Saturday, 27 September 2014

The gift of experience

Both my children celebrated their birthdays early September and in the weeks prior, M and I had many discussions on what to give them. We found making a choice difficult, since our children are already well endowed in the toy department. And in the books department. And in the games and puzzles department. On top of that, we have been trying to declutter and simplify our lives - instead of bringing things into the house, we prefer taking things out. Besides which, there is also our desire to be more conscious of how we spend our money and not to lose ourselves in consumerism. 

So we did something radical: we agreed not to give them any presents (!) and instead give them... an experience. For quite some time, they had been asking to go to a particular theme park: one that is at least two hours' drive from where we live and quite expensive at that. The perfect gift on a platter, we felt, with which to give them few priceless things: excitement, adventure, a whole day of fun, our undivided attention, and some lovely memories. The only downside to this plan was actually breaking the 'there will be no presents on your birthday' news. In fact, I was dreading their sad and disappointed little faces. The trembling bottom lips. The silent tears. 

But as I mentioned in my last post, life (and particularly children) can be full of surprises. And thank goodness for that. Let me explain. I broke the no-presents news to them gently, explaining our motivation, and pointing out that they have so much already (being careful not to make them feel guilty, of course), and that it's not always good to keep buying more stuff etc. To my surprise, they seemed to get it. Especially when I told them there would be a special surprise, an experience of sorts, something fun waiting for them. With that last bit of information, they went from solemn and understanding to downright happy and excited. (And, as daughter N pointed out, not getting presents from us was no big deal as they would be getting lots from friends and family at their party anyway - something I'd entirely forgotten).

On the morning of their birthdays they each got a card with five euros for their piggybanks and an announcement of the upcoming trip, which we'll be making in the autumn break. We've also decided to include an overnight stay, making it extra special and holiday-like.  "That means we'll be celebrating our birthdays AGAIN in the holidays!" son S figured.

Honesty would have me admit that I did give them an arts & crafts box each on their birthdays after school, to make the transition from 'some presents to none' a more subtle one.  And because the boxes looked so cute. And because I sometimes just can't help myself. But, this little indulgence aside, I have a sneaking suspicion this experience in lieu of presents might become a new tradition in this house.


Now for this week's snack boxes. They involve a crispy on the outside/chewy on the inside biscuit full of healthier-alternative stuff. I've been making these for a long time and everyone loves them. I had planned to make a better photo of them, but by the time I got round to it, the poor fellows were long gone.

Chocolate Oat Biscuits

75g butter
150g rolled oats (I use ones that are gluten-free)
75g palm sugar
1 tablespoon dark brown sugar
1 tablespoon good quality cocoa
50g spelt flour
pinch of fine (sea) salt
4 teaspoons cream of tartar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 tablespoons (full fat) milk
yields 12-15 biscuits

  • melt butter in a saucepan on low heat, add rolled oats and roast lightly
  • stir in the sugars, then the cocoa; remove from heat
  • put mixture into a large bowl; add the rest of the ingredients and combine thoroughly with a wooden spoon
  • allow mixture to rest in the fridge for a half hour
  • preheat oven 175 degrees Celsius
  • line a baking tray with baking paper
  • scoop spoonfuls of the mixture onto the tray
  • moisten your hands with a little water and shape the biscuits, pressing them down slightly
  • bake for twenty minutes

Saturday, 20 September 2014

Life's little surprises

For quite some time - two years, in fact - I feared that son S might be the type of child who simply does not like school. At all. He was always telling me how he didn't enjoy going, how he disliked all the cutting and pasting, and how he longed for school days to end so that he could go home to play. The prospect of a full day of school ahead would have him sighing and moaning. There would be a look of disappointment followed by a scowl: "Oh no, you are kidding, aren't you, mama; I don't really have to go to school all day today, do I?" And when, at the end of the afternoon, I would ask him what he'd done that day, his answer would invariably be one of two things: "I can't remember," or: "Nothing." Despite all this, he assured me he really liked his teachers and classmates. He just didn't like the work. 

This worried me. A lot. Particularly during summer, when the concern of his return to school would always be lurking in a corner of my mind. Particularly since he would be starting groep drie (group three) - the first 'real' primary school year, requiring children to knuckle down to some serious work learning reading, writing, and arithmetic. It is also the first time children are required to sit at their own table in formal rows, instead of in an informal semi-circle as they do in the first two years. 

