Tuesday, 12 November 2013

Wouldn't it be great

The typhoon that hit the Philippines has brought misery to millions. Listening to the radio I thought "what can I do?"

I can and will donate with plastic but that's an easy solution.

I can do a cake sale and have already started to discuss this with colleagues.

And then I realized my family all have their own "work" community. So I have encourage Hannah and Ethan to try and organise cake sales at school. I have tried talking to my husband but he prefers plastic donations.

And then I though "Wouldn't it be great if everyone who helps organise a cake sale encouraged everyone else in their family to organise a cake sale in their own daily community.

I then had a fractal vision of cake sales spreading throughout the land as one person encouraged another to get involved and then another, and another.

Maybe you could do a cake sale at home or at work to raise money for the Red Cross.

Wouldn't it be great if everyone got involved?

Monday, 4 November 2013

Just in case

I needed to go to IKEA today.  When I say "needed to" I mean it was on my list of things to do and I had a window of opportunity today.  

Ethan had an inset day and Dave was in charge (of Ethan just in case you assumed he was in charge of me).  This meant that when I left work I had some time before I needed to have food on the table and I didn't have the encumbrance of a school run.

I was going to return a lamp which had a couple of non-existent screws.  At the customer service desk I discovered that the time of the school run is the perfect time to hit IKEA.  There was no queue.

Instead of just giving me the screws and washers I needed the assistant gave me a refund and sent me off round the store to find a replacement lamp.  I told her that this was dangerous because I would be sent before temptation with the very likely outcome of me spending money.

I darted around the store using all of the shortcuts available to me.  I see it as a bit of a game to figure out the shortest route to my destination and outwit the store designers that want customers to "experience" IKEA.  I didn't want an experience, I wanted a lamp.

Despite my deft avoidance of temptation I walked past a couple of plain throws, one red and one white.  They were a fleece material with fringing.  I didn't like them as throws and I don't need or want throws, but I was tempted.  They were just £3 each.  Just £3! 

I started to think about how I could use them if I bought them.  Christmas concerts are coming up soon and the throws could well be useful for the creation of any costumes that are needed by my children.  The trouble is that I don't know what those costume requirements might be.

I picked up one red and one white and carried on in search of the lamp.  I had those throws, just in case.  

Am I the only one who does this, who has a loft full of stuff that I might need, one day, maybe?

I put the throws down before reaching the checkout, but only just. 

Tuesday, 15 October 2013

Day 5

We'll days 2-5 have been very uneventful but there was more activity on day 1.

I called the council about the level of noise from the site.  I was trying to determine what was acceptable.  The Brentwood Council website wasn't specific and referred viewers to the World Health Organisation.  Their website hadn't been helpful so I called the Council to speak to Environmental Health.  They weren't sure it was them and thought it might be Building Control. They made a note to call me but passed me to Building Control in the meantime.

The conversation with Building Control was interesting.  They advised that the noise question definitely had nothing to do with them so I asked about the vibrations I could feel whilst in my house which I presumed were the result of a pile driver.  We discussed distances between properties, the fact that we hadn't entered into a party wall agreement and the person I was speaking to thought we might be OK and avoid damage to our house and it's virtually non-existent foundations.

I was then asked whether I had paid for a full structural survey.  I explained we had, but this was before we moved in, in 1999. I was advised that if we were to make a claim we would need to prove that any damage had been caused by the construction work which would mean a report paid for, in advance, just in case.  "So, because my neighbours are demolishing a nice house and building an overbearing monster to make a quick buck, I need to spend lots of money I don't have on  a full structural survey." I asked.  The answer was a tentative "Yes." I think he could smell my indignation.

He then advised that the next best thing to do was to have a series of photographs taken before the development.  So on Sunday, it being cheaper than a full structural survey, I took pictures of the outside of the house and we'll add to those this weekend with pictures of the interior. He told me to add a current newspaper into each photograph to prove they were taken before the development. This blog, when combined with the image meta data should be sufficient.  I was told meta data can be altered which is why the newspaper is a good idea.  I thought "Images can be Photoshopped too" but decided a blog post would serve as a pretty good date stamp.

Later in the day there was a message on the voicemail.  Instead of just calling me back it transpired that someone in Environmental Health had popped around next door.  Apparently they had been using pile drivers for core samples. It seems there is no advice on how noisy a building site has to be.  Providing they operate within normal working hours they could be using explosives and that would be OK.  Hmmmm.

Friday, 11 October 2013

Living next to a building site - day 1

I had heard that my neighbour's building work was going to start this week but, as I hadn't seen removal vans, I had hoped the rumour wasn't true.

This morning however there were clearly builders on site.  This was just one of the vans parked on double yellow lines near a busy junction during the school run.

