Monday, 30 June 2014

The Tale of the Gingerbread Man

Daughter N loves the story of the Gingerbread Man. I came across the book on holiday in Mallorca last year and because it brought back memories of my childhood in New Zealand I bought it without hesitation. That evening I read it to the children, not suspecting how different their responses to the story would be.

I'm sure many of you remember it well: the Gingerbread Man not only escapes his bakers but everyone else who pursues him with the sole intention of gobbling him up. Gingerbread Man is too fast for all of them: "Run, run, as fast as you can, you can't catch me, I'm the Gingerbread Man." That is... until he meets sly and cunning Fox. Fox tricks the Gingerbread Man when he helps him cross a river and as a result is able to enjoy a good ginger-flavoured afternoon snack.

Here's the little guy getting away from everyone

Now I know my son. He is a sensitive and deeply empathetic boy and I love him for it. So, as I was nearing the end of the story and the full impact of the ending began to dawn on me, I suddenly regretted buying the book. Realising it would be odd to suddenly throw the book out of the window for no particular reason I continued reading, trying my darndest to sound as cheerful as possible. But as I came to the last lines of the story with a giant, aching smile on my face - the bit where Fox throws Gingerbread Man into the air and catches him with his widely opened mouth - I could see S's expression begin to change from one of friendly interest to one of utter horror. "Well, that's the end of the story - time for bed," I said smiling my head off, but S would have none of it. He put his hand on his chest, swallowed away some tears and said in disbelief: "You mean, mama... that's the end of the story?" Still foolishly believing I could laugh the whole thing off, I said: "Yip, well, s*** happens, let's go brush your teeth" (or something to that effect).

Oh, the horror... the horror

That evening was one of tears and talking in the late evening Mallorca heat about the unfairness of it all: sweet, happy-go-lucky Gingerbread Man devoured by sly, mean Fox whilst celebrating his deeply desired freedom.  And I realised with a heavy heart that when the time comes to really break the news that bad things happen to good people, I will have my work cut out for me.

And N? Well she was far more pragmatic about the whole thing: "Bye bye Gingerbread Man. Fox must be hungry, poor Fox,  and the Gingerbread Man must taste delicious. Can you bake some soon, mama, so I can eat one too?"

Gingerbread Man certainly does taste delicious and there is nothing quite like the scent of ginger wafting through the house and into the garden on a sunny Sunday morning. Without further ado, here is the recipe, adapted from the one in Mary Berrry's Ultimate Cake Book. I use coconut and brown sugar instead of muscovado sugar; and maple syrup instead of  golden syrup (cutting down on the refined stuff somewhat) and as always, spelt flour instead of wheat.

Gingerbread Men
adapted from Mary Berry's Ultimate Cake Book by Mary Berry

350g spelt flour
1 heaped teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
2 teaspoons ground ginger
100g butter
100g coconut palm sugar
75g brown sugar
1 egg, beaten
4 tablespoons maple syrup
gingerbread man cutter
yields 17-20 biscuits, depending on your cutter

  • preheat oven 190 degrees Celsius
  • line a baking tray with baking paper
  • put flour, bicarb and ginger into a large bowl; rub in the butter to form something that resembles bread crumbs
  • stir in the sugars
  • add egg and syrup
  • knead mixture with a light hand until you form a smooth dough
  • divide the dough into two halves
  • take one half and roll out on a lightly floured surface. Using a cookie cutter, cut out the gingerbread men and place them on a tray
  • do the same with the second half of the dough
  • you may need to bake in two batches, as I always do  
  • bake 10-12 mins           

N felt Gingerbread Man should have a belly button

Saturday, 28 June 2014

The Right to Write

Writing is a powerful thing. To me there is nothing more satisfying than organising words into sentences and sentences into paragraphs and, in doing so, composing a piece that will hopefully touch or entertain its reader. In short: expressing what I want to say, and doing so as thoughtfully and eloquently as possible.

Writing has been a part of my life ever since I can remember. I wrote short stories at school, enjoyed essay writing at university as well as journaling and writing poems privately.  I even hope to finish a novel I'm working on within the next year or so, carving out time especially to work on it now that daughter N is starting school after the summer. No one save a couple of close friends know about this novel writing activity - or even about this blog in fact! - as I have kept my lips firmly sealed. Why? For fear of being criticised, fear of putting myself out there, but also for fear of being a disappointment (shudder).

