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Saturday, 18 January 2014

I'm getting sew confident!

Like most new skills, practicing is the sure-fire way to improve your confidence no end, and I've had the sewing machine out again this week.

You may remember that in September last year I met Maeri of the The Make and Do Studio in Stockton Heath (blog post here).  I was talking to her just before Christmas about dressmaking and she showed me a book called Improv Sewing that she thought I might like. Well, I liked it so much that I now own this very same book which is subtitled "fast, fun and fearless projects" and encourages you to improvise your own patterns made from cut-up t-shirts.  

It was quite handy, then, that my husband just happened to be putting a t-shirt that small daughter really liked into the charity bag .  It had been a birthday present one year, a few sizes too big so it had never been worn, and it was time for it to stop taking up space in the drawer.  "You can't throw that away!" small daughter exclaimed, "I will have it and grow into it."  Now unless she's planning to grow into a men's extra-large size any time soon, I think this t-shirt could just be taking up space in her drawer too, so it was an ideal opportunity to put the ideas in Improv Sewing to the test.

The premise of the book is that you use a t-shirt that fits well and then create something new around that shape.  I mused for a while, turning the too-big t-shirt this way and that, and finally decided that it would easy enough to do something without actually having to do any cutting which is the part that makes me nervous.  It's easy enough to take stitches out with knitting and start again, but once you've cut fabric that's it - especially when you've done it wrong (which has happened to me on more than one occasion, hence my nerves).

Then, after a bit more musing, I realised that the material had twisted - t-shirts do that, don't they? - and there was no way to escape the scissors.  A glass of wine was called for.  I did wonder if that would make it all worse, but I was in need of Dutch courage.  Just a sip or two would be fine, surely!  I took a big sip, a deep breath, and picked up the scissors.

And this is the result:



When small daughter tried it on, my first thought was that it could have been made for her - but of course it was!  All I had to do in the end was cut a little bit off the sides and the top of the sleeves, re-attach the sleeves and re-do the side seams which sounds a bit daunting if you're in the same place that I was before I started this, but seriously, this book makes you believe that you can do anything!  In fact, I'm so buoyed by my success that my husband has told me in no uncertain terms not to go anywhere near his t-shirt drawer!

And, if that wasn't enough, I was back at The Make and Do Studio on Thursday for a curtain-making workshop.  All our windows are the wrong shape for off-the-peg curtains so I decided that I would make my own.  And in the space of a morning's workshop, I now know that I can!  The workshop tutor, Anne, runs her own soft furnishings company so she should know a thing or two about making curtains.  I found that not only does she know a thing or two, she's also very good at telling other people how to do it as well.  We actually made a small curtain so that we could see exactly how it all fitted together.  This is mine:


Look - complete with proper lining and mitred corners!


And neat header tape that tucks into the folds of the curtain so that you can't see it.  I even know now how to tuck the string holder into the header tape so that it doesn't hang down - you can just see it on the right.


I'm not quite sure what I'm going to do with my curtain - I feel like it should be over a plaque in the hall which will announce that my house is officially open! If nothing else, though, it will be a useful reminder for when I make a start on the curtains for the house, and of course of a lovely morning at The Make and Do Studio!






Monday, 13 January 2014

St(h)ealthy biscuits!

Of all the things that my girls enjoy baking, biscuits must be at the top of the list.  From being very small, they have both loved rolling out the dough, choosing the cutters, pressing the cutters into dough to make wonderful shapes and - most of all - eating the biscuits when they're baked!

We've got quite a collection of cutters now - some we've bought ourselves, others were given to us, and a couple we've picked up on our travels from places like Scotland and even Canada!  We keep them in an old metal biscuit tin and it's pretty much full now - but it doesn't stop me eyeing up new cutters when I can, like these fantastic ninja gingerbread men!  

Small daughter had a friend over to play on Saturday afternoon and they didn't take much encouragement to come into the kitchen to make biscuits. Now, I have to confess that I did have a bit of an ulterior motive as I wanted to try out a new biscuit recipe, but the girls didn't mind and were soon busy choosing cutters from our tin ...


This is just some of our collection, and someone better at photography than me would have avoided the shine on the worktop, but you can still see that the girls had plenty to choose from!  They decided not to use the Christmas ones, or ones that were very small, or ones that seemed too boring (round) and we weren't making gingerbread men, but we still seemed to end up with plenty of different shapes!

