recipes

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

A Pocketful of Hearts

valentine

We’ve briefly come over all romantic this week, felled at last by the growing global momentum of Valentine preparations and the rosy hue of shopfronts as the world turns red for a week.  Valentine’s day here in the UK is still predominantly about celebrating grown-up, romantic love, but is gradually broadening to be a general celebration of love in all its forms.  Harry proudly – and very carefully – brought us home a large envelope containing a card he had made us at nursery which we are not allowed to open until Thursday (though Harry is adamant, in a moment of 3yr old confusion, that in fact we have to wait until Christmas);  he has red glitter in his hair and heart-shaped paint splats on his jeans, so I think we are safe to assume that Thursday is the day.

In turn, Harry and I have been busy crafting a Valentine card for his cool fairy Godmother; she’s the person in his life who brings him books about farting dogs and lollipops as large as his head, and believes that pyjamas should absolutely be worn all day if possible, thus earning his unwavering affection.

make a valentines card

To decorate the envelope, I drew a tiny heart shape on the tip of a pencil eraser and carved away the edges (do this in good lighting and when free of caffeine, red wine, or anything else that might cause your hand to twitch..). It’s soooo simple but looks great, and makes the perfect rubber stamp for kids (or adults) to push into an ink pad and stamp randomly over any available surface.  We used this ink, which I fished out of my old stamping supplies, and discovered as an added bonus that the colour turns from deep red to light pink as the pigment wears out, giving a lovely ombre effect.

make a pencil heart stamp

It’s been a while since we were active in the kitchen so we also knocked up some little meringue kisses to give to friends.  I used this recipe, which seems to produce drier, crispy meringues and allows you to whip them out of the oven sooner than usual, which is great for coloured meringues where you don’t want any browning or colour fade.  For the kisses, I stirred rose food colouring in just before the icing sugar stage, piped imperfect rosettes to fill a silicon baking sheet, and then when the meringues were baked and cool, I brushed edible glue around the base of each and rolled them in rainbow sprinkles before setting to dry on a cooling rack…

meringue kisses

little meringue kisses

With the leftover meringue, I spooned out dollops onto a baking sheet and then used a wooden skewer to swirl raspberry coulis through the peaks, giving this raspberry-ripple effect; as a treat we’ll have them with whipped cream, fresh raspberries and a glass of champagne on Thursday (after all, if you’re staying in you can afford to be a little decadent…)

raspberry swirl meringues

So, a giddy pink day to celebrate all things romantic.  Little does Mr B expect that Valentine’s Day itself will bring him the gift of 12 jars of marmalade in a vintage garden trug; I’m having to blow the dust off my Tracy Anderson bicep-building DVD before I can even contemplate lifting it…

Next time, by the way, I’m going to focus on answering some of the questions I’ve had of late about the fonts, graphics, camera and other tools and techniques I use here; if there’s anything you’re keen to know more about, please do shout and I’ll endeavour to cover it.  I should preface this by saying that those seeking technological enlightenment and cutting-edge wizardry should hastily look elsewhere; my secrets lie more in the artistic draping of bedsheets as backdrops, the procurement of free graphics, and in providing life support to an ancient entry-level printer – but that at least makes everything I do very accessible and highly replicable!

Have a lovely week..

A Marmalade fit for the Countess of Grantham

Downton Abbey Marmalade

There cannot be many things that my husband and the society grand dames played by Maggie Smith have in common, but a lifelong passion for marmalade is surely one of them.  In Gosford Park, Maggie Smith’s Countess of Trentham denounces those households shabby enough to serve shop-bought marmalade, and by series 2 of Downton Abbey, the Countess observes that marmalade cocktails are the fashionable drink-of-the-moment; a heady sign that the roaring twenties are on the horizon.

My husband prefers his marmalade  on toast, preferably daily if not twice-daily.  Like Paddington Bear, he feels somehow incomplete if he discovers himself to be in a marmalade-free environment, and when planning trips abroad will pat his pockets to check for marmalade in the way that other men check for wallets and boarding passes.

