Monday, 16 April 2018

Spring Energy

All photos above taken at Mottisfont House, a National Trust property.
I've been thinking a lot about spring lately, about how it makes me feel. It's such an optimistic season and I have come to recognise, even look forward to, the burst of energy I always get at this time of year. I think it's a combination of the lighter evenings - which, like the sunshine, make a huge difference to my mood and energy levels - and the slow waking up of everything outside the four walls of our house.

I scrutinise everything, cast a critical eye over scuffed paintwork or neglected corners, find that I urgently need to do a job I was able to ignore for months. I have an urge to refresh and rearrange, plan and write lists.

First on the list was a new peg bag when my very old one finally fell to pieces. Years ago  - when I had a lot more time, to blog and to sew - I wrote a tutorial on how to make one. I'm glad I did because it reminded me that it's really easy, and so I dragged my sewing machine out from the dusty cupboard under the stairs and Bella and I spent a very happy rainy afternoon using it. 

A peg bag is an ideal way to use up scraps of fabric and that's what I did. Both of these fabrics were cushions in a previous life. I'm really happy that I was able to get out my sewing machine and make something useful and pretty with it. Simple things. 

Another job I'd been meaning to do for months was repair some of the damage to our furniture caused by Ziggy when he was teething. I knew that "puppies chew" in that abstract way that you know that "babies don't sleep" but I don't think I really grasped just what that would look like until he came along and decided that he quite liked gnawing, well, everything. 

The (delicious, clearly) legs of our beautiful coffee table (the one we think is Ercol although we're not sure) took a battering. 

Over the course of a few days I sanded and filled them with wood filler, sanded again and filled again, until they were not perfect but not bad looking at all. Then I gave the legs a few coats of white eggshell, again sanding between coats.

I could not be happier with the results. I think the legs look a million times better in white, and they really stand out against the rug. Sorry about the terrible grainy photo. What can I say - it was raining. 

 Angus's bookcase was another job which had been bugging me for a while. His cheap IKEA bookcase simply wasn't big enough for his books and so they were piling up on the floor. I do encourage Angus to regularly clear out old books but that child is the biggest bookworm you will ever meet. He devours books, fact and fiction, and reads them over and over again. I never begrudge buying him a book because he really does get so much from them. 

Anyway, my parents mentioned that there was a bookcase still at my Grandad's house and did I want it before it was taken to the charity shop? It was quite water damaged and I thought I might paint it. Well, it just so happened that not only did the bookcase turn out to be a beautiful piece of mid-century teak furniture, it was also a perfect fit.

There was no way I was ever going to paint something so lovely, but I did sand the top and give it a few coats of oil, just to remove the worst of the marks.

I love the way it looks under his big wall map, and it really adds some warmth to his bedroom.

I finally got around to framing a couple more prints and adding them to our family gallery wall too. 

Everything on that wall tells a story of some kind, whether it's something the children painted or drew, or a holiday souvenir, or gift from a friend. It's my favourite wall. Don't tell John but I plan to add to it until the entire wall is filled..

Crafting projects have been moving slowly and pleasurably onwards over the holidays. 

I've made great progress on my sampler and have I think only five or six motifs left to stitch. And my Wool and the Gang Dreaming Jumper is almost finished with the back and front sewn together.

Outside, the garden is slowly emerging from it's muddy winter slumber and I'm full of plans and ideas. 

My big planter is just bursting with daffodils at the moment, and bright pink and red tulips fill the pots on the front door step, lifting my spirits whenever I come home. 

I also have lots happening on the kitchen windowsill, including a tomato plant that I have just moved outside and a tray of baby plants that were a gift from a friend only I've forgotten what they were. Courgettes I think and maybe chillies? Oh dear. And it was all going so well.

Well, the Easter holidays are over and we are straight back into our usual routines. Despite the really awful weather I did enjoy the two week break from school and work; it seemed to both last a long time and go in a flash. Two weeks feels like forever until it's over, then it doesn't feel like long at all. We didn't do anything particularly exciting, just a mixture of days at home and days out, catching up with family and friends, lots of walking and, as you can see, lots of pottering and DIY. It was bliss. I also watched a lot more TV than I usually would (free time, what is this crazy thing?!) and have become completely obsessed with the Channel 4 series Escape to the Chateau. I am late to the party with this one, but am nonetheless charmed by Dick and Angel's life and sweet family, and would quite like them to adopt me so that I can go and live there too. Anyone else a fan? 

