Friday, 12 February 2016

Signs of Spring


Recently, on one of the greyest of February days, I wandered around the garden peering into corners and searching under trees, the long wet grass soaking my shoes right through. I was hoping for some signs of spring. I knew that my daffodils had come up but beyond that I had no idea. I've avoided the garden these last few months apart from going to the bin and back. Too cold for gardening, too wet to hang out any washing. It's all grey and brown and boggy.

But I was rewarded for my efforts. I found a single crocus under the holly tree in the front garden. (I had to get down on all fours to look, but still, it was there, and I think there will be many more.) Snowdrops are growing along the path down the side of the house and bright yellow forsythia blooms have suddenly appeared here and there. There was the odd random grape hyacinth, a perfectly formed blossom petal that had floated to the ground, and new growth on my azalea japonica which in a few months that will be covered in tiny hot pink flowers. And green shoots everywhere - covered in muddy soil and looking a bit sad, yes - but in a few weeks I will have tulips and hyacinths and other things I know I planted but I've forgotten exactly what.

This feels like the longest of half terms, considering it's a short one at only six weeks. As a family we're alternatively full of cold, getting over a cold, coughing or tired. The children look pale and have dark rings under their eyes. So do I. Hurry up spring! Thanks goodness it's half term next week. I'm too tired to have much Friday feeling going on right now but I'm looking forward to lots of rest. I hope you all have a lovely weekend. 



Tuesday, 9 February 2016

Mother's Respite: Brighton



Last Sunday, in Brighton: a day out with my dear friend Abigail. No children, no families, just us old friends wandering around the North Laines, reminiscing about the things we bought and the things we said when we wandered around those same streets almost twenty years ago.

We try to meet up for a day out each year, most recently in London, but this year we chose a different destination which made a welcome change. I like Brighton. I feel at home there, I know my way around pretty well and love the quirkiness, the richness and the individuality of the place. We walked where our feet took us under sunny skies and grey, had coffee, browsed shops, had lunch (and a small gin and tonic), walked a little more, were buffeted by the wind on the seafront, had tea and cake. We ate and talked all day basically. 

Now that I'm south coast based and we don't always have to meet in London, I am thinking of other places my friend and I can visit - or revisit - together. Places like Charleston or Petworth House, for starters. But I hope there will be many more trips to Brighton. I like to think that Abigail and I will be wandering around there in another twenty years time, reminiscing about the past, talking about our families, discussing politics and drinking gin at lunchtime.






Saturday, 6 February 2016

Winter Project: The Simplest of Granny Square Blankets


A few months ago, my pregnant friend at school was admiring my poncho and we got chatting about crochet. She said how much she'd like a crocheted blanket for her baby. She wasn't hinting, she just mentioned it. I smiled and said something like, if I didn't work all week I'd love to make you one.


I went away and kept thinking about my friend and her soon-to-arrive-baby and how much I love to crochet. About how good it feels to make things for people and give them away as gifts, about how (hopefully) pleased she'd be if I offered to make her something. And so I just started crocheting this blanket one night, working through a bag of acrylic DK scraps in random colours on a 4 mm hook, not really thinking about it too much, just enjoying crocheting the simplest of granny squares, something I hadn't done in a really long time.


I reckoned on about 48 squares being big enough for a baby blanket, ie. big enough to use on a car seat or pram. I love how the colours are soothed and harmonised by the addition of the white border. I used the join as you go method and blocked it before adding a border.



I think I made the whole thing in a couple of weeks. It probably took as long to darn in the ends as it did to crochet. And now my friend has had her baby (a girl, named Luciana, isn't that pretty?) and once she's had time to catch her breath I'll go round with this blanket and hopefully receive some new-baby snuggles in exchange.



Joining in with the lovely Jennifer's Winter Project Link Party.


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So, Christmas Cake. Gosh, so many great comments and suggestions! Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts with me, and making me giggle too. 

It seems like a lot of us make it because it's part of our Christmas tradition, rather than for the love of eating it, and we are stuck with lots of leftover cake. I think I need a different tradition and a different cake. 

Freezing it in pieces is a good idea, although I think I'd find it two years later and unwrap it, wondering what on earth it was. (Does anyone else play dinner-lottery with the frozen leftovers that they forgot to label? Chilli? Bolognese sauce? Curry? Let's defrost it and find out!) 

A few of you said just throw it out, and I get that, but I just can't bring myself to chuck away perfectly good food, and I already have an attack of middle class guilt every time I put a manky broccoli head in the bin. You have to have time to tackle leftovers. Time and inclination. Any leftover cake now will be given to the (lucky) birds. 

