Castles and Much, Much, More!

Here is a recap of our January journeys during our time abroad.  Amazingly, I think we managed to keep up our breakneck sightseeing pace of December!

We started the New Year with a day trip to county Winchester where we took in Stonehenge.  Unfortunately, I’m not sure if we were more in awe of the importance of the stones and their place in history or of the frigid temperatures!  We did our best to learn as much as we could, but we moved efficiently in order to keep our toes from freezing. 

From Stonehenge we had a pub lunch and then visited the town of Winchester.  I wrote about that visit in an earlier post.

The next weekend, we visited the nearby city of Guildford.  We were pleasantly surprised to happen upon a produce market that was taking place that day, and we managed to purchase several bags of fruits and vegetables that we had no idea we needed.  We also explored the town a bit and checked out Guildford Castle.  Unfortunately the castle itself was closed for the season, but we enjoyed walking about the grounds. 

That same weekend, we decided to take a ramble through the woods to a local pub for a traditional Sunday roast.  We donned our wellies and walked on the network of public footpaths to the Prince of Wales pub.  

London was next on our agenda.  We got a very early start and took the train from Dorking into the big city.  It was another beautiful and cold January day, but it was perfect for taking in the Tower of London.  The boys enjoyed seeing another “castle” and hearing the gruesome stories of some of the prisoners who were held at the Tower.

On the train to London.

Joe and Tom with Tower Bridge in the background.

View of the Tower of London across the river Thames.

Crossing Tower Bridge.

Entering the Tower of London.

Tower of London Guards.

One feature of the Tower of London that we all enjoyed was the costumed interpreters interspersed throughout the site.  We encountered one fellow who engaged Joey in a game of “Nine Men’s Morris” which is an old English strategy game, kind of like advanced Tic Tac Toe.

Joey learns Nine Men's Morris.

He chose to go in here. Seriously.

Feeling bold after our fabulous London day trip, on the next weekend we decided to have a go at an English B&B and try an overnight stay with our merry band of boys.  We found a lovely spot in Stratford-Upon-Avon, Victoria Spa Lodge, which was able to accommodate our family of five.  

It was definitely cosy in our room, but we had a lovely stay.

We explored the town of Stratford-Upon-Avon and saw some of the important Shakespeare sights.

Shakespeare's Birthplace.

Church of the Holy Trinity where Shakespeare is buried.

Enjoying the river Avon.

One of the things we like to do is find a local candy shop in the towns we visit.  The vast majority our our family enjoys pure sugar, so this is a highlight for many of us!  Paul and Joey had seen a candy called “Mega Sour Black Death” at a shop a while back, but hadn’t tried it.  On this trip they were up for the sour challenge.

The next day of our weekend away we went to Warwick castle.  Yes, another castle!  Will we ever get enough?

Warwick Castle was particularly fun because it had wax figures (a la Madame Tussauds) throughout that provided an additional sense of reality to what we were experiencing.  

Posing with Henry VIII. Tommy doesn't look impressed.

Enjoying the grounds at Warwick Castle.

Joey and Paul were very interested in the trebuchet at the castle. Unfortunately, there were no demonstrations during our visit.

To fully round out January, on the last weekend of the month we journeyed to…France!  I’ll write about that adventure on a separate entry, so stay tuned.

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Mill Bread

On New Year’s Day we journeyed west and found ourselves in the town of Winchester for the afternoon.  We wandered about the town, bought some much enjoyed sweets at a candy shop, and visited the Winchester City Mill.  This is a restored waterwheel powered mill where they actually grind flour (and sell in the gift shop).  We were lucky enough to be there on a day when they were milling, and we were able to see the flour being made. 

We decided to purchase some flour so that we could make bread at home. 

The other day Sam and I finally got around to making a batch of “Mill Bread” as he christened it.  First, we gathered supplies. 

Then we proofed the yeast and measured the rest of the ingredients. 

When the yeast looked bubbly, we added the dry and liquid ingredients together and mixed. 

Then we kneaded the dough … a lot! 

