Friday, 31 October 2008

Too many spiders

These pesky spiders have been getting everywhere today.
I blame this little witch personally.
I have now appeased the spiders and their owner, however, by making some hallowe'en cupcakes. Phew.
Hallowe'en cupcakes
  • 125g self-raising flour
  • 125g sugar
  • 125g butter
  • 2 eggs
  • grated zest of 1 orange
  • 1 tbsp milk

For the topping

  • a good shake of icing sugar
  • juice of 1/2 an orange
  • dab of orange food colouring (optional)
  • 6 squares of dark chocolate, melted

Put all the ingredients for the cupcakes, except the milk, in a food processor and blitz until smooth. Add the milk at the end, with the motor still running, to make a fairly sloppy cake mix. Spoon into 12 cake cases, set into a bun tin, and cook at gas 6 for 15 to 20 minutes until the cupcakes are lightly golden.

When the cupcakes have cooled, sift the icing sugar into a bowl (I never bother weighing or measuring icing sugar - just give a good shake from the tub). Add the orange juice, plus some orange food colouring if you want a more vivid icing than mine. Stir together until you have a smooth, runny icing. Dribble spoonfuls of icing all over the cupcakes. When the icing is cool, melt the chocolate and dribble over the top.

Feed to spiders and small witches.

Wednesday, 29 October 2008

Small things

For the past week and a half I've been on holiday and at home, away from my usual working world of Bank of England regulations, accounting standards, foreign exchange provisions and tax adjustments. I have slowed right down, rested and spent time by myself and with G and the children.

My time has been filled with small, simple things:

  • Spending my evenings quilting in front of the television. I've been enjoying old Sex and the City re-runs, Paul Merton in India and the Gadget Show. Also a very spooky atmospheric DVD of The Orphanage, which I'm still not sure if I enjoyed or not.
  • Raking up the cherry leaves in the back garden and feeding worms to the hens (I don't let them out of their run in the autumn, as they just head straight for the mounds of leaves and kick them everywhere in twittering exuberance).
  • Taking time to do things with the children that I would normally rush through, or struggle to find time for. Things like showing O how to paint with her beautiful new Caran d'Ache coloured pencils (she keeps them lined up in colour order with the writing facing upwards, just as obsessively as I used to do several decades ago). Getting the playdoh out. Drinking cups of tea and watching Tracy Beaker with the children early(ish) in the morning while I'm still in my pyjamas.
  • Wasting time playing on Yearbook Yourself. So funny - in a way that left me laughing out loud until I had tummy ache.
  • Watching fat flakes of snow fall and the fireworks for Diwali go off - all in one magical evening.

I really needed this break. Sometimes you only work that out when you stop.

Saturday, 25 October 2008

Back to business

In the last few days, the birthday madness has faded and normal life has started to return. This is a good thing.

The sitting room floor is once again covered in tiny snippets of thread.

  • I've made some dolls clothes for O
  • and pieced the top of a quilt for C.
  • I've bought myself a small embroidery hoop and some linen and am going to teach myself how to embroider.

The birthday cakes are (almost) eaten and I am now in a big savoury-baking phase. This week it has been:

  • sundried tomato and mozzarella muffins (you can eat these in person at a very lovely Cotswold cafe)
  • a tomato and herb bread loaf
  • cauliflower cheese

I've made it out of the house as well.

  • I cycled through the crispy leaves in Victoria Park.
  • I went geocaching in Wanstead Park with C & O - amazingly there are still a few caches here that I haven't found.

C and O don't seem to mind the birthday celebrations being over; they have many lovely new toys to play with and are finally on school half-term and now have the time to enjoy them.

This afternoon, O drew these Strictly Come Dancing inspired dresses in readiness for tonight's excitement. However, unlike O, I'm not wondering what dress Tess will be wearing - I am wondering what on earth the costume team will put Mark Foster in this week...!

Tuesday, 21 October 2008

Birthday buddies

Before I had children I thought eventually I’d have three of them, all the same gender and all very close in age. What I ended up with were two children, of different genders, and a pretty big age gap.

When I was expecting O, the thing that occupied my mind the most was how my children would get on. I didn’t have great hopes. That three year age gap, the different gender and, as it turns out, two completely different personalities. I don't think they even look alike – not even slightly. C is fair, with pale skin and bright blue eyes. O has very dark brown hair, with more olive skin and chocolate brown eyes.

But I shouldn’t have made assumptions, because as they have grown up, they have become such a double act. A unit. A pair. A twosome.

