Fiction Friday

Oh, ok, it’s not Friday. See, not even into December and already my normal routine is spiralling out of control. However, as Advent is nearly upon us I thought it was time to present another seasonal medley of favourites. So without further ado, here it is, Superlative Saturday. 🙂

Books for Younger Children

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A classic. Beautifully illustrated story of a Scandinavian farm’s resident Tomten (a sort of elf/pixie/dwarf creature). Apart from the slightly unnerving idea of this wee creature coming in to the house to gaze at sleeping children, this book helps to illustrate the rhythmic, cyclical nature of the seasons, and to show the importance of caring for animals over the hard winter period.

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What’s not to love? Clever references to fairytales, envelopes to open, games and puzzles to play, appalling rhymes to groan over. Fab.

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I love Jan Brett’s children’s books. The attention to detail in the illustrations is just superb. Brett has done a whole series of books around the Christmas/winter theme and all of them are worth buying and poring over. A visual treat.

For Slightly Older Children

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You may think pop-ups are only for very little children, but that would be before you came across a pop up produced by Robert Sabuda. Think of him as a pop-up artists version of Rob Ryan. Someone who takes the craft to a whole new level. I first came across his work at the Library, where copies of his books had been bought for Fine Art students to study and try and puzzle out how he got his pop-ups to do what they do. I can now spend hours in the comfort of my own home trying to do the same. Erm, with the children of course. Of course

For The Grown-ups

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Another classic. A story of a cheerless family’s unremittingly awful Christmas told as an amusing parody. Honest.

I know people who swear their family Christmas resembles the one at Cold Comfort Farm. I think they’re joking.

Confession time now.

At this time of indulgence and excess I do like to wallow in a bucketload of the types of romantic twaddle you would normally cross the street to avoid.
Chris Lit.
Doncha love it?
If you would like to wallow with me I can recommend

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Apparently there is a whole sub genre of Amish romance literature out there. Who knew? Anyway, I came across this one on Amazon and had to give it a go.
Friends, it did not disappoint.
There is snow. There are horse driven carriages. There are simple yet beautiful and meaningful Christmas celebrations.
Ok so the story at the heart of it is formulaic, but there are times when it’s nice to relax into a book like it’s a warm bubble bath. And frankly who needs to be challenged by their bath?

Enjoy!

Handmade Holidays

Ok, I’ll admit it. I have watched too much Kirstie Allsopp.

I can feel a rising tide of panic that I haven’t handmade all my Christmas gifts (oh the entertainment I will be denied of looking at the mixed emotions flitting across the recipients face as they try to express joy and delight whilst at the same time frantically trying to work out what the badly knitted thing is).

I have good intentions every year. I can spend hours creating lists, browsing through craft books and magazines, trying to decide the ideal handcrafted goodie for each person. I just don’t quite spend the same amount of time actually creating the things.

What’s that? Displacement activity? You think?

But I am super pleased with myself today because I have (drumroll please). Made some stockings.

I haven’t made anything to go inthe stockings, but it will be the best dressed nothing this side of the North Pole.

They are super easy to make (of course).
You will need:
Scraps of material for the stocking
Material for the lining
Ribbon
Buttons
Newspaper
Cardboard

Method.

Draw a stocking shape on your newspaper and cut it out.
Decide how big you want your patches to be and cut a square of cardboard to the appropriate size.
Cut out enough patches from your scraps to cover the stocking.
Sew the patches together

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and then attach the stocking to the back of the patchwork, draw around the stocking shape. Repeat but reverse the stocking.

Pin the two lots of patchwork together, right sides together and matching up the outlines of the stockings. Sew along this outline, leaving the top open.

Cut off any excess material.

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Now cut two stocking shapes from the lining material, remembering to reverse the image and also allowing an extra 15-20cm off the top of the stocking -you will fold this over to make the cuff.

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Sew the two lining pieces together (right sides together).

Turn the patchwork stocking right side out.

Sew a hem around the top of the lining (the cuff). Leave the lining inside out.

Place the lining inside the patchwork stocking and turn the cuff down so the crease of the turning is flush with the top of the patchwork. Poke your fingers around inside the lining to make sure it all fits inside the patchwork and is lined up properly and not twisted or lumpy.
Now sew around the top of the stocking to give a neat finish and attach the lining and outer together.
Now cut a piece of ribbon, long enough to enable you to use it to hang the stocking on whatever hooky thing you are planning on dangling it off. Double the ribbon over and sew it to the top centre back of the stocking. Sew buttons over the top of the stitch marks

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Stir-up Sunday

Today is Stir Up Sunday, the day traditionally when Christmas puddings were made, giving them time to mature ready for the big day.

