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29th Jan 2008

Foodie Nostalgia

Jane: Food for me is inextricably bound up with childhood memories and emotions, which is why I love prunes and custard, beans on toast, smooth oatcakes and will happily eat muesli for breakfast for the rest of my life. I was reminded of this a while back when we went for lunch at the home of snail porridge and bacon and egg ice-cream - the very posh Fat Duck in Bray. What struck me was not how sci-fi the food was (though it was), but how it delighted my nostalgic foodie yearnings. There were sherbert fountains in those old yellow packs, licorice, tiny cornets… and on the table, a questionnaire asking us to try and remember our favourite flavours from childhood. Mine, I remember writing, was tinned Del Monte peaches with evaporated milk, which we used to have for Saturday tea.

My mum used to make us steamed puddings (it was Scotland and cold), rice puddings (still love ‘em) and shepherd’s pie on a weekly basis, but the treat I remember as the highlight of the year was a refrigerated cheesecake, rich but light and fluffy, a tricky combination to pull off. Strangely, we always had it in winter, not summer, which is perhaps why it seemed so exotic. I always had seconds and usually thirds, yet every mouthful was as delicious as the one before, and even while eating it I was aware of a desperation that this joy would soon end. I guess that at the age of 12, I felt exquisitely sophisticated to be eating such a bouffant, blonde girls’ pud.
Which made me wonder: what foods will transport our kids into that nostalgic bliss when they’re grown up? Will it be pizza and garlic bread (surely too dull), a giant teacake or creamy cranachan? Grandma’s just made us her Cool ‘n’ Fluffy Cheesecake (it went down very well) and I’m thinking how nice it would be, if it ended up being that.

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26th Jan 2008

Poetry in Motion

Tamsin: With Burns Night past and thoughts of poetry in the air, I recalled a favourite family tape we used to listen to over and over again. Most of our family listening takes place in the car – where there’s no escape! – so it’s a treat for us parents especially to find an audiotape or CD we can all enjoy. Michael Rosen’s poems ‘You Wait Till I'm Older Than You!’ does it for us. He takes a humorous, poignant and thoughtful look at family life, both as father and son, and his poems make you laugh out loud and recall all those cringe-making emotions you hid deep-down in childhood.

I began to hunt around the house for our tape and found it with the case broken and only one tape in it – very well used.

It is difficult to choose favourites but a couple that made me laugh out loud were 'Trousers Down' and 'Australia', both too long to give here. But this one 'Great Day' resonates strongly with my teenage son Joe at his present stage in life. 

Can't find the bathroom
Can't find my socks
Can't find the corn-flakes
Can't find the lunch-box
Can't find the book-folder
Can't find the school
Can't find the class-room
Can't find the pen
Can't find the paper
Can't find the lunch-box
Can't find the pen
Can't find the paper
Can't find the way home
Can't find the front door
Can't find my plate
Can't find the television
Ah - find bed


After my discovery that we no longer owned a whole audiobook I immediately went online to try and get another copy but discovered it’s no longer published in tape form, though the book (click here to find it) is still in print. Very disappointing - for me, half the enjoyment is listening to Michael Rosen’s reading of his verse.
In the end, I was lucky to find one secondhand and just to make sure I never lost this set of poems, I went over the top and bought the book as well. All I can say is get one while you can!

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22nd Jan 2008

Burns Supper

Carolynda: Next Friday night, 25th January, is Burns Night and haggises are trembling in the cool counters, knowing that their short lives will soon be ended by frightful boilings and stabbings. Scots at home and abroad are sharpening their sgian-dubhs for the ritual sacrifice of this 'great chieftain o’ the pudding race' in the name of Scotland's most famous poet's birthday and general excuse for a knees-up, airing of the tartans and downing of whisky. We’ve recovered from the rigours of Christmas and Hogmanay and are ready to face the onslaught of a Burns Supper, the annual feasting on haggis, neeps and tatties, washed down with lashings of the 'amber nectar' (or 'eau de vie' as whisky is affectionately known here). Scots gather to address the haggis in old Scots dialect and tuck into this particularly national dish, in celebration of the life and works of Robert Burns, Scotland’s greatest poet.