 I’d really like @Brentwood_BC or @Essex_CC traffic warden to ... on Twitpic

I asked the driver whether our neighbours were still living in the property and he told me they were.  I don't really understand this because at some point their house is being demolished.  

The noise is how I imagine tinnitus to sound.  Have a listen.

There's also the vibration.  Sitting or standing in the house I can feel a vibration in my feet.  I assume my house is being slightly shaken.  

Saturday, 28 September 2013

Carrot cake

Vic and Nyree have asked for this recipe and this is as good a way to share as any.  I'm going to tell you how I made it and also tell you about the bit I left out.  It's a Jo Wheatley recipe.




Ingredients
  • 300g soft brown sugar - I think I used a mixture of light muscovado and golden granulated.
  • 250ml sunflower oil - I used corn oil because that's what I use in muffin recipes so it's always in the cupboard
  • 3 large eggs
  • 150g self raising flour
  • 2 tsp mixed spice
  • pinch of salt
  • 250g carrots coarsely grated
  • 150g pecans chopped (I put them in a bag and bashed them with a rolling pin)
  • zest of half an orange - I use a zester and then chop the zest because I think you get more zest this way than if you use a grater
Orange syrup (I didn't do this bit)
  • juice of half a large orange
  • 20g caster sugar (if I had done this I would have used granulated)
Frosting
  • 400g cream cheese - recipe says full fat and that's what I used because if you've having cake I don't see the point in low calorie stuff but I guess you could use low fat version
  • 100g icing sugar - you can reduce this quantity if you want slightly less sweet frosting and I did use less
  • zest and juice of half an orange
  • pecan halves to decorate if you can be bothered - I couldn't
Method
  • Grease a rectangular tin 20cm x 25cm or thereabouts.  Line with baking parchment and grease the baking parchment.  This is always a faff but better to do this than have a cake that cannot be removed from the tin.
  • Depending on how long your oven takes to heat up, and how long you take to mix things, preheat oven to 180˚C for a non fan oven or 160˚C for a fan oven.  If you have a gas oven it's gas mark 4 or for an Aga you're on your own.
  • Mix the sugar and the oil.  I used a mixer and wasn't quite sure what this should look like.  I stopped when it looked like it had combined.
  • Add the eggs and mix until smooth.  I mixed this for quite a while but it wasn't ever really smooth, more smooth-ish.
  • Fold in flour, mixed spice and salt.
  • Add grated carrot, pecans and orange zest and mix until combined.  The point here is not to mix the living daylights out of it, so use a spoon and be gentle.
  • Spoon into baking tin and cook for about 40 minutes.  Check it with the skewer test.  Jo uses a wooden skewer but I use a metal skewer.  I don't know which is best or even whether it matters.
  • If you are going to do the orange syrup (which I didn't) then while the cake is in the oven, heat the orange juice and sugar in a small saucepan until the sugar has dissolved and the liquid has reduced by one third.
  • Brush the warm cake with the orange syrup and then leave the cake to cool.
  • While the cake is cooling you can make the frosting by beating cream cheese, orange juice, icing sugar and orange zest together.  Beat this for quite a while until smooth.  I think I might have beaten it for too long as the mixture was sliding around the metal bowl without leaving a trail on the bowl.  It was also struggling not to slide off the top of the cake.  The orange syrup, being sticky, might help with this.
  • Spread the frosting over the cooled cake and decorate with pecans if you want to.
  • I cut this into 12 slices but I was told the slices were quite big (I thought they were just fine).

Saturday, 7 September 2013

A letter to my MP

I've just sent this email to my MP.

Dear Eric Pickles,

Michael Gove has reportedly insisted that children need their own bedroom in order to be able to fulfil their potential. He expressed concern for children from poorer families who were forced to share a room.

Iain Duncan-Smith has pushed ahead with the implementation of the "bedroom tax" which insists that children under ten should share a room and children over the age of ten are required to share a room where the children are of the same gender.

Can you please tell me what the Government policy is in this regard. Is it that children from poorer families should expect to fail to reach their potential, or is it that children from poorer families should be given every opportunity to fulfil their potential?

I look forward to your clarification on this issue.

Yours sincerely,

Ann Cardus (Mrs)

Monday, 15 July 2013

Chocolate mousse

This is a very simple recipe with just three ingredients and tastes just like the chocolate mousse I remember from French restaurants I visited as a child.

IMG 7191

This makes eight portions so you will need eight ramekins. 

Ingredients

  • 220g dark chocolate - if you don't like dark chocolate then substitute all or part with milk chocolate
  • 140g unsalted butter
  • 4 eggs, separated

Method

Melt the butter and chocolate in a bain marie (bowl resting on a saucepan of simmering water but without the water touching the bowl).  This is done more quickly if butter is cubed and chocolate broken into pieces.

