Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Cranberry sauce

Cranberries, orange zest and juice and sugar, all you need to make a delicious cranberry sauce

Cranberry sauce isn't something that is served in Italian households. In fact any sauces, save for those you put on pasta, are rather alien to us. Growing up, we were made to be highly suspicious of sauces, especially opaque ones. "Whatta area dey trying to cover upaa?" my mother would say with, probably, hands on hips. Subsequently, I didn't try Indian food til I was very grown up and my best friend's husband, Mark (half Indian) introduced me to it. Accompaniment sauces, such as ketchup, mayonnaise, chutney etc are never on the table, either, in the Italian households I visit. Although in recent years, younger relatives have started using them.

I've had this recipe for cranberry sauce for ages. Torn out of a long ago published magazine. I have no idea what attracted me to it, given that cranberry sauce, have I mentioned, didn't feature on my radar. It may well have been on the same page as a recipe for chocolate biscuits or something. Who knows. What I do know is that when I got me an English husband (almost) and I started moving away from always having Christmases at my parents' house (sob!), I also started making cranberry sauce.

And this one is fantastic. And so easy.

The beauty is that you use the same amount of sugar as you have cranberries. I'd say from about 250-500g of cranberries, one orange zest/juice is fine. If you start to go above those quantities then you might want to use more orange zest/juice. The packets of cranberries that Waitrose sell come in about 325g, so I use those, and of course 325g of sugar. This makes more than enough for about six people. I'd say 500g cranberries/sugar would make enough for about ten. Obviously it depends on how much you put on your plate. Anyway it's nice to make extra and have some left over to use for cold cuts over the next few days and weeks - it keeps for months.

So. You take:

The same amount of cranberries as you have sugar, so say 250g cranberries, 250g caster sugar
Grated zest and juice of one orange.

Preheat oven to 170C/gas 3. It's hard to say how big your dish should be, but about 1 litre for 500g of cranberries?

Put the cranberries in the baking dish, scatter over the sugar, zest and juice. Stir around gently so that the berries are coated. That's it. Now cover with foil (although I have cooked without foil and it's been fine!) and cook for 35-40 mins until the berries are tender and bubbling. (What I do is set the timer for 20 mins and then give the berries a gentle stir and check how they're doing.)

Cool and store in a jar in the fridge. Keeps for weeks if not months.

Here it is finished in the jam jar, ready to go into the fridge.

Tuesday, 21 December 2010

A good panforte for Christmas

A slice of panforte ready to be eaten, heavy with nuts and dusted with icing sugar

I'm no stranger to panforte (which means "strong bread"). We had it in the house, at Christmas, when we were children. Unlike almost every other food stuff in our house (save for panettone), it was always shop bought, and awful. Dense and way too clove-y with dusty tasting nuts, it was like something someone had made from what was left in the cupboard after all the good Christmas things had been produced.

When Zia Nigella brought out her Nigella's Christmas, two years ago, it was, weirdly, the recipe for panforte which intrigued me. I say weirdly because it's a mystery why I would want to try to make it after my experiences.

But I did.

Well, it was a revelation. It is easy to make, although the ingredient list is not short (or cheap, what with the price of nuts these days). It is delicious, but not in that "I must eat more and more and more until I'm sick" way. A thin slice with a glass of something small, and pert, is perfect. It keeps - so it can be made before Christmas (I'm not going to say "ahead of" since I HATE THAT PHRASE. What happened to 'before'? It is being outsted). And a thick wedge, wrapped in cellophane would make for a really original little present for a host.

Zia Nigella's recipe is perfect, and in my opinion, cannot be bettered. Actually that's not entirely true. But the only change I make is that I make my own candied peel , which isn't hard, a few days before the panforte. I think it really makes it.

Here it is:

125g almonds with skins on
100g blanched almonds
125g whole hazelnuts (with skins on is fine)
75g soft figs, scissored into 2cm x 1cm pieces
200g candied peel , scissored as above.
half a teaspoon of ground cloves
1 teaspoon of ground cinnamon
A good grating of fresh nutmeg
50g plain flour
a pinch of white pepper
1 x 15ml tablespoon of cocoa powder
150g caster sugar
150g honey (runny or solid is fine as it all melts down)
30g butter

icing sugar for dusting

Preheat your oven to 170C/gas mark 3. Line the bottom and sides of a 20cm cake tin. I use a cake liner cos I'm extremely lazy.

Take a heat proof bowl. It doesn't need to be heat proof in the sense you're going to have to cook with it, you don't, but you will be pouring hot stuff into it in a minute, so don't use something that's, you know, papier mache or something.

In this bowl, mix together the nuts, dried fruits, candied peel. Into this add the cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg, flour, white pepper and cocoa powder.

Put the sugar, honey and butter into a saucepan and gently melt. When done, take off the heat and pour over the dry ingredients. Now mix together. "Stir slowly and patiently" says Nigella and I agree. Think about what Christmas really means (presents and someone, undoubtedly, being ill).

Everything needs to be well coated. Tip the lot into the tin and try to press down as much as you can so you get a flattish surface. You WON'T get a level surface, so don't panic, but do your best. Anyway when the panforte is out of the oven, and still warm (and has been out for a bit, don't do it when it first comes out), you can press it down some more. I do this when it comes out of the oven with the end of my rolling pin (which is flat).

Bake for 40 mins. It's 'done' when it's bubbling. Do not panic when you take it out if it looks all soft. You shouldn't anyway, be touching it (leave it ALONE). Don't be tempted to cut a slice and think 'it's all soft still'. As it cools it will harden.

This is the panforte just before it went into the oven

When completely cold, lift out of tin and dust prettily with icing sugar. What you'll have is a lovely chewy, nutty thing that tastes wonderfully of Christmas.

Saturday, 18 December 2010

Candied peel to go into a panforte

Satsuma peel, just out of the sugar syrup at the very beginning of the drying process

I'm going to be making panforte very soon. One of the absolute keys to its success is that you make your own candied peel to go in it.

It's not as hard as it sounds and if you wanted to make extra for bagging into presents, just double the quantities. You need to make it about two days in advance so a good idea to make this now if you want to try panforte. I got this recipe from the Waitrose magazine a few years ago, but I cut it down to make just enough (ish) for my panforte.

You need:

The peel from two oranges cut up into strips. Or one orange and one lemon.

You can, in theory (and I have done this perfectly successfully) just use the peel from some satsumas that you've eaten. In other words, you don't really need to sacrifice two perfectly good oranges. Especially given that you'll be chopping the peel up, not presenting it.

250g granulated sugar

some caster sugar for afterwards.

If you're using the quantities above, i.e. not very much, use a small saucepan. Put the orange peel/satsuma peel in the saucepan and cover with cold water. Bring to boil and simmer hard for 15 minutes. Drain, cover with fresh cold water and do the same, this time cooking it for another 11-20 mins. You want the peel to be tender, but not mushy so watch it if you're using thin peel from satsumas. Thick peel from oranges may take longer.

Whilst that's happening, put the sugar in a saucepan with 125ml of cold water. Slowly bring to the boil so the sugar dissolves. Remove from heat.

Drain the tender peel and put it in the sugar syrup. Put the pan back on the heat and simmer for about an hour - uncovered - until there is very little syrup left. Leave it longer if need be.

Be careful as sugar syrup is very hot so whilst you can leave it unattended you do need to make sure you haven't got any monkey children that can reach this.

When done, lift out using tongs and place onto baking parchment lined baking trays. Leave it somewhere to dry out for two days. I put it in a (switched off) warming drawer. When it's dried out, put the caster sugar in a small plastic bag (how much you use is up to you, you know like a handful) and throw the peel in, shake it around and you have candied peel! I then leave it back on the tray to set for a few hours before using it.

Friday, 17 December 2010

Bean Bags

Bean bag in book corner. Nice.

I have spent a ridiculous amount of my life looking for decent bean bags for my children (or anyone). I mean, how fucking hard can it be to make a bean bag that is covered in a fabric that's 

a) washable
b) stylish?

The colours offered are either sickly pastels, stripey, spotty, or the fabric is not washable. This is utterly pointless.

Everyone has let me down in this department. Letterbox, the GLTC, Vertbaudet, John Lewis.

I did buy one a few years ago for my firstborn, it was an okay blue (not lovely dark navy which would be sensible, but still) and it came in very soft elephant cord. It was washable. So what's your fucking problem I hear you ask? Well 

a) it was fairly small
b) we can't find it. It's not that small, not so small it's lose-able for normal people, but we lost it in a box somewhere and we have too many outbuildings where said box could be. So have no sympathy.

What I really wanted, what I've always wanted, was a chocolate brown corduroy bean bag that was washable. It shouldn't have been difficult to find, but it was.

