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!

Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Monday roasts – the way forwards?

Mondays. They are challenging aren’t they? It takes a very special set of plans to take away the post weekend blues. By chance last weekend (as all truly great discoveries are made) I was forced into making a Monday roast by a fast-perishing chicken in my fridge. At first I thought it would be too much of a faff, who wants to wait around on a Monday night for their dinner?  More to the point, who wants to have to wash up more than one pan on a Monday night?

This is where the one tray roast comes in. Granted it won’t work so well if you are a large household but if there are two of you, it is roasting genius. Gentle crush three or four garlic cloves and rub the insides over the chicken. Cut a lemon into 8 segments and squeeze some juice over the chicken. Pop some of the lemon and garlic in and around the chicken along with some wedges of red onion. Pour over some olive oil and into the oven it goes for about an hour and a half for a small chicken, but check the packaging for guidance and pock it in the leg with your carving fork to make sure the juices run clear when you think it’s done.

Peel  some potatoes and boil for ten to fifteen minutes. Drain and bash them around in the pot a little to rough up the edges for extra crispy bits. Chuck these in the pan with the chicken when it has about forty five minutes to go and coat in olive oil. Serve with some gravy thickened out using your roasting juices and with the red onion mixed in for a scrumptious feast that will make any Monday worth getting going for. 

I am convinced that the smell of a chicken roasting on a cold day with a big glass of red in hand is one of the greatest things about our seasonal weather and THE best thing to do with a dreary winter’s Monday night. I hope you agree!

Saturday, 15 October 2011

Warm Winter Salads

If you’ve started growing your own winter veg you will be rewarded by now with a bountiful crop of salad greens that you can dress up to the nines to make some fantastic winter salads.

I made this creation last weekend by tweaking a recipe from the new book from Lorraine Pascal, Home Cooking Made Easy. I used mostly frill mustard leaves and land cress which grows so fast in my shady garden that I struggle to keep up!

The recipe is very simple. The slight peppery taste of the mustard and cress goes really well with some fried super thin strips of pancetta which are cooked first of all and set aside. I then put some peeled and quartered pears into the hot pan with a drizzle of honey. Cook these for about five mins and then splash over some balsamic vinegar. Serve these on top of the salad leaves, top with the bacon. Meanwhile add some more honey to the hot pan and a spoonful of Dijon mustard. Cook through and pour over your salad. I then added some mozzarella balls though Lorraine used blue cheese (I’m not a fan of stinky cheese!)

This was so delish that even my salad hating husband rated it. I served it with some garlic bread and the opportunity to put my feet up. What more could you want on an autumnal day?!

Friday, 7 October 2011

Baking with Guinness

Have you ever baked with Guinness? If not then I wholeheartedly advocate that you get on board. There is something about the rich bitterness of it that when baked with chocolate or spices (and even better topped with cream cheese icing) that is truly fabulous. Another hidden bonus is the sneaky half pint you get after you’ve measured out what you need and must dispose of the rest!

So here are two of my highly recommended Guinness baking recipes that do particularly well for any birthdays of the men in your life. You won’t have leftovers!  Enjoy!

Sunday, 25 September 2011

The best chocolate brownie in the world

There are two things in life that I like to think I know a lot about. The first one is tea. The second is chocolate. In particular, chocolate cake. I am not one of these weak people who can be overcome by the richness of a chocolate cake. Oh no. I am a trained cake eater, practiced over decades. I am Olympic level. There is a restaurant near us that boldly announces that it has the ‘chocolate nemesis’ on its menu. Eating that was like a walk in the park for me as a true chocaholic. I blame my mum for this as when we were kids she would make us a big chocolate pudding and pour a melted mars bar over the top of it. THAT is a chocolate nemesis.

My chocolate brownie with a cup of tea pigs chocolate flake tea

Being a self-confessed chocaholic and a keen baker there is nothing I am more fussy about than chocolate brownies. First off all the chocolate has to be good, it must be dark and it must be good quality. Second of all it has to be slightly goo-ey and slightly cakey. Too gooey and it feels like eating chocolate flavoured butter (a bit wrong) and too cakey and, well, it’s a cake not a brownie.

