Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Dorothy the Dinosaur cake: Green, yummy and gluten free!

A few people have emailed me asking for the process K and I used in building the Dorothy the Dinosaur cake that C and her guests so enjoyed for her birthday party on Saturday. Here it is, in steps, if you are interested.

1. Make 2 x square cakes and freeze them

I used a 26cm square tin, and that resulted in a final cake that fed 35 guests and still had almost 1/3 of the cake left over. You could easily use a smaller tin if your party is smaller.

I cannot emphasise enough how beneficial it is to freeze the cakes. It makes carving the shape so much easier.

I made gluten free vanilla cakes, which were just two giant versions of my tried and true vanilla cupcake recipe.

Vanilla cupcakes


* 200g margarine or unsalted butter, softened (I tried both, marg worked better)
* 1 ½ cups caster sugar
* 4 eggs
* 2 ¾ cups gluten free plain flour (I use Orgran)
* 2 teaspoons baking powder
* 1 cup milk
* 1 tablespoon vanilla extract


Preheat oven to 180°C.

In an electric mixer, beat butter / margarine for 2-3 minutes until pale in colour and creamy. Add sugar one third at a time, beating well between each addition. Add the eggs one at a time, beating for about a minute between each addition. Add the vanilla essence and beat until combined. Sift flour and baking powder and add half to butter mixture with half the milk, beat until well combined. Repeat with remaining flour and milk.

Bake for about 40 minutes or until skewer comes out clean.

2. Carve frozen cakes into shape

My friend K (she of the cake decorating wowiness and general cooking mojo) did the actual carving, because I was too lily-livered to try it. We had printed out an A3 picture of Dorothy which turned out not to be nearly big enough, so we compensated by the simple expedient if cutting it into four segments, placing them in the extreme corners, and adjusting by eye (well, K did, anyway!)

3. Apply liberal swathe of buttercream

Everyone has their own way of making buttercream icing. Mine is to combine margarine and icing sugar with a spoon, adding drops of hot water to move the process along when it's getting boringly lengthy. I don't use milk in my buttercream and I think it leads to a thicker, fudgier-tasting icing, but YMMV, naturally.

The main thing, no matter how you make it, is to make LOTS of it. I used 2 full bags of icing sugar to make enough to give Dorothy a comfortable layer of icing fat.

Important to remember:
If you are making the cake gluten free, you need to use pure icing sugar, NOT icing mixture, in your buttercream.

4. Knead colour gels into fondant / white icing until desired colours (green, yellow and a little bit of red) are achieved

This is, undoubtedly, my kids' favourite part of the process! We use the Orchard White Icing that you can buy in most supermarkets (it's gluten free) and K brings her vast kit of colour gels (like these ones that you can get from Cake Deco in Melbourne. I understand they are also available online).

The gels are much better than liquid food colouring in most contexts, but especially for fondant, where you need to work the colour through with your hands.

Tip: You should wear rubber gloves for this step unless you don't mind everyone who kneads being a little green for a couple of days :-)

5. Roll out green fondant very carefully and lift onto Dorothy to cover cake (*you may need to stitch and patch)

This was the hardest and most time-consuming part of the process, and it was K's persistence that got us there in the end (did I mention she's a star?)

In a large cake, getting a piece of fondant that big to lift over a cake without tearing and falling apart is not so very easy. It was compounded for us by the heat of the day, which led the fondant to stick to the benchtop (and rip apart) even when we drowned the surface in a snowdrift of icing sugar. The whole business gave me a new level of appreciation for the skill of the decorators on one of the girls' and my favourite shows, Ace of Cakes. Now I really get it when they say, in their invariably laconic yet slightly pained way, "Fondant. It's heavy, yunno."

In the end, the solution was to roll it out on waxed baking paper and quickly hoist it onto the cake, patching the two areas that still did come away slightly. It was a big relief to get it covered!

6. Cut out yellow fondant into different coloured circles and apply, wetting the bottom of each circle with a dab of water to help it stick

This was another phase the kids enjoyed and in fact were able to largely complete themselves; kneading the yellow colouring, rolling and cutting out different sized circles for Dorothy's spots. K then applied the spots to the cake using a dab of water for each one.

7. Cut the white elements (gloves, eyes, hat and teeth) from white rolled-out fondant & apply

I am proud to say that, despite being nervous about it, I did this part :-) Because our template was so wrongly sized for the cake, I copied the picture but in an upsized form to make the gloves, hat, eyes and teeth. I used a small paring knife and aimed for both sharp edges and speed, as the white fondant wasn't liking the heat any more than the green.

8. Create a fondant rose for the hat!

K taught my daughters how to make roses out of fondant last year when we were making E's birthday love heart cake in May. I, alas, have not mastered the art, but I think this tutorial would be a good place to start.

