Wednesday, December 31, 2008

A sweet recipe to usher in 2009

I love making cupcakes using regular cake recipes. They're easy to eat and convenient to store and serve. We're being invited for New Year's Eve dinner and I decided to whip up a batch of chocolate chip cupcakes to bring along. I was feeling lazy so I used Betty Crocker's Yellow Cake Mix, added chocolate chips and made the frosting.

But if you have time, here's a banana cake recipe I use all the time that my family loves. I make it with chocolate chips and chocolate frosting for the kids but make a couple of plain ones for Kenneth, who likes his banana cake unadulterated. That's the great thing about making cupcakes instead of cake in a pan, you can make individual ones to suit different preferences.

Ingredients for Cake

125g butter
375g self-raising flour
180g brown sugar
1 large egg
250g very ripe bananas (about 3 large ones), mashed
60g sour cream
½ tsp baking soda
pinch of salt
1 tsp banana essence
1 cup chocolate chips (optional)

Ingredients for Chocolate Frosting

125g butter
150g Hershey's cocoa powder
2 cups icing sugar
80ml milk
1 tsp vanilla essence
Rainbow sprinkles (optional)


1. Preheat oven to 180 degrees celcius.
2. Mix flour, baking soda and salt in a bowl.
3. In a separate bowl, beat butter and sugar until pale and fluffy.
4. Beat in egg until combined, then add mashed banana, sour cream, banana essence and beat well.
5. Reduce speed, add flour mixture.
6. Stir in chocolate chips (batter will be thick and lumpy).
7. Pour into greased pan or muffin tray.
8. Bake for 25-30 mins (cake pan) or 16-20 mins (12-muffin tray) or until skewer comes out clean. Do not overcook.
9. Cool completely before icing.


1. Melt butter.
2. Stir in cocoa to slightly cooled butter.
3. Add vanilla essence. Alternately add icing sugar and milk, beating well. (You may need to adjust amounts of icing sugar and milk to your preference).
4. After putting frosting on cake, add rainbow sprinkles.

Your cake should be very moist and light. I know the cupcakes don't look as well-dressed as Lilian's, but they do look cute and kids just love chocolate and sprinkles. Mine do anyway!

Happy New Year!

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Gifts from kids? Priceless

We attended church service on Christmas morning and on the large screen were the silhouettes of Mary on the donkey and Joseph making their journey to Bethlehem. I asked Andre, "Look, what does the picture show?" He replied, "A horse and two men." I think the spirit of Christmas is somehow lost on him.

Anyway, after a long wait, another Christmas has just zipped by. As usual, we received lots of presents from very generous family and friends but the most precious gifts for me came from my kids. Lesley-Anne has always had a very giving nature and from a tender age, has made gifts for all of us. (When she was eight, she made a picture book for Andre). This year, her creative juices went into overdrive. For Andre, she gave him a teddy bear and a bouncy egg she made using water and many balloons. It really does bounce!

For me, she made me this terrific hedgehog bookend (right). She cut and pasted pictures of hedgehogs she had found on the internet. The 3D hedgehog at the bottom is made from a correction tape shell and toothpicks. I thought it was wonderfully resourceful.

(Lesley-Anne had a gift to her daddy as well, but it's bought so is not featured here).

Not to be outdone, Andre made Christmas cards for everyone. Here's the one he drew for me (front and back):

He made one for everybody, even the maid. True, they were done in a hurry on Christmas eve when it dawned on him that he was the only one without gifts to present, but still, at least he spared a thought for someone else other than himself! I'm a lucky mummy indeed.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Christmases past and present

I always get nostalgic towards the end of the year - activities like buying new books and school supplies, saying goodbye to the old year, always make me wonder where the year went.

Recently, I was looking through the Christmas photos of past years and I noticed that true to our inclination towards tradition, we have shots of the kids and ourselves in front of the Christmas tree (which I realise has been placed in exactly the same spot for the past five years!) I have Christmas photos that go back longer but only digitally from 2003. So I thought it would be nice to show how we have evolved since then.

This was Christmas 2003. I miss this Andre - he was three and at his most adorable. Lesley-Anne was also so sweet and innocent then, she was in k2 and still liked pink and frills.

Christmas 2004. One of the rare shots with Kenneth - he's usually the one behind the camera. And yes, I realise I'm wearing the same t-shirt as the year before! I like wearing red at Christmas, it makes me feel festive.

