Sun hats

The winter has been brutal here in Sydney this year. But just when I was bracing for another month of coldness, spring is suddenly upon us, catching me totally off-guard. In our backyard, a newly planted lemon tree is about to blossom. Strawberry flowers are already blossoming. And the sun is getting noticeably brighter. Soon it’ll be another skin cancer season…. It’s time to make sun hats.

Last summer I made a few sun hats for my shop, but I was not completely happy with the pattern I made. The brim was too slope-y and bucket-like, and as cute as it was, it interfered with the child’s visual field. So, I went back to the drawing board today.

Let me warn you first: I have no idea how a professional pattern maker would make hat patterns. So please don’t copy me or quote me if you are researching how to make a hat pattern properly. I just wanted to share how I did this.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As you see, I already have a pattern for the crown part. For the brim, I first drew a rectangle for the brim, with the length representing the circumference of the hat. If you use this pattern for a hat as is, the brim would come straight down over your eyes like a ski mask, and you will be totally blindfolded.

Next I arbitrarily divided the brim rectangle up into small sections. I then cut out the big rectangle, and made slits along these little lines almost till the end, leaving just a tiny bit uncut so the whole thing still held together as one piece. Then you can fan it out like this:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

If you make a complete circle like this, and trace over the pattern, I’d imagine your brim will sit about 90 degrees from your face – like a shower hat (or how do you call those things you attach to your child’s head so you can wash her hair without the water getting into her eyes?).

I wanted a brim with a gentle downward slope, so I was aiming for something like a 45-degree angle.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This took a long time, ensuring that all the little pieces were spaced out evenly…. When I finally had them positioned where I wanted, I roughly traced around the whole shape, then smoothed out the rough edges into a nice curved shape.

Then I tweaked the pattern a little more to make sure the lines were smooth and the circumference matched with that of the crown. Then I added seam allowance.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The work-in-progress pattern above is for half a brim.

When the pattern is done, it’s Judgment Time – time to make a sample. Here, too, is where I am a total amateur. Instead of using muslin, I can’t help using a nice fabric for my sample sewing. Because I am eternally hopeful that, in the event it all works out perfectly the first time, I will have a lovely hat I can use straight away. Although I should know by now that things almost never work out perfectly the first time. That is why my children often wear crooked or ill-fitting samples. Because I’m too cheap to throw them away. See, I never seem to learn.

But today I got lucky! Yes the first sample had problems — the brim was too long and didn’t match up with the crown, and the angle was a little off. But after I ripped the brim off, I was able to salvage the fabric by re-cutting it using a revised pattern.



 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A finished toddler sun hat in Miss M’s size. It’s lined with solid pink cotton. After yesterday’s apron-rejection fiasco, I didn’t want to argue with a three-year-old’s favoured colour choice. See, I need her to wear a hat – any hat – in this country of harsh sun and skin cancer.

I do enjoy making hats. Something about all these flat pieces ending up nice and round and 3-D – gives me a lot of satisfaction. Off to make some more for my neglected online shop and for the upcoming Mathilda’s Market.

Girl’s apron (or pinny) version 2

As promised, a craft-related post! So in my previous post about making a pattern from scratch, I made a simple apron for Miss M but was not totally happy with it. It was a little too wide, too short, and there was no fun design detail. So I went back to the drawing board, and here’s my version 2.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I realized I had made a mistake about the girth in my first version – instead of 12 cm ease around the chest, somehow I had added 16 cm. Duh. So I corrected that mistake. I also lengthened it by 3 cm, to fall just below Miss M’s hips. Other changes were:

1. I shifted the dividing line between the top and bottom (how do you call this?) parts upwards, for a high-waisted position. I thought this might look more flattering. This meant I had to draw the patterns for the bottom sections, which are no longer just rectangles. But it wasn’t too hard.