Baring your soul - for that is what writing is - is a tricky business. What if people don't like what you do? (Help!) What if people do like what you do? (Help!). In the first case you risk feelings of shame and devastation; in the second the pressure to perform and continue pleasing. It is a catch-22 situation and both do the writer - and the writing - a great disservice.

Some excellent posts have been appearing lately on various blogs concerning creativity and the act of writing**. A lot of writers express a fear of judgement and some have been put off in the past by  the judgements of others - even teachers at school. Others fear that they have nothing really important to say. The good news, I am discovering, is that the extent to which we allow ourselves to be influenced by any of these self-limiting fears is entirely up to us.

I am discovering that first and foremost, it is important that I love my own work; I do not need the approval of others to do what I do. This is a difficult habit of thought to change, as a great part of my life has been lived dependent on the approval of others. But with a bit of practice, I'm getting there. (To be clear: encouraging, constructive comments are wonderful and should be offered generously and welcomed warmly!) Secondly, there will always be those who like and  those who don't like what I do. And that's just fine. No need to try and please anyone, let alone everyone (tough habit to let go of for a people-pleaser like myself).

I am changing my limiting thinking habits with the help of a wonderful book called The Right to Write by Julia Cameron, and would like to recommend it to all those writers out there who at times fail to believe in themselves and/or their talents and passions. Cameron has some wise words to say about the way we greatly limit ourselves and our creative abilities.

     "We do not see our size. We do not view ourselves with accuracy. We are far larger, far more marvelous, far more deeply and consistently creative than we recognize and know.
     We do not credit ourselves with what it is we can - and often do - accomplish. We are blind to our gifts; we are deaf to our voice. We do not see or hear our magnitude. Why is this?"(p.48)

Have you ever allowed others to curb your creativity (whether that be writing, painting, baking or some other creative activity) with their comments or criticism ? What has been your reaction - have you gone on, or given up? I would love to know.

**A few posts on this topic, in random order. If you have a post on this topic and would like it to be added to the list, please let me know.

Flood-Proof Mum
Today's Stuff
Above the River
The Quince Tree (on the joy of blogging and the realisation of not being a freak after all)
Circle of Pine Trees (inspiring post on, amongst other things, the link between creativity and motherhood)


Wednesday, 25 June 2014

Children's art

Small part of living room wall covered in children's art (S & N)
Happy garden scene with snail (S)

Clay on paper (S)

Eat you heart out, Mondriaan (N)

Eat you heart out, Van Gogh (S)

The sky (N)

I spy with my little eye, a vase within a vase (S)

Ode to the much-debated Black Piet' (S)

A Christmas Tree, sideways (S)

An abstract Christmas Tree, sideways (S)

Was Mondriaan ever this productive? (N)

A prefab dinner menu (N)

A dog of sorts (N)

Lovely little hands (S)

Bits of colourful material stuck on red paper (N)

S explained this one to me at length. It is an intricate labyrinth beneath the ground made by super ants in their attempt to build a special magical city

I was recently sorting out all sorts of artwork created by my two sweets and wondering where on earth to store it all, when M casually suggested throwing it all in the paper bin. The paper bin - what?! How on earth could I possibly throw out anything created by either pair of those beautiful little hands? "You're too emotionally attached to that stuff, you need to let go," M responded calmly when he saw my exasperated expression.

Too emotionally attached? You're darn right I am, I thought angrily as I ploughed my way through finger-painted toilet rolls and bits of cotton stuck on coloured paper. But his words made me think. I had thrown out bits and pieces before, but always with feelings of guilt and sadness. In my mind's eye I would see either S or N colouring, sticking, folding or cutting away, lips pressed together and eyes focused in utmost concentration and I would feel that all too familiar pang in my chest. By throwing something out, it was like I was dismissing their efforts, not appreciating their creative beings; it even felt like I was betraying them (sounds dramatic, I know).

Just today I was giving it all some thought. Maybe M is right when he says I need to let go. Perhaps my allowing the house to become cluttered with the children's art is because I don't want to let go of something - their childhood, for example. But the Buddhist in me knows that childhood - like all other things - is there to be enjoyed and let go, not to be clung to. I also realised that it is my mind that makes up a story, a story that has little bearing on reality. Throwing stuff out doesn't mean I am betraying anyone - it just means I'm sorting out and decluttering.

Mr. Caterpillar

Yesterday N came home with a lovely caterpillar she had made. She proudly showed it to me and said: "Look mama, I've made a caterpillar." My heart melted. Whatever happens to the rest, Mr. Caterpillar is staying.