I found one, but it took me ages. Of course what I should have done, ages ago, was just put "chocolate brown corduroy beanbag" into Google. But I didn't. I went through the usual channels of looking at sites I knew. And every few months I'd renew the search, hoping the buyers would have seen sense.

Every few months I was disappointed. So eventually I did just that, I put 'chocolate brown corduroy beanbag" into Google, worked my way through the rubbish and found the site I link to below.

I rang them up to make sure it was a credible site - insofar as you can ascertain these things from a phone call - and ordered it.

It was about double what I wanted to spend and if you're handy with a needle you could probably make your own, but I really had no desire to. It's enough, okay, that I make my own sodding bath bombs, bread, ice cream, granola, milk and keep chickens. I don't want to start wrestling with millions of polystyrene balls. 

Anyway it's excellent: the quality is lovely and if you pay for the "platinum upgrade" (don't you love the title) you get an inner bag that houses the balls so you can just unzip the outer cover when you want to wash it. Why this isn't standard, I don't know. Why anyone would want a zip off cover that opens directly onto the stuffing, I don't know.

The size is good cos it's perfect for what I wanted: for growing children, for me to sit on with a child on my lap. But it's not too big. It needs to settle down a bit as it's very 'full'. But already my children love it and it sits in their book corner which is really draughty but the bean bag keeps them kinda warm.

Don't waste half your life looking for a stylish bean bag. Get one here. I got the Brat Bag style/size.

Tuesday, 14 December 2010

Bath Bombs

These are the bath bombs in their cases, drying.

Bath bombs usually come in a ball shape (SpaceNK's come in tablet form, tray posh) and you chuck them in the bath and they fizz like a giant Alka Seltzer and can also colour the water at the same time. Some also have things in them, like flower petals, that are then released into the water and float around like...floatsam or jetsam or whatever it is. I'd look it up but I'm meant to be writing a Very Important Piece about something terribly grown up, and if I go and look up the difference between floatsam and jetsam, before I know it, it'll be midnight and I'll have got onto a  Killer Whale site and enrolled on (another) trip to Antarctica.

Bath bombs cost a disproportionate amount of money for what they are. So for ages, since I bought one in Lush and almost died at the price, I've been really determined to make our own. I mean, how hard can they be? I can make sourdough bread FFS.

Well they're not hard to make. Not hard at all. But finding a recipe for them was not easy. This may have changed since I last looked, and you'll probably now all post links to 25 different sites where you can find a recipe for bath bombs. But look, when I looked there were very few, or they were all hard to follow. I'm guessing this is because they don't want you to know how easy and cheap it can be to make because bath bombs must have a mark up of about 12,000 percent. Although that said, you do need to make them on a fairly small industrial scale as the ingredients aren't always easy to find locally (do try though, eh?) and so you probably will spend about £12 on them, or something (I haven't actually added it up as I'm easily distracted).

What I'm getting at is that you will probably have to make a few to get value for money.

It's a good idea to wear a pair of disposable gloves, we always have a box on the go for cleaning out the chickens, working on the car etc, we get ours from Lakeland but most supermarkets now sell 'one use gloves' (which is a lie cos you can use them more than once). I also find wearing some sort of mask (or Hermes scarf tied round your face if you're posh) an idea since I get a right sore throat after making these. They're probably carcinogenic or something. But you have to suffer for your home made crafts. Ask Kirstie Allsop.

Then you need a bowl and ultimately you'll need something to put your bath bombs into. We used little paper muffin cases but those silicon muffin trays would be ideal. Although the bath bombs we made are small (they're for my daughter's Christmas cards to her school friends, we always make cards with use, but I know I will have to put a ticket in them saying Bath Bombs DO NOT EAT), but bath bombs work best when made a bit bigger - they give a longer fizz and will colour the water more effectively.

The ingredients you will also need are sodium bicarbonate, citric acid, corn starch (cornflour works fine), some food colouring, some essential oils and some glycerine. Now you can buy all of these ingredients (save for the food colouring) from your local chemist or online from Summer Naturals.

Decide on what you'd like to use as a measure, it could be a table spoon or a cup, depending on how many you'd like to make. I've found you always need more than you think.

Then you take

2 measures of sodium bicarbonate
1 measure of citric acid
1 measure of corn starch
a few drops of food colouring
a few drops of good quality essential oils - I use lavender and orange, you could I suppose also use your favourite perfume, but I've not tried this  yet (all my perfumes are in spray bottles anyway so not sure how I'd do this).
and a good few squirts of glycerine

It's not madly precise because you don't have to be. You mix it all together with gloved hands (if you don't have gloves use a spoon. It's a bit like making an apple crumble and rubbing the butter and flour together. When you get a handful of the mixture and press it together it should stay, if it doesn't add a bit more glycerine and corn starch.  You then pack it really tightly into whatever mould you're using and let it dry out overnight/for a few days. Put it in an airing cupboard if you've got one. Then turn them out and they're ready to use or give as presents.

You could also added dried flower petals to the mix, which would be nice I guess.

Friday, 3 December 2010

Christmas wreath making

Christmas wreath made from stuff from my garden

As a child, when you just don't appreciate what you have, because you are a selfish, selfish little bastard, I was very keen to live in a huge house in America. I'd seen them on films. Double fronted houses with ballroom size rooms, fridges you could live in and gardens you inevitably got married in.

What I had was a two bedroomed flat in central London with no garden. Not even a window box. Nevermind that to have a house that big, you generally had to live in Wisconsin. Nevermind that, growing up, when all my friends had to take two buses and a train home, I could almost walk home or take an affordable taxi. Nevermind that I was near all the shops and, importantly, John Lewis. Nevermind that I never knew a world existed outside of Zone 1. (Does it?)

Come Christmas, I really wanted a wreath on my door. But this seemed completely out of place in our block of flats. So I never had one and thus, dear reader, I have been chasing Christmas wreaths ever since.

When I finally wrenched myself out of the west end and moved into Old Street, I had a huge, 2" steel door which I decorated every Christmas with a wreath from Columbia Flower Market. It was not cheap.

When I moved to the country I decided to make my own wreath. After all, now that I had a garden to plunder why should I pay for someone else's green frippery. But how to start? This is where the wonderful mums on I Want My Mum (a website I co-founded and now no more) helped me out. Someone directed me to this site. Now look. This isn't the most glamorous site. But let me help you. What you need are these padded wreath bases, which as you will see, are cheap. They are great because, being green, even if you have gaps it doesn't really show. We make a big one for the front door and a small one for the playhouse.

You gather lots of foliage (a word I can't pronounce) and tie it round the wreath with this wreath binding wire. It takes a bit of practise but we always make really great  looking wreaths. I wouldn't recommend the berries you can buy on  that site - too artificial looking, best if you can get some real ones (although if you live in the country, the birds swop down and try to eat them). I also add dried slices of orange and apple, you can add pine cones, whatever you damn well please. (Dry the fruit in a really low oven overnight or use a dehydrator.)

It's a fun thing to do by yourself, with the children, etc. And aside from the wreath base (which you can re-use each year) it shouldn't cost you anything if you can forage the foliage.

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

Miele launches new coffee machine

This blog is about things I, personally, use (consume!). And I haven't used, or even tried, this new coffee machine from Miele.

The new Miele CM5100 Barista Coffee machine, approx £1000

But I am a veteran of coffee machines (my father was one of London's original baristas) and I've had a Miele built in coffee machine for nearly two years now. You can read a full review of the one I have (the CVA 5060) here. The Barista has just launched.

It's a first for Miele because previously you could only get a bean machine that was built in, the only freestanding coffee machine they did used Nespresso capsules, which not everyone liked for various reasons. Personally I wouldn't touch a Nestle product.

So to be clear: I haven't tried this machine. But I do rate Miele coffee machines as the best domestic coffee machines you can buy and if it makes coffee anything like the machine I've got, you're in for a treat. Most domestic machines (and in fact, all of the ones I've ever tested) haven't got enough steam action for the milk. The Miele one does.

(A nice thing to do in this weather - if you're not driving - is to make an espresso correto, which is an espresso with a dash of brandy/whisky.)

Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Long socks

Many, many years ago, when I had, really, nothing better to do with my time, I used to wear stockings and suspenders.  I actually think that girls who wear stockings and suspenders aren't my sort of girl. It's so tried at. And let me tell you, despite what ANYONE says, they ain't comfortable.

But I did. Possibly because I was less sure of myself or had the kind of life where putting stockings and suspenders on was a feasible enterprise of a morning.