2. I added a piping band along this dividing line (yay, a design detail!)

3. I added two patch pockets with the same piping fabric (another design detail!), and

4. for the back closure, I opted for loops and buttons instead of ties. I thought this would make the apron look more like a dress and wearable throughout the day like a jumper skirt. Here’s the detail view:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I wish I had prettier buttons, but I didn’t. Too lazy to go shopping, I just used vintage shell buttons from my stash. The fabric is from my stash as well. It’s very lightweight, perfect for spring.

This is what my amateurish pattern pieces looked like:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And the verdict? Well, I think the apron is cute for what it is, and it fits Miss M really well. Plus I learned heaps about making patterns. So I’d say mission accomplished. However, design-wise it looks pretty standard, and I’m sure I can find commercial patterns to make something like this anywhere. Hmm. I’ll have to try a little harder in that aspect for my next project…. I have a renewed respect for Project Runway contestants.

Here’s Miss M wearing the apron.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Can you tell how fake her smile is? She’s not happy with the fabric. That’s right, once again I managed to make something she didn’t approve. Oh well, at least I enjoyed making it and learned a lot from it. Besides, now I that I have the pattern, it’ll be a breeze for me to whip up another one in…. can you guess, pink. Yawn.

Easy sushi (or, how to turn boring ingredients into an exciting kids’ meal)

Being Japanese and all, I love sushi. Western people tend to equate sushi with raw fish, but that sort of sushi (called “nigiri”) constitutes only a small portion of the wonderful world of sushi. Besides, seafood is expensive, and sushi-grade fish even more so, so it’s not something we can afford to eat all the time. Which is fine, because other, more humble versions of sushi are just as delicious, and easy to make at home. And you know what? Kids love them.

Like these mini sushi rolls.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It’s the most humble of all sushi rolls, with nothing but cheese in it. But doesn’t it look fun and special, what with its mini size (yes I do like everything in mini size) with a little presentation going on with steamed carrot sticks and snow peas? My children, who keenly observed me plating the dish, actually started singing the “happy birthday” song, saying it looked like a cake.

And the best thing about it is that you can make it from boring pantry and fridge staples or leftovers. I always have rice, nori sheets and rice vinegar around in the pantry. I almost always have cheese and carrots in the fridge. The snow peas are from my little veggie patch in the backyard, which is handy to have when you tend to fear grocery shopping with two toddlers.

But isn’t it hard to roll up a sushi roll, you ask? Well, not if you practice a few times. It helps if you have the bamboo rolling mat you can buy at any Asian market. But even if you don’t have it, you can use a plastic wrap and a tea towel instead. Would you like to have a go? Here’s how I do it:

Step 1: cook some rice

For sushi, you want to use white, medium-grain rice. You don’t need an expensive packet of “sushi rice”; any normal medium-grain rice will do. But not long-grain, jasmine, arborio or basmati. You need the high moisture content of cooked medium-grain rice to make a nice, firm roll that doesn’t fall apart in your hands. Brown rice is also tricky, so it’s best to avoid it unless you are a sushi master. Which I am not.

Cooking rice is a no-brainer if you have a rice cooker. But don’t worry if you don’t, because you can still cook rice on stovetop easily. Here’s how: In a small pot with a lid, wash some rice (say, 2.5 cups for a family of four), changing water several times until the water is nearly transparent. Drain water.

As for the water-rice ratio, here’s what I do: Cover the rice with cold water and evenly spread the rice underneath. Gently insert your index finger straight into the water (90 degrees to the water surface), until your fingertip just touches the surface of the rice. The water should come up to the first finger joint, or a little less. This is the trick I learned — no, not from my Japanese mother or grandmother– but from a teacher at a French cooking school. Strange, I know, but it works every single time.

Cook the rice on medium heat, with the lid on. When the water boils, reduce heat to low, and cook gently for about 20 minutes, until the rice is cooked when you taste it. No need to stir the rice while cooking. Turn the heat off, and leave the pot there with the lid on for another 10 minutes or so.