9. Using black royal icing, pipe the outlines for Dorothy's hat, body, tail, eyes and edges.

I let the expert, K, do the piping, being faaaaar too nervous to try it myself. She used royal icing, made with egg whites and icing sugar, and black colour gel.

Tip: The icing looked gray in the bowl, but appeared darker when piped, and dried to a deep black.

10. You are done!!
Store in the fridge in extremely hot weather, but will be fine on a benchtop if temperatures aren't extreme. Tip from K - if fridging it, remove cake from the fridge 1-2 hrs before serving to allow the beads of moisture that will have formed to dry out.

Voila! You have yourself a gluten free Dorothy the Dinosaur cake, and, in my case at least, a very happy little birthday girl :-)

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Sunday Selections: Birthday week

This has been a week of birthday celebrations for my little Miss C. Cards arriving in the mail every day, cupcakes and pancakes at playgroup, an ice-cream cake at creche, making Dorothy the Dinosaur cake for her big party, and, of course, the party itself (held yesterday).

C has had a magical week, heavy on sugar and excitement and friends and fun (admittedly, low on downtime and sleep for me, but I can catch up this week :-) I think the visits of friends and family and the making of food were probably her favourite parts; she helped make much of the spread, stirring, cracking eggs, adding ingredients, and decorating away.

Yesterday, at her party, we had a cupcake decorating table for the kids, held an egg and spoon race and played Pass the Parcel (compiled entirely by the big kids, as were the party bags - something that saved me a great deal of time and effort). Despite the 38 degree heat, a good time was had by all, and the birthday girl in particular was happy (which is, after all, the main thing).

Kim at frogpondsrock holds Sunday Selections photography meme each week. There's always some good links to follow!

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Three: A Love Letter

Dear C,

Today you are three. I can't really believe that, to be honest; I blinked and sighed, I laughed and cried, and presto chango, three years have slid past, and you are no longer my baby.

You are a beautiful girl, a dancing girl, a girl with a huge streak of mischief and fun. You are bright and talkative and generally equable, although, like many a child at your age, you can throw magnificent tantrums too on occasion.

You know many things. Sometimes I think you know more of the world than your sisters did at your age; a willing camp follower of their interests, you've taken to They Might Be Giants, to Barbie and Shrek, to the Indigo Girls and computer games, a long way earlier than I would've expected.

For all that, you love your little-girl things, too - your Dora the Explorer and Playschool on TV; your Peter Rabbit, Charlie & Lola, Hairy McClary and Mem Fox books; your teddies and blocks, your puzzles, your sandpit, your paints. Right now, your favourite thing is cooking; every morning, you ask me, "Are we gonna do some cooking today? Can I do some? Will you teach me?"

Perhaps that should be your mantra, C - "Will you teach me...?" You are hungry to learn so many things. You are starting to recognise letters; you amuse the big kids, and me too, with your dogmatic pronouncements about what things say. You'll pick up a book, open it to a page, point at the words, and say, "It says me. Look! D-U-B [her name]. See?"

Although we smile, I'm very aware that this is pre-reading in action; you recognise the words AS words, you understand that they're made up of letters, and you can name most of the letters. That is exciting to see, to be part of. One of my favourite things to do with you is to sit down and read; you love love love your stories, and you're now an active participant in them, and I find it pure pleasure, a sweet and daily joy, to share the world of books with you.

You have a busy life, my girl; gymnastics and playgroup, swimming and creche, and at the moment you share your Mondays with a family friend's 2-year-old daughter. In the later afternoons there is always two sisters to play with, laugh with, and, yes, torment, too. I wonder sometimes if there's a little too much bustle and not enough downtime in your weeks.

But we do make time to breathe and be, you and I. We walk, a lot - to and from school, to the park, around the streets. We play in the garden and with the dog. I hang washing while you draw with chalks; I sip tea and you ride your trike. Together, we bounce on the trampoline, or lie still, watching the clouds drift by. We tend the garden and mop the floors. We sit and cuddle. You are my companion in my daily round, and I miss you on your day a week at creche, even as I know that you get a great deal from it, and that I could not do even the small amount of work I do without it.

You are the family peacemaker and our very own Miss Manners in many ways, routinely chiding the rest of us for harsh words or unkind actions. "Don't say wude things to A, Mummy," you'll tell me, after I've snapped at your eldest sister; or, "Daddy, you 'ave to say sorry to E. You did 'urt her feelings." You're sensitive to tone and body language too, very intuitive and gentle with upset hearts and altered behaviour in others. When I'm having a flat day, you always know, and you're easy on me those days, aware of me and my needs, in a way that I would never have expected from such a little girl.

Oh, C, there is so much more I could say, but none of it would sum up the depth and wonder of you. To us, to all of us, you are zest and sunshine and mirth. A calls you her little darling; E, "my sweetheart". Your Dad dotes on you.

