A review of 2013

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Writing a blog kind of forces you to reflect on things. Hopefully not in a ‘Christmas Letter of our achievements’ kind of way, but more as a record of what you’ve done. My reflection on 2013 is intended to be a positive take, but hopefully without the self-congratulatory tone that you see in many annual round-ups. However, Tim did accuse me of bring a bit full of myself when describing my Boxing Day Dessert. I couldn’t lie, though: it was actually that amazing.

So 2013 has been characterised by:

1. Tiredness

When I asked Tim how 2013 had been for him, he replied, “Great, but tiring.” At the beginning of the year, sleepless nights were par for the course – Ben was still feeding 2 or 3 times a night. So that was definitely tiring. Not being at work, I got up every single time. So yes, the broken nights were definitely tiring. So were the 5am starts, when he finally started sleeping through. We had a few weeks of blissful recovery at the beginning of December, when Ben slept 7pm-7am every night, but that has gone out of the window with Christmas and general disruption to his routine. So 2013 has definitely been tiring.

2. Family Holidays

Despite the constraints of maternity pay, we managed to have 3 holidays this year, 1 abroad in France. We has our first holiday as a family in February in the Lake District, and it was a lovely time to go away – Ben was 6 months old and not crawling, meaning that baby-proofing wasn’t an issue. The cottage where we stayed provided a high chair and cot, and I got a Sainsburys shop delivered when we arrived. We repeated this everywhere else we stayed, and it worked really well. Even though we live in the same house, sleep in the same bed and eat meals together, holidays seem to be when Tim and I make our big decisions and realise how much we just enjoy each others’ company. Easy to forget when you’re juggling childcare, laundry and working. For our other two holidays, we went with either set of our parents. This was a really good chance to all spend some time together (and, of course, we took up the offers of babysitting).

3. My return to work

I went back to work after having 13 months off, and I can honestly say that I really enjoyed going back. Yes, it has been incredibly stressful; yes, I frequently spend every evening and nap time marking or planning; yes, I frequently do 40 hour weeks despite being part-time. That’s teaching. It’s really hard work. But it has been so good to use my brain and my skills. I thought a lot about my work while I was on maternity leave, and have spent a lot of time planning schemes of work. Fortunately, that reflection time hasn’t been wasted, and I think I’m probably teaching some of the best lessons of my life.

4. Serving our church

Over the last year, I’ve found myself involved in more teams in church. From helping out in crèche on a Sunday morning to running a blog with notes for small group Bible Study, God has used me and my time. I’ve met people, I’ve deepened relationships, learned a lot and have developed new skills. It’s been good.

5. Social Media

I’m getting to grips with Twitter, and the blog is nearly a whole year old. I have really enjoyed learning how to do this. Twitter is really good for teaching; I’ve picked up some great ideas and witnessed ( I don’t often take part) some fascinating discussions. You can follow me here. I’ve been on Pinterest a while, and I’m still addicted. You can find my boards here.

6. Getting to grips with our finances

Since June, we’ve been following the principles of CAP Money. This has been really helpful for us managing our finances better. I highly recommend doing a CAP Money course to everyone.

Looking forward to 2014, I am aware of changes I need to make. I want to spend more quality time with friends and family. I want to have more adventures. I need to sort my diet out, as all too often it is characterised by caffeine- and sugar-fixes. I need to find smarter ways of working, both inside and outside the home. I would like to get fit again. I’d like to get more sleep. But that’s for another post.

Happy New Year!

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Making Thank You Cards with a Toddler

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Last Christmas, we probably spent £20 on sending Thank You cards. I didn’t resent the money (most of it was stamps), but I thought that for the amount we could probably do something a bit more fun this year.

I really like sending Thank You cards. If a person has gone out of their way to buy, wrap and deliver a gift, they deserve a Thank You card. And who wouldn’t love a splodgy, painty, glittery Thank You card from a one-year old?

I braved the sales on Saturday to go to Hobbycraft, and purchased blank white cards, finger paints and the glittery stars. Then we came home to have some fun! I hadn’t done much finger painting with Ben, and not at home at all, but he has done lots at nursery, and knew exactly what to do.

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The set of paints only contained red, blue and yellow, and Ben loved mixing them together and spreading them across the card.

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When finger painting got boring (and when Ben tried to eat the paint), we introduced the stars. He loved sticking these onto the card. My original plan was to get him to paint first, let the paint dry and then stick the stars on, but it didn’t go to plan. We got him to embellish some of the stars with felt pen, and the rest of the stars we stuck on when the paint was dry.

Here’s our collection of finished cards!

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The Most Amazing Chocolate Raspberry Layered Pavlova

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This recipe really does deserve the title above. We had it for dessert on Boxing Day, and it was a huge hit. I was looking for an idea which I could make ahead and then assemble on the day – I really didn’t want to be cooking on Christmas Day, or early morning on Boxing Day, so I made all the component parts in advance, kept the creme patissiere in the fridge, covered, until the morning of Boxing day, and then assembled.

The creme patissiere is actually very easy to make; the flour in it stabilises it. The hardest part for me was peeling the paper off the meringues without damaging them. I had to call for an extra pair of hands for the last one.

The raspberries in this are great – hidden in the meringue layers and arranged on top – they give little pops of sharpness in contrast to the chocolate.