But life is full of surprises, isn't it? When, on the first day back, I picked him up - with bated breath, may I add - he approached me with a grin from ear to ear. He told me the day had been FANTASTIC. That he was relieved about the class having to sit in rows ("We all have to work quietly, isn't that great!"), that he was delighted to have his own desk, with his own trays to put his own stuff into, and how they were finally going to be doing the really important stuff: learning letters, adding and subtracting, and lessons about nature too, yippee! 

I cannot tell you how flabbergasted I was. It was so contrary to anything I had expected. I had even spent time looking at another (less traditional) school system, one I felt might suit him better. How wrong I was! It just goes to show how we often waste our energy with unnecessary worry, instead of trusting that life will work out and point the way somehow. Much to my delight his enthusiasm has continued to grow over the past three weeks, and he is always bubbling to tell me of the new things he has learnt on any given day. 

And all I can say is:  I stand in grateful amazement.


By now you know that I'm unlikely to leave you without a recipe. This time it's an easy one for biscotti. You're probably familiar with them: those lovely, crunchy Italian biscuits good for dunking into hot drinks.  S loves them. And so he got one a couple of times in his snack box this week.

Almond Biscotti
adapted from Baking: From My Home to Yours, by Dorie Greenspan

250g spelt flour
1,5 teaspoons baking powder
100g raw cane sugar
100g almond meal
4 eggs, lightly beaten
1 teaspoon almond extract

  • preheat the oven 160 degrees Celsius
  • line a baking tray with baking paper
  • place flour, baking powder, sugar, and almonds in a bowl; whisk to combine
  • add almond extract to the eggs; 
  • combine wet and dry with a spatula to form a sticky dough
  • divide the mixture into two halves; form two loaves on the baking tray, leaving some space between them
  • bake for 35 minutes; remove from oven and onto a rack; allow to cool completely
  • when cooled, use a serrated bread knife to cut the loaves into slices
  • in a reheated 160 degree oven, bake slices for another 15 minutes on each side to produce crispy biscuits

Friday, 12 September 2014

On trying too hard

This week both my children celebrated their birthdays. S turned seven on Tuesday and N turned four on Wednesday. That as such is a wonderful thing: I am happy and deeply grateful to have had them in my life another year and love seeing their happy and excited faces as they come running into our bedroom in the morning on the great day. But I will not lie to you: I find  everything else that surrounds those birthdays quite stressful. For one thing: there's party invitations to send out. On time. Last year I left this far too late and it turned out a number of the children could not come on the date we had planned. It was all a bit of a fuss. Then there's the party itself to arrange: what time, how long, what to eat, what to do (inside? outside?).  And then there's the treats to be made for taking to school.

Okay. The treats for school. I had decided to make brownies for S and cupcakes for N. Pretty straightforward, you would think. On Monday evening, after a taxing day at school, I made brownies. They were a total failure: rubbery and soggy. For the first time ever (of course). Since I would need three batches in total, I felt I didn't have the time to start over. So I hopped into my car, drove to Albert Heijn (thankfully open until 9p.m.) and bought - much against my principles - some bags of sugary sweets. Back home I put together sweet mixtures, worried and fretted about the botched brownies some more, then went to bed and had nightmares about disappointing my son and damaging our relationship forever (our subconscious minds can really blow things out of proportion). As it turns out, S loved the sweets, and so did his class. Night sweats over nothing.

Then the next evening, cupcakes for N. I dug up a Mary Berry recipe - easy enough, you would think - but because I use spelt flour instead of self-raising flour, I need to add an extra rising agent. Usually not a problem. Only this time I made the colossal mistake of adding a teaspoon of bicarbonate of soda (instead of extra baking powder - why, I can't tell you) without adding some kind of acidic fluid (say, buttermilk) to the recipe. Result: disgusting salty aftertaste. I couldn't believe it: what was I thinking?! The only thing I could do was bin the cupcakes after which I - you guessed it - hopped into the car, went to Albert Heijn and bought - much against my principles - some bags of sugary sweets. Got home. Put together sweet mixtures. Worried and fretted about botched cupcakes. Went to bed, had nightmares. N loved sweets. So did class. Etcetera.

When I was reflecting - okay, ranting - to M about never having had to throw out any of my bakes (not because they are perfect by any means, but because they usually at least taste good, even if they do look silly), I suddenly realised this wasn't true. I did once throw something out. A whole cake, in fact, which had turned out dense and soggy. It was a celebration cake I had worked hard on the evening before M's return home after a trip to Berlin and I had wanted it to be PERFECT. I am of course beginning to suspect that this is where the problem lies. Striving for perfection makes me feel stressed and pressured, which in turn causes me to make stupid mistakes I wouldn't normally make if I was doing something for the joy of it, or at least with a relaxed state of mind, one not overly-focussed on the outcome.

