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30th Jan 2009

Who Loves Ya, Baby?

Jane: One of my favourite games this year was the Kojak Detective Game – yes, you’ve guessed it, an Xmas eBay purchase. I must have missed it first time round but the box and board now have a cutesy kitsch appeal – incorruptible cop Telly Savalas with his gleaming bald head, lollypop and mordant wit. Actually, forget the wit – this game is simple, all you have to do is catch the baddie with your two squad cars, though the route to do so is tortuous, with a series of complicated technical manoeuvres that are (you’ll be glad to hear) currently beyond my descriptive powers.   

The good news is you get to do some typical cop driving – going forwards and backwards (though hopefully not up one-way streets) to get the right cards to make sure the baddie is in the right place at the right time to be arrested. I enjoyed it a lot and if you’re tempted, I’ve just looked on eBay and they have a couple for sale right now…

The children liked Kojak but in all honesty preferred Imaginiff, which is a funny, cheeky game for family get-togethers. On the board, you write the names of family, friends, the famous – people you all know about and can have a good guess at how they would behave in any situation. Everyone gets given a set of six cards, numbered from 1-6. One person then rolls the die, and moves the grey counter around the outer rim of the board to land on a person’s name – this person then becomes the subject of the next question round. The player picks up a question card and reads, putting the subject’s name into the question. For example:

 ‘Imaginiff MAUDIE (name of subject) had to live in another era. Which would it be?
1 Stone age
2 The Roman empire
3 Middle ages
4 The Wild West
5 Victorian era
6 The future.

Everyone chooses an answer by placing one of their number cards face down, then turning them over at the same time. Those with the most popular answer (eg with two or more people voting for ‘6 The future’) move one space forward round the inner board. Everyone else stays where they are. You continue like this, taking it in turns to ask questions about different subjects, and moving your counters when you score the most popular response. The winner is the person who gets to the centre of the board first. The cards pose witty questions and sometimes dangerously astute answers. It's great fun, not least because you get to be a little cheeky about people close to you and the way they behave…

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24th Jan 2009

A 'Hit and Miss' Hit

Tamsin: We had a good selection of family games given to us this Christmas, so, I thought that over the next few blogs I would show you a few we have had a fun time with. The first up is ‘Hit or Miss’. It is a game which works well when there are quite a few people around the table. If you have young children they can be paired up with an adult as the only aspect of the game they may find difficult is the fast writing at the beginning

With paper in front of them and a pencil in hand, everyone has to write down as many answers as they can to a question. An example would be ‘Things you would sit on’.  This has to be done in the one minute it takes the hour glass to drop its sand. After this each person takes a turn in rolling the dice to decide whether they have to give an answer that they think will be a hit or a miss. For this question if you rolled a ‘hit’ you might choose ‘chair’. Everyone looks at their list of words and if they have written that down they place a hit card in front of them; if they haven't, they put the miss card out instead. The number of ‘hit’ cards are counted and becomes that person's score. Each person has a turn before the final points count is taken for the round.

 I was surprised by how much fun this turned out to be. Plenty of discussion went on and we had to decide how creative people could be with their answers. For example, we were writing down answers to ‘Things that could be folded’. Hit answers were napkins, envelopes, clothes but when Joe had to suggest a miss answer (something he had written that no one else would have thought of) he came up with ‘the time space continuum’. A stunned silence followed, as most people around the table were not very well up on recent scientific thought, and after some discussion we dismissed the answer.  But Joe felt he had been unfairly treated and to prove a point he reached for his computer. After a quick google search we did have to eat humble pie – the time space continuum is indeed believed to be folded!

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16th Jan 2009

Muesli Mornings

Tamsin: I am not that good at breakfast. Cooking early in the morning is not a good start for me (which is a pity for my growing son who can think of nothing better than an English fry-up to start the day). My favourite beginning is a fresh fruit salad but even that seems like an awful lot of hard work when your eyes have yet to focus from their night of slumber. I think this comes from being spoilt as a child by my father who prepared us breakfast each day. All we had to do was lay the table and enjoy. Thank you dad, I look back at those ‘breakfast all prepared’ days with belated appreciation.

There was a rota to my father’s breakfasts – Monday, scrambled egg; Tuesday, grapefruit; Wednesday, boiled egg etc. Then, sometime in the mid-70s, he discovered muesli. This was not the sleek sweet versions which adorn our shelves now but the pure homespun variety consisting of a few dried oats scattered with raisins, hazelnuts and maybe a cut-up apple. I detested the floury taste of the dried oats with the cold milk and still do.

