Thursday, 29 November 2012

Silk pillowcases and how they might provide good skin and hair care

Silk pillow cases, said to reduce friction and therefore make your face less creased, your hair more glossy and less likely to fall out and generally the world to be a better place.

Last year, I went along to the John Lewis bed department as they were running "how to make a bed" workshops. I went along in a professional capacity because NO-ONE can teach me how to make a bed. I have a Napolitan mother and I was in the army. Although I rarely actually make my own bed, when I do, it is frighteningly precise.

And of course, I ended up teaching the people at John Lewis how to do a hospital corner. (They weren't doing it properly at all.)

Anyway, while I was there we got talking about pillow cases and I did learn something new: that silk pillowcases are meant to stop your face creasing. I looked into this in a lazy, hazy way and I found out some women swore by silk pillowcases to stop your hair looking like you've been doing handstands in bed.

Although I have to say, I quite like my bed-hair.

And it made their faces less creasy and puffy in the morning.

Anyway. I got one and I'm simply not going to promise a silk pillowcase will offer a miracle anti-wrinkle/crease cure. But this is what I've found:

Your hair really does seem smoother and somehow more glossy after sleeping on one.

I don't really suffer from creasy morning face (yet), because I took the precaution of selling my soul to the devil at an early age, and keeping a portrait in the attic. BUT yes, it does also seem...smoother.

My silk pillow doesn't get as hot as my cotton one, by that I mean, I was constantly having to flip my pillow at night to get the colder side (am I the only one that does that?) and the silk doesn't seem to get so hot.

I got my pillow case from John Lewis, but you can get cheaper ones and I thought it might make a nice thing to go on a Christmas present list.

Tuesday, 27 November 2012

Chorizo and red lentil soup, just what you need for a cold winter's day

Beautiful, delicious, simple.

 This soup recipe is adapted from one in the excellent Donna Hay's Fresh, Fast, Simple. It doesn't look like much and the first time I made it I thought "oh dear" when I saw it but then I tasted it and belies its meagre ingredients. I eat it with a poached egg in it, which I poach separately and pop into the soup just before serving, just for a little extra protein sustenance.

  1. 2 teaspoons of vegetable oil
  2. One finely chopped onion
  3. Some chorizo, up to you how much, I use about so much (6" of a small circumference chorizo) and I slice it and then half the slices so you end up with half moons.
  4. A few sprigs of thyme leaves
  5. 150g red lentils
  6. 1.25L of chicken of vegetable stock, stock cubes are fine. I use Kallo Organic
  7. Sea salt and pepper

Heat  the oil in the saucepan and add the onion and chorizo. Fry gently until the onion is soft. Now add the thyme (I add the whole stalk and the leaves come off and then I fish out the stalks at the end, do pick off the leaves if you want to), lentils and stock. Cover and simmer for 20 minutes.

That's it. The lentils should have started to break down. Taste it and see if it needs salt and pepper, it may do depending on how salty your stock was.

This serves about four people.

With poached egg in. It sounds weird but I promise it works. Unless of course you don't like eggs.

Sunday, 25 November 2012

Thermals for girls, or pyjamas

Autograph for M&S girls' thermals. Not overly easy to see design but pretty floral stuff.

As a veteran fisherman, I can tell you that no-one makes thermals as efficient as Damart. But the problem with Damart thermals is what makes them so good: what works outside doesn't really work inside and you end up sweating like a pig on market day indoors.

Anyway. For every day wear I wear Uniqlo heat tech. But this isn't about me, it's about thermals for children or more specifically, girls (much as I'd love to say boys too, the set I'm going to suggest is flowery and no boy I know would wear them under the age of five. If yours would then great).

When my eldest was small, I'd buy her thermals from Petit Bateau. They are brilliant: wool on the outside and cotton next to the skin. But expensive. All her old PB thermals have passed onto the youngest now.

What I was looking for were some thermals as layers for my eldest, for when it gets really cold here in the country and I found these in M&S Autograph section. The reason I want to tell you about them is that they have proved a huge success with my girls. I ended up buying them for the nine year old, but the youngest wanted a pair too and even though she has the Petit Bateau hand me downs, I ended up buying her a pair too. I even bought myself a pair in age 15-16 and they almost fitted but not quite..

They are comfortable, really cosy, warm, pretty and they wear them as thermals, PJs and the tops as outwear too. So a pretty hard working two-set. I recommend. Buy.

