Christmas card craft

This year I wanted Andrew to help make some Christmas cards for family. What I came up with would take too long to do for all the friends we wanted to send greetings to too. I’ve had to wait til now of course to put this online (and I thought it would be best to do it before the end of the year – I’m just in time), otherwise it would have spoiled the surprise for any of them who read this blog. So here is a step by step guide on how we made footprint angel cards!

  1. Andrew got stripped to his nappy (it was nice and warm on the floor as we have underfloor heating), and I laid out some newspaper. We opened a pot of red finger paint which I bought from Hobbycraft. Andrew held a (still sealed!) pot of yellow finger paint, so his hands were kept amused.
  2. My glamorous assistant Tom (dressed in old clothes) sat Andrew on his lap in front of the newspaper, and held his (A’s!) legs out in front. I laid some A5 pieces of cream card on the newspaper.
  3. In a rather speedy manoeuvre, I got a dollop of paint on my fingers, and smeared it onto the soles of his feet before he had chance to grab them, then on the shout of ‘Lift!’, Tom hoisted Andrew up whilst I directed his feet to stand on a piece of card. Once the red footprints were firmly established, I pulled the card away and Tom sat Andrew down again.
  4. When they were dry, I then transformed each set of footprints into an angel by drawing a head, body and halo in pencil to fit with the footprints as wings. A black gel-ink pen then made the pencil lines bolder, before I went round the whole angel shape with glitter glue, plus the halo on top.
  5. We still have quite a lot of A4 chocolate brown card left over from the wedding stationary that we made (we got married in 2008!), so I folded several pieces in half to make A5 cards. I then cut round each angel with about a 2mm border of cream card beyond the glitter line, and stuck it onto the centre of a brown card with double sided tape.
  6. The finishing touch was a verse from the book of Luke in the Bible, telling of what an angel said to the shepherds who were watching their flocks on a hillside near Bethlehem on the night that Jesus was born. I stuck this to the inside of the card, again using double sided tape.
  7. It took 3 sittings to get 14 sets of footprints from the little fella (artists can be temperamental you know). I decided to ring the changes and use green paint on the 3rd go – it looks quite effective with purple glitter I think.

(Andrew had to be dunked straight in the bath afterwards, and he loved the green water!

A green bath!

We even found that a little hand had managed to grab the bathroom door on the way in!)

Look what we found on the bathroom door

There we go – handmade Christmas cards using the raw talent of Andrew’s feet! Tom’s words were: ‘they’re random, but in a good way’….what do you think?!

Baby-proofing hat and mittens

Just a quick post to share a quick craft project that I did the other day when Andrew lost a woolly hat! He has some lovely knitted head- and other-body-wear from Tom’s family, but he also likes pulling them off, even when it’s cold. Unfortunately the hat he was wearing at the start of a walk into town was nowhere to be found at the end of the walk. On the same walk, he also lost a mitten, but we found that one near home on the way back. This incident prompted me to do something I’ve been meaning to do for a while – sew on some ribbon to his hat and mittens to keep them on. For the hat, this meant two shorter bits of ribbon, one on each side, to tie in a bow underneath his chin to keep it on. For the mittens, this meant a longer length of ribbon, each end sewn on to a mitten, so that it could go through the arms of his coat and stop the mittens getting lost even if they fall off his hands.

Matthius the bear modelling the hat and mits before baby-proofing began

The hat and mittens are modelled here by my glamourous assistant, Matthius the teddy bear, who, unlike Andrew, stays still enough for me to take a good photo! They were given to Andrew by my cousin, which incidentally makes her Andrew’s first cousin once removed – something I had to look up when figuring out family relations when Andrew was born. I love the little ears that make Andrew look so cute in the hat, and the little paw prints on the palms of the mittens 🙂

Ribbon ready for baby-proofing

I measured out the ribbons on Andrew, allowing quite a bit of extra length, partly because you need it for getting the mits on and off, but mainly for growing room.

Close up of the stitching on the hat

To make sure the ribbons were strong enough to withstand tugging from baby hands, I folded the ends of the ribbon over so that they were double thickness, and stitch round the three edges touching the inside of the hat/mittens with blanket stitch. I then added a square of back stitch about 2mm in from the edge of the blanket stitching.

