Monday, 17 December 2012

Panicked Parenting

I had a nightmare last night. I dreamt that I took Jess to the park but left her to walk home on her own. She vanished for ages and then came home with a woman who had found her. The woman was a nurse and started proceedings to have her removed from me. I vividly remember running down the road searching for Jess and this woman, sobbing and calling for her. I woke up shaking and on the verge of tears.

I often have frightening dreams and since Jess was born, around 85% of them are about her. If you asked me what my worst fear was, about 5 years ago I would have replied ‘loneliness’ – not being on my own, but losing the people I am closest to. Now, not surprisingly, it’s something happening to Jess.

I don’t think I’m too over protective. I am always tempted to watch her like a hawk, but I give her as much freedom as I can. I endeavour not to be a ‘helicopter parent’ although I don’t think I could call myself a ‘free-range parent’ either. I try to strike a balance between keeping her safe and allowing her to explore.

I am guilty of doing too much for her. If I’m rushing to get ready for work, it’s so much quicker to get her dressed myself; I’m not the most patient of people! I’m trying to back off and it is definitely easier now that she can reach the light switches – when I had to go upstairs to put the light on so she could get something, it was easier to just do it myself. I am trying to be more hands off but it does go against my nature!

You are probably familiar with the terms ‘helicopter parent’ and ‘free-range parent’. I have some sympathy with both schools of thought. If you haven’t got a clue what I’m on about, a helicopter parent is one who hovers over their child, limiting their freedom or keeping them safe depending on your point of view. A free range parent is one who gives their child freedom to do their own thing, encouraging them to be independent but also protecting them less.

It’s tempting to wrap our kids in cotton wool. Every time I switch on the television or pick up a newspaper, there seems to be another story about children being abused or abducted. I put on a cartoon for Jess a couple of days ago and found myself watching a newsflash about the horrific school shooting in Connecticut. If something so terrible can happen while our kids are ‘safe’ at school, how can we let them out of our sight? If something happened to them while they were playing in the garden or walking to the local shop, how would we ever forgive ourselves?

Let’s talk about Madeline McCann. No parent deserves to go through what her parents must be going through every day of their lives. To wonder where your child is, if she’s alive, if she’s in pain, and at the same time know that if you hadn’t left her alone she’d probably still be with you; how do you live with that?

If you were the parent of one of the children shot in Connecticut, how would you feel if your kid had complained of a headache and hadn’t wanted to go to school that day? I’m sure it can’t just be me that would beat myself up every day for the rest of my life for making them go. We know that those families cannot be blamed one iota. They did nothing wrong. And yet I would put money on the fact that most of them will be asking themselves what they could have done differently. Did they choose the wrong school? Did they check the security properly? Did they see someone acting suspiciously? What could they have done to keep their child safe?

Despite all this, we know logically that for the most part, the odds of something happening to our children are slim. Whether we are scared of someone taking our children away or them being hit by a car, we know that the chances are very small. And of course, we put safeguards in place. We teach our kids how to cross the road. We tell them not to go with strangers. We lock our doors.

But where do we draw the line? Do we stop our kids playing in the garden? Going to the park? Having sleepovers? Walking home from school? How small does a chance have to be before we take it?

Maybe we should just keep our kids under lock and key where we can see them.

But if we do, what kind of childhood are we giving them? A safe one perhaps, but a very limited one. A huge part of learning comes from developing independence and exploration. If our children don’t get chance to run around outside, playing with other kids and exploring without our constant supervision, they are missing out on a whole raft of experiences.

It’s not just these experiences, it’s also about learning to deal with things themselves. Things like how to stand up for themselves, how to interact, how to share and compromise, how to entertain themselves, what is safe to do and what isn’t, what risks can be taken and what should be avoided. It’s the first introduction that children have to skills that we use every day as adults.

Most of us did play outside with our friends when we were kids, or went to the local shop on our own. My childhood was more sheltered than most; my brother and I didn’t play in the street and our ‘free’ time was quite restricted. I can’t comment on whether it made much difference in the long run as I have nothing to compare it to. I didn’t go off the rails as a teen (it’s hard to go mad when you only get to go out one night a month and then have to be escorted), but when I went to university I felt completely out of my depth. I remember the first time I took the tube in London on my own; I was so proud that I rang my family to boast! I was convinced that setting foot outside my door after 6pm meant I’d be mugged, and found it hard to do things alone.

