Lists, pastry making, ignoring Christmas shopping – and celebrating a cold water swim

This time of year can be a bit overwhelming, can’t it. Please don’t shake your head, I know I’m not the only one. There are lists galore in my head, lists half way out of my head being forgotten, lists in my work book, lists on the cupboards. I am fortunate not to work on Fridays so I get to use the last day of the week for playing catch up, swimming and doing household stuff.

Here is today’s typical Friday list. Things have to be achieved before the kids get home. Quick quick!!

lido list

Pastry – what’s that all about? I’m Making an Effort as we’ve an extra child staying tonight so I thought it’d be nice to have proper jam tarts made with our jam. Am I mad? Can nip down the road and just buy some pastry? Would I be letting anyone down if I did? No. But I do love baking and I’m not finding much time to do it right now.

I am all about lists, but I think after 12 or so items they risk becoming a bit overwhelming in themselves. I did read about having priority to do lists with just five items on, as you tick one you add a new one. Surely better than just turning a page in your notebook and rewriting a long task list neatly at the beginning of a new week….

I am not nearly there with my Christmas shopping. Well done to those who are, but please could you keep quiet about it. I’m struggling with the ideas. Christmas hasn’t quite started waking me up in the night, as other things are busy doing that. We will be hosting Christmas, which will be magical. There’s nothing like watching the kids open their stockings in our bed and going downstairs to turn the lights on the tree. The lovely very well meaning in-laws we’re hosting keep emailing to ask how they can help, or what they can bring. This is so generous, and I should be celebrating that, rather than panicking that I just don’t know as I haven’t got to thinking about cooking and eating yet and whether it’s ok to ask for something you might not eat when they’re with you.

So with all this going on, how about celebrating the little things we’ve done. Everyone’s achieved something today, be it clearing up the breakfast stuff, emptying the washing machine, making an overdue phone call or being nice to someone else. My personal pat on the back comes from dashing off to the lido to fit in a swim under a cloudless blue sky. Clad in swimming costume, funny bootees and gloves (which feel like you’re wearing buoyant rubber gloves) I clocked up an 11 length swim in 9’C. Never dreamed I’d manage that!

lido temp

Thinking on your feet & surviving an 11 year old boy’s birthday party: football, pizza, cake and Plan B

I learned some interesting lessons this weekend. Mainly that in life you really do need to line up Plan B as however well rehearsed and thought through your Plan A is things don’t always go quite how you’d imagined. And with parenting you quite often have to make the whole thing up as you go along.

Perhaps naively me and the Supportive Husband and our 11 year old son thought we had the perfect party lined up:

15 eleven year old boys

2 honorary guests (twin sister & her footballing friend)

90 mins football on the astroturf in teams

unlimited pizza, biscuits, chocolate crispies, coke

giant football birthday cake featuring 2 teams, ref, goals, corner flags, subs, you name it (icing pics at the end)

Skyfall video

Parts 1 (football) and part 2 (eating) went swimmingly with 17 pairs of football boots in the hall.

birthday some of the 17 pairs of boots

It was part 3 (film) when things went a bit pear-shaped. All 17 kids crammed into the sitting room, put the DVD on and turned the lights off. Then the fun started. A few of the lads decided they didn’t want to watch so would make some of their own fun. This was all fine for a bit – me and the Supportive Husband listening from the kitchen looking slightly anxiously at each other as noise levels rose, and rose. When they rose a bit more we went in. Didn’t want to be spoilsports or much worse Embarrassing Parents. But how to juggle 12 kids wanting to watch a film with 5 who didn’t? Why should the 5 be quiet and sit down when actually they’d seen it before / had itchy feet / wanted to muck around?

Retreated to the kitchen again. Gave them a bit longer. Noise levels rose A LOT MORE. One lad came out and asked if I could do something. Right. Time to Act. Cue light bulb moment: they need some more exercise and some fun outside.

I go back in to now quite fusty dark sitting room. Take command of remote control, pause film, ask for a show of hands of ‘who’d rather not watch this?’. 5 hands went up.

Me: ‘Right guys, out you come.’

So out they trooped.

Them: ‘What are we going to do?’

Me: ‘Put your boots on, we’re going out for a run.’

OMG did I really say this??

YES! And it was absolutely great (I think – anyway it stopped the neighbours being terrorised by our mid afternoon noise in the house and spread the enthusiasm around the neighbouring streets).

Off we ran down the road, then they played catch with one of those foam rugby balls in a nice wide bit of car-less road. When we lost the ball we sprinted on playing ‘It’ to the grassy, exceedingly muddy and very dark park to play what can only be called ‘throw and go and find the ball’. The only way you could find the ball was if you listened very carefully to hear where it bounced. More good fun. Then that ball disappeared too. So home, not disturbing the film-watchers but to games round the kitchen table.

PHEW thought me and the Supportive Husband as they all left. We survived another party. But only thanks to a plan B which we hadn’t really had up our sleeves. It’s taken 9 years of 2 parties each year (twins) to click that if you’re going to host a party you’d better have a Plan B ready in the wings. Bit like life in general eh.

At the end of the month we host the Speedy Swimmer’s birthday party – camping in the garden. Soon we shall start thinking up Plan B.

