Thursday, 23 December 2010

Christmas Countdown: Merry Christmas

It's Christmas Eve Eve, known more commonly as the 23rd December, and I still have lots of final touches to do. Presents to wrap, a few more stitches to put in my homemade ones and food to eat(!) so this will be my last blog post for a while. I've really enjoyed counting down to Christmas and recording my preparations. I hope they have been of some use.

All that remains is to wish you a very merry Christmas and a happy New Year.

Wednesday, 22 December 2010

I'm only just in time with this post, but better late than never. Not a particularly Christmas related post today, but it's a present for Alice, so I think it counts.

Lately, she's developed an interested in clocks and watches. She spots them long before I do, and delightedly shouts 'tick tock!' I thought that she'd enjoy having her very own little watch, so here's what I've cobbled together:

Some very wobbly stitches, but I'm quite pleased with the result. I tried i
t on her when she was sleeping, so she won't see it until Christmas morning. I can't wait!

Tuesday, 21 December 2010

Christmas Countdown: Mess free painting

Uncharacteristically, I've made an attempt to be more organised this Christmas. Today, I thought it would be good to do some painting with Alice that we can use for thank you cards. Normally, I'm more than happy to let her get herself and everything around messy, but I've got a lot to do before the big day, so I'd rather not add to the workload. Fortunately, I remembered a craft idea I came across when I was a teacher that is almost completely mess free, but still fun for a toddler.

You'll need:

A ziplock bag
some paper (I used the backs of old envelopes)
A sponge cut into pieces

Cut the paper to fit into the bag. Dampen the pieces of sponge and dip each into a different colour of paint. Put the sponges in the bag and squeeze out a little air. Zip up the bag and allow your toddler to squeeze, shake, stamp and jump up and down on the bag. Before the paper gets too battered, take it out and hang up to dry. Add some more paint to the sponges, another sheet of paper, and off you go again!

Alice loved seeing the colours spread across the paper. This kept us both entertained, and we have some lovely paintings to show for it.

Monday, 20 December 2010

Christmas Countdown: Warming drinks

It seems the nights are drawing in not long after lunch, and snow is falling, I've been enjoying snuggling up with a hot drink. I've got a few favourites, so here they are:

The Cold Buster
My husband calls this my vitamin drink, and I've been needing in lately to help see off one of the many colds flying around. It uses some of the elderberry syrup I made in the Autumn which is apparently full of vitamin C, but I'm sure any cordial would taste good.

Put into your cup: 1 tsp honey (manuka is best for its antibacterial properties), 2 tsp elderberry syrup and a good shake of lemon juice or a slice of lemon. Peel a piece of fresh ginger and bash it with a pestle or the end of a rolling pin and add to the cup. Top up with boiling water and leave for 3-5 minutes before removing the ginger. Inhaling the steam seems to clear my blocked nose and it is very soothing on the throat. I've swapped my breakfast tea for this recently, and it's a lovely way to start the day.

Mulled Juice
As I'm breastfeeding and trying to conceive, I'm pretty much teetotal nowadays. This is a drink that makes me feel Christmassy without the alcohol content!

Warm a bottle of grape or cranberry juice in a pan along with half an orange and some strips of lemon peel. Wrap half a stick of cinnamon, a few cloves, a piece of peeled ginger, ground/grated nutmeg in a piece of muslin and tie with string. Add to the pan of juice along with a cup of water and boil for about 5 minutes before serving.

Decadent Hot Chocolate
There are few things in life that make me feel cosier than sitting on the sofa covered with a blanket and drinking a hot chocolate. This concoction may be the most decadent version I've ever tried.

Using the cup you will be using to drink from, pour out some milk until the cup is nearly full. Pour into a pan and add 1/2 tbsp cocoa powder and 2 tbsp brown sugar. Put the pan on to a medium heat and whisk until smooth. Reduce the heat and add in a handful of dark chocolate broken into pieces, a strip of orange peel and a cinnamon stick. Keep whisking over the low heat until the chocolate is melted. Allow to stand for a further 5 - 10 minutes. Remove the peel and cinnamon stick and gently reheat. Pour into your mug, top with whipped cream and dust with cocoa. Put your feet up and enjoy!

