Thursday, 29 September 2016

Casdon Supermarket Till

educational toys

Role play is an important part of learning about the world around us. Children learn through play. Role play or pretend play allows children to act out a role in a fun way. It develops communication and social skills as children interact with each other, it boosts imagination and creativity and allows kids to explore and discover. Casdon, inventors of fun and play, realise the importance of role play. Their range of educational toys is varied and extensive.
Casdon Supermarket Till is a new fun educational set. I remember similar till sets in both nurseries and Reception classes my children went to, but they were much more basic in comparison.
This till is a super modern updated version. You will need to install three AA batteries.

educational toys

It comes with a touch-sensitive screen, a working calculator and a microphone. There is a scanner, a chip and pin feature, opening cash till and a selection of branded play food.
The supermarket till can teach children about money - you get a selection of plastic coins to play with.

The food items come without labels, so you will need to attach the stickers yourselves. This was pretty straightforward and easy.

How does the toy operate? Chip and pin unit can be swivelled. To operate you push your cash card and press the small keypad four times.
There is a pretend weighing scale and control panel as well as a pretend produce shelf.
The calculator has a keypad with an LCD display. There is a power on/off button. You will also find food and produce short cut buttons; when pressed they add a predetermined values to the calculator.
The microphone at the top is flexible and is supposed to amplify voice.
The scanner gun bleeps and adds a random value to the calculator.

The food and drink items represent familiar brands including some British classics like Hovis bread or Birds Eye Arctic Roll. Cute Baxters soup tins were my personal favourites.

This fun educational toy set - which is a great source of role play - will make a wonderful gift for children aged 3-8 years. It also has a great potential for classes with special needs children.

The only criticism I'm raising is that while installing the batteries, I really struggled with the fixing screw. I have tried a selection of screwdriver head attachments to move it open, none of which seemed to work. By the time I managed to open it and close the lid back, the actual screw got almost shapeless. I think changing the batteries again will be an issue. It's not just this toy. I have noticed many toys which require batteries have tricky screws. Or is it just me?

We also thought that the added values were too random and didn't quite reflect the realistic prices of the real life products. I appreciate this is a toy, and is not meant to be too realistic. This didn't stop my son from enjoying the set.
I was wondering if he would think himself too "grown-up" for the supermarket till, but he seemed to be engrossed in the play. And when I asked him if we might take the set to school to give away to the Reception class, he asked me "Mummy, could we keep it?".

For more information and competitions check out CasdonToysUk on Twitter and Casdon on Facebook.

Disclosure: We received this toy set for the purposes of testing and reviewing. All opinions are ours.

Wednesday, 28 September 2016

Roasted tomato and garlic borlotti beans hummus

Borlotti beans also known as cranberry beans are used in many classic Italian recipes, from stews to burgers.
The latest Degustabox included three tins of Cirio borlotti beans. I'm a big fan of Cirio tomato products, but didn't realise they have beans and lentils as well in their extensive range. Each tin contains 150g borlotti beans in water. They have been pre-cooked in steam and are ready to eat. You can add them to salads or ragu.

Italian foods

I recently bought a jar of tahini for making hummus, so decided I'll try making a hummus using borlotti beans as well as roasted tomatoes and garlic for extra flavour.

Roasted tomato and garlic borlotti beans hummus
250g tomatoes
2tbsp olive oil
a glug of soy sauce,
2tbsp balsamic vinegar
a dash of vodka (optional)
5 cloves of garlic
2 tins of Cirio Borlotti beans (150g each)
2 heaped tbsp tahini
sumac and a tablespoon of chopped pistachios for decoration

Place tomatoes in a small roasting dish, pour over the olive oil, soy sauce, balsamic vinegar and vodka, add the cloves of garlic. Place the roasting dish in the oven preheated to 180C for 25 minutes. Leave to cool before peeling the skins off the tomatoes and garlic.

Rinse the contents of two tins of borlotti beans and let all the water drain before placing the beans in a medium sized mixing bowl. Add the tomatoes and garlic. Add 1-2tbsp of the juice leftover from the roasting of tomatoes. Add tahini and season with salt. Using a hand blender, blitz the beans and tomatoes into hummus. Sprinkle hummus with a bit of sumac for colour (or use paprika instead) and add a few of chopped pistachios to decorate.
Serve with bread chips or bread sticks, as well as cucumber or carrot sticks.