The problem is you can’t protect children from everything. I was approached three times as a kid despite hardly leaving the house alone. Once was with my younger brother, walking to the local shop in a crowded street on a sunny Saturday afternoon. The second time was in a packed congregation at church! And the third time was crossing a well lit road in the early evening was I was a teenager. Obviously nothing terrible happened; I had been brought up not to go with strangers and got away without being scarred for life, but I’m not sure what else my parents could have done to protect me – not let me out alone until I was married?

I presume that most parents, like me, walk a somewhat wobbly middle ground. I try to protect Jess from the big bad nasties of the world while still letting her explore and have a bit of freedom. I don’t want to be one of those parents who still insist on walking their sixteen year old to school every day; equally, I want my girl to make it to sixteen in the first place.

It’s difficult finding that line. If anyone finds the answer, do share it. In the meantime, I’m adjusting the fact that my baby starts school next year and that soon she won’t want me by her side every second, watching over her. Goodness knows how I’ll cope when she wants to walk to school alone. Anyone got any binoculars?

Monday, 10 December 2012

Living the dream

As I may have mentioned, I’m quite ambitious. I’m always looking for the next opportunity, the next promotion, the new job. Even when I’m in a job I enjoy, I’m keeping an eye on the job pages, just in case something better comes along. It’s a part of what pushes me to do well in whatever role I’m in; I don’t know how long I’ll be there so I want to do the best I can for them, I want to leave a good impression, and I might need them as a reference!

Which is why I recently found myself applying for a role several pay grades above my current one. The role was advertised internally and sounded very interesting. I was fairly sure I was out of my league applying and they wouldn’t look twice at me but that’s never stopped me applying for anything before. I was offered an interview for which I had to give a short presentation (definitely out of my comfort zone there), and I spent several days drafting, redrafting, asking everyone for ideas, and redrafting the redrafts.

The interview was tough, although made a little easier by the fact that I knew two of the people on the panel. They asked several questions that I really didn’t know the answers to and I found myself babbling a few times and had to reel myself back in. I felt my presentation went well but I wasn’t at all sure I’d covered everything they wanted, so I was overjoyed when I received a call later that day offering me the job.

The thing is, this is my dream job. It’s something I’ve wanted to do for years. It’s fully flexible hours, reasonable money, with a base only a mile from my home. I’ll be working with people I like, travelling to different places and meeting new people. I’ll have an actual budget – the money to do the role properly! – and the facilities I need. It is literally my perfect job. I’m totally in love with the job and I haven’t even started it yet.

There are a couple of things I will miss. I work with a fantastic team. I’ve been lucky enough to work with some terrific people over the years; I’ve also worked with some awful ones such as the woman who used to throw broken glass into the sink and cover it with bubbly water whenever it was my turn to wash up. My current workmates are great and I’m really going to miss them. The hours of the new job may be very flexible, but I could do with a few more of them. And… well actually, I think that’s it. I don’t officially start for a few weeks but I’ve attended some training and  meetings, and I’m fairly sure I’m going to love it.

So… what now? How can I look for other jobs when I’m already in the job of my dreams? What will drive me on now?

Believe me, I’m not complaining. I’m just a bit thrown. How do I react when the dream comes true? Can I just enjoy it, or do I need to go and get another one?

As it happens, the role I’ve landed is a temporary secondment, so my contract is only for six months initially. It may be extended but it depends on the budget and the success of the project. So I will still be driven to succeed, especially if I want it to be a long term prospect. It’s just a little confusing for me; I’ve never before been in a position where I haven’t been looking for the next stop! And on the theory that I can make such a roaring success of this that they will make it a permanent thing (a lack of self confidence with work is not one of my problems), I’m curious: Once you reach wherever you want to be, what happens next?

Cooking update / reviews – following on from ‘Cooking Up a Storm’

I’ve now managed to try a few new recipes and have also had a tasting session with the ones a made a couple of weeks ago. So here’s an update so far.

Salted caramel lollipops
After the first batch, I bought some silicone moulds which worked really well. The lollies remained very sticky though and disintegrated quickly – I left some covered up on a plate overnight and they melted into goo! After lots of experiments, I have finally got a system that works, so to save you the trouble:
Invest in silicone chocolate moulds (I got mine for a couple of pounds from ebay)
Also, get some plastic lolly sticks and proper sweet bags – it makes things much easier in the long run.
Put any flavourings straight into the moulds and pour the caramel on top. Chopped nuts work really well, as
does small pieces of candied ginger.
Do bother to add the salt, it adds to the flavour.

