Wednesday, 30 December 2015

The Colour Collaborative: December: Berry

So often when thinking about these posts I am reminded that the best colour combinations begin in the natural world. It could be in the big expanses of a winter sky, a sunset or sunrise, a forest or a sea view, or in the smaller things like a shell or pebble, a flower or a single fallen leaf. It all starts with nature and then we take it from there. So I can't really talk about berries at this time of year without including holly, that prickly stalwart of Christmas decorating. It gets everywhere; in wreaths hung on front doors, in boughs strung across mantels, aflame on top of the Christmas pudding, and it's image is replicated a million times on Christmas cards and rolls of wrapping paper.

It's the simplicity of the colours that work so well: red, green and white, instantly recognisable as festive colours. Bright garnet berries, deeply coloured, shining leaves and, hopefully, a glistening snowy backdrop to make those already vivid colours pop even more. And it seems I go to these colours year after year when I decorate our home for Christmas.

Those same colours appear in our food too, in the sweets we buy, the cakes we bake and the gifts we decorate.

I clearly like decorating with these colours in December, which is strange really as they're not ones I would choose at any other time of the year. Maybe next year I'll experiment with pinks and grey or silver and gold instead, but I doubt it. There is something about these colours that I want in our home in the middle of winter; the glowing red brings warmth and the freshness of the green reminds us that spring will come, so really these are perfect colours to lift and comfort in a dark midwinter.


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.

Food, Family and Fresh Air

I have grown to love this week between Christmas and New Year even more than Christmas Eve and the big day. Life slows down and I'm not sure what day of the week it is, and it doesn't really matter anyway because we don't have to be anywhere. But this week still feels special and festive - there is still delicious food and drink to be eaten and shared, new gifts to be enjoyed, opportunities to catch up and celebrate with family and friends, walks to be taken, whatever the weather. I recently learned that the Norwegians have a word - Romjul - for this last week of the year which describes a balance of being cosy inside and enjoying the great outdoors, spending time with those you love but spending time alone, too, thinking about the year that's passed and the new one to come. I like that. 

Well, I don't know how balanced it is, but over the last week I have been:

:: Enjoying my blackberry gin.

:: Not minding early starts if they involve presents under a tree and happy faces. 

:: Feeling proud of my efforts in the hunting down of badger related stocking fillers.

:: Walking along our favourite coastal paths, even on the greyest of days.

:: Feeling spoilt, with delicious English sparkling wines (thank you Abigail) and a shiny new watch (thank you John).

:: Wishing it was colder so I could wear new Christmas jumpers, and also wishing it was less wet and thinking of those who've been affected by the awful weather.

:: Helping those naughty dinosaurs demolish the gingerbread house. So much fun!

:: Eating, and rather a lot. Especially leftovers, the highlight of which was my turkey sandwich, which I dream about in the run up to Christmas: sliced turkey on bread with some leftover stuffing, mayo, cranberry jelly and sliced gherkins. It has everything - sweet and sour flavours, softness and crunch, and it's quite filling too.

:: Browsing new cookery books and planning January meals which involve more vegetables and less meat.

:: Marveling at the earliness of all the bulbs this year, like this snowflake flower I saw out and about yesterday. At home my tulips are coming up! Go away, it's too early for Spring.

:: Considering annual membership to the National Trust after visiting beautiful Mottisfont House, one of the most child friendly and welcoming National Trust properties I've ever been to. 

:: Wishing I had a Shepherd's Hut in the back garden. Small stove, armchair, basket of yarn - I can just picture it, it would be so lovely....

:: Admiring the winter landscape, especially the bare trees.

I have also been avoiding all shops, even the online ones, thinking about next year's craft projects, reading lots of crime fiction, in particular Donna Leon and Agatha Christie, and sneaking in a little daytime sewing and crochet when there is a moment. 

I hope your Christmas was happy. Ours was lovely - completely exhausting and seemingly over in a blink - but still lovely. Gifts were well received and I keep checking the time on my new watch just because I can. But my highlight was on Christmas Night when I went to check on the kids before going to bed myself, and found both or them sound asleep and clutching their crocheted toys. Bella's polar bear was carefully arranged under the blanket next to her head, whereas Angus's dog was buried under his arm. That sight made my heart burst. 

Thursday, 24 December 2015

Merry Christmas

I love Christmas Eve. Even though the children are bouncing off the walls and there's still a lot to do, there is something about this day that makes me not mind the cooking, the preparing of guest rooms, the last minute wrapping. I would even go so far as to say that I enjoy it. 

Late last night I finally finished the crocheted dog and polar bear I am making Angus and Bella for Christmas. I'll show you them another time but they are pretty cute. I hope they are well received, as I really do love to make the kids a little handmade something or other each year to supplement the other gifts under the tree. 

