Fruit growing

Blackberries 

Chatting to my grandmother the other week she said that October half term used to be called Blackberry Week as that was when the wild blackberries used to be ripe and you could go foraging. Now she is from Northumberland but I wouldn’t imagine the seasons to be vastly different from where we are based in the South West. However, we started having blackberries here from about mid August. It was the same time of year last year that they began and by the first couple of weeks of September we were overrun with them. Our blackberries are all wild and are spread about the land which is nice as we get to have a good wander, but we do tend to occasionally miss a patch. Last year the field was our best blackberry hunting ground and I would end up going round it every other day and picking two to three kilograms every time. And that was only the ones we could reach as there were many more that were too high up and so we left them for the birds. We had the field hedges cut back massively in January and they haven’t really got back to full strength yet so the field hasn’t been the best harvest this year. Last year C had blackberries pretty much everyday as her snack and she has enjoyed them again as a snack this year, especially picking them and then eating them straight away. 


What I have noticed about soft fruits from the garden is that they just don’t last that long. Not just beacause they are eaten, which of course with C around they rarely make it back into the house. But also as they go soft fairly quickly after picking. Now this has made me realise several things. Firstly, the supermarket ones tend to last for a couple of days, at least, after purchase and presumably they are not in the shop the day they are picked. So what on earth do they do to get them to last that long, and how can that be good for you? Secondly, our homegrown soft fruits taste so much better than shop bought (in my humble opinion), much sweeter and juicier. I’m not sure whether it’s the fact that they are eaten so much sooner after picking or just that some part of the production process for supermarket ones tends to mask their true flavour, but I just can’t find the supermarket ones as satisfying anymore. 


So what do we do with all those blackberries? Well aside from eating a good portion of them, I tend to freeze those not being eaten immediately to preserve that wonderful natural goodness. I am lucky to have a tray at the top of one of my freezers so I can open freeze them. What this means is that I can lay them out flat and freeze and then bag once frozen. This means that the individual berries are kept separate and so it is easy to take out a few at a time. I always try to label the bags with the prefrozen weight if I remember! What do I use these frozen berries for? Well defrosted they tend to go a bit squishy so I have tended to use them for smoothies or yogurt toppings, fruit crumbles and of course jams and chutneys (I made about 20+ jars of blackberry and apple jam last year that were amazing). This year with the hedges having been cut right back we haven’t had quite so many but C was still able to have a couple of friends over for some blackberry picking and eating and I’ve still added to my freezer collection for the winter. What do other people do with their blackberries? Does anyone else do any foraging? 

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Life in the Countryside

One year on: the recreation area

J thinks I sound very poncey (no idea if that’s how you spell it) for calling this the recreation area but we did originally call it the grassy area and that name doesn’t really apply anymore. So this was the area when we moved in.


Now this area was originally a substantial vegetable garden with a bit of general garden space as well. That was of course at a time when everyone had substantial vegetable gardens as they had to grow their own. The area was completely overgrown (can you see a pattern here with the cottage) and the ground was very uneven. So we arranged for the area to be completely stripped back to bare soil and then we seeded it ourselves (wasn’t that fun). It then stayed as just grass for all summer and into winter. 


Then come January we began finalising what we wanted the area to look like. So we had the random bits and pieces of hedge and bushes removed from the corner by the apple tree as the tree wasn’t really accessible and it all looked a bit higgeldy piggeldy (again apologies for the total lack of spelling knowledge here). Then the plan was to install six raised beds and a climbing frame for C into an enclosed bark area. This was brutal and pushed both J and I to the limit at times but we’ve created an area we’re really happy with. You can read about it here, here and here


We have also created a patio as an eating area, our bifolding doors will eventually lead out here. This has a lovely lamppost on it and electricity so I can have my patio heaters here if required. You can read about that here and here

 

We also have a patio at the back of the garden for a greenhouse (still to be purchased) and of course we have the craft cabin.



