Friday, 17 February 2012

Never too young….

It was my sister-in-laws birthday a few weeks ago  and on a suggestion from my own, ever wise Mum, I embarked on making her an apron…and a matching one for my seven month old baby niece. I cannot even begin to convey to cuteness of seeing a pic of the two of them together in their aprons.  I also think this particular project is getting me some way towards my mission to make my niece a baking and crafting genius. Start them young, I say!

 Making the aprons was really simple. I used some provincial rose fabric in green from Cath Kidston for the main apron pattern and then some of the Clarke and Clarke sage green spotty fabric for the pocket (off cuts are perfect for this). I used one of my own aprons for the shape for my sister-in-laws apron (I simply drew around it with pencil onto the back of the fabric leaving an extra couple of centimetres to fold over and stitch) and then scaled hers down to make a pattern for the baby size. The straps for the baby apron were made from sage green bias binding, folded and stitched along the edge and I bought some apron ties from my local haberdashery for the big apron.

This was so simple to do, great fun and a lovely present for the mini bakers in your life!

Monday, 30 January 2012

Getting carried away (get it?!)

I’m relatively new to the world of sewing having been put off for many years by experiences at school detailed on my other blog. I cannot repeat this enough - do not let school textiles classes put you off. Sewing is great fun, achievable and not all machines end up a tangled broken mess after every stitch!

Sewing does much the same for me as cooking, giving me a chance to do something practical that I can get absorbed in. I prefer not to use patterns and make it up as I go, you might feel differently! It takes the stress out of it for me as it’s not right or wrong, it’s just what I’ve come up with that day. Nothing I sew is every perfect. I’m just not wired that way. But I like to think it all adds to the rustic charm of it!

One of the things I made recently was this carrier bag holder using some Clarke and Clarke sage spotty fabric that I picked up as an off cut from a local curtain shop. Making it was very simple and amazingly cheap given how I got the fabric. So much so that I’ve been quite happily fulfilling orders for family and friends since I made one for myself.

If you fancy having a go yourself it is very simple indeed. Just cut out a piece of fabric to about the size of a tea towel. Hem both of the shorter edges on your sewing machine. Cut a piece of elastic half the width of the short edge of your fabric. About ten centimetres from the top of each short edge tack the middle of the elastic to the middle of the fabric (see the arrow on the pic below).
Now stretch the elastic to the edges of the cloth and tack at a couple of points along the way. With your sewing machine, sew the stretched elastic onto the fabric. This will make the runched effect so that you can easily insert and pull out carrier bags. Do this for both ends.

When this is done turn the fabric inside out and pin along the length of your bag holder. Sew it together into a long sausage shape. Turn inside out and voila! You have yourself a carrier bag holder! Sew on a piece of ribbon to the back of the holder to tie to a hook or door handle. Sew a bow, or any other decoration you fancy to the front.

Another great thing about sewing is that your house quickly becomes full of things that are unique. Everything is in your favourite colours, with memories of where you picked up the fabric and how you came up with the design. My sewing motto is: Experiment, create and have fun. The perfect way to spend those January evenings!

Tuesday, 17 January 2012

The incredible healing power of chocolate cake

You know one of those days? It’s dark and cold (January, ugh), you seemingly encounter every grumpy person in THE WORLD, everything you try to do is just not quite up to scratch (despite your best efforts, all you are good for is a duvet day), you yearn for just a speck of the positive, a ray of light into the hundrum…. Yep, yesterday was one of those. I think it is partly a delayed reaction to the naffness of the last few weeks and the overwhelming feeling that nothing is easy at the moment. There are unending tasks, unending dark evenings, mountains to climb ahead. I think I have the January blues.

I don’t know about you but when the blues really set in I reach for the cook books. When I discovered Lorraine Pascal’s recipe for’ I don’t give a damn’ Chocolate cake last night I realised I had found my food antidote to a dark, dull, depressing Monday night in January. Just the making of the cake was cathartic. Chuck it all in, blizz for three minutes and pour the gloopy, chocolaty mixture into sandwich tins (not forgetting to lick the spoon). Much as I am convinced fruit cake is the cake of company and natters over cups of tea, chocolate cake is the cake of sitting under your duvet, watching re runs of the Gilmore Girls and feeling just a bit sorry for yourself.

I didn't eat all of that, honest
So in case any of you are suffering from a case of the January blues too I thought I’d share a slightly adapted version of the recipe from Lorraine’s Home Baking Made Easy.

