Friday, March 18, 2011

The Kiss Chase

As I've blogged before, once or twice a month Alfie and I get up at the sparrows fart to join Tash in her journey to work.  Not so we can load up electricals out of Comets back door, but so we can steal the Skoda and continue our journey down to gorgeous leafy Nettlebed (nr Henley) to see our friends Catherine and Chloe.

This is Chloe - I am including this photo just on the fact that it proves the girl does (occasionally) sit still!

Tuesday was one of those days, and although it means a 5am start for me its well worth it to see these two playing together.  They certainly looked pleased to see each other! 

Chloe and Alfie have always got on especially well, and it didn't take long for Alfie to feel at home.  Here he is testing out his latest Jedi learning's ..."this isn't the remote you're looking for!"

Playtime was soon underway and before you knew it this gorgeous detached Berkshire property had become their own little fun house.  We were just waiting for Pat Sharp to knock at the door!  Chloe was adamant that my camera was her prize, and she wanted photographic evidence of just how many toys can be moved in a 10 minute frenzy.  She pushed so hard on the clicker I'm surprised its not still reeling off photos now!

But it was a gorgeous day, and so we soon headed outside to see if a little fresh air couldn't persuade the two rug rats to rest their weary eyes. 

Alfie likes stones.

Chloe likes pots.

As always, they were very sweet together though.

I think its fair to say that Chloe has always done the chasing, and its not an uncommon sight to see my son trying to scramble away as a Chloe drags him around the floor by his trousers.  OK, so its not quite like that, but she certainly usually ends up in fits of laughter and sat atop Alfie as I imagine Tom Hanks must sit on his desert island in that film 'Cast Away' when he first gets washed ashore.  Don't get me wrong - he seems to love it though (most of the time).

Things were very different on Tuesday though - they were both full of running and ..... kissing.  And Alfie seemed quite happy to chase as much as he was chased.  And so I present to you a must hilarious video clip, starring two youngsters who may not quite have full control over their bodies but clearly do over their emotions.

You Can Only Reap What You Sow...

...And so after my morning Bake-Off'ing last Saturday we decided to make the most of the gorgeous weather, hit the local garden centre, and spend the afternoon planting some seeds.

So firstly, to buy some seeds!  Alfie loved toddling about the place!

And he thought the garden toys were fantabulous!

Back home we sorted through out selection of seeds.  

Tomatoes, Aubergines, Pepper and the like were all sowed into little pots - with Alfie's pointy finger coming in especially handy (under close guidance from Tash) to get the seeds into place.

And did Alfie have fun!?  So much fun he could barely contain water in his little chubby cheeks!

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

My Great British Bake Off - Part Two

So as I blogged before, I attended the first rounds of audition for The Great British Bake Off last Tuesday ... and on Thursday I had a phone call inviting me back on Saturday to participate in the next stage!

I was told I would be needed 9am-1:30am, had to bake scones and a loaf and bring them with me, and would then need to bake a cake in a 'bake off' scenario on the day. 

By the end of the Thursday I had received the recipes for scones and the loaf, and Thursday night I attempted to bake scones ... for the first time in my life!  They were fairly horrendous, but in the one batch I made I felt I learnt what I was doing wrong and which tools I was missing!  I then started my loaf, making the sponge to be ready for the following days kneading activities.

After querying the bread recipe, purchasing a better pastry cutter, and a second test batch of scones I set about finishing off my loaf and baking my scones.  I only did three batches, but I failed to master the art of getting them to rise correctly and evenly.  This was to be my offering for the Bake Off judges;

We were up early on Saturday, and with this stage of the auditions taking place in North London at the Waitrose Cookery School it meant that a)it was possible to drive to and b)Tash and Alfie could come along too.  So at about 7:30am Alfie was squeezed into his coat for us to hit the A1!

We arrived shortly before 9am, and after a lap of Waitrose found the entrance for the Cookery School.

Once inside my goodies were plated up, and after most of the production girls had coo'd over the little grubby one, Alfie took Tash off demanding to be shown the wonders of what North London had to offer on a sunny Saturday in March.  I don't know quite what they got up to but I know it involved Ikea, a park, Leon and that he came back with a bump on his head!

Whilst they enjoyed their time, I too was having a ball!  The atmosphere has always been fantastic at these auditions, and I very quickly learnt that getting this far meant I had made it to the last 48!  Considering there were thousands that applied, I am VERY proud of myself for getting this far.

There were 12 of us in the morning group, and we sat around a table laughing and joking until our name was called and we were summoned before Mary Berry and Paul Hollywood once more - not before receiving a good luck 'high five' from the production crew though.

