Baking

Midweek Magic: A Hug in a Mug

Microwave Cup Cakes

Occasionally I get asked how I juggle a career with motherhood and blogging. Not, I hasten to add, by those who know me, because they see how much falls through the cracks and bear witness to my forgetfulness, air of general chaos and just-in-time approach to life.  Still, if there are secrets to be confided here, one must surely be that I LOVE a good shortcut, and much of my balancing act comes down to doing things on the fly,  adopting Slummy-Mummy rules wherever possible.  And let’s face it, baking cakes in a mug in the microwave won’t win me any Alpha-Mum prizes (and hallelujah to that).

Whilst I do love ‘proper’ baking when time allows, there are definitely times where our household just needs cake, and needs it right now.  Before the oven has time to heat, before I can strap on a hernia belt in order to drag the KitchenAid out from the cupboard, and certainly before any butter has the chance to gradually reach room temperature (I love those Hummingbird Bakery guys, but really – time, people!).  When the need for cake arises, I know I can knock one up in less than 5 minutes, from conception to delivery – in fact, from conception to consumption – and it tastes so good.  Trust me on this.

Choose a mug and a jug (I’m tempted to write this in rhyming couplets, so taken am I with this first line, but I will restrain myself..).

Then add:

  • 4 tbsp of self-raising flour
  • 4 tbsp of sugar (caster or granulated; whatever you have on hand to stir into tea).
  • 2 tbsp of cocoa powder

Mix it up with a fork, then add:

  • 3 tbsp of vegetable oil
  • 3 tbsp of milk
  • 1 egg – crack it straight in; you can beat it in with the other ingredients (no finesse or unnecessary prep here).

Give it all a brisk whisk (there I go again), pour into your mug (fill it about 1/3 to 1/2 full), and then pop in your microwave on high for 2-3 minutes, depending on the intensity of the microwave.  Trial and error is the key here, so you may want to experiment with a couple of mugs the first time for different durations (and then eat both cakes, in the name of science).  Pull up a chair and watch; nothing will happen for about a minute, and then the cake will rise majestically from inside the cup, teetering like a soufflé high above the rim until you are sure a volcano will ensue, before subsiding gently back into shape.  At the ping, remove and blow hard before attacking with a spoon.  The surface will be somewhat akin to that of the moon, but this is not unattractive, and you can artistically decorate with icing sugar to mask it if you choose;

chcolate cup cake with star motif

Add a birthday candle or a sparkler and you will look like the best wife/mother imaginable for your ingenuity and ability to conjure up such culinary magic.

5 Minute Cup Cakes

You probably won’t want to serve these at a dinner party – they have an undeniable slight rubberiness – but they are also undeniably good chocolate cakes, and never go unfinished.  Once you’ve cracked the basic recipe (ie in about 5 minutes), try adding a couple of spoons of Nutella to the mix for a fudgey, muffin-like consistency.  Or for real decadence, bake them and THEN add a dollop of Nutella or salted caramel on the top and give them another quick blast in the microwave; as close as you’ll get to gooey, molten chocolate cakes without actually having to make them from scratch. You can add a dash of vanilla essence or a sprinkle of nutmeg or cinnamon for a festive feel; it’s very, very hard to go wrong with this.

A final word on presentation; I tried using this method with silicon cupcake cases and various other receptacles, but there’s no question that you get the best results in a mug.  Any old mug, but a mug nonetheless.  Set shame aside and give it a go… tonight.

cake eaten

 

Retreating and Restoring

Firstly, thank you for the comments and encouragement and sharing of memories prompted by last week’s post; for me the loveliest thing about blogging is the connectivity and conversation it creates.  The sense of a shared maternal experience of that first day of school, whether separated by days or decades, was potent and wonderful.

