Tuesday, 27 November 2018

Twenty Four Messages

I think I may have mentioned that Christmas unleashes my inner Martha Stewart like no other time of year, and that I really struggle not to want to make all the crafts and bake all the food. I just makes me really happy, it's as simple as that. 

Over the last couple of years, I've had a lot of fun creating advent calendars for Bella and Angus. Two years ago I made this time-consuming creation, twenty four little boxes of joy and what fun they were. Like the craft room in a suit case, there was as much pleasure in the making as there was in opening them each morning. Last year, I made a calendar consisting of forty eight (two children!) little gifts strung from a piece of driftwood and while it was hugely popular with the children, the cost did add up, especially when you consider that my two both open a stocking each on Christmas morning.

But I did really love the aesthetic of last year's calendar, the simplicity of the brown paper packages and the green eucalyptus, and wanted to create something similar this year. But this time there are no treats, no toys or chocolates, just a written message; a promise of something fun to do, something to make, somewhere to go, and things that I hope will encourage the children to think a little more deeply about Christmas. For example, we have taken part in what I think is known as the "reverse advent calendar". I'm not really sure who started the whole thing but the idea is that every day in November you buy or put aside a food or household item, and then in early December you donate your thirty items to your local food bank, or to one of the food bank drop off points you now see in most supermarkets.

This calendar cost virtually nothing, since I already had most of the items in my craft kit, needing only to buy those little brown money envelopes and some round white stickers, which cost a couple of pounds.

You need: 
  • a piece of wood or wooden dowel
  • number stamps and black ink pad (I bought this one from Amazon a few years ago and have used it so often.)
  • string or twine
  • hole punch
  • mini pegs
  • small brown envelopes
  • round white stickers
  • greenery
  • your twenty four little messages

Simply fill your envelopes with the chosen message. There was a lot of diary checking here, as I made sure that the messages that said "go to the theatre" or "pantomime time" did actually correspond to that day, and trying to save time consuming craft or baking activities for the weekend. Punch a hole in the top of each envelope and attach the string, varying the lengths.

Then use the mini peg to attach the greenery. I used sprigs of fir that we found in the forest while walking, and it can easily be refreshed when it starts to look a bit limp. Alternatively, snip a few sprigs from a fake Christmas tree if you have one (I've tried, it's possible) or use something like fake eucalyptus..

I like the (probably now quite old fashioned) idea that advent is about waiting, preparing and building anticipation, and that the real fun doesn't start for a few weeks yet. This weekend I will start getting out a few Christmassy bits like the nativity and wreath, before I go all-out with the decorations when we buy and decorate our tree in a couple of weeks. 

Thursday, 22 November 2018


The weather has taken a distinctly wintry turn over the last few days, with frosty mornings and icy winds. The drop in temperatures, combined with the endless adverts for Black Friday, remind me that Christmas will be here sooner than I'd like.

I've been thinking a lot about the festive season over the last week; what I can do now, versus what I can do later, what I want to do versus what I realistically have time or budget to do. Trying, as ever, to get that elusive balance just right, and trying to do things in a less wasteful way too.

Christmas brings out my inner homemaker like no other celebration, and I always want to make every edible item and craft idea I see in every magazine I open. This year, as always, I have made a Christmas fruit cake which I will not ice as I don't much like marzipan or royal icing, and my usual batch of cranberry chutney. I did both of these in the October half term break when I had time to pleasurably potter around the kitchen with the radio on, and neither of these tasks are particularly time consuming.

I also - a first for me - made a Christmas pudding. I always buy one, although it's only me who really likes it, but this year I fancied making one. I've always been put off by the steaming, as having to leave a pan simmering for eight hours seemed like a disaster waiting to happen for someone as distractable and forgetful as me, but my mum suggested steaming it in the slow cooker. I didn't even know this was possible, but after quite a lot of research I gave it a go and it was incredibly easy, although obviously we have yet to taste it! But the cake, pudding and chutney were made in advance, not out of some mad desire for a perfect homemade Christmas, but because I enjoy this kind of thing and I had the time. However, two weeks before Christmas, when we're in the midst of a hectic weekend but Angus really wants to bake mince pies with me, we'll be using shop bought mincemeat and ready rolled pastry as we do every year, and we'll proudly call them homemade because we cut out the shapes and baked them in our oven. If we make a gingerbread house, it will be from a kit. I'm not above bashing the kit up a bit and passing it off as homemade either. It's all about balance.

As far as handmade crafting goes, I will make my own cards again but purely because I want to and I enjoy it. I bought a stamp, an ink pad and a pack of blank cards and envelopes to create handmade cards with minimal effort, and it supports a small independent business too. However, if the children want to send cards to their friends, we'll be buying a multipack in the supermarket. I'll be making my own gift tags for parcels from last year's Christmas cards and wrapping my gifts in brown parcel paper. I am a big fan of brown paper; it's cheap, you can decorate it for any occasion (we'll be using a star stamp with white and gold ink pads) and it can be recycled, unlike most of the usual foil covered Christmas wrapping paper. It also makes me think of brown paper packages tied up with string and The Sound of Music, and that's no bad thing. 

