Wednesday, 17 September 2014

preserving the blackberry season... without preserving

These have been the joy and the bane of my life recently:
Why? The two little ones are obsessed

It's such a joy to see their purple-stained faces as they scour the hedgerows for more midnight-coloured jewels. To teach them the rules of picking (none too low; check for bugs; go for plumpness and colour) and watch them put those rules into action. To see them brush off the thorn scratches and nettle stings that would usually breed misery, yet are now a minor inconvenience on the way to berry heaven. To feel like I'm the mother in an Enid Blyton, rose-tinted childhood story.

But it's also been a bit of a pain to have every walk take three times as long, as every single bush needs to be stopped at and inspected before being devoured. To clean yet another stained and ingrained fingernail. Make yet another ignored plea that "you've had more than enough" and "we really do need to go."

I'm surprised these boys haven't turned into blackberries, in the style of Roald Dahl's Violet Beauregard. Despite eating ridiculous amounts, we have managed to pick just a few to keep rather than eat al fresco. They are hiding in the freezer waiting for the blackberry season to be over - and it's almost done. They're destined for a crumble, but until then we mixed a few with banana, peach, milk and a tiny scoop of vanilla ice cream to make an after-school smoothie treat. There's no point in giving you a recipe: just add a bit of this and a bit of that, and don't forget your milky-mauve-mustache smile at the end.

Saturday, 6 September 2014

Saturday baking: pumpkin (or butternut squash), parmesan and olive bread

It's drizzly outside, the leaves are on the turn and autumn's settling in. Shall we do some weekend baking? Do you fancy some Pumpkin/Butternut Squash Bread?
Pumpkin or Butternut Squash, Parmesan and Olive Bread
There are only so many bog standard cheese/ham/bread lunches a family can take. We reached our limit a month or two ago. I've been trying to mix it up on our weekend lunches, bringing a bit more creativity to the table to make the weekend lunch - that lovely, languid thing - a little more special.

Today I made Pumpkin, Parmesan and Olive Bread. It takes about 10-15 minutes prep, 45 minutes in the oven, and a few minutes resting - the perfect ratio of low time/effort to high impact/taste.

I ate mine plain and buttered, still steaming warm, and it was lovely. The lovely husband adorned his with cheese and chutney. I'd have thought a bit of ham would be nice too. I added the olives at the end, folding them into one end of the loaf, leaving the other end olive-free to suit the younger boys. And they asked for seconds.Would you like the recipe? It's from our Abel & Cole cookbook, page 121. 

Pre-heat your oven to 190oC/375oF/gas 5. The whole recipe uses a mug to measure - just pick out a standard-size mug from your collection and stick to the same mug all through.

Mix 1 1/3 mugs of self-raising flour in a large bowl with a pinch of sea salt, 1 mug of grated raw butternut squash or pumpkin, 1/2 mug of roughly grated parmesan (or a cheaper alternative - I used Grana Padano), a handful of chopped black olives and 1 tbsp chopped rosemary.

Once your dry ingredients are combined, whisk 2 large eggs with 1 tbsp milk in your vacated mug then add to your mixture and mix until you've got a sticky ball (I used my hands - fun, quick, but messy.)

Drop your ball of dough onto a greased baking tray, form into a patty, and sprinkle a little extra flour and grated parmesan on top. Bake on the middle shelf of your oven for 45-50 mins. When done, the bottom of the loaf will make a hollow sound when you tap it. Let it cool a little for 10 mins before serving. But, trust me, it's best served warm.

This loaf will feed four as part of a lunch spread, or two greedy people (ah-hem) with a bit of butter and cheese. Leftovers are delicious toasted, as the butternut squash caramelises slightly in the heat.

Wishing you and yours a lovely, restful weekend.

Tuesday, 2 September 2014

Let's make a Home Nature Table with the kids - in 10 easy steps

Well hello autumn! And this is our goodbye to the summer: a nature table in our home, made by my children.