Over the last few days, we’ve been in keep-your-head-above-water mode, taking every day as it comes and exhaustedly acknowledging a job well done at the end of each.  For Harry, each day at school has brought a volley of ‘firsts’ and newnesses which have left him glassy-eyed and teetering between giddy exuberance and tearfulness; for us it’s meant juggling work schedules with new school hours, navigating the unspoken rules about drop-offs and collections, pegs and bookbags; the chastisements for wrongly-labelled uniform or missing permissions forms… I’m in yet another maternal learning curve and tackling it with my usual hit-and-miss style.  As a result, it’s been a week of retreating and nesting, where the hours outside of work and school have been filled with the familiar; things which nurture us and guarantee smiles.  Things like..

apple recipes

I took our huge bounty of windfalls and your recipe suggestions and have been revelling in a heady, appley-fog in the kitchen.  Batches of apple sauce, pie and crumble are filling the freezer, and our hands-down winners so far have been more-ish apple & pecan muffins, which we convinced ourselves are healthy enough to be classified as breakfast rather than cake.  Our new apple peeler is a family favourite toy, providing hours of entertainment as we attempt to peel and core every fruit and vegetable we can lay our hands on.

pinceone firelighters 2013

Our walks in the woods coupled with a week of high winds have allowed us to fill pockets full of pinecones; I made a few batches of firelighters for the months ahead and we lit the woodburner one unseasonably chilly night to give them a test-run.

The gradual turning of the seasons has given us a chance for bonfires which beg for marshmallows on long toasting forks.  Soon we’ll be piling foil-wrapped potatoes into the embers and lighting sparklers as we warm our hands with mulled wine, but for now we’re still eking out the last of the summer rituals.

campfire marshmallows

And in a few heady moments of escapism and me-time, I went to a local antiques barn and fell in love with this vintage packing trunk, which is soon to take up pride of place at the foot of Harry’s bed.  A large, wooden trunk complete with working clasps and canvas inlays, it felt very Harry-Potteresque to me and appealed to my current preoccupation with school-life… but I hope it will  grow with Harry’s own taste and look equally good in his room at 14 or 16 as it does now.

harry potter trunk

My other treat this week has been a visit to our local garden centre where the trays and baskets of winter bulbs are stacked high, and where you can stuff paper bags full of papery brown hyacinths which promise to fill the house with scent and colour throughout the darkest days of the coming winter.  It felt like choosing sweets as a child; I limited myself – somewhat – and am looking forward to a weekend of pottering and planting up, aided by a small helper who will doubtless shower soil throughout the house but will revel in the importance of being my Right-Hand Man.

Hyacinths ready for planting

Have a wonderful, wonderful weekend, wherever you are and whatever you’re doing…

Kate

A Palette for the Palate

paintbox cakes

 

How is your week going?  I’m having a slightly misty-eyed, bittersweet one here as I savour the last few days before Harry starts school (school! How did this happen??) – or preschool, to be precise.  But still, it somehow feels like the end of the free-wheeling freedom days of toddlerhood as well as a hugely exciting next step.  But more on that next time.  For now, when I have time off work we’re making the most of the lazy summer days, sometimes with big adventures requiring packed lunches, pirate swords and sunscreen, and sometimes just chilled-out messy play that practically requires us to stay in our  pajamas all day and then simply wipe down the house at teatime.  Yesterday definitely fell into this category as we refined our cake decorating skills…

coloured paintbox cakes

I sliced a store-bought madeira loaf cake into small squares and then mixed up a large bowl of  white icing (icing sugar & water, until it drops smoothly from the spoon), before spooning a dollop into a myriad of little bowls.  Together, we stirred in food colouring with toothpicks, watching what happened as the colours changed and deepened.  If I were an Alpha-Mum or parenting goddess, I would share with you how this was an excellent opportunity to teach colour blending, and how Harry’s vocabulary expanded to include words like ‘Cerulean Blue’ and ‘Magenta’.  Pfff!  Of course not; it was just messy, sticky, and brilliant fun.  We discussed what colour slime would be; whether pirate blood is the same red as our blood, and why girls always like pink (in Harry’s view) – all the crucial topics that matter when you’re 3yrs old.