This is my little space for being me. It still needs some finishing touches to the paintwork inside and out but it is the only place where a can put things in their permanent place as the cottage is going to be totally ripped to pieces. The recreation area is something I’m really proud of. J and I have worked together to design an area which really enhances our lifestyle. It’s the area which most people comment on, even our Tesco delivery guy said he could holiday there! For this area there is very little still to be done. A bit of finishing of the border of the bark area and probably topping up the bark. The greenhouse needs purchasing and installing. Longer term we want to put some decking outside the craft cabin and create a nice relaxing area with sofas. Next week I’ll have a look at the changes that have gone on in the field in the past year. 

Vegetable growing

Potato types: a review

So all of our Spring planted potatoes have now been harvested and we have sampled some of each variety so I thought it would be a good time to look back at the varieties we grew and see which ones we would grow again and which ones we wouldn’t. 


As a reminder for everyone our six varieties were: Red Duke of York, Charlotte, Maris Peer, Maris Piper, Purple Majesty and King Edward. The Purple Majesty were an individual pack of seed potatoes and the other five varieties were all together as a beginners potato growing pack. They were all planted in lazy beds in the field and ended up all being planted at the same time but were harvested at slightly different stages. Let’s look at each one in turn.

Red Duke of York:

These were my favourites I think. Our only first earlies they went in a little late and we left them in for about 11 or 12 weeks in the end and they were amazing. This variety produces red skinned potatoes that actually grew to an incredible size. We found they made great baked potatoes and also did well as roasties or mash. In fact there wasn’t anything we did with them that we didn’t enjoy. They also seemed to have been one of the varieties which were less damaged by slugs or other pests. These are a definite must for next year. 


Charlotte

These are second earlies and a very well known supermarket variety of new potatoes. These turned out pretty well as well, a good job as we have these as our Autumn planted (or Christmas) potatoes. They were a good size for Charlotte’s and had beautiful yellow flesh. There was some damage by pests but not too much thankfully. I think we will probably do these next summer as well. 


Maris Peer

Now these were one of our least successful varieties. Lots were attacked by slugs and we lost a significant amount of our crop to them. They have a more white flesh and just in general didn’t look as appetising as the others. The taste was okay but nothing special. These are not going to be repeated next year.


Maris Piper

Again this is a well known variety so I was expecting great things. This was another crop which was hit pretty bad by the slugs and other pests. The taste wasn’t bad, but nothing special and a bit disappointing for such a well known variety. I think we probably won’t be doing these again next year and will try something different.


Purple Majesty

Now J had really wanted to grow these as he had once had them served boiled at a posh restaurant and wanted repeat the experience at home. They turned out very well and gave us a good yield. However, some people were a bit put off by the colour. C wouldn’t try them and we served them a couple of times for Sunday Roast (in combination with other varieties) when we had guests over and a couple of people weren’t keen on sampling them. They were also remarkably difficult when it came to spotting any defects until they were peeled so they weren’t going to be great to store. So probably not a one for next year. 


King Edward

Again another well known potato variety and what should have been a reliable maincrop potato. However, we had quite low yields (although this may have been that they needed earthing up more) and they ended up being nibbled on by some kind of rodent (my money is on a vole). And actually taste-wise they weren’t as good as other varieties, we were very disappointed in the roasties we made with them. So probably not ones to repeat next year.


So we would grow the Charlottes, the Red Duke of York and would recommend the Purple Majesty but probably won’t grow ourselves next year. The Maris Peer, Maris Piper and King Edwards don’t have a place in our growing schedule for next year. Some interesting points to note here are that apparently it is a bad year in general for potatoes (according to smallholders we know) so we might have had less slug damage and better yields if the weather had been different. And we probably should have earthed up a bit more but actually the lazy beds weren’t as easy to keep weed free as we might have hoped. 

Next job on the agenda – work out what different varieties to try next year! Any recommendations? 

