Sunday, 22 December 2013

Just call me Ma Ingalls

Happy Yuletide, my webby co-conspirators!

Only a teeny amount of time left until Christmas Day and I am feeling pretty positive about it. There are loads of things I meant to do but haven't but I'm not fretting. Our kids and the nieces are sorted with their presents and everyone else will just have to cope if I haven't quite sorted everything out. It's the season of peace and goodwill towards over-committed women.

My goal to make most of the presents for friends and relatives has been a mixed success. I've sewn, knitted, crocheted or baked for 3 nieces, my kids, 3 friends, the kids' school, one Secret Santa and my parents. I've also bought a few more than I meant to - partly to save my sanity, partly because I couldn't think of anything to make the recipients that they'd like.

I've spent a total of £9 on supplies for the home made presents. Get a load of my up-cycling self! I've used duvet covers, dresses, tops, fabric left over from previous projects, stuff I bought ages ago and hadn't used and buttons snipped from stained blouses.  I am delighted! And I may be kidding myself but I think my efforts will please the receivers rather than have them pull the strained "erm, thanks" smile.
Of course I would think that, wouldn't I.

For my youngest niece I cleaned up 2 Groovy Girls Miss B had decided to send to the charity shop. They are such lovely rag dolls, I do adore them. I cut up some blouses and summer dressed B had outgrown to make the dolls some new outfits - all with velcro fastenings to make it easy for toddlers to play. I had a bit of fleece left from making a heating pad for the guinea pigs so I whipped up a quick sleeping bag with integral pillow, and trimmed it with more of the dress fabric.

To finish, I sewed a draw string bag with a name label on it. In my experience kids LOVE personalised things.
I love the wonky typewriter stamps I use for names
Using some lovely Egyptian cotton that was a double duvet cover in its previous life, I made night dresses for my daughter and her cousin who is the same age. I trimmed the nighties and their overnight bags  with the pink rosebud material I made B's Laura Ingalls costume from, and appliqued each girl's initial on her nightdress and bag. I popped a small stuffed toy in that I'd picked up for 99p in a sale over the summer and ta da - a sleepover bag.

For my older niece I got her something to go with the book she fancied. She's very into wildlife and (thankfully) extremely non-girly so I made a tablet cover that looked like an owl for her. She got her initial on the back too. Having seen it, my son has decided he would like one too, so I need to get that done when I've finished the PJs and so on.

It took about an hour (mostly getting the size right as I'm mis-measured the first time) and I think it's pretty cool.

The other things I've made are for people who could conceivable read this blog, so I'll keep quiet until they're received them. 

I did not have a pattern for anything but the night dresses  - and even that I had to change quite a bit to make what I'd pictured in my head. Thinking the project through tiny stage by tiny stage until I've made the whole project in my head at least 3 times before I start work helps me feel confident about having a go at things I've not attempted before. 

Incidentally, I am definitely blaming the Laura Ingalls books for this burst of making and doing. Bonnie and I have reached By The Shores Of Silver Lake now, and the culture of making what you need rather than buying it must be infiltrating my thought processes.

Right, I'd better get back to work on the Christmas Eve pjs. I wish you and yours a very merry CHristmas,
J xx

Wednesday, 18 December 2013

Festive and Fabulous

Hello webby chums!

My daughter is fashioning the "number of nights until Christmas" out of blu-tack and sticking it next to her bed, the lads are 'just mentioning' how close it is at least twice a day and the tree is dominating the living room so much that we can't see each other on the couches past it. Everyone I meet seems to ask whether I'm ready for Christmas. I guess we're in the final stretch now.

I'm surrounded by presents to wrap, lists of jobs, chaos and pine needles. I don't mind a bit - Christmas may mean a lot of work but it also means Christmas food. Yum.

In my opinion the greatest of all Christmas food* is the mince pie. Some love the cake or pudding, others favour the chocolate oranges and bit tins of sweets. Mark loves the big roast dinner with all the trimmings but I'd be happy with pasta and a salad as long as I had plenty of mince pies.  I think they are worth a little bit of time. Not much in the face of the hours spent shopping, wrapping or writing cards, but more than slinging something into a trolley.

In my first years living here I used to go to a tiny bakery in Hyde Park, now long gone,  that used light pastry and veggie suet. I'd buy them by the half-gross and we'd still run out by Boxing Day. I don't like the stodgy pastry of supermarket mince pies, so I graduated to Jus Rol and a jar of mincemeat to assemble my own.  Then I learnt to make lovely pastry, thanks to a tutor at college.

That pastry left the jar of mincemeat looking outclassed, so I decided to raise my game. Three years ago I made my own mincemeat and BANG! that was it - my prefect mince pie.