Melt the sugar as before, then use two teaspoons to fill the moulds (much less waste than pouring).
Give them a minute or two to start setting, then put in lolly sticks once the caramel is tacky but not hard.
Let them set fully, then pop them out of the moulds. They will be sticky and will disintegrate if you leave them out – I tried dusting some with icing sugar, DON’T do the same, it makes them melt more quickly!
Either put them straight into sweet bags and keep in the fridge, or dip them in melted chocolate and leave to harden on greaseproof paper before putting them into the sweet bags.
Tie the bags with a paper twist (I got some lovely glittery red ones) and keep somewhere cool.

Verdict: Despite all the messing about, once I’d figured out the best way to make them, it was quick and easy. I’ve been making loads of batches because it’s just a case of putting sugar in a saucepan and melting it – easy to have some cooking away while I’m making dinner.

Apple and Cranberry Chutney

1 kg cooking apples, peeled and chopped
500g eating apples, peeled and chopped
450g red onions, peeled and sliced
50g root ginger, peeled and finely chopped
1 tsp black peppercorns
500g sugar
250ml cider vinegar
500g cranberries (fresh or frozen)

Put everything except the cranberries in a large saucepan and bring to the boil, then reduce heat and simmer uncovered for about an hour until the apples are tender and there is no watery vinegar left. (If there is still a lot of watery juice left after more than an hour, you can strain the mixture and discard the juice).

Add the cranberries and cook for a further 10 minutes until the cranberries have softened but not turned to mush. Spoon into sterilised jars and keep somewhere dark and cool for a couple of weeks before opening. Will last about 6 months unopened. Keep in the fridge once opened and eat within a month. Makes about 3 - 4 jars.

Verdict: I was really impressed with this recipe. I’m not a fan of chutneys, but even I loved this one. It’s especially good with cheese or cold meat. I was just going to make one batch as presents but I’ve ended up making several so I can keep some. Easy to make as well, I’m always a fan of recipes that involve sticking everything in a saucepan and leaving it alone!

Cranberry-Orange Vodka
Bottle of cheap vodka
250g cranberries
Zest of two oranges
175g sugar

Put the cranberries into a bowl and stab them with a fork. Put everything into wide necked, sterilised jars. Seal and shake. Leave somewhere cool and dark for a couple of weeks, shaking occasionally to ensure the sugar dissolves. Strain through muslin and put into bottles. Leave for another couple of weeks before drinking. Will keep almost forever in the freezer if you can keep your hands off it!

Verdict: Another very simple and really impressive recipe. I don’t really drink but I could happily polish off some of this. The cranberries turn the vodka a very festive red and you get a great orange hit as an aftertaste. This was very popular with everyone!

Stilton-apricot pots
300g stilton
100g butter
40g chopped walnuts
25g dried apricots, chopped

Beat the butter until soft (easiest in a mixer), then crumble in the stilton and mix well. Pack into ramekins, leaving space to add the topping. Mix the walnuts and the apricots, sprinkle over the stilton and press down. Cover with cling film and either eat within a week or freeze for up to a month. Makes 2 – 3 ramekins.

Verdict: Gorgeous! The addition of the butter makes the stilton milder and beautifully creamy, and even if you aren’t keen on walnuts, try it anyway – you don’t taste them, they just contribute to the texture and the depth of flavour. I am definitely making this again; it’s really good on crackers or crusty bread.

Nutty Chocolate Fudge
The BEST fudge recipe in the world! I’ve tried about 20 recipes for fudge and this one is by far the easiest to make and the nicest.
150ml / 1/4 pint of evaporated milk
350g / 12 oz sugar
large pinch of salt
50g / 2 oz chopped nuts
350g / 12 oz plain chocolate chips or chopped plain chocolate

Put evaporated milk, salt and sugar in a saucepan. Bring to the boil while stirring constantly. Lower the heat and simmer gently, stirring, for about 5 minutes. Turn off the heat and stir in the chocolate and the nuts. Keep stirring until the chocolate has melted. Pour into the tin, even it out, and leave to set. Once set, cut into squares, store in an airtight container (separating the layers with greaseproof paper) and try not to eat it all in one sitting!

Verdict: I make this recipe every Christmas, I absolutely love it and so do my friends and family. Rich, chocolatey and delicious. I’d make it every week if it wasn’t so fattening!

