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.


Catching Up

Good evening,

well, since I was here last, a lot of cups of chamomile tea have been partaken of! I cannot tell you how much coming here and reading your kind and thoughtful comments has helped me. I have good news to share, that Dad is at home again now, although that in itself was filled with tribulations. He seems to be stable at the moment, but I cannot help but think that it is going to be something of a winding road. Understandably, my little brother is finding it hard to deal with things, and Dad is sad and a bit bewildered that he isn't really talking to him....not in a 'I'm not talking to you' way, but just in a 'I have had too much to cope with and I don't know what to say' kind of way. Mum says that he is trying which is good, but she is finding that it isn't enough to make everything else go away. I think it is one of those things, that old but true saying, that everyone needs time.

We have not got care packages sorted out yet, but they are in the works, so hopefully that will help ease the pressure on everybody. I know I don't live with him day in and out and so am removed from some of the wearing-down, but I do feel sad for him. Ok, so he hasn't done a lot to help himself in the past, but a lot of this he can't help, and it doesn't seem fair to be cross with him over it. Although I do see that it isn't as simple as people being 'cross' with him, but just being worn down.

I feel so sad that he has not had a better life. He was born just before the first war, one of three brothers to parents who were not well off at all, and had married without their parents approval. They lived in a cottage in a village, the woods were their back garden, and there were greengage trees in the garden. But his Mum had schizophrenia, which little was known about back then. I seem to remember a half whispered story overheard when I was little, that she had once been in trouble for taking someone's coat, which was likely a mistake or a result of her illness. Again, I half remember Dad saying that other children in the playground would chant 'Your Mum's a lunatic' at them. He was dyslexic, left handed, and not good at school. He did his national service on Cyprus, and came top in a course about cleanliness and hygiene...I think that was the first time he has been good at something, but sadly, it led to a lifetime obsession with cleanliness, and phobias about germs.

He married a Filipino nurse when he was in thirties, and with her had my step brother. She was not a particularly nice person, and after they married it emerged that she had children from previous relationships. She ran up debts and left him. After bringing up their son alone, he met my Mother, and she, me and my sister moved in. Some years later, my step brother chose to go and live with his Mother, which I think nearly broke Dad's heart. Then Nana's schizophrenia started to get worse and worse, and it emerged that Grandad had developed alzheimers, and was forgetting to give Nana her medication. They both went into care, declined slowly, and died. Happily my little brother was too little to remember much of this.

He has never enjoyed good health, and while many of his complaints and problems have been genuine, such as when he had heart surgery, he has also been guilty of being a little bit of a hypochondriac, but then I wonder if the only way he got attention as a smaller child was when he was ill.

So that is it, really. I did not mean to share quite so much, but it is quiet here, the lights are low, and sometimes, when you start to explain things, the words flow from your fingers, and suddenly, you are making sense of things for yourself as well.

So thank you for listening. Thank you.

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

Tomorrow Will Be A Better Day

Before I do go and make that cup of tea, I want to share this link with you as I do firmly believe that breakfast is the most important meal of the day! It helps to have a good breakfast inside you, as you never know quite what the day is going to bring....enjoy! x

Time For A Cup Of Chamomile Tea

Chamomile tea for me is comfort in a cup. I love that I can drink it before bed time and it won't keep me awake. I love how it tastes like the idea of honey on your tongue. The best chamomile tea I ever had was in a tea shop, and when I took the lid off to stir the pot, it was filled with tiny chamomile flowers! In just a moment I will be going to the kitchen to brew a pot of chamomile tea, for it has been quite a day.

Those of you who have been visiting me here for a little while will know that my Dad has had some mental health issues in the past. Sadly last night he had another one of his episodes. We have never had a proper diagnosis, but it does seem to be linked to his sodium levels, but nobody seems to be able to tell us why his sodium levels crash sometimes. Well, last night he was very agitated and was pacing the house touching every power socket and turning the lights on and off. Mum tried to give him the mild sleeping tablet that his doctor had prescribed (he hasn't been sleeping well lately) but he refused to take it and became very glazed and unresponsive. My brother couldn't get him to either swallow or spit out the tablet and in the end called 999 and a paramedic came out. It took him a long time to get through to Dad, and he had him admitted to hospital to the crisis ward.

This morning the hospital phoned to say that the psychiatrist was going to assess Dad, but needed Mum there too. So we picked her up and took her to the hospital, and my Sister came with us too. On one hand it was good that Dad was almost recovered, but on the other it meant that the psychiatrist didn't really see what the problem was. Yet however lucid he seemed, he is also terribly muddled. He hadn't eaten his breakfast because he didn't know it was his. He got locked into the toilet because he got in but couldn't work out how to get out again. I had to get a nurse to break in from the outside to free him. Mum broke down and said she couldn't have him home, that she just can't cope with it any more. He is just too muddled to leave alone, yet she has to work. When he has the episodes, they are terrifying.

