summer

Beachcomber Chic

Beachcomber place settings

Regular readers will know that I have a passion for the sea and all things coastal; whenever we can, we pile into the car and head for the shore; there’s something about the endless skies and water, the sea-salt and the sand that is magical.  We’re heading for Cornwall soon to go rock-pooling and to brave the Atlantic waters, but till then I’ve brought the sea a little closer to home with these bauble place-settings filled with beach-combed finds, made for a casual al fresco dinner with friends…

Coastal style place settings

I bought a set of fillable Christmas baubles from Michaels when we were in New England last Autumn, and in the frenzy of festive preparations managed to forget about them completely until, inspired by the endless beautiful pictures of coastal dining and projects in magazines (especially the current issue of Country Homes and Interiors), I decided to use them as summery place-settings for a simple outdoor get-together.

I gathered up a hodgepodge of beach treasures from previous holidays and added in bits of ephemera I’ve gathered on my travels (including some old watch faces which I bought by the bagful from the eclectic  Marché aux Puces flea market in Paris, bits of broken jewellery and feathers collected in the springtime on our many trips to feed the ducks..)

Beachcombing finds

..And dug out a handful of corks, gathered over the years from various celebrations  - celebrations as big as weddings and as small as the arrival of the weekend at long last…

corks

I prised the top off each bauble and tipped in some sand (I used a scoop of play sand from Harry’s old sandpit), then dropped in my treasures.  You might want to use a pair of tweezers or cooking tongs to move things around; it’s like learning keyhole surgery without a textbook…

Making coastal bauble place settings

Push in a cork, and then tie on a simple paper tag with each name.  I printed names onto a sheet of cardstock then cut into strips before  punching a hole in each and tying on with household string.  Broken shells look beautiful threaded on to the tie;

Coastal Bauble Place Settings

And voila, a simple yet stylish summer place-setting which can be played with endlessly as your guests get tipsy and start trying to fish out interesting contents with their cutlery, adding a dash of sand to each course in the process (trust me on this; or maybe it’s just my guests…)

Summer dinner party style

If you want to try this but didn’t have the foresight to buy a fistful of empty baubles at Christmas before leaving to gather dust in the back of a drawer, there are a number of craft shops which either stock them year-round, or - quelle horreur! - are already showcasing their festive collections for this year.  Online, try eBay or craft mecca Etsy for beautiful glass versions.  In the UK you can find them here, or Baker Ross has a slightly different design.

Have a great rest of the weekend!

handbag logo

The Great Asparagus Debate

Asparagus Ricotta and Pink Peppercorn Tart

How was your weekend?  We had a gloriously hot one, the kind that tempts you into thinking summer is just around the corner and leaves a nation of oddly-sunburned yet exuberant workers heading for the office on Monday whilst trying to remember how to locate the car air-conditioning, last used circa 1986.

We made the most of the sunshine with a weekend spent largely outdoors, venturing only to a local farm to pick the first of the season’s asparagus….

Asparagus picking

I had briefly contemplated adding asparagus to our growing kitchen garden, but the fact that you have to wait three whole years before harvesting your first crop  saw it struck swiftly from our list.  That and the vivid descriptions of the ferocious asparagus beetle with its red thorax and many sets of legs (okay, six legs.  And it seemed even more ferocious when I misread its size as being 6 inches rather than 6mm.  But I digress..). We roamed the avenues of spears, selecting those with fat stems and a general air of perkiness…

asparagus trug

Rinsed asparagus

Once home, I constructed these tarts in a somewhat ad-hoc manner, adding together ingredients which I thought would work – asparagus, lemon, ricotta, peppercorns and a dash of balsamic – and hallelujah, they were delicious.  My husband will agree that not all of my creative recipe-generation is successful, but these were the exception and so I share with pride;

asparagus tart recipe

 
As the tarts were baking I drizzled some vine tomatoes with oil and grilled them; lovely on the side or (as we had them) piled on top of the tarts to make a decadent yet easy lunch.

Asparagus and lemon tarts

Despite their beauty, Harry was decidedly unconvinced by asparagus, even after we told him about the exciting sulphuric effects it might have later.  A suggestion from Harry then is that if you pick the asparagus off these tarts, they are even more delicious.  Hmm… I beg to differ.

Asparagus for lunch

p.s. Another super-easy tart recipe here, and my other favourite asparagus dish here.

