Thursday, 13 November 2014

Robot invasion

Back in April I blogged about the wonderful March of the Robots events the kids and I had such fun attending.  This half term saw the climax of the year's festivities with a massive party, and we were first in the queue for tickets.

First of all we went to the chocolate robot workshop in the city centre.  We got a set of sweets each, a pot of melted chocolate to use as glue, a stir stick to apply it and a sheet of greaseproof paper on which to assemble our masterpieces.

There was an example on the table to follow, which looked pretty cute.  Never managing to resist the urge to jazz food up a bit, I gave it a face and sprayed it with the edible silver spray.

Now, we're not the sort of family to follow instructions if there's a chance to go our own way.  The facilitators were split - one kept telling us we were doing it wrong while the other was delighted that we threw ourselves into the activity with originality and enthusiasm. The kids filtered out the "umm, that's not how you do it," and preened at the praise.
Miss B made her Robo-Minnie-Mouse while Z went for something more like a cute version of the Bad Robot logo :

Luke and I both decided to make robots that could stand up. This involved a bit more frustration than initially hoped, and a lot of snapped mint Matchsticks.

Obviously the kids ate theirs the second they finished then divvied up mine between them.  I did snag a few cheeky mini Reeses peanut butter cups from the keen facilitator for myself though! 

Next we had a quick look for the little Cubebots hidden across the city centre.  I love these little fellows - they have a cute 50s vibe and I love the little LEDs inside that make them glow. Whenever we found a large Cubebot in a shop window we could go inside and claim a little Cubebot kit for myself. 

I'm a huge fan of Playful Leeds. I love the spirit of adventure and the willingness to gamble on an idea that motivates Emma and her team.  What kind of nutter decides to fill Leeds with 10,000 robots made by people of all ages and backgrounds? And then talks that idea up into funding and then reality?  My kind of nutter, that's who. And I want everyone else to throw himself into it too.

So, on our way through town I accosted anyone with a kid to say "Did you know you can make chocolate robots at a free activity for half term just over there? Your little 'un look just the right age to enjoy some building with chocolate." I tweeted about where we spotted the Cubebots and gave hints to anyone we saw clutching a Cubebot map. 

By the way,  one of the things I LOVE about my kids is that they're fine about having their mother do this stuff.  They are resigned that the downside of having a mum who finds out about all the cool stuff to do, is being there while that mum tells total strangers about it.  And buys the helpers coffees to say thanks.

After the Cubebot hunting we headed to the main event - the Minecraft party at the Leeds City Museum.  

What a party! It was a strange combination of very loud and rather quiet; excited movement and stillness (except for mouse clicks). A hall full of kids, tech and old school craft supplies all for one purpose - having fun. It was brilliant. 

In the centre of the room were tables full of kids playing Minecraft. Not a word from any of them - they were focussed on the  screen ahead.  

Around the perimeter were the activity stations - making Minecraft objects from Hama beads, cutting out and assembling Minecraft paper models, making masks, creating Doodlebots (if you hadn't done so in the Spring) or sewing with conductive thread to make quilt squares with LED lights.  This created the noise - kids chatting, laughing, shouting, showing off and asking questions. The combined impression was one of happy chaos.

The quilting woman, Hayley, very kindly let me have a go while the 3 kids were busy Minecrafting. It was remarkable stuff - as soft as flexible as normal thread. I'd love the chance to play with it again. However with my Works In Progress pile being as massive as it is, I daren't buy more supplies so I have managed not to click Buy It Now when I looked i up online.  It is Very Cool Indeed, though.

Thanks again, Leeds. You did your children proud

Sunday, 2 November 2014

Spice of life

I'm a lucky woman.  I live in a city I love and I know truly wonderful people. They are interesting and fun, they have a mass of knowledge I lack and - HURRAY - they are generous with it all.  Most importantly they respond positively to the question "Can you show me how?"

My lovely friend Sabrina (mother of Miss B's also very lovely friend A) seemingly thinks nothing of knocking up meals for 18 people arriving in 3 separate sittings as her extended family call in over the weekends. She told me she and her sister-in-law used to churn out 80 chapatis twice a day when she lived in her in-laws' house. I was agog.

I've never really got to grips with Indian food. If we eat it, it comes from a jar, an insta-dinner or a takeaway. I'm more Italianate than sub-continental.  Sabrina generously agreed to teach me one afternoon.

I'll say now - she spoilt me rotten.  I'd had an accident with the bread knife the week before and had only just removed my bandage. Sabrina was concerned it might be uncomfortable for me so she'd acted as commis chef and done all the preparation.  Everything was sliced, peeled, chopped or otherwise ready to go.  It was brilliant.

Here's what I learnt:

It all starts with garlic and ginger. A full bulb of garlic, peeled, and a lump of fresh ginger half the size of my palm blitzed together into a lumpy paste -
This lives in a sealed jar in the fridge to be used as needed.

To get the curry underway, we fry chopped onions in vegetable oil.  Where I'd have gone slow and used olive oil for most meals I eat, Sabrina had the temperature much higher and cooked them until they were starting to caramelise.  

Once the onions have a fair bit of colour, a heaped tablespoon/serving spoon of the garlic and ginger paste goes in.  Cook that for a good 2 or 3 minutes.  Then the pretty bit -
Doesn't that look gorgeous?

So, a good teaspoon of turmeric (the central one) and 1 to 4 teaspoons of the chilli powder (at 12 o'clock) depending on taste. We love a bit of heat, so went for 3 teaspoons. A generous teaspoon of Basaar mix (at 3 o'clock) and a spoon or two of the seed mix, panch puran (at about half five)

Basaar spice mix is a Kashmiri spice blend.  Panch puran is an Indian - or Bengali - 5 seed mix.  There are mustard, fennel, onion (or possibly nigella?), cumin and we *think* fenugreek. Sabrina regards it as essential.  She also says she gives the kids the little black seeds - the ones we couldn't decide on as nigella or onion seeds - on a cold day to warm them from inside.

