Sunday, 20 December 2009

Aww crap

Five days before Christmas, loads of stuff still to do (though not the Christmas dinner, thank God) and what happens? That's right, some kind of lurgy. Sore throat, headache, sniffly. Marvellous. Throw in a hearty dose of overtired and PMT and you have one very stressed wife who is looking forward to Christmas, only because then it'll be over and I can relax. I officially hate this. Next year I start preparing for Xmas after my birthday (in March).

Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Decorating the cake, pt 1

So today I got the Christmas cake out of storage - you may joke, but I actually made it last Christmas, doused it well with brandy, then triple wrapped it in baking paper and foil. A few months ago I took it out again, 'fed' it with another tot of brandy and re-wrapped it, all in anticipation of today.

I peeled off the foil and paper and turned the cake upside down. You're aiming to get the flattest, smoothest surface for your icing, so it makes sense to trim the top so it makes a stable base and invert it. Right, now the cake is ready, assemble your tools. You will need:-
- A quantity of marzipan (aka almond paste). I use Katie Stewart's recipe, but choose your favourite.
- a rolling pin
- caster sugar
- a small, sharp knife
- a cake board, one of the foil covered kinds, or the base of a cake tin
- a sturdy board or tray
- a sheet of baking or greaseproof paper
- apricot jam
- pastry brush
- tea strainer or sieve

Right, first thing's first - a disclaimer. I am going to post some photographs of my cake below, but before I do you need to understand the point of marzipan on a Christmas cake. Its purpose is actually two-fold. Firstly to prevent the dark fruit in the cake from leaking through and staining the pristine white icing. Secondly it is the foundation on which the icing is laid. Think of it like magic underwear, if you will. It may be ugly and you wouldn't really want anyone to see it, but it is essential to make your body look its best under the dress. So excuse the patches and fill-ins - they're just structural to make sure the icing has a lovely, even base.

OK, now, put a couple of large spoonfuls of the apricot jam into the tea strainer and squish it through into a small bowl. All you're aiming to do it create a smooth 'glue' for the marzipan. When you're done, use the pastry brush to paint some of the strained jam onto the top of the cake (and by top, I actually mean bottom, because you inverted it. Confused yet? I do hope not.)

Now take the marzipan and mark it into thirds. Chop one third off and set the remainder to one side. Sprinkle your work surface with caster sugar and roll out the marzipan so it is an even thickness just a little larger than the surface of the cake. Now lay the sheet of baking paper down on the tray or board and carefully place this rolled out piece of marzipan on top of it. (If you're using a board rather than a tray, then you may even be able to roll it out in situ, if that's easier).

Now gently lift the cake and, making sure it's not overhanging the edge of the marzipan anywhere, lay it top down on the rolled out marzipan. Press down lightly and leave.

Now, take the remaining icing.

If your cake is circular you'll need to take a piece of string, measure the circumference of the cake and roll the marzipan into a long sausage, roughly the same length as the piece of string. flatten it down, roll it out, trim one side and the bottom so they're neat, straight lines. Paint the sides of the cake with the apricot jam to stick down any loose crumbs and make sure the marzipan has something to stick to. Roll the marzipan up on your rolling pin and lay it carefully along the side of the cake, trimmed side down so that it sits on the marzipan top. Wrap the icing around the cake until it meets itself, then neatly trim the end off, so the two ends butt up against each other. Trim any excess off the height of the marzipan.

If, like me, you have a square cake, you'll find life is much easier. Divide the remaining icing into four equal pieces. Roll each of these pieces out so that it's very slightly longer and taller than one side of the cake. Paint the side of the cake you're about to marzipan with the apricot jam to stick down any loose crumbs and make sure the marzipan has something to stick to. Trim one side and the bottom, then lay the marzipan gently against the side of the cake, trimmed bottom resting on the marzipan overhang, the trimmed edge lined up with one edge of the cake. Trim off the excess marzipan at the top and side, making sure the edges line up, then repeat for the other three sides.

Now very carefully use your sharp knife to trim the overhang of the top marzipan. Use any offcuts to make up gaps along the edge of the cake.

Place the cake board on the bare 'top' of the cake, making sure to centre the cake carefully.

Slide the tray carefully off the surface and place the flat of your hand under it. Now place your other hand flat on the top of the board and, maintaining a reasonable amount of pressure, invert the cake again. Place the board back on the surface and remove the tray and the sheet of paper. Ta dah! A marzipanned cake. Any slight inconsistencies in the eveness can be made up now with the offcuts of marzipan, as you can see, there is often a gap around the bottom, as with mine, but that's easily remedied and the royal icing will cover up the unsightliness.

Now place the sheet of baking paper on the top, weight it down with something light (I used a roll of sellotape which was to hand!) and place in a warm, airy place for at least a few days, if not a week. You're just aiming to dry the marzipan off so it hardens slightly, making it easier to ice, the paper is just to keep the dust off whilst it dries.

And there you have it!

Monday, 14 December 2009

Mixing it up

So, although I got married well over a year ago, we had to keep many of our presents in storage in my parents' shed for a year, as our previous flat was too small to contain them. Once we'd moved house we unpacked them all - wow, it was like Christmas morning.

All sorts of goodies were in there, but the one I want to tell you about is very simple and classic. An old school, traditional mixing bowl. Ceramic, white glaze on the inside, biscuit-brown glaze on the outside. Enormous.

It was given to me by a very close friend who totally gets my obsession with baking, so I'm going to send her a link to this post and let her know that in the last fortnight alone that bowl has been the receptacle for two Christmas puddings, homemade ginger beer, ginger bread biscuit dough and marzipan for the Christmas cake. I love using it. It's absolutely massive and just like the one my mum has which I always used to love using (though mine is bigger!). I'm looking forward to all the other tasty things it's going to help me make.

All hail the mixing bowl of greatness!

Friday, 11 December 2009

Christmas Cookies

So, I felt the sudden urge to make some Christmas cookies the day before yesterday, but very surprisingly my guru, Katie Stewart, had nothing to say on the matter. Not a ginger biscuit to bless myself with.

I now have a new queen. Her Highness, Peggy Porschen. I have a beautiful copy of Peggy's Party Cakes book. Now, whilst her decorative strategies are a little too high falutin for day to day cooking, but at the beginning of her book she has a whole bunch of 'basics' recipes. A basic sponge (yeah, cos I haven't memorised the ingredients proportions for that one), basic sugar cookies, and -thank you god - basic gingerbread cookies! Hurrah!

So I made a huge batch and it's chilling in the 'fridge, just waiting for me to roll it out and bake it. Apparently the cookies can last for up to a month if kept in a foil package or an airtight container. Well that's a winning formula if you ask me. Unfortunately I have no Christmas cookie shapes, just a 'plane, a helicopter, a rocket and a heart... Oh well, I'll start out with those and buy a star, a snowflake, a Christmas tree, etc, at a later date. I'm sure nobody really minds what shape they are as long as they taste good, right? :-D

Tuesday, 8 December 2009

Experimental Knitting

Right - I just jumped off-piste - my first non-square knitting project without a pattern. The lovely ladies at my Knit Wits group have given me some pointers, so I'll follow their advice and see how it works out...

Monday, 7 December 2009


This is a fairly convoluted story, but we'll get there in the end... allow me to explain further...