Christmas 2005. This was the year Andre received a fireman outfit from a very generous lady in the US. He loved it so much he wore it everyday until it practically disintegrated.

Christmas 2006. Andre has grown up a little in terms of his features but Lesley-Anne was largely the same as the previous year.

Last year, Christmas 2007. When I compared this with the picture above, I couldn't believe how much Lesley-Anne had changed in a year! Not just physically but also mentally. It was the end of her first year in GEP, I really think the programme has helped her to mature, in terms of her outlook and attitude towards life. *Sniff sniff* my baby girl's all grown up!

And finally, this is 2008. Don't we look happy? Financial crisis or not, family is always a blessing and Christmas is a wonderful reminder of what's really important in life.

May you all experience the blessings and goodness of God this season. Merry Christmas, everyone!

Monday, December 22, 2008

The Nativity story - the unofficial version

Saturday night, we were just just lounging in the living room after dinner, listening to Christmas music. We asked the kids what they would think of on Christmas eve before they went to bed and Andre instantly said, "Presents and turkey!" Lesley-Anne, being slightly less worldly, said, "It's Jesus' birthday. I wish Him Happy Birthday before I go to bed."

We thought it was an opportune time to remind Andre that the season doesn't revolve around his material and gastronomic desires, hence the conversation below ensued.

Me: "Andre, Christmas is Jesus' birthday. Did you remember that?"

Andre: "Oh yah hor."

Kenneth: "Do you know the story of how baby Jesus was born?"

Andre: "He was born in a stable."

Me: "That's right. Then what else happened?"

Andre: "There was a star."

Me: "Very good. Who did the star lead to the baby?"

Andre: "Jesus."

Me: "No, I mean who did the star bring to Jesus?

Andre: "God?"

Kenneth: "No lah, who followed the star?"

Andre looked blank, so Kenneth prompted: "The three...?"

Andre: "Wise Men"

Thank God, I thought for a moment he was going to say the three little pigs.

Kenneth: "What did the Wise Men bring to Jesus?"

Andre (slowly): "Gold, myrrh... and Frankenstein."

Wah, that must have been a scary sight, the third Wise Man leading Frankenstein to baby Jesus.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Playdates to suit different interests

Yesterday, Andre went for his last badminton coaching session with his school. It was a bittersweet session for many of the boys as the school will not be having a badminton school team next year. I still think it sends a wrong message, that only sports able to garner medals are worth cultivating. Here are so many kids keen to take up the sport and the school is not willing to groom them. But anyway, that's the school's decision.

However, during the holidays, I have organised a few badminton playdates for our kids, together with three other parents. We book a court for two hours and the boys meet up to play together. This is the first time I've organised a playdate which involved an outside activity and it has turned out to be very successful. The boys can meet up with their friends, expend their energy in an activity that they all enjoy. Imagine if you have four boys tearing around a house for two hours! Not a good idea.

I feel this sort of playdate works well for boys. During these holidays, Lesley-Anne had her friend Ryan and his brother come over to play and that was pretty fun for them too, although there were slight differences in interests. Here, you see the three kids playing a board game (I think it was Lord of the Rings Trivial Pursuit) while Ryan's brother was more interested to test his skills in the Spiderman video game.

I like playdates - it gives me a chance to know my kids' friends and their parents better. However, as the kids grow older, it gets harder to arrange playdates. Eventually, we'll just let them invite their friends over on their own. Lesley-Anne already knows her friends are welcome at our place. The rule doesn't apply to Andre though - I can just imagine boys turning up at our doorstep without warning! But definitely when he's older.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Lights! Camera! Err... turkey?

Did I mention that we loooove Christmas? And part of the excitement building up to Christmas is always the pre-Christmas activities. Last week, I brought the kids Christmas shopping at Orchard Road, although to be honest, we didn't buy much. It was more fun just soaking up the atmosphere. Some of you will probably think this is kitschy and commercial but I'm such a sucker for packaging - all the glitter and lights just make us happy.

Armed with my relic of a camera and made worse by my questionable lens skills, here's a pic I took of the gorgeous tree outside Paragon Shopping Centre.

And here's a "tree" along Orchard Road made from Coca Cola bottles (below). Ok, free advertising I know, but quite cute lah.

Usually every year, we organise a Christmas party for friends to gather and share the joy of the season together. Sadly this year, we were unable to find a common date that could accommodate all or even some of them, so it was cancelled - first time in more than five years. So we thought maybe we should have a family Christmas dinner just for the four of us. We didn't want anything elaborate, just a quiet special time. In the end, we went to NUS Guild House at Suntec City over the weekend.