Sunday, 19 December 2010

Christmas Countdown: Cake decorating

Before we start today, I should warn you that this may be a bit of a letdown. As my mother would tell you, I am not the most organised and forward thinking of people. I like to jump straight in to situations and sort out problems as they arise. Unfortunately, lack of planning means that problems frequently do arise. My first attempt at Christmas cake decorating is a case in point.

Problem 1: The cake needs a board to sit on.
Solution: To my delight I found a board at the back of a cupboard. It was round, but no matter. It just fit underneath the cake. Hurray!

Problem 2: Once the marzipan is on top, the cake board is too small.
Solution: A mayday call to my mum yields an excellent solution. The cake can sit on the lid of my cake tin and the tin can then be placed back on top for transportation. Genius.

Problem 3: Once the icing is on top, the cake doesn't fit on the lid.
Solution: No problem. A cereal box covered in foil stuck d
own with parcel tape is an excellent back up. Well, it's a back up.

Problem 4: The cake will need transporting in the car for an hour and a half. It has no container.
Solution: With no large enough cake tin to hand, I have made a valiant attempt at making my own using a roasting dish with a carving board and sealed with foil and more parcel tape. Necessity is the mother of invention.

I had hoped that this blog post would record the beautiful embellishments I had dreamt up to decorate my cake with. Instead it shows rather more parcel tape and foil than I had imagined possible. Tiny snowmen and cut out stars will have to wait for another day.

Saturday, 18 December 2010

Christmas Countdown: Brownies in a Jar

I'm taking a risk that the recipient of this gift doesn't see this blog post before Christmas, but I'm pretty confident they aren't a reader, so here goes...

Brownies in a jar:

There seem to be endless variations of these presents on the Internet including gingerbread, cookies, and hot chocolate mixes in jars, but brownies appealed the most. I was pleased to find this recipe that has metric measurements.

The dry ingredients are piled up and look really pretty. All the recipient has to do is mix up the contents with melted butter and eggs, and pour into a tin before baking. I've added a wooden spoon as I thought it looked quite cute. I was concerned that the ingredients might shift a bit, but they pack down firmly and the layers have stayed distinct. I think my friends and family will become quite familiar with these gifts over the next few years!

Friday, 17 December 2010

Christmas Countdown: Spicy nuts

A cheat post today because I haven't done this yet. I've been struck down by one of the many colds going around, and have been taking it easy.

I've decided to make little jars of spiced nuts as gifts for a few people this year. I found a recipe that includes whisked egg white to stick the spices to the nuts. I think it will add a nice glaze too.

This is the recipe I plan to use:

  • 1 large egg white
  • 1/4 cup sugar
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon chili powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground allspice
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 1 3/4 teaspoons cayenne pepper
  • 2 1/2 cups pecan halves, or assorted nuts, such as cashews, walnuts, or almonds


  1. Preheat oven to 300 degrees. Beat egg white until soft and foamy. Combine all remaining ingredients except pecans; whisk into egg white. Stir in pecans until well coated; spread mixture in single layer onto an ungreased baking pan.
  2. Bake pecans for 15 minutes, then remove from oven. Using a metal spatula, toss, stir, and separate nuts. Reduce oven to 250 degrees. and return nuts to bake until medium brown, about 10 minutes. Remove from oven; toss, and stir again. Place baking pan on wire rack to cool (they will crisp as they cool). Break up any that stick together; store in an airtight container, at room temperature, up to 2 weeks.
It sounds delicious, I'll report back on how it goes!

Thursday, 16 December 2010

Christmas Countdown: Cosy reads

One of the things I'm really enjoying about having a toddler is that I get to read my favourite stories with her. A friend recently bought Alice a lovely copy of The Snowman by Raymond Briggs. She sits and points at all the pictures and usually wants to go back to the beginning after we finish.

These short days are giving us lots of opportunities to snuggle up and read festive stories together. Even better if we read them in a den!

We've decided that we'll tell Alice the story of Saint Nicholas rather than the modern Santa or Father Christmas. I've not got a book about him, but I've been having a go at telling it in my own words. The oral tradition of telling stories is as old as the human race, and seems particularly appropriate at Christmas. and I'm using the opportunities I get to develop my skills at it now when
she doesn't mind too much when I get it wrong or muddle my words!