So for those of you who have young children and have spent a good deal of your summer holidays out and about, walking, playing, in the woods, at the beach, on the hills... I bet your hallway looks like this every time you get back:
So did mine. Repeatedly. And after twice catching my husband trying to bin all our finds only a day later, I decided to act. We took what had been lovingly collected but carelessly discarded and actually made it into something beautiful and memorable: a home nature table. Want one too? Then let's get started...

1// Find yourself an under-used table, ideally a low one, made for children. Cover it with some fabric or a tablecloth that will make it feel special and present your finds nicely.
2// Group your nature finds by type and look for some nice containers to vary the height and presentation for each. We put our feathers in an old golden syrup tin. (That's the Tiny One's hand in action)

3// Pine cones look best in a bowl (if you have lots like we did) or a clear jar. That's the Little One proudly placing his big bowl at the back.
4// Use a jar or vase to arrange your leafy twigs just as you would a bunch of flowers.

5// I resisted the urge to do some artful arrangement, so this is the Little One and the Tiny One squeezing every fallen oak twig and random stick they had collected into my little jam jar. They did a fab job.
6// We then placed our beach drift wood and pine cone twigs lying down a the front, for a bit of height variation.

7// The Tiny One chose his favourite beach stones for his favourite blue bowl (there are another few dozen decorating our garden!)
8// And the Little One chose his favourites for his best yellow bowl.

9// Ta da! When we'd finished arranging everything we stood back, had a few proud photographs, then realising we were missing something. What's a nature table without a bit of naturalist labelling?! It had been a long time since the Little One had practiced his writing so we sounded out the letters together while he wrote each label. It was a great opportunity to introduce a bit of literacy without it feeling like homework.
10// We placed the labels by each of our finds and were done! The boys were so excited to show their daddy when he came home. And my hallway is remarkably tidy!

Ps thank you to those of your who took the time to leave kind comments on my last post. They worked!

Tuesday, 5 August 2014

Life right now

I have planned this post for a long time. Months.
This was supposed to be my goodbye post. The one where I finally admit, in print, that I am turning the last page on my blog and saying goodnight.
Weirdly, though, in recent days as I've pulled myself together to come out and say goodbye, I find the word in my heart is 'hello'. I think I'm coming back.

Sunday, 6 April 2014

Wandering: visiting the National Trust's Speke Hall in Liverpool

We bought a family one-year National Trust membership and it was one of the best investments we've made for our family. This is because we use it. Every weekendwe have time for a family day out, we consult the National Trust map and off we go. Nice day? Somewhere with lots of outdoor space to explore and picnic in. Less nice? A house that will take time to look round, with activities for younger children. Meeting with friends? Yep, we National Trust it. We can't afford to be members every year so we go crazy with the National Trust properties while we can, then take a few years off until the boys are older and it's all fresh again.

A week or so ago we visited Speke Hall in Liverpool.
It's a beautiful Tudor property set in landscaped grounds, surrounded by a wood. And it has something extra that I don't think any other National Trust places have... it's right next to an airport. So you get the added extra of - wow! - aeroplanes taking off above you. It really helps to have a bit of variety to entertain little ones! So, I guess you want to hear some of the other plusses? We really did have a fabulous day out with our friends.
The architecture is beautiful. For us 'grown-ups', from every angle there's something new to look at and different buildings to appreciate. For your children, there are little carved faces where you don't expect it, a moat (now grassed) to run round or roll down, and the house itself is just the right scale for littler ones.
There are lots of nooks and crannies to explore, and woodland walks to take. Because the scale is smaller than a lot of the grand National Trust properties you may have visited, it is much more suited to little legs and it is much better for more independent exploring. As parents, you want your children to learn the thrill and the responsibility of being independent from you, but that desire clashes against a primal need to watch over them and protect them. Speke Hall just felt like the perfect place to find a harmony between those two needs.
The house itself is beautiful. Unlike more museum-like places, it was set up with signs of life (like this Singer sewing machine - you can't expect me to ignore a sewing machine!) as though the Victorian inhabitants of this Tudor manor had just downed tools and popped outside for a moment.

