Recipe: Courgette Cake with Cinnamon Frosting

Courgettes are one of my favourite vegetables. They might not be very exciting, but they’re great with pasta and vegetable bakes and as I discovered this week, they’re very good in cakes too. Vegetable cakes are nothing new, but this was the first time I’ve baked a courgette cake and it won’t be the last. My courgette cake was light, moist and delicious; delicately spiced and devoured almost immediately by my greedy family.

Recipes: Courgette Cake with Cinnamon Frosting

Despite what you may think, the cake really doesn’t taste like it’s packed with courgettes, it just tastes like good cake. With the frosting it looks really pretty too, and for my money is a great way to sneak a nutrient rich vegetable into an unsuspecting child.

Courgette Cake with Cinnamon Frosting

Ingredients
150ml vegetable oil
200g soft brown sugar
3 medium eggs
1 lemon, finely grated and zested
200g coarsely grated courgette
1 heaped teaspoon of ground cinnamon
250g self-raising flour
1 level teaspoon bicarbonate of soda

For the frosting
50g unsalted butter, softened
85g icing sugar, sifted
pinch ground cinnamon
180g soft cheese

Recipes: Courgette Cake with Cinnamon Frosting

Method
Preheat oven to 180°c or gas mark 4. Grease and line a large loaf tin, I use loaf tin liners which are so much easier. In a large mixing bowl, beat the oil, soft brown sugar, and eggs until smooth. I used my hand mixer, but a wooden spoon works just as well.

Stir in the lemon zest, lemon juice and the grated courgette. Tip in the sifted flour and bicarbonate of soda and fold in gently until it’s all mixed together well. Pour the cake batter into the prepared tin and bake for around one hour until risen and golden. If you’re not sure, insert a skewer into the centre of the cake and if it comes out clean, then it’s cooked.

Leave the cake to cool fully on a wire rack for a few hours. The cake has to be fully cool before you pile the frosting on top, or it’ll melt.

With an electric whisk beat together the unsalted butter, cinnamon and icing sugar until it comes together and is smooth. This will take a little while, so persist with it. It will look unpromising and like breadcrumbs for a while. Once it is smooth, add the cream cheese and beat quickly until it’s soft and smooth. Do not over-beat the frosting, or the cream cheese may split and become runny. Spread over the top of the cake with a palette knife or an offset spatula, it might be mice to sprinkle chopped nuts over the top, or more lemon zest if you like. I just made some decorative ripples, then popped the cake in the fridge for the frosting to firm up.

The courgette cake without frosting would happily keep in a tin for a few days, with the frosting it’ll need to be kept in the fridge, or the cream cheese frosting might go off.

Recipes: Courgette Cake with Cinnamon Frosting

If you love carrot cake, or chocolate beetroot cake, try this easy and delicious courgette cake recipe, you’d never know what was in it!

Recipes: Courgette Cake with Cinnamon Frostinge

Days Out: Visiting Jorvik DIG, York

Over half term, the boy and I hot footed it up to York to check out the Jorvik Viking Festival. We went last year and had a tremendous time, but we’d missed a few things and needed to remedy that. Top of our list was a visit to Jorvik DIG. DIG is a hands-on archaeological adventure which gives kids the chance to try their hand at archaeology and discover some of the most exciting artefacts from over 2000 years of York’s history.

Days Out: Visiting Jorvik DIG, York

Jorvik DIG is located in St Saviour’s Church, a former Church of England church which was declared redundant in 1954 and later taken over and transformed into DIG by the York Archaeological Trust. DIG is part of a group of historical attractions in York which include the Jorvik Viking Centre and Barley Hall.

During the Jorvik Viking Festival, there’s such a lot going on in York, and local attractions put on extra events. DIG is no different, during the half term there were extra sessions, including the chance to make your own Viking poo (out of clay; but adding seeds, fish bones, worms and all kinds of grim things).

DIG advise that during weekends and school holidays, it’s best to book ahead. We didn’t do this, but we struck lucky and managed to get a slot later that afternoon; so we retired to a local café for lunch, which suited us just fine.

After lunch we went back to DIG and had a look around the upstairs, which was where the poo making workshop was. There was also a small play area for younger children. Downstairs there’s a hands on museum area where you can learn more about archaeology, how they date artefacts and you can look at some of the things which have been found in and around York. There’s also a replica Viking longboat, which is well worth a look at.

