Monday, August 31, 2015

Budget week, starting with breakfast: cheap and easy Bircher muesli

This week I'm putting a bit of focus on budget. Since Mr Cake is currently the only (proper) money maker in this house, and because we have a looong list of building tasks to tackle, we're trying to reduce our spending a bit.

We're spreadsheet lovers and have worked out all our main expenses and have formed a budget based on this. Most expenses (power, internet, mortgage) are fairly fixed so easy to forecast, and we have a pocket money amount each week for each of us that covers things like coffees, eating out and clothes.

We make it as automatic as we can, so we don't really have to think about it - I reckon that's the best way to stick at anything. So we're not actually spending all our spare time counting our pennies, we just review it a couple of times a year to see if there are any costs that need to be adjusted, or things we're overspending on.

However, we still seem to have regular budget blowouts on food. It is just too easy to pop into the supermarket several times a week, each time picking up extra convenience items (a.k.a. chocolate). So it's time for a clampdown in the Cake household. And by "the Cake household" I mean me. Because Mr Cake is not the chocolate fiend around here...

We generally menu plan our dinners a couple of weeks in advance (more on that later in the week), so when I do our fortnightly shop today I'm going to do my best to be comprehensive, and hopefully that will help us avoid making any extra visits to the local New World.

I'm also going to try to come in under the budgeted amount, in the hopes we can start to build up our renovation fund... I'm dreaming of a downstairs bathroom!

So with that in mind, I thought I'd share my favourite breakfast recipe. It's reasonably low cost, nutritious and very tasty - and pretty quick to make. The only drawback is you have to start the prep the night before - but it's worth it.

I'm calling it Bircher muesli, though as I understand it the original Bircher muesli contained only a very small amount of oats, and used sweetened condensed milk in place of my yoghurt. We've been making this for years, and while I've read many decadent Bircher muesli recipes, this one is focused on practicality.

This is a very flexible recipe - really the only requirement is that the oats are soaked in a plentiful amount of liquid - so feel free to change out the fruit, nuts and spice to your taste.

We like to make it even quicker to put together by prepping a large amount of the mix-ins - dried fruit, nuts and cinnamon - and having it in an airtight container, so that the evening prep just involves adding oats, mix-ins and water to a bowl - all of 30 seconds' effort.

By my calculations, this recipe costs about $8 to make - so about $2 per serve (based on Countdown prices). If you want to make it cheaper you can bulk up the oats and reduce the fruit and nuts, and if you make your own yoghurt (something I'm thinking about doing but haven't got to yet) that will drive the price down even further.

So tell me - do you have any special measures you put in place when the budget is a bit squeezed? I'd love your tips!

Bircher Muesli (serves 4)
1/2 cup almonds
1/4 cup raisins
1/4 cup apricots
2 tsp cinnamon
1 cup wholegrain oats
1 cup water
2 apples
Greek yoghurt to serve (about 50g per person)

Coarsely chop almonds and large pieces of dried fruit. Add almonds, dried fruit, cinnamon, oats and water to a bowl, cover and leave in the fridge overnight.

In the morning, chop or grate the apples and mix through the oats. Serve with yoghurt.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

DIY - Creating a Haven

This post was originally posted on A Kiwi Dream, my short-lived separate reno blog. Over the next couple of months I'll be migrating the content there here so please bear with me if you were following me there. 

As I mentioned previously, priority one for this new house was to get the two downstairs bedrooms done up to create a nice space to retreat into while the rest of the house is in disarray.

The house is a bungalow, with the common-in-Wellington feature of an addition downstairs; some of the hill has been excavated from under the house, allowing two bedrooms and a bathroom to be inserted.

Oddly, the bathroom was never finished (perhaps money ran out before the project completed), and though it sits on the same concrete floor as the rest of the downstairs and the walls are framed, there are no wall linings, so it is open to the foundations and therefore feels more like outside than in. We're ignoring that for the time being - we have bigger fish to fry.

The unfinished downstairs bathroom

The bedrooms were reasonably tidy, though dated, and also hadn't been quite finished. Architraves had been added to the doors but never stopped or painted, and the wardrobes were missing skirting boards (required given the gaps between the wall linings and floor / ceiling). The carpet was clearly a hand-me-down when it was installed and had only roughly been cut to size, and not fixed down (which did make pulling it up easier!).

The delightful carpet

We assigned ourselves a week between taking possession and moving in to paint, carpet and do a couple of "minor" (ha!) building jobs - an ambitious deadline determined by an offer on the old house which would later fall through, making our stress and pain almost entirely arbitrary.