I was therefore surprised to find a muesli that was delicious and which despite containing oats did not ‘flour’ on the palette. The downside to my discovery was that I only ever came across it in hotels in Europe. So it was with great delight that on turning the pages of our local magazine last week I came upon a recipe for the very muesli I coveted – Bircher muesli.
Excited, I collected the ingredients together ready to make it but was thwarted by my son who took over the task. It is so easy to make and best of all will keep in the fridge for a week, so my morning food is sorted for the next seven days (although because of the rate at which the rest of the family is consuming it, I don't think it will last that long). This muesli is rich, creamy and best consumed, from my point of view, over a chopped-up banana or apple.

Bircher Muesli
15 tbsp porridge oats
Orange juice
500ml Greek yogurt
100ml low-fat yogurt
250ml Quark or fromage frais
45g – 90g light brown sugar
2 eating apples
180g berries, any you like, fresh or frozen
Place the oats in a large mixing bowl and pour over orange juice until just covered. Leave for 20 mins to be absorbed. Add both yogurts and Quark/fromage frais, sprinkle on the sugar and mix. Peel the apples and then grate them finely before adding to the mixture. Gently stir in the berries. Store in the fridge for up to a week. Frozen berries may ‘bleed’ colour into the mix but it tastes just as good. Makes 10 substantial portions.

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10th Jan 2009

Godmother's Special Choc Chip Cookies - The Best!

Helen: Carla was very keen to make chocolate chip cookies during the school holidays and I was even keener. The cookies travel very well and we have tested out their flavour at several locations. Firstly, in the bowl in raw state rather a lot of the cookie dough was eaten by Carla, with assistance from Maudie and Edie. It must have tasted good, because around 10% of the mixture disappeared. Secondly, once cooked, Joe tested the first cookie while still hot from the oven. This test showed that flavour is obscured by heat and does become stronger once the cookies have cooled and the choc drops are no longer in danger of burning your tongue. Thirdly, the cookies were taken to the beach to experience the seaside; after a bracing walk in the wind, they tasted fantastic in the semi-arctic conditions.

Fourthly, a batch of cookies (no salt version) was mailed to my father in a tupperware box layered in greaseproof paper and topped with bubble-wrap and not one cookie was broken by the postie. My father gave evidence over the telephone that even when he finished them on the fourth day, they still maintained flavour and texture, and so now we know that this recipe for cookies does not go stale when posted a distance of 90 miles and consumed in a leisurely manner over a period of days rather than hours. This range of taste tests has been fairly comprehensive, and shows that next time Carla and I can be more adventurous and post cookies to a range of destinations!

Choc Chip Cookies

The ingredients are given in US cup quantities – this recipe is easiest to make if you buy a cup measuring set, usually about £3 at a UK supermarket. Makes about 40 cookies.

2¼ cups plain flour
1 tspbaking powder
1 tsp salt, can reduce or avoid if necessary for heart healthiness
1 cup butter, softened to mushy consistency
¾ cup granulated sugar (can use brown)
¾ cup soft brown sugar, squashed down
1 tsp vanilla extract, posh stuff tastes best
2 large eggs, whisked
2-3 cups dark chocolate chip cookies (or mix with milk drops)
1 cup chopped nuts (optional: pecans, walnuts or pistachios are best)

Pre-heat oven to 180ºC/350ºF.
Mix together the flour, baking powder and salt in a small bowl.
Churn together the softened butter and both sets of sugar in a very large bowl. Needs some elbow work to make smooth or you can use an electric mixer if you have to conserve your energy and are keen on a very light cookie texture. Add the vanilla extract and beat in. Lastly, whisk the eggs and slowly add in to the mixture which will make it very gooey.
Gradually add the flour mixture to the butter mixture and stir in. Only once your mixture looks like cookie dough and is a butterscotch colour, is it time to add the special ingredient of chocolate drops (minimum recommended 2 cups, maximum 3 cups; and dark chocolate drops have stronger choc flavour post baking than milk chocolate drops, so this has to be carefully thought through before selection of drops).

You will see that with three sets of helping hands it may be very hard to get the required quota of choc chips if your helpers consume too many choc chips before they reach the cookie mixing bowl!

Using a soup spoon, scoop out one spoonful of dough per cookie which will make them to fit an American mouth size which equates to three bites for a typical British adult. If you are baking them for toddlers, use a teaspoon of dough per cookie so they are for small mouths. And if you wish to add nuts, this is the time to push several into the top of each cookie.
Bake for 8 to 11 minutes, then remove from hot oven tray immediately and put on a wire rack to cool. If you like your cookies to be American style and sticky inside, then take out of the oven at 8 minutes because by 9 minutes they will be firm and by 11 minutes they will be toasty. So check with your consumers which texture they like best. All taste extraordinarily good!
In this picture, we added some pistachios to the cookies just before they were popped in the oven. This batch of cookies did taste different because they were a no-salt version so we could share half of them with my father who is not allowed salt since his heart operation. (It did not make a big difference to the taste of the cookies.) Also, these cookies have been baked for 10 minutes to be of firm texture to withstand packing in tupperware to travel as going-home presents and for posting to my father in Oxfordshire. The cost of posting a box of cookies packed in tupperware and padded envelope in Britain was £2.50 first class: posting at 4pm in central Cambridge they were then delivered the very next morning to rural Oxfordshire and remained in pristine condition with hardly a crumb dislodged. So this proves that chocolate chip cookies make an excellent choice for a posted present!