Step 2: Flavour the rice with rice vinegar

When the rice is done, bring to the boil about 1/2 cup of rice vinegar (Mitsukan brand is good, available at most supermarkets now in Sydney) for 2-3 cups of uncooked rice. Transfer the cooked rice to a big bowl, pour the hot vinegar over the rice, and immediately start gently turning the rice over and over with a flat wooden spatula (or a large wooden spoon or kitchen spoon), while at the same time, using your other hand, vigorously fanning the hot rice with something like an A4-sized booklet (sewing machine instruction manual is good). You can also ask someone else to do the fanning. The point is to evaporate the vinegar liquid quickly while the rice is hot, so the rice will have the nice vinegar flavour without being soggy. You want a nice, fluffy, and shiny sushi rice.

I promise, it’s not as difficult as it may sound. If you feel a little intimidated, just use plain cooked rice. It’ll still be fun and tasty.

Step 3: roll it up!

For mini sushi rolls, cut a sheet of nori (again, available in most supermarkets in Sydney) in half with scissors. Place the sheet in the middle of your bamboo mat (or on a plastic wrap spread over a tea towel folded in half), and spread rice over it evenly. You only need a very thin layer of rice, and you want to avoid rice at the edges. As you spread the rice, gently squish it, because you are aiming for tightly packed rice. Then in the middle, lay long sticks of cheese. Like this:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Other quick and easy fillings are: steamed carrot sticks, avocado, cucumber sticks, omelette cut into long sticks, and tuna flakes (even better mixed with mayonnaise). It’s best if you don’t use multiple fillings for the mini version. The most common mistake people make is to overstuff a roll.

Then you roll it up. First, you roll the nori just over the filling, a little more than half way, and then you squeeze the roll evenly to tightly pack the rice. Sorry, this photo doesn’t help at all, but here it is anyway:


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Then you roll it all the way to the end (there is a little overlap of nori). Squeeze the roll again to shape it and to make sure it’s all nice and packed. Ta-da.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Then you cut it gently with a very sharp knife. Or serrated knives like bread knife work well here. And again, have fun with presentation!

Why do kids love mini rolls? Because they can pop the entire piece in their mouth. If the piece is too big, moist nori sheet can be a little tricky for little ones to chew off.

Happy cooking, and I promise the next post will be craft related….

Mini vegetable fritters

It took me a while to realize that my children, like us adults, enjoyed a bit of presentation with food. When making things to entice my picky eaters, it wasn’t quite enough to make a delicious dish – it helps to present it nicely, too. Like these yummy, nutritious, baby-sized veggie fritters.


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I make these veggie fritters all the time. They are easy and you can pack all the veggies in one bite. They are perfect for daycare / preschool lunch.  You can put it together from pantry and fridge staples, so it’s great when you don’t have anything interesting in the fridge. The fritter has always been a hit with my kids, but of late, I noticed that they are getting a little bored…

Time to spruce up the presentation – same old fritters, but this time in baby size! Accompanied by steamed carrot flowers! Sour cream quenelle, and a bit of dill for the finishing touch! Sometimes I enjoy reliving my student days at Le Cordon Bleu. Miss M’s eyes suddenly sparkle with joy – “Is this for me?” She carefully carries the plate to the dining table and digs in.

Please don’t get me wrong, my kids don’t eat like this every day. I am no domestic goddess by any account. In fact, it’s particularly on days when I feel like my whole little castle is crumbling down – the house is in a terrible mess, my two uncontrollable devils are busy doing more damage to the house, and the laundry is piling up high…. that I start doing something a little time-consuming like this.

Don’t ask me why. Well, maybe it’s because when I feel overwhelmed and out of control, I like to do one little thing that I can control and do well – while totally giving up on other stuff. So I feel satisfied about at least that one thing.

Anyway, here’s a recipe for the fritters.

Veggie Fritters

1 medium sweet potato
1 medium carrot
1 zucchini
1/2 small onion
2 or 3 eggs
1/2 cup plain flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
2/3 cup shredded cheese (cheddar, swiss, any yellow melty kind)

Grate the sweet potato, carrot, and zucchini. Finely chop onion. Or if you are lazy like me, shred everything in a food processor. Mix with the rest of the ingredients. Heat oil in a frying pan – medium heat. Drop a tablespoon of the fritter mix in the pan, shape into nice little rounds, and cook 4-5 minutes on each side.

