Saturday, 31 December 2011

New Year's Resolutions

I was really surprised to read in the Daily Telegraph that only 4 in 10 of us make New Year's Resolutions. I can't imagine a year without a resolution or target, but then I like that kind of little ritual.

It is always so tempting though, to take on far too much. In the run up to the stroke of midnight, it can be tempting to decide to change the world, or at least our own little corner of it. But I think it is wise not to take on too much, so you can really enjoy your resolutions or targets.

So this year, I am going to revive something I did a year or so ago, which was to keep a list of all the books that I read over the year, making particular note of those that I borrow from the library, and a running total of how much those books would have cost were I to have bought them.

I may make others, for the evening is as of yet still young. Perhaps another should be to continue to blog often, as I have really enjoyed blogging more this year. Whatever you are resolving, good luck!


Happy New Year

I love New Year's Eve, and even more, New Year's Day. I suspect it appeals to the same thing inside me that loves a new notebook or pen, the feeling of a fresh start, and so much potential. So many plans as yet unmade, so many days unlived, full of joy to come.

Later this evening we are off to spend the evening in the company of some dear friends. I know I have blogged before about our New Year's Eve dinner, but for anyone who is new since last year, we arrive for 9:00pm and sit down to dinner, and most of us bring a dish or two in contribution, although to be honest, our hosts cater so deliciously and comprehensively, they contributions are brought in the spirit of the evening rather than of necessity!

As it gets towards midnight, we each play our song of the year. This year, my song is going to be 'Good Girl' from the film Burlesque, as it is the first song we learned a routine to in my dance class, and the opening bars make me think of froth, frills, feathers, sparkles and happiness!

Then we each go round the table and talk about the one thing we have learnt this year, and it can be as serious or light hearted as you choose. I am torn this year, whether to speak from the heart about how I have learnt how much I need my friends and family, or whether to go for something a little more in keeping with the festivities.

We compose our predictions for the coming year, and seal them in an envelope that we all sign. Then we open last years, and see how many come true. Finally, at midnight, we all drink a glass of champagne and sing Auld Lang Syne.

The morning brings our traditional walk to town to fill our lungs with the New Years air, and to bring home the morning papers. By the afternoon, we will be with other friends, sharing lunch.

Sharing with friends and family, that is what New Year is all about for me. I consider myself very fortunate indeed to have this place full of friends, too. So I want to share with you all my sincerest wishes that you may have a very happy new year.

Thank you for being here for me,


Tuesday, 27 December 2011

A Call From The Bank

We collected our tickets for the new Sherlock Holmes film this morning, and queued up to buy a coffee to take in with us. When I put my pincode into the machine, it came up declined. We tried again, and it was declined again. I was really stressed as I really didnt want to sit through a film wondering why my card wouldn't work. It was only thirty seconds or so, but so many thoughts went through my mind, none of which were good.

That moment, my phone rang, and it was an automatic call from my bank to say that they were putting me through to the fraud department. I sent Carl into the film while I talked to the bank, and was nearly in tears as they told me that there were around £2000 of suspicious transactions on my account. They could easily see what they were - they were all in different geographical locations to me, all in shops I don't usually use, and all transactions had been completed by swiping and signing rather than chipping and pinning.

The good news is that the bank will refund me the money, the bad news is that I have had to cancel the card and am without it until they can send me a new one. Happily our joint account is ok and so is Carl's, but it is still an inconvenience. What the bank can't do is sort out how violated it has made me feel. They said that there were some purchases that they tried to make that had been declined, and some that were still going to come out of my account before they would be refunded. I realised that even as I had stood there confused asking the Costa Coffee lady why my card had been refused, so probably had the person who had cloned my card. And worse, one of the people to whom I had handed my card to pay for something had purposefully stolen my details.

I really don't understand how someone could get their hair cut and pay for it with a stolen card. Surely every time someone complemented you on your hair, you would just feel guilty for knowing it was paid for with stolen money?

But as my Mum said to me, those are just a different kind of person who would not think twice about it. Sad but true. Just be so glad that we are not that kind of person.

I would say keep your card safe, check the atm for suspicious devices, be careful when you shop online....but I do that all the time, and they still got me. So just keep an eye on your bank balance, and try not to feel too awful if it happens to you.

Despite this sounding like a bit of a gloomy post, I am trying to look on the bright least the bank noticed and contacted me. At least I will get my money back. At least I have an overdraft limit. And after I mentioned what happened on my facebook page, a lot of my friends sent really lovely supportive messages.

I am sitting drinking tea now, thinking about the Christmas we have enjoyed, the Christmas to come, and the New Year. I hope you are all safe and well, and looking forward to the same!


By The Light of the Christmas Tree

I always wake up on Boxing day snug and warm at my in-laws. When I wake up, I sleepily register that I am not at home, and then usually smell fresh coffee creeping in under the door. As I sit up, I always feel a tiny bit sad that we are at the farthest point we can ever be from Christmas, while at the same time really happy that Christmas has been so lovely, and there is still Boxing Day to come.

This year, Christmas has been wonderful. By rights, with me still only working part time, and really only just getting over the redundancy, and Carl having had 2 months out of work (but happily and thankfully in work again now) it shouldn't have been such a worry free and happy Christmas, yet it really, really was. We woke up at home together on Christmas morning, and I made us tea in our Father Christmas mugs, and we opened our stockings. I had some wonderful treasures in mine, including a kitten calendar, as I had really wanted a kitten for Christmas, but being in a flat it isn't really possible or fair on a kitten, and also a little glass vial of pink sparkly fairy dust! Then we opened our gifts from each other, and then our family and friends. To say that I have been spoiled is an understatement, but more than the gifts themselves was the overwhelming thought and love that had been put into everything.

I had a graphic novel version of Pride and Prejudice which I love, and a notebook with a handmade decoupage fabric cover, a pestle and mortar, an afternoon tea book, oh, so very many things. Oh, and there was also a photograph in a frame of Carl and I taken at an event in the summer with friends. I could go on and on, but the point is really not the things, but that so many people took the time to think of me. And really think, not just buy the nearest gift set in Boots. (I don't mean to sound dismissive of Boot's gift sets, or that I would look down on a gift...but more to try and explain how special it feels when someone has put thought and effort in!)

Dear Carl made me cry a bit with his gift...I had seen a Tiffany necklace when I was in London, and didnt ask for it or in a hundred years dream of actually having it....but he bought it for me without me knowing! It is a silver key on a silver chain, and the chain is so light and delicate it is like a fairy whisper. When I opened the paper I thought I saw Tiffany Blue, but didnt want to say anything because I thought it just looked like Tiffany Blue, and thought it would be awful to be all excited and then find out it wasnt! I feel so very, very lucky.

Better than the gifts though, was the time spent with family, and the messages from friends. We had dinner with my family in the afternoon (which was utterly delicious and featured my Mums amazing sage and onion stuffing and bread sauce, which are legendary, and made only once a year) and then the late afternoon and evening with his family, where we stayed up late into the night playing card and board games. Yesterday we spent with my sister and her husband, enjoying a walk in Castle Park, a wonderful buffet, and more games.

It really is that time with family, the silly crackers (we had musical ones, where each person won a whistle, and there was a sheet of music and a baton to conduct with!) that make this time of year so magical.

I have just booked us tickets to go and see the new Sherlock Holmes film, and then we intend to spend a quiet afternoon together, just enjoying the Christmas tree lights and each other's company, before it is back to work tomorrow.

I hope that each and every one of you had a merry, merry Christmas!


Saturday, 24 December 2011

Merry and Bright

Our sitting room is lit only by the lights from our Christmas tree, my lamp, and our advent candle. I have one of the Kirstie Allsopp Christmas specials on tv, and am listening to this most beautiful piece of music: (copy and paste into your browser).

The presents are all wrapped, the cards are up, everything is ready, calm, merry and bright.

My tummy feels slightly butterflyish though. I can't decide if it is low level nerves about having forgotten something, just plain Christmas excitement, or tiredness. I am trying to quell them with a cup of tea, and spent some quiet puttering time rearranging my tea-cup cupboard earlier. Later on I am going to have a warm bath with a Daisy Dalrymple mystery.

The only minor Christmas catastrophe to have befallen us has been that we are quite unable to find our stockings! I think they may have gone to live in our in-laws loft when we moved, but wherever they may be, they are nowhere we can find! We did try a last minute dash into town, and although I came home with the new issue of The Chap magazine, and a box of dates, there was not a stocking to be had! Not to worry though, we shall hang up a pillowcase instead, and all will be well!