Close up of the stitching on the mits

I think the square of back stitching looks clearer on the photo of the mittens than on the photo of the hat. This should mean that they are really secure and won’t be easily lost!

Matthius modelling the hat and mits after baby-proofing was finished

Matthius was kind enough to model again once I’d done the sewing. We tried out the adapted hat and mittens when we went to the park between Christmas and New Year. As you can see in the picture below, we didn’t lose them, especially the mittens, which dangled from his coat as he gripped the elephant see-saw thing and happily rocked to and fro. Smiles all round – Andrew stayed warm, and I was glad my baby-proofing worked!

Andrew wearing his hat, and mittens safely dangling!

One week, five Christmas parties

It was the week before Christmas,

and all through the city,

toddler groups partied with festive songs,

wearing outfits that were oh so pretty.

Well I think my poetry leaves a lot to be desired, but this certainly sums up the week Andrew and I (and Daddy) have just had. It started last Monday morning, when we went to our usual group at Chesterton Children’s Centre. We eased ourselves in gently to the party week, as this was not so much an organised party, but rather the refreshments had a Christmassy feel to them, some of the toddlers wore Christmassy outfits, and we sang Christmas songs at the end. Back home for some lunch and a power nap (Andrew that is), we then headed out to Rhyme time at Barnwell Road library for a proper Christmas singing session. But when we arrived, complete with a tub of oat and banana muffins to share, it came to my attention that the Christmas party was in fact the following Monday! Thankfully I wasn’t the only baby-brained mum who’d got mixed up. Oh well, not to worry, we joined in with the usual, all-seasonal songs.

Playing with (jingle) bells (jingle) bells on Monday morning

Tuesday’s party fun is reported here second hand, because that’s when Daddy and Andrew time happens each week. My two boys toddle off together to Little Music Makers, a music (obviously!) group run by Chesterton Parents’ group. According to my music group correspondent / photographer (aka Tom), great fun was had by all at the Christmas special. There were toys and party food (including some oat and banana muffins – they get everywhere!), as well as the usual singing and dancing (I’ll say more about that in another post sometime). Father Christmas even turned up, with presents for all the little ones. Andrew didn’t seem too fussed either way about this strange man with a white beard in a red cloak, and proceeded to use the nicely wrapped up book he was given as a teething toy!

Meeting Father Christmas - Andrew didn't seem too bothered either way!
Playing in the tent

Wednesday arrived and I woke up feeling excited because I had the afternoon off work so that we could go to the much-anticipated Little Sheep Christmas party. (Before I went back to work, Little Sheep was our regular Wednesday afternoon group – it takes place at Holy Trinity Church (Cambridge), and is a little different from most baby/toddler groups, because as a mum (or dad) you get to do an activity each week like craft, wine tasting, Zumba, hearing a talk, learning infant first aid etc, while your baby has fun with the other babies in the creche provided.) We clearly weren’t the only ones who had heard about how amazing the party would be. When we arrived 10 minutes before the advertised start time, the church hall was already filling up, and I heard later from a friend that the queue to get in just 10 minutes later snaked back into the busy shopping street on which the church is located. As more and more babies and parents/carers/family/friends piled into the hall, the singing began, led by a very enthusiastic lady called Rebecca. There were all sorts of songs – Christmas classics as well as the usual favourites, some of which were adapted to make them more seasonal (I thought ‘Father Christmas had a sack, ho ho ho ho ho… and in that sack he had a cow, ho ho ho ho ho… with a moo moo here and a moo moo there…’ was quite ingenious!). After a couple of quieter songs to finish off with, my friend Cat (who organises Little Sheep) gave a short ‘thought for the day’. She shared with us the lyrics of the song ‘What if God was one of us’ – here are a few lines…

If God had a name what would it be?
And would you call it to his face? …

If God had a face
What would it look like? …

We (Cat and I, and other Christians) believe that answers to these questions were given over 2000 years ago, when Jesus was born – God’s name is Jesus, and God’s face looked like that of a human baby boy, who grew into a man. That’s the reason for all this celebration at Christmas – all the parties are for Jesus’ birthday! No party is complete without special food and drink, and the Little Sheep party was no exception. There were all sorts of yummy cakes, biscuits and mince pies, as well as some mulled cranberry juice, which we tucked into while the little ones played and the big ones chatted. Father Christmas managed to turn up again; he must be so tired with all this travelling round to different parties every day. Andrew was less impressed this time as I sat him on the big red man’s knee (oh dear!)