Do you have difficulty throwing out your children's artwork? Do you even throw it out at all, or do you keep everything? Or have you thrown out stuff and regretted it? I would love to know.

Monday, 23 June 2014

Grand Slam

Yesterday the weather was beautiful.  We spent most of the day outside in the garden and N went to her first birthday party in the afternoon which she spent the whole morning looking forward to. There was something endearing about the way she chattered on and on about how she was going to her friend's birthday and how important that was. She even wanted me to polish her nails.

Lovely little hands with pink (what else) nails. N insisted on covering her right middle finger because I didn't want to paint it due to a cuticle infection. "It will spoil the picture otherwise," she said

Whilst N was at her friend's birthday party, M, S and I went to the tennis club. Just last week we became members. An interesting aspect of my personal development is that I feel like exercising a lot more than I used to - yes, I mean I actually want to exert myself and get sweaty instead of just feeling that I have to. I had spent some time pondering what sport would suit me best and when S started taking junior tennis lessons, there was my answer. The tennis club is just down the street (literally) and it's a great place to spend time whacking a few balls around, getting sweaty and exercising away life's little frustrations. It is also a perfect way to spend time together with my hubby. M and I make a good team and I feel we still have it in us to become the next Serena Williams and Pete Sampras. I'm sure we would have done fabulously on the court if the net hadn't kept getting in the way. And if the court had been bigger. Or smaller.

The calories we lost playing tennis were thankfully compensated by the blueberry muffins I baked the day before. I'm not sure exactly how many we ate, but the less said about that the better.

Blueberry Muffins
adapted from Mary Berry's Ultimate Cake Book by Mary Berry 

250g spelt flour (I sometimes use wholemeal spelt)
2 teaspoons cream of tartar
1 teaspoon baking powder
50g butter, softened
75g raw cane sugar
1 vanilla pod*
1 teaspoon vanilla extract*
2 large eggs or 3 normal ones
250ml buttermilk or regular milk
1 tub of blueberries
yields: 12 muffins

*If you're not keen on vanilla, replace with a heaped teaspoon of cinnamon, orange rind or lemon rind; all are equally delicious.

  • preheat the oven 200 degrees Celsius
  • line muffin tin with 12 paper cases
  • measure flour, cream of tartar and baking powder into a large bowl
  • add butter and rub until the mixture resembles breadcrumbs
  • stir in sugar, blueberries and add the vanilla seeds you've scraped from the pod
  • in a separate bowl, mix together milk, eggs and vanilla essence (I love the taste of vanilla, hence both the pod and the essence)
  • pour the wet onto the dry and stir together, making sure lumps of flour are dissolved - not too long and hard, muffin batter should be lumpy
  • scoop mixture into paper cases filling them three-quarters of the way (I use an ice cream scoop)
  • bake for 20-25 minutes

I went slightly overboard (literally) filling some of my muffin cases. You can tell which ones - mutant muffins were the result.

Check out the one in the back row (S wanted that one)

The one in the left-hand corner has a cute little mutant snout

Proud little muffin

Saturday, 21 June 2014

New life in the garden

All sorts of things are happening in our garden. New life coming, old life dwindling. I am happy to say the Hydrangea is starting to bloom beautifully and the Japanese Cherry Blossom we were given a couple of months ago is growing more and more leaves and feeling very much at home indeed. My beloved Peony bush on the other hand seems to be dying. Every year it has produced beautiful white Peonies, but this year we're seeing nothing more than withered buds. We actually moved the bush to make room for the Japanese Cherry, but it was an unfortunate one for the Peonies. In the autumn we will move it again in the hope that it will recover.


New friend Cherry Blossom shortly after arrival; Mr Crab looks on approvingly

Leafy Cherry Blossom feeling quite at home

Peony bush: lovely luscious leaves, but small sad buds

Thankfully there is more life sprouting up all over the place...

...and all sorts of life visiting the garden, including an old friend.

There is a wooden birdhouse in our garden and to my delight two blue tits have set up nest in there. They busy themselves flying back and forth to feed their young. We haven't actually seen the little ones, but today we heard them chirping very loudly. A couple of days ago we managed to catch one of the parents inside the house. It was a delightful moment.

And today we caught one of them in the Cherry Blossom with some kind of goodie in its beak ready to feed to its demanding young. It was an even more delightful moment.

