Ceiling of stars

Bruce

I make sporadic unsuccessful attempts to encourage my son to sleep in his own bed, because I have hitherto undiscovered reserves of mad optimism. My previous effort involved the pet fish he asked for on his last birthday. We put them in a tank in his bedroom, and I gave a long and heartfelt speech about what wonderful company fish were when one happened to wake up in the night. How lovely that he now had fishy friends with him in his room all the time! You’re never alone when you have a fish, I said. The first night he decided that fish were not actually very good company at all, particularly in the middle of the night, and back into our bedroom he came.

My latest idea for lulling my son to sleep by means of commercialism is a turtle with a fluffy head and flippers that shines stars onto the ceiling through its shell. It is quite as ridiculous as it sounds. Apparently some of the stars are Real Constellations, so it’s not only soothing but Educational. I presented him with the turtle and started on my hard sell – this was a new special friend! Who would live in his bed! And when he woke up at night he could press the button and the lovely stars would shine! Didn’t that sound beautiful and peaceful? Maybe he would like to give his special friend a name?

He looked suitably solemn and gazed at the turtle.

“Bruce.”

Uhhh.

“His name can be Bruce.”

I managed not to laugh.

Bruce the special shining star turtle has not been a success. Of course he bloody hasn’t, I don’t know what I was thinking. He has actually become part of the bedtime routine, just in the opposite way to which I had hoped. Bruce lives in the Big Bed now, and must be ceremoniously turned on each night, shining his soothing stars onto the ceiling so that my son and whichever adult is lying down with him can enjoy an Educational display of constellations. Instead of removing a small child from my bed, I’ve added a shining turtle. It’s not an improvement. Bloody Bruce.

Traffic controller

Berries

The traffic controller is sprawled on the front seat of his ute, one leg hanging out the open door. He’s texting on his phone while the line of cars crawls past him towards the temporary traffic light, blinking an inactive orange. I glare balefully at him. He yawns and taps at his phone again.

The closed bridge and consequent detour onto the main road are a daily tedious frustration, kilometres of extra driving for half of the year while the slowest bridge construction process in the world takes place. The temporary traffic lights were supposed to operate during peak times; instead, they’re generally turned off. The traffic controller sits in his car on the side of the road, presumably constantly poised to leap up and activate them should the intersection become too busy.

~~~~~

The traffic controller is rubbing a coin on an instant scratchie ticket. We pause right next to him, waiting for a gap in the traffic. My son is perched in his car seat, delivering a lengthy discourse on how you would install a speaker in a car; its intended audience is seemingly someone who has never heard of the concept of speakers or cars. I have heard of both, and “mmm oh yes, I see” in response as I stare at the traffic controller. I want to shout “Is it a winner, mate?” out the window.