I have a long-time passion for heritage: things passed on from generation to generation. This passion applies particularly to my maternal line of which I am immensely proud. My mum tells wonderful stories of her childhood and the strong, independent women who brought her up and in her boxes of treasures is a family tree and set of papers written by her grandmother about the family history. My dad hardly ever talks about his family, I don't believe he knows much and what he does know makes him uncomfortable, because he comes from a line of Polish Jews and I imagine that many of them were lost in the second world war. Instead I was brought up in the reflected light of my maternal ancestry and have come to revere the artifacts and history of that family.

One of my most treasured possessions is a beautiful long string of bright orange amber beads, with matching earrings on gold drops. Each of these beads is a beautiful, polished lozenge, roughly grape-shaped and ranging in size from grape to peanut. The necklace and earrings belonged to my great-grandmother and I wear them all the time, because they feel like an embodiment of my past and because, for various reasons, orange is a significant colour to me. I love the way the amber looks and sounds, and the way they are so chill at first, but soon warm up on skin contact until they seem to be throbbing with life and give off more heat than you could possibly have released to them. A silly, superstitious part of me wonders if they hold memories of the women who have worn them. Judging by the style and the fact they belonged to my great-grandmother indicates that they're probably from the 1920s and I love to imagine them adorning a gorgeous flapper dress at some glamorous party, dancing the Charleston.

Anyway, now I've hopefully given you some idea about how passionate I am about things passed on (don't get me started on the jade jewellery set that needs re-setting, or the amethyst and turquoise tiara that I would love to have an excuse to borrow, or the string of my great-grandmother's pearls I wore for my wedding... hrm, funny how it's all jewellery! Probably because the clothes don't fit me. Diet starts tomorrow - I swear.) from woman to woman I will now tell you about the great Christmas Pudding challenge of 2009.

This year hubby and I are going to spend Christmas day with my family: mother, father, younger sister, uncle (mum's brother), possibly my cousin (that uncle's son) and my great-uncles (father's uncle and civil partner). I am excited as hell and can't wait - this will be the first time I've spent the whole Christmas period and Christmas day with my family and husband. Next year we'll have to spend with my in-laws, but let's focus on this Christmas for now!

I love Christmas, and so do my mum and sister - it's always been a big family thing and, breaking with stereotypes, I can't ever remember a big family argument. Mummy is doing the majority of the cooking - good thing, since she has the most amazing kitchen and oven whilst I have a galley kitchen and tiny, very slow oven. In return for her doing the turkey and trimmings, I was making the Christmas pudding - my first pudding ever. Over the years I have helped make pudding after pudding, but that was always under Mummy's direction and I never saw the recipe. If I had I would have paid more attention to the method.

It was Grannie Moxon's recipe, my great grandmother, and Christmas just isn't Christmas without it. Mummy suggested that I try a new recipe this year, but if you've read the above post you'll understand why I stuck to Grannie Moxon's recipe. Well, more fool me. Mummy copied out the recipe, I tucked it inside my Katie Stewart book and thought no more about it until this weekend. I pulled out the recipe, checked I had all the ingredients, then turned over the paper for the method. Um... slight problem - the list of ingredients and an instruction to 'steam for 4 hours, then 2 hours on the day' was all I had.

Panicking I picked up the phone to call Mummy and demand an explanation, but she was out of the country - at a wedding in Italy and there was no way I could contact her to ask about a bloody pudding. Using Katie Stewart's recipe and the thick dredgings of my memory, combined with my own, slightly faulty, intuition, I cobbled together the pudding as best I could - dry ingredients first, then wet, put in buttered basin, press down, cover, steam... it was all a bit of guesswork and I am really unsure, now, whether I did it right. I am most concerned over the fact I pressed the mixture down into the basin, is that going to make the (already heavy) pudding even more stodgy? I would have left the construction of these puddings until a later date, but I wanted to make it with Hubby and only get one day a week of being domestic with him, so it had to be yesterday, or wait a week, which would clash with my other plans.

Oh well, the jury's out - Mummy is back from Italy now and when she calls me back I can quiz her about the pudding. When we spoke earlier she did volunteer that she only got an ingredient list and I had no less information than did she, but she has made it a few more times than me, and I would prefer that I don't make a royal fuck-up in front of 8 family members if at all possible. I think I might volunteer to make some bread sauce and cranberry sauce and see if she needs any stuffing made. They freeze well and it'll be one less thing for her to worry about if she hasn't made them already.

STOP PRESS: news just in - me pressing the mix in is probably not too detrimental... oh well, the proof, as they say, is in the pudding!

Saturday, 5 December 2009


So I'm aware my posting average has been down somewhat over the last week. I blame this confounded weather, which has had it's usual dark and dismal effect upon me and turned me into some kind of massively oversized dormouse, tortoise or other cute, hibernatory creature.

I swear to God, my sleep patterns are so messed up at the moment that even when I'm awake i'm not certain if up is down. I'm dreaming strange and vivid dreams, far too few of which are sexual in content and experiencing mood swings worse then even my hormone fuelled ravages once a month. I can't go on like this - fitful sleep one night, insomnia the next, eleven hours in a row followed by zombie-like inability to wake up on others. It's absurd.

Look at me now! I went to bed at nine pm, yet here I am at nearly one am, wide awake and grouchy that I'm the only one up... well, sort of, the cats are keeping me company thank god, but they fell asleep again instantly damn them.

Am I the only one who suffers this? I tired combating it with prolonged exposure to daylight and walked to the library to extend my book loans instead of calling them. The brisk exercise and the minimum of fifteen minutes outdoors should have been enough to kick my body back into the realms of normality I thought, but apparently not, because here I am. If there was anything decent on TV I'd put that on and knit as I watched, but there isn't, so I'm going to sit on my laptop and fume instead, waiting for the valerian and glass of milk to have the desired effect.

Bah. Humbug. And it isn;t even Christmas yet.

Thursday, 26 November 2009

Book Review: Divas Don't Knit

Divas Don't Knit, by Gil McNeil
Since moving to this new place I've rediscovered the joy of a library. Public libraries are nothing like the university library, but somehow over the last few years I had forgotten this. I had grown to visualise all libraries as dull, sterile places full of 'worthy' books on dry subjects, that would give me a headache just to carry home, never mind actually read.

No more! I have found shelves full of trashy chick lit and craft books. All my knitting books are from the local library and I have been racing through some truly great awful fiction (Georgette Heyer anyone?)

My fave so far was a bit of modern chick lit entitled 'Divas Don't Knit'. Jo becomes a widow on the same night her husband reveals he is leaving her. A new start seems not only desirable, but imperative so, packing up her knitting and her two small boys she high tails it to the small seaside town where her granny runs a yarn shop.

Taking over the shop gives her a new focus as she buys in new stock, redecorates the shop front and creates a workshop where she can host a regular stitch and bitch. Attracting new custom whilst maintaining her regular granny trade is a delicate balance and on top of all this she has a house to unpack, two small boys to get settled into school, a movie star demanding knitting lessons and a love interest hot on her tails.

I refuse to be shamefaced about my choice of comfort reading - I like 'em trashy with something of my own life recognisable in the mix if at all possible and this was perfect. Funny, sarcastic, warm and with a positive ending that wasn't a happy ever after, this is the perfect pick-up for those sofa days you have no real excuse for!