As soon as they hit the pan they the smell was AMAZING.

Sabrina says it is very important to cook the spices before adding the tomatoes. We stirred things around for a minute or two, then in went masses of chopped fresh tomatoes.
 The mix cooked at a high temperature for a good long while with the lid off, to get rid of excess water.
Isn't that starting to look good?  For the vegetable curry, that's all the cooking the sauce needs. If we were adding meat we'd have cooked it still further. For fish, we'd have cooked it down to a much thicker sauce and pureed it smooth before coating the fish in it and cooking slowly with yogurt.

However, with vegetables a bit of texture from the tomatoes is fine.

We tipped in a mass of fresh chopped carrots, courgettes, cauliflower and some frozen peas.  We could have gone for just cauli and potato to make aloo gobi, but we had for a broad mix.   We stirred thoroughly and covered the pan while the veg cooked through.

To serve, we made chapatis.  Sabrina kept an almost straight face as she watched me attempt to make these quick flatbreads.  First, she suggested I roll each lump of dough into a ball inside the flour drum, to keep from getting too sticky.  Then roll it out thin or slap it from hand to hand until it is a very thin round (ish) shape.  Slap it on a VERY hot dry pan, flip it over to cook the other side, and put on one side while you do the next one.  She can do two at once.  I could barely manage one at a time, but I had a great laugh trying.

 Not exactly a great looking chapati, is it!

I made 6 in all. I was very proud.

We topped the curry with chopped fresh mint and coriander. It was a delicious lunch - veg curry, chapatis and fresh thick yogurt to subdue the heat. I've never cooked a curry half as good.

I did take a picture of Sabrina while she was cooking, but her scarf had slipped back so that would be impolite.  If you picture a pair of women standing at the hob, one rather quiet, gorgeous and wearing a beautiful headscarf and dress and yet not splashing any food on them,  the other one much more expansive and wearing an apron with damp handprints and plenty of spice stains on, and both are talking and laughing, you've pretty much got us.  
It was a fantastic afternoon.  I'm so looking forward to making more of Sabrina's curries for the family. Saturday night 'round at mine, everyone?

Monday, 27 October 2014

Happy hipsters

People love to hate whatever tribe the newspapers identify, don't they.  In the 80s I remember them mocking Yuppies, and Sloane Rangers. Without thinking hard about it, I remember articles mocking: Gen Xers, slackers, New Age Travellers, eco-warriers, Yummy Mummies and MAMILs. Currently there are hipsters.

Oh, how everyone loves to hate hipsters. Look at them, with their turned up skinny jeans and daft facial hair. At least one status in my Facebook feed each day is slagging them off.

I love them.  I think they're great. I like the check shirts - they remind me of what kids wore when I was growing up in Ontario. I like the coloured trousers. I like their massive beards.  I like that they aren't wearing the usual boring clothes blokes wear - suits or jeans and dull or 'amusing' T shirts. I like high top sneakers, work boots, down jackets and I have a deep and abiding love of hats...

Hell, hipsters are all about some of my favourite things. That comfy lumberjack look of my Canadian childhood with Grizzly Adams's beard and a deep and abiding love of coffee. And ideally a MacBook Air.

Sunday, 26 October 2014

Brunch for superstars

It's half term here in Yorkshire. The concept of half term confused me when I first moved here from Canada - only 6 weeks of school and already a holiday?  2 weeks as well at Christmas and Easter? Geez, those Brit kids are lucky slackers.  But then I realised to my horror that their summer break was only 6 weeks long. Shudder.  For someone used to 10 week summers entirely free from the drudgery of homework and classrooms it seemed cruel. How could you feel properly free with school looming over you.

Anyway, here the terms are about 12 weeks long, give or take. Six weeks then a week off in October, February and late May, then the rest of term until Christmas, Easter or late July sets them free again.  Once I got used to it I rather liked the rhythm of it. As a parent I love it - regular holiday time with the kids, able to relax and enjoy their company. I'd far rather have them here than in school.

One of the pleasures of the start of the holidays is feeling at leisure. We don't have to cram as much into a weekend, so we can have a lazy breakfast of French toast or eggs and sausages. I fancied making something new to start our languorous start of GMT - the best part of British Summer Time coming to an end. I'd seen a recipe on The Guardian's website called Breakfast of Champions: Rosa Parks' Peanut Butter Pancakes.

Discovered written on an envelope amongst the civil rights heroine's papers, it combined lots of things we love in our house. Pancakes! Easy recipes! Peanut butter!  What's not to totally love?

NB - peanut butter is wonderful stuff.  I don't mean the healthy, wholefood stuff; I want Skippy, the vastly processed peanut butter I'd had a kid. I never understand why so many people in the UK are resistant to it.  Or even worse  - spread butter on the bread before the peanut butter.  Seriously, that can happen.  My in-laws were awful for doing it and it took years for them to drop the habit.  It's like eating pizza with a knife and fork.

The recipe calls for 150g of plain flour, 2 tbs of baking powder, 2 tbs of sugar and a bit of salt to be sifted into a bowl.  In a jug, beat together 1 egg, 100g smooth peanut butter and 300ml of milk.  Because peanut butter is gloopy and milk isn't, I beat the PB and the egg together into a slack-ish liquid before stirring the milk in. They combined really well, and my concerns of blobs of PB floating in a jug of milk were unfounded.