Caravan/travel · Life in the Countryside

Let’s go buy a caravan

So next Spring we are going to do some massive renovation work on our house. And when I say massive I really do mean massive. We have to do a single story extension, move the staircase and remodel upstairs, install a new roof, install a central heating system, new windows and doors, rip up and replace all floors (not just flooring actual floors) and walls. So obviously we can’t really live in the house whilst this is going on. So we are going to hvae to move out. We did lots of thinking about where to live for this time. One option was to rent a flat for six months but that would probably cost a fair amount in terms of removal costs, rent, council tax and bills on both properties so we dismissed it as we’ve both always felt rent was dead money. Another was move in with J’s dad who lives just down the road which would be free but after consideration we decided that we would all end up killing each other and that actually it would be best to manage a big renovation project from on site. So we looked at getting a second hand static caravan in the field to live in which seems to be fairly common for large renovation projects. However, we hit a snag as static vans are 12 foot wide and the gap between our garage and the neighbours hedge is about 10 feet. So it wouldn’t fit up the drive into the field. The only way to get one into the field then would be to have a crane lift it over the hedge. Which would cost seriously mental money so we dismissed it. So our only solution really was to get a large touring caravan which we could drive into the field. A major advantage of this is that we can also use it for holidays in the future so extending it’s useage beyond the build. We made this decision quite some time ago hence why we had an area prepped for it in the field (I’ll give more details on that another time).

So anyway, we had thought for ages about when to buy our van. We won’t need it until next March/April time but didn’t want to wait until just before then in case we couldn’t find the van we were after (as we were planning to buy second hand). As I had never stayed or even been in a touring caravan before (J’s family had one when he was younger), J said it was essential for me to look at a good few to be convinced that I would be happy to live in one and to holiday in them. For some reason my husband seems to think I’m quite fussy, I don’t know what gave him that impression. So early summer we had gone to a few caravan shops (pretty sure they’re not actually called shops as it just doesn’t sound right) and I had made sure that I went into all different types and sizes of caravans. It was a really useful exercise as I was immediately able to determine what were must haves and what were no way in hell will I live in thats. So my must haves were a decent sized bathroom. Not only do I have a toddler but neither J nor I are exactly small so we needed a big enough space to move about in. Ideally I also wanted the bathroom to be at the back of the caravan out of the way. Even though there are only three of us (and are planning on staying a trio) we wanted a good sized van, big enough so that if C ever wanted to bring a friend on holiday then she could do so we were looking at probably a five or six berth van. As we are planning on living there we need some kind of central heating system and a decent sized kitchen. 

Now the sleeping arrangements in caravans tend to have a few distinct options. You can have a fixed double bed at the back, or you can have either fixed twin or bunk beds at the back. Then most vans also have the option to convert the front sofas into either another double bed or twin beds. Some also have a small table somewhere at the back that can convert into another bed. We wanted to avoid as much as possible having to convert a bed every day when we’re living there so after lots of looking in different vans we have gone for a set up where there are bunk beds at the back and a small table which converts into another single bed (which we will probably keep converted at all times when living there). There is also a decent sized bathroom at the back. That whole back section can be closed off its a curtain/door thing which will be useful when we put C to bed early. We’re also getting a large awning which we can have as extra outside living space. I’ll post some pictures of the inside etc when we collect it this weekend as we’re planning to spend a night in it on Saturday to see how Charlie settles into sleeping in it (and because J is ridiculously excited about us squeezing in some weekends away in it before the weather gets too cold. For now I’m just trying desperately to think what kind of essentials I need to get to in, what are the kitchen essentials for a caravan? How many games and toys do I need? I’ve never been massive on camping so I don’t really have a clue what kind of things to get for it? I’ll try and write a post on Sunday to let you know how our first night went!