In our house today it was “stirred-up Sunday”. You know those kinds of days when everyone is out of sorts and irritable? That was us today. It came to a head when oldest child, who fancies his chances at becoming some kind of You Tube movie mogul, flounced into the kitchen, as youngest child and I were battling with the pudding, and shouted “you said you would clean and tidy the kitchen so I can film in here and you haven’t done anything

To put this in context, I have had one of those weeks where I have spent most of my time trailing around the house tidying and cleaning, only to retrace my steps each time and find something akin to a Tasmanian Devil has been following me and undoing everything I’ve done.

You know that Katie Perry song “Roar”?

That was me that was.

It is a wonder oldest child’s face didn’t melt in the blast.

So we were in a good place to do the happy family “stirring and making a wish” bit that is supposed to go hand in hand with making a Christmas Pudding.

Which is why we didn’t actually start steaming it until 2pm when we’d all calmed down a bit.

Which is why the darned thing is still steaming now, 7 hours later.

And it doesn’t look any different to when it was first put in

What is a Figgy Pudding supposed to look like anyway? I know what supermarket Christmas puddings look like but I’ve never seen a traditional Figgy pudding in the flesh before.

And having recently read Agatha Raisin and the Christmas Crumble I’m a bit scared to stop steaming it in case it poisons someone.

If any of you are curious to try making Figgy Pudding, like all recipes there are numerous variations out there.

The version I’ve gone for involves soaking 175g chopped dried figs, 225g chopped, dried and pitted dates and 90g raisins/currants in 100ml of brandy (though I used Grand Marnier) overnight, then adding 50g self raising flour, 100g suet, 175g breadcrumbs, 2 eggs, 1tsp nutmeg, juice and zest of 1 orange, 1/2 tsp ginger, 2tsp mixed spice and 1 eating apple, grated.

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And yes, full hat and scarf ensemble is obligatory, the recipe doesn’t work otherwise. Honest.
Mix together and make a wish as you are doing so.

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“I wish my big brother would turn into a…”

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Add charms, or sixpences if you like (though don’t forget to warn potential guinea pigs of possible choking/dental hazards). Pour into a greased pudding basin and wrap pudding and basin in a double layer of grease proof paper, then a single layer of tin foil. Tie it into submission with a piece of string.
Find a large pan with a tightly fitting lid, put a small saucer upside down in the bottom, put your pudding basin on top of the saucer and pour boiling water into the pan so it comes halfway up the outside of the basin. Put the lid on.

Of course, the slow cooker I was planning on using as it was just the right size for the pudding basin, became just that bit too small once the basin was encased in its winter coats. None of my pans or casserole dishes were big enough for the job. So I am now steaming the pudding in a wok.

Hey, it’s fusion Ok?

Times for steaming vary. Some books suggest 4 hours, others say 6. As I said, we’re over the 7 hour mark and it looks as blithely uncooked as it did at 2pm.

So perhaps you’d be better of not following the recipe after all. Look on it more as one of those experiments you read about in science textbooks.

Or possibly one of those experiments you see in a Science Fiction B movie.

Fiction Friday

This Week I Have Mostly Been Reading

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Well, it has been hard going. Not because the writing is bad, or trite, but because there is only so much navel gazing, narcissism one can take at one sitting.
My understanding is that this book is thinly-veiled autobiography, and if that is the case then I have to say, “Mr Irving, get over yourself”. Do we really need to know the minutiae of every adolescent crush and fantasy? really?

On the plus side, John Irving is a good writer. The text is well written, witty, descriptive. It’s just that it goes on. And on. And on. I am still working my way through it, so perhaps things will pick up by the end. Perhaps. I fear that by the end I will just feel I have read something worthy, not something that is great literature, or even just a good story.

Next week I Shall be Reading.

Well at this rate I’ll probably still be reading John Irving, but assuming I manage to wade my way through to the end of it I plan on trying

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A tale of two magicians in England during the Napoleonic wars.

I have a mental image of Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale in “The Prestige”.

And that’s always a good thing 🙂

Quatre-quarts a la Madeleine

Do not fear, I am not about to come over all Proustian….