Yesterday was Carl's 30th birthday and we spent a wonderful day in London. I think it needs its own post to be honest, but highlights included cocktails looking out over London from 600ft up, ice skating at the Tower of London and a trip on the Thames. Busy and lovely, but tiring!

The advent candle flame is now ever so tall and thin and steady, giving off just a tiny bit of smoke and it is dark outside. The day feels soft and gentle somehow, like tissue paper that has been wrapped round a favourite bauble a hundred times, and is soft like fabric to the touch after years of folding and unfolding.

May you all wake up tomorrow with people you love and have a wonderful day.

Merry, Merry Christmas


Friday, 16 December 2011

Technical Hitches

Hello and happy December everyone!

Sorry I have been away for so begin with I was just busy, but since then I have been having more than a few technical problems. Since publishing my email address on my blog I seem to have picked up some kind of virus. Every time I logged into my emails, I would find emails sent to myself and friends, supposedly from my email address with all sorts of nonsense in them, or failed delivery reports for emails I have not sent. Then my account has been blocked entirely, and I have had to go through a lengthy process to get it back again. On top of that, emails I have sent have not arrived, and I have not received emails I know I have been sent. So it looks very much like I am going to have to close my email account altogether, which is a real shame. Partly because it was lovely to have a way to contact my lovely readers beyond the comments function, but also because it was my first email address in my married name...the '07' part was for the fact I got married in 2007 and the rest was my married name.

I have been also having problems with blogger, I suspect because it is linked to that email address. So overall, things have, alas, been somewhat fraught here for me. I have had an awful lot of spam comments to trawl through and delete too. They nearly always seem to be in response to my post on marzipan acorns, which is odd. Ho hum.

So I am left with a parcel for the lovely Moey, which I cannot post because I cannot get into the email with her address...any ideas Moey? Perhaps you could leave it for me in a comment, which I will not publish! And I know that there are others of you who have emailed me, but alas, I am quite unable to read or respond.

I feel like I have a little dark cloud over my head, as far as technology goes.

But it is not all doom and gloom, and I hope to be back posting regularly soon, with some tales of my December adventures.

Love to you all,

Mimi xxx

Monday, 14 November 2011

Making on a Monday

The sky was strange, this morning. It was the first morning in days and days that has not been damp and misty. Yet the sky was a curious heavy grey, and if it had been colder, it looked just like it was full of snow.

What better to do on a chilly November Monday morning than make another batch of Pear and Vanilla jam?! This batch came out ever so slightly pinker, which was pretty. I now have twelve jars ready to be decorated and wrapped ready for Christmas gifts. I am thinking of calling it Partridge In A Pear Tree Jam, although of course, it is partridge free!

After that, I decided that although the sky was still leaden and grey, it was time to get out in the fresh air. So we set off an a walk around the park. We are so lucky to live so close to such a large park. I have loved to notice the subtle changes from walk to walk. There are now more leaves on the ground than there are on the trees, and it was beautiful to see each tree seeming to float in a pool of their own leaves.

Back home, and after lunch, I knitted another row or two on the motoring hood, and then decided it was time to press on with my Christmas card making. I am so close to being finished! I need another sheet of silver card, and then I am done. Although I keep thinking of extra things I could do to embellish them, it is nice to know that I am nearly finished if I choose to be....although I know I probably will go the extra mile with the finishing touches!

I have also made a bottle of spiced rum which we will be giving to my father in law as part of his gift. I was really amazed at the instant effect the spices had on the flavour, and I can't wait to see what it turns out like after it has steeped for a month. To make Spiced Rum take a 750ml bottle of dark rum and add to it 2tbsp sugar (I used vanilla caster sugar), a cinnamon stick, a vanilla pod slit in half lengthways, half a nutmeg (not grated, just bashed a bit to break off half) and three cloves. It should all just about fit in there, where they don't fill the bottle quite to the top. Screw the lid on nice and tight and gently shake it to help the sugar dissolve.

I feel like I have got a lot done today, but perhaps it is because the light fades so early, it feels like the day has slipped away very quickly. I am going to cook dinner soon, as we have a friend joining us this evening. It is for her that I am making the motoring hood, so I must make sure it is hidden away at the bottom of my work basket before she arrives!

Right, off to tidy up and then get in the kitchen! I hope that wherever you are, you are having a lovely Monday.


Sunday, 13 November 2011

Thoughts Upon Advent

The cosy relaxed Sunday I have been enjoying today has made me think about the sometimes frantic fraught feelings that can accompany the run up to Christmas. I know that we are all really busy and can have too much to do and not enough to do it in, so I understand why we do feel like that sometimes....but I really hate that feeling! I hate when you have to rush round the shops in a lunch hour, getting pushed about by other shoppers, you get hot, you can't find what you want, you have to carry heavy bags, and then you have to rush back to work. Ugh!

This song is one of the best antidotes to those feelings. I really love how peaceful and simple it is. Actually, I have been thinking a lot about simplicity and Christmas and advent the last few days. I am sure I must have mentioned that I have been reading the Miss Read novels, many of which are set in the countryside in 1950s England. I have just finished A Village Christmas which is a selection of short stories, and I was struck by how every day life was simple, so the preparations for Christmas were special by contrast. In particular, the food that was eaten every day was so very different to today. On one hand it is wonderful to be able to get harissa paste and couscous and chorizo and arborio rice in a normal supermarket shop, but sometimes so much variety can be a little dizzying. There is a lovely little paragraph in which Miss Read feels she needs a drink of brandy to mitigate the rising price of butter when she receives her groceries and bill. A lot of the meals are meat or fish served with seasonal vegetables and potatoes. Good coffee follows cheese or fruit for dessert. By contrast, when you read about them making their mincemeat and puddings and cakes in readiness for Christmas, you understand more why they were special.

So, whilst I am not resolving to eat nothing but bread and butter for the next few weeks, it does strike me that it might be nice to try and simplify things during the season of advent this year. Not to go into denial, but just to pare things back a bit. I don't want to never have a coffee out, but for it to be a treat instead of routine. Lots of seasonal vegetables and satsumas, lovely and treats in themselves, and a little less rich food. I like the idea of there being more of a contrast between my daily round and Christmas. I will let you know how it goes!


Today I Am Reading, Making, Watching...

There is something really special about Sundays in November. We are close enough to Christmas to be working on festive projects such as cards and gifts, and to feel that is not too early to indulge in the seasonal drinks on offer at Starbucks and Costa and the like, but also it is far enough away that there is no worry or panic about there being not enough time left.

The weather continues to be hazy with just a suggestion of mist. The afternoon light starts to dim at about half past three, so there is suddenly a beautifully long afternoon at home just beckoning to be lit with candles and enjoyed. It is a quiet, reflective time of year, and I love it.

Today was more special than usual because it was Armistice Day. I observed the 2 minutes silence on the actual day, 11.11.11. all alone in my little library on top of the hill, and again today. I know there will always be some people who do not join in, but it is an amazing thing, to me, to just comprehend the whole nation falling silent at the same time, and just thinking. My older brother served in Afghanistan not so long ago, and it was shockingly scary how quickly he went from playing soldiers to being sent away to fight. Having got him back, it is almost too easy to forget that he may not have come back at all. I take myself back in time, to imagine what it must have been like to be a wife in the second world war. Aside from all the practical considerations of trying to feed your family, I just can't imagine what it would have been like to not ever know from one day to the next if my husband were alive or dead. To go back further, to the war before, to think about the mother of Wilfred Owen receiving the news that her son was dead as the bells rang out to celebrate the Armistice. We have so much to remember and be sorrowful about, but also so much to be thankful for.

These thoughts have left me gently reflective, and to be in a world wrapped in mist, bare branches, scattered leaves and chilly breezes is the idea time to feel thus. I have spent my hours gently today, somehow, it seems fitting.

When I woke, I read most of As The Pig Turns, the latest Agatha Raisin novel. I can't say I enjoyed it as much as I usually do the novels in this series. In places it felt a little contrived, and for a series that belongs firmly in the cosy genre, the murder really was a little grusome this time. However, I have plenty more to be reading, so I shall soon put it out of my thoughts. I hope that the next in the Hamish Macbeth series, by the same author does not follow the same lines!

I have made Pear and Vanilla Jam today, to give as Christmas gifts. I love making jams as gifts, as I like giving something that is consumable and useful, that doesn't have to be found a home for, that isn't more stuff. I like that it is simple, and yet not many people find the time to make their own any more, so the simple becomes special. I chose some dear little pots in Lakeland..actually, I couldn't decide between the hexagonal and a shape called 'orcio' ( so I chose a box of each. I have used this recipe and am really pleased with the results. The jam is softly set, quite sweet but really delicious, and when held up to the light, is a delightful pale pink colour, like sunrise bleeding into the edges of the clouds.