Then, the dough (and the breadmakers) took a rest.  After the dough was doubled in size (or thereabouts), we punched it down.  This was a really fun part! 

Then we shaped the dough into a loaf, put it in the pan, and let it rise.  When the loaf was roughly doubled in size, we baked it until golden brown.  Sam thought the baked bread smelled wonderful. 

We all pronounced “Mill Bread” to be quite delicious.  The boys all enjoyed it as toast for breakfast the next morning. 

If you are interested in the recipe, you can find it here.

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December 2011 – “Can We Go to a Castle?”

We are doing our best to take in as many of the local sights and absorb as much history and culture as we can while we are here in England.  During December I think we did pretty well.  It seems we are all fond of castles, stately homes, and rambles in the countryside.  Here are some photos of places we visited last month.

The grand old estate here is Milton Court, home of Unum UK where Paul works.  It’s hard to believe that an insurance company is located in such a beautiful spot!  We attended a Christmas party for employees and their families and a fun time was had by all – face painting, balloon sculptor, arts & crafts, snacks, a pantomime, and a visit with Father Christmas – of course we enjoyed ourselves!

We joined England’s National Trust so we could visit a wide variety of natural and historic locations throughout the country.  Our first visit was to Polesden Lacey, a nearby stately home.  It was beautifully decorated for Christmas, and I’m sure we would have thoroughly enjoyed the grounds if we all weren’t freezing cold!  We made plans go go back to picnic and explore when the weather gets warmer. 

These horses looked less than thrilled about being dressed up for Christmas.

All Throughout England there are beautiful nature reserves and a huge network of public walking paths.  One lovely park with trails in Dorking is The Nower. Paul walks through here on his way to work every day.  There is a lookout spot at the highest point in The Nower with excellent views of Dorking and the surrounding countryside.

The stately homes were lovely, but we all really wanted to see a proper castle! Our first stop was Bodiam Castle in East Sussex.  It was amazing to walk through the castle and feel all those years of history surrounding us.  The boys were suitably impressed as well.  

This is a hop field. The unusually roofed buildings are traditional oast houses for drying the hops.

On Christmas Eve, went for a hike to Leith Hill, another nearby National Trust nature preserve area with walking trails.  For a few moments when we stood at the top of the tower on Leith Hill we became the highest people in southeast England!  

This is Leith Hill Tower.

After Christmas, we were invited to stay with the parents of one of Amy’s cousin’s in-laws in the town of Stamford. We relaxed at their beautiful home, explored the town (and stopped at a pub), saw a bit of the local scenery, and most of all enjoyed being with family!

The children herded these poor sheep around the field!

We stopped at a pub for a little break. Photo credit goes to Ann Pye for this shot.

We visited Burghley House while in Stamford, but unfortunately the gardens and house were closed for the season (and it was very cold and windy).  The friendly deer on the grounds were quite keen on seeing if we had any treats to offer.  Sadly, we did not.  
We ended the year with a castle double shot.  On December 30, we went to Hampton Court Palace.  This place was particularly interesting because they have costumed actors portraying various characters in the royal court.  The gardens also have hedge maze that was a huge hit with Joey and Tommy.

We had the extreme honor of witnessing Henry VIII at his afternoon meal.

Finally, on New Year’s Eve, we visited Leeds Castle in Kent.  This is another place to which we will definitely return when the weather is warmer for picnicking and exploring the beautiful gardens.

Leeds Castle has a great play area for children.

It was a busy month! I’m not sure if we’ll be able to keep up this pace now that school and work have begun again, but we will try our best to get out and explore whenever we can.

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Decorating for Christmas 2011

When we packed for England we had to take only the essentials, and sadly all of our Christmas decorations didn’t make the cut.  To decorate our tree, the boys and I made salt dough ornaments.  I’d been thinking about making gingerbread cookie ornaments, but I realized that more cookies would likely be eaten than would make it to the tree!

Salt dough is really easy to make and fun to do with children.  There are recipes posted all over the Web, and I pretty much followed this one here.

We measured and mixed.