One day I was wearing trousers. Smart trousers. I put on some shoes that really needed hosiery with them, not socks. But I was wearing trousers. It's on occasions such as these I guess you wear pop sox. But pop sox are, absolutely, not my thing. I totally see they fulfil a purpose but not any purpose I've come up against so pressingly that I've had to put them on. I find them depressing. So I put on my stockings and suspenders under my trousers which, let me tell you, is dedication to duty.

Now all that was bizarre enough. Except at the time (this is relevant) I was on the Pill (if any member of my family is reading this, that's a pill for medical reasons and nothing whatsoever to do with, you know, the sex). And as the day progressed, I developed this rather alarming pain in my leg.

For those of you who don't know, the Pill increases your risk of DVT (deep vein thrombosis). I worked in Soho (of course) and around the corner was a family planning clinic. So I dropped in and said "I'm on the pill and I've got this really alarming pain in my leg".

This really nice, hippy-ish doctor saw me. He had a pony tail and I remember him because he was so nice. "Well, pop your trousers off and lie on the bed so I can have a look at your leg" he said kindly. "I'll be back in a minute." And off he went.

This flung me into deep panic. I knew the procedure for removing my trousers. And if I'd been wearing pop sox I would probably have removed both of them. If I'd been wearing tights (WHY hadn't I just worn tights?) I would obviously remove the whole tight. But I was wearing stockings, what should I do? Remove both of them? This just seemed odd. If I did that should I also remove my suspender belt? Didn't that seem like too much undressing? Would he wonder why I was undressing so much? Should I keep my stockings on? No unthinkable, he clearly needed to examine my leg. So I did what any other insane person would do. I removed just one stocking and laid myself on the bed. The doctor came back, and of course he didn't raise an eyebrow at my one stockinged leg, one naked leg.

But I felt really fucking stupid.

I got the all clear, at least physically, and got dressed and went back to my office.

"I saw a really nice doctor" I said. I described him. "Oh Hank Wangford" someone said, "the Country and Western singer! He works there as a doctor." I don't know why, but this made everything so much worse.  Actually it could have been worse still. It could have been Rich Hall.

This brings me, not neatly at all, to my current craze with finding Good Socks to Wear with Trousers. For years now, ever since I ditched the stockings and suspenders under trousers (under anything) I've searched for proper socks that reach to the knee, but are of really good quality and of fine denier (of an 'unimaginable thinness' as an interview with Julio Iglesias once said of his socks) that could be worn under trousers.

I've never found them. And now that I'm older, wiser, have children and live in the country, my concern is not with thin socks but good knee socks. This means they need to be: warm, comfortable (I will not wear socks that are itchy), nice looking and preferably have a high wool content (but not be itchy, have I mentioned I don't like itchy). Not to wear with 'fine shoes' but to wear tucked into boots/wellies and under trousers. Preferably in plain colours and not mentally expensive. I know you can get cashmere knee socks for £35, thank you.

The hardest criteria to fulfil, as you will see, is that the socks are plain. Even when the other boxes are ticked, finding plain socks in wool, blah blah blah: impossible (not if you're a man, cos you have delicious Pantherella socks, but I can't wear those as they're too big).

Burlington argyle socks are not plain, but great in every other sense. They're not cheap at a tenner each, but I've always preferred to have less, good stuff than lots of rubbishy things. I go by 'price per wear' when shopping these days (as you can when you don't have to slavishly follow fashion). Plus I've had two pairs of these socks for seventeen years and they are only just wearing out. But you try finding women's Burlington knee socks, in wool, available to buy in the UK. And when you do, tell me. I've found plenty places that promise to do them, but you either get there and they're cotton, or they're ankle socks or something else is not right.

I went into Johnny Loulou's recently and just wanted to tear my hair out at the lack of warm knee socks that didn't cost £30 plus. I did however, find these in John Lewis and they do address most of the issues, except, whilst I like the stripes for a bit of fun, it'd be nice to also have them in plain colours; but hey that's really asking too much it seems.

John Lewis wool (40%), silk,  nylon, elastane sock, £8.50.

Recently I discovered some really useful, every day black over the knee socks from the M&S children's department. These cost £4 for two. They're cotton rich, so not warm in particular but they're great for chucking on when it's not too cold and you need some knee socks (they're longer than knee socks but you get the idea). In fact the girls' department of M&S threw up some pretty good socks, because they go up to a grown up size 7. There are these for example which have a bit of angora in them that are really nice.

I have some excellent, really long, really warm, dark cherry-red cashmere socks that I bought from Ollie and Nic some years ago. They are great to wear with my sheepskin boots but no good to anyone else as they're not stocked anymore.

In the end the shop that had the best selection: patterned, plain, not expensive, comfortable (not wool but warm) was Uniqlo £6.99 a pair. I know I mentioned this company only yesterday but hey ho. Or rather ho ho ho.

Monday, 29 November 2010

Heattech by Uniqlo

A couple of years ago, I was sent two stretchy T-shirts from Uniqlo. One was a cream crew neck, the other a purple scoop neck. I read the first two lines of the press release, as you do, before putting it into the recycling. I gleaned enough information to learn this was some sort of modern thermal wear.

And they were relegated to my drawer.

Most of my life, I've worn Damart underwear. As a child, my mum got them sent over from my Parisian uncle - bright turquoise, short-sleeved thermal vest t-shirts. I can't say I liked them. When I got undressed for PE I stood out like a traffic incident sign.

As soon as I could, I stopped wearing vests and started getting sexy with my La Perla underwear. I was fashion editor of a national newspaper, I had my place in the front row at shows to think of.

When I became fishing correspondent of the Independent, all this changed and keeping warm on the banks of huge rivers in Scotland, in January, became a keen quest. I tried all the thermal underwear I could get my hands on Patagonia (most of my other fishing clothing-kit was Patagonia, and it was/is excellent), Marks and Spencer, Damart and various others that I've long forgotten the names of. It was all pretty useless. Except for Damart (see, Mamma knew a thing or two and let me tell you, she still does). Thankfully, its designs have improved since my turquoise vest days. However, the catalogue is still crap and they really should redesign it because there are some really pretty little vests that they do, in great colours, that are hidden hidden hidden in amongst the hip huggers and giant slippers that you put both feet into.

Anyway. The one problem with Damart underwear (I still recommend it as the warmest thermals you can buy) is that you cannot, under any circumstances, tumble dry it. And, as is the way when you're busy, the odd vest does sneak in and then it shrinks. So I had a lot of Damart vests that were really small. When I was pregnant they barely covered my breasts, let alone my bump as well.

At the bottom of the drawer, recently, I rediscovered my Uniqlo Heattech t-shirts. Now, they are not super warm. Don't go putting them on expecting to be able to step out on a freezing day and not feel the cold. But they are a really useful warm, extra layer. The t-shirts come in three styles: crew, polo or scoop. But you can also get leggings, tights, socks, leg warmers, SHORTS. I went into the Oxford Street store on Friday and stocked up with socks, more t-shirts, nearly bought leg warmers but didn't (wish I had) and the leggings had sold out.

The fibres are all synthetic (acrylic, polyester, viscose, elastane - the generic name for Lycra which is a brand name), but I've tested them RIGOROUSLY and even after a hard day's cycling/being on the tube/rushing round London there is no stinkiness. The t-shirts are so fine and stretchy and LONG (BRILLIANT if you're pregnant by the way).  You can read all about the technology here. The t-shirts work brilliantly under jumpers (I hate jumpers right next to my skin). They are also thin enough to wear under dresses.

T-shirts cost £12.99, but until 22nd December you can buy two for £19.99. Don't panic if you're not near a store, you can buy everything on line.

Addendum added 17th December: the leg warmers are weird. They're seamed, so not as stretchy as they could be. I have really slim calves and I can just about get them to knee height. So these are fine if you want to wear them a la Fame, as ankle warmers, but for anything else be warned they're not very stretchy.

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

Snowglobe Christmas cards

£4 from Paperchase

I saw these today in Paperchase. They are lovely. They slide flat so you can post them but spring up to be a 'snowglobe'. There are various designs, from a fairly minimalist snowflake, Christmas trees, this one (Christmas in the Country, got it for my eldest as she'll love the detail), a Santa and of course a nativity scene (that IS what it's about, despite what Coca Cola would tell us).

Not cheap at £4 but my eldest and I make all our other cards, so it's nice for her to have something from her folks that she's not expecting. Last year we bought each other laser cut wooden Christmas decoration cards from Igloo which were beautiful. (Not sold on the website but if you have a branch  near you see if they do them again this  year.)