Unfortunately I had to leave while the meeting continued as I had to get to work (I am the only keyholder about at the moment) but happily they have kept him in for today. Tomorrow the social care team are going to be involved. It is heartbreaking. I was sitting with Dad at one point, and he kept saying he was sorry for upsetting everybody and he just wants to go home. Mum and I are meant to be going to Knit and Stitch at Alexandra Palace on Saturday, and he is really worried that Mum might not go because of him. He can't understand why she doesn't want him home.

I just find it heartbreakingly sad. I can see why she is at breaking point, but I can also see that it isn't him who is there when he has the turns. There is nothing that can be done or said to help, and it feels hopeless. When he was very bad, just after I was married, he was hospitalised for months, and he would sit with tears running down his face if the nurse asked if he wanted a drink, because he didn't know the answer. It is all too hard, too hard.

When I got home, Mum and my Sister came back to ours, we gave them tea, then took Mum home. I went out to my first burlesque dance class (clothes stay firmly on) which was great exercise and a good chance to get lost in something else, to be absorbed in concentrating. I think I really needed that. I wasn't sure I was going to go, but I am glad that I did.

I am sorry this is not a cheery post...I did think long and hard about sharing this with you. It's just that I think for me, this little space is about the truth of things, not just the pretty bits of my life. To not share would be like telling a lie. Also though, there is still such a stigma around mental health still, so I hope by talking about it a bit it helps make it seem as normal as it would be to talk about having a broken leg. Oh how I wish this was as easy to fix as that though!

I will leave you with a goodnight, and if you haven't tried chamomile tea before, do. I find it so soothing. Chamomile tea sipped from a china cup and saucer, perhaps even taken in a warm bubble bath, before going to sleep in a room scented with lavender....a sure recipe to soothe the soul.


Tuesday, 4 October 2011

Snippets From A Day At My Adopted Library

Did I mention that I have been asked to work on Tuesdays at a library? It isn't going to be forever, but probably until Christmas, and today was my third time working there. I could catch the bus, but it takes over an hour, whereas the train is only ten minutes....although it should be fast as it costs nearly £7 to get there and back!

When I set out this morning I could tell right away that the unseasonable weather was on its way out. The morning was not crisp, but certainly cooler than it has been. Along the little alley-walk that takes me between the back gardens, there was a black kitten sitting up perfectly straight and looking at me. When I got off of the train the other end, there was a great clump of Old Man's Beard shivering in the breeze. Little things, but they make me smile.

When I got to work, I was a few minutes early, and I spent the time looking out of the window. The building the library is in is three stories tall, and the staff room is on the top, so you look out across the rooftops, which is really rather lovely. Down in the library was a poster saying that the library was going to be featured on Flog It! today, at 4:00pm. If you have missed it, it is available on iplayer. The programme is mainly set in Colchester (where there is also a library, and a lovely one too) but there is a section about Dorothy L Sayers, and that was filmed in Witham Library, my adopted library for now. The Dorothy L Sayers Centre is a room in the library, and it was there that I had my interview for my Danbury job, so I always hold it in a special place. Opposite the library is a statue of the lady herself, with a cat, and the house where she lived is just a few doors down from the library.

When I left to walk back to the station, the air was cooler still. The sunshine was welcome, but I can sink thankfully into autumn now. There is a long avenue to walk along, and it is lined with trees. I could tell which kind of tree I was walking under from the sounds beneath my feet. There were scrunchy sycamore keys, and little nubbly prickly seed cases that crunched crisply underfoot, and then swathes of scrunchy leaves to scuff through.

Home again, and thankfully so. Although I work with some very lovely ladies, I am finding it tiring (you are on your feet the whole day). I have whipped up a chicken and rice bake, and then Carl and I together cooked Fiery Hungarian Paprika, Sausage and Cabbage soup ready for tomorrow evening. I am going a dance class tomorrow evening, so I didn't want to come home and cook.

So now it is sips of tea and the scent of dinner cooking, the prospect of a long and very hot bath, and the final of The Great British Bake Off....have a lovely evening!

Oh, but before I go, how lovely....I have been wanting Sophie Dahl's new book ever since it was published, and today it arrived at the library! I hadn't even ordered it, it was just in the new books, so I am going to read that in bed later!


Monday, 3 October 2011

A Scattering of Free Things

Who doesn't love Cath Kidston? Who doesn't love free things? And free Cath Kidston things...well they are high on my list of favourite free things, and this weekend you too can partake of them. The Daily Telegraph is giving away two free booklets, one on Saturday, the other on Sunday. One is 'Gifts' and the other is 'Home' and features patterns for things to make from Cath Kidston.

