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

Days Out: The Lanterns at Chester Zoo

We were invited to visit The Lanterns at Chester Zoo and were given complimentary tickets.

Last year we visited The Lanterns at Chester Zoo and we were utterly enchanted. We returned again over the weekend in the hopes that an evening surrounded by lights and magic would get us all ready to start celebrating the festive season, and that it did. It’s a really different way to see the zoo, with all the animals tucked up for the night, you get to explore a luminous magic world created for you by Wild Rumpus.

Days Out: The Lanterns at Chester Zoo

When we arrived it was raining a little; but we’d wrapped up warm against the cold and being from Manchester, a little bit of rain wasn’t going to dampen our spirits. Visitors are let through every 15 minutes, but we’d timed it perfectly, so we just walked through as a slot opened up.

We grabbed steaming cups of hot chocolate from the cafe and began exploring. We were met by a troop of illuminated zebras, who high fived us and posed for selfies, this set the tone for the evening very nicely.

Days Out: The Lanterns at Chester Zoo

The Lanterns follows a set route through Chester Zoo. It’s all lit up, so it’s impossible to get lost; and early on you get given a lantern to carry around. The smallish boy got a small metal bucket with an LED tealight in it and we got a large pyramid lantern on a stick.

There are a number of different themed areas; from the Basecamp you move to the Moonlit Meadow, to Underwater, Cloud Cuckoo Land to Tropical Dreams. Then on through the Enchanted Woodland and Northern Lights; then to the Night Sky Adventure and to Shangri La and then home in time for tea.

Days Out: The Lanterns at Chester Zoo

We made our way the the Moonlit Meadow; a wonderful snow covered spot filled with illuminated animals, from giant giraffes, graceful cheetahs, to a family of funny little penguins. All of the Chester Zoo favourites were represented there. We moved past the meadow and quickly encountered my favourite creature of all, a sea of brightly coloured jellyfish, wafting about in the breeze. We stood and watched them for a little while before moving off.

Days Out: The Lanterns at Chester Zoo

The boy loved the Tropical Dreams area best, with its brightly coloured frogs and waterfall, that was until he found the snow machine! He stayed and played under the snow machine for a good long time. He danced under the swirling foamy snowflakes, scooped up the foamy snow into balls and threw them at us, he was transfixed and it was wonderful to see.

There were a number of Christmas market style sheds in one area, all selling very temping smelling food and drink. We’d worked up an appetite, walking around the zoo, for hog roast and mulled wine were the order of the day; and very delicious they all were too.

Days Out: The Lanterns at Chester Zoo

We loved exploring The Lanterns, around every corner there was a new delight. We each had our favourites and the car journey home (and the next day or so) were filled with chatter about all the things we’d seen. The Lanterns is fast becoming a family tradition. It’s a great way for us to get in the mood for Christmas.

The Lanterns are running until December 23rd at Chester Zoo. Tickets start from £5.50 per child and £10.50 per adult.

For more information and to book tickets, visit https://lanterns.chesterzoo.org/.

We were invited guests of Wild Rumpus and Chester Zoo. All images and opinions are our own.

Toy Review: See the World Through Others’ Eyes Brainstorm Toys

AD/Gifted. In our house, science toys and sets are always popular. This week we’ve been putting the See the World Through Others’ Eyes set from Brainstorm Toys to the test.

Toy Review: See the World Through Others’ Eyes Brainstorm Toys

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.

The set is aimed at children aged 6+ and I tried it out on two nine year old boys. We went through the instruction booklet and learned about how we see, then we went through the lenses and learned about how each animal sees. It was really, really interesting and we had some great conversations about how eyes work and what it must feel like to see like a dog etc.

Toy Review: See the World Through Others’ Eyes Brainstorm Toys

I think although children aged 6+ can get a lot out of it, really understanding the biology and the science behind how animals and humans see, means that it was pitched pretty perfectly at the two nine year olds who were playing with the set.

We made a short video to demonstrate the set, see what the boy thinks below…

This science set from Brainstorm Toys is really good value at £14.99. It is fairly robust, easy to use and the information booklet is really interesting and informative. The boys loved it and once we had worked through all the combinations, they set to work inventing their own – great fun!

