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A little word about Christmas October 30, 2007

Filed under: Christmas,parenting articles — paulabrown @ 9:57 pm


OK so I know it’s the kind of thing your granny would say but really, it’s true that there’s nothing like a homemade Christmas present. The other factor is that, having worked in retail for a few years now, you might be interested to know that the cost of making something is usually less than a quarter of its retail price – this accounts for necessary costs to retailers, wholesalers and manufacturers and also for packaging, advertising and the like.

So here is my what-to-make-for-Christmas PART 1

Christmassy Foods for eating or for presents!

A good cook is half a physician“ Nicholas Culpeper

Cranberry Curd

Like lemon curd, only more seasonal, more magenta and more moreish! This recipe (thanks to Nigella) makes quite a lot. Make it a few days before Christmas as it is best eaten quite fresh (though this shouldn’t be a problem!). You can’t get organic cranberries easily but I have read that they aren’t grown that intensively.

Cranberry curd isn’t all that cheap (£1.50 for a smallish jar) but it’s so gorgeous, unusual and bright that that shouldn’t stop you making it as part of your portfolio of bargain, handmade presents.

500g cranberries

500g caster sugar

200ml water

6 large eggs

100g unsalted butter

5 x 250ml jars or equivalent – makes 1¾ litres

Place cranberries and water in a saucepan, cover them and cook on a low heat until tender and popped. Pass the cranberries through a food mill (or push through a sieve) and put fruit puree back into a saucepan. Add the butter and sugar, melting them gently. Beat the eggs in a bowl and sieve them into the saucepan. Stir the curd constantly over a medium heat until it has thickened. This requires patience as you don’t want to speed things up and curdle the mixture, but that’s not particularly challenging. When it has thickened, is should coat the back of a spoon. Let cool a little before pouring in to the jars. Keep in the fridge.

Cranberry and Port Sauce

You will be left with crushed cranberries, which would be a crime to throw away. I put the same quantity of sugar with the cranberries (or to taste) and a slug of port and heat til bubbling on a medium heat for about 10 mins until the sugar has melted and the mixture is jam-like. Serve with turkey, brussel sprouts, carrots etc – you know the one! Also goes well with meat and nut roasts throughout the year (cranberries aren’t just for Christmas…).


Find a good mincemeat recipe, maybe Delia’s, put a nice label on it, possibly with a bit of information about it’s history and a few recipe ideas (a few spoonfuls are great run through a basic fudge recipe or a basic ice cream recipe). Added to a basic sponge recipe it can make a last minute christmas cake substitute or a spoonful stirred into a basic biscuit recipe works festive wonders.

Incidentally, if circumstances force you to buy mincemeat when you would otherwise make it, ‘doctor’ it by adding a few chopped nuts, a squeeze of orange juice, a slurp of brandy, some chopped apple or orange zest.

Pecans in Maple Syrup or Walnuts in Honey

Both these work well, though the latter is decidedly more local and cheaper! Basically half – 2/3 fill a jar with the nuts and pour on the liquid. This doesn’t need to be in a large jar as it will be eaten fairly sparingly (eg with ice cream, spooned over an otherwise dull sponge cake or shortbread biscuits).

Other ideas include homemade pesto (always gratefully eaten), homemade jams with fruit you need to use up etc.

Marinated Olives

Buy good quality olives in oil and add garlic cloves, a slice of lemon and some herbs and spices a week before giving the present.


Cost: obvious cost of vodka makes this fairly expensive but you can give smaller quantities.

Ease: pretty easy, all told. No special equipment and good for using spices you might have in the house or fruit which is being sold cheap

Basic vodka syrup

35cl vodka

8oz caster sugar

10fl oz/275ml water

bring water to boil over a low heat then add sugar, stiring until dissolved (approx 30 secs). Return to the boil then reduce heat and simmer for 5 mins. When cool add the vodka.

Pour the vodka syrup into a bottle and place flavourings in there and leave for 2 weeks minimum (can be left for quite some time so good one to do for next year, esp using cheap cranberries in Jan for next Christmas).

