Saturday, 17 February 2018

Photo diary: week 7 (project 365)

We're on week 7 of Project 365 (take a photo each day), and I'm already losing my mojo. Maybe it was because this week we're on midterm break, and I found my hands full and mind distracted.
In my understanding if you have children, parents need to work as a team. I appreciate that this might be a purely theoretical and idealistic view. But when your husband never bothers to check any holidays or breaks in advance and plans his trips abroad exactly at the same time when the school is off, I call it pisstaking inconsiderate.
Most photos I took this week were of food that I was cooking and garden, as I felt totally lacking motivation.

Last Sunday I decided to make pancakes. These were Russian-style honey pancakes, and they were very tasty.

I finished reading Dance of Death by Edward Marston. I enjoyed the book, though I prefer his Railway Detective series. I used to collect vintage photos and cards, and this is some of my stash, acquired at the flea markets years ago.

Tuesday was a Pancake Day. Apologies for another pancake photo, but it was either that or the toy review image which I did that day.

On Wednesday our Papa was off to the States, and we didn't see him when he got up to catch an early bus to Oxford. Our friend Jen offered her services as a driver, and we visited the Burford garden centre, which both boys love. Sadly, by Sod's law, it was raining, so we didn't do much apart from having coffee and treats at the cafe, having a quick look at the food shop (where we must buy a box of jelly beans for Sash - he thinks that is an essential part of going to the garden centre) and about 10 minutes max at the playground. Such a shame, it was raining, the next two days we had perfectly sunny mornings. sigh

I was in a gloomy mood on Thursday, as Sash was extremely restless, and I was annoyed with my husband for gallivanting around the globe yet again, while I'm tied in like a prisoner with kids and home.
Apologies if I sound resentful, because I really am. Not so much for his freedom, but my lack of it.
The photo I took in the garden that day sort of matched my mood. Melancholy and decay.

We've inherited that dog-boot scraper with the house and garden, when we moved in here. He's been living in the garden, unmolested by our boots. Also I do need to start the spring-clean of the garden.

On the plus side, the snowdrops are taking over the garden, and look so pretty. For me they are a symbol of spring.

And just this morning I found out that we have a few dark purple hellebore under the plum trees. I always think of them as something suitable for Morticia Addams.

Wednesday, 14 February 2018

Dance of Death (The Home Front Detective series) by Edward Marston

historical crime, historical mystery

Historical crime is one of my favourite genres. It's an unadulterated pleasure and escapism for me. Edward Marston is adept at creating inspired historical crime series. I loved his Bracewell mysteries and the Restoration series, and recently was engrossed in The Railway Detective series.
His writing style is engaging and entertaining, with cleverly crafted plots and appealing protagonists.

Dance of Death is a book no.5 in The Home Front Detective series. I've read a couple of the earlier books, and found them captivating.
Marston's books are well-research, the historical background feels authentic.

Dance of Death is set in autumn 1916. It starts with a Zeppelin raid on a dry, moonlit night, when something extraordinary happens. One of the fighter planes launches an attack on Zeppelin and destroys it. The crowds watching the battle cheer and embrace each other.
In the joyous commotion that follows the destruction of the enemy, nobody notices when a cruel murder is committed in a dark alleyway.
The butchered body is found by a milkman in the early hours. Detective Inspector Harvey Marmion and Sergeant Joe Keedy discover the identity of the victim. They are despatched to Chingford, where they make their headquarters, much to the chagrin of the Superintendent Claude Chatfield known as Chat.

Simon Wilder is a renowned ballroom dancer and a talented photographer. Marmion and Keedy enter the world of the ballroom dancing, and behind its glamorous elegant facade it's seedy, ruthless and unsavoury.
Wilder's promiscuous lifestyle points out that the possible line of investigation should follow his love affairs. The number of potential suspects is growing, including Catherine Wilder who is not exactly your typical grieving widow.

Marmion and Keedy make a great detective team. Keedy is engaged to Marmion's daughter Alice who has joined the police recently.
Apart from the main murder mystery, there are several subplots running through the book.

Marmion's son Paul returns back from the trenches, wounded and shell-shocked. He feels guilty for staying alive, while his friends are left dead. His near-death experience makes him a difficult bedfellow, he is rude to his mother and family, and manages to antagonise almost everyone he knows.

