Tuesday, 30 September 2014

Lady Edith comes to... Cogges

New Downton Abbey series has started two weeks ago, and already we're enjoying the melodramatic twists and turns of the storylines: melancholic Baxter with her intriguing past (just who exactly is she covering for?!), ice maiden Lady Mary going away for a naughty week with Lord Gillingham, obnoxious teacher Miss Bunting trying to prove her point at dinner (would you really be so rude to your hosts, even if you dislike them immensely, why do you accept an invitation then?!), Earl of Grantham bordering on a caricature with his ideas about the wireless, suffering-like-a-true-martyr Anna buying a contraceptive device for her mistress, brain-dead Lady Rose who thinks the normal life is about dancing, listening to the music and visiting friends (has there ever been a more annoying vacuous character in the series?)... Of course, the usual winners of the drama are incredible outfits, hats and interiors.

Even more thrilling for the locals was spotting the much-loved Cogges manor farm, transformed into Yew Tree Farm, which is a home for Lady Edith's daughter Marigold.

Cogges... aka Yew Tree Farm

My son Eddie in the kitchen at Cogges; scene from Downton Abbey

We, the locals, heard the rumours that they were filming at Cogges which was closed for several days. Mr Drewe, the tenant farmer and his wife, adoptive parents of Marigold, have taken over the farm and the main kitchen, which is my absolute favourite.

Cogges was turned into an early 20C farm, with minor changes. I love a big open kitchen dresser with pretty vintage china and jam jars.

If you're visiting Cogges at the weekend, you might be lucky to see the cooking on the Victorian range in action. The ladies who volunteer at the kitchen, will offer you tasty Welsh cakes and preserves.

It is a fabulous place to stop by, and every time I visit, I admire its space, light from the ancient windows, views over the beautiful garden.

Then there is a back kitchen too, which is less glamorous, but as cozy, with its low beams and old flagstones.

Biscuit tin (four sides)
Plus there is a pantry in the house too. 
So, if you're a fan of Downton Abbey, you might love to come to Cogges. But do hurry, it will close for winter on 2 November.

If you would like to read more about our visits to Cogges, here are a couple of blog posts you might enjoy:

Monday, 29 September 2014

Stress-free back to school meals for #Afterschoolchefs

How time flies! My baby is not a baby anymore, just look at him, he started Reception this month. My heart aches every time I leave him behind in his class. Being a July baby, he's one of the youngest kids in his class, and the school day is way too long. I wish the school day was shorter for children his age, whoever thought that 9am to 3pm is a good idea for little people?!

It is difficult for me to monitor what he had for lunch at school. I do have a school menu to see what they serve for lunch, but my fussy eater often refuses to eat what is on offer. I was hoping that he'd be influenced by the other children tucking in their meals, but I will probably soon give up and just send him to school with a lunch box, at least then I'd know exactly what he has eaten.
In the meantime, both of my guys come home hungry. Eddie, because he hasn't eaten much, Sasha, because he's almost a teenager, as tall as me, and needs more fuel to keep him going.
These first few weeks of school have been quite stressful. We all need to readjust to our new routine, and mornings are structured by minute, when we eat, dress up, brush teeth etc etc. The difficult part is to make my guys have breakfast as they are still too sleepy to have an appetite, and I have to remind them that they should hurry up and eat, the usual "we don't have all the time in the Universe" motto.
As soon as they arrive from school, I give them something hot to eat, and most of the time they want French fries, fish fingers or Smiles, basically something I can chuck in the oven to be cooked fast.
Eddie loves peas, and is happy to have them any time.

This is also something Eddie can help me with, by choosing his plate, setting the table and giving me "instructions": "Mama, is food ready yet? Did you remember to switch the oven on?"
Birds Eye is probably best known for peas and fish fingers, yet their range of ready meals is forever expanding to please any discerning taste.
I might be a foodie, and enjoy cooking most of our meals from scratch, but I use frozen products as well. It is very handy to keep a couple of packets in the freezer. If I had a bigger freezer,I'd keep more of their products, but my freezer is packed full with the berries from our garden as well as ice cream, so it's usually Birds Eye peas, fish fingers and Rice Fusion vegetable rice that I have in stock.

Rice Fusions are great for a quick soup, or added to halved sweet pepper and roasted.