My turn came, and I couldn't wait.  I've really enjoyed being up infront of Paul and Mary, and a big part of why I've done this is to get some quality feedback. In short, my loaf was very good (Paul Hollywood - he who bakes £15 loafs for Harrods - actually said I was a natural baker) and my scones were lovely .. just lacking in the appearance stakes.  Thats pretty much the best I had hoped for, so I was well chuffed!

By about 11am we had all been seen and went through to the kitchens to start the bake off challenge.  We were given a Mary Berry recipe for a coffee and walnut cake, a host of ingredients, the necessary health and safety briefing ... and then the stopwatch started ticking!

I was amazed at how much time we had, and how much of a breeze it all was.  Two 7 Inch tins, bake two cakes, make the filling/topping as described, and then put the cake together.  Easy.  We had 30 mins prep time.  I was done in 15, killing time by working out how the oven worked and checking through the next steps of the recipe.  And then, with 5 minutes left I realised the recipe said for a 7" tin cake.  But I had two 7" tins.  Was I supposed to double the quantities?  But no-one else had.  But I had already thought that the cake mix wasn't much, especially as I needed to bake for 35 minutes.  Sod it.  I hurriedly threw another batch of ingredients into a bowl, the cameras immediately coming over to me and loving every minute of me having a last minute rush, and somehow got the mix into the tins and the tins into the oven pretty much bang on time.  Whilst everything baked we all chatted, no-one really knowing how the recipe was supposed to be interpreted, but me confident I could leave my tins in the oven for the full 35 minutes.  Of course everyone else was now stressing that I might be right, and they would therefore need to remove their cakes early.

I dunno what others did, but my cakes came out well, and of course once it was assembled it was massive - and in true Keith Stylee it was far from a work of art.  There are some truly amazing decorators in that competition though, some of the cakes looked absolutely amazing!!

With everything finished off we chatted amongst ourselves before our cakes were passed to the judges and we all headed for home.  This time the judging was done out of eyesight and earshot so I have no idea what they thought.  Still not knowing if my final 5 minute flurry had been right or wrong I was pretty certain I was going out, and with that had in mind had a lovely chat with Paul and Mary before leaving, as well as a final photo with the pair of them.  As you can see, Mary took a right shine to Alfie!

We were allowed to take everything away with us, and Tash

I don't think I'm good enough to go through to the final 12, but there is also a large part of me that doesn't want to - it would mean pretty much every weekend for up to two months (depending on how far you go) and that's A LOT of time!  But after sitting down and tasting my cake I think Tash summed it up perfectly - if they are looking for someone who doesn't look like they should bake but does, and produces ugly but very tasty food then you never know .....

Monday, March 14, 2011

Just Fooling Around

Alfie has reached that stage that I have LONG been waiting for.  I know some dread it, but I honestly couldn't wait till he became a stumbling bumbling  mischievous toddler.

And I know he's been walking for a while now, and lets be honest all children are mischievou at that age, but I swear these tendancies have ramped up recently.  And after inviting me to play with his shape sorter last week we've spent more and more time just messing about together.  Largely 'cos he wants to, but also because I don't want to miss a thing ... this is a child who finds hilarity at spinning on the spot, struggling to keep control as the turns become wider and wider, and finally bumping into something at the edge of the room and collapsing on the deck.  These are moment I just MUST see!

Anyway, the back end of last week we had a blast together.  Its not often I just sit down and chill out.  Theres usually something else I would rather be doing, or some other job Tash has given me that has to be done, but by the time Thursday arrived I was shattered and sat on the sofa and just couldn't be bother to move.

Clearly Alfie saw me as a vulnerable toy, pole vaulted himself up onto the sofa and jumped all over me.  Quickly he realised I was wearing glasses.  This he considered to mean that Favourite Game #37 could begin - stealing glasses from Daddy's head (which usually involves him trying to fit them over his head, ending with them inserted simutaneously into an ear and his mouth, and eventually resulting in me needing to bend them back into shape).

So I took them off and moved them.  He didn't care, for he has spotted my mobile.  So I moved it.  And then back to the glasses.  And so on .  So there I was, laid on the sofa with one arm bent behind my head (concealing my glasses) and the other outstretched holding my phone.  He was in a great playful mood and I found it hilarious.  So I did something I must do more often - I clicked the phone into camera mode, pointed it roughly at us, and hoped to get a few decent shots.