Notice that each boy has his own bowl - essential for dough making harmony.

We kneaded.

We rolled and cut.

We baked them in the oven and then left them out on the counter to finish drying.

Then, we painted them.

Yes, of course that's a lobster!

While the paint was still wet, we added the all-important glitter.

In Maine, typically we go to a local Christmas tree farm to cut down a lovely and fragrant balsam fir tree.   This year, we went in the opposite direction.  One Saturday, we went for a scenic drive and saw “Festive Trees” laying by the side of the road available for your decorating pleasure if you left a donation to the National Trust of England.  They were perfectly brilliant and scraggly “Charlie Brown Christmas” trees.  Much to Joey’s dismay, we selected the best of the bunch and brought one home.

Back at Tree Shadows, we added lights and our fantastic home made ornaments.

Now we await the arrival of “Father Christmas” on December 24!

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The Family has Landed!

We made it across the pond and are settling into our new digs here in Dorking, England.  Paul and I will be trying to update this blog with some of the details of our lives over here.  Here are a few comments and observations about our first week here.

Our house has a name!  Home away from home is called “Tree Shadows” – doesn’t that seem so very “English” and charming?  The homeowners have recently done extensive renovations, so it has a modern and open feel.  It should suit our family nicely.   The boys certainly have made themselves at home.

We have limited furniture at this point, so packing boxes are having to suffice for a couch and chairs until we can find the real thing.  I’ll post more pictures of the house when we have things more sorted around here, i.e. when we aren’t living out of and in cardboard boxes.

We’re having fun grocery shopping and setting up our kitchen.  Paul made us a semi-traditional English Breakfast this weekend.  We’re also keeping with some of our traditions from home, so per usual Sunday was pizza night.  Just as he had his techniques almost perfected in our Portland home, Paul now has to tweak his methods and recipes once again!  Good thing that’s all fun for him.

We have done some exploring around town, but haven’t yet ventured too far out of town except for shopping trips.  Next weekend we hope to go on an adventure on Sunday.  Not sure yet where we’ll go, but we are looking forward to getting out and seeing the countryside.

Hamming it up at Deepdene Roundabout. The "Dorking Cockerel" sculpture is in the background.

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Halloween 2011

Halloween.  Candy and Costumes.  Every year my children look forward to the candy, and I look forward to the fun of making costumes.  We’ve had some good ones over the years, I think.

2006 - Joe is Big Bird and Tom is Elmo

2007 - Joe is Super Why

2008 - Tom is Curious George (not home made) and Joe is The Man with the Yellow Hat

2009 - Joe is a Dementor and Tom is an Alligator

2010 - Joe is a Ninja

2010 - Tom is an Octopus

This year, Sam decided he wanted to be a monster, and not just any monster:  a red, furry, scary monster.  That sounded like a costume I wanted to make!  We traveled to our local fabric store and found the softest and furriest red fabric you can imagine.  Very Elmo-like.  My challenge was to create a monster that wasn’t at all like Elmo from this fabric that all but screamed Elmo.  Next, we found a pattern that I could modify to create this scary monster.  Can you see the ferocious potential in that cute little monkey?

The results were amazingly cute.  Red.  Furry.  Scary.  Happy boy.

I told the boys that I could do only one elaborate handmade costume per year, and this was Sam’s year.  Tom was happy to be a construction worker.

Joe wanted to be a Death Eater from Harry Potter.  We had the cloak from when he was a Dementor (notice the Harry Potter theme), and the mask was a modified store-bought skull costume.  A good friend loaned us a wand.  Easy.  And creepy.

Trick-or-Treating was lots of fun.  The weather was perfect (snow on the ground didn’t bother us).  Sam was totally into the concept of getting candy.  His belated “thank you!” as he walked away from houses was precious.  Tom was all business until his candy bag got too heavy to carry.  Joe scored his biggest candy haul yet – he’ll likely still be eating candy in June.

How was your Halloween?  I’d love to hear about your costume creations.