Days Out: Visiting Jorvik DIG, York

The big attraction was the tour, which is hourly. We were led into a room where a very knowledgeable guide talked to us about archaeology and about the kinds of things archaeologists do and look for. The children were then all given a trowel and we were introduced to the DIG Excavation Pits, which they were invited to excavate.

There are four pits; Roman York, Viking York, Medieval York and Victorian York. Each pit is based on excavations that have carried out over the past 30 years in York. Scraping back the sand and soil, you can unearth the remains of walls, pottery, shells and much more. The children get a good amount of time to dig away and see what they can find, and it’s all good fun.

Days Out: Visiting Jorvik DIG, York

Next we were led to a large table with boxes of artefacts; each family was asked to sort a box into categories; bones, shells, antlers, rocks, metal etc. We did fairly well at this, and all the while the guide was talking us through the things to look out for. We were also given a box of bones and asked to try and identify the animal they came from.

The highlight for my boy was poo. The guide passed around small fragments of fossilised Viking poo for us to hold and examine. She also held up a replica of the largest piece of fossilised Viking poo they had found during the excavations. It was impressive, if you’re into that kind of thing.

We were at Jorvik DIG for a good couple of hours. I was glad of it as it was an indoor attraction in the middle of a stormy February day. The boy had a great time and despite being sometimes reticent about joining in with things, he had a good go at everything put in front of him.

If you’re visiting York and taking in the historical sights with children; a visit to DIG is well worth the money. It does lack a café, but it’s only a couple of minutes away from several very good ones. The tickets are priced at £6.50-£7 per person, family tickets are available and your ticket is valid for a year; meaning you can return as often as you want.

For more information on Jorvik DIG, visit their website.

Days Out: Visiting Jorvik DIG, York

We paid for our tickets in full.

40 ideas for things to do for Lent

Each year, during Lent many Christians choose to give things up for 40 days. Lent is traditionally a time of abstinence and many people give up chocolate, or wine, or bread even. Some people choose to take up something, such as doing an act of kindness, or giving a small amount to charity each day.

Over the years, following a feast of pancakes, I have variously given up chocolate, crisps and alcohol. I have done acts of kindness each day. This year I’ve been a bit stumped about what to do. I’m peri-menopausal now so the thought of giving up wine or chocolate for 6 weeks is a step too far for me.

40 things to do for Lent

My life feels too stressful right now to give up anything, or commit to doing something for six whole weeks, but last night I had an idea. Why don’t I just give up something or take up something each week during lent, committing to not eating chocolate for one week is doable, giving to charity daily for one week is affordable. The idea of doing six weeks’ worth of one week mini-Lenten promises is very manageable indeed.

I’ve not fully hammered out my plan for Lent. I’m finicky at the best of times, so I thought if I put a list together of suggestions for myself, then I can pick and choose what I fancy doing from one week to the next. Here are 40 ideas for things to do for Lent.

40 things to do for Lent

1. Give up chocolate

2. Give up crisps

3. Give up alcohol

4. Give to charity each day

5. Give up TV/Netflix

6. Have a digital detox

7. Pray each day

8. Meditate each day

9. Do an act of kindness every day

10. Phone a friend or family member each day

11. No shopping/buying new things

12. Decluttering

13. Read more

14. Volunteer

15. Do a beach clean, or street clean, or a litter pick in a park

16. Find ways to reduce your plastic consumption

17. Use public transport instead of driving

18. Stop buying coffee on the go

19. Donate to your local food bank

20. Give up meat

21. Compliment other people

22. Walk every day

23. Give up swearing

24. Give up takeaways

25. Eat a family dinner at the table each night

26. Give up cake

27. Give up fizzy drinks

28. Give up sugar

29. Give up binge watching

30. Give up negativity

31. Turn lights and appliances off when not in use

32. Give up shopping online

33. Give yourself time for yourself

34. Make a point of doing self-care every day, whatever that looks like

35. Read the Bible, or a spiritual text of your choosing

36. Give up guilt – you’re doing the best you can do

37. Take up contentment – be happy, or happier with what you’ve got already in your life

38. Give up gossip

39. Give up smoking or vaping

40. Give up taking selfies/pictures of your dinner

What are you giving up or taking up for Lent? Please comment below and let me know!

40 things to do for Lent

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