Review: RNCM Young Explorers – Pictures at an Exhibition

On Sunday, the boy and I had a pair of tickets to go and see Young Explorers – Pictures at an Exhibition at the Royal Northern College of Music (RNCM) in Manchester. Storm Ciara was doing her worst, but we braved the tempests and we were very glad we did.

RNCM Young Explorers is a series of concerts designed to introduce young people to music. They’re generally relaxed performances and no one minds if babies cry or children giggle. It’s a great, unstuffy way to get the kids into classical music. We’ve been to similar things before and my boy has always enjoyed them, so I had a feeling he would like this too.

Review: RNCM Young Explorers - Pictures at an Exhibition

Pictures at an Exhibition is a piece of music by Russian 19th Century composer, Modest Mussorgsky. He wrote it in honour of his friend, the artist Vikto Hartman. The music is written so you can imagine you are walking around an art gallery, looking at all of the beautiful painting in it. 

Pictures at an Exhibition was a little bit extra special because not only did it feature the Piccadilly Symphony Orchestra, but artist and author James Mayhew was painting scenes from the music live on stage.

We arrived early, had our RNCM Young Explorers Passport stamped (you get a free family ticket when you have 6 stamps) and took our seats. We had a great view of the stage and the easel where James would be painting. There was also a big screen which had the painting projected onto it, so you could watch every brushstroke in huge detail.

Conductor, Tom Newall introduced the orchestra and got a few children in the audience on stage to help him conduct. It set the tone for the afternoon very nicely; friendly, hands on, lots of fun and with a few giggles. Tom introduced the orchestra and then welcomed James on stage.

Review: RNCM Young Explorers - Pictures at an Exhibition

The performance began and James deftly threw some paint on a board and created the most incredible, beautiful paintings. Half way through the first painting, my 9 year old son turned to me and whispered “this is really incredible”. I knew then when we got home I’d be needing to get the paints out for him.

The music was beautiful and provided the perfect backdrop to the painting. The whole audience was entranced by James and during the hour long performance he produced 10 beautiful paintings. It was over all too soon; but in keeping with the hands-on vibe of the day, the orchestra invited the audience to come and have a closer look at the instruments and learn a bit more.

James was thronged with people, we had brought along one of his books to sign so we hung back a little. James very kindly gave us one of his practice paintings and chatted with my boy a bit. He was thrilled and that night went to bed clutching his signed book.

The RNCM Young Explorers series is aimed at children aged 3+. but younger ones are welcome too. My 9 year old was transfixed by the whole thing and I would absolutely take him back to another performance. I think it’s fed his imagination and sparked a few creative thoughts in his (currently Minecraft obsessed) head. I loved it and will be keeping my eyes peeled for similar performances in the future.

Tickets cost from £6 and you can find details of future concerts here.

Frugal Food: Cheesy Leek Gratin

The start of the year is always the longest, leanest time for me. There have been many evenings lately that I have peered into the fridge and wondered what I could cobble together for tea.

A few days ago I picked up some leeks from the greengrocers for not many pence, and being leek fans, I decided to throw together a lovely, comforting cheese leek gratin. It’s remarkably simple and fairly frugal vegetable dish and even my fussy about veg 9 year old asked for seconds!

Frugal Food: Cheesy Leek Gratin

Cheesy Leek Gratin

Sliced leeks, I used six, but you can use more if you want
A little butter for frying
50g butter or margarine
50g plain flour, or sauce flour if you have it
1 pint of milk (maybe a little more, maybe a little less)
100g mature cheddar cheese
30g Parmesan cheese
Salt, pepper and dried chilli flakes
Breadcrumbs

Method
Slice your leeks and fry gently in a bit of butter until they are soft.

Whilst your leeks are softening, melt the butter in a saucepan, once melted, tip in the flour and mix well with a wooden spoon. Mix until it’s a paste and then cook the flour out for a minute. Add a splash of milk and stir until it turns into a paste again. Keep adding milk in splashes and mixing until it starts to turn into a silky sauce. The amount of milk will vary, but I’d say you need at least a pint of milk. If it looks lumpy and unpromising, just use a whisk until it turns into a lovely smooth sauce.