A few of you asked what's in a Christmas cake: well, it's just what we call a fruit cake, which is a fairly plain cake absolutely filled with dried fruits and sometimes nuts too, baked slowly in a moderate oven or the top burns. A lot of people add alcohol in to keep it moist and for the flavour, which adds to the rich, slightly decadent feel of the cake. Traditionally it's covered in marzipan/almond paste and iced with royal icing (so it looks like snow) but I don't bother with that part. For those who want to make one for the first time and are unfamiliar, then yes, google Christmas Cake and go to someone like Delia Smith for a truly authentic cake. I was thinking that no-one would be wanting to make a fruit cake at this time of year but then Easter is approaching, and I know many people like to bake a Simnel Cake for Easter, so perhaps you will.

Gosh, this cake talk is exhausting. Who knew we all had so much to say on the subject! I declare it closed until next October when I will no doubt be making another Christmas cake, but a very small one, just for me. 




Tuesday, 2 February 2016

Christmas Cake Fatigue


I am sick to death of eating Christmas cake. I know, it's such a hard life. I love to make the cake, it's part of my autumn build up to Christmas, and I like knowing it's in the cupboard, ready and waiting with the jams and chutneys, that's all very satisfying. But it seems like I am the only person who eats it. The kids don't like it. John likes it a little, but not enough to eat a piece every day for a month. And I am rapidly going off it.

I'd take it into work but it contains ground almonds and we're a "nut free" school. I tried to give some to my parents but they have one they are eating. I gave a quarter of it to my sister. But I am still left with loads, it never seems to shrink. I know, it keeps for ages, there's no rush to eat it up, but I want to get rid of it and I don't want to throw it away or feed it to the birds. 


So I have been researching uses for leftover Christmas cake and stumbled across many potential ideas:
  • Christmas Cake Trifle - a possibility, except I don't like trifle all that much.
  • Christmas Cake Pops - I have never made cake pops. They seem like a lot of trouble for not a lot of cake.
  • Christmas Cake Bread Pudding - a possibility.
  • Christmas Cake French Toast - I think this might be a slightly heavy breakfast?!
  • Christmas Cake Ice Cream - stir it into softened vanilla ice cream. Definitely something I can do. 

The most appealing was Christmas Cake Brownies which is leftover cake crumbled into brownie mixture then baked. I used my usual brownie recipe which is:
  • 190 g butter
  • 190 g dark/plain chocolate
  • 3 eggs
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 250 g caster sugar
  • 110 g plain flour
to which I added 200 g of crumbled Christmas Cake.


Preheat the oven to 180°C. Melt together the butter and chocolate. Beat together the eggs, vanilla and sugar in a jug or bowl. Weigh out the flour and Christmas Cake. When the butter and chocolate has melted, add the other ingredients and beat together. Bake for 20-30 minutes depending on how gooey you like the centres to be. I use a 20cm x 20cm pan.



I can report that they are very, very good.


The gooeyness of the chocolate goes so well with the dried fruits and slightly boozy flavour to make a rich but incredibly delicious brownie. I am impressed. They are also amazing reheated for pudding and served with creme fraiche, cream or vanilla ice cream. 


I still have a little Christmas Cake left, so if anyone has any other ideas on ways I can eat it up I'd love to hear them.

In other news, I'm getting fat.


Thursday, 28 January 2016

The Colour Collaborative: January: Warm

This winter has been all about the wood burning stove. We have lit it most evenings over these last months, sometimes in the afternoon at the weekends if it's very cold. I love lighting the stove during the day, it feels both decadent and homely at the same time, and we are all more likely to gather as a family in one room when the fire is lit and it grows dark outside. We have enjoyed the feeling of cosiness it brings on mild, damp nights, and been downright thankful for it's warmth when the temperatures have really dropped, and we have certainly saved a lot of money on our central heating bill. 



But practicalities aside, I just like to look at it, to watch the flames dance white then yellow then orange through the little glass window. I also love to listen to it, to the pop and hiss of the wood burning, and to the gentle ticking sound it makes when it really heats up. Undressed, it's bland and monolithic, all black metal, black hearth, pale grey walls, and with a great slab of wood above it.




But (and you know how I love a good mantel) for me the warmth is not just in the fire in the stove, it's about the hearth and mantel too. That wonderful, stable, ever-present display to show off the colour and variety of the seasons, the things we treasure and value and enjoy looking at.



Yellow kerria japonica, green tete-a-tetes and blue-purple bluebells in the spring; peachy-coral gladioli, purest white lillies and golden sunflowers in the summer; hot pink hydrangeas, palest carnations and fairy lights to warm the wood tones in the autumn; red poinsettia and the sparkle and glitter of Christmas decorations in the winter. Most of the flowers you see above came from our garden, my sister's garden or my parents', and the local market and shops supplied the rest. The prints and pictures change as do the vases and ornaments, and postcards and birthday cards come and go, marking the adventures and special days that fill our family calendar. 

One year ago today we picked up the keys to this house. We didn't move in until March, using that time to work on the house and make it habitable while we stayed with my parents, but I feel an anniversary of sorts has been reached. These photos track almost a year in this house, a year of mantel faffing and gardening and pottering, a year of creating a warm - in every sense of the word - home. 

