Thursday, 7 December 2017

Making the Seasons: December

Things are moving along here, Christmas-wise, very slowly. It's so hectic and this year I feel a little overwhelmed by it all, and under prepared. But the tree has been bought and is currently sitting in a bucket of water in the garage. Tomorrow John will (he promises) wrestle the trunk into the stand and the children and I will decorate it over the weekend. I have made a few Christmas cards, although I'm yet to write or post any. I realised this week, a bit sadly, that I haven't had time to do any festive baking lately, so I've written a shopping list that includes ingredients for mince pies and gingerbread, depending on which Bella and Angus want to help me with over the weekend. It's coming together. This weekend we are going to get our Christmas on - we've got tickets to a pantomime and everything! 

But now is time for December's Making the Season's post, where my friend Lucy and I try to find time in our busy lives to focus on small, seasonal, creative projects and, do you know, it's been just the ticket. Despite all the busyness and the looming to-do list, I have managed this week to carve out a few absolutely lovely moments of festive crafting that have, frankly, kept me sane. Nothing complicated, just easy and satisfying creativity that leaves me feeling restored. 

I spent some time on Sunday afternoon with last year's Christmas cards, a pair of scissors and a hole punch, turning them into this year's gift tags. I remember my mum doing the same when I was little and I highly recommend it.

It's relaxing, takes absolutely no skill whatsoever and it makes me feel slightly less guilty about the huge amount of waste that is created at this time of year. 

Before heading off to work one morning this week, I spent a happy half hour sat at the kitchen table with a coffee and Radio 4 on in the background, making a couple of very simple indoor wreaths. 

I bought a couple of metal rings from here, although embroidery hoops would work just as well, and a sprig of artificial eucalyptus. Yes, I know that the whole point of wreaths is to bring the outside inside at the darkest time of the year, and that real greenery would have been more authentic but, while eucalyptus lasts well in water I find that it dries out quickly when picked. So I went for fake leaves, which you can buy from IKEA, Amazon or in Hobbycraft to name just a few places, for a wreath that I can pack away then bring out again next year. 

I used a small amount of thin wire to attach the leaves to the ring and it was as simple as that. I think what I love most is the sparsity of the decoration and the lack of colour. My brain must be telling me something here, that it wants quiet and calm in the midst of colour and hubbub.

They look rather nice against the grey wall in the kitchen but they are destined for the wall above the mantel in the living room which is painted a very pale creamy grey.

And finally, I have been having a bash at making my own Christmas cards this year. I did, for one wild moment, consider carving a festive linocut for the first time, something I've always wanted to do, but then I came to my senses and thought that three weeks before Christmas might not be the time to start a new hobby. Instead, I bought this absolutely gorgeous stamp from Noolibird. I know I didn't carve it, but every time I pick up that stamp and press it to a card I feel a bit of that "I made this" satisfaction (and I supported a small, independent business too which makes me feel a little better about the number of Amazon parcels that have come my way over the last few weeks....)

I found a couple of stamps I already had (remember Angus's bedding?) and had fun experimenting with different colours and patterns.

The black and grey trees came out quite well although I worry that they are maybe not that festive for some, perhaps the green is a little more cheerful.

So there you are, a few suggestions for festive crafting that might, if you're anything like me, give you a little feeling of handmade warmth and the chance to do a quiet, mindful activity for half an hour here and there in the midst of a crazy - yes, happy too, but still crazy - time of year. 

Do pop over to Lucy's blog, Attic24, to read her Making the Season's post

Monday, 4 December 2017

The Cookery Calendar Challenge

Thank you so much for your wonderful comments and suggestions on my last post, in particular how to address Christmas traditions like stocking fillers and advent calendars as children grow older. I loved all your ideas and was very heartened that so many of your older children still enjoy these elements of Christmas. Personally, I always had a stocking until I left home for good, so right through university, and always looked forward to seeing what little treats were inside. And I remember the first time John came to stay with us for Christmas and how excited my mum was to produce a stocking for a boy, after raising three girls. So I think I will continue with my embarrassing traditions for as long as possible, right up until my two leave home. Who doesn't like chocolate anyway, at any age?