It is obvious that the author knows small children and has a keen eye for the comedy in the everyday. I absolutely guarantee that you will enjoy this book and get a lovely warm feeling from it, usually only induced by a sneaky bar of chocolate - and this is far better for the waistline! Even better - the storyline, whilst comforting, is not utterly predictable. I'm good at predicting storylines on TV and in books, but love it on the rare occasions I am surprised or confounded! Apparently the author is working on a sequel to this book, so I'll have to see if she's finished it yet and request it from the library. I do love a series :-)

ps- we've even picked up lines from the book which have infiltrated into out everyday dialogue. Bramble the cat is referred to as a Grumpy-potamus when he's in a strop. A perfect comedy insult, outstripping by a long way my baby sister's favourite insult as a toddler: "poo bum".

pps- Hurrah - Just found out that the sequel, Needles And Pearls, has been released - time to ring the library!

Official Knit Wit

So last night was my official debit as a Coventry Knit Wit. I was a little nervous at first, not because of meeting new people per say - I'm a sociable sort of person and I love chatting to people... anybody really, just ask Adam. It was more the - not knowing the conventions, you know? Like, do we just whip out our knitting and go at it (that would be a 'yes', incidentally) or do we have a chat first or what.

In the end it was very relaxed and easy. I wasn't sure whether I should have my pattern book out on the table or not, but that didn't matter, because I was on an easy bit where I had 18 rows to knit, no increase, decrease or general faffing about, so all I had to do was keep a tally and I was sorted.

The women were friendly and kind, they barely laughed at all when I asked stupid questions because, let's face it, I was far and away the most junior knitter there in terms of ability. Still, we don't get better unless we practice and I'm going to keep practicing - Adam wants a woolly hat for Christmas, so I'm going to have a crack at that as soon as I find a nice yarn, something blue and chunky I think. If that goes well I'm starting on woolly bed socks - nice and chunky, so they progress quickly and keep your feet snuggly when you're lounging around the house. If I do well at that, then it's boot socks for Daddy's birthday in February, something in sludge green would make him happy no doubt.

For now, however, I'm determined to get this current project finished - currently nicknamed the wobbly ghost project! :-D You'll find out more eventually ;-)

Tuesday, 24 November 2009

Winter Workshop

Now I know I should have written this up sooner, but usually I write my blog on the same day as an event, only my mum was staying with me, so it would have been a tad anti-social to sit there, typing away, while she twiddled her thumbs... plus, I don't get to see her so often that I want to waste a moment of her company when she is with me, so I put this off and then other things happened that I wanted to blog about, or just kept me so busy I didn't have time to write.

However, I have time now, I've even been organised enough to process the photos I took to accompany my account, so here we are: a fully fledged post!

Last Saturday my mum and I (she's the one in the turquoise sweater a few photos in) went along to a herb workshop run by Sarah Head, whose blog, Tales of a Kitchen Herbwife, is in the list of my fave blogs on the left somewhere. I started following Sarah's blog originally not just because it was fascinating and well written, with great photos to boot, but also because Sarah is, in comparison to many of the blogs I follow, local to me! If it hadn't been for the Christmas traffic we got stuck in it would only have been a 25 minute trip by car, which is nothing really.

Anyway, Sarah told me about her workshop on teas, syrups and cordials for winter when I sent her a message complimenting her on her blog. It really seemed too good an opportunity to miss, so I went along, and dragged my mum because a) I thought she might enjoy it and b) I wanted her to learn a little bit about the subject I had been exploring recently and I thought she might take it in more if someone other than her own offspring was giving her the information!

When we turned up (late, due to the aforementioned Christmas traffic into Birmingham – ugh) the other members of the class were already putting the finishing touches to a Syrup of Figs (more on that later).We were quickly absorbed into the group, the small numbers and cosy atmosphere engendered by Sarah's higgledy-piggledy kitchen creating a great environment for easy chatter. [Photo: Syrup of Figs being decanted into jam jars for us to take home]

The large wooden table was strewn with homemade wooden bowls laden with various leaves, nuts, berries and bark and a large pot on the stove was bubbling away. It was brilliant – like the magic of creating something homemade always is, but multiplied by the number of people and squared by the number of ingredients just laid out for you to rummage through.

Sarah encouraged us to touch and smell all the bits and bobs she had laid out. Some of may have even tasted one or two things, like the dates, a personal favourite of mine ;-)

[Photo: Sarah explains the properties of some of the ingredients in her cordials]
My mum and I were set to work creating a Rosehip and Sloe cordial, whilst around us a cough syrup and various teas came together. Whilst the cordial boiled away on the stove we all adjourned to the sitting room to try some of Sarah's wide range of cordials and syrups. One of the prettiest was the Greek Rose Syrup for weary travellers, a very pale translucent pink with dark pink petals floating through it. The photo below doesn't really do it justice and certainly doesn't even hint at the taste, which was like taking a deep inhalation of a richly scented rose and you know that hint of a taste you get at the back of your mouth when you sniff something strongly scented? Like an intense, sweet version of that. I had it diluted in water and the sensation was almost overwhelming, but very calming – wonderful!

Sarah encouraged us to try everything that took our fancy, try and analyse the flavours and research what it might be good for, using her collection of herbals. Once we had spent a little time at this, a selection of teas were brought in that everyone had made – spiced nettle latte, nut tea (my favourite!) and a flax seed and orange tea that tasted of Christmas and mulled wine without the alcohol. I think I'll have to write at more length in separate posts about each of the things we made, else this one will turn into a forbidding tome of a post that no-one will bother reading till the end. [Photo: taking notes with a glass of cordial in hand!]

Once the teas were consumed and Mummy and I had hurriedly composed the Rosehip and Sloe cordial, Sarah encouraging us to taste the cordial before and after adding the honey – very bitter!- we all sat down to a magnificent feast of a lunch. Sweet potato and nettle soup, with nettle salt to season, homemade wholemeal bread and a selection of cakes, biscuits and even fruit that everyone had brought to share. The lunch went on for longer than originally planned, simply because the conversation was flowing – food, books, herbalism, nature, health, law, cars, music and more food – no topic was left uncovered. It was immensely congenial and I am looking forward to Sarah's future workshops. The photo below shows Sarah surveying a table full of her creations as one of the 'students' takes notes.
I also took some photos of her astounding larder, filled from top to bottom, wall t wall with homemade goodies – honeys, tinctures, seeds, dried petals, cordials, syrups, you name it! I'm going to do a new post with those pictures in so you can enjoy them in all their glory. When I grow up I want a larder just like it!

Thursday, 19 November 2009

Composting for beginners

No, sorry, this isn't a 'how to' for those of you want to learn how to compost - Hubby and I are still trying to figure that out ourselves! No no, I just wanted to share a funky little web page I found recently - a way of composting even the most dodgy of items, like meat scraps and fish skins, that would allow pretty much all biodegradable waste to be put on the garden. It's something I'm going to be looking at pretty carefully, at any rate.

Bokashi - even better than a wormery, apparently. I'd love to hear from you if you've had any experience with this!

New Horizons

One of the problems of being a housewife w/o paid employment, children or a dog is that I very rarely get to see anyone other than my husband. Twice a week I volunteer with a young persons' organisation, oh sod it, I may as well name it, The Air Training Corps, which gets me out of the house and interacting with other people, as well as keeping my CV looking vaguely lively.