Making paintbox cakes

 

making paint box cakes

Our efforts were surprisingly tasteful (and unsurprisingly tasty); it certainly impressed us.  I can imagine making a slightly more chic version of these to serve as petit fours at a future party or dinner; how cool would it be to have a huge palette of these tiny cakes that are just sized to be the perfect mouthful? And look, they’re so small you’d practically burn up more calories eating them than you consume in the cake itself….

paintbox cakes on chalkboard

 

cakes on a plate

All Aboard for a Pirate Picnic!

Cambridge Theatre Company

Ahoy there! We’ve had a swashbuckling weekend here, dressing as pirates and polishing off a feast fit for the high seas as we watched the amazing Cambridge Touring Theatre company perform Treasure Island.  Outdoor theatre is definitely one of the highlights of English summertime, and this performance for families was hugely popular.  The chance to dress up, run wild through the local forest and enjoy a massive shared picnic before popcorn and drama was too good to miss.  Our picnic hamper contained;

pirate baguettes
Treasure-map baguettes, packed with child-friendly filings and tied up with decorative maps, bakers twine and wax seals.  The maps were soon torn off and used as real-pretend maps to hunt for treasure amongst the trees.

pirate woodland treasure hunt

Grown-ups took it in turns to scatter chocolate gold coins amongst the tree roots whilst child pirates vaguely covered their eyes, secretly tracking every move.  With the children otherwise engaged, we got stuck into these portable banoffee pies, which I made in jam jars for ease of transport;

portable banoffee pie
I spooned a cheesecake base into the jar and followed with a dollop of ready-made dulce de leche, then scattered  over some banana slices and freshly whipped cream, with a grating of chocolate sprinkles on top. Not the healthiest of desserts but a perfect picnic treat.

portable banoffee

When the pirates returned from their voyage through the forest, we gave each of them a jar of chocolate cannonballs (Maltesers), to see them through the performance…

pirate canonballs
I used these milk bottles and found that a cork (I collect them for random craft projects) is the perfect size to act as a stopper, and gives a suitably nautical touch.  One standard sized pack of Maltesers fills about 2 small milk bottles.

We took along Harry’s homemade cardboard pirate ship (below and here) for the kids to sit in to watch the performance; it’s miraculously survived almost a year of hard play, but a downpour of rain in the interval has definitely shortened its lifespan.

pirate ship tutorial

pirate picnicing pirate outdoor theatre

As all true pirates know, conditions at sea can go from calm sunshine to storms in a heartbeat, and so it was for us, with the heavens opening with a crack of thunder halfway through; the scramble for cover seemed only to add to the adventure and fun (for us; I’m not sure about the actors who bravely carried on regardless.)

The evening has also reawakened Harry’s love of all things piratical; we tend to start the mornings with a bout of bleary-eyed foam sword duelling, and have had to dissuade H from greeting everyone with ‘Ahoy M’hearty!’.  It’s a little startling for the lady at the check-out till when we buy groceries, even if it seems entirely natural at home..

Hope you’re having a lovely weekend!

Kate

A Love Letter to Paris

ParisTraveler_Bicycle_pinup

Well hello, how are you?  I’m back from a few days away with my boys and am feeling refreshed, reinvigorated, renewed and all sorts of other startling words beginning with ‘re’ which provoke mild anxiety in those who know me, who rightly anticipate huge bursts of energy and vigour, just when they are ready to relax and chill out.  Whilst I’m still in holiday mode, I wanted to share the highlights of my recent Paris weekend – a quick visual feast if you have no intention of ever visiting, or possibly a resource to bookmark if you do.  Many of you added comments with some lovely ideas about where to visit which we loved (thank you); the sun shone, the Seine sparkled and we saw the city at its finest, beginning with;

Marais by katescreativespace

A big highlight for me were the endless stores dedicated to all things paper and craft, like this one;

Paris shopping guide by katescreativespace copy

In terms of food, we ate mostly at bistros and cafes, choosing freshly baked bread and pastries from the many patisseries for breakfast, but on our last day we treated ourselves;