My husband and I both took the week off work, leaving our son in daycare, and went as quickly as we could. There was an air of reality television about the week, which is not really the vibe we were going for - the rapid transformations and fun reveals are all well and good, but the mental health of the participants is important too!

Anyone who has ever painted will be aware of the significance of prep time on your schedule, and as well as stopping dents and so on, sanding, and sealing the wallpaper in one bedroom, we also had a fair bit of electrical work done - moving plug points to make things a bit more logical. In hindsight we probably wouldn't repeat all of these changes, but most were necessary (as an example, the downstairs was designed to potentially become a second flat eventually, and so the main light over the bed in the master bedroom was operated from a switch on the front wall of the house, rather than by the door to the room).

We roped in a builder to help us with reframing the door at the bottom of the stairs to widen access, and to sort out the sagging floor at the back of the house (which turned out to be a rotted out bearer rather than a pile), and then convinced him to build us a new balustrade, as the existing one was far from baby-proof (we had planned to do this ourselves but - predictably - ran out of time).

Help from family makes it go much faster.

Luckily we had some reinforcements at the eleventh hour, and the last night before the carpet layers came we finished painting at 10pm.

We're technically still not quite finished, but the outstanding work is very minor (touch-ups from carpet layers scuffing the paint, painting the sliding wardrobe doors) and therefore is now at the bottom of a very long to-do list. I recognise the danger of that statement and perhaps we'll revisit once we have a functional kitchen (and have run out of money for big works!).

Have you ever tried to turn around a room on a deadline?

Downstairs paint, wardrobe fit-out and carpet
Budget: $7,800
Timeframe: 1 week
Who did the work: Us + sparkies + builder + help from family
Actual cost: $11,129 ($3,329 over budget)
Learnings: Book the tradies in early, don't be too ridiculous about little things like where a plug point is, always build slack into your schedule.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Planning a DIY project - our side gate a.k.a. baby holding pen

One of the many deficiencies of our new house is that it doesn't have any decent outdoor living spaces. It's on a fairly respectable (for Wellington) 500sqm section, but because it's Wellington most of that is fairly angular.

We have a big project in the pipeline to create a deck and small lawn off our dining space, but that's probably years away. There is, however, a small area at the back north-west corner of the house which is concreted already, and which, with a bit of a tidy up and the addition of a gate, will become not only a pleasant place to sit in the afternoons, but will be a safe outdoor space for a certain small person.

The area in question. The gate will be just past the door to maximise the toddler running zone. 

Cleaning up is pretty easy, but building a gate is not something we've done before, and it's hard to know where to start on projects like this, so I thought I'd share our planning in case it's useful to others.

Our first step is always a few hours worth of online research. There are tutorials for just about everything online, and for building projects hardware stores have often published well-produced demonstration videos. The Mitre 10 ones are great, but sometimes they haven't covered the right subject yet, in which case we'll look further afield. To tell us where to start with our gate I found this video, which gives us a pretty good idea of what we need to do.

Online research also helps understand the design parameters - there are lots of style options, and though the framework is likely to be the same (at least for wood, which will be our medium) it's good to understand the desired aesthetic before you start just in case it changes anything.

Step two is usually a phone call to DIY helpline, a.k.a. my dad. Depending on how complicated the project is, or how good the online information is, this might just be sanity checking a pre-formulated plan, or it might be more along the lines of "given the space we're working with how would you start?" In this instance, though I'm pretty happy with the video we found on how to build, I wanted to validate the strategy and check whether we should attach a batten to the house or sink an extra post on that side (the jury's still out on that, actually - conflicting opinions!).

My drawing skills leave a lot to be desired but even a crappy drawing helps a lot - this picture shows (approximately!) the framing, and allows us to calculate the timber we need. So that's step three, documenting the plan. Depending on the size of project we might mull over this step for a while, and iterate back through the research phases until we're satisfied. If it's a bigger project (like the kitchen) I use software so that the output actually resembles what's in my head, but a scrawl works for the small projects.

And so now we're off to Bunnings, that favourite Saturday haunt of so many Kiwi DIYers... Wish us luck!

Do you have any DIY projects on your agenda this weekend?

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Molten Chocolate Cakes (a.k.a. gourmet microwave puds)

I mentioned the other day that I've been trying to nip a nasty habit of mine in the bud. The habit is buying those delicious Gu chocolate puddings and I think I've found the solution, with thanks to Donna Hay's Simple Essentials: Chocolate (I have had so much mileage out of that book!).

I've made these molten chocolate puddings a few times now, and as well as being quick to put together, the recipe makes four... Which leaves leftovers to reheat later.