Flavours include:

  • Spices; 8 cloves, stick of cinnamon, vanilla pod/bean, fresh chilli (would make a strange but interesting set with the chilli chocolate) or organic lemon/orange peel

  • Fruit; heat berries (blueberries, cranberries, blackcurrants etc) on low heat for a few minutes until soft and juices flowing – add to the mixture; kumquats etc

  • Chocolate; melt a 100g bar of chocolate bain-marie style (see chocolates) then, off the heat when cool but not set, pour 1 quantity of vodka syrup into the mixture and stir. When cold, pour into a bottle and keep at room temperature. Although highly un’organic’, this can be done with your recipient’s favourite chocolate bar, eg mint Aero, (almost all of which melt) as well. Technically you can do it with jelly beans etc although I have always got a gloopy mess when I tried it.

  • Any fruits soaked in vodka can be made into chocolates. Strain the vodka and label as fruit liqueur (which effectively it now is) and either use fruits in chocolate moulds as below or melt chocolate and pour half on greaseproof paper, cool, smear fruit over the top and pout another layer of chocolate over the top. When cooler, cut and serve with coffee! These go well as a gift set – eg cranberry chocolates and cranberry vodka. Lovely!


Mulled Wine Sachets


Dried peel of 1 orange

1 tsp of cloves

2 inch piece of cinnamon stick

piece of dried ginger or ground ginger (1 tsps)

Variations include the additions of 1tsp coriander seeds, 1tsp dried rosehips, 4 cardamon pods, ½ tsp cumin, few grates of nutmeg, ½ tsp allspice, 1 star anise, 1 Earl Grey tea bag, dark rum, – experiment!

Tie in a double layer of muslin and tie with string. Write a label instructing the recipient to put in a saucepan with one bottle of medium to full-bodied red wine (eg cabernet sauvignon) with 3 tbsp of sugar (dark muscavado is the best) or honey, dash of brandy, a sliced orange and sliced lemon and 1 pint of water, simmer for 20 mins and serve. You can also put the spices in a small jar which looks nicer.

Flavoured sugars

Put caster sugar into an attractive jar. Push a vanilla pod into the sugar and leave for a week. This sugar is great for making homemade custard but works well in coffee or sprinkled over stewed fruit. Make a set of 3 sugars with different flavours and give as a present.

Other flavourings include:

Flowers – collect approx 6 fresh, homegrown (ie unsprayed) lavender flowers in the summer (per small jar) – this sugar is great for cakemaking and has a subtle, floral taste. Rose petals (esp red) also make a fantastic sugar and look beautiful

Spices – cardomon, cloves, cinnamon etc

  • Fruit – try unsprayed/unwaxed orange and other citrus peels

Almond and rosewater dates

These make a good alternative to the standard dried fruit and nut tray, available in supermarkets. Also, they are freakily high in nutritional value (providing large quantities of magnesium, phosphorous and calcium) and help to calm the nervous system, help with PMT, those who work late at night and acts as a general tonic. Pretty thoughtful present? I think so.

1lb naturally dried dates (no added sugar)

1lb almonds

enough rosewater (available from indian stores) to cover the dates – this can be made by making an infusion of rose petals in the appropriate season

Leave dates to soak in the rosewater overnight. Cut the dates open and replace the stone with an almond. Package and give as a present or simply eat!

Salt and peppercorns

  • Put salt and herb mixes in a good quality salt grinder (eg ‘provencal herbs’; lavender florets, shredded bay leaves, dried sage etc). Lots of varieties possible (eg herbs for fish, herbs and spices for curries)

  • Try sugar and small pieces of chocolate to use with sweet foods

  • Buy red, white and black peppercorns and package in a jar or in a peppergrinder for variation.

Spice kits

Hand blend spices for an indian or thai recipe and put in plastic bag with instructions and small bag of lentils or similar.

Soup mix

Layer various coloured pulses as part of hamper – useful as soup mix.


Wok oil’

Put a clove of garlic, 3 birdseye chillies, a star anise, a stick of cinnamon, few mustard, cumin and coriander seeds in a small glass bottle of sunflower oil (adding a little sesame oil if you have any) and leave for a a few weeks or heat gently to cheat!. Put a ribbon and label on bottle and give, possibly with a good stir fry recipe. Good cheap but attractive present.