Monday, 9 April 2018

Cookery Calendar Challenge: March

My chosen book for March's Cookery Calendar Challenge was Smitten Kitchen Every Day by Deb Perelman, which I was given for my birthday. You may already know her website Smitten Kitchen, where she shares her recipes from her New York kitchen, and I really like her writing style; she's funny, self-deprecating, and utterly passionate about food and eating. This is her second book and has much more of a family-friendly cooking slant than her first, as she now has two children. The book's subtitle, "triumphant and unfussy new favourites" reflects this as she admits that the pressures of cooking for a family of four is very different to two adults plus a baby who'd eat a bit of what ever they were eating whenever they were eating it. 

This already felt like a breath of fresh air. I love it when cookery writers first admit to and then address the challenges of feeding children, children who aren't exactly fussy, but fickle and who change their minds about what they do and don't like on a regular basis; the challenges of eating together as a family and the planning around work, after school activities and bedtimes which that entails; the monotony of planning, shopping for and cooking meals that are budget friendly, healthy, interesting and also please everyone at the table. It's exhausting. 

The book is divided roughly into meals, sides and snacks, with an excellent baking section (the party cake builder recipe is genius). I have to admit that I found this a more inspiring book to cook from for breakfasts, lunches, vegetable sides and cakes, than I did for family dinners. 

My first recipe was from the Breakfast section: Baked Oatmeal with Caramelised Pears and Vanilla Cream. I won't lie, I liked the sound of it because it sounded more like dessert than breakfast, but had oats in so must be quite healthy, yes?

It's quite a fiddle to make, but not difficult, you just need to be in the mood for an hour of kitchen pottering on a weekend morning. You bake the pears in butter and sugar and lemon zest until they are cooked and caramelised, then you pour in the wet oat mixture before putting it back in the oven to finish cooking. 

Then you serve it with vanilla scented cream while it's warm. It is completely and utterly delicious. All breakfasts should taste this good. The oats were light and crispy on top but not dry, the pears were heavenly, it wasn't overly sweet. But, funnily enough, the cream was a step too far for me. I like cream, but not at breakfast time it would appear.

When I reheated the other five portions for breakfast during the week (that's lovely by the way, reheating and eating such a nice meal on a busy weekday morning) I ate them with milk or yogurt instead of the cream.

My next meal, from the Meat Mains chapter, was Meatballs Marsala with Egg Noodles and Chives. I was initially a bit confused by the talk of noodles - noodles to me are the kind that you eat with a stir fry in Asian cooking - but the recipe said wide pasta noodles, so I used some fresh tagliatelle. (Overall, I would say that this book has been beautifully translated to a British reader so that weights, methods and ingredient descriptions all make total sense. Perhaps the noodle thing is just me.)

Anyway, you make meatballs with minced chicken (I substituted turkey) and brown them in a pan. This was tricky as they tended to disintegrate a little. 

Once they're cooked, you remove them and de-glaze the pan with the Marsala (I just used sherry as it's what we had in the cupboard) before making the creamy sauce. Then the meatballs go back in to cook a little longer before you cook the pasta at the end. 

While not the most attractive meal, I loved it. The meatballs were light, the sauce creamy but not too rich, the pasta was divine and the chives cut through the slightly sweet sherry flavour.  However, everyone else absolutely hated it. It was a hilarious disaster that I had not anticipated. "It's just like spaghetti and meatballs", I told the kids in a cheery voice as I put their plates down in front of them, but they were not fooled. Angus liked the meatballs, but hated the sauce, which everything was covered in. Bella didn't like the meatballs or the pasta but conceded that the sauce was okay. John found the whole meal unremarkable and the tagliatelle "claggy". I wondered if we were all eating the same meal. You win some, you lose some.

