Friday, 28 September 2012

Emergency Pie Day

Richard keeps getting held up in traffic on the way home from work, which means he sometimes gets home very late indeed.
This is not a good thing, obviously, but it's particularly awkward when he's supposed to be making dinner.
Fortunately we are not without resources.
Emergency pie to the rescue!

We made a tomato tart/galette/thing.


A sheet of pre-made puff pastry
A punnet of cherry or baby plum tomatoes
Some chutney or caramelised onions or any other sticky stuff from a jar that you think will work
Cream cheese (ordinary Boursin is good)
Creme fraiche

Cut the pastry into squares, either score a border around the edge with a knife, or cut two strips to decorate each top with later.

Spread a little of your chutney or whatever you have on the pastry (if you have a border leave this free).
Share the tomatoes between these sticky squares.

If you have cut decorative strips then arrange these over the top in a cross pressing them firmly into the pastry bases at each end.

Brush them with egg or milk if you aren't in too much of a hurry.

Put them into a standard pie oven for about twenty minutes.

Meanwhile take a big dollop of cream cheese, add a spoonful of creme fraiche and mix thoroughly adding a little seasoning if your cheese is not of the pre-seasoned variety.

Take the tart thingummies out of the oven and spoon some of the cream cheese mixture over each.

Serve with some sort of potato dish* and green vegetables.

Pretend you spent hours on it.

*Tinned new potatoes go rather well with this actually.

Thursday, 27 September 2012


We took Eleanor* to Eureka last Sunday.
We had originally hoped to go with Richard's parents, but given the events that unfolded on this excursion it may be just as well that they couldn't make it.
Eleanor loves Eureka**, so even on a normal day it would have been a great adventure out, but this was no normal day.
This was the day that Doctor Horrible invaded the Children's Museum and Eleanor, with the able assistance of Batman and Spiderman, defeated his evil plot.
 We arrived to find a police presence in the museum grounds.
Fortunately they weren't, as I initially feared, there to check for unexploded bombsbut to impress on the unformed minds of our youth that Police Are Heroes Too.
They did this with stickers, colouring sheets and free access to the siren on their van.
After a little while, though, it was clear that they had another, deeper purpose.
They were there to keep an eye on the lab-coated, goggle-wearing, stammering crazy-man who was standing just outside the doors and making things go BOOM!***
 This was none other than the nefarious Doctor Horrible himself, apparently embarking on an evil scheme to blow up parts of Eureka using household items.
We watched as he exploded some bicarbonate of soda with vinegar, then used this to make a rocket****.
Then we beheld the true nature of his dastardly plan: to drench all visitors to the museum with Coca Cola, thus rendering them moist, sticky and ready to obey any command, no matter how horrible, if it meant getting to wash the gunk off afterwards.
There was cola, there were mentoes, you can imagine the rest.
 Fortunately we had Supergirl***** with us so she quickly moved us back, out of range of the sinister scientist's cola cannon.
Others were not so lucky.

Escaping the mayhem in the forecourt we headed in and encountered Batman and Spiderman in the village square.
They explained that Doctor Horrible had an evil scheme afoot , and that they needed the help of Supergirl (and the other children too I suppose) to defeat him.
First they went through Superhero Bootcamp: learning to jump, climb, and in Ele...I mean Supergirl's case, fly, and to punch things while shouting "Zap!" and "Pow!" in order to properly defeat super-villains.
 Then they began to look for clues.
They quickly discovered a break-in at the village bank: Doctor Horrible had stolen the wonderflonium from the bank vault!
They Pow!ed their way out of the vault and followed the clues around the museum, uncovering evil robots (whose tyres needed replacing), terrible traps and scary schemes.
Eventually they found themselves back in the square and there, before them was Doctor Horrible himself, laughing his evil laugh and preparing to unleash a monologue.
 Supergirl was a little dismayed to find that he wouldn't run away when she Pow!ed him, but we explained that she had to wait until he had finished mocking us and, in due course, evil was vanquished and he fled into the depths of the museum.

Then we had lunch.