Salad dressing oil

Do as above but with a few basic spices and a large sprig of a fresh herb (these should be organic if poss or washed and thoroughly dried). Leave for a few weeks and then strain, replace with the same herb (so it will look fresh).

Infused vinegars

Add herbs as with the oil alone or in combination with fruit (eg raspberries which have been crushed slightly). Leave to steep then strain and replace with fresh herb. Slightly stew cranberries and do the same, finally replacing with cranberries threaded on a scewer for an attractive present. In summer, make rose petal vinegar by steeping unsprayed rose petals in white wine or cider vinegar (don’t use malt vinegar which is for chips only!)


Benign Neglect

Filed under: parenting articles — paulabrown @ 9:47 pm

You may have come across this term and I’ve definitely written about the concept before, if not in name. It’s a term used more and more by those who work with children and it basically means:

  • letting your kids grow slowly, at their pace
  • giving them time to get bored so they discover how to play and invent, use their imaginations and be sociable
  • have time to think and reflect on activities
  • have time with you
  • they don’t need to be doing something structured and ‘meaningful’ all the time

what it doesn’t mean is:

  • ignoring them while you do that one last job
  • leaving them in front of the TV for several hours at a time (this is just straightforward neglect!)
  • leaving them in a car with a packet of crisps, a bottle of coke and the Archers (see above re: neglect! My sister and I were reminiscing childhood in the days before family pubs and restaurants!)
  • fussing over them and giving them endless suggestions of things to do
  • thinking they need this benign neglect all the time, they will play and invent but when they start nagging about wanting to go out / play a game with you / visit a friend, they’re probably done doing their own thing
  • what it definitely doesn’t mean is plying them with lots of expensive gadgets, electronic books, ‘clever’ music and videos designed to increase IQ etc all the time, doing endless classes and activities all the time (though of course there is a time and a place for all these things)
  • it doesn’t mean that all children will want to do as much of this ‘neglect’ thing as others – my elder son could play for hours by himself, the younger one too to a degree but I know children who, with the best will in the world, find this very hard.

So feel free to let them just be, quite liberating for you too! The resulting decrease in constant stimulation can often work wonders on their concentration, imagination and behaviour.



Hard October 26, 2007

Filed under: parenting articles — paulabrown @ 7:00 pm

parenting is sometimes hard

that’s it for today


What’s your story? October 16, 2007

Filed under: parenting articles,storytelling — paulabrown @ 9:36 pm

So I’m reading ‘Secrets of Happy Parents: How to have kids and stay in love’ by Steve Buddulph, quite a title! I’m a bit of a self-help / non-fiction junky, partly because I become too damned embroiled in fiction and can’t quite extract it from my daily life (I’m the type who cried in Home and Away when whatever her name was finally died of leukemia all those years ago). Anyway here are his valuable lessons (so far):

Lesson 1: we all have 3 parts to our personality (according to some psychologist or other) – Child, Parent and Adult. Child would delight at the pudding trolley at a restaurant (do they still have such things?), Parent would worry over calories and nutrition, Adult would rationalise and say a little won’t hurt. Each of us have all 3 but in different measures – some of us are more playful, others overly sensible, others nagging and authoritarian. When we meet partners and friends they all interplay and ruts develop where you might ‘Parent’ a partners ‘Child’, changing which one you lead with can help get out of these ruts.

Lesson 2: Recyling – all of us recycle our parents ‘stuff’ and all their sayings reactions etc come out when we have kids (surprise surprise) but what was interesting was that it is triggered at the ages it happened to us so that a man who had got on with his kids for many years saw them all run away, in turn, at 14. When asked by a counsellor why he ran away at 14, he was shocked, but the family counsellor knew that this might well have been the case and that the boys reaching this age triggered this issue in the family. Knowing at what age certain feelings or events arose is very helpful, something reiterated by Oliver James who wrote ‘They F*** You Up’, also geared towards finding out as much about your childhood as you can so you can work through it and be free to bring up your kids as you actually wish to, not are programmed to.