As for me:

I love you. (So much it hurts sometimes). I like you, too; I enjoy your company so much. I am in awe of your intelligence and your personhood as it is emerging. I am honoured to be your parent, and to have the chance to spend this time with you while you're still a little bit small.

"But, Mummy, I am NOT small! I am a big girl!" I can hear you proclaiming loudly.

Yes, you are, darling. But in a quiet corner of my heart, you're still my wonderful baby. Even now you are three.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Reading Notes: Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee

(This post is part of the Once a Month Book Club link up over at A Permanent Flux. This month's theme is A book that makes you cry.)

They made us many promises, more than I can remember, but they never kept but one - they promised to take our land, and they took it. (Red Cloud)

For anyone who has studied modern American history, the history of colonisation, the American West, Native American history, or any related sub-fields, Dee Brown's Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee is a deeply familiar text. First published in 1970 and never out of print since, Brown, in this book, tells the story of the American West, but from the perspective - and using the voices - of the indigenous people who suffered, died and were ultimately dispossessed through the process. Brown covers many of the "famous" Native American personalities of the mythologised Wild West - Geronimo, Sitting Bull, Little Crow, Standing Bear, Red Cloud - and, using their words and the multiple evidences in documentary sources, he reveals them for the leaders - and heroes - they were.

I first read Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee as an undergraduate in the early 1990s. An Arts / Law student, I'd decided to major in History on the Arts side and was fully intending to make Renaissance & Reformation my period of study; indeed, all the units I did in first and second years were within this area. Due to a scheduling snafu in third year, however, I wasn't able to squish Ren & Ref in between my extra law subjects, so I picked the only history subject that did fit - Modern and Contemporary America (one semester apiece).

I was quite astonished by how much I loved these units, and how fascinating I found American history generally. My exposure to the study of the Americas had been limited to a fairly general coverage of the American Revolution and the Civil War in high school. The university courses took up where the Civil War ended, and covered reconstruction, Westward expansion, women's suffrage, the Depression, the world wars, Korea and Vietnam, hippies and radicalism, and ended with Reagan.

While it was all deeply interesting, the element that pinned me was American Indian history - in particular, American Indian resistance and radicalism. (If this month's theme had been "A book that makes you angry", I would've picked the other seminal text for me in this field - Peter Matthiessen's In the Spirit of Crazy Horse, which deals with the American Indian Movement of the 1960s-70s). And in this field - especially when when talking about the history of Western expansion - Dee Brown's book is the first and best of many successors that tell a different story to the triumphalism and romance that dominates mainstream narratives of colonisation.

Dee Brown is a wonderful writer - he writes history with the emphasis on story, not theory, and while his research is good, this book carries the reader along with the potency of the narrative, not with a heavy weight of further reading. He writes of the Long Walk of the Navajo; of Red Cloud's War; of the war for the Black Hills; of the flight of the Nez Perces; of the exodus of the Cheyennes. In all these stories, Brown shows the consistent theme of government faithlessness with American Indian peoples; of deals betrayed, treaties ignored, peace agreements violated. Driven by an overpowering hunger for land and resources, European people took the West, and Brown never lets the reader mistake it - it was taken at the expense of the people who already lived there. Their rights, their land, their animals, their way of life, their lives.

And if there wasn't more than enough in all of this to make a heart of stone bleed, Brown ends his account with the traditionally-accepted terminal point of the Indian Wars - the massacre at Wounded Knee in 1890, where almost 300 Lakota women, children, elderly and unarmed men where slaughtered by the US army after the soldiers were startled by a single shot let off by a young Lakota man. The victims had been rounded up by the army for the crime of being part of a banned Lakota religion, the Ghost Dance.

This is women, and children, and old people.

It is hardly possible to overstate what a horror it was. 300 Lakota dead, about half shot dead at the time and about half from exposure and wounds. They were unarmed and they had surrendered to the US troopers who then shot them, in cold blood. Lakota leader Black Elk later wrote about Wounded Knee:

"I did not know then how much was ended. When I look back now from this high hill of my old age, I can still see the butchered women and children lying heaped and scattered along the crooked gulch as plain as when I saw them with eyes still young. And I can see that something else died there in the bloody mud, and was buried in the blizzard. A people’s dream died there. It was a beautiful dream...
The nation’s hoop is broken and scattered. There is no center any longer, and the sacred tree is dead."

And whenever I read about Wounded Knee - whenever I think about it - I am overcome with sadness, and the tears flow. Not just for the end of the Indian Wars, and all that meant for Indian people. Not just for the end of dreams and hopes. Not just for the breaking of promises and the betrayal of vows.