After lunch Supergirl embarked upon some superhero crafts: making a mask (just in case she needed an alternative costume I suppose), and filling out an application for the Eureka super-team.
 We were a little nonplussed when Doctor Horrible strolled in, sat down at the table, and began to fill out his application form for the Evil League of Evil, but he didn't try to do anything particularly heinous, so we left the conniving cognitian to his work and got on with the colouring and sticking.
In the course of this project the good, or rather evil, Doctor fell into conversation with Supergirl, and was tricked into revealing his latest scheme: to take over the world using an army of Triceratops.
Alas, all was now lost, Supergirl is a confirmed triceratops fan and was now firmly on the side of the perfidious PHD.
 Meanwhile he was very friendly and offered to let her Pow! him to make up for not running away when she did it before.

Craft time over the suborned Supergirl demonstrated her shift to the sinister side of the super-powered spectrum by selecting to visit the Hall of Giant Body Parts (also known as the Me And My Body exhibit )
There she played with giant teeth and other such relics of a golden age until it was time to go home.

*And Phoebe obviously, but she wasn't all that interested

**Eureka the Children's Museum, well worth a visit.

***Well, Ffffft anyway.

****Which failed to go off until he poked it, clearly they were going for an authentic Doctor Horrible experience here.

*****Known in her secret identity as not-at-all-mild-mannered Eleanor Wilson

Saturday, 22 September 2012

Better late than never Pie Day

We made fruit tarts.
We're on the mend and in the mood to bake so we thought we'd try another recipe from Ellie's Little Cooks magazine.
Then we remembered how those always turn out.
So we kept the pastry recipe, threw out the rest*, and invented our own filling.
These also work with double cream if you don't have the time or inclination to make creme patissiere.

Fruit Tarts (with Brown Sugar Creme Patissiere)

150g plain flour
75g butter
25g icing sugar
some cold water

4 Egg yolks (keep the whites, you can freeze them if you don't use them the same day)
100g Soft brown sugar
25g Plain flour
1/2 Teaspoon of vanilla extract
350ml Milk
Some soft fruit (we used strawberries and blueberries, but only because I couldn't get raspberries)

Cut the butter into cubes and rub it into the flour till it looks like breadcrumbs.

Add the icing sugar and stir it in well, then add the water (a couple of tablespoons or so), stir some more, and bring it all together with your hands to form a ball.

Put the ball on a floured surface, sprinkle with a little more flour and roll out.

Cut out with a large round cutter and put the rounds into tart cases.

Bake (with added baking parchment and dry beans if you want) in a low oven (180 is fine) for about fifteen minutes.
Take them out, remove any pieces of paper or other rubbish, leave to cool.

Meanwhile, get on with the creme patissiere.
Add the sugar to the eggs and beat gently together until light and moussey (or light and sticky to be honest).
Add the flour and beat some more till combined.
Put the milk into a pan and bring to the boil, then pour this into the egg mixture and beat it carefully together.

Put the whole thing back into the pan, return it to the heat and keep whisking**.
Bring it to the boil and keep whisking while it boils, let it keep boiling for about two minutes from the point that it begins to thicken.
Now take it off the heat and add the vanilla, whisk it up one more time, decant it to a bowl, cover and leave to cool.

The rest is just an assembly job: dollop creme patissiere into cases, taking care not to sneeze on any.
Remove the sneezed on tart: this is now property of the person who sneezed on it.
Yes, even if they wanted that other one over there.
No, two tarts are too much for one person.
Ok, maybe tomorrow.
 Arrange fruit on top, halving or slicing if necessary.

Put it into the fridge until needed, then consume while attempting to look dainty and refined.

*It involved pre-made custard and kiwi fruit.

**This bit really isn't for young children, let little people watch by all means, but even I'm not potty enough to let my three-year-old stand over a lit stove whisking a hot pan full of boiling milk and sugar.

Friday, 21 September 2012

No Pie To-Day

Pie tomorrow.
Or maybe the next day.

Alas there has not been a single day this week in which our family has been entirely tummy-bug free.
as such we really aren't in the mood to make* pies.