Obviously the making of the recipe takes a little longer than shoving a pre-made pud into the microwave for 30 seconds - I'd say the total assembly time is 10 minutes max and 12 minutes to cook - but if you have to factor in a trip to the supermarket because you've already eaten the ones you bought on shopping day (a common occurrence around here) then it's probably quicker. And reheating them once they're made is back to a speedy 30 second zap.

The original recipe calls for dark chocolate, and I've most often made them with 70%, because we usually have some in the cupboard (I can resist eating chocolate that dark so it lasts!), but I've tried with other varieties too and I think I prefer 50%. The 70% is very dark, and makes me want to revert to the sweeter Gu ones, though if you prefer dark chocolate you might be satisfied with the intense flavour.

The milk chocolate version (which is what is shown in the photos) yields a very caramelly result, which is delicious but a bit too sweet when paired with ice-cream, which I view as an essential part of the pudding experience. The different composition of milk chocolate also changes the chemistry a little - the recipe still works but it takes longer to cook.

50% dark chocolate sits nicely in the middle, not too sweet, plenty of deep chocolatey flavour but not so intense.  

So I'm sold - so long as I can resist the temptation to buy them (and at about $8 for two that shouldn't be hard) these should fill the chocolate-pudding shaped hole in my life from now on.

What's your biggest snack weakness? Do you like an evening sugar hit like me or do you have a different craving?

Molten Chocolate Puddings (from Donna Hay's Simple Essentials: Chocolate)
150g dark chocolate (I prefer 50%)
100g butter
2 eggs
2 egg yolks
1/4 cup / 55g caster sugar
2 Tbsp flour

Preheat oven to 180 C. Grease four ramekins or muffin pans.

In a saucepan over a gentle heat, melt together the chocolate and butter.

In a separate bowl, whisk eggs, yolks and sugar until light and fluffy.

Fold together chocolate mixture, egg mixture and flour until all ingredients are combined. Divide between the four dishes and bake for 12-15 minutes or until the puddings are puffed.

Serve with ice-cream or cream.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Finding balance for yourself and your family

Balance... That holy grail of our busy lives. So hard to find, because things are constantly changing, but so important to seek to prevent burn out.

When I was younger I always thought I'd been a keen Suzy Homemaker, whisking up jars of preserves in between building blanket forts and teaching practical life skills to my adorable offspring. I imagined it to be idyllic and rewarding, and that I'd fit in plenty of community involvement around raising well-balanced sprogs.

I happily slogged away in the corporate world for quite a few years, but once I was faced with the reality of an impending human (i.e. got pregnant), I suddenly had no idea what I wanted. Like many New Zealanders, I put my parental leave request in for the full 12 months I was entitled to and figured I'd adjust later if I needed to.

As it turned out, my can't-sit-still personality and a very easygoing infant combined to make me desperate to be back at work within months. It was rewarding being at home with a little baby but also damn hard - I was bored and lonely. I arranged with my manager to return to work when the Little Monkey was six months old, for 20 hours a week spread over three days.

This turned out to be an ideal balance... Except in the wrong job.

I loved going to work, exercising my professional mind, being able to snatch quick coffee hot chocolate breaks with colleagues. And I loved seeing my little one settling into daycare, enjoying spending lots of time hanging out with other kids, and doing well planned, age appropriate activities which I am too lazy to organise for him at home.

I always found I was fairly wiped out by the end of my working week, though, so Thursdays became recovery day, where I'd catch up on neglected chores and the Little Monkey would have longer naps to make up for the sometimes very brief ones at daycare.

Unfortunately it became clear within a few months that my particular job was not well suited to the part time hours, and working more wasn't palatable to me since I was already out of reserves. So I quit. 

Our Little Monkey enjoying the play equipment at daycare
Because the small one is very settled into an amazing daycare centre he still goes there three days a week, while I try to work out what I'm doing with my life. So that's why at the moment I'm largely focusing on the blog - I love writing (and baking!), and I'm hoping that perhaps eventually I can make some small amount of money from it. It may not work but I feel like I have to give it a crack. 

The balance we have means we really relish the time we have together on Thursdays and Fridays, as well as the family time at the weekends - instead of always feeling bored or tired or stressed we're happy (with, of course, moments of the bad stuff).

I know that I'm very lucky to be able to follow this path, experimental as it is - I really feel for those who don't have the option to take time out when they need it. But if you are feeling like you're at the end of your tether all the time I encourage you to think about whether there's something you could change in your life that might help you get back to your happy place. Even small things can make a difference.