Have a great week!

Kate

Green-Fingers (and the beginnings of a garden room)

The Garden Room project

For the two years since we bought our house, the conservatory has stood empty and neglected; a leaking, ill-fitting extension in a glowing candy-floss pink colour that we’d somehow never got around to painting over.  At some point we’ll probably take it down, but until then I decided to breathe a little life into it with a coat of soft grey paint and approximately 156,000 random seedlings.  They weren’t supposed to be random, or quite so numerous, but like many amateur gardening enthusiasts I sprinkled them liberally into soil plugs and then swiftly mixed up the packets, leaving me with little idea of what verdant surprises are in store…

rocket plugs

The conservatory is attached to the snug and the playroom, and is now gradually taking shape as a space we love to be in.  I’ll show some proper photos when we’ve finished moving extraordinarily heavy pieces of furniture in and out of it, but for now a few work-in-progress shots of it taking shape.  A new fig tree is settling in and adding some Mediterranean glamour to one corner, which is also home to Agnes, our rather surly looking statue who previously held court in the downstairs toilet and is now supervising the family sunflower race (I’m winning).

Creating a garden room 1

In another corner an old Ikea worktop has been co-opted as my potting bench, and now proudly displays a rusting old French bottle-dryer that I found in a junk shop last weekend;

duck duck goose

 

Creating a Garden Room 3

We added a patio table and chairs and had Sunday morning coffee in there this past weekend, enjoying the fact that the fusty, stale air of before had been replaced with that buzzy green smell and moistness that you get when everything around you is feverishly growing

peonies and coffee in the conservatory

The peonies, somewhat astonishingly, are from our garden; the schizophrenic weather of early spring means that the borders are a jumble of unseasonal colour as the biological clocks of the plant world try to adjust and work out exactly what they should be doing.

Creating a Garden Room 2

A glossy white sideboard that looked wrong in every other room of our house finds a natural home in this sun-washed space, and hosts some of the more decorative propagation, like these sugar-snap peas who are awaiting new homes with friends as part of a veggie seedling swap…

Garden Room 7

I used wooden skewers topped with beads to form wigwams to keep them happy until they can be transplanted…

Stake small seedlings with BBQ skewers topped with beads

Elsewhere a vintage garden chair takes the weight of my lemon tree which seems to be loving the heat and sunlight; you can smell the lemons from the sofa – a new favourite place to perch with a good book (especially with an olive tree at the other end).  For anyone who is wincing at the thought of a white sofa in a roomful of soil and watering cans, it’s a 15yr-old beauty with washable covers that seems to survive most of what life throws at it.

Creating a Garden Room 6  Creating a Garden Room 4

Against the long wall the really serious growing is underway; pepper plants, tomatoes, strawberries and cucumbers, pumpkins, sweetcorn and courgettes.  Some will remain in the conservatory, others will find a natural home in the garden once the weather is reliably warm.  For fun and pure aesthetics, we’re also growing mouse-melons, globe artichokes and borlotti beans – I find myself checking on them every few hours when i’m home, such is the excitement…

Pepper Bush

Strawberry planter

And now I must go, because watering this mini-jungle is no small feat and cannot be ignored.  In the meantime, I have a small corner left to fill; any ideas for greenhouse-friendly, interesting plants?  To misquote William Morris, if it’s either beautiful or useful – by which I mean edible – then I’m all ears…

Have a great week!

Kate

How to Stay Cool in a Heatwave

homemade fruit juice ice lollies

We’ve had an unprecedented, glorious 3 weeks of unbroken sunshine here, with soaring temperatures and cloudless skies.  It seems to have sent Britain into a state of national shock, with people shedding clothes at an alarming rate and lying, spread-eagled, on every available patch of grass and scrub to soak up the precious rays.  Relatedly, hospitals report new levels of burns admissions and ‘injuries caused by misuse of poolside inflatables’ (there’s a Bill Bryson-esque post in itself there, I can’t help feeling).

