January and February are birthday months for our family. We survive the flurry of Christmas and are then hit with four birthdays within 3 weeks. It is a busy period with lots of gift searching (really what do you get for kids that are already drowning under their body weight in beanie boos), special day menu planning and executing, a long awaited birthday party with friends, and a ton of cake. So much cake, every week. You can actually have too much of a good thing!
My youngest daughter turned 11, and loves and wants everything she lays her eyes on, but her one true obsession is horses. So it was an easy task to fix a gift of a horse trail ride and a simple vanilla cake she requested, which she decorated with some of her horse collection. We make do with whatever candles we have – I see it as an act in waste-free living and sustainability. In reality, I never think about the candles until we are ready to light them up and sing ‘Happy Birthday’!
My youngest son turned 8 (I almost wrote 7 – I am finding it hard to keep up!), and the cake he has been asking for since he was 4 was finally made a reality. A whale, with sparklers at the blowhole. It was so easy, I have no idea why it has taken this long to achieve it, and he absolutely loved it! He is into Lego at the moment, which is always an easy birthday gift choice. It gets built in 15 minutes then I spend the next 5 weeks avoiding impalement and the sheer guilt of having destroyed his creation.
My dad turned 70, which is a huge landmark. I wished I could have celebrated it with him along with the rest of my family, but they live a 3 day driving journey from us and we had only recently completed a 6 day round trip at Christmas. I don’t mind driving, but I like a long break between big journeys. It is at these times that I feel a pang of guilt and resentment at living so far away. One day I say, we will live closer. That one day is becoming increasingly elusive.
My birthday is the last and this year I turned 46. Birthdays don’t have much impact anymore. The years roll on. I don’t feel old, certainly don’t feel young, often I forget how old I am. My eldest daughter and I made the cake together and filled it with cooked rhubarb from the garden and an inordinate amount of whipped cream. The icing was even more whipped cream mixed with mascarpone, and subtly flavoured with the rhubarb cooking liquid that I cooked down to a thick jelly. The kids got creative with candles as I felt it overkill to have 46 individual candles (and well we didn’t have that many to start with, plus the house is an old weatherboard and highly flammable), and for whatever reason they chose a moose as my spirit animal. Not sure whether to be happy or offended at that. Moose’s are cool yes?
But life isn’t all about cake consumption. We make other stuff too.
I always, always, have a jar of red cabbage pickles in the fridge. It is a Belinda Jefferies recipe that I have been making for almost 20 years. It is an amazing pickle that is crunchy, zingy, fresh, sweet, with a subtle heat from the ginger (while I love chilli, I want the kids to eat it too so leave the chilli out). It lasts forever in the fridge, if you allow it, but really it is just so good with everything, you should always have a red cabbage at hand to make another batch. Make double – it’s that good!
I make roast chicken very rarely these days. I have a large collection of recipe books with an infinite choice of chicken recipes, so the humble roast chook had been relegated to nostalgia. It is a travisty really. There are few dishes that rival the simplicity and sense of complete satisfaction you get from a roast chook meal. I had felt it’s absence and wanted to welcome this simple dish with a sense of ceremony by smothering it in butter and filling its cavity with thyme and bay leaves fresh from the garden. It was delicious, and is sure to grace our table often.
The bonus of cooking a roast chicken is the stock you can make from the carcass and bones. I am exceptionally lazy at making stock and do no more than fill a slow cooker with bones saved up in a bag in the freezer, cover generously with water and a few splashes of apple cider vinegar. I cook on high initially to get things in motion and then turn down to low to cook for 24 hours or until I remember that it really needs straining and storing. You will need to top up with boiled water from time to time, but otherwise that is the beauty of a slow cooker – set and forget. Once ready, I simply strain into 1 litre mason jars, cap, cool on the bench and then place in the freezer, Make sure you leave some headspace so the jar does not crack as the contents expand in the freezer. You will get a more gelatinous stock by cooking from raw bones, but I feel that using cooked bones is a more economical and honest way of producing stock. It is pure gold, and tastes like nothing out of a cube or tetra pack.
While all this was going on, I cooked down some apples I had collected from the old orchard trees along the river. The fruit is too tart for eating, and doesn’t lend itself to apple pie baking either as the flesh cooks down to a pulp, but they are perfect for making jellies and apple cider vinegar. The vinegar is on hold as all my buckets and jars are in use at the moment but I made a batch of red wine jelly, which makes excellent use of leftover wine (if that is a problem in your house), and a double batch of mint jelly to enjoy through Autumn and Winter with lamb. The red wine jelly is delicious with everything and the kids think they are so grown up eating it! The recipe is one I had written down from one of my mum’s old family circle recipe books, but I managed to track it down online here so you can all have a try. It is worthwhile saving some wine for!
The last exercise in productivity this week has been an attempt at making dolls clothes for my niece’s birthday on Sunday. I love Waldorf inspired dolls and I have one for each of my girls, and I have long wanted to make sewing a skill I can enjoy. It does not come easily to me though, I seem to struggle terribly with straight lines! I thought I would start small, but honestly I lost count of how many times I had to re-thread and stitch elastic, reattach binding, stitch – unpick – and re-stitch pockets – argh! I thought it would be so easy and quick. Oh well, nothing comes from nothing, so I will try again, another day! But choosing fabrics was a joy. I love natural cottons and poplins and linen, and with such miniature dimensions, sewing up a complete outfit does not stretch the budget too far.
I love productive projects, they fill me with a sense of purpose and a deep satisfaction that I am giving something valuable to my family and to myself. Nothing nourishes the soul so much as using your hands in quiet moments of creating good things to eat, or beautiful things to use and enjoy. I lose myself so completely in these tasks that it feels like I am being wrenched back into reality when I see it is time to collect the kids from school.
I get so much inspiration from seeing and hearing how others fill their days in productive pursuits, so please feel free to share what you have been doing!