Homing Instinct

interiors, decor and everything home

The Rainy Day Explorer’s Kit

Hello again at last, after an uncharacteristic hiatus; we’ve been a plague house this last couple of weeks, with both my husband and I felled by seasonal ‘flu.  Harry miraculously escaped, and observed our symptoms and progress with great interest; he immediately and opportunistically whipped out his Melissa & Doug Veterinary Dress-Up Bag, and proceeded to administer bandages, injections and chilly plastic stethscopes to whichever of us was too slow to evade his latex gloved-clutches.

Still, the fevers have at last abated, leaving us feeling a little stir-crazy and restless, particularly as last month’s glorious snowfalls have been replaced by driving rain and an all-pervading damp chilliness.  It was time for some indoor adventuring, in the style of a housebound Indiana Jones, so last night whilst Harry was asleep I hastily constructed the Rainy Day Indoor Expedition Kit…

Rainy Day Expedition Kit from katescreativespace

I used this old cardboard laundry box (below) which I found at a local junk shop.  A vintage suitcase would also be brilliant for this, but equally a large shoebox or bag would do the job.  I designed a suitably enticing picture for the front (you can download mine below), and pasted it on before filling it with a collection of bits and bobs from around the house that would spark Harry’s imagination and get us started on a truly exciting and brave indoor adventure.

laundry box

Almost all of the items can be sourced within minutes – and quickly returned to their usual homes afterwards.  A quick raid of the laundry cupboard, fridge, and Harry’s toybox generated most of the contents.  I’ve highlighted below what I included and why; you can customise this for the age(s) of your kids, and also get them to join in the planning; when Harry’s a bit older I’ll get him to decide most the things we need.

Contents of indoor expedition kit

In our rainy-day expedition case you’ll find:

  1. A field trip notebook and pen for recording what we see 
  2. A torch (you can teach morse code to older kids).  We had battery-powered fairy lights too for our den
  3. Toy walkie-talkies so we can communicate when out adventuring; real ones would be even cooler
  4. A large white sheet to use as a tent for our den, with pegs to hold it in place.
  5. Books to read in our tent, when eating our snacks
  6. Juice and crackers.  We ate these before we even started, so one of our first expeditions was back to the fridge
  7. A simple point-and-shoot camera for Harry to take endless blurry photos of our trip
  8. Hat and goggles, in the manner of all true explorers
  9. A sword, because you never know when you’ll meet a pirate or a baddie
  10. Handcuffs; see above.
  11. A rubber snake, for instant atmosphere; throwing this around (Harry) and screaming in faux-terror (me) took up quite a lot of the day and caused endless delight
  12. Marvin, Harry’s right-hand mouse and inseparable companion, and finally..
  13. A strong rope; we used a waxed washing line rope, mostly as a lasso for wild animals, but also to tie around our waists when climbing the stairs / dangerous mountain.

Expedition Kit Contents

I placed the expedition suitcase on a stool for Harry to discover it at breakfast time, when we usually make our plans for the day.  Once he wrestled the top off the box, he also found this mysterious ribbon-tied scroll in the case, which outlines exactly what you need to do to qualify as a proper Adventurer; this provided the basic plan for our morning…

Adventurers Challenge

Our den-building took quite a bit of time and was lots of fun; pondering the exact location, and discussing what we needed to consider; (ability to see pirates coming from afar, easy access to food and toys, and a multitude of other specifics).  We strung, hung and pegged and bundled cushions and suitcase into the finished den, stringing up fairy lights for added atmosphere..

harrys big expedition

Harry’s toy dog Digby nobly agreed to play the role of wild animal and was duly captured and tethered to the kitchen table, with some crackers as a reward for his co-operation and acting skills.

indoor expedition

We fended off attacks from a troop of Lego City Robbers and some Playmobil pirates before settling down to stories and juice.  After lunch we discovered the promised treasure; leftover chocolate gold coins from Christmas, secreted in an old wooden box at the top of the stairs.

It was the best kind of day; just enough planning to spark Harry’s imagination, and then much adventuring, rescuing, wrestling, construction, destruction and finally chocolate, which seems to me to be the formula for little boy heaven.  I’m sure versions of this game are played in homes the world over, but if you want to download our Expedition Case label and Adventurer Instructions, you can find both below.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to just go untether a dog before retiring to my den with a fistful of chocolate coins (who says you have to grow up?).

The Adventurers Challenge

Expedition Kit

The Memory Library

memory library

I come from a bookish family, enjoying an upbringing where reading was considered to be the ultimate sporting pursuit, and where every household nook and cranny was crammed with a life-history of books, from the trashiest novel to the most highbrow doctrines of Greek philosophy (our shelves were nothing if not egalitarian, and we relished them all).

Thus I learned the facts of life mostly from Judy Blume novels, and yet was extremely well-read about world history from our travelling-salesman set of Encyclopedia Britannica, the 90′s print forerunner of Wikipedia. Sadly, volume 12 vanished without trace at some point meaning that anything listed under ‘M: Malachite – Mycenae’ will forever be a gap in my knowledge.