I have the new issue of Country Living Magazine ready to read later, after a long hot bath. I am never disappointed by this magazine, and if I had to choose only one Christmas magazine, this would be it!

We watched an episode of Miss Marple this afternoon, and once again I found myself sighing over the clothes and makeup. Oh, how I would love to be able to slip back in time just now and again! Rather fittingly, I accompanied the episode with some knitting. Last week I cast on a Christmas gift for a friend, but it is in 4ply yarn on 3.75mm needles, so is taking forever. This is what I am making: although mine is in holly berry red.

I have a few Christmas gifts on the needles at the moment, actually. There are gloves from The Gentle Art of Knitting for Mum, and a crochet ripple stitch cushion in blues for Dad. I am making this for my little brother, only in a dark charcoal yarn. I need more yarn for the cushion and the cowl, so at the moment car journeys and tv programmes are accompanied by the click-click of my needles as I add another row or so to the hood and scarf set.

There is a candle flickering in the corner right now, casting dancing shadows against a beautiful vase of white chrysanthemums, which smell almost spicy. They were an unexpected but very welcome gift from my Mum. She dropped them into work for me on Thursday. When I thanked her and asked her why she had bought them for me, she replied 'because they are beautiful and I knew you would like them'. Isn't that a lovely reason to buy anyone a gift...I must remember that sweet thing to say if ever similarly asked about an impulse gift.

So here is another Sunday in November. It is any wonder that Sunday is my favourite day of the week?

Friday, 11 November 2011


For the second day running, it has been cool and damp at home, the morning light smudged somehow. As the bus climbs the hill to my little library at the top of the hill, it has got mistier and mistier. I can see it hanging over the fields, and wrapped around everything. When the light dims as the afternoon nears 3, the street lights start to flicker on, and illuminate a haze that could be misty rain or just mist. It has a surreal other-worldly quality to it that is really beautiful. It makes me think of wrapping the autumn in cotton wool, putting it away safely ready for next year, making way for winter.

Just the weather for candlelight, hot ribena, knitting, reading, dreaming.

Happy November, everyone!


Monday, 7 November 2011

November Days

The fireworks were really pretty, which was just as well, as there was no bonfire! It was lovely to be able to walk to the fireworks, and walk home again clutching cups of tea, but I think next year we will drive to a display that has a bonfire! There is something about the heat and scent and aliveness of a fire that serves as such a good focal point until the fireworks begin. While I browsing about on the internet, I discovered this scrap from a letter from Jane Austen to her sister Cassandra:

We did not go till nine and then were in very good time for the Fire-Works which were really beautiful and surpassing my expectations- the illuminations too were very pretty.
(See Letter to Cassandra Austen dated 19th June, 1799)

My favourite were some that Carl described as 'like champagne bubbles'...they were golden, fairly quiet and very sparkly and pretty. When we got home, I made another caramel pumpkin cake to take with us on Sunday, as we were going to visit first my Godson and his brother, and then their grandparents, my Aunt and Uncle. Mum was meant to be coming with us, but had a cold so sadly had to stay at home. 
I love visiting with family. There is always a gentle friendly rivalry  between Carl and my sister's husband as to who will arrive first. We knew we had no chance this time, as we stopped for a cup of coffee on the way down. 
After lunch at my Godson's home, we took the short drive across town to my Aunt and Uncle's house, and it wasn't long before we were embarking on a walk through the woods. It is really breathtakingly beautiful at the moment, and it makes me feel very earthed and grounded to be surrounded by so much nature and such evidence of the seasons in full bloom. The sky started to dim and darken in mid-afternoon, and by half past four it was almost dark. More cups of tea and chatter ensued. There really is nothing like visiting with family. 
This morning we decided to take a walk in the park. I have taken lots of photographs, I must ask Carl to help me get them onto the computer so I can share them with you. There were plenty of leaves on the ground to scuffle through, but equally there were many trees still with a good covering of leaves. They really are the most astonishing colours at the moment. Being a work day, the park was quieter than usual which was rather nice, and we spotted so much wildlife. My favourite was a squirrel, busily burying nuts for winter. 
Now we settled at home again, and although it is not yet three in the afternoon, the light is not strong enough on its own and you really need a lamp or a candle. We are thinking of designating one evening a week as candles-only-after-dark just for the fun and atmosphere of it all. 
Wherever you are, I hope you are having a lovely November day,

Saturday, 5 November 2011

The Art of Feminine Beauty

I love to read vintage magazines from the 40s and 50s, but even more, I do love a good vintage diet or beauty book from the same period. Imagine how pleased I was when my library procured for me 'The Art of Feminine Beauty' by Helena Rubinstein....and how delighted I was to realise that the copy they got for me was from 1930!

As I have been reading Helena's words of wisdom, I can't help but wonder about the ladies who have read it before me...were they young ladies, impatient to start putting their hair up and wearing gloves? Engaged ladies tending to their loveliness in preparation for their wedding day? Ladies who felt the bloom of youth starting to fade? Perfect beauties who wished to make themselves even more beautiful? Or girls pretty to everyone else, but desperate to cure some imagined ill? It feels special to hold a book like that in my hands, and think about the others who have read it before me, to imagine their lives. To think about which handbags it may have been carried in, which dressing tables it has sat on while the reader has diligently followed the advice within.

I have also been reading a volume of Agatha Christie short stories, many from the 30s and 40s, and a lot of the women featured in them I can imagine sitting and reading this beauty book. It takes me back in my mind to a world of chaps who smoked pipes and said 'dash it all!' and ladies who wore clothes I can only dream about.

This is a post I have discovered in my drafts folder, written some time ago, but shared with you now!

A lot of the advice is definitely dated (passing electric currents through the face to clear pores, anyone?) but equally much of it could still be used today, and indeed I shall be trying some of her tips out. More than that though, her general attitude to health and beauty is inspirational. It is such a contrast to so many of our magazines and adverts today. I have commented on this before, but now it seems we must be terrified into buying a product (crows feet? wrinkles? buy this cream!) whereas then you were romanced into it (for lovely skin that he will adore, buy this cream!). I know which I prefer!

Here are a few passages that I have enjoyed so far:, how to attain it, how to enhance and preserve it, has been from time immemorial one of the permanent preoccupations of womankind.

...Beauty is neither wholly the gift of God nor the gift of the cosmetician. An important part is always played by the desire to be lovely and the willingness to make small daily sacrifices to achieve it. If you follow the rules for your particular type or age you will keep your loveliness to the end of your days.

...There are women not considered beautiful in their younger days who have in later life developed into recognised beauties. Such women, by intelligent cultivation of their persons, make for themselves a second and even a third youth more lovely and impressive than that of the springtime of life.

...A woman's beauty will be a gracious curve from early youth to, shall we say, later youth; for the weight of years seems to be resting ever more lightly on women's shoulders.

...every intelligent woman who really cares can become at least good-looking. How much farther she goes will depend upon herself.

Although her writing style is perhaps a little dated, she does make the clever point that if you see your body only as a machine, then it makes sense to keep it in top working order, and if you see it as more, then the extra work you put in will just add zest to life. I have been following a vintage inspired skin routine for a few weeks now (for details, click on the title of this post!) and it does make me feel lovely, to take the time, to think about all the other women who have used cold cream and witch hazel. To be using simple ingredients and have a routine that has been repeated over the years, it makes me feel connected to the bright young things of the yesterday, reading my vintage magazines and books when they were first published, and who are now perhaps in their 70s and 80s.

I think that perhaps this weekend, I will spend a few hours writing down some new tips from Helena Rubinstein to try out, and look for a new red lipstick to celebrate the Indian summer that has accompanied the start of September. I hope that you are having a lovely week!

Remember, Remember, The Fifth of November...

Just as I love it when a new month starts on a Monday (and even better when it is the first day of a new year on a Monday!) I also love it when November 5th falls on a Friday, Saturday, or at a pinch Sunday, so that bonfires and fireworks can be had on the night itself. Most public firework displays and bonfires seem to be arranged for the Saturday nearest the 5th, but it never feels quite the same if it is actually the 3rd, 4th, or even 6th or 7th!

For those of you across the pond, in the UK November 5th is commonly known as Bonfire Night, but it is more correctly Guy Fawke's Night. Guy Fawke's is the reason for the bonfire and fireworks, but as they are the event, they seem to be what stay in peoples minds more!