Monday, 8 November 2010


Here are my little amaretti dusted in icing sugar.
Amaretti means 'little bitters/little bitter things'. I'm not exactly a fan of the really brittle, very bitter amaretti  you can get, although they're very nice crumbled onto peaches bound for the oven, or layered with berries, coulis and mascarpone for a really easy summer dessert. I am a fan of the really chewy ones, the ones that cost a fortune, so I've always tried to recreate them at home, often to great disappointment. The recipe in Indulge by Claire Clarke of the French Laundry was possibly the worse ever. My God they were awful (other things in this book weren't, so an aberration).

Anyway, Joanna of Zeb Bakes recently posted a recipe for Hazelnut Amaretti which I was determined to try.

I'm not a fan, believe it or not, of things coated in chocolate. Like I cannot understand people who coat strawberries in chocolate. It's all wrong to me. So I had no desire, whatsoever, to coat or drizzle my amaretti. But if you have such a desire, do follow Joanna's recipe in its entirety and not the one below.

Anyway, here's what I did.

250g of ground almonds
250g hazelnuts, with skin on, ground in my mill attachment of my Kenwood chef (note: Joanna used 200g hazelnuts and 50g of pistachios, I didn't have any of the latter)
4 egg whites
400g caster sugar
half a teaspoon of Amaretto di Saronno

You basically mix everything up together. You don't whisk up the egg whites. You'll end up with a sticky, heavy dough which tastes very nice. Roll out little balls and place on a baking  tray lined with parchment.

Now, perhaps if your dough is wetter, the amaretti will spread out more. My dough was sticky but solid and so my amaretti didn't spread and thus I was able to get quite a few on my baking tray. Don't ask me  how  many this recipe  makes cos I didn't count but I'd say at least 30!

Bake at 160C. Joanna says between 12 mins and half an hour. I did my first batch for 29 mins which resulted in a very crisps amaretto with some chew inside - I actually really like them like this and they look golden (they should still be soft when you take them out as they firm up as they cool). I did the other batches for 20-22 mins which resulted in a paler, much chewier amaretto. Experiment and see how you like them.

They are excellent and very filling! I was thinking that these are a relatively high protein biscuit - with the nuts and the egg whites and gluten free. Would  make delightful little presents too as they travel well.

Friday, 5 November 2010

The iPad - a late review

I know loads of people have written about the iPad, and I'm not attempting to compete with them (or anyone, actually). What I will try to do is give my impression of the iPad because I found out certain things, after owning one, that I didn't know. And you might not, either.

Why buy an iPad?

Well this is a good question. Lots of people asked me this when I expressed wanting one on Twitter and Facebook. And oh gosh yes, in real life. "It's just a big iPhone" they said. Well, der, it's not actually since it's not a phone, for one.

I'm writing this on my iPad, a feat I could not have managed, easily, or whilst still retaining my sanity, on my iPhone. I wanted an iPad because we don't have a computer in the house. This isn't some grand statement. I think computers are great and like all things, if used wisely can augment rather than diminish, real life. I also think they have a real place in educating children and that we shouldn't be so afraid of them. If you've ever watched a young child - as I have - use technology - you realise not to be so afraid of this union. When I interviewed Dr Joan Freeman recently, who has conducted the longest ever study of gifted children, she said there was a direct connection between being gifted so young and access to IT.

But we don't have a computer in the house because the laptop we did have is now about four years, which in computer years is equivalent to being a hundred (one human year = 25 computer ones, source: Barbieri, 2010) and it's so slow as to now be unworkable with. Plus, PLUS, the battery went just as it was out of guarantee, so it can't recharge (and a new battery costs £100), thus it has to be plugged in the whole time, so it has neither the portability of a laptop, nor the capability of a desk top model.

So I was faced with a dilemma - to have on computer in the house for me is unthinkable, but get a new laptop? Not at £1000 a pop (I only do Macs, I've only ever only done Macs so don't go telling me about your PC wonder, I'm not listening). The iPad was a really viable alternative. Not because I expected to write a novel on it - I sit on the sofa and write with a fountain pen on my Basildon Bond for that - but because I need something to be able to answer emails on in more than the three misspelt words the iPhone allows. I wanted to be able to look something up on the internet easily and I wanted to be able to update my blogs.

All the essentials of life. I have a big fuck off Mac in my office for work, writing articles and writing letters in giant font. What I wanted for my home computer was a bit of fun, but also, ease. The iPad looked ideal except for one important detail - no keyboard. I can't be fucking doing with a virtual keyboard. I need a proper functioning keyboard for my super fast digits (120wpm typing speed, oh yes). Whilst the keypad that the iPad offers is bigger than the one the iPhone does, it was still one of those touch-screen things. No use to me and my bendy digits.

Then I realised that you could get a keyboard. A proper keyboard, that the iPad slots into. It costs £55 and it renders the iPad into a little mini computer, quite a beautiful thing actually. I was sold.

A note here: do not buy the cover that Apple makes for the iPad if you intend to get the keyboard. The cover (£30) fits on to snuggly and to get it off (and you need to get it off to fit it onto the keyboard slot) is hair-pullingly frustrating. If you plan to carry your iPad around with you, then get a zip up cover.

I got the most basic model (WiFi, 16GB) because my thinking went like this:

I didn't want my iPad to be a travelling device as such: I have an iPhone for that.
I didn't need to store loads of stuff. I have a desk top computer and if I want to put films and photos on and I run out of space, I just delete stuff. So the 16GB is fine for me.
I didn't need 3GS, not only does this need a separate SIM (with contract), but I had an iPhone for that. So I use my iPad at home on wireless.

By the time I've grown out of my iPad the chances are it will have broken, died, be superceded by a model so much fancier and more able. Sad but true. When I bought my laptop just four/a hundred years ago, it was the latest Mac laptop, now it looks as modern as a rag and bone man.

Much is made of the iPad's incredible battery life, but IN WHAT WORLD?? If you use it for anything that involves grabbing information from the outside world, the battery lasts from sunrise to sunset and not a moment longer. And it takes FOR EVER to recharge. Not like the iPhone which can take a 100% charge in an hour or so. My iPad has to charge all night (it, I'm sure, takes less time than that but I recharge it at night) to be at 100% in the morning.

You also need OS10.6 to use it. No-one told me this. Or at least, I didn't register it. My desktop computer is three and a half years old and was running 10.3, so when I got the iPad I had to wait to update the OS (you can just buy the latest Snow Leopard at about £25 and it works fine, you don't need to buy the Snow Leopard before that one, or at least that's what my Mac expert tells me and it worked fine for me) and install it before I could use my iPad. If you already have an iPhone you can transfer all your apps over - all but the camera/phone reliant apps go over (since the iPad has no camera or phone) easily. But, they come out on the bigger iPad screen the same size as the iPhone. You can blow them up (there is a x2 button that appears on the bottom right hand side of your screen) so that they fill the screen but the resolution goes somewhat.

When you go to the iTunes store you can see which apps are made specifically for the iPad, and these will make proper use of the bigger screen. Otherwise, with some exceptions, you're looking at a small-screen in a big screen unless you blow it up.

The Mail and iCal functions are much better on the iPad. There still isn't full search capability on Mail - you can only search by mailbox. So for example, on my full size computer if I want to search for an email from Miuccia Prada (name drop, name drop) I can simultaneously search for one from her across all my mail boxes and it will find it. On the iPad it can only do one folder at a time, so you'd have to search you 'inbox' first, then 'sent' then 'trash' then any other folders/mail boxes you had. This is minor, but important if it's a function you use a lot. Safari is used in exactly the same way as on a desk top model, just you get a smaller screen. But you still have your book marks and everything. I can also do banking on my iPad whereas I couldn't on the iPhone (this varies according to which bank you're with though). Note that, as per the iPhone, you can't access Flash sites on the iPad.

You can only get photos onto your iPad by importing them through iTunes (or I guess whatever you use on PC, I only know about iTunes) or - what I do and find infinitely easier as most of my photos these days are taken on my iPhone - email them to myself.

I wouldn't want to read on it for ages - it's backlit and so it hurts my eyes. And I don't find it super light to hold for ages either, not one-handed  like a book. I don't read many books (other than for work, so I tend to do that at my desk) and if book reading is your thing, I'd look at a Kindle which is a totally different thing from the iPad anyway..

Some apps I like:

MiTypewriter, £1.19 - this is my eldest's favourite app - it's an old fashioned type writer. Gorgeous fun. You can email what you write to yourself and then print it out from your desk top machine. Makes a lovely tip tapping noise and you get to push the whatchamacall it to make the page go up (what is that thing called).