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Team Lava-Stick

We sometimes can be kind of dorky.  I’ve learned to embrace it.  Team Lava-Stick is definitely one of our sillier creations.  Here’s the story.  For the past several years, Paul and I have run road races with my brother and sister-in-law.  We began joking that we should have a name for our awesome running foursome, so Team Lava-Stick (a perfect combination of our two last names) was born.  Over time, we thought we should have a logo.  “Yeah, it could be a volcano with flaming sticks coming out of it!”  Then we talked about having running shirts with the logo on it.  Really?  Yup.  Definitely.When we all decided we would run the Maine Half Marathon this year, I figured I’d throw all fashion sense completely to the wind and go ahead and make the shirts.  Our sister-in-law was able to get some fancy Nike technical shirts for us through her work connections, and it was my job to get our logo onto the shirts.

I’d done on the cheap at home screen printing before.  For Tommy’s 4th birthday party I made Curious George t-shirts for all the partygoers.  It was a fun (and really cute) project.  I didn’t want to purchase proper screen printing supplies (because I’m a cheapskate at heart), so I did some online searching and cobbled together a do-it-yourself process that worked pretty well.For our race shirts, I stepped up my process by using 3 colors rather than just one.  Only the best for Team Lava-Stick.  That meant I needed three screens.  Paul made some simple ones for me by cutting a window in squares of plywood.

For the screen fabric, I used organza that I had on hand.  I cut pieces a few inches larger than the screen, stretched the fabric over the screen, and stapled on the back – making sure to pull the fabric taught. Super simple and inexpensive printing screens ready to go!The next step was to prepare the images.  My d0-it-yourself technique uses contact paper that I cut into squares the size of my three screens. I taped my logo image onto a window so I could easily trace my design.  For each color, I traced the corresponding parts of the logo onto its own square of contact paper.  I had red for the flames and lava, brown for the volcano, and black for the lettering.Next, I used an x-acto knife to cut out the images from the contact paper.Once all the images were cut, I peeled away the backing on the contact paper and stuck each one onto the outside surface of each screen.To make sure nothing moved around, I placed masking tape all around the edges of the contact paper.Also, to prevent ink from bleeding under the screen when printing, I used masking tape all along the inside edge of the screen.Once all three screens were done, I was ready to print.  (You’ll notice the lettering is different in this picture.  I ended up re-doing that screen after doing a test shirt – sorry Sam – because I didn’t like how it was printing.) Before adding any ink, I placed a piece of paper inside each shirt to prevent any ink from soaking through.  First, I chose the color at the top of my image (red) and globbed some screen printing ink (my only official screen printing purchase) above the image on the inside surface of the corresponding screen.  I placed the screen on the shirt in the position where I wanted the image.  Then, I used a putty knife to draw the ink over the surface of the screen.  Down only – I did not scrape the ink back up across the screen.  I just picked up the extra ink and re-deposited it back at the top of the screen for the next shirt.Then, I carefully lifted up the screen.  Voila!  Ink on shirt.  Once I inked the red onto all the shirts, I let them dry.Once dry, I repeated the process with brown and then black, making sure the ink was completely dry between color changes.  It was challenging to line up the images exactly where they needed to be with each of the different colors, but it was doable with careful work (and finger-crossing).The last step was to heat set the ink with an iron so the image would be permanent.The weather for the Maine Half Marathon was far from perfect:  50 degree temperatures with driving rain, but we all ran the race and managed to have some fun as well.Has anyone else done do-it-yourself screen printing using a different method?  Or similar method?  I’d be interested in hearing about (and seeing) your process!

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Recycled T-shirts

The Donald Duck shirt was very much loved.  When Joey was 4, he wore it as much as he possibly could.  Who could blame him?  Even Donald Duck himself approved!  It was a sad day when the shirt was removed from rotation due to a growing boy.

Thanks to a brilliant recycling idea from my friend Beth, the Donald Duck shirt has been reborn!  Beth makes really cute shirts for her children by taking a piece of fun fabric and appliqueing it to an old t-shirt.  I decided to use this technique to re-use good old Donald.