Anyway, mix wet ingredients into dry and let sit on one side for 10 minutes.  Then fry blobs of batter in butter to make small American style pancakes.  I used a serving spoon as a measure and got nearly 20 pancakes.

They were LOVELY.  Miss B went for the traditional PB&J approach and spread them with raspberry jam.  Zach, Mark and I went for maple syrup.  I'd have sliced banana on them if we'd had any to hand.  I know from experience that peanut butter and sliced banana go beautifully on French toast, so I'm sure it would be ace.

Luke... well, Luke marches to the beat of his own drum. Lemon curd is his favourite spread by far.  Rather than branch out, he insisted his lemon curd/peanut butter pancake combination was delicious. However, he didn't join the others in mithering for extras. I think he'll opt for chocolate spread when I make them next time.

Once we'd finished all the pancakes we all headed outside to get the garden ready for winter.  The kids were absolute stars - helping with weeding, pruning, lawn mowing and clearing up. I cleared out and scrubbed down the polytunnel and did the winter sowing while Mark and the kids cleared the raised beds, top dressed the currant patch and netted off the veg beds from cats.  A lovely big empty raised bed looks suspiciously like a litter tray to the local mogs, so we need to keep them out.

Laundry done, shopping sorted, cakes in the oven and the early sunset definitely noticeable, we're feeling all tucked in and cosy.  It's a nice way to welcome Autumn in.

Thursday, 23 October 2014

Looking for the bright spots

It's important to have something to look forward to, I find, particularly at this time of year.

Spring is easy. The willow tree in my garden goes from bare branches to a yellowish blurring of outlines to a pale green fuzz and then proper leaves. Each stage has me looking towards the next, and the new buds are just so hopeful and full of promise. I know which neighbours have the early blossoming trees in their gardens and which patches of my own will produce flowers next.  It's much easier to feel good about the world when the days are lengthening and the world is coming back to life.

Summer - well, that all depends on the weather.  A decent bit of warmth and sunshine and I think my cup runneth over. There are vegetables to sow and tend, fruit growing on my trees, and long evenings sitting outside chatting.

Autumn and winter are hard going.  I like the quality of light on sunny autumnal days, with that crisp feel to the air and strangely comforting smell of dead leaves.  I love snow, and loads of it.  But the dark days, the dampness so much a part of this climate and the way the world is painted in a palette of mud tones and grey  - it's a tough gig.

So, things to look forward to is my coping strategy.

My best and most reliable thing to look forward to is my annual ballet weekend with my Very Excellent Mate Bon.  She's my mate of longest standing in the UK - the first friend I made when I moved here and the only schoolfriend apart from Mark I kept in touch with.  The third weekend in January is our usual date but Matthew Bourne's production of Edward Scissorhands finishes early this season, so we're moving it forward a week.  I have never yet had a less than lovely time (except when I was 37 weeks pregnant with Miss B and in terrible pain, but that wasn't anyone else's fault.)

I'm browsing hotels for it already and will be able to book my train seats next week.

I am also looking forward to another Matthew Bourne ballet - Lord of the Flies. Luke and I are going together in early December. He studied it for English Lit last year and is keen to see it. I love that my son is interested in all forms of story telling, not just movies or games.  We share a lot of films, books, graphic novels and radio programmes together, and it's brilliant. Luke is great company and has an original perspective on things.  I am VERY much looking forward to our outing.

Back in early September when East Coast Rail were having a lightning sale I booked train tickets for Miss B and I to go to London together on our own.  That's coming up in a month. The plan is to ride the London Eye - which the lads have done but B hasn't - and do everything B is interested in.  I expect sweets and toys may be involved. We'll have 5 hours on the train to chat and play and make plans, or reflect on all we've done - and I do love travelling by train. We'll have a brilliant day, and it will be ace to watch her discover her London. I already know the lads' London, and my own.

I am also very much looking forward to one particular aspect of Christmas.  I think getting the tree, decorating it and then putting While You Were Sleeping on while I wrap presents in front of it is my all-time favourite part of Christmas.  It's that smell. The pine needles may shed and it can be a faff getting the thing upright in the stand, but a real tree is pretty much as good as the festive season can get.  Each decoration is an old friend - some made by Mum and me when I was a kid, some by our kids when they were little, some reminders of trips or events in our lives.  And lavish amounts of tinsel. And red or silver baubles.  I can picture it in my head now and it's fabulous.

The soonest thing I am looking forward to is Sunday, November 2nd at 7pm.  At that time my lovely Z will get home from his week-long trip to Germany with Youth Club.  He'll be tired out and bursting with all the stories of what he saw and who he met. The house will have all its people home again. I will sit on the couch, probably sharing take away pizza with everyone and listening to Z share all his enthusiasm and pleasure in new things with us while his brother and sister try to talk over him. And it will be brilliant.

Sunday, 19 October 2014

Wide Awake

"I am wide awake"

It's 1 am. Mark and the kids are in bed. I'm doing the last round of chores - folding the stuff from the dryer, putting another load in the washer, feeding the pets, loading the dishwasher, locking the doors. You know, the usual night time stuff.

I'd made fish cakes for the kids today. I bought lots of coley and a small piece of smoked haddock, poached them in milk while I peeled, cut and boiled spuds. I mashed the fish and spuds together with an egg to bind it, formed it into patties and dipped them in flour, whisked egg white and matzo meal before frying them. I'd made Grandma Curl's potato salad, complete with finely diced boiled egg, green pepper and onion. Mark and I were having fresh mackerel fillets but, knowing the kids didn't like them, I bought ingredients and made a replacement.