Alice has problems of her own. Her bully of a boss in Women's Police Force is not making her life easy. And after a row with her fiance, she questions the future of their relationship.

There were a couple of loose ends, and Paul's story could have been shorter, as it didn't really add to the main events of the book.

Yet if you have a few hours to yourself and enjoy historical crime, it is a good story.

Mine It! Gold and Diamond play sets

collectible toys

Have you ever collected rocks? When I was a child, a couple of my parents' friends were geologists who travelled much in the Soviet Union, and often brought back some stunning rocks and minerals as gifts for us. My Mum was particularly knowledgeable on the subject, and when I was young, I was pretty good at identifying minerals as well.
When my son Eddie showed interest in rocks, I was delighted. I bought him a beautiful edition of rocks and minerals practical encylopedia, and we also went to the Natural History Museum and got some of rocks to start his collection. Later one of our kind neighbours gave him a big box of rocks and fossils. He was thrilled to bits and would show his collection to whichever "victim" agreed to see it, with great enthusiasm.

When recently we were asked to review Mine It! sets, I knew it would appeal to my rocks-obsessed child.

collectable toys

Mine It! Gold and Diamond boxes follow a reveal and discover play pattern. Each Diamond or Gold block has a precious (semi-precious) stone inside.
There are 12 Gold blocks and 12 Diamond Blocks.

collectable toys, collectable rocks

These fun golden or diamond shaped bars were launched on Boxing Day, and are available from all leading retailers including Character Online (at £4.99).

The suitable age range is 5+, though children will need an adult supervision.
Pick up a diamond or gold block, and mine away in your hunt for the real precious stones hidden inside.

You can see from the video below how we cracked on with the job of mining for gold and diamonds.
Eddie loved these sets, and had a great time mining for treasure.

You'll have heaps of excitement looking for your surprise treasure. What's more, one in every 24 boxes contains a real piece of diamond or gold.
Explore each box to see if you find rose crystal, volcano rock, red onyx, black jasper, tiger eye or more inside.
Ir's tons of fun for everyone.

A chisel. a hammer and a magnifying glass are all included for young geologists to get cracking.

We didn't find any real treasure, but the process of mining was fun. You might want to put a newspaper on the table, as it is a messy process.
When Eddie mined the stones, we thought the rocks he discovered were pieces of picture jasper. Once I gave them a good clean, they started shining, and I realised that both rocks were a tiger's eye. They are beautiful, when polished to a gleam.

These sets would make a lovely activity on a rainy day.

collectable rocks

Disclosure: We received two products for the purposes of reviewing. All opinions are our own.

Sunday, 11 February 2018

Russian-style honey pancakes

Pancake day recipes, best pancake recipes, Russian recipes

I was reading an online pancake recipe post by some minor celebrity the other day, and she chirped that it was good that we only eat pancakes once a year because technically they're just fried batter.
So, what's the problem?
 Yes, there is a tendency among some Brits to eat pancakes only on Pancake day, but I think they are totally depriving themselves of the most delicious food for no good reason.
I'm sure I moan about it every single year.

If you worry about pancakes being unhealthy, then just swap some of the ingredients.
Use coconut oil rather than butter, or those bottles with oil spray which cover the pan with just enough of oil mist to fry.
Swap plain flour for buckwheat or wholemeal flour, use a skimmed milk, or dairy free milk - the possibilities are endless.
I'm not very keen on vegan pancakes, sorry, the recipes I've seen, looked like those pancakes were deprived of all joy. If you use just flour, water and oil, then it is a sad semblance of a pancake. I'm sure they are edible, but not for me. Apologies for not appreciating the recipe. I'm sure I'm committing some non-PC crime by saying that.

Russian recipes, best pancakes

And since we eat pancakes pretty often, I made a batch today of Russian-style honey pancakes. They are not exactly a diet food, but then I have no regrets. They are very tasty.

Russian-style honey pancakes (makes 9 big + 12 small pancakes)
400ml milk (semi-skimmed)
1 tbsp honey
a pinch of salt
40g caster sugar
2 medium eggs
200g self-raising flour
1tsp baking powder
2tbsp olive oil
butter, for frying, about 25-30g.