I cry because I think about the mothers, trying to shield their children with their bodies from the soldiers' bullets. I cry because I think about those children, their bodies broken and bleeding, fading from life on a winter hilltop in South Dakota. I cry because they have come to stand, in my mind, for all the innocents who've been murdered in wars of aggression over all the centuries. And for all the mothers who couldn't save them, no matter how they tried.

I recommend Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. It's not an easy read, but it is an important one.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Winner: Take 2 giveaway

I just realised that I forgot to post the winner of the Take 2 word game competition yesterday. It was all that post-cleanup exhaustion :-)

Anyway, I'm pleased to announce that the winner is ferrous, who wrote about one of the most hilarious games ever invented, Pass the Pigs.

Congratulations, and please email me with postal details by Wednesday so I can arrange dispatch of your prize!

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Bye bye cot, hello room

There are some milestones, on my last baby's road to childhood, that I get sentimental about. Things that make me all nostalgic and wet-eyed, thinking pensively oh we'll never travel this road again and how fast she is growing up *cue slightly self-indulgent melancholy sigh*.

One that I was not at all sentimental about, but rather impatiently waiting for (comeonecomeonCOMEON) was C's agreement that we could remove the cot from her room, and "give it to someone with a baby".

Since C was born, her smallish room has held:

a) a single bed
b) a cot
c) a leather rocker / feeding chair
d) a chest of drawers
e) an enormous pine bookcase that holds G and my sci fi, fantasy and history book collection (we are short on options for housing our many books, and they breed in the night - at least that's the only explanation that makes sense *mumble if you don't look at my visa card and its regular donations to booktopia /mumble*).

The cot, and an untidy and always-spilling plastic tub of soft toys that was wedged in between the bookcase and the cupboard, meant that the built-in wardrobes only opened halfway. The inside of that wardrobe, as well as the storage tubs under the single bed, were ... ahhhhh. A maelstrom of confusion might be accurate. A perfect storm of mess. A tsunami of junk. A horror of ... well, you get the idea.

C started opting to nap in the bed rather than the cot in November, and has been mostly sleeping nights in the bed since Christmas, with occasional demands to be put into the cot at random intervals, which inevitable resulted in her banging her head again the bars and wailing for me at 2am or somesuch time. She hasn't slept in the cot for over two weeks now, but I had given her my assurance that the cot wouldn't be removed until she said she was ready.

Today, she did.

When we arrived home from our morning out, G dismantled the cot and took it out to the garage to await collection, and I got going. I have been desperate to get this room functional again and four hours of pretty exhausting work later - it's done.

So I got into the cupboard and threw out 5 bags of stuff - 3 rubbish, 2 for charity - and rearranged everything so it's easy to get at stuff now.

I pulled out all the crap under the bed and got 3 bags of stuff for charity from there, then rearranged everything.

I cleaned the top of the chest of drawers and made room for a mini-library of C's favourite books, so we can sit in her room at nights for bedtime stories, a much more peaceful alternative to doing them in the lounge room.

I brought C's toy stove and food toys in from the open area, where they have been a clutter magnet and not terribly easy to use, and set them up in her room.

And once I'd finished, and G had vaccuumed and dusted, the room reveal had all three kids jumping with excitement at the SPACE and the fact that they could play the trains on the floor again without having to pack them up every 10 minutes!

I'm no designer - I have no knack for decorating, and my house (and the kids' rooms) aren't magazine-pretty or super neat, ever. But now C's room is comfortable and functional, it feels clean and welcoming and I can get to things again - and so, even more importantly, can she.

So I'm tired, but extremely satisfied with what we accomplished today.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Mamamia, food restrictions and me: A reflection

On Monday, the popular Australian website Mamamia ran a story by site founder, Mia Freedman, called Does Anyone Eat Anything Any More?

In this article, Mia takes issue with what she describes as a trend of people not eating certain food types or groups - the two she particularly highlights are gluten and sugar, although she touches on others. According to the vast majority of Mia's article, food group avoidance is often based on bad (or no) science, misconceptions about nutrition, or people just being painful to make her life harder. (Yes, the last is my own words, not Mia's, but it's certainly the general feeling I got from the article).

Mia does throw a bone to those with food allergies and diseases in one paragraph:

Not to make light of the kids – and adults – who do have serious food allergies. Life threatening ones. But as most waiters will attest, when someone claims to be ‘allergic’ to coriander, it often just means they don’t like it. Which must peeve the truly allergic (and their parents) something fierce because it leads to an air of cynicism around food allergies.

I suppose, as a Coeliac, diagnosed by a doctor via blood tests and biopsy, that this was the part that was meant to make me feel all warm and righteous that I clearly wasn't one of the difficult, dreary, boring food pests that Mia's targeting. (Mia went on, in a comment on my friend Nellbe's blog, to clarify that it wasn't people with actual allergies she was critiquing in this piece).

