Sunday, 13 September 2009

Biscuit baking for children (Τα παιδιά μαγειρεύουν)

Back-to-school time - as long as swine flu doesn't close it down. Until the serious fires that swept through the area north of Athens recently, that's all the TV news talked about. Greece has had its fair share of cases of swine flu, notably in the islands which are holiday destinations for Northern Europeans, mainly British citizens who helped spread it in Greece, especially in the islands. If swine flu was spreading during the European winter instead of the European summer, most likely it would not have affected the islands as much, in the same way as the SARS pneumonia virus in 2003. Remember that one? No? Hopefully this is how swine flu might be remembered in a few years.

Some of the worst cases of swine flu occurred in Crete, where a number of people were in critical condition. Some of the more memorable instances were the first victim to fall seriously ill, a 33-year old waiter who did not check out his symptoms despite being ill for a week, and a 42-year-old male whose test swab did not reach the Pasteur Institute in reasonable time, hence his illness went undetected. Having said this, at the time of writing, 97% of all cases of swine flu in Greece to date have been very mild forms that have been treated successfully. Hospital staff have also picked up the illness, and it has also been detected in groups of soldiers, which has heightened worries that schoolchildren may catch it off each other when found in a confined space.

Other serious cases of swine flu have been detected in travellers, such as the case of a 16-year-old holidaymaker from Britain, whose parents admitted that she was exhibiting symptoms of illness before departing from the UK, the worst affected country in Europe, and one of the most important tourist groups during the Greek summer.

The present Minister of Health has told Greek citizens that under no circumstances must they stop going about their daily lives as they are doing right now, and the government is taking all measures as directed by international health organisations to keep people protected from the virus. For comparison purposes, Greece (the most affected country in the Balkan region due to its popularity as a summer holiday destination for those Europeans most affected by the virus) has had only one fatality (a young man with a serious heart condition) and few cases given the population (just over 2000 cases at the time of writing among a population of 11,000,000), despite constantly receiving visitors right throughout the summer season, who were actually the main carriers of the virus. It could be said that Greece is handling the problem very well, especially when the issue is put into perspective. For comparison purposes, New Zealand (one of the first countries to be affected outside of America), where the seasons are reversed, has had 17 deaths and approximately 3130 cases in a population of 4,000,000.

It's easy to work out how swine flu is spreading in Greece, and whether you run a real risk of being affected if you came to Greece. Should I be worrying about swine flu affecting my own family? My husband's a taxi driver who picks up new arrivals from Northern Europe at the airport and takes them to their hotels...

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The closing down of schools due to swine flu is a possibility, but there is also something else that is going to close down the schools for sure and positive: the general elections, due to take place on Sunday, 4th October, a snap decision taken on 2nd September. This means that schools will close on 2nd and 5th October - one day for teachers to travel to their voting area, Saturday for setting up the polling booths (most electorates use schools), and another day for teachers to come back to their jobs. If teachers need to travel more than 300 kilometres, they are given an extra day on either side (despite the fact that you can get from the north to the south of the country by air in less than two hours). If the proportional representation of the votes does not reveal the dominance of one political party (it NEVER does), a second round of elections is held the following weekend following the same process as above. Barely into the first month of the school term, the pupils will already have had at least a week off from school...

And how about this one, to top things off? The first schoolday for this year was Friday, 11 September (talk about killing the weekend spirit), which in my children's case entailed a two-hour wait in the rain where children were blessed by the priest of the local church, met their new teacher, and were informed about what precautions to take against the spread of swine flu. My son's teacher, a young lady who began working as a primary school teacher last year, has this year been assigned to work in our school, even though she officially asked for a transfer back to her hometown (in Northern Greece), which has been granted to her - and she begins work there next week: my son's class has been left without a teacher. Tomorrow, Monday, 14th September, is the local parish holiday in the area where the school is located, hence no lessons. I have no idea what my son will be doing on his second day of school on Tuesday, 15th September. All I know is that the school bell will ring at 8:10am (when the Greek school day begins), but no one could inform me on Friday when the school day would end - they told us to come and ask on Tuesday morning. The education system in Greece has always sucked; no wonder most politicians send their kids to private schools.

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So on those days when schools close down, I need an activity to entertain the kids. Here's a nice way to keep the children busy. I've found the perfect cookie dough that can be used as a base for any cookie flavours. The dough is so simple to make that a 7-year old child can make it on her own. The designs of my children's cookies are based on their own ideas.

Before starting to prepare the dough, tell the children that they have to wash their hands really well with lots of water and not too much soap, otherwise their biscuits might smell of soap.

You need
250g margarine (at room temperature)
1 cup sugar
3 cups plain flour
2 vials of vanilla sugar (liquid vanilla essence may be used instead)

Mix all the ingredients together with your fingertips, until the dough starts to form into a soft ball. If it is still crumbly, add a few drops of milk to make the dough stickier. Keep adding milk drop by drop (to avoid over-doing it). Divide the dough into as many parts as you like, to flavour each individual ball.

- For vanilla-flavoured cookies, use the dough as is.
- For chocolate cookies, knead some cocoa into the dough.
- For lemon- or orange-flavoured cookies, knead in some lemon or orange zest (I also had some appropriate decorative sugar balls to sprinkle over them).
- For jaffa-flavoured cookies, knead in some orange zest and some cocoa.
- For afghans, knead in some cornflakes, and sprinkle the shaped biscuits with grated coconut.

making cookies mum's cookies
We all got involved in this round of biscuit making; while the children created designer cookies, I made the lemon-flavoured cookies and afghan biscuits.
the children's cookies

I made lemon biscuits and afghan cookies, while the children took a ball of plain dough and half a ball of cocoa dough to make their cookie designs. This activity will keep young children busy independently for a couple of hours (but you'll still have to clean up afterwards). They can also eat what they make, which is an added bonus, but they need to be reminded that the whole tray will not constitute their main meal of the day (!)

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