In sizes from 18mths to 16 years, £11-£14.

Thursday, 22 November 2012

Pretty fairy lights, battery operated

John Lewis LED finewire snowflake lights, £6

Some years ago, as a present, Tesco sent me some really pretty blue flowery fairy lights that were battery operated. Doesn't sound like much now, but at the time, they were pretty innovative (the battery part). They cost £5 in the shops and I wish I'd bought more as they've proved strangely useful. My children use the in tents, we drape them over any corner that needs a little pretty illumination. I've been tempted to go out wearing them (you could, with the battery pack in a pocket. I mean, come on). I don't know, they just make me feel good. Even though they are, you know, from Tesco's.

Anyway. These are not like them. They are very very fine and delicate. The wire between them is really fine wire. But they still look nice on my mantelpiece and every evening, as dusk fades and "the clouds turn pink" as my daughter says, I switch them on and they make me go aaah.

I'm easily pleased.

They also come in little green trees, red hearts or blue stars. And the size above is about actual size.

Buy them here.

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Head torches

Petzl Tikkina XP 2. My headtorch. Pick it up for between £35-£50.

Whenever anyone asks me what they should someone for a present, be that person a child or an adult, the first thing I always say is: a head torch.

They are fab. Admittedly if you live in a city, and are an adult, you probably don't fully understand the need for them; but if you're a child they can be used in tents, hidey holes, under bed clothes etc. And if you're an adult and you live in the country they are, I think, essential for getting firewood, putting the bins out, getting to your car (this will sound crazy to those with street lighting...). I also use mine when cycling or running.

The one I have is, of course, top of the range with a price tag to match: the Petzl Tikka XP 2 (but I have just the head torch, not the charger etc). Mine has three different white light permutations (bright, economy, flashing) and it can also go to a red light (which preserves night vision) in constant or flashing. It tilts (a really useful facility so you can look at things on the ground or straight ahead) and is very bright. Most normal people don't need this but as I also use mine for the aforementioned cycling and running, it's pretty imports for me. Mine costs between £35-£50 (do a search on Google they're not difficult to find), but although it's top of that range, there are others that go up to £200, but really for people climbing Everest..

Petzl Tikkina 2, for about £15.

Otherwise the Petzl Tikkina 2 is the one to get. It has two white light modes (strong or economy) and tilts and is really everything you'd need. You can pick them up for about £15 and they're - Petzl's -vastly superior to any other head torch I've tried. Also comes in pink, blue, green, gold.

Monday, 19 November 2012

Tab grabber, aka a clever way to keep hold bits of paper

Tab grabber. Just one small section..

Tab grabbers are those things you see in restaurants. You place an order, the waiter writes it on a piece of paper and then s/he sticks it into a tab grabber for the kitchen staff.

Well they're also a great way of holding other bits of paper in the home. I have an entire run of them under my window sill, right by my desk. And although a part of it is used to keep drawings that my children do for me, I use them largely to hold invites to forthcoming work events.

You can get them in all different lengths, or obviously use more than one. They're like metal bars with marbles inside, and it's the marbles that hold the bits of paper up.. Bit hard to explain unless you know what I'm talking about...No sticky tape or drawing pins are needed so it's a great way to just hold stuff and because of this especially easy and safe for children to use. Purposeful, industrious, totally unmarking. You can stick them on the wall - they come with sticky pads - or screw them in, I strongly recommend the latter.

We also have one on the back of the front door for things to remember: shopping lists, letters to post, those bits of paper you have to return to school. Note: you can also use them for photographs, but you lose about an eighth of the photo in the marble bit.

They cost from about £10. Just put Tab Grabber into Google. You can get them from various places on line that don't pay their taxes. Or try commercial kitchen shops.

Thursday, 15 November 2012

Hot Dog and Hot Duck

Hot Duck and Hot Dog. 

I bought these last Christmas for my girls to give each other in an incredibly contrived gift exchange.

They are cuddly toys with some sort of stuff inside that you can heat up in a microwave. Hence why these are called Hot Dog and Hot Duck.

Living in the country it's colder here, sooner and for longer than in the city. Plus I keep the heating right down, because I'm mean like that. So Hot Dog and Hot Duck make a nice companion at bedtime, or on cold early morning car journeys; my youngest has even been known to take it with her in the front of my bike. They feel like bean bags so are actually pretty tactile. I am not a cuddly toy person but have even been known to treat these quite well.

