The first quarter of our year always seems to be crammed with more birthdays than any other time.

So far we’ve celebrated:
– an excited lego & star wars crazy five-year old grand-nephew
– two of my siblings, both happy enough to just let the day pass without much fuss
– an evening of mango-madness to celebrate friend’s 35th birthday
– my BFF’s special day (although having the ‘flu did put a bit of a damper on things for her)

Still to come we have:
– Nunzio-puppy will be a year old 🙂
– a cute little grand-niece turns two
– her dad celebrates his birthday soon after
– two of our close friends each notch up another year
– a niece, a nephew and an honorary grandchild likewise
– and Ma-in-law turns 80

Birthdays are usually fun, particularly for kids. They enjoy the anticipation, the excitement, the tasty treats, and, of course, the presents. Although I have no specific memories of my childhood birthdays, I do remember an overall sense of wellbeing. I guess I simply took it for granted that the day would be special. Mum always made a yummy cake, there were gifts from my parents and (sometimes) my siblings – and the pile generally included a much anticipated book. Occasionally I’d be given lunch money to enjoy some tuckshop marvel instead of the peanut butter and syrup sandwiches that Dad usually made (!). Happy times.

It wasn’t until I moved out of home that it occurred to me just how much time and effort Mum must have put into ensuring that each of us felt special on that one day of the year. Not an easy task with six kids and a full time job to wrangle, I imagine. I wonder who made her birthdays special when we were little…?

Thinking about this, particularly with Ma-in-law about to turn 80, I’m conscious that we tend to rely on our on close family and friends to fill the niche of organiser/facilitator of birthday-happies and to add sparkle to our day. But like many mums, Ma-in-law’s not one to like a fuss – even on her birthday. She would like to feel special and perhaps even have a small gathering, so plans are afoot and troops are being rallied to ensure that her day is memorable (in a good way). She’s asked for a Napoleon Cake, which is something her mum used to make when she was a kid. I’ve managed to hunt down a recipe that sounds like it’s what she’s after: sponge cake, surrounded by raspberry jam and mock-cream, encased in baked puff pastry and then topped with very pink icing.

Luckily birthday cake experiments are nothing new around here. DaughterDearest and  Boychilde have generally chosen their cake each year – until quite recently. Some cake requests have been trickier than others and the challenge has been to come up with a plausible version of what they selected. We’ve had all sorts, including adventure cakes, ponies, clowns, fish, kites, farmyards, lions, an Inca temple and a giant apple. So a Napoleon Cake doesn’t sound like too much of a challenge. Even so, a trial run is probably a good idea – perhaps even this weekend.

Whether or not there’s someone to step up and make the day as sparkly as we’d like, everyone deserves to have a good day. So  this is a list of pro-tips I’ve collected from people who, for a variety of reasons, often end up taking their own birthday-planning on board:
– everyone gets older (if they’re lucky!) – so make it work for you
– decide to have fun, whether it’s with others or on your own
– prioritise yourself all day
– take the day off work (!!)
– plan a gift – something you’d really like – and then buy it for yourself
– go to a movie / the beach / have a massage – basically do something you enjoy
– avoid entertaining on the day… unless your guests offer to cater AND to clear up afterwards!
– don’t feel guilty about anything!

Even though my family does make me feel special, this has become my standard birthday to-do list. It’s actually jolly good fun – and, yes, I do all the things!

One of our longstanding household Xmas traditions has been to host a ‘waifs & orphans’ gathering on Boxing Day. Various people (not necessarily waifs or orphans) drop in throughout the day, starting mid-morning. Some stay just long enough for a slice of fruitcake and a cuppa, others stay on for lunch, and the late arrivals eat the leftovers. It’s a relaxed sort of day and usually includes random frivolity around the pool, games of boules and whatever else comes to mind. Much low-key fun.

This year, mostly because of my fractured knee, we decided to shift gears and introduce a pre-Xmas gathering instead. The idea was that this’d encourage me to have some (highly desirable) R&R on Boxing Day. In theory at least.

Plans were hatched and we invited a selection of family and might-as-well-be-family to join us for what we called our Inaugural Eggnog Night.