However, two evenings a week does not a social life make and, with no close friends in the locality, I spend an awful lot of time on my own. Now, I'm a creative person and a quick glance through my blog should be enough to show you how many ways I find to fill my time, once the basic chores are out of the way and the boys (my cats) are a wonderful comfort during the day, but just lately I have come to the conclusion that this is just not good enough and I need to find some way of meeting people with whom I am likely to have some things in common, with the ultimate goal of finding a few local girlfriends to spend time with.

Last week, whilst wandering round Coventry town centre on a sort of window-shopping dérive, I came across a yarn shop (at last - hallelujah!) and they told me to look up the Coventry Knit Wits, a local knitting group that, it says in a local news article, has women of all ages from 26 - 80. Well, I'm 26, so that age range suits me quite well... they meet every Wednesday, so I've sent an e-mail to ask what I need to bring other than myself and I'll hopefully be able to report back next Weds... esp as, very conveniently, that's the evening hubby spends with his dad. Yup. We live 'visiting' distance from the in-laws. Not necessarily a bad thing, but I wish it was my family who lived so near. I know it sounds pathetic at my age, but I miss my mum :-)

Wednesday, 18 November 2009

Tis the season to make soup - again!

I know I know - second soup today, but what can I say? I'm the head space for soup making, plus it means I can freeze some for early next week... and it's great for using up a few random veggies... So -

Spicy Sweet Potato Soup

2 sweet potatoes, peeled and chopped
1 small onion, chopped
1 clove garlic
2 cm fresh ginger, chopped or shaved
1 tsp dried red chillies (adjust to suit tastes)
2 pints stock (chicken or veg)
1/2 tsp cumin seeds
1/2 3 or 4 coriander seeds
4 Tbsp double cream


Fry onion and garlic till soft, add the sweet potato and fry for 5 mins, then add the chillies, ginger, coriander, cumin, stock and seasoning. Boil for 10 to 15 mins, till the potato is tender, then blend till smooth.

Add the cream, adjust the seasoning, sprinkle with chopped parsley and serve :-D

Tis the season to make soup

So the weather has turned cold and, almost constantly, grey. That's right, November is here and it can be a dreary time for all of us. One of the few consolations is the food. Rich, hearty soups and stews, with meaty tastes and bold flavours that nourish and comfort you when the view outside the window is less than appealing.

In this spirit I decided to have a crack at making a mushroom soup, packed full of immune supporting shitake mushrooms and tasty herbs. As usual when I'm making soup I had a look at a few recipes, then cut my coat to fit my cloth and work a new recipe of my own around the ingredients I happen to have. As such, the recipe I'm about to give you is not set in stone, so feel free to play around with it. I do wonder whether a few toasted walnuts would make a nice topping to it, or even a bit of mild grated cheese? I'm going to sprinkle with parsley and serve with homemade wholemeal lunatic bread (full of nuts). Delish. Unfortunately hubby wanted more soups because he sees them as a good, low fat, high nutrient dinner, but I kind of missed the point and added more than 1/2 a cup of cream (my hand shook and a whole load more than intended splurged out - whoops!) Oh well, I'll make him some healthy soup, too, for tomorrow :-)


Milla's Mushroom Soup


1 large punnet mushrooms (I used Sainsbury's Basics range, but the chestnut mushrooms might add a nice nutty taste)
small handful dried shitake mushrooms
2 sprigs lemon thyme, chopped
small sprig rosemary, chopped
½ tsp grated nutmeg
½ pt chicken stock
cup warm water
2 medium onions
2 cloves garlic
½ cup double cream
Lemon juice


Soak the shitake mushrooms in the warm water for at least 20 mins. Whilst they're soaking, chop and fry the garlic and onions, then clean, chop and fry the fresh mushrooms. When they start to release water add the soaked mushrooms and strain in the mushroom stock. When this has reduced by half add the chicken stock, herbs and seasoning and allow to simmer for at least ½ hour, or until all mushrooms are softened.

Liquidise to a rough consistency, return half to the pan and blend the remainder till smooth, then return to pan, add ½ cup double cream and a good squeeze of lemon. Taste and adjust lemon and seasoning.

Sunday, 15 November 2009

Never Too Late

So here I was thinking that all the hedgerows were bare by now, all wild produce the province of birds and beasties, but I'm never afraid to admit when I'm wrong and, in this case, I most certainly was. Hubby and I went for a little walk in the countryside, since the weather was about as perfect as it can get in November - cold and clear with blue skies and sunshine. Wandering along down a narrow lane we came across bushes bare of all but a few withered, yellow leaves and clusters of perfect, cloudy blue berries: sloes.

Hurrah! Enough for a second bottle of sloe gin, the first of which has already infused to a deep, beautiful pink in our drinks cupboard, with some left to make spiced sloe and rosehip cordial. Just call me the hedgerow Queen! ;-)

Coming soon: photos and an account of my Saturday spent at Sarah's, learning more about hedgecraft and herbs.

Thursday, 12 November 2009


So I don't know if I've moaned enough about the horrible lurgy I've been suffering from to make you properly sorry for me, but I'm finally feeling like I'm on the mend at last, despite the fact I'm still coughing my guts up... Anyway, was sitting having breakfast this morning when an unexpected wave of melancholy washed over me, most peculiar, I couldn't understand why. Only one thing for it though, hot shower and loud pop music - I'm not having any of that feeling sorry for myself nonsense. It's sunny outside, I feel better enough to go out by myself - Party time!

"Heaven must be missing an angel - everybody sing along now!"

Wednesday, 11 November 2009


So I don't remember if I had a whinge here about the fact that my sewing machine was broken. I probably did, it was such a disappointment to me, when I'd been waiting so long to have the room to use it. Anyway, the in-laws popped over for a cup of tea the other day and F-i-L, who's handy, heard me telling M-i-L about the machine and offered to take a squint at it.

I'm still not entirely certain what was wrong with it, but long story short: he fixed it - huzzah! The light works and everything! Am so so excited, planning all sorts of stuff to sew with it, including at least one more apron in the same style as before (post on that to follow soon), but a different colour and maybe a couple of full-body ones. Ooh - I'll have to get my mum to bring up the apple print plasticised fabric with her when she comes to visit on Friday!

Now, to plan my Christmas present projects!

Friday, 6 November 2009

Soap Making: The long awaited picture essay!