Looking a bit worse for wear, but I guess that's what parenting does to you

There seems to be no end to the height and width our beast of a Pine tree will grow. It's at the front of our house and we keep wondering when that letter of complaint from the council will fall on the doormat demanding we have it pruned down to size. S and N affectionately call it our Very Large Christmas Tree. There's also a beast of an Alder growing behind the fence of our back yard which I am extremely attached to. When I read the letter in which the council threatened to cut that down, I said some very unladylike words. Thankfully the council changed its whimsical mind and I can still enjoy my giant Alder.

Very Large Christmas Tree

Very Large Alder

Thursday, 19 June 2014

On what my children teach me

Very close friends of ours have recently had a baby. Due to circumstances they came to parenting late and it is very moving to see them welcome their baby boy into their lives. It is also interesting to watch from a distance - as opposed to being in the middle of things myself - just how profoundly a baby changes a couple's life.

At the weekend we met up with man J who had taken baby S with him to give lady S some much needed peace and quiet. He came pushing a pram, carrying a baby bag (stuffed to the brim with the usual goodies: nappies, arse-wipes, bottles, cloths and whatnot) and sporting a complicated looking contraption called a Baby Bjorn baby carrier. But the beauty of it was: he came wearing a smile. Baby S had taken over his life, but J was taking it all in his stride.

Witnessing all of this made me think back to how it was for M and I. The hectic years of babies and toddlers. The round-the-clock care. The comforting and nurturing. The sleepless nights. The lack of social lives. But I also began to think about what my children have taught me over the years.  Here's what I came up with:

Selflessness: Before I had children, it was pretty much all about me. When I felt like eating, I ate; when I felt like sleeping, I slept; when I felt like going out, I went out. Having children has taught me to put someone else's needs before my own, even if it's not convenient. The thing here though, is to find balance in order to avoid feeling depleted.  That is something I'm still working on.

Letting go in various forms: Letting go of constant worry (about the children!), letting go of wanting something to go my way (plans are often thwarted by children), and letting go of the idea that I can be in control of everything (I just can't ).

Flexibility:  Learning to go with the flow of life and playing things by ear. Very difficult for people like me who were control-freaks in their pre-kid days.

Patience: Boy, do kids teach you patience! You may want to get on with things... but does your toddler when they're examining a flower on the way to the supermarket? Someone I knew before I had children was extremely patient with her child and when I questioned her about it she said: "Hurrying kids along has the opposite effect. I have simply resolved never to be in a hurry, period." 

Much like these swan parents, perhaps...

Tuesday, 17 June 2014

Tuna pie a la M

I love baking. There's nothing quite like stirring together the wet and the dry and turning out some delicious muffins. Or kneading some dough for biscuits. Or creaming together sugar and butter to make a cake. In other words: taking a few beautiful, single ingredients and marrying them together. I find baking a meditative activity - it clears my head and slows my breathing. For that reason it is an important part of my simple living philosophy.

I do the baking in this house, but the cooking is something M and I share. There are periods in which I cook more than he does and vice versa. Today was one of those days I simply did not feel like cooking - that is to say: I did not feel like deciding what to cook. Luckily, M was more than happy to do the honours. He made his own version of a Tuna Pie and I wouldn't want to keep the recipe from you. It's delicious and easy. I do see the irony in the fact that it is, strictly speaking, a baked good (so really my department) but it is savoury and hence doesn't entirely count.

Tuna Pie a la M

1 onion, diced
6 cloves of garlic (less or more if you prefer), thinly sliced
1 courgette, cut into quarters
2 tins of tuna in brine
1 tin of tuna in oil
5 tomatoes
1 tin of tomato paste
1 teaspoon Tarragon
(sea) salt and pepper
50g grated cheese
puff pastry
a 26cm loose-bottomed baking pan

  • preheat the oven 225 degrees Celsius
  • open the tin of tuna in oil; drain the oil into a frying pan
  • fry the onion and garlic in the tuna oil until the onions are soft and glossy; then add the courgette
  • add the tomato paste, stir wel
  • seaon with salt, pepper and Tarragon
  • keep the mixture warm on low heat and line the baking pan with the pastry
  • drain the other two tins of tuna and add all tuna to the onion mixture. Incorporate well.
  • tip the mixture into the baking pan
  • cover with slices or wedges of tomatoes and on top of that the grated cheese
  • bake for 25-30 minutes

N remarked that she thought hers looked like a slice of fancy pizza

Finished in no time

After seeing The Netherlands beat world champions Spain so mercilessly (and beautifully!) last Friday, we are looking forward to watching them beat meet Australia tomorrow evening...