Light of the world

This winter I’ve been very aware of darkness. With an active toddler to entertain, I’ve noticed all too well the fact that on an overcast day it’s pitch black by not long after 4pm, so we can’t have a trip to the park or do any other outdoor activity after his afternoon nap which usually comes to an end around 3.30pm. Instead, as there are few groups on in afternoons, I’ve had to come up with indoor activities like baking, play dough, craft or (as a last resort) DVDs to keep him amused, and although he generally likes these, I can tell he’d rather be running off some energy outside. Roll on spring and its lighter evenings!

Apart from this annoying aspect of darkness for us at the moment, I do love to see Christmas lights twinkling in the streets, which you can only see when it’s dark; Andrew has noticed them too this year, shouting enthusiastically as he points out various shapes like stars and trees that he can see in lights as we walk home from the one afternoon group that we go to on Wednesdays. I also love open fires at this time of year, providing light and warmth on cold, dark winter’s evenings – not that we have one in our flat, but I love just thinking of that image.

For me the twinkling lights and image of an open fire are, when I stop and think about it, a reminder of what Christmas is all about. Jesus, the little baby who was born in Bethlehem to Mary and Joseph, grew up to become a man, who lived life as a human, just like you and me. But he wasn’t just an ordinary man, rather he was God’s son, sent to this world to die for us, to make up for all the wrong things we do. During His time here on Earth before His death and rising again, Jesus called himself various things when He was explaining to people who He was and why He was here – He made several statements starting with “I am….”, one of which was:

“I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” – John 8:12

The people He was talking to directly at the time would have been familiar with the writings of Isaiah, a prophet who told of Jesus’ birth long before it happened, who said this about Jesus coming into the world:

“The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned” – Isaiah 9:2.

So when Jesus said He was the light of the world, this would have reminded His listeners of the prophet’s writings about someone who would come to fulfil a very special role. But Jesus’ message of who He is was for “Whoever” – everyone, in all places and throughout history right up to now and the future, not just those he was speaking to about 2000 years ago.

The thought that I’ll always have a light guiding me through life’s darkest times is extremely comforting, and let’s face it, the world can be a dark place both literally and metaphorically. I’ve been through some dark patches personally, and even if it wasn’t an obvious light like a spotlight or headlamp at the time, I look back and can totally see God’s light shining into my life through other people and events, and that brought me out of the dark times.

It’s at Christmas that I’m most often reminded of this great promise that Jesus made about being the light of the world, which is why I thought I’d share this on Christmas Day. If you’d like to read more of the statements that Jesus made about Himself, then I’d recommend reading John’s Gospel, a book from the Bible (4th in the New Testament) – if you can’t easily get hold of a whole Bible, then you can read online at Bible Gateway, it’s not a very long book and would take maybe a few hours to read in total. You never know, it might just shed some new light on how you think of Jesus this Christmas.

Happy Christmas everyone! 🙂

Christmas party cake pops

When I left work just before Joel was born, my very thoughtful colleagues (read: friends) bought me an amazing gift – a cookery book all about cake pops and a cake pop silicone mould. Now, I’d heard of cake pops, via a few blogs by other mums, but I’d not got round to figuring out how to make them myself. If you’re not sure what a cake pop is, as I wasn’t when I first saw the words mentioned on a blog, it’s basically a cross between a cake and a lollipop – a small piece of sponge cake on a stick. Traditionally (can an idea so new be called traditional?!) cake pops are balls, but you can be more creative and make various shapes – the key is that they are bite-size, so they look really cute. The book I was given is called Pop Party, and it tells you how to make some incredible looking cake pops that would be fantastic for kids’ (or adults’!) parties. For example there are various animal designs, balloons, mini hot-dogs, mini tiered cakes, to name but a few.

This present has inspired me to have a go at cake pops, though I thought I’d start with something simple rather than going for a fancy design from the book just yet. To make the fancy designs, or balls for that matter if you don’t have a mould to cheat with, you make cake pops by baking a big sponge cake, breaking it up and mixing it with cream cheese, and moulding the stiff mixture into whatever shape you want. Then you can decorate with various icings and colours to create the final design on a stick.