Later on today, the kids and I will go to my sister's for mince pies and drinks, but I don't think Christmas will start properly for me until about seven tonight when John gets home and we open the prosecco and do our little Christmas Eve rituals with Bella and Angus. John has four days off this Christmas (four!) and we will cherish every single one. We are at my parents' tomorrow. Part of me wanted to host Christmas lunch but I can't deny that their range cooker and enormous dining table is better suited to catering for ten than our single oven. We have friends coming to stay on Boxing Day and after that, well I have no plans. Except to read, do some jigsaws, crochet, go for walks, eat, drink, lie on the sofa, watch Agatha Christie dramas on TV, play with Bella and Angus, catch up with some blogs. 

I made a gingerbread house from scratch this week, and it was a lot of work. Fun, yes, but extremely time consuming. Making gingerbread has always been one of my Christmas rituals but I think that a whole house may be a step too far. 

I followed my friend Rachel's advice and decorated the walls before assembling them, which was loads easier, and I'm pleased with my piping and my little star shaped stained glass windows (made from bashed up boiled sweets). I especially like the flake chimney with it's topping of snow.

But I think I may buy a kit in future - I'm sure homemade tastes better but it seems to me that the gingerbread house is more about the fun decorating with sweets rather than the quality of the gingerbread underneath. 

The kids are allowed to demolish it on Christmas Day but I just want to look at it a little longer because it is very pretty. 

Merry Christmas my friends. Thank you for you friendship and support, for reading, for your comments, your interest. I hope you all have a very happy and peaceful break.

Sunday, 20 December 2015

Home For Christmas

This weekend we've done a whole lot of nothing and it's been glorious. Yesterday was declared a Stay at Home day and while the kids played I pottered around the house, did some housework and washing, decanted my blackberry gin, baked some mince pies (ready rolled pastry and shop bought mincemeat, but we're calling them homemade) and we have all enjoyed watching a lot of Christmas television, The Box of Delights, National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation and Home Alone in particular. The classics. Today we ventured out to the shops briefly for festive supplies (more yarn for Angus's crocheted dog, and sweets to decorate the gingerbread house with) and even made it out for late afternoon a walk around the harbour in the setting sun. Actually, that brief walk was amazing. I don't know about you but I haven't felt much sun on my face lately, what with the incessant mild, wet weather we've had this autumn. It's much too warm and seems to rain every day. I would like to wake up to a hard frost, to one of those very cold, crisp, blue skied days. Wouldn't that be nice?

I've also been fiddling around with the arrangement on the mantel. You know how I love a pretty mantel display, and how I have struggled to fill this enormous slab of wood that sits above our fireplace.

This will be our first Christmas in this house, and so I gave a lot of consideration to what to put where. I know it looks like I put all the decorations in one place but a few favourite bits stayed in their boxes this year, like our toilet roll tube Nativity scene and my alpine tea light holders. I realised that I don't have to get absolutely every single thing out every year, that some things can stay packed away. My two homemade stockings still hang either side of the fireplace, as they always do, and I picked out the red with some pretty IKEA lanterns and a poinsettia. 

We found some tiny baubles in the loft that were just perfect for my bare branched tree, and the rest is a mixture of favourite bits and bobs, while sort-of sticking to a red, white and wood theme. 

There was one old favourite I did unpack though, and will enjoy taking out of the Christmas box for many years to come: my felt gingerbread house.

I've been toying with the idea of making a real one this year, an actual edible gingerbread house. We'll see how that goes. 

(Also - I don't know why blogger has centered half the text in this post. I did not tell it to. Grrr.)

Wednesday, 16 December 2015

Peppermint Bark

Hello! How are you all? Hanging in there? It's still complete madness here, but we're smiling. Every day seems to bring some kind of school event, party or nativity. Angus needed three different fancy dress costumes this week. Yes, three. The children swing between moods that are happy, excited, tearful and downright unreasonable. They - we - are very tired and are all looking forward to Friday. But I have to say that Christmas in a primary school is a pretty delightful thing. It's hard to feel too bad about the stresses of the season when there is so much unbridled joy and innocent anticipation coming from all those small people (who I have grown rather fond of). Thank you also for your lovely comments on my last post. I wondered whether I'd overshared, but sometimes you need to be honest. I choose to share and celebrate the things in life that make me happy on this blog, but sometimes there are all kinds of other things going on at the same time.

Anyway, here is a fabulous idea I saw recently for a last minute gift, for teachers or anyone else. Not everyone, I've found, likes jam or chutney. We get through at least a jar of jam a week in this house, and an awful lot of chutney too, but not everyone is the same. Quite a lot of time and effort goes into making preserved gifts and sometimes you need something from the kitchen which is a little quicker and easier.

Peppermint bark is essentially chocolate, any kind, melted and combined with crushed pieces of candy cane, then broken up into shards when it's set. You could do anything with this basis for an idea though; add dried fruits, nuts, broken biscuits, honeycomb. You could layer one type of chocolate upon another or swirl them together to create a marbled effect. It's a very child friendly gift to make and, a bonus for me, it doesn't matter how neat it is. In fact, it's supposed to look a bit messy I think. 

To make a batch I used 400 grams of chocolate with 12 candy canes (they came in a small box of 12 from Sainsburys for £1) and a little peppermint essence. You don't have to use this but I wanted my bark to taste quite minty. I made two batches, one with white and one with dark chocolate. I put a teaspoon of peppermint essence in the 400 grams of dark chocolate for a stronger flavour, and only half a teaspoon in the white chocolate batch for a milder, creamier sweetness.