Andrew shakering to and me singing 'Away in a manger' (click picture to play video)
Andrew fascinated by Rebecca as she danced around and led the singing (photo courtesy of Hannah Duffy Photography)
More shy on this occasion with Father Christmas - Mummy had to sit in on the photo too (photo courtesy of Hannah Duffy Photography)

Come Thursday we needed a rest from our packed Christmas social schedule, but by Friday we were raring to go again. Andrew and I joined the Cambridge babysigning group a couple of months ago for 5 weeks, but then I went back to work and we couldn’t commit to every week before our routine settled down. (I’ll definitely do a whole post sometime on babysigning.) But Bethan, the tutor, kindly invited us back for the Christmas special. We learnt some seasonal signs like reindeer, sleigh, Father Christmas, angel and Jesus, and had lots of fun singing and signing to Christmassy songs.

Eating Father Christmas' hat at babysigning (I had just offered him some pastry from a mince pie!)

The weekend arrived, along with time for some rest at home. Monday saw the last of our Christmas parties; this week really was the Rhyme time Christmas special. As we entered, damp and soggy from the rain, we were greeted by cheerful Bobby and Ruth, who were dressed up in costume and tinsel. The songs we sang were specially selected for their Christmas theme, and then we heard a story about a pirate (not so Christmassy). After all the musical and rhyming fun, there was plenty of food to share, and Andrew had his usual excitement looking at all the books, which he absolutely loves (clearly my son), and pulling himself up on the perfectly-sized mini cat-face chairs!

Looking at the books after the Barnwell library Rhyme time Christmas special

One week, five parties, many songs, lots of food and stockingfuls of fun! Have you had fun at Christmas parties that you’ve been to? Did Father Christmas turn up at yours too?! (He gets around, you know.) I think it’s fantastic that there are so many parties we can go to in celebration of Jesus’ birthday, because he was a special little baby who went on to do amazing things. This is Andrew’s first Christmas, and he’s certainly had a great introduction to what a fun time of year this is. As he grows up, I’m going to make sure he learns about the reason why he has so much fun at Christmas.

Stollen – another taste of Christmas (this one’s for babies too)

Another one of my favourite foods at Christmas is stollen (being German it should be spelled with a capital S, but I guess it’s become anglicised enough now to lower case it). This bread-like cake with dried fruit and marzipan has all the good bits of a traditional English Christmas cake, but without the sickly sweet white royal icing, and is generally much lighter (in colour and stodginess). Once again, German trumps British Christmas food. I’ve eaten a fair few stollen in my time (and been through, several times, the inevitable family joke of being a thief – stollen/stolen – it’s all the same to those who don’t sprechen Deutsch; incidentally it’s pronounced something more like ‘shto-luhn’ – ‘o’ as in ‘pot’), but this is the first time I’ve ventured into producing a homemade one. As there is very little sugar in the dough, it’s great for Andrew too, though I left out the nuts, and only put a small amount of sugar-laden marzipan into his ‘stollen bites’.

This recipe is based on one from Delia Smith online. It will come as no surprise to anyone who’s read previous baking posts on this blog that I adapted the recipe – no almonds (not great for Andrew), mixed dried fruit instead of separate amounts of raisins, currants, apricots, cherries and dried fruit peel (why bother when Mr Sainsbury can do it for you?), plain flour instead of strong white bread flour (other recipes I have seen for stollen don’t insist on bread flour, though see comments below), and simply dusted with icing sugar to finish instead of a glaze with lemon juice (I’m not overly fussed about lemon and all the stollen I’ve had from Germany just had icing sugar on top).

Ingredients

Ingredients for stollen

This recipe is enough to make 1 large one. I made double this, because you can’t buy smaller packs of marzipan, and stollen is great to freeze, so I made 2 bigger ones and about a dozen small ‘bites’ for Andrew; half of all this went in the freezer.