I'm calling these biscuits Stealthy Healthy biscuits (or St(h)ealthy for short!) because not only do they have brown sugar in them, they also have brown flour in them.  They're based on a recipe that my Mum came up with many years ago so these are the biscuits I always ate as a child, with some slight tweakings of the weights to make a biscuit that holds its shape well in the oven.  I wanted to know if the girls would notice the ingredients were different without me telling them so I must confess that they didn't see me weigh out the flour, although I didn't use too much brown this first time - about 2 oz out of the total 10 oz.

St(h)ealthy Biscuits

10 oz plain flour (white, brown or mixed to your own choice)
5 oz butter or margarine
5 oz brown sugar
1 tsp vanilla essence
1 egg


I'm afraid I'm far too lazy to be creaming butter and sugar and folding in flour so I just put it all in the food processor and whizz it up until the ingredients are combined and the dough has changed to a pale colour.  If it's a bit stiff, add a little milk to soften it up.


That's all there is to the dough - simple, eh?  Remove from the food processor and put it on a floured surface.  You'll need to knead the dough lightly to create a ball ready to roll out.

This is the point where I expected one of the girls to point out that the dough wasn't the usual colour; even the little bit of brown flour that I'd used had coloured the dough slightly - but nothing was said so we got on with the serious business of rolling out and cutting shapes.


There was much debate about how many of each shape they should make, who should press where and which one they were going to eat first.  I had to keep reminding them to make the shapes as close together as they could otherwise we'd only have got about three biscuits out of each rolling!


Soon, our first batch was ready to go into the oven.  Had the girls noticed any difference now?  Er ... no.


They had much more important things to think about, such as whether they would actually get two moose (mooses?) out of the dough.  We'd already decided they were a bit big but in a last minute change of plan, the cutter was hoiked out of the box and two moose made it onto the baking tray.  Cheers all round - but had anyone noticed these moose were slightly browner even before they went into the oven?  Er ... no.

Into the oven at 180° for about 10 minutes (bottom set of runners for Aga users) and soon we had a rack full of crunchy, munchy biscuits that were just too good to resist.  Brown sugar doesn't dissolve as completely as white so the biscuits were quite speckled, but did anyone notice they looked different?  Er ... no.


In fact, all the girls were worried about was how soon it would be before they could each eat their moose biscuits, and from the happy munching noises that could be heard, there were certainly no complaints that the biscuits might taste any different.


So all in all, I think this proves that point that children don't necessarily question what you're putting in the food, especially if they don't see it.  This has already worked brilliantly for me by pureeing vegetables to put into sauces and pies, but I'm delighted that it seems to work with biscuits as well. You can choose exactly what proportion of white to brown flour you use, and I might well use a bit more next time, but I don't expect there to be any complaints!

If you'd like to have a go for yourself, here's the recipe again.  It's a basic biscuit recipe so you can add anything you like - 1 or 2 tsp of ginger instead of the vanilla essence for gingerbread men depending on how gingery you like them, cinnamon and mixed spice for Christmas biscuits, raisins, chocolate chips, fruit - anything you can imagine can go into a biscuit!  Do let me know how you get on!


St(h)ealthy Biscuits (makes around 30 biscuits depending on cutter size)

10 oz plain flour (white, brown or mixed to your own choice)
5 oz butter or margarine
5 oz brown sugar
1 tsp vanilla essence
1 egg

Put all the ingredients into a food processor and blitz until the mixture is pale and creamy.  If you don't have a food processor, cream the butter (margarine) and sugar until combined then add the egg, flour and vanilla essence to create a soft dough.

Turn the dough out onto a floured surface and roll out to a thickness of approx ½ cm.  We like our biscuits quite thick but you can make them any size you like - just remember that thinner biscuits will cook more quickly.

Cut the dough into shapes (use a glass if you don't have cutters) and place on a baking tray.  Bake at 180°C for about 10 minutes, turning the tray if necessary during the cooking time to stop the biscuits getting too brown.

Remove from the oven and allow to cool on a wire rack




Thursday, 9 January 2014

Maple syrup flapjack recipe

It would seem that I'm not alone in thinking that we should reduce the sugar in our diet - the news has been full of it today and it was even the subject of the radio debate I was listening to.  Blimey - it makes a change for me to be up with the breaking news!

Anyway, having been rained off in the garden, I decided to make a start on our white sugar-reduction programme by making some flapjack.  I'm not planning to give sugar up completely but I am intending to reduce the amount of white refined products that we use. Although I know that brown sugar isn't necessarily any healthier than white sugar, I do know that it hasn't been bleached and as it doesn't seem as sweet as white sugar, it should help us to start reducing the level of sugar that we've got used to. 