My main reason for having a go at pops this week was that Andrew is going with Daddy to a Christmas party tomorrow that requires him to take some food to share. I thought Christmassy decorated cake pops would be perfect for little mouths to munch on, and the kids would love holding the stick. The mould I was given came with reusable sticks, but since I knew I wouldn’t be likely to get them back in the chaos of a children’s party, I used disposable drinking straws instead for sticks. There were 2 designs: a plain sponge dipped in white chocolate and purple glitter sugar; a red-coloured sponge dipped in milk chocolate and snowflake sprinkles.

Here’s the recipe, for which you’ll need a silicone pop mould (rather than the method of remoulding sponge cake using cream cheese).

Ingredients – makes 28 cake pops (using pop mould)

  • 120g sugar
  • 120g margarine
  • 120g self-raising flour
  • 3 eggs
  • red gel food colouring
  • 75g milk chocolate, broken into pieces to melt
  • 50g white chocolate, broken into pieces to melt
  • decorations – snowflake sprinkles, glitter sugar
  • drinking straws

Method

  1. Pre-heat the oven to 180 C (fan).
  2. Start by making the sponge. Cream the margarine and sugar together until light and fluffy.
  3. Beat in the egg until smooth.
  4. Add the flour and mix until well combined.
  5. Fill half the balls on one side of the cake pop mould with mixture. Then add red gel food colouring to the rest of the mixture and stir until the colour is evenly distributed and the desired colour. Fill the other half of the balls on the one side of the mould. I found that this amount of mixture made 28, and my mould only does 20, so I saved some mixture for a small second batch once the first was cooked.
  6. Put the other half of the mould (its lid) on, and bake for 20 mins.
  7. Remove from the oven and leave to cool completely, then remove the balls from the mould.
  8. Melt 25g of milk chocolate in a bowl in the microwave or over a pan of boiling water.
  9. Dip about 1.5cm of the end of a drinking straw in the chocolate, and push it carefully into the centre of a sponge ball, being careful not to push it all the way through. Repeat with all the other balls and straws, then leave to cool in the fridge until the chocolate sets. This will keep the straw in the ball when you do the decorating.
  10. When the sticks are set, melt the remaining milk chocolate and white chocolate in separate bowls as before. Be especially careful with the white chocolate as it burns easily when melting if done with too high a heat.
  11. Dip the top of each ball into the chocolate – plain sponge in white and red sponge in milk chocolate.
  12. Then sprinkle glitter sugar over the white chocolate and snowflake sprinkles over the milk chocolate.
  13. Stick the straws into an upside down colander to leave the chocolate to set whilst the cake pops are upright.
  14. Finally your cake pops are ready to enjoy!

Chocolate and marzipan star cupcakes

When an email popped into my inbox the other day, from a friend asking if anyone could bake cakes and/or sell them to help her and her sister raise money for charity, I thought that I could help. Baking is a great way to keep Andrew from getting bored and makes a change from the DVD and youtube watching that goes on at the moment. And we get to help raise some money, so it makes it even more worthwhile. The charity they’re fundraising for is Asthma UK, which supports asthma sufferers and their families. My friend’s sister is asthmatic herself, and despite this she is running the London marathon in April as part of her fundraising efforts too – now that sounds much harder than baking cakes! 

As it’s nearly Christmas, I decided to go for something a bit festive but not the traditional mince pies etc. as we already have so many of them at this time of year. I think it’s easier to sell little individual cakes rather than whole ones or slices of whole ones, so I went for cupcakes. They are chocolate sponge, with chocolate chips, and have a marzipan star on top (that’s the festive twist, in both flavour and shape!) The star is held on with a bit of buttercream icing, and on top of the star there is a little swirl of glittery purple icing to finish it off. The sponge has ground almonds in, partly to make it a nice moist sponge, partly to blend with the flavour of the almonds in the marzipan. Oh and the cupcake cases are silver, to make them extra sparkly for the festive theme.

