Thursday, 29 December 2011

A Year in Cakes - 2011

As the year draws to a close, it is good to look back and remember achievements and significant events from the previous twelve months.

Happy New Year!

Friday, 23 December 2011

The Birds my True Love Sent to Me

It has been a busy run up to Christmas as it always is. Add to this the fact that one of my fillings fell out (requiring urgent treatment if I was to stand any chance of indulging in the seasonal fare on offer), the usual sprinkling of illness and general 'run down-ness' that has become synonymous with this time of year and the inevitably stressful completion date for my eldest daughter's house purchase - it is a wonder I have survived unscathed.

Yesterday, as I did battle with other shoppers trying ineffectively to steer overladen shopping trolleys around my local Morrisons, I was not only trying to purchase everything I needed for arguably the most important dinner of the year, I also had a shopping list of cleaning products for my daughter who was beavering away with her sleeves rolled up and marigolds on to make her new house gleam. Rather than being stressed by it all, I found myself walking up and down the aisles with a big smile on my face. I may not have managed to buy everything I needed but I have a grown up home owner daughter and a tooth with a brand new filling that will put to the test with all the lovely treats did find their way into my trolley. If we could all just stop coughing, everything would be perfect.

One of the things that has helped keep everything (relatively) stress free has been my Xmas knitting project in which I have attempted to make one of each of the birds that feature in the Xmas classic, The Twelve Days of Christmas. I never imagined I would find knitting so relaxing and I have really enjoyed seeing my little creations taking shape. Here are the (slightly malformed!) birds my true love sent to me with a Santa thrown in for good measure!



Monday, 19 December 2011

Kodak Christmas Photo Craft Challenge

I love taking photographs and recently I have discovered a new passion for knitting. I thought there had to be some interesting ways to combine these two hobbies and the Kodak Christmas  Photo Craft Challenge gave me just the incentive I needed to get creative.

I'm Taking Part in the Kodak Christmas Photo Craft Challenge

This is the image I decided to use for my Christmas Photo Craft.

I love my daughter's cheeky little expression and the outline of the head is quite clean which made it easy to cut out. 

This is the knitting part of the project.

I have been busy making little knitted decorations for my Christmas tree. The hat and beard of my knitted santa seemed to lend themselves perfectly to the idea I had for this challenge.

I adjusted the size of the photograph and printed it. I cut out the head and added a knitted beard and hat. All that remained was to hang it on the Christmas tree!

My Kodak Christmas Photo Craft Challenge

Thursday, 15 December 2011

A Lovely Surprise

I had a lovely surprise today.

I was quickly checking my twitter account after a day spent away from the computer, knitting with my mum, when I saw the following messages:

Congratulations to  who has won our best video review of the year!  (1st post by Chris Boxall) Charming!

Well done  you've won £50 worth of Orchard Toys products for your What a Performance! video review!

 Please contact me on PR/Marketing email you can find here  Congratulations on your charming review!

I was delighted for two reasons:

1. £50 worth of lovely products from Orchard Toys is going to make a very nice extra pile of presents under the Christmas tree, and

2. It is a good feeling to know that the effort I put into my video reviews is appreciated.

I love finding excuses to make videos and enjoy the whole process from coming up with ideas to filming and editing. Best of all is having the finished product that I can revisit often and marvel at how much my little ones have grown and changed.

I find it astonishing that my video channel has received nearly 86,000 views (at time of writing) in the year it has been in existence, with one particular video clocking up nearly 26,000 on its own! I realise that in viral video terms this is nothing but for me, to think that my little boy beating a cuddly dog repeatedly over the head with a rubber bone has been watched 26,000 times, is quite something!

I am looking forward to receiving (and reviewing) my prize from Orchard Toys and of course, having the excuse for making more videos.

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

Tots 100 Xmas Party Weekend

In my post All I want for Xmas isn't lettuce , I did have a bit of a moan about the vegetarian food served by Turners restaurant at the Tots 100 Xmas Party. This was not a reflection on the weekend, which was fabulous.

We decided to go the whole hog and stay 3 nights at the Butlins resort and take the opportunity to visit my in-laws in Brighton whilst we were down there on the South Coast. As it turned out, my mother in law's hip replacement operation was scheduled for that same weekend which gave us an even bigger incentive to want to see them and offer whatever support we could.