It’s perhaps no surprise that Harry is showing signs of being a book-lover, who delights in being read to (and in pretend-reading to us). At 3yrs old he already has a small but precious handful of books which have marked the various stages in his life and which have been transient obsessions, and I wanted to capture those memories before they fade and get swallowed up into the general joyous mayhem of childhood.  I designed some simple bookplates to stick in the cover papers of his favourite books, recording the memories associated with them, so that he (and we) can look back on these in the years to come…

bookplate1

Harry’s first ever book was a picture book by the inimitable Emily Grevatte, whose simply rhyming and repetition tickled the then 6-month old Harry and produced a chortle which turned into a full belly-laugh, and culminated in such hysteria that in time I only had to pick up the book for H to start giggling.  Any new mum will tell you that whoever can make their babies laugh is a friend for life, so Grevatte’s books will always have a special place in my heart.  The Gruffalo was another hands-down favourite..

bookplate gruffalo

The bookplates themselves were printed onto standard white paper and I then used a glue stick to paste them into the dog-eared and well-loved books.  If you want to do this and don’t have the time or inclination to make your own, there’s a downloadable version below which you can simply print out and fill in (minus the picture of Harry, of course!)

my library bookplates

printable bookplates

Download by clicking on the attachment; I’ve saved this a PDF with 6 labels per sheet; these should fit most books.

Printable Bookplates

As I pack Harry’s old baby books into the loft for the next generation, it’s lovely to think that the family stories behind the storybooks themselves are captured and waiting to be rediscovered.

bookplates from katescreativespace.com

Other things… it’s been a snowy week here in Britain, with a huge blanket of snow falling thickly for several days.  Nurseries and schools closed, fires were lit, and we took to the fields and hills to make the most of it.  We decided to go to the local park (Windsor Great Park; home to the Queen and some stunning landscapes) just as dusk was falling, and we had the place to ourselves; it was indescribably beautiful..

a walk in the woods

We came across this couple, absorbed in the beauty of the winter landscape…

a snowy romance

..and obviously in the early stages of a great romance…

snowstruck lovers

We taught Harry the art of the snowball fight – something I’m sure we’ll regret before long – before heading home for crumpets, tea and to admire how beautiful everything looks in our snowy garden, including Harry’s new playhouse – a secondhand one which I spruced up with curtains, carpet and a weather vane; it was Harry’s 3rd birthday present and he’s very house-proud; even delivery men get invited in for a cup of tea and a story…

playhouse in the snow

Happy New Year!

Welcome back, and  Happy New Year!  I hope that you had a lovely Christmas and a chance to switch off from the hurly-burly of day to day life.  We had a wonderful time here; a great, celebratory Christmastime, and then a lovely slow blur of days which blended into each other as we nested at home, piled up in rugs on the sofa, with the occasional blast of icy fresh air from walks in the woods.

Santa was extremely kind this year, and so too were our friends and relatives who showered Harry in loveliness, so thoughts this week turned to the very important task of saying a heartfelt ‘thank you’.  Harry’s a wee bit too young still to produce identifiable drawings or to have the concentration and dexterity for complete written sentences, so instead we staged a chaotic 5 minute photoshoot to produce some fun pictures for a home-made thank you card.

harrys thank you cards

I slung an old sheet over a bookcase for a backdrop, then gave Harry a big handful of ‘thank you notes’ – printed ad infinitum onto paper and then sliced into words – to play with.  As you can see from the outtakes below, he tried throwing them, blowing them and ultimately just tried not to drop them; he loved it for about 3 minutes, and that’s all I needed.  The clear-up took slightly longer…

HARRY OUTTAKES

I printed out some copies and glued to blank cards, pasting in one of the ‘thank you’s we used in the photo into the inside of each card and then filling in.  We added interesting stamps to each before feeding into the postbox.

harry cards final

I then got a little carried away with the general theme and made some ‘grown up’ thank you cards using the same principle (below), cutting and pasting the words for thank you in different languages and adding a simple wooden star from a pack of leftover Christmas craft embellishments.  I like their simplicity, particularly for this time of year when we’re all a little weary of sparkly festive colour and ready for a more neutral palette and a return to muted decor…

grazie mille close up grazie mille main

One of the joys of this last couple of weeks has been having the time to play a little and to try new things.  My mum’s Christmas gift to me included a big bag of wool and knitting needles, and a foolproof pattern for a beginners’ scarf; she taught me to cast-on on Boxing Day and I’ve just finished my first ever piece of knitting (below), and mighty proud I am too!  I suspect that I lack the patience and concentration to ever excel at knitting, but I’m cheerily offering hand-knitted scarves to every member of the household, buoyed by a passionate, if temporary, enthusiasm for wool.

knitted scarf

And so to the New Year, and to resolutions.  As some of you know, this blog was born of a resolution on NYE 2012, when I decided to write a blog for a year, documenting the fun stuff I do with Harry and the projects we try.  Up until about the middle of December, I was pretty clear that it would come to a natural end with the close of the year, and I would look back on it as a great thing to have done at a very specific time in my life.