This lead to a total hissy fit from two of my kids.  OK, they didn't like the fishcakes, fair enough. I won't make them for them again. But today it is the dinner. Today it's what they need to eat, even if it's just a very small portion.  Because this isn't a restaurant and you can't order a different meal if you don't like the first one. That's it until breakfast.
(If they have a good go and eat a fair bit, we do offer a piece of toast to fill them up a bit more, but not if they've just had a tantrum. You can judge my parenting if you like.)

Miss B tried to negotiate for a good hour - "I've had a mouthful and that's enough." In the end she was sent to bed after scraping her dinner into the bin.  She'd been really rude to us and we decided it was better she not be with other people for a bit.

This was not the punishment it might otherwise have been. For a week-long trial our guinea pigs, Snowy and Pippin, are moving inside to B's room. The cage is clean, I sewed fleece pads to line it and  B tidied her room ready. I bathed the guinea pigs and treated them for fleas just in case, and filled their dangling feeder ball with fresh veg and fruit. The guinea pigs were running around exploring their new environment. B would have gone up to her room anyway rather than join the rest of us laughing at The Apprentice on iPlayer.

As usual, I popped in to check on her in the evening. She was fast asleep, but as I leant over to turn off her light she muttered "I'm not asleep at all," before drifting back to light snores.

So, at 1 a.m. when I'm finally going to bed I opened her door. It's a bit stiff and made a noise as it opened. (We have to keep it firmly shut or Isaac the cat barges it open, wakes B and generally is disruptive.)

At the sound, Miss B called out "I am wide awake," in the voice of someone very asleep. I put my hand on her hair, which usually settles her right back again.

"I am wide awake," she murmured again. "It's ok, go to sleep, sweetheart."  "Oh, are you wide awake, Mummy?" she asked, rolling further under the duvet, "that's OK then."
And back to sleep.

I have no idea why it was so important B claimed to be awake. Maybe the ignominy of being sent to her room 45 minutes before her actual bedtime made her think she was determined not to go to sleep. Maybe the novelty of guinea pigs in her room made her want to stay up.

Whatever it was, the fact that I was "wide awake" meant she didn't have to be.
Sweet dreams, my stubborn girl.

Tuesday, 7 October 2014

Mellow Fruitfulness

Ah, Keats.   Of all the poems I learnt at school, Ode to Autumn is the only one strangers quote t me. There is something about going for a walk and coming across someone picking elderberries or sloes in the hedgerows that seems to compel ramblers of a certain age to say "season of mists and mellow fruitfulness." Every time. Seriously, it happens every single time.

It's a corker of a line, of course. In fact, I like the whole first stanza -

SEASON of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eaves run;
To bend with apples the moss'd cottage-trees,         5
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease;  10
For Summer has o'erbrimm'd their clammy cells.

The apple and pear trees have been wonderful this autumn. I've had crisp, sweet Discovery apples from the cheap little tree from Costco we planted 18 months ago.  There were two freakishly large Red Delicious apples, each as big as a baby's head, from a cordon tree SJ gave us. I can't bring myself to eat them, they're just too ridiculous. Miss B's apple tree has had a less successful year but after last year's bumper crop probably needed the break.

For the first time our little pear tree has been properly productive. Up until this year it's lost most of its fruit before they'd ripened. I've been plucking ripe pears from the branches for a nearly a month - I must have had at least 15, which is good going for such a small tree. They are so much nicer than any pears I've had before, but I suspect that's sentimentalism on my part.

This week my lovely pal Suzanne took me to visit our friends Jo, Ang and Lucy for a visit of walking, sloe picking and a big shared lunch. Lucy is a keen walker and cyclist. When she said there were blackthorn bushes 'near' her house, I hadn't realised she meant a 4.5 mile round trip rather than a gentle stroll along the lane. However, it was a beautiful sunny day, the company was good and the sloes plentiful. It was a lovely day, the kind I will look back on to keep me going during the dark winter days.

People say things like "wait until the after the first frost" to pick sloes, but that's rubbish. Most years, by the time we have a frost the sloes have been eaten by the birds, picked by foragers quicker off the mark, or have wizened on the bush. The frost breaks down the cell structure, which is helpful for making sloe gin. I guess that was pretty useful in times past.

However, we don't live in the 18th century.  We have freezers.  Bobbing your freshly picked sloes in the freezer for a couple of days does a fine job of rupturing the cell structures, with the added bonus of killing off any unwanted passengers.

After picking over the frozen sloes for stalks, leaves or deceased insects,  I poured 1kg of them into a 2 litre Kilner jar. In went just over a litre of gin and 200g of sugar.  Traditional recipes call for a lot more sugar, but I don't like it too syrupy, and I'd rather add more sugar later than end up with something tooth-dissolving.

I've left the jar on the counter this week so I remember to shake it every day. in about a fortnight I'll banish it to the cupboard under the stairs until near Christmas.  Then I'll test the sweetness, adjust as needed, and leave a while longer.

The other autumnal thing I did this weekend was roasting 2 large butternut squashes for soup. I just hack them into big slices or wedges, skin on, and rub a little olive oil across them. Then I bang them in the oven for about an hour.

I pull them out when they are all soft and look like this -

Cooled, rinds removed and whizzed up with stock and pepper, they become pretty much my favourite fall lunch.  That's why I make such a lot at once - I will eat it for days given a chance!

Monday, 29 September 2014

Festival goer

Massive crowds, long queues for portaloos, a everyone there a massive fan: festivals are as much a fixture of the year as Wimbledon or the Proms. But you can keep for Glastonburys and your Reading festivals; the one for me is Yarndale.

Last year I blogged about the first ever festival of all things woolly and yarn-related in the beautiful Yorkshire town of Skipton. This year, the team of 5 behind the event learnt from last year's successes and glitches to stage a show that was bigger, better organised and still remained incredibly friendly and welcoming.