Grate your cheese and add it to your sauce. Set aside about 30g of the cheese to top your bake with. Stir, stir, stir your sauce and season with salt and pepper. I also like to add ground chilli flakes for a bit of a gentle kick, but you can leave that out if you prefer. Taste the sauce to check the seasoning; if it’s not cheesy enough for you, now is a good time to add more cheese. Now is also a good time to pre-heat your oven to 220°.

Once your leeks are soft and your sauce is cheesy and smooth, tip them both into an ovenproof dish and mix together. Smooth the top with the back of a spoon and sprinkle over your reserved cheese. I usually top bakes and gratins with breadcrumbs. It gives a lovely texture and makes it look extra tasty. If I can be bothered I something whizz up some stale bread in the food processor and use that, but I have a tub of ready made breadcrumbs in the cupboard because sometimes life it too short to make your own. I sprinkle whatever I have over the top, use as much or as little as you want.

Frugal Food: Cheesy Leek Gratin

Put your cheesy leek gratin in the oven and bake for 30 minutes until the top is brown and the sauce is bubbling beneath. I’ve made this several times now and it’s a regular veg dish as part of a winter roast. It’s great with chicken or sausages, or even on its own with a crusty piece of bread.

If you enjoyed this, you might like my recipe for slow cooker vegetable stew.

Frugal Food: Cheesy Leek Gratin

Mental Health: Bracing myself for 2020

One of the great things about therapy is that I’ve really started to get to know myself. Whenever I have a wobble these days, I can usually trace it back to something problematic from deep within my psyche. This is hugely helpful, for so many years now I’ve just been bouncing from one source of anxiety to the next; like a nervy little ball in a pinball machine. I’m better now, but not completely.

Since the year turned from 2019 to 2020, a whole heap of anxiety has dumped itself at my feet. 2019 was a year of quite radical change for me and 2020 should see all the seeds of the new life I planted last year grow into something different and hopefully something beautiful this year.

With a couple of weeks until my next therapy session, it’s up to me to try and unpick what all of my current anxiety is about all by myself. This is probably not a bad thing, therapy is partly about giving me the tools to stand on my own two feet and to be able to understand what’s going on with me better.

Unsurprisingly, my current levels of anxiety are all about change; my ability to manage myself over the next year and all that it will throw at me. I’ve got to get things right this year and I’m pretty terrified of cocking everything up and leaving a heap of angry and upset people in my wake.

One of the things therapy has taught me is that I am not responsible for other people’s issues.

I’ll say that again. I am not responsible for other people’s issues.

In the past I would merrily take on other people’s anxiety, anger, criticism of me, whatever and let that negativity sit on me and with me. I would take everything personally, even now I ache inside when I feel like I’ve not met expectations, let someone down or annoyed them. There’s a very damaged part of me who is so eager to please, but knows deep down whatever I do it will not be good enough. I will never be good enough.

It doesn’t take much for me to feel this way. Right now I feel like this. In the past the way to stop the anxiety spiral was to do something destructive or harmful to myself. That urge hasn’t gone and I’m not sure it ever will, but I am better at distracting myself from that path.

When I feel that I’m not good enough, I need to know that I am, and that is one of the things I am working on right now. It would be nice to hear it from other people though. You ARE good at your job. You ARE a great mum. You ARE a good friend. You ARE good enough. You CAN do this. Even typing this emboldens me. I am good enough, and I can do all of the things I need to do. I really, really am good enough.

Learning how to be an emotionally well adult is something which takes place during childhood and there’s a whole chunk of learning I’ve missed out on. I’ll get there though, with the help of my therapist and the people around me who love and care for me.

It will all be ok

FREE Printable: Chinese New Year – Year of the Rat

This year Chinese New Year falls on Saturday 25th January. Chinese New Year is a glorious, colourful celebration of the New Year, just when I feel the year is at its darkest and gloomiest. This year is the Chinese Year of the Rat.