Years back I hosted a Burns Night for friends (including Jane) at my house in London, where we had a supper followed by Scottish country dancing and even improvised sword-dancing around the bread knives! As a Scot who returned to Scotland four years ago after spending half my adult life in the south of England, I am sure it is the itinerant Scots, in far-flung corners of the globe, who embrace Burns Night with the greatest fervour. My mother-in-law speaks proudly and fondly of the great times had in Malawi during the fifties, sixties and seventies, when the tartans were dusted down and haggises were flown in to the skirl of pipes and toasted with whisky galore!

Haggis is a mixture of minced lamb offal, beef fat, oatmeal, water, onion, salt, pepper and spices traditionally bound inside a sheep's stomach. Neeps are mashed Scottish turnip (swede to the English) and tatties are mashed potatoes. At a Burns Supper, a starter may be cock-a-leekie soup (chicken and leek broth) or cullen skink ( a delicious smoked fish and cream soup). For pudding there may be sherry trifle, cranachan (a thick creamy mix including toasted oatmeal, whipped cream, rum or vanilla, sugar and fresh berries such as raspberries). Cheese and oatcakes and coffee would follow and whisky would be offered throughout the meal.

So what happens on Burns Night, or colloquially, Nicht? The men put on their kilts and the women dress up with a bit of tartan and we have a Burns Supper, with recitations of Burns' poetry, traditionally including the long poem 'Tam O' Shanter', performance of some of his songs, various toasts to the lassies and the men, followed by a Ceilidh and ending up with 'Auld Lang Syne'. Though sometimes the celebrations are less formal. I remember being with friends in a pub in Aberdeen when a piper unexpectedly came forth from the kitchen, followed by the chef carrying a large haggis on a platter. When the piper finished, the haggis was addressed by a reading of Burns' ‘Address to a Haggis' (‘Fair fa’, your honest sonsie face…’), ceremonially cut open and returned to the kitchen. The piper and the reader were each given a dram of whisky and soon afterwards everyone in the pub was served a plate of haggis, neeps and tatties 'on the house'.

Nowadays we often eat a haggis supper as we can get it all year round and it is something of a family favourite. This week we have eaten a Macsween haggis, one of the good, well-known makes – if you’re worried about the offal, they do a delicious nut and lentil-based vegetarian version. And I see they are now doing cocktail haggises – a good way to introduce wee Sassenachs and Burns Night novices to their first Burns Supper.

Carolynda is an artist and you can see some of her paintings here.

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19th Jan 2008

Books Etc

Jane: We’re thinking of putting out a Heart & Home book next year and when Mal told a publisher friend of his called Valerie, she immediately sent him ’44 Things’ by Kirsty Gunn, a collection of thoughts, anecdotes and poems celebrating the happy chaos of her family life with two young daughters. Val suggested one poem in particular called ‘Sweeping Up Stars’ would make a great introduction to our Heart & Home book. Robert Frost always said a poem starts with a lump in the throat, and Kirsty's poem (reprinted below) did it for me…

Sweeping Up Stars
Not perhaps so strange, or so bizarre
that I should find myself
again down on my knees
and sweeping up
with dustpan and with brush
the crazed remains
of yet another
of glitter and of glue
and paint, the craft
of your inventions, girls,
the ‘let’s-make-cards!’ beginnings
or the ‘why-not-paint-today?’ exertions
of a certain kind of grey-lit hour,
the time when we’ve a while yet
till it’s tea,
and lunch, the park’s long gone…
It’s only
you two here
and me – and makes me think,
you know, consider, just how many
afternoons of this
will I have left
in one small life,
amidst the tax returns and supermarket shops
and work not done and stuff that I’m aware I should
be doing now while on my knees in some strange
corner of the room…That I’ll not have
much more
of this, the chance
to gather in
the bits of glitter, sweep up brightness
from the floor, to tip into the bin
bright constellations… How much time
to sweep up stars?