Taste reviews

Ginger syrup:
This was lovely mixed with lemonade and it’s supposed to be good for colds too!

Candied ginger:
Nice to nibble but very strong in flavour; try using it in ginger cookies or fruit crisps instead, or adding it to anything you would use mixed peel in.

Smoky Paprika Peppers:
Don’t bother. They looked fabulous but no one was keen on them. They had a rather odd taste and we ended up throwing them out. A lot of work for a poor return.

A homemade Christmas

I’ve been making homemade gifts and cards for as long as I can remember. As a child, I would make cards, as a teen I’d bake cookies, and as an adult I make anything I can think of. I have an ex who says it looks as if I’m cheap but I don’t see it that way – for a start, it can be more expensive to make things than to buy them! It’s certainly more time consuming, but it’s also a lot more personal. People can see you’ve put in the time and effort. It’s also fun, and I love that Jess can get involved too. I put on a Christmas CD, get out the craft stuff and suddenly it feels like Christmas.

For the last couple of years Jess and I have made chocolates and sweets to give to our friends. They usually end up a bit misshapen (it’s Jess’s job to put the chocolate in the moulds) but they taste terrific. Last year we made:
White chocolate with strawberries (melt white chocolate and mix in dried strawberries)
Dark chocolate orange (melted dark chocolate with grated orange peel and juice)
Nutty milk chocolate (milk chocolate mixed with chopped nuts)
Peppermint creams (icing sugar, peppermint essence and green food colouring)
Nutty fudge

I use silicone chocolate moulds that I bought at a poundshop (easy to get the chocolate out), and places like Lakeland and specialist cooking stores do some beautiful moulds, but if you want to try and make some cheaply before investing in moulds, you can use the plastic tray from a box of chocolates or a small ice-cube tray.

The better quality the chocolate, the better the finished product. I am usually trying to keep it cheap so I tend to use store-brand which works just fine, but if you can afford good quality chocolate then it is worth it. And please don’t use ‘cooking chocolate’ unless you want the lot to end up in the bin!

Once they are made and set, I either pack a selection in a pretty box or just pile them up on cellophane sheets and tie the top with ribbon. You can get proper sweet bags if you are so inclined but I think the cellophane sheets work just as well and are often prettier.

We also made salt dough decorations which came out surprisingly well and which Jess had great fun making. There are lots of different recipes for salt dough, just google it.

One word of caution: there are also a number of methods online that talk about drying your salt dough in the microwave. Being the impatient sort that I am, I gave it a try. The mixture bubbled and discoloured, and we ended up starting again. Stick to the oven, it gives a much better result. However it also took much longer to bake than all the recipes suggested; we seemed to have them in the oven for the whole day! The results were lovely though. I set Jess loose on them with glitter pens and fake jewels (from the poundshop), and they came out so well that we ended up giving several as presents.

Last year Jess and I made Christmas tree cards. She decorated several pieces of card with paint and glitter, then I cut out Christmas tree shapes from it once it had dried. She stuck the shapes on the cards, added a few stickers, and voila. We’ve also made cards using a potato cut into a Christmas tree shape as a stamp and sprinkling glitter on while the paint is wet. I’m looking at different ideas for this year. Several friends made reindeer cards using their children’s handprints which seemed to come out well so we may go down that route, although I’m also thinking of wrapping paper oddments to make collages of presents.

This year I’m making Christmas hampers for most of my family, boxes or baskets filled with homemade Christmas themed treats. I’m starting early because many of the things I’m planning to make are nicest if they have time to develop; I’m also going to need so many jars that I’ll be collecting for quite a while!

I’m planning to make pot pourri which is something I make for my own home every Christmas although I’ve never made it for gifts before. I’m planning cookie mix jars (glass jars with layers of cookie ingredients and a tag with instructions, e.g. mix with one egg and cook for 20 minutes), cranberry and orange vodka, apple and cranberry chutney, stem ginger in syrup, smoky paprika peppers, apricot and stilton pots, candied ginger, caramel lollies, spiced syrup, flavoured sugar, and anything else I fancy along the way! I’ll add a few cookies and some fudge and hopefully it’ll turn out to be the perfect present for a variety of friends and family. Not only will they be fun to make, but my family will thoroughly enjoy the tasting sessions that will need to take place!