Andrew enjoyed helping me – he stirred the mixture a few times at different stages, and he rolled out marzipan and cut out stars (his favourite job). During our baking session, I noticed that he has a new phrase to say: “Mummy do it” and, more often, “Andrew [A-tar] do it”. I’ve given the recipe below, if you’d like a bit of inspiration to have a go at your own Christmassy cupcakes. This made 16 cakes. Enjoy!

Ingredients

  • 170g sugar
  • 170g margarine
  • 3 eggs
  • 100g self-raising flour
  • 50g cocoa powder
  • 20g ground almonds
  • 1/2 tsp baking powder
  • 100g milk chocolate, chopped into chunks (or ready done chic chips)
  • ready to roll yellow marzipan
  • 50g unsalted butter
  • 150g icing sugar
  • 1 tbsp milk
  • glitter sugar

Method

  1. Pre-heat the oven to 180ºC (fan) and place 16 cupcake cases into muffin tins.
  2. Cream the margarine and sugar in a bowl until smooth and fluffy.
  3. Beat in the eggs until well combined.
  4. Add the four, cocoa, ground almonds and baking powder, and mix until well combined.
  5. Add the chocolate chunks and stir until evenly distributed.
  6. Spoon the mixture into the cake cases to about two thirds full.
  7. Bake in the oven for about 15 minutes, until risen and a skewer inserted in the centre of each cake comes out clean.
  8. Remove from the oven and leave to cool.
  9. Meanwhile make the buttercream icing by mixing the butter and icing sugar until smooth and stiff; then add the splash of milk to make it a little less stiff and a good consistency to work with.
  10. Spoon a small blob of icing (at this point without colour) onto each cupcake; then add the glitter sugar to the remaining icing (I chose a purple glitter sugar).
  11. Roll out the marzipan to a few millimetres thick on a board dusted with icing sugar.
  12. Cut out 16 stars, and press them down quite firmly onto the top of each cake.
  13. Finish by putting the remaining glitter icing into a piping bag and piping a small swirl onto the top of each star.

To us a child is born

It was the start of December last year that I started this blog – so it’s Happy 1st Birthday to Mixed Bag of All Sorts! I remember distinctly that one of my first posts was about Advent, and what this time of year means to me and to us as a young family as we start new traditions. Well, what a difference a year has made to us as a family – there are now four of us instead of three, and this is the first Christmas that Andrew really has much idea of what’s going on. He was 11 months old last Christmas, so although older than Joel is for his first Christmas, he didn’t really get the concepts of presents, parties and why we were spending time with family and friends.

Guarding the Advent calendar from early morning predators - you never know who might want to get at your mini socks!

Last year I wrote about the Peanuts (Snoopy and co.) Advent calendar that tells the story of the first Christmas line by line each day as you open a door, all in rhyming verse. It has survived many Christmas-times from my childhood to the present. My parents gave it to us last year so that we could carry on the family tradition of opening it with Andrew, not that he had much clue what it was then, but this year he’s definitely more interested in listening to stories. Next year Joel will also be more in to this kind of thing.

It's a bit fiddly to get at the contents of these socks, but I'm determined to do it without help, and that's part of the fun of it!

In addition to this calendar, my parents have bought the boys another Advent calendar this year. It’s one that you can fill with your own treats again and again each year. It came with little chocolates for this year, but in future we could put various things in like little toys or pieces of paper telling a story a bit like the Peanuts calendar. The design is quite simple but lovely and effective – a string of 24 mini stockings that you hang up between two hooks on the wall. Ours is hung at Andrew height across our living room window so that he can help us discover what’s in each day’s stocking. When he first saw it he was very interested in it and kept saying ‘socks, socks’! This morning he took out the first chocolates – two mini chocolate Father Christmas figures, and he proceeded to say ‘Father Christmas’ after me with not bad accuracy. We think he understands that it’s only one sock per day, now that we’ve explained to him after Tom caught him fiddling with another stocking after we’d emptied number 1!