In 1605, Guy Fawkes and a band of conspirators plotted to murder King James I by blowing up the House of Lords. Guy Fawkes was caught guarding the barrels of gunpowder, and was arrested and then tortured until he gave up the names of his co-conspirators and details of the plot, eventually being executed in January the following year. An Act of Parliament was passed decreeing the date of the failed plot a public holiday, and bonfires were lit in celebration of the King surviving the attempt on his life.

In the first half of this century, it was common for effigies (called Guys) to be burnt on top of the bonfire, and children used to have great fun stuffing old clothes with newspapers and straw, and then taking their Guy around the streets asking for 'a penny for the guy'. Nowadays this doesn't really happen, and although I knew what a Guy was when I was a little girl, I don't ever remember making one or seeing one.

Further back in time, around the last full moon in October, bonfires would be lit to celebrate what was in the Celtic tradition the New Year. With the curious half-light of November, and the long nights, I can imagine that a lot of comfort was found in the lighting of bonfires, and I imagine that this much older tradition has been somehow absorbed into Guy Fawke's Night in modern times.

So now you know a bit about this centuries old tradition, I will tell you some of my memories of this day. When I was little, the 'special' days in the year were birthdays, of course, Mother's Day and Easter. At Easter there would be chocolate eggs, and roast lamb for lunch, and family. I remember my gran used to knit us little chicks with ribbon bonnets, which held a Cadbury Creme Egg. For Mother's Day, we would bring home from sunday school little Polyanthus plants, and today their scent takes me right back to choosing the prettiest colour. One year, it was my birthday, my sisters birthday, my Granddad's  birthday, Easter, Mother's Day, and mine and my baby brother's Christening all in the same fortnight...and Mum made a cake for each of them! Then came Halloween, for which we dressed up (but never went out trick or treating, it just wasn't really done back then) Bonfire Night, Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, Boxing Day, and New Year's Day. I seem to remember wanting to stay up till midnight on New Year's Eve but always falling asleep! And a pleasant sort of first-day-of-the-new-year feeling too.

But back to Bonfire Night. We lived a ten minute walk away from school, and the school would organize a bonfire evening each year. I remember how quickly it seemed to get dark in the evenings, eating  baked potatoes and sausages for tea, and having to bundle up really warm in hat and scarf and gloves. Walking to school in the dark and cold, feeling so very late (although it probably wasn't more than 7:00!) and holding tightly onto Mum's hand. When we got there, the heat of the fire on our cold faces and the crackle and snap of the fire. I have always had trouble with my ears, and I remember my poor Mum having to clamp her gloved hands over my ears for me so I could enjoy the fireworks without the bangs hurting. I never liked the big bang fireworks, but much preferred the pretty ones. I didn't mind the rockets that went bang too much as   they would shower out beautiful sparkles everywhere. When we got home and took off our coats and warm woolies, everything smelt slightly of fireworks night...more than just smoke, a special smell all of its own.

At school, in the days running up to Bonfire Night, we would make firework safety posters, and giant models of fireworks. We used to make pictures by crayoning different coloured stripes across card, then crayoning black over the top of the entire thing. Then when you carefully scratched away the top layer, you could see all the pretty colours from underneath showing through. We used to do that to make firework pictures.

Carl and I have always made an effort to keep traditions going, and to celebrate high days and holidays, so we usually go to the firework display in either our town or the village with my library-on-top-of-a-hill. Their fireworks do tend to be better, and set to music, but now we live so close to town it is nice to be able to walk to the bonfire rather than drive. We have bought our tickets and will be wrapping up warm, although somehow, it never seems to get cold enough any more. I am not sure if I remember it being colder and darker than it was, or if it is just that it has got a bit warmer at this time of year. I remember our breath coming out in clouds, and us calling it Dragon's Breath, and it entertaining us all the way to the bonfire!

So we will be off in a little while to stand by the bonfire, eat toffee, and drink tea, although I may be tempted by hot chocolate! There is something about  being in the deep dark and the cold, the brightness of the flames, and the explosions of sparkles. Later we will get home and I will have a hot bath, then we will listen to Harry Potter on cd, and I will be crocheting on a cushion cover for a Christmas gift. While I am in the bath, I will be reading the first chapters of The Lord of The Rings, as there is a wonderful description of fireworks in there.

Wherever you are, happy Bonfire Night!

Love, Mimi xxx

Drumroll Please....Blog Milestone Giveaway Winner!

Good afternoon! Firstly a big thank you to all of you who kindly left a comment in my 'Blog Milestone' post. I used a random number generator website to choose a number between 1 and 9, assigning 1 to the first comment and 9 to the most recent comment. The number generator chose 1 so Moey you are the winner! If you will email me an address that I can post a package to you at, I will pop down to the post office next week.

And as for everybody else...I have some little consolation prizes to post out! So do be in touch, and I will pop yours in the post too. Thank you to everybody to reading and sharing my little sips of tea with me!


ps Thank you to everybody who emailed me following me putting my contact details up! Replies to all in the works!

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

A Pumpkin is For Life, Not Just For Halloween....and Happy November!

Reading over my last few posts, you really cannot miss my fondness for the culinary uses for pumpkins! Yesterday being Halloween itself, I had a small gathering of friends round for dinner, and of course, the theme was Pumpkins!

I made a Thai Green Pumpkin Soup which I served in teacups with crispy croutons as a starter. It was simplicity itself, just roasted pumpkin blended with a tin of coconut milk, some thai green curry paste and a pinch of dried chillies, then heated through to serve.

Next I trotted out my old faithful Pumpkin and Sage Risotto recipe. My secret to a great risotto is to take some of whatever vegetable risotto you are making, blend it with a little cream cheese, stock, cheddar and seasoning, then beat into the risotto at the end. It makes it really creamy and flavourful.

For dessert I was going to make Chocolate Pumpkin Creme Brulees with Salted Caramel, but I watched a snippet of This Morning, and Phil Vickery demonstrated a really easy but heavenly looking pumpkin loaf cake, so I made that instead, and I am really glad I did. As long as you have pumpkin, everything else is store cupboard, and the results are really stunning. I served mine with cream whipped with vanilla and a little sugar, and a pinch of edible glitter!

I still have lots of pumpkin recipes I want to try though! In particular, Hugh has a recipe for Pumpkin Fold Overs in his new River Cottage Veg Everyday book....they look like an easy but delicious lunch. Then I found this post which has given me more food for thought! Although there is something extra nice about cooking with Pumpkins at Halloween, they really are too good and too versatile not to use throughout the autumn months. While I don't like to think of carving pumpkins going to waste, I do think it is worth buying culinary pumpkins where you can. They are smaller and more flavourful, and also they are really quite cheap. One medium pumpkin made all the dishes for my Halloween Dinner, which served 5 with leftovers of everything except the soup!

When I left home for a training course this morning, it was very lightly drizzly and grey. I had my big white shawl with me to wrap up and snuggle in, which was nice, but what was really lovely was spotting here and there the carved pumpkins smiling (or frowning, in some cases!) out from windowsills, doorsteps and gardens. I know that a lot of people don't like trick-or-treating or Halloween in general, but I think that if the former is well supervised it can be really nice, and the latter is what you choose to make it. Sadly we don't get trick or treaters, but I really wish we did. Mum gets quite a lot, and really enjoys planning her treats. She buys a big tin of Quality Street or similar when they are on offer, perhaps a big bag of marshmallows or other Halloween sweets too, and makes up little crepe or tissue paper bundles to hand out. She gets lovely little children knock on the door, and I think she gets as much pleasure out of it as they do.

I still have not got round to one Halloween craft that I have always wanted to do...somehow, every year, time slips away! I want to take a small pumpkin, remove the seeds and put in a vase filled with bronze and orange and red chrysanthemums, so it looks like the pumpkin is the vase. Maybe next year will finally be the year!

One thing I did do this year which I have not done before is to buy a small selection of Halloween chocolates (including the Cadbury 'Screme' Egg which has green goo instead of a yolk in it!) and hide them about the flat for Carl to find, Easter Egg hunt style. That was lots of fun for both of us, so I will be doing that again next year.

So, Halloween is over, but happily Pumpkin season is not. I cannot believe that today is November. Suddenly the year seems nearly over, and Christmas is just around the corner (I do believe I read that it is 54 days!). Autumn is suddenly glorious, the trees are blazing with colour, and the air has that brittle hazy November quality to it.

Wherever you are, I hope you had a spookily perfect Halloween, and enjoy the many delights that November has to bring.