We arrived quite late on the Friday, settled into our hotel, The Shoreline, which was very nice and went for a little wander around the resort.

The Skyline Pavilion from our Hotel window

Things have changed a lot at Butlins since I used to spend family holidays at Barry Island as a child some forty years ago. Back then it was all row upon row of slightly shabby looking chalets and a very 'school dinner' approach to the catering. Now it is clean hotels with much attention to detail (I particularly appreciated the fluffy white towels folded to look like various animals [we had a crab, a dog and an elephant] which made my feeble attempts at napkin folding seem quite insignificant) and eateries to suit a variety of tastes and budgets.

The schedule of entertainment was very impressive and although I usually prefer my holidays to be more about the natural beauty and attractions of the location, I was happy to throw myself into the Butlins way of life and 'be entertained'. My kids loved the fairground rides for little people and the soft adventure play areas and I had an amazingly good time on the first night watching A Beautiful World perform their set in celebration of the music of Take That. Marvellous! I had packed swimming costumes to try out their Splash Waterworld but after two separate people told me that the water tempertaure was uncomfortably cold, we decided to give that a miss. We were already struggling to fight off the winter colds without being reckless!

Enjoying a book with Grandma
On the Saturday, my husband took both children to Brighton for the day to see Grandma before she went into hospital and to catch up with some of his old friends. It felt very strange for me to be in such a family orientated environment without my little ones but I spent some time time with my sister, Wendy, who was also there for the party and enjoyed some rare me time. At two o'clock we met up with the Tots 100 bloggers for coffee and mince pies and a rather bizarre competitive christmas tree decorating hour. My team won, mostly thanks to the painstaking efforts of Squidgyboo to thread fresh cranberries onto cotton to make a fairly juicy garland, but I like to think the friendly face I made out of baubles, a cracker and a santa hat contributed in some small way to the overall effect. I touched base briefly with my family before heading off for Christmas cocktails and dinner at Turners restaurant. It was lovely to get dressed up (although the heels I planned to wear stayed in my suitcase as I opted to stick with my trusty Doc Martens),  meet fellow bloggers, enjoy some kid free time and be thoroughly looked after. Heartfelt thanks to Sally Whittle for making it all possible.

We spent some time enjoying the resort on Sunday morning before heading off to Brighton again for lunch with Grandpa and then to Haywards Heath to visit Grandma who was recovering nicely from her operation. I am so glad that we had booked the extra night at Butlins because we had already spent a lot of time in the car and I, for one, was feeling shattered. Takeaway pizza and a lazy evening in our hotel room was just what I needed.

We made the most of our last few hours of holiday on Monday morning. When we normally would have been on our way to school, we were on our way to the Skyline Pavilion for some fun. It was relatively quiet meaning very little queueing for rides which equates to LOTS of riding.

Taking the teacup ride very seriously

I had one heart-stoppingly horrible moment. Adrian was playing in the soft adventure play area. I was sat in sight of the entrance with a cup of Costa coffee while my husband and Dylan were watching Fireman Sam and an enthusiastic red coat entertain the masses. I was enjoying just sitting and watching the world go by with regular glances into the labyrinth of padded obstacles to reassure myself with a flash of Addy's blonde hair or a glimpse of her stripy jumper. She was having a wonderful time exploring and clambering. As time went by, I felt a growing sense of unease that I hadn't seen her for a while. I had sickening visions of her lying injured, out of sight in the deepest bowels of the soft play area or lured away by some predatory monster. Was it possible that she could have just slipped out unnoticed? I kept thinking that I would spot her smiling face at any moment but when that moment didn't come, the panic began to set in. Maybe by some telepathic link or coincidence, my husband turned up. I explained the situation and he set off in search of her. I stayed where I was in case she was still playing happily in a dark corner.

The whole episode probably lasted no more than five minutes but they were five impossibly long minutes before the sight of my husband returning with my baby girl, unperturbed, held high in his arms, allowed time to pass normally again. She had indeed slipped out of the play area in search of new thrills. She was sitting in a coin operated vehicle pressing buttons without a care in the world when he found her. It was a sobering reminder that life can take unexpected horrifying turns.

By now it was time for our visit to see Santa. Santa's Grotto, set in an enchanted forest, was quite magical. Addy took one look at the rosy cheeked, white bearded gentleman and fled in terror!