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5th Jan 2009

R.I.P. Baked Potatoes

Helen: The sad story of the R.I.P Baked Potato Art Festival came about because we were waylaid on a coastal walk at Horsey where we were expecting a picnic on an isolated beach but instead were surrounded by nature tourists come to watch grey seals and their pups. None of us knew anything about seals and their rookery habitats on the north Norfolk coast, but after a while we figured out which were females, males, fluffy overstuffed young ones, and scraggy dead seals abandoned close to the dunes. The male seals were darker and huge and barked out at the beached females as they flopped out of the water in hope of mating, but although we watched very intently, or possibly because we watched so intently, the females barked back fiercely and did not seem at all keen on getting intimate!

All this seal distraction meant we were back home late from our traditional New Year's Day beach walk and as we bundled through the front door our nostrils were greeted by the yummy smell of a carrot-related stew and baked pots in the Aga. Tamsin said brightly, 'I hope the potatoes aren’t burnt to a cinder' at the very moment the oven was opened to reveal the remains of our supper, their dark husks burnt to a cinder. We set about cutting one in half and the contents revealed a thick toasted crust with a very small edible kernel of pasty potato. 

What to do? Well, the organic recycle bin had a suggestive layer of green bean trimmings on the top which were soon attached to the three potatoes that had survived in potato head form. Using toothpicks as pins, the beans were formed into grimaces. Next, noses were found from three squidgy clementine segments discarded from a breakfast fruit salad. The eyes were more of a challenge - Joe used orange stalks.  The hat and hair pieces was where the R.I.P Baked Potato Art Festival came in for a creative twist and a very deep delve through the recycle bin with a variety of creative contributions from Carla, Maudie and Edie.  One potato head had a third of a bagel and a corner of stale bread cut in to a Mexican sombrero, the second had a very funky pixie hat made of a banana peel end, and the third had the best-suited head gear for the blustery weather conditions, a deer stalker fashioned from clementine peelings.

The three potato heads are a symbol of optimism for 2009, that any tragedy on a domestic front can be turned around in to a triumph of ingenuity over adversity!
Our three potato heads have yet to test out their headgear in outdoor conditions, but we wish them all the best for a rewarding year in 2009, recycled in the compost bin as plant food for the next crop of beans and potatoes.

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2nd Jan 2009

People, Sausages and Seals

Joe: Let’s begin by setting the scene, its New Year's Day and a group of friends are driving through the beautiful Norfolk countryside to go for a bracing wilderness walk. At one point the cars slow down and exclamations of horror are heard as a line of 50 cars draws into view; could this possibly be the peaceful beach walk they were expecting? Luckily for them they carry on, past the multitude of people and through a set of twisty routes until eventually they draw to a halt down a tiny lane. Once they have prepared, the group sets off down the path to their distant goal of a steep embankment and, beyond it, a peaceful beach. None of them notice the small car park, devoid of any empty spaces.

As they walk on they find their path to be very crowded, worryingly with many of the people walking in the opposite direction. The closer they draw the more it seems like the embankment is fenced off, but no one could close a beach, could they? Finally they reach a barrier surrounded by people, and one of their group notices a sign, proclaiming in bold type:
Grey Seals Birthing
Voluntary Beach Closure
Thank you for your co-operation

After the initial surprise has worn off the group is aghast, but luckily they can climb to the top of the embankment to view the seals. Once the likely looking people in fluorescent jackets have been queried about the extent of the closure, and following the discovery that the nearest stretch of free beach is a six mile walk away, it is decided that the only thing to do to escape the hordes is to continue walking along the bank. The group eventually comes to rest in an isolated hollow, with a perfect view of the seals. It is now that the secret weapon is revealed. The rucksacks are opened to reveal a small gas cooker, hotdogs, white finger rolls and assorted condiments – the perfect lunch. Whilst the sausages are bubbling away, the group turns to seal watching. There are many of them, ranging from teeny white, fluffy babies to huge (and I mean really big!) adults. Their entire life seems to consist of sleeping, only ever moving to get comfortable.
Once sufficient seals have been watched and hotdogs consumed they head home, stopping at the local pub to finish off a very enjoyable New Year's Day out.   

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