‘I don’t give a damn either!’  or ‘Stuff you January Blues!’ Chocolate Cake

Oil and baking paper for the sandwich tins (just line the base)
140g half fat creme fraiche (it is just after Christmas after all!)
130g butter or stork (I always use Stork for cakes!)
230g golden caster sugar (or whatever you have in)
2 drops of vanilla extract
4 eggs
180g plain flour
pinch of salt
40g cocoa powder
10g baking powder

Chocolate Buttercream:
80g good dark chocolate
130g unsalted soft butter
A couple of drops of vanilla extract
250g icing sugar

  • Put all the cake ingredients into a bowl and beat it like a maniac with an electric beater until all combined. That’s it!
  • Pour the gloopy mixture into the prepared tins, bake at 180 degrees for 25-30 mins of until an uncooked piece of spaghetti inserted into the centre of the cake comes away clean.
  • Leave to cool for five mins before removing from the pans and peeling off the baking paper carefully.
  • For the frosting, melt the chocolate in a glass bowl over some boiling water and set aside to cool. Meanwhile beat together the butter, vanilla and icing sugar until fluffy (this will take a while). Add the melted chocolate and beat until combined.
  • Spread frosting on one of the cakes and sandwich them together. Cover the rest of the cake with the remainder of the frosting.
  • Depending on how glum you are top with chocolate buttons, chocolate shaving, crumbled flakes – the world is your oyster.

And look, you just did something VERY well! Take that January blues!

Friday, 13 January 2012

A slice of fruit cake and a cup of tea

One of my favourite books of all time is the Number One Ladies Detective Series by Alexander McCall Smith. Reading them is like returning to a favourite place. It is comforting, brings you back to yourself, restorative. There are a few things that readings these books makes me want to do, as I mentioned in a previous post, being in the African sunshine being one of them but also eating a fruit cake and drinking bush tea which is much easier to achieve! 

In the books the Matron of the Orphanage Mma Potokwani always coerces people into helping her and the orphans by giving them fruit cake. The main character and chief detective, Mma Ramotswe, often goes to visit Mma Potokwani and has a slice of fruit cake, a cup of tea and a lengthy chat. In the books, and as I’ve experienced on my own visits to Africa, there is a lot of sitting on verandas, drinking tea and thinking about the world.

The TV series of Number One Ladies Detective Agency
 As a tea drinking and cake baking nation, and the founders of afternoon tea, I like to think that we in England used to do this very well - but not so any more. There is so much rushing around and even social arrangement are scheduled into our diaries like appointments. I know a lot of people aren’t a fan of the spontaneous visit but I’m always happy when someone pops round to my house and even more so when they settle in for a cup of tea, slice of cake and natter. I’d go so far as to say that work places would be much improved with the introduction of regular, sanctioned tea breaks. How much productivity is lost over little grievances bemoaned through lengthy email chains that could be sorted out through people getting to know each other over a cup of tea?

When I read the Number One books it reminds me of my desire to be someone who dwells over tea. Someone who has real conversations with people and nowhere to rush off to. The act of baking a fruit cake in itself causes you to slow down. The one I made on Monday was three hours in the baking and the cake itself is so rich and big that it will take many, many days of cups of tea and lengthy chats to get through. So my fruit cake, and the tales of Mma Ramotswe, are reminding me what I value most. The miraculous things that a good cake can do!

I made my cake using Kirstie Allsopp's recipe which you can find here.

Tuesday, 10 January 2012

Bewitched by Wychwood

On Sunday we finally made it out to the Wychood Brewey in Witney (home of Hobgoblin and Brakspear ales) for a tour and tasting as a belated Christmas present for my husband (and a slight treat for me too perhaps!) I love going on these kinds of tours, after all the wandering around looking at barrels and pulping systems you are rewarded with several tiny glasses of beer for tasting. These are doubly brilliant as being small you can hold them in your hand and pretend you are giant drinking a regular sized pint and also, goodness me, they do add up. Before you know it you're staggering into the gift shop ordering several crates to take home. Hmm, I’m sure there is a marketing ploy in there somewhere!!

Some take home goodness!
Our guide was fantastic and held true to the slogan ‘What’s the matter Lagerboy? Afraid you’ll taste something?’ with his great enthusiasm for everything ale. I’m a relatively recent convert to the ale cause but Wychwood is the best kind of company to encourage you to switch from the big business breweries. The beers are so tasty and the ingredients local. By products from the brewing process are used as animal feed by local farmers which then go into sausages containing Wychwood Cider made by a local butcher. Brakspear, which used to be produced in Henley, was founded by a Witney resident and was a major factor in Wychwood bidding to acquire the beers, including the legendary (in my books at least!) Oxford Gold. Brakspear has come home!

Trying the malts was also a great way to understand more about the flavours in the ales (you really can taste it once you’ve chewed on the raw ingredients!) and for helping me to become an insufferable bore in company by talking about the ratio of chocolate to black malt. In the end we settled on a case of King Goblin which is only brewed on a full moon and is a great amber coloured, flavourful ale. We cracked a couple open last night in front of a chick flick (don’t want to become too masculine now) and it tasted even better the second tasting around. The one slightly disturbing thing was realising on our way home that it was full moon that night! The mysterious powers of Wychood, I entreat you to go there…. or else (cue witchy cackling)

Monday, 2 January 2012

2012 – Feed Me!