Life in the Countryside · Parenting

The pink phase

So our toddler is going through a girly phase. A very girly phase. Everything needs to be pink. She will only wear dresses (referred to as Cinderella dresses) and prefers party type dresses (i.e. the most impractical ones for everyday life, especially when you live in the countryside). I can very occasionally persuade her to wear leggings but it is a battle and generally involves some kind of bribery. So we do have a fairly sizeable collection of non-dressy clothes (barely worn) which she is rapidly growing out of which is a bit of a pain. Every time there is any kind of option she goes for the pink one; the pink colouring pencils, the pink socks, the pink pants, the pink playmobil princess (even though she preferred the purple one, it wasn’t pink). As a result, pretty much all of Jessie’s toys are pink, her collar is pink, C’s shoes are pink. Now I have no idea where this phase has come from, it just seemed to appear from nowhere. I’ve not tried to make her girly on purpose; she has a good number of very unisex toys, she spends lots of time outside in wellies getting dirty, in fact both J and I imagined she would end up being quite tomboyish. But recently I’ve noticed her doing more playing with figures and trying to do dress up (with things that aren’t really dress up things but never mind). I’ve kept wondering whether I’ve done something to encourage her and worrying that she’s becoming too girly. There does seem to be a feeling out there (I’ve noticed a few stories in the media about it recently) that it is wrong to gender stereotype children, that all toys should be gender neutral, clothes for girls shouldn’t be too girly etc. 

Then I had a bit of a moment. When I remembered that there is nothing wrong with my daughter being girly, she is a girl after all. That I shouldn’t be worried about what someone else thinks I should and shouldn’t do with bringing up my daughter. That I’m not a bad parent for letting my girl be girly. That I’m just a parent letting their child be themselves. And how that ever be a bad thing? And whilst I agree that we should encourage our children to be anything they want to be, there is something to be said for biology. Is it wrong that my girl wants to be a bit girly? According to my parents, I went through a very girly phase when I was younger too. It hasn’t made me obsessed with makeup and wearing pretty dresses for life (in fact when not at work I rarely wear makeup except for special occasions). Just because she likes wearing dresses and is obsessed with princesses (she refers to herself as C Scampy Pants B Princess) doesn’t mean she won’t grow up to be a doctor or a scientist. It just means she likes wearing dresses. So I for one have decided to embrace her just being a toddler and stop worrying about what everyone else thinks as long as she’s happy!

Life in the Countryside

What a difference a year makes…part one

It is now just over a year since we moved into the cottage and so I thought it would be a good time to reflect on what we’ve managed to achieve in a year. Both J and I have moments when we just want to walk away from the cottage as there is so much to do and it can feel stifling at times. Sometimes it seems as though what we have to do is unsumountable and that we will never get to the end of it so I thought it would be quite cathartic to have a look back at how far we’ve already come to help gear us up for the next phase of our work. I had originally planned this as one post but having started to write it there were just way too many pictures for one post so I’m going to spread it across three or four weeks. So this week we have the orchard.

The orchard before:


The orchard after:

When we first moved in the trees in the orchard were looking a bit sorry for themselves and the fruit trees hadn’t been picked properly for years so weren’t fruiting that well. The big pile of rubbish next to the garage was the furniture that we cleared from the house, totally filled with woodworm or infested with mice. That went on the fire. 


When we came to empty the solar (the building behind the pile of rubbish in the first picture above) it had a wasps nest inside and the floor collapsed so it had to come down too and onto the fire it went. The horse chestnut tree (centre of the second picture above) was diseased so has been removed and the stump is now a climbing frame for the chickens.


 Where the pile of rubbish was now stands a concrete slab large enough to fit three sheds (due to arrive in the next few weeks) and there is a gravel drive leading up to it (excuse the chicken in the middle of the drive).

 The massive composting pile of garden waste (picture three at the top) had to be removed and we had another fire or two. That took a long long time.



Now the far corner of the orchard is where I’m planning on building C a cafe/shop thing out of old pallets as its a nice shaded area. The rest of that cleared space is mainly occupied by the chickens, you can see the behind the fence of the photo below where I have a nice space for C’s cafe.


I mentioned earlier that the trees in the orchard needed some serious pruning. J has taken charge of this even though he really has very little knowledge on the subject. The two apple trees in the orchard had  a number of lower branches pruned back although I confess that was mainly to make it easier to get the mower round as the branches hung very low but it was also quite overcrowded. The plum tree also had a bit of a prune too. This has given us much better quality fruit yields this year. 