Sunday brunch in Paris

We were both keen to try a cookery class when in Paris, so elected to study the art of the macaroon via an afternoon masterclass here

macaroon making by katescreativespace

And finally we squeezed in a couple of hours of window shopping and wandering back through the cobbled streets of the Marais, stumbling across some beautiful boutiques like La Chambre aux Confitures; a tiny place of worship for all things jam and jelly-related (fig, olive & nut jam to accompany your cheese plate, madame? Pas de probleme.  Strawberry & champagne jam for that special breakfast?  Mais oui!).  Then onto the magnificent windows of legendary ballet shop Repetto, piled high with shoes and bustling with young ballerinas eagerly queuing to try on the wares..

repetto store paris

lepetto ballet shoes

A wonderful weekend, and an inspiring one – I spent lots of time photographing amazing window displays and scribbling notes of things to try back home (watch this space..).

But now back to earth, and fortunately in our small corner of the world it’s an earth which is still basking in a heatwave, moderated by overnight showers which bring the garden back to life and cool the air.  It’s proven the perfect conditions for our sunflowers to give a final triumphant push for glory, and as I type they are teetering outside the window (note the carefully chosen words to indicate magnificent height and beanstalk-like prowess; we take competition very seriously…).  Photos and final measuring next time, once I’ve had the chance to add a last dash of plant food under cover of darkness.

Have a wonderful weekend, wherever you are; we have a night of outdoor theatre and picnicking to look forward to – summer at its best!

Kate x

nb all photos and illustrations in this post are my own, apart from the glorious Paris poster (top) from here

Strawberry Fields Forever…

No-bake strawberry cheesecake

We’re in the midst of a heatwave here, and it brings with it a huge wave of nostalgia for the long hot summers of my childhood.  I’ve been talking with Harry a lot about the things we used to do – running through sprinklers, building endless sandcastles, forts and dams at the beach, and picking soft fruit at farms along the roadside.  I promised him that we’d work our way through the same list too (and add a few more; because everyone should be allowed to create a new bit of history after all..), so last week we gathered up our hats, sturdy sandals and appetites and went in search of the first of the season’s strawberries…

Strawberry fields PYO

strawberry farm pick your own

the perfect strawberry

We picked and picked (and taste-tested) our way through the field until our punnets were full and our mouths a tell-tale red.  The picking was great fun in itself; the strawberries almost an afterthought.  We carefully transported them home and put them to good use, making no-bake strawberry cheesecake desserts, and then homemade strawberry cheesecake caramel ice-cream with the leftovers.  I promise you that these are both delicious and incredibly simple… give them a whirl;

Strawberry cheesecake recipe from KatesCreativeSpace

Firstly wash, hull and slice your strawberries into halves, then set aside…

chopped strawberries

Empty your biscuits/crackers into a plastic bag and bash with a rolling pin until they are nothing more than crumbs.  To help with this stage, imagine you are whacking a small critter that has shot out from under the cupboard, and needs to be stopped dead in its tracks.  Bash them a bit more.  Now tip into a bowl and pour over your melted butter, and stir well.  Heap spoonfuls of the crumb mixture into the base of 6 cocktail glasses (you can use to fill a standard 23cm baking pan if you’d rather make a single cheesecake).  Place in the fridge to chill.

digestives

Now for the cheesecake filling; blend together the cream cheese and icing sugar, and then scrape the vanilla seeds from the pod and add these in too, blending again.  Pour in the double cream and mix well.  Pour or spoon your mixture over the crumb base in the cocktail glasses (or pie dish), and then leave to set in the fridge for at least a couple of hours.

whisk

Now spoon your strawberries over the top and serve to gasps of admiration and gastronomic lust.  Honestly, trust me on this.  Visually, this is a just a more elegant way of serving a sort of deconstructed European cheesecake (never oven-baked, like those in North America, and thus a slightly sharper, more creamy taste).  You can prepare it ahead of time and whip out at the moment critique, and I’m all for desserts like that…

dessert trio

When I was playing around making these I ended up with more of the cheesecake base than I needed, so I was delighted to stumble across a recipe idea from Waitrose (pic below) for homemade strawberry & cookies ice-cream.  I adapted this and mixed my leftover crumb base with some slightly softened vanilla ice-cream, some chopped strawberries and a dollop of caramel sauce.  Mix it up well and then refreeze, and you have an awesomly more-ish homemade ice cream dish…

homemade strawberry cheesecake ice cream

So there you have it; a fun summer activity and then two divine desserts to make with the treasures you bring home.  Bliss…