  •  150 ml milk
  •  50 g caster sugar
  • 2 level teaspoons dried yeast (not easy-blend)
  •  400 g plain flour
  • 110 g softened butter
  • 1 large egg, beaten
  • 200 g mixed dried fruit
  • 200 g marzipan
  • icing sugar, sifted, to dust on top

Method

  1. Pre-heat the oven to 190°C.
  2. Warm the milk, until you can just still dip your little finger in it.

    Milk warming up gently by short blasts in microwave
  3. Add 1 teaspoon of the sugar along with the dried yeast and leave it until it forms a frothy head of about 1 inch.
    Warm milk, yeast and sugar: time = 0 minutes
    Warm milk, yeast and sugar: time = 30 minutes

    Frothy milk, lovely yeasty smell
  4. Meanwhile sift 350 g of the flour together with the remaining sugar into a mixing bowl, and make a well in the centre.

    Flour and sugar with well in centre
  5. Pour the milk and yeast mixture into this, then add the softened butter and beaten egg.

    Milk mixture, eggs and butter added to well in flour
  6. Mix everything together either with your hands or with a wooden spoon – until the mixture is well blended and leaves the side of the bowl cleanly.

    Wet and dry ingredients mixed together to form dough, still quite wet and sticky
  7. Then work in the fruit, distributing it as evenly as possible. Knead the dough on a work surface for 5 minutes until it is springy and elastic.
    Dough ready for first round of kneading

    Wet dough from bowl after kneading on a very well floured board
  8. Now leave the dough in a warm place, covered with clingfilm, until it has doubled in size (the time this takes can vary depending on the temperature – it could take up to 2 hours).
    Dough covered in cling film ready to prove
    Dough in oven on minimum temperature, just right to prove

    Dough after proving in warm place for about 1 1/2 hours
  9. Turn the risen dough out on to a board floured with the reserved 50 g of flour, and knock the air out of it and knead the dough until it is smooth and elastic.

    Kneading the dough (thanks to Tom for photography!)
  10. At this stage roll or press out the dough to an oblong 10 x 8 inches. Using your hands, roll out the marzipan to form a sausage shape and place this along the centre of the dough, finishing just short of the edges.
    Flatened dough with marzipan 'sausage' (bit of a flat one!) on top

    Small circle of dough with small blob of marzipan - I then folded the edge of the dough into the centre over the marzipan, and placed it down on the baking sheet to hold the dough edge in
  11. Fold the dough over the marzipan and carefully place the whole thing on a baking sheet, allowing plenty of room for expansion.

    Two bigger stollen and several baby stollen bites, ready for second round of proving
  12. Leave it to prove in a warm place until it has doubled in size again, then bake in the oven for 25-30 minutes.

    Daddy stollen, Mummy stollen, and baby stollens ready to go into oven after second round of proving
  13. Allow it to cool on the baking sheet for about 5 minutes before lifting it on to a wire rack to finish cooling.

    Stollen and baby bites looking golden brown, just out of the oven (they only took 20 minutes to cook in our fan oven)
  14. Dust the top with the icing sugar to finish.
    Finished Stollen, complete with snowman
    Marzipan snowman - I had a small chunk of marzipan left, so I made a decoration to go with the snowy look of the icing sugar dusting

    Andrew's stollen bites - no icing sugar added 😉

You can probably tell from the photos that the stollen turned out quite flat. I suspect this is because I didn’t use strong white bread flour (its ‘strength’ holds the air bubbles from the yeast better). But they taste delicious, and Andrew loves his little baby bites too. Plus we’ve got another loaf and some bites in the freezer to enjoy in the New Year.

Do you have special foods that you like to bake/eat at Christmas? Are there cakes/biscuits/other sweet things that remind you of childhood or being with family for Christmas? Do you prefer Christmas foods traditional in other cultures more than those in your own? I’d love to hear about other foody traditions at this time of year. It’s special occasions like this that really inspire me to bake and try out new recipes. I hope you’re enjoying reading about my Christmas baking adventures!