You know, my kids are not perfectly behaved all the time but if there's something I can be proud of, they do know how to conduct themselves at restaurants, even a fine dining place. I guess loving food is a big part of the reason!

It was a four-course Christmas set dinner. Some items were better than others, the crab quiche appetisers and pumpkin soup were yummy. For entrees, the gammon ham wasn't great but the lamb leg was tender and tasty. Here's Andre waiting to dive into his Turkey Cordon Bleu.

And chocolate cake for dessert. This is called pre-celebratory bingeing before Christmas! We're going to have to avoid the weighing scales for a while... the year-end parties will definitely do more damage.

Finally, we walked Suntec City for a bit, again just absorbing the festive mood. As Lesley-Anne just reminded me today, only 9 more days to Christmas!

Sunday, December 14, 2008

When English gets in the way of maths

So I've been trying to teach Andre some of the basic maths topics for p3 during the holidays, just to give him a little headstart. It's been tough going, I think he needs constant repetition in order to grasp concepts - something he'll get in school more than at home from an impatient mum.

Sometimes the results are just off the wall - his brain is wired so differently that it gives me a glimpse of his world view (which is probably very different from the average person!) It also makes me think that for kids like him, English is probably a handicap when it comes to maths.

Take this example. He was trying to do a problem sum which entailed finding out the age of Bobby. I was perplexed as to why he couldn't solve it as he had done similar sums many times before. Finally, I had to lead him step by step until he arrived at the answer.

Andre: (incredulously): Bobby is 66 years old?

Me: Yes.

Andre: He can't be 66 years old!

Me (puzzled): Why not?

Andre: Because Bobby is a boy's name! How can he be an old man?

Me (amused): So if a boy called Bobby grows up, what should he be called?

Andre (thinks for a bit): Bobbious!

No wonder he couldn't solve the problem, he had gotten the correct answer but assumed it was wrong because in his understanding, Bobby couldn't possibly be that old. (By the way, when you're only eight, 66 might as well be 100.)

Another day, Kenneth came across the word "dozen" and asked Andre whether he knew what it meant. I'm sure he's been told this before but his memory is like a flour sifter (ie it only retains the useless bits). Andre brightened up at a question he thought he knew the answer to and replied, "Like a dozen muffins."

Kenneth: That's right, so how many is a dozen?

Andre: A lot.

Me: It's a specific number. How many?

Andre (without hesitation): Eight.

Me: Nooo...

Andre: 10,000.

Me: !!!!!

Kenneth: It's 12. And do you know what's a baker's dozen?

Andre (confidently): 12 bakers lah!

I think 2009 will be a difficult year...

Saturday, December 13, 2008

All calm on the "see"-front

Lesley-Anne was recently due for her annual eye checkup. We had assumed that her myopia would worsen as is common with kids her age, so we had pre-ordered a new pair of frames for her at an Optic Point sale. During the sale, frames plus lens go for only $39.90 a pair so it's a pretty good deal.

But to our surprise, the checkup revealed that the degrees of Lesley-Anne's have not increased at all after a year! It's truly good news - it means she's only mildly short-sighted, about 75 degrees on each side. It also means that her myopia stands a chance of not deteriorating, great news from the point of view of a (previously) extremely myopic mother.

Since we've already bought the new frames, we went ahead to make her a new pair of glasses anyway, using the same degrees. Now, Andre is officially more short-sighted than his sister.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Computer games that make you think (at least a little!)

In my last post, I mentioned how I love computer games. But knowing their addictive qualities, I have forbidden the introduction of Wii, Xbox or Playstation at home. I have, however, made a small compromise by buying online games. This enables me to control the type of computer games that my kids play and ensuring that they do not promote over-the-top violence or other unedifying materials.

I buy my games from Big Fish Games because they have a large variety. The first game I bought was Cradle of Rome, which is... surprise, surprise, a puzzle game! It's a Match 3 game where you have to match three tiles to complete each puzzle piece. There are 100 levels and by the time you get to the last 25, they're pretty challenging. I've since bought many other Match 3 games but this one remains my favourite, must have played this more than 20 times (do the sum how long 20 x 100 levels takes, I can't believe how much time I've spent just playing games!) Cradle of Rome is great - the levels are tricky and creative, they really make you think. The graphics and bonuses are also very appealing.