~~~~~

The traffic controller is rolling a cigarette. Rolling cigarettes has always seemed to me to be a slightly classier way of smoking, if one is going to smoke. I think it’s the vaguely artisanal homemade aspect. Preserve some homegrown produce, bake a loaf of bread, roll a cigarette. When we return from the kindergarten and drive past him again, the traffic controller is smoking. He has propped a piece of signage against the windscreen of his car to shade him from the afternoon sun. I wonder why he doesn’t stand and smoke beside his car to spare the interior from the smell. Presumably there are some limits to the things one can do while purportedly monitoring traffic.

~~~~~

The traffic controller is closely examining his fingernails. I glance at my own fingernails on the wheel and make a mental note to cut them, which I immediately forget. If I could remember the mental notes I make while driving I think I would be a much more organised person. I hear that the bridge is almost completed, will perhaps re-open the following week. I wonder how often I am going to forget and drive straight on automatically to the detour, the habit of many months directing me while I think about the early morning fog and meetings at work and whether I’ve packed enough food for the baby. Realisation would dawn on me when I arrive at the empty intersection. The traffic controller is gone, on to better and brighter things, and I’ve gone the wrong way.

Lemon Drizzle Birthday Cake

Lemon drizzle birthday cake

This is a bit of a mash-up of recipes for lemon drizzle cake and a Swiss buttercream icing recipe from Smitten Kitchen that makes a wonderfully decadent layered birthday cake. The cake is intensely tangy and lemony, and the icing is rich and creamy without being overly sweet (and pipes on beautifully if you’re going for more decorative icing).

This is baked in two 20cm/8 inch square tins, but the same amount of batter will make one larger tray cake in a 30 x 23cm pan – just bake for an extra 5-10 minutes, and forget the icing for more of an afternoon tea style cake.

ingredients:

for the cake –
225g (1 cup) unsalted butter, softened
225g (1 cup) caster sugar
4 eggs
zest of 2 lemons
225g (1 1/2 cups) self-raising flour (or 225g plain flour plus 3tsp baking powder)

for the drizzle –
juice of 2 lemons
75g (1/3 cup) caster sugar

for filling and Swiss buttercream icing –
jar of good lemon curd
170g (3/4 cup) caster sugar
3 large egg whites
275g (approx 1 1/4 cups) unsalted butter, softened
1/2 tsp vanilla extract

Preheat the oven to 160C/140C fan forced. Grease and line two 20cm/8 inch square tins.

Cream together the butter and sugar until fluffy. Beat in the eggs one at a time until well incorporated, then add the lemon zest. With a spatula, fold in the flour. Split the mixture evenly between the two tins – it should be just over 2 cups of batter for each tin. Smooth the surface and bake for 30 minutes, or until a skewer inserted into the centre comes out clean and the edges are just coming away from the side. Leave to cool in the tins for a few minutes, then turn onto a cooling rack.

When you’ve put the cakes in the oven, mix together the lemon juice and sugar for the drizzle in a small bowl. Stir well a few times while the cakes are cooking. When the cakes are cooked, the sugar should have dissolved into the lemon juice.

When the cakes have cooled a little but are still warm, gradually spoon the lemon juice mixture evenly over the tops of the cakes. If the drizzle runs through the cakes, wait for them to cool a bit more before trying again. When the drizzle has been completely spooned on, leave the cakes to cool completely.

When you’re ready to fill and ice the cake, make the buttercream. Put some water into a small saucepan to simmer. Whisk the egg whites and sugar together into a big metal bowl over the saucepan of water. and place the bowl over a small saucepan of simmering water. Whisk until the sugar has completely dissolved – test by rubbing a little of the mixture between your fingers to see if you can feel sugar granules.

Using hand beaters (or having transferred the mixture to the bowl of a mixer), beat or whip until it turns white and approximately doubles in size. Add the vanilla essence. Add the butter a large chunk at a time, beating continuously as you do so. When you’ve finished adding the butter, continue beating until the icing is a thick, smooth, pipeable consistency.

Spread a thick layer of lemon curd on one of the cakes, then cover with a thick layer of buttercream. Place the other cake on top, then ice the whole cake with the remaining buttercream. If you want a precise finish, it may be easier to do a thin crumb layer, then refrigerate the cake for half an hour before covering it with a final layer of icing and any piping.

6 months

Bee

Six months passes a lot faster with your second child. It felt like an absolute age with my first. You’re learning how to look after a baby, second-guessing everything you do, and also adjusting to the massive change to your life; the sledgehammer of parenthood. With your second, you’re too busy to dwell on time passing and so it speeds by.

Things I’m enjoying at 6 months:

  1. Frances’ constant smiles and laughter. It seemed to take her quite a while to laugh, and when she first began it was an odd, forced sound, very similar to the sound of her sobs. Now it is an easy chuckle. She is most amused by her brother, and sometimes sits there laughing at him while he’s doing something very ordinary, much to his bemusement and occasional irritation.
  2. Watching the steady progression of new skills – she has been rolling both ways for a while, and seems to be making progress towards being able to sit, although currently she still lurches and falls over a few seconds after I carefully place her in a sitting position. She is very focussed on new things she can do with her hands at the moment, and spends ages concentrating on moving a toy around, or tearing paper to shreds (I must confess until recently I let her go to town on catalogues we get in the mail, as she “plays” happily with them for so long, but then she started eating them, so I’ve discontinued that baby-entertainment method). She babbles away with consonants in random emphatic streams of sound – dadagagadamamama.
  3. Starting solids, which we did a few days before she turned six months old, as she was very interested in our food. I thought we would try more of a baby-led weaning approach this time, but Frances was very perturbed by the chunks of soft food she managed to gnaw off from larger pieces of food and immediately gagged them back up. I’ve been mashing up things with a fork instead and spoon feeding her, which she enjoys much more, and I love her fascinated/horrified expressions whenever she encounters something new.

Things I’m not enjoying at 6 months:

  1. The lack of sleep is my major complaint, but then again it usually has been with both my children, and Edward improved. So, I trust, will Frances.
  2. I am beginning to chafe slightly at my stay-at-home-parenthood lifestyle. I return to work in three months, and I think by then I’ll be really looking forward to some time on my own – oh that’s an odd thing to write, as I don’t have a whole lot of social time with other adults at the moment. But I am never without Frances – particularly at the moment, as she has been in an intensely clingy phase for the past month or so, never happy with anyone else, and I am beginning to look forward to a break from that. When I returned to work after my first maternity leave, I really enjoyed the novel feeling of only being responsible for myself in my hours away from home.
  3. In almost equal measure, I find myself worrying about my return to work and Frances going to a family daycare for four days a week; an arrangement which we are experienced with and will no doubt work perfectly well, but I dread the awful feeling of removing yourself forcibly from a crying baby and rushing out the door. It’s never a pleasant experience.
  4. Not being able to hand off the baby to anyone else without her howling – I don’t remember Edward being this excessively attached to me, and I hope it’s a short-lived stage.

Gingerbread Biscuits

Gingerbread

These are lovely spiced slightly crunchy gingerbread biscuits, adapted from a classic recipe in The Joy of Cooking. They’re great to make with children – the dough is easy to mix up, it involves melting butter in a saucepan (a big plus according to my four year old), they can press shapes out of the dough, and then decorate the resulting biscuits.

ingredients:
1/2 cup (115g) butter
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup golden syrup or molasses
2 1/2 cup plain flour
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tblsp ground ginger
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp ground nutmeg
decorations if desired – chocolate bits, sultanas, icing, etc

method:
In a small saucepan, melt together the butter, sugar and golden syrup or molasses until the sugar is just dissolved. Remove from the heat to cool until just warm.

In a bowl, stir together 2 1/4 cups of the flour, the baking soda, salt, and spices. Make a well in the centre, and pour in the melted butter mixture. Stir vigorously to blend together. Gradually add in the remaining 1/4 cup of flour. The mixture should now be a ball of smooth dough, pulling away from the sides of the bowl.

Remove the dough from the bowl and knead it a few times, before flattening it into a thick disc and wrapping it in plastic wrap. Put it in the fridge to cool down for 20 minutes or so, so that it’s easier to roll out. You can also leave the dough in the fridge at this stage for up to four days, returning it to room temperature before you roll it out. (You could presumably also freeze it and then defrost before use, but I haven’t tried that).

Preheat the oven to 180C, and roll out the dough to around half a centimetre thick. (Yes, I did actually get out a ruler and check this, although I never manage to roll out dough evenly anyway. Mine always end up being varying thicknesses, which doesn’t seem to matter all that much). Cut out your biscuits in whatever shape you desire (and if you’re cooking with a four year old, let them artistically place chocolate bits where appropriate). Depending on the shape you’ve chosen, this amount of dough should make between two to three trays of biscuits. They don’t spread much at all, so you can place them close together.