I understand making your own mincemeat may sound a little bit mad, but I promise it isn't. We're not heading into Kirsty Allsop lunacy, I promise. It takes me 30 minutes at most to make enough to fill 8 jam jars full. Trust me, it's worth it. It's far nicer, you can tweak the flavours to your own palate and other than peeling and chopping 3 or 4 apples it's almost entirely effortless.

Apples - 2 large cooking apples or 3-4 regular eating apples
400g sultanas
400g raisins
400g mixed dried fruit - I suggest cranberries, cherries, apricots and prunes chopped as needed.
2 oranges
2 lemons
250g vegetarian suet
125g mixed peel
600g brown sugar
1tsp each ground cloves, cinnamon, freshly grated nutmeg

90ml brandy, cointreau or dark rum

Peel and chop the apples and either microwave or simmer in a small pan until softened into a puree. In a very large bowl, chuck all the dried fruit, suet, mixed peel, sugar and spices. Add the zest and juice of the oranges and lemons. Tip in the apple puree and the alcohol of your choice and mix until well combined.
Leave overnight for the flavours to mature. A week or two is even better, a year is also possible - just spoon it onto sterilised jars and seal.

A note on dried fruit -
Don't use currants. Well, do if you feel you must, but I can't recommend it. For my money they add nothing but grittiness to the mixture. Cherries and cranberries add a welcome sharper note, prunes make everything taste richer and more moist, and apricots work really well too.

*Stilton is for life, not just for Christmas. I thought I best clarify that.

Tuesday, 10 December 2013

A Tale of Two Cities - and neither was the right one.

Hello webby buddies!

Last Thursday I was going to Birmingham in preparation for Friday's Women In Radio event. Mark was coming home from London about 10pm, so Mum and Dad kindly offered to  drive over from North Wales to collect the kids from school and look after them in the interim. I booked my train tickets and a night in a capsule hotel. I researched things to do in Birmingham that evening and learnt the route from hotel to event.  I would arrive at the event rested, refreshed and prepared. Everything was organised.

And then came the weather.

Trains were disrupted heading to Scotland, my radio told me. My train was still going on time, claimed the mendacious National Rail Enquiries website. Ever the Girl Guide, I set off an hour early to compensate for bus disruption and a difficult walk across town. I arrived at Leeds station to find out my 12:11 train was running 10 minutes late, so I popped to the wonderful Laynes to grab a coffee.

Back at the station with 20 minutes until my train, I heard the annoucer say it was cancelled. 3 minutes later it was back on but delayed until 12:28. The 12:41. Then 12:52. Then cancelled.

By this time I'd acquired a retinue - an older lady going to her granddaughter's house, a young student going home to Northampton and a young Polish woman whose excellent English didn't extend to understanding platform announcements. Three of them had stood staring at the Departures board on the platform near me at the start, and during the various platform changes asked if they I could show them which one to stand on. We did the commuter version of The Grand Old Duke Of York - marching up and down the overhead concourse.

The beleaguered blokes at the information desk told us all to head to Manchester because they had trains running to Birmingham. One Manchester train was late and the next delayed 20 minutes. We were sardines in a slow moving tin, rerouted around a fallen tree and Dewsbury and waiting for a free platform outside Manchester. Those trying to get to the airport to catch flights were heading towards hysteria, the poor souls.

Upon arrival in Manchester Lena, Beena and Susan, my multi-generational girl band and I sought the next Birmingham train. Hurray, we would catch the delayed 14:07! Except we wouldn't. It was cancelled. As were the next four. There was a hope I could get a London train to Northampton (bye, Beena!) and head back up to Birmingham from there. However, reports were sketchy about trains from Northampton and I didn't want to get stranded too far away from both my destination and home.

News! Trains from Leeds were going to Birmingham now. We all piled onto the platform to head back the way we came. Then no, someone's friend in Leeds asked the station staff there and the rumour was quashed. Nothing was heading to the midlands for the next few hours.

"It's Cross Country," said the Transpenine staff. "All the other companies have given us some information about what's happening but Cross Country aren't keeping anyone informed. It's anyone's guess what's happening. There's nothing coming north of Birmingham and nothing from here north of Preston."

"Until  they tell us more, we're getting our information from the Departures board the same as the passengers," said the nice woman from Network Rail. "We know a tree fell on the overhead lines near Crewe and caught fire. But we have no idea how the clear up operation is going. They said up to a three hour delay when they got in touch at 2:15  p.m." This was at 5:15.

Yes, I had missed the last train to Birmingham by 10 minutes because of that re-routing around Dewsbury. Oh joys. But surely now the three hour window was up we'd get moving again? The 17:40 went on the Departures board and we all felt a surge of hope. With a few minutes to go that too was cancelled.

Those of us from Leeds were over 5 hours delayed by this time. The resigned expressions on our faces were starting to look strained.  I wondered how the station staff were faring. It couldn't have been an easy shift to work.