400ml rain water
158g caustic soda
400g coconut oil
400g olive oil
300g rice bran oil

First Things first - I needed some moulds to put my soap in once it was made. Not wanting to spend a fortune on fancy moulds until I'd had a taster of the results I decided to construct my own out of old juice cartons. I cut one side off the carton and removed the stupid plastic pouring spout that (more often than not) sends a torrent of juice cascading down over your hand, the glass and the surface the glass is standing on. Once this was done I lined the carton with baking paper, then got to work on the rest of the cartons.Once this was done we carefully measured out all the various ingredients and added the caustic soda to the rain water in a large, plastic washing-up bowl on the table outside, so neither of us would be overcome with fumes. The cats had been shut into the living room previously, so they wouldn't stick their curious little noses into anything, not that that stopped two pathetic faces watching us out of the window occasionally punctuated by a piteous mewl.Having mixed all the oils together I put the bowl of oils into a sinkful of hot water to dissolve the hard oils and bring the temperature up to between 40 and 50 degrees - in parity with the lye water which had heated itself up and was cooling itself off on the table outside.Once the oils had all melted we poured the lye water into them and I mixed them together using a stick blender - do admire the homemade apron modelled by me in the photo showing this! The soap reached trace quickly, looking very similar to Birds' Custard, though I wasn;t tempted to try it as it was still caustic at this point!Note the thick gloopiness of the mix (and the protective rubber gloves) as I carefully direct it into my hi-tech juice carton mould!This is the soap-making paraphernalia left outside whilst we dealt with covering up the soaps upstairs in the guest room.
24 hours later: the bars of soap, now turned out of their moulds look a little rough and ready... Very Homemade...
I chopped the blocks of soap up into bars, trimmed off the rough patches and stamped the tops with a rubber stamp I'd bought for sale a few days before. This was only partially successful - perhaps I should chop the soap up a bit sooner so it's softer in the middle and the stamp 'takes' better...
Ta Dah! The results of our labours! All my beautiful bars of soap. This excludes the shampoo bottle mould full of soap which refuses to release its bounty. I'm thinking of melting it down with all the trimmings (in the carton on the left, below) and adding some scent, maybe a bit of extra coconut oil for superfatting and rebatching it into small bars for babies' or face soaps.

Thursday, 5 November 2009

Remember Remember...

Remember, remember the Fifth of November,
The Gunpowder Treason and Plot,
I know of no reason
Why the Gunpowder Treason
Should ever be forgot.
Guy Fawkes, Guy Fawkes, t'was his intent
To blow up the King and Parli'ment.
Three-score barrels of powder below
To prove old England's overthrow;
By God's providence he was catch'd
With a dark lantern and burning match.
Holloa boys, holloa boys, let the bells ring.
Holloa boys, holloa boys, God save the King!

Yes, it's that time of year again when us strange English gather in a muddy field, usually in the rain, to enjoy overpriced junk food commodities served from a dubious vending van whilst watching with apparent enjoyment a 5 minute fireworks display and uttering "Oohs" and "Aahs" in massive unison, all to commemorate an attempt on the government some five hundred years ago.
Now don't get me wrong, I actually love fireworks and Guy Fawke's Night and every year until this one would find me out on that selfsame muddy field. The only reason I'm not going this year is because I'm still coughing my lungs up and hubby is still a bit wobbly from his gastroenteritis: neither of us in a fit state for the long walk, even longer time standing still and long return walk afterward that a big fireworks event entails.

Instead, for the first time since we've been together, we'll be at home, perhaps watching fireworks through the windows, or possibly ignoring it all together. This, however, is not the focus of my blog today. Instead I want to spare a brief moment to think about the cruelty some people inflict on animals. I know, I know, a bit of a non sequitur, but stay with me here.

Years ago my mum worked with some people who lived in a very affluent area on the outskirts of London. They had a sweet cat who was very much loved and all the neighbours looked out for each other. One day the cat didn't come in for his dinner, neither did he appear by bedtime. By morning the enxt day they were frantic, calling the neighbours, the vets, putting up posters - anything they could think of.

Later that day they had a call from a local vet. After confirming that they owned a cat, and that it was currently missing, he gently broke the bad news to them. Their cat had been found in a very bad state after a group of youths had captured him and affixed a number of rockets to his tail using Gaffa Tape. The poor cat had, in desperation, tried to remove the lit fireworks and had been so badly injured on his face as well as his tail that the vet had had to decide on the kindest route and put him down.

To this day I dislike seeing fireworks in the hands of anyone but official events organisers and, when one went off erroneously behind our garden earlier I freaked out and called the cats in. They're not fond of the noises, though they bear them with more equanimity than my mum's rescue cats ever did, but I want them inside the house if people are going to let off fireworks nearby.

Too protective? Maybe, but I couldn't bear for my little boys to suffer the torture that that other poor cat went through. No matter how kind most of this nation is towards animals, there are a few people who are downright sadistic.

Tuesday, 3 November 2009

Sick Days

Eurk - both hubby and I have been struck down by lurgies. First he got a bad cold, so I was running round after him, then I caught the cold, so he did a bit of running around after me and now he's got some stomach bug or gastroenteritis and I'm still coughing like a consumptive in a smoke house, so we're a bit of a pathetic pair at the moment.

On the plus side I managed to get two pills down each of the cats with no casualties sustained on either side, so someone must be on my side!

Whilst dropping hubby off at the doctors' for a check up I wandered into the library and got out a few really trashy books to read while I'm ill. One of them is a Georgette Heyer, another one is called 'Divas Don't Knit' -- I'm going to try and expand my brain while this cold runs its course ;-)

Saturday, 31 October 2009


So... I've been absent for a few days. Hubby and I've been staying with my parents near London, taking advantage of a wedding present we were given for a lunch river cruise on the Thames and a trip on the London Eye. Whilst I do have access to the internet at theirs, I've been trying really hard to prioritise my real life connections over my virtual ones, and part of that is spending time with family first and foremost, and updating my blog and Facebook second!

I'm gonna give you a bullet point update of the things I've been up to of late, then I can fill you in in more detail over the next few days.
-Made birthday cake and present for one of my best friends
-Did a pregnancy photo shoot of one of my other best friends
-Made soap (yes, I still haven't told you about that, have I?)
-Made Sloe Gin
-Did some tailoring for my sister
-sent off two job applications and a bunch of CVs
-Went on the aforementioned London trip

See? Told you I'd been busy!

I can tell you about the tailoring now, since it's a simple story and I forgot to take any photos to go with it. My sis started her first job on the Monday just gone and, in anticipation of this, bought herself an entire new wardrobe. Insane amounts of clothing. Anyway, due to the family trait of short arms and legs, which we both inherited, two of the pairs of trousers she'd bought were too long, even though she wears 4 inch heels and is only a UK size 6 anyway.

As well as this she had a suit jacket with really cheap, plasticky looking buttons on it. For the small remuneration of £10 I replaced the buttons with some amazing Art Deco style pewter effect ones out of my mum's button box and took up both pairs of trousers. This benefitted both of us, because she can't/won't sew and a tailor would charge her a fortune for the same services.

Unfortunately the task was rather more onerous that it needed to be, since I have no overlocker and it took forever to get the tension right for the zig-zag stitch on my mum's Singer. Plus both pairs of trousers were slightly stretch, prone to fraying and my sister is very particular about her clothes - scary job! Still, I think I did an OK job, using two lines of zig-zag stitch instead of overlocking, then doing a simple overhand whip-stitch to hem it. I could have done what I generally do when I take up a hem and turned it over twice before whip-stitching, but that can create a bit of a lumpy hem and since these were work clothes I needed them to look as smart as possible. I wish I had taken pictures, but even more I wish that I had an overlocker... Though a working sewing machine of my own would be a good start!

Friday, 23 October 2009

Technology Fail

So... I'm making this cute little skirt apron for my friend's birthday. It's bright scarlet cotton, lovely and crisp, all gathered with a deep waistband - very '50s. It should have taken me just a couple of hours to knock up, but unbeknownst to me, my sewing machine (which I have been waiting so eagerly to use) is dead and lifeless.