Disclosure: I receive a monthly food subscription Degustabox for the purposes of testing and reviewing. All opinions are mine.

Sunday, 25 September 2016

Mushroom and chestnut risotto

Just in case you were wondering why I haven't been blogging much in the last month, I was super busy. My Mum was staying with us for a month, plus my in-laws came visiting from Italy for a week. That and the back to school hullabaloo left me with not much time for blogging. My in-laws have left, my Mum flew back to Russia this very morning (sob! I miss her already), and now I will need to catch up on one zillion posts that I have planned. I haven't been entirely distracted from my hobby, as I kept cooking and taking photos, but writing and editing photos was put on hold. 
When my in-laws were visiting, I cooked most of our dinners - apart from one evening when we went out to The Fleece. One of the meals that I cooked recently was a mushroom and chestnut risotto.

I have recently received my big prize from Grana Padano - a whole big wheel of cheese weighing 18kg (if you don't remember how I won it - have a look at the post - Grana Padano Top Chef Blogger Competition). That's a year's supply of cheese. I didn't imagine it would arrive all in one go. I've been sharing it with friends and neighbours, and even insisted that my in-laws and Mum should take some cheese with them, though I do appreciate it might be funny to bring an Italian cheese back to Italy.
I have also been adding it to lots of meals. It is such a beautiful tasty cheese, wonderful to nibble on and excellent in cooking too.

I've had a pack of whole natural chestnuts which are already peeled and cooked and kept in a vacuum sealed bag since before Christmas. I remember they were on offer, and I was a tad over-enthusiastic and bought several packs. I suppose I could have kept it until the next Christmas, but I wanted to cook a risotto for dinner and liked the sound of the recipe printed in the back of the box.
I have adapted the recipe, halved the amount of chestnuts and used different mushrooms as well as did some other minor changes.

Mushroom and chestnut risotto
1 medium red onion, finely chopped
200g mixed exotic mushrooms
2tsp butter
200g arborio rice
2tbsp olive oil
450ml vegetable stock + more if needed
100ml white wine (or mix of dry white and rose)
100g whole cooked chestnuts (for example, Porter Foods Whole Natural Chestnuts)
100ml single cream
Grana Padano, to grate over the risotto

Finely chop an onion, add oil to the frying pan and gently fry the onion for about 5 minutes, then add the butter and chopped mushrooms. I used a pack of mixed exotic mushrooms for extra flavour, but a combination of white and chestnut mushrooms will work as well. Cook for another 3-4 minutes, stirring often.
Add the arborio rice, and cook for 2 minutes, stirring often. The rice should be well coated in oil and butter. Pour the wine over the rice, cook stirring until the liquid has been absorbed. Ladle some of the vegetable stock over the rice, keep stirring while cooking. Keep adding the stock until most of it has been used, then add the single cream and chopped chestnuts.
It will take 25+ minutes for a risotto to be ready. For an authentic taste, it should still be al dente. If you prefer your risotto to be well done, keep cooking until you get your desired consistency and texture.
Serve hot, with a generous helping of grated cheese on top.
Grana or Parmesan, the choice is yours.

Italian risotto recipe

In case you're curious I love Gallo arborio rice for cooking risottos. It's a superior rice with an excellent taste.

Italian recipes

As I used a semi-forgotten pack of chestnuts in this recipe, I'm adding this post to #KitchenClearout linky run by Cheryl from Madhouse Family Reviews.

Saturday, 24 September 2016

Carrot banana cake - #GameOnCooks

When it comes to baking, The Women's Institute which was founded in 1915, is a great authority. Last year I picked up a copy of The Women's Institute Big Book Of Baking reduced from £25 to £2.99. And though most recipes looked familiar, there were quite a few recipes with a twist on the much loved British classics.
I bake a carrot cake at least a couple of times a month, sometimes every week, as this is one of our family favourites. I have tried many carrot cake recipes, some were delicious, some less so.
The Women's Institute has created a carrot cake recipe with a twist - adding a banana to the cake batter and swapping the cream cheese frosting for buttercream frosting.
I have fancied trying the recipe, but have adapted it and changed the frosting back to cream cheese, simply because my guys are not overly keen on buttercream frosting. I have also skipped the dessicated coconut and did some other minor changes, but the overall idea of adding a banana to a carrot cake was a novelty to me. The WI named it a Passion Cake, not quite sure why, but I'll go for a more descriptive Carrot banana cake.