Bake the biscuits for about 8 minutes, until they’re just starting to brown on the edges. They’ll firm up as they cool down, and they’re easy to overcook (although that just makes them extra crunchy).

When cooled, they can be decorated with icing, but it’s not necessary. They taste great plain, and keep very well in a sealed container for at least a week.

Gingerbread

Hourly

Lemongrass

When Frances was three months old I wrote blithely that I was enjoying the fact that she was better at sleeping than her brother, and I could do magical things like put her down when she was drowsy and she would fall asleep. How sweetly innocent I was. Frances is now almost six months old and is what I would classify as “a bloody terrible sleeper”. Her brother started off awful at sleeping and gradually got better, with occasional months-long reversions. She started off quite decently, and has gradually become worse and worse. I didn’t think babies were supposed to work like that. I am quite affronted.

At the moment during the night she usually sleeps for a couple of two hour stretches (or on special occasions, longer), and then wakes up hourly the rest of the time. “Maybe you should try co-sleeping,” said a well-meaning helpful person. Ha ha, helpful person, she sleeps like that while I am co-sleeping. And I am mostly getting enough sleep. I’m functioning, I’m getting things done, I’m mostly keeping my temper with the inevitable frustrations of parenting a four-year-old. I’m still enjoying being at home with a baby. But god, I miss long stretches of sleep and sleeping in my own bed. I try not to think about how much I miss it because it makes me irritable. Like geez, is it really so hard to sleep that you have to wake up every hour to have a small comforting snack? I know you can sleep for longer because you used to.

For daytime naps I put her to sleep in a baby carrier so that she sleeps for longer. As I type this she is strapped to my front, snoozing restlessly, her warm sweaty head making my shirt damp. It was quite snuggly and pleasant wearing her in the cooler months, but the weather very swiftly changed from “barely winter” to “fuck spring, we’re moving directly to summer” and now she sleeps and sweats. I need to stop wearing her at some point before the end of the year, because she will start at a family daycare in January when I return to work. I don’t want “strange exotic napping in a cot” to be another thing for her to adjust to when she starts – but every day when I think “I should really start putting her down in the cot to nap”, I am too reluctant to lose those precious moments of productive time I get with putting her in the carrier.

The one benefit of having your second child sleep like crap is that you don’t dwell on it in the same obsessive way that you do with your first. I spent a lot of pointless hours trying to come up with reasons for why Edward slept badly and worrying that he would never improve. While I do record Frances’ sleeping patterns I don’t spend my time mentally gnawing on the problem in the same way I did with Edward. (Yes, I know I have now written several detailed paragraphs about it which may suggest that I don’t entirely let it go. This, incidentally, is why it’s hard to answer “so what have you been up to?” queries from people who aren’t currently taking care of young kids. “Oh, you know, thinking in vast and boring detail about my child’s sleeping habits and writing down how many times I get woken up each night.” They tend to smile at you in a rather fixed manner, I can’t imagine why.)

6 of the Best Newsletters

Drying flower

I used to read almost everything online via RSS in Google Reader. I love RSS; all those websites collated neatly in the one place, easily readable on mobile. Not many other people felt the same way (or at least, only an unprofitable number of people), and as a result Google Reader died a very sad death in 2013. I replaced Google Reader with Newsblur, but the end of Reader was probably the trigger for me finding things to read in other places – often via Twitter, but also through email newsletters. Newsletters seem to have become increasingly popular over the last couple of years – partly I suppose because it gives people control over a mailing list, partly because it enables them to send their “content” (I’m using that despised term for want of a better one) directly to readers, and therefore having a better chance of capturing their attention than passively publishing on a website and trying to lure readers via links on social media.

Anyway! I am becoming increasingly fond of receiving beautifully curated and written newsletters in my email on a regular basis. My preference is for newsletters that contain a mixture of essay/personal writing and links to interesting and thought-provoking things. (Newsletters containing poetry or fiction are not my thing, although there’s plenty of those around too).

Here are a few of my favourites, all very delightful in different ways:

  1. Two Bossy Dames is a very funny and lengthy collection “cultural recommendations and commentary” sent out weekly. I’ve found so many things (music, articles, tv shows) that I’ve enjoyed via this newsletter.