Despite my free pass, however, and my recognition that Mia does acknowledge the struggle that people with food allergies experience daily, I still find the article problematic, and there are a number of reasons why.

Firstly, I would point out that the reality of food allergies, intolerances and autoimmune diseases (like Coeliac) is that they are invisible disabilities. It is impossible for anyone to tell by looking at us that I am a Coeliac, my mother fructose intolerant, or my neighbour's kid has peanut anaphylaxis. Articles like this one, with the bantering, exasperated tone it employs, validate the already strong tendency of people to not take it seriously when certain food groups are requested to be excluded from dishes. I do not want a waiter, bolstered by a "backlash" against "food fussiness", looking at me and deciding that it really doesn't matter too much if I get a little gluten in my dish. I want people who are serving food to others to treat others respectfully and honestly enough to take their words seriously. In reality, because you can't tell, you shouldn't ever second-guess.

Secondly, I would also point out that the absence of a diagnosis doesn't make people's real, lived experience of how their bodies work, and react to certain foods, invalid. Many people with gluten intolerance are not diagnosed Coeliacs - that's true. That doesn't mean their discomfort and digestive upsets after eating gluten aren't real, and should be dismissed as meaningless or imagined. If a person feels healthy, more energetic, happier after eating a particular way, is it up to any third party to tell them that they are deluded and annoying in their dietary choices just because they lack a doctor's seal of approval?

Thirdly, I really have to say that I take issue with the whole meta-notion that it's appropriate to police what other people put into their mouths. (This objection is much, much broader than the scope of Mia's article, in fact). It seems to me to be pretty simple - bodily autonomy means my body is mine, and your body is yours. I have a vital interest in my body, and the right to determine what goes into it. You could argue that others who are closely connected to me - my children, for example - also have a strong interest in my making good choices for my body which support my ability to stay healthy and active in my caregiving role. But I repudiate utterly the idea that strangers have any role whatsoever to play in determining what decisions I make about what I eat (and don't eat). I don't think it's appropriate to shame or embarass me - or anyone else - about those decisions, and I don't think it's terribly kind, either.

At the end of the day, I do understand the frustration that people can experience when serving food to others who have food restrictions, whatever the reason for those restrictions. No one knows better than a Coeliac just how annoying it is to avoid gluten all-the-fricking-time, and I do appreciate the confusion and dismay that people can feel if trying to make gluten free food for the first time to accommodate someone else. Like most Coeliacs, I obviate this as much as I can by bringing my own food or eating before I go to parties and so forth.

But really - is social irritation a good enough reason to disrepect someone else's body and the choices they've made for it (or indeed had thrust upon them)? Am I to hang my head in shame as I mumble my dietary restrictions? Indeed, am I only a "good" Coeliac if I never cause anyone else the slightest trouble in feeding me? (This, right here, is why Coeliac disease is often classed - rightly - as a social disability as well as a digestive one).

I reject that concept of the sociability of eating. I am worthy of being fed safely, even if it involves a little more effort. And so is everybody else - whether they eat gluten, sugar, dairy, meat, or not.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Sunday Selections: My babies

Here are my three babies on the days of their respective birth.

I didn't take these photos - their Dad did, as post-caesarian, I wasn't moving about much and certainly wasn't pointing the lens at anyone. But I love all these shots of my three snuggle bunnies.

There are other, rawer, shots that I've been looking through in the past weeks, in preparation for putting together a photobook for each of the big kids as a birthday present this year (a "your life birth to 5" kind of thing). Photos with umbilical cords and blood and vernix and screwed up eyes and open, wailing mouths. Photos with tears and smiles and exhausted, shell-shocked parents. Photos with boobs and breastfeeding and scars.

All those photos are true, too, and part of the story of their birth day; but when I think about those three days, it's the moments captured here, the serene, inscrutable little faces just visible in their bundles, the soft, sighing breathing of their first, deep, sleeps in two cases, and the calm, old-soul gaze of my baby that didn't sleep at all except while feeding for over 48 hours, that I remember the most.

Three moments when I feel in love.

(The photos aren't in age order, so for any readers who know my family personally, feel free to take a stab at which one is A, which one E, and which one C :-)

Kim is hosting Sunday Selections over at frogpondsrock today. Check out some great photosets over there.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Take 2: Family fun in a box (Review and Giveaway)

My family likes board and card games. Both the big kids are fiends for Pictionary, Monopoly and Scrabble, and I couldn't count the number of games of poker, Uno, Guess Who, memory and snap I've played over the past 5 years. We find that games are a great way to bring the four of us together when the toddler is asleep, be it napping or for the night, in a way that's engaging and fun for everyone.