Notebooks for iPad, £5.49 - I first had this on my iPhone and I use it to store recipes and shopping lists on (so they're always to hand, when I'm shopping). I can't pretend it didn't nearly blow my head off setting it up on  my iPhone. It's much easier on the iPad, I can't work out if that's cos I already knew a bit about it or it's changed or what. So if you scare easily this might not be for you, but there's lots of help and the developer is very good at replying to emails.

iQuarium HD, £1.19 - this is a virtual aquarium. You 'earn' points by keeping the fish alive and feeding it. You trade the points in for rocks, gravel, water plants. I can't pretend it's the best aquarium out there - I'm sure there are others. But it's fun for five mins a day and children will like it. Note: if you don't feed the fish it will eventually 'die', so be careful out there if you cry easily.

Little Things, £1.79 - a beautifully designed game. You search for various items in a picture made up of hundreds of objects. I love this app. It looks great and it's a bit of gentle fun (although it does make me go a bit cross eyed after a while, it's the staring so intently and the backlit screen).

Corkulus, £2.99 - this is a virtual cork board. You can add virtual post it notes, to do lists and photos. It's a great idea, but I have to say that to really work it needs an even bigger screen than the iPad. So it's a little indulgent, but I like to think I have a virtual corkboard on my iPad, I mean, just in case I have to story board something, like you do..

Real Solitaire HD for iPad, £1.19 (free version also available but you get ads and I kept clicking on them by mistake and it got annoying) - again there are many card apps out there, this just happens to be the one I have. This is the app I use the most - I am currently obsessed with playing Patience/Solitaire.

My first Italian words, £1.19 - I really liked the graphics on this. It helps you spell very basic Italian words. Good accent and really lovely design (hey, it's important!)

I've got about twelve million other apps - ones that tell me which stars are in the sky, various games that you'll all already heard of - what I've tried to do is highlight apps you may not have heard of and that I find particularly fun/useful.

Do I regret buying it? Not in the slightest, it's fun,  useful and portable although ironically I tend to keep it docked to the keyboard in the kitchen for recipe looking up more than anything.

Friday, 29 October 2010

Comfy blankets for grown ups aka pashminas

Sorry I've been so absent. I've been really busy with real life. In my professional life there has been many exhibitions to see (Canaletto at the National Gallery and Shadow Catchers at the V&A are two really worth seeing) and shops to visit, 'n' stuff.

Just to whet your appetites these are the things I'll be covering in the next few weeks in no particular order. This will also make me write about them...

Edible Christmas gifts: chilli jam, panforte, chocolate pave and amaretti.

The iPad. Yes yes I know it's been covered in so many places, but I promised I'd do an entry for those still wavering.

How to make a Christmas wreaths, bath bombs (bath bombs are going to be our present/cards this year) and snow globes with the children or just with yourself.

The Nihola trike.

The best pens for every day.

The best diary in the world.

My special Christmas gift round up.

Good creams to give you a bit of omph for party season.

On my The Sour Side blog I'll be looking at the new essences from Bakery Bits, bagels and pizza.

So now that I've chained myself to that itinerary, let's begin with today's entry which is about pashminas.

Look, I don't care that pashminas aren't fashionable. I never wore them when they were.  Here is me spouting on about them in the New Statesman.

Since then, I've added to my collection. Each of my girls has one - full size, pure cashmere. I ordered the one for my youngest before she was born and it's been brilliant. The baby can't of course fully appreciate what she has, but I use her pashmina when I get up in the night to feed her and it sits on her lap in the pram, or car seat.  The older one uses hers when we're travelling, as a blanket, or puts it over her head for dressing up.  She treats it with real respect. But then my children aren't brats and have been brought up to understand and respect a bit of luxe.

I have various pashminas in one or two ply, which I use every day in winter - as a big comforting scarf, or as a shawl in the office when I'm hunched, writer-like, over my Olivetti type writer (the latter a lie, of course, I use a Mac). At price per wear, they work out really well.

I get all mine from My Pashmina. And before you ask, and before you wonder, I've always paid full price for them and never got any sort of discount (not that that would ever influence what I thought, and therefore what I wrote). They are very good quality and the price is reasonable. You can also get scarves - the littlest size scarf is great for children and I was lucky to get one in the sale for my eldest (otherwise they're nearly £25). But for pashminas, I urge you to go for the full size shawl in pure cashmere (£65.45 postage included) - not the silk/cashmere hybrid. The two ply is great for winter, the one ply makes for a lighter shawl/scarf but it's not as warm by any means.

Thursday, 7 October 2010

Chipmunk boots

I love these little boots. I buy them every year for my eldest (the youngest is too small to fit into even the smallest size). They are the perfect boot for walking and mucking about; they're well made and fantastic value: £21-£23 depending on where you buy them.  Easy for even the smallest children to put on (although the smallest size they come in is a four) and with a sturdy sole. Ostensibly they're made for little children who ride ponies (mine don't), but obviously that doesn't stop you wearing them even if you aren't that way inclined.

Anyway, I found them quite by accident a few years ago in our local country shop; of which we have several around these here parts. Last year we got purple, this year we got brown.

Unless you live near me you'll probably need to get them from the internet: I found this site that sells them in every size (4-12) and colour (black, navy, purple, fuchsia) they seem to come in. I've never used this site, so on your own head be it.

My daughter wore hers straight out of the shop. As we got into the car I said to her "darling you can wear them when we go to the country" to which she very sensibly and correctly replied "Mummy WE live in the country."

Thursday, 30 September 2010

Hot and Sour Soup (or a soup for a cold)

I got this recipe a year or so ago from Delicious magazine. It's become a staple in our house. As a busy person I appreciate that it's quick and nourishing. As a lazy person I appreciate that it's quick and nourishing and as a mother of a toddler who likes to wrap herself around my legs, I appreciate that even though it's quick, it can be made in stages.

The joy is further deepened because you can adapt it according to:

How much you want to blow your sinuses to Kingdom come (you increase the heat).
Whether you are low carbing or not (if not you can add noodles).
How many people you are feeding. You can up the broth part by adding more stock, or just beef it up by adding more prawns or mushrooms or summat. It's versatile

Here is the recipe:


1 litre of stock, vegetable or chicken, cube fine
2 large chillis, halved (deseed them if you want to, I like the extra heat, also I'm lazy, have I mentioned, so I keep the seeds in, also less chance of rubbing your eyes and burning them OUT OF YOUR HEAD if you don't de-seed them. Lisa I'm talking about you honey)
2 kaffir lime leaves, scrunched up and chucked in
3 tablespoons of fish sauce
2 lemongrass stalks, bruised(I use two teaspoons from a jar, cheaper too)
Juice of one lime
1 tablespoon of caster sugar

T'other ingredients:

125g oriental looking mushrooms
250g large raw prawns (it won't be the end of the world if they're ready cooked)
1 pak choi (I now use spinach, so much easier to eat and deal with)

200g noodles, leave out if you're low carbing.

A hanky or tissue.

First you make the broth. Put all of the first lot of ingredients in a pan, cover and simmer. The recipe says to do it for four  minutes and then sieve and then you chuck out the chillis and what not. If you want the broth hotter, simmer for longer and/or keep the ingredients in for longer before sieving.

Strain the broth into another big pan.

(If you want, you can leave it now to cool down and either put it in the fridge for later/another day or freeze it.)

Add the other ingredients. If you're using frozen prawns give them five minutes cooking time, then add the pak choi etc. Cook noodles according to packet instructions, you should be able to just add them in for the last two minutes if they're regular Chinese noodles.

Slurp. Use the hanky to wipe your nose.

And yes Pete, I DID forget to put the noodles in this lunchtime!

Wednesday, 29 September 2010

Kiwi sheepskin boots

Three years ago,  during my first 'country winter', my friend Rosie, one of the moderators on I Want My Mum, the parenting website I co-run with The Analytical Armadillo, told me about Kiwi Sheepskin boots.  She fair raved about them, so much so that a rare (for me) thing happened. She 'made' me buy a pair.

Ever since I saw Pamela Anderson on a beach wearing a bikini and sheepskin boots, I've wanted a pair. Of sheepskin boots (I've already got the breasts, thank you).  I know, I know: makes no sense. Now that I live in the country I decided I positively needed warm boots. I mean, I have neoprene lined wellington boots, from  my days as Fishing Correspondent of the Independent (oh yes really).

Sheepskin boots have got a bad name in the last few years, mostly because you can get really cheap rip offs (i.e. not sheepskin at all). But you need to ignore all of this. If you need warm boots nothing beats sheepskin. Don't think of them as high fashion items - they're not, they're not even a low fashion item, you missed the boat on that one; but rather think of them as what they are: practical, but nice, objects. To my mind, few things look more stupid than girls/women inadequately dressed on a very cold day.

And I thought this well before I became a mother, okay?