It was a great weekend and the Christmassy-ness of it all with fake snow, lights, bauble clad trees, festive songs and the man himself (even if he did frighten the life out of Addy) has been a delight. Back home now to a mountain of laundry and a Christmas day to prepare for.

Monday, 12 December 2011

All I want for Xmas isn't lettuce

I love food.

I am a vegetarian.

I don't think it should be necessary to have to join those two sentences with the connective "but".

I take a lot of time and trouble when planning and preparing my veggie Xmas dinner to ensure that it is well balanced, delicious, festive and impressive, even without the bronzed, stuffed bird to take centre stage. I only wish this were true of all restauranteurs and caterers.

This weekend I was lucky enough to attend the Tots 100 Christmas Party organised by Sally Whittle, woman of great resourcefulness and boundless energy. The venue was Butlins, Bognor Regis and we were treated to a three course evening meal at their flagship restaurant, Turners, which promised a mouthwatering dining experience from the culinary vision of top chef Brian Turner.

The meal started promisingly with a delicious, creamy parsnip soup with roasted hazelnuts. The fact that the serving staff were uncertain as to whether is was actually suitable for vegetarians did not inspire confidence but I enjoyed it nonetheless and did not find so much as a microscopic piece of chicken looking at me from my soup spoon.

As the main course was served to the meat eating guests, I started to get excited about what might be on offer as the vegetarian alternative. Their turkey with all the trimmings looked lovely. I couldn't help but feel disappointed when presented with a plate of two large, grey, triangular wedges of something and some salad leaves. Where were my roast potatoes? My red cabbage? My brussel sprouts? My french beans? Surely the vegetable components of the turkey dinner could be served to meat eaters and vegetarians alike?

The grey wedges, I believe, were roast chestnut and wild mushroom rice cake. The taste was quite nice but, oh, it was stodgy. It was a lot more starchy rice than chestnut and mushroom and I could feel my poor palate struggling to cope with it. The salad leaves would have been a lovely accompaniment to a light meal on a summer day but, call me old fashioned, it is not what I want for winter dining.

The meat eaters were brought round extra gravy. We had to make do with the smear of sauce that made the plate look pretty but did nothing to ease the digestion of the rice cake which by now, in my over active imagination, had grown to the size of triangular house bricks (do such things exist?) and were taunting my inability to produce enough saliva to do the job.

At least there was still dessert to look forward to.

Dessert consisted of poached winter fruits and cinnamon ice cream. That sounds much nicer than the reality which was a handful of prunes, dried apricots and half a pear. It looked like the sort of food I torture myself with when trying to lose weight. It's Christmas! I want to indulge my taste buds! At least this was not the exclusive domain of the vegetarian. If the meat eaters had been served a decadently rich Christmas pud with creamy custard I would have begun to suspect a Brian Turner conspiracy to drive vegetarians into an insanely jealous meat frenzy rage.

The disappointment of the food did not spoil a lovely evening spent with good company and a rather nice red wine but if you were to ask me what I was most looking forward to on Christmas day, I can guarantee that my answer would NOT be lettuce with my Christmas dinner.

Friday, 9 December 2011

Off to the Tots 100 Xmas Party

Although I miss sitting at my computer and letting my thoughts spill onto the screen as the flashing cursor keeps speed with fingers dancing over keys, I do like the days when I am simply TOO BUSY TO BLOG.

Christmas is rapidly approaching and we have so many festive plans that I wonder how I am going to fit it all in. I love the way life can be a rollercoaster but my blog is my station. I enjoy the ride but it is nice to get off sometimes, feel the world stop for a moment and take time to reflect.

Right now, the stations seem to be whizzing by in a blur. I'm getting ready to go south with the family for the Tots 100 Christmas party at Bognor Regis Butlins and plan to visit my in laws in Brighton while we are there. I am still trying to get my head round the packing and no doubt will have forgotten something  crucial that I will remember in a panic somewhere along the M6.

I can complain that there are not enough hours in the day but I can never complain that my life is boring!

Thursday, 8 December 2011

Carol Concent with the mini Grinch

It was my little Addy's Christmas Carol Concert at nursery school yesterday (or as she called it - Carol Concent). She had been enthusiastically belting out word perfect (almost!) renditions of Winter Wonderland and When Santa Got Stuck Up the Chimney at home and I couldn't wait to see my baby girl performing with her classmates.