See the World Through Others’ Eyes from Brainstorm Toys is available from Smyths Toys and costs around £14.99.

We were sent the See the World Through Others’ Eyes set for review purposes. All images and opinions are our own.

A letter to my son on his 9th birthday

Darling boy, it doesn’t seem like five minutes since you turned 8, and here we are a whole 365 days later blowing the candles out on your 9th birthday cake.

In many ways you’ve not changed all that much in the last 12 months. You’re still all about the lego, never too far away from a train set, you’re still kicking ass at martial arts; you love drawing, baking, gardening and you’re really into learning all about nature. You are curious about the world around you, and that’s such a lovely thing to experience with you.

You’re trying hard at school, your teachers tell me that you’re popular and you have lots of friends. You are brilliant at science and art; you love history and geography, as well as reading everything you can get your hands on. You have your challenges and areas where you could try a bit harder, but I know as well as anybody, it’s not always easy to try hard in a subject you don’t enjoy all that much. Keep trying though, because if nothing else, we never give up.

You’re growing tall and strong, you have a smile which really lights up the room and dimples we have to be careful we don’t fall into. You’re utterly charming and chatty, but most of all you are kind and thoughtful. I’ve had a tough few months, but you’ve always been generous with your hugs for me and spending time with you is always a good thing.

Now I’m working again, our time seems even more precious. I love that we have special things we share together; watching Strictly Come Dancing with you on a Saturday night, sharing a bag of popcorn and guessing what scores the judges will award is always a highlight. I like that we still bake together and you still reach for my hand when we are walking to school together in the mornings. I love when you squeeze my hand and let me know in our secret code that you love me, I squeeze it right back to return the love, and then some.

Your room still looks like it’s been ransacked by especially vindictive burglars and the daily shouting sessions we have about putting your shoes on are getting a little wearing. But none of us are perfect and there’s little point in trying to be. You are imperfect and all the more interesting and wonderful for those imperfections.

9th birthday

I look at you, my tall and gorgeous 9 year old boy and I see the man I think you will grow into. I think you will be the kindest person, you will have lots of friends, people will come to you when they need someone understanding to talk to. I think you can be whatever you want to be, but I see you working outdoors, maybe in some kind of conservation job or maybe as a farmer. Whatever you want to be, I will try my hardest to help make that come true for you.

When you were born, people said enjoy the baby years, they slip away all too quickly. Every year with you has been a joy. I’ve loved watching you grow and learn, and in turn I have grown and learned a lot about myself too. You’ve taught me so much about life and love and you’ve made me strong in ways I never thought I could be.

Being your mum has been the best thing I’ve ever done. Watching you grow into the brilliant boy you are has been nothing short of a privilege. This is your last year in single digits, you’re really going to start changing in all kinds of ways over the next few years. Keep being kind and caring, carry on being funny and silly and if you just try your best in all things you won’t go far wrong. I love you and there’s nothing you could do that will stop me being your biggest fan.

Happy 9th birthday my darling boy, blow out those candles, floss along to the birthday singing, have a brilliant time at your party, celebrate with the people who love you best, enjoy life. You only get one go at it, so live it in the best way you can. I love you xxx

AD Student Nannies – Flexible Childcare for Families in Manchester

When I was a student at university, I was lucky enough to get a job working as a nanny in the holidays for a local family. It was a great job, it was really flexible and I’d spend my days doing fun stuff with their kids and getting paid for it. The arrangement suited them too, and it was one of the most fun jobs I’ve ever had.

It was an arrangement which I can hand on heart recommend for other people. I was really excited when I heard about Student Nannies, a new service which matches up families needing babysitters with students who have childcare experience and other skills to offer.

AD Student Nannies - Flexible Childcare for Families in Manchester

Student Nannies have already registered over 350 students from Manchester University; Manchester Metropolitan University; the University of Salford and Trafford College. All potential nannies on the books have an interview and a thorough background check; details of which can be found on their profiles.