You chuck them in the microwave for a couple of minutes and bingo. I got mine from a large organisation which is now being investigated for tax reasons, but you can get these anywhere. Perhaps even support your local shop...Mine cost under a tenner each and are made by Intelex and the range is called 'Cozy Plush' (sic).

Wednesday, 14 November 2012

Home made bourbon biscuits

My glorious bourbon biscuits

Although I make almost all the biscuits and cakes we eat, I do think there are some things that are just better shop bought. Shop bought custard creams are just what they are and impossible to replicate at home. (This doesn't mean I won't try but I won't expect to get them to compete with shop bought and compete is the right word here.)

But a few weeks ago, I was out for brunch and gossip a very important business meeting with my friend Fiona Hughes and we went to the Orchard Cafe in London's Holborn.  On the way out, after we'd devoured extremely good scrambled eggs with home made bread and smoked tomato ketchup, I spotted a giant bourbon biscuit, filled with salted caramel goo.

Now. I don't eat biscuits and cakes 'n' stuff like that, during the week, only at the weekend. And as this was a Tuesday, I couldn't justify it.

However, because I am a greedy thing at heart, the memory of these biscuits scratched away at me, like a sticky out label on a T-shirt, and eventually I decided to try to make my own.

I finally found a mention of an edition of Jamie Magazine that had a recipe for home made bourbon biscuits and so determined was I, I tracked a back issue down, paid for it and waited for it to arrive.

These biscuits are great. Really, really good. I do of course want to get a specialist rectangular cutter and maybe a Barbieri stamp. But until then, I just cut a line of these, and then cut the rectangles by hand. It made for a very artisan finish but no less impressive.

You need:

For the biscuits:

50g soft butter, unsalted
50g soft brown sugar (I used dark)
1 tablespoon of golden syrup
110g plain flour
20g good cocoa powder (don't go using any of that 'bad' stuff)
half a teaspoon of bicarbonate of soda
a bit of caster sugar for sprinkling

For the filling:

75g icing sugar
50g soft butter
1 tablespoon of cocoa powder
1 teaspoon of cold, strong coffee (note I used milk instead as I didn't think my children would like the coffee, so no idea what it's like with the coffee)

Put the oven on to gas 150C. You need a baking tray lined with baking parchment.

Either cream the butter and sugar for the biscuits by hand, or use an electric whisk (the recipe calls for latter, I did former). Do this until pale and fluffy. I love the word fluffy.

Then beat in the golden syrup using a wooden spoon (even if you've used an electric whisker you're now instructed to STOP and use a wooden spoon and put your arms to work). Then sift in the flour, cocoa powder and bicarbonate and beat into an even dough. You may need a few drops of milk. Try not to use it but if you do, literally put the milk in half a teaspoon at a time, you want a fairly dry, low hydration dough not something really sticky.

Turn it out onto a piece of baking parchment and top it with more baking parchment so you roll it out between two sheets of baking parchment. Roll until about 3mm thick. Because you want the biscuit to be crisp, don't make it too thick, although you can't make it too thin either. Get the ruler out, this is biscuits for goodness sake. It's important to get it right.

Cut the dough, however works for you, into about 24 fingers of about 5cm x 3cm. I cut long rectangles and then cut into smaller rectangles. Place on parchment lined baking tray, with about 1cm gap in between (they do rise a bit but not much). I prick with a fork for a birruva pretty pattern.

Sprinkle with caster sugar and cook for 8-10 minutes. Make sure they are cooked, not soft as they won't harden up much and you really do want these to be crispy not cakey. But of course, don't overcook (am I being too bossy? I want you to get these right you see).

When done, wipe the sweat from your brown, transfer to a wire rack etc. Cool.

For the filling mix the sugar and butter together, add the cocoa powder. At this point it will look pale and unpromising and you may start to panic. Have faith! When you add the milk (a scant teaspoon, just to bring everything together), it will go dark and glossy and glorious and you will be SO pleased with yourself.

Spread on one biscuit, sandwich with another. Daintily arrange. Eat and be amazed.

Monday, 12 November 2012

Keeping your wood burner glass clean, a tip

This is my woodburner. And I think you'll agree the glass is pretty clean

So this isn't the sexiest blog post I could do. No food porn or sex tips (I do actually have plenty of those but I charge for them). But if you have a wood burner I hope you'll find it useful.