Instead of resolutions I’m more for aspirations. Resolutions don’t sound a lot of fun and nearly always seem to involve a basket full of low fat, cardboard tasting food and an overpriced and underused gym membership. Then comes the inevitable - it’s only the 5th of January and I’ve already failed – berating. Aspirations on the other hand are joyful, full flavour life adventures, no berating necessary.
There is so little in life that can really be controlled (never more so than in 2012 for me!) so I decided that the best thing for it was to think achievable (and so small!) and frequent (keep the good times coming!) when it came to my new year’s aspirations. This also comes from the realisation that it’s the small things that really make a difference. Like watching the pennies to save the pounds, making lots of good little moments makes up to one happy whole. Or at least that is the theory!
When I sat down to think about the things I would like to do this year I realised that many of them were food related. This isn’t just because I’m a huge glutton (!) but also because food is the thing that soothes me, has been the catalyst for many fun evenings with family and friends and allows me to get creative. Whether it is growing the food that ends up in my kitchen or hand crafting some gorgeous cakes I find the whole process brings me a great deal of happiness.
On Christmas day I made my first essential purchase for my 2012 aspirations, this brilliant Fondue set from Cath Kidston. So my first culinary adventure of 2012 is going to be a fondue evening (chocolate of course) with one of my best mates and a magical mystery tour of David Tennant’s Dr Who Best Bits. Bliss.

My other food aspirations so far are:
To make the perfect white chocolate martini
This is a doubly exciting resolution as it involved not just making and drinking said martinis but also the purchasing of new super swish martini glasses. When I was compiling my wedding gift list martini glasses were vetoed by my husband who claimed we would never use them as I already had two sets of wine glasses and champagne flutes on the list. I said ‘A girl needs options’. He said ‘Not that many’.  Four years in and I feel happily vindicated that not only do I still see a martini shaped hole in our lives but that four years has also softened him up enough that he didn’t even blink when I announced that ‘2012 is the year of the white chocolate martini’ and started googling for glasses. Got to love marriage.
Spend a day creating très bon French patisserie!
Saturday afternoon, puff pastry, a piping bag of cream, a pot of tea and a feasting on my creations. Enough said.
Create the perfect fruit cake
I’m currently reading the latest Number One Ladies Detective Agency novel by Alexander McCall Smith which always makes me want to go to Africa, sit on a veranda and watch the world go by and bake a good fruit cake (in that order!). The Africa part is coming in July and January isn’t exactly veranda weather so a fruit cake and watching the world go by it is!
I’m sure there will be more where that came from but it should be enough to keep me busy for now. So what about you, any creative aspirations (or any aspirations for that matter?) in the pipeline for 2012?

Thursday, 1 December 2011

‘Tis the season to make everything out of felt

After that mammoth teaser last week I have decided to prolong the wait for the craft/baking extravaganza I mentioned and instead talk a little about Christmas crafting, as time is really now of the essence since we have arrived in December so suddenly! This year I’ve done a lot of crafting for Christmas partly due to encountering people with some excellent ideas and partly due to the arrival of my new best friend – my sewing machine. The first thing I made in anticipation of this very day was my Christmas stocking advent calendar.

This was very simple indeed. I cut out 24 little stockings from green and red eco-friendly felt and then cut out 24 snowy tops from white felt. I pinned these together and sewed around the edge them with a simple blanket stitch in a cream embroidery thread. I then sewed on a little handle through which the stocking hang on a length of white ribbon. I tailor made mine to fit to my fireplace. For the numbers I made a template in Word of the numbers, cut them out and pinned them to the felt. I then stuck the felt numbers onto the stockings with fabric glue.

To keep the stockings in place I sewed them onto the ribbon with white thread and so that they all face forwards I reversed them half way. You could easily do this project in a weekend in front of the telly so you’d be able to fill your little stocking asap and only a few days into advent. I’m filling mine with gold coins and chocolate Santas. Hurrah!

My next crafting adventure (and to use up some of the left over felt from my advent calendar!) was some handmade Christmas cards. These are so easy and so cute (if I may say so myself!)

I made a template reindeer on some paper and then cut it out in red felt. I then glued the felt reindeer onto a shimmery card and added some gems for a collar around its neck. The Merry Christmas banner is some ribbon which I cut to size and glued on. I’m planning on doing these with all different felt shapes and ribbon colours.

Christmas is also a time where I indulge my love of gold disco hologram glitter in my baking. I’m hosting my annual Christmas partaaay next weekend so will be baking away next week. Recipes and pics to follow….

Happy Advent!