You can use any veggies — corn, potato, mushroom, capsicum, etc. I like to use some sort of potato because it gives a nice structure. Sometimes I use curry powder or herbs like oregano and parsley for a different flavour.

Then go crazy with the presentation! Your kids will love it and thank you…. and it might well be the highlight of your day when everything else is going down the toilet.

Pattern-making exercise

So I’ve been secretly itching to make children’s clothes again, now that things are going pretty well with Piggledee. I used to make a lot of things for Miss M to wear when she was a baby, using commercial patterns (mostly from Japanese sewing books). But when she turned about two and a half, she began to be choosy about what to wear — flatly rejecting several of my lovingly-made outfits. Never mind it took me hours, or that I splurged on precious fabric like Liberty of London. She was unkind and ungrateful. I didn’t take those rejections very well, and I stopped making her clothes.

But now I want to try again, for several reasons. First, ready-to-wear clothes don’t fit Miss M properly. She has a stocky body with no bottom. Pants just fall off her butt. Dresses that fit her chest have sleeves that are too long. And so on. It makes sense to make it myself so things will fit her better. Second, I want to try my hand at pattern making. Not that I don’t like commercial patterns – I do, there are so many cute designs out there. But I’ve always wanted to know the logic behind those patterns, so I would understand better how to modify those pattens properly. Third, and most importantly, I am a huge Project Runway fan.

I used this book as a reference. Metric Pattern Cutting for Children’s Wear and Babywear, by Winifred Aldrich.


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I made a basic body block using a combination of Miss M’s measurements and the standard measurements for 3-4 year-olds. This was a bit confusing at first, and I had to read and re-read the instructions several times.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

For my first project, I wanted to make something rearlly simple. Also something that doesn’t require button holes because my sewing machine is broken in that regard. I decided to make an apron, like this one my mother had bought in Japan a while ago… and which is now a little too small for Miss M.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cute, isn’t it? I totally ignored all the good design features like pin tucks, lace trim, the button closure, and even pocket. I copied the basic body block onto another sheet of paper, and drew over it to make it look like an apron.  The square neckline looked tricky to sew, so I made it round. I also made the yoke longer so I wouldn’t have to factor the armhole curve into the bodice pattern. The back will be closed by two sets of ties.  Simple, simple, simple.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I love that children’s patterns are so tiny each piece fits onto a regular A4 printer paper.  The bodice part doesn’t have a pattern – it’s just rectangles (about 1.3 times wider than the yoke) to be shortened with a gather to fit the yoke. Can’t get any simpler. I used a home decor fabric I had in my stash, and sewed up a trial version this afternoon. Here it is!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I have to disclose that I had made aprons like this before, using a modified commercial pattern. So I knew how to put it together already. But the point of the exercise was to make the pattern from scratch.

I think it looks decent and wearable… if somewhat wider than I had imagined. Does a girl really need 12cm of ease around the chest? Hmm. Maybe for something like an apron, which may be worn over a sweater. But for a dress, maybe that’s a bit too much?

The yoke should have been a little longer as well, because around the armhole, it got a bit too bulky and unsightly.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I can’t wait to try it on Miss M when she comes back from visiting her grandmother. Then I’ll adjust the pattern and make a proper version – this time maybe with pin tucks and a pocket.

Then my next project will be… a jumper skirt. Not sure how to do it without a button hole but I’ll find a way.

So much fun.

——

Later: I did try the apron on Miss M. At first she was in a rejection mood, but when I pleaded “But Mommy made this for you! Can you please try it on?” – she brightened up and decided to wear it. The difference between 2 and a half and 3 and a half may be that she now has a budding sense of compassion. Or appreciation for other people’s efforts. Maybe.

Anyway the apron was a perfect size for her over winter clothing. It could be a little longer though.