Kiwi sheepskin boots are really well priced. I got the Musketeer Ultimate Sheepskin boots and they now cost £107 odd including everything: P&P and customs. I think I paid about £90 for them. Who remembers. I got them in chocolate and they are rarely off my feet in the winter. They're beautiful, much nicer than the website makes them look, although I never wear them with the cuff folded down, and I doubt you will too. But you can get simpler boots, shorter, different sole, for a shade under £68. That's significantly cheaper than anywhere else I've found for real sheepskin.

A few things to note: I can't walk long distances in mine. It's all too 'soft' inside and your foot slips around. So for long walks, you really need proper walking boots. What they're excellent for is cold winter days, leisurely walks, just being out and about. Not hiking.

The sizing: I got mine too big. The sheepskin compacts after a few wears so if you're inbetween sizes, I'd counsel going to the smaller size. After a few season's wear the sheepskin inside the foot chamber wears out, so buy new insoles for extra cosiness (these you can buy anywhere, they don't need to come from there but do make sure you buy real sheepskin - not synthetic - or your feet will stink).

The service I got three winters ago was great.

Tuesday, 28 September 2010

Ines Rosales and her damn biscuits

Fantastic packaging and unfortunately what's in them is just as nice.

A few weeks ago, my boyfriend spotted some biscuits in Waitrose. They were on special offer and instead of the usual £2.99 they were £1.99 (the offer has now ended, at least in my Waitrose, which is the only one that matters let's face it).

The packaging was great, waxed semi-transparent paper and what looked like large wafery things inside (they are olive oil 'tortas' which just made me confused). I made a face and said "nah, they're TWO QUID". "But they might be great," he retorted. I soldiered on with the shopping trolley and the purchase was not made.

But a week or so later, we did buy them, the Seville Orange ones. Even before we were out of the carpark I'd opened them and was sampling one.

My they were delicious. Flakey, but with sugar on the top and as more-ish as 'stracci' (Italian deep fried ribbons of pastry that are simply too dangerous to eat, they are the crack cocaine of pastry). I have no idea how Ines cooks her damn biscuits but they taste deep fried. On the website they go on about how olive oil is really good for you, so I reckon the must be. They're odd though. I mean the Seville Orange ones were sweet, but not sure how you should eat them, with coffee? On their own.

By the time we got home I had eaten three of them whilst I pondered this. I still don't know.

What I do know is that they come in various versions and you absolutely should never buy them.

Friday, 24 September 2010

Nice gloves for a cold day

M&S 'Autograph' gloves in black, lined in cashmere, which is turned back here so you can see.

Close up of the lining for those who are really paticular, like me. Although it looks thick, it isn't and the gloves manage to be rather 'fino' as we say in Italian whilst also being very warm. Nice.

Two winters ago, I was in London for the day (that seems a sad sentence in a way, as I lived in London for most of my life and yet, and yet, it also makes me happy as I love Suffolk - where I live now. So I guess you'd call that a bittersweet collection of words) and got caught out on a day so cold, I couldn't carry my bags. I had no gloves with me and in a fit of extravagant desperation, I walked into Marks and Spencer's to buy some gloves.

In truth, I was after the same sort of gloves I'd bought in M&S  many years previously: sheepskin gloves. I have no idea why I'd bought sheepskin gloves. I wasn't a sheepskin sort of girl (am now, watch out for my entry on sheepskin boots 'n' slippers in a few weeks' time). But I had discovered that they were super warm when I rode my bike and also those particular ones had been fantastic value. But my lovely buff coloured sheepskin gloves had gotten a hole, you know the sort: the stitching had started to come undone and I'd done nothing about it until more and more stitches undid and as the proverb says, where once one stitch was needed, now nine were.

But M&S had no sheepskin gloves that day. They had simple leather gloves, which I didn't want (not warm enough) or all manner of what I call Bridget Jones type gloves: knitted and full of whimsy.

Instead I spied some Autograph cashmere lined leather gloves. These were exactly the opposite of what I thought I wanted, but I tried them on and was sold. They fitted beautifully, they retained some sensitivity but they were so warm it was like I'd just put my hands in a warm bath. I bought them and, for an impulsive purchase, they ended up being a fantastic buy at £25 because they soon became the gloves I wore every day. Warm, practical  but just that bit posh. I like that because often my hands are the only posh part of me.

But then, one day last year, in a blur of getting the baby in and out of the car, I lost one.

I need to pause here to tell you about another fantastic discovery I made last year. A discovery that the loss of one of my gloves, in the same week that my eldest lost her beloved Mimi the Mouse, spurred me to make. You know those Cash's name tapes? Well you can order them to say "If found, please call XXXXX". I got some made and have both Mimi the Mouses (eldest's was found in the laundry) are now 'microchipped', as are my beloved Pashminas (more on pashminas another day). Because my chocolate brown one ply pashmina is lost, lost, lost...

I haven't actually, sewn them into my new gloves yet though.

Anyway,  miraculously, given that shops have a habit of making great things and never repeating them, M&S sell the gloves again this year. Here is the link to them on line, although on-line they only seem to sell them in brown. In real life they come in black, purple or chocolate brown. They are lined in cashmere and are really warm. They've gone up to £29.50. But still, you really can't ask more of a glove.

So don't.

Update October 2012.

Obviously the link above doesn't work anymore. Here is the link to this year's offering in red, purple or grey. Or here in black. They've now gone up to £35 which makes them a better investment than a savings' account these days.

Monday, 20 September 2010


Oh look at my lovely plate of dried things. It's like Harvest time. At noon o'clock we have dried orange slices and rose petals, going clockwise we have dried sage and tarragon, cherry tomatoes, aubergines and apples. Martha Stewart will be wondering if she gave birth to me and abandoned me without remembering.

This is the time of year, apparently, when we have a glut of stuff and need to start preserving it. In Italy we'd be doing the tomatoes about now, cookin' them up, sieving them, passing them through o'Moulinex and slapping the resultant sludge into bottles we'd been saving all year. The entire neighbourhood would smell of tomatoes.

I don't do that. Mostly cos I don't grow tomatoes and let's face it, Cirio does passata for me.

What I do do at this time of year is get the dehydrator out and start drying out anything that takes my fancy.

What's the point of dehydrating stuff? Well it's a way of preserving things, if you don't want to/can't freeze it, or make it into chutneys 'n' stuff. For certain things - mushrooms for instance - it's absolutely the only thing, as far as I'm concerned, to do with them. But the great thing about a dehydrator is you can also dry your own fruit in it, so you can make your own banana chips, apple chips, you can dry blueberries, pineapple, whatever you goddam well like. In certain parts of the world that will remain nameless (America) they also dry bits of meat to make beef jerky.

I don't do this.

But you can also dry your herbs before they die off for the winter. Those that do. Apparently some don't but that sentence alone has taken me to the very edge of my horticultural knowledge.

So much so that I don't actually know if growing herbs is horticulture or something else.

Anyway. You can spend hundreds of pounds on dehydrators. And if you have an allotment, and lots of larder space and lots of jam jars and are that sort of person, then by all means spend hundreds on a dehydrator that has drawers and you can set the temperature etc. At the other end, you can easily do all of this in an oven, set very low. Disadvantages of that (unless you have an Aga, in which case you will already be a smug bastard) are that unless you have a very energy efficient oven (I do) you can end up spending loads on electricity cos you need to dry things out for about 12 hours.

And it also means you can't use the oven for anything else, unless you have two ovens (I do, do you hate me yet?). I make fruit leathers in the oven and it takes FOREVER, in the dehydrator it takes half the time.

In between all of this are cheap dehydrators which is what I've got. You can get a really good one from Lakeland. It works really well. It's big though, it has a footprint probably equivalent to an elephant's. It has trays which you stack. It's piss easy to use and clean and if you want to make fruit leathers (or meringues come to that) you just use some baking parchment over the trays. It only has an on/off button and only one temperature: 85 degrees.

A dehydrator really isn't for everyone. But I've got small children who eat a lot of banana chips and fruit leathers and I just like making my own. You can chop up dried fruit and also put it on your breakfast cereal if you don't want to just eat it as it is, but I love that too, it makes a great snack. Somehow naughtier than just eating a normal apple...I'm so sad.

You can also dry veg and just chop it up and put it into stews and sauces. I do this with aubergines and courgettes (you can also do beans, almost anything really, peas you can also do and use them in caterpaults). It's handy when you've got some veg left that you're not going to use, but don't want to waste. Dried aubergine slices cost about £5 in deli shops just cos they look pretty and are presented in cellophane bags. Also it makes the house smell amazingly of whatever you're drying so you know, like a two in one product..

Look at my little  jewels. Remember the little cherry tomatoes up top? Here they are under extra Catholic olive oil in my favourite jam jars, Bonne Maman. That's my vegetable (raised) bed you can see in the background. Smell the smugness.