J has built two pens to store leaves and create leaf mound. 


The pampas grass that was in the middle of the orchard has had to be hacked back a bit after the chickens starting using it as an alternative nest. That still needs some work doing to it.



There is obviously still a bit to go in the orchard. The trees will get another good prune soon and hopefully will keep improving as the years go by. The pampas grass needs either cutting back and tidying up or digging up. There are a number of damson trees which have grown up in the centre of the pampas which need removing as there are too many crowded into a small space. I need to create a nice shaded play area for C in the corner and build her a cafe/shop. We have another couple of trees to plant in the orchard, another plum and another apple, in line with the existing apple trees. The sheds have to be bought and assembled on the concrete slab and the edging to the driveway needs to be finished. That’s probably about it for the orchard for now although that may change in time. Not bad work for year 1 in the cottage. Next week I’ll have a look at the recreation area which is the area I’m probably most proud of. Be sure to follow us to make sure you don’t miss it. 

Parenting

Preparing to go back to work

So I work in a school and so am lucky enough to have the school holidays off with C which is amazing. But it’s now the end of the glorious six weeks off for summer and time to get back into our term time routine. C is currently with a childminder when I’m at work and has been since I first when back when she was just shy of a year old (she’s now nearly three, where has that time gone). I remember being very nervous before I first went back as I’d felt fairly on top of things whilst at the end of maternity (well as on top of things as you can be with a child). J was working in London at the time during the week so I only had his help on weekends and was likely to be working away for the whole academic year (I worked in a school). I was normally managing to vaguely keep on top of the washing and cook for us all from scratch every day and get C out of the house as well. I felt as though I had just about got us a routine that worked. But going back to work meant that the wonderful time to get things done in the house whilst she napped (she was still napping twice a day then for about an hour and a half at a time at that point, oh how I miss naps). 

Anyway, so I managed to vaguely get myself into a routine for the past two years, which as is always the case with children had to constantly change, but I’m moving schools in September and we now have the dog so we will have to find a new routine again.  I’m generally considered fairly organised amongst my friends (although I would beg to differ) and I thought I would jot down some of the things which I do to help me juggle the balance of being a working mum. 