Our flapjack is made from a fabulous recipe that was given to me by big daughter's school cook many years ago after I was informed by big daughter that my flapjack wasn't nearly as nice as the school one.  Helen the cook very kindly shared her recipe and we've been using it ever since.  The original recipe uses caster sugar and golden syrup - this is my version which uses brown sugar, maple syrup and less butter - and best of all, it's super-quick and easy!

Maple Syrup Flapjack

9 oz rolled oats
4½ oz butter or margarine
4½ oz brown sugar
1 tbsp maple syrup



Put the butter (or margarine), sugar and syrup in a large pan and cook over a low heat until the all the ingredients have dissolved.  



It will be a beautiful caramel colour, thick and creamy.  



Remove the pan from the stove and stir in the rolled oats.  Mix well until the oats are completely coated with the syrup mixture.



Tip the oats out onto a baking tin which you will need to line with greaseproof paper, tin foil or cooking parchment so that it doesn't stick to the bottom.  




Push the oats into the corners of the tin and smooth out so that it is level.  Try to keep the edges the same thickness as the rest of the flapjack or they will burn in the oven.  Cook for about 8-10 minutes at 180°C or until golden brown. (If you're like me and cook on an Aga, it's the bottom set of runners for about 8 minutes.)



Remove from the oven and mark the divisions whilst the flapjack is still hot and soft enough to mark (you can cut it once it's cold but it's much easier to do it straight from the oven).  I got twenty pieces from my mixture but it's up to you how big to make each piece so you'd get more or less.  Allow to cool and then break into pieces.


And that's all there is to it!  Super-quick and easy indeed!


You might wonder how it went down when we've been so used to eating the original version and I think this picture tells you pretty well!


So, all in all, a successful experiment I would say, and if you're tempted to try some for yourself, I hope you'll agree!


Here's the recipe again in case you'd like to print it out to try for yourself:

Maple Syrup Flapjack

9 oz rolled oats
4½ oz butter or margarine
4½ oz brown sugar
1 tbsp maple syrup

Put the butter (or margarine), sugar and syrup in a large pan and cook over a low heat until the all the ingredients have dissolved.  It will be a beautiful caramel colour, thick and creamy.  
Remove the pan from the stove and stir in the rolled oats.  Mix well until the oats are completely coated with the syrup mixture.

Tip the oats out onto a baking tin which you will need to line with greaseproof paper, tin foil or cooking parchment so that it doesn't stick to the bottom.  

Push the oats into the corners of the tin and smooth out so that it is level.  Try to keep the edges the same thickness as the rest of the flapjack or they will burn in the oven.  Cook for about 8-10 minutes at 180°C or until golden brown. (If you're like me and cook on an Aga, it's the bottom set of runners for about 8 minutes.)

Remove from the oven and mark the divisions whilst the flapjack is still hot and soft enough to mark (you can cut it once it's cold but it's much easier to do it straight from the oven).  I got twenty pieces from my mixture but it's up to you how big to make each piece so you'd get more or less.  Allow to cool and then break into pieces.


Let me know how you get on with it, or if you try any variations, such as adding raisins or other fruit!

Food, glorious food

One of the things that I would like to do this year is to take a good look at what our family is eating and make a few changes.  As a general rule, we don't eat too badly - I cook from scratch most nights, we don't eat much red meat (none at all in my husband's case as he went veggie last year), we eat home-grown organic veg and I try to limit the amount of junk that we consume.

Having said that, there's always room for improvement.  The food that I ate on my retreat was vegetarian and prepared with little or no sugar, and although I expected massive withdrawal symptoms as I have quite a sweet tooth, I felt instead as though I was bursting with energy.  Now, well into the first week back to school, back on our usual diet and still finishing off the Christmas chocolates, I'm ready to crawl into bed and sleep at every possible opportunity!  It's got me thinking that although I don't want to change to the diet I had whilst I was away, there has to be a significant connection between how I'm feeling and what I'm eating.

But - how to make changes without being too obvious?  My husband's easy, he will eat whatever I put in front of him (very handy when we first got married and I was learning to cook!) but my girls will be trickier.  Whilst I could change our diet wholesale and let them just get on with it, I know from experience that it can be quite traumatic for that to happen to a child, especially when they're used to eating what's generally termed as "normal" food.  

