Monday, 15 October 2018

Autumn Feels

The weather has been cheerfully, unrelentingly, mild and sunny so far these last few weeks. I'm not complaining - it certainly saves on the heating bill - but I've had to work pretty hard to create any kind of autumn feeling at home, and it is mid-October. I have jumpers and scarves that would like to see the light of day before Christmas, and we haven't even lit the fire yet, so imagine my genuine delight when Sunday was cold and wet and we had to put our wellies on to go for a walk in the woods. Autumn, this is what I'm talking about!

At home I am celebrating the changing seasons in my usual way; faffing around with displays on mantels and shelves, hunting in the back of cupboards for handmade pumpkins and garlands, getting outside as much as possible. working on crochet projects like the sweater pictured above, and cooking. So much cooking.

The children and I made gingerbread. I had great fun cutting the dough into leaf shapes while Bella and Angus had just as much fun decorating gingerbread figures with some out of date icing pens they found in the back of the cupboard. 

I made the baked oatmeal with pears from Smitten Kitchen Every Day and enjoyed eating that for breakfast ever day last week, and last Saturday's waffles were elevated to a new level of deliciousness with the addition of cinnamon to the batter and stewed apples served on top. I love fresh fruit on my pancakes or waffles and usually buy soft fruits or berries, but as we move away from the summer fruit season I try not to buy the overpriced, imported, often tasteless berries and instead aim for locally grown apples, pears and plums instead. John picked up a recipe card for this apple, ginger and honey cake and I made it yesterday. We ate it warm with custard for dessert.

I have optimistically filled the log basket next to the wood burning stove and both John and I have invested in new welly boots. I have yet to buy any pumpkins, but I know it's only a matter of time before some pretty artisan squash fall into my shopping trolley to decorate the table over the coming weeks, before I remember that it would be quite good to cook with them too. 

Dog walks continue to be a necessary and welcome part of my day. I have started to walk Ziggy alone when I get in from work, leaving the children at home for a short time. It works out so much better this way; they are tired after a day at school (and Bella has already walked a couple of miles to and from her secondary school) and they just want to eat a snack and watch a bit of TV, not be dragged out for a walk, and I would rather walk alone with my thoughts or a podcast for company than listen to them moan. After a day surrounded by people, where I talk and am talked at almost non-stop, half an hour with my thoughts is bliss. 

I'll leave you with a photo from our walk yesterday, between the heavy rain showers. My little gang.

Tuesday, 9 October 2018

Almost a Living Room

Thank you very much for your suggestions and recipes for slow cooker meals. They all sound both delicious and practical, and really make me want to plan more meals cooked that way. We have a Crock Pot slow cooker, for those who asked, and it's a few years old now so I'm not sure of the exact model. I had never considered buying those packets of seasoning, that's such a good idea for when you are pushed for time, so thank you for that. Some of you mentioned using the timer on the oven. I have been meaning to figure this out for over two years and never seem to get around to it, isn't that awful? I'm not sure where the manual for our cooker is now, but I am determined to find it.

It's been a few weeks since I last shared any progress on our work on the house with you but we've been busy every weekend since then. I'm kind of over it now, if I'm honest, and there is still a lot to do, but it's good to step back and see what we've achieved. The living room has been freshly painted (all white) and the floor has been laid, then came the fiddly jobs like skirting, thresholds, and beading. I am in love with the look and feel of the floor though and very happy with it. The difference it makes to the light levels in the living room, combined with the white walls, is really amazing. Even in the evening the whole room is so much lighter and warmer, too.

We moved around some of our IKEA Billy bookcases so that they are in a run of four, wrapping around the corner where the sideboard used to be, rather than flanking the window. I had so much fun last week ordering the books before putting them on the shelves. I divided them into genres - fiction, military history (mostly John's), sport (John's too), poetry (all mine), lifestyle (also mine) - and then arranged them alphabetically. I even arranged my favourite crime fiction books into series order. Once a bookseller, always a bookseller. But I like the way this new arrangement of bookcases gives each corner of the room a different look and feel already, and gives me fresh inspiration about where to hang pictures. 

I thought about hanging the same ones in a similar arrangement to before above the sideboard in it's new position, but couldn't get it to work.

I decided instead to use a completely different wall, the one opposite the bookcases, which has a very high ceiling. I thought it would be fun to work with the height of the ceiling and hang pictures over the doorframe as well as all over the wall. It's not quite finished yet but I love it already. 

We bought a new lampshade to replace a few old, tired, marked one we'd had for years, and the pink velvet adds a little delicate warmth to a corner. 

I also faffed around making some new tie backs for our curtains from felt balls and wooden beads. I love little projects like this. 

We are just waiting on delivery of a new arm chair, which should come this weekend. Once that has arrived, and the last few pictures are hung, I will declare the room finished and take some photos to show you. I'm also hoping we can light our first fire of the season in the wood burning stove at some point soon - it's either been too mild, or the house too full of paint fumes to light it yet.

In the hall, the floor has been laid but there is still a lot to do.