Wow! There's shiny stuff in these socks - cool!

In the build up to Christmas, which we are marking as a family with our calendars, I am personally thinking about the first ever Christmas, when Jesus was born into this world. During Advent each year I’m often reminded of a couple of verses from the Bible, from the book of Isaiah, chapter 9, verses 6-7. Isaiah was a Prophet who told of Jesus’ birth many years before it actually happened – Jesus is the child referred to by Isaiah in these verses:

For to us a child is born,
to us a son is given,
and the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called
Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Of the greatness of his government and peace
there will be no end.

Although I have read and heard this passage many times, it wasn’t until I had children of my own that it really took on a new meaning for me. This Advent, a child has recently been born to us, a son has been given to us; last Advent, the memory of our first child having been born to us was still fresh in my mind, 11 months after the event; and the Advent before that we were anticipating the birth of our first chid in about a month’s time. The experience of our own children being born to us brought it home to me that Jesus was a real person who was born to a real mum and a real dad, just like us. As I sit here feeding Joel, I think of Mary feeding Jesus, and changing his nappies (no Pampers or Huggies around in those days!) – or maybe Joseph helped out with that? I think of Joseph finding a place for them to stay just before the birth and supporting Mary through it, and how that’s similar to Tom’s role of getting me to hospital and being with me for the birth of both our children.

The difference between this family in Bethlehem over 2000 years ago and our family is that Jesus, as well as being fully human, was also fully God, just as it says in the Isaiah verses above. And not only is He Mighty God, but also Wonderful Counsellor, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace – the person I turn to for help in the most difficult of life’s situations, who is always there for me and always will be, giving me His peace which goes beyond all human understanding.

Baby Jesus didn’t stay a baby, he grew up; as a man He went on to do what He was born into this world to do – to die on a cross in order to make up for all the wrong things that we do which separate us from God, and if we believe that He did this for us, we can have everlasting life beyond our lives in this world. The ‘us’ referred to in Isaiah’s verse doesn’t just mean Mary and Joseph in a literal sense; it means anyone, at any time and in any place on Earth – Jesus was given as a present to everyone, it’s just up to each and every one of us whether we accept the present.

In all the busyness of Advent – the shopping, the parties, the chocolate eating – why not take some time to think about why this time of year involves all these things. Advent is the anticipation of celebrating Jesus coming into our world many years ago. Have you accepted the present that He came to be? If you’d like to find out more, there’s a great course called Alpha that runs across the country – you can find one near you here.

Now there are only 24 days left to celebrating Jesus’ birthday this year. Can’t wait!

Ha ha, I have chocolate.... not sure I should share it with Mummy, Daddy and Joel....!

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?!

Remembering Christ in Christ-mas

As a child I remember the feeling that Christmas was *finally* here, after what seemed like weeks, even months, of waiting. Now as an adult, I can’t believe it’s come round so quickly, and I find myself thinking where did those weeks and months fly by to? I guess now there is so much to do in everyday life, so much to distract me from concentrating on one particular thing. Though this year more so than recent years, I’ve noticed a kind of return to a slightly more childlike anticipation of Christmas, no doubt due to having a child of my own now, and experiencing the fun of several parties in the build-up to the day itself. It’s through all this partying that I’ve been reminded, more obviously than before, of the joy that this time of year brings, and of the reason why.