Kirsty Gunn, taken from ‘44 Things’ (Atlantic Books)

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16th Jan 2008

Warming Socks

Tamsin: I don’t know what it is about Joe and his socks, but they spend more of their time apart than together. Each morning he gets a pair out of his drawer and then wanders around the house clutching them in his hand until putting them down in some ‘particularly-difficult-place-to-remember’ corner of a room. Then, having lost them and needing to leave the house, he happily gets a second pair out of the drawer, puts them on and walks out. I’m left to rediscover his lost pair of socks and return them to the drawer, when the whole sock cycle begins again. Yesterday I found a pair of his socks next to the microwave so I put them in on full power for 30 seconds and served them to him for his breakfast.

This was a big hit due to the toasty warmth of the microwaved socks – a good tip to remember for cold feet days.

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13th Jan 2008

The Best Hot Chocolate

Jane: After a winter walk, what everybody in our house wants is a big steaming mug of hot chocolate. Trouble is we can’t agree on one we all like. At the moment, we’re ploughing through a huge pot of Green & Blacks which I find milky and cloying but the kids happily quaff. Tamsin and I were talking about whether there was such a thing as the perfect cup of hot chocolate and decided to find out by doing a taste test, with adults and children giving marks out of five for a variety of brands from Cadbury’s to Chocolat Charbonnel, which looks gorgeous in its chunky tin but tastes... well, read on…

We tried out eight types, some new, some old favourites, all from the local supermarket. We followed the instructions on the box so the taste was exactly as the makers wanted. The testers were four outspoken children and three adults, and we gave each hot chocolate marks out of five – so the total any brand could get was 35. It quickly became clear we had entirely different tastes: what the kids loved, the grown-ups found overwhelmingly sweet and sickly.

Our first baseline test (bringing back childhood memories) was Cadbury’s Drinking Chocolate. The kids loved it – it scored 19 out of a possible 20 from them – but the adults now found it ‘horribly sweet’ and gave it 6.5 points out of a possible 15. Grand total 25.5.

Then came upmarket Chocolat Charbonnel, twice the price and apparently consisting of flakes of ‘real chocolate’ which you mix to a paste with water before adding hot milk. Kids? ‘Urgh, it’s horrible, not a nice smell’ and ‘Yuk’ were typical. The adults liked it better, though weren’t bowled over. Total 15.5. Which just goes to show that money doesn’t necessarily buy you taste.

Twinings Luxury Chocolate Drink: this was a moderate hit with the adults having a rich, dark and slightly bitter tang, but the kids found it ‘too bitter, too dark’. Grand total: 16 out of 35.

Green & Blacks: we thought this would be all-round hit (it must be the trendy organic marketing campaign), but although the kids found it more than drinkable (16 out of 20), the adults were underwhelmed: ‘Grey, too weak and milky’. Total: 23 out of a possible 35.

Spanish Chocolate came in a snazzy metal-flip tin and was a surprise success: its spicy cinnamon and cloves tang gave a rich complex taste in the mouth. Only Mike was less keen, damning it as: ‘Bread sauce’. Still, it got the highest overall score so far at 28 (out of 35). Good going!

Ghirardelli Premium Hot Chocolate was another unknown brand: the kids loved it (20 out of 20); the adults were more reticent – ‘supasweet and powdery’. Total: 24.

Hot Choc Milk is packaged in a tall, trendy metal tin full of ‘100% real Belgian chocolate’ and as it was the most expensive of the lot we were expecting manna. It looked like real chocolate, it melted like real chocolate, and three of the kids loved it. The other spat it out giving it ‘zero, I can’t finish this’ and the adults also found it gruesome: ‘Greasy, sickly, fatty, just disgusting. Absolutely no way would I buy this again.’ 16 out of 35.