This afternoon M and I are hosting The Party. Cake, games with prizes, playtime, and pancakes for tea. Thankfully I have the morning off to plan things, and bake, AT MY LEISURE. Some people perform best under pressure - I am definitely not one of them.


Now for those muesli bars I promised a couple of posts ago. I love these.  And not in the least because they are refined sugar free and full of good ingredients. S & N love a chunk in their snack boxes, which is what they got this week.

Muesli Bars
adapted from It's All Good, by Gwyneth Paltrow

150g rolled oats (I use gluten-free)
25g ground flaxseeds
0,5 teaspoon cinnamon
0,5 teaspoon ground ginger
50g dark chocolate (I use at least 70% cocoa), chopped
50g dried apricots and/or prunes, chopped
50g walnuts, chopped
60ml extra virgin olive oil
60ml maple syrup
2 tablespoons rice syrup or runny honey

  • preheat oven 180 degrees Celsius
  • line a brownie pan (approx. 20cm by 18cm) with baking paper
  • combine all ingredients thoroughly in a large bowl
  • pour the mixture into the brownie pan and pack down firmly with a spatula (important!)
  • bake for 30 minutes
  • allow to cool completely before using the baking paper to lift the bar out of the pan onto a chopping board and cutting into rectangles
  • the edges may be a little brittle; my kids argue over who gets to gobble up those delicious loose chunks

Sunday, 7 September 2014

Katherine Mansfield

About a year ago I read Katherine Mansfield: A Secret Life by Claire Tomalin, author and journalist famous for her biographies on famous writers. Although it was a deeply compelling biography on an intriguing subject, I wouldn't recommend it to anyone with a sensitive nervous system: though Tomalin's writing and research is wonderful (as always), the book left me panting and rather depleted. Reason for this was the book's subject - New Zealand writer Katherine Mansfield (1888-1923) - who lived and worked as though the devil was at her heels, as if she knew she would die young (which she did - of TBC). It was far from a relaxed way to live - in fact, she was stressed and unhappy a lot of the time, always out to prove her worth as a woman and as a writer. All this makes her life story a heavy one to digest. What a contrast then, with her writing. The stories I'm having the pleasure of rereading for school are sensual, smooth, evocative, funny, full of beautiful imagery, and characters who take the time to savour life. Many of her scenes are like still lifes; images painted with exactly the right words and tone.

Some of her most evocative passages are ones involving food. Take butter. Now I enjoy reading about butter; it always reminds me of my grandmother who loved butter (because there was none in the war, she would say) and when she visited us in New Zealand I would enjoy watching her spread a slice of bread with butter so thick you could carve your name in it. "Butter is so cheap here," she would marvel, "you folks should appreciate it more." And of course she was right - butter was something we took for granted. Now, whenever I bake anything with butter, I am in awe of its importance to the recipe, it's richness of texture and taste. But now I'm digressing; back to butter in two of my all-time favourite stories, "The Garden Party" and "The Daughters of the Late Colonel", in which it is presented as something luxurious, reserved only for the privileged. In the first story Laura, the protagonist, is to oversee the arrangements for an elaborate garden party her mother and sisters are throwing at their beautiful home, situated on a hill:

"But Meg could not possibly go and supervise the men. She had washed her hair before breakfast, and she sat drinking her coffee in a green turban, with a dark wet curl stamped on each cheek. Jose, the butterfly, always came down in a silk petticoat and kimono jacket.
     'You'll have to go, Laura; you're the artistic one.'
    Away Laura flew, still holding her piece of bread-and-butter. It's so delicious to have an excuse for eating out of doors, and besides, she loved having to arrange things; she always felt she could do it so much better than anybody else." (p.38, Penguin Classics edition).

In the course of the story Laura is confronted with the poverty of others, and death, and this changes her forever.