"If anyone gives me aggro today I'm off! So far people have been fine but you can see them getting more and more frustrated. I understand, but I'm frustrated too and I can't help them. It's been mad." That nice Network Rail woman was looking fed up.

"I thought there would be more argy bargy," the British Transport Policeman said, "but so far it's just been people looking fed up."
"And we can't blame them for that," his colleague chipped in, indicating the display of cancelled and delayed trains. "It's a nightmare."

Susan went to book a place on a coach. Lena did the same, but I saw her later. "Coaches are full," she said. "So is my hotel," said a woman nearby. "Wish I hadn't checked out this morning." 5 blokes decided to go in together on car hire. Several people were complaining loudly that when flights are this delayed they at least get cuppas and sandwiches.
I paid 30p to use the toilet. I begrudged it. It seemed small-minded to make stranded passengers pay for using the toilets when they were stuck in the station for 5 or 6 hours. The change machine swallowed my 50p and only spat 40p out. The bloke cleaning the loos bumped into the lady in front and all her bags went everywhere.

A group of men collecting for a charity for blind dogs approached passengers every few minutes. Not dogs for the blind, dogs who were themselves visually impaired. That is a very niche charity. The men remained undaunted by asking the same crowd of passengers that had been there for hours. Surely we'd be less likely to give to blind puppies the more we were badgered? Or perhaps they hoped we'd donate just to get the sticker to get them to stop asking.

I couldn't take it. I needed to get to Birmingham. I needed a sit down. I needed something other than an M&S sandwich and a cup of lousy coffee from a kiosk. I needed something good to happen.

I went to Sainsbury's to buy a bottle of water. On the end of the aisle were big boxes of chocolate biscuits at two for £5. If something good doesn't happen when you need it to, lateral thinking is the way to go. I bought 2 boxes and headed back to the concourse.

"My fellow passengers! I am having a lousy day. I've been stuck here for hours. I suspect most of you are having a lousy day too. In order to offer something nice in these trying circumstances, I have bought us all chocolate biscuits. Please take one and pass the box to your neighbour."

I actually got a cheer. A little one, but still. Those who didn't want chocolate biscuits (how can that happen?) still smiled and passed the boxes on. Small kids grabbed several before their mums could object and I grinned. It's hard being bored when you are small. Someone offered me his seat. Someone else came over to wish me luck on my journey.

With remaining biscuits I went to the station staff. The Transpenine blokes were delighted to have some. The Transport Police, though...

"No thanks, love. The wife's got me on that Dukan diet," said the first.
"It's Slimfast for me," said his partner. Two big tall men looking tough and gruff in true Northern Bloke fashion turning down biscuits because they are on fad diets; I couldn't quite suppress a grin.

By 6:15 my Network Rail woman told me, "Officially, I have no new information. Unofficially, give it up for today - from here at least. It might be better in Leeds." Obviously everything is better in Leeds, I thought loyally. And I took her advice.

When the next (delayed) train arrived for Leeds I got on and retraced the journey I'd made 6 hours before. Leeds station was much quieter than it had been in the morning, so I had a glimmer of hope that trains were running. But no. The display board still showed all trains to Birmingham as cancelled and the information kiosk staff were pessimistic.

"We could try sending you to Sheffield and then to Peterborough and see if you can get to Birmingham along that line but I can't guarantee it. Leeds to York, York to London, walk from Kings Cross to Euston and then Euston to Birmingham could work, but you might not make the last train from Euston to Birmingham and be stuck there. Just go home, love. Try again in the morning. I don't know about the 6 o'clock train but by the 8 o'clock train surely they'll be running."

The Women In Radio event started at 8:45am, meaning it was the 6 o'clock train or miss it. I felt ready to cry. Dad picked me up from the station and offered to drive me down early in the morning. I couldn't even express appropriate gratitude, so exhausted was I from all that fruitless waiting in Leeds - Manchester - Leeds. I was grubby, anxious and and so stressed about not getting to the event I was ready to explode. A message from my lovely mate Andy sent at 7pm offering to drive me to Birmingham reduced me to tears. Such a kind offer. Sadly it was gone 9:00 when I'd got back to Leeds to receive it.

Ironically, the travel disruption meant that Mark headed back from London on an earlier train than planned and got in at 9:40. "I'll drive you. Let me just grab a cuppa." There's a reason I love him so much.

So, 10 1/2 hours later than planned, 15 hours after I'd initially set off I arrived with Mark in Birmingham. A bit late to manage that early night, but who cares. BBC Women In Radio, I was ready and waiting.

Sunday, 8 December 2013

My name is Jay...

... and I am a caffeine addict.

Hello webby mates!

I have heaps and heaps to tell you but today I have to catch up on all sorts of jobs and Christmas preparation. I haven't even made any mince pies, for Pete's sake. I am off to rectify that right now.