Melt the chocolate, either over a pan of simmering water or in the microwave. Blitz most of the candy canes in the food processor so that you have a mixture of crumbs and small chunks. Stir this into the melted chocolate and pour it onto a baking tray lined with a greaseproof paper. With a sharp heavy knife, break the remaining candy canes into larger chunks and sprinke over the top. Leave to set in a cool place, but not the fridge. I covered my trays with clingfilm and put them in the garage. 

When they're set remove them from the tin and break up randomly into smallish chunks.

This bit is fun. The chocolate more bends than snaps but it's easy to get similar sized chunks. I layered one piece of white with one of dark chocolate in little cellophane gift bags. Add a ribbon and a spare candy cane if you have one and hey presto, a lovely homemade present.

One batch, with 400 grams of chocolate, will give you three generous bags of chocolate bark. I reckon it cost about £3.50 to make, so that's just over £1 a bag (not including things like ribbons and whatnot) which is pretty good value.

Sunday, 13 December 2015

Christmas Trees and Birthday Cakes

We've had one of those crazy, slightly breathless, pre-Christmas weekends where social engagements seem to collide and it's all brilliant but also a bit manic. On Friday night I rushed straight home from work and somehow managed to cook the children some tea and get ready to go out at the same time, so I could be ready in my little black dress for the taxi to my work Christmas party at 6pm. (Whoever booked that 6.30 table doesn't have children...) But I love Christmas parties and I work with such lovely people, so it was going to be a nice night out. I did the sensible thing and declined offers to go clubbing (!) and was home by 11pm because we had tickets to go to the pantomime on Saturday morning. We went to see Cindarella at the Kings Theatre in Southsea and it was completely and utterly brilliant, funny, silly and entertaining. I remember my grandparents taking my sisters and I to see a panto there when we were little and I always like an opportunity to recreate moments of my childhood Christmases with my two. John was dragged along only slightly against his will, although he did concede afterwards that it was quite good fun. Bella and Angus loved it. 

I did have a slight blip yesterday afternoon though. I was trying to wrestle the tree into it's stand (the bloody trunk was too wide for the base, queue lots of sweary sawing in the garage from John) while also trying to untangle the fairy lights and to stop the kids from taking everything out of the Christmas boxes at once, and I was fretting about the 24 cupcakes I needed to bake that evening for Bella's birthday party, ready to ice this morning, and I was also fretting about piping said cakes as I really am quite appalling at piping. And at the heart of a cake related panic lies a panic that the birthday cake/party will not meet the expectations of your child. It's not that she's particularly demanding, but more that she believes I can do anything and everything because I'm her mum. I said to my mum (who was there because John and my Dad were fixing the lights in the kitchen) "I just feel a bit panicky. About everything." You know that feeling you get in your tummy before you go into an exam? Like that. 

Because that's the thing about this time of year - it's a lot of stuff all at once, and it can make me anxious if I'm not careful. I keep an extremely close eye on my mental health (although it's not something I discuss much here) and have learnt to spot wobbles or blips, and what I need to do to stay well. Often it's just to simply do less, but that is hard in December.  All I wanted to do yesterday was slowly enjoy decorating the tree with the children, just taking our time and enjoying the moment, because it's a good one. This is what John did: he took it upon himself to cook all the cakes, twelve vanilla and twelve chocolate, and our dinner that night, while I faffed around with baubles and nativity scenes and slowly righted myself. After we put the children to bed he handed me a glass of wine and gave me a hug. He just knows. He is a good man.

And this morning, I came downstairs and switched on the tree lights and it was all cosy and sparkly. I piped cakes at dawn and was ready for the second party of the weekend. Bella will be nine next Friday and we held a party at home for six of her school friends, ordering some of those build-a-bear type kits where you can stuff your own soft toys which went down very well. I find children's birthday parties quite stressful and was somewhat braced for this one, but actually it was fun. They are older and more interesting, her friends, and they chat and tell you all about what they're doing at school, what songs they love, what they want for Christmas. They danced a lot and I was thankful for a large living room, so there was lots of space for musical statues and dance-offs. There was no single birthday cake this year, for Bella had requested cupcakes instead, with gold cases, turquoise icing and Ever After High cupcake toppers. She is nothing if not specific. The party was declared "the best ever" - she she says that every year, but I'll take it. After we'd cleaned up, I spent the afternoon sitting on the sofa with some crochet while watching The Box of Delights. I rarely sit down for any length of time during the day, unless I'm ill or something, but today I needed to and felt better for it. 

John cooked dinner again tonight. He made up something involving chicken thighs, chorizo, peppers and paella rice, and it was good. And as I sit here and look back at the weekend I think that yes, it was a success, but it was also a bit much. The coming week will be exceptionally busy, for the children and for me, and certainly for John who works in retail and will be working very long hours over the next few weeks. But I am going to pace myself, and I am looking forward to next Friday very, very much.

Wishing you all a stress free week.