Monday, 15 July 2013

And here's one I prepared earlier.

In May, while we were on holiday, P turned 4. He was desperate to have a party, and so, as his best friend also had a birthday exactly a week later, we agreed to have a joint one after we got back.

Spiderman 'a la Grec'.
This, it was finally decided was to be a Safari Dinosaur Hunt party. The theme was agreed only after much wrangling. P was adamant that he wanted a Spiderman party, although he felt that really it would need to be a Spiderman and Princesses party, to cater for the girls.* D wasn't that keen on Spiderman, and to be honest, neither were D's mum and I, so in the end we settled on dinosaurs as being something acceptable and broadly gender-neutral, and promised P that he could have a Spiderman birthday in Greece (covered by Yiayia and Papou buying him a conveniently light and easy-to-pack cheap nylon Spiderman suit as a present for his actual birthday) and a dinosaur birthday once we came home.

Since D and family have a bigger house, with a much bigger garden, and we were only coming back from holiday two days before the designated date, it seemed sensible for them to provide the venue and food, and my contribution was to be doing party bags, providing a picture for "pin the tail on the dinosaur", and making the cake.

Thanks to the huge variety of cheap dinosaur-themed rubbish available on Amazon, and to the fact that my youngest brother is generally happy to rustle up a picture of whatever you like to mention at short notice and free of charge, the first two of these proved no problem at all. The cake, however, was more of a challenge.

I am not the world's greatest baker. I can usually just about manage to make an edible sponge-cake, but when it comes to decorating I am definitely of the "less is more" school, not least because I don't actually like icing very much. Given that I needed to be able to produce an acceptable dinosaur the day after getting back from holiday I thought I'd better have a trial run. Accordingly I googled "dinosaur cake" and found an online video tutorial explaining how to cut up and re-arrange a rectangular cake to make a 2D dinosaur shape and then cover it with royal icing. It looked like a doddle. I made my bog-standard sponge, left it to cool, and waited to decorate it after the boys were in bed.

Four hours and a lot of stickiness later I had learned a lot about the properties of ready-rolled icing as an artistic medium. 

It does not, as I had assumed, behave like pastry. If you try to roll it really thin (thinner than it comes in the pack), it just sticks to the work surface and won't come off at all unless you scrape at it with a knife. If you try to lift it draped over a rolling pin (as you would with pastry) it immediately rips, sags, and falls apart. You cannot piece it back together like you can with pastry, at least not without the joins being very visible. Once you have got it onto a jam-covered cake, if it hasn't landed exactly right, you can't move it or adjust its position in any way, without it ripping and becoming riddled with cake crumbs. Most significantly it is virtually waterproof: painting white icing with green food colouring causes the colour to pool on the surface in sticky motley blotches in a manner which, while perhaps convincingly reptilian, is not especially appetising.

Doyouthinkesaurus (no. 1)
Suffice to say the first attempt looked more akin to taxidermy than confectionary. I spirited it away to work before P could see it, where my long suffering colleagues dispatched the poor creature, made encouraging comments about how nice it looked (in the face of all the evidence), and more importantly, gave me a lot of good advice about how to do it better next time.

Firstly, do not use ready-rolled icing. Get the stuff you have to roll yourself and allow at least twice as much as you think you'll need so you can roll it out plenty big enough to cover the whole thing and then just throw away the extra you cut off, which will inevitably be full of jam and cake crumbs and no use to man nor beast. Second, knead the food colour into it little by little, adding a few drops at a time and working it as if you were kneading dough. This takes hours, but it works. Third, don't attempt anything with fiddly corners. Pushing the icing into awkward places just causes it to rip - better to go for a big smooth shape as much as possible.

Doyouthinkesaurus (no.2)
Armed with this information the second attempt was much better. I abandoned the 2D shape and went for something along the lines of a stegosaurus. Making two round cakes, as if to make a victoria sandwich, I cut both in two slightly below halfway and stuck the larger halves together standing on their edge to form the back of the dinosaur. I then cut one of the smaller halves to form a curving tail and used the other to make a wedge-shaped head, sticking all the bits together with jam. This time I recruited C to help me get the icing onto the cake. I very carefully lifted the rolled out icing draped across the palms of both hands and he shoved the cake underneath as fast as he could. 