As a chocolate purist I never add nuts to my brownies. You may well disagree, that is your prerogative, but this is my way! Baking your brownies is the real make it or break it moment. They should be thick so quantities and correct tin size is important. They should come out of the oven when the top is hard and just starting to crack a little at the edges. I insert a piece of uncooked spaghetti into the edge of the brownie first. From here it should come out pretty much dry. I then insert it into the centre of the tin where it should come out gooey but should feel firm as the spaghetti goes in - not like a big sloppy mess. A big sloppy mess is not cooked and will fall apart when you cut it. Unpleasant.

Now for the moment of truth, my brownie recipe. What you are about to receive has been honed over years of struggle. You are lucky people, standing on holy brownie ground. Enjoy it. And use it wisely.

150g dark chocolate
150g butter (unsalted)
25g cocoa powder
3 eggs
225g caster sugar
1tsp vanilla extract
100g plain flour

Preheat the oven to 180 degrees C/Gas Mark 4.
Line your tin with baking parchment and grease.
Melt the chocolate, butter and cocoa powder in a bowl over a pan of simmering water.
In another bowl whisk the eggs, sugar and vanilla. Continue whisking as you add the slightly cooled chocolate mixture until well combined.
Sift in the flour and fold in using a spatula.
Bake for about 25 mins using the advice above for pefect brownie consistency.
Cool in the tin, cut into square and enjoy!

Monday, 19 September 2011

Winter Veg

I mentioned on twitter that I am embarking on my planting for winter and received a fair number of interested tweets back along the lines of ‘what can I grow?’ and ‘will it really grow in winter?’ Naturally I felt a blog post was in order. Growing in winter is great in many respects. Your beds will otherwise look very dull indeed and my dreaded adversary, the slug, is less prevalent. You also need to water less, obviously, as it’s more rainy.

To keep your beautiful babies warm when the cold weather comes you can use horticultural fleece which is very cheap and if you buy a few meters of it you can cut it to the size of your plant pots of beds. On my tubs I secure it down with clothes pegs on frosty nights and sleep well knowing my plants are well cared for. If I become really obsessive and it is very cold I may bring some pots of plants inside at night. This is the massive advantage of container growing. In the summer you can relocate them to another part of the garden if they are looking a bit sad and perhaps need a touch more sun. In the winter you can move them to warmer spots and even take your winter lettuces inside. I always bring my Mediterranean herbs like marjoram and oregano in for the winter and the basil if it has survived that long (it rarely has!)

So what can you grow in winter? This is my first season of going all out on my winter growing with most of my containers full and I am growing a range of winter lettuces which I will cut small for salads. A good tip for making salads appetizing in colder weather is using a hot dressing. Sounds odd, tastes amazing! Try frying up a shallot in some olive oil and adding a tablespoon full of cider vinegar. This over Mizuna, an excellent winter salad leaf that tastes a bit like rocket, is amazing. I am also growing salad onions, kale, giant red mustards, frill mustards, spinach, corn salad, broad beans and some chilli peppers inside on my window sill. As in the summer I got all my plants as babies from Rocket Gardens.

It is very heartening to be planting in autumn when you can feel the winter drawing in. I had the perfect afternoon yesterday digging around in my garden with a robin bobbing about beside me thinking it was his lucky day as I unearthed lots of worms. I have finally got to the exciting (perhaps I use that word too liberally!) place where my containers are like living ecosystems with worms in them and good healthy soil. This is what you want! If it makes you feel better I achieve this by doing very little at all and letting my garden be a bit wild (much to my neighbours displeasure!) but I like it to be a place where both my gardening efforts and nature (except slugs!!) thrives.

Enjoy your garden this winter!

Sunday, 11 September 2011


I am quite convinced that there is no season that is not ideal for tea in some form but none more so that autumn. As the darker nights draw in what could be better than to settle down with a pot of freshly brewed tea and a slice of cake. This poem sums it up beautifully. Put your feet up and the kettle on.  