Handmade gifts have been hugely scaled down; a toy for Angus, a bag for Bella, and two small wall hangings for friends. That's it. I am going to make an advent calendar this year based on last years driftwood advent calendar but without gifts. This one will be hung with twenty four little envelopes, each containing an activity or treat. Gifts have been scaled down and my consumption of single use plastic has crept into my thoughts more this year than any other, as I try to reduce the amount of plastic we'll be throwing away this Christmas. 

So that's where I am with Christmas. I'm working my way through the gift shopping, I've booked my online supermarket food delivery slot, and I've made a couple of very long lists. I feel calm about it all now, but focused, because I don't want the week before Christmas to be horrible and stressful. I want to be able to get into the spirit of Christmas at school without spending my evenings frantically doing last minute things that I wish I'd done back in November. Although it wouldn't be a real Christmas in our house without me panic-crocheting a soft toy on Christmas Eve, now would it?

Can I point you towards a wonderful blog post written by my friend Laura and, if any of you use Instagram, you may like to look at her account which is endlessly inspiring and one of my favourites. 

I hope you are not feeling too overwhelmed by the pressure to do and buy everything that inevitably occurs at this time of year. How do you strive for balance in your households?

Friday, 16 November 2018

The Hallway So Far

I thought it was about time I shared with you how the renovations in the hallway are going. Due to working full time, and the fact that it's barely light when I leave for work and dark when I'm home, I'm afraid these photos aren't great, but hopefully they give you an idea of where we are. I will take lots of beautiful photos on a sunny weekend when it's all finished. 

It's been a long, drawn out affair because we are doing all the work ourselves and, as John works alternate weekends, we have limited time to get jobs done. I am still, always, astounded at how long jobs take. Hang a curtain pole and curtains, twenty minutes surely? No, more like two hours of faffing around with drill bits and spirit levels and hooks. Fitting the skirting took John longer than laying the floor as it was so fiddly. It's frustrating because we are almost there but still have quite a few days of work ahead of us. Happily though, we are finally at the stage where the worst, the messiest, jobs are over. Floors have been pulled up and re-laid, plastering done, skirting boards fitted, sanding and decorating done. 

We decided to strip the wallpaper as it was torn when we removed the old skirting boards, and for now I like the plain, light wall at the end of the hall. I may hang something there or not, I don't know yet.

The stairs have gone from this:

to sanded treads...

to freshly painted metal work and clean white walls.

We have given the stairs one coat of oil deliberately chosen because it doesn't darken the wood and has a non-slip texture. They needs a second coat, and the sanded pine banister needs a couple of coats of Danish natural wood oil.

This is the space by the front door, where the porch used to be. 

We've hung the curtain but as you can see we need to change the light fitting and I need to make a tie back for the curtains to pull them as far away from the window as possible. They were chosen partly for warmth as, despite having a upvc door, we lose heat through the glass, partly for privacy as our bathroom is at the end of the hallway, and partly to add texture as the space still feels big and echoey.

John is going to build me a bench to put along that wall to the left of the window. We have wood and legs, we are just waiting for a certain tool to arrive. I don't know, don't ask me.

Under the stairs, we need to fix the shoe rack to the wall, and the cupboard needs new doors. This is probably the last big job to be done. 

Again, I'm really sorry about the photos. I promise I will do better next time!

The console table is where it was before, but we've changed the mirror and put the previous wooden one upstairs. I have tried, as much as is possible, to "shop from my own home", finding lamp bases that were in other rooms and lamp shades in the loft and swapping things around from other parts of the house.

At the moment it still feels really bare and boring. It needs more wood, plants, texture, fabric, photos, pictures - all the things which make a room come alive - and I am dying to play around with all these things when it's finished. I cannot wait to show you!

Monday, 12 November 2018


:: Enjoying :: Bonfire Night, one of my favourite nights of the year. We went with friends, met up with family, drank hot chocolate while chatting and watching the fireworks. There is something so nostalgic and warming about Bonfire Night for me, much more so than Halloween.

:: Eating :: cinnamon french toast with fruit compote, among other things.

:: Reading :: this (yes I caved and bought it) and Cover Her Face, because I do like a bit of PD James and, now that Bonfire Night is over with, I have a pile of Christmas themed chick-lit novels on my bedside table and I'm going to enjoy each and every one of them. 

:: Crocheting :: a blanket for my friend and colleague, using six strands of Stylecraft Special DK together and a 20mm hook, to make a super chunky throw. She loved it. 

:: Watching :: lots of true crime documentaries. It's not usually my thing but we have recently watched on Netflix The Staircase (excellent, gripping) and Evil Genius (very good). I have recently discovered the joy that is Fixer Upper (how had I never heard of this?! It's on ITV Be for British viewers) and hurrah, a new series of the magnificent Escape to the Chateau just started! It must be autumn because all the good TV is on, and a new series of Luther later in the year too. 

:: Gardening :: in the late autumn sun, cutting back, tidying up, planting bulbs and just generally putting the garden to bed for the season.

:: Walking :: in the woods at every opportunity because, when the leaves are as they are now in early November, why would you not?