I am almost through my Cookery Calendar Challenge, led by Penny at The Homemade Heart, in which we trawl through our less thumbed cookery books looking for inspiration and deliciousness. For November I chose Pieminister: A Pie for All Seasons by Jon Simon and Tristan Hogg. Neither John or I can remember where we got this book, but we know that we didn't buy it. I think it was a free copy given to John some years ago when he worked in a bookshop. Many of our cookery books came free (either damaged or a gift from a publisher) or heavily discounted from our time working in bookshops. I chose it for November as this cold, dark month seemed like a month for pie. Also, before we go any further, can I just apologise for the horrible electric light in all these photos. I don't spend much time in my house in daylight lately, what with being at work all week, so electric light it is. 

The book is divided into the four seasons with pies, both savoury and sweet, that match what is available and at it's best in those months, so I chose one from the autumn and one from the winter section. While the recipes in this book are very solid and well written, I was irritated by the tone, which seemed firmly aimed at men. Or, rather, "blokes". It made me realise how many of the cookery books I enjoy reading and cooking from are aimed at women like me, and perhaps male readers find this equally irritating. I don't know, I didn't really think about it before. Dishes have names like "Posh Paddy's Pie", "The Chairman" and "The Screaming Desperado" and there is a section on "booze matching". The book is full of lifestyle photos of the authors in fields wearing check shirts and gilets, chatting to farmers, camping, or lighting fires or barbecues on the beach. It's all a bit Boden catalogue.

First, "Cheesy Tom's beef hash with homemade baked beans", named after their friend Tom who is a "great bloke", apparently. But once I'd stopped rolling my eyes and started cooking, I was quite taken with Tom and his beef hash. 

You slow cook a beef brisket in stock for three hours, then when it's cooled a little shred it with two forks. Meanwhile, you peel and boil some potatoes. Then you fry four onions in 250g of butter. Yes, that's right, a whole pack of butter. I just couldn't do it. It just seemed wrong. Too much butter, and I do like butter, so I halved the amount.

The onions just melt down to the sweetest, most buttery goo. I kept eating then out of the pan they were so good. The hash is simply a case of mixing the onions, potatoes and beef with some chopped parsley before transferring to an oven dish and smothering in cheddar, before baking for half an hour. 

It did dry out just a very little bit - I probably should've used all the butter, or at least added a little stock to the dish - but it was everything it promised to be, cheesy and savoury and comforting.

The best bit about this dish though was the homemade baked beans. After frying some finely chopped onion, celery and garlic, you add the haricot beans to a jar or passata and a whole lot of spices, and just let it simmer away. The recipe said ten minutes but I gave mine more like forty and it was better for it. But homemade baked beans, wow. And the leftovers are great on toast with an egg on top.

Next were "pulled pork, cider and sage pies". Again, you start by slow cooking a pork shoulder for four hours before removing the fat and shredding it when it's cooked and cooled a little. Then, to make the rest of the pie filling, you fry onions, fennel and sage with cannellini beans, adding the cooking stock from the pork to make a sauce. 

Then add the shredded meat and transfer to a pie dish before covering with shortcrust pastry and baking. This recipe called for eight individual pie dishes, but we chose to bake it in one dish, partly because I don't have eight mini pie dishes, but mostly because why would you wash up eight things when you can wash up one?

It was excellent. It thought that amount of sage would be too overpowering, but it was good and balanced out the pork. The kids, who will pretty much eat any pie, liked it although there was some moaning from Angus about the "white kidney beans". 

So now I have lots of leftover pie in the freezer for rushed weeknight dinners, plus a huge amount of pulled pork which I think might end up in a chilli.