Carrot banana cake
zest of 1 orange
1 banana, mashed
1tsp baking powder
1tsp ground cinnamon
1/3tsp ground cloves
1/2tsp ground allspice
200g crunchy demerara sugar
a pinch of salt
170g carrot (peeled weight), grated
3 medium eggs
45g walnuts, chopped finely + more for decoration
125ml vegetable oil
2tsp ground hazelnuts (optional)
225g wholemeal flour
For the cream cheese frosting:
200g cream cheese (I used Philadelphia original)
150g icing sugar
100g softened butter

Grate the zest of 1 orange in a big mixing bowl, add a peeled banana and mash it with a fork. Add the baking powder, spices, demerara sugar, a pinch of salt, grated carrot, beat in the eggs, mix well. Add the chopped walnuts, oil, flour and ground hazelnuts. The original recipe asks for dessicated coconut, but I couldn't find any in my kitchen, so I have reduced the amount of vegetable oil to 125ml and added a couple of heaped teaspoons of ground hazelnuts. Mix all the ingredients together, and pour the cake batter into a well buttered round cake tin. Place the tin in an oven preheated to 200C and bake for about 45 minutes until golden brown (check if it's ready with a wooden toothpick).
Remove from the oven and leave it in the tin for 10 minutes before removing out of the tin to cool completely.
Slice the cake in half horizontally.
Make the frosting with the cream cheese, softened butter and icing sugar. Spread 1/3 on the lower layer of the cake, sandwich it and top up with the remaining frosting. Sprinkle some finely chopped walnuts on the top.

In this recipe I used a Lurpak unsalted butter to make a delicious cream cheese frosting. For the tasty frosting you need the best ingredients - a quality butter and a decent cream cheese. I used Philadelphia original. In the past I have tried Light and Lightest Philly, but they didn't quite work. They might be less in calories but make a runnier frosting, so the choice is yours.

And that's my second bake for #GameOnCooks.
To encourage us to do more cooking, Lurpak has started a new Game On, Cooks campaign. It's challenging Brits to turn their screens off and ovens on. Their motto is "You're not a cook until you cook".

Tuesday, 20 September 2016

Curd cheese cake - #GameOnCooks

I used to watch a lot of cooking shows in the days before children. I would run home after work to watch Ready Steady Cook, does anyone even remember it? Later, when Eddie was a baby, I was quite addicted to Come Dine with Me, though I haven't watched it in the last couple of years.
GBBO attracts over 10 million viewers per episode every week, and though I have an occasional peek at it, I'm not the biggest fan.
When I read the research conducted by Lurpak that the average Brit spends more than five hours a week consuming food culture and cooking for just four hours, I thought, that's not me then, I don't watch TV much these days. But then if you add up the time I spend reading foodie blogs and cook books, and visiting Instagram and Pinterest, it could easily be more than five hours per week for me.
Though in my "defense" I must say I do a lot of cooking, definitely more than four hours per week, at least a double of that.
To encourage us to do more cooking, Lurpak has started a new Game On, Cooks campaign. It's challenging Brits to turn their screens off and ovens on. Their motto is "You're not a cook until you cook".

I love baking, so for this challenge I have picked a simple cake recipe.
It is based on a family favourite - ricotta cake - but this time I used a curd cheese rather than ricotta. And it was a great success.

Curd cheese cake
zest of  1 orange, grated
3 eggs
200g caster sugar
200g curd cheese
1tsp baking powder
300g self-raising flour
100g butter, melted
1tsp vanilla bean paste

Grate the zest of 1 orange in a deep mixing bowl.
Beat in the eggs with the caster sugar, add curd cheese, baking powder, flour, vanilla bean paste and melted butter and mix well.
The cake batter is quite thick. Spoon it carefully in a well oiled cake tin. Put the bundt cake tin in an oven preheated to 180C for 45+ minutes (depending on the size of the bundt tin). Check with a wooden toothpick if it's ready. You might need to lower the temperature and bake it for another 10 minutes, until the skewer comes clean.
Sprinkle some icing sugar on the top.
Serve warm or cold. It will keep well for a couple of days, wrapped in foil.