Carol Ann Duffy

I like pouring your tea, lifting
the heavy pot, and tipping it up,
so the fragrant liquid streams in your china cup.

Or when you’re away, or at work,
I like to think of your cupped hands as you sip,
as you sip, of the faint half-smile of your lips.

I like the questions – sugar? – milk? –
and the answers I don’t know by heart, yet,
for I see your soul in your eyes, and I forget.

Jasmine, Gunpowder, Assam, Earl Grey, Ceylon,
I love tea’s names. Which tea would you like? I say
but it’s any tea for you, please, any time of day,

as the women harvest the slopes
for the sweetest leaves, on Mount Wu-Yi,
and I am your lover, smitten, straining your tea.

Monday, 5 September 2011

Things to do with blackberries

It’s officially soft fruit season and if you value your finances and enjoy the odd berry or hundred then get ye to a bramble bush and get picking! Once you’re there you will likely find yourself overcome with fruit pickers enthusiasm as you survey your potential bounty. Never again will you be tempted by the sorry punnets on offer in the supermarket, a painful price for minimal fruity goodness. You may even find yourself cackling with glee in the fruit section as you remember your well-stocked freezer gained from just one delicious afternoon's fruit picking.

There are several fabulous things about blackberries:
  1. They grow everywhere
    I'm a bit fussy when it comes to where I pick. I prefer some rambling rural landscape rather than by a polluted roadside but hey-ho, each to their own. You can find berries in surprisingly urban settings though where you won't be putting car fume blackberries on your cereal. Try local parks or go for a walk by the river and have a hunt. Once you've discovered your patch you will return year on year, guaranteed. When picking go for the plump, soft but not squashy ones. Try as you go to make sure they are sweet and ripe.
  2. They freeze really well
    When you get home with your blackberries wash them really, really gently and then spread them out into a single layer on a baking tray. Pop them in the freezer for about forty minutes until they are hard. You can then scrap them off and bag them up and they won't stick together. This means you can take out handfuls as and when you need them. Perfect!
  3. You can rustle up amazing puddings all winter at the drop of a hat (or scarf)
    Grab some cooking apples, peel, core and slice them and drop them in a dish, sprinkle in some golden caster sugar and a couple of handfuls of frozen blackberries and top with crumble. Pop in a medium oven until the topping is golden and you have a delicious bubbly crumble. Domestic goddess status in no time at all!
  4. You can make smoothies from frozen
    If you put frozen berries in a blender with some yoghurt you will get a cool berry smoothie. No defrosting required.
  5. Cakes - many, many cakes
    My favourite cake to make with blackberries is upside down cake. Upside down cakes always remind me of being at my Grandma's house, stuffed and satisfied. Give it a go:
Blackberry Upside-down Cake
About 200g of blackberries (enough to cover the base of your cake tin without them being squashed in together, if they are squashed in it will be a nightmare to get the cake out of the tin in one piece)
220g golden caster sugar
200g plain flour
1 tsp of baking powder
½ tsp salt
120g unsalted butter (I use Stork for cakes)
2 large eggs
1 tsp of vanilla extract
Zest of a lemon
100ml of milk 
  • For this recipe you will need at 22cm cake tin with a loose bottom. Grease the tin and put a round of baking parchment in the base. Butter this as well and dust the whole tin with flour. Shake out the excess
  • Lay the blackberries on the base of the tin (see the note above) and sprinkle over a tablespoon of caster sugar.
  • Cream the butter and remaining sugar together until light and fluffy.
  • Beat in the eggs one at a time with a spoonful of flour to prevent curdling. Add the vanilla extract and zest.
  • Mix together the flour, baking powder and salt. Sift it into the creamed butter and sugar alternating with adding some milk. Fold until just incorporated. Add enough milk to have a smooth, thick batter. If it is starting to look runny then leave the rest of the milk as this will also lead to a cake that falls apart and you need it to flip successfully!
  • Pour the mixture over the blackberries and bake in a 180ยบC/gas mark 4 oven for forty minutes.
  • Leave the cake to cool in the tin then flip it over onto a plate, peel off the paper and you have a delicious, blackberry speckled cake for tea. Dust with icing sugar for a pretty finish.
The only downsides to blackberries that I can see is the inevitable scratches you will acquire as you throw yourself enthusiastically into hedgerows in search of the plumpest fruits. There's something nice about war wounds for your food though, well earned dinner.
Happy blackberry season!