I don't just mean for folk with kids, either - I know mostly when we talk about this stuff it's because of kids, and for our family that was the catalyst for change, but not everyone is suited to the 9-5 and our society seems to forget that.

And if you've worked it out, I'd love to hear about your balance - what works for you? Did it take you a while to find it or did you always know what you wanted? 

Monday, August 24, 2015

Salted Caramel Sauce

I have to confess that despite my many cookbooks and over-burdened pantry I am quite partial to fancy mini-puddings from the supermarket - you know, the overpriced but delicious ones you find in the chiller? Those. The Gu ones are my favourite, so spongy and deeply chocolatey, and leave only 30 seconds between me and a hot, decadent dessert.

A few days ago I felt like I needed an extra something with my pudding (besides ice-cream, I mean. Obviously. It's not right if you don't have ice-cream with a warm dessert) and so I treated myself to some salted caramel sauce to drizzle over the top. I have had some magnificent salted caramel sauce in my time (J'aime les Macarons' stuff springs to mind) but after daintily peeling the wrapper off my pudding, gently zapping it to the perfect temperature, plonking a giant scoop of ice-cream on top and dribbling a bit of the sauce over I learned that the supermarket stuff, pricey as it is, is actually kind of gross. Mega disappointment!

Mr Cake wisely pointed out that I could probably make my own, prompting a manic google search. I eventually settled on a unctuous looking recipe from The Brown Eyed Baker, which (bonus!) only takes about 20 minutes from start to finish. And the recipe serves up a generous two cups of sauce, so it'll last through quite a few puddings.

It's very easy - melting and caramelising the sugar does require close attention as it goes pretty quickly and no-one wants burnt sugar sauce - and you can adjust the salt to your own taste. I found a tablespoon was perfect but did add it a bit at a time with obligatory taste-testing, which I recommend.

We were on dessert duty for a dinner with friends and felt that the sauce on its own was perhaps didn't count, so we also made a chocolate nemesis torte. This is now my favourite dessert cake, because despite me accidentally only adding half the quantity of water I was supposed to, and failing to provide a proper water bath for baking (we didn't have any pans deep enough) it still worked out pretty well (perhaps a touch dry around the edges and a crack on the top but still delicious) - so I definitely recommend it if you're after a cake to impress.

It looks better - no cracks - when cooked in a water bath but still tasted amazing. 

I would have liked to have made milk ice-cream to go with it, as I think that would have been perfect, but that required a bit more advance planning than we had done. Good old Tip Top to the rescue! Because really, sandwiched between the rich cake and the sticky, decadent sauce you just want something cold and vanilla.

The nemesis torte isn't a good quick fix for dessert but I have another recipe that I'm refining and will share with you soon that should do the trick - and in the meantime you can at least have homemade sauce with, well, everything. ;-)

Are you drawn in by the tasty puddings at the supermarket or do you always make your own?

Salted Caramel Sauce, adapted from The Brown Eyed Baker
2 cups sugar
170g butter, in chunks
1 cup cream
1 Tbsp flaky sea salt

Melt sugar in a saucepan over a medium heat, stirring occasionally, until melted. Continue to cook until it turns a dark caramelly colour or (if you have a candy thermometer) reaches 175 degrees Celcius. At this point cooking sugar can turn very quickly so watch it like a hawk - this bit requires your full attention.

Immediately add the butter and mix until butter is fully melted (it probably won't combine well with the sugar at this point, but will come together in the next step).

Remove from the heat and add cream, mixing until combined.

Mix in salt gradually to taste (I used the full measure, you may want more than a tablespoon depending on your tastes).

Leave to cool for 10 minutes before transferring to a container for storage.

The sauce can be stored in the fridge for up to two weeks.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Fake Furniture

This post was originally posted on A Kiwi Dream, my short-lived separate reno blog. Over the next couple of months I'll be migrating the content there here so please bear with me if you were following me there. 

I have been known to like property shows, and for a while we were watching a fair bit of the Canadian “Property Brothers.” If you’re not familiar with it, the show features twin brothers helping people into new homes by: searching for houses that sort of fit the bill; narrowing the choices to two run down options, which are each given catchy names so they can easily be referred to; performing CG makeovers to help the couple choose; and then doing the actual renovations (with maximum drama for the cameras, naturally). I hate the drama, but love the before and afters.

I have always (truly, as a child I used to dream of this) wanted to turn a sad old house into a warm, inviting family home, and somewhere along the line I talked my husband into this folly too.

We only owned our previous house (a two bedroom 1980s townhouse) for 2.5 years, and I’d like to think we made it more of a home (and got some good before and after shots!) but there wasn’t much wrong with it to start with. Perhaps we made a mistake in buying such an "easy" project, but it was a good practice run. 