And I think much of this stems from the fact that their birthdays are a mere two days apart. C was 9 yesterday and O is 6 tomorrow.

In our family we have a birthday frenzy leading up to the big days, which lasts about six weeks. C and O look through the Lego catalogues together, talk about wishlists together, and co-ordinate between them who will have what sort of cake and who will have which meal for their birthday tea. They think that they have all the twinnish benefits of one mega, doubly-big, birthday bonanza without having to actually share the special day with anyone else. I think they might be right.

Happy birthday my loves! I hope that you continue to share this joint birthday excitement and easy love for each other right into adulthood.

Saturday, 18 October 2008

Birthday party checklist

I think I'm ready for O's birthday party tomorrow.
  • party bags packed - tick
  • birthday cake baked (lemon drizzle cake, cut into squares and stacked in a pyramid - I've had very clear instructons) - tick
  • sitting room floor hoovered to get rid of stray bits of cotton - tick
  • birthday girl's dress ironed - tick
  • party games decided upon - tick
  • post party bottle of wine for G and me chilling in fridge - tick
  • six little gingham aprons sewn for the birthday girl and her friends - tick

This last may be the nicest thing I've ever sewn. We are going to cook jam tarts and ice biscuits together, so I thought they all needed some little matching aprons.

And yes, I did trim them with ribbon. Of course I did.

Pattern adapted from the Vintage Apron Pattern in Amy Karol's Bend The Rules Sewing.

Wednesday, 15 October 2008

Skirts and ribbons – I’m really obsessed now

Here is my new skirt, made at the Make Lounge, to Simplicity pattern 4036. I am so pleased with it – it fits beautifully, it looks well made, and it was quick and easy. The tutor, Kristina Nilsson, was so lovely. She even managed to get everyone confidently inserting concealed zips and putting in darts.

Everyone mentions the vintage ribbon trim – I think it transforms a plain denim skirt into something a bit more quirky. I top stitched it on after the course, and when I was finished I had less than 2cm of ribbon left over. That was a bit too close for comfort!

I wore the skirt to work today and my colleagues were vey kind about it. My boss said the ribbon reminded her of a tarantella skirt she used to wear for ballet as a child. In one of those sudden flashes of understanding, I realised that what she was describing is the very exciting skirt that O will also wear for ballet next term, when she moves up to the next grade. These skirts, which O’s ballet school call character skirts, are long, black and fully circular, with a three ribbon trim in white, bright blue and bright pink. Each week at ballet, O and I admire the older girls twirling and spinning in these fabulous skirts as they wait in the lobby to go into their lessons.

There is a pattern for a circular skirt in an excellent book I have been reading – Ruth Singer’s Sew It Up. Now that I’m on a roll with my skirt making I need to make another one. Shall I attempt a circular skirt for me? I fear that the shape would not suit me as well as an A-line, but think how crazy I could go buying ribbons to trim it!

On the other hand, I saw some charcoal grey, woollen, pinstripe suit fabric at the Cloth House. Made into an A-line skirt, it would look so good for work. But then I’m not convinced that pinstripe would suit a ribbon trim and I’m now rather addicted to ribbon trims….maybe I’ll make O another Oliver + S Lazy Days skirt while I decide.

Saturday, 11 October 2008

Family foodie night

Family food can get a little samey. You cook what everybody will eat, you cook what is quick and you cook what you know. If you’re not careful you end up cooking the same handful of dishes over and over again, all the while despairing at the blandness and repetitiveness of your diet. Pasta Bolognese AGAIN?

My parents, my siblings and I are a family of food obsessed people. We can discuss the texture and flavour of a piece of ripe brie for longer than it would take most people to eat it. We say things like “Ooh, you must try the gizzards, they are such an amazing local dish” - and mean it. We can have endless, evening-long discussions about what the ingredients of a particular dish should be. Where there is food, there is a topic of conversation in my family.

I think that this way of appreciating food as something more than merely fuel came about through a very varied diet, and long family meals all together. These are both things I want to do for my own children.

And I think most children are naturally conservative with food – mine certainly are. They like what they know and they know what they like. Just an unfamiliar name will cause noses to be wrinkled and food to be picked at suspiciously. This makes me worry that my own children will not grow up to be foodies, and will not appreciate the different tastes, ingredients and varieties of good food. And then how on earth will they interact with their uncles and aunts at occasions like Christmas, if they can’t join in discussions on topics such as whether you should have grated carrot in the Christmas pudding, or why brandy butter can so often split?