Another great puzzle game (especially if you like maths) is Gemsweeper. We have also tried other puzzle games like Dream Chronicles (adventure type), Luxor (marble popper) and Elven Mists (brainteaser). The last one was more frustrating than fun though, in my opinion.

We also like arcade games, particularly the brick buster type and as a reward to Andre for doing well in his mid-year exams this year, I bought him Ricochet Infinity. This turned out to be a really great buy. Wonderful graphics, lots of variations and the best part is, after you've completed all 216 levels, you can download an infinite number of new levels at no extra charge! (These new games are created by users and are literally never-ending).

Another brick buster game I bought is Magic Ball 3. I bought this not because it's very challenging but purely because of the graphics. The 3D images are just hysterical - sharks, sheep, pirates, dragons, even princesses at ye olde beauty pageants toppling when the ball hits them. Lesley-Anne and Andre love to play this just so they can giggle at the sight. A fun, entertaining game for younger kids.

I still like Cradle of Rome and Gemsweeper best but really, it's up to your individual preference. How it works on Big Fish Games is that you buy Game Club credit packages. The more you commit to, the cheaper each game becomes. It costs US$9.99 each for two games down to US$6.90 each if you commit to 12 (no time frame for completing the purchases). The big plus is that you can try the games for free first so you avoid buying duds - download any game you're interested in and you get to try it for one hour before committing. You may think you only want one or two, then after you start, you find yourself wanting more. How do you think they got me hooked? Sigh...

Just a quick bit of advice - even if you set a limit for computer games for your kids, I would still keep an eye on the clock. It's not an issue of trust, it's just that ALL computer/video games are highly addictive. I've come to realise that my kids usually have every intention of keeping to the time limit but once they start, they lose track of time or find it impossible to stop. So when I say "half hour", I would normally pop in half an hour later just to remind them it's time to stop.

Happy gaming!

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Trivial pursuit

I've been tagged by Eunice! Apparently, this means I have to write 6 random bits of information about myself. I've got a slight complication - since my blog is about kids and education, I've imposed the additional burden on myself to provide 6 pieces of trivia about moi that somehow relates to kids and education. Hmm... let's see if I can rise to the occasion.

1. I set up my own business in 2002 focusing on copywriting and to a lesser extent, other sorts of communications like branding. Although one reason for this was that I got tired of all the corporate crap, the primary reason was so that I could set up a home office and be with/scream at/chase after (delete where applicable) my kids who were only five and two years old then. My company is Hedgehog Communications - how I arrived at the name was pretty unusual. I initially wanted a clever name starting with M, but everything I liked was taken. Then while I was having chicken rice with Kenneth at a coffee shop, I suddenly thought, why am I taking myself so seriously? Let's make it fun. I told Kenneth, "I'm going to pick an animal" and would you believe, a hedgehog was the first animal I thought of? Really strange but I was instantly drawn to it. So Hedgehog Communications it became.

Since then, my official line when asked why the name is "because it's sharp and to the point, like good communications should be." But you know the real story behind how it was chosen lah. And it has given me the added fun of collecting hedgehog memorabilia. Here's my treasured hedgehog collection - they're from all over the world and many are from friends. At last count, I have 24.

2. In school, English was always my favourite subject and one of my ambitions was to be a writer. Funnily enough, this became reality although not the type of writer I envisioned! My compositions in school frequently featured girls named Lesley - see how long I've loved the name! But never Andre though, I never wrote about boys since they were like alien beings to me, what with having only a sister and coming from an all-girls school.

3. When I was in JC, I took up Accountancy. I enrolled in it because I was undecided at secondary 4 and God knows, there was no such thing as career counselling or course advisors back then. So I was persuaded by my dad, the accountant, who thought his career offered stability and financial security. It turned out to be the most miserable two years, academically, for me. Although I love maths, I have absolutely no head for financial figures. My balance sheet could never balance, all the charts on hedge funds and economic theories bored me to tears. I could only keep awake at lessons if I popped a sour lemon sweet.

After I received my dismal 'A' level results (where the only subject I did well in was General Paper - figures, doesn't it?) I opted to go to the Arts faculty in NUS where I found my fit and enjoyed myself thoroughly studying Sociology and English. I even won a gold medal for graduating top of my Sociology honours class, which proves the point that you're more likely to excel if you do something you enjoy.