Finally, we tried pure cocoa itself, Green & Black’s organic cocoa. Unlike all the rest, this doesn’t have sugar in it, so we added one teaspoon to every teaspoon of cocoa. It wasn’t sweet enough, so everyone put in more to their own taste. The verdict overall was good: it was easily my favourite, with a rich, full-bodied flavour. In total, the adults gave it 10, their highest score yet, and the kids 8. Grand total: 28.

Overall favourites:
First equal: Spanish Chocolate and pure Cocoa (both 28 points)
Third: Cadbury’s Drinking Chocolate (25.5 points)
Worst: Chocolat Charbonnel pleased no-one (15.5 points)

But it was fascinating how different kids' and adults' tastes are:

Kids’ favourites:
First equal:
Spanish Chocolate and Ghirardelli Premium Hot Chocolate with 20 points each.
Third: Cocoa (18)
Worst: equal Chocolat Charbonnel and Twinings Luxury (both 7)

Adults’ favourites:
Cocoa (10)
Second: Twinings Luxury (9)
Third: Spanish Chocolate (8)
Worst: Hot Choc Milk (2)

Final verdict: if you want a hot chocolate that everyone in the family will enjoy, try pure cocoa, and add your own sugar to taste.

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9th Jan 2008

Fairground Attractions

Maudie: At school, we have been making motorised Fairground Rides, working in pairs. Mine is called Lightning Strike!, and Carla’s is called Pink Crush. To start off, we measured bits of wood and sawed them to make a box. We cut out card triangles and placed them on each corner, and stuck coloured coraflute on the four sides. We made seats out of coraflute and hung them with string for little people to sit in. There were two kinds of different switches: one you push down once to keep the motor running and one which you hold down. The push down one was more popular and most people had it, but we had the holding down one!

The Ride could go at different speeds, made by choosing a different-sized pulley wheel - the small one was the fastest and the big one the slowest. We had the smallest one, and Carla had the medium one.
We decided on the name Lightning Strike! because we wanted a fast ride, so a fast catchy name would go with it. We thought of a couple like Zoom or Lightning Bolt, but they didn’t fit quite as well as Lightning Strike! When I brought it home, my little sister liked putting Playmobil people in the seats and making them spin round very fast. We all really enjoyed making them and once we’d finished, we wanted to make another!

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6th Jan 2008

A Walk in the Dark

Tamsin: The weather was not promising and I knew it would be hard to convince the younger generation that a brisk amble in the New Year’s drizzle was going make their day. Luckily for us, Mike had put on a New Year firework display and also unearthed from the attic a box of flare candles left over from our millennium celebrations.

An idea was hatched. First we’d have a snug day, mooching around the house, playing games, cooking, reading, then just before dusk we’d walk to the woods, play on the rope swing and find our way back home in the dark in the light provided by the candle flares. The idea was an instant success with children and adults alike, though as evening approached my enthusiasm turned to anxiety, thinking of the perils of outdoor fire, blustery winds, artificial coat materials and teenage big hair trends.
Thankfully, none of these fears were realised but it was still a bit dangerous. By the time we lit the flares and begin to walk back it was quite dark and I was glad of the small torch I had in my pocket to see the fuse to light the flares. The wind was blowy, so we wasted quite a few matches (take lots, is the answer). Walking with the flares was fairly safe as long as you held them upright, but the adults walked behind just in case any stray embers blew off.
Walking through the woods in the dark was great fun and the shadows that were cast made for dramatic eeriness. But I was actually glad of the drizzle – this is not an activity to do in crisp dry weather when the woods are like tinderbox, but for bleak, damp, winter, more dark than light days. And for a safer walk in the dark, home-made lanterns or torches are just as good.
The children, inspired by our friend Andrew and his packet of lozenges, also played a great game in the woods which we’ve called Sweetie Treasure Chase.

NB: Please take special care using fire or matches outdoors and always supervise children closely.