Wednesday, 24 August 2011

Potato Harvest

I have just harvested my first ever batch of potatoes. It was so painfully easy that I am convinced absolutely anyone could do it. Look at the bounty just four seed potatoes produced!

  When it comes to gardening I’m an experimenter. Yes, some information is good but I’m convinced the best way to learn is to have a go for yourself. Each garden is unique, as is ever gardener. You may have loads of sun or hardly any, lots of time or be dashing from one place to the next all day long. I have a tiny garden where everything is in containers and I like minimal input and watering for my bounty. With the right, well placed plants such materials and habits can still produce lots of fresh fruit and veg.

This potato growing method below worked for me and it is really simple. Hopefully this will encourage you to try it for yourself and not worry about following lots of rules and regulations. It’ll be fresh new potatoes for dinner in no time!

Getting Started:
All you need is a good sized tub (I used an old recycling box -  about two ft across and 1 and a half ft deep - that I scrubbed, sanded and painted to look less bin-like), some multipurpose compost and some seed potatoes. For my recycling box I used four seed potatoes which seemed adequate room for them and produced a good crop. I planted in May and harvested in late August.

When your seed potatoes arrive (I got mine from Rocket Gardens) fill your box half full of compost and place the potatoes in. Cover with about ten centimetres of compost and water well. Within a few days shoots will start appearing above the compost. When this happens cover them completely with another 10cm layer of compost. Continue this process until your box is full. This encourages new potatoes to form all the way up the length of the plant.

Looking after:
My potato plants were fine in a more shady spot and the mass of foliage keeps the soil nice and moist so I found them to be very little work with infrequent watering required. I even managed to turn the whole box over one day (don’t ask!) and they survived that so I’m confident it would be pretty hard to kill them! I left mine to grow for three and a half months and harvested them as the foliage started to yellow and look a bit sad. I had a good harvest from this but some small ones so a couple more weeks wouldn’t hurt I’d say!

All in all I’m chuffed with my potato season! If you have any questions or hints from your own garden feel free to comment below.

Friday, 12 August 2011

My garden’s gone fruity!

I’ve been growing my own food, to varying degrees of success, for the last two years. My garden is living proof that you can grow your own pretty much anywhere as we don’t have much more than a patch of grass and various containers I’ve picked up along the way like this old recycling boxes that I painted Cath Kidston styleee…

I give myself a fairly major helping hand by purchasing most of my plants as babies from Rocket Gardens. It is one of the most exciting days of the year (think Christmas but…muddier) when the box of plants arrive and suddenly the garden springs to life for the season. As much as I love my own home grown produce I live in a one bedroom flat with old sash windows with no window sills so the idea of fashioning some device to keep seed trays inside but still in the sun really doesn’t appeal. I would also be slightly concerned that this would be the act that finally sent my husband over the edge and it would be just me and seedlings from there on out!

I’m particularly fond of any plants I can keep year after year and can often be spotted, like a shameless lunatic, talking to them in the garden as I graze their latest offerings. My herbs got upgraded to my favourite pot last year (an old wooden vintage port box) and have a prime spot just outside the kitchen door. This year I also invested in some Blueberry plants (two, they like company apparently) and look what I picked this morning!

This has inspired me to expand my fruit growing empire and just in time for the Rocket Gardens Summer sale! My new plants will arrive in November to be lovingly tended over the winter months in the hope on bounteous production in the summer next year. If love makes them grow I’m going to be the fruitiest gardener around!