However, I have been plagues with terrible headaches for the last couple of days. This morning I had my first decent strong cup of coffee since Thursday at 11am and POW! headache gone. I was in caffeine withdrawal.

Dear, lovely coffee. I promise never to stray so far from you again.
Jay x

P.S.  The BBC workshop was marvellous beyond my best hopes. I'll tell all when I have time to marshall my thoughts. And when I've stopped spinning about from excitement!

Wednesday, 4 December 2013

A quick catch up

Hello webby pals!

Sorry I've not posted for a few days. If I wasn't working I was asleep, which left little time for blogging. However, I've a spare half hour now and I thought I'd do a quick round up of the last week's events.

When I bake it is usually to order. People ring me up or email me, and agree what they want and for which date. All my cakes and biscuits are pre-sold, which means there is no wastage. With ingredient costs being so high at the moment, this is a definite advantage and allows me to work for a small profit whilst keeping my cakes as affordable as possible.

However, every year there is an exception to this business model: the school Christmas fair. I bake like a fiend and take a stall there, donating either a fee, a percentage of sales or raffle prizes like a Christmas cake to the PTA. I almost always sell out of cake. I enjoy that 2 hour stint of selling to the public, offering samples, chatting and persuading as best I can. It makes such a nice change from working alone in my kitchen with the radio for company.

Now that I have two kids in our local high school I thought I'd have a go at their school fair as well as my daughter's primary school. It is a bigger event which lasts longer, so I prepared proportionally more cake for it. Lots of cake. Lots and lots.

I did 20 chocolate gingerbread cakes, 35 boxes of Christmas cupcakes, a good stack of hot chocolate spoons, a couple of chocolate malteser cakes and a large iced Christmas cake to raffle off. All the decorations were hand made. Rolling tiny holly berries from red icing is a pretty tedious job, by the way. I'd not recommend doing more than 100 unless you have something really good on the radio to keep you occupied.  And the dratted sparkly glitter on them gets everywhere. Still, I like things to look and taste beautiful and beautiful takes time.

I spent 42 hours in the kitchen in all.
I couldn't manage a photo of the whole stall without getting my fed-up "why am I helping on a Saturday morning when I could be sleeping" son's face in the picture, and he prefers to remain anonymous at this stage, so here are 2 quick snaps of the display. The left side held most of my products in order that the right had space to let people fill in the raffle tickets.


Unfortunately, as well as 3 commercial cake stalls they'd booked, the high school had a PTA cake stall selling donated cakes and biscuits. Donated means they don't have to recoup ingredients cost, so they were priced accordingly. With about 1600 pupils across the primary and secondary campus, the PTA had many families to cajole into donating cake. I've never seen a stack of baked good so high in my life.  By the end they were selling them off at 50p for three cupcakes.

Hand crafted cakes made with butter, free range eggs, real vanilla and good quality chocolate cannot compete with that. People went for the pile 'em high, sell 'em cheap option on the whole, except those buying  for a gift. I sold very, very little - enough to recoup my ingredients cost, but not much more.

I sold some of the surplus to the deli and some friends. The chocolate ginger cakes would freeze, so they were fine. The rest I gave away (or we ate!) because all those hand made decorations would collapse if I tried to freeze them. It was a low moment.

Since then I did a day's work in the garden mending fences and mucking out the pets in the cold sunshine. That did wonders for clearing my head. In essence, I lost nothing but time last week. I can't get that back again, so why not kiss it good-bye and move on to things that are more productive. I shook off the disappointment and looks ahead. There was plenty to catch up on.

I've done a little more of the Christmas and birthday shopping, sorted out some paperwork, taught two clubs (glass painting and cake decorating respectively), tried to catch up on all the household chores I'd ignored while I was baking like a mad thing and spent some time relaxing with my kids.
Miss B and I finished reading On The Banks of Plum Creek and started By The Shores of Silver Lake. The Big Lad chose to cash in his reward for a half term of getting to school on time, so we all watched Despicable Me 2  together. There were cupcakes for dessert three nights in a row.  Not a bad few days, all things considered.

Now my focus is Friday's Women in Radio workshop. Eek. Thanks to my marvellous parents - coming over from North Wales to look after the kids while Mark travels back from London - I can go to Birmingham tomorrow afternoon, work out where everything is, potter around their Christmas Market or go to the movies and get up at a reasonable hour for the 8:45am start. I'm meeting a couple of the other attendees for a coffee before hand. From the little we've chatted on Twitter they seem lovely, so that should be a good start to the day.

I'm vacillating between excited and intimidated. Some of the other women who are going seem so professional and qualified. I've just got myself to offer. Yikes.I asked one of the BBC presenters who will be taking part what I should do to prepare. She says all I need is enthusiasm and questions.

I can do that. I've got loads. Wish me luck!
Jay x