Which brings me neatly to Family Storytelling Day, a lighter look at families and their stories! I’m reading Neil Griffiths ‘Are you Sitting Comfortably, Then I shall Begin’, a guide to storytelling from the inventor of Storysacks (sacks of books, games, activities, DVDs and puppets to bring stories alive for young children). It occurred to me, while reading it, that the stories my kids love best of all (bearing in mind that I sell the gorgeous Barefoot Books and that we have groaning shelves of amazing stories) are those about our family. The most popular of these include, but are not limited to:

  • the time Nana (my mum) left the goose fat cooking on the hob and nearly burnt down the house with my sister (then a baby) in it
  • the time Nige drove over Grandpa’s foot with a tractor
  • the time I ate a piece out of 45 chocolate Easter eggs while staying on a ranch with my family in Canada (age 4) when I got up early one morning to see this amazing display
  • the time Nige and I got snowed in to a tiny village in Alaska that was only accessible by plane
  • the time I slept in a log cabin in Canada and saw a brown bear through the window
  • the time I went with Dats (my dad) and caught a rabbit on the prairie outside our house
  • the time i lost Gabe in a supermarket / car boot sale / park / festival (if you have a ‘runner’ you’ll understand that I’m not a rubbish parent

etc etc

So here’s my challenge: find a nice notebook and start taking notes. Interview your parents, siblings, whoever. Get dates, timelines, stories and family jokes. I started this with my parents but have got to both of them being about 35 (my age interestingly) but am aware that I want to get on with it before I can’t. I always wish I’d listened more carefully when I heard my grandmother talk about her sisters both dying of heartbreak (the first as her fiancee died and the second because her beloved sister died).

So record it or remember it before it’s too late!


Turn off the TV. Forget Facebook. Just give your kids some time

Filed under: parenting articles — paulabrown @ 8:10 pm

In our increasingly fractured lives, is it a surprise the happiest families are those you see playing together?

Henry Porter
Sunday October 14, 2007
The Observer

A society that fails its children is almost worthless. Two reports out last week seem to place Britain unambiguously in that category. The first says that our children are reaching primary school barely able to write their own names or string a coherent sentence together. The second, a study conducted by Professor Robin Alexander at the head of a group of Cambridge researchers, reveals that primary schools have been engulfed by ‘a wave of antisocial behaviour, materialism and the cult of celebrity’. It confirms Unicef’s impression earlier this year that British children are the unhappiest in the Western world.One thing is plain. Though the government is busily stealing Tory policies to support marriage, this is not all its fault. Ministers can only do so much and there can be no mistaking Labour’s good intentions on education. Around £21bn has been invested in schemes around the SureStart policy alone and a great deal more through the education system. The failure, if it is as catastrophic as the reports make out, cannot be blamed on the system, on the lack of funds, nor even entirely on the widening gap between rich and poor, though, unsurprisingly, this does show up in the government’s annual assessments of children’s first year at school.

The main culprit stares us in the face: it is us. The values of British adult society, our individualism and the bewildering dissolution of the things that bind us together are ruining the lives of many members of the next generation. Actually, ‘have ruined’ is more accurate.

It seems we don’t know how to listen to our children; we don’t spend enough time with them; we don’t give them security at home, on the way to school or in school; and we don’t allow them freedom to stretch themselves and explore their capabilities. The affirmation that children need is commonly wanting, as is proper rest and nourishment.

This doesn’t apply to all children, but the reports do indicate we should be deeply concerned about the emotional well-being of a substantial number. It is almost too shaming to fill out the picture. One thinks of the many poorer societies on which we look down, yet which manage to produce much happier children. This is to say nothing of the vast wealth in Britain and the opportunities that are somehow out of reach for so many. We seem to be dealing with an accelerated social dystrophy that, according to a family learning co-ordinator I spoke to, has taken root in the parents who are now in their twenties and early thirties.

