Tuesday, 12 December 2017

Christmas Projects

A very quick - and late - post to join in with my friend Jennifer at Thistlebear's Winter Project Link Party, in which we get together and share the things we are working on throughout the winter months. My projects for December are all firmly focused on Christmas gifts. I am in the zone and there is no distracting me. I am a crochet machine.

I recently finished this rabbit. Ok, not technically for Christmas, but a gift I had promised and intended to make for so long that I couldn't really focus on anything else until it was out of the way.

The pattern is from one of my favourite crochet books, Edward's Menagerie by Kerry Lloyd. I can practically crochet these critters in my sleep now, so many have I made, but they delight me every time.

I have two projects on my hook right now - a duck and a cowl, and they are proving to be the perfect counter-projects. The duck, which will be one of Angus's Christmas presents, is from Edward's Menagerie: Birds. It's small, using DK yarn and a 3 hook, and requires a fair amount of concentration which, depending on how tired I am and Ziggy's antics, isn't always there.  

But I just love how he's already starting to take shape and those colours are perfect. He looks like he's wearing a little fair isle knitted jumper. I'm using Drops Karisma for this duck, a DK yarn I often use now for these animals and birds because it's soft, durable, easy to work with, has amazing depth of colour and is really well priced.

The cowl, on the other hand, is the perfect project for when I am tired but still want to work on something. The pattern is a joy, just rows of herringbone half double crochet or hhdc (US terms) stitches, with three colour changes. I found it on Ravelry and the pattern is available here. It's free and very well written and I'd recommend it if you are looking for any last minute crochet gift ideas.

I am making this one for a friend but I'm already sad for when it finishes, so satisfying and speedy is it to make, with the chunky yarn and 10 mm hook. 

I'm using Drops Nepal for this one, and it's so incredibly soft with great stitch definition. When I ordered this yarn I also ordered three balls for myself, in white, grey and pink, and I'm going to be hooking myself up one of these after Christmas. 

Once these projects are complete, I need to make Bella a toy orangutan and crochet some socks for my mum. In time for Christmas, yes. I don't know why I do this to myself. There will inevitably be some last minute crocheting, as there is every year. I do like a challenge, do I not?

Meanwhile, Christmas has arrived at our house with fairy lights inside and out, and a ridiculously big tree. More on that later, but for now I'll leave you with a picture of the tree. If the fairy lights look a little uneven, or you notice more decorations at the top than the bottom, then you will know to blame a certain whippet puppy whose mission is to shred the tree of lights, baubles and pine needles too, at this rate. 

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.