Please excuse the grainy phone photos. We still need to do some plastering, filling and sanding on the walls before painting, attach the skirting boards, sand and paint the staircase, hang lights, fix shoe racks to's endless. But it will be wonderful when it's done and we already love the sense of space that greets you when you walk downstairs or open the front door. I know what I'll be doing this half term though...

Thursday, 4 October 2018

Cookery Calendar Challenge: August and September

I have been getting to know my slow cooker over the last few weeks. Everyone I know who has a slow cooker swears by it and, while I've had mine for a few years, I've never really gotten to grips with using it regularly and felt like I was missing out. Since we went back to school and work in early September, and with my increased hours and busier schedule, I had resolved to make some evening meals easier for myself. After a couple of really stressful and disorganised evenings, where we all had to eat at different times (kids at swimming, me at yoga, John on a late shift) and where I seemed to cook four different meals, I decided that things were getting ridiculous and it was time to dust off the crock pot and see if it really did make a difference to my day.

I ask a lot of my slow cooker and slow cooker recipes. I do not have time to be browning meat and chopping vegetables before I go to work in the morning, so I either need meals I can prepare the night before, leave in the fridge overnight and switch on when I leave for work, or meals which can be thrown into the slow cooker dish at 7 am and left there happily until 6 pm. And they need to be affordable, nutritious and meals that everyone likes and eats. I mean, I'm not asking a lot. 

The first book is one I've had for some time, 200 Slow Cooker Recipes in the Hamlyn All Colour series (and how dated does that sound, as though "all colour" was still something to be shouted about in 2018?!) and I think I bought it in a supermarket when I bought our slow cooker. I have decided that I blame this book for my slow start with the crock pot. For a start, the recipes are not specific to slow cookers, but refer to slow cooking in general, ie, putting something in a pot in the oven for a few hours. Well, I already know how to do that! It's slow cooker recipes I want. 

My other issue is that almost every recipe began with the instruction "brown your meat/onions in a frying pan and transfer to the slow cooker". My friends who use their slow cookers regularly assure me that browning first is not essential and I am seeking an easy life here - the less pans I have to wash up, the better.

We tried Mustard Chicken and Bacon, where chicken thighs, bacon and leeks are cooked together in a sauce made from wholegrain mustard and stock. It was quite tasty, if a little salty, and tasted a lot better than it looked, but because the recipe required browning I made it at the weekend which didn't ease my weeknight workload one bit.

Then we tried Pork with Orange and Star Anise, in which pork steaks are cooked with the above ingredients in a sauce flavoured with soy, and I served it with rice and vegetables. Again, the recipe insisted I brown the pork so it was a weekend dinner, although it was nice. I find pork steaks can be very dry and this was a good way of cooking them while retaining their flavour and tenderness. 

Then I did a bit of research online and, based on the reviews, bought this book: The Slow Cooker Cookbook: Time-Saving Delicious Recipes for Busy Family Cooks, and what a gem it is. If you're thinking of buying a slow cooker recipe book this autumn, this one is brilliant. The chapters are organised ingeniously, with "All-dayers" (my personal favourite), "Chop and Chuck in" (no browning!), "Store Cupboard" and "Cheap Eats", plus a lovely "Weekender" section for recipes which require a little more planning, perhaps need marinating or which have a few stages. But the success of this book - for me - is that not only are the recipes solid and well written, but they are organised around how much time you have, which is surely why most of us use our slow cookers in the first place.

From the "All-dayers" chapter, we loved Sweet and Sour Chicken; you make your own sauce for this one and add chicken breast and vegetables, although you could easily use a bought jar of sauce, then add the pineapple and spring onions right at the end. Everyone liked it. I was happy.

From the "Chop and Chuck in" chapter we made Chilli Beef and Beans, with beef stewing steak rather than the minced beef we usually use for a chilli. Again, really easy, really tasty, everyone liked it and there were lots of leftovers to freeze too. 

 From the "Cheap Eats" chapter I made Chocolate Orange Rice Pudding which, while nice, was not as nice as normal, plain rice pudding. 

But this book has increased my confidence with the slow cooker so much, to the point where I feel I know what I can and can't cook in mine, and am building up a handful of recipes (if you can even call them that) which I know I can throw together easily, everyone will eat and aren't expensive. But the best thing about using the slow cooker - and it's not to be underestimated - is the overwhelming feeling of smugness that you have all day. It's the best feeling, just knowing that dinner is sorted and cooking while you're at work. No thinking about what to cook when you get home, but unlocking the front door to the smell of something delicious simmering in the kitchen. It's not often life let's us feel smug, so you've got to take it when you can, no?


Chicken and Chorizo Stew
You need: chicken thighs, chorizo, new potatoes, peppers, onion, a jar of passata and black olives. Chop everything except the potatoes (if you leave them whole in their skins they won't go so mushy) and add to the slow cooker. Cook on low for around 8 hours. 

Spaghetti and Meatballs
Buy ready made meatballs and put in the slow cooker with a jar or passata or pasta sauce. Cook all day on low. Boil spaghetti and serve with vegetables or salad. 