My Valentine’s gift to him this year, therefore, will be a year’s supply of marmalade, with personalised labels and even a few travel-sized jars of the exact proportions to fit in a pocket. An unusual present, perhaps, but one which I think will hit the mark.  If you haven’t tried making marmalade, or perhaps haven’t yet even tasted marmalade (an acquired taste, many believe), it’s definitely worth a try.  Here’s what you’ll need;

marmalade ingredients list

True British marmalade uses Seville oranges, a citrus fruit so bitter that were you to unwittingly suck on one your mouth would probably shrivel up with shock.  Add 2 kilos of sugar however, and it becomes blissful.  You can make marmalades with all kinds of different fruit – divine recipes abound on the internet – but classical marmalade requires a very bitter orange which is – appropriately enough – in season in the bitterest of winter months.

Once you’ve gathered your ingredients and a large pan, start by preparing the oranges…

marmalade step by step part 1

Now comes the complicated part (though I managed it, so fear not..).  Take out your muslin bag and give it a squeeze to release the final juices before you discard it.  Now add the juice of your lemon, give it a stir and pour in all the sugar.  Keep it on a low heat as the sugar dissolves, then bring to the boil.

Place your jam jars in a hot oven to sterilise; they’ll need about 10mins, then switch off the heat and keep them in there until you are ready to pot up.

If any scum from escaped orange pulp surfaces, just skim it off as you go.  If you have a jam thermometer, wait for the temperature to reach 104.5C/220 F – that’s your setting point and time to turn off the heat.  If you don’t have a thermometer, place a plate in the fridge and then periodically – and carefully – spoon a small amount of the marmalade onto the chilled plate.  When this wrinkles when touched lightly, you’ve reached setting point.

Once you’ve turned off the heat, leave the marmalade to cool for 12-15 minutes, stirring occasionally to distribute the rind.  If you pot it up straight away, the rind will all rise to the top of the jar; it won’t change the taste but aesthetically it looks a bit odd.  Take your jars out of the oven and fill each one to just below the rim.  It should look something like this;

marmalade from katescreativespace

Now place a wax paper disc on top of each before sealing quickly with a lid.  Once the jam has cooled, you can have fun with decorative labels, tags and cloth covers.  For my husband, I designed  these simple ‘Man of the House’ labels, then cut a striped cloth disc to cover the metal lid, securing with a simple rubber band.  I found some vintage silver teaspoons in our local charity shop, so I tied one of these to each jar, and then finally – given the Valentine’s theme – added a chalkboard heart peg to denote each month’s jar of marmalade.

homemade valentines marmalade

homemade marmalade gift

It will be possibly the heaviest Valentine’s gift I’ve given him, but also one of the thriftiest, which is always handy so soon after the Christmas frenzy.  If you try this do let me know how you get on, and if you’re an aficionado of jam and marmalade-making already, please do share any favourite tips or recipes; I’m a distinct amateur but can see this becoming quite a passion…

By the way; the vintage weighing scales I used for the first photo in this post were a recent find, buried in the depths of a local antiques mill; I found them in a roomful of period kitchenalia, from wooden butter pats to round wooden sieves and all sorts of mysterious turn-of-the-centry kitchen gadgetry that must have seemed cutting edge at the time.

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.