There was a great trail indoors for the children to do. I thought my then-two-year-old and four-year old would be too young but they weren't at all. The house was just disrobing itself from its winter hibernation, and so most rooms had a large, hidden picture of a bug in them that you had to find (huge fun at that age) and note in your little booklet. The Little One loved practicing his writing (b-e-d) and the Tiny One liked the funny bug names and their descriptions.
We all loved looking for signs of spring in the kitchen garden and on the woodland walk. They loved climbing in the playground near the entrance (blowing off those long-car-drive cobwebs) while watching planes soar overhead. They loved the second, surprise woodland playground even more - tree trunk steps, zip wires, climbing frames, houses. It was always close to rain but we managed to miss it. It was cold enough to legitimately deny the ice-cream pleas (why is a cake never enough?!) but throw the coats off while running across the grass. We managed a picnic (coats on). We were home in time for tea.

You really should go.

Saturday, 5 April 2014

Baking: a toffee apple cake for my three-year old

Happy Birthday Tiny One! He turned three. It feels like he's on an express train to grown-up some days.

He asked for an apple cake for his birthday. He also asked for a lion cake for his lion birthday party. I won't show you the lion cake. It was atrocious. I mean, he was happy, and it tasted really good, but it was the ugliest cake I've ever made for a birthday. And considering that I have three boys, 15, 4 and 3, that's a lot of birthday cakes it comes behind.

But the apple cake a few days later was a winner. I looked at quite a few recipes, but apple cakes are quite teatime-ish and not so very birthday-ish, aren't they? Then I stumbled on the Apple Cake with Toffee Topping in Tessa Kiros' Falling Cloudberries. It's a lovely plain cake sat atop melded apple slices and topped with toffee sauce, both of which take it most definitely into the birthday category. We are still enjoying it! It's lovely with a cuppa mid morning (who, me?!). You can find the recipe if you 'look inside' on amazon, p.269, but I'll give it to you here too, in my own words, as the Amazon version is in US measurements...

Tessa Kiros' Apple Cake with Toffee Topping

For the cake, you'll need: 3 apples, 100g softened butter, 200g caster sugar, 1 tsp vanilla extract, 3 eggs, 200g plain flour, 2 tsps baking powder, 60ml milk.
And for the topping: 20g butter, 115g caster sugar, 125ml single cream.

Preheat the oven to 190oC and grease and flour a 24cm springform tin. Peel the apples, and cut each into 12 pieces, removing the core. Arrange the slices in the tin (they fit in two tightly packed concentric circles).

With an electric beater or whisk, cream your butter, sugar and vanilla until pale and creamy. Then add the eggs one by one, beating well each time. Sift and beat in the flour and baking powder, followed by the milk. Plop the smooth, fluffy batter onto the apple slices, smoothing the top. Then bake for 35-45mins until a skewer comes out clean (I use wooden skewers or a piece of dry spaghetti). Remove from the oven to a cooling rack, but keep it in its tin.

Time for the toffee: cook the butter and sugar in a small pan for 3-4mins until the sugar melts and turns a light caramel. Add the cream very slowly at first. Lower the heat and simmer for another minute. If your caramel solidifies in the middle of creamy sea (yes, that was mine), just heat slowly and use a sauce whisk. To start with the caramel will stick to it but be patient - eventually you'll be lump-free and caramel-coloured!

Run a palette knife around your cake sides then add the toffee sauce. Leave to cool before removing the side of the tin. Ice-cream or cream would be lovely with it, but we had neither and loved it still. It keeps well in the fridge - we're on day 3, it's still yummy and there's still 1/4 left. Not for long!