Wednesday, 15 December 2010

Christmas Countdown: Fat balls

Although it's not as cold here at it was a couple of weeks ago, food is still tricky to find if you're a bird. To make their lives a little easier I thought I'd make them a treat: the delightfully named 'fat balls'.

There are 101 ways to make them, but generally they need 1 part fat to 2 parts bird food. The food can be bird seed, nuts (only in Winter, as baby birds can choke on them), little scraps of bacon rind or any combination.

I used 250g lard and kept adding seed until it looked right (around 3 cups).

Here's how:

Gather some containers - plastic yoghurt or hummus pots are good. I've use
d some little metal pudding basins for mine.

Get a length of string, make a loop and tie a very large knot in the end. The larger the better as this will keep the fat ball attached. The loop will need to be long enough to reach all the way to the bottom of the mould and to have a good length to hand the fat ball from.

Melt the lard in a pan and take off the heat then stir in the seeds/nuts.

Pour into moulds, making sure the string is pushed to the bottom and is roughly central then allow to cool

Put the moulds into hot water for a few seconds to loosen the lard. Remove the fat ball and either hang outside or store by wrapping in cling film and leaving in the fridge until needed.

And there you have it, a cheap and easy way to let the birds share in the feasting this season.

Tuesday, 14 December 2010

Christmas Countdown: Ivy garland

We returned from my parents' house this weekend with a large bag of ivy gathered from their garden. I hoped that I could manage to somehow form it into decorations that would replace a Christmas tree and help our home look really festive. Armed with florists' tape and some ribbon, I had a go and discovered it was harder than I initially thought to make something that looked like it should be in my home rather than on a compost heap.

My attempts looked a little weedy, so I've added some large gold stars to bulk it out (and perhaps draw the eye away from the ivy...)

I've got lots more greenery to experiment with, and hopefully I'll get better as time goes on.

Monday, 13 December 2010

Christmas Countdown: Nativity

This post is a bit of a cheat, as I intended to make my own nativity scene this year. It was still a half formed plan, and I wasn't quite sure how I'd do it. Fortunately, I haven't had to! My parents decided to give Alice a Christmas decoration every year, and this year my mum chose to get her a little nativity scene made up of little painted plywood shapes. It's brightly coloured and a bit quirky. Mary in particular looks unlike any representation of Mary I've ever seen! I'm already looking forward to putting it up in our house. Hopefully we will be able to retell the Christmas story with it when she's old enough to understand.

Sunday, 12 December 2010

Christmas Countdown: Fragrance Balls

Here's something I've tried for the first time this year. Nothing makes me feel more like Christmas is around the corner than a house that smells of cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves. Hopefully these fragrance balls will make that happen even when I've not been busy in the kitchen. It's a very simple idea.

All you need to do, it heat 2/3 cup water in a pan with a stick of cinnamon, a little grated or ground nutmeg and a few cloves. Alternatively, for a stronger smell, use a teaspoon of essential oil in a scent of your choice. Heat the water until it boils then take off the heat.
Put a cup of flour, 1/4 tsp cornflour and 1/4 cup salt in a mixing bowl and add the scented water. I left the bits in the water, but you could strain them out if you'd rather. Stir together until a dough is formed.

Form the dough into balls and leave in a warm place to dry overnight.

I have to remind myself not to eat these, as they look and smell delicious. Next year I might try adding some glitter or making different shapes for a bit of a change. I've put mine in a glass jar with a few of my dried oranges with a bow around the top to make it look prettier.

Saturday, 11 December 2010

Christmas Countdown: Plum and Mulled Wine Jam

There can be very few more Christmassy sounding preserves than plum and mulled wine jam. I thought it would make a nice little present for friends as well as filling my store cupboard. Unfortunately, I didn't learn from my last preserve making experience and realised too late that I was making more jam than would fit in the pan. After faffing about with ladles and trying to mix the sugar evenly through both pans, I had rather a messy kitchen. Exactly like last time, the jam in the smaller pan scorched and the other batch wouldn't set even after 40 minutes of trying.