I was so excited about having my own sewing machine and, after the teeniness of our little flat, the space to use it, but it was not to be. My darling husband performed resusitative surgery on it, but it was not to be. A new fuse would not fix it. It may be the motor. Boo :-(

So I've been hand stitching the whole thing - good job I'm a neat and speedy sewer. It's nearly all finished now - thank God, but I may have to scale back my plans for decoration, unfortunately. I was going to applique beautiful flowers and letters on the front saying 'Domestic Goddess'... Not sure what to do now, but I'll think of something - I'm gonna have to make myself one too in white or pale yellow - it's so cute! I'm also going to use the stiff red cotton to make myself one of those lovely '50s dresses - stunning or what?

Photos to follow!

Thursday, 22 October 2009

Fabric Shopping

Just had a great idea for some pressies for a couple of my girlfriends, so going to buy some fabric so I can make them up. Left it a wee bit late for one of them, as it's her b-day on Saturday and I'm going to be seeing her then, but oh well! I can get it done - what with the wonders of modern technology (sewing machine) and a fast-approaching deadline. Nothing is more motivational!

Wednesday, 21 October 2009

Pretty Pattern Madness!

So I went a little crazy today. My 'friend' (who shall remain nameless) sent me a link to the most beautiful midnight blue satin evening dress, 1950s style, which she knows I adore. This dress was a piffling £150 -- a sum which makes me blanch slightly to think of spending at the moment, when hubby and I are teetering so precariously on the edge of solvency after a few months of, frankly, insolvency.

Anyway, I mentioned this to the lovely ladies at the D2E forum, hoping one of them would be able to turn up a lovely pattern or something. Well, they didn't as such, but their suggestions got me Googling and I rediscovered a site I had browsed obsessively a long while back - the marvellous Sewing World (don't visit that link unless you want to have a massive attack of the 'I wants'). They stock all the usual pattern makers, including the divine Vintage Vogue range: a reprinted selection of the original, stunning 1940s and '50s dresses, hats and coats patterns that are so chic and feminine and classic that I basically wanted them all, but managed to talk myself down to four...

That's right. I bought four dress patterns (see one of them below). Now, they weren't hugely costly, but they weren't exactly bargain basement either, this is Vogue we're talking about here. However. I reckon I just have to make one evening dress and I'll have made a saving. Even a really beautiful satin in the right amounts for a 1950s cocktail dress will still come to less than £150, right - unless I get some very rare silk and I don't think that's going to happen on my rusty and long-awaited return to dressmaking. Anyway - one evening dress and I'll have definitely broken even, so any dress I make from the patterns after that will be the cost of fabric only - marvellous! Plus a few cotton day dresses will give me more scraps for patchwork.

As the final cherry on the cake I was discussing toiles (or muslins) with Barb from the D2E forum and she suggested that one make up the toile from a cheap, pretty printed cotton, then if it goes wrong you still won;t be very out of pocket and can probably fix it fairly easily, but if it (hopefully) goes right then you have a lovely day dress to wear and can make your evening dress in the happy knowledge that you test drove the pattern already.

Even more cleverly Barb suggested making the toile out of a lightweight lining satin, so the dress is fully lined. Tack that in with a few judicious slip stitches and it'll mean that (unless God forbid you get something down the front of the dress) you only need remove and wash the lining, rather than having to worry about the whole frock being washed.

I'm so excited about those patterns and I can't wait for them to arrive! I just hope they don;t go AWOL in the postal strike we're being threatened with.

Now I know what's next on my wish list... A beautiful, multi-tiered net petticoat... (unless there's a pattern for that, too!)

Tuesday, 20 October 2009

Confessions of a Naughty Housewife

No, you filthy minded lot, not those kind of confessions and not that kind of naughty. Honestly, what's wrong with you?

No, the kind of confessions I mean are the sort where you spend all day at home alone, supposedly taking tender loving care of home, hearth and husband - a very Nazi kind of ideal, you know - Kinder, Kuche, Kirche. Anyway, instead of industriously scrubbing away at the kitchen floor, or whatever other fanciful notion he has of how you spend your time, you actually went to the library, found a copy of your favourite trashy author's new book and whiled away the afternoon on the sofa with the book, a duvet, both the warm and snuggly cats and, um, well, six packets of Maltesers (albeit mini ones). Dear God, I hope my husband doesn't read this.

Well days like this are fairly rare, not more than once a week, I swear ;-) But the last thing you can do is let hubby come home and find you on the sofa, the place a tip and no dinner ready for his hungry working-all-day belly. So just about the time he's due back you jump to your feet and think "well, I'd better at least get supper going." You rush into the kitchen, hasten some potatoes into the oven or whatever and then realise the state of things.

OK, if you just empty the cold greasy water out of the sink and refill it with all the dirty things and hot soapy water then the counter won;t be fillwed with stuff and it'll look like you've done something. Since you're doing that you may as well put all the clean things away - the clear space will make it look really under way and efficient. Hrm, now you've put the clean stuff away you may as well actually wash up the stuff in the sink -- there! That's better. No wipe the counter down and put the ketchup away. Cool, the kitchen looks well kept now. Luckily you made the bed when you got dressed, but the sitting room is a dump - sewing stuff everywhere, the sofa throw dishevelled thanks to you and the cats and cushions everywhere. Two minutes work and the room looks very different. Amazing how a heap of sewing stuff looks so much better than a scattered mess...

So there you have it -- my secret to domesticity. Run around and do all the obvious, visible stuff in the half hour before he gets home, then it'll look like you were slaving all day -- but don;t let him catch you doing anything big! Fine if you're stirring a big pot of food, or maybe hanging out the washing or doing a little light ironing, but do not get caught up to your armpits in three days' worth of washing up or he'll know that you've just left it all to the last minute and won't be impressed at all.

On the other hand you do want him to know you're constantly striving for an orderly house, so try and find some small thing he can catch you in the middle of!

And do remember - since you're in the position of being a kept woman there's nothing wrong with having a lazy day to relax, as long as he's not having to take up the slack when he gets home then why not? He'd almost definitely do the same thing if he was in the lucky position to be able to stay at home all day without the pressure of work.

Monday, 19 October 2009

The Philosophy of 'Homemade'

Once upon a time, many moons ago, my mum and I went on a jaunt into the countryside. We drove around picturesque countryside and villages, eventually stopping to explore one more fully. It was a charming place, filled with tumbledown cottages, leaning villas and a heavy stone church.

Wandering through a back passage into a little courtyard we happened upon a farm produce type shop, selling local honey and jams, some cuts of meat and, taking up an entire counter, "Homemade Cakes".

I give it inverted commas, because each cake was labelled, very clearly, with the handwritten moniker of "Homemade" and boy, didn't they look it. It was as if someone had made the perfect cake, then tipped it sidewards to make the whole thing lean and the icing drip, then pushed a thumb into it in a couple of judicious spots. You'd have no trouble passing this off as one you'd made yourself, believe me, though I'm sure they still tasted delicious.

Ever since then my darling mum and I have used "homemade" (with unspoken, yet clearly delineated inverted commas around it) to gently mock and denigrate any item we've produced which is, shall we say, less than restaurant standard!