    “I think any friend I’ve ever made or romantic partner I’ve ever had liked me because I’m funny. But mostly, when I hear other people compliment me (sometimes when you eavesdrop, you DO hear nice things about yourself), they don’t focus on my effervescent wit. WHY IS THAT? Noted historian & funny lady Rosa Lyster (with an assist by her equally funny Frith) explain that Anne Boleyn is both to thank & blame for this state of affairs, as she was obviously hilarious, but Henry VIII and all his male courtiers simply couldn’t conceptualize female…humor??? So they decided she was a witch. As one does! Sound logic, Tudor bros! “

  2. So Far, I’ve Had No Complaints by Caroline Crampton includes sections such as Things to Read, Things to Listen To, Things to Watch, and Compulsory Medieval Thingamabob. I love that it includes tempting excerpts of the articles it links to – I’m not into newsletters that are just a plain series of links without description.

    “I think I find old-fashioned murder mysteries so comforting because they represent the triumph of order over chaos. The side of right always prevails. Unlike in real life, logic and hard work always win in the end.”

  3. Grief Bacon by Helena Fitzgerald are irregularly delivered (which makes them a wonderful surprise) and beautifully written essays on life.

    “Love allows us to see – and be seen – in not just our raw or ugly selves, but our boring selves, the person who sits on the couch and watches television, the person who wakes up in the morning and makes coffee, the person who doesn’t have much of anything to say. We already know to praise ourselves for our rare special occasion achievements. In love, we elevate the unsightly things, the boring day-to-day, into the spectacular. Love celebrates another person’s existence rather than their achievements.”

  4. …the fuck is this by Bim Adewunmi is a sporadic mixture of thoughts and links, and always a pleasure to read.

    “It’s only August, but I feel the slipping away of summer very keenly, perhaps because I’m British.

    We are a people of a somewhat gloomier disposition, used to a somewhat… accelerated summer season. Lazy summer days are a dime a dozen in this new place, not snatched moments in the local park, half-naked and resolutely baking sun-deprived skin.”

  5. Three Weeks is appropriately delivered every three weeks, and always contains three things to read, watch, and listen to (in addition to a variety of other interesting links).

    “Hello to everyone, but warm greetings especially to the heartbroken and those in need of courage. Email can be a pretty decent place for finding what you need. Particularly if what you yearn for is some extra browser tabs and a bracing dose of Motivational Britney.”

  6. Links I would Gchat you if we were friends by Caitlin Dewey is a weekly collection of links that helpfully rounds-up the major news stories/interesting articles/Stuff Happening Online, with incisive commentary.
  7. “The hardest-working women on the Internet … are these Kate Middleton bloggers. (They’re like three parts insane workaholics and one part insane voyeurs.) There’s apparently a small army of these women, live-tweeting Middleton’s life; it’s a fascinating glimpse into the extremes of fandom and labor online.”

Scone Pizza

Scone pizza

This is very barely adapted from Hungry and Frozen’s scone pizza recipe (I added some thinly sliced zucchini and crumbled feta to the original recipe) and is very much as it sounds; a delicious scone-like base (although significantly easier to make than scones, as it doesn’t involve rubbing butter time-consumingly into flour) with a gorgeous savoury topping. It’s also ridiculously easy – 30 minutes from your initial “hmm, what will I have for lunch” thought to pulling the pizza out of the oven.

Scone pizza, pre-baking

ingredients:
200g (2 cups) plain flour
1 tsp baking powder
pinch of salt
25g melted butter
125g (1/2 cup) plain yoghurt
1 large tomato, sliced
1/2 zucchini, thinly sliced
your choice of cheese – I used some grated cheddar and a little crumbled feta

method:

Pre-heat your oven to 210C (190C fan-forced).

Stir together the flour, baking powder, and salt, then add in the melted butter and yoghurt. Stir only enough to form together into a soft dough. You may need a little extra yoghurt to get the dough to form easily depending on how thick your yoghurt was – I needed an additional small spoonful.

On some baking paper, roll the dough out into a rough circle about 1cm thick. Pop the baking paper and dough onto a tray, and then top your pizza – I thickly layered on tomato and zucchini, then sprinkled my cheese over the top. Plenty of tomato is great, as it goes wonderfully squooshy in contrast to the base (and I’m saying that as someone who is not a fan of cooked tomato, generally).

Bake for around 20 minutes, until the cheese is melted and the base is puffed and lightly browned. Devour while hot.

Buchteln (or Sweet Bread Twists)

Sweet bread twists

“They strolled back to their pension where a meal was awaiting them of wonderful pastries, ivory butter piled thickly on fancy bread twists, and what Mary-Lou called “lashings of coffee and cream”.” (from Theodora and the Chalet School)