Slack environmentalism

Recently I was invited to have a stall at an arts and craft fair called Creative Lane in Marrickville on July 31st (Sunday). The energetic organiser of the event, Suki, was preparing a brochure for the event featuring the stallholders, and she wanted each of us to contribute a full-page content for it. At first I thought I didn’t have time for it (really, how many weeks has it been since my last blog post?), but upon further encouragement from Suki, I decided to just do it. This is what I came up with:

I’m a slack sort of an environmentalist. I always have the best intention of doing my bit to save the earth, but when it comes to the grind of daily life with two little ones, the sad truth is my actions often don’t live up to my ideal. Often I don’t have the energy or patience to make sacrifices for a cause. Remember that Murphy Brown episode where a hungry and tired Murphy orders a delivery of takeaway, and it arrives in a Styrofoam container she’d vowed to boycott? She hesitates but sends it back in the end. If it were me, I would eat it in a heartbeat. I’m weak that way.

Take cloth nappies, for example. I used cloth nappies (and cloth wipes) for my first child. But when the second one arrived two years later, there was a lot of washing to be done with the two of them in nappies. And the “one size” cloth nappies I had bought didn’t fit my youngest well. There was a lot of leakage… and hence more washing. So I gave in and started using disposables.

But other “green” choices are easier for me to make, because they don’t require any sacrifice on my part – and offer only benefits. I buy used kids’ clothing because it’s cheap and wearable. I adore the feel of natural fabrics like cotton and linen, and use them whenever possible in lieu of synthetics. Organic food is not only earth-friendly but tastes better. And composting? I love how I don’t have to squeeze all the garbage into the bin every week to make it fit.

The handmade accessories I make reflect my penchant for no-sacrifice environmentalism. The fabric lunch bags are great alternatives to bulky plastic ones since they’re lightweight, easy to store, and machine washable (i.e. more hygienic). Same with my daycare bags, which are machine washable and for that reason alone  better than stain-prone plastic backpacks in the shops. And when wiping those grubby little faces, I much prefer using my organic cotton washers in lieu of disposable wipes or tissue – they’re prettier, feel better in your hands and on my kids’ delicate skin, and have no nasty chemicals. The things I make for my shop are things I love using every day – and as a bonus they happen to be earth-friendly.

Because, seriously, parenting is hard work. We all want to save the earth, but if we can do our bit without a big sacrifice… wouldn’t we all prefer a win-win situation?

Sounds good, doesn’t it? The thing is, upon writing this and sending it off to Suki, I suddenly began to feel guilty. Guilty about the disposable nappies I’m still using six months after Miss M was toilet trained. Guilty about still using my apartment-era clothes dryer sometimes, even though our new house came with the biggest Hills Hoist ever, just because I like my towels soft or because the weather is a bit chilly outside.

Driven by this wave of guilt, I remembered a book review a while ago, about a family in New York who, as an experiment, lived a whole year in a sustainable way — in an extremely sustainable way in fact: no driving cars or using public transport, using no disposable anything, including coffee cups and toilet paper, and not even using an elevator.  The book is called No Impact Man by Colin Beavan. I bought the Kindle version of the book and started reading it straight away.

Well I’m still reading it, but so far, No Impact Man is having a devastating impact on my conscience. All the more so because Beavan is such a fantastic writer and the book is an entertaining read – there is a lot of interesting family drama involved in his experiment (his experiment applied to the whole family – his fur-loving wife and their 18-month-old daughter). In particular, Beavan’s account of how he struggled to reduce – to zero – the vast amount of garbage the family had previously generated, including disposable nappies and take-away containers, is sending my level of guilt and shame to overdrive.

Forget that I compost, recycle, use “earth-friendly” cleaning products, or use cloth handkerchiefs — suddenly these things seem like trivial trickles in light of the ocean of transgressions I am making elsewhere. How could I have possibly thought it was okay to buy yoghurt in plastic squirt tubes just to placate my whiney kids while grocery shopping? How can I justify driving my gas-guzzling V6 car for 40 minutes each way to an organic market? Or anywhere for that matter? And all that fabric I buy from overseas… how much damage in carbon emission is that causing?