And after Thursday came Friday.  We had been invited to Space2Play, an indoor play centre in Hitchin.  As a rule I DESPISE these places ... however it turned out that this was one large enough for adults to join in, and we were positively welcome to do so!  Seriously, by 'soft play' standards this place is massive!  It was great fun to scramble around an activity zone, with Alfie following me and laughing hysterically.  He especially seemed to love the spiral slide.  However judging by fact I left most of the skin from my arms down it, I would argue that perhaps that slide isn't quite man enough for adults.

Here's a couple of video's from the day, I was seriously impressed by what he could do and how much he wanted to do.  I'd argue he's been influenced a bit too much from his Godfather - what have you been teaching him Bill!?! 


Wednesday, March 09, 2011

My Great British Bake Off

As I mentioned before, Tash entered me into the Great British Bake Off the other week.  I got an email through asking my to fill out a load of details in order to submit my entry.  With Alfie running around, and priorities elsewhere, I never got round to it until last Tuesday when I received a phone call from the producers asking if I would like to enter, and to see if I could go through the entry form with them over the phone.  I said 'yes' and spent about half an hour on the phone, finishing up with being told I would get a call back within a few days.

Last Thursday I got a call back saying I had been successful, and was invited to the next stage which was to be Tuesday (yesterday) in London.  I was told I needed to take two samples of my baking with me, one sweet and one savoury.

After pulling my hair out over the weekend whilst trying to work out what to bake (many thanks to all those that sent me recipes, especially Ghis who sent me so many I think I could now open a French Patisserie!) I decided to keep it simple and do what I know best.  A loaf of bread and a chocolate orange loaf cake.  Two things I know will come out correct every time!  And after all, to me it wasn't about going out to impress, I just wanted to be me and see what the response was.

So Monday afternoon/evening I baked. The bread didn't get as long as I would have liked to proof (flippin' unreliable freecyclers!) but I was pretty happy with the way everything turned out.

It was the loaf on the right that got selected to join me on my journey, and after an early rise the next morning I had everything packed in an Abel & Cole box and a ticket to get me to London Town - destination, Holborn!

I had chosen a 'slot' of midday, which meant I could miss rush hour and hopefully have a nice relaxed day.  The sun shone, and Arlesey train station almost looked pleasant.  You can't get away from the token wierdo who thinks he has to try and flag down every passing choo-choo.  And they wonder why people don't use public transport!

I got myself into town in good time, made the short tube trip to Holborn, and found my way to the venue.

The note on the door gave me confidence I had found the correct place.

I went in and was seated in a little waiting area with a few other applicants.  Firstly I had to plate up my food.  Whilst waiting to be seen by the judges we got chatting and it became apparent I was not taking things as seriously as others!  Some people had spent hours on their baking, producing some gorgeous looking cakes and pies ... and one guy had even flown over from Belfast!!

The format was that the judges would meet you, taste your food, and you would then get a yes or no.  If you got a 'yes' then you hung around to do a piece on camera, and if it was a 'no' you could get into the pub a bit sooner!

It became apparent that you would actually be seen from the judges from the show, however having never watched the programme this didn't really matter to me.  It would appear Mary Berry and Paul Hollywood (Mary especially) are quite famous ... however I have just looked on Wiki to get their names, that's how much I know of them! lol.  Someone also dropped in that Paul was a bread person ... this gave me some hope as I know I can bake a loaf.

My time came, and I had a great time.  Its only brief, but Paul liked my bread.  He asked how I got into bread, and I told him my story ... which concludes with Alfie's allergies etc.  Paul jumped in with 'but is he allergic to wheat' and I went off on a mini rant about the shite they put in bread these days and how Alfie is fine with my bread.  He clearly liked what I had to say, and was extremely complimentary about my loaf and also our approach to allergies.  And to top it all Mary really liked the cake, saying that is was beautiful and moist and didn't need anything else.  I have modified the recipe a tiny amount, but its pretty much a Nigella recipe so maybe I should pass the praise on to her!

I came out of that room and was immediately told 'Paul really liked you', and shortly after was asked if I could hang around to do my piece to camera.  I had made it past the second stage :o).

The piece on camera was basically a short chat about me.  I guess its just to see if you are comfortable on camera.  Not really a problem for me, and when I found out the lady I'd be speaking to was 6 months pregnant I was full of confidence.  A stay at home Dad talking to a pregnant lady - I was never going to be short of stuff to say!  After waiting an age my time finally came, and everything went as I planned.  We had a LONG conversation about baby related stuff, and a short chat about baking. 

With that done it was now gone 3pm.  I thought the day would take me an hour, but it had taken nearly 4!  I made my way home, expecting to be met at the station by an enthusiastic and proud family.  Instead I was alone as they were caught in traffic.  Even in the sunshine Hitchin station struggles to look except boring!