For pot pourri, the earlier you can start collecting ingredients the better. Pick up bits and pieces as you see them, take them home and put on kitchen paper to dry out for a few days. Most of the ingredients are free and you can use any combination of things. So far I’ve been collecting moss-covered twigs, holly leaves, red berries, rosehips, pinecones, lemon and orange peel, pieces of moss and bits of bark, red flowers and red flower petals, any interesting leaves, nuts and nut shells (acorns, hickory etc.), sprigs of herbs and anything else that I think looks nice. I usually add odd bits of tinsel, ribbon or glitter to mine but you can of course go for an all-natural look if you prefer.

Cut or tear your larger items up if necessary, and add some cinnamon sticks, a couple of bay leaves and some whole cloves if you have them. If you want a proper scent rather than just something that looks nice with a delicate smell, try adding a few drops of sweet-smelling fragrance oils – cinnamon, clove and orange oils are a good bet. You can add fixative if you want the fragrance to last longer. If you want a quick version try using holly leaves, cinnamon sticks, dried orange slices (you can dry them in the microwave), tinsel and a couple of Christmas baubles. Even without the oils, the scent should last well into Christmas and the mix looks gorgeous in a decorative bowl.

I also read a tip about putting a scoop of the mix into a pan of water and heating it on the stove to produce a real Christmas scent that permeates the house. I haven’t tried it yet but will do at some point – I’ll check the oils aren’t flammable first though!

Friday, 23 November 2012

A Question of Faith

The house I grew up in is next door to a Methodist church. My brother and I used to go to Sunday school there, and as I grew up I attended the church youth club. I don’t remember my parents attending church although I suppose they must have done at some point; I just remember walking home from church to my mum who would be in the kitchen cooking the Sunday roast.

My brother and I both attended a Roman Catholic primary school. We were sent there because the results were so good, which is a point I can’t argue with – by the time I went to secondary school, I was doing third year work. However, being a faith school meant that religion was obviously high on the agenda, and we were Methodists, not Roman Catholics.

I have no problem with the teaching of religion, particularly in a faith school. And it’s common sense to expect that at a Catholic school, Catholicism is going to be the religion taught; it’s hardly likely to be Hinduism is it?! But I do have a problem with prejudice and discrimination, and I was definitely a victim of both.

I was the only girl in my class not to be confirmed. I was teased and bullied for missing out on something so important. I was told I was going to hell because I wasn’t Catholic. Thinking this was ‘just kids’? The kids were fine, it was the teachers! I write with my left hand. I was constantly chastised for doing so and made to write with my right hand, then punished because my writing was too untidy. Finally my father got involved and stormed into the school to demand I was allowed to write with whatever hand I wanted. It solved one issue, but I still remember being told that I was a child of the devil because of my ‘evil’ way of writing.

We had a religious assembly every morning, prayers before and after lunch, and spent Thursday mornings at church service. We were also expected to attend services on Saturdays and Sundays with our families, but as my parents didn’t practise Catholicism, my brother and I didn’t attend – something else to ostracise us for. There were two other children in the school who weren’t Catholic and they suffered too.

Religion was forced down our throats at every opportunity. Other religions were criticised as blasphemous, cults or the work of the devil. Everything we did was analysed and criticised, from how we ate to our hairstyles. Every criticism was given a religious twist; it wasn’t bad mannered or not nice, it was ‘against God’s will’.

I didn’t dislike school particularly. The other kids didn’t care what religion I was, and I was bright, well mannered and keen to learn, so some of the teachers were more accepting than others. But several were cruel, vindictive and seemed to take pleasure in humiliating or punishing me.

When I went to secondary school (non-faith), I was instantly put in the top set for every subject as my work was of such a high standard. I was extremely polite with impeccable manners and well presented. I also had a passionate hatred of religion.

I spent the next few years avoiding any suggestion of religion. Eventually, in my 20’s, I found my way back to the Methodist faith I had grown up with, although with several changes. I read extensively, questioned everything, and reconciled my beliefs with Methodist faith to some degree, but I still have several beliefs that don’t tie in with traditional teachings. My parents have also come full circle; my mother converted to Catholicism to enable her to remarry (long story), my father is a member of Calvery Chapel and is currently studying theology. My primary school too has changed; a few years ago I went back there to do some experience as part of my degree and was very pleased to discover that although it was still a faith school with mostly nuns as teachers, the headmistress was now a secular, intelligent person who promoted tolerance and more modern, accepting views.

Would it have made a difference to me if I had been a Catholic? Probably in some ways. For a start, I wouldn’t have been a victim of the religious based bullying that went on. I would however still have been subjected to the constant bias and skewed teaching. Religion coloured everything we were taught and we were told to accept blindly, not to question.

