Monday, 31 December 2012

A home-baked January?

One of the things I have enjoyed since starting this blog is rediscovering my love of baking. I have particularly enjoyed writing the posts on the costs of baking from scratch. This has all set me thinking, and I have decided to set myself a challenge for January. I tend to go through phases with my baking; at times I can bake every day and then I go for weeks without producing so much as a biscuit. To be honest, my cupboard usually has quite a lot of shop-bought stuff lurking on the shelves. So for January I intend to bake all the family's cakes, biscuits, puddings and bread.

This isn't quite such a challenge as it sounds; I own a venerable but reliable bread-maker. I also have a few days' worth of cakes and biscuits in the cupboard and freezer. However with DH working from home, and two growing children, not to mention my own over-consumption, we get through a fair few biscuits in a week! I am obviously going to have to bake in bulk. If anyone has any simple recipes for biscuits or cakes that freeze well I will be very grateful!

Today DD and I made a start on using up the store-cupboard cakes. Every year we make a cheap-skate yule log using a value brand chocolate swiss roll and chocolate butter icing. (I did of course make double quantities of icing and freeze the leftovers!) 

Sunday, 30 December 2012

A Somerset Christmas

We spent our Christmas with my Dad and my brother's family, which is why it has been a little quiet around here this week. They all live in the Somerset levels, and Dad lives at the foot of the iconic Glastonbury tor. It is a very beautiful area and very different from the equally lovely but crowded corner of the South East where we live. The pace of life seems to slow as you go along the A303. (Usually the traffic does too!)

This is the view from the end of his road!
Like most of England, Somerset has had a very soggy few weeks. I now know why the area is called the Isle of Avalon!

Fortunately Dad lives slightly above the flood level, and, apart from a few hairy moments driving alongside an overflowing river, we were unaffected. The sun did break through occasionally.

We had a lovely week catching up with family. DS had his birthday on the 23rd, my brother's wife had her birthday on the 24th and of course it was Christmas on the 25th so it was a time of many celebrations and much food!

We are now back and easing into the New Year. Today is also six months since I started blogging, and it has been a very interesting journey. I have been challenged, encouraged and inspired by all the wonderful people I have come into contact with, and I am looking forward to the next six months!


Saturday, 22 December 2012

Double figures!

Tomorrow is DS's birthday, when he reaches the grand old age of ten! I can hardly believe quite how quickly the last decade has flown by.

It has always been a bit of a challenge making his birthday special so close to Christmas. He hasn't had a party for a few years, but we do usually manage a special meal. As regular readers of my blog know, I love baking. It has been particularly galling when I have resorted to shop-bought birthday cake. So today DD and I have spent the afternoon producing our take on a Super Mario cake. 

Inside it is a marble cake. The grass is produced by mixing green food colouring with dessicated coconut, and I cheated by using ready to roll coloured icing! The leftover icing will go in the freezer. 

DS will see all of his grandparents tomorrow, and everyone will make a big fuss of him. He has never complained about having his birthday this time of year, and for years was convinced that all the decorations and parties were for him!

Wednesday, 19 December 2012


Yesterday DH took the day off. Enjoying our child free state we went off to a tearoom. It is in a farm which has transformed itself into a tourist attraction but it does a nice line in toasted teacakes!

On the way in, past the animatronic winter woodland scene, we found a nativity scene with a difference:

I particularly like the sheep, but I think that Jesus may have been in the sun too long!

Monday, 17 December 2012

Lurking in the garage...

Last year we emptied most of the contents of our loft into the garage. We were about to do a loft conversion as DH works from home and needed an office. As we stacked boxes we promised ourselves that we would sort them out as soon as possible. Needless to say, that wasn't quite how it worked out! So this weekend was the weekend when we made a start. After all, what else do you do the weekend before Christmas?!

Tucked away amidst the boxes of books, camping gear and yet more books was a box intriguingly labelled "antique tea set". Worryingly, I had absolutely no recollection of what it was, or how we got hold of it! It was a strange sort of lucky dip to unwrap it all, and find a beautiful 12-setting tea set in perfect condition, complete with sugar bowl, milk jug and sandwich plates.