IMG 7184

Add the egg yolks one at a time, stirring constantly.  If you want to add extra flavour, then do it now.  You could add a couple of tablespoons of rum, brandy or espresso coffee or maybe some orange zest.

Whisk the egg whites until they form soft peaks.

IMG 7185

Using a metal spoon, fold the egg whites into the chocolate mixture.

IMG 7186

Keep folding until your boredom threshold is reached or preferably until it's beautifully combined into chocolate yumminess.

IMG 7189

Spoon carefully into ramekins.  

IMG 7190

You can freeze these in advance but they take so little time to prepare I'm not sure it's necessary.

Enjoy.

Lady luck

I don't believe in luck but if you asked me, I'd say I was lucky. 

 

Last week I messed up my diary for Thursday evening. I had arranged for Tesco to deliver groceries and, at the same time, I'd arranged for Ethan to have an assessment in Shenfield.

 

Dave was working in London so I didn't have a backup plan.

 

At 7 o'clock I put a note on the front door apologising for not being in and at 7:10 we got in the car to go to Shenfield. After dropping Ethan off I was told that I didn't have to stay while he was being assessed, so I decided to nip home. At home by 7:30, I sat in the car waiting.

 

At 7:35 Tesco turned up, we unloaded the groceries into the house and I was able to return to pick Ethan up just as he finished his assessment.

 

It could have been different and that's how I know I'm lucky.  Although I don't seem to win the lottery much...

Thursday, 27 June 2013

Do you believe in angels?

I'm not the "praying kind" but today I heard about a group of people who might well be described as angels.

My husband went for a walk on the south coast today with his dad.  They try and do a number of "man walks" every year and it's an opportunity to enjoy the countryside and shoot the breeze at the same time.

Today they were walking near some cliffs and a man wearing a high visibility vest approached them and started a conversation.  He was a Beachy Head Chaplaincy volunteer.

About 30 volunteers take turns patrolling the area near Beachy Head looking for those who are seeking the only solution they believe is left to them.  Their lives are desperate and they are looking for the exit door.

Beachy Head cliffs stand 530 feet high and are, at the same time, a beauty spot and the world's third most popular suicide location.  

Last year this volunteer chaplaincy team saved the lives of 305 people who were despondent.  In May this year they saved 39 lives but one body was recovered, In April they saved 25 lives but two bodies were recovered.

I don't know how one talks someone out of a pit of despair but I admire greatly those who try and succeed.

You, like me, had probably not heard of the Beachy Head Chaplaincy Team until today.  If you'd like to find out more, click here.

Tuesday, 25 June 2013

A test for colleagues

Here we have my favourite video uploaded by me, of my son being buried in the snow.  You need sound to watch this and get the full benefit.


Thursday, 20 June 2013

Flattery will get you nowhere

I was wandering along the HIgh Street today and was approached by a man with leaflets.

He said "Can I give you a leaflet about personal training?"

I told him he was would be wasting his leaflet.

He replied "I appreciate the honesty but can I ask if you've had a bad experience in a gym?"

I told him I hadn't had a bad gym experience.

He asked "But you do train?"

I responded "No."

"Oh" he said "but you look quite fit."

I laughed and laughed and laughed, didn't take a leaflet and carried on walking.

Monday, 17 June 2013

Charitable theft

As we came back to the house I spotted Ethan's scooter left visible in the garden just waiting to be stolen.

I told Ethan he should have tidied it away securely.

Later we left the house and when I returned, on my own, I noticed Ethan's scooter had still been left out.  Ethan had ignored me and hadn't tidied it away despite my threats that it might be stolen.

So I hid it.

When Ethan came home I congratulated him for tidying away his scooter.  He looked to the place where there had been a discarded scooter and found a void.  He was worried.  It had been stolen.

"Can we phone a non emergency police number?" he asked.

"What, because someone was silly enough not to tidy it away and left it in full view?" I replied.  "I don't think so."

We talked about how much the scooter was worth to him and whether he would be prepared to pay a reward for its return.  I offered to create a poster and Ethan agreed that he'd pay £20 to get it back.

I said that if he gave me £20 then I'd get it back to him (obviously via my links to the criminal underworld).  It was a deal.

Ethan went to his room and looked in every nook and cranny and managed to scrape together £19 in change.  His Dad lent him a pound.

He came to me and gave me the handful of coins.

I came clean and we did a different deal.  He could have the scooter back and most of the money but I'd keep one pound and donate it to a local charity.  I also said I'd "steal" anything else that might be left in unsecured location and he wouldn't get it back without a donation to charity.

He thinks he's learnt his lesson.  What do you think?  Should I have kept the £20?  Am I too evil for words?