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

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

Sweet Treats and other Projects…



We’ve been busy in the kitchen this week, making edible gifts designed to stimulate the appetite of Harry’s fairy Godmother who is currently recovering from surgery.  I’m the first to admit that my kitchen skills leave something to be desired; my husband was mildly astonished by my culinary incompetence when we married – my party trick was to peel off the film from a microwave meal with one hand whilst programming it with the other – and things have improved only slightly since then.  As such, Harry and I look for recipes which produce stunning results but require very little skill.  Often, we make them up as we go, as we did with these White Chocolate and Strawberry Pastilles (above); a perfect Christmas gift for a foodie, and startlingly simple to make.  Our Edible Gold-leaf Florentines are a cheat’s version of the classic florentine, as we simply sprinkled the chopped fruit and nuts on the top of ours, before daubing with edible gold leaf…



To make these, you’ll need…

  • white and milk chocolate (chips, chunks; you choose. We used 200g of each and produced a LOT of sweets!),
  • freeze-dried strawberries – try the home-baking section of the supermarket, and if that fails you can of course use sprinkles, balls or cake decorations instead, as shown below
  • for the Florentines; a selection of chopped nuts and fruit.  We had candied peel, raisins, glade cherries and flaked almonds in the cupboard already so used those, but chopped mixed nuts would be great.
  • I used a silicone macaroon sheet from here to get perfect shallow discs, but if you don’t have one lying around (and who does, frankly?), just drop small dollops of the melted chocolate on a baking sheet and flatten and shape into rounds with the back of a teaspoon.

For both the pastilles and the florentines, melt your chocolate in your usual way (experts whizz it in the microwave; I am not very vigilant here so prefer to melt it over boiling water on the stove, using the double-bowl method).  When melted, drop small spoonfuls into your mould or onto your baking sheet, and smooth the tops with the back of a teaspoon.  Leave to set for about 10-15 minutes; you don’t want them to harden, but simply to lose some of their runniness so that the topping doesn’t cause them to spread and spill.  Now you can add your topping; for both recipes, just sprinkle your chosen topping over the chocolate discs.  For the florentines, I placed a flaked almond on each then sprinkled the chopped fruit on top.  Don’t worry if they scatter everywhere; once the chocolate is fully set you can retrieve stray fruit, nuts and sprinkles.

Now pop in the fridge for an hour to harden. Once hard, you can gild your florentines (and then remember to tell your friends later; ‘what did I do today? Well, y’know, gilded my florentines…’.  Take a clean paintbrush and use it to dab a little edible gold leaf on to the top of each one.

Once you’ve done this, you can taste-test them with any small kitchen helpers, before wrestling the remaining few precious sweets away so that you have at least a handful to package up as a gift..

I packaged our white chocolate and strawberry pastilles in a little gift box, layering with white baking parchment.  For the florentines, I used the cracker templates from the last post to make a pretty cracker using sturdy gift wrap (birdcage wrap from here), and carefully stacked the florentines in there.

A word of advice; store these beauties in the fridge until you’re ready to use them, and encourage your recipients to do the same; like all chocolate which has been previously cooked, it will take on a slightly dusty greyish appearance if you just store it in a cupboard – the taste won’t change, but they’ll be at their most shiny and gorgeous if you keep them chilled.

Other things….

Crackers!  Thank you to everyone who shouted ‘Yes PLEASE!’ last week in the cracker snap giveaway; Harry made the draw last night and later this week crackers will be winging their way to 10 readers across 3 continents.  A number of you asked where to buy snaps from so that you could source them yourselves, so I’ve done a bit of research and here’s a start point for you…

  • In the UK, try here for different sizes packs of snaps or here for cracker kits – or ebay.co.uk which always has a few sellers
  • In the US/Canada, try here for online ordering, or US friends tell me that Michaels often stocks them near the gift wrap in store at this time of year
  • For Australia and New Zealand, try here (they also shop to certain other countries)

The next big DIY; I’ve just sourced this slightly mouldy and very cheap bookcase on ebay to make Harry’s Christmas present; a play hardware store and garage (I know, I know; go with me on this one….).  He loves his kitchen and shop, so this is the last piece of play furniture that we have room for; I’m thinking petrol pump, pretend car wash – I’ll keep you posted!

The Impossible Pirate Cake: and finally, my birthday cake pirates are taking shape!  I’ve found it’s actually quite therapeutic rolling fondant in front of the TV of an evening, glass of red wine in hand – kind of like the grown-up version of Play-doh.  I’m still trying not to think about how I make the actual cake/ship itself..