I am not a slack sort of an environmentalist. I am just slack.

Things will have to change. I can’t give up toilet paper or avoid driving altogether… but I cannot avoid making sacrifices anymore. I need to go beyond my yuppy comfort zone. I am hopeful though, that “sacrifices” may not feel like sacrifices anymore when you  begin to realize your wants and needs were unjustified to begin with. Wouldn’t that be the ultimate win-win situation?

Introducing…. a perfect bib

It took me a long time to make bibs for my shop — because, aside from the fact that everyone else was making it, I am not a big fan of bibs. Bibs basically look all the same, they cost about the same, and frankly, they all look silly and undignified on kids no matter how you dress them up with pretty fabric. In fact, the prettier the fabric, the sadder it looked to me. And plastic bibs? Total abomination.

That’s why I hardly ever used bibs for Miss M when she was little. I made her a few bibs for her mealtime mess, but even then, I preferred to dress her in aprons instead, or I just resigned to washing her clothes more often. It didn’t bother me.

Then Mr. A turned up, and he was a natural-born drooler and spit-upper. As a breastfeeding baby, you could count on him to spit up every single time, staining not only his clothes but also mine, the feeding pillow, and the bedding below. In between feedings he drooled buckets, especially once he started teething. I was amazed how fast his clothes got soaked wet, and poor thing, if I didn’t change him fast enough he would develop rashes. So for Mr. A, a bib was a sheer necessity. A survival item even.

Now, while I still think bibs look silly, at least I understand why parents need them. So, with that in mind, I strove to make a perfect bib for my shop. A perfect bib would be:

  • comfortable for little ones to wear – must be lightweight and extremely soft around the neck.
  • absorbent! A bib is no good if a stream of drool rolls right past the surface to soak the tummy area.
  • offer good coverage without making your little one look like a frill necked lizard.
  • cute but in an understated way.
  • closed by a snap: easy to put on and off, but difficult for little hands to yank it off.
  • versatile – from newborn to toddler, and for messy eaters and well as droolers (or both).

And here it is — a perfect bib!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

If you’ve been reading my blog for a while, you know this is the softest, lightest, and super absorbent 100% cotton double gauze from Japan. For the backing, I used organic cotton jersey, which is not only light and incredibly soft, but also absorbent. It has a beautiful white colour. If you wore this around your neck, you wouldn’t want to take it off because it’s so warm and cozy. The adorable elephants print is just sweet enough for little ones without being a try-hard.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It is pretty large for babies, offering great coverable. And you can use it all the way through toddlerhood and beyond (if you wish) — here is Miss M loving the pink elephants bib.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Does wearing matching bibs foster sibling love? Or wait, is Miss M saying “go away, it’s my photo shoot”?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Which colour is your favourite? The bibs are now available in my shop.

Perfect porridge

Before I had children, I’d never dreamed of eating porridge for breakfast. I mean, it’s all gooey, soft, and bland-looking. Old people’s food, was my impression. I much preferred good old toast with lots of butter and jam. When I first started making porridge to feed my children (as everyone does in Australia), sometimes I’d have a little taste, and still found the taste bland and texture unpleasant. My kids didn’t care for it much, either. We all ended up eating toast most of the time.

But everything changed when I was browsing one of my favourite cookbooks, Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything one day. He recommended that we should always choose normal rolled oats, not the instant kind. He also suggested throwing a bit of butter at the end to enhance flavour. Intrigued, I gave it a try.

And oh my, what a difference real porridge was from the instant kind. It had beautiful, soft-but-chewy texture, like al dante pasta or rice. It only took 5 minutes or so on stovetop to cook, I don’t know why people bother selling the instant version in the first place. And butter! Who knew butter in porridge would be so lovely (well, I should have known because butter in everything is lovely – we Japanese people even put butter in a warm bowl of rice and eat it with soy sauce when there is nothing else to eat – and it’s delicious).