Indeed, if you have a wood burner, you'll know that the glass can get smoked up. And as part of the fun of having a fire is staring at it with your mouth slightly open and your thoughts far away, it's imperative that the glass is kept clean.

A really good tip is coming up.

Every morning, before you light your fire, get a damp rag/piece of kitchen paper. Dip it in yesterday's ash, clean the inside of the glass with it (the ash is abrasive). It'll go into a horrible looking paste all over our glass and you'll think 'ewww'. But, then give it a wipe over with a clean bit of damp whatever (you may need two if it's particularly dirty, and I also dry with a clean, dry bit, because I'm a bit mad about having really clear glass) and hey presto.

Clean glass.

You don't need to use anything else.

I wish I could lay claim to this, but it came to me via my partner, via his friend Nigel.

You're welcome.

Monday, 5 November 2012

Two things I really want to tell you about: boots and socks

I'm going into my third winter with the best boots I've ever bought: Ecco Voyage.

I first wrote about them here.

When I say going into my third winter, I mean I wear them every day from end of September til about April.

They may be slightly superfluous if you live in a city (you'd still find them useful though), but living in the country as I do they are fantastic and vital and here's why:

They're warm
They look smart
They're waterproof
They're comfortable
They have a great grippy sole

I have a love/hate relationship with Ecco in that several of my walking boots that I bought from them (and my partner has had this same problem) have fallen apart after only a couple of years (not what I'd expect). But these seem different. Not cheap at £160 this year but on a price per wear basis they're a bargain.

And these are the socks to wear with them from Uniqlo. Warm, comfy, keep their colour in the way that other black doesn't (because they're synthetic but don't be scared of this, synthetics are so much better now). And they're not overly thick.

Not easy to see detail but they're these. £9.90 for two.

Friday, 2 November 2012

When to play fast and loose with laundry

Laundry is a sexy motherflippin' subject. If I had to give any man over the age of 35 a tip to get a woman to move in with him it would be this: promise her a laundry room. Want her to move out? Tell her you're going to smash up the laundry room to make way for your own personal tanning salon.

So that's my tip. And now here's my story for today. A few weeks ago on Facebook I noticed that a friend of someone I'd never met was called Isabel de Vasconcellos. I thought this was the most amazing name. So much so that I said it outloud a few times whilst pretending to pick up a telephone and speak into it thus:

"Hello, this is Isabel de Vasconcellos, bring the car round immediately."
"Hello, this is Isabel de Vasconcellos, I need flowers in every room."
"Hello? Isabel de Vasconcellos? This is she."

"Isabel de Vasconcellos" I said to my boyfriend, "isn't that the most fabulous name you've EVER heard? Even more fabulous than my own multi-syllabled, melodic, mellifuous name.

He agreed. So I friended her (she's a writer/curator) and only occasionally take on her identity when I'm out and about.

Today she messaged me asking if she could put her new top in the wash at 40C, even thought the label says 'wash at 30'. In order to answer her I had to know the fibre content. I suspected viscose and I was right. It contained 85% viscose, the rest was polyamide and elastane.

Now, viscose's (more commonly known as rayon in the US) easy-to-wearness belies a fragility. It's great in garments as it makes them hang so nicely and they can need very little ironing. But, if wrongly washed they can shrink. She didn't need to worry about the polyamide part as polyamide is just the European name for nylon (just as Tactel is nylon but it's a brand name) and elastane is the generic of Lycra (also a brand name, hence the upper case).

The fact that the top was black was in its favour as white garments with synthetic fibres can, if washed at too high a temperature, go grey.

So my advice was to wash it at 30C to be on the safe side. There will come a time when it mistakenly goes in at 40C and then she'll discover if it can withstand that extra ten degrees. But until then, don't play fast and loose with viscose or rayon clothing. I speak as someone who has never dry cleaned cashmere - it always goes in to the washing machine but only if it has a hand wash cycle. (And bear in mind I've never had anything other than an AEG or Miele machine.) Natural fibres* you see, are - up to a point - more forgiving than certain synthetics.

*viscose/rayon is a man made fibre from a natural polymer (cellulose).   Polyamide and elastane, since you ask, are manmade fibres from a synthetic polymer - petrochemicals.