And finally… thank you for the lovely comments and kind wishes for our wedding anniversary last week; we had a divinely decadent afternoon in the sunshine at a local hotel, being served a seemingly endless afternoon tea; I’m mildly ashamed to say we drank Assam despite the exotic array of teas on offer…

champagne afternoon tea

But were much more adventurous and dedicated in working our way through the entire dessert selection… champagne tea 2

And now I must go; penance beckons, in the form of a very long (and very slow) run…

Have a great sunshiny weekend when it comes!

Kate

Feast Days and Homecomings

Feast Days

Hello again!  It’s been a rollercoaster couple of weeks here, with my day-job taking me away on extended travels to India followed by heady reunions back home (things to remember always; the ‘welcome back mummy!’ signs tied to trees and gates all along our lane…).  I’ve spent the last few days playing catch-up, so this weekend was a chance to kick-back and relax with friends, hosting at home.  My best friend just scored a fantastic new job, so we took the opportunity to celebrate.  It was my favourite kind of meal; a small group of the loveliest of people, with a touch of style but no airs and graces, and the kind of menu that doesn’t suffer unduly if (umm, when) the wine flows too freely…

Preparation is everything, so Harry and I made a batch of parmesan and cracked black pepper oatcakes to go with cheese at the end of the evening.  I used this recipe which early readers of my blog will remember, and added a cupful of grated parmesan and a liberal dash of black pepper to the dough; they taste delicious and yet are extraordinarily simple…

Parmesan and Black Pepper Oatcakes

My other make-ahead element was individual heart-shaped Tartes au Citron, using ready-made pastry for speed.  Blind-bake your pastry and then beat together 5 eggs, 150ml double (heavy) cream, 150g caster sugar and the juice of 3 lemons, plus the zest of one lemon.  Pour into the case and bake for around 30mins if you’re making a single large tart or 15 mins for individual ones; this quantity will make you one large tart or 6 smaller ones.  I dusted with icing sugar and added fresh raspberries, serving with the leftover cream.

tarte au citron with raspberries

Asparagus is everywhere right now, enjoying its short but intense season.. I couldn’t miss the opportunity to use it, so served up a generous handful, steamed until just tender and topped with a poached egg and crumbled, grilled pancetta.  It’s a divine combination but definitely a make-in-the-moment dish; choose friends who will happily perch at chairs whilst you cook, topping up your glass and ignoring any eggshells you drop. Friends who can also be trusted not to eat all your crispy pancetta when your back is turned as you plate up the rest…

asparagus and pancetta

For the main course I grilled rustic lamp-burgers in ciabatta rolls on wooden chopping boards like these, topped with goats cheese, fig jam and served with a generous portion of oven-baked parmesan fries, from a recipe found here; you can almost convince yourself they’re healthy, though they tasted good enough to feel sinful.

To add a little style to the table I spritzed the tips of a handful of white feathers with spray glue and poured platinum glitter over them, before shaking off; they caught the light and sparkled subtly all evening; a 5 minute project which definitely punches above its weight.  (If feathers are your thing by the way, have a look at Pinterest, where they are definitely having a moment; craft projects for headdresses, garlands and gift-tags abound…)

glitter tipped feathers

glitter feathers

Our eclectic recent weather has done wonders for the garden, so I braved the rain to gather a handful of vibrant peonies for a dash of colour;

fresh peonies

And a final party trick; freezing slices of lemon leftover from the tarts into a cupcake tray to form over-sized colourful discs of ice to float in pitchers of water on the table.  Once frozen, I pop any excess discs out of the trays and store bagged up in the freezer for next time.  Smaller fruits like summer berries work beautifully when frozen in regular ice cube trays in the same way.