But.

I think I’d really miss it. And without the discipline of posting regularly, I doubt I’d take as many photos or preserve as many memories as I do. So, my resolution for 2013 is to continue for a while longer, perhaps not with the same intensity, but definitely with the same kind of projects and ideas, posting when inspiration strikes and when time allows.  Your comments and feedback are fantastic to receive (and thank you so much to everyone who replied to ‘A Pause’ with all your festive good wishes and the small insights into life where you are; it was a wonderful Christmas present for me).

I’ll be back next week for the grand opening of Harry’s Hardware and Auto – his play store and garage which appeared, as if by magic, last week – and I hope that you’ll join me.  In the meantime, I’m sweeping pine needles, wrapping and storing Christmas decorations, and replacing the glitz and bling of the festive season with simple things around the house, like these; a bowl of fresh lemons which is slowly scenting the kitchen and mingling with the paperwhites and hyacinths to produce a distant promise that Spring will come again…

january lemons

A hundred different words for snow

It’s said that eskimos have over a hundred different words for snow, to capture the manifold ways it arrives; drifting snow, falling snow, powdery snow – a word for each and every one. Such claims may be the stuff of mythology, but it somehow captures the magic of snowfall and fits with the science of every single snowflake being unique.  We’ve had no real snow this season, despite Harry’s feverish anticipation and enough cold snaps to make even the Inuit consider double-glazing.  Still, we are nothing if not self-starters, so have decided to make our own snow for Christmas.

winter snowscapes

I’ved used glass cloches to cover simple white dining plates and scattered with faux snow and some Christmassy miniature trees from the local garden centre to create this snowscape which will adorn our Christmas table.  I glued little star-shaped buttons to the top of each tree for a splash of bright festive colour.  Harry saw me make this one (above) and was intrigued, but hasn’t yet seen the others, for which I recruited some of his favourite toys… (I’ve taken the glass covers off to photo these, but details of what I’m using are below)

Buzz Lightyear has his perennial expression of mild confusion as he struggles with these trees and directions to the North Pole…

snowglobe buzz

Peppa Pig and friend sing carols around the village tree whilst trying not to fall in this mirror-glass pond..

snowglobe peppa

And finally a bright red London bus transports a Christmas tree on its top deck..

snowglobe bus

To cover these I’ve used; a glass cake dome, a clear dessert bowl and (for the miniature London bus and tree) an upturned wine glass.  They can be constructed and taken apart in minutes so make for a good table decoration – and one which can be played with as well as just admired!

We’ve also created our own snowy landscape inside by threading a variety of different white pompoms onto lengths of cotton and tying them onto a slim branch; at the moment it decorates the (disused) playroom fireplace but these also look beautiful strung over windows and doorways.  I measured a length of cotton, threaded it with a needle and then pushed the needle through the pompoms, before spacing them out at intervals and hanging.  Harry chose the pompoms and acted as chief helper; school-age kids can do this all themselves using a thick darning needle with not too sharp a point.  If you find your pompoms slide together, just knot the thread at intervals and the pompoms will ‘sit’ on the knots and stay in place.

snow curtain

snow twig curtain

And finally to our twist on snow globes; I’ve used these miniature bottles (also great for messages-in-a-bottle for Valentines or pirate games), and filled each with a teaspoon of white glitter, water and just a dash of glycerin to top up.  Shake vigorously to disperse all the glycerin and glitter, and then add a little tag (and a bell, if you have them).  I’ll be using them as part of my festive place-settings, but they’d also make beautiful stocking-fillers if places in a tiny box and nestled in shredded tissue, or even looped with cord for a necklace (these bottles really are tiny; a necklace would obviously be a little less practical if you’re using actual milk bottles).

If you’re anticipating particularly vigorous shaking, I’d suggest glueing the cork in place to avoid the kind of dramatic glitter-in-eye-and-ruined-silk-blouse moments that will turn into great anecdotes in the years to come but may test a friendship in the immediate short-term..

DIY snowglobes

DIY snowglobe in motion

So, a handful of snowy crafts with just the right amount of mess and fun.  Hopefully they’ll keep us going until the real thing arrives…

harry in the snow

In Praise of Simple Pleasures

I finished work this week, increasingly giddy with that end-of-term feeling that I’ve never quite managed to grow out of. I love my job, but the thought of hanging up briefcase and heels and simply nesting for 3 whole weeks is a wonderful one. With the recent intensity of work and the heady social chaos of the festive period, it feels like we’ve not quite seen enough of each other of late, and certainly haven’t seen much of the house in daylight hours. As a result, this weekend has been spent decorating for Christmas, eating hot, buttery crumpets, piling logs onto the fire and just enjoying being here, with each other, with no alarm clocks and no cause to rush.