Some before and after shots from our previous home 

I always keep half an eye on the local property market just in case… And back in November last year, I spotted the listing for the new place.

It was pretty apparent from the photos that there was plenty of work to do, but actually the most striking thing about the photos was that they showed the house as fully furnished… Only it wasn’t. Apparently this is a new trick in the real estate world; use a design programme to add furniture to unoccupied houses to make them look more homely. I’m not convinced – to me most of the photos look downright weird due to odd light patterns – but it gave us the working title, a la Property Brothers, for the house: Fake Furniture.

The fake furniture can't hide the damaged walls and awful curtains, but the fake rug does cover the worst of the carpet, and strategically placed ugly fake art conceals test pot paint swatches on the wall.  

We visited an open home but the listed price seemed steep, the real estate agent told us two previous offers at the asking price had fallen through after getting building inspections done, and it looked downright awful. It was clear that one corner of the house needed repiling; the kitchen was abysmal and its ceiling showed water stains and was sagging; the house had no indoor/outdoor flow; a room downstairs (potentially a bathroom) had never been completed and was open to the foundations and ground beneath the house; there was no certainty around consent on the whole downstairs addition; every room (save the upstairs bathroom) needed repairs, painting and reflooring at the very least… And the two offers which had fallen through made us suspect the building report flagged some other costly repair requirements. So we walked away.

But then in March I noticed it was still on the market, so I contacted the real estate agent. She was able to provide some additional information on the property from the vendor – the roof had just been replaced; two heat pumps and two ventilation systems had recently been installed; the leak in the kitchen ceiling had been fixed (the ceiling still needs to be repaired but no further damage is occurring); and compellingly, the work downstairs was consented (despite the unfinished bathroom).

So we did what anyone with a young baby and an overdeveloped sense of ambition would do; we put in an offer.

Predictably our low offer resulted in a bit of negotiation, but we reached a mutually agreeable number, subject to finance and building inspection, and in due course satisfied the conditions.
Fast forward a couple of months, and we now live in what we hope will eventually be a welcoming, comfortable family home... But that’s still a long way off.

I'm hoping that by sharing our experiences here (and of course the obligatory before and after shots!) that we can learn from each other - I'll share the tips we pick up along the way, and hopefully you'll tell me your best advice (and let me know when it looks like we're doing something daft!). 

First on the to-do list: getting the downstairs bedrooms comfortable so that we can have a small sanctuary in the chaos while we work on everything else!

Friday, August 21, 2015

Mrs Cake's mailing list and a competition

Okay guys, Mrs Cake now has a weekly newsletter! Each email will include links to the week's posts (in case you missed them, or if you prefer to do all your reading in one chunk). There will also be interesting bonus tidbits and extra quick recipes.

To get things rolling I have an awesome competition for you: if you sign up to my mailing list between now and the 31st of August you will go into the draw to win a bunch of my favourite things. I wanted to make sure the prize was reeeeeally good, so I've hunted down stuff that I love, and that I hope you'll like too. Here's the prize pack:

The goodies are:
Bohemein chocolates - my favourite Wellington chocolatier
HappBee wraps (3 pack) - these are beeswax coated cloth you can use to cover/wrap your food
Loaf Rocky Road slice - gluten free, delicious and very moreish
Planetwise snack bags (2 large, 1 small) - great for taking food out and about or to work
Fix & Fogg dark chocolate peanut butter - the next best thing to making your own 
Thirsties Duo Wrap (0-9 months) - a nappy cover that will hold everything in, designed for cloth nappies but just as useful at preventing leaks with disposables
Wellington Chocolate Factory salted brittle caramel chocolate - rich, dark, intense, amazing flavour
Lamington merino socks (3-9 months) - baby socks that stay on... These are my favourite gift to give to new parents so if you don't have wee kids yourself you can make someone else happy.

(I didn't notice till I compiled this list that all the food is very chocolate-centric... I guess at least you know it was me that did the choosing, right?)

The rules
The competition is open to everyone who signs up before midnight on the 31st of August. Free post within New Zealand - international readers are welcome to enter but depending on postage might need to contribute to those costs.

To enter, just sign up for the mailing list here, or by typing your email address into the box over in the sidebar, or by filling in the sign-up form on Facebook.

There will be opportunities to get bonus entries on my Facebook page so keep an eye out for those.

I will number each entry and the winner will be determined by

Good luck!

This competition is not sponsored - these are products I love and have bought to give to you awesome readers. Some of the above links are to affiliate sites. 