Here, we’ve been rather more careful, and instead have been experimenting with ice-cream and lolly making.  In fact, we’ve frozen pretty much everything we can find in the cupboards these last few days, working out what tastes good and what was better left un-meddled with.  The kitchen has become a sea of brightly-coloured dribbles and splashes, and Harry has been diligently working his way through a variety of lollies, giving each one the lick-test for success or failure.  Here are our biggest successes;

Homemade Fruit Ice Lollies

Homemade Ice lollies

We made these by simply pouring our favourite natural fruit juices into ice-lolly moulds and freezing; simple as that.  No e-numbers, no scary preservatives, and a super-quick ice-lolly that you can even justify eating for breakfast (well, it replaces a glass of juice, right?).  You can, as we did, add a drop of food colouring gel to make them more beautiful – most natural juices are pale amber in colour, so feel free to jazz them up with a dash of the brights.

fruit juice lollies

You can find plastic ice-lolly / popsicle moulds like these in many stores, but if like me you prefer to use wooden sticks instead of the plastic handles and can’t find a mould which fits wooden lolly sticks, you can customise the plastic ones very easily (and it’s a great way of making large numbers in batches for a party).  Two foolproof ways; either cover the top of the filled mould with tin foil and pierce the wooden stick through, or (for the very precise-minded); place a piece of tape across the opening, and another at right angles so that you have a taped cross, and make a small incision at the centre before threading the stick through and down into the juice. If you don’t have special lolly moulds, you can make fill & freeze paper cups or even muffin cases using the foil & stick method – silicon works particularly well.

Our other favourite recipe was frozen yoghurt*…

organic frozen yoghurt pops

I made these in exactly the same way, by simply pouring into moulds, adding sticks and freezing.  As you’d expect, frozen yoghurt pops are much creamier and smoother than juice-based lollies, but seem wonderful immune from drips  - ours were mess-free, albeit they were consumed very quickly..

raspberry frozen yoghurt pops

*Yoghurt or yogurt?  Anything goes apparently, as far as the spelling is concerned; the only thing which is universally agreed is that it tastes divine..

yoghurt lolly

If you’re making batches of these, take the moulds out of the freezer when frozen solid (2-3hrs, we found), and after a couple of minutes ease the lollies out of the moulds.  Wrap each one in freezer paper to avoid them sticking together and place back in the freezer; then simply refill your moulds and start over again.

Are you an ice-cream or ice-pop connoisseur?  Any recipes we should be trying just as soon as we work our way through our current stockpile?

Have a great week.

Kate

Weekend Notes

Hello Typewriter card

Did you have a lovely weekend?  We had a divine long weekend of sunshine, friends and downtime, with very few places to be and nothing which required more sartorial effort than t-shirts and deck shoes.  Perfect.  it gave me a chance to plant up the windowboxes which line our sills and always make me think of those beautiful hidden squares in the heart of French villages..

Geraniums

We managed to eat al fresco every single day, with picnics in the park and long, lazy lunches in the garden at home.  The magnolia trees continue to explode in bloom so I snipped a handful of buds to float in a bowl in the centre of the table;

magnolia

magnolia 2

magnolia 3

We feasted on some tried-and-tested family favourites like this tomato salad with grilled halloumi cheese, torn basil and balsamic glaze;

summer salas

…and experimented with some new decadent dessert recipes which I’ll share with you properly in due course.  The cocktail glasses were all scraped clean with happy sighs so I’m considering that a resounding success!

Strawberry Cheesecake Cocktails

There was one small shadow cast over the weekend, and a grave reminder that pride surely comes before a fall.  My sunflower, which shot off the proverbial starting blocks just a week ago, has now developed a worrying lean.  Like a teenager in the midst of an ungainly growth spurt, it has somehow overshot itself.  We’ve called in the fire brigade to assist but I’m not confident.  The other two are standing strong, but I may make an early and untimely exit from the family race..

wobbly sunflower

And finally… one of the loveliest things about the gradual arrival of summer is the long balmy nights.  I spent one evening this weekend with the garden door propped open, glass of chilled white wine to hand, making these cards (top and below) using a photograph I took of my Valentines typewriter.  I’ve included a printable version at the bottom if you want to use this yourself; just trim around the main image, then carefully slice around the top three sides of the typewriter-paper which is inserted into it.  Roll the flap lightly around a pencil to create a curve (see below), then glue the main image to card stock, being careful to avoid glueing your flap down.  Ta-da; a 3d typewriter correspondence card.  I added simple white shirt buttons to the keys as further embellishment..

typewriter correspondence card

Before I sign off, a huge thank you for the lovely comments recently, and welcome to those who are new here; it’s wonderful to hear from you and  to have you along for the ride.