Ingredients

For the meringues:

  • 6 egg whites
  • 300g caster sugar
  • 3 tablespoons cocoa powder
  • 1 teaspoon red wine vinegar

For the creme patissiere:

  • 6 egg yolks
  • 100g caster sugar
  • 2 tablespoons cocoa powder
  • 2 tablespoons plain flour
  • 300ml milk
  • 300ml double cream
  • 100 grams dark chocolate
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract

For the cream layers:

  • 400g fresh raspberries
  • 300ml double cream

Method:

  1. Preheat the oven to 140C.
  2. Line 3 baking sheets with greaseproof paper. Draw a circle 20cm diameter on each sheet (I just drew around a cake tin).
  3. Whisk the egg whites until stiff. Add the sugar very slowly, beating again after each spoonful. Sieve over the cocoa powder and add the vinegar; fold this in.
  4. Spread the meringues onto the baking parchment circles. Bake in the oven for one hour. Then turn the oven off, and allow to cool. Note: I kept the meringues in an airtight tin.
  5. To make the creme patissiere, beat the egg yolks and sugar together, then add the cocoa and flour. Whisk together. Heat the milk and cream together in a saucepan. When it is hot, slowly pour the milk and cream onto the eggs and sugar, whisking constantly. Pour everything back into the saucepan and put it back on to the heat. Keep stirring. Don’t stop stirring, and bring it to the boil. It will thicken. Then take it off the heat and add the vanilla.
  6. Allow the creme patissiere to cool. Note: I covered it with buttered greaseproof paper and put it in the fridge.
  7. Whip the cream until it is firm.
  8. To assemble the meringue, place one meringue on your serving plate. Cover with a third of the creme patissiere. Then scatter over a quarter of the raspberries, then smooth over half the cream. Place the next meringue on top, and repeat with the chocolate, raspberries and cream. The final meringue just has chocolate creme patissiere, and half the raspberries arranged as you like.
  9. Like most meringue-based desserts, you don’t want to assemble this too far in advance or it will go soggy. However, this is a great dessert to impress a crowd; yesterday, this fed 8 adults, 4 children and there was still over a quarter left.

Book Review: The Snow Child

I haven’t posted a book review for ages, which is ridiculous, because I have read several books over the last few months which would be good to review. This was the December choice of my book group, and it was one of my suggestions. The theme I went for was ‘Winter,’ and Anna Karenina and The Dark is Rising were my other choices.

The Snow Child was written by Eowyn Ivey, and was a Richard and Judy Book Club favourite in 2012.

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The story follows Jack and Mabel, a childless couple in the 1920s, who settle in Alaska. During their second winter there, they build a snow child. Mabel, still grieving for a child she has lost, carves a girl’s face lovingly into the snow. Like the snow child in the Russian fairytale which inspired this story, the snow child appears to come to life.

This is a beautifully written book, and particularly striking in its descriptions of the Alaskan wilderness. Although the descriptions are beautiful, life for the couple is harsh and difficult. The girl, Faina, changes their perspectives and their relationship. They come to know, and ultimately rely on, another pioneer family. The winters are difficult, sometimes life-threatening. Farming and hunting are hard, tiring and wearing. Yet throughout, Ivey retains the sense that there is something magical, almost fairy-tale like about this story.

I really enjoyed the descriptions of their pioneer lifestyle; it is an aspect of history I know very little about, and I had never read anything set in Alaska before. Others have said that they found the day-to-day aspects of the narrative slow, and I can understand that, but don’t share that opinion. I liked the characters, and felt that each was well-developed; each certainly had a dark side to their souls.

Somehow, the novel is never a happy one. There is a sense of sadness that lies throughout, perhaps reminiscent of the ever-present threat of winter and death in Alaska. Although I liked it, it is not a book I think I will read again. However, it is definitely a book to read once.

Feeling Christmassy

This last weekend, we’ve brought Christmas into our home. Last Friday, there was barely a card on the dresser; this Monday, there is a tree, a wreath, baubles, stockings, cake and mince pies.

For the first time ever, we’ve splashed out on a real tree. Tim has always been keen – I’ve been the Scrooge who has resented spending the money. However, it’s been a revelation. The real tree is beautiful, smells wonderful, and somehow fills the space better. There are a couple of misshapen branches, but nothing awful. We’ll be having a real tree for ever now.

Last week, I went to Sainsbury’s, and saw that they had Christmas decorations half-price. I had wanted to update some of our Christmas decorations for a while, but, again, couldn’t justify the expense to myself. However, when you find beautiful baubles for just 75p, how can you say no? Gone is the cream-and-gold minimal scheme of the last few years, and in comes the folksy red, cream and grey, complete with a few woodland creatures.

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Our stockings are up in the hallway too. Again, we’d never put them up before Christmas Eve before, but I really like them up there. A little symbolism that we are now a family of three. Ben hasn’t really noticed them yet though.

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Finally, what to do with all those rejected baubles? Fill a glass jar with them of course, in the style of fancy homes magazines. In the absence of flowers, I’m loving this on our dining room table. Plus it encourages me to keep the table tidy (although there’s currently the debris from my present-wrapping session strewn across it).

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So our home is almost ready for Christmas. Just a few more days at work for me, and then the fun can really begin!