I originally tried to make cake feet as well, but this turned out to be just too fiddly, so I eventually resorted to modelling them out of leftover icing. This worked pretty well, even if the mere idea of biting into one made my teeth ache and my stomach churn. Chocolate buttons broken in half make pretty good claws. Attempt number two was a great improvement, and also disposed of by the OED so that P wouldn't see it and spoil the surprise.**

Having worked out broadly speaking how to make the main cake, I then started to wonder how on earth I was going to chop the thing into reasonably equitable chunks for the kids to take home. Finally I decided the best thing would be to make some cupcakes to go in the party bags instead. I originally intended to put plastic dinosaurs on these, but having bought a large quantity of brightly coloured fondant icing to decorate the final cake I discovered that a sort of icing "slug" for the body, four blobs for the legs, and a squashed sausage cut into peaks with a knife would produce a passable mini-dinosaur, so the guests each got one of those and we and D's family shared the main dinosaur. 

I must admit, I was rather pleased with the finished thing, and P was gratifyingly surprised and chuffed with it. 

Don't care if I never see another piece of icing, though.

*P's attitude to gender roles leaves a little to be desired as far as I'm concerned. He recently informed me that I should wear "clippy-cloppy shoes" and "that stuff like face paints" if I want to be a "proper grown-up mummy". On the other hand, he was right about the girls he invited to his party. None of them wanted to have their faces made up as dinosaurs: they all wanted to be princesses.

**It will be interesting to see in years to come whether the excess of green food colouring consumed by the dictionary staff will be identifiable as having an effect on the definitions produced during this period.

Friday, 12 July 2013

Summertime, and the living is...well, hectic as ever, really

Just over a month ago we went on a proper family holiday: two weeks at "The House". And it was fab, and just like holidays were when I was little (except rather shorter, since we don't get anything like as much leave as my parents - a teacher and an academic - did. And mercifully with less cement-making). And I went so far as to make notes, so as to be able to blog about it later. And then we came home, and there was a 4th birthday party to organise and dinosaur cakes to construct, and then it was back to work, and decorating, and potty training, and fixing the garage, and...well, you get the picture.

And then I spoke to someone who asked me about the holiday and reminded me that I was going to blog about it. So here - somewhat retrospectively - goes:

Day 1: Up at 4.30 to drive to Gatwick in plenty of time for the plane, having, on a previous occasion had to run the length of the airport and do without breakfast when the bus was late and we nearly missed our flight. The buggy has apparently been warned in advance of what awaits it on the rocky hillsides of Zakynthos, because it has sheered a bolt in the back of the car with the result that as soon as R sits in it it folds up on him and can only be steered by tipping it up so that the front wheels come off the floor. Arrive in plenty of time, but after nearly 2 hours of queueing, we miss breakfast and run the length of the airport again (this time with R sitting in a half-collapsed buggy doing a permanent wheelie) to make it to the gate just in time.

Within an hour of arriving at "The House" both boys have fallen down most of the stairs, identified how to get up onto the roof, and R has spotted where Papou stores all his tools, including the "Train-sword" [chainsaw]. Very glad my parents are here too and there are four pairs of eyes to spot what they're getting up to!

Day 2: Everyone covered from head to foot in grazes, mosquito-bites, and Merenda chocolate-spread. Just how holidays used to be, though not quite as hot as it's May not August. There are wildflowers, butterflies, and swallows everywhere and the lake is full of terrapins humping, and frogs exclaiming "Brekekekèx-koàx-koáx". Lovely.

R is very taken with "The House" but mystified by the fact that there is no washing-machine or oven, and that while there are lots of steps outside there are hardly any inside, which as he says, is the opposite of our house at home.