Balancing act

My day starts when our alarm clock (aka Andrew) goes off at about 6am. I get up, play with Andrew for a while before giving him a milk feed around 6.30am, and then it’s family breakfast time at 7am. After that, it’s time to get washed and dressed. When we’re ready, it’s at that point that things have to be done differently depending on the day of the week. My brain is (usually) conscious of the next step:

  • it’s Monday/Friday = no rush, play with Andrew some more before putting him down for a morning nap, then do some things around the flat and get ready to go out for the rest of the morning;
  • it’s Wednesday/Thursday = pack up some lunch for Andrew and myself, put nappies in the change bag, wrap us both up warm in coats/gloves/hats etc., and walk round the corner to Tracy’s (our childminder) to arrive as she’s leaving for the school run at 8.25am, then cycle to the office;
  • it’s Tuesday = leave Andrew in Daddy’s capable hands and head straight off to the office for the morning;
  • it’s Saturday/Sunday = have some family time, then do some housework or go to church.

We’ve been in this routine for over a month now, since I started back at work half-time after 9 months of maternity leave, and it seems to be working. Two and a half days a week I work as a post-doctoral research associate (fancy name for the fact that I do research and have a PhD). I’m based in the Department of Experimental Psychology at the University of Cambridge, as the resident phonetician in a lab of psychologists and neuroscientists. The project that I’m working on is looking at how children with a language impairment perceive rhythm and pitch in language and music. I should go into that in detail in another post, but for now I’ll stick to the balancing act of being mum and going out to work.

Before I went on maternity leave, I loved my job and felt very privileged to have been offered it, given the competition for academic jobs when funding is relatively limited. I planned to go back part-time after 9 months, though I found it hard to return once those months were up, because I enjoyed spending so much time with Andrew when on leave. There was a feeling of being torn between two jobs I loved doing, and there still is most days. Being with Andrew all day really makes me happy, but I do see advantages to going out to work too. I thought I’d share some of the things I like and don’t like about splitting my week in half.

At the office I get to drink hot cups of tea, eat my lunch when I like, and there’s not a nappy in sight. As I work in town, it’s very handy to pop out at lunchtime and go shopping for a few bits without the buggy. I have such lovely work colleagues who are great friends and make the office environment a happy, sociable and productive one. It feels good to know that I’m taking part in research that ultimately aims to get to the bottom of something that affects many kids, and one day may make a positive difference in individual lives.

My computer is easy to spot if you know what Praat looks like on screen 😉

People talk about being able to ‘use your brain’ again and get ‘mental stimulation’ at work after having a baby, and that is true to the extent that I get to put to use my ‘training’, i.e. the skills for research that I gained by doing a PhD and continuing in an academic job. But I would say my brain gets put to good use looking after Andrew too. I mean there’s no training for being a mum, so you figure things out as you go along, and that uses a fair amount of brain power I find. All the things that I’ve started to think about and get interested in since having him certainly keep me mentally stimulated. An example is doing my own ‘research’ on baby-related matters, by reading up and talking to other parents about issues like breastfeeding. I can do this either at groups when Andrew is with me and happy to play with the toys and other kids there, or at home when he’s asleep and I need to put my feet up. So I feel like I get enough brain usage on both Andrew days and office days.

Big boy on a trike - at a group where there is a great outdoor play area so Andrew can unleash all his energy

My Andrew days are fantastic because I get to see him develop and start doing things he couldn’t do the week before. He is such a good-natured baby, so I get lots of smiles and cuddles. There’s never a dull moment as he’s so active too, making me and himself laugh at the latest thing he’s managed to find/do/get stuck in or under. We go to fun groups where he can toddle around, play with different toys, sing, hear stories, make things and get messy, whilst I get a cup of tea made for me (which might go cold admittedly) and can chat with other mums (and dads) about the joys and woes of parenthood. I get lots of fresh air and exercise, which comes naturally in our routine because we walk everywhere.

Wrapped up warm for a ride out in the buggy to get to a group

So that’s a lot of good stuff so far. The hard part is having to split my time between the two jobs. I worry that I’ll miss out on one of Andrew’s ‘firsts’, that I’ll be impatient with him because I’m too tired after a day or two in the office, that he’ll miss me either lots or not at all when I’m gone (the former being detrimental to him and the latter to me and my identity as his mum). I also worry that my heart might not stay in my research like it was, that I’ll be too tired to function properly, that I’ll not do my research to the highest standard I set myself. These worries on both sides basically come down to the fact that I’m a perfectionist, and by splitting my resources it might not be possible to do either job at 100%. So far I’m pleased to say that none of these worries have actually been an issue, but they are always in my mind.