In Manchester the Chinese New Year celebrations are legendary, with a parade, Chinese crafts exhibition, a big celebration in Albert Square and a fantastic street food market.

2020 is the Chinese Year of the Rat. The Rat is the first of the 12-year cycle of animals which make up the Chinese zodiac in the Chinese calendar. People born in the Years of the Rat including 1936, 1948, 1960, 1972, 1984, 1996, and 2008 will celebrate their Zodiac Year.

To celebrate Chinese New Year and the Year of the Rat I’ve created this colouring sheet for children, or indeed adults. It’s a simple sheet which you can print out on A4 paper. All you need are some felt tips or colouring pencils and it should keep the kids entertained for a little while. If you want to extend the fun, you could also try making a Chinese drum, or some traditional red envelopes for Chinese New Year.

FREE Printable: Chinese New Year – Year of the Rat

Click here to download your FREE Chinese New Year printable!

It’s pretty cute isn’t it? It’s A4 sized, so just print off however many you need. Give the kids a million coloured pencils or felt tips and let them go wild with them. Adults who enjoy colouring in might also like to get in on the action too.

I’d love to know what you’ll be doing to celebrate Chinese New Year, let me know in the comment box below. Gong hei fat choy!

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FREE Printable: Chinese New Year – Year of the Rat

Christmas Drinks: Spectacular Speculaas Hot Chocolate

AD/Gifted. At this time of year, I absolutely love throwing festive spices at everything I eat and drink. I’ve got myself into a nightly mulled wine habit, but sometimes I crave something a little less alcoholic and something a little more comforting. Last week I baked some delicious Speculaas biscuits, with my order came a little packet of Speculaas spice to bake some extra biscuits with. I decided to use the spice to make some lovely Speculaas hot chocolate with it instead. What a stroke of genius that was!

The hot chocolate is filled with cinnamon, cloves and ginger – all of our favourite Christmas spices and topped with an over-generous and positively indulgent pile of squirty cream. It’s not an every day treat, but it really is a treat.

Christmas Drinks: Spectacular Speculaas Hot Chocolate

Essentially it is hot chocolate with a spoon of Speculaas spice in it, I’ve written the recipe below, but if you regularly make hot chocolate, make it your own way and whisk a dessert spoon of the spice in before you pour it into you mug. It really is brilliant.

Speculaas Hot Chocolate

Ingredients for one mug:
350mls of milk
3 heaped teaspoons of hot chocolate powder
1 heaped teaspoon of Speculaas spice powder
A huge pile of squirty cream

How to make your Speculaas Hot Chocolate:
Heat up your milk to drinking temperature. I microwaved my milk, but you can heat it gently on the hob if you prefer.

Stir though the hot chocolate powder and Speculaas spice mix, pour into a mug and top with squirty cream. I sprinkled a couple of pinches of the Speculaas spice on top of the cream to decorate it a little.

It’s best drunk in front of a roaring fire with some Christmas music playing in the background. It’s as simple and delicious as that! Merry Christmas.

Christmas Drinks: Spectacular Speculaas Hot Chocolate

If you enjoyed this, you might like this round up of Christmas drink ideas for all the family.

Christmas Baking: Speculaas Biscuit Baking Mix

AD gifted. One of my favourite things to do during the run up to Christmas is visit the Christmas markets in Manchester. Along with copious amounts of mulled wine, I always seek out the stall which sells speculaas biscuits. They’re full of festive spice and they’re just delicious.

Speculaas is a type of spiced biscuit traditionally baked on or just before St Nicholas’ Day and around Christmas in many European countries. Speculaas are thin, crunchy, slightly browned biscuits which usually have an image or figure stamped on the front side before baking. The most common design I’ve seen is the windmill, which is why I often call them windmill biscuits.