Now, the last time I tried eggnog was many decades ago when my housemate and I found a recipe in a cordon bleu Xmas book I’d been given. Having no idea what to expect, we made a batch… and both thought it was dreadful stuff! The raw egg taste, loosely concealed by the taste of student-affordable rum, was dire in the extreme.

So I guess this does beg the question: Why eggnog?

And the only answer I have is: Eh, why not? It’s the silly-season, after all 🙂

Besides which, every gathering needs a focus – and I’d just found an oddly intriguing recipe for a cooked eggnog. With years more kitchen experience under my belt than in those far-off student days – and better quality rum in stock – it sounded plausible. Since ex-housemate (now sister-in-law*), would be coming along we’d be able to compare notes.

For those who’ve never tried cooked eggnog, it’s essentially a rich egg custard made to a pouring consistency. The rum (or brandy, if you prefer) is added just before serving and there is no raw-egg taste at all. In fact, it’s both very tasty and deliciously rich and creamy – rather like a cream-based liqueur.

The test batch worked well, so I made a veritable vat-o’-nogg for the night. Both it – and the eggnog pie I made with some of it – proved very popular with all, including *SiL. Half the mix was left rum-free for those who’re not that way inclined and they enjoyed it too – which tells me it wasn’t just the better quality rum at work!

I’ll have to experiment with lactose-free milk and cream to see if I can make a batch that works for my lovelies who’re lactose intolerant – but that’s for next time. And yes, there will be a next time. Things are shaping up for Eggnog Night to be the new item on the calendar at Menagerie10 (our place).

If you’d like to make the eggnog and/or the pie, here are the recipes. Let me know how you go and whether you enjoyed them as much as the waifs-orphans-and-others did 🙂

The recipes

1. Cooked Eggnog (this quantity serves 2, but can be scaled up very successfully. I’ve based it on this recipe.)

NOTE: be patient when you make this. Just as with any cooked custard, rushing will do little other than ensure that the mix either curdles or scorches. Just keep the temperature low, stir continuously to ensure even heat distribution and think happy egg-boggy thoughts 🙂

You’ll need: 2 large eggs, 1/4 – 1/3 cup white sugar (depending on how sweet you want it), 2/3 cup full cream milk, 2/3 cup regular whipping cream (NOT thickened cream), ½ tsp vanilla bean paste, about ¼ tsp ground nutmeg. You’ll also need a heavy-based saucepan, whisk, metal spoon, 2 mixing bowls, a metal sieve, and a food/candy thermometer.

  • Break the eggs into the bowl; add the sugar and whisk well. Pour the milk into the saucepan and heat over a low heat to 160F – do NOT boil. Remove from the heat when it gets to 160F.
  • After a quick re-whisking of the egg/sugar mix, SLOWLY pour the hot milk into it. It’s really (really) important to do this slowly and to whisk the mix continuously while you’re doing it – otherwise you’ll end up with little lumps of cooked egg in the mix.
  • Pour the combined mix BACK into your saucepan and return it to the stovetop. Bring it back up to 160F, stirring continuously. This will ensure that your mix doesn’t stick to the edges, or scorch/burn on the bottom of the pan.
  • Bring the mix back up to 71C (160F), stirring continuously to avoid it sticking or burning. Your aim is for the mixture to thicken slightly, to the point where it will coat the back of your spoon. Be patient, as this takes a while, and keep the heat low/medium-low while you continue to move the whisk around the sides and bottom of the pant.
  • Once you’ve reached spoon-coating stage, stir the mix really well and remove the pan from the heat and set aside.
  • Pour the cream and vanilla into a clean mixing bowl and whisk until the cream thickens slightly (use an electric whisk if you have one – it’s much quicker!). Stir in the nutmeg.
  • Stir your still-hot egg mix, THEN slowly pour this into the cream-vanilla mix, whisking lightly to combine as you pour. Now pour the mix through a sieve to strain out any lumpy bits.
  • Refrigerate the eggnog, preferably overnight – or at least for several hours, until cold. Stir in 30- 50ml of rum per cup of eggnog just before serving , depending on preference.