Thursday, August 20, 2015

My Office - my new writing home (a quick facelift)

One of the hardest parts of our renovation project for me to come to terms with was that it's just not possible for everything to happen at once. I like to get stuck in and get things done, and then sit back (preferably with a bit of cake) and admire my handiwork.

Our new house is a multi-year project. That's a long time between me and my celebratory cake! (I jest; of course I will eat cake before we're done. Obviously. Do you know me at all?)

At the moment we're focusing on getting the kitchen done (and I'll be sharing some of that process here soon), which means we don't have much DIY time for other areas of the house.

This was how our office was shown in the real estate listing. The bed and art are computer
generated. Sadly the curtain is real, but it was one of the first things we dealt to.
We have two upstairs rooms, an office and a guest room/playroom, which are at the bottom of the to-do list. Both have been in use as dumping grounds for tools, not-yet-unpacked boxes and any other random junk we couldn't find a home for.

The office did need some structural work - one of the bearers had rotted out - but we had that sorted out by our builder before we moved in. It still needs some plastering, painting or wallpapering and some new carpet, but it's fairly usable, but I wanted to liven it up a bit to make working it in more enjoyable.

This is a very low-rent makeover - well, actually, it was free - so it's not jaw-dropping... But it shows that spending a few hours finding homes for things and playing furniture tetris can make a big difference. You'll have to squint hard to ignrore the apricot walls, though.

The room is north-facing so gets great sun (the best in the house, at least until we add a new window into the north-facing wall of the lounge), and it's a good size. We (or at least, our builders) have already moved the door into the room, because when we moved in access was through what was the kitchen, and is now our guest bedroom. Not ideal! So now, logically, entry is off the hallway, which not only prevents awkward intrusions on houseguests but also makes the room feel bigger and more welcoming.

The first step in getting the office work-ready was moving all the junk out. We decided that all the tools could go in the downstairs bathroom (currently just a shell of a room, it would be weird otherwise) so I did some rehoming. Some of the baby things that are no longer in use got stored in a less-used cupboard in our bedroom and the sewing stuff stays, because this will be the sewing room too - still need a bit more storage for all the fabric.

Step two was playing with the furniture. I tried the desk in several places, and after a couple of false starts it now just feels right. I like that you instantly understand what the room is for when you walk in. The desk dictated the location of the settee so that was pretty easy.

We're also waiting for a visit from our sparky, which will hopefully provide some extra power, as at the moment there's only one double socket way over by the door.

Because the whole room needs plastering (the walls are covered in pinholes and there are a few cracks from repiling) I was able to put aside my normal paranoia about putting holes in walls... Which is good, because the walls are pretty ugly so I wanted to get some decent coverage.

I put up a noticeboard my sister made for me years ago, some of the awesome cake ladies my aunt drew for our wedding, and then pegged a bunch of photos onto a string. I also put our degrees up because isn't that what you're supposed to do? And at least they cover a bit more of that awful apricot paint.

I'm still on the hunt for a chest of drawers to go beside the desk so I can put away my sewing supplies and have a bit more work surface, and I need a better chair (that's one of our dining chairs, which are fine for dinner but not so nice on the back after a couple of hours' work), but overall I'm pretty pleased with the result... And it certainly looks better than it did in the real estate photos!

Are you happy to wait for things to progress over the fullness of time, or are you impatient like me?

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Book Review: Parenting Beyond Pink & Blue

When we were expecting the Little Monkey, though we found out we were having a boy at the 20 week scan, we decided not to tell anyone. One of our main reasons was that we didn't want people to think that everything in his life has to be blue. It was a bit superficial of us, but if you start looking at baby gear there is an extraordinarily strong blue/pink divide, to the point where, if shopping online, you usually have to click a gender category before viewing any products.

We didn't specifically want to avoid blue, or want him to wear only pink instead (nor were we wishing he was a girl); we just think that colours are an arbitrary (and irrelevant) way of categorising children.

(And for anyone who has had to ask if he is a boy or a girl, or has accidentally referred to him as a girl: we don't care, and neither does he. Please don't worry about it!)

Somewhat ironically, we ended up painting his first bedroom blue - we were going for a grey that would tone well with the existing blinds, but on the walls it looked blue. C'est la vie...

So that's a bit of context which will tell you why Christia Spears Brown's book Parenting Beyond Pink & Blue: How to Raise Your Kids Free of Gender Stereotypes appealed to me.

When I bought it I thought it would probably be fairly hypothetical for us - I smugly thought I knew a fair bit about gender issues already, and also guessed the content might be more relevant for parents of girls. I was wrong.