It isn't clear from this photo that the china is a pale peach colour rather than the traditional white. There is rather a lovely vintage pattern:

I set out on some detective work. The china was wrapped in the "Poole Advertiser" from 1995 so I immediately traced it to my grandparents. My Poole-based Grandad finally sold the family home at around that time. Initially I thought that it was their golden wedding present, as it was so pristine, but a quick search for the pottery mark on the internet revealed that it had to be their wedding present, making it around 73 years old!

I am now in a quandary about what to do with it. I love it. When I look at it I think of my Grandma, who was a bride at the start of World War Two. She was an incredible woman, who managed a greengrocers until she got married at the age of 31. My Grandad was 7 years younger. I imagine that raised a few eyebrows at the time! However, I doubt that I can keep it in as good condition as she did, and I don't have anywhere to display it. All advice gratefully received!

Tuesday, 11 December 2012

Festive chicken wear

I have been enjoying knitting up my chook jumpers, intended for hen-pecked battery chickens. The first offering was rather dull so I decided that what every fashion conscious chicken wants is a Christmas jumper!

Friday, 7 December 2012

Tuna fish cakes

After our main meal yesterday I had some left over mashed potato and sweetcorn. I never get the quantity of mashed potato right. Why is that?!  So, inspired by Shara at Mama's Mission II, I adapted my usual salmon fish cake recipe to use tuna and sweetcorn.

To start off I boiled and mashed some more potato. The quantity doesn't matter too much; I normally make as much as I would for a normal meal. You need enough to bind the fish together and if you have too much you end up with fish flavoured potato cakes! I added one 185g tin of tuna, the leftover sweetcorn and some seasoning to the potato, mixed it together with my hands and shaped into 8 fish cakes.

It doesn't look very appetizing at this stage!

Then comes the fun part! I set up bowls of flour, beaten egg and breadcrumbs in a production line. 

Each fish cake gets dunked in each bowl in turn until you end up with something that looks like this:

These are then fried until the breadcrumb coating is crisp on each side:

They can be served with salad but this time of year we have ours with veggies. They make a tasty, simple meal. I used a value brand of tuna, (still caught by pole and line), so it was also ethically sound and cheap. I like it when these two things combine!

Wednesday, 5 December 2012

Mince Pie tasting

I had a fabulous evening yesterday. I am part of a small group of six Mums from church who meet to chat and pray. Last night we decided to have a mince pie tasting. I really love mince pies, so this was almost my perfect Christmassy evening. We all brought different brands of mince pie and did a blind tasting. We had pies ranging from the budget brands up to artisan bakery offerings. I and another friend brought semi-homemade mince pies. I say semi-homemade as I used shop bought mincemeat. I usually make my own, but as the apple tree failed to produce any fruit this year I didn't get round to it. Boxes of apples sitting in the garage tend to motivate me!

Mine were very basic mince pies made with standard shortcrust pastry. My friend was more adventurous than I and did exciting things with orange juice and a star cutter. I felt a bit like I was entering a WI competition as the different pies were sampled, along with cream of course! And the results? We didn't like the artisan bakery pies at all and everyone preferred the homemade pies. Yay!

Monday, 3 December 2012

Sealed Pot Challenge

I stumbled on this over at Sft's entertaining blog "Life After Mortgage". It is such a brilliant idea that I just had to sign up. The basic idea is to save loose change in a sealed pot. Hopefully after a year this will be a reasonable amount of money which can be put towards a specific goal. 

I have decided to save up towards a family trip to the theatre. I would love to take the kids as it is something that we have never done. I looked into going to see a production for my birthday in September, but couldn't justify spending that much money at the time. Don't get me wrong, we are very fortunate in that we have a reasonable income, I just like to use it wisely! 

I had great fun making the pot. It started off life as a jar of hot chocolate! I have decided to collect all the 50p and 20p coins that come my way. It may be we have enough to go and see the local amateur dramatic society, or it could be a trip to London to see a musical. I'll find out in a year's time!

Thursday, 29 November 2012

Festive preparations

Christmas may actually happen in this house....

The puddings have been made and the poinsettia bought. A friend and I made the puddings together, amid much laughter and tea-drinking. The small ones will be for presents.

After reading the blogs of some wonderfully organised people, who appear to be all ready bar stuffing the turkey, I placed quite a few internet orders last week. Unfortunately they all arrived today, I was out, my husband works from home in the loft...let's just say he is a little fitter now.