In the second story, two sisters are dealing with the death of their father. In contrast to the first story, there is quite a bit of subtle humour in this one. Especially when the sisters make a fuss over all sorts of seemingly trivial things:

"Nurse Andrews was simply fearful about butter. Really they couldn't help feeling that about butter, at least, she took advantage of their kindness. And she had that maddening habit of asking for just an inch more bread to finish what she had on her plate, and then, at the last mouthful, absent-mindedly - of course it wasn't absent-mindedly - taking another helping."(p.54)

And, when their young pompous nephew Cyril comes to visit: 

     "'Now, Cyril, you mustn't be frightened of our cakes. Your Auntie Con and I bought them at Buszard's this morning. We know what a man's appetite is. So don't be ashamed of making a good tea.'
     Josephine cut recklessly into the rich dark cake (...)
     "I say, aunt Josephine, I simply can't. I've only just had lunch, you know."
     "Oh Cyril, that can't be true! It's after four," cried Josephine. Constantia sat with her knife poised over the chocolate-roll." (p.62)


The recipe that follows is about as simple as they come. It is both buttery and chocolaty - I'm sure my grandmother and Ms. Mansfield would more than approve. It at least comes highly recommended from anyone I know who has tasted it.

Chocolate Fork Biscuits
Adapted from Mary Berry's Ultimate Cake Book, by Mary Berry

100g butter, softened
50g palm sugar
120g spelt flour
1 tablespoon good quality cocoa 
yields about 16 biscuits 

  • preheat the oven 180 degrees Celsius
  • line a baking tray with baking paper
  • gently beat butter and sugar together with a wooden spoon
  • add flour and cocoa; bring mixture together with your hands to form a dough
  • roll the dough into smallish balls and place on the baking tray
  • flatten the balls gently with a fork
  • bake for 15 minutes

And don't forget to check out what everyone else is reading over at The Year in Books...


Thursday, 4 September 2014

Life is not an emergency

The summer holidays have come to an end. The kids got off to a good start at school on Monday and we're all settling back into a pleasant routine. The picture above is a nostalgic reminder of lazy days in the summer heat; of M chasing the kids, who were dressed only in underpants and squealing with delight, around the garden with a hose on full blast.  Days we are now leaving behind, but that is just fine. One of the things I love about the summer holidays is that it allows us to step back, slow down to the speed of life* together and gather new energy and enthusiasm for the new school year.  In that respect, the long summer holidays are a necessity.  School life - both as a teacher or pupil - is like a hectic train journey: lots of fun and learning and new sights to see, but also exhausting. We often can't wait to get off at the Summer Holidays stop, but enjoy getting back on that train six weeks later just the same.

That's not to say that I don't feel panic in the last week of summer at the very thought of school, because I do. In fact, it is something that plagues me every year. This anxiety is always accompanied by the same thoughts: How will I manage to juggle everything? How on earth will I cope with a full school diary plus family life? Will I still know how everything works at school? Heck, will I still know how to teach?! On top of that, there are the birthday jitters. Both kids celebrate their birthdays in September. Next week in fact. Yes, both of them. This means: buying gifts, decorating the living room, organising and hosting parties, and so on. The very thought of all this is enough to have me hyperventilating. And I guess that's precisely where the problem lies: the very thought. Because before all this has even happened - school, birthdays - I'm already exhausted and slightly overwhelmed. Whenever that realisation sets in (yes - *sigh* - every year: you'd think I'd know better by now) I always pick up a strengthening little book I have lying next to my bed for moments of panic: Don't Sweat the Small Stuff (and it's all small stuff) by the late dr. Richard Carlson. It is divided into one hundred chapters of only a few pages each, perfect for reading in bed at night before heading off to dreamland. In it, dr. Carlson asks us to repeat to ourselves the phrase "Life isn't an emergency" whenever we are feeling stressed. And I can tell you: it works. In fact, it is a mantra I swear by. Whenever I'm feeling rushed or pressured, I repeat this phrase and, like magic, immediately feel calmer. In fact, my breathing goes from the top of my chest straight down to my abdomen in a matter of seconds, followed by a tremendous feeling of relief. Let me leave you with a quote from the book:

"I've never met anyone (myself included) who hasn't turned little things into great big emergencies. We take our own goals so seriously that we forget to have fun along the way, and we forget to cut ourselves some slack. We take simple preferences and turn them into conditions for our own happiness. Or, we beat ourselves up if we can't meet our self-created deadlines. The first step in becoming a more peaceful person is to have the humility to admit that, in most cases, you're creating your own emergencies. Life will usually go on even if things don't go according to plan. (p.62)"

* the title of another of dr. Carlson's books: Slowing Down to the Speed of Life


Now that school has started, I'm having to think about lunch boxes again. Well, snack boxes to be precise; M is on the sandwich station. This week I baked a banana cake; same recipe, different tin. I have been giving a slice of this, along with some fresh berries for fruit, as a mid-morning snack. Coming week I'll be making muesli bars, so will be sharing that recipe with you soon.