Thursday, 27 October 2011

Pumpkin Truffles and Autumn Comforts

This morning we took a walk through the park. It is so beautiful there at the moment, because at last, at last, the leaves are changing colour and starting to fall. It was cooler and damp from where it had rained yesterday and in the night, so instead of being crisp, the leaves were stuck flat to the pavements as though they had been decoupaged. Although nothing beats the joy of scuffing through a big pile of crisp leaves, these were beautiful in their own way.

I can't help but think that nature gives us a helping hand as often as she can. The trees in the park look like flaming torches as their leaves turn every shade of red, orange, yellow and amber you can imagine. They burn like flames, reminding us to make our homes as cosy as we can, to lay in a stock of candles so we can light up the darkening evenings. The blanket of leaves on the ground remind us to layer our homes with the snuggliest of soft blankets we have, to ward off the winter cold. There is something about seeing the suggestion of the skeleton branches on the trees, and knowing they will soon be stark and bare that reminds us how very soon winter will be here, to enjoy this fleeting season while we can, and to lay in our stores for winter.

Laying in your stores makes you feel cosy and prepared. This time of year I like to make sure that I have an extra box of teabags in the cupboard, a few extra portions of home made stew or soup in the freezer, and a little store of tinned tomatoes and so on, all laid by ready for a snowy day. Although it is unlikely (fingers crossed!) that we would get snowed in for days on end, there is something really comforting about knowing that you don't have to go out and brave the icy weather, that you will always have something to tide you over another day or so. Don't forget, of course, to have a pint of milk in the freezer to go with your tea bags!

It isn't just food and drink that I like to lay by, but a knitting project or so, a little pile of black and white films to watch, a variety of candles, and a little pile of books (Miss Read is a favourite at the moment, very gentle and undemanding) all waiting for a dark evening.

But to turn away from the future for a moment, back to today. This morning the new issue of Mollie Makes arrived. I don't normally like orange and yellow as colours, but perhaps becuase of the time of year, I just love the cover. It follows the usual theme of a pair of hands holding something, which I think is so simple but effective, and this time it is someone wearing a yellow jumper holding a mug which is covered with an orange mug cosy. It is another gorgeous issue, full of ideas for things to make as Christmas gifts that aren't too Christmassy in themselves. After watching Kirstie's Handmade Britain, I read the magazine, and then crocheted a mug cosy for Carl. Alas I don't have any orange or yellow yarn, so I used an oddment of really soft purple yarn. I am going to buy some blue yarns tomorrow for my Dad's Christmas gift, so I might pick up a little ball of orange then.

We are going to visit a friend this evening to see her new flat, and are eating dinner there, so I thought it would be nice to take something with us. What better than some after dinner chocolates, and as it is autumn, with a twist?

Autumn Spiced Pumpkin Truffles

On a blustery autumn afternoon, light a candle, flick on some Peggy Lee, and tie on a pretty apron. Break up 8oz of milk chocolate into fairly small pieces, and set aside in a bowl. Meanwhile, combine 1/4 cup of pumpkin puree and 1/2 cup double cream in a small saucepan. (Thats just over 4 floz and 2 floz respectively) Stir in 1/4 tsp ground cinnamon, and then a big grating of freshly grated nutmeg. Set over a low heat and stir gently, then take off the heat just before it reaches boiling point.

Pour the hot spiced pumpkin cream over the chocolate, and stir until it is melted. Then stir in an ounce of butter until the mixture is smooth and glossy.

Now you need to leave it to cool. You can hasten this by pouring it into a shallow dish, putting it in the fridge, or both. When the mixture is cool, take teaspoons of it and roll into balls. It is a bit easier and less messy if you coat your hands lightly in cocoa powder first.

From here you have the option of finishing the truffles by either rolling them in cocoa powder or melted dark chocolate. I am going to do half and half. I haven't got any at the moment, but I think they would be pretty with a dusting of orange edible food glitter on top.

When I take them, I am not going to say they are pumpkin truffles, but ask people to see if they can guess what the mystery ingredient is. The pumpkin definitely serves a purpose by being there, both in terms of texture and flavour, but I don't think you would immediately realise that is what it is.

Oh, before I go and roll those truffles in cocoa powder, for those of you who have asked, Bonfire Night is November 5th. And a big thank you to everybody who has entered so far!


Monday, 24 October 2011

The A To Z Of Me Meme

I don't often 'do' memes, but I read this one on a blog and really enjoyed it, so here it is, the A To Z of Mimi!

ANORAK…Do you have a sad side

It depends on what you think of as sad! But working in a library for over a decade does mean I can think in Dewey numbers! Oh and when I put my shopping away, all the labels have to face the front, and if I have a stack of things, such as tuna cans, then all the labels have to line up at the edge. Oh, and toilet paper has to hang down the back, not over the front of the roll. I don't know why that last one bothers me, but it does...I will change it in other peoples houses!

BODY…What physical attribute would you most like to change?

I don't suppose there are many ladies who wouldn't like to be a little thinner! But at the moment, it would be my hair. I know it is vain to say it, but I really love my hair colour! I am mainly brunette, but have quite a lot of auburn in it, which my Mum tells me is exactly the colour of my great grandmothers hair. Alas, I am starting to find grey in it! I don't like that, so would like to colour it, but I don't want to lose my natural hair colour! So right now, I would lose my grey hair.

CELEBRITY…Which one would you most like to date and why?

Well, as a married lady, I would have to turn him down if he did try to sweep me off my feet, but really, it would be hard to say no to the wonderful Alan Rickman!

DEBUT …Tell us about your first ever blog post. What made you start blogging?

I started blogging on livejournal as Sheofthescepteredisle years and years ago, having discovered blogs for the first time when I found I visited a lot too, so having somewhere to document my crafting and cooking adventures really appealed. It didn't last long though, in the same way as I never manage to keep a diary or journal for long. This blog was an attempt to finally keep a diary going, and to record my cooking and crafting, and just write, really. I had discovered blogs like notmartha and yarnstorm, and while I have no pretensions to being in their league, this was an attempt to capture a little bit of that!

ERROR …What’s been your biggest regret?

I try as hard as I can not to have too many regrets, and I am a firm believer that some things that you cry about at the time, had you understood the situation better, you would have delighted in your good luck instead. That often comes with hindsight though! So the broken engagement at 19 to a terribly unsuitable man felt like the end of the world at the time, but oh, thank heavens it happened! I couldn't imagine being without my wonderful husband, and having been in a relationship with a real rotter really makes you appreciate a good man when you are lucky enough to find one! (Thinking about it, the broken engagement isn't the regret so much as the engagement itself!)

FUNNY – who’s making you laugh?

One of my favourite sounds in the whole world is my husband laughing, so I really like things that make us both laugh. Ask Rhod Gilbert makes us laugh, as well as topical news quizzes such as Mock The Week, Have I Got News For You and so on. The first classic novel that really made me laugh was Cranford, a real revelation to me, which really got me 'in' to reading from the classic shelves in the library.

GRAND…If we gave you one right now what would you spend it on?

A new wardrobe of clothes! It feels like mine are all wearing out at the same time! I would hope to get enough clothes for a small capsule wardrobe, perhaps with one or two pieces from Boden. Or buy the entire Persephone book collection, and a new shelf to house them!

HOLIDAY… What’s your favourite destination?

I adored the holiday we had in Bath last year. I would love to go back. Oh, but then I loved Dorset and Lyme Regis perhaps a fortnights holiday, with a week in each!

IRRITATE… What’s your most annoying habit?

I don't think we are best placed to answer such questions about ourselves, as we probably wouldn't do them! So Mr C has come up with, after rather too little thought if you ask me, not putting things away when I am finished with them, and not being ready on time!

JOKER…Whats your favourite joke {the one that makes you laugh everytime you hear it}?

Graham, my oldest friend, told a joke for years and years, that was about prisoners in jail having been in so long, rather than tell the same jokes over and over, would give each joke a number, and just call out the numbers, then start laughing. Honestly, after about five years of telling this 'joke' that really wasn't that funny, he realised he had never told us the punch line! A new prisoner tries to join in and shouts out numbers, but nobody laughs. He asks another prisoner why, and he tells him 'its the way you tell them!'. So the whole joke isn't funny at all, but the fact he forgot the punch line for so long and we just thought it was a pointless joke makes me laugh!
KENNEL… Do you have any pets?

I would love a kitten, but as we live in a little flat, I must wait until we have a house and a garden. Carl has two goldfish and a corn snake. Sometimes in a fit of melancholy, I dramatically proclaim that I just want something to love and feed and cuddle and look after and love, and Carl says 'well you've got me!'