2. Eggnog Pie

This is based on this recipe and is rather like a traditional South African milk tart, but is firmer, less milky and has a delicious ginger crust that makes it even more tasty. It’s also super easy.

The piecrust: 1½ cups ginger biscuit cookie crumbs (the Ikea ginger biscuits work well, but any will do), 1 Tblsp brown sugar, ½ tsp ground ginger, 100g melted butter

  • Combine all ingredients in a medium sized bowl, then press the mix into the bottom and sides of a pie plate.
  • Bake at 350F / 180C for 10 minutes, then cool completely.

The filling: 1 standard vanilla instant pudding (about 100g), 1½ cups eggnog (you can use the bought stuff, but why not just make some?), 2 cups regular whipping cream.

  • Whip the cream until it’s thick and fluffy, but not too stiff.
  • In another bowl, combine the instant pudding mix and eggnog.
  • Fold the whipped cream into the pudding/eggnog mix and combine well.
  • Spoon this mixture into the (cooled) piecrust.
  • Sprinkle with cinnamon sugar, then refrigerate for at least 2 hours before serving.

 

By agreement, our extended family Christmas festivities are hosted turn-and-turn-about at various family members’ homes. The host(ess) for the year generally decides on the lunch menu, orders the ham/turkey/other, and decides on a few other items to produce in-house. Then she recruits various family members assist with the rest of the catering in some way. Usually this involves someone being asked to bring some nibbles, a couple of people to bring salads, and one or two to get creative with desserts.

Everyone shares the load in some way and fine time is had by one and all. The day itself is usually full of noise and laughter, fun and frivolity. By the time we’ve enjoyed some snacks and a celebratory drink, had a swim and then worked our way through a long, lazy lunch, we’re all pretty much ready for a nap.

But wait… there’s still dessert to be conquered!

To give everyone some time to recover enough to enjoy the tasty treats on offer, this is when we usually get one or more of the youngsters to act as Santa and distribute the gifts. It tends to bump us all out of our food hangovers and generate some renewed interest – which we can then usually all sustain through dessert, coffee and eventual departure home to collapse in comfort.

Several years ago Boychilde came to me with an idea. He said he’d noticed that everyone was spending an awful lot of time and money running around buying gifts each year and that, as often as not, the gifts turned out to be things that the recipients didn’t really want – or already had. He wasn’t sure it was such a great plan and wondered what my thoughts were on introducing something different.

Although I genuinely appreciate the thought that goes into every gift I get, I definitely agreed and was on-side for a change of pace. The question then was how to change the system in such a way as to retain the happy Christmassey feel whilst simultaneously limiting expenditure, gift awkwardness and the headless-chook runaround of last minute gift gathering.

The idea of introducing something along the lines of a Secret Santa or Kris Kringel, where everyone in the extended family only bought – and received – one gift sounded like a plausible solution. The next step was to unleash the idea on the rest of the family. We thrashed out  a few more details and, rather to my surprise, the siblings, nieces and nephews all jumped on board with alacrity. I guess the timing was right for everyone.

As a group, we decided on the budget for the Secret Santa gifts, then agreed that it would be an even better idea we each come up with a list of three items to that set dollar value for their Santa to choose from. This way everyone’d get something they wanted… but they wouldn’t know exactly what until they opened their gift just before dessert-time. Perfect!

We got together for a pre-Christmas afternoon tea about a month before d-day, consumed fruit mince pies and each drew one of the lists out of a hat. Then it was up to each of us as to what we chose from that list. We’d each bring our wrapped mystery Santa-gift (for a specific individual) along on Christmas day, pop it under the tree anonymously, and wait for the before-dessert grand reveal.

And so a new family tradition was well and truly born. This year is our 10th Secret Santa family gathering (time flies!) and I’ve had fun with my Xmas shopping – which is still a refreshing change after years of dreading it! This year my niece and her daughters, with help from my sister and her family, is hosting the event – and it’s going to be fabulous.