I hope you're all ok. I am looking forward to another Making the Seasons post at the end of the week and have some crafty ideas that I want to share with you. Simple ways to feel festive without spending too much time or money. I'm not actually feeling especially festive yet - we haven't bought a tree, I haven't yet written any cards or made any mince pies - so I think I need to find my sparkle somewhere and crafting, as always, is the answer. 

Wednesday, 29 November 2017

A Driftwood and Eucalyptus Advent Calendar

Last Sunday, I was up in the loft going through the Christmas things looking for the advent boxes I made last year. I had intended to get them out again, but when I found them all I just wasn't feeling it. Some of them were in quite a bit of disrepair, while others were empty since the contents had been eaten or played with. The thought of sorting them out five days before the start of Advent made me feel a little faint, frankly. They were a wonderful thing to make but they took a really long time. 

So I decided to do something different this year, something quick and simple. I usually hang my advent garland down the banister and add chocolates and treats for the children, but I'm aware that that will be very tempting and chewable for Ziggy this year, so I'm not going to risk the garland being chewed to death, or Ziggy eating chocolate. Both would be disastrous. 

I wanted something I could hang on the wall: puppy proof but accessible and fun for Bella and Angus. Based on a few ideas I'd seen on Pinterest, I decided to hang 24 small parcels from a driftwood stick decorated with eucalyptus. Simple and plain, nothing complicated. Choosing the contents was fun. I aimed for two thirds food, one third gifts, and sticking to a tight budget so shops like Poundland, Home Bargains and supermarkets were where I did my shopping. For non-food based gifts I chose things that both children could enjoy, as each little parcel contains two gifts, like stickers, erasers, key rings, Christmas socks and lip balm.

For the food, there are of course chocolate and sweets in those little parcels, but I added things like those individual flavoured hot chocolate sachets, and those funny little milkshake straws that you put in plain milk - in short, the kind of things the children wish I would buy in the supermarket but that I always say no to.

Wrapping was fairly quick, a couple of minutes per parcel. I don't think I will ever tire of the brown paper and string look for gifts. It's cheap, can be recycled unlike most foil based Christmas wrapping paper, and is suitable for any occasion. Plus it's just really pretty. And that ball of red and white baker's twine is about to go into it's third Christmas. I remember it was a huge ball when I bought it for something like £8 or £10 but when you think that you can pay a couple of quid in the supermarket for a metre or two of ribbon I think it's pretty good value to buy it this way. 

The fiddliest job by half was hanging them all onto the wooden stick. It's also quite heavy, what with 48 small things dangling from a piece of wood, and I wasn't sure that a little picture hook would take the weight. Bless John, who drilled a hole into the wall for me last night, with a proper wall plug and screw, just so I could hang the calendar in the dining room. He rolled his eyes and huffed a little (another one of Gill's crafty ideas....) but I'm sure he loves me really...

I really like it's position in the dining room, in a funny shaped wall space next to the asymmetrical chimney breast and shelves.

I hope the children like it. My two are almost eleven and eight but, with Bella off to secondary school next September, I realise that I may not have that many more years of wrapping small toys and chocolate snowmen (parents of teenagers - what on earth do you put in their stockings?!) at Christmas. This may be the last year she puts things like Sylvanian Families on her Christmas list. She's the only one in her class not to have a mobile phone. What I'm saying is I want to make the most of these sorts of traditions for the children before they lose interest. What I'll do then is make an advent calendar for John and I - twenty four little bottles of gin perhaps?

Thursday, 23 November 2017


I've been busy here, these last few weeks. Not the usual school/work/life kind of busy, but a pleasant weekend pottering sort of busy. I've been baking and preserving, stamping and crocheting - trying to get ahead of myself for what is coming over the next few weeks.

I made our Christmas cake. It's only John and I who eat it, and I make a much smaller one than I used to, but it's a tradition that I really cherish and enjoy. I also made one for my mother and father in law and nine mini ones, cooked in little 200g baked bean tins.  I baked them for one hour at 150°c using my usual recipe (from Nigella Christmas - I'm sure it's available online somewhere) and they came out better than I could have hoped. The only tedious part was lining nine individual tins. They will all be individually iced and wrapped in cellophane closer to Christmas to be given as gifts.