DD has also been busy making cards and decorations. I'm just happy to see some sun for the sun-catchers! She has made a whole tribe of snowmen. Somehow snowmen and sun doesn't seem like a sensible combination!

Tuesday, 27 November 2012

Well dressed chickens!

I have always loved the idea of joining a crafty type group. I had an idealised vision of knitting away in a cosy cafe to like-minded people. This week I finally found one that has recently started at a nearby craft shop. To be honest, it's more of a craft supermarket, but the staff have set aside an area for workshops and that is where the group meets. I was made very welcome and met some lovely ladies. At the moment the group are working on knitting jumpers for rescued battery hens:

Photo from
Battery hens sometimes peck each other's feathers out due to stress caused by being so cramped. These jumpers help keep them warm while the feathers regrow. The pattern is available here. The group provided wool and I am now half way up my first jumper.

I think the brown is a bit dull, but I don't suppose the chickens are that bothered by the colour! I have plenty of more vibrant colours for future chook fashion!

Sunday, 25 November 2012

Is it really cheaper to make scones from scratch?

In our family we have a bit of an addiction to cream teas. Whenever we visit the West Country we seek them out; we have been known to fit in one each day of a holiday. We also enjoy making our own at home, especially when the weather is as miserable as it has been this weekend. I think it reminds us that summer will come again!

I enjoyed writing last week's post on the cost of baking Victoria Sponge from scratch so I decided to take the same approach with scones. I didn't buy the cheapest "value" scones, as these contained fruit and DD considers cooked dried fruit to be an Abomination, only tolerated under sufferance. The scones I did buy claimed to be made with butter, so this time I used proper butter in my baking.

The ingredients!

The recipe I used was similar to the one on the BBC website here, except that I used milk rather than beaten egg to glaze them. This time I coerced DD into helping measure the energy used. Following Angela's advice I baked twice the normal amount to save even more energy. I froze half before they could be eaten!

Mine are the scones on the left.

My scones turned out to be the same weight as the shop bought scones. Mine worked out at 8p each, and the shop bought ones were 16.7p each. The shop bought scones looked neater, apparently mine have "character", but the home made variety were much lighter. So now the only question is, cream first or jam?

Thursday, 22 November 2012

Creating a Victorian boy

DS is studying the Victorians at school at the moment. So far he is loving it. In a few weeks he will be off on a school trip to Preston Manor for a Victorian day, where he will spend the day as a Victorian servant. I think this may come as something of a shock!

Of course, he has to look the part. Fortunately the school has cut back a bit on dressing up days. I have known parents pay out quite a lot of money for a costume on the internet. I wanted a waistcoat, but I wasn't about to spend much on something for just one day! I trawled the charity shops and came up with a small adult shirt:

It was actually quite a nice shirt and I felt a bit guilty chopping it up! I shortened it and cut off the sleeves and collar. Once I had hemmed all that I took it in a bit at the sides so now it looks like this:

It's a bit more "Little Lord Fauntleroy" than "Oliver Twist" - he will have to be a valet rather than a gardener!

After all that sewing I am now determined to overcome my phobia of sewing machines. My Mother-in-Law gave me hers last year but I haven't had the courage to use it yet! I think my fear stems from being absolutely useless at needlework at school. There are so many things I want to make, I just need to have some gumption and get on with it!

Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Spiky cross stitch

Since I finished stitching the wedding card back in July I have been working on a design from the same magazine for a family birthday. My Dad has quite a collection of cacti. In fact, I pity any burglar trying to climb in through his windows! I decided to give him a specimen that needs even less attention than usual. I liked this design because it is bright and cheerful.

Nearing completion!
I framed it myself. When I first tried this I asked the helpful lady in the craft shop for tips, who suggested using a spray adhesive. I was horrified! Put glue on my precious creation! I did a reasonable job with the traditional method, but this time I couldn't manage it in the shallow frame. So in the end I got out the glue. 

DS also collects cacti!
I like to have some stitching on the go, so I was very happy to get a couple of kits for my birthday and I have started on this poppy field. This one is for my wall! It is a starter kit, but as far as I can tell this is only because it is on 11-count aida, making the stitches bigger.

I can only stitch during daylight, so in the evenings I usually have a piece of knitting or crochet in my hands. I couldn't tell you which I prefer; normally whatever I am doing at the time!