The book is split into three parts. The first covers how we use gender to sort and label people, and how that changes how we think about people. The second section works to identify what the real differences are between boys and girls, versus those which appear through stereotype reinforcement (I found a lot of the findings here quite surprising). And the final section looks at how using gender as a category affects children, and how we can use the information available to us to become better parents.

The book covers many effects of gender categorisations, and some of these stunned me. It seems that a lot of the time we don't realise that we're using gender to influence our language or attitude, but kids, from a very young age, pick up on subtle signals and work to conform with what they think is the right option.

Although initially Christia seems quite extreme, it quickly becomes apparent that while she is aware of the various pressures applied to children, she has a pragmatic approach to dealing with them. She's not into making a big fuss in public, but encourages thoughtful discussion of the stereotypes as appropriate.

It's also a very readable book - though it's thought-provoking and packs a lot of solid science in (the reference section at the back is substantial!), it's also enjoyable and relatable.

The main point I took away was really that gender, while a category which can be used to sort people into groups, is far less valuable as a sorting mechanism than many individual characteristics, and that where possible it's best to avoid boy/girl divides and instead rely on actual personality traits.

Our main objective, as I'm sure is true for most parents, is to enable our child to be the best he can be. If he is a naturally sporty, mechanically minded person then perhaps we don't need to worry about the pervasive stereotypes - but we can't possibly know that about him yet, and if he, say, prefers sewing to rugby then they may stifle him.

Though I'm sure having read this book won't make us perfect parents, hopefully it will make some minor improvements in the way we support our child's learning. I highly recommend it to anyone who has kids or is interested in gender issues - a fascinating read.

Parenting Beyond Pink & Blue: How to Raise Your Kids Free of Gender Stereotypes is available from (affiliate link). 

Monday, August 17, 2015

Burger Wellington - Five Burroughs

Despite having a whole house impatiently waiting for us to renovate it, we're trying to achieve family balance by making sure that we have at least one weekend day every week where we don't put our work clothes on or hang out at Bunnings.

We're still kind of new at this family thing, but we have worked out that it's quite good to do something other than sit inside with us all playing with our respective toys all day long (of course kids aren't necessary for that to hold true... It's just harder to get out the door once you have them and for us anyway that means we have to be a bit more intentional about it).

Yesterday we were thinking of heading down to the local playground, but that happens to be right on the south coast, and there was a fairly brisk southerly waiting to chill us to the core, so Plan A lost its gloss.

Luckily, it happens to be Wellington on a Plate season, which means that Wellington's already awesome eateries are all busy upping their game. Mr Cake's colleagues have been working hard to make him jealous by eating as many burgers as possible (the festival started on Friday and by Friday night one workmate had already had tried two), so it seemed only right that we seek out a tasty burger.

After some slightly hangry web-trawling (tip: don't leave the decision making until mealtime) we settled on Five Burroughs, as they had an interesting-sounding burger and we hadn't been there before.

It's always a bit of a gamble taking a wriggly and hungry toddler to a restaurant or cafe. Many cater well to kids but some don't at all - and fair enough, some places aren't aimed at the family market - but you can't always tell which is which until you get there.

Five Burroughs didn't seem to have high chairs, which I guess means they're not super excited when a smeary baby comes in the door (who is?), though bigger kids would probably be pretty happy here. Our whippersnapper (let's call him Little Monkey Cake) was happy enough there but did try to destroy both the venetian blinds and some of the art before we distracted him with food.

Service-wise they were great - just attentive enough, and (a definite win in parenting-land) brought out Little Monkey's burger very quickly.

As well as their "Some Sort of Burger" - Wild venison patty, truffled Kingsmeade Ngawi brie, exotic mushrooms, black garlic mayo, and foraged blackberry ketchup in a Zaida's squid ink milk bun - we ordered the buttermilk fried chicken, truffled fries, and a Bam Bam Baklava milkshake (how could we not?). And a kid's burger for Little Monkey.  

The shake was delicious, with lashings of honey and nuts as you'd expect. I thought it could have been improved with a touch of butter (for the true baklava experience) as the honey was a bit sweet, but I guess there's a very fine balance between serving a flavoured milk beverage and pureeing a dessert and perhaps the latter is not so desirable after all. 

Some Sort of Burger was excellent, with a succulent, well-cooked patty and a rich umami flavour thanks to the intriguing wild mushrooms. The garlic mayo and truffled brie melted into the other flavours, and the blackberry ketchup, served on the side, went well with the burger, though we just added it all to the burger. It was served with a few crisps but these were just okay. 