I have no issue with faith schools in general. If you want your children brought up with your values, to celebrate your religious holidays and to learn about your beliefs, then a faith school is an excellent start. If I decide a faith school is in the best interests of my child, then I will not hesitate to send her to one. However, I question the benefits of teaching children to blindly follow whatever someone tells them. I don’t support ridiculing other religions and bullying others who do not share your beliefs.

I hope that my experience with faith schools is the exception rather than the rule. Indeed, when I returned to my primary school, I was pleased to experience an atmosphere of acceptance and encouragement along with a superb standard of teaching and religious teachings based on positive reinforcement rather than bullying and negativity. I would just suggest that if you are considering a faith school, you check out their teaching methods and their views, rather than presuming it will be best for your child just because the school shares your faith.

I could of course blame my family for sending me to a faith school whose beliefs did not mirror their own, but I know they were doing what they thought was best. They wanted me to get a good education which the school in question certainly provided. They just didn’t realise that my education came with a side order of discrimination.

My faith has been a great comfort and source of strength to me as I have got older. I know my faith is stronger as I have questioned it and decided for myself what I believe, not just accepted what I have been told. I hated being told what to believe, what to think, and told that if I questioned anything I was being corrupted by the devil.

I hope my daughter finds faith as she grows up. I am teaching her about my beliefs and I will continue to do so. Her father is an atheist so we agreed before she was born that I would talk to her about religion but in an open way: “Mummy believes this; some people don’t.” If her father was of the same beliefs as me, I would take the same line; I want her to learn about my faith but I want her to question and to discover for herself what she believes. I hope her beliefs are similar to mine, but if they aren’t I’ll live with it. I don’t particularly care if she’s Catholic, Jewish or Muslim. I’d prefer her not to be an atheist, but it’s her life and her choice. Me telling her repeatedly that she’s wrong and she must believe the same as I do will only push her further away.

Religion to me is a personal thing. If a faith discourages murder and promotes forgiveness and acceptance; if it encourages us to be better people and gives us comfort and hope, then it can only be a good thing. And I hope Jess can experience that. But she’ll have to find her own way there; I can guide her and help her, but I can’t and won’t force it upon her. And I won’t allow any school or person to try to force it upon her either.

Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Money can buy happiness

… even if you don’t have a lot of it. The key is spending what you do have on the right things.

I don’t have much money and what I do have tends to be spent on necessities rather than treats, but I find that I appreciate treats so much more because they are the exception rather than the rule.

1) The little things
I have been teased about taking pleasure at little things (an ex called it my most annoying trait), but there is so much unhappiness and stress in the world that I think it’s essential to take joy where you can. I have certain regular treats that cost very little but that I look forward to all week. If I’m having a bad day, they give me something to keep me going. Wednesdays are treat night; a takeaway if I’m feeling flush, a bar of chocolate to share if it’s just before payday. On Thursdays, my favourite magazine hits the stands. It’s less than a pound but it cheers me up and I can make it last for days. Monday mornings I treat myself to a can of diet coke once I get to work (I need the caffeine on Monday mornings!). Such a small thing, but it makes my Monday that bit brighter.

If you have a particular day that you dislike, or a task you hate doing, try scheduling yourself a little treat afterwards.

2) Don’t keep up with the Joneses
So much of what we buy isn’t what we need or even what we want. We long for the new IPad, the widescreen HD TV, the newer car, the flashier holidays; often not because we actually want them but because other people have them. Sometimes it’s because we feel we should have them, we deserve them – x has one and we work harder than them / our family needs a treat more than them / we deserve one more than them. Sometimes it’s just for the look of things; we worry people will think we are poor because we drive a knackered car. Even if they do, does it matter?

I have a friend who takes her family on increasingly exotic holidays every year. They save like mad in between before jetting off to new and exciting places and revelling in the jealousy of their family and friends. That’s fine if you can afford it and it’s what you want. My friend’s little secret though, is that she and her family’s favourite holiday was spent in a caravan in Hastings. All she really wants to do is take her family back there, but she’s too worried about her image.

Another friend is planning on spending her savings on a giant TV. She barely watches TV; she’d rather spend the money on a new sewing machine, but her family already tease her for only having a small TV so she’ll spend the money on that because she feels she should.