Encouraged, I started adding more goodies to the porridge mix bit by bit – more for my enjoyment, but also to entice my reluctant little eater Miss M. A handful of coconut here, cinnamon and brown sugar on top, yoghurt…. And now I have perfected it.


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

An unbelievably yummy, steamy bowl of porridge on cold winter mornings!

For me and my kids, I cook about 1 cup of rolled oats with 1/3 of dried desiccated coconut and dried mango strips (so nice!), with about 2 cups of water. When cooked, add about a tablespoon of butter. Serve in a bowl, with sprinkles of cinnamon and brown sugar (don’t need much because of the sweet dried fruit), top with (dreadfully expensive) banana slices, and a quenelle of yoghurt on top.

I eat it faster than my kids, but surprise, surprise, my kids now totally eat this up. A nice big bowl each. Do you know how precious this is? That porridge fills their tummies up so well, they don’t come back an hour later begging for unhealthy snack. If you are the kind of person who equates butter with guilt, I assure you, these benefits far outweigh the cost.


Little things

I have been making little things lately for upcoming markets (in particular a school market at  Lorien Novalis (Sydney) on July 23 and Mathilda’s Market (Sydney) on August 27). I thought my market collection needed something small, pretty, useful and wallet-friendly. So I started with pincushions.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

These pincushions didn’t come out as I planned. My plan was to make $5 pincushions that are super, super-fast to make, using scrap fabric I had been hoarding, and hence doesn’t cost me anything. Well, as I started with simple two or three-patch pieces, it got boring. I wanted something prettier, something a little more precious. So I ended up making mini log cabins (or technically, I think they are the beginnings of a pattern called “courthouse steps”). Very pretty!

And then Mark suggested that I scent these, so I thought, why not? I do happen to have an embarrassingly large collection of essential oils from my other (now forgotten) hobbies (making soap, perfume, and natural skincare products, if you must know). And if you were to scent these cushions, how boring would it be to use something so ordinary like lavender. I chose Rosewood Brazil, which is exquisite (and expensive).

I love these pincushions, especially when they look all cozy together in a basket. But I beat myself up afterwards for spending hours and hours on something that is supposed to be super simple and inexpensive. My business brain has been defeated by my creative brain, yet again.

So, to atone for my pincushion indulgence, I also made these popcorn bags, a la Gymbaroo.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

These are the simplest bags, about 6″ x 4″, filled with popcorn. At Gymbaroo they called these bean bags, and use them as a stimulating toy for babies, or for target throwing for older children. You can play with them in a lot of ways basically, which is why I love simple toys. I used popcorn just because the beans I had in my pantry were large and menacing looking. Popcorn seemed more friendly.

I’m happy that I made at least something that’s pretty and wallet-friendly. And useful, too – if your kids are in need of a snack, just rip one of these open and make popcorns!

Rainy day (mini) pizza

It’s been raining like mad here for days. Now I like rain. I used to love it in fact – there is nothing better than curling up inside your home on a cold rainy day with a good book and a hot cup of tea. But that was before I had children.

Children – well, my 3 and 1 year olds at least – just can’t seem to sit back on a sofa, relax, sip their babychinos and browse picture books for hours. Why not, is beyond my comprehension. The destruction that goes on inside my house when the kids are cooped up on a rainy day? It’s too painful for me to describe.

So I need to think of activities. Activities that would pin the kids to the table so that they don’t go destroy my sewing machines or spill milk on my precious fabrics. It’s not easy, but I found a good one yesterday just when I was on the verge of losing sanity.

 

Mini pizzas! Which you can make with your children!

It’s an extension of the bread-making idea really, but it is more elaborate than just play dough, and thus keeps the kids busy for a longer period of time. First there is the usual play dough (this time with rolling pins!), then there is “helping mommy” shred cheese in a food processor, then decorating the dough with tomato sauce, the toppings, and then cheese. You can really stretch the activity time if you are a little creative. And even after the pizza-making is over and the children are reverting back to their natural destructive / whiney state, you can effectively distract them with: “Oh hey, do you want to come see how those pizzas are doing in the oven?” etc.