We will rectify the situation as soon as we are returned to the bright glow of vitality which normally fills this abode of health, industry and decorum**.

*Much less eat.
Much, much less.

**Feel free to laugh hollowly.

Monday, 17 September 2012


We went to see Brave a while ago.
 Since then Eleanor has been obsessed with archery, bears, horses, and will o' the wisps.
Her pictures have mostly been of Merida, the heroine of the film, and most of the words she has wanted to write have been similarly brave inspired.
 We have had to stop her from tangling her hair to make it "all loopy"* as it became impossible to get a brush through it.
She has played at being Merida every day, casting me in the -highly confusing- role of Queen Eleanor, and calling on Phoebe to represent an entire set of triplets.

She has a new Brave sticker album** which she fills with great care and delicacy, and a bow and arrows set which she fires without them.
In short, she loves it.

We were pretty happy with it too.
The story was fairly predictable, and I wouldn't like to hear a Scottish person's opinion of the setting,*** but the scenery was beautiful, the plot well executed, the characters, though fairly one-dimensional,**** were nicely rendered, with Merida's hair being a triumph of the pixelated art, and the regal Queen Eleanor possessing sufficient flaws of body and mind to prevent her from appearing merely a noble cipher**** while being handled sympathetically enough to avoid her becoming a strait-laced straw-woman.
Also the archery was very impressive.

Most impressive of all, however, were the gender politics.
I don't mean just having a girl as the hero: most Disney films have a heroine after all.
I don't even mean the way that that girl turns her nose up at courtly matters in favour of jumping off rocks and shooting things: while it was nice to see a film eschewing the standard girl-in-pretty-dress-meets-boy-and-eventually-reaches-the-zenith-of-her-ambitions-by-marrying-him Disney plot, with everything that implies to its audience, this has been done before.
 What was impressive was the way they presented this.
Firstly: no-one is surprised by Merida's capabilities.
Queen Eleanor may disapprove of her preferences***** but there is no suggestion that girl should not enjoy, or be talented in, what are normally presented as masculine pursuits.
Although other characters are clearly impressed by her prowess with a bow, their reaction is very much that of the people of Sherwood on seeing Robin Hood in action: they gasp not because she is a girl but because she is just that good.
Actually that's not the only resemblance to Robin Hood in that scene.
And they may have been gasping for another reason too, but if I tell you about that it might give things away a little.
 Secondly and much more significantly: nobody is diminished by Merida's capability.

There is a tendency, in books or films where the girl is the hero, or at least in those where she takes a traditionally male role, to build her up by running everyone else down.
The girls rescue the boys while the boys either stumble around incompetently, or wait swooningly to be rescued displaying a decided lack of interest in saving themselves.
Kings and fathers in such tales tend to be rather bumbling and retiring, while Queens and mothers, while similarly ineffectual, are much more forthright and decisive.
The effect is generally somewhat pantomimic: it is as though a group of traditional fairytale characters had merely swapped clothes, the girls putting on trousers and tucking their ringlets up under knights' helms, while the boys pin on long flowing wigs and conceal their manly stride beneath long skirts.
 An obvious exception to this rule, and one in the Disney canon, is the story of Mulan, however as she really is a girl in boy's trousers, whose ability to be "one of the men" is treated as a rare and heroic attribute, this is not, in the end, a very positive example either.
 In Brave, however, Merida is strong, capable and independent, and not only does no-one suggest that she is unusual in this respect but no-one else is lessened to make her look better.
Her father, while not politically minded, is practical, capable and strong, her mother is intelligent and eloquent, the various male secondary characters are all people in their own right, in no need of rescue, and perfectly able to look after themselves if it came down to it.
 It is, in short, a story about a person with heroic abilities and equally heroic flaws, overcoming adversity to ultimately triumph.
It is, in short, a story.
That the heroine is female is entirely beside the point.

Eleanor, of course, isn't aware of any of this: she doesn't hear the film telling her that she's just as good as the boys because no-one has told her that she isn't.
So she doesn't notice the message that she can do anything a boy can do, she doesn't see the significance of a female heroine.
She just sees a story, a role-model, a game to play.
And that, to me, is the most significant thing of all.