4. I love puzzles. Ok, you probably already figured that out. But did you know that I also love computer games? Not the violent shooting, blood-squirting types. The puzzle and arcade types. Also word games, which is why I'm currently playing 5 Scrabble games simultaneously and chasing my Prolific score on Facebook. I sometimes find it hard to limit my kids on computer games since I understand the allure. That's why I refuse to have Playstation, X-box or Wii in our home because I know we are likely to turn into addicts.

5. When I was younger, I used to draw a lot. I don't consider myself an artist however because I'm more of a "copier", ie I find it difficult to create original drawings. As a kid, I copied all the Walt Disney cartoons and drew animals from books. Even in NUS when I stayed at the hostel, I drew lots and lots, as decorative pieces for my room and as advertising material for the many hall committees I joined. It was all tremendous fun!

I don't do it anymore, due to time constraints but here are a couple I did in coloured pencil for the kids' room before Andre was born (again copied from books).

And this is one of the few I did from scratch - I wanted to do a family portrait but I can't paint or draw faces, so I used handprints instead. I was experimenting with oil paints for the first time, so the background is terribly amateurish but it is personal and meaningful only to us, so it hangs in our living room.

6. Finally, since I was young, I'd always wanted two kids - a boy and a girl. So in that respect, I've been pretty blessed. Although in my dream, the two kids would always be loving and kind to each other, not clawing each other's eyes out. Hey, I was innocent and idealistic - I also wanted a cat and a dog that would live harmoniously together! Oh well, nothing is perfect. But God is good.

So there's my 6. I realise they're not so trivial but I wanted to share stuff relevant to this blog. It's actually quite fun so I'm passing on the baton - tagging Lilian. Go on girl, your turn!

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Work timetable for the holidays

Usually during the major school holidays, I want the kids to do schedule some work either to revise past topics or learn a little of new ones. You may say, "What? Do work during the holidays?" but like most parents, I know that if I leave my kids to go wild and play throughout the month-long vacation, the few brain cells that have been dedicated to academic work would have perished from disuse by the time school re-opens (overpowered by the brain cells in charge of computer games).

We all know that getting kids to do work during the holidays can be a real chore (I can envision the moans and groans even before they happen). But after a few years, I've found a solution that has worked for me and minimised the pain.

What I do is let the kids come up with a holiday time-table. I will impose what I think is a reasonable workload, like for this vacation, I've asked my kids to include one heavy and one light activity every weekday. An example of a heavy activity would be a maths assessment paper or a tuition session and a light one would be reading or practising the piano. Weekends are exclusively for finishing work doled out by the Chinese tutor.

This is Andre's timetable for this holiday period:

There are some "off" days like when the kids have playdates or when there's a party. Of course no work is assigned on Christmas and they're let off the last few days before school reopens (I'm not an ogre!)

I think it's reasonable - most of the work in a day can be completed within 1½ hours, which isn't a lot to ask. The rest of the time, Lesley-Anne and Andre can do whatever they like - watch tv or play computer games, within a sensible time limit.

I've found that having a timetable is very useful, for several reasons:

1) When you don't have a timetable, it's much harder to assign work. From your kids' perspective, you will be seen as trying to "eat into" their holiday time and this inevitably causes resentment. When I tried this with Lesley-Anne in the early years, I often had to cajole or nag and the work, if done, would be done reluctantly. Whereas with a timetable, since the work has already been assigned and negotiated, it's more readily accepted.

2) When coming up with the timetable, I give my kids a certain level of leeway, eg. they can choose which day to do maths or english. If Lesley-Anne wants specific days to be free, she can opt to load up on another day instead - it's a tradeoff. Since my kids have a say in how the timetable is drawn up, they take ownership of it and also take more responsibility in ensuring the work is completed.

3) A timetable also creates structure and certainty which is sorely needed in this family of procrastinators! Eg. by noting how many sessions of maths I have with each child, I can plan beforehand what I want to cover by the end of the holidays because I don't need to negotiate for extra sessions when needed. On the part of the kids, they prefer this because they know exactly what needs to be done and won't have the dread of not knowing whether mummy will spring another test paper on them at the last minute. In fact, Lesley-Anne often looks at the schedule for the next day and asks me for the set work the night before, so that she can complete it in the morning and get it out of the way.

I normally use construction paper to draw up the timetable and let the kids use stickers or markers to dress it up. The objective is to make it look as unintimidating and as fun as possible. Afterall, it is the holiday season!
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