Having seen and heard Christmas greetings in languages other than English, this got me thinking about the word Christmas from a linguistic perspective. It struck me that English is one of few western European languages in which we get a rather obvious reminder of the reason for celebrating Christmas in the word itself. The word in several Romance languages comes from the Latin natalis (meaning ‘natal’, ‘of birth’) or nativitas (meaning ‘birth’, or, if with capital ‘N’, ‘birth of Jesus Christ’) – e.g. Italian Natale, French Noel, Spanish Navidad, Portuguese Natal. The German word Weihnachten comes from the Middle High German ze wihen nahten (meaning ‘on holy nights’) (ah MHG, how this reminds me of undergrad days in Nottingham!). The Scandinavian languages use a word which comes from Old Norse jol (the name of a pagan religious festival which became equated with the Christian celebration of Christmas) – Danish jul, Swedish jul, Norwegian jul, Icelandic jol (it’s also where English Yule comes from). The Dutch word Kerst(-feest/-mis), like the first syllable of English Christmas, comes from the Latin word Christus, originating from Ancient Greek Khristos (meaning ‘the anointed one’), which derived from the Hebrew word Messiah (meaning ‘anointed’).

A knitted Nativity - not sure where Joseph is?! Andrew's first Nativity set

OK, I hope the less linguistically inclined of you (and even those who share my interest in etymology) are still with me. The point that comes out of all this word dropping is that Christ is the reason why we celebrate Christmas. In their words for the celebration, the Scandinavian languages don’t mention this at all, the Romance languages kind of implicitly hint at this (it’s about someone’s birth – Jesus’, if you know Latin), likewise German mentions that it’s something to do with holiness, but English and Dutch explicitly put Christ at the beginning of Christmas. Here the English language makes up somewhat for its inadequacies, inconsistencies and general strangeness.

So who is this ‘Christ’, the ‘anointed one’? The Bible tells us that God’s son, Jesus, was born as a baby boy into our world, so that he would later die, crucified on a Roman cross, to make up for all the wrong things that we as people do, which separate us from God. This baby boy was God’s gift to us, a far greater gift than any of those we’re going to unwrap from under the Christmas tree this year. This gift was also undeserved – Jesus Himself had done nothing wrong, but He took on all the wrong things done by people, and died for our sake. The story doesn’t end there though; Jesus not only died, but also rose again from the dead. This is something I can write more about at Easter. For now let’s stick to Christmas, and the amazing gift from God that we are celebrating. But what does all this mean on a personal level? The one thing God asks of me (and anyone else who believes in Him), is that I follow Jesus, by committing my life to Him and putting Him at the centre of everything I do. Jesus has already made up for all the times I mess up (and continue to mess up), so that I can have everlasting life with God, even after my time in this world. I think that’s absolutely amazing!! (If a little mind-blowing!)

In all the busyness – both fun and annoying – at Christmas time, it’s quite easy to forget Jesus, even though it’s His birthday. I recently heard a simple but clever little way to remember Christ at Christmas. (This isn’t my idea – credit should go to Matt Philips of Holy Trinity Church, Cambridge!) A tradition that many people observe at Christmas is hanging candy canes on the tree (apparently, if you believe Wikipedia, the candy cane was originally thought up by a German choirmaster who wanted to give sweets to children at his church at Christmas, but felt he needed to justify this by making the sweets in the shape of a shepherd’s staff, to remind the kids of the shepherds in the story of Jesus’ birth). When candy canes hang on the tree, indeed they look like a staff. But if you turn them the other way round, they turn into the letter ‘J’ – a cool little reminder of Jesus 🙂 We hung one on our tree at home, and when we arrived at my parents’ house, their whole tree was decorated with them. I definitely have a great way to remember Jesus this Christmas.

Happy Christmas everyone! I hope you enjoy all the fun, and can maybe take some time to remember Christ in Christmas.

Candy cane on our tree...
...turned upside down it turns into the letter 'J'
Candy canes on my parents' tree

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!

Lebkuchen – a taste of Christmas

One of my favourite foods at Christmas is Lebkuchen [pronounced something like layb-koo-chuhn (ch as in Scottish ‘loch’) for those who don’t sprechen any Deutsch]. These soft and chewy biscuits spiced with flavours like ginger, cinnamon and nutmeg remind me of Christmas as a child, as Mum would always buy a few bags for us to eat over the Christmas period. It wasn’t until I went to Germany just before Christmas as an adult that I realised that the small Lebkuchen bought from supermarkets here in England were not the same as the much bigger, flatter and (let’s face it) better ones found over there, where they originated. Ever since I tasted the real German ones, I’ve wanted to have a go at baking my own, but I’ve only just got round to it this year, probably because I came across a recipe in a chocolate recipe book that I’ve used a lot recently.