Day 3: Sitting in our favourite taverna watching my own son putting tomato-ketchup on souvlakia. The shame! It's a bit cool for swimming, so we paddle instead and build a sandcastle, starting a trend for the rest of the holiday.

Day 4: Pleasant though it is sitting in the sun watching the world go by, there are signs that times are hard for people here at the moment. Dad tells us he's been talking to an old friend - a taxi driver on the island. He was employed by the local government to take children to and from school, but has never been paid for his work. Having been fobbed off with governmental IOUs up to the value of 15000 Euro, he's now been informed, actually they won't ever be able to pay him more than 1000. His family have gone back to growing potatoes in the garden - just in case they need them this winter. 

Day 5: Up at 5.30 for the traditional bus trip into town and bougatsa custard-pastries for breakfast. First stop, find a hardwear shop and buy a bolt to fix the buggy. After four days of being expected to walk everywhere, R leaps back into his chariot with a cry of delight the minute it is mended and hardly moves from it all morning.

Mum and I dismiss the men to take the kids to the park and go on a fruit and vegetable-fondling expedition, coming back with oranges, strawberries, and cherries, as well as all sorts of green vegetables you don't get in the heat of the summer when we are usually here.

Having earlier in the morning walked past a shop I have stumbled across once or twice before, which sells beautiful jewel-coloured crochet thread, but which never seems to be where I remember it, we attempt to take this opportunity to return. But sadly when we go back, it has once again shuffled into its wormhole and vanished.

How many can I fit in my mouth at once?

Day 6: Rain. Since it's cooler we embark on the statutory five-mile hike in search of a pile of stones of potential archaeological significance. As with so many of these sites in the past, it appears to have changed location since my dad last saw it. We spend a happy couple of hours stumbling about in an olive grove, falling down terraces, but don't find the "wall". We do, however, encounter a bright green, metre-long grass snake engaged in eating a goldfinch.

Day 7: Wash day, this being the sort of holiday where you do all the same chores as usual, but by hand, and with only lukewarm water.

To the beach in the afternoon and bored with bog-standard sandcastles, decide to make a sand-ogre instead.

Day 8: Strangely cool and windy: no swimming today. P and Papou make toy boats and sail them in the pond (including one P names the "Zebra Moon"), and construct a sign giving directions to Didcot, the airport, and Australia.

Day 9: P's birthday. Still cool with strange pink skies and "Sirocco" wind covering everything in a fine layer of sand from the Libyan desert. Perfect weather for constructing and flying a leftover wrapping-paper kite.

P grudgingly agrees to make do with a massive ice-cream cake with sparklers for his birthday, instead of the crappy mass-produced Sainsbury's Spiderman one that he had his heart set on.

Day 10: Yiayia and Papou off to Athens to attend a christening. The rest of us take the huge inflatable crocodile they brought back from Australia down to the beach for the first time and have a great time squirting one another with the attached water-pistol.

Walking back P remarks "It's not a bit like Didcot, is it". He's not wrong.

Day 11: Spend morning with the boys painting pebbles with Yiayia's acrylic paints to embellish our daily sandcastle, and the afternoon on the beach constructing a sand-croc.

Yiayia and Papou back at 11pm with lots of presents from the rellies and someone else's suitcase containing someone else's car keys!

Day 12: Back to town with Papou to return the case to the poor man who had been left stranded at the bus station last night. He is very nice about it and insists on giving us a lift back into town afterwards.

Rest of day spent on the beach making a "troll hole".

Day 13: Return to the beach to find someone has taken the troll's eyes. R. very concerned by this.

Build a large fish instead, which takes most of the day.

Day 14: Boat trip out to the island in the bay and the caves round the headland. C and I enjoy swimming in turquoise water off the back of the boat, only slightly marred by the fact that the owner forgets to point out that he has recently repainted the ladder, so we all end up with sticky blue feet and spend the rest of the trip dabbing at ourselves with industrial grade nail-varnish remover. The boys are more impressed by the fact that the island is served, not by an ice-cream van, but an ice-cream boat.