Friday, 16 November 2012

Is it really cheaper to bake from scratch?!

One thing that I often read on the blogs that I enjoy is that it is cheaper to cook from scratch. Being of a scientific and mathematical bent I decided to conduct an experiment to find out if this is actually true. I promise I won't befuddle you with calculations!

I decided to bake a Victoria Sponge from scratch and compare the results with the shop bought variety. To be fair I used the cheapest ingredients I could find and bought the value brand sponge, (for research purposes you understand!).

I was a bit dubious about using the "spreadable" butter-like spread. I usually use value butter but the spread claimed to be suitable for baking and it was considerably cheaper, so in the basket it went. I couldn't bring myself to buy caged hens' eggs, but you can get free range eggs fairly cheaply these days.

I use the weighing eggs method as I have a rather nice pair of kitchen balances. I am not going to write out the recipe here. (The words "suck eggs" comes to mind!)  It is available here, although this recipe promotes rather more expensive ingredients.

While the oven was heating up and the cake was baking I measured the electricity I used with an energy monitor. I sat there with a stopwatch and the monitor watching the little light on the oven go on and off. I really need to get out more...

In case it isn't obvious, the one on the left is mine! I then weighed both cakes and settled down to some serious work with the calculator. I was very pleased to find out that my cake cost 18.3p per 100g and the shop bought cake was 24.6p per 100g! 

But what of the taste? I found some very willing volunteers, blindfolded them and gave them small slithers of each cake. Fortunately for my self esteem they both preferred my cake. In fact, the shop bought cake is now trifle! I was also happy to find that the butter-substitute gave as good a taste as the real thing, so there will be a tub in the fridge from now on.

Of course there are a lot of other reasons to cook from scratch apart from cost. Knowing what's in your food and environmental factors spring to mind. I am now wondering what else I can compare...

Tuesday, 13 November 2012

"The Help"

I love reading. My bookshelves are overflowing with books and there are still more relegated to boxes in the garage. So recently I have resisted temptation to buy yet more and avoided bookshops and charity shops. Discount book catalogues have been resolutely consigned to the recycling. (My Wartime Farm book doesn't count. Honest.) So I was secretly delighted when I was given a Waterstones gift voucher for my birthday. I could indulge my passion without guilt!

One of the books I bought was "The Help" by Kathryn Stockett.

I am not normally very good at trying new authors - I have definite favourites and don't usually waver from them. But this was strongly recommended so I gave it a go.

It is written from the viewpoint of three women from the American South set against the backdrop of the Civil Rights movement during the early 1960s. The two black women, Aibileen and Minny, are maids, or "the help", to white society women.  The third woman, Skeeter, is an aspiring journalist from that same white society who is uneasy about the way the black community is treated. Together the three women start to write a book that will explore the relationships between white and black women, both positive and negative.

At first I found it hard going. It is written in the first person and I had to slow my reading right down to understand the dialect. I am so glad that I persevered because I really enjoyed it. There is plenty of period detail. Several sub-plots were woven around the main storyline. The tension built steadily and I really cared about the fate of the characters.

As a modern white British woman I don't pretend to know much about the American Civil Rights movement or the society of the time. I now feel that I know a little more.

Saturday, 10 November 2012

Christmas stockings!

I have finally finished the Christmas stockings that I started back in September. They are from a Ravelry pattern. I can spend hours on that website!

I really enjoyed the snowflake pattern. I haven't done Fair Isle knitting in years and it was fun watching the pattern form. It was also quite slow! If you can do both continental and English knitting then it can be much faster, (tutorial here), but I have never conquered continental knitting. Maybe once I am a bit more confident with crochet I will try to learn it. So now my needles are empty. I have some ideas of what to do next, but I really need to get on with my crochet bag. I am half way up the sides and the end is in sight!

Thursday, 8 November 2012

Flowers in November

I am not a good gardener. Every year in Spring I have excellent intentions; this year will be the year when my garden looks like somebody loves it. It will have colourful flowers and abundant vegetables; it will be a place where the family can sit and relax. I have an April flush of enthusiasm; seeds are sown and plans are made. However, other priorities take over and the garden is left to go its own way with the minimum of maintenance and care.

So, I was pleasantly surprised to find some flowers out there today.

Primroses are native, so presumably will thrive on neglect. I have quite a few that have self-seeded around the borders. I love them as they look so cheerful and resilient.

