Family traditions sound wonderful, but choose them with care. How toffee apples came back to haunt this imperfect mother.


Most mothers are really good at creating memories for their children by organising wonderful parties, baking birthday cakes and spending time baking cookies (what I’d call biscuits) with their children. I have to admit, none of these are my strong points. I always have good intentions, but when it comes down to it, I usually chicken out and go to the shop to buy the Dutch version of a birthday cake. If I had been prepared, there would now be a link to a blog post about Dutch cakes, but alas! I’m an imperfect blogger as well as an imperfect mother.

They may not appreciate this, but my children ought to be thankful for my reluctance to bake. After all, somehow my adventures into cake-making have a tendency to end in disaster. In a bid to impress my husband, my mother and I once tried making one of her tried-and-true cake recipes, but it came out almost as flat as a pancake. This was one of several favourite cake recipes that my mother made throughout my childhood so that there was always a slice of cake when we got home from school. Chocolate coconut cake or cherry cake or date and walnut. Whichever it was, it didn’t rise, possibly due to using a different oven, but more than likely due to the flour being different here than it is in England. It always seems to absorb less liquid. Excuses, excuses. At least we tried.

A post by my friend Mrs Sarah Coller on her blog inspired this bout of reminiscences. “Every mom or grandma has that list of things they want to do for the little ones while they’re still little”, she says and writes about how it took her 17 years to cross off an item on her list, namely making pumpkin-shaped sugar cookies with candy corn eyes, just like her mom did for her. Halloween’s not really one of our traditions, but it’s around this time of year I have another one of those moments of ‘Oops, I did it again!’, or rather, didn’t do it again.

Making traditions, only to break them

This was a tradition I inadvertently made, then wished I hadn’t. It happened like this. My eldest son was born halfway through October, so even though neither the UK nor the Netherlands is really seriously dedicated to Halloween, it’s a good theme to use for parties and treats and our expat club always held a children’s Halloween party. Not to mention the fact that when we lived in Hamburg for a couple of years, Halloween was one of the best annual celebrations at the International School.

Back in the Netherlands, birthday traditions sound rather like Sarah’s recollections of taking treats into grade school in America. There is also a typical Dutch tradition called ‘trakteren’, or treating your classmates or colleagues on your birthday. Some mothers make a whole performance out of crafting amazing handmade treats, preferably healthy ones, but the older the children get, the more it tends towards a plastic cup with some crisps or sweets. I was immediately cured of the idea of spending too much time working on treats when my eldest was in playgroup. I spent hours making Mickey Mouse faces out of luncheon meat and cucumber on round crackers, only to watch 20 children stare at them with total incomprehension. After that it was cocktail sausages, cucumber and cherry tomatoes on sticks or more likely, cheese and pineapple sticks. Easy peasy and everyone ate them.

By the time my eldest was about 11, we’d been back in the Netherlands about 2 years and I’d noticed the shift towards salt and fat-laden crisps (chips for the Americans) and I wanted him to think of something more healthy. Imagine my surprise when he suggested toffee apples, something he had enjoyed when we went to travelling fairs in both France and Germany. Something I remember as a special autumn treat when I was a child, though I can’t specifically remember when or where I ate them. In any case, I’m pretty sure my mother didn’t make them for us, but they held fond memories for me, too, so I thought it was a fantastic idea.

Toffee apples: A Learning Experience

So full of the joys of autumn, I found a toffee apple recipe and got to work. Toffee apples are simple. You just have to boil up some sugar until it caramelises, then dip in unpeeled apples on sticks and let them cool. Simple… in theory. This is what’s known in technical terms as A Learning Experience:

  • Put 30 apples on 30 sticks. Some will fall off and refuse to stay on. You will stick some of the sticks in your hand. It hurts.
  • Caramelised sugar is extremely hot. You will splash some on your hand and regret it for a month. It hurts even more.
  • The recipe says don’t stir the sugar. You will stir the sugar and make dried-out sugar. You will have to start again.
  • The quantity of sugar required is not enough. You will have to go back to the shop for more.
  • The recipe calls for a drop of red food colouring. If you have it, you will put too much in. If you don’t, you will wonder why you needed it.
  • Some of the sugar will be not quite hot enough. It will not set properly. All the apples will stick together.
  • Some of the sugar will be a little bit too hot. It will taste ever-so-slightly burned.
  • Transporting 30 sticky toffee apples on sticks to school on a bicycle is a logistical nightmare. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
  • The children will love the toffee apples. You will feel like a super mum!


  • Your own 3 children love toffee apples. They will all ask you to make toffee apples for their school treats on their birthdays. That’s 90 toffee apples a year (plus some spare for the family).
  • You didn’t count on having to do this every year. Your children will nag you.
  • You try to get out of it. Suddenly crisps/chips seem like a healthy option… for your sanity.
  • Your husband likes the idea of you as a domestic goddess. He nags you to make toffee apples because the children want them.
  • Your children’s friends love toffee apples. They will nag your children to bring them on their birthday.
  • Your children’s friends love toffee apples. They will ask you for the recipe because they want their own mums to make them too.
  • Your children’s friends’ mums are all Dutch. You will have to translate the recipe and instructions into Dutch. Your children’s friends’ mums will probably not thank you!


Think carefully before you make a tradition

Do you want to repeat this tradition, or is it a one-off experiment? Can you keep it up every year or is it too much effort? Pumpkin-shaped sugar cookies with candy corn eyes look much easier. Except they don’t sell candy corn here. And no, in case you were wondering, I don’t want a recipe to make my own candy corn. Raisins would do, wouldn’t they?