often use it, and don't feel ashamed to say it out loud.
So, take the block of ready-made sweet pastry and unroll it. Spread it over the pie dish and cut off the extra bits, and add some patches on the sides to make borders all round. Prick the pastry with a fork.
Prebake at 180c for 15 minutes.
In the meantime, peel and slice the apples and cook in a big pan with butter and spices. Add the berries and cook stirring for about 10 minutes. At which point the pie mix will be overflowing with juices. Add the cornflour and keep stirring for about 5 minutes. Set aside to cool.

Spoon the pie mix in the pre-cooked pastry shell. If you have some pastry left over, cut out strips and decorate the pie.
Cook for about 15-20 minutes at 180C.
Serve hot with the ice cream or cream. Enjoy!
I was very surprised to see my older son eating it in the kitchen, as in the past he didn't show any interest in fruity-berry pies.
It was very tasty.

I love blackberries, and am very happy to join in The Great British Blackberry Round-Up hosted by Janice from Farmersgirl Kitchen and Karen from Lavender and Lovage, two of my favourite foodie bloggers.

Thursday, 20 August 2015

Oven-dried tomatoes with herbs and garlic

My tomatoes in the greenhouse have gone totally out of control, we just cannot catch up with all the produce. Salads, roasted veggies, soups... but I also fancied some sort of preserves, maybe a tomato jam, or pickles.

Then I happened to find a recipe for oven-dried tomatoes on Sainsbury's magazine site and knew I really fancied trying it.

Oven-dried tomatoes with herbs and garlic
800g mixed cherry or baby plum tomatoes
1 bulb of garlic
a handful of fresh thyme
a sprig of fresh rosemary
500ml bottle of olive oil
sea salt, black pepper

Slice the tomatoes in halves and place in a big tray or ceramic dish with the sliced herbs. Drizzle 3 tbsp of olive oil over the tomatoes and season with salt and pepper. Toss them a bit, but keep all the tomatoes cut-side up.

Place the tray in the oven preheated to 120C. Now, according to the recipe online, they should be in the oven for up to 3 and a half hours. As my tomatoes were small sized ones, they shrank pretty well after 2 and a half hours. I added the garlic cloves in skins for the last 30 minutes of cooking.
Put the tomatoes and garlic in the sterilized jars, and pour the warmed oil over the tomatoes.
I have used the whole bottle of olive oil, as I thought it will be lovely, all infused with the tomato and garlic flavours, and I can use it later for salad dressings.
Seal the jar and keep in the cool place for a few days before you use the tomatoes.
Don't add any fresh herbs to the jar, they need to be dried in the oven, or they get mouldy in the jar.
I love roasted garlic, so added a whole bulb.
What do you do with the tomato glut?

Wednesday, 19 August 2015

Lemon Souffle (#ReadCookEat)

The Silent Hours by Cesca Major was published this year to an accolade of book reviewers. The novel is set in Oradour-sur-Glane, France and gives a fictional account of the true events which happened in the Unoccupied zone on June 10, 1944, when the whole village has been massacred by the Nazi soldiers.
The strength of the narrative lies in the well-researched historical background.

The story is told by three people, retelling the events during and after the war. It is like a tapestry woven from many threads. Each voice is unique, each story is tragic.
There is mute Adeline, taking refuge in a convent in South West France after the trauma of the war, running from the past. She cannot talk, but her story appears as thoughts and memories.
There is Sebastian, a young Jewish banker who falls in love with beautiful Isabelle.
And there's Tristin, a 9-year-old boy, whose family flees Paris to escape the war.
It took me a long time to finish the novel, as I knew what was going to happen from the book flyer, and just didn't have enough strength to get emotionally involved in another tragedy. In a way, I wish I didn't read it, not because it is not well-written, it is just after you finish it, it stays with you long after you turned the last page.

It's not that I only read books with happy endings, but sometimes my emotional balance is precariously tipped to the point of overturning, and I don't want any more dramas or tragedies to think about. For example, I loved the TV production of Wolf Hall, but I couldn't bring myself to watch the last episode. Maybe it is naive or childish, but I prefer a pure escapism when I read. Only rarely do I let myself to be emotionally involved into the novel.

As I am always on the lookout for food references in books, I noticed there were a few local dishes mentioned in the narrative.

In a letter from the front, Paul writes to his sister Isabelle "As for me I shall continue to daydream of Mother's rilettes de boeuf and the lemon souffle like air that melts the moment it is in the mouth. I'm practically slobbering over this letter now. I think we've all become quite obsessed, continually talking about food and drink. It seems everyone's mother makes the best meat course in France".
It's so true, don't we often think that our Mum's recipe is the best. I surely often think so.