*Nothing can be done about her mind.

** Sneaky maths strikes again!
Actually it's interesting to see how far she's come since the last sticker album, I suspect that by the end of this one she'll have gained as much benefit from the number-identification and so forth as she can.
Which lets me out of getting her another I suppose.

***Actually I would.

****In fact the loud, easy-going King Fergus seemed a far more stereotypical figure but this is somewhat forgivable as he is given less space for character development.

*****There wouldn't be much plot if she didn't.


Friday, 14 September 2012

Comforting Pie Day

Yesterday I took a very excited, eager Eleanor to the Northern Ballet for the first day of her new term at ballet school.
Unfortunately, when we arrived, and after she had got into her leotard and ballet shoes, and sat down ready for me to tidy her hair, we were informed that we had been given the wrong date: there would be no ballet class that day.
 Eleanor was understandably miserable: she had just spent an hour cooped up on the bus to get there and now she was going to have to go straight home, enduring another hour on the bus, without having a ballet class or even seeing any of her friends.
 A very subdued little dancer got onto the bus to go home.
Fortunately, once we'd got off the bus we found a few puddles to splash through, which cheered her up for a little while, but she was still a sad, quiet, un-Ellie-like, excuse for an Eleanor.
There was only one solution: pie with suet pastry*.
Serendipitously, I had planned on exactly that.

Mushroom pie

200g self raising flour
100g vegetable suet
A tiny bit of salt
A bit more black pepper
Some cold water
500g mixed mushrooms
Two onions
Mushroom ketchup
Swiss bouillon powder (or a crumbled up stock cube)
Mustard (we used English but I think wholegrain, or even French might be better)
White wine (about a glass and a half)
A big blob of Stilton**
butter or olive oil*** for frying

Dump the flour, suet, salt and pepper into a big bowl and stir them together with a knife.

Keep stirring and add the cold water, a tablespoon or so at a time, until the dough starts to come together: then stop stirring and start squidging it together with your hands.

Once you have a nice ball of slightly sticky dough set it aside and get on with cooking the mushrooms.

First chop the onions, put them into a saucepan with whatever fat you prefer and fry for a couple of minutes until soft.
chop or break up the mushrooms and add them to the pan

While they are cooking put the wine into a bowl, add a big pinch of bouillon powder and a spoonful of mustard and stir well.
Pour this into the mushroom pan and let them cook for another five minutes or so.

Take the pan off the heat and add the tarragon.

We also added the Stilton at this point but, actually, it would make more sense to wait till everything's cold and just put it straight into the pie, so do that instead.

Leave the mushrooms to cool while you go back to your pastry.

Set aside about a third of the pastry to make a lid, roll out the rest to fit whatever you're using as a pie dish and fit it in, buttering the dish first if you're worried about it sticking.

Roll out the lid, cut a hole or two in the top (otherwise your pie will explode) and, if the mushrooms are cooled (hot mushrooms will start to melt the suet in the pastry) assemble the pie: ladling in the mushrooms, adding the Stilton, and fitting the lid on top, sealing it firmly to prevent leaks.

Cut off any extraneous pastry and use it to make decorative watchamacallits to stick on top of the pie.

Bake for half an hour at your normal pie-baking temperature.

Serve with pride and roast potatoes.

*I do not advise seeking consolation for your woes in food, nor do I suggest encouraging children to do so, it only leads to more misery.
It is an awfully comforting pie though.

** Unless you're vegan, or cooking for vegans, in which case you can just skip this

***Not extra virgin.
Please, by all that's holy, stop using this to cook with.

Tuesday, 11 September 2012

Games for Reading, Writing, Maths...

In my last post I mentioned Peggy Kaye's Games For Reading and the dinosaur board game we made.
This game was so much fun to make, let alone play, that I thought it deserved a little more attention.