Heaven help us with the Teenage Years…

birthday assembling the teamsbirthday dipping arsenalbirthday strips on

Let’s get on with it – new year swims, birthday cake baking for twins and no more prevaricating

Around the nation people are attempting to tighten their belts around their festive paunches. In this household we’re preparing to let them out another notch for today is the Footballer and Super Fast Swimmer’s 11th birthday and there will be cake for tea. Early Jan is a pretty dire time for a birthday, but at the time back in 2004 I didn’t fancy hanging onto them inside any longer and I was very proud of how long their gestation was. So there’s been more cake baking and icing. They share a cake on their birthday – and have separate ones for their parties. For the second year running we’ve gone down the separate children separate icing route…

Birthday cake

Today I had a long list of things to get done, with baking a reward for achieving some of the bigger and less appetising looking tasks.  There was no time for messing around, coffees or chats at the school gates, so instead straight up to my desk, fingerless mittens on and flask of hot tea at my side. This thermos business is a winner – it means no excuses for ‘just popping to make a cup of tea’ as I have a ready supply of piping hot tea inside it.

This new sense of urgency that’s arrived with the kids’ return to school has really taken hold, and it’s very exciting. I’ve workbooks filling with to do lists. Some of the tasks I’d rather not do, or am apt to dodge, but thanks to the 10 minute rule (set a timer, work on the less attractive job, and by the time the pinger goes you’ll be so into it you’ll complete it) I’m on track.

There was no prevarication either on New Year’s Day when me (donning 2 swimming hats and a costume), a friend and 3 children took to the North Sea for a quick dip. The adults had a proper swim, the kids a swifter immersion. It was beyond invigorating, it was BLISSFUL and BRACING. I can’t remember it being cold, but I do remember wanting to go straight back in afterwards. Here I am post swim with my brilliantly supportive and towel holding husband and a devilish glint in my eyes.

birthday cold swim

There was a smashing opinion piece in The Telegraph about cold water swimming recently which pretty much sums up all that’s good about it, and talks specifically of the hit you get going swimming in cold water. Addicts like me rave about the wonders of it,  how high the cold makes you feel, and how alive you are afterwards, but now  Dr Mark Harper a consultant anaesthetist at Brighton and Sussex University Hospitals (and expert advisor to the Outdoor Swimming Society) has researched the impact of cold water swimming on the body and says, in the Telegraph piece, ‘The benefits of exercise and cold-adaptation include better mood and better metabolism (especially with regard to the way the body handles sugar). There is even evidence to support the theory that cold adaptation –which can be achieved through open-water swimming – may actually reduce the overall risk of a heart attack.’

birthday cold

So when I got to Kentish Town Baths and saw this sign I ignored the groans and complaints from the ladies in the changing rooms, made some (probably annoying) very positive remarks, just thought ‘go for it’ and went for it, so  a swim in cool water, followed by a properly cold shower. Crazy? Probably. But boy I didn’t suffer from any kind of afternoon slump today, and I’m well awake and raring to welcome home my just turned 11 year olds.

Baking, butter, brioche and a mug of mulled wine – a day out at the Waitrose Cookery School in London

I went to the Waitrose Cookery School this week and spent a whole day in their temple to baking, clean surfaces and the John Lewis ‘look’. Even the loos were in keeping with green walls and grey doors (but no sign of Monty the Penguin). I have done a large clutch of baking courses this year, and each one has had me beaming. My whole face lights up in anticipation of the things I’m going to get to work (play) with and the new techniques I’ll learn and all the yummy things I’ll be tasting and taking home.

Pause – should you give the foodie in your life a cookery school voucher? Well it won’t be the wrong size or the wrong colour for starters. For seconds, think of all the things they’ll bring back to share with you and the dishes they’ll be baking for you with their new found skills. Pretty much a win-win situation.

A day at a cookery school is heaven. No washing up – that’s done by the ‘washing up fairies’ (see trolley below) and no multi-tasking with emails, packed lunch making, phone calls or laundry. It’s a whole day devoted to the joy of food.

Waitrose Kitchen FairiesWaitrose setting the scenewaitrose kitchen

There are loads of places running courses – I really recommend Konditor and Cook (the most decadent but re-creatable at home cakes and biscuits – London), Cinnamon Square (superb pastry making and more – Great Rickmansworth), Ruby Violet (ice cream heaven – North London) and Blackbird Bread (for working magic with gluten free loaves and running a micro bakery in Twickenham). Prices tend to start at c£50 for two hours. I hope to blog and post pictures of creations from these bakeries soon.

The Waitrose Cookery School off Finchley Road in London is purpose built, with 24 work stations, a demo theatre with flash shiny black cupboards and giant screens, and a break-out area with tables, shelves of cookery books and proper coffee.

Things always seem a bit competitive to start with on these courses, so lots of ‘What are they doing first?’, ‘Does hers look better than mine?’ and ‘Why on earth is he spraying his pecan nuts all over the floor as he’s cutting them up?’ racing through my head. This time it all calmed down quickly as we realised how we could help each other out  – a classic case of teamwork with strangers round our hobs.

lining ingredients up for the stollen dough waitrose slice waitrose stollen Waitrose cranberry dough

We had giant mugs of mulled wine for our elevenses (with what looked suspiciously like bought Mince Pies) and big bowls of creamy and very moreish celeriac and parsnip soup for lunch.

Waitrose mug

We were also shown how to make Fig and Blue Cheese Brioche but I found it a bit too rich, didn’t realise I’d ever say that. I think the filling would have suited a puff pastry better than the cakey texture of brioche.

I came home laden with:

Sesame seed bread – Cypriot style, very easy to tear chunks off and delicious

Stollen twist – cue much OMGs from the kids – an enormous circle of dough filled with marzipan and apricot yumminess anointed with glace icing

Pecan and Cranberry Wreath – with a whole Camembert to bake and place in the centre of

In the spirit of Waitrose’s #bakeitforward challenge I popped over to my neighbour with some of the stollen. (I am afraid it wasn’t the whole thing as we are too greedy and selfish.)