You can swap the ingredients: curd cheese for ricotta, orange zest for lemon zest or even clementine.
I used Lurpak unsalted butter in this recipe, but any good quality butter will do.

Disclosure: I received a supermarket voucher to buy the ingredients to take part in the campaign.

Thursday, 15 September 2016

Vegetarian borscht

Russian food, Russian recipes, vegetarian soup

Shopping with my Mum is a dangerous thing, she encourages me to spend way too much. We're just back from traipsing through all the main shops in town, as I was looking for a new top. I'm going to London on Saturday to have a master-class on Southern Italian cooking, and I want to look "naice". Rather than buy one top, I bought three in White Stuff, especially that they have a 20% off event today. Did I really need three new tops? Probably not, but I blame my Mum for the shopping spree.
It's been lovely to have Mum staying with us this month, but the time is ticking, and in just over a week she'll be heading back home. We see each other once a year, and try to make the most of it when we are together.
Every time Mum comes for a visit, I ask her to cook some of my favourite dishes. This time Mum offered to cook a vegetarian borscht.

Russian soup recipe

Vegetarian borscht
3tbsp vegetable oil
2 medium carrots
2 medium beets
2 big potatoes
1 small parsnip
1 sweet pepper
1/2 small white cabbage
1/3 green Chinese cabbage
2 tomatoes
2tbsp tomato paste
1 cube of vegetable stock

Chop all the vegetables.

First add the chopped beets to the frying pan with 2tbsp of vegetable oil (sunflower or rapeseed).
Cook on low for about 10-15 minutes, sweating the veg and stirring frequently. This brings the sweetness out, and the beets acquire a deeper flavour.
I have mentioned already in the other borscht recipe posts that you might skip the frying bit and put all the sliced vegetables together, but you won't get the same depth of flavour. Remove the cooked beets and add them to the big cooking pot.
Repeat the process with the chopped carrots, add a bit more oil to the frying pan. Slightly fry them with the finely sliced parsnip and sweet pepper.
Plunge whole tomatoes in the boiling water, then into cold one, so that you can peel them easier. Chop the tomatoes. Add the tomatoes to the pan with the tomato paste. Add the chopped cabbage and potatoes as well as the stock cube.
Pour enough water to cover all the veg and about 2cm over. Cook for about 20 minutes.

When cooking a borscht, I like to add a couple of tablespoons of tomato paste. Though Cirio is an Italian brand famous for its tomato products, and this is a Russian recipe, Cirio tomato paste is an excellent ingredient for the Russian soup.

If you're an omnivore and don't care much for vegetarian recipes, I have a couple of posts for meat-based borscht which Mum cooks - see Mama's borscht (with chicken) and Mama's borscht with meatballs. Both are delicious.

Russian food recipes

Disclosure: I received a selection of Cirio products for using in recipes.

Tuesday, 13 September 2016

Apple and raisin cake

autumn garden

Early autumn is a beautiful time of the year. Apple trees in our garden are groaning under the weight of apples. I try to add apples to as many dishes as possible in autumn, plus make jellies and chutneys.
Many of our neighbours have their own fruit in the garden, and you often pass by a big crate of apples or pears (or quinces if you're lucky) outside someone's door, offering free fruit.

Last Sunday when my husband and Eddie went to the church service, I took Sasha out to his favourite cafe and later book shop. While he was browsing the local guides' section, I was looking at the GBBO-themed display of books including a book of Mary Berry's bakes.
The seventh season of GBBO is full on melodrama and tears. I can't say I'm the biggest fan. Last year I haven't watched it at all. Mr Hollywood grates on my nerves. He might be a gift to some women, but I find him unpleasantly arrogant and self-satisfied. And also bloody rude.
I browsed Mary Berry's recipes, when I came across an interesting-sounding bake - an apple cake with cocoa. I have adapted it a bit, and added eggs.