These roses are very prolific. They should probably have been pruned back a long time ago, but they just keep going, despite the frosts at the beginning of the week.

We have been quite under the weather in our house this week, so these blooms cheered me up. Maybe next year will be the year...

Monday, 5 November 2012

Courgette loaf

This morning saw me trawling around the supermarket. Even though I honoured Stoptober more in the breach than the observance, I had more or less emptied the freezer and needed stocks urgently. I was very pleased to find some yellow-stickered courgettes and bananas lurking in the fruit and veg section.

Using bananas was not going to be much of a challenge, but courgettes? Neither of my children will touch them, not even DS, who can be relied on to finish off the salad bowl and prefers apples to chocolate cake. I had vague memories of a recipe for courgette loaf in the back of my recipe file, so I bought the despised courgettes anyway.

I had to adapt the recipe, (which originally used buckwheat flour), but the results were very well received. It makes a semi-healthy "back from school" snack. I like it spread with margarine, but the kids preferred it plain. This quantity makes two loaves, which can be frozen or stored in the fridge for up to three weeks, if you can resist them for that long!


350g grated courgette (no need to peel!)
2 tsp bicarbonate of soda
1 tsp baking powder
1 tbsp cinnamon
165g plain flour
165g wholemeal plain flour
275ml sunflower oil
350g caster sugar
175g raisins or sultanas
3 eggs


1. Preheat oven to 180C/gas 4

2. Grease and line 2 2lb loaf tins.

3. Mix all ingredients together in a bowl.

4. Divide mixture between tins.

5. Bake for about 50 minutes until a metal skewer inserted into the middle of the cake comes out clean.

Friday, 2 November 2012

Brighton in November

Like a fair proportion of the British people, every so often I need to see the sea. We live a train ride away from Brighton, which also has lots of warm places to shelter in November, so today we bundled up and headed to the coast.

The power in the sea was incredible! We marvelled at the huge waves, threw stones in but decided against paddling. DS still managed to get his feet wet, unfortunately with his shoes on!

This was my favourite part of the day!

You can get the most amazing doughnuts on the pier.
We also visited the Sea Life Centre which has been open for 140 years and has very atmospheric subterranean Victorian architecture. We haven't been here for about 6 years so the kids didn't really remember it. We made the most of our time, handling the creatures and taking a trip on a glass-bottomed boat.

Playing hide and seek!

We also discovered the fabulously named Choccywoccydoodah chocolate shop in the higgledy-piggledy "Lanes" area of Brighton. It sells incredibly ornate cakes alongside slightly more modest truffles and chocolate bars. At £7.99 for a 100g bar we didn't buy any! 

I have to be honest; Brighton is not my favourite place. It is heaving in the summer and can be an expensive place to visit. Today, however, I was surprised to enjoy myself.

Thursday, 1 November 2012

Something alien this way comes...

Chocolate apples are something of a tradition in our house this time of year. When the children were little we would set up a production line with apple segments on cocktail sticks, melted chocolate and sprinkles. We all got very messy but it was great fun. 

For the last few years I have bought the supermarket chocolate apples but they never quite hit the spot. The apples were a bit manky and there was a paltry amount of chocolate. We like our chocolate so this year we did our own:

We stuck apples on lolly sticks, rolled the apples in melted chocolate (reduced Green & Black's - yum!), and stuck on mini-marshmallows. The results look like they have landed from outer space, but taste wonderful. Surely they count towards our five a day?!

Tuesday, 30 October 2012

Preparing for Christmas, or not...

Christmas is coming a lot faster than I would like this year. My normal approach to the festive season is to make numerous lists and organise everything well in advance. By this time of year the pudding has been made, various packages have been secreted around the house and I am well into making my Christmas cards. This year, apart from making stockings, my approach has been to ignore it and hope it will go away! 

Yesterday DD went off with a friend to a "Christmas Card and Decoration" workshop, put on by a local lady who works for one of the papercraft companies. The results were very impressive. 

This was my favourite!

This is hanging on the banana tree for the time being!

DD did, of course, have access to lots of papercraft tools. We couldn't begin to reproduce these at home, but I have been jolted into action. Plans are under way for rather simpler creations, and some might actually get made. As for the pudding, it's not Stir Up Sunday yet!