lemon slices in cupcake trays

Preparations done, it was time to celebrate;  homecomings and new jobs, friendships and feast days.  It’s a holiday weekend here in our small corner of the world, as I know it is for friends across the ocean; I hope that the sun is shining for you, and that summer feels close at hand…

champagne

Back next week for more crafts, and an update on the Great Sunflower Race (yay; we’re back in the game!); let me know how yours are doing if you’re growing them too…

Kate

Food for friends: Sunshine Apple Crisp

apple crisp with fork

It’s a glorious morning; the sun is shining, I’m surrounded by hungry boys (some borrowed, some home-grown), and we’re feeling in need of a treat.  Something quick, decadent and portable, that can be eaten on the lawn with fingers and requires little washing up.  Those of you who come here often will know that I don’t feature heaps of baking, but when I do it’s always simple food that requires almost no skill or experience; I know my limits.

A lightening quick post this week, therefore, with a lightening quick dish for Sunshine Apple Crisp.  It takes just a handful of minutes but will look as though you have slaved away for much longer – do not disabuse anyone of this notion.

Gala Apples

We found puff pastry in the freezer and apples in the fruit bowl; everything else you’ll probably have to hand.  You can use different kinds of sugar or different kinds of jam; you can even substitute apples for peaches or pear and it’s equally delicious.  Finer chefs than I might peel the fruit, or use a mandolin for finer slices, but I am a slapdash, carefree cook with scant concentration so you won’t see such guidance here.

Easy Apple Crisp Recipe

apple crisp cooling on tray

Eat in the garden where sticky fingers don’t matter and where spilled sugar and pastry crumbs can fall without consequence.

apple crisp serving ideas

Enjoy, enjoy!  … and I’ll see you after the weekend.

Kate

And now breathe…

egg hunt vintage bicycle sign

It’s been a glorious long weekend; a rich and hectic mêlée of friends and family coming and going, of feasts and wintery walks, with the frenetic, chocolate-fuelled hedonism of toddlers tempered  by evenings in front of the fire with a glass of wine and some exceptionally fine grown-up company.  It was blissful.

Today we had the long-awaited Great Egg Hunt, and the day dawned chilly and bright, with anticipation reaching fever pitch by lunchtime.  Eggs were laid throughout the garden, and this tantalising invitation was visible from the kitchen window and the driveway as Harry’s friends began to arrive…

easter egg hunt sign with bicycle and playhouse

Lola the rabbit  - Harry’s favourite hand puppet – welcomed guests from her lofty basket on this ancient delivery bike (another eBay find), surrounded by narcissi, balloons and golden chocolate eggs; a promise of what awaited our hunter-gatherers.

easter basket in bicycle

Inside the house, egg-hunting baskets stood ready for collection, from pint-sized hooped baskets for those still a little unsteady on their feet through to magnificent wicker hold-alls for those determined to speed like minesweepers through the undergrowth in search of every last egg…

easter baskets waiting for the egg hunt

The race was on; stragglers who were still wrestling with wellies or dithering over basket choice soon caught up and the hunt began in earnest

egg-hunting

Every garden nook and cranny was investigated in the hunt for Easter treasure

Playhouse

The eagle-eyed followed signs placed in vintage chimney pots and scattered throughout the garden…

egg hunt sign in chimney pot

egg hunt sign on bird table

The egg hunt was followed by a festive party tea of sandwiches and cakes for anyone who still had the space left for it after the chocolate-fest of the afternoon, then every small egg-hunter left with the contents of their basket and a bag of Bunny Tails, made by filling disposable icing bags with marshmallows and adding gift-wrap paper top cut with pinking shears and a free graphic from here;

DIY Easter Bunny Tails; marshmallow treats for Easter

easter bunny tails - marshmallow treats

Guests could also choose a bunny balloon, which I made by customising simple pearlised balloons with bunny ears cut from vellum, and a hand-drawn face.  I added a bow and then threaded and glued a stripy straw onto each stick (I got quite into this; I can forsee a future post with a menagerie of balloon animals; consider this fair warning..)