Look at me, I'm so good at standing. Mummy loves watching me grow up and do things like this for the first time.

When I think about it, I’m not splitting my week exactly in half. In fact I’m a full-time mum, and always will be, as I do my mum thing before and after going out to the office (including in the middle of the night if he wakes up – what am I supposed to say? ‘sorry Andrew, work tomorrow, no soothing back to sleep for you tonight’); walking out the door to go to work doesn’t stop me being mum. I just do interesting research for about 19 hours a week on top of that. I’m happy with the way things are for now, but it’ll be interesting to see what’s in store for the future, especially as my contract ends in December 2012 (the research one that is – I don’t think Andrew will terminate my contract as mum anytime soon 🙂 )

Andrew loves 'helping' me hang the washing up to dry

Christmas is coming

It’s that time of year again. For several weeks now, especially after Hallowe’en was over, the shops have gradually been increasing the amount of red, gold and sparkly-packaged products they have on sale. Special foods adorn the aisles of supermarkets, whilst toy shops are crammed with the latest ‘in’ things for kids; in fact it seems there is no kind of shop which escapes a noticeable change in stock at this time of year. Decorations hang both inside and out, with twinkly lights illuminating even the most dull of concretised city centres (I know this, I was brought up in Coventry!) Of course, it’s the run-up to Christmas, or, as it’s more traditionally known, Advent.

As I’m sure you’re aware, the word ‘Advent’ is still used these days, but mainly in conjunction with ‘calendar’. An Advent calendar is a tradition which I believe started in Germany quite a while ago, and is obviously going strong in the UK today (just walk into any supermarket and you can’t fail to notice the offers like ‘3 for 2’ on the chocolate ones). In our family, we had a couple of traditions as my brother (Matt) and I were growing up – one pair of grandparents always bought us a chocolate Advent calendar each, and as a family we had a ‘Peanuts’ one (of Charlie Brown and Snoopy ilk), in which the story of the first Christmas was told a little bit each day, as we opened each door to reveal a short rhyming verse. The next generation of Advent fun has now begun, as Mum passed the remarkably resilient Peanuts calendar down to me, and Andrew can start being part of the tradition. Oh and I can’t forget the famous (in our family) video clip of Matt and I arguing about whether there were 17 or 18 doors open on the particular day in Advent that we were being filmed. (Incidentally I was right, but Matt was generally good at arguing that black was white… “18, see!” – this won’t mean much to most readers I’m sure.)

Snoopy dressed as a shepherd is getting ready to help tell the Christmas story
In days of old by royal decree, news was sent to Galilee....a message was sent to every home, to pay the taxes owed to Rome....Joseph and Mary were told that they, must go to Bethlehem far away....

So here comes a linguistic bit (2 paragraphs into the post isn’t bad going for me)…. Advent comes from the Latin word ‘adventus’, which means ‘coming’ or ‘arrival’. Christmas is what’s coming, right? Of course, but I like to think of it as Jesus is coming, because for me, that’s who Christmas is about. It’s a time of year that I (along with other Christians of course) prepare to celebrate the arrival of Jesus who was born over 2000 years ago. His wasn’t a grand entrance to the world – his mum gave birth in an animal shelter because all the accommodation in the town they were visiting was full, and she wasn’t a ‘celebrity’, so no 1st century equivalent of the paparazzi were clambering to scoop an exclusive story. But as he grew up, those who lived around him saw that he was an amazing person, who did some amazing things. I’ll go further into that in future posts; for now I’d like to stick with the topic of Advent. Opening a door on a calendar each day from 1st to 24th December (a 25th door seems to be a modern addition, at least since the time of Charlie Brown) helps me to remember why I’m looking forward to Christmas. It’ll be great to spend time with family and have some time off work, yes, but the most important part is doing all this whilst celebrating Jesus’ birth.

Writing this has made me realise just how close Christmas is now. Living in Cambridge, we’re already experiencing Christmas events that have been going on for the past week at least, as the undergrads go home soon so they squeeze these in at the end of November. I’ve just put up our Christmas tree (‘up’ being a common theme this year – up on a table, out of the reach of little hands), which will be a nice surprise for my boys when they get home. So, roll on 25th December!

Up on the table out of the way of little hands!