So for a while now I’ve been trialling Family foodie nights on Saturdays. I’ve been greatly inspired in this mission by Tom Norrington-Davis’s book Cupboard Love. He has a series of chapters called ‘Kebab night’ ‘Burger night’ ‘Curry night’ and ‘Pizza night’ that have recipes for mains and side dishes on all those themes.

Kebab night was a big hit a few weeks ago. I made little lamb koftas to a recipe from Cupboard Love. I served them with toasted pitta breads, homemade tsatsiki, different sorts of hummus, mint jelly and pickled gherkins. Last week’s success was nachos with homemade guacamole and large dollops of sour cream on the side.

The anarchy of sharing these themed meals all sat on the floor around the coffee table while we watch Strictly Come Dancing adds to the child appeal. The children end up eating food that is much spicier, much more adventurous and just very different to their weekday diet of pasta, risotto, pies and casseroles. And I get a kick out of thinking up these themes and cooking something a little different too.

Tonight’s theme is going to be Chinese. It is C’s birthday party this afternoon and I won’t have the energy or time to cook after that, so we are going to share a takeaway. Part of the foodie experience is also eating food that other people have cooked!

So here is my list of themes for our family foodie nights. Some I’ve tried already, and some are to try soon.

  • Kebab night, as above – kofta, pittas, pickles, tsatsiki, hummus, mint jelly, salad

  • Mexican night – nachos or fajitas with side dishes of guacamole, salsa, sour cream and jalapenos. Nigella Lawson has some good Tex-Mex recipes.

  • Tapas or Meze night – a loosely Spanish and Moroccan theme. Patatas Bravas, olives, chorizo, hummus. Paella perhaps. I am reading (and very much enjoying) the Moro cookbook to get some ideas for this.

  • Burger night - homemade beef burgers with herbs, onions and grated apple in them. Good quality burger buns from the supermarket. Side dishes of sweetcorn relish (divine stuff – Tom N-D has an awesome and easy recipe), cheese, mustard mayo, lettuce and a BIG bottle of ketchup. Homemade potato wedges to accompany the burgers.

  • Chinese night – if I had the time this evening, I’d try to combine some bought dishes with some homemade. There are several Easy Chinese Cooking type books out there. I have a Ken Hom one. Don’t forget the prawn crackers!

  • Pizza night - home made pizzas using dough made in the bread machine. Home made dough balls to accompany them. Mix some butter with crushed garlic and chopped parsley and chill. Later put a teaspoonful of garlic butter into a flat disc of uncooked dough. Shape the dough into a ball around the butter and arrange in a baking tray. Bake for 10 mins until golden and smelling amazing!

  • Curry night - a hot and spicy one for me and G, and a mild aromatic one for the children. Pilau rice and naan breads ordered from the local curry house. My favourite Indian curry cookbooks are by Madhur Jaffrey and Vicky Bhogal.

  • Old fashioned high tea. Egg and cress sandwiches (no crusts, obviously), pork pie, cheese scones, scotch eggs. Thick slices of Victoria sponge to follow. All washed down with cups of Yorkshire tea.

I’d love to hear what your ideas for more themes are, and how you’ve introduced adventurous or spicy food into your home.

Thursday, 9 October 2008

10 things I've learnt from cycling

  1. Wind is far more of an enemy than rain. If it’s windy AND rainy, get the tube.
  2. Like the well brought up girl from Oxford that I am, I believe it is perfectly acceptable to cycle in skirts and cardigans. There is absolutely no need for bike-geek wear (scroll down and be afraid at both the design and the price!). Just remember to wear some tights with your skirt.
  3. I can’t get the bike on the bike rack without getting oil on my hands. No matter how hard I try.
  4. If you take really deep breaths as you cycle through Victoria Park you might get a lungful of something you weren’t expecting. I did this inadvertently the other day, as I rode past a group of lads sitting on a bench, and my head was spinning as fast as the pedals the rest of the way home.
  5. Riding over a shiny conker makes you skid badly.
  6. The strip clubs of Hackney always have broken glass in the road outside them. Hackney seems to have a lot of strip clubs.
  7. The same hill, on different days, can vary between Extremely Steep and Not A Problem.
  8. Not many people cycle through London in a pink fleece and pink high vis jacket like mine. In fact, I don’t think anyone else does. I stand out.
  9. The vast majority of drivers are kind to cyclists. I’ve had no frustrated drivers honking their horns at me. Bus drivers are especially nice.
  10. A bit of fresh air and exercise does you a world of good. I love cycling.