And, another tradition in which I like to indulge - making preserves for Christmas. I usually make cranberry chutney but this year I fancied trying something else, so I made chilli jam

Compared to chutney is was wonderfully simple; no mounds of fruit and vegetables to peel and chop, just chillies and red bell peppers blitzed in the food processor before being cooked in sugar and cider vinegar.

It's so good, like sweet chilli sauce but not quite so sweet and a lot thicker. Jammier, you might say. And then I thought it would be fun to buy a little chilli stamp and got rather carried away stamping fabric jar toppers and labels. 

I used a white tea towel and heat sealed the ink with an iron. 

The end result is rather pleasing though. The only problem I foresee with this gift is that I do not want to give it away, and may have to make more for myself.

And the crochet. The first gift isn't for Christmas, but for my goddaughter who turns five tomorrow, but her birthday is close enough to December to feel like festive present making and I was on a tight deadline this week, frantically hooking this up at the last possible moment. What can I say, I work well under pressure.

This beauty is from the brilliant Edward's Menagerie: Birds, a book I know I've mentioned here before lots and cannot recommend highly enough, or it's predecessor Edward's Menagerie.

I also bought some delightfully squishy balls of Drops Andes yarn to make some chunky colour block cowls for gifts. I am thinking about this pattern, or this one, or I may just make up something of my own. 

Please don't be fooled into thinking that all this industry equates to any kind of organisation. In fact I am behind in just about everything else in life; housework, emails, washing, Christmas shopping, buying and posting gifts, blog reading. But hey, I crocheted a flamingo!

Happy thanksgiving to my American and Canadian friends and readers - I hope you all enjoy a calm and happy day with your favourite people.  

Friday, 17 November 2017

A November Cowl

Some crochet projects require a lot of planning, some a lot of yarn, some a lot of money. Most require a good amount of time. And then sometimes, a wonderful little crochet project pops into your head that requires the smallest amount of planning, a little yarn, no money (yay!) and only a short amount of time and, since it's an easy project, it's the most relaxing kind of crochet that can be done in front of the TV when you've had a glass of wine or two and you're actually a bit sleepy and really should go to bed, but, you know, just ten more minutes....

I began this project a couple of weeks ago when I was going through my stash of yarn. While I haven't exactly been on a yarn diet this year, I have made a massive effort to reduce the amount I buy and, particularly, to use up or give away half used balls that I know I don't want to use again. While sorting the yarn out, I came across a bag full of cashmerino scraps (I never throw that stuff out - too blooming expensive!) which I had collected and added to when my mum gave me a load leftover from a cushion she made. Mostly grey, with some pink, yellow and pale blue, they weighed together around 200 grams, the same as four new balls. Definitely enough for a project.

I decided on the simplest of patterns, a granny square cowl. I used this pattern from the brilliant crochet blog Annaboo's House as a starting point, but shortened the starting chain quite a lot, and used my own colour selection.

I don't know why, but I find it inordinately satisfying when a project uses up every last scrap of yarn. It's so pleasing, and with this in mind I decided not to break the colour changes at the end of each row, as you usually would, but to continue them up into the next row, and use them until they were completely finished, knotting in the next colour as I worked. 

This brings differences in the colour play, as some colours are next to each other for a short amount of time before another is introduced. The only real planning I did was to make sure I kept back enough black yarn for a final round at the end of the cowl to balance the black starting chain and first round at the start.

I love it. It has just the right amount of drape and the colours all came together really nicely. Plus that cashmerino is a dream to work with, and to wear, and it's neither too light or too chunky.

The colours feel quite November-ish to me, dark and grey with the odd pop of colour, but nothing too light or bright, just rich autumn tones. I think of it as my November cowl.