Christmas Baking: Speculaas Biscuit Baking Mix

Vandotsch recently sent me a packet of Speculaas Baking Mix to bake with. The packet contained almost everything you needed to bake a batch of speculaas, just add butter! The instructions were really easy to follow, and they took just minutes to mix together. It’s important to have faith that the mix will turn into a decent dough once you start working with it. Do not be tempted to add water or milk or anything, this will just make the dough too sticky.

The Vandotsch Baking Mix contains all the lovely festive spices speculaas are known for. Packed with cinnamon, cloves and ginger, the biscuits are a real Christmas treat. I don’t have a windmill shaped cutter, so I used my Christmas tree cutter, which worked pretty well. I had some dough left over, so I rolled this up into balls, squashed them with the palm of my hand and made a few seriously delicious cookie sized biscuits, because they were thicker they were somehow even better.

Christmas Baking: Speculaas Biscuit Baking Mix

The Baking Mix is suitable for vegetarians and vegans (if made with a non dairy substitute). It is also free from artificial flavourings, colours or preservatives. They are gluten free too.

The pre-made Baking Mix costs £5.59 and there are options to buy the mix with a traditional style cutter too. These would make a lovely gift for a keen baker like myself. Vandotsch have all kinds of speculaas spice and baking mixes on their website, so it’s worth having a look to see if anything tickles your fancy.

Recipe: Cranberry and Pomegranate Jelly

Puddings at Christmas time can be a bit on the heavy side. All that booze soaked fruit and extra thick cream can get a bit much, plus if you’re feeding the whole family, Christmas pudding is not a universally popular choice. What is always, always popular is jelly. Last Christmas I made a mulled apple cider jelly, but this year I’ve decided to make a jelly that everyone family can enjoy – cranberry and pomegranate jelly!

The really good thing about this jelly is that it’s one my whole family can enjoy together – it’s vegetarian which means we can all tuck in. It’s made with Dr Oetker Vege Gel which is incredibly easy to use and it sets quite quickly too.

Recipe: Cranberry and Pomegranate Jelly

The jelly is made with cranberry juice and a tub of pomegranate seeds. You can leave the seeds out if you prefer, but I set the jelly in a Christmas tree mould and the seeds made it look really festive, like it is full of little glittery red baubles.

Cranberry and Pomegranate Jelly

Ingredients:

1 pint of cranberry juice
80g tub of pomegranate seeds
2 tablespoons of sugar
A sachet of Dr Oetker Vege Gel

How to make Cranberry and Pomegranate Jelly:

Take about 200mls of the cranberry juice and stir the Vege Gel into it, make sure all the powder dissolves.

Add the sugar and bring the remainder of the cranberry juice to the boil, once it’s boiling, add your 200mls of juice and Vege Gel into the pan and stir, stir, stir. Tip your tub of pomegranate seeds into the juice mixture and give it a quick stir, then it’s ready for the mould.

Make sure you have your mould or moulds ready for your jelly as it will start to set really quite quickly. I used a Christmas tree shaped mould, but you could use some pretty glass dishes if you prefer.

Pour your jelly carefully into your serving dishes and put them in the fridge until it’s set properly. This took about two hours, but if you can it is probably worth leaving the jelly overnight in the fridge.

I turned my jelly mould out onto a serving plate, be careful when you do this so not to break the jelly. Serve with good vanilla ice cream or a blob of whipped cream.

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Recipe: Cranberry and Pomegranate Jelly

Christmas: Decorating our Real Christmas Tree

AD/Gifted. Growing up in the 80’s we always had a plastic tree. Every December it was dug out of the loft and decorated with a ramshackle selection of gaudy decorations and things we’d made at school. It was a tree heaving with sentimentality and we loved it.

Christmas: Decorating our Real Christmas Tree

When I eventually moved out of home, it was time for me to create some traditions of my own. Top of my list was to ditch the chintzy plastic tree and start buying a real Christmas tree every year; something we have stuck to. There’s something really nice about a real Christmas tree; from the gentle pine scent which fills the room, to the lovely prickly joy of decorating it. The real Christmas tree might have been something beloved of the Victorians; but it also looks very lovely in my 1940’s semi in South Manchester.