In amongst all the wind and rain and hail we’ve been experiencing recently I found myself thinking back fondly (oh no! Proust attack!) to the two weeks we had in France this summer. In particular I was remembering a picnic on the beach, in blisteringly hot sun, and a bag of quatre-quarts that just hit the spot.

I believe Quatre-quarts are normally baked in a loaf tin; a good, plain cake that is the French equivalent of a Victoria Sponge (without the filling). The quatre-quarts we had however, were produced as dainty, individual mouthfuls-and this was the effect I wanted to try to reproduce.

There are loads of recipes on the net which have the basic ingredients:-
2 eggs
125g caster sugar
125g plain flour
125g butter, melted and cooled
Pinch of salt
1/2 tsp baking powder

But I liked the variation found in Rachel Khoo’s ‘Little Paris Kitchen’ which included the grated zest of an orange and lemon, so I added 2teaspoons of each.

Preheat oven to Gas 4.
Separate eggs and beat the whites to peaks with half the sugar.
In a different bowl beat the yolks with the rest of the sugar
In a third bowl mix the dry ingredients and the zest together.
Fold the flour mix into the yolk mix and then stir in the butter. Fold in the egg whites.

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It is vitally important to sample the cake batter as you go. Just to check the quality.

If you are going the traditional route, pour the mix into a greased and floured loaf tin.
I wanted my cakes to go down the dainty route, but didn’t feel the cupcake aesthetic was quite right, so I dusted down an old, battered Madeleine tin and used that instead.

Bake for 20-25 minutes till golden (increase cooking time if you’re going for the loaf).

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What comes out is light, moist, subtly citrusy sponge with a slight crispness to the edges.

Reminiscent of us slightly sunburnt and crispy Brits after a day on the beach eating Quatre-quarts.

Woof

I am not a petrol head by anyone’s definition of the term. I can probably name about a dozen different types of car, and actually recognise half of those. On a good day. If I can include the VW Beetle, and Citroen 2CV. Cos they’re easy.

But my beloved mini one is in the garage at the moment. So they gave me this to play with

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Here boy.

You can’t see it in this picture but he’s wagging his tail.

You want to play fetch, don’t you boy?

Woof

Christmas crafting

I was talking to one of the cleaners at work today. On Saturday she went to the Christmas market in Birmingham. And she deep breath finishedherchristmasshoppingandthenwenthomeandwrappeditallupandputupherchristmasdecorations.
Including the tree.

I had to say it fast otherwise I might have started sobbing halfway through.

I am in awe of people who are that organized. I thought I was doing well because I bought my Christmas cards in the January sales this year. I have no idea where they are now, but hey, they are in the house somewhere. And in my head, that’s that job done.

So I thought about doing a big Christmas shop and then bringing it all home and wrapping it when the kids are in bed. Then I thought “nah”.

So much more fun to procrastinate and spend the time making stuff instead.

I find one of the nice things about this time of year is the way the house smells warm and inviting with the scent of gingerbread and spices from the Christmas baking hanging heavy in the air. And I like the house to smell like that even if all we have been doing in reality is arguing over the homework or cooking fish for tea.

Scented Christmas Coasters

These are so easy to make, and once you’ve placed a hot cup of coffee (or hot chocolate/mulled wine/insert hot beverage of choice) on top, the scent of the spices is released and you will be enveloped in a warm fug of seasonal goodwill and coziness.

Tempted?

You will need
Coaster sized piece of backing fabric
4 Smaller sized pieces of coordinating fabric
Wadding
Bias tape in a coordinating colour -enough to go all the way around the coaster.
Assorted Christmassy spices.
Cardboard
Pencil

First of all, decide on the size of your coaster and then work out how big your patchwork squares would need to be if that coaster was divided into 4. Draw yourself a template to this size on card and cut it out. Use the template to cut out 4 squares of pretty Christmassy fabric in complementary colours and patterns,

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allowing a 2cm seam allowance all round.

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Also cut out a piece of fabric for the backing and a piece of batting, these should be the size you want your finished coaster to be.

Sew your 4 smaller squares of fabric together to make 1 larger square

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Press the seams open and trim any excess, loose threads etc.
Now make a sandwich with backing fabric (right side down), batting in the middle and patchwork (right side up) on top. Pin the layers together.

Now take some bias binding and pin it around three sides of the coaster. Sew the bias tape in place.

Take some dried spices – I used cloves, a little bit of cinnamon bark (crushed with a pestle and mortar) and some star anise – and place them inside the coaster. Make sure they are well distributed so you don’t get any lumpy bits.