LOVE…Are you single, married, engaged, living with a long term partner?

Happily married, and living with my lovely husband!

MEAL… Whats your ultimate starter, main and dessert?

I couldn't possibly choose just one menu! One of my favourite ways to spend time in a queue or on a bus is to plan my ultimate Come Dine With Me menu, and it changes all the time! I think in general you can't go wrong with a good steak cooked rare, and a chocolatey dessert. Can I cheat and say afternoon tea?!

NOW…If you could be anywhere right now where would you be and who with?

Right here, where I am. Tucked up on the sofa under a blanket with a mug of tea to one side and my husband to the other. Home, where is more perfect than that?

OFF DUTY…What do you do in your spare time?

Spare time?! What is that?! I like to read and knit and crochet and sew and cook and read blogs and find new places to have afternoon tea! This time of year often sees me extra busy, as I like to make my own Christmas cards, and as many of my gifts as I can.

PROUD MOMENTS …What are you most proud of?

On the work front, managing the second busiest library in the country in my mid twenties. In my personal life, seeing our wedding come together having spent a long time planning and making a lot of it ourselves. My marriage, because after four years of marriage and ten years of being together, we are still very kind to each other and enjoy spending time together! Oh, and I am proud of keeping my blog going for so long, especially given how little success I had keeping diaries!

QUEASY …What turns your stomach?

Violence. I just can't watch violent films at all, and I often have to turn the news over.

RELAX…How do you relax?

I love a hot bath and a cup of tea. And a book. Oh, and I adore a magazine. There is nothing more soothing than a row or two of knitting. And baking bread or making jam is a wonderful relaxer too!

SONG…Whats your favourite song of all time?

I'm not sure I have just one favourite, but The Spirit Carries On by Dream Theater is top of my list most of the time. Come Christmas though, it will be Joy To The World by Sufjan Stevens. I really like Fever by Peggy Lee too! It seems I am not very good at having just one Favourite!

TIME …If you could go back in time and relive it again, when would you choose?

My wedding day, as it really does go too quickly! That or my early childhood, when my grandparents were alive. I have so many happy memories of simple but special things, such as having a little stool as a picnic table, or the blanket cosy from the pushchair, the time I was allowed to go down the slide even though it had been raining, because I had been promised....

UNKNOWN…Tell us something about yourself that no one else knows?

Oooh....I am not sure really what there is that nobody else knows. There are lots of people who don't know I have a tattoo, very few people who I know outside of my blog know I am taking burlesque lessons. Probably the main thing that nobody really knows is just how shy I really am! When you wear red lipstick, people tend to assume you are confident!

VOCAL…. Who is your favourite artist?

Bruce Dickinson! He has an amazing voice, and I have been lucky enough to see him live a few times. I particularly like Chemical Wedding (both the song and the album) and Tears of the Dragon (the song) and Born In 58.

WORK….. What is your dream job, and are you doing it now?

That is a really difficult one for me! I do love working in libraries, but I still think that following the events of this year, that is not where my future lays. I don't know where it does lay though, and the big thing that has kept me stop-gap working rather than hunting for a new career is that I don't know what to do. My dream job would be writing novels, and also to be offered a book deal for a book-of-the-blog as happened to Yarnstorm and Cherry Menlove. Basically, I think I want to be Kirstie Allsopp! Or work in a tea shop! Or sell my crafts!

XRAY…Any broken bones?

I chipped a bone in my elbow when I was 10, but happily nothing since then, unless you count the odd dental xray here and there.

YIKES…What’s been your most embarrassing moment?

At the moment I would still say walking in somebody airing their thoughts about me last week! Perhaps it is they who should be embarassed, but to hear someones uncensored thoughts was pretty mortifying. Otherwise, at about 16, visiting Dad in hospital and wondering aloud when the really handsome blond Dutch doctor would be on the wards again....just as the ward fell silent and the handsome doctor walked in!

ZOO…. If you were an animal, which one would you be?

A penguin! I have always loved the way they waddle about on land but are so graceful in the water, and also we have been doing a lot of 'penguin hands' in dance class!

So, there you go, the A to Z of me!

Blog Milestone!

I have just noticed that 'Cupcake Conversation Starter' was my 126th post of the year! Back in 2006 I posted 125 times, so this has been my most-blogged-about year so far! I think this calls for some kind of celebration, what do you think?

I have never done this before, but I have seen it done on other blogs and really liked it, so I am going to give it a go! A giveaway! A little package with a few of my favourite things in it, mainly a surprise, I think, but there will definitely be tea!

To enter, just leave a comment, and I will use one of those random number generators to choose the winner. How about Bonfire Night as the last date for entering? That should give everybody who would like to play a chance to enter!

Really, just as a little thank you to those of you who come here to read, and also to those of you who leave me comments. It is always so special and lovely when you share your thoughts with me, so thank you! And a big thank you to all of you who have emailed me, I will be sending replies very soon!

Cupcake Conversation Starter

A few months ago, Mum mentioned that she had seen a notice for a new cupcake bakery, opening in Maldon, the little town I am from. I contacted the lovely Emma whose bakery it is, to discuss doing some work for her. We have talked a few times on the phone, but with one thing and another, today was the first time I could actually go and meet her, and look around her shop.

I thought that the easiest way of showing the kind of things I could do would be to take some examples with me! So yesterday evening I sat and decorated some chocolate muffins with icing ghosts, and some cupcakes with bonfires made out of icing and chocolate-orange matchmaker sweets! There are lots of photographs to follow, just as soon as my lovely husband has helped me get them off of my phone and onto the computer!

The ghosts are super easy, but look really effective. For each ghost, you start by spiking a lolly into the middle of the cupcake or muffin. You need quite a sturdy deep cake, as the ghosts are quite top heavy. The lolly needs to be globe shaped. Then you roll out some white fondant icing, and cut out a circle, slightly larger than you think you will need. You drape this over the lolly to make the ghost shape. To finish, you take two dark chocolate chips, dip them in water, then press them into the icing to make the eyes. Ideally you need to leave them overnight so the fondant can set slightly.

I thought the bonfires looked better this morning than they did last night, but I have thought of a way of reworking them already, so they are something of a work in progress! Last night I peeled the cupcake out of the case, and turned it upside down. Then I coated it with red buttercream icing, swirling it on with a knife, trying to create a pyramid-ish shape. I then took chocolate-orange flavoured matchmaker sweets and piled them around in a teepee shape, to make the kindling on the fire. I finished with a little yellow icing around the top to look like the fire was burning.

All well and good, but an awful lot of icing! So when I make these again, I will keep the cupcake the right way up, and top with a large marsmallow, which I will then cover with icing and use as the fire base, and chop the matchmakers in half. I think I will get a bit more creative with my icing on the fire too, and swirl in red-orange-yellow colours. Emma suggested a little orange edible glitter too, and as you know by now, it takes no persuading to get me to open the edible glitter!

This morning I decided I wanted to do more, so I decided to make monster cupcakes. Not monster as in size, but as in decoration! I piped a pretty buttercream swirl in ivory icing, just as you would for any pretty cupcake. But rather than topping with a butterfly or heart or flower, these cupcakes have been taken over by fondant icing monsters! I rolled a ball of green a bit smaller than a brussel sprout, and then placed on it a smaller circle of white icing, then on that a smaller circle of yellow, and then in the middle of that a black icing oval, to make a giant one eyed monster head. That I sat right in the middle of the icing swirl. Then I took more green fondant icing, rolled it into a long thin sausage, then cut into lengths to make tentacles, which I had coming out of the icing swirl. I had some long ones, and some little ones pointing upwards too, so it looks like the rest of the monster is hidden in the cake. Overall, the effect is one of a green one eyed octopus!

So, I now had a dozen decorated cupcakes, but had to get them all the way to Maldon in one piece! Happily, I still had the Lakeland gift voucher my lovely work friends had given me, so I treated myself to a cupcake carrier! I am really impressed with it. It takes 12 normal cupcakes, 24 mini cupcakes, or one big cupcake, and they didn't move around at all, and I took them on the bus!

It must be said though, that if you go out with a filled cupcake carrier, you will get stopped to chat by almost everyone you meet! The lady's who sell me my bus ticket in the travel office, the bus driver, the lady who sold me a latte, the checkout lady in the supermarket, even random people in the street. Which is nice really, as so often I am intimidated by people, or scared of them (alas there are a lot of drunks and aggressive people about!) so it was really nice to find that a lot of people were pleased and intrigued to see a lady carrying a caddy full of cupcakes!