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Making: a quick & easy DIY thread necklace

So here's what happened, in order:
- Firstly, I spent a fortnight doing DIY in the bedroom at every possible moment. This meant no sewing. A week of no sewing and I get really desperate to get back to it. A fortnight? The unspent creative juices were threatening all kinds of mayhem.
- I read Monica's post about her quick necklace making. It struck a chord. It hid around in the recesses of my mind waiting for a moment to pounce.
- I had fifteen minutes the next day before going to collect the Little One from school. Fifteen minutes at the end of the day for which my main plan had been do some sewing and my achievement had been do no sewing. There was a broken necklace in a pot by my sewing table. There was some bright darning thread/yarn in my box. There were fifteen minutes.
Ta da! Fifteen minutes very well spent. I love the bright pink-red thread (though I think it's going to get pretty fluffly pretty quickly). And the once forgotten, now re-loved beads. It was just what I needed. A little happy makery to conclude the day.

The bedroom, by the way, is finished!!! Well, there's still a floor to paint at some point and a whole lot of upholstery to sort out. But the walls, ceiling and woodwork are all done. Applause! Curtsey!

Saturday, 15 March 2014

Mothering: being the best mother I can be

My boys. Yesterday I was tired, and did a crazy crash-and-burn as the school run ended. Imagine a toddler on a sugar high and then the sugar runs out. I'd had three cups of coffee (my upper limit) to get through the day and yes, I was that mum when all the caffeine ran out. I shouted. I was impatient. There was not a lot of nurturing. They were playing up and it was the end of a long week but once they were asleep the guilt kicked in and I vowed to do better tomorrow.

Mothering is a funny thing. When you first start out, you try to be the best mother as defined by some book, some zeitgeist, or some universal ideal. It takes a while, but you learn that actually so much of mothering is defined by who you are, who your children are, and your family's needs and priorities. If you were a career-minded, over-achieving, OCD-leaning woman beforehand, it's unlikely that you're going to be a happy and thriving mother if you're trying to fit he 'earth mother' model. You discover the best kind of mother you can be, for the person you are and for the children you have. And that's the gold standard that you hope to hit every day.

Here I am at the start of tomorrow. I've washed yesterday out of my hair, both figuratively and literally. I have a house to tidy (my mother-in-law is due in two hours. TWO HOURS!!) There is a gymnastics class to go to, several meals to make, and a cake bake in the village to support. But through all of it I am going to be the best mother I can be. And that's one that loves and enjoys her children. Who listens to them. Who negotiates and explains. Who can be fun, who can be relied on, who is very cuddly. I will need lots of small successes on the practical side of life, but I will try and share as much of my day with them and try and see as much of their world through their eyes. Time to turn off the computer and go give some hugs.

Tuesday, 11 March 2014

Sewing - a cushion commission, and a little sewing business business

A lovely friend arranged for some cushions to be made for her sofa. And they weren't quite right. So they came my way for a complete re-do.
Let's first say, My, this lady has some lovely fabric taste! Don't they look lovely? That leaf-print was in serious danger of being stolen by me. Lucky for her, I'm a goody two-shoes!
The fabric was a thin, dress-weight, so not ideal for cushions. It needed reinforcing with some interfacing. The cushion covers had been made several centimetres too big so they needed cutting down to size and then sewing back up again. And the zips were much too conspicuous, so they needed cutting out and replacing with invisible zips. Basically, yes, I sewed four new cushion covers from scratch.
It was a fiddly job, I'm not going to lie. And I got it wrong several times before getting it right, mainly due to ridiculous attempts to recreate serged seams on flimsy fabric without a serger. But I learnt my lessons and ended up French seaming the lot. For those of you who don't sew, that's basically a seam that's concealed within a seam, leaving no fraying edges.
These were my first concealed zips and I'm pleased with the results. And it felt lovely sewing something for someone else to enjoy. It felt more like a real sewing job than anything else I'd done before.
There are five or six weeks left until the Tiny One starts his six-hours-a-week at nursery. It'll take a little while to settle him in enough to leave him both mornings, but I hope to get four hours of clear sewing time out of it, and then another two or three evenings a week, of at least two hours each. And that will be the start of my little sewing business. I'm starting small and low-key, while my mothering commitments so overwhelm my sewing time. Ten hours a week to start with, and then in September it will build up to about 15 hours a week. There will be individual commissions, and there will still be gifts to sew, but I will mostly be focusing on home furnishings, especially curtains, and the quilts.
I just have to start earning some money: the pinch point has come. My full-time mothering was a vocation we had longed for and planned for, but one which we knew would need to transition back to a career as a working mother, once the littlest of our brood was ready for nursery and then school. And to get to sew for a job! There are many other things I could do but here I am with the one chance in my whole life to try and make a career out of something that I love, something that is borne of my soul. It's a dream to be paid for your passion. And you all know that I'm a dreamer. Cross your fingers and toes for me that it works out.