To begin, I cut the Donald shirt in a rectangle big enough to cover the design on the old t-shirt.  It was a bit uncomfortable to take scissors to the beloved shirt, but I persevered for the greater good.

For stabilization, I used double-sided fusible interfacing to adhere the Donald shirt piece to the recipient shirt.  To use this product, I first traced and cut out a piece of interfacing that was the size of the Donald shirt section.  The interfacing was then ironed onto the wrong side of the t-shirt piece.

Next, the interfacing backing was peeled away.  Now I had the Donald t-shirt piece with interfacing on the back.

Donald was now ready for his new home.  I centered him over the old t-shirt design and ironed him into place.

The final step was to satin stitch all around the Donald image on the new t-shirt.  This proved frustrating.  Despite the interfacing, the stretchy t-shirt fabric on both the applique piece and the recipient shirt presented quite a challenge.  I ended up doing two passes around to achieve consistent stitching.  The resulting shirt had more wrinkles due to the fabric stretching than I would have preferred, but I am satisfied because Joey is happy with the results.

Because I can’t make a fun shirt for only one boy, all three of my guys received recycled t-shirts.  Using the same technique (and construction theme fabric from my friend Beth), I made “tractor shirts” for Sam and Tom.  Because the applique fabric wasn’t stretchy for their shirts, the stitching around the fabric pieces is much smoother on their shirts.  All the boys are happy though, and that’s what counts!

I’d love to hear your ideas for recycling old clothes.  Are there any other great concepts out there?

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Pizza Night

It’s a Sunday rite that we try our best not to miss: Pizza Night.

It has become the Sunday evening routine at our house to close out the weekend with my home baked pizza, and guilt and regret will set in on the rare occasions I am forced to miss a week.

I’ve been making pizza since I was a kid: homemade crust, a simple tomato sauce, a base of cheddar cheese, and toppings as adventurous as I can find, baked in the oven on clay tiles.

Between our garden and farm share, we’ve had lots of great produce this year and it’s been fun working that onto our pizzas.

This week had a roasted carrot and onion pizza with Swiss cheese. Last week roasted tomato & basil with mozzarella, and homemade sausage with pepper and onion.

Though I’ve been making pizza for years, I feel the need to make a ‘crust up’ effort to ensure building the perfect pie:

  • Considering a thicker pizza stone
  • Experimenting with new crust formulations
  • Baking at hotter temperatures
  • Using Amy’s home-canned tomatoes for sauce
  • And continuing the search for new & interesting toppings

I’ll update with new findings and results of our (almost) weekly offerings.

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Eggplant Caponata

Eggplant flower

Image via Wikipedia

A few weeks ago Paul came home from a trip to Rosemont, our local food market and bakery, with a container of Eggplant Caponata.  After enjoying a bite or two my thoughts of course went to “I must have more of this” followed by “I wonder if I could make this?”

The container from Rosemont listed the ingredients, but I was on my own for the amounts and method of preparation.  Google, being my friend, kindly offered up countless variations of eggplant caponata.  Some had pinenuts.  Some had chocolate!  Feeling a bit overwhelmed with trying to find the perfect recipe amongst the multitude, I decided just to wing it.

I had on hand white eggplant, onions, and home canned tomatoes from this summer’s garden.  From last week’s farm share from Laughing Stock Farm, I had some sweet bell peppers.  All that plus a few pantry and grocery items and I was ready to create kitchen magic (hopefully).

My sous chef and I spent around an hour chopping, sautéing, and simmering, and the resulting caponata was delicious, but perhaps not so lovely to look at.  I think the combination of white eggplant, yellow pepper, and golden raisins along with the other ingredients created a monochromatic color palette.  I think next time I make this I’ll try for veggies with more vibrant colors.  I will be sure to post an update if I come up with the perfect combination of caponata taste and beauty.

To go with the caponata I experimented with making crusty bread, and the two were a perfect pair.  The bread will be the topic of a future post, so stay tuned!

Click here for the Eggplant Caponata recipe.

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