My Very Excellent Mate Rachel and I went to Skipton by train, then caught the courtesy bus to the show grounds. The lovely old Routemaster with its jaunty bunting was a lovely way to travel.   As we pulled up and saw the queues to get in, I felt a little smug about buying tickets in advance so we could just saunter past them all.

Our carriage approaches!
About 100 yards of people queueing
Last year's bunting filled the halls and decorated a cafe area, but the wall of crocheted mandalas sent in by over 1100 fans of the Attic 24 blog was the eye-catching exhibit this year. They were fantastic. I wish I could have shown you them all but my photo of them turned out blurry - I guess I was jostled as I took it.  I guess that shouldn't be a surprise to me. For the first 3 hours we didn't so much walk around the displays as get swept along by the tide of people cramming the venue to bursting.

The problems of last year - not enough toilet facilities, nowhere near enough catering, nowhere to sit - were much improved. Lots of portaloos, a new large cafe area and some stall spaces left empty except for chairs so there was a place to sit and eat sandwiches or just rest aching feet. 
Rach said it was crucial we had tea and cake at some point during the day. We passed so many little cafes and tea shops on the bus up to the grounds, but knew they'd be closed by the time we left the festival. Despite her intentions, when we got to the front of the cafe queue in the venue itself it was the locally made pork pies that had her waxing lyrical. It was one of those "didn't know you'd missed them until you had them again" moments - a proper, hand made pork pie with wonderful pastry.
(I'm taking her word for it. I don't eat meat. The custard tart was nice, though)

One of my favourite things about Yarndale is how lovely the people are. A stallholder called Jo taught me how to crochet without needing a foundation chain. That will mean nothing to most of you but to me it means I can tackle loads of projects I'd shied away from because I am RUBBISH at foundation chain crochet. I am very grateful to Jo for taking 5 minutes to show me until I understood how to do it myself.
I bumped into the teacher of my NCT antenatal class from 15 years ago, a woman I took sugar craft courses alongside and a former neighbour.  we hailed each other like long lost mates, all caught up in the friendliness and enthusiasm of the day.

Jo Speckley from the lovely Baa Ram Ewe spent ages with Rachel helping her choose the ideal yarns for a very gorgeous and adventurous scarf. Rach now knows precisely what she wants for Christmas from her family. I love the colours of the Titus yarns nearly as much as I love the names - eccup, chevin, aire...

While Rach shopped, I did a workshop on advanced crochet booked months ago. Finding myself rows and rows behind the others in the the workshop after 10 minutes, I had an urge to scuttle out in embarrassment. I wasn't a complete beginner but perhaps trying 'advanced' was sheer chutzpah on my part.  However,  it wouldn't be in keeping with the spirit of Fearlessly Attempting things to give up. I was clearly the duffer of the bunch but with perseverance I learnt some fab new stitches and feel confident I could do them again. 
What was particularly lovely was the effort and thoughtfulness of the tutor, Maureen, in hand-making each one of us a Work in Progress bag to keep the project in - complete with french seams, beaded drawstring and a little lavender sachet to stop our yarn getting musty. The bags had yarn, patterns and a crochet hook in as well. It was fab of her. 

When we met up again, Rach took me to a stall with knitted knickers as bunting and a fantastic pair of fingerless gloves with 'tattoos' on them. I also loved the shawl/scarf in bright triangles. Fellow Yarndale fans on Facebook tell me it's a pattern called Wingspan. I'd love to try it.

I loved this collection of tiny needle-felted birds that charmed all my kids when they saw the photo. That small lad's hand reaching out to them on the photo was typical - no one could resist touching them.

Actually, that's another striking aspect of the day. It's a tactile overload. The yards were so soft or luxurious or scratchy - we shopped by feel just as much as by eye. Some of the fine carded wool was so soft and snuggly you longed to surround yourself in it and fall asleep - what a cloud would feel like if dreamt by a child. I bought some beautiful and very expensive merino and silk mix yarn in lace weight (that means very fine) as a present for Mark's mum. She wanted to make a shawl and asked me to keep an eye out for something special.  It felt so lovely it almost seems a shame to do anything other than stroke it. I think it will knit up beautifully.

For myself I bought a much cheaper yarn to attempt a crochet pattern I admired and a kit to make a hooked rug Christmas stocking from Hooked By Design. I'd admired the kits she had last year but had run out of money. I was determined to keep enough cash on one side to buy one this year. I also picked up a pleasingly dinky tin of pins from The Stitch Society. Their gorgeous attention to detail in packaging and a shared dislike for cutesy embellishments had Rachel and I hankering after most of their stuff. Some teal merino and silk yarn from the Mrs Moon stall was to die for, but they hadn't got it in stock, only made up in a shawl on their display.

It's a good job Yarndale works on cash only - I spent all I'd brought right down to my last £1. Had I been able to use a credit card we'd have needed a new mortgage to cover it.

Obviously it would be madness to go to Yarndale and not say hi to Lucy from Attic 24. It must be weird to find yourself such a celebrity at the event you've organised. There was a queue to speak to her some of the time.  Every time we passed the Knit and Natter lounge I could see she was surrounded by people. She was friendly, welcoming and interested in people. I expect she'll sleep for a month and be a hermit to recover after such intense socialising. It must be absolutely exhausting.

 Rachel and I stayed at Yarndale to the very end. Then we walked back to Skipton along the Yarn Walk in the evening sunshine, charmed by wild rabbits grazing, a hot air balloon drifting though the trees and a park decked out with bunting, yarn-bombed bikes and lampposts, and brightly crocheted signs.

See you next year, Yarndale!

Monday, 22 September 2014

Water Works

While the kids were in the Costa del Sol with their cousins, Mark and I had 8 days to ourselves. We could go out every night! We could have parties! We could watch the telly with the volume up after bedtime!