small pleasures
It’s a time of contentment in simple pleasures, like the unwrapping and rediscovery of cherished ornaments, like these Faberge-esque beauties bought at the now defunct Smith & Hawken store in Manhattan on my first ever trip to the city a decade ago, along with a box of vibrant and perfectly round glass berries which catch the light and twinkle against bare branches which I’ve propped in vases and dotted about the house

S&H eggs
S&H berries
I’ve finally brought down the last of the boxes full of books which have been hidden up in the loft for the last year whilst we tackle the renovation, and spent a lovely hour picking out some old barely-remembered favourites to re-read over the holidays. They sit stacked full of promise on my bedside table, and the anticipation of losing myself in them again is half the pleasure. This year I’m hoping that Santa brings Nora Ephron’s poignant novel Heartburn, which I’ve inexplicably failed to read in the decades since it stormed the best seller lists.

reading pile

We’ve been filling the house with some of the treats I associate with childhood Christmas, like bowls of these fat satsumas, easy enough for Harry to peel without help and impossible to walk past without taking one…

satsumas
And pots and planters filled with cyclamen, one of my all-time favourite plants, with their plucky flowers which look like they’ve been blown upwards with a hairdryer – apparently fragile yet able to withstand freezing temperatures and the accidental casual neglect they suffer at our hands

cyclamen
And we’ve begun the process of decorating the house for Christmas, little by little. Whilst I sort of admire that Marthas of this world who can magic up a Christmas wonderland in the space of one night whilst the rest of the house sleeps, for us it tends to be a very gradual build of festive accents and treasures, as we build up to the big day. This weekend our log basket has gained a garland of Japanese origami paper lights;

concertina lights
And this salvaged barn star leans casually against the kitchen skirting

amish barn star
Whilst the ancient typewriter in our entrance hall hammers out a traditional carol

remington

I’ve added a few handmade decorations too this year, like the paper stars I posted about in November, and these star garlands, made by laying two flat star cut-outs on tops of each other and stitching together before bending out to form a 3d star. These look great if you use different but tonal colours (I layered yellow and orange, and red and pink), but also beautiful in a subtle, rustic way if you use plain white paper, newspaper or muted shades. Run them through your sewing machine and just pull out about an inch of extra thread between each one.

star garlands

As part of holiday preparations I also did a tour of the house changing out blown lightbulbs, and gathered quite a hoard, so – inspired by this idea – I’ve coated the candle bulbs in white glue and dipped in glitter to make these sparkly tree ornaments. To create hanging loops, I’ll thread yarn through a small button and glue it to the top of each bulb to hold it in place. I’m just deciding whether to use these as gift toppers, tree decor or to simply place in wine glasses for Christmassy evening dinners as a sparkly place setting for guests. I tried various different colours but loved the deep graphite-like grown-up sparkle of these ones the most.

glitter bulbs DIY
And finally I’ve of course been doing a bit of festive culinary experimentation, like making these Christmas tree pie-toppers from puff pastry and pink peppercorns; use them on tops of stews and casseroles or instead of a full pie crust. For sweet pies, I’d simply dust them with icing sugar and maybe use edible silver balls in place of the peppercorns.

puff pastry trees
My favourite of all though was finally getting round to making a Bûche de Noël – the English translation of a chocolate log is distinctly inferior to the magnificent French original, and this ganache-coated chocolate sponge will I think become a family favourite for the future. I added mushrooms fashioned from marzipan and gave it a festive coating of icing sugar ‘snow’ (which also helps to hide any heavy-handedness in the rolling process..)

buche de noel
And as you know, I can never resist adding a dash of pyrotechnics..

buche de noel

It’s been a weekend of nesting, of family and friends, and of holding each other a little tighter and counting our blessings as events unfold in the outside world.  I hope you had a good one, and that the world where you are is safe and warm.

Gifts from the heart and home

gifts from the heart and home

We’ve been beavering away in the kitchen this week, whipping up festive treats to give as gifts.  Harry is just old enough to begin to take pleasure in gift-giving, so making things together for him to give to godparents, grandparents, grown-up siblings and teachers is a source of great pleasure and pride.  Our best and most explosive offering is our proprietary Christmas Cookie mix (proprietary simply because with such flamboyant measuring of ingredients and dosing of spices, no-one could ever hope to accurately replicate our secret recipe…).

cookie mix boxes as gifts

We’ve measured and stirred together all of the basic dry ingredients for our cookies and packaged them up into pretty take-out boxes which I’ve customised with labels and simple instructions for how to bake the cookies.  We of course road-tested these kits ourselves, to excess – so I’m about 6lb heavier and will be unable to look a cinnamon and nutmeg scented raisin cookie in the eye for at least a day month.

cookie mix

The photo I used of Harry is actually of him playing with his toy BBQ back in the summer, and is one which always makes me smile.  If you want to try these, download my recipe and details of how to mix and combine the dry ingredients below; it’s very simple, as you’d expect by now!