The concept in the book is very simple: draw a line of squares and colour them in with various colours.
Then write the names of those colours on some cards and shuffle them.
To play the game give each player a token, a coin, die or similar object, set these at one end of the line.
take it in turns to move along the line by drawing a card and moving to the next space of that colour.
The first person to reach the end of the line is the winner.
Obviously this game helps with reading skills, particularly instinctive reading of the trickier colour names, but with a little adjustment it can be a lot more.

This is the game we made.

At one side of the board is a compsognathus nest, at the other is a Tyrannosaurus nest.
Players take the part of hungry compsognathus scurrying round the board to collect eggs.
In its simplest form the game is just like the original version, except that the winner is the one to collect the most eggs* which makes this a slightly longer game.
 The first variant turns this into a slightly more strategic game: players must move round the board clockwise until they get to the tyrannosaurus nest, they can then choose which direction to take based on the cards that they draw.
In the second variant one player** becomes an angry tyrannosaurus intent on gobbling up the compsognathus that keeps stealing her eggs, this player also travels clockwise until they reach the compsognathus nest and can then travel in either direction, the winner is the player to collect the most eggs before the tyrannosaurus catches one of them.

The next variant involves the cards.
 Our cards have the colours of the rainbow and numbers from one to six in lower case and capital letters.
If you draw a number you move that many spaces, if you draw a colour you move to the next space of that colour.
This is lovely for basic reading practise but lovelier still is that you can update the cards as the players grow older.
Instead of a card reading "red" you can make one which says "move to the next red space" or "miss a turn", instead of "one" you can have "four minus three" or "3 + 4" or any other instructions.
You can even add forfeits or trivia questions: "Name three cities in Scotland to move to the next red space" or "Stand on one leg for one minute or miss a turn".
The possibilities are almost endless.
Best of all it's actually quite fun to play.

Since writing that last post I've also discovered Peggy Kaye's website, it's worth looking at if you're interested in this kind of thing and she even has a few of the games from her various books up there.
We tried her suggestion of writing a menu for a Monster Cafe but, of course, ours was a Dino Diner.
We wrote a menu****, we set up the restaurant, and we opened for business.

I don't think I'd want to eat there but Eleanor's dinosaurs certainly seem impressed.

*Or the first to two, three, or however many eggs you can stand to play for.
** If you're playing this with your kids you're probably best off being the tyrannosaur, if they're playing  alone and no-one wants to be it*** then they can draw cards for the tyrannosaurus separately and keep moving it clockwise until it catches them.
*** Or they all do.
****Making sure the herbivorous options were clearly labelled

Friday, 7 September 2012

Pie Day with Daddy ....god help them all

Right ho, I foolishly said I'd do pie day this week after watching the Hairy Bikers new show "Hairy Dieters". The pie looked fantastic and I wanted to try it. Before I start here is the BBC Food link to the Hairy Bikers actual recipe.

So it's a Mince beef and potatoe pie...or at least it's supposed to be. the first bit of the recipe is easy enough. I prepared all the veg for Ellie so cut the carrots, onion, and cellery, sorted out the spices, diced the potatoe and then got Ellie to help me with the measurements.

After that we dry fried it all, added stock and left it to simmer for half an hour. Ellie had much fun adding and stiring, while I quietly panic at a 3 year olds proximity to the stove.

Simple so far, going well, next was the pastry.

I should stop here and mention I've never made dough before in my life. I don't count the time I had the bread maker, that was just throwing ingredients in and like magic a loaf appears.

The recepie said get two sachets of pizza base mix, follow the instructions for making the dough. ...acutally I'm going to blame occado for their stupid mix, I didn't trust it from the start.

I'll leave it at some time passes, there may be colourful language (the kind where Amelia valiantly tries to cover it up and ask me what kind of Ship I was talking about) and a re-evaluation of dinner occurred.

Pies became pasties! I mean who doesn't love a pasty? Much better than pies, pies are stupid....step in Hue Fernly-Whittingstall (OK and Amelia ) to the rescue which his pasty recipe.

It was simple really, mix whatever flour we had left after my Pie debacle, add butter, and then fold, fold, fold again and refrigerate while the filling cools a little. Ellie folded with Amelia's help while my blood pressure subsided, and she did a marvellous job.