The cupcake shop was absolutely beautiful, and Emma who runs it is really nice. I sampled a really delicious ginger cake with lemon icing while I was there, which was really scrumptious! As well as selling cupcakes, they make cakes to order for parties, sell cupcake supplies, and also beautiful party accessories and gift boxes for homemade cake.

I have come away with lots of ideas for future cupcake designs! My next challenge is to try and bring to life the idea I have in my head for a filigree bauble, worked in 3d rather than flat....I plan to buy those clear plastic baubles that snap together in two halves (you can get them in craft shops, to fill with tiny gifts, or to decorate with fabric, or to use as a bath bomb mould) and spray with cake-release, then to pipe each half with royal icing, stud with silver balls and the like, then leave to set, and gently prize away the plastic. I can't decide if they would look best with two halves joined together, to sit on top of a cloud of buttercream, or only use one half, and lay it down on a flat-iced cupcake, so it looks as though the other half of the bauble is in the cake, if that makes sense.

All of a sudden, I have a lot of icing on my mind!

Getting The Vintage Look

A month or so ago, I booked myself onto a burlesque dance course, and also a vintage hair and makeup workshop afternoon, as well as a few other day trips and so on. I am really glad I did, as so far I have enjoyed everything I have done, and it is lovely to see looked-forward-to dates come closer and closer!

On Saturday afternoon, I took myself off to Make Do And Mend in Chelmsford for a vintage hair and makeup workshop. We had been given a list of things to bring with us - rat tail comb, hair spray, hair putty, hair pins, black eyeliner and red lipstick- so I did a little shopping before I went. There were an amazing array of hair pins on sale, so I hedged my bets and took the slight v-shape slightly open kind, and the tight-together kind. I was joined by the lovely Carla, and her equally lovely friend Lou.

When we arrived, several tables had been pushed together to make one large table, and there were seats all around the edge. At each setting was a mirror on a stand, and a pretty vintage cup and saucer. In the middle of the table there was a stack of books about vintage fashion and beauty, and several tea pots. There were ladies of all ages around the table, and as the afternoon unfolded, I couldn't help but thinking that it is a real shame that this kind of afternoon isn't commonplace. Wouldn't it be lovely if as a young teenager you had sat around with friends, favourite auntys and your Mum and learned how to take care of your skin and whip up a face mask? And then how to fix your hair and makeup?

I know that this isn't how ladies learnt in the 40s and 50s, but the communal nature and sharing of tea felt very nostalgic somehow. Although experimenting in your bedroom can be lots of fun, it was lovely to have one person sharing their tips and techniques with us. It was extra nice that we got to use our own things so we could recreate the ideas at home, and there was nothing to buy so there was no retail pressure.

First we learnt how to pincurl our hair, and pretended that we were just going to bed. We took out a section of hair at the front to save for our victory roll, and the rest of our hair we sprayed first with water to damp, and then setting lotion. Then we took strands of hair, wrapped them around our fingers until the curl was flat against our head, and then pinned in place with two hair pins in an 'x' shape. We used up all our hair doing that, and then tied on a silk or chiffon head scarf while it dried. Just tying on that scarf made me feel like a vintage lady! I believe it was about now that the afternoon was punctuated by the first of many cups of tea! We made up our faces (foundation, red lipstick, black eyeliner and mascara) with the focus being on how to apply the liquid eyeliner for the perfect forties flick. The lovely Hannah who was running the class had the foresight to have lots of cotton wool and eye makeup remover to hand so when we did not succeed at first we could try again!

The hair we had reserved for our victory roll was dry by then, so we learnt how to prepare the hair by working a little putty through it and then rolled it up, pinned it and sprayed it a lot to keep it in place. We had to make sure our pin curls were dry before we undid them, as if they were damp they would just fall out straight. Having brushed out our hair, it was ready to play with and put up. Alas, my hair just would not behave at all. Every victory roll I tried to put in fell out, and it just got frizzier and wilder by the moment. I think it was a combination of a headache that had crept on, and not being familiar with how to work with my hair like this, and I just need a lot more practise. I was a bit worried though, as we were due to leave almost immediately after class finished to have dinner with my sister-in-laws, and it became apparent that I would really need to wash it before we left!

I think there were about 12 of us in all, and everyone did look so stunning with the black eyeliner, red lipstick and vintage hair. So many different interpretations of what to do with the pin curled canvas of hair, it was really inspiring.

The class is being run again, so if any of you live close enough to be able to attend, do book up. I would love to do this kind of thing more often! As well as having a really fun afternoon, you learn some great new skills! It has made me really want to sit down at my mirror to do my hair and makeup from now on, although that could be a bit tricky, as I use the top of a tall chest of drawers as my dressing table!

An Apple A Day

This past weekend was Apple Weekend, which is a relatively new custom (it started 22 years ago) but one that I hope will be a firm fixture on the calendar for many years to come. For more information about it all, I have added a link to the title of this post, but basically, across England there are scores of orchards open to visitors, competitions for the longest apple peel, apple tastings and so on.

I have mentioned before the wonderful farm shop that is just a short drive from us, and as it happens, although it sells a wide variety of produce, apples are their speciality, and they grow many unusual varieties.

We parked between trees in one of the orchards, and as we got out of the car the air was scented with cooking sausages. The day was bright, with a cool breeze, but not chilly which was just perfect. The light had that early-autumn haze to it which makes everything look so beautiful. In one barn there were many of the producers of food sold in the farm shop offering tastings of their wares and a chance to meet the people behind the products. The nice thing was that they were not selling anything right there, so there was no pressure to buy, but everything was available in the farm shop, so you could go home with anything that you fell in love with. One stall had teeny ice cream cone cups, about the size of those dosing cups that come with cough mixture. The flavours on offer were toffee apple which was very sweet but delicious, and the intriguingly named Christmas. Christmas really did taste of Christmas! It had the idea of mincemeat but also a citrus mixed spice flavour mingling through too. I will be serving some of that this year during the festive season!

There were lots of things on offer for children, including peddle-powered mini tractors to race around a track and donkey rides! We got to stroke some pygmy goats, but we couldn't spot the resident guinea pigs, as they had rather sensibly curled up in their little house. In the rent-a-tree orchard there were archery taster sessions running, so Carl and I both had a go. It was so much fun! I found it really hard to draw the string on the bow back far enough as it felt like it was going to snap and ping me in the face at any moment! I didn't manage to pop any of the balloons that were up for target practise, but all my arrows did land on the thing we were aiming at, which was a pleasant surprise!

After that we wandered to the apple tasting barn. There was a great long trestle table laid out in an 'L' shape with basket after basket of different varieties of apple, and staff to cut you pieces and talk to you about the different kinds. It was a bit frustrating, because you queued at the short end of the L and worked your way along, but people behind us kept 'just going over to have a look' at the long side of the L and queue jumped! And queueing is supposed to be practically a national sport! The wait was worth it though, and we sampled Topaz and D'Arcy Spice and Jupiter before taking ourselves off to the farm shop to purchase some apples to take home. We chose several varieties, taking 2 of each so we can both try them.

I can't wait for next year, when I will definitely be having a go at the longest apple peel competition!

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Satisfaction on a Wednesday Evening

Yesterday evening was an evening for strong Yorkshire tea in a chunky mug decorated with a floral union jack...comforting tea. I had a bit of a grim day yesterday, the whole thing coloured by an incident in the morning. I was working at my adopted library and walked in on someone making some incredibly rude, personal and hurtful comments about me. You know when the whole room goes still and quiet? It was one of those moments. Happily I kept my self possession and walked away, but while I kept my head high, my insides were sinking.

This evening, however, is rose scented tea from a thin, delicate mug patterned with butterflies. The ladies who witnessed the event of yesterday morning have been overwhelmingly lovely and kind, I have just come back from my burlesque dance class (which is going really, really well...I love it!) and Kirstie Allsopp's new series started tonight (I recorded it). Oh, and the Puppini Sisters have a new album out soon. Here is a link to a free taster!

Tonight's dinner was a real success, too. I had some pumpkin risotto left over from Sunday, so I turned it into arancini. Before work this morning, I took tablepsoons of the cold risotto, and rolled them into balls. Then I poked a finger in to form a miniature bowl made from risotto. I filled the bowl with cheddar cheese, then sealed it closed with a little more risotto. Each ball got rolled first in beaten egg and then in breadcrumbs, before being set aside for this evening. When I got home all I had to do was fry the arancini while the sauce cooked. The sauce was an onion, fried slowly until soft and melting, with some chopped tomatoes, a pinch each of sugar and dried chillis and a sprinkling of dried mixed herbs. After that had bubbled away, I wilted in handfuls of spinach and rocket. I served it with a scattering of pine nuts and sunflower seeds. Considering it was mainly leftovers and storecupboard staples, it made an impressive dinner. Actually, I think I enjoyed the left overs more than the original dish! I think next time I make them, I will try goats cheese or feta as a filling.