Thursday, 30 May 2013

School strategies for parents

Hannah goes to a new school in September.

It's a scary prospect for me because I'll be losing my little girl, but she seems very relaxed about the whole thing.

The school is doing its utmost to try and make her feel welcome before she gets there.  There have been netball and hockey sessions for the new intake that Hannah's attended and athletics sessions we've opted to miss.  There's a welcome meeting and a taster day to look forward to in June and Year 7s start a day earlier than the rest of the school, allowing them to get lost and make mistakes without an audience of older children.

The one thing the school has done so far though that has impressed me is to encourage the current Year 7s to write a penpal letter to the Year 7s of September. 

The letter Hannah received was beautifully decorated and full of useful information like: 

"Do your homework as soon as you get it."

"Have an emergency £5 in your bag for emergencies."

"Don't roll your skirt up."

and, my personal favourite:

"Don't do your blazer buttons up because people will just stare at you."

Hannah's penpal also included her telephone number and email and she'll be the one showing Hannah around the school on the taster day.

Hannah's still very blazé about the whole thing but knowing Hannah's penpal put time and effort into the letter and probably does care about Hannah, makes me a little less intimidated by the whole experience.

Friday, 24 May 2013

The media hungry and why we should deny them

The horrific murder of Drummer Lee Rigby in Woolwich this week has shocked the World.  It has done this for two reasons.

The nature of the attack as described is an unimaginable horror, but we don't have to use our imaginations because so much has been shared by the media.  What we have seen and heard has also shocked us.

I have tried to avoid the coverage but I've seen enough to know I wish I hadn't seen anything.

The perpetrators of this crime were seeking publicity and they were given exactly what they wanted.  This makes me feel physically sick.  

I believe that the crime should have been reported and the victim named, with the family's consent.  I don't believe the murderers' crimes, faces or voices should have appeared in any media outlet.  Police should have taken all recording devices they could get their hands on from the scene and pictures, video and voice recordings should have been taken for evidence but removed from the public to prevent publication.

Some people seek fame for selfish reasons and choose to apply to Big Brother or one of the many talent shows.   This might offend our senses but it is relatively harmless.

Others seek fame for a cause or a belief, and when that's a cause that seeks to promote violence and hate then I think they should be denied the martyr style coverage they seek.  

I think Drummer Rigby's murderers were seeking to inspire others to undertake similar acts.  It's a lot harder to achieve this without a name, a face or a voice.  I recognise there will be those who will argue that free speech is more important and I am normally in favour of free speech, but not this time.

Thursday, 16 May 2013

The lunch box fairy

Dave found a lunch box under Ethan's chest of drawers in his bedroom this morning.

It had clearly been concealed in an "I really have tidied everything" kind of a way.

I asked Ethan who had put it there.

"It wasn't me."

"Well who was it?"

"The lunch box fairy?"  He replied, with a quizzical raised eyebrow.

I looked at him disapprovingly.

"The ghost that lives in our house?"

"We don't have a ghost in our house."

"How do you know?"

This was a good point and I admitted as much. We left it there. I'm not sure who was the victor but I'm not sure it was me.

Sunday, 21 April 2013

St. George. Who? What? Brentwood Council doesn't care.

St. George's Day is the one day we get to celebrate being English.  St. George is not only the Patron Saint of England but also the Patron Saint of Scouting.

It is perhaps for this reason that Scouts, Cub Scouts and Beaver Scouts around England renew their promises after conducting a St. George's Day march.  This tradition has been a regular fixture of the Scouting calendar in Brentwood with a procession along the High Street.

Times are tough in Brentwood.  Costs are going up and people are losing their jobs because the Council are opting to freeze Council Tax.  Services are being cut, parking charges are being increased, central housing benefit cuts are not being maintained with local funds, bedroom tax is being introduced and difficult decisions are being made.

Clearly Tory majority Brentwood Council is doing its best to live up to Cameron's expectations.  It would require too much loss of face for the Council to decide there had been enough cuts and, to provide residents with the services they need, Council Tax needs to rise. 

There are all sorts of small consequences of this type of political manoeuvring that detract from quality of life and today I experienced one.

Ethan turned up, together with about 100 or so other young (and middle aged) members of the Scouting Community, for the 2013 St. George's parade.

For the first year the parade didn't travel along the High Street.  The Council decided that, this year, they'd ask the Scouting movement for £1,000 for the road closures required.

The Scouting movement is staffed by thousands of volunteers.  They are an exemplary embodiment of Cameron's Big Society.  They help children to become better people for the benefit of society and Brentwood Council has chosen to start charging them for one of the integral activities of the Scouting year.

Well the Brentwood District Scouting movement didn't have £1,000 in spare change which meant an alteration to their plans.