Registering on the site is really simple to do, and it’s free. You just create a profile outlining your childcare requirements, then it’s up to you to search for someone suitable. You can search for a nanny by course and interest, so you can find students who can share their skills with your children; whether it’s music, art, sports or languages.

Student Nannies simply provide a smart network through which students and parents can discover local matches. Then it’s up to you to contact your potential nanny, meet up and see if you are a good fit for each other. Students and parents negotiate their own rates, and Student Nannies don’t charge commission and there are no hidden fees.

I am returning to work next month and after school childcare is a bit of a worry for me. Finding a suitable student who lives locally and is able to have my son for a couple of afternoons a week is suddenly much easier. Having worked as a Student Nanny, I can see what a great thing it is from both sides.

You can find out more about this brilliant new service on the Student Nannies Manchester website, there is a comprehensive FAQ section as well as testimonies from both students and parents. If you don’t live in Manchester, you can check out the Student Nannies website to see if they’re also available in your area.

This is a sponsored post. All opinions are our own.

Toy Review: Angry Birds Island Challenge Racing Car Set

AD/Gifted. Angry Birds seem to have been around forever, going from video game, to movie and now you can get Angry Birds toys. This week sees the launch of the Angry Birds Island Challenge Racing Car Set just in time for the release of the latest Angry Birds movie!

The Angry Birds Island Challenge Slot Car Set from Maisto is based around the popular Angry Birds game. The set contains everything you need to build a figure of 8 track, plus two Angry Birds figures and cars and radio control handsets.

Toy Review: Angry Birds Island Challenge Racing Car Set

The Angry Birds Island Challenge Slot Car Set is suitable for ages 6+. My nearly 9 year old had no problems setting it up. The track was really easy to slot together and the risers were easy to put together and attach too; though there was a bit of trial and error in getting the height of them all just right.

Toy Review: Angry Birds Island Challenge Racing Car Set

The battery pack was slightly more problematic and needed the help of an adult with a screwdriver. It also took 8 AA batteries, so make sure you’ve got a pack in before you decide to set it up and play.

The box comes with a cut out and use Eagle Mountain printed on the back; which I thought was a great idea, but then realised once I’d cut it out that I wouldn’t be able to use the original box to put all the pieces in again afterwards for storage.

Once the track is set up it’s just a case of choosing your Angry Birds character car, either Red or Leonard and then popping the cars on the track and having a race. The hand controller takes a little bit of getting used to. The cars can race around a bit too quickly and fly off the track, keeping them on the track takes a bit of getting used to.

Toy Review: Angry Birds Island Challenge Racing Car Set

The cars themselves are a little bit tricky. The metal pieces which touch the track and help to power the car are a little bit temperamental so you have to be quite gentle with them.

The Angry Birds Island Challenge Racing Car Set would make a great Christmas present for an Angry Birds fan. It retails for around £34.99 and is available from a wide range of retailers including Amazon (affiliate link).

WIN An Angry Birds Island Challenge Racing Car Set

To be in with a chance to win an Angry Birds Island Challenge Racing Car Set, simply complete the Rafflecopter widget below. Good luck!

Check out our other giveaways over on our competitions page.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Terms & Conditions:
1. The competition is open to residents of the UK only aged (18) and over.
2. The prize is non-transferable and no cash alternative is offered.
3. To enter, please use the Rafflecopter widget above, complete any mandatory entries and any optional entries you would like.
4. The winner will be chosen at random from all valid entries.
5. The winner will be sent an Angry Birds Island Challenge Racing Car Set.
6. The closing date for entries is 11.59pm GMT on 1st December 2019.
7. The winner will be informed by email within 7 days of the closing date.
8. The winner will be asked to provide a full UK postal address with postcode for delivery purposes.
9. The winners name will be available on request
10. Address details will not be shared with any external party.
11. Entry to this giveaway confirms that participants have read, understood and agree to be bound by these Terms and Conditions.
12. HodgePodgeDays decision is final in all matters relating to this giveaway.

We were sent the Angry Birds Island Challenge Racing Car Set for review purposes. All images and opinions are our own.