  • Batch cook, lots. I love my freezer (I have a couple) and often take time to try and fill it. I use my slow cooker a lot for this – a huge batch of bolognese or chilli or a casserole is very easy to cook in there (just chuck the ingredients in there and leave it). I use old butter tubs to store portions in the freezer (I’ll often wait until its frozen and then pop it out and wrap in cling film and label if I’m running low on tubs). That way for the time and effort of cooking bolognese once we can enjoy several meals which are very quick to reheat after a day at work. I’ll mainly do batch cooking on weekends or holidays and tend to try and add to my freezer stock once a week. 
  • Keep leftovers. Most weeks I’ll do a roast dinner on Sunday and purposely cook a bit extra of the veggies and we tend to have leftover from our roasting meat anyway. Then I can portion up a couple of dinners for C from leftovers to keep in either the fridge or freezer. Or sometimes I’ll cook a dinner for J and I one evening and C will have it as leftovers the next day, I have the least time to cook for C once I get home from work (as she tends to east at 5:30pm) so anything that is easy to heat up is great. 
  • All three of us need packed lunches and I try to prepare as much as a can ahead of time. I portion up as much as possible at the weekend into little tupperwares. Things such as crackers, breadsticks, raisins, blueberries and other soft fruit, popcorn, cucumber, carrot sticks, hummus, sweetcorn, peppers, cherry tomatoes, cut grapes all do well being prepared on Sunday for the week ahead. So it’s then fairly easy the night before to make up a sandwich or wrap fresh and add the Tupperwares to the lunch boxes. I also often use dinner leftovers for lunch the following day or cook an extra chicken breast, for example, to go into wraps. 
  • I always pack C’s bag the evening before and have our clothes set out ready for the following day and used to, when J was working away and I had to do bedtimes by myself, prepare Monday to Friday’s clothes for C ready laid out in her drawers. Even though it may only save me a minute or two in the morning (or longer now C likes to try and choose her own clothes) when you are working to a strict time scale trying to get out he door then every minute helps. 
  • Online food shopping has been a lifesaver for me. I tested it out first when I was pregnant and now I would never go back to having to do a weekly shop in a supermarket (especially dragging a child along with me). That doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy the odd potter about in a supermarket but having to try and fit that into my working week would just be a pain for me and so time consuming. We get our shop from Tesco as we’ve always found our local one very reliable. So easy to just book an hours slot that fits in with your routine and then adjust items in your basket as required and then forget about it. Also as baby brain has made me very forgetful I love being able to have the app on my phone to just add things the minute they ran out. 
  • Meal planning, which kind of goes with a lot of the above. Gone are the days when I could come home, see what I felt like for dinner and just pop out for any stray ingredients. Once I have worked out what we are having on what day it makes it easier to make sure I’ve ordered the correct food on my shop, taken out what I need from the freezer and know exactly what I need to do for dinner when I get home from work rather than flapping (which I’m rather prone to). If we have also planned together what we are doing for dinners for the week then we are more likely to stick to it and can both step in and help with dinner/childcare as required in the evening. 
  • Working together is a huge part of what we do. Both J and I know our daughter’s routine very well and either of us could do dinner and bedtime by themselves if needed. We’re good at keeping each other informed about the week ahead and are lucky to have J’s dad nearby to lend a helping hand if necessary. In the evenings J tends to arrive home normally after C has had her dinner or when we’ve just gone upstairs. Between the two of us we tend to juggle, bath, story, milk and bed with tidying up C’s room and putting away washing, laying out clothes for the next day and any other upstairs chores that need doing. 
  • I’m better in the mornings than J so I tend to take control of looking after myself and our daughter then and J just has responsibility for himself (and now the puppy). We try to help ourselves out by having breakfast things laid out ready and even go so far as having tea bags and sweeteners etc in mugs ready. Again they may only save you a minute in the morning but it’s one less thing to do in the morning panic, especially if your child is anything like mine and has days where she refuses to get dressed and so you have to spend extra time battling so she doesn’t go out naked with just her wellies on (this happens way too frequently).
  • I always make sure I’m up, washed, dressed and make up done before my daughter wakes up at seven but I have gotten in the habit of getting up even earlier than I need to. Why, I hear you ask? So I can have time to have a latte from our trusty coffee machine and spend half an hour either reading the news or browsing Facebook on my iPad or watching a bit of TV or reading a magazine. I find that just having half an hour of calm me time in the morning really sets me up for the day (I’ll admit that the caffeine probably helps too). Then whatever stresses the morning or the rest of the day brings, at least I’ve had half an hour of me time, half an hour of not being a mum or a wife or a worker. It’s amazing what that little time to yourself can do for your morale – I definitely recommend it. 

So those are the things which I do to help get the balance of being a working mum, does anyone else do anything similar? Any inspiring ways to help with the evening madness? Let me know your suggestions, I’m always looking for ways to be more organised.

I have no inspiring pictures to go with this post so I thought I’d just share some I liked!



Parenting · Recipes

Baking with a toddler – chocolate chip cupcakes

As you make have gathered from my some of my previous posts I love all types of cooking but especially baking. I have fond memories of baking with my mum when I was younger and this is something I’ve been keen to share with C. In fact when she was only a few weeks old C had her first taste of baking when she helped to stir the Christmas pudding mix on stir up Sunday. I would share the photo but it shows me living on about an hours sleep and is not a pretty sight! Anyway, since she has been able to I’ve really tried to get C involved in cooking at home and she is particularly fond of baking. So today as it was a slightly grey day where the weather really couldn’t decide what to do, we decided to do some baking. Now I know some people can get a bit nervous about the idea of baking with a toddler (C will be three in October) but it is such a lovely learning and bonding experience and has tasty results. In fact cooking in general with a child is teaching them a vital life skill and it’s something I’m really passionate about especially having seen teenagers leaving school without any basic skills in the kitchen at all which is frightening. So today C and I baked cupcakes, we probably bake once every three weeks or so but we do other cooking a lot more frequently. In fact C can probably recite a basic cake recipe (although she doesn’t know numbers big enough for the quantities yet). So today I thought I would not only share our recipe, but also some tips and hints to help encourage the nervous amongst you to try baking with your little one. I’ve put the simple, de-toddlerfied version first before my step by step guide with toddler tips included.