And then of course, there are the comments left for me here, as well. It touches me very much that not only do you find the time to read my scribblings, but that you find time to comment too, and that your comments are so thoughtful. I love when you share your thoughts with me. It is like having a steaming pot of tea at a big wooden kitchen table, and catching up. Now I must warn you that I am terrible at remembering to check my emails, but if any of you would like to email me ever, then I have added my email address in the 'about me' section to the top right corner of my blog. (In case you are wondering, I am not mrsclaxton07 because Carl has got through 7 wives, it is because I became Mrs Claxton in 2007!)

Actually, today has been such a lovely day that I think as well as my butterfly mug of rose scented tea, I will be having half a Marks and Spencer Iced Spiced Bun as well. (Why half? Mr C will want the other half, of course!)

I really hope that you are all having a lovely Wednesday too. I am off to bed has turned so chilly here it is bedsocks and hot water bottle weather! Just as well, because secretly, that is my favourite time!


Sunday, 16 October 2011

Book Talk

Serendipity...a word that fills me with both that blissful feeling of anticipation, and yet also a small stirring of fear. Some of my favourite books and authors have been discovered quite by accident, and I wonder, what would have happened if I hadn't stumbled over them. The blog that has had the biggest influence on my life, Brocante Home, I discovered whilst searching for instructions for homemade Christmas crackers. Oh serendipity, you are both a blessing and a curse.

You see, the only way it really works is by letting go and just going with it. And yet when it happens, it is so good, that you want more, and it is hard to just let go and let things unfold.

For example, I may have mentioned, I have been working in a library I don't normally work in, and a week or so ago, they asked me to weed their modern fiction. (You take out books that have either not issued for a long time, or have got grubby, literally weeding out the books that won't issue any more). One book that jumped out at me was The Girl Who Chased The Moon by Sarah Addison Allen. It jumped out because the cover was just beautiful - blue, with a silver charm bracelet. Go here to see it and to read the beautiful 'blurb' on the back cover. How could I resist such a book? I took it home and devoured it, and then The Sugar Queen and I have just started Garden Spells. The books are whimsical and quirky, very much like fairy tales for grown ups.

The other book that jumped off the shelf when I was weeding was The Monday Night Cooking School, this time because it appeared that someone had spilt most of a cup of tea over the book, and all the poor pages were crinkled and brown. The cover illustration was pretty, but I nearly didn't take it home. When I flicked through the pages to see how bad the tea damage was, I noticed that at the start of every chapter there was an illustration of a different kind of vegetable, all in soft greys. So home it came, and I started reading it last night, and finished it in the bath earlier. I was a little afraid that it would be yet another in the line of 'something night something club' books that have come out recently. From knitting clubs to chocolate lovers clubs to Jane Austen book clubs to book clubs in general, name the club, and there seems to be a book about it! The first few I read were interesting, but they all seem to follow the same pattern, a chapter about each member of the club, their story and the overarching story unfolding together. This book was such a surprise though, it was a little whimsical, the writing and the language were beautiful, the stories sophisticated, and it left me wanting more. The descriptions of cooking and food are inspiring and beautiful. After I finished reading it, I closed the book with a sigh of pleasure, and looked at the cover. I was thinking that I was so glad that I had seen past the tea stains, and brought it home to read. Then, on the cover, a quote caught my eye...and it was by Sarah Addison Allen! There are copies selling for just 1p on do order yourself a copy here or of course you could see if your local library has a copy that isn't stained with tea!

So although I am mainly very happy to have discovered two wonderful new authors, and four books that have made my soul sigh with happiness as I read them, I do wonder, would I have found them, if I had not been weeding that day, or was I always destined to find them, or them to find me? What do you think, are there books out there that are meant for us? If we don't find them at a certain time, will we find them later? Or will we only find them later if we still need them? (In The Sugar Queen there are books that magically appear to one of the characters...I had been thinking about the idea before reading it, and I have been thinking about it more since then...)

Happy reading!

Pumpkin Carving Brunch Club

Today we held our annual Pumpkin Carving Brunch Club. I always look forward to it, and was so pleased that everybody had a good time. As people arrived we had hot mulled pear cider to drink out of tea cups, and then we had a cider tasting in tiny espresso cups. We had bought several bottles of flavoured cider, and invited our guests to taste them blind and guess what they were drinking. Then we served the food, for our guests to help themselves to. Naturally, pumpkin is the main ingredient! I made a pumpkin risotto, into which I beat a vegan-cream-cheese-and-roasted-pumpkin puree at the end, a spiced pumpkin and spinach stew, jacket potatoes, and sausages. There were little dishes of sage, pumpkin seeds and grated cheese to sprinkle over the food.

The tradition is that everybody brings a dessert, and there were some delicious offerings. There were miniature cupcakes, iced with orange, and topped with star sprinkles or chunks of chocolate flake; zucchini autumn trifle; and our own offering, do-it-yourself-toffee-ice-cream-sundaes.

After we had eaten, we had another round of cider tasting, then everbody carved a pumpkin. It was lovely to see everybody absorbed, and of course, everybody gets to take their pumpkin home, which makes a marvellous party bag!

If you have not had a pumpkin carving party, then I would say do give it a go. You can make it more autumnal than halloweeny if you like, as we do, or you can go all out and make it spooky. I enjoyed serving all the drinks in tea cups, as it put a little-sips-of-tea twist on things. Here are some recipes to get you started:

Hot Pear Spiced Cider

Into a slow cooker, pour 1 litre of pear cider (I used Kopparberg) and stir in a slosh of dark rum (Mount Gay is my favourite). You can make it as strong or weak as you like! I then stirred in some of Whittard's Mulled Wine Instant Tea powder to taste, but in the past I have also used little bags of mulling spice. Finally, float in some sliced orange, leave to get steamingly hot, and ladle into pretty teacups to serve.

Earl Grey Spiced Apple Tea

This makes a lovely offering for those who choose not to drink, are pregnant, or are driving. It is so simple, but tastes so much more than the sum of its parts. Into a saucepan, pour a carton of apple juice, about a litre in all. There is no need to buy anything more than the most basic kind for this. Into the juice place three Earl Grey teabags (after the recent controversy, you may wish to avoid Twinnings!) and place on a low heat. Once it is steamingly hot, take the tea bags out, and pour the tea into a pre-warmed teapot to serve. Keep it warm with a tea cosy. My top tip for prewarming a teapot is to take the lid off, and hold it upside down over a steaming kettle so the steam warms it.

Spiced Pumpkin Stew

This is another very simple recipe, and does not require much attention, but does require plenty of time for long slow cooking, so the flavours can meld together. The list of spices is long, but they marry together so well, it is worth buying any that you don't already have in your storecupboard.

You will need:

2 tbsp oil
1 tsp mustard seeds
1 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp ground coriander
1/2 tsp fenugreek
1/2 tsp tumeric
pinch dried chillies
1/4 tsp ground cinnamon
2 large onions, chopped
2 garlic cloves, crushed, or a squeeze of Lazy Garlic
500g pumpkin, peeled and cubed*
I tin plum tomatoes
3 dried apricots
150ml water
250g spinach

*you should have 500g pumpkin after you have peeled and deseeded it. Make the cubes fairly chunky, so they are substantial, but not so large that they aren't bitesized. Also, do make sure that you get a 'culinary pumpkin' not a carving one!

1) Heat the oil, then add the mustard seeds, and wait for them to 'pop'.
2) Stir in the other spices, and let them cook for a minute or so, until they are really fragrant.
3) Stir in first the garlic, and then the onion.
4) Cook on a very low heat long and slow, until the onions are meltingly tender.
5) Add the pumpkin, then stir in. Cover and cook for 5 minutes.
6) Blitz the canned tomatoes in a blender, then stir in. Cook for another 5 minutes.
7) Blend the apricots into the water, then add to the pan.
8) Boil and simmer until the pumpkin is soft. This iwll probably take about 20-30 minutes.
9) Stir in the spinach, which should wilt down very quickly.
10) Your stew is ready to serve, and will freeze nicely. Serve with rice or jacket potatoes, and garnish with pumpkin seeds, perhaps a little grated cheese, and a drizzle of chilli oil.