Thursday, 6 March 2014

Where I've been

I took a little walk around my house the other day. I thought you'd like a little look at where I've been. And after that, we can get to business.

I've been enjoying the colour and life that a little of nature in the house can bring. My tomato plant (well, they're not tomatoes but they look like them, and I can't remember the real name!) was a gift from my boys at Christmas time and I love it. I just need to figure out a pretty way to cover that plastic pot it's in. The rose on the right was from my love on Valentines. Now let me lower my voice to a whisper: I don't actually like the standard traditional rose. I find it a bit ubiquitous and unnatural looking. But I love that his thoughts and heart were in the right place, so I'm always appreciative. But one year, if the lovely husband gets me a bunch of tulips or country-garden bouquet, boy, he'll really see what natural joy looks like!

We've been putting the Tiny One's pictures up in the kitchen. We all love them! He turns around from his seat at lunchtime sometimes, just the two of us, and says 'do you like my elephants mummy?' He's so proud. And yes darling, I really do. On the right is a bit of hastily decked Christmas paperchain in the Little One's room. Yes it's March. No, he won't let me take it down. I wonder if I removed it surreptitiously one day he'd notice?
Sorry, sorry, it's a potty picture. We've been potty training the Tiny One. He's a month off three. And it took him half a day. No kidding, two wee's and he was sorted. Now you may hate me right now but I should also let you know it took the Little One nearly two weeks and on one of those days he went through every single pair of trousers, underpants and pyjama bottoms he owned. So I was owed a really easy one.

We have a playroom but the boys keep bringing their toys into the lounge. There's usually more room and less mess. Fireman Sam was the toy of choice for much of their half term holidays. They played so long and so well together (once we'd purchased a few duplicates with their Christmas money!!) 
I've been making squares of blue, green, yellow and brown diagonal strips ready to be assembled into a quilt for my brother and his wife. It's a nice, manageable activity with the batting/wadding already added. But I'm a bit worried about the assembly part - they are really skewing in shape as I assemble them, and I think some uneasy easing will be required to get a regular grid of diamonds at the end.
My brother found this beauty in a skip. In a skip!! If they're that easily rid off, no wonder a certain upmarket high street shop fills its windows with rows and rows of them. I now have one for my own window and I think it's just beautiful.
You know that nature on the inside thing I said earlier? This is my current favourite. Budding pine cone branches and a feather in a vase. Sounds much less than it is. It makes me so happy to see it there every day in our lounge. I wish I could keep it forever but I feel like it should really go once spring is upon us, to be replaced with an Easter tree of newly forming leaves. You know me, I like to be season-specific.
What would've been time at the computer or sewing machine is now often time spent in our bedroom, painting. We're slowly getting there. I can't wait to show you it when it's finished, but the re-do also involved recovering the chair in this photo and that's going to be a bit of a beast of a job!
And last of all, I didn't want to miss out any references to the Big One, who has just got a glowing report at school but is driving me a bit doolally at home. That is his room just half a day after his weekly enforced tidying. I couldn't bring myself to show it to you the day before. At least the fact you can't even see the carpet then covers the fact that I haven't been able to get in to vacuum for several weeks. Rant over!

And with that done, it's time to look forward again.