The symptoms sometimes seen in their children are as follows: acute anxiety about traffic, gangs of older children, robbery, graffiti and rubbish; a lack of respect for one another and for authority; and obsessions with new gadgetry and celebrity culture, derived from long periods watching television. These children appear lonely, insecure, underachieving weirdos and one of the oddest things about them is that their minds are filled with the coming disaster of climate change.

That may tell us that we have failed to maintain the Chinese walls between an adult and a child’s awareness. The traditional information barrier that existed between parents and children on so many things, but especially sexuality and violence, has collapsed, leaving many children at once worldly and baffled, but also badly behaved. They have been inducted prematurely into the adult world of stress.

Dr Anthony Seldon, Tony Blair’s biographer and the master (head) of Wellington College, says: ‘The degree of testing is an absurdity. Schools are in fear of Ofsted – whereas the relationship should be one of respect – and that fear is passed on to the children.’ The obsessions with targets is certainly the government’s fault and let us not forget that another part of this early initiation into adult life is the sinister insistence by government that all children should be fingerprinted. Precisely what for, no one is able to say, but it seems a sign of things to come and it cannot be good for children to be treated like criminal suspects by the state.

One of the fascinating strands of the anecdotal account is the limitation of the generation born after 1975. It is thought that their failure to connect with their children may start with the outward-facing pushchair instead of the traditional pram in which the baby faced its mother. This early communication teaches the baby language, as well as the ability to read facial expressions. There is evidence to suggest that this generation of parents who were brought up on videos and instant visual gratification are not going through cooing routines. There are fewer nursery rhymes, less song, storytelling and reading. All this is taken over by TV, which leaves parents free to think about themselves and to work late. There may be a lot in what the family learning co-ordinator said to me; after all, she teaches parents to relate to their children so that they may in turn teach them. ‘If an infant is used to not speaking, he or she doesn’t know how to listen either. And when you don’t listen you don’t learn.’

She went on to say this also explained why children are often bad at understanding the messages in people’s expressions. Hence the menace and edginess to be found in British playgrounds. What comes from this is insecurity, bullying and the beginnings of gang culture. Can it really be that we are producing some primary school-aged children with what amounts to a degree or two of acquired autism?

Anthony Seldon has done much work in this area. To him, there are some obvious causes: parents working long hours; children being locked into technology for an average of four to five hours a day; the decline of the family meal; and parents not talking to their children. ‘A good parent,’ he says, ‘will talk to their child every day – sit down and let the child speak.’

As with Iain Duncan Smith’s recent social justice report, which looked into family breakdown, he emphasises lack of social cohesion but also the loss of security of attachment, the lack of acceptance and affirmation and the fear of bullying on the way to and from – and at – school. The main part of his argument is that society needs to be rebalanced. ‘In search of self-realisation, we have become thoughtless of our children, in fact negligent,’ he said. ‘There is no panacea. But there is a direction to take. It’s all about teaching harmony within oneself and harmony with others.’ That must apply to parents as well as children.

In July, during the worst of the summer rain, I saw something that struck me as quite rare. A family of five had paused on their walk along a country lane so that the three children could scramble up a bank where there was a surprisingly good crop of wild strawberries. The children were wet and caked in mud. They were made to share out the strawberries like precious sweets. Then they went on their way, the parents oblivious to their children disappearing into the woods and ambushing each other with handfuls of mud. I haven’t seen three happier children for a long time

On that Saturday afternoon expedition in the rain, you have nearly everything that children need – exercise, attention from their parents, but not undue fussing, a feeling of security and of family, simplicity of entertainment, natural surroundings and a chance for the two sisters and their brother to relate to one another away from TV, their friends and Facebook. The only thing required from the parents was time.


Great article on giving them some time!

Filed under: parenting articles — paulabrown @ 8:08 pm



Activity idea: make your child into a pizza October 15, 2007

Filed under: parenting articles,the kids — paulabrown @ 7:36 pm


They love this! Lie child on the floor and ‘knead’ his tummy to make the dough (gently of course!). Then ‘roll’ them out. Splat tomato sauce on them, sprinkle cheese, taking care to tickle them, poke them with olives and other bits then bake them til they sizzle in a pan (dear god don’t actually bake them…). Then start to slowly nibble different bits of your child pizza.