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Don't forget to visit the other Colour Collaborative blogs for more of this month's posts, just click on the links below:

Annie at Annie Cholewa
Jennifer at Thistlebear
Claire at Above The River
Sarah at Mitenska

What is The Colour Collaborative? 

All creative bloggers make stuff, gather stuff, shape stuff, and share stuff. Mostly they work on their own, but what happens when a group of them work together? Is a creative collaboration greater than the sum of its parts? We think so and we hope you will too. We'll each be offering our own monthly take on a colour related theme, and hoping that in combination our ideas will encourage us, and perhaps you, to think about colour in new ways.

Tuesday, 26 January 2016

Leftovers



Last year, you may remember me making some rugs, two for Bella and Angus's bedrooms and then one for our bedroom too. Well, all that rug making left me with a pile of three-quarter used balls of t-shirt yarn, and I was keen to use them up. I dislike almost finished balls of yarn, of any brand. They sit there annoying me until I can turn them into something. I like things to be tidy and orderly.

I was really keen to have a go at making a small bowl or basket, just to try my hand at it. I think these things always look really tricky but honestly, they are one of the quickest, easiest things I have ever crocheted.


I began with the Small Rag Yarn Basket from the book Modern Crochet, using the green and pink leftover from Bella's Watermelon Rug, above. 



It made a small pot measuring 12 cm high and 12 cm wide, just perfect for Bella to store bits and bobs on her desk. This girl loves to endlessly arrange and rearrange her desk and the shelves above it. (I have no idea where she gets that from, none.)

 

Emboldened, I thought I'd try the Medium Rag Yarn Basket from the same book, using the same colour yarn that I used in the rug in our bedroom.



This bowl is 17 cm high and 22 cm wide, so more shallow.



I just adore this - the shape, the curves, the smooth repetition of the stitches, the handles.


My plan for this was clear from the outset: it was to be a Man Bowl for John to put on his dresser. Every day a small pile of stuff builds up here, containing all manner of things; ties, his work ID, cuff links (he's very dapper), that half opened box of ibuprofen that never made it back to the bathroom cabinet, bits of paper with things scribbled on them and receipts which he pulls out of his pockets and just leaves there... I mean, I love all this really, you know I do, I love sharing my life and home with that gorgeous man, but I also love things to be TIDY.


And now it is all tidy. It's still the same clutter, but I've contained it! This whole bowl took about two hours to make from start to finish. I still can't get over how fast that is. 


(It's also quite a lovely receptacle for balls of yarn. I foresee more of these bowls/baskets in my future...)


But, even after all this, there was still leftover yarn. Not a lot now, and looking very scrappy, but it could still be used. I decided to turn these last remnants into a bath mat. I just crocheted them together totally randomly in rows of double crochet, back and forth, just one colour running into the next midway through a row, knotting them together as I went. 



Super quick and easy, and such a liberating way to make something, without worrying about colour changes or whether or not I have enough to complete a row. It took one evening to make. 

It's a great little mat, and it washes and dries really well. Plus it feels so squishy and bouncy underfoot when you get out of the shower. 



It thrills me, it really does, that a 10 mm crochet hook, my hands, a book and my brain can turn a load of rag yarn into all these different things.





Saturday, 23 January 2016

Celebrating January


As I did this time last year, I am trying my very best to embrace and celebrate the month of January. It can feel like a long, dark month during which all we seem to do is recover from the excesses of December, both physically and financially, and that seems like a waste of a month to me.

The more I think about it, the more I have come to treasure and relish January as a time stay at home, stay local, savour small pleasures, work quietly through to-do lists and make plans for the year ahead. Last year I had a lot of fun finding one good thing a day to celebrate throughout the month but this year, now that I am at work every day, that's just not achievable. Some days this week have been so full to the brim that I can barely tell you what month it is, never mind what was good about it. But I still like the principle. 

So, here are some things that have brought me happiness this January:

:: The shapes of the bare trees against in the sky, even in the mist.


:: Bunches of daffodils on sale everywhere, especially these pale ones. They seem like the right shade of yellow for January somehow.


:: Buying oranges for marmalade.


:: Starting new books. (Also - note the cough syrup. January is also, sadly a month of germs and illness.)


:: Favourite winter woolens, old ones, new ones and handmade ones.


:: Making things for the house.


:: Green shoots, inside and out.


:: Working on old WIPS, like never-ending blankets.


:: Planning new WIPS, like warm pink mittens.


There is one thing I haven't managed to do so much this month and that is get outside. The best days, the really ice-cold, crystal clear ones, have sadly fallen on week days when all I can do is look longingly at the sky from the window. and make sure I really take in the sunsets as I leave work in the afternoons (and isn't it getting lighter and lighter each day? I can really feel the difference.) Sometimes the weekends are just so full. Never mind, there will be lots more opportunities for walks before this winter is over. 

I hope January is being kind to you.