Bring it on, Secret Santas 🙂

pop up choirThis week our local library organised a pop-choir event as part of Adult Learners Week. About a dozen of us congregated in the meeting area at the back of the building, keen to give singing in the library – rather than just borrowing books (etc.) – a whirl.

The branch librarian greeted us all with her usual bubbly enthusiasm, then handed us over to another of the choir master. Brian – a librarian by profession, was wearing his musicians’ hat for the morning. He  was an enthusiastic and gentle instructor, and we set about rocking the library for the next hour or so under his very capable guidance.

We sang what might seem like an odd selection of music, but it was all aimed at being accessible to any level of vocal ability. First up was a simple African spiritual, presumably because none of us would have any preconceptions as to what it would sound like. Brian took us through the verse and the chorus one line at a time, putting the bits together as we gained confidence in the pronunciation, cadence and tune. Then he introduced a second part, a rhythmic dum-dum-da-dum, for the deeper voices, and brought all that together. All enormously good fun.

After that we had a go at Silent Night, The 12 Days of Xmas, a hymn of unknown name (I’ve misplaced the songsheet) and, finally, Take me Home Country Road (John Denver) to end on a jolly note. It was all done A Cappella and, despite the wide variation in voice types and strengths, it sounded great – from where I was sitting at least. I it certainly brought a large number of curious library users down to the back of the library to listen.

On the way home I wondered why I don’t sing more often. I used to… but somewhere along the line I think I may have stopped actively engaging with music. But the act of singing is exhilarating and something that I now realise I’ve missed. My brief session in the library certainly left me feeling happy, with a smile that lasted pretty much all day. I guess that’d be the singing-induced endorphins zipping around in my system.

Whatever it was, I definitely felt more engaged and enthusiastic in general – and was pleased to hear that are plans afoot to run more events of this sort, culminating in a small Xmas concert in the library. In the meantime, the house is once again being subjected to my exceedingly eclectic assortment of music – my more or less tuneful warbling – and my increased happiness-factor 🙂

Our voices have been silent, and it’s not doing us any goodTania de Jong AM.

BabyMolly_2014Miss Molly entered our lives almost two years ago, capturing our hearts from the moment we met her at Valkyrian Dobermans. We’ve learned a whole lot about the breed since we brought her home, sitting on my lap – but the surprises keep on coming 🙂

Molly en route home_2014

Like every other Doberman we’ve met, MissM’s very affectionate and people-oriented. She took to sleeping on our bed early in the piece and likes to colonise the couch – usually squished up next to (or on) one of us. The phrase ‘velcro dog’ or even ‘parrot-dog‘ describes her perfectly: she has no concept of personal space, preferring to be close to (or on) one of us… an ever-present, 26kg shadow.

velcoparrotdog

We were warned that Dobermans are athletic – and this appears to equate to ‘runs and jumps like a crazy thing and has boundless energy.’ Daily walks are a must for MissM, and these need to be augmented by a good run a couple of times a week. It makes a huge difference to both her happiness and our sanity!

MissM out for a runDobermans can have a propensity to suck on (or chew) blankets. MissM is one of these – and seems to particularly enjoy the blanket we have on our bed… Preventative measures are in place but, given that her grandmother still does it, we may be doomed on this one.

The biggest hurdle we’ve faced – the one we come up against on a daily basis – is that dobermans can be darned stubborn. And by this I mean really, really stubborn. MissM does obey commands – but, like many two year olds, it tends to be in her own good time, thank you very much.

MissM in a rare moment of calmOur young lady is very protective and has a giant bark that she’s very willing to use any time anyone comes through the gate. This can result in some nervous visitors… She also seems to think she’s smaller than than she really is and will persist in trying to fit into fruit boxes 🙂

Molly in a box

Dobermans respond well to training… eventually, but not to drama or negative/forceful discipline. It takes consistent, patient training and positive reinforcement. Luckily, Himself is all about patience – so the game is gradually going our way.

Molly at school_23aug16

All in all, whilst her first two years have been frenetic, she’s been a great addition to our lives. Cassie, our six month old Welsh Springer pup, is her best buddy. Happy birthday, MissM 🙂

cassiemolly_22june2016