Now sew the last section of bias tape into place, sealing the coaster.

Make yourself a nice cup of coffee (or hot chocolate/mulled wine/hot beverage of choice), place it on the coaster in between sips, and let yourself be enveloped by the smell of Christmas.

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Having a pile of Christmas cards to write as you do your sipping is optional.

Five reasons to love this time of year

1. Woolly jumpers. People tend to look at you suspiciously if you wander around in woollies in the middle of August, but nobody accuses you of trying to hide flabby, saggy bits if you wear a woolly in Winter. Even if you are.

2. Christmas music.
Ah come on, you know you like it really.
Who doesn’t get a little frisson of anticipation at the first annual airing of Fairytale of New York?

And Shane McGowan acts as a timely reminder to children to clean their teeth during the season of excess sugar :-).

3. Candles. You can light them in the middle of summer, but somehow it’s not quite the same. Lower the lights, snuggle on the sofa with assorted children and/or other halves. Dream of long winter walks in crisp snow.

Without actually having to go out into the cold.

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4. Christmas decoration spotting. We bagged our first one today on the way back from Brownies Fun Day.

A tasteful affair in the middle of Meriden village green (the Christmas tree, not the Brownie fun day which involved lots of small people running around screaming and gradually disappearing under layers of campfire toasted, melted marshmallow. There may still be a few stuck to trees on the campsite (and yes, I do mean the brownies not the marshmallows))

5. Gingerbread latte. Starbucks gingerbread latte is gorgeous, but now there’s that whole tricky ethics question (guilt!). Fortunately, it turns out it’s ridiculously easy to make your own gingerbread syrup to add to coffees at home.

Put 480ml of water, 280g of granulated sugar, 2tsp of ground ginger, 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon, 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract and 2cm fresh ginger (grated) in a pan and bring to the boil.

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Lower the heat and simmer for 15-20 mins.
Strain liquid through a sieve to remove the chunks of ginger.
Decant into a sterilised bottle or jar.

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Add to coffee to taste. Top with whipped cream, nutmeg etc.

Sip slowly and feel very smug because you’ve paid tax on all the ingredients.

Realise there is something very wrong with that last statement

Fiction Friday

This Week I Have Mostly Been Reading

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Superb.

Three nights it took me.

Three nights of staying up past my bedtime because I just couldn’t put this book down.

Well-crafted, addictive, spine-tingling.

And it’s set in Hay, the spiritual home of Librarians and Bibliophiles.

Books and ghosts and weirdness. Oh my.

Buy it, read it. You can thank me later. 🙂

Next Week I shall be Reading

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I’ve only read a few of John Irving’s previous works (I remember sobbing my way through the final chapter of Owen Meany) so I’m not sure what to expect from this one. It seems to have had mixed reviews – ranging from “rich and absorbing” and “daring” to “trite and contrived”. Hmmm. Could be a challenge?

Pecan pie….

…muffins.

A lot of the blogs I read are starting to buzz with the coming Thanksgiving Holiday over the Pond. Turkeys and pumpkins and sweet potatoes and cornbread and cranberries and pecans.

Not all in the same dish (though, come to think of it, it might just work)

So I was feeling the need to join in in some little way.

Couldn’t quite face tackling a turkey. Not yet.

But Pecan pie? Hmmm.

I really wasn’t in the mood for facing down the pastry making demons again, but pecan pie in muffin shape? That might just work.

I took the basic elements of pecan pie but added a little maple syrup to the mix- which I don’t think is at all authentic in a pecan pie, but maple and pecan do go together so very well.

The result? Well, not the prettiest muffin but it tastes darned good!

Ingredients
110g softened butter
110g brown sugar
2 eggs beaten
1/2 tsp vanilla
2tbsp maple syrup
65g plain flour
60g pecans
1 tsp baking powder

Preheat oven to Gas 4

Cream the butter and sugar.

Add the eggs, vanilla and maple syrup and mix well.

Sift together flour and baking powder and add to the mixture, beating in well.

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Stir in the pecans

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Spoon into muffin cases and top each with half a pecan.

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And bake for about 25 mins.

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Not the most inspiring looking things, resembling, as they do, nothing more than cow pats. But they do taste good.

I’m thinking an extra spoonful of baking powder next time might make them more aesthetically pleasing and less redolent of the farmyard 🙂