Apple and raisin cake
1 large cooking apple, peeled and sliced thinly
1tsp butter
1tsp bicarb of soda + a squeeze of lemon juice
100g dark muscovado sugar
100g butter, melted and cooled
175g self-raising flour
a pinch of nutmeg
1tsp cinnamon, ground
1tsp cocoa powder
50g raisins, chopped
2 medium eggs
icing sugar for dusting

Start by peeling and slicing a big cooking apple. I used a rather tart variety. Melt 1tsp of butter in a small frying pan, add the sliced apple, and cook stirring with a dash of water until tender. Remove from the heat and let it cool a bit.
In a big bowl mix together cooked apple with the bicarbonate of soda and a good squeeze of lemon juice. I find that lemon juice cuts the sharp metallic taste of soda, mellows it and makes the bake taste better. Whenever the recipe asks for a bicarb of soda, I add lemon juice over it, until it all goes fizzy-fluffy. I can always taste soda in other people's bakes. Even a small amount is quite distinct.
Add the sugar and melted butter to the apples, then flour, spices, cocoa and chopped raisins (if they're small, don't chop them).
Australian apple and raisin cake is made without eggs, but the cake dough looked so dense that I added two just in case.
Ladle the cake batter into the well oiled cake tin, and put in the oven preheated to 180C. Bake for about 40+ minutes. Check readiness with a wooden toothpick.
Take the cake out of the tin, and dust with the icing sugar before cutting and serving.
It is lovely warm, and also the next day.
I was right about the eggs. I'm sure I sound as arrogant as Paul H, if I think I can improve a Mary Berry's recipe. Actually I was not trying to "improve" it, I just think for my taste it would have been too flat and dense otherwise. Sorry, Mary.
It would also benefit from more apples. One apple is not enough, you could hardly find the pieces in the cake. Next time I bake it, I'll use two apples. But the combination of apples and cocoa was really tasty.

apple recipes

autumn garden

Adding this recipe to #KitchenClearout linky run by lovely Cheryl from Madhouse Family Reviews.

I'm also joining with We Should Cocoa linky run by one and only Choclette at Tin and Thyme.

Monday, 12 September 2016

My First Bananagrams

We're going bananas for My First Bananagrams. This new game aimed at children aged 4+ is a variation of Bananagrams, so it's perfect for primary school children, from Reception onwards, who start to develop their reading and writing skills.
The original Bananagrams game comes in a yellow, i.e. ripe pouch. My First Bananagrams' case is green - to underline the young age of its target audience.

The actual set is a mixture of brightly coloured plastic letter tiles including 80 single letters and 13 combo-letter tiles. The tiles are small and light, and are easy to handle.

Last year, when Eddie was in Year 1, they were beginning to study digraphs. This game will be a handy tool
for new learners of word families.

Pre-schoolers may start with very easy tasks of spelling their names or putting the ABCs in an alphabetic order.
The goal for a preschooler is to recognise letters.
An early reader is encouraged to build words.

An (advanced) reader is expected to intersect words with other words to make simple grids.
The instructions leaflet which comes in the pouch gives ideas  and instructions on how to play.
The setup is easy - you need 1 to 4 players. Place all 80 single letter tiles face down on the playing surface. Each player takes 15 tiles.
Your object is to use all the letters in a connected word grid without making spelling mistakes. You are not supposed to make proper nouns either, but we have relaxed the rule.

When you have used all the letters in a connected grid, call Bananas! The first player who completes the grid without mistakes is declared a Top Banana.
Once you have mastered the art of single tiles, you move onto an advanced level and combo-letters.

There are 10 different mini games based on the curriculum. They are educational and entertaining. Children will enjoy the game without realising they are learning. It's a fun way to reinforce early reading skills without getting bored.
It's amazing just how many school books for young readers are excruciatingly boring written by talentless writers and illustrated by artists who are not very good at what they are doing. I volunteer once a week at school and help with the reading programme, so have seen my share of rather dull reading material in the last couple of years. You can see why some kids are not enthusiastic. I'd be bored to tears if I had to read some of those books on a daily basis.
Games like My First Bananagrams could encourage young readers and teach them that spelling and word games could be great fun.

Disclosure: I received a set of My First Bananagrams for the purposes of testing and reviewing. All opinions are mine. None of my links are affiliate.