As usual, I adapted the recipe slightly (I don’t think I ever follow a recipe exactly!): raisins instead of candied fruit peel (which I don’t really like), and I halved the chocolate glaze, because the biscuits were quite fragile even when cool, so I didn’t think they would ‘dip’ well to coat them as the recipe said, and I made a thicker glaze to ice just one side as they lay on a flat surface. Anyway, that’s enough of an intro…. on with the important stuff!

Ingredients

Biscuits

  • 100g unsalted almonds (brown skins left on)
  • 25g plain chocolate, chopped
  • 2 tbsp raisins
  • 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
  • 1/2 tsp ground ginger
  • 1/2 tsp grated nutmeg
  • 1/4 tsp ground black pepper
  • 1/4 tsp ground cloves
  • 2 large egg whites (I used 3 medium)
  • 115g icing sugar

Glaze

  • 50g plain chocolate, chopped
  • 50g icing sugar

Method

  1. Finely grind the almonds and chocolate in a food processor, then mix with the raisins and spices.
  2. Put the egg whites in a spotlessly clean, greasefree bowl and beat with an electric hand mixer until soft peaks form.

    Egg whites at the stiff peak stage
  3. Gradually beat in the icing sugar to make a thick, glossy meringue.
  4. Add the chocolate mixture and carefully fold in with a large metal spoon.

    Lebkuchen mixture
  5. Put tablespoon-sized mounds of the mixture on several baking trays lined with non-stick greaseproof paper, setting them well apart, then spread each into a circle about 3 inches in diameter.

    Trays with blobs of biscuit mixture, ready for the oven
  6. Bake in a preheated oven at 160°c for 15-20 minutes until the biscuits are pale gold. Let cool, then peel off the greaseproof paper.

    Close up of a biscuit just out of the oven - a lovely pale golden colour
  7. To make the chocolate glaze, melt the chocolate gently (I use these cool microwaveable pans and do it in short bursts at a time so the chocolate doesn’t burn). Then let it cool.
  8. Mix the icing sugar with 2 tablespoons of hot water to make a smooth glaze, then stir in the chocolate to make a fairly runny mixture – if necessary, stir in a little more warm water (I ended up putting in a few more splashes from the kettle).
  9. Ice each biscuit with the glaze – I found that they were fragile, so I iced them on the bottom where they had come away from the greaseproof paper, as this helped to keep them together. This isn’t quite as traditional as dipping in a thin glaze, but it tastes the same and it meant I didn’t risk ending up with a chocolatey broken biscuit mess!
    Waiting for the iced lebkuchen to set

    A plate of lebkuchen good enough to eat

As an aside, I decided to whip up a quick sponge mixture with the egg yolks, because I can’t stand wasting the other half of the eggs when a recipe calls for only whites or yolks. It’s basically 110g of plain flour, 110g of butter, 110g of sugar and 2 eggs (but I used 3 egg yolks and a generous splash of milk instead). You beat the sugar and butter together, then add the eggs (and in this case the milk) and then the flour.

I decided to use the sponge mixture to make cupcakes. I wasn’t sure whether the exchange of milk for egg whites would make a difference to how they turned out, but I’m always up for experimental baking, and most of the time it’s edible, even if slightly odd looking or a strange texture! In this case they came out quite crispy on top, softer inside, though slightly denser than the usual light sponge, and still yummy to taste.

After I tried one fresh from the oven (just to make sure it was worth icing them, you understand), I decided to add some simple melted chocolate on the top to finish them off.

Chocolate-topped cupcakes (note that only 5 made it to the chocolate stage - I had to try one to make sure they tasted good enough to keep 😉 )

So there you go, two recipes for the price of one! Both delicious as a snack with a cuppa, and one as a lovely taste of Christmas which reminds me of childhood.

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!