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…’

The Apple Game; making the most of Autumn!

This could be my last post before I go to jail.  A solemn occasion, therefore, because once I enter the local Correctional Facility I doubt I will emerge the same person. It is Harry who has introduced these Draconian threats and warnings, as he passes through a very literal phase where life is governed by rules, warnings and consequences.  Thus it is he who will exclaim loudly in shocked tones in a restaurant; ‘Mummy!! Are you talking with food in your mouth?? We don’t do THAT in our family!’.  He’s right of course, and I hasten to add that I don’t make a habit of it – but still, I am ashamed.  My latest misdemeanour was to switch off the television and refuse to say sorry for doing so.  ’If you don’t say sorry’, Harry announced, staunchly and a little regretfully, ‘you will go to prison with lots of naughty men’.  Now, naughty men may occasionally be appealing, but jail is less so, so I am attempting to distract from my shortcomings with a new family game; Pick An Apple.



12 small paper bags hang from this eye-catching board, each with a different mystery seasonal activity and the equipment we need to do it. On weekends or days when Harry and I are free from work and nursery, Harry gets to choose an apple bag at random and that’s what we’ll do for the day.  I’ve picked a number of age-appropriate and interesting things – mostly outdoors but with a few bad-weather alternatives – which include collecting leaves, choosing and carving pumpkins, apple-bobbing and helping Daddy to make a big bonfire.  The content of each bag varies accordingly; for our pumpkin picking there are just enough coins for Harry to buy the right size pumpkin, and a list of tips I found online about how to choose a good one, which will require us to squeeze, juggle and weigh our way around the field as we discard lesser pumpkins in pursuit of the most magnificent.  For our toffee-apple making activity (below), the bag holds lollipop sticks for Harry to push into each apple, wipes for sticky fingers and the recipe itself.

I bought the brown paper bags cheaply at a local stationery store, then cut out apple and leaf shapes and glued together with a small piece of twig to form each apple.  Tiny wooden pegs hold these on the bags and keep each bag closed to avoid peeping.  The bags I hung from pushpins on an old cork pinboard which I painted black and stencilled.  If you don’t have a convenient pinboard or canvas, the bags would look equally good strung along a wall or fireplace like bunting, pegged to a piece of ribbon.



And here’s the result of our first activity; making windfall toffee apples. No danger of talking with your mouth full with these beauties; our industrial-strength caramel effectively seals your jaws together and prevents conversation for several minutes after consumption…genius! Perhaps I should market these as a budget-conscious and appealing alternative to the gastric band.  We’ll work through our activities between now and Halloween as the days grow shorter and the seasons change in technicolour.  I’d love to hear what your favourite activities are at this time of year, and anything we should add to our list…

A berried feast for Autumn



This weekend we went blackberry picking, or, as Harry would have it, ‘hunting and catching black strawberries’. Whereas strawberries are quite robust and able to resist the pincer-like grip of a two-year old, blackberries were something of a revelation to H, given their tendency to explode into purple mush at first grasp.  Our journey along the hedgerow was thus peppered by startled exclamations & chortling from Harry and much wiping of blackberry juice from eyes, hair, clothing and the occasional unfortunate passerby.  Our exertions left us suddenly hungry, causing us to eat almost all of our spoils – so we had to start again.  I now understand why supermarket blackberries cost so much; it can take hours to fill a bucket..

We added an apronful of windfall apples from the garden and some homemade lavender sugar to make these individual crumbles, which seemed to disappear in the blink of an eye, though doubtless will reappear on my waistline shortly.  I made up this recipe, I must confess, so feel free to adapt and experiment; we love a dash of ginger and cinnamon so you’ll see both here… and whilst purists use brown sugar in the compote, we prefer our white lavender sugar for a taste of sunshine.  My quantities make 4 individual crumbles, so just flex your quantities, keeping the ratios, for the size you need.