I tell you this, because it is something I shall refer to in the future and is not always entirely complimentary, especially when directed towards myself. It's not cruel, though, just a gentle tease, because homemade, whether "homemade" or professional looking, is always better and you should know that I truly believe that. Besides, the unique and individual appearance of "homemade" items give them a charm all of their own... or so I like to think ;-)

Sunday, 18 October 2009


Hubby is free today and has promised his assistance with the soapmaking - bless him. Seems like I might actually get it done today!

More later!

Friday, 16 October 2009


So I was all set to make my soap yesterday, but the weather wasn't having any of it. Making up the lye water releases a lot of toxic fumes and, due to the size of my little galley kitchen, I needed to do this step outside, but it rained constantly all day.

OK, fine, I used it as an opportunity to collect rain water to use in the soapmaking and felt very proud of myself for seizing the day etc and getting on with the spicy chinese chicken soup I've been meaning to make.

Well today I woke up, bright and perky, the sun was shining, I had everything i needed, the moulds are all ready - perfect! Today I have a crack at it, for definite... or not. The brand new digital scales that I bought two days ago will not work, not for love nor money. Hubby put new batteries in it for me last night and it worked just fine, but this morning I press the 'on' button and nothing. I could scream with frsutration. I could have done it w/o the stick blender, but not w/o the digital scales as, according to this website, weights must be very accurate.

Oh well, guess I'll finish the soup, do some knitting and alter the dress that could look better with some minor modifications. Still useful, just not what I had planned.

Tuesday, 13 October 2009

Patchwork Dilemma

I was rootling through a basket my mum dug out for me of fabric scraps, sewing equipment and suchlike and in it was a project I started in about October 2003, I guess this is the time of year when my mind turns to patchwork...

Anyway, this project consists of 20 large patches made from 6 hexagons of a flowery fabric with a centre hexagon of yellow cotton - each one resembling a large flower. Some of these 'flowers' have white hexagon patches surrounding them, indicating how I was intending to join the 20 into a whole. Anyway, I laid them out on the floor in front of me and had a good look.

Firstly, I don't think I have enough patches for the pattern to look balanced. At the moment it runs 2 patches, 3 patches, 2 patches, 3 patches (going from right to left in the piccie above), so I'm either going to need another 2 or another 3 'flowers' depending whether I add them to the 'top' or the 'bottom'. Secondly I'm not sure if the length and width are large enough for this to work on a double bed, which is what I had originally intended it for I believe. Finally, and most damning of all, sweet and cottagey as the delicate floral prints are, they don't really tone in with the way I've decorated the house, which is plain, minimal, with blocks of solid colour... more trendy, basically, than this sweet, old-fashioned design of mine from 6 years ago. So here's the question - what do I do with it now?

- Finish it as a double and be damned, perhaps my tastes will change, or we'll move house and it'll fit in better
- Finish it as a single and keep it for if I have a little girl in the future
- Turn it into a number of cushions, aprons, whatevers and gift them to people, hoping I can find people with similar tastes. If I do this I'll need more suggestions for the 'whatevers'.
- Finish it and gift it to someone as a wedding present... I've actually just thought of a friend who might like it... although I'm not certain whether they would and they're not actually engaged, so...

Answers on a postcard please...

Thursday, 8 October 2009

Note To Self

I figure it'd be harder to lose notes to myself if I leave them here, rather than scribbling them on a scrap of paper, so here it is.
Cheap, unusual yarn.

One can also unpick sweaters bought from charity shops, as long as you can find something suitable...

Tuesday, 6 October 2009

Almost forgot...

I ordered those glass bottles, but when they arrived one of them had smashed and broken and powdered glass was inside all the other bottles as well as sprinkledliberally over the carpet and table. I contacted Baldwins to let me know and they got back to me immediately, offering to replace the broken bottle and send a voucher for the inconvenience. Well, it was an inconvenience, but there's only so much you can do to protect glass and they've dealt with the matter promptly, politely and efficiently, so I would have no hesitation in recommending them to others. besides, theirs was the best price I could find. Definitely worth a look if you need supplies of any kind in the herbal/homemade cosmetics and containers way, though their speciality appears to be natural remedies, essential oils and other natural products.

Foraging from Surrey...

Am staying with the parents down in sunny (hah!) Surrey at the moment and couldn't resist the urge to take a bag or two along on the dog walk this afternoon. Well what do you know? Despitethe more temperate nature of the Thames Valley, there were still rosehips *and* blackberries to be had. Even weirder a number of the rosehips were this strange purple-black colour. According to this Danish website these colour hips are just as edible as the scarlet sort and belong to the Burnet or Scotch rose. Well knock me down with a feather - I was having some of those, so I collected all that were still good and made a mental note to try again next year. I wonder what I should amke from my black rose hips?

In other news - one of the other regular dog walkers saw me foraging and pointed out some sloes I'd missed and a hazel/cob nut tree that I was too late for, but might consider checking out next year. She had a good point, perhaps the later season of the Midlands might produce some cob nuts or chestnuts when I go back? She also offered me a glut of crab apples she has at the moment - excellent! My jelly is so delicious I'd love to make some more - what a success. Apparently she has some Medlars in her garden, too. Not quite ripe, yet, but mine when they are - marvellous. I've ehard of these but am not quite sure what to do with them. I have a suspicious they're a quince like fruit, so maybe a jelly or cheese from them?

Finally, as I was leaving the rec, I spotted a few small, orange coloured fruit that looked edible and Medlar-Lady helped me identify them as small, but tasty plums. If I pop back tomorrow when I have a bit more time then I could gather up a few of those and make a delicious plum jam - nothing could be nicer!


Friday, 2 October 2009

Note to Self

Going away this weekend, then will be away for a few more days visiting my parents, so I boiled up the rosehips and am freezing the juice to make syrup from when I get back. 1 1/2 pints of rosehip juice.

The second straining of crab apple juice got me 3/4 pint.

Will do stuff with them next week!

Thursday, 1 October 2009

Self is not quite sufficient enough... yet

I tried my hardest to collect all the jars and bottles myself for the various potions I'm concocting, but there's only so much you can do in a month and I had a massive clearout when we moved house at the end of August...

Next year I'll do better, because I'll have a whole year to stock up and beg/borrow/steal glass jars and bottles, but for the time being I had to bite the bullet and buy a whole lot of small glass bottles to put my syrups and cordials in.

It wasn't cheap, the bottles worked out at 55p each with postage and packing included, but I'm going to try and sell half of them on, who needs 84 150ml bottles, huh?

Anyone need 42 150ml glass bottles?

Wednesday, 30 September 2009

Syrup, Jelly and a whole bunch of needles

So today was a busy day. I would tell it chronologically, but just because it's *chrono*logical, doesn't make it logical to tell, because I did a bit, did something else, went back to the first thing etc. This sounds disorganised, but it was the most logical order to actually *do* it, because I had to wait for things to get ready or get hold of stuff, so I'll miss out the bit where I went to the supermarket to buy the sugar for my preserves and tried to get hold of some glass bottles. So...

Elderberry Syrup

-A whole load of elderberries
-Some water
-Granulated Sugar
-Rind and juice of 1 lemon

First I dunked the elderberries in a deep pot of water. Any bugs and stuff rinsed off, then I picked over the berries discarding any old ones, but especially getting rid of any green or red tinged ones. If they're unripe then they contain cyanide and are totally poisonous. They need to be deep, dark purple - almost black.