I am sure I will have more soon! Do you have any slow cooker meals that are super easy and you would recommend? I would love it if you would share them in the comments!

Sunday, 30 September 2018

Making the Seasons: September

Two clothing posts in a row! Most unlike me, but all house pottering and crafting is on hold while the endless home renovations continue. We now have new flooring in the hall and living room and it's looking fabulous, I will show you soon. But enough of that, welcome to September's Making the Seasons post. As always with these posts, I am trying to make a little time and space in a busy life for some kind of crafting. It can be anything and if you look at my Making the Seasons label on the right hand side of my blog you can see the other things I've done over the last ten months, but this month was sewing.

I don't know whether it was the recent Frida Kahlo effect, with all those floral headbands I kept seeing everywhere, or just summer, but for the last few months I have really wanted to cover a plain white shirt with some fabulously over the top, Mexican style embroidery. You know the sort of thing, huge flowers and lush green leaves, heavy with satin stitch. I even bought a couple of lovely tops - a large cotton shirt from Gap and a gorgeous silk blouse in the sale at The White Company - but couldn't settle on a design or find the time for that amount of time-consuming stitching.

And then I remembered applique, something I used to do a lot when the children were younger, brightening up a plain supermarket t-shirt or bag with some fabric and thread. It's a quick way to achieve the same effect of colour and shape without hours of careful hand sewing. So I dusted off my Bondaweb (fusible interfacing) and found some linen and felt scraps, and just cut out a few shapes, arranging them on the t-shirt as I went. The top I used is a plain striped long-sleeved t-shirt from Gap, a shop I like a lot because their clothes seem to fit my body shape well and they always wash well and last a long time. 

It took an hour to cut and iron on the petals and leaves, and then I spent maybe an hour each night this week securing the fabric to the t-shirt with stitches around the edge, then adding a little embellishment and extra detail. The fusible interfacing secures the fabric for a little while, but you need the stitching to make sure it's really going to last. I like how it came out, especially the way it looks a bit like a necklace, and the colours are summery but faded, a nice crossover into autumn. It was a fun project and a welcome distraction from endless decorating, and a seasonal end-of-summer thing to create, although I'm afraid I've packed away my Saltwaters for another year and dusted off my boots. 

Next month, the last one in this Making the Season's project I'm sharing with my friend Lucy at Attic24, I am planning on learning a totally new skill and trying my hand a something I've never done before: weaving on a small loom. I am very excited! But for now, please pop over to Lucy's beautiful, colourful blog and read her September post. She's been extremely busy with Yarndale so I am amazed that she has had time to do anything else. 

Sunday, 23 September 2018

I Made a Dress

It's true, I really did make an actual dress! You all know that machine sewing has never been my passion or my forte, but with some patience, a lot of swearing, and a lot of help from YouTube and kind people on Instagram, I made a dress that is not only wearable but actually rather lovely. I can't quite believe it and this is another post, like the knitted jumper, that I didn't think I'd get around to writing. I'm so pleased.

The pattern is the Camber dress from Merchant and Mills and I would definitely recommend it as a beginner pattern. It's a simple shift dress, for which you need to add darts at the bust, sew bias binding around the neck and sleeves, make a yoke for the back and insert the sleeves, unless you want a sleeveless shift which, now I come to think about it, would be very nice for the summer. 

All of these were new to me and I learned so much just from sewing this one dress. My darts didn't sit right to begin with (pointy boobs!) but after unpicking, re-sewing and pressing well with a DIY tailor's ham (a damp tea towel filled with rice) they were salvaged.

I didn't find the yoke across the shoulders overly troubling and I went very slowly and carefully with the stitching on the bias binding as I find stitching on a curve really tricky.

Inserting the sleeves was fiddly but I found a couple of really good tutorials online and followed them. The pattern directions are clear but scant, and as a total beginner I needed more detail so thank goodness for Youtube. 

I decided at the last minute to add pockets, simply by sewing two squares onto the front of the dress. I love pockets in a dress or skirt, they are so useful. 

A more skilled dressmaker would no doubt have inserted pockets along the side seam of the dress but this was a step too far for me and I like them as a bold feature on the front. 

I found the pattern a little on the loose side but I haven't washed it yet so it may shrink a little. I will probably wear this dress with a belt, or you could make a nice matching sash/tie from leftover fabric. I chose a linen fabric which is gorgeous, and I love the way it creases, but it's heavier when worn than it feels when handled in the shop, if that makes sense, so it's an autumn and winter dress. 

The day Bella took the photos below I wore it to work with leggings, sandals and a cardigan, but when it's colder I'll wear it over a thin black roll neck jumper with tights and boots. It's very versatile. 

Apologies for the graininess of these pictures; Bella took them on my phone in her bedroom at about 7.30 one morning before we left for school and work. 

But I absolutely love it and am definitely going to make another. I am currently thinking about a patterned fabric, although the thought of pattern matching makes me nervous, or perhaps one in grey linen with contrasting bias binding and pockets in a bold colour like mustard yellow or raspberry pink. I don't know but I'm going to have fun thinking about it.