Finally, I made Banana Bread Roll from the Cake section. It's a bit of joke between John and the kids that I am always making banana bread and they look at each other and roll their eyes when I bake it. The thing is, no-one in this house will eat a banana when it starts to go brown, including me, as we don't like them when they're overripe and so, to avoid waste, at least once a fortnight I make some kind of banana bread/cake. There's a great recipe in the first Hummingbird Bakery book that I usually use, and I add chocolate chips which strangely makes the children much more amenable. 

This recipe caught my eye though because I'd never made a Swiss roll style banana bread, or one with cream cheese frosting, plus I had - you guessed it - a few brown bananas in the fruit bowl. The cake part is easy to make and roll, and the moisture from the fruit makes the flat cake very easy to handle when rolling. 

The cream cheese icing was not overly sweet and the tangy flavour was perfect with the sweet cake. And the frosting part unintentionally came out in the shape of a G which made me ridiculously happy.

But overall, a really great book, one I'll cook from again many times I am sure. I am joining in with Penny from The Homemade Heart and her fantastic Cookery Calendar Challenge which I just love, it really makes me use my cookery books so much more and think about what we're going to cook and eat. I am not sure yet what April's choice will be. I'm not that organised. 


I hope you're all enjoying the Easter holidays, and "spring", if you're getting any of that. Here, we had three joyous days when it didn't rain, and then it started raining again. But we made the most of those days and I have been so busy doing things around the house and garden - I'll have lots to show you soon - but I am so weary of the rain now. Do you remember how warm it was this time last year? Unseasonably warm, yes, but no-one was complaining. 

Wednesday, 4 April 2018

Easter Weekend

On Good Friday, when it rained heavily all day, when sensible people were inside in the warm, doing nice inside, warm things - we were down on the beach in our wellies and waterproof trousers, walking the dog. 

Saturday, after a hellish couple of hours in the supermarket, in a break between showers, we dashed out for a walk and eyed the black clouds warily. 

On Sunday we were the family in the waterlogged, muddy park throwing a ball around and Monday we were on the beach again while the wind howled and the rain drizzled around us. Dogs, they do indeed get you out, whether you like it or not. 

Actually, I never mind the walks. Even in the worst weather I enjoy them and I always feel better after some fresh air and exercise on the beach, especially if it's a wet bank holiday weekend and we're all feeling a little cooped up. And there is such satisfaction to be had in watching a whippet tear around the sand madly, just for the sheer joy of being out, running. But oh, the mud. I am so over the mud. The grass in our garden is completely waterlogged now. Ziggy likes to go in and out of the garden at least one hundred times a day and has to be wiped down with an old towel every time he comes back into the house. Shoes are muddy, floors are muddy. Thank goodness there is cake.

And what a lot of cake there has been. Since the only person who liked the Simnel cake I made last year was me, I made something more family friendly this year, with this recipe, and it has proved popular, largely due to the mini eggs. 

 We had a big family roast dinner at my mum and dad's on Sunday evening and I took along this lemon meringue roulade. It was delicious but needed more lemon curd than the recipe called for, but perhaps that is because I do really love lemon curd. 

Rain and mud aside, our slow bank holiday weekend has been most welcome after such a busy few weeks. I've cooked a lot, done the kind of spring cleaning that only gets done in the school holidays, tackled a few jobs around the house. There is such pleasure in doing jobs like changing the bedding and washing the floors when you're not looking at your watch every five seconds and worrying about being late for work, or anything. Just pottering around with the radio on, making things clean and lovely. I moved the terracotta pots of tulips I planted last autumn - which are a few weeks from blooming - from the back garden to the front door step yesterday. I've been meaning to do that for absolutely weeks.

It's so nice to have some time. I spent an hour in bed this morning reading about English Paper Piecing, looking at patterns, reading instructions, thinking about what fabric I have. I've been reading books, knitting, cross stitching and dreaming about all the things I want to do in the garden when it ever stops raining. We've been out and about too, for breakfast and lunch, seeing friends and family, visiting museums. I think the Easter two week break is my favourite in the school calendar. 

We have a day out planned tomorrow, and on Friday, who knows. It depends on the weather. I hope you all had a lovely Easter weekend.