Friday, 17 September 2010

Batteries for Christmas presents and every day life

This isn't going to be my last post with Christmas in the title. I warn you.

But this is just  a short little entry, without reference to my childhood about a good place to get cheap batteries.

7DAYSHOP is where I get all my batteries, and have done for years. Its based in Guernsey so lots of things are VAT free. I buy a box of 40 Duracell AA batteries for just over £13. Don't even get me started on the price difference on CR2032s which are those 'coin' lithium batteries you need for so many things.

Postage is generally free, so when you next need batteries, just be a tiny bit more organised and get them from there.

Thursday, 16 September 2010

Spicy butternut squash and coconut soup: soup for a cold day or for when you have a cold.

I'm in the mood for soup. I've got a cold. I'm cold. I'm fairly miserable, which my partner tells me is pretty standard nowadays ("you're disproportionately miserable" he whispers to me in my ear).

Soup can only help can't it? Plus it's vegetables.

I came across this recipe last year. I can't remember where from but when I feel better I will attempt to find out because it makes me REALLY CROSS when people don't credit recipes and say "oh here is my recipe for XYZ". I know recipes are all nicked from somewhere anyway, but as a professional writer, I care very much about the value of words. If you know where something comes from, sodding credit it you teef.

So this isn't my recipe although I've adapted it to suit my own selfish means. I've adapted it in a very small way, because I'm just not that clever to do a handbrake turn with a recipe and completely reinvent it.

This is what you need:

A butternut squash, it really doesn't matter what the size is since they're all bred nowadays to be 'supermarket size' anyway. Peel it, which is a bastard job, and cut it into chunks. I cut it into chunks and then peel it, actually.
4 tablespoons of olive oil
1 onion, peeled and chopped 
1 teaspoon of ground cumin
1 teaspoon of garam masala
1-2 teaspoon of dried chilli flakes(one gives it a nice warmth, two a kick, I've not tried more than that. The original recipe calls for three dried whole chillies which you cook with the squash, then take out two of them before the blending stage. I used dried cos we always have in)
6 garlic cloves, peeled
600ml chicken stock - made with a cube, for goodness sake. I'm all for chicken broth made from proper dead chickens when you're using it as the actual stuff you're eating, for pastina in brodo for instance but when you're chucking it into a soup, a cube is just fine. I use Kallo organic cos it makes me feel better.
400ml coconut milk (the original said 200ml, but all the coconut  milk I find comes in 400ml tins and if you use 200ml you end up wasting the other 200ml. I think this is a shame, so I use the whole tin, it makes for a slightly creamier soup, but since when was that a bad idea? The point is, if you have a use for the other 200ml of coconut milk, use less and tell me what that use is).
Juice of one lime (not essential, so don't panic if you don't have it, but it adds a nice taste and has useful vitamin C).

Preheat oven to 200C.

Take 2 tablespoons of the olive oil, put in a small receptacle and into that put your spices and chilli. Mix around and then drizzle over the squash. Put it in the oven for 20mins. After 20 mins scatter over the garlic and cook for another 10 mins, after which the squash should be lovely and squashy and soft, if not give it a bit more.

Whilst that is doing, use the other two tablespoons of oil to soften the onion. Do it with the lid on. You want lovely transparent onion, all soft and relaxed, not mean and burned and angry.

Scrape the squash and all the spicy bits into a blender. Add the onion. Pour in a bit of the chicken stock so that it's easier to blend the whole lot up. Blend it up. Brr brr brrr so that the whole lot is thick and velvety and GOOD.

Put into a pan, add the rest of the stock and the coconut milk. Heat it up, add lime juice, season if you want to (I never do, stock cubes have so much sodding seasoning already) eat it and think of nice autumn things and what you want for Christmas.

This just isn't the most interesting picture, I mean, it could be custard. But I forgot to take a pic at any other, more photogenic point in making it. What would have been ideal is a picture of someone in knitted fingerless gloves, nursing a mug of this and wearing slouchy socks, kinda Toast-catalogue styley. Although nursing these days means a different thing to me, so I mean: holding the mug, not breastfeeding it.

Thursday, 9 September 2010

Gobbledegook stamp

I first came across this when I was writing a piece for the Guardian's Education supplement about What to Take With You to University. Which I researched heavily because I never went. I was far too busy joining the army and learning how to strip down my personal weapon (a Sterling Sub-Machine gun, bullet capacity: 32, although only a numbskull would load it with anymore than 28) in my "noddy suit" (NBC suit - nucleur, biological, chemical suit) in a gas chamber with actual tear gas being pumped in. And interrogate people. And pick locks. And avoid assault courses.

So, to get to the point. You know how everyone is so obsessed with not getting their identity stolen theseadays? How you must shred everything that has any personal information on it whatsoever? Well, this is easy to do if you have an industrial shredder attached to a belt around your waist and have something you can do with the shredded paper (you can't recycle it), such as keep a rabbit or a gerbil or run a mail order business (you can use if for packing, although be aware if you use a strip shredder - one which shreds paper into long strips - it is theoretically possible to piece together a document again, better to go for a cross-shredder).  But otherwise, it can mean you end up with lots of bits of paper hanging around for the mythical day when you lug the top-heavy shredder out from under the desk, plug it in, and shred everything you've saved up.

Obviously, you should shred bank statements (and wow, what's that like, to not keep bank statements??) and just about anything if you're Andy Coulson. But lots of things just need you to obliterate your name and address.

This is where the Gobbledegook Stamp (be aware this is the name I have given it) comes in. When I first featured it, Lakeland had just started stocking it (some of the reviews for it on the Lakeland site are not promising, saying you have to 'stamp over the address a few times', well der, yes, big deal?). They weren't sure they'd carry on stocking it and I had to grapple with them slightly to let them let me feature it: it's now a best seller. You just happily stamp over your personal details and then put the letter in the recycling as per. You can get replacement ink pads for it at any stationers although I've not had to replace mine yet.

And with just over 100 days til Christmas, it'd make a very unglamorous little gift for someone paranoid in your life.

Wednesday, 8 September 2010

Chocolate Ganache Hot Chocolate

I was going to write about Fruit Leathers aka Fruit Roll ups. But I just can't be bothered. It's too cold (at least where I am, which is in Suffolk) to write about blackberries and fruit stuff.

Instead I want to write about hot chocolate.

I've never been satisfied with commercially available hot chocolate mixes. My dad, in his coffee shop that he used to have, used to make the most exquisite hot chocolate - made with Cadbury's Hot Chocolate syrup which you couldn't buy it in the shops.  Cadbury's has stopped making it now anyway. My dad would make me a cup of half hot milk with the syrup and half 'schiuma' - what you English call 'foam'. It was the best ever hot chocolate and has never, really, been beaten. I'm guessing that if I tasted it now I'd think it was really sweet. But memories, and all that..

For a long time, in the absence of Mr Cadbury's syrup, the way I'd make hot chocolate was by heating up some milk with some 70% cocoa content chocolate in it, then whisking it all up. It would be dark, rich and not too sweet.

When I was out and I could get it (and you can't here in Suffolk, please could you open up a branch Antonio), I'd drink Carluccio's Cioccolata Fiorentina, which is served in espresso cups and is dark and custard-thick. It's delicious - I urge you to try it if you are ever in a Carluccio's. You can buy the powder to recreate this drink at home, but it's hard to replicate what they do in the shop and to have any hope of success you need to make it in large quantities. Also, don't look at the ingredients as it will put you off.

But the idea of a small cup of something that really hits the spot appeals. I've never been a fan of large, mediocre drinks: small and potent is what I'm after.

Last year my youngest daughter was baptised. For the cake part of the party, I made lots of chocolate cupcakes using Nigella Lawson's recipe (Nigella Domestic Goddess p.168). The icing was chocolate ganache - chocolate melted with cream (I don't really do sugar or buttercream icing, I mean, it's nice, for the first mouthful but then it leaves you in a diabetic coma). Nigella's recipe always makes more ganache icing than you could possibly ever pour onto the cupcakes (as it is, the  icing is a good centimetre thick), but I always make the amount she recommends because I live in fear of my cupcakes one day going naked cos I skimped. On this occasion I had plenty left over, so I kept the rest in the fridge.

(For those interested, I topped the cupcakes with an orange wafer rose from Jane Asher. The effect - orange on a glossy dark brown cupcake in brown paper holders - was smart and sleek which is just what I wanted).

As the party wore on, some die-hards remained. It was October and the evening air was fairly fresh and I fancied hot chocolate. I looked at my now set-solid chocolate ganache in the fridge. I wondered what would happen if I melted it again, added some hot milk and whizzed it up with my Aerolatte frother wand-thing.