Warm up milk in a small pan with honey, until honey melts. It should be warm, not hot.
In a big mixing bowl beat the eggs with sugar and salt. Sift in the flour and baking powder. Add the oil and milk, and mix well with a whisk, so that the batter is smooth and lump-free.

Fry in the pancake pan with butter. I use a special pancake pan which allows me to cook 4 pancakes at a time, but I've seen a Swedish plett pan on amazon which holds 7 small pancakes, and I'm very tempted to buy it.

I couldn't take a photo of the whole stash, as people would pinch pancakes as they were cooked.


Eddie loves both small sized pancakes, and big ones, and I let him go free with chocolate buttons, marshmallows and cream.

Serve them hot with honey or any syrup you like (maple, agave, carob, golden) or dust with a bit of icing sugar.

best pancake recipes

Saturday, 10 February 2018

Photo diary: week 6, project 365

Last week was full of ups and downs. We have hardly seen our Papa, as he's been super busy, involved into politics lately, campaigning for his party Liberi e Uguali. But the less said about that, the better.

On Mondays Eddie has his guitar lessons at school. On Sunday he spent a good time, practising his tunes, including Hedwig's theme and Minecraft theme.

On Monday I was back to UE Roasters cafe for a dose of much needed caffeine, admiring the pretty cakes but only having a latte.

On Tuesday I was playing with review toys from Schleich, putting the dinosaurs round the garden for more attractive photos. This is the oviraptor.

Wednesday morning happened to be very stressful (see my post Autism: a little glimpse into our life), when the school transport didn't arrive, and Sash went into a total meltdown.
He later travelled from school to a residential place for an overnight stay, and Eddie and I spent the evening, watching Ballerina on amazon and stuffing ourselves with popcorn. We both loved the animation, it was a good story. And there's a dashing Russian ballet dancer called Rudolph too.

Lucky Eddie won a super prize from The Entertainer shop (win your height in Hasbro games) a month ago, and two big boxes of games finally arrived. We didn't know which games or how many would arrive.
Imagine how delighted he is. We decided we'd take three games for younger kids to his old nursery.

Eddie loves jelly (and so do I), and on Thursday I made a strawberry jelly with fresh raspberries and a splash of Robinsons squash.

Our local Waitrose had an internal redesign of all aisles, and is now a bit of a pain to navigate, as they moved everything around. Not sure what the point was. I used to know exactly where things were, and could find them with closed eyes.
They were also promising us a new sushi counter. Finally the counter was open on Friday, and I bought a seaweed salad for lunch. It was lovely.

Today I took Eddie to Waitrose to show the sushi counter. Since we went to a sushi-making masterclass in YO! (Oxford) last October, he has become a bit of a sushi addict. We looked at rows of sushi and picked a few to take home with us.

Friday, 9 February 2018

Baked halloumi with corn coating

vegetarian recipe, baked cheese

I've mentioned before that my husband decided to go meat-free. It's not the latest whim, he has been opting for vegetarian dishes when we go out, or when he has a high table at college for the last few years. While I respect his choices, the rest of the family so far are omnivores or flexitarians.
I find it more challenging to cook purely vegetarian dishes, as I think you need to be more creative to cook a balanced meal. Of course, we eat plenty of vegetable soups and salads, but beyond that, I'm a bit stuck (says she, who has two hundred cook books at her disposal).

There was a packet of Colombian Crunchy Chicken Bites seasoned corn coating from Santa Maria Latin American Kitchen range in the latest Degustabox. It's a mild spice blend of flakes of corn, rice flour, salt, spices and herbs (onion powder, cumin, oregano, cayenne pepper), yeast extract and paprika extract. It is bright orange in colour and smells lovely.