BritMums recently asked parenting bloggers to share their strategies and tips on back-to-school teatime routine. (I confess, I never use the word teatime as a substitute for dinner. Teatime is literally teatime for me, and meals are meals, of course, you can combine both, but you'd never hear me saying "We'll have fish and chips for tea". )

We don't have any special strategies or tips to share, just the usual common sense ideas:
- involve your kids into cooking - perhaps just a few simple things to start with, like mixing the cake batter, shaking a bottle with a dressing, decorating the cookies and cupcakes. Talk about food, how you make it, why certain foods go well together, and why putting peas into a cake frosting might be not the best idea...
- teach your children where food comes from, so they know where milk and eggs come from; if possible, grow some simple vegetables or berries together (My younger son has been taking care of "his" beanstalk all summer. He loves helping me water the tomatoes in the greenhouse, and they always taste wonderful, picked fresh, no comparison to any bought varieties).
- involve them to help with the table setting, and teach good table manners (though it's easier said than done sometimes, I still cannot convince Eddie that he needs to use a fork, when he eats his "sghetti" (Eddie's word for spaghetti), he prefers to use his hands).
- don't turn your meals into a battle, you are never going to win that. I'm not going to force my child to stay at the table until the very last morsel is eaten, or tell him he's going to eat what's left on his plate with his next meal (we're not going to point fingers, but that's what my husband said his Mum used to say).
- be adventurous with food and introduce foreign/exotic ingredients to your meals. Try to cook from scratch if you enjoy it, but don't stress if you don't. Have fish fingers and peas, and be happy.

Disclosure: I received some Birds Eye vouchers for the purposes of writing this post. All opinions are mine.

This post is an entry for #Afterschoolchefs Linky Challenge, sponsored by Birds Eye. Learn more on the Birds Eye Facebook page

Sunday, 28 September 2014

Cheese and potato waffles

Though it happens very rarely, sometimes we're have some leftover mashed potatoes. You can make latkes with the mashed potatoes, or fish cakes, but I recently bought a waffle maker, and fancied trying some potato waffles (how difficult could that be?!). My guys like all the potato goodies you can find in the frozen section like potato waffles and Smiles, but hopefully my homemade version will be less greasy. I also wanted to use all the leftover cheese bits. My in-laws are visiting us this week, and as they love cheese, I keep buying it on a daily basis, but there are some little bits left which are not big enough to serve.

Cheese and potato waffles (enough for 5 big round ones)
375g mashed potatoes
2 eggs
3tbsp clarified butter, melted
2tbsp plain yogurt
65g cornflour
100g cheese, grated (I used mixed cheese, like Tickler and Cornish yarg, but any hard cheese will do)
1tbsp fresh choped rosemary and thyme

In a medium bowl mix the mashed potatoes with the eggs, clarified butter, yogurt, cornflour, grated cheese and fresh herbs.
Preheat the waffle maker as per instructions, then ladle the mix into the waffle maker. Cook for 4 minutes. Serve hot, with a dollop of soured cream, and top up with whatever you fancy. Or use as a side dish.
Best eaten on the same day. I had half a waffle left over from yesterday, and tried to eat it for breakfast reheated, it was OK, but not something I would recommend.

When freshly cooked, they were lovely. A good way to use the leftover mashed potatoes and cheese.

This is my second recipe for ShortcutEggsperts challenge for September: to create a dish with eggs, using leftovers.

For more egg facts and information, visit Egginfo.

Disclosure: As part of the ShortcutEggsperts programme launched by BritMums and Lion Eggs, I received vouchers for creating a recipe using the eggs.

The Very Hungry Caterpillar's 45th anniversary

Who would have imagined 45 years ago that a cute little caterpillar with soulful eyes and insatiable appetite was going to conquer the world? Yet conquer the world she did, with more than a million copies of just a board book edition of The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle (1994 edition) being sold. Over 38 million copies of the classic picture book have been sold worldwide, and it has been translated into more than 60 languages.

This family favourite is the most read children's book in the UK.
According to a recent ELC reading survey, 5,5million children read it more than 9 times a year. We didn't take part in this survey, but let me tell you, we read it so many times, it feels like a zillion, both with Sasha when he was a baby, then with Eddie.
We still keep an old battered copy of our first TVHC book. For his first birthday, Sasha received a big gift edition (and we already had a small sized board book). And just the other day, when I was rummaging through the piles of baby clothes and toys, with a great big plan of de-cluttering, I came across Eddie's Very Hungry Caterpillar rattle (I confess, I couldn't part with it, and put it back in the box with some baby things I want to keep).
Many a parent's eyes would go misty at the sight of this book and at all the cherished memories it brings of reading to your little one.
To coincide with the 45th anniversary of The Very Hungry Caterpillar, a fantastic new range of TVHC products has been released.

This splendid book is now available in two more versions: as a pull out pop-up and cloth books.

The Very Hungry Caterpillar - Pull Out Pop-Up Book (available at Amazon and good bookshops nationwide) is a small size edition, in  sturdy slip case. Pull out a mini-book, and explore a small caterpillar's gastronomic tour.