3) Choose your choice
Buy what you want, not what you think you should buy. Don’t buy a classic novel just because you feel you should improve your reading habits; if buying a trashy chick-lit book will make you happier then do it.

4) Prioritise – and stop feeling guilty
Another friend is worrying because she ‘needs’ to buy her son a DS for Christmas and she can’t really afford it. It is upsetting not to be able to treat your family, but this is a DS we are talking about, not a necessity. Cheap trainers might get your kids teased a little, but if it means being able to afford to eat next week, they’ll learn to live without the latest designer shoes. Learning that money has to be worked for and that they can’t have everything they want is a lesson they will have to learn eventually, unless you want them to end up in crippling debt. Stop beating yourself up because other people’s kids have stuff that yours haven’t; keep them warm, fed and loved, and congratulate yourself on doing the best you can.

5) Give it away
Studies show that people who spend their money on others are happier than those who spend it on themselves. So give a little. No one expects you to bankrupt yourself for others, but give within your means. If you have a little money spare this Christmas, make a charity donation, give a present to someone who won’t otherwise get one, send a shoebox parcel abroad, or just drop a few pennies in a collection box. Give presents to your family and friends, even if they are just small homemade trinkets, and enjoy that little moment of pleasure you get when someone opens a present from you. Smile – you’ve just made someone else life a bit nicer. Doesn’t that feel good?

6) Live it, don’t own it
Try spending what you can on things to do rather than ‘stuff’. £20 can buy a takeaway, or it can buy a day out with the kids. The takeaway can last 30 minutes (although the extra lbs might stick around for a while), but the memories of a trip to the beach or a day at the zoo will last much longer, and experiences can colour your life for years to come. What pleasant memories do you have from childhood? Are they memories of listening to music on the new stereo, or are they memories of days out or time spent with your family; first time on a train perhaps, or first trip to the cinema? The beauty of experiences rather than gifts of course, is that you can plan them according to your budget. If you’re on the breadline, then a walk to the park for a picnic and an ice-cream on the way home costs very little. If you’re more comfortable, then a keeper’s day at the zoo will be remembered for years, or even a holiday for a whole raft of memories.

My daughter’s strongest memory so far isn’t of any of the fancy toys people have bought her; it’s of a two-day cut-price caravan holiday I took with her. She mentions it at least once a week and often asks if we can go again. She doesn’t remember that we lived on toast for those two days or that we couldn’t go into the town because we couldn’t afford the parking; she just remembers jumping into bed with me in the mornings, sitting outside in the sun, having Mummy all to herself and visiting the kid’s club in the evenings.

7) Save sometimes, splurge often
Saving for a large purchase is all very well, but the pleasure you get from any purchase rarely lasts as long as you hope. Let’s go back to that big TV. You save and save and save, buying no treats, living in austerity, until the big day finally arrives – it’s yours! It sits in your lounge, gleaming, and you glow with pleasure. The following day, you enter the room, and there’s that glow again. The following day, a glow – but a little less. And less. And less.

It’s the same with small treats of course, the joy of a chocolate bar lasts just a few minutes. But think of just how many small treats that TV could have brought. You may have struggled for a year to afford that television; you could have had a whole year’s worth of little pleasures instead. So by all means save to buy that big TV if you really want it – but why not save a bit less for 18 months instead of a bit more for 12, and take time to enjoy some smaller treats as well?

8) Simple pleasures
It’s the obvious answer of course but if money isn’t the answer, possibly because no matter how small the amount you just don’t have it, try freebie fun instead. Most museums and art galleries are free, so are the park and the beach. Sign up for freebies with your favourite companies; most makeup and toiletry companies will send samples or enter you into a draw for bigger prizes for something as simple as signing up for their newsletter. One of my biggest pleasures is getting something nice through the post instead of bills! Or settle for putting your feet up in front of the television (you know, that little one we talked about) or browsing the net for something funny or interesting, or just something to kill a few minutes other than doing housework. Reading this blog for instance.

Saturday, 17 November 2012

Cooking up a storm

I had a bit of free time a couple of days ago so I decided to make a start on trialling my Christmas present recipes. I thought I’d give you a rundown on the effectiveness (or otherwise!) of the items I’ve tried out so far.

Salted caramel lollies / praline lollies
Such a basic recipe it seems hard to get wrong, but I managed to ruin the first batch. The secret appears to be patience, something I don’t have much of.

Lay some greaseproof paper over cookie sheets. The sheets will get hot so put them on something so they don’t burn your countertop!