It was a pleasantly mild day (unlike today when I nearly got blown over walking to school and the day previously where the paths were treacherously slippery) As the parents arrived, the children where already in position on the playground, wrapped up warm in their coats and hats. There were lots of parents gathered around, craning their necks to try and spot their own precious child in the group of wide eyed little ones.

I couldn't spot my Addy at all. It actually got to the point where I was starting to feel a little worried. Where could she be? Her lovely teacher must have noted my growing anxiety and gestured to me where Addy was hiding and tried to coax her out. Reluctantly, she came forward. I thought that when she spotted my face in the audience she would relax and enjoy herself but her petulant little expression didn't alter. In fact, the furrowed brow and the sulky lip remained firmly in place for the duration of the concert. She did not sing a single word.

Most of the children were joining in beautifully. A couple crumbled under the pressure and burst into inconsolable tears. At least Addy didn't cry. She just had a face that the Grinch would have been proud of.

"The Grinch" recreated at home!

After the concert, the parents were invited into the school for mince pies and hot chocolate. It was a lovely opportunity to have a glimpse into Addy's world - a world that has become a very important part of her development.

I asked her why she hadn't sung and she simply shrugged and said I didn't want to. Can't really argue with that! I do hope it isn't a taste of things to come. Have you done your homework Addy? - I didn't want to. Have you tidied your room Addy? - I didn't want to. Why weren't you  home before midnight Addy? - I didn't want to.

Disappointing as it was that I didn't get to see my little girl singing, I did win the raffle (a nice box of chocs) and there is always next year.

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Christmas Muffins

In my quest for the perfect mince pie I have discovered something that will definitely become a part of our family's festive food traditions - the Christmas Muffin.

I used a recipe adapted from Catherine Atkinson's Muffins Galore - a gorgeous book full of inspiring muffin recipes and photographs that make you put on weight simply by looking at them.

Christmas Muffins
Dry Ingredients:
  • 300g SR flour
  • 1tsp baking powder
  • 1tsp ground mixed spice
  • 100g soft brown sugar
Wet Ingredients:
  • 175g Mincemeat
  • 1 egg, beaten
  • 100g melted cooking marg
  • Approx 100mls natural yoghurt made up to 175ml with milk
  • 8 Glace Cherries, chopped
1. Mix the dry and wet ingredients in separate bowls.
2. Add the wet mix to the dry mix and stir until just combined.
3. Dollop into muffin tin lined with muffin cases (makes 12).
4. Sprinkle the tops with demerara sugar to give a decorative, crunchy, sweet topping.
5. Cook for 200˚C (gas mark 6) for approx 20minutes (or until springy)

This recipe does seem to make up to a large amount of mix. I wondered how I was going to fit it all into my 12 muffin cases but I managed.

They are really simple to make and smell gorgeous when they are cooking. The mincemeat gives them a lovely Christmassy flavour and they keep quite well for a couple of days (I don't know if they keep any longer than that because we ate them all!)

It is just possible that this Christmas Eve, Santa might find a festive muffin put out for him with his glass of port at our house.

The Gallery - Week 84 - My Awesome Photograph

I took this photograph at Chester Zoo. I can't help thinking he's admiring his own reflection. If you look closely you might see exactly what he's admiring!

I love the vibrant green, the interesting textures and the gentle humour that make up this photograph which is why I am choosing it as my entry into this week's Gallery.

Monday, 5 December 2011

Cutey Charm Bracelet Giveaway

I love the idea of old fashioned silver charm bracelets - collecting tiny charms that mean something to you and displaying them together on a bracelet. Unfortunately, I've never seen one that actually looks nice! They end up such a muddle.

The new trend in charm bracelets makes a lot more sense and creates a beautifully aesthetic finished piece. Individual beads and charms can be selected to thread onto a simple silver rope bracelet to make something unique and personal. However, the cost of component pieces can be high and the overall cost prohibitive.

New online retailer Cutey have a range of charm bracelets complete with charms that offers a high quality piece of jewellery at a very affordable price. I was sent a bracelet to review.

I was very impressed with the quality of the bracelet that had an authentic feel and a lovely variety of  beads and charms.

I showed the charm bracelet to my fourteen year old daughter who is developing a keen sense of style. She fell in love with it. She spent a good deal of time studying the beads and charms individually and then familiarising herself with the piece as a whole - the tactile movement of it, its weight and wearability.