Dry ingredients for Bag 1: 80g caster sugar, 80g soft brown sugar

Dry Ingredients for Bag 2: 180g plain / all purpose flour, 1/2 tsp bicarbonate of soda, pinch of salt, 1/2 tsp cinnamon, 1/2 tsp, nutmeg, 60g rolled oats

Dry ingredients for Bag 3: 150g of raisins or currants.

Christmas Cookie Mix Instructions

Another of Harry’s gifts are these jars of retro sweets – all current favourites of Harry’s, and designed to transport his recipients nostalgically back to their childhood and to provide them with a dippable stash of the kind of illicit, high-sugar treats that they wouldn’t dream of going into a shop and actually buying for themselves.

candy jars as christmas gifts

I added a gingham fabric top, glass candy cane and festive bell, and then pondered how much they look like shepherds (it’s the nativity week thing; I have a one-track mind at the moment…).  So now they are branded as Shepherds’ Midnight Feasts; an energy-packed snack for those wintery nights tending sheep and waiting for virgin births, which is doubtless a long and chilly old business.  Or perhaps just to accompany a night slumped in front of the TV, which is a tad more likely.

harrys sweet jars

Remember those hyacinths and paperwhites I planted a few weeks ago? They’ve sprung into life and are at the promising, budding stage, so I’ve popped a few into inexpensive but pretty mugs, and will be taking them along to decorate the kitchen windowsills of my nearest and dearest later this month – something both beautiful to look at and useful afterwards; I do hope that William Morris would approve.

hyacinths in mugs

I’ve also made a couple more batches of pinecone firelighters, bagged in cellophane and tied up with ribbon.  Our central heating blew up yesterday so I confess I have already delved into one of these and raided supplies to keep our own fires burning whilst we attempt to dress in every piece of clothing that we own.

pincone firelighter gifts

I’ve wrapped red evening candles with ribbon to accompany the bottles of wine we’ll be taking to friends for dinner; another very simple project whose results outweigh the effort involved (my perfect formula for the attractiveness of a craft..)

candles for christmas gifting

candles on sleigh

And finally, because the holiday season is often as much about indigestion and ill-advised consumption as it is about anticipation, I’ve sourced some luxuriously highbrow peppermint teabags and added my own bauble tags before piling into pretty china cups; useful to have on hand for Christmas Day night, and then for those first few weeks in January when one’s body is a temple and your resolve to never let caffeine pass your lips again has not yet faltered (well alright; the first few days then…)

peppermint tea

And now I must leave you; I have a feisty toddler who needs to be wrestled into his Joseph costume before we wend our chilly way through the gloaming to the church hall where his nativity play is to be held.  I already have a small head wound from being accidentally bashed with his biblical wooden staff; I have impounded it until the moment critique when Joseph needs to make his entrance, and have warned Mary’s mother that Mary needs to keep her wits about her in case there’s any flamboyant gesticulating from her husband in the stable, stick in hand.

Back at the weekend; stay warm!

A miscellany of happy things

Despite the greyish mizzle which has rendered our little corner of the world ferociously wet and windy at a time we were hoping for clear, bright skies and sprinkles of snow, we are a happy house this week.  We’ve been beginning the Christmas preparations and finishing some long-overdue DIY, including the decision of what to do with this piece of boat salvage which I stumbled across on ebay back in early Summer.  I fell in love with the layers of peeling paint and the uniqueness of it.  It’s a transom by the way; the end piece of an old navy boat which I bought very cheaply from someone selling bits and pieces of driftwood and maritime junk.  It weighs about as much as a baby elephant, as my long-suffering husband did not hesitate to point out as he dragged it home for me.

boat picture from ebay

Never ones for conventional interiors, we’ve opted to mount it here, in the kitchen, where in the two days it’s been up it’s drawn a range of reactions from ‘are you completely mad??” to ‘gorgeous!!’.  The handy builder who helped us baton it to the wall insisted on taking a photo home to show his wife who could not believe that someone would choose to do something so daft.  I suspect she is not alone in her view, but we think it’s rather cool….

boat final

I’ve also been busy making Harry’s nativity costume for his role as Joseph in the nursery nativity play next week; it’s amazing what you can do with a tea towel and a length of hessian… oh, and of course a Biblical staff made from a stick we borrowed from a friendly dog in the park. It promises to be a comical affair as well as a maternal tear-jerker; Mary towers over Joseph due to a recent growth spurt, and the inn-keeper at 2yrs old is already such a jovial and accommodating soul that I think it’s unlikely anyone will be turned away, regardless of the official plot line.  The children have been learning songs about which they have been sworn to secrecy, so for some time now Harry will distractedly break into song at home and then, realising his error, rear back and exclaim ‘SHHHHH!!!!!!” to himself before glancing suspiciously at us to see if we were listening.  It’s at moments like this I don’t want him to grow up at all, ever.