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3rd Jan 2008

Chocolate & More Chocolate...

Carla: The Hedgehog.
A Happy New Year to you all! The last year was lovely but this one is better. Why? Because of chocolate. My mum gave me a book for Christmas about making different-shaped chocolate cakes. When my godmother Helen looked through the book we found a picture of a hedgehog made out of chocolate. She said we should make the cake for the New Year. Me and my friend Emma said we would. We looked at the picture and asked my dad to get the stuff we needed when he went shopping. When we had finally got ALL the chocolate buttons, Smarties, cocoa etc, we got started. The cake was made and cooked. We put the icing on and put it in the fridge for 20 minutes. When it was a little bit cold we put on the chocolate buttons and the little nose and eyes. When we had done it, it looked lovely, just too lovely to eat – NOT!

Joe: The Armadillo Thing (my mum thought was a slug!)
As I wandered around the house looking for food I stumbled into the kitchen and came across Carla and Emma making a hedgehog cake. I sidled over to ‘borrow’ a slice they weren’t using but upon seeing what they’d made I thought I’d have a go myself. My first idea was to construct a dolphin with the help of their delicious icing but I then veered off in a completely different direction. The new idea started out as an armadillo but once I had plated its back with chocolate buttons like scales I realised that I had run out of buttons and the rest of the cake was in crumbs. Thwarted, I had to make do with the final two buttons stuck on cocktail sticks like big googly eyes.

Other ideas: snail, lizard, ladybird, fish.

Helen (Godmother): Making an Effigy of a Dead Mouse in a Mousetrap out of Chocolate-related Materials
I always find when spending time with my godchildren that working in close proximity to chocolate is a successful activity, especially if it becomes necessary to get all of your fingers covered in chocolate.
This New Year's Day, Carla chose to make a special celebratory hedgehog cake and I was very keen to join in. I noticed there were some significant cake trimmings left over to play with. And I knew that assembling heads and bodies and sticking them together with chocolate icing would allow me an excuse to dip my fingers in the yummy bowl of sculpting material. The most obvious candidates to accompany the hedgehog were a squirrel or a mole from the woodland habitat we can see outside the window. However, this holiday there has been an invasion from the rodent world. Mice have tunnelled in from outside and their visits have made a mess of the food stored in the lower levels of the larder. My idea was to commemorate the relationship of the human to the mouse, especially apt in chocolate form because Mike has been capturing the invaders with mousetraps using chocolate as bait. As I, my goddaughter and the mouse world all have a love of chocolate in common, we agreed that making a sculpture of a mouse in a trap would be a great way to remember this holiday. 
We decided to make the mouse out of a small amount of cake and a large amount of icing. We started with a clean china plate. I cut a small cube of cake for the body and covered it lavishly with icing and Carla stuck a smaller cube of cake on for the mouse head, glueing it on with icing. We put it in the fridge to set for five minutes. 
Meantime, Carla chose pink Smarties for the ears and nose, and green Smarties for the eyes, so I cut these in half for her on a wooden chopping board. Several other Smarties were sampled in the selection process – it is very important to taste the materials you are working with to make sure you have the correct ingredients. Next we cut about 20 chocolate buttons in half to use for the legs. It turned out that we only needed four half buttons, so the other 36 half buttons had to be eaten to leave the chopping board neat and tidy for the next user. 
The tail was sculpted out of icing when it came out of the fridge, and Mike built the outline of the trap over the forehead of our mouse, using four cocktail sticks stuck together with icing to glue it to the plate. Joe experimented with cherry skin and frozen cranberry juice to make some fake blood to stick on the forehead of the mouse. We rejected these interventions on grounds of sick taste. Lastly, Carla carefully chose the label wording for the recently deceased mouse effigy, and elegantly wrote ‘R.I.P. MOUSE 2008’ in yellow icing.
We consider our work a great success and a fitting memorial that would be submitted for the next Turner prize competition - if it had not been eaten at teatime.

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