The Very Hungry Caterpillar Cloth Book (available at Amazon and good bookshops nationwide) is a snuggly and soft cloth book for babies. The cloth pages are bright and pretty. This is not a classic story as we know it, more of a very simple picture book with words.

The Very Hungry Caterpillar Numbers Peel and Stick Wall Art (available at John Lewis and Amazon) is a set of two plates of wall stickers, with oodles of appeal for any mini-TVHC fan. They would transform any little person's bedroom or playroom.

The Very Hungry Caterpillar Strawberry Shaped Chalks (available at John Lewis) is an excellent quality set of chalks. They are chunky and bright, and draw well on the pavement. Release your own artistic flair and do a drawing competition with your kids.

I first tried them myself, drawing on the stone slabs in the garden. When Eddie came home, and went up to his room to change clothes, he saw from the window my little caterpillar and told me excitedly "Mummy, look, someone drew a caterpillar in our garden!"

The Very Happy Caterpillar Stamper Set is a fabulous stamping kit for making your own greetings cards or decorating albums and notebooks. There are six wooden stampers in the set: a strawberry, sweet treats, two caterpillars, the Sun and a butterfly, as well as two ink pads in red and green. I don't know who was more excited to play with the stamps, my son or I.

The Very Hungry Caterpillar Melamine Divided Plate (available at John Lewis) is a cute tray with four partitions, featuring flowers, a caterpillar and a butterfly. Perfect for children's meals.

Eddie loves having his after-school snacks served on a new plate.

The Very Hungry Caterpillar Bubble Bath and Hand Soap (available at Waitrose and Fenwicks) will brighten up any bathroom. Both bath products have a lovely fresh smell. Funnily enough it was The Very Hungry Caterpillar Toothbrush which attracted my son first, when we were unpacking the parcel together. He kept asking "Is it for me?"

And finally, there is The Very Hungry Caterpillar Drinks Bottle (available at Amazon). Alas, Eddie's school has strict rules regarding any drinks bottles, and we have to use a plain bottle provided by school. Otherwise it would have been an excellent product to take to school with a lunch box. I'm sure we can use it, to carry any drinks on a long walk, when we visit the Cogges farm or go to the park.

What a wonderful colourful bundle! Any of these lovely products will make great gifts for birthdays or coming Christmas.

Happy anniversary, The Very Hungry Caterpillar! Here's to another 45 years!

Disclosure: I received a selection of TVHC goodies for the purposes of reviewing. All opinions are mine.
Family Fever

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Molecular Gastronomy Spherification Kit

Are you a fan of Heston Blumenthal? Did you ever fancy playing God in the kitchen and completely change the chemistry and physics of well known foods to transcend them to a different level?
I have never tried olive oil caviar or transparent ravioli, they look like things from a futuristic film - something Star Trek characters might be eating. When I was asked to test and review a Molecular Gastronomy Spherification Kit from CreamChargers, I was intrigued and fascinated.

I haven't dabbled into molecular gastronomy before, and didn't quite know what to expect. Would it be too complicated? More important, will it be edible? This experiment appealed to my arty side, but a pragmatic in me was almost reluctant to "subject" food to a chemical transformation.
The kit is quite straightforward, you receive an instructions list, two sachets - with sodium alginate and calcium lactate, and a few droppers and syringes.

There are two possible recipes to play with: a) to make a melon caviar; b) to create minted pea puree eggs.
What exactly is spherification? It's a process, by which small quantities of liquid are encased in gelled skin.
So, had did it go with my minted pea puree eggs?
First, as instructions suggested, I put the peas and mint in a bowl and whizzed them together with a hand blender. I later added boiled water, blended the mix together again and passed through a mesh strainer.
One third of the puree liquid is mixed with sodium alginate. The mix immediately starts to gelify, and looks like a mini-Blob. At which stage I started asking myself whether I would really want to eat it.

Next calcium lactate is dissolved in water.
Using a spoon, drop little blobs of mint puree mix in the calcium chloride bath. After two minutes pea globules are ready to be removed with a slotted spoon.
All the droplets were falling in irregular tear-shaped globules, some with rather long-ish tails.

After sitting in the cold water bath, they eventually became more rounded, yet still not perfect balls.
They looked quite cute actually, and would make a talking point at any table indeed.

I imagine a fruit puree, shaped like that, would be a lovely novelty decoration for frosted cakes and bakes.
But what about the taste? It was like eating droplets of pea soup, encased in gel. Very odd consistency, which I didn't like.
I am in two minds about this product. On one hand, it is a funky entertaining project, which will appeal to kitchen geeks and children of all ages. On the other, it has a weird taste (I did follow the instructions) and an odd texture. It was a fantastic opportunity to play with molecular gastronomy, but the taste didn't live up to my expectations.