I have all of her books so far, and am eagerly awaiting the publication of Patch later this month. I rather suspect that Gifts and Home will be compilations of her previous books, but no matter! Always nice to have a little freebie! Each booklet has 52 pages and are called 'make and sew' so no need to be put off if you are not handy with needle and thread.

The other lovely thing is that about 4 times a year, Cath Kidston produces a little magazine. Now obviously there is a lot to buy in it, and it reads partly like a catalogue, but there are lots and lots of extras...sometimes you get a recipe, sometimes there is a book group, sometimes a free idea for a craft project. It is really lovely, and best of all, free! The only thing is that you can't, as far as I can see, register to get one automatically each time it is released, instead, you have to remember to go to the website and order one. But that is really very little work! Just visit and click on the 'request magazine' button.

The wonderful people at Persephone produce a similar magazine twice a year, and they send it to people who have bought books from them previously within the last year or so. Worth buying a book for just for this, really. I have yet to buy a Persephone book that I have not loved!

Oh, and on my walk to a meeting this morning, I came across a garden that had bags of windfall cooking apples and a sign asking people to please help themselves. Isn't that lovely? I am glad I picked up a bag then, as when I walked home earlier, they had all gone.

Now I am off into the kitchen to turn some old bananas into Caribbean Banana Muffins, and then it is back to work! I hope you are having a lovely sunny Monday,


Sunday, 2 October 2011

What We Need, What We Want

Anyone who has read any of the beautiful books by Sarah Ban Breathnach, particularly Simple Abundance will know that she is a firm believer that what we have is what we need. sometimes we just need to look a bit harder to see it. The past few days have been gloriously sunny and warm, very un-autumnal altogether, and much more summery than our actual summer was. It actually reached twenty eight degrees here today!

Even before this beautiful Indian summer, I had heard whisperings from people that we are going to have a hard winter. The weather forecasters' predictions are being backed up by abundant berries on bush and tree...which made me wonder, is nature giving us what we need (the sunny weather) instead of what we want (it to be autumnally crisp!) ahead of the cold winter that is coming? One of my favourite poems is Autumn Day by Rilke:

Lord: it is time. The huge summer has gone by.
Now overlap the sundials with your shadows, 
and on the meadows let the wind go free.

Command the fruits to swell on tree and vine;
grant them a few more warm transparent days, 
urge them on to fulfillment then, and press 
the final sweetness into the heavy wine.

Whoever has no house now, will never have one.
Whoever is alone will stay alone, 
will sit, read, write long letters through the 
and wander the boulevards, up and down, 
restlessly, while the dry leaves are blowing.

There are many translations, but this is my favourite. The lines 'grant them a few more warm transparent the final sweetness into the wine' seem so appropriate for these first days of October. October is one of my favourite months. As the days pass, autumn seems to creep in silently at first and then take command. Leaves fall, mists wreathe the fields and at the end of the month the clocks go back. It is near enough to Christmas to start making little preparations in earnest, but not so close it feels frantic. We always hold our annual pumpkin carving brunch club, and it is the weather for hot apple cider and any number of pumpkin recipes.

So while I am more than ready for the weather to turn a little crisper and cooler and more typical of autumn, it has also been lovely to make the most of the sunshine. I have been trying to look at it as what I need rather than what I want. A lot of other families had the same idea, and the park was full. Luckily it is so huge that there is more than room for everybody. We spent the afternoon breathing in the air and sitting in the shade reading. I took a book and a magazine, and Carl took his new Kindle! His friends at work had a collection for him, and that is what they bought him. On one hand I am so pleased that they got him something and clearly had a lot in the collection, but the other hand...a Kindle?! Eek! I am trying to ignore it! We sat and read and people watched which was really rather a lovely way to spend an afternoon. Really, it could have been August! In the background, we could hear the odd whinny from a horse, as there were carriage rides around the park grounds. This evening back at home we have heard the Cathedral bells ringing out at practise. As I washed up earlier, the sky once again turned the most fabulous shade of bright blue, with a bright sliver of silver moon glimmering brightly in the middle. The silver of the moon makes me think of the silver frosts to come, and if it is going to be a hard winter, then I will need to make some preparations. I don't have a lot of cupboard space, but I think some extra tins, packets of tea bags, bread mix and so on would be a good idea, and I will be buying some milk for the freezer too. Did I mention that our landlord won't let us put up curtains? We just have wooden slatted blinds, so I need to think of some ways of keeping the flat nice and toasty too, although happily I do have some tricks in mind!

Wherever you are, I hope the sun is shining on you, and you have all you need, and all you want.