The fried chicken was pretty good - perfectly cooked meat and lovely crispy coating, though it was a little bland. You can choose between gravy and maple syrup to accompany, and I went with the gravy but think perhaps the syrup would have been a better match. 

The truffled fries were tasty, perfectly cooked with a good truffley flavour... Sadly we couldn't finish them, despite a solid effort by both myself and the Little Monkey.  

All in all it was a pretty awesome Sunday lunch, and it was good to introduce the small person to the marvels of Wellington on a Plate - start as you mean to go on, I say. And we still squeezed in some playtime at the cool Waitangi Park playground afterwards. An all-around win!

Have you tried any burgers yet this year?

Five Burroughs is located at the corner of Roxburgh and Marjoribanks Streets, Mt Victoria, Wellington,

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Chocolate almond bliss balls

This is not exactly a revolutionary recipe, nor am I at the cutting edge of the raw food trend. However, these were introduced into our diet as a nutrient-dense snack food when I was trying to simultaneously recover from childbirth and sustain a small person with all his caloric needs, and they're so good that a year later we're still making them regularly... So I feel it's my duty as a food-loving human being to share the joy around.

For me, the most surprising part of the whole Having A Baby thing was how difficult the physical recovery was. I was lucky not to have any complications with labour, and I was pretty fit going into it... But it's kind of like running a mega-marathon and then trying to recover by not sleeping for more than three hours at a time for the following six weeks.*

In the absence of lovely, precious, uninterrupted, restorative sleep, nourishing food to help your body heal becomes all the more critical. And (of course - come on!) it has to taste good too.

It's okay to go cheap on the fruit and nuts, but not the all-important chocolate! 
Bliss balls are generally ground nuts, dried fruit and some kind of flavour component. The recipe is pretty flexible and hard to screw up - so have a play with your favourite fruit and nuts. If the mix ends up a bit soft just add a few more ground nuts; if it's too firm to roll add some honey, water or some other liquid or syrup. Try apricot, macadamia and white chocolate, or fig, almond and cashew. Instead of coconut you could roll them in cocoa or extra ground nuts. Whatever tickles your fancy.

These definitely aren't the domain of new mums - they're great snacks, as they're delicious, reasonably high in protein, and pretty filling. Mr Cake loves them! They're also easy to put together, and last for ages in the fridge (if you don't eat them all at once, that is).

A food processor is reasonably critical here - though at a pinch you could buy ground nuts, mash up the dried fruit and grate the chocolate. The texture wouldn't be quite as good - home ground nuts tend to be a bit less uniform, a bit more crunchy, which makes for more interesting eating. But it would work.

Our processor is just a stick blender with processor attachments - and I had to do lots of batches as someone has misplaced the lid of the larger one. Let me know if you have any strategies for getting toddlers to share their secret hiding places!

If you have a really awesome and large food processor you may find you can do all the mixing inside it, which would speed things up a bit.

You can't make these without getting your hands covered in goo,
but as a consolation you're allowed to lick your fingers at the end.

The slowest part of making them is rolling them into balls. To get them reasonably uniform I usually do fractions, dividing the mixture in half several (4) times, and then when I'm down to a smallish ball dividing into three. Good maths lesson material perhaps?

You can obviously make them as large or small as you like, but they are rich and quite filling, so I prefer to keep them bite-sized and then have a second one if I'm still peckish. Plus you get more coconut that way. ;-)

It's a pretty big recipe, but they keep for ages and make great gifts too so we never seem to struggle to get through it.

Have you tried making bliss balls? Do you have a favourite flavour combo that I should try?

Bliss Balls (makes 48 bite-sized balls, adapted from Pregnancy Exercise)
400g almonds
400g dates
125g dark chocolate (I use Whittakers Dark Ghana)
1/2 cup dessicated coconut

Boil the jug, place dates in a bowl and soak in boiling water for 1 minute. Drain in a colander, pressing any extra water out (use a spoon or wait for them to cool and use your fingers).

Pulse almonds in a food processor until finely chopped.

Break chocolate into chunks and pulse in food processor until finely ground (you can do this together with some or all of the almonds if your processor is big enough).

Pulse dates until pureed (add some ground almonds to the mix if your processor struggles - or you can just mash them if your processor isn't up to it).

Use your hands to thoroughly mix the almonds, dates and chocolate together, then divide into balls and roll in coconut.

Store in an airtight container in the fridge for up to a month, or freeze for up to six months if you want to eke them out for even longer.

*Number of weeks/hours here is wildly variable by baby, sorry if it was longer for you, don't talk to me if it was shorter. ;-)
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