Instead, we built a pond.

Our garden is very long for an urban semi. This means we need to make things quite large to keep them proportionate. It also floods when we get heavy rain - damn that Yorkshire clay. Our former neighbour built a small pond in her garden that spread across the paved area every time it rained, which looked ridiculous and would hardly be good for fish or wildlife.

Therefore we needed a large raised pond.  The easiest way to have sturdy sides is to use railway sleepers. They require a lot less skill than building with brick or breeze block, they look good and they are pretty quick to build with.
The space to clear

Currently occupied by a fire pit, now partly disassembled

However, before we could build up, we needed to clear the space and dig down.  I cannot fully express how much we loathe digging. A square metre of sticky waterlogged clay is utterly exhausting to excavate.  But help was at hand - my Very Excellent Mate Cally most fortuitously married a madman who runs up mountains for fun and likes digging.  We dismantled the climbing frame (complete with labelling and photos as a primer so he could rebuild it for their 5 year old) in return for the lovely Seth digging for a day.

And dig he did.
With Seth digging, Mark barrowing the clay to the skip and me travelling by train to Manchester Airport and back to drop the lads with my parents in time for their flight, we had the pond footprint ready by nightfall. (I know the pond didn't require my trip to the airport but it was still a long day and I want to feel like I was involved.)  The skip was very full indeed.

After just 3 hours! Loads more to come
The following day Mark and I spent a fair bit of time laying the timber out to establish which order, orientation and sequence we wanted the finished timber frame to have. Then we built the first layer of the railway sleeper box and barrowed in loads of sand to the site. We spent just A G E S getting the thing level. Checking levels, moving sand about, tamping down, checking levels, move minuscule amounts of sand from one end to the other, check again. And again. I've never spent so much of a day peering at a spirit level in my life.

The timber we used wasn't actually reclaimed sleepers. We'd used old sleepers in our previous garden and found them gut-wrenchingly heavy and extremely hard to cut. Instead we were using new pressure treated, stained timber which was lighter, cheaper and easier to handle.

Once the first layer was complete we cracked on with the second. It was secured to the first layer by the longest wood screws I've ever seen. They must have been over a foot long.

Obviously I kept checking the levels were OK. I had spirit level fever - I'm sure Mark was rolling his eyes at me when my back was turned as I insisted on checking and rechecking each stage.

That night it rained. The weather had become very cold for August - only 10 degrees. Bother. Had it rained the next night instead it might have helped us fill the pond. As it was I needed to get into that deep muddy hole and bail the water out before we could proceed. It was an unstable surface of sucking mud, it was cold and I was not having any fun. 

After taking all the water out of a hole I planned to fill with water later, I needed to line the pond base with sand. This was to make doubly sure there were not stones or sharp edges to puncture the pond liner under the weight of all the water.  I barrowed, tipped, raked and tamped in the cold morning while Mark dug a trench to bury the electrical cable we'd need to power the pump.  His trench was filling up with water pouring in from under our shed and the neighbour's garden as fast as he could dig. Good job the cable would be protected in some conduit pipe.

By late morning the pond had a layer of sand and was ready to be carpeted.

Carpeting the garden is an odd experience.  It wasn't precisely carpet, more a blanket, but it needed to cover every last bit of the pond and up the sides.  This underlay was made from recycled material needle-felted into massive sheets. Where there was an edge or potentially awkward bit I used several layers as a cushion - for example, where we'd put a paving slab on the upper shelf to prevent a fragile edge from crumbling. I didn't want the edges pf the paving slab to rub against the liner.

Once the pond and edges were covered, I put the liner in.  Poor Mark; I'm a dictatorial rotter at times. I'd pictured doing the job in my head a few times to think about which way to install the 8m by 6m liner as easily as possible, tweaking my approach until I thought it would be pretty easy, then was exasperated with him because he couldn't see into my head to follow my instructions. However, we unfolded the liner and I got to work fitting it to the awkward shape as best I could.

When we paused for lunch I sent time googling how to fit a 2d liner neatly into a 3d shape with sharp corners on more than one plane at a time.  Eventually I found a website that referred to it - "Flexible liners are extremely easy to fit, unless you are building a formal pond with right angles. Then it becomes very difficult and a rigid liner is a simpler choice."
How unhelpful.

Once the initial liner is approximately in place, you are supposed to fill it with water and straighten out the liner as you go, using the weight of the water to hold it in place.

Can I just reiterate the part about it being 10 degrees Celsius? TEN. Cloudy, breezy, occasionally drizzly and 10 degrees.  Guess which lucky soul got the standing-in-freezing-water job?

So there I was in my swimsuit and a T shirt, trying to smooth out the liner at the bottom of the deep end. The previous night's rain made that deep end a mire that the sand and underlay only partially helped to stabilise, so as I moved around the ground was shifting about underneath me spoiling the bit of liner I'd just smoothed.  I had a very cold an frustrating afternoon.

Once I got out I found I couldn't force myself to get back in again. It took 2 1/2 hours to get the feeling back in my toes.  Discretion was the better part of valour and I called it quits for the day.
Yet again it rained overnight.  Mark's trench -  and the soggy area around it he'd dug out to fill with hardcore - filled up as water poured in from the neighbour's very-slightly-higher garden. It was now a waterway about a food deep.
This is not supposed to be the pond
He bailed and dug, I clambered back in the actual, intended pond and returned to smoothing the liner out. It was a lot of pulling, stretching, folding and then making exasperated noises but eventually the liner was as straight as I could make it, the folds were stuck down with pond tape and the pond itself was 3/4 full.
It was blessedly sunny all afternoon. Sitting in what was essentially a giant paddling pool in my swimsuit felt like an indulgence. No risk of hypothermia - indeed I caught the sun on my shoulders a bit. Definitely the most fun of the whole project. I needed to let the liner settle overnight before trimming it, so we move on to the electrics.
Mark and I fed the cabling through the flexible conduit and from the shed floor out alone the deep trough to the deck, where he secured it to the frame underneath the deck and to the junction box.  