Tuesday, 9 August 2011

Summer beers

It feels like summer is coming to a close alarmingly quickly. The garden is bringing the tail end of its produce, all the carrots are uprooted, the potatoes are dug and the lettuces are on their second life. It’s been raining (or threatening to rain) for what feels like a gazillion years. It’s all a bit…autumnal. But it IS still summer whether the weather wants to agree with us or not and so to keep summer reigning in our hearts I though I would do a run down of some of my favourite summer beers for you to try before the season is out.

1. All things Badger

On the August bank holiday last year I went to the fabulous Foodie Festival in South Park Oxford and met the guys from Dwink.  In just one short hour they persuaded me that I am in fact an ale drinker and the biggest converting factor was the fabulous Golden Champion Badger Ale. This beer is the colour of the sun on a baking hot day and it will make you feel like you’re lying on your back in a field full of daisies (not that that was how I ended up, ahem). It has a light taste of elderflower and is a good ‘entrance ale’ for us soft lager drinkers. You will never order a boring beer again.

2. Frulli
I’m a fan of making picnics interesting and this will not let you down. This lager is bright pink and packed with crushed strawberries. You probably won’t want to drink buckets of the stuff as it does get a touch sickly after the first pint but it would wash down a sausage roll very nicely indeed. And as it has fruit in it I class this as practically a health drink.

3. Blue Moon
Another Dwink recommendation, Blue Moon is a Belgium style wheat ale with citrus flavours. It’s meant to be cloudy so don’t be alarmed when you pour it out. Try it with a slice of orange to really bring out the summer flavours. Yum!

4. Oxford Gold
As a fully signed up Oxfordian I had to recommend this. Luckily that wasn’t too taxing a thing to do as I love it. Oxford Gold comes from the Wychwood brewery in Witney who do all sorts of amazing things with yeast (that sounds a bit wrong…). Again, if you are a new ale drinker don’t be put off. It really is delicious and lighter than you would expect. Try it slightly chilled. Alternatively you could come to Oxford and visit the Wychwood brewery and try for yourself. If they can’t make you an ale drinker no one can.

5. Kronenbourg Blanc
I’ve been a fan of this beer for some time and it is now available on tap in many pubs. A certified ‘girly beer’, this is a light white beer with citrus flavours. A softies version of Blue Moon!

Something for everyone! Enjoy!

Friday, 5 August 2011

Tea of the week – Jasmine Pearls

It was my birthday a couple of weeks ago and I have been thoroughly spoilt. As my friends and family know what an obsessive tea nut I am I received lots of tea related gifts, hurrah! One particularly exciting gift came in the form of two new tea cups by one of my favourite ceramics designers, Pip Studios. I had been lusting after these beauties for some time now, check it out – mmmm!

As all tea fanatics will know the mug/cup saucer you use for your tea is very important for the quality of your tea drinking experience. You can't go drinking a milky Saturday morning tea in fine bone china or a flavoured white tea in a chunky mug, that would be all kinds of wrong. So when I unwrapped these gorgeous specimens I knew immediately that they were destined for a fine tea indeed. So imagine my delight when I unwrapped another present of Jasmine Tea Pearls and a Tea House to brew them in! Presents coming seamlessly together, got to love it.

So I dedicate this tea of the week to my lovely friends. Thank you for being so kind and spoiling me with tea time goodies, my belly thanks you.

Jasmine Tea

What is is?
Jasmine tea is literally flowers in a mug. It is usually mixed with green or white tea and the jasmine gives it a subtle sweet and (unsurprisingly) a distinctly floral taste. Jasmine tea originated in China and has been a speciality there for over 800 years! Anything that has stuck around that long has got to be good.

How do you drink it?
Never with milk! I would suggest going light on the amount of tea you put into your strainer to begin with as it can become bitter fast. It also won't colour very much so stop brewing after a couple of minutes even if it's light and clear. I think this makes it perfect for pretty cups as you can see the patterns inside through the clear tea.

Where can I get it?
A good friend of mine spent some time in China and buys her Jasmine tea in bulk from Chinese supermarkets, very economical indeed. I am drinking Jasmine Pearls from Whittards which are absolutely delicious. You can also pick up a Tea House while you are there!

Happy Tea Drinking!