I must admit, though, that games have tended to be something we relegate to weekends or school holiday evenings. There is rarely (actually, never) time to play a full game of Pictionary or Monopoly on a school night, and card games just don't seem to cut the mustard with the kids in terms of family time anymore. When they big girls ask to play something on a school night, they ask to play something "about words or numbers" - you'd think they'd be sick of it by then, but that's not how learning works, I've discovered; it's the more you do, the more you want, or at least for my girls.

So when I was given the chance to review a word game that promised that a round could be played in 20 minutes, I was keen, and so were the kids. Which is how we discovered Take 2.

The basic idea of Take 2 is extremely simple -

1. You have a box full of letter tiles.
2. You spread them out face down.
3. Everyone takes 8 tiles.
4. You make words, crossword-fashion, until you have used all your tiles, then yell out "Take 2!' and everyone has to pick up two more.
5. If you are not the person to call out Take 2, the face value of the letters you haven't used is tallied and written as your score.
6. You can at any time dismantle any or all of your crossword and start again to use new letters you've picked up.
7. The person with the LOWEST score when all the tiles are used, or when you decide to stop playing, is the winner.

If it strikes you that this is like a faster, simultaneous rather than turn-based, and less rules-y version of A Certain Well Known Mattel Board Game Involving Words, you'd be right, but we have found that it's much easier for kids to play than even the junior version of That Game. The lack of complicating factors that a board provides, and the absence of the severe frustration that ensues when the player before you STEALS YOUR SPOT, makes this a much happier playing experience for the younger ones.

In terms of how it plays for different ages, the husband and I enjoy it, but need to be careful to moderate our speed somewhat; when we're competing with each other, we go super-quick and that can really be unfair to the kids, who, at 8.5 and almost 7, have great vocabularies but not quite as many fancy words as we do.

The 8.5 year old loves this game passionately; she doesn't need help, usually, although I give a nudge sometimes if she gets stuck with a Q and a Z. She also likes taking a turn at scoring, which is all about the maths as well as the language :-)

The almost 7 year old likes it too, but we find a full game a little too fatiguing for her; she loses interest and becomes frustrated if she can't see words in her letters. When we play on school nights, we often play until the first person hits 100 and is the loser (usually about 2/3 of the tiles are used by then). She copes a lot better with that. She is always very proud of herself when she makes a complex word and she's making more of them as time goes on; it's lovely to see her getting so much fun out of language.

And like any good game, there's the way it's intended to be played, and then there's all the other ways to play with it ...

- my big kids worked together to construct a giant crossword of all the tiles, working co-operatively rather than competitively
- my toddler lined up all the letters in rows of the same letter, employing her early pre-reading skills to good effect
- I tipped out the tiles on the table and played with them in a stream of consciousness mode, which provoked (or perhaps unlocked) two poems

The only fault I'd find with this game is actually the packaging. We find the tiles very fiddly to get back into the plastic box, to the point where I'm making a cloth bag for them and we'll probably leave the box altogether. The rows are too tight and the tiles slip around, and it's an exercise in frustration getting them to sit right.

That's a minor quibble though; overall this game is excellent fun, it's suitable for all literate ages, and it's a great way to have some family time even on a school night.

Take 2 retails for $30 and is available for purchase online at www.take2thegame.com.au

Now for the fun part ...


If you would like to win a copy of Take 2 for your family, just leave a comment below telling me what's your favourite family game and why. I'll refer the answers to an independent person for assessment, they'll choose the most interesting answer, and you'll get yourself a copy of the game!

Terms & conditions

1. Competition is open from 1pm AEST on Thursday 9th February until 5pm AEST on Friday 17th February.

2. Competition is open to Australian residents only.

3. The most interesting and innovative answer will be selected by an independent third party as the winner. Their decision is final and no correspondence will be entered into.

4. The winner will be announced on the blog on Saturday 18th February and then has 3 days to contact me at kathypllrd248 AT gmail.com with a postal address. If you do not contact me within the specified timeframe, a new winner will be selected.

I look forward to hearing about your family gaming habits :-)

Disclaimer: I was provided with a free copy of the game Take 2 by Communicado PR for review purposes. No payment was offered or accepted for this post, and all opinions expressed are my own.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Lunchbox treats for gluten free bakers: Banana muffins

Although I am the only Coeliac in my immediate family, I decided when I was diagnosed that I would only bake gluten free in my kitchen. I buy and use gluten-containing prepared products for my family (especially bread), but I try to keep the actual cooking to gluten free ingredients, to help minimise the risks of contamination.

One of the treats I used to bake often in the days before a) I was a Coeliac and b) the First Great Banana Crisis (I think around 2006? 2007 maybe?) was banana-based food - banana bread, banana cake, and banana muffins. My Coeliac diagnosis, and two years of bananas that were too pricey to let go mushy for baking, meant that it was 2008 before I started playing around with recipes for banana-based sweets again.