Joseph costume

Whilst all the signs are promising, I’m desperately  hoping that on the day he enjoys it somewhat more than last year, where the official photo reveals him to have been possibly the saddest teddy-bear in the chorus (tears still wet on his lashes; *gulp*)

teedy bear chorus

Did I tell you that Harry’s big Christmas present is to be a pretend play hardware store-come-garage?  Somewhere he can refuel his scooter, examine a stack of tyres, play with locks and keys and mull over buckets of tools and paints and generally do whatever it is that guys do when they manage to lose an entire afternoon doing man-things in places like this.  Progress is slow, but I’ve at least managed to knock-up a mini paint range for the store, using little baked bean cans with adulterated labels:

harrys paints

I’ve also been making my grown-up Christmas cards to accompany Harry’s reindeer ones; I raided my collection of upholstery fabric samples, set to them with pinking shears and created these simple Christmas trees, decorated with buttons and bells;

homemade christmas cards

And a few of these, made by threading old beads onto a piece of wire and twisting into a wreath shape before gluing in place.  The joyeaux noel embroidered tags I ordered years ago from a regular school name tag supplier and have used for just about every christmas craft under the sun since.

handmade cards

And finally, today I have a day off work and Harry ensconced in nursery in final rehearsals and so will be turning my hand to my biggest culinary challenge yet; making dessert for the eighty octogenarians who will attend my mother-in-law’s birthday party tomorrow.  It has to be something that can be safely transported for two hours in the car, will not inflame any known medical conditions, can be eaten with a plastic spoon and can be tackled by those with dentures. Ha!! No doubt Martha would take this in her stride with barely a moment’s pause, but after weeks of denial and prevarication I have decided on cake, jelly and trifle; it works for kids after all.  I have torn a recipe for a divine-sounding White Forest Trifle from a magazine (leaving behind the footnote which alludes the 951 calories per serving this provides).  Made from cherries in kirsch, mascarpone, custard and sponge, it sounds suitably decadent.  And if it looks a bit chaotic when I’m done, we can  blame that on the car journey and repent our sins later….

Have a great weekend.

A signal to the skies!

magic reindeer food december

It was with trembling hands and bated breath that I opened the travel-worn vellum envelope postmarked the North Pole….Yes!! I had been sent the top-secret recipe for Magic Reindeer Food; the scent and sparkle of which can be seen from the skies as Rudolf and his friends wend their weary way around the world on Christmas Eve.  If you want to be sure of a visit from the great man himself during Christmas night, then catching the eye of his reindeer can only help increase the chances, especially if – like me – you have not managed to be good quite all of the time this year….  The lovely Mrs Claus is a fortunately a forgiving and generous soul, and has shared the recipe with me on condition that I share it only with you, and that none of us tell Mr Claus.

I’ve included two options for making these; a use-it-and-keep-it drawstring bag that will be a small labour of love for your own children, grandchildren or those very special young believers in your life, and a simple paper bag version for mass production for school Christmas fairs or parties (below)

In her letter, Mrs Claus explains that – somewhat surprisingly – Rudolph, Dancer and chums have a particular soft spot for sunflower seeds, sesame seeds and pumpkin seeds, preferably all mixed up together.  In short; birdseed mix.  Who knew??  Add a dash of sparkling glitter and they are in heaven.  Or more importantly; in your back garden, quick as a shot.  I used a conventional birdseed mix and Martha’s tinsel glitter, which has bigger flecks.  I’m assured that should any birds or wildlife get to your sparkly reindeer food ahead of Rudolph, the glitter will pass harmlessly through them or be ignored altogether.

glitter and birdseed

For the special sack itself, which I will give to Harry at dusk on Christmas Eve, I used a simple bouquet garni sack (sold in packs quite cheaply at foodie shops), and rethreaded it with red thread, to which I tied a pair of festive jingle bells.  I added a label – PDF attached below  - and glued it to a scrap of leather before stitching in place.

reindeer food sack

I stealthily borrowed a little wooden scoop from Harry’s play shop and hey-presto! his reindeer food looks like it might just have been sent special delivery from the North Pole itself.



To mass produce these as I’ve done for Harry’s nursery party, I simply stuck labels on mini paper bag, added (sealed!) baggies of reindeer food and clipped shut with a little silver peg.  The printable below has a sheet of the labels I created for these, so do download and have a go if you’re making these in quantity.

reindeer food templates

Now onto other festive preparations and a couple of websites for you to check out; these may be familiar, but if – like me – you’re still relatively new to the world of doing-Christmas-for-children, then they might be a source of new delight… At PortableNorthPole you can get Santa to record a (free!) video message for your child, which is beautifully done and awesomely real.  Harry received his last night (via email), and was astonished to discover that Santa knew not only exactly where he lived and what he wanted for Christmas, but also that he had been asked to try really hard to remember to brush his teeth before bedtime and that he was doing – mostly – very well.  You can upload photos and lots of details and if you haven’t done this, I urge you to click and explore – we love it.  I should add that it’s not just for kids; I sent one last year to a girlfriend, who witnessed Santa opening his special book to find a compromising photo of her, post-Tequila slammers, and received a sorrowful warning from him that she had better stop being naughty if she wanted a visit this year.  So, fun for all…

Finally, one to bookmark for Christmas Eve is NORAD – the multi-langauge site of the North American Aerospace Defense Command, which tracks Santa’s progress through the skies on 24th December.  There is nothing more exciting than going to bed knowing that Father Christmas is due to enter the skies above your bedroom in approximately 3hrs and 42 minutes…

We’re creating kitchen chaos this week with some homemade gifts and festive projects – more news later this week!