Ziggy has calmed and settled down so much in the last few months, I almost dare hope that the tumultuous puppy phase is behind us. He is a joy. A chewer, yes, but a joy.

Our weekend walks as a family, especially when we're all so busy doing this and that, continue to be one of my favourite ways for us to spend time together without any distraction. I love it.

:: Working :: still, every weekend, on the hallway. We are now at the interminable "finishing off" stage, full of jobs which you think will only take twenty minutes but take two hours, like hanging a curtain track. But when I look at the difference between the stairs before and after sanding, I know that it's been worth the hard work. 

Thank you for your sympathies, get well wishes and cold remedies. I am feeling much better this week, and hope I stay germ free until Christmas, at least....

Tuesday, 6 November 2018

Cookery Calendar Challenge: October

Hello friends. Everyone ok? I am currently in the throes of a really nasty, heavy head cold, my third this autumn. I had full blown laryngitis the week before half term, did I tell you? On one day, I had absolutely no voice at all. None! It was actually funny, I was squeaking. I always thought I had fairly good immunity, but no, two months of working with those seven year olds every day and I am suffering. I feel like my head is in a vice, there's so much pressure in my sinuses, and am currently buried in a nest on the sofa with tissues and hot drinks within easy reach. I am, belatedly, taking the vitamins I found in the back of the cupboard and will be buying echinacea and manuka honey too. I'll try anything. Other than that we're good, enjoying autumn and bonfire night and all the rest of it, and I'll share more of what we've been up to soon. We're really getting there with the work on the hallway too, it's coming together!

But today it's time for my tenth Cookery Calendar Challenge post, and for October I chose The Kitchen Diaries by Nigel Slater. Most of you probably have this book, and if you don't, I recommend buying or borrowing a copy as it's just a gem of a book. A classic, even. He really is one of the best food writers, so beautifully able to catch the feeling of a day or season in a couple of sentences, as well as in a perfect recipe. The Kitchen Diaries is s book I get down from the shelf and flick through a lot, always going to the corresponding month, when I feel in need of a bit of inspiration, but I don't actually cook from it a lot, and I've no idea why. Just browsing online, I realised that he has many other books following on from this first, and last year The Christmas Chronicles was published. I fear it may find it's way into my shopping basket sometime soon, it looks like the perfect thing to read in the lead up to Christmas. Hygge, but the British way.

Anyway, the cooking. I felt it was in the spirit of this monthly challenge to try some new recipes from the October chapter so, upon discovering some frozen haddock fillets in the freezer, John and I tried Haddock with Crumbs and Tarragon one night when the children had already eaten. It's so simple, just fish dipped in flour, egg and breadcrumbs, then pan fried. But the addition of tarragon and anchovies to the breadcrumbs is what really makes this dish special. I couldn't get fresh tarragon and I think the dried stuff in the cupboard that I used may have been a little...vintage....so the anise flavour of that herb didn't really come through much, but the mild salty-fishiness of the anchovies elevated some bland supermarket fish to something better. Plus the breadcrumbs were really crispy and lovely. The recipe seemed to imply you served it alone (whaat??) but I didn't want to be hungry an hour later so we had it with roasted potatoes and butternut squash and some green beans which I overcooked.

I'm afraid that, as the clocks have now gone back, it's orange electric light photos all the way. Sorry.

Our second meal was Ham and Butter Beans. This is the most perfect kind of autumnal comfort food, and the kind of thing I usually cook for a Sunday evening dinner. It's a brilliant recipe; easy, thrifty, delicious, plus lots leftover. 

It is very easy. You fry some onions, thyme and garlic, add carrots and chorizo sausage, then the butter beans. Nigel suggests using dried beans which are soaked then boiled, but this is beyond my capabilities at the moment, so I bought two tins of cooked beans from Asda. You put the beans and the liquid from the cans into the pot along with two tins of chopped tomatoes and a little stock too, add the ham/gammon joint, bring to the boil then put in the oven for an hour and half.

I removed the lid for the last half hour as it seemed that there was too much liquid, and it didn't dry out at all. You remove the ham to carve then return the meat to the pot to serve, which I did with baked potatoes and greens. 

John and I loved it, the kids found it a little salty and weren't sure about the butter beans (me: "they're just big baked beans!!") but ate it all and seemed neutral about it. I'll take that as a win. Definitely something I'll make again, and I'm just wondering now if I can reduce the liquid and do this in the slow cooker? I'm sure I can.

Finally, we tried the My Very Good Chocolate Brownie Recipe. Now, that's some title, but they did completely live up to it and are some of the nicest, fudgiest brownies I've had in a while. We ate them first warmed for pudding with vanilla ice cream then the rest went in about twenty four hours. Taking one to work on Monday in my lunchbox was a treat. But yes, they are very good, with the right amount of crusty outer layer to gooey inner, and not overly sweet but sweet enough, and without the dry, cocoa bitterness that some brownies can have. I will be making this again, too.

All of this, the stews and cake, is the kind of food I want to eat when the clocks have changed and it's cold and wet outside and I just want to hibernate. Carb loading has commenced.