You win some, you lose some.

Anyway, in case you'd like to try your luck, here's the recipe taken from Jams, Pickles and Chutneys: Best Kept Secrets of the Women's Institute by Midge Thomas.

4 lb red plums, stoned and halved (I added an apple to make up the weight)
1/2 bottle red wine
Mulled wine spices tied in muslin
Piece of orange zest (without pith)
4 lb sugar
  • Put the plums and wine in a preserving pan (a BIG one!)
  • Add the spices and zest to the pan and cook gently for 15-20 minutes to soften the skins.
  • Take out the spices and zest add the sugar, stirring constantly until dissolved. Bring to the boil and boil rapidly until setting point is reached (the book says 10 minutes. HA! I say...)
  • Remove scum and pot into sterilised jars.
No pictures today I'm afraid as we're spending the weekend with my parents.

Friday, 10 December 2010

Christmas Countdown: Charity Shop Clear Out

I've decided to make a tradition of spending some time every December clearing out the old. I'm a dyed in the wool hoarder, and hold on to things long after they have served any useful purpose. Making sure that I sort out at least once a year will hopefully stop my house looking quite as much like Steptoe's yard. Clothes and other items are always in demand by charity shops at this time of year, and it's a good opportunity to make room for new things. In the process, I've rediscovered things I had forgotten and have inspiration for modifying some others to make them wearable again. It's like having a new wardrobe for free!

Thursday, 9 December 2010

Christmas Countdown: present tags

Every year I try and do my bit to recycle our Christmas cards by cutting them up to make tags for my presents next year. My mum has done this for as long as I can remember, and it's a frugal tradition I'm happy to continue!

Here's my batch from last year. A hole punch to make the hole and some pretty ribbon is all that's needed to make them pretty enough for any present.

I know, I know,
it's something that is pretty commonly done, but I've got to fill my 24 posts somehow!

Wednesday, 8 December 2010

Christmas Countdown: Decorations old and new

I got out my box of decorations today. I love doing this every year. It's like seeing old friends!

There are some old one that have hung on every one of the Christmas trees of my childhood, including the skiing Father Christmas and the tiny book with a real story inside. There's a bauble my grandparents gave me for my first Christmas. There's also some modern ones added to my collection. An angel sitting on a glass bell given to Alice last year, and a star a thoughtful friend brought round when I complained I had nothing to put at the top of my tree.

They may not all be the most tasteful items (to put it mildly) but they all have their stories and their place in my home. In our modern times, most people no longer live by the seasons and many of the high days and holidays of the past are long forgotten. I think Christmas is the perfect time to remember past times and think of future ones. In some small way, these little decorations help me do just that.

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

Christmas Countdown: Pomander

I've come across various methods for making these, but this is how I've always done it and haven't had any problems!
Take an orange and put holes all over it with a cocktail stick or fork.

Push a clove into each hole. The closer the cloves are to each other, the better.
Roll the pomander in ground cinnamon and nutmeg.

Leave in a warm dry place for a few weeks, or in a low oven for a few hours. It will shrink quite a lot after it has dried.
If you want to suspend it, criss-cross a ribbon around it with a loop at the top.

They look and smell lovely in a bowl or hung around the house, and after Christmas can be put into a wardrobe, drawer or airing cupboard to keep clothes and linen fresh and moth free.

Monday, 6 December 2010

Christmas countdown: Cinnamon bundles

A quick and easy idea today. This is one of my favourite Christmas decorations. Bundles of cinnamon sticks tied together with ribbon, or string. We've not got a Christmas tree this year as Alice would probably eat all the needles before the big day, so I'm going to nestle these in between holly and ivy branches around the house.

Sunday, 5 December 2010

Christmas Countdown: Popcorn garlands

I think these are an American tradition, but they have become a favourite in our house as I've got a rabid dislike of tinsel!

Not much instruction needed on how to make these. Pop some corn, and use a needle and thread to join them together (I use a double thickness of thread.)

Patience is definitely required as the corn is liable to break in two, but the evidence can be easily destroyed by eating any failed attempts. A nice idea is to string dried cranberries between the popped corn like little rubies.