For the fruit compote:

  • 5 eating apples, or 2 cooking apples
  • 2 cupfuls of blackberries
  • 3 tablespoons of sugar (halve this if using eating apples, which are much sweeter and less tart). I used lavender sugar, made a few months before by stirring dried lavender sprigs into a jar of sugar and sealing tight; this gives a lovely hint of flavour and aroma to the sugar which is enhanced by cooking.
  • pinch of cinnamon

Peel, core and chop the apples into bite-sized chunks, and soften on the hob with a spoonful of water and the sugar.  Set the oven to 180c/350f to come to temperature whilst you prepare the crumble.  After 5-10 minutes the kitchen will fill with the delicious smell of caramelising apple; take the pan off the hob and stir in the berries and cinnamon.  Spoon into individual ovenproof bowls or a single dish.

For the crumble topping

  • 200g / 7oz plain flour
  • 100g / 3.5oz soft brown sugar
  • 100g / 3.5oz butter, at room temperature
  • pinch of ginger (optional)
  • handful of flaked almonds or chopped nuts

Stir together the dry ingredients and then add the butter, crumbling together with your fingers till you have a lumpy, sandy consistency; don’t work it in completely as you don’t want the top to be too fine and smooth.  Spoon this mixture over the fruit and sprinkle with the nuts, if using.

Finally pop in the oven for around 20 minutes; they’re done when the top browns slightly and the filling begins to bubble.  Use this time constructively to decide whether you are going to accompany these with custard (the traditional British favourite), whipped cream, ice cream or – heart health be damned – all three.  When cooled slightly, pile these beauties onto a tray and find a nice tree in the garden under which to eat them, because food really does taste better outdoors, especially after all that hard work in the hedgerows…

The Unparalleled Nonpareil



You’ve got to admire the French when it comes to matters of the kitchen, or rather, les affairs du cuisine.  Not only are they world-renowned for their culinary outputs and inventions, they also possess just the right amount of Gallic confidence to name their creations in such a way that the world regards them with appropriate gravitas and awe.  And so, this little piece of chocolate magic, adorned with sprinkles, is known as the nonpareil; literally, a treat without parallel, supreme to everything else.  And who could disagree? Not me and Harry that’s for sure.  If a British person had devised the nonpareil, they would have named it, with hesitant and apologetic disclaimers, the Chocolate-I-Flung-Together-From-Some-Bits-and-Pieces-in-the-Cupboard, and it would have faded into unfashionability very quickly.  Instead, the nonpareil thrives as a gorgeous and simple treat, and the perfect gift for chocoholics.

To make these you’ll need:

  • Dark or milk chocolate (kids prefer milk, whereas bittersweet chocolate with >70% cocoa solids works best for grown-up, after dinner treats
  • 1/2 tsp of cooking fat for every 8oz of chocolate used; this is optional but helps to release the disks and keep them smooth
  • Sprinkles; any kind, any colour!

Simply melt your chocolate & fat together using a double-bowl on the hob or the microwave, then drop teaspoons onto a baking sheet or (even better if you have it) a silicon macaroon sheet with shallow indents, like we used below.  Use the back of your teaspoon to make flat rounds, and leave to set for about 15 minutes.

Sprinkle the still-gooey chocolate liberally with your candy sprinkles or other topping, then pop them in the fridge for 30 mins to set hard.  Use a palette knife to pop them off the baking sheet, or peel them from the silicon mat (either way this is very easy), and then allow approx. 1hr for collecting all the random sprinkles which have shot off into corners of the kitchen during this stage.  Admire your beauties, fend off attack from hungry household members, and decide whether they are too precious to give away.  If not, you could box them up like ours (below), or stack and roll them up in a pretty cellophane tube, tied at each end.

These are kitchen magic in that they are one of the simplest things you can make, but one of the loveliest to look at and the most fun for little people to make and eat. Yes, it can be a little messy, but hey – life is short, right?