Magic Reindeer Food Printables

A little birdie SOS call

In the aftermath of Sandy across the Eastern Coast of the US, our week of wet and windy weather here seems to pale into insignificance. I hope that if you’re reading this from across the pond you’re safe and well, unscathed by the havoc the storm has wreaked.  In our small corner of England, the stormy weather is proving traumatic for the garden birds arriving here for the Winter months.  Stories abound of weary birds dropping from the skies into the waters around  coastal harbour towns, metres from reaching dry land, after days of flying in battering, gusty winds.  Harry and I have decided to launch our own garden bird SOS by making a myriad of DIY bird feeders, to welcome the exhausted new arrivals and help to fatten them up for the chilly months ahead.

Making birdseed feeders is one of the messiest and most fun kitchen projects; it’s incredibly simple, gratifyingly mushy, and very forgiving; if your mixture hardens before you’re done, you can just warm it up and start all over again.  We made a mixture of feeding balls and cookie-cutter shapes, pierced through with straws to create a hanging hole for thread…

Some of these looked so pretty that I think we’ll make them again to accompany Christmas gifts for our green-fingered friends and family members.  Others looked so vast and lumpy that we had to search out very hardy branches to hang them from; I suspect that any robin or chaffinch brave enough to tackle one of those will have trouble getting airborne for a while afterwards..

The other glorious thing about these is that even the most haphazard and amateur cook can manage it (that’s us, of course…).  As long as your ingredients are in proportion to each other, you’ll be fine. So, grab a cup or  a mug and measure out:

  • 4 cups of birdseed (we chose a winter bird mix, with differing sizes of grain to attract different birds)
  • 3/4 cup of flour
  • 3 large spoons of golden syrup (corn syrup)
  • 1/4 cup of hot water, in which you’ve sprinkled and stirred a sachet of powdered gelatine (find these in the home baking section of supermarkets)

Mix all of these together in a bowl. Have lengthy and circular conversation with any young children about why this is one recipe where they are not allowed to lick the spoon and/or bowl at the end

Spoon into pre-greased cookie cutters, using your fingers or the back of a teaspoon to squish the mixture into the edges and compress it down; the more firmly you can pack it, the easier it will be to hang and then peck. For the birds, that is.  Resist the urge to peck at them yourself.  Poke a chopped up piece of straw into each to create the hole for hanging.

After a couple of hours of drying, ease them out of the cookie-cutters and remove the straws, then turn over, so each side can harden.  Ideally leave them overnight for this stage.  If you need to free up the kitchen counter space, you can pop them in the freezer for an hour instead, which does the trick.

Finally, thread a piece of string, cord or ribbon through each, ready to hang; we chose bright ribbon to attract the birds, and to give us something cheerful to look at through the kitchen window..

So now we’ll retire indoors, and await the happy sound of chirruping and crunching from our feathered friends.  At least, that’s what I have assured Harry will happen.  I suspect that in fact I will be bursting through the door again in minutes, shrieking at the squirrels who will descend upon our efforts with glee, as the neighbours look at me, baffled at such random behaviour.  Such is life…

Autumn Tablescapes

The weekend is drawing to a close – a blustery, windswept close here in our small corner of England – but it’s been a rather magical one.  We’ve had a brief but promising flurry of snow prompting Harry to announce, rather prematurely, the imminent arrival of Father Christmas, and we’ve had walks through the autumn leaves and evenings snuggled in front of the fire.  Like all the best weekends though, it began with a lovely event; dinner here with some of our closest friends on Friday night.

Usually when we’re hosting dinner, it’s something of a mad rush; whilst in my head I imagine myself uncorking a bottle of wine and pottering around the kitchen in a form-fitting silky number as delicious smells waft from the stove, I am more usually arm-deep in bath time suds whilst my husband does emergency runs to buy forgotten ingredients, and the first guests to arrive have to tactfully remind me that I have only made-up one eye before getting distracted, and thus look like a freeze-frame from a You Tube video on how to apply eyeliner.  In the early days of dating my husband, I even managed to accidentally lock myself in the bathroom during the early stages of a dinner party (don’t ask how; it’s surprisingly easy I promise you..), and had to eventually ring him from my mobile phone to come rescue me.  This, after 20 minutes of waiting for him to notice my absence, I should add.