The next day I folded and pleated the top of the pond liner to be as flat as I could get it and Mark knocked a few tacks in to hold it in place.  Then we were able to start on the capping boards.  These were to be laid flat on their broad side so we could sit on them rather than stacked on their edges. We manoeuvred them into place, pre-drilling some of the holes that would be inaccessible against the fence once they were in place, and screwed them securely to the rest of the frame.
Getting started on the capping level
Just the waterfall wall to build
 To build the water feature, Mark chiseled out a gully in the top of a short piece of timber and slotted the fountainhead in it. We extended the extra height around the corner a bit to give it a more finished look and topped that L shape with flat capping pieces to match the rest of the pond.

We popped to the rather astonishing Pike's Waterlillies in Garforth to pick up a few plants to get us started off. That remarkable business is down a long, rough farm track which ends at a slightly chaotic looking yard and a rather dilapidated house. Chickens and a dog came to investigate us as we got out of the car. There was a scruffy looking long green house filled with big bathtubs of plants.  To the side of the farm buildings were two massive ponds - almost lakes - completely covered in flowering waterlilies. I've never seen anything like it. Mark said the buildings looked like somewhere the serial killer stored heads in a crime drama, which looked incongruous next to the amazing display of waterlilies and bulrushes.

The bloke was very helpful and informative (and nothing like a serial killer). We chose some rushes - both dwarf and full size - and a deep pink waterlily as well as a pile of oxygenating plants.  To fetch the latter, he pulled on some waders and headed into one of the lakes to yank up a potful.
We only got a few plants because we were conscious of rising costs and that with luck the rushes would spread in the spring. We can afford to bide our time getting the pond established.

With a few plants and the pond wired for lights and water feature, we were all set for the kids to return home from Spain.

Ta Da!

Illuminated rill

The view from the deck as I have my cuppa
Since those photos were taken I've built an exit ramp of river stones into the corner against the fence and the deck railing so any beasties falling in can clamber out again. I used 2 upturned crates to make a shallow shelf. I put some transplanted dwarf rushes on the new shelf and covered any visible bits with the stones. Then I piled more stones in a slope from the shelf up to the capping sleeper.

We've added a couple more plants donated by my good friend Andy and introduced a few fish now  the water has had a few weeks to settle in.  They're busy scoffing the bugs and larvae whilst keeping out of reach of the cats' paws. Ferris Mewler and Isaac Mewton are VERY interested in the new occupants!

Come next spring we'll add more waterlilies and hope all the plants grow and spread.  As the pond is south facing and isn't obscured by any trees we hope for loads and loads of waterlily flowers.

Saturday, 20 September 2014

Please sir, may I have S'more?

Last night, having broken Sober September for a bottle of prosecco, I rashly agreed my middle child could have two mates for a sleepover tonight. Discovering this heinous betrayal this morning, Miss B was incandescent with outrage. "He has sleepovers ALL THE TIME. That's SO unfair!" She has a point - some weekends we barely see Zach for sleepovers, or his room is filled with sleeping bags.

As it turned out, one of his mates couldn't come. But the other could - the one whose younger sister is a big mate of Miss B's. At a stroke I could make her happy and give my lovely mates Kirsty and John a child-free night. So I did.

A chance comment of B's reminded me I had nothing in for snacks.  I had foolishly established a 'Midnight Feast' tradition for sleepovers many years back.  That translates to snacks in bed  - usually eaten within 10 minutes of bedtime rather than late at night - and is a crucial part of the fun of a sleepover.

It's raining. I'm wearing not-suitable-for-viewing-by-other-humans clothing (old stained T shirt, long comfy skirt in jersey, no bra because I hate the uncomfortable things). I've been doing stuff in the kitchen, so the Tshirt is more water and ingredient splattered than normal. I am NOT popping to the shops.  So I rooted around in the kitchen and online for ingredients and inspiration respectively.

I decided to try a bar tray bake based on S'mores.  The recipe I saw was here. But I don't have graham crackers, I don't have digestive biscuits (the usual UK replacement) and I repeat I am NOT popping to the shops in this outfit. Or in this rain. Heck, I don't have chocolate chips either (used them all up earlier in the week) but I have a bar of chocolate I can smash up.

My kids love shortbread. I figured shortbread was worth trying as a graham cracker replacement. It works for millionaire's shortbread and at least one of my offspring thinks that's the pinnacle of baking. Here's the recipe I usually use :

  • 250g butter
  • 125g caster sugar
  • 50g corn flour
  • 200g plain flour
Cream the butter and sugar until nearly white, add the cornflour and plain flour and combine thoroughly.  

You can use damp hands to roll it into balls and squash them into biscuits, form it into a sausage wrapped in cling film and popped in the fridge until you slice circles off to bake as and when, mix in chocolate chips or fruit zest or poppy seeds and make flavoured biscuits. Or, in this case, press the dough into the base of a lined tray. mid was 23cm square (9 inches in old money)

Bake at 180 until done - usually about 13-15 minutes for biscuits, more like 20-odd for a tray bake. Then I pulled the shortbread out and turned the oven off.

I let the shortbread cool for a couple of minutes while I turned the grill on high. I sprinkled enough mini-marshmallows to mostly cover the base and popped it under the grill for a couple of minutes. Keep an eye on it if you try this - it can burn really quickly.