After much fiddling, here is the banana muffin recipe I have developed. It can be made lactose free - I have made it with lactose free milk and the muffins taste identical, and I have made it with rice milk and they still work although taste a little "thinner", if I can put it that way.

These muffins can be made in standard-sized muffin tins or in mini muffin tins (I make the minis for the kids' school lunches; they're a perfect size for lunchboxes and kids' appetites). They freeze well too. If not freezing, store them in an airtight container and they'll be good for up to a week (which, for gluten free stuff, isn't too bad!)

Easy gluten free banana muffins

2 3/4 cups gluten free self raising flour
1 teaspoon xanthum gum (this can be omitted; if you haven't got any, use a tablespoon more flour)
1 cup brown sugar
1 cup milk or milk substitute (but def do not use soy - it tastes so wrong)
2 tablespoons margarine or butter
1 egg (I have not tried using egg replacer but I think it would
1 teaspoon vanilla
3 large ripe or overripe bananas (if they are fermenting already, you've waited too long :-)

Combine the milk or milk-substitute, egg, marg / butter, and vanilla with an electric mixer or hand held beater.

Mush up the bananas with a fork and add them to the milk mixture, then beat again.

Sift flour, xanthum gum and sugar into a separate bowl, then milk in milk / banana mixture with a wooden spoon.

Pour the mixture into greased muffin tins and bake for 20 mins or so at 180C (check them at 15 mins as it really depends on your oven).

They don't really need icing but I sometimes stick some cream cheese on top of them to eat at home.


Sunday, February 5, 2012

Yes, Prime Minister (*CONTAINS SPOILERS)

Growing up, my family had a few TV shows that we all liked and would watch together. They were all comedies and mostly British (The Muppet Show and Get Smart being the main exceptions). To this day those shows provide a shared language, a familial shorthand, that my parents, my brother and I still employ when talking to each other. Raising a sensitive topic, one of us might say, "Don't mention the war ...", referencing Fawlty Towers; defending a strange junk purchase, we've been known to whine plaintively, "But it's a Siberian hamster! Filigree!" My father in particular is wont to drawl, "I ASKED you not to tell me that!" a la Maxwell Smart, while we all know all about African vs European swallows and the Knights who formerly said Ni.

One show we all loved was Antony Jay and Jonathan Lynn's sharp, sly and pungent political comedy, Yes, Minister and Yes, Prime Minister. We used to watch it and laugh incredulously at the antics of Hacker and his public servants, especially the emollient Sir Humphrey Appleby. We thought it comic hyperbole. Even though my father, a dyed in the wool conservative and small businessperson, had a typical distate for the public sector generally, and politicians in particular (John Howard, to my everlasting dismay, being the notable exception), I don't think even he thought of it as reality TV.

So when I saw that the stage show based on the TV series, but updated for our era, was coming to Melbourne, I knew it would make a perfect Christmas present for my parents. Yesterday afternoon I met them at the Comedy Theatre in Exhibition Street to see the play.


Overall, the play is witty, incisive and polished; a worthy heir to the TV show. Once I got over my visual disconnect with the actors not looking like their TV versions (I struggled particularly hard with Sir Humphrey; Philip Quast was terrific in his own right, but he's just not Nigel Hawthorne), I was able to enjoy the casting too. All the performances were excellent and the dialogue was often extremely funny.

Jay and Lynn have updated the milieu of the story for this stage play. This is seen in minor details, like all the characters carrying their Blackberries and the larding of the conversation with references to subprime mortgages and the economic collapses of banking. It also informs more thematic and overarching aspects, such as the sensitivity of illegal immigration, the European Union, and oil supplies. All of these modernisations worked well and the characters' reactions were, I thought, entirely consistent with their TV versions' personalities, prejudices and aptitudes. Jim Hacker was perhaps a touch brighter than I would've expected, but perhaps it's fair to assume that a few years in government has taught him cunning, if nothing else.

One aspect of the plot had me extremely uncomfortable, though, and I think I've pinned down why. The central plot device is, as it often was in the TV show, a concatenation of circumstances that spell disaster for Hacker, all coming together at once, French-farce style. The largest of these problems - the one around which much of the plot hangs - is a "request" by an important senior minister of Made-Up-Country-in-Eastern-Europe, who is in Britain with the power to close a vital deal with the EU regarding an oil pipeline. This minister asks Bernard Woolley, Hacker's private secretary, to procure him a sexual partner for the night; in itself a off-colour request, but compounded several hundredfold when he specifies that the girl must be a schoolgirl under the age of consent. This is a prerequisite, he says, for his country agreeing to the deal that Hacker believes is vital to Europe (and Britain's) economic future.