Put 150g of golden granulated sugar into a saucepan (not a dark based pan, you need to be able to see the colour of the caramel). Melt the sugar VERY SLOWLY over a low heat and keep cooking it slowly until it turns dark gold. It takes a while to melt but providing it’s on a very low heat you don’t need to stand over it, just check it every few minutes. If it’s melting in one area and not another, you can swirl the pan gently. Add a pinch of sea salt flakes and stir gently.

If you want praline lollies, add chopped hazelnuts to taste. Then, working quickly, pour the caramel into blobs on the greaseproof paper and add lolly sticks (I used cut down wooden skewers – made sure there are no splintery bits if you do the same). Leave the lollies to set for a couple of minutes, and then peel off the paper. Don’t leave them for too long to set before removing the paper or it will stick to them.

Don’t be tempted to do a bigger batch as the caramel sets extremely quickly and you won’t have time to pour it all into lolly shapes before it sets in the pan. It also gets very hot so don’t dip your finger in to test it and keep the kids away.

These unusual, sticky little lollies are deceptive. We weren’t convinced when we first tried them but you develop a taste for them – we managed to eat the whole batch within an hour! I’m planning to invest in a silicone lolly mould for future batches as they all came out in different sizes and shapes. Good excuse to eat them all though!

Smoky paprika peppers
Slightly time consuming but not difficult to make, this recipe will produce three jars of beautiful jewel-bright peppers. They are not terribly cheap to make but they do look very professional and well presented when finished, and are definitely cheaper (and nicer) than buying them.

16 peppers (8 red, 8 yellow or a combination of red, orange and yellow)
500 ml olive oil
300 ml white wine vinegar
2 tsp smoked paprika
1 garlic clove, sliced
1 tbsp black peppercorns
1 tbsp fennel seeds
Pinch of salt
300 ml water
3 jars with lids

Sterilise your jars. I washed them in the dishwasher, then put the jars top down in a cold oven and heated them to 160 degrees, then left them in the oven to cool until I needed them. With the lids, I boiled them in a saucepan of water for 10 minutes before leaving them in the water until I was ready.

Cut your peppers in half, leaving in the seeds and stalk. Place them cut side down on a grill pan and grill until the skins are blackened. Put the peppers in plastic food bags while they are still hot, tie the tops, and leave to one side.

Put the oil, garlic and paprika in a saucepan and heat gently for about 5 minutes. Leave to cool, then take out the garlic slices. You can strain off the paprika using muslin if you like but I left mine in for a stronger flavour. Dry fry the remaining spices in a frying pan for a minute then stir into the oil.

Once your peppers are cool enough to handle, pull out the stalks and seeds, and take off the skins. I find the easiest way to de-skin them is just to use my fingers. This bit is the time consuming and very messy bit, but it’s not hard to do. Tear the peppers into large pieces.

Put the vinegar and water in a pan and bring to the boil. Add your peppers, return to the heat and simmer for 3 minutes. Drain and pack into your jars. Reheat the paprika oil gently and pour over the peppers. Seal.

If you have sterilised your jars and put the lids on while they are still hot they should last a few months. Once opened, keep in the fridge and consume within two weeks.

I don’t like the taste of peppers but I really enjoyed making these. They look so gorgeous in the jars, I don’t want to open them!

Stem ginger in syrup, candied ginger, and ginger syrup
I’m doing these recipes in one go as the starting steps are the same. Cheap and easy to make although they have an extremely strong taste so only for real ginger fans!

1 lb root ginger
1 lb sugar + extra
Pinch of salt

Peel the ginger and chop. I did half in small chunks for the stem ginger and the rest in thin julienne strips for the candy. Put the ginger in a saucepan, cover with water and bring to the boil. Simmer for 10 minutes. Drain and repeat, simmering the ginger again.

Put the sugar, ginger, salt and a litre of water in a pan and bring to the boil. Simmer until the liquid is the consistency of thin honey. Drain well, keeping the liquid.

Toss the julienne strips in granulated sugar and leave to dry out overnight. Store in a jar or box. These candies will keep for a few months.

Pack the chunks in sterilised jars and pour enough of the liquid over to cover. Seal. This will keep for up to a year if unopened. Store in the fridge once opened.

Pour the remaining liquid into sterilised jars and seal. This is your ginger syrup – try it warm over ice-cream or add to lemonade or sparkling water.

I’ve made a start but I’ve got loads more to try out yet. I’ll let you know how I get on.