DIY bunny balloon

Bunny balloons

Tea was followed by games and general mayhem, as the sugar kicked-in.  The clear-up was worth it…. a day thoroughly well-spent.

honeycomb tissue balls strung on door

Tomorrow brings a return to the fray; nursery for Harry and work for us.  Bags must be packed and diaries checked; alarms set and clothes located.  Until then though, plenty of time for one more favourite activity.  This book might finally be the one I manage not to drop in the tub…

reading in the bathtub

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.

Setting Sail!



‘Tis done! Construction on the birthday boy’s pirate ship is now complete, on schedule and on budget (and is possibly the only piece of construction ever done in our house which can make these claims).  Nobody would ever be bold enough to certify this seafaring vessel as watertight or fit to conquer the seven seas, but our fondant pirates don’t seem to mind.  It does at least creak authentically, due to the weight of the chocolate ganache, and lists atmospherically to one side, though this is more attributable to my lopsided baking than to the ocean wave.

Thank you for all the helpful comments and tips; I now feel like a fully-fledged member of the birthday-cake-baking community, at least for the next 10yrs until Harry officially declares homemade party cakes to be a bit lame and embarrassing, at which point I will hang up my spatula with a mixture of profound relief and dismay.  For those who are interested, allow me to take you on a tour of our galleon…



Our cheery-looking skipper is brandishing an unlit sparkler, ready to fire the canon; we’ll light this at the moment critique in lieu of candles.  The canon and canon balls are sculpted from fondant, rubbed lightly with edible silver dust and accessorised with silver balls.  A hidden cocktail stick secures the canon ball in the mouth of the canon; I’ve instructed my husband to try to rescue all the cocktail sticks before the eating begins.  He’s an ex-surgeon after all; he’s used to counting instruments in and out of cavities).  The steering wheel is the only inedible component, borrowed from Harry’s toy pirate ship when he protested that his cake must have a steering wheel; how right he is.

I made the sails by printing onto sheets of regular printer paper and then rubbing them with used teabags, and setting light to the edges.  It was a useful, if unintentional, way of checking that our smoke alarms are working well. (In my defence; yesterday was a VERY cold day to be faffing around outside with such things).  The bunting is not especially pirate-like, but makes our cake jolly rather than fierce, which is important when you’re staring down the barrel of only your third birthday.  I glued scraps of gift wrap onto sparkly thread and trimmed them into flag shapes.  The flags themselves are winched onto disposable BBQ kebab sticks.

My pirates are not afraid of their feminine side; they sport rose-gold earrings and suffer from rather womanly physiques; I left them looking perky and muscled and then came down this morning to find they had wilted into a sort of pear-shaped, who-ate-all-the-pies type slump. Pirate 2 looks like he is accessorising his outfit with a carefully chosen Chorizo sausage; it’s actually supposed to be a blingtastic gold trophy belt..

An equally heavyweight crow sits in his nest, surveying the seas; he wisely decided not to chance his luck on top of the mast and has taken up station at the rear of the ship instead, where a life ring is within easy reach if necessary.

So that’s all for now; we have a busy weekend ahead with Harry’s party, a grandmotherly visit, and also – excitingly – an away day for me and my mum to try a taster day of willow sculpting. Each year we try a course in some new skill which we are convinced will change our lives; industrial blacksmithing was one, flower painting another (we tend to extremes, as you see).  Mostly we drink a lot of coffee (or wine), gossip and plan projects way beyond our talent.  Tomorrow, for example, we have been led to believe we may create one of these;

Whereas I am secretly hoping I might knock up a herd of these, ready to strap to the roof of the car…

We shall see; I’ll let you know how I get on.  I’ll be back next week with 3 different kinds of stars to make for Christmas; have a wonderful weekend in the meantime, and a belated Happy Thanksgiving to all my lovely readers across the pond!

Willow image credits; 1)  Tir Grug Willow, Wales,  2) Cove Garden Nurseries, Devon