After a few minutes my ride home arrived, the occupants overjoyed to see me!

Overall I had a fantastic day.  It was really nice to receive compliments on my baking from two people who are very highly regarded, and I met some great people during the day.  Now I just wait on a phone call to see if I have progressed.  Part of me thinks I'm in with a really strong shout, but part of me really doesn't want to - at £30 a trip it's gonna start getting expensive.  Oh, and I am nowhere near good enough to win!

Friday, March 04, 2011

The First Signs Of Spring?

Possibly ...

The sun has certainly been spotted today, and Harry took his first opportunity of the year to catch some rays.  It also have me perfect opportunity to grab a photo and update the header on the blog.  The snow pictures have had their time, don't ya think?

In other news, our accumulation of fruit continues to reach ridiculous levels.  Yesterday I was close to calling French government officials to ask how they manage their butter mountains and wine lakes ... but instead opted to squeeze some 20+ oranges, 3 blood oranges ad 2 grapefruit to product the perfect breakfast drink!

Now I just need to deal with the 20+ bananas!  (yes, we have a banana 'situation' again!)

Oh, and before I go I really should mention that on Tuesday I am off to London Town to meet the judges of The Great British Bake Off.  Tash stuck my name in the hat, and after a telephone conversation on Wednesday I got a call back yesterday to confirm they would like to meet me.  I need to take two samples of my baking, so I'd better find something nice to dazzle their tastebuds with!

I imagine that this weekend Fig Tree Cottage shall become FTCafe!

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

A hard Days Playing!

He played in the am, he played in the pm ..... and then it went quiet.

Fillin' In The Gaps

I haven't updated for a few weeks, largely because I left the camera at a friends house and I hate bloggin' without some (at least semi-decent) photo's.  So here's a brief (photo heavy) summary of the past fortnight.

The friends we were visiting when I left the camera behind were Catherine and her darling daughter Chloe.

This is Chloe;

We had a lovely day catching up, visiting the park, and played with fridge magnets!

For Christmas 2009 Dawn got us a voucher for a free photoshoot, and free photo, with a professional photographer.  We finally got it all sorted and booked, and last Tuesday the time came to pull our best "cheeeeese" faces.

After the photo's were taken we were shown the price list.  And their was his first error, he really should have done that AFTER showing us the results of his hours work.  I'm grateful we get a free one, cos £300/£400/£500 for a photo is bloody ridiculous!

And onto Thursday, when Tash told me of some kiddies gardening group that had been set up.  On the promise of free cake we turned up and put in a hard shift building a storage box and planting some seeds. 

A Plucking Good Birthday!

Yesterday was my birthday, and I would like to thank everyone who made a phone call, sent me a message or wrote something on my Facebook wall!  It all made me smile.  My actual day was quite pedestrian, with just Alfie and I being home, but I had a great time on Saturday enjoying pints of ale whilst the typically British weather went about its thing outside.

Our three became two on Sunday when one of our chickens passed on to the giant coop in the sky.  She has looked ill on Saturday, so it came as no surprise when she was found laid out in the chicken run.  I had long thought about chickens, death, and pots and this seemed to me like an opportunity to put theory to the test - the perfect way to celebrate the chickens life.  And it was my birthday, an ideal excuse to cook up a feast!

I found this blog which has a good detailed step by step guide to plucking and preparing a bird.  So I got everything laid out, my laptop with instruction at the ready, and my vat of water on the boil. 

Having dunked the chook in 150 degree water her feathers were removed swiftly, and I have to admit to totally enjoying the process.  It also revealed a large green swelling under the skin around her belly.  Its clear she was not well (considering she died that is quite possibly an understatement) and under all that pillow filling she was as skinny as my son!  And so sadly she ended up in the wheelie-bin as opposed to my pot.

Feeling a little down at this outcome Alfie soon cheered me right up!  Initially he was just shouting at me, and upon investigation it materialised that he had trapped his finger in his shape sorter.  Nothing serious, and he was soon free and playing again.  And it was then he totally made my birthday.  He sat on my lap and continued to play with the shape sorter, initially just showing me what he could do (put the circle through the circular hole)

And then he did the sweetest thing, and asked me to show him where the other shapes go!  First he picked up the triangle, grabbed hold of my left hand with his free hand, and turned it over to place the triangle in my palm.  To which he nodded and went "ysssss" like he does.  And of course I showed him where it went - and we played like that with triangles, squares and rectangles for about an hour until Tash came home. 

The only small issue being that he can also squeeze the triangle through the circular hole.