It made hot chocolate that was so superb that everyone commented on it, even though by that stage they were fairly tipsy and deep in conversation. Everyone said it was the best hot chocolate they'd ever tasted, even those I didn't get in an arm lock.

I served it in little ceramic cups so you got just a few mouthfuls, which is all you'd want as it's imaginably rich...

Chocolate Ganache Hot Chocolate

I've adapted this from Nigella's original recipe as otherwise you'd be drinking it for a week...

90g 70% cocoa chocolate (I use Waitrose Continental - which comes in a black, rather unassuming wrapper - it's very good)
40g milk chocolate (I use Green and Black's as it's a higher percentage cocoa than most milk chocolates, but I don't use its plain chocolate as I don't like it as much as Waitrose's)
100ml double cream
a few drops of vanilla extract (about quarter of a teaspoon).
Milk to suit

Melt the milk and dark chocolate with the cream. You can do it straight in a pan but you may feel safer doing it in a bowl, above a pan of boiling water. Stir until melted.

You should have a very thick mixture. Warm up some milk separately, then carefully and slowly add it to the chocolate/cream mixture. What you're aiming to do is loosen up the ganache, but you don't want to add so much milk that you change it into a really runny mixture. You want to end up with something that's thick: so thick you could eat it off a spoon, but is still drinkable.

Look, no-one said this was going to be easy. If you want a normal, easy to make hot chocolate drink, get any old shit from the supermarket. This is proper stuff that will warm your body and your soul because it requires a bit of care in the making.

It will be worth it.

If you need to homogenise the mixture, you can whisk it up. I use my Aerolatte whizzer thing.

Serve in small espresso cups. If you don't want to use all the mixture, just refrigerate it before you add the milk; and if you don't end up eating it straight out of the fridge with a spoon, just melt it down and add warm  milk and whisk it up like that. This way you can actually make just one cup at a time.

Enjoy it. It's good.

Wednesday, 1 September 2010

How to change the rings on your iPhone so that it doesn't go to voicemail really fast and then you run up a bill made up largely of just ringing in to your answering service..

...and other stories.

In the old days, before God had made light, I used to have Nokia phone. You could change how many times it rang before it went to the answering service really easily.

You went into Phone Settings and there it was.

Not so the iPhone. It comes pre-programmed to go to voicemail pretty fast. I mean, not so fast that you can't get to it if you're just sitting there staring at your iPhone, which I know some people do. But if you are a busy person, like what I am, and have children and a job and a life, then you often don't get to it just in time.

I think this is a conspiracy between Apple and phone companies, so you have to ring in to your voicemail more than you'd like, which (unless you are lucky enough to have an older plan where it's part of the package) means you make calls outside of your call plan and pay more etc etc.

Anyway, for those that don't know*, here is how to change it so that your iPhone rings for as long or as little as you want.

It doesn't appear as if you can make it go for longer than 30 seconds before it goes to voice mail. Such a conspiracy!

*and if you knew, why didn't you share?
** this worked great for me on my 3GS/T-mobile. If you're going to do this then do it at your own risk!

Wednesday, 25 August 2010

Gardening gloves wot are great.

I was born in Selfridges. Well not literally, but almost in that I was born just down the road and that's where I lived til I was thirty. Most of my family have, at one time or another, worked in Selfridges. My First Holy Communion dress was made there (my aunt used to work in the alterations department). So I know lots about Selfridges, and Oxford Street. As I once said to a fishing ghillie, who asked me what sort of terrain I was used to, I'm comfortable with concrete and carpets.

Growing up a stone's throw from Selfridges, in a two-bedroomed mansion block flat, didn't teach me much about gardening however. I did have an impressive window-sill collection of plants. And when we went to Italy we had an orchard and my relatives had land. But gardens? Nope.

Three years ago, I bought me a house in Suffolk. We now have just under one acre of land. I have no idea what to do with most of it. The reason we bought our funny little 1960's house (little being a good, descriptive word here) was because the garden that came with it was the best we'd seen. The former occupants were very keen gardeners. VERY keen. We have lawns, and a little formal garden at the back, and a woodland walk bit and lots of trees (which I've learned the names of, mostly) and borders n' stuff, it's all very magical and perfect for children to play in.

But I have no clue at all what to do with it. I am not exaggerating, not one single bit, when I say that I can tell a tree, I know what grass looks like and I can identify roses and daffodils. And moss. But that really is about it. People I know come round and say "but darling, look at your cornus controversia traversia fantasia tree, it's divine, how did you get it so tiered?" and I think "do my gardening for me."

When we first moved in, driven by keen enthusiasm and with only one child to look after (which let me tell you, is EASY, retrospectively) I decided one day to do some weeding of things that looked, to me, like weeds. To be fair to me, which I always try to be, I did check with my partner, who said "yes them's is weeds". So I pulled them all up.

Later I discovered they were poppies. Wild and rude poppies (rude cos they just go where they like) but poppies none the less. It's taken them three years to recover from my frantic plucking. I like poppies.

In 2008 I could ignore the garden cos I was pregnant, and shuffling around like a Barbar Papa. In 2009 I could ignore the garden because I'd just had a baby (at HOME, a HBAC, yes it is possible people). This year I'm realising that unless we want to end up with a garden like that one in The Secret Garden (except without the possibility of staff, or a TV crew, to make it alright) I was going to have to do some work in it.

But, as I've mentioned in other posts. I'm a girl that needs kit before I can do anything. Growing up, I was forced FORCED to work in my parents' cafe. One of the things I did was the washing up. There is nothing like doing washing up of un-known people's dishes to really put you off washing up. I remember coming across bits of food floating in the water that, to this day, can still make me retch at the memory. I was too small to wear rubber gloves (are you crying yet?).

These days, when I am washing precious things, things that cannot go into the dishwasher, I will only do so if wearing rubber gloves. I need that degree of separation because I've been deeply scarred.

So of course, with gardening it is obvious I need lots of my own kit if I'm to really take any interest in it.

I have my own wheelbarrow, but that has since been stolen by my eighty-year old father who will insist on helping out in the garden. My partner also nicks the wheelbarrow. So I've lost interest in it.

I NEED really expensive secateurs, because we all know that will make me much cleverer and more capable in the garden. But until I've ascertained which those are to be, I make use of my three other pairs of secateurs, all of which have broken/rusted because I don't take care of them properly because I haven't bought them especially for me.

So finally we get onto gardening gloves. It is completely unfathomable that I could garden without them. So three years ago I bought some Briers gardening gloves from Chartwell, Winston Churchill's old home. They were cream, and leather and really rather good. But they too got 'borrowed' and then they hung on the washing line until they turned brittle.

I bought some very good, green, leather gauntlets, reduced to a fiver (from lots more) in Johnny Lou Lou's last year. But the mice ate them, goddamit, in the garage. Then I ignored my own advice and bought several pairs of cheap gloves from Homebase, all of which were totally rubbish.

Two weeks ago, I put out an appeal on Facebook for good gardening gloves and my online friend Vicky R, told me to try Atlas Gardening Gloves. I was suspicious because I'd only ever worn leather gardening gloves. And these were rubber nylon things. The pictures of them are a bit misleading, because they look like they'd be thick and unwieldly, like a beefed up rubber glove. But they're not.

Blimey the look enormous. I promise I haven't got Shrek hands. Photographed here on yet another stainless steel surface in my kitchen.

God they're fantastic. I mean, I know it sounds completely mad to rave about a gardening glove, or anything, in that 'they've changed my life way'. But they have. Here's why:

They're really sensitive, so you can do almost anything in them, from coaxing out a weed root, to handling really rough weeds. What the pics don't really convey is that they're really soft, you can scrunch them up in  your hand.

They scrunch up small, not particularly useful per se, but means they're flexible, which is.

Because of this: they're not so tough they'd be able to handle super hard thorns (you can get some others for that, which I've yet to try) and I have stung myself on the back of the hand with a nettle (although that's good for you in the long run init, protects against arthritis) because the back of the glove is less protected to make the glove more flexible. But I lived.

They come in all different colours, which I like, so I know which are mine.

They're washable.

They're cheap compared to leather gloves. But actually, so much better I think.

Sizing: I have fairly small hands, and I got a medium, which fit fine, but with room. I may go to a small next time for uber sensitivity and pretend I am a garden surgeon. They're not like rubber gloves in that hard to get off way if they're too small, because they feel like fabric.

So the upshot is that I have been out in the garden pulling up actual weeds (since that is the only thing I am trusted to do) regularly.

Vicky gets them from eBay where they are cheaper. But I got mine direct where there is more selection.

So there you have it.