So, my history as a hostess is a somewhat chequered one, and evenings with us are nothing if not excitingly unpredictable – or so I tell myself.  On this occasion however, I managed to pull it off; the table was decorated with nature’s finest autumn finds, the menu was delivered without culinary disaster, and I even remembered all of my clothes and make-up.  I think I shall retire at this new-found high; it’s surely downhill all the way from here…

In a nod to Halloween, I added shimmering grey bat wings to small gourds and nestled them in martini glasses at each place-setting; I drew these freehand onto a piece of card stock then made small incisions into the sides of the gourds to slide them into place.  The name cards were glued to small pins which I pushed into the stalks.  I added tiny seed pearls to the tips of the wings.. and then decided I had better stop faffing around and concentrate on the actual cooking and cleaning *sigh*.

First though, I printed out menus onto end-pages from an old book and pegged these to each napkin; I’d bought a handful of yellowing paperbacks in our local charity shop with a view to using them in some crafty fashion, and they ran through the printer very simply; on one side guests could see what they were eating, and on the other were excerpts of letters by Evelyn Waugh – I carefully didn’t ask which side was more gripping..

Over the course of a day or so, I added odd bits and pieces to the centre of the table; blush roses and vibrant chrysanthemums, a selection of pumpkins and gourds which Harry and I dragged back from our excursion to the pumpkin patch (Harry picked up a small gourd and announced ‘my hands are all full Mummy; come along, you bring the rest!’, and marched jauntily to the car.  I see he has mastered the art of delegation at the tender age of almost-3).

Quail eggs, walnuts, corks and pine cones gave our guests something to examine and play with between courses and whilst chatting (though playing with fresh quail eggs after a couple of glasses of wine is a hazardous old business, as we found out)

As for the food itself, I tested out a recipe from my new favourite read; a magazine called The Simple Things, which is a sort of pared down Martha-like celebration of slow food, nature and living in the moment; their chicken and leek pie won the popular vote and will appear again on our table, just as soon as our arteries recover.

But possibly the best part of evenings like these is having managed to choose a husband who invariably says those magic words at the end of the night; ‘you head on up to bed; I’ll clear up down here…’

Homemade Pinecone Firelighters

DIY Pinecone firelights

Log fires, blankets, mugs of hot chocolate, toasty warm socks… there’s something magical about this time of year. It’s been a misty, cold day here and we’re planning to light the first fire of the season tonight to celebrate the start of  the weekend and our hibernation from the winter weather.  In preparation I’ve made these pinecone firelighters, lightly scented with cinnamon and guaranteed to set the kindling alight with a pop and a crackle.

I’d seen similar firelighters in the ever-divine Cox and Cox catalogue, but they’re not cheap and we have fires every night, so I decided to have a go at making my own, using research, trial and error to work out a way of creating them simply at home.  My research uncovered scarily complicated instructions involving double-boilers, safety goggles, wick-trimming and dipping and general scientific sorcery… so I applied some lateral thinking and came up with a much simpler approach.  It’s very safe and quick, though perhaps the only downside of this is that you’re unlikely to need to attract your local Firemen for manly assistance.

You’ll need:

  • A pocketful of pine cones
  • Pack of tea-lights or small candles; I used IKEA’s gorgeous white Fenomen ones.
  • Cupcake cases, slightly larger than your pine cones
  • Optional candle scent; cinnamon, pine, cranberry and sandalwood are all divine.

Firstly, gather all your pine cones.  Size doesn’t matter here, but give them a quick brush to remove dust and bits of forest-floor debris.  Pinecones which are tightly closed will open once exposed to the warm, so you may want to store them inside for a week before using.

When you’re ready to ‘cook’, line a cupcake tin with cases and place one of your tea lights or candles into each.  Make sure you remove the little metal cases if using tea lights, and tweak the wicks so that they are standing upright and proud of the wax; it’s much easier than fishing for them later.  Place in a moderate oven and keep checking until the wax melts and resembles water.  At this point you can add a drop of candle scent to each, or simply leave plain.

Once the wax has melted, move the wicks gently to one side of the case, using tweezers (or with your best pointy fingers; remember that some people claim to quite enjoy being covered in hot wax…hmmm).  This will ensure that the wicks don’t get lost underneath the cones.

Then simply place a pinecone into each case; the wax will rise around it and hold it firmly in place as it sets.

When the wax has cooled and set, lift the cases out of the pans and peel away the cupcake case, revealing your firelighters in all of their glory…

These also look very pretty when left in their cases; I’ll be tying a bundle of these (below) up in cellophane bags or small burlap sacks to take as gifts for those we visit during the festive season (though I’ll probably check that they have an open fireplace first…).

 

And now the light is fading, the kettle is on, and we’re almost all home; have a wonderful weekend whatever you’re doing!

*Update*; a few people have asked via email or comments how these work; to use these firelighters, simply place them at the base of your fire and arrange kindling over the top before lighting the wick; the wax ensures that the pinecone will catch light and burn for long enough to ignite the kindling and create a real blaze; at that point you can add bigger logs and settle back for an evening watching the flames.  Here’s how ours turned out this evening;