Since the chicken bites wouldn't have been welcome by everyone, I was wondering if I could use this blend in a vegetarian dish, and whether it would work with cheese, like halloumi.
I bought a pack of Waitrose Cypriot halloumi. This is not exactly a recipe more of an idea or a suggestion on what to do with the corn coating pack if you don't eat meat.

vegetarian recipes, baked cheese

Baked halloumi with corn coating
1 pack of Waitrose Cypriot Halloumi (250g) with dried mint
1 pack of Colombian Crunchy Chicken Bites seasoned corn coating
a handful of baby tomatoes
to serve with a selection of steamed vegetables (baby potatoes, baby brussels sprouts and snap peas)

Slice halloumi into thick slices. Coat evenly with seasoned corn coating on both sides. Place the slices into slightly oiled baking dish. Scatter a few baby tomatoes. Bake in the oven at 180C for about 20 minutes. Serve hot with a selection of vegetables.

vegetarian meals

Steamed potatoes are mildly sweet and work well with the salty baked cheese. It was a lovely combination of textures and flavours. I would cook it again, perhaps with a different brand of halloumi cheese, the one I used was from Essential range and is way too salty.

P.S. Just wanted to add that I have nothing against Waitrose Essential range, in fact we buy quite a few foods from it, but the halloumi cheese is not their best product.

vegetarian meals

Thursday, 8 February 2018

New Schleich Dinosaurs

Shake, shake, shudder, near the sludgy old swamp.
The dinosaurs are coming.
Get ready to romp.
(Dinosaurumpus by Tony Mitton)

I was admiring the latest dinosaurs from Schleich and humming to myself "Shake, shake, shudder..." It used to be one of Sasha's favourite books when he was little. The book had a CD, and oh boy, we have listened to that poem hundreds of times. No wonder I still remember it, years later.

Schleich, a much loved toy brand, has added several new dinosaurs to its extensive collection of prehistoric animals. The new dinosaur figurines come in new poses and designs. These three minifigures retail at £7.99-9.99.

dinosaur toys, dinosaur minifigures

We are lucky to have two lovely toy shops in town. There is a mainstream Entertainer plus a local toy-cum-bike shop which is open seven days a week, so we pop in quite often on Sundays. I always admire the miniature world of Schleich toys at the entrance to the shop.

The craftsmanship is exceptional, with great attention to detail. Their animal and fantasy figures appeal to both children and adults. They are excellent for imaginative play, and they don't fade with time.
What new dinosaurs could you find in Schleich dino range?

Oviraptor lived over about 75 million years ago, at the time of the Velociraptor. The first skeleton of oviraptor was discovered as lying on a nest of eggs. It was presumed that it wanted to steal the eggs, hence the name which means an egg thief.
But actually the poor dino was not stealing eggs, it was sitting in its own nest.

dinosaur toys, dinosaur minifigures

The Oviraptor resembled a flightless bird. It hunted for shellfish, mussels and snails.

dinosaur toys, dinosaur minifigures

dinousaur minifigures

Tawa was a carnivore. Its had a distinct slender snout and a long neck.
Apparently, it is thanks to its skeleton that the scientists established the origins of dinosaurs. They came from that part of the Earth which is known now as South America, and from there they have spread around the world. Fascinating.

dinosaur minifigures

The Tawa were much faster than the other dinosaurs, thanks to hollow bones, which made them lightweight.

dinosaur toys

dinosaur minifigures

As with all Schleich minifigures the attention to detail is extraordinary. Just look at the snout, with the rotten teeth.

Velociraptor was one of the smallest dinosaurs. These two-legged creatures were smart and cunning, and hunted in packs. Though about 60-70cm in height, you wouldn't be able to dismiss these carnivores because of their height. They would stalk and hunt their prey, even considerably bigger in size than them, and attack as a pack.

dinosaur minifigures

They were super speedy too, and could reach 65km per hour.
To help them chew their prey, they had eighty sharp crooked teeth, some of them as long as 2.5cm.

dinosaur facts, dinosaur toys

The minifigure of velociraptor has movable arms and lower jaw. The paintwork is beautifully done. This is an additional model to Schleich top-seller figure of velociraptor.

This is an excellent collection, great for imaginative play and with an educational aspect. Children will want to discover more about these prehistoric animals.

dinosaur minifigures

Disclosure: we received a selection of Schleich toys for the purpose of reviewing. All opinions are our own.