The basic recipe (18-20 cupcakes depending on tray size):

Ingredients

  • 175g butter/margarine
  • 175g caster sugar
  • 175g self raising flour
  • 1.5 teaspoons baking powder
  • 3 large eggs
  • 100g chocolate chips

Method

  • Turn the oven on to 180 degrees Celsius and put cupcake cases in your tray ready.
  • Add all ingredients to a large mixing bowl except the chocolate chips and mix (I use an electric hand mixer but a spoon would suffice but I can just never get as much air in the mixture then) until pale. 
  • Then add the chocolate chips and stir in with a spoon. 
  • Spoon mixture into cases and bake for 12-15 minutes until the top bounces back immediately when pressed and they are light golden in colour (my oven takes exactly 13 minutes for these but it can vary depending on your oven. 
  • Allow to cool on a wire rack and enjoy.

The toddler version

First step is to make sure that all hands are clean and I always have out all my equipment and ingredients ready. For a toddler baking version I have two bowls, one small to measure in and one large to mix in. 


Now the first job your toddler can help with is to put the cupcake cases in the tin. This is a great fine motor activity as it can actually be quite hard to separate out the individual cases. When I first started doing caking with C she would use an entire 50 pack of cases to fill one 12 hole tray but now she manages to separate them all out individually.


Next up we start the mixing process. I measure the ingredients out (as C gets older she can help more with this) and C empties them into the mixing bowl. 


She has a spoon to mix the ingredients whilst I measure the next ones (and wipe any spillages up).

Cracking eggs is a great skills to learn. As we have chickens we tend to get a fair bit of practice with eggs and C can crack an egg and almost open and empty it completely by herself. My suggestion is to let your toddler have a go and just prepare yourself for the mess (I’ve had a teatowel under the bowl before to catch spillages and always have cleaning equipment nearby for an immediate clear up). I get C to crack the eggs into our measuring bowl and then transfer them into the mixing bowl. It’s also useful to have a bowl to put the empty shells in nearby. You’ll notice C steadies the bowl herself when cracking the eggs now which is another useful tip.

 

Then the toddler can do some more mixing with the spoon whilst you put away the ingredients and make sure the hand mixer is plugged in and ready. As we have a rather small kitchen (an understatement really) with limited plug points we have to move to another part of the kitchen to be next to power. Now C has had it explained to her very clearly that when we use the mixer she has to have one hand on the handle (which she must share with me) and one on the outside of the bowl. Now be really really firm about this as it is such a safety hazard if they mess about. Use whatever warning system you need to make this clear to them (I even early in our baking career together when C kept trying to put her hand in the bowl despite clear warnings cut our baking short which resulted in lots of crying but she has behaved immaculately ever since and it’s better to have a battle and a cry now than a trip to A and E later). 



Then once fully mixed I normally allow C to lick the beaters whilst I get everything ready to fill the cases and put away the mixer. Then the “cleaned” beaters go straight in the dishwasher and we add the chocolate chips and stir in.


Now comes the fun part trying to fill the cases without getting mixture everywhere. I use a two spoon method myself but C tends to just use one spoon and shake the mixture off. She only tends to fill a couple before deciding the spoon has to go in her mouth instead so I tend to end up filling most of them myself, and hers tend to need topping up a bit too. 