At  £12.99 with FREE UK delivery, these would make lovely gifts.

I have one Cutey Charm Bracelet to offer as a Giveaway.

For a chance to win, simply:
  • Follow my blog and leave a comment below saying which from the Cutey Range is your favourite. (Please provide a means of contact eg Twitter ID)
For bonus entries (max 3)
  • Like Cutey on Facebook and post a link to this giveaway on their wall.
  • Like Qwerty Mum on Facebook
  • Follow @PaulaHaylock and Tweet " Gorgeous Charm Bracelet from @CuteyJewellery to be won at QWERTY Mum blog @PaulaHaylock #WIN "
Please leave separate comments below for each bonus entry to say that you have done so.

Thank you and Good Luck!

Winner will be chosen at random from all comments on Monday 19th December (UK only)

Competition closed

ThePrizeFinder - UK Competitions

Sunday, 4 December 2011

Christmas Pudding from Fancy Dress Outfitters

Without a doubt, the very best fancy dress costumes are the ones you make yourself - unique, individual and bursting with creativity. But let's be realistic, who always has the time for that sort of thing? Especially at this time of year.

Sometimes, I think, it is perfectly OK to cheat a little.

Online retailers Fancy Dress Outfitters  offer an amazing range of dressing up costumes for both adults and children. I selected an outfit from their Children's Christmas Range to review.

I liked the look of their Snowflake Elf and Tree Fairy costumes but finally opted for the Christmas Pudding.

This is my little Addy, aka the Dancing Xmas Pud, with an original jingle performed by my musical (and ever obliging) daughters.

As well as using fancy dress outfits for parties and other special occasions, I love having a dressing up box available for my children. It can really inspire them and be the catalyst for imaginative play. The Xmas Pudding outfit will make a welcome addition to our festive themed dressing up box.

Thursday, 1 December 2011

Christmas Shopping

With the schools closed because of the pension strikes yesterday, I thought it would be a good idea to take advantage and go Christmas shopping. Unfortunately, it seemed that lots of other people had the same idea. Add to this all the kids that would otherwise have been sitting in lessons and what you have is a crowded town centre barely navigable by one woman and her rather wide buggy.

I persevered with the shopping but with every successful purchase that ladened me down, the job became harder.

When I eventually gave up and came home, my mood had not been tarnished. I had managed to buy some gifts I was really pleased with and felt that I had a clear idea of what still needed to be done - and the majority of that could be accomplished with the miracle of online shopping.

I am feeling very positive about Christmas shopping this year. I have pared down what I need to buy to the barest minimum. This is not because of any financial restrictions - I simply refuse to succumb to the insanity that infects so many people this time of year. There really is no need to go crazy and spend a fortune panic buying things for the sake of it - because it's Christmas!!

Christmas, for me, is about family and friends and making the house warm and cosy and spending time with the kids and seasonal cooking and celebrating and snuggling up to watch heartwarming movies and singing Xmas songs. Of course there is a place for the giving of gifts but I am a firm believer that buying gifts should bring just as much (if not more) pleasure as receiving. I am really getting it right this year. I feel relaxed and happy and full to overflowing with the best kind of warm, fuzzy, it's Xmas feeling.

There is plenty of time for it all to go horribly wrong - an eleventh hour panic that my children will be disappointed with what I've bought them - a horrible realisation after the shops close on Xmas eve that I've forgotten to buy peanuts and how can we possibly have Xmas without peanuts!!!

Last year, we had a Toyologist Christmas thanks to me being the lucky winner of a Toys R Us competition. We had a mountain of toys beneath our Christmas tree which did look amazing and we had a lot of fun opening them and later writing our reviews. This was definitely a one off. I don't even want to think about what my house (and my bank balance) would look like if this were the expectation year after year.

A blog I enjoy reading is Zen Habits. The author, Leo Babauta, wrote a post called "The No New Gifts Holiday Challenge" which, as the title suggests, challenges us to buy no new gifts during the holiday season. I don't think I can ever see myself going to such extreme measures but his alternative ideas make a lot of sense and are based on making, creating, sharing and donating rather than the more typical consumerism that is the norm for December.

I am finding the balance that is right for me, my values and my family and it feels good. I am fully charged with Christmas spirit and loving every minute.
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