Monday, 5 September 2016

5 tips for a happier morning

Back to school today. Deep sigh. Where did the summer go?! I know many parents couldn't wait for their children to go back to school, but I am sooo not looking forward to early mornings and the hectic school run.
My younger son was quite pleased to go to school, I wonder how long his enthusiasm will last?!

Are you all geared up for the new academic year? I passed by the Clarks yesterday, and saw through the open doors that there was a big commotion inside, I could have never guessed so many people could fit in in such a small space. I'm not being critical that they left it so late to buy new shoes. I bought Eddie's plimsolls for PE just today.
Does the start of the new school term feel like doom to you or quite the opposite - a fresh start for new plans and ideas?

Rachel's Organic - the leading brand of premium quality yogurts - has teamed up with Nutribullet, which took the world of foodies by storm, asking bloggers to share their tips for a perfect morning. When they asked me to take part in the challenge, I confess my first thought was: are they sure they got in touch with the right person?
Perfect mornings? Do they even exist? Our mornings, especially during the school term, are a very hectic affair.
Yet there are some tips and hacks we all might use for a less stressful morning routine.
They are carved in stone of course, but they work for us. And please keep in mind, I'm not the most organised person.
So, what do I do to make our mornings a little bit less stressful?
I imagine most parents prepare their children's uniforms and sports' kits on the eve. I also prepare the lunchbox in the evening and keep it in the fridge overnight.

My five top tips for a happier morning:
1. Set up your alarm clock for 10 minutes earlier, so that you don't have to jump put of bed as soon as the alarm goes off. You will have some time to yourself to stretch in bed a bit and postpone the inevitable just for a little bit.

2. I feel rather sorry for my kids, when it's time to wake them up. I remember how much I hated getting up for school when I was a child. When it's time to wake up my younger one, I gently scoop him out of bed and kiss him, he sits on my lap for a few minutes with his eyes still closed, and I hug and gently rock him. Then he's ready to open his eyes and face the world. These are our moments of togetherness.
That's my second tip - don't forget the cuddles.

3. Music. Get an energy vibe from music. When I'm preparing our quick breakfast in the morning, I switch on the radio. Classic FM is my favourite radio channel. A beautiful piece of music gives me so much pleasure and joy. Sometimes I even dance to the music, especially if noone's around to see me.

4. Don't skip your breakfast. If there is no time to cook, grab a couple of cereal biscuits or a small pot of yogurt. I make the biggest cup of tea for myself, as I always wake up feeling thirsty.
Recently Rachel's Organic has launched a new Limited Edition Organic Low Fat Caramel Latte yogurt as well as a range of Rachel's Greek Style Breakfast Pots.

Breakfast pots are convenient to us: they are a combination of creamy smooth yogurt with a crunchy granola. These new flavours are an optimum breakfast meal in a hurry and a great way to start your day.

5. While you're eating your breakfast, read the latest post or two from your favourite blog(s).

Limited Edition Organic Low Fat Caramel Latte yogurt has been inspired by the culture of coffehouses. This is a smooth lush yogurt made with the real coffee. All you coffee lovers will find it utterly irresistible.

It is lovely on its own, but also works beautifully in recipes. Just the other day I baked a batch of yogurt cupcakes with the new yogurt, and they were delicious.

If you fancy trying these cupcakes, here is the recipe:

Yogurt cupcakes (makes 10)
3 medium eggs
150g caster sugar
150g yogurt (e.g. Rachel's Caramel Latte yogurt)
175g self-raising flour
2tbsp ground almonds, heaped
115g butter, melted and cooled a bit
for the frosting:
butter and icing sugar in equal proportions (about 300g each) with a drop of vanilla

In a deep mixing bowl beat the eggs with the sugar, add yogurt, flour, ground almonds and melted and slightly cooled butter. Mix well. Pour the cake batter into paper muffin cases inserted into a muffin baking tray. Cook at 180C for about 20 minutes until golden.
Let them cool completely before decorating with the buttercream frosting. I used a mix of icing sugar and softened butter, beaten with a little bit of vanilla essence for flavour.

These are tasty cupcakes, with a hint of caramel latte. Perfect with a cup of coffee or tea, any time of the day, even breakfast, if you fancy a sweet treat for breakfast.

Disclosure: I received several vouchers to buy new flavours of yogurt for the purposes of testing and reviewing.