Wednesday, 7 February 2018

Autism: a little glimpse into our life

This was me, earlier today, trying to keep calm but feeling despondent. Sash is supposed to go overnight to a residential home today, and as it's a change of routine, he's been rather agitated to start with, even though he enjoys visiting the place. His anxiety turned into a full-blown meltdown, when the school transport didn't arrive. We were all dressed up and waiting, with Sash pacing nervously by the door.
I called the transport, but apparently the driver got the wrong idea, and decided he didn't need to pick us up this morning. It took another 40 minutes for a different car to arrive, by which time Sash was distraught.
I've been reading the latest book by Naoki Higashida "Fall down 7 times get up 8" recently, mostly dipping in, I still want to read it properly. Naoki is a non verbal young man with autism. His books give an invaluable insight on what it is to live with autism.
"When an agreed time is altered or a destination is changed at the last minute, I can act as if the sky's falling in. I need time to accommodate my inner state to the change of plan"
That is exactly how it feels, when I observe Sash and his adjustment, or the lack of it, to the change in routine, plan or timing.

Despair by Marie Bashkirtseff
Having a child with autism is like playing a Russian roulette on a daily basis, or walking through the minefield. You never know when the next explosion is going to happen.
I stopped visiting autism-related forums, as there is too much pseudo-cheerfulness and forced optimism going on - along the lines of "Proud to be an Autism Mom. I wouldn't change a bit of my child, s/he is blessed by God, blah-blah-blah".
Quite a lot of people on the high end of autism would say "I have autism, and I'm fine". Yes, you are, if you can communicate and express yourself, you can read and write, and obviously are on a high-functioning end of the spectrum.

We - and as autism affects the whole family in our case - are on the rigid, extreme-anxiety-ridden, noise-sensitive end of the spectrum. And life is hard. For my younger son, who has to adapt to his brother's way of life and having to sacrifice a lot. For us, parents, but most importantly, for Sasha himself.
If I could change my son's condition by some magic, I wouldn't think a second. Purely for his sake.
Our lives are ruled by his condition, but how much more difficult it must be for him. Being him.
I cannot even comprehend what it is not to be able to talk. How frustrating it must be not being able to say how you are feeling, or if something hurts - if you have a headache or earache, if you are cold or hot...

To be frank, there are days when I feel an acute despair, and even this morning I thought: "Just shoot me, that would be more merciful". But that is a very self-indulgent thought, and not kind at that either.
When Sash was diagnosed with autism, it was a huge blow, like the end of the world. I was suicidal. But I had to plod along. I went to the GP and asked for help.
I had some counselling sessions, which helped to some extent, at least to look at my life from a different angle and taught me some coping techniques. I can't say it works all the time.

There are days when I'd like to escape. I fantasise of leaving it all, but I know I can't. I'm a mother.

Why am telling you this? Isn't this blog all cakey-bakey, tea, books and toys?!
I'm not looking for sympathy, just for understanding, what it is, our life with autism.
Please don't tell me when we happen to mention our son's condition that he must be a genius. And don't pat me on the hand, saying: "What a shame! What a pity!"
There's no shame. And I don't want your pity.

Another phrase that sometimes makes me wince: "I can only imagine..."
Actually you cannot, unless you have a child with special needs yourself or work with them, You can never imagine how unrelenting the exhaustion can be. How deep the sadness.

And another gem:
"But at least your other child is normal..." Yes, that's a consolation.
"You are very brave to decide to have another child..." (told to me by quite a few people when I was pregnant, who knew about Sasha's condition).

Just be kind and considerate to people like us. Kind words uplift people.

This photo taken by Sasha during our recent flight home from Italy is a symbol for me.
We're adrift among the clouds, and sometimes we don't have the foggiest of where we are going.
But there is light too... there is always hope.

Tuesday, 6 February 2018

January New Year New Me Degustabox

We are always looking forward to our Degustabox delivery, which arrives every month and is full of foodie surprises. This monthly food and drink subscription box is an excellent way to discover products which have only just appeared in the shops or those which might have been around for while, but you haven't had a chance to try them yet.
Thanks to Degustabox, I have found new favourites to add to our shopping list, including some products which I probably wouldn't have tried otherwise.