Once this was done I used the tines of a dinner fork like a comb to remove the berries from the stems - excellent tip I found on a website somewhere. Made the whole thing very speedy.
I dumped the berries in a saucepan with enough water to cover them and the juice and rind of the lemon. Start boiling.

When the berries were nice and soft I mashed them up with a potato masher and put them through a sieve, using the back of a spoon to squish the juice out.

I poured the juice into a measuring jug to see how much sugar to add. It's a lb of sugar per pint of juice, so for 3/4 pt I needed to add 12oz sugar.

I put the juice and sugar into a saucepan, added the cloves (10 per pint, so I put in 7) and boiled up until the sugar had dissolved, then boiled a bit longer till the liquid had thickened a bit and coated the back of the spoon when I lifted it out. I poured the syrup into small sterilised glass bottles using a funnel (sorry, no pictures - bit too tricky as I needed an extra hand just to do the pouring, never mind take a pic!)I screwed on the lids and left the bottles to cool. Here's my first ever bottle of syrup! Apparently a Tbsp in a mug of hot water is the way to drink it. I apologise to hubby who got given a drink of rather more powerful proportions than this!
Crab Apple Jelly

-4lbs crab apples
-2 pts water
-juice of 1 lemon
-Granulated sugar
-4 cloves

Cut away any bruised bits of the crab apples, chop into quarters and put in a pan with the water, cloves and lemon juice. Cover and boil up at a low simmer until the crab apples are soft and pulpy. Strain into a clean bowl overnight (see two posts previous to witness my clever straining contraption). Do not squeeze or it'll get cloudy and gross looking.

If you need to you can chill the juice at this point for a day or two, or you can freeze it until you're ready for it. Be warned - the juice is very very bitter and sour at this point, so don't taste it - just enjoy the delicious appley aroma! Don't worry if the juice looks cloudy, it clears up when you heat it.

Now to the jellifying! Add in the sugar -- same again, 1lb sugar for every pint of juice. For the 1 1/2 pts I got, I added 1 1/2lb sugar. Let the sugar dissolve on a low heat, then bring up to a good rolling boil. The important thing is to skim the scum off the top thoroughly as you go. Unlike with soup this is quite easy, because the scum holds together. According to Katie Stewart one must be thorough to ensure a clear, sparkling jelly!

Here's how much scum I got off before it really got boiling.Hold it at a rolling boil (use a decent heavy-bottomed pan to stop it burning. I used my enamel Le Creuset casserole in the absence of a 'proper' jam pan) for 10 to 15 minutes, then start testing for a set on a cold plate. When a skin forms and wrinkles you're ready to put the jelly in pots.
Make sure the pots are clean and warmed from the oven, boil the lids and dry them, then ladle the jelly liquid into a clean jug and pour into the pots. Unfortunately, because I didn't get as much juice as I had thought or hoped I would, I only got 3 and 3/4 small jars out of this batch, but boy am I proud of them! Mulled cranberry jelly next time I think, or apple and rosehip? Depends how many rosehips I gather. Anyway - admire the sparkling amber colour of my jellies...!
It tastes damn good too. Hubby and I had scum on toast as a snack! Tart and sweet and very appley. Yum.

I also went for a lovely walk earlier and, taking the advice of the very good friend who originally directed me to the Down To Earth blog which set me back on this path, I had a look in a charity shop for some knitting needles. I asked the nice old lady behind the counter and she got down this enormous bundle of needles and stitch markers from a shelf in the back.
"That'lll be a pound, chick."
"It's just not worth our time sorting through them all, so we sell them as they come to us."

So yes - I got this collection for one little pound - probably some old lady who died :-( Still, at least her needles will be put to use... only one problem - they're all in 'old money' as it were - needle sizes instead of mm measurements. Oh well, I'm sure I'll figure it out!

A successful day I'm sure you'll agree. Oh, and check this mega 5kg bag of sugar I bought!
It cost me £4.30 ish I think... I suppose I ought to work out how much each jar of jelly cost me to make... The jars and crab apples were free, ditto the water ;-) well, free-ish. Cloves were negligible and the lemon cost 65p for 4, so about 16p? So 4p per jar for the lemon and if anyone wants to do the maths for the sugar and let me know...

OK, OK. 24oz = .68kg.

If 5000g of sugar cost 430pence then 100g = 8.6p then
680g = 59p

and for almost 4 pots that's 59 divided by 4 = 15p

So 19p per pot? Hurrah! 1 nil for cheap homemade vs. commercial!

Am I organised or over-stockpiling?

I was looking through my cupboards to figure out which ingredient I will need to buy to make the Christmas pudding. I am so well stocked in dried baking goods that all I have to buy is the chopped mixed peel - everything else I have!
Brandy, carrots, nutmeg, raisins, currants, sultanas, suet - the lot!
Oh well, saves me money now...

Crab Apple Jelly, Phase Two

OK, So today is Phase Two of the crab apple jelly making. The pulp has been straining through the bag all night and I have to say, I'm a little disappointed in the amount of juice I've managed to collect, plus it seems to be a bit cloudy, which I don't understand, because I didn't touch it once, let alone squeeze the bag as all the recipes instructed me not to.

Still, I've done the work, I've got some juice, I'm going to make jelly from what I've got and try and figure out what's gone wrong, because there is no way that 1 1/2 pints of juice will make the promised 5lbs of jelly.

Perhaps I didn;t cook the fruit enough. It said soft and pulpy, but perhaps it needed to be actual mush. Also, even though the juice has made the whole house smell deliciously sweet and appley it tastes as sour and bitter as aloes - I really hope that adding the sugar makes the difference...
Would it be worth adding more water and boiling up the pulp again to see if more juice can be made?

Tuesday, 29 September 2009

Exciting Day!

So I made my first foray into jelly making today - very exciting, especially as I've only ever made jams with my mum and we never ventured into the wonderful world of jellies, so doing this on my own was... well, scary, but I'm looking forward to seeing the results.

Right now the pulp is in a jelly bag straining through into a large bowl and tomorrow - the jellifying!

I used the recipe from this amazing cook book that my mum always used for *everything* - The Times Cookery Book by Katie Stewart. When I first moved in with my (now) husband I was determined: I needed that book. It wasn't in print any more, so I went to a second hand book shop and asked them about it. Apparently it was very in demand and they didn;t have any copies available, so they took my number and said they'd call me back. A year later they finally did and for only £30 (THIRTY WHOLE POUNDS) a copy was mine! Hurrah! It tells you everything, from roasts to pies, jams to tarts, puddings to bread - essential.

In other news - hubby and I had our usual strange effect on the natural world and got chosen as rescuers for an animal in trouble. A wee hedgehog was sitting right in the middle of our front lawn today. Every time there was a loud noise it curled in a ball, so we had to do something. Hubby gave it some cat food and put it in a box while I called four different people (whose names I found on a website) to see if there was someone in our area who could take him in. Eventually I contacted Sonya, five minutes away, who was happy to have the little chap. This isn't the first time some lost or broken animal in distress has landed on our doorstep (no mean feat considering that up until 2 months ago we lived up three flights of stairs!). I wonder why the universe keeps choosing us,m it can;t just be coincidence...

Photos below are of my ingenious jelly-straining apparatus (on a table so the cats are less likely to stick their noses in) and a close-up of the apple pulp. The photo on the right is of Sonic the hedgehog (yes, hubby chose the name).