This year, like last year (and channeling Margo Leadbetter) I had my real Christmas tree delivered to me from The Christmas Forest. Based in London, they deliver top quality Christmas trees all over the UK. This saves me the faff of buying a tree locally and struggling to get it home, as a non-driver this is a real issue for me.

I ordered my 6ft real Christmas tree a few weeks ago and booked it to arrive on Friday; which it did do, bright and early; the driver even brought it in for me. Over the weekend we put it up, filled the base with water, dug our decorations out of the loft and set to work decorating it; something the boy is especially excited about doing these days.

As when I was a child, the tree isn’t covered in stylish and carefully co-ordinated trinkets; but mostly a selection of things we’ve made, or shiny things we have bought to remember the places we have been. I’ve picked out some of our favourite decorations from our tree, things that we’ve made and things that we love.

Christmas: Decorating our Real Christmas Tree

There are button decorations, hand painted baubles, a Tunnocks teacake bauble I made a few years ago, angels my son decorated at school, lolly stick decorations and easy paper baubles. I hope these will be on our tree every year and more will join them. I’ve always been a sucker for sentimentality, and our tree reflects who we are; homely, warm, with more of a taste of tradition than what’s hot and what’s not each Christmas.

If like me, you want to take some of the stress out of Christmas; getting a real Christmas Tree delivered is a real time saver and a godsend. It’s been such a help to have it delivered and it’s one very big thing off my festive to do list.

For more information about The Christmas Forest, or to order your Christmas Tree from them, visit Christmas Forest.

Disclaimer: We were sent our Christmas Tree for review purposes. All images and opinions are our own.

Our Top Ten STEM Toys for Christmas

AD/Gifted. My 9 year old boy really loves science and nature. We try to encourage his interests at home, so over the last few years many of the presents under the tree have been things Father Christmas thought he might like. He’s had a brilliant globe, some great things to help him hunt for minibeasts outside, he has a whole constellation of glowing stars on his ceiling and he’s got his very own miniature orrery. This week we’ve picked our top ten STEM toys for this Christmas.

2 in 1 Earth and Constellations Globe

The Earth and Constellation Globe has a day-time and night-time view and is in fact two globes in one. In the daylight the 22.8cm diameter globe shows political boundaries, oceans, equator, longitude and latitude lines, country names, capital cities and other major cities for each country in the world. By night the illuminated star map shows constellations with their common names.

Addict A Ball

Addict A Ball is a seriously addictive 3D maze puzzle which contains 138 numbered stages of spirals, drops, swinging arms, flips and slides. You guide the ball through each stage, all the time Addict A Ball is challenging your dexterity, hand-eye coordination and patience. It’s great fun, and even us grown ups like playing with it!

Our Top Ten STEM Toys for Christmas

Stikbots

These multi award winning figures have been around for a little while now. They’re pretty keenly priced, so make great stocking fillers, or pocket money treats. They have suction cup hands and feet which allow them to be posed in lots of different ways. They’re designed so you can use the free StikBot stop frame animation app to make your own short animations. They’re great fun.

Glow Starry Night Glow-in-the-Dark Stars

These stars are a great little stocking filler. The stars can be stuck on walls and ceilings, then at night, turn off the lights and they glow in the dark. Arrange them however you like, they’re a lovely addition to the bedroom of a junior astronomer!

See the World Through Others’ Eyes 

See the World Through Others’ Eyes is a really interesting science set. It includes a set of glasses with interchangeable lenses which allow you to see the world in 20 different ways. These include; cat; dog; rat; horse; cow; elephant; fish; shark; cuttlefish; bird; eagle; T-rex; unicorn; astronaut; colour blindness; new born baby; near vision; fly; bee and dragonfly. The box also contains detailed instructions and explanations about how the lenses work and how various animals, including humans see. You can read our full review here.