Sweet bread twists are frequently mentioned in the Chalet School books, either being served to students during Kaffee und Kuchen, or being eaten at cafes while out visiting small towns in the surrounding areas. This collection of Chalet School recipes believes that the sweet bread twists would likely have been made from dough like that used for Buchteln, a jam-filled yeast raised bun. It sounded reasonable enough to me, so I adapted a different recipe and used the dough to make both jam-filled buns and some sweet bread twists.

These are best on the day that they’re made; very soft, slightly sweet, lemony buns, filled with tangy jam. They are excellent morning or afternoon tea fare, and they can easily be revived on subsequent days with a little warming up. The “fancy bread twists” were also nice, especially on the day they were made; on subsequent days, I dunked them in a mug of coffee.

Buchteln

(Adapted from this Buchteln recipe).

ingredients:

4 cups (500g) all-purpose flour
1 tbsp active dry yeast
½ cup (100g) sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract
grated zest of one small lemon
100g butter, softened
1 egg
1 egg yolk
1 cup (250ml) warm milk
jar of jam – I used raspberry & pomegranate, which was pleasantly tangy
melted butter to brush over dough

method:
Combine the dry ingredients in a bowl – flour, yeast, sugar, and lemon zest – and mix well.

Whisk together the wet ingredients in another bowl – the warm milk, egg, egg yolk, and softened butter. It’s not going to be completely smooth, I just bashed it around as best I could. Possibly you could just melt the butter, but I wasn’t game as I thought it might affect the texture of the dough.

Pour the wet ingredients into the dry and mix with a spoon until it forms into dough. (Or if you’re fancy, use a stand mixer with a dough hook). Mine mixed into a fairly wet dough, and I had to add another 60g or so of flour to make it kneadable. Tip it out onto your bench and knead for a minute or so. Form the dough into a ball, put it back into your mixing bowl, cover and leave for 1 to 1 ½ hours or until doubled in size.

Punch down and roll the dough out into a 1cm thick rectangle. Cut out small squares – about 8x8cm, which I actually measured because I’m terribly at eyeballing length, and put any leftover scraps of dough aside to make the bread twists (or re-roll for more squares if you’re only making the rolls). Lightly grease a springform circular pan, and cover a tray with baking paper.

Put a tablespoonful of jam in the middle of each dough square, then bring the opposite corners together and pinch in tightly, to close up the dough into a small ball. Put the ball into the springform pan, closure down. Roll out the dough scraps into 20cm long snakes, and twist in appropriately fancy manner. Put the twists on the tray. Cover your springform pan and tray, and let rise (for around another 1 to 1 ½ hours) until doubled in size.

Heat at 190C (170C fan forced) for about 15-20 minutes for the twists, and 25-30 minutes for the rolls. Let cool slightly, and if you like, dust with icing sugar before serving.

3 months

3 months

Baby number 2 is three months old. It seems far longer than that, like she’s always been around, hanging out in one of my arms while I do everything else one-handed.

Things I’m enjoying at 3 months:

  1. The one tiny laugh we’ve heard, a throaty “haHA” accompanied by a wide gummy grin. She’s quite a jolly little thing, usually happy to smile, but we’ve only coaxed one laugh out of her so far.
  2. Admiring her chubby little tummy and legs, and the vigorous way she thrashes about in the bath. I have to curve my fingers around her head so she doesn’t rocket herself skull-first into the side of the bath.
  3. The way she sleeps far better than her brother did at the same age. I am doing exactly the same things I did with him – swaddling, feeding on demand, feeding to sleep – and the way she sleeps is completely different. She will even wake up as I put her down in the cot, and then DRIFT BACK TO SLEEP ON HER OWN. Previously I had thought everyone who said babies did that was lying. It seems that the way babies sleep is just the way they sleep, and there’s not a whole lot you can do to change it.

Things I’m not enjoying at 3 months

  1. The fact that I have another child who only has decent naps while in a baby carrier. I can’t say that I’m too devastated about this given how comparatively well she’s sleeping at night (I feed her two, sometimes three times during the night), and I’m optimistically presuming that she’ll grow out of this habit, unlike her brother.
  2. think there were more things I wasn’t enjoying a month ago, when she was spending much more time in unexplained tears while I jiggled her and put in the baby carrier and walked up and down pointing the Baby Shusher at her (a virulently orange electronic thing that “ssssshhhh”s loudly at your sobbing child. It’s actually surprisingly effective, which is nice given that I spent $50 on it). She abruptly changed at 12 weeks, suddenly becoming more settled. It was a pleasant surprise, and I am very much enjoying dropping her brother off at kindergarten without her howling hysterically in my arms.