After we got the pastry out of the fridge we had to cut the pasty shapes and add the filling. (For future advice, Thor plates are the perfect pasty size.) then paint them with egg, and throw it back in the oven for another 35 minutes.

As you can see perfect looking pasties...though through the process one of them became a spiderman pasty and another a Wolverine pasty. Wolverine was for dinner, spiderman is for tomorrows lunch.

I have to say, it was a most excellent pasty, and almost low fat. We're all looking forward to lunch tomorrow...except perhaps spiderman.

Monday, 3 September 2012

The Writing's on the Wall

We're trying lots of different ways to encourage Eleanor's reading and writing.
The most obvious of these is just reading: we read to her and she reads to us.
Unfortunately for the latter endeavour Eleanor has an astonishingly good memory.
This is obviously an excellent thing in many ways: it helped her to learn the alphabet for example, but it makes learning to read from books awfully expensive.
The problem is that once she has read a book once she remembers it so well that any future attempts at reading are more in the nature of a recitation.
We are lucky, of course, in that we have a library just down the road from our house, so books are rarely in short supply, however we have found it necessary to find other ways to help her to read.

Looking For Directions

This is an easy one: when we're out and about we ask Eleanor to help us find our way around.
She looks for signs to tell us where we are, and signs that tell us how to get to where we want to be.
It's cheap, straightforward and compensates wonderfully for my complete lack of anything that could be described as a sense of direction.
Besides which her simple joy at being the first to find the way to the Pond Dipping Platform, or to spot the sign for Pontefract is beautiful to behold.

Decorative Words

Eleanor chooses a word and helps me to spell it.
I write the word out in big bubble writing and fill the inside of the letters with glue.
Next we choose lots of decorative bits and pieces, we try to find things that suit the words: glittery reds for the word Fire, tattered bits and pieces for Scarecrow.
Once we have these Eleanor decorates the word.
Lastly I stick the word on the wall.
It sounds simple but this helps her to spell and to learn to read by instinct, looking not just at the letters that make up each word we choose, but at the shapes of those words as well.
The words stay on the walls, where she can admire -and read- them as much as she likes until the wall fills up and we have to start again.


She has a blackboard, she writes, she rubs it out, she writes some more.
The nice thing about this one is that it's done entirely on Eleanor's own whim: I don't tell her what or when to write, she simply picks up the chalk whenever she feels the urge.
Lately most of her words have been related to the film Brave, but that's a whole different blog-post.


There are some great games out there to get children reading.
The obvious one of course is Scrabble*, and then there are all manner of educational games, like Eleanor's favourite: Shopping List by Orchard Games, or the various children's versions of Cranium, but almost any game is good: there are instructions to read, headings on cards, spaces labelled Miss A Turn or Go To Jail, all of which encourage reading without over-emphasising the work involved.
 We've even made our own board game, inspired by a suggestion in "Games For Reading" by Peggy Kaye, a book full of, well, games.
For reading.
Games are good.

Reading To Phoebe

Ok, this is just Eleanor reading out loud in a different guise, but Phoebe loves it, Eleanor feels ridiculously grown up and pleased with herself, and it's encouraging two children to love books.
What more could we want?**

Bath Tub Words

This one started because we noticed that Eleanor tends not to read as well when she's tired.
We thought it would be a good idea to give her a little practice doing just that so, at bedtime, I started writing a word on the bathroom wall using her plastic letters.
She read the words, she played with the letters, sometimes she made new words.
It worked so well that now I have to write whole sentences just to keep it interesting.

Everything Else.

The world is full of words, we talk about them***, we look at them, we trace their shapes and feel the tastes of them in our mouths.
Whatever we're doing words are bound to creep in, whether we're cooking from a recipe, sending a quick message to Daddy, fetching the post, running to the bus stop, singing a song.
The words are there, all we have to do is use them.

Do you have any ideas for fun with words?
Let me know in the comments below.

*We have this and Junior Scrabble.
It might be obvious but it's still fun.

**Answer: better books.
Seriously, babies these days have no discrimination.

***And, obviously, with them.