Our Top Ten STEM Toys for Christmas

Animal Projector & Nightlight

The Animal Projector & Nightlight projects 24 beautiful colour animal images onto your walls and ceilings. The animal images are clear and sharp, up to one metre wide. You just turn the lens head to focus. This STEM set includes three discs and 24 fantastic animal images and doubles up as a cool night light.

EUGY Build Your Own 3D Model 

Build your own 3D models with these beautifully detailed but simple miniature animal figures. They’re made from environmentally friendly, biodegradable card with natural eco-friendly ink and non-toxic glue. There is a whole range of different animals to choose from and build at home, they’re suitable for ages 6+ and cost around £7.99.

Our Top Ten STEM Toys for Christmas

Outdoor Adventure Magnifier

The Outdoor Adventure Magnifier is a handheld 2x-3x-4x magnifier which is ideal for on-the-go explorations, field trips and outdoor adventures. We put it to the test in our garden, taking a closer look at some plants and flowers and having a good look at some tiny aphids we found feasting on my rose bush. The magnifying glass is a pretty essential bit of kit and has so many uses. It costs around £12.99 and although that may seem a little pricey, it’s much better quality than cheaper kids magnifying glasses.

Outdoor Adventure Binoculars

The Outdoor Adventure Binoculars were a real hit. They are pocket-sized and light weight and have 4x magnification; 30mm glass lenses and they have a break-away lanyard for safety. We especially liked the built-in compass on the top, which helped us to talk in greater depth about navigation skills and North – South – East – West (or Never Eat Shredded Wheat as we’ve been teaching him).

My Desktop Solar System

An orrery is a mechanical model of the Solar System that illustrates the relative positions and size of the planets, although totally accurate scaling cannot be achieved given the very large distances and differences. Future astronomers will love having this Solar System in miniature on their desktop. Instructions include a secret code to unlock fascinating online facts about each planet in our Solar System.

So that’s it, our top ten STEM toys for junior scientists this Christmas. What STEM toys can your kids not live without?

Our Top Ten STEM Toys for Christmas

Easy Christmas Recipe: Mincemeat Flapjack

One of the most enduring and classic flavours of Christmas is mincemeat. Mince pies are an undeniable Christmas classic, but I’ve been throwing mincemeat into cakes and vol au vents for a few years now. It’s too good an ingredient just to use in little pies. This week I baked a hearty batch of mincemeat flapjack and they all but disappeared in an afternoon. They’re simple, they’re filling and most of all, they’re delicious.

Easy Christmas Recipe: Mincemeat Flapjack

I confess, this idea is not my own. We went for a family walk at Tatton Park in Cheshire, whilst warming up with a cup of tea, we all had a piece of cake. I chose the mincemeat flapjack and was inspired enough to try to recreate it when I got home. If anything I think my version is slightly better, with more mincemeat and a less soggy, slightly firmer texture.

You could try adapting your own favourite flapjack recipe by adding some mincemeat, or you could try my recipe below. It’s delicious, a real crowd-pleaser and would be a lovely addition to a lunch box in the run up to Christmas! This recipe makes about 12 squares of flapjack.

Mincemeat Flapjack

Ingredients:

175g of light brown sugar
150g butter or margarine
3 tablespoons of golden syrup
1 teaspoon of bicarbonate of soda
200g of porridge oats
200g plain flour
150g mincemeat

How to make your mincemeat flapjack:

Pre-heat your oven to 180° and line a high sided baking tin with baking parchment. I use a roasting tin, because that’s all I have.

In a pan melt your butter, sugar, golden syrup and bicarbonate of soda. Make sure you stir occasionally until it’s all melted together. Once it’s all melted, add your mincemeat and stir through.

Put your flour and oats in a large bowl and pour over the contents of the pan, mix and mix until everything is well combined. Pour into your lined baking dish and put it in the oven for 20-30 minutes until it’s firm and golden.

Easy Christmas Recipe: Mincemeat Flapjack

Remove from the oven and leave to cool for as long as you can stand it. Slice the flapjack into squares and enjoy with a nice cup of tea.

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Easy Christmas Recipe: Mincemeat Flapjack