Instead of an impressive parade involving all Scouts marching along the High Street the Scouts set off at intervals to walk on the pavements, and cross at the pelican crossings, quietly making their way towards the church.  After the service they did the same, but in reverse.

It wasn't the same, but it got me thinking.  This is clearly a new policy and other parades may well be affected.

The other major parade involving the Scouting movement is the Remembrance Day parade.  I wonder if there might be a bit more fuss when the Council decide that not only do we not need to celebrate the fact that we're English in style, but we don't need to remember our war dead properly either.

Saturday, 30 March 2013

Fiddling the books?

Chelmsford Theatre recently sent me details of a show during the Easter holidays.  It was right up Ethan's alley so I booked for the family.

Within a week of booking I received a telephone call advising that the show was cancelled.

I knew the children would be disappointed but I checked, and I'd at least get my money back.  I was told I could have an exchange or a refund, and a refund suited me.  I was told I would have to have the refund on the card that was used for the original payment and I proffered my card details to get the admin over and done with as quickly as possible.

Apparently they needed to call me back after Easter to sort out the refund.  I pondered.  I was being called on a Tuesday, not Good Friday, not Saturday, not Sunday, not a day during the school holidays, just a Tuesday before Easter.

I asked, I think quite reasonably, why I had to wait until after Easter for a refund.  Apparently it's because of the proximity of the end of the tax year.  The accounts department won't allow them to process refunds until after Easter.

Really?  I mean if I'd called to book something then they'd have been only too happy to take my money, but it was not possible to give me my money back?  Really?

Well it's the end of my tax year too, and I'd much rather have the credit showing in 2012/13 than 2013/14.  Actually it makes no difference at all to me other than the compromise on the principle.  I trust Essex County Council about as far as I can spit and I'm not, nor ever have been, a long distance spitter.

Do you honestly believe that it wouldn't be possible to process refunds at the end of a tax year or do you think Essex County Council are cooking the books?

Sunday, 17 March 2013

Lemon and poppy seed surprise muffins

I've been baking for our annual half marathon cake sale.  I've taken a previous recipe and added a twist, hence the surprise.  I haven't tasted these yet (because that would be consuming the profits) but I'm sure they'll be delish.

Ingredients

  • 250g plain flour
  • 3 tsp baking powder
  • pinch salt
  • 85g granulated sugar
  • 2 tbsp poppy seeds (or more if you fancy and I do)
  • 1 egg
  • 240ml milk
  • 1 tsp grated lemon rind – preferably unwaxed
  • 90ml corn oil
  • 1/2 tsp lemon extract (can be substituted with more lemon rind)
  • 12 tsp lemon curd
Glaze
  • 85g icing sugar
  • 4 tsp lemon juice (I just used everything I squeezed out of the lemon I used for the rind)
  • 1/4 tsp grated lemon rind (this can be omitted if you've run out of lemons)
Method
  • Prepare muffin tins and preheat oven to 160°C for a fan oven.
  • Put flour, baking powder, salt, sugar and poppy seeds in a large bowl and stir with a fork.
  • In a separate bowl beat egg and stir in milk, lemon rind, oil and lemon extract.
  • Pour wet ingredients into dry and stir until no flour is visible.
  • Spoon half of the mixture into muffin cases 
  • Spoon a teaspoon of lemon curd onto the muffin mixture
  • Spoon the remainder of the muffin mixture on top of the lemon curd
  • Bake for 20 mins or until lightly browned (this can take a little longer than 20 mins depending on your oven)
  • While muffins are in the oven make the glaze by combining glaze ingredients
  • While muffins are hot, spoon over the glaze and leave to cool slightly

The surprise is the lemon curd in the middle of the muffin.

These muffins freeze really well. Defrost or, if you're in a hurry, zap in a microwave for 30 seconds for each muffin.

 
 

Saturday, 2 March 2013

Another (better) self-saucing chocolate pudding

I have been searching for a self-saucing pudding for years.

My mum made one that was amazing.  I think she used to make it in a soufflé dish.  I need a soufflé dish.  Ideally I would have her recipe too, but I don't, hence the continued search.

I found this little Nigel Slater number in a magazine.  I made it with very dark Green and Blacks chocolate and I think a slightly lower cocoa content, higher sugar content chocolate might make it appeal to more palettes.  The children found it a little too rich.

It isn't an elegant dessert at all, but it has gooey chocolate in spades and, in my experience, that can compensate for a lack of appearance.