So, I've decided to go for the stealth method.  Nothing too underhand; we'll still have the same sorts of food as before, but with just a few alterations.  White sugar is the big one, but it's not impossible to phase it out or at least cut it down - at home, at least.  I've decided to use brown sugar in my baking instead.  There - a simple start!  We're all pretty good at snacking on biscuits so I plan to start making our own and then I can control what's gone into them.  (I could just stop the biscuits altogether, but that feels a bit unkind - and I like a biscuit!) It will mean adding another job to my week - and that's the thing.  I need to find a way of cooking and baking all of these things without it impacting too much on the time that I have available.

Perhaps I have just found myself a resolution for this year after all - to feed my family better and adjust how I'm spending my time so that I can manage it all and still get the odd early night or two.  Or perhaps I just need more hours in the day!  Either way, I think it will be fun finding out.

Wednesday, 8 January 2014

Monthly Musing - January 2014 - Enjoy the silence

"Two and a half days?  Not speaking at all?  You?"

My friend's question is not as ridiculous as it seems; anyone who knows me will tell you that I generally have a lot to say for myself, so to be totally non-verbal for anything more than about ten minutes is quite an achievement.

However, that was part of my meditation retreat and despite my apprehension about whether I'd manage it or not, I decided to throw myself wholeheartedly at the task.  And was amazed to find that it wasn’t as difficult as I expected.  In fact, I found it totally liberating and think it should be compulsory for everybody, especially busy Mums just before Christmas!

The point of being silent on the retreat is to remind ourselves that the source of all emotions comes from inside us.  No one else can make you feel anything that you don’t want to, so when we are upset by something that has been said or done, it’s our choice to be upset.  When we laugh at a funny joke or situation, it’s our choice to be amused by it.  It’s a strange thing to think that the ultimate responsibility for how we feel is actually down to us, not anyone else.

This is not a situation that’s exclusive to meditation retreats; it’s how it is all the time – and that is also very liberating.  We no longer have to be offended by people who say the wrong thing at the wrong time, or wait for someone else to cheer us up when we’re feeling down.  We become free to feel exactly what we want to feel, and that also sets other people free as they are no longer responsible for our emotions.

Actually putting this into practice isn’t always easy.  We still have to consider other people’s feelings when we speak, be polite and respectful.  However, for big daughter who spends her days at school with over-emotional and over-sensitive teenage girls, it could be something of a blessing.  Imagine how much simpler life would be without over-analysing every conversation or expression!  Imagine being happy with how you are instead of letting your own insecurities get the better of you and needing compliments to boost your self-esteem!  And imagine how much easier life would be for those of us who still do that even though we left our teenage years behind many years ago!

The kind of retreat that I went on isn’t everyone’s cup of tea and that’s fine; it’s everybody being different that makes the world go round.  But what it has done is taught me some important lessons; we shouldn’t wait to praise something that’s good, we should take time to praise ourselves as that’s our way of giving thanks for what we have, and we should appreciate that the source of joy and every other emotion is within us and within our control.
I know that it will be very easy for me to get caught up in the day-to-day busy-ness of the year and forget, but this year I’m going to do my best to try to remember these lessons.  They can only benefit me and those around me and, of course, are just part of looking for the extraordinary in the everyday!


Monday, 6 January 2014

A circle of life thing

It's been a sad day today, in our little corner of Winwick - one of the horses in the field close to our house died.  We know the owners well, my girls have ridden Jamie over the years and we have always enjoyed the way that he comes up to the fence to greet us and demand treats.  It will seem strange not to see his shaggy head lifting to greet visitors and assess whether they have interesting food in their pockets.

Our house is close enough to the field to have seen the comings and goings today; the owners and their families, the vet, the horse box to take him away.  I did wonder if this was a suitable subject to post on a blog, but it's a fact of life that nothing lives forever - a circle of life thing, as the line in the film goes - and whilst we have had our share of grief in our family like any other - parents, grandparents, pets - it is never something that you are prepared for.

I have tried to do the best I can today to help both the owners and the girls, and even though at times like this you feel that it's never enough, it's something.  Big daughter understands about death and whilst desperately upset, can rationalise that a sick horse needed to be set free from his illness.  Small daughter coped until bedtime and then the tears came until we imagined Jamie galloping free in the field, eating what he wanted without restriction and not being poorly any more.  

Jamie may have been "just a horse" but he was part of our landscape and part of the owners' lives and it's impossible for me to dismiss him as something not important.  It's never easy to say goodbye and the impermanence of the world causes more pain to the ones left behind that to those who leave, but as much as we'd like to, we can't shield the ones we love from everything that the world has to throw at us.  I know that this sadness will become part of what makes my girls who they are, and for all of us, perhaps, a reminder not to take things for granted, even big shaggy horses who lean over fences to snatch treats.