Look, I understand why the writers chose this device. They needed something sufficiently offensive that it would plausibly cause the 1.5 hours of moral gymnastics that succeeded it, as Hacker, Woolley, Appleby, the PM's Adviser, Claire, and the Ambassador from Made-Up-Country-in-Eastern-Europe debate the matter back and worth. If the minister had requested an adult sexual partner, the moral agonies would have been harder to sustain, I expect.

The central ethical dilemma is presented as that hoary oldie: Is it ever right for one person to suffer in order for the greater good of the many? (Otherwise known in science fiction as The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas Dilemma). As the adviser says, crudely but accurately, it boils down to, "Is it better for one teenager to get screwed or the whole British economy?" On face value, that's the conundrum the characters face.

Of course, it's not nearly as simple as that (is it ever?) Jay and Lynn are far too clever writers to not shade in the nuances. There are the hints, even from the very start, that the deal isn't really that flash; the whiff of racism / nationalism that gets stronger all the time until Hacker nails his colours to the mast unambiguously near the end; the strong vein of prudishness which masquerades as morality until it's exposed for what it is; the cynicism of all the characters, who are genuinely shocked at the minister's proposition at the start, but quickly come to see it as primarily a political rather than an ethical problem (the sole exception here, also true to the TV series, is Bernard Woolley, who alone among the central characters is still protesting passionately, "But it's wrong!" right up until the end).

I'm sure this didn't escape the writers, or indeed the performers (there were plenty of well-acted "tells" in the way they delivered their lines), but the fact remains that this "dilemma" is in fact a furphy, a non-equivalence of epic proportions. The harm to the putative teenager in this scenario - or, at the least, the crime committed against her - is real and known. Any potential benefit of the pipeline deal is speculative, and may not arrive (especially given how flawed the deal is shown to be from the outset).

Moreover, the harm / crime is personal; any potential benefit is public. It's not possible, ethically, to argue that this proposed teenager should be obliged to - or could be obliged to - shoulder the duty of facilitating a possible public benefit by virtue of an act that would be, at the least, illegal, if not directly damaging to her. (The age of consent can be debated, but it exists in order to prevent or at least anathematize the abuse of people whose cognitive and psychosocial development means that they lack the capacity for true and free consent. Any consent given by a minor is, by its nature, compromised morally and invalid legally).

The fact that the characters are concerned to a large extent about what repercussions would arise if the public found out about the deal (as opposed to how repugnant it is on face value) is a very bitter twist in Lynn and Jay's plot. I think the underlying message is a stinging critique of the moral emptiness of popularity politics AND a statement on the way young female sexuality is represented and commodified (as a medium of exchange, and not one owned by the person themselves).

Bernard bursts out helplessly at one point with something like, "But don't you care about women?" The answer is obvious in the plot, and perhaps in life too, and maybe that is why I found it a disturbing and unsettling as well as an intensely clever and genuinely funny play.

I'm not sure, even so, that Jay and Lynn's central thesis - that politics is a venal, corrupted game in which any ethical positions are up for grabs, even the ones that shouldn't be - isn't lost on some of the audience. I heard many people debating the point in a serious-minded fashion, observing, "That's what it's really like in politics, you know" and "Compromises. It's all about compromises" and the charming one I overheard in the lobby, "Well, it's not like they were talking about kidnapping someone, was it? It would've been a hooker anyway." (Thank YOU for that very compassionate insight, sir!)

That, at the end of the day, is the part that left the sour taste in my mouth; the idea that it's normalised, this sense that anything is negotiable, that children (especially female children) are protected right up until the point that some "greater good" intervenes, then ... Is that really what the world is? Is it?

As a mother of three daughters, I am so deeply afraid that it is.


Thursday, February 2, 2012

Back to School

This is probably the fifty millionth post on this subject this week on Australian blogs, but hey, it's my blog - I'll wax all sentimental if I want to :-)

It was A's first day of grade 3, and E's of grade 1, today, and C's first day in the 3 year old kinder room at creche. I also had work meetings in the city - a rarity, as I go to the city once in a blue moon! - so it was a big day for all of us.

Were there tears? There were not; A and E were thrilled to see friends again, C was excited to be in the Big Kids' Room, and I, while feeling a little maudlin, was distracted quickly by the train trip into town, two intensive back to back meetings, then working on notes / plans from said meetings all the way home and for the remaining 45 mins before collecting the kids.

I am happy they're happy to be back at school; they have good teachers, nice classmates, and they are each keen to learn things. I like their school a great deal, and think it has a really great culture of respect and caring; they are nurtured and encouraged there, and that is awesome. I will miss having them at home (I am always a tiny bit blue the first week back) but the work I'll have on for the coming month will ameliorate that to a large extent.

I still wish - I even yearn, a little - for what we gave up when we decided not to home school. I still wonder, and I think I always will, how our lives might be structured (or not!) had we gone down that road. I think we made the right decision for our children and our circumstances, but man, I would've loved to try it if things had been different.