Sunday, 5 October 2008

Weekend into week

Saturday night in front of Strictly Come Dancing.

Nachos with Nigella's clove-hot chilli from How To Eat were served. Some people admired Austin Healey's dancing prowess from behind a glass or two of pinot grigio.

Sunday morning, at the ironing board. This is what 120, 6-piece, fence rail squares look like. It has taken me an outrageous FIFTEEN years to get to this point.

And here is what 20 of them look like joined together. I am now officially on the Fun Part of the quilt. Still a way to go before the quilt covers our bed, but I'm pretty confident it will be done in less than fifteen years. Before Christmas is even looking likely.

That was the weekend.

This is my week ahead.

  • Source items for birthday party bags.
  • Buy ingredients for the first of FOUR birthday cakes being made in the next fortnight.
  • Finish my skirt at The Make Lounge .
  • Head to the pub with my friend to put the world to rights, and perhaps discuss Austin Healey's biceps over a glass or two of pinot grigio.
  • Meet lots of quarter-end deadlines at work and be nice to the auditors. I have a new role, which I'm loving.
  • Eat one of these muffins as a reward for cycling to and from work in the gusty winds that are forecast again this week. I baked these yesterday and they are not as pretty as Nicole's but they taste amazing.
  • Snipping out two sets of nametapes from too-small shirts and sewing them back in to larger ones. C has outgrown his school shirts and has new ones. C's old ones are being passed down to O. There are piles of blue shirts all over the sitting room. If I don't concentrate I will be snipping names out of the bigger shirts and sewing them into the smaller ones. Very confusing. Perhaps a bit less pinot grigio would be helpful.

Thursday, 2 October 2008

Sewing lesson

Tuesday night’s trip to The Make Lounge for the first part of my Sew a Skirt course was excellent. It came after a strange day at work, when all my colleagues were either working from home, off sick or away on courses. I’d been the only person in my part of the office – just me and my spreadsheets all day.

I think this may have contributed to my slightly eccentric behaviour during the evening. I was so eager to get to The Make Lounge and talk to somebody, that I arrived far too early. Even before the teachers. But Jennifer, the owner of The Make Lounge, was very kind and didn’t seem too perturbed. She asked me if I was ‘the lady with the orange ribbon’ – she’d clicked through to this blog from my booking email and read my post about the insanely gorgeous and expensive vintage ribbon from the Cloth House that I bought to trim the skirt. It was funny to meet someone who already knew my fabric choices!

But even more surreal was that about half an hour later, when all the sensible, on-time people arrived, someone on the crochet course that was also running that evening, turned to me and said “Oh, you’re the List Writer! I’m a huge fan of your blog! I recognise you from your photo!”

This lovely lady, I think, went by the name of Lydia, but I can’t be sure. I was so shocked to meet a complete stranger who reads and enjoys this blog that I didn’t concentrate when she introduced herself. I think I just stared at her and opened and shut my mouth a few times.

I know people visit and comment, but deep down I’m sure that really it’s just my Mum and sister and a handful of friends who read this. And G, when I nag him.

Lydia asked after my cycling and was very sweet about my recent sewing efforts and all the other things I write about. And I just mumbled something incoherent at her. But thank you Lydia (if that is indeed your name!) because you really, truly made my week! People read this – and enjoy it. So odd, but very nice to know.

After all that, my head was really spinning by the time I sat down to cut and sew. I learnt so much though, even with only half my mind on what I was doing. The denim, and the contrasting orange notions I chose, are going to look good I think. I didn’t realise until I started sewing that the denim has a little bit of stretch in it. This can only be a Good Thing and I think will make the skirt fit even better.

I’ve only ever sewn on three sewing machines in my life. When I was a teenager I used the clunky old ones at school, or my mothers even older and clunkier one at home. Then for my 18th birthday I was given the Brother machine I use now. It is a great machine and does everything I need perfectly well, but last night I discovered that there is a whole world of even better sewing machines out there. Machines have really come on in the last 18 years!

When I sew at home, I can’t listen to the radio because my machine is so loud it drowns out any music or chatter – the ones at The Make Lounge purr gently. Oooh, it was like driving a Jaguar when your normal run-around is a beaten up old Mini Metro.

So never mind the pricey ribbon, this might be an even more expensive skirt than I first anticipated…. At the very least, I need to get my machine serviced for the first time in 18 years.