My photo doesn't exactly do these justice. I'm planning to string them up among some holly and ivy, rather than haphazardly from the dresser drawers, so hopefully they'll look nicer then!

Saturday, 4 December 2010

Christmas countdown: Advent Calendars

Advent calendars hold very good memories for me. I had one every year as a child and was always so excited to open a little door every morning. My favourite one was made for me by my parents out of a narrow box with doors carefully cut out, a funny picture drawn on each one and a sweet stuck behind them. My parents run a jewellery shop, so there is no busier time than in the run up to Christmas. The time and effort they put into making it was very special to me, and I'm hoping to recreate a similar feeling for Alice.

With that in mind, last year I bought an advent train. I couldn't resist it! It has tiny drawers to put a little something inside. When she's big enough I plan to make a jigsaw cut into 24 pieces that she can put together over the month. At the moment it contains dried fruit, which is less inventive, but seems to be going down well. I love seeing it on our mantelpiece and imagining years to come. It is so wonderful to be creating our own Christmas traditions and memories.

Friday, 3 December 2010

Christmas Countdown: Paper doves

I've made these before in school, but this time I've used sheet music to make the doves. I got a book of music from a charity shop for £1.50 and there's lots left. When I bought it, I felt a pang of guilt knowing that it would be cut into bits rather than used to make music, but it will give us happiness in another way. My piano playing on the other hand certainly wouldn't bring happiness to anyone with eardrums.

Anyway, here's how:

Stick a sheet of music to the front and back of a solid piece of card (I used a cereal box.)

Draw the body of a dove and cut out.

Make a hole for the wings to go through. A craft knife would be useful here. I made a slightly less professional job by pushing one blade of a pair of scissors through into a ball of blu-tack.

Concertina a rectangle of sheet music and push half-way through the hole. Fan out prettily.

Make a small hole in the back of the dove and loop through some thread or ribbon to suspend it.

These would look lovely on a Christmas tree, but as we're not having one this year for fear that Alice would eat her body weight in needles, I've hung my little flock from my dresser.

Thursday, 2 December 2010

Christmas Countdown: Cranberry Chutney

Part of my plan for Christmas this year was to make most of my presents. One of my ideas was to make a chutney, and I came across a very festive recipe for a cranberry chutney that I'm sure would go very well with turkey sandwiches!

I've never made so much chutney in one go before and found myself wishing that Father Christmas brings me a large preserving pan this year.

To make 6lbs of chutney, I heated 2oz butter, 22oz onions, 2lbs apples and 3tsps spices (cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger and allspice were what I went for) in a pan until the onions were soft and translucent.

Then added 1lb 8oz fresh cranberries and 2lbs light brown sugar to the pan and stirred for a few minutes before pouring in 30 fl oz white vinegar. After bringing it to the boil, it was then left to simmer for about an hour and a half.

I finally potted the gloopy mixture into sterilised jars.

I'm a bit nervous about the final result, as chutney needs to mature for 4-6 weeks to develop its flavour and texture, so I'm hoping it tastes as good as it looks. I managed to make 10 jars of the stuff, so it had better be tasty!

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

Christmas Countdown: Dried Oranges

It's December, and this year I'm absurdly excited. Knowing that Alice will really appreciate it for the first time is making me see it through her eyes, I think. Being a stay at home mum has allowed me to fulfil my dream of having a craft filled, home made sort of Christmas, and to encourage me to do as much as I can I've decided to try and write a blog post a day to document what we've been up to. I hope I don't regret making this promise!

To start off then, here's my first offering!
Dried Oranges

Cut the oranges into slices around 1cm thick and sponge dry with kitchen paper or a cloth.

Rub with ground cinnamon and nutmeg, or whatever Christmassy spices you like best.

Put directly onto oven rack (I put mine on a wire cooling rack first to
make it easier to get them out)

Heat at 130° (GM 1) for about an hour or until the oranges are dry.

Use a needle and thread to make ties to hang the slices up with, or leave them as they are in a glass jar, vase or bowl.

Unfortunately, my terrifyingly temperamental oven scorched a few slices, but I still like them, and they smell amazing.