To pay tribute to the book, I decided to cook a lemon souffle.
A souffle is quite a tricky job, so I thought I'd learn how to do it properly from the Grand Maitresse of the British baking, Mary Berry herself. You can find her recipe for hot lemon souffle on Good to Know site.
I won't list the ingredients, you can find all the relevant information if you follow the link above.

I brushed the ramekins inside with the melted butter and sprinkled with sugar to coat them evenly. Off they went in the fridge to chill.
I grated and juiced two big fat Sorrento lemons, which have an amazing aroma, almost like a perfume.
Eggs were separated into yolks and whites. There were 4 egg yolks left over with an advice to make scrambled eggs or custard. Well, custard doesn't benefit from being kept in the fridge, and who would fancy custard with a souffle? Scrambled eggs would also be a wrong choice on the day when you cook a souffle. How many egg dishes can one eat in one day? I suppose, you can freeze them for future cooking. I did use them the next day in a pasta bake.
Cream, flour and cornflour were mixed in a smooth paste, then the hot milk was added to the mixture. Cook over the gentle heat, and keep whisking until the sauce is thickened.
Later, the egg yolks are added, and it turns into a very creamy custard type of sauce.
The egg whites are whisked separately, then gently folded in.
Pour the mix into ramekins and bake for 10-14 minutes.

It came out quite all right. My husband enjoyed it more than I did. It was just too creamy for me, a bit like a fancy sweet omelette, not quite what I expected.
I remember a French friend cooking a souffle for me, and it was different. So, I am not sure if it's the fault of the recipe, or my incompetence, though I followed Mrs Berry's instructions step by step.
But I will try to cook another souffle recipe and compare the results.
Have you ever cooked a lemon souffle? Do you have a fvaourite recipe to share?

Cheryl from Madhouse Family Reviews was also inspired to cook a dish mentioned in the novel. She has cooked a delicious onion tart.

Have you read a book recently which inspired you to run to the kitchen and cook to your heart's content?

I hope you are inspired by books to join in our #ReadCookEat challenge.

The idea is to choose a book, either a world classic or modern fiction, or even memoirs and pick up a dish mentioned or described in that book and then recreate it in a recipe. Please say a few lines about your chosen book, and maybe even do a quote from the book.

If you decide to take part, please add the badge to your post and link up back to me, and either use a link-up tool or add the url of your post as a comment. Alternatively, email me with the link to your post (my email is sasha1703 at yahoo dot com).

I promise to Pin all blogs posts taking part in this challenge, as well as RT and Google+

Tuesday, 18 August 2015

Curd cheese cookies

When I'm stressed, I bake. Sasha has been not sleeping well again recently, he's very unsettled in the night, and my nights are trips from one bedroom to another and back again. I feel like a shuttle with a half-broken engine. Baking could be as good as therapy, if not better. Yesterday I went for the old-fashioned cookies called in Russian "goosinye lapki" (lit. feet of geese).
There are different versions of these cookies. Some swear that the butter should be very cold, just out of the fridge, so you can grate it. Some say, no-no, butter has to be left at the room temperature to soften, then you mix it with curd or cottage cheese. You can dip them in sugar half-way before folding, or skip that stage and sprinkle with the icing sugar later. Egg yolks added, or no eggs at all.
I am doing a recipe the way I know from my youth, though this is not my family recipe. I don't think my Mum has ever baked them.

Curd cheese cookies
250g curd cheese
200g cold butter, grated
300g+ self-raising flour
1/2 tsp baking powder
100g caster sugar (or less)
1 egg yolk

Grate the very cold butter straight from the fridge and mix with curd cheese. Add the flour, baking powder, caster sugar and egg yolk. Mix well with hands. Go on, dig in and knead.
Roll it into one big piece of dough, and place the bowl with the dough covered with the towel in the fridge for at least half an hour.
Take the dough out, and divide it into halves, as it would be easier to roll flat with a rolling pin to about 5mm thickness. Dust the surface with more flour when you roll the dough. Cut out circles with a cookie or scone cutter, or even a glass. Roll all the leftovers together, and cut out as many circles as you can.
Fold each circle in half, then fold in half again.

Preheat the oven to 180C. Don't put the cookies too close to each other on the trays, as they do tend to expand.

 Use either foil or parchment paper on the trays. Bake until cookies are golden for about 15-20 minutes.

Curd cheese cookies uncooked & cooked
Sprinkle some icing sugar on top before serving.

You can use the cottage cheese rather than curd cheese in this recipe, but you might want to drain it from the surplus of liquid by leaving in a sieve over a bowl. I buy the curd cheese in the deli department of Waitrose by weight. It has the right soft consistency and not too lumpy texture in comparison to the cottage cheese.

These cookies will keep well for several days in the closed container, but they are the best eaten on the same day or the next day, when they are truly fresh. Warm soon after the oven is the best option.
And they look pretty too.