I am still not convinced if this kit is a work of genius or pure madness, or a bit of both indeed.

Disclosure: I received a Molecular gastronomy kit for the purposes of testing and reviewing. All opinions are mine.

WWE Stackdown Starter Set High Flyin' Sin Cara

My younger son Eddie loves to play with construction toys, he would happily build and rebuild them and re-enact all kinds of action, using mini-figures. It amuses me to hear him talking in different voices, representing different characters. When he saw WWE Stackdown Starter Set High Flyin' Sin Cara, he was absolutely thrilled.

I had no clue who Sin Cara was supposed to be, but suspected it could be some superstar. Wikipedia has enlightened me that Sin Cara is a professional wrestling gimmick used by World Wrestling Entertainment.
If you are as clueless as me, then let me tell you that Sin Cara means "without face" or "faceless" in Spanish. Sin Cara wears a lucha-style mask which completely covers his face.

High Flyin Sin Cara is one of four new construction toys at Flair. This 92 piece set is for age group 6+. My older son was in charge of building the set, while Eddie was helping to sort the mini bricks. The set includes a Kofi Kingston figure with "multiple points of articulation" which in plain English means his joints are flexible.
The mini-figure has several ball joints, so that his arms and legs move at elbows and knees, shoulders and hips. His head is also flexible, so with all that extra movement, you can set your Sin Cara in all kind of poses. Sin Cara wears a removable white bathrobe (is it a bathrobe or jacket?).

All the Stackdown sets are compatible with each other as well as with all major construction brands (read Lego).

What did we think of the set?
Comparisons with Lego are inevitable.
- it will appeal to both WWE and construction toys fans;
- you don't have to be a big fan of WWE to appreciate the toy. In fact, though we are all quite ignorant when it comes to wrestling, my son enjoyed playing with the set, especially launching the platform to make Sin Cara jump through the ring.
- reasonable price (a similar Lego toy would cost more than £9.99)
- the catapult is working well, so you can launch your mini-figure flying through the ring
- it is compatible with Lego and other construction set brands
- the set comes with easy to understand instructions

- we found that some of the bricks are too stiff and don't slot easily into each other. My guys needed my help a couple of times, and even I struggled with some smaller bricks as they just didn't want to fit in.

To find more information about Sin Cara and other WWE Stackdown starter sets, visit Flair.

Disclosure: I received High Flyin' Sin Cara for the purposes of reviewing. All opinions are mine.

Tuesday, 23 September 2014

Lime Flower Honey from Hilltop Honey

Does your mind store smell and image associations? For me, the smell of lime blossom is forever etched in my mind as a symbol of my childhood, with our school yard, lime trees, and me climbing up on the tree among all the sweet smelling blossom. Its delicate perfume is perfectly preserved in raw and organic lime flower honey from Hilltop Honey. This is a relative newcomer to the honey market in the UK. According to Scott Davies, Hilltop's founder, the UK is unable to produce certifiable organic honey, hence they started searching further afield for new honey producers. And so it happened that they set to launch a range of four new European organic honeys as part of their expanding line of raw honeys.
As a family, we eat a good amount of honey, I love adding it to tea instead of sugar, or sweetening the hot milk for my little man. Pancakes, all sorts of baking, salad dressing, the possibilities of using honey are endless.

Words "lime flower honey" bring to mind Russian folk tales about bears. My Mum would take me to the farmers' market to buy a jar of lime flower honey. This was considered to be a cure for almost any cold-related ailment. Sniffles and colds were treated with hot drinks like milk and tea liberally sweetened with honey. It is great in a soothing drink for sore throats and colds. Honey has also been used as an ingredient for hair rinse, or treatment for arthritis.

Lime flower honey from Hilltop Honey is a new and organic variety, which contains more fructose than British raw honey, hence its consistency is runnier. It is a light, mildly zesty honey, with a beautiful distinct aroma. It comes in a squeezy bottle. The colour is yellow amber.
The message on the bottle reads: "Not only is our lime flower honey organic, it's also raw! This is important because we don't heat the honey so much that it kills the enzymes that makes honey good for you".
This cold extracted and unpasteurised honey has a lovely taste with a delicate woody scent.
It goes beautifully with fruit salads. And plain pancakes, drizzled with honey, are a true food of gods.

As this honey has a delicate taste, it makes an ideal baking ingredient. I have used it to make chocolate chip madeleines. Honey and chocolate go really well.

It happened so that after I received a bottle of lime flower honey for testing and reviewing, I have seen different varieties of Hilltop Honey in our local Holland & Barrett, and I am going to try them as well.

To find more about Hilltop Honey, find them on FacebHook - Hilltop Honey and Twitter - Hilltop Honey.