Then, when the horror hours of the evening descends on you, and your sanity is really being tested, you can pull out your final card: “let’s sit down and eat the pizza you made for dinner!” I guarantee, your bewitched children will turn into angels of compliance. My children adore eating what they made. Even Miss M, who is normally finicky with food and doesn’t eat much at all, devoured the pizza, vegetables and all.

You might think pizza isn’t healthy. But I disagree completely. Here’s a basic recipe that is very healthy, wholesome, and unbelievably tasty as well. And if you have never made a pizza dough from scratch, it’s really the easiest thing.

Wholemeal Pizza (from scratch)

Pizza dough
Adapted from Marcella Hazan, Essentials of Classical Italian Cooking

  • 1 cup wholemeal flour
  • 2 cups plain flour
  • 2 teaspoons instant yeast
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • about 1 cup water (you may need a bit more or less)

Put all the dry ingredients in a mixing bowl of a stand mixer, add olive oil and most but not all of the water. Start mixing on low speed with a dough hook. If you see dry stuff left at the bottom of the bowl, gradually add a little more water, until all the dry stuff is absorbed. Again you are looking for the consistency of play dough. Knead at low speed for 7-8 minutes. If you don’t have a stand mixer, you can mix and knead on a table top. When done, cover the dough with a little olive oil, cover the bowl with a plastic wrap, and let it sit somewhere warm for a couple of hours (or more) till it roughly doubles in size.

Meanwhile, make the tomato sauce (for the pizza base).

Easy tomato sauce

  • 1 large onion, or 2 small onions, finely chopped
  • 3-5 large cloves of garlic, finely chopped
  • 2 cans of diced tomato
  • a handful of (preferably) fresh mixed herbs (oregano, rosemary, thyme, parsley, and bay leaves are great), finely chopped (leave bay leaves whole, and remove after cooking)
  • salt and pepper to taste

Heat a little olive oil in a pot on medium heat. When hot, toss the onion and garlic, and stir for a few minutes until they are transparent but not burned. Add the tomato and the herbs. Add some salt. Cover, bring to the boil, and simmer on low heat for 20-30 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the sauce thickens up nicely. Leave it to cool.

The key to this recipe is fresh herbs. Please use a lot of them, like a good handful. It makes such a big difference. But if you don’t have fresh herbs, dried ones are okay, too.

Note this recipe makes a lot of tomato sauce. You only need half of it for making pizza, but the leftover is delicious, and you can use it the next day to make lasagne or other pasta dish.

Toppings

The beautiful thing about pizza is that you can pretty much use any topping you can think of, or whatever you have left in the pantry and fridge. The only essential thing is cheese. Yesterday for example, I only used vegetarian sausages, chopped mushrooms and red capsicum.

Assembly

When the pizza dough has risen, bring the children in and have them sit at a table. Sprinkle a bit of flour in front of them, give them a handful of the dough, and show them how to roll them thin with a rolling pin. My children completely ignored my instructions and did their own thing (which, for Mr. A, involved a lot of eating and licking the dough – I know, yucky, but do you know the most useful thing I learned at cooking school? That bacteria dies at about 80 degrees Celsius.). The main thing is they had fun. In the end I made sure all the dough pieces were more or less flat and round, and placed them on a baking tray.

At this point, turn the oven on to preheat at 220 degrees Celsius (to kill off that bacteria!).

Now into the second activity phase – topping the pizza. Let your children spoon the sauce on the dough, put toppings on, and sprinkle the cheese over each pizza. Again the mantra is, “if it’s messy, it doesn’t matter.”

When it’s done, you can put it in the oven straight away. Unlike proper bread, pizza dough doesn’t need a second proofing. Bake until the dough is golden around the edges and the cheese is bubbling.

Another great thing about homemade pizza is that, you can turn leftover veggies, a block of cheese, and basic pantry staples into a most delicious, home-cooked meal. Perfect for rainy days when you really don’t want to go out there grocery shopping.

Good luck surviving the rainy spell, everyone.