Ingredients

  • 150g self-raising flour
  • 2 slightly heaped tbsp cocoa powder (I hate recipes with ill-defined quantities so I just chucked some cocoa in and guessed when I'd put enough in)
  • 45g ground almonds
  • 200g light muscovado sugar (I'm sure you could use any old sugar)
  • 75g dark chocolate finely chopped (I used 75% but I think less would be better, but I wouldn't go as far as milk chocolate)
  • 200 ml milk
  • 25g melted butter plus more for greasing
  • a few drops of vanilla extract (I chucked loads in, probably too much)
  • 1 large egg

For the sauce

  • 175g golden caster sugar
  • 75g cocoa powder
  • 500ml freshly boiled (not boiling) water

 

Method

This method starts a bit like a muffin recipe with dry ingredients in one bowl and wet ingredients in a second bowl then stir them together.

Firstly though, butter an oval dish about 1.5l capacity and turn oven on to 180°C (or 160°C for a fan oven)

Put flour, cocoa, almonds, muscovado sugar and chocolate in a bowl.  If you're wondering how finely chopped the chocolate needs to be, this was my interpretation.

IMG 6304

And this is what you should have

IMG 6305

which I then stirred.

In a separate bowl or jug whisk together the milk, melted butter, vanilla extract and egg.

IMG 6306

Pour the wet mixture into the dry and stir together unit there's no flour visible.  Pour into the buttered dish.

IMG 6308

Mix the cocoa for the sauce with the sugar and scatter over the pudding.  I used a sieve.

IMG 6309

Add the freshly boiled water.

IMG 6310

At this point you'll be thinking you've added too much water and that it looks very unpromising.  To take your mind off these doubts, put this in the oven.

Cook for 40 minutes until the top is springy. (Not sure mine was.)  After you've taken it out of the oven, leave it to rest for 10 minutes.  Apparently this step is essential but I forgot it.

IMG 6311

Maybe it looks better if you rest it.  I opted to serve instead of rest.

IMG 6312

Served with cream to counteract the strength of chocolate flavours.

 

Sunday, 24 February 2013

Warner Bros Harry Potter Studio Tour

Harry potter castle

I guess you're reading this because you've heard about the Warner Bros Harry Potter Studio Tour but want to know whether it's worth the trip.  It is.  Here are our pictures from the day.

That could have given you all the information you wanted, but just in case you'd like to know more then read on.

Firstly it's important you know you can't do this on the spur of the moment.  If you want to go then you need to buy tickets in advance.  If you want tickets for a day in school holidays then you need to plan ahead a few weeks/months in advance.  I'm writing this during the February half term and morning slots for the Easter holidays have already gone.

I think the tickets are good value.  They are in the range of costs for a good quality family day out and a family ticket for four costs £85 at the time of writing.  There are extras which I paid for, but shouldn't have bought.

A souvenir guide can be bought in advance with no discount but you can't pick up your souvenir guide until you get to the Studios and we almost forgot about it until we were just leaving the gift shop.  My advice is get it from the gift shop after you've had an opportunity to browse and decide that it's worth the £9.95.

A digital guide is also available for £4.95.  I had spoken to friends who had told me the digital guide was definitely worth the extra money so I paid for one, figuring we could share.  If the digital guide was an app that you could download and keep and view at any time then the £4.95 might be a worthwhile investment.  Instead you are handed an iPod Touch with a pre-loaded app (not available from the App store - we know, we looked) and headphones.  The content in the app is brilliant and, if you had no other distractions, it was the only source of information as you went around the tour, you had unlimited time to spend looking at each and every exhibit, and it was on an iPad mini (to aid those whose eyes are starting to deteriorate), then it would be great.  I found I was experiencing sensory overload and couldn't cope with the digital guide.  As you walk round you are bombarded with things to look at and listen to.  Add to this an iPod that needs input and navigating as well as your full attention with both eyes and ears (and maybe it's an age thing) but I couldn't do it and I let the digital guide hang lifeless around my neck.  Additionally the guide has so much content that, if you were to watch it all, you fall behind the group that are on the tour at the same time as you.  Plus, in a world where people hesitate to spend £0.69 on an app they might use daily, to spend £4.95 on a one time use app seems out of proportion.  (It is possible to unplug the headphones for the sound to come out of the speakers but the sound is muffled.)

As you arrive at the Studios you'll walk into a massive entrance with access to the gift shop, a cafe and a Starbucks counter.  We didn't use the cafe or Starbucks so can't comment on these but I think it's strange to have a cafe at the beginning and at the end when, actually, access to a cafe during the tour would be far more convenient.  This leaves the problem of when to book the ticket.  We had a 1:30 entry and ate lunch before going in but next time I think I would try and get 10:00 tickets and survive on snacks until a late lunch.  We spent about four hours on the tour but could have spent more time if children hadn't been flagging.