Then whilst they’re in the oven C can lick the spoons and I can put the bowl in the dishwasher and tidy away and wipe down anything else that needs doing. Then once the well licked spoons are in the dishwasher it’s just a waiting game. Now I’ve gone for two different strategies before depending on what kind of mood C is in. Either we move to another room and start a different activity and I discretely slip back into the kitchen when the timer is up to take the cakes out of the oven and put them on the cooling rack and then take her back into the kitchen when they are cooled so we can try one. I employed this a lot when she was younger as she struggled to stay far enough away from the oven and couldn’t quite get (or didn’t want to) that the cakes were too hot to eat immediately and that she couldn’t help me put them onto the rack. Or I involve her in the whole process (which I am increasingly doing now) and we do a final count down from 10 seconds on the timer (see how I even managed to link a bit of numeracy in there) and then she watches as I open the oven and unload the tray and we set another timer for when they’ll be cool. 



Now I like this recipe because it is simple and relatively quick and hassle free even with a toddler sous chef, it doesn’t require any icing or anything doing to it after baking they can be enjoyed as is. You can even substitute the chocolate chips for raisins or other dried fruit if you want to be a bit healthier but I personally don’t think the odd couple of chocolate chips now and then are too bad for you. 

Oh and for reference, a toddler sized portion is one cupcake and an adult sized portion is definitely at least two. Does anyone else cook much with their little ones? What are your favourite recipes? Any other hints and tips for fellow parents?

Fruit growing

What a lovely pear

Now last year our pear tree gave us nothing. Zilch. There were a couple of malformed pears on there but nothing remotely edible. As the trees in the orchard haven’t been pruned for a number of years we hoped that a good pruning and bit of attention might bring it back to life although we weren’t hopeful as it is next to the pampas grass and quite overcrowded. Well yesterday we were able to harvest our first pears. 


One thing about pears is that it is really hard to work out when to pick them as they need to be picked before they are ripe. So it is a bit of a challenge to decide when to pick. We picked a total of 23 yesterday, I’ve set aside some to go with our lunches this week and have a few left over that I might try and do a pear tart tatin with. There are still loads left on the tree so it looks like we might be eating pears for some time to come. Does anyone have any favourite ways to use up pears? Or any suggestions on how to make sure that you are picked them at the right time? 

 

Vegetable growing

Christmas potatoes

I shared a couple of weeks ago that C and I bought our Christmas potatoes in one of my favourite local garden centres. Christmas potatoes are potatoes that you plant in late summer/early autumn and harvest at around (or just before) Christmas time, they are also known as Autumn planting potatoes but I think the name Christmas potatoes has become more popular in recent years. Christmas potatoes only really work as new potato varieties (also known as earlies) as they have a shorter growing period so enough time to mature before the winter sets in. We have chosen two different varieties, Charlotte (a favourite of ours) and a new one to try Pentland Javelin. Now late planted potatoes such as these are best grown in bags as the open ground can get pretty cold in winter. Then ideally before the first frost you want to move the bags into a greenhouse (or a conservatory) to keep them a bit warmer. You can get your potato bags from a variety of places but I found them cheaper online than in the garden centres. 

I find it best to roll down the sides of your bag before you start as then they are easier to fill and also they get the best access to sun. 


First fill your bag with about 10-15 cm of good quality compost and water it well. Then place 2 or 3 seed potatoes on top, with the best looking sprouts facing upwards.

Then cover with another 10 cm of compost and lightly sprinkle with water again. 
Then they just need leaving, until you get your first foliage you will need to ensure that the soil is kept moist so try to check it every couple of days. Then once they have a good amount of green foliage sprouting (say 10 cm plus) then completely cover with compost again (roll the bag sides up as required). Then repeat until the bag is full. This is known as earthing up and will help to maximise your produce. 


Now the astute amongst you will have noticed that I earlier said you will have to move the potatoes inside before the first frost. Now the potato bags might be rather heavy once you start filling them with compost so for us we have already sited them where our greenhouse will be constructed. Obviously not an option for most people but it is something worth remembering before you overfill your bags and then can’t move them. Although the bags do have handles to move them, I don’t imagine they will do too well when they are full of compost. Has anyone else grown potatoes in bags this year or fancy trying it?