Have a good week, and may the sunshine be with you!

Vintage Typewriter Printable

Strawberry Cheesecake Cupcakes

The eagle-eyed will have noticed a distinct absence of decadent baking in recent posts, due in no small part to my determination to win our bikini-fit diet race (an alarming thought; my husband in a bikini – let’s hurriedly think of swim shorts).  Well, three weeks have passed and I have to confess that he has won, albeit narrowly. Still, second place is not to be sniffed at, so as he bounces lithely through the kitchen flexing his newly-evident abs, I am turning a blind eye and rewarding myself by baking a batch of these perky beauties (above & below), which after all are, ahem, mostly fruit…

I adapted a recipe from the Hummingbird Bakery Cookbook, substituting their digestive biscuit topping for freeze-dried, crumbled strawberries, and chopping the fruit finely into the sponge mixture for even distribution (the Hummingbird crew like to place strawberries directly into the cupcake cases for a fruity puddle at the base but I find that a bit gloopy for small fingers…).  The cream-cheese frosting offsets the sweetness of the sponge and the end result is a mixture of loveliness which is neither too sugary nor too tart – and just looking at them shining in their jaunty red and pink cups while the kettle boils for an accompanying cup of tea creates a sort of delicious anticipation…

To make the cakes…

Ingredients:

  • 120g plain flour
  • 140g caster sugar
  • 1.5tsp baking powder
  • 40g unsalted butter, softened
  • 120ml milk (they suggest whole milk but I use skim which works fine with less fat)
  • 0.5tsp vanilla extract
  • 1 egg
  • 12 large strawberries, finely chopped.

Mix together the dry ingredients then pour in the milk and vanilla and blend.  Beat the egg and mix in until well-incorporated.  Finally, fold in your finely chopped strawberries (or drop them into the cupcake cases if you prefer). Bake for 20mins at 170/325 degrees c/f.

And for the frosting…

  • 300g sifted icing sugar
  • 50g unsalted butter
  • 125g cream cheese – use regular not reduced fat; the consistency of the latter is runnier and will affect the end result.
  • Dash of food colouring if desired – gel colour gives a lovely intensity and won’t make the frosting watery
  • freeze dried strawberries, sprinkles or other decorations – whatever takes your fancy!

Beat together the icing sugar and butter (I use my trusty Kitchenaid for this and indeed for all baking), then stir in the cream cheese straight out of the fridge.  I added a dash of red gel food colouring with a toothpick and gave a final blitz with the mixer for a soft pink tone and a hint of raspberry-ripple swirliness.  Pipe or spread onto the cakes when cool and then force yourself to jog around the block for 20mins in order to feel virtuous and entitled when you return… then EAT!

Sunshine Projects!

When Harry whips out his shades (albeit upside down), you know that Summer is right around the corner, and some outdoor project planning is called for. In anticipation of a heady season of outdoor living and loveliness – fortunately optimism comes naturally to us both – we now have a sunshine project list that is beyond our wildest capabilities. Still, dreaming alone is intoxicating stuff…here’s a few of the things that made our Top Ten:

Inspired by a hotel we stayed at last Summer in the beautiful Guia D’Isora region of Tenerife, these  pebble curtains would look stunning on a terrace or even inside in a bathroom – we’re collecting interesting stones in preparation…

Simple concrete or terracotta pots add an on-trend colour pop to the garden when sprayed in neon technicolour; the use here as an accent works more powerfully than a top-to-toe dousing; we’ll be trying this for sure next weekend.

Despite the hosepipe ban sweeping Britain after just one week of sunshine, I’m determined that we’ll have our own carwash up and running by August, catering for all the neighbourhood scooters, ride-ons and tricycles…

And when we’ve worked our way through some of those, we’ll kick back with a bowlful of these beauties; after all, frozen yoghurt and fruit has got to be good for you, right..?

And all of these of course will be in addition to our Great Sunflower Race, launched here; if you planted a seed too, ping me a photo or link with your progress and we’ll have a race pitstop to check who’s germinated, who is racing ahead and who has yet to pop through the soil – bate your breath! It’s not too late to join in, though illegal stimulants might need to be added to your watering can to ensure any late entrants catch up…

Photo credits: Neon pots via www.theproperpinwheel.com  Carwash via www.sfgate.com