We did go through the gift shop.  As with all well-managed attractions, the gift shop is positioned at the exit with patrons forced to walk to path of kiddie heaven/parent hell.  The gift shop is ridiculously over-priced and the best example is a bag of dolly mixtures in a Harry Potter branded plastic bag costing £3.95 when the cost from a newsagent would probably have been £1.  It's clear that many visitors to the Studios are extreme Harry Potter fans and we saw many gift shop bags stuffed with over-priced merchandise.  Value is subjective and many of the items in the shop could only be bought in that one location.  I would have loved some of the amazing graphic art that was available but couldn't justify the several hundred pounds being asked.  I was also tempted by the Voldemort outfit at about £175, but then I reflected that opportunities to wear it might be limited, especially as I'm past the generally accepted age for trick or treat activity.

You might think that as your ticket has timed entry that you wouldn't need to queue.  You'd be wrong.  The timed entry means that a large group of people are all admitted in half hour slots.  The large group needs to queue to be manageable (and it wouldn't be British if the queue was absent.)

If you're wondering whether it's de rigueur to turn up in full Harry Potter costume then feel free, you won't be alone.

Once you are released from the queue that passes the cupboard under the stairs, you enter a holding area before moving into a cinema.  After a short film you enter the amazing Great Hall.  As with most of the exhibits the level of detail is astounding.  From the Great Hall you can proceed at your own pace.  It's a self-guided tour which effectively means you wander around spending as much or as little time at the different exhibits as you'd like.  If I were to return I'd be tempted to visit alone as children don't have very long attention spans and always want to see what's around the next corner.  I'm tempted to go back on a school day when it's less crowded.  Maybe it's because my parents were avid actors on the "am dram" scene or maybe it's because I took 'O' Level drama but I found the whole thing fascinating and didn't feel I had the time to adequately absorb everything because I was accompanied by an engineer and two eager children.  I felt that it was a little too crowded and the volumes admitted at one time could have been reduced just a little to make the experience more comfortable.  

After the Great Hall you enter a vast room full of sets and props and costumes and, around the corner, a green screen photo opportunity.  It wouldn't be a commercial enterprise without the obligatory £10 photo so if you must, and we did, you can have your photo taken on a broom or in a Ford Anglia.  I opted for the witch shot for obvious reasons.  This is another queueing opportunity but you can see what you're getting while you're queueing which makes it less of a chore.

Once you reach the Ministry of Magic you're ready to step outside for a Butterbeer.  It is possible to step outside and stay under cover but still exposed to the outside temperature.  However, if you want to take pictures of the Knight Bus, Privet Drive or the house in which Harry's parents were cruelly dispatched by he who must not be named, then you won't be undercover. The Butterbeer is non-alcoholic and my two loved it.  It is sickly sweet but does have a buttery taste.  We bought the £2 disposable beaker but you can upgrade to get more volume and have a choice of two different varieties of plastic take home drinking vessels. Next to the Butterbeer bar is a counter selling snacks and refreshments.  It didn't look like there was much more than a choice of soft drinks, crisps and chocolate.  Whilst my two would be happy if this formed the basis of lunch, I wouldn't.

There is much more to see after the Butterbeer stop including animatronics, Diagon Alley, the Hogwarts castle, the models and drawings for different sets, some impressive graphic art and Olivander's wand shop which leads you to the exit via the gift shop.

I used to wonder how a film production could cost as much as it does.  I now wonder how on earth they achieve productions for the meagre sums involved.  It is an industry that I find fascinating and, if I had a creative bone in my body, I would love to be a part of it.  Who doesn't want to see their name in the credits?

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Sunday, 10 February 2013

Ethan's Volcano Pudding

This is a fun recipe that can be as easy or as complicated as you want it to be.  Ethan created a simple version a couple of years ago at a Beavers' session, probably earning him a cookery badge. He wanted to re-create it today and we made a slightly more complicated version.
Volcano pudding
I'll outline the simple version and then provide details of the more complicated options.
Ingredients:
  • Chocolate muffin
  • Chocolate sauce - the kind that goes on ice cream
  • Strawberry or raspberry sauce - the kind that goes on ice cream
  • Icing sugar
Method:
  • Chop the muffin top off the top of your muffin.
  • Upturn the main body of the muffin and crumble the top you've chopped off around the base of your forming volcano.
  • Pour or squeeze chocolate sauce over your volcano (this is the cooled lava flow)
  • Pour or squeeze strawberry/raspberry sauce over chocolate sauce (this is the hot lava flow)
  • Sprinkle with icing sugar (snow atop your volcano)
  • Admire and devour
More complicated options:
  • Make the muffins.  I have a couple of recipe suggestions, here and here.
  • Make a chocolate sauce.  I found a bar of chocolate containing honeycomb pieces and chucked that in the microwave gently, until it melted.  I figured the honeycomb would add an interesting texture.  It was more spoonable than pourable but a cooled lava flow moves more slowly so it was quite authentic.
  • Make a compote.  This sounds posher than it was.  I found a few left over raspberries, red currants and blackcurrants in the freezer and heated with a bit of water and neat blackcurrant squash.  I then blended the resultant goo.  The great thing about using this whilst warm is that when you sprinkle on your icing sugar at the end, it will dissolve on the compote in the same way that snow would not settle on hot lava.