Each time the box arrives, it's a total surprise. You get a good selection of foods and drinks.
If you haven't tried Degustabox subscription box yet and would like to have a go, I have a whopping £7 off discount from your first box (and you can unsubscribe any time) - just use a code 8EVI8 when you place an order.
What did we receive in January Degustabox? Let's have a look.

food box

Generally I'm not a big fan of American chocolate, but all my guys love Hershey's Cookies'n'Creme candy bars. I occasionally buy it as a single bar, and even spotted some chocolate drops in this flavour.
It's a white chocolate flavoured candy bar with cookie pieces. My younger son and husband enjoy it.
I prefer it when chocolate products have a shorter list of ingredients and definitely less E-numbers.

Mallow & Marsh Coconut Marshmallow bar is handmade in the UK, using only natural ingredients, and each bar is under 100kcal each. This product is not included in all boxes, you might receive a different item instead.

Jordans Juicy Red Berry Frusli bars contain British wholegrain oat flakes, fruit pieces (strawberry and blueberry infused diced cranberries), blueberry juice, raisins, strawberry and raspberry flakes, chopped almonds etc. These are handy snacks for when you're feeling peckish, or are on the go and need some sustenance.

As January is a month when many people go on a diet after the excesses of Christmas overeating, there are quite a few healthy foods included in the latest Degustabox.
For example, Explore Cuisine Organic Edamame & Mung Bean Fettucine. It is a source of plant-based protein and fibre with the lowest level of carbs. It offers 22g of protein per 50g serving, which is almost 3x more than regular pasta.

Pulsin is a brand, well known for its health credentials. It's a range of gluten free, dairy free, vegetarian and vegan-friendly products. If you're looking for a boost of protein, help yourself to Pulsin Vanilla Choc Chop Protein Booster, which tastes of cookie dough. It's made with dairy free choc chips and contains 13g of plant based protein.
When you open the packaging, the bar doesn't look very appetising, and it has a strange aftertaste.

Pulsin Vanilla Whey Protein powder comes in a sachet. Simply add milk or water to make a healthy shake. It is rich in essential amino acids from grass fed cow's milk (suitable for vegetarians, but not vegans). You can add it to smoothies, porridge or cereals for an extra protein boost.

Miso Tasty Spicy Ramen Noodle Kits are a lovely kitchen staple for a quick and easy meal. The noodles come accompanied with a signature miso soup base and a seaweed garnish for an authentic experience. You can add your own toppings, like fresh coriander or spring onions, or just eat it as it is.

Wild Planet Albacore Tuna Steaks are ranked no.1 in the US by Greenpeace for sustainability. These wild tuna steaks are 100% pole & line caught, and cooked with no added salt.
Make a delicious tuna sandwich or salad (see my recipe for Tuna and orange salad), or cook soup, for example, Pearl barley and tuna soup.

Latin American Kitchen by Santa Maria is a colourful range of Latin flavours.
The Chipotle Mayo Topping is a useful condiment, when serving nachos or tacos, or in burgers and sandwiches. It has a lovely chipotle kick.

I used it in peppers stuffed with orzo (mixed with tomatoes and chipotle mayo).

Colombian Crunchy Chicken Bites Seasoned Corn Coating is a blend for light, oven-baked bites. The corn gives that extra crispiness.

Robinsons Fruit Cordial is a sophisticated twist to squash with combinations of real fruit and botanical flavours. One of three flavours is included in each food box. Raspberry, Rhubarb & Orange Blossom is a fruity refreshing drink, which would be great for summer.

Mahtay Yerba Mate Sparkling Tea is designed for health-conscious in mind. It is a blend of energy-giving South American yerba mate with coconut water and acai berries. It is a trendy refreshing drink for a new generation. It is an acquired taste, but promises health benefits in every drop.

LighterLife Fast Ready to Drink Shakes are perfect for people on a 5:2 diet, when you consume significantly less calories twice a week. This diet has many fans and followers. I tried it for a few months a couple of years ago, it didn't quite work for me. I felt hungry on diet days, and the weight loss was minimal. But so many people swear by this diet, and there are lots of inspiring stories online if you're looking into trying this diet yourself. These shakes are ready to drink, and can be consumed as part of the Fast plan as a protein hit or meal replacement.

And finally, Clipper Everyday Organic tea - a full-bodied rich black tea. All Clipper products are made with pure, natural ingredients. Very enjoyable brew, lovely with either a slice of lemon or milk.