I battered the hell out of 100g of dark chocolate and sprinkled the bits over the toasted marshmallows. Back it went into the oven where the residual heat melted the chocolate over a few minutes. Then I left it to cool.

Incidentally, the corn flour makes shortbread crisper while remaining buttery. I like that in shortbread but if you prefer your a little softer reduce it or leave it out.

When it came time to sample the results, I found no shortage of volunteers.  The bars were lovely! Mark pointed out the shortbread was a little over baked. I'd left it in an extra 5 minutes because I was concerned about the centre being undercooked and the marshmallows making it gooey. I needn't have worried, 18-22 minutes would have been fine.
I'm sure there were more than that a minute ago

The visiting mates are here, the pull-out beds are made up, we're all set for Doctor Who tonight and we have shortbread s'mores. What more could a Saturday night offer?

Thursday, 18 September 2014

Saturday Swap Shop

Thanks to numerous events and our habit of living high off the hog whenever we do have money, we are going through a pretty skint patch. All the accounts are near empty except for the ones that are actually overdrawn. It doesn't happen often, but when it does, it tends to be this time of year that we're checking the sides of the couch for loose change. So, time to tighten our belts, pull our horns in, cut our coat according to our cloth and other metaphors.

First job was to declare it Sober September.  I flipping loathe Sober September. At our house there is always wine with dinner (and often wine after as well.) Dinner seems a bit, well, sad without an accompanying glass of wine. However, there's no money for wine so we must do without.  Luckily there's all that lovely seville orange gin I made back in January, so I can have a G&T every now and again without spending money. (75p a bottle of cheap unbranded tonic is within the budget).  Mark - a far more disciplined person who coincidentally doesn't like gin - has had one pint of beer at his mate's birthday bash and otherwise abstained entirely. Most laudable.
Coming in handy
Next up was cutting back the amount we spend on food.

First came changing where I shop. We had some vouchers for Tesco and Waitrose. By choosing carefully from each store and only spending the minimum amount to get the £13 and £15 off I got the staples for less than I'd usually spend. Waitrose is a bit more expensive than the other supermarkets but not £15 more, so it still worked out cheaper.
For perishables, Leeds Market is much better in my experience. I bought great bags of cheap veg and cooked them straight away, freezing all the extra portions. I swapped cod for coley and made fish pies, got ricotta on offer and made cannelloni. I bought frozen broccoli and cauliflower rather than fresh so I could use what I wanted without having some to throw away.  I bought meat from the 'Use by today' section and Mark cooked it straight away in lasagnes to fill the freezer. (Quorn lasagne for me. I don't eat meat.) Some slightly sad looking veg in the cupboard became a great vat of vegetable soup. I love soup.

This is all obvious stuff. Why don't I do it all the time?  I guess because it takes time to think of the cheaper meals, there is more prep work involved and more visits to different shops to get the lowest price.  When you can afford it, it's just so easy to grab a ready meal curry or some take away on a tired and busy night.

However, having filled the freezer with meals I think I can avoid that particular lazy urge. Just bung them in the oven for 45 minutes and dinner is all taken care of - Yay!

Another expenditure is clothes. Over the summer my 2 pairs of cropped jeans and one pair of regular jeans got holes too big to patch. I am short on long sleeve tops and I just can't resist a maxi dress of 5.

I got an email from Monsoon advertising their 20% off day. I love Monsoon dresses. They really suit me.  I popped into the shop when I was in town anyway and tried on clothes with the idea I'd put them on one side for the 20% off day to save money.  This was a mistake. I ended up with three dresses I just loved, and was halfway to convincing myself it would be a great idea to buy them. The nice assistant put them behind the counter for me. Then I went to the cash machine to check on my finances.

Looking at the (lack of) balances, it hit me that 20% off is still 80% on. I might like to kid myself I was spending wisely by doing it on a discount day, but I was still spending.  I told the salesperson not to hold the dresses. I felt VERY glum.

Then lovely helpful Twitter came to the rescue. Someone's list of things to do on the weekend included a clothes swap in the city centre. I never bother with clothes swaps. As a plus size woman (ok, fat) I never find stuff in my size. Charity shops are similarly useless. But this clothes swap was only for size 16 and above. Worth a punt? At the very least I would clear out a few things in the cupboard I never wear.

I was quite nervous about going. I wished I had a mate to go along with me. What if everything was too small? Or it was a club I was gatecrashing? Or I hated everything? Or everyone hated what I brought? Or I was too damned old for the clothes.  But as my Very Excellent Mate Alison pointed out, I'm supposed to be Fearlessly Attempting things. Onwards to the swap...

I must admit, it was not the most welcoming building. The door was only half open and the interior looked dark and uninviting.
I went into a small, rather basic looking bar, through a door at the back and into what I assume was originally a cellar or storage room. No windows, exposed brickwork, slightly damp smelling. No mirror (major oversight) nor changing room (we used the disabled loo). I remained nervous.

I was welcomed in by a very friendly pair of women in their 20s, paid my £1 entry fee and told to help myself to anything I wanted on the trestle tables.
There was loads of stuff. A table of dresses, two of tops, two of trousers and skirts. The sizes I saw ranged from 16 to 28, and more stuff was arriving all the time as new people came in.  I put out my contributions  and got rummaging.

Within 15 minutes I'd got a pair of cropped jeans that fit perfectly; a pair of bootleg jeans that need a belt or a tuck in the waistband; a casual dress/tunic that needs some repair but felt super comfortable to me; a lovely red linen maxi dress I felt marvellous in.

2 perfect things, 2 things that need very little doing to make them suitable. All for £1 and some clothes that were just taking up space in the far reaches of my cupboard.
ta da!

Take that, Monsoon!