Saturday, 19 January 2013

Raspberry and white chocolate muffins

A strange thing to be making in the middle of winter perhaps but I had some frozen raspberries and an increase in builders due on site next week (and baking keeps them sweet).

IMG 5864a











There are a lot of different recipes out there but I like this one because it uses oil instead of melted butter.  This may be healthier and it's definitely easier.

Makes 12 and they can be frozen.  To reheat either remove from the freezer and allow them to defrost over an hour or so, or take one at a time from the freezer and blast in microwave on full power for 30 seconds.

Ingredients

  • 250g self-raising flour 
  • 2 tsp baking powder 
  • pinch of salt
  • 100g caster sugar (granulated is fine) 
  • 250ml milk (any type of milk)
  • 1 large egg 
  • 90ml vegetable oil (corn oil is good, olive can have too much taste)
  • 150g raspberries (if using frozen then separate berries and cook for 5 mins longer)
  • 150g white chocolate chips which is a pain as you normally buy these in 100g bags
Method
  • Pre-heat oven to 160°C for a fan oven (180°C for non fan oven).
  • Put muffin cases in muffin tin.  Don't even think of using the silicone things.
  • Mix flour, baking powder, sugar, salt and choc chips together in a large bowl.
  • In large jug or bowl mix egg, milk and oil.
  • Add wet ingredients to dry and mix until no flour is visible.
  • Set aside 12 raspberries and carefully mix remainder into muffin mixture.
  • Spoon muffin mixture into cases and pop saved raspberries on top of each muffin.
  • Cook for about 25 mins or longer if using frozen berries.
  • Muffins are cooked when lightly browned and spring back when touched.
  • Enjoy with tea, coffee or gin.


Tuesday, 15 January 2013

Weird chocolate pudding

I made this, and the family enjoyed it, but I shall be experimenting with variations.
I have been searching for for a self-saucing chocolate pud for years.  Mum used to make one in a soufflé dish and it was delicious.  Well I'm pretty sure this recipe isn't the same, the main giveaway being that it isn't cooked in a soufflé dish, so I'm still looking.
This is a stir some stuff, chuck some other stuff in and bung it in the oven recipe.  Easy peasy.  Serves six.
Ingredients
  • 150g plain flour
  • 2tsp baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp bicarbonate of soda
  • pinch of salt
  • 1 tsp ground cinnamon (optional)
  • 1/4 tsp chilli powder (optional)
  • 200g caster sugar
  • 50g cocoa
  • 125ml milk (any variety)
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract (optional)
  • 4 tbsp corn oil
  • 100g dark brown sugar (can be substituted with another type of sugar)
  • 60ml rum (optional but if omitted then substitute with boiling water or other liquid)
  • 175ml freshly boiled water
Method
  • Pre-heat the oven to 180°C (160°C for fan oven) and butter a two litre oval oven proof dish.
  • In a large bowl, stir the flour, baking powder, bicarb, salt, cinnamon, chilli powder, caster sugar and half of the cocoa.
  • Beat the milk, vanilla extract and corn oil together in a jug or bowl and then pour this into the dry ingredients.  
  • Mix it together with with a wooden spoon to make a thick, smooth batter.  
  • Spoon into buttered oval dish and it should look like this.
IMG 5800
  • Combine remaining 25g cocoa and dark brown sugar in another bowl giving it a good stir to eliminate any lumps.
  • Sprinkle this over the batter on the dish.  You can see my lump elimination efforts were flawed.
IMG 5802
  • Poor freshly boiled water on top followed by the rum.  This seems completely bonkers but you just need to have faith.
IMG 5803
  • Then pop in the oven for 30 mins.
  • When it emerges from the oven it hasn't turned into anything particularly beautiful but it is tasty.
IMG 5804
  • I know Mary Berry doesn't approve of soggy bottoms but this is more gooey than soggy and can be served with cream, ice cream or mascarpone.  Custard doesn't really work. 
I'm never really a fan of vanilla or cinnamon with chocolate and I have to be in the right mood for chilli with chocolate.  I think this would be delicious with orange zest and orange juice instead of rum.  I also think it could be very tasty without the cinnamon, chilli and vanilla and even the rum.  Another alternative could be to take away all of the optional stuff and use coffee liqueur or strong coffee instead of rum.