Wednesday, 29 December 2010

Our Winter Tree

I love Christmas decorations.  This year we had several actual Christmas trees and other Christmas decorations, but we added a new addition to our winter decorations: a winter tree.  Instead of a Christmas evergreen, it's a tree (a buddleia) that looks all wintry and branchy. 

Instead of looking barren, though, it's really beautiful and inviting.  We decorated it with simple white lights and natural ornaments (bundles of cinnamon sticks, wooden ornaments, etc.).  Our girls love it (and moving ornaments back and forth between it and the traditional Christmas tree in the same room).

To find out more about decorative winter trees, click here.

Tuesday, 28 December 2010

Home-made Christmas Wreaths


Every year we pick a sunny day in December and make our own Christmas wreath.  They're different every year (click here for a picture of last year's wreath).  We had a great time this year gathering our own supplies and making our wreath for our front door.  Jared and I gathered foliage in a basket.  The girls followed behind us emptying out the basket and forming patterns and decorations all over the front lawn.  It makes a great family activity and really helps me to get into the festive spirit. 

For instructions on how to make your own Christmas wreath, click here.

Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Spiced Apple Syrup


Every year when we harvest our apples in the autumn, we make bottles of apple syrup.  This spicy apple syrup is perfect for breakfasts, brunches, or desserts.  I especially like it on pancakes.  It's especially good at Christmas time (and we always give bottles of it away as Christmas gifts--some times with jars of pancake mix).  This is surprisingly easy to make and so delicious. 

For my apple syrup recipe, click here.

Merry Christmas everybody & hope you enjoy it.

Sunday, 12 December 2010

Simple Chocolate Cupcakes



It's always good to have a few recipes for home-made treats that are relatively quick and easy to make, and you know will turn out perfectly every time.  One of the best treats is a chocolate cupcake.  They're perfect for almost any occasion (including when you just need a chocolate fix).

My daughter wanted to visit her old preschool.  She wanted them to be able to see how grown up she is in her school uniform, and to wish them a Merry Christmas.  So the girls and I made chocolate cupcakes together.  This is the kind of recipe that still turns out well when you're letting your kids do all of the measuring and mixing.

For my simple chocolate cupcake recipe, click here.

We gave them the cupcakes with a Christmas card.  We wanted to individually wrap them so that all of the teachers and other workers could bring one home with them, and wanted to make them Christmasy.  Here's what we did.

To add a Christmasy feel, we made a mint chocolate icing.  I used a piping bag without a nozzle.  To be even more festive, add some crushed candy canes into the icing and then sprinkle a little on the top.  We sprinkled edible glitter on the top because it looked festive and reminded us of snow.

To individually wrap them, we used plastic sandwich bags.  We put them in then tied around the bag with scraps of festive ribbon.  This is great because you can use up any scraps you have leftover from wrapping presents or other festive activities.  We had a mix of different red and gold ribbons.

These made a delicious and really simple Christmas gift.

Friday, 10 December 2010

Dreaming of a White Christmas


Even though we live in an area that doesn't get very much snow (as in normally a flurry or two a year), I can't help but hope for snow each December.  Thanks to all the Christmas cards, songs, and movies, we all idealize a White Christmas.  It's not actually Christmas for a few more weeks, but we have enjoyed snow this year.  We woke up one morning last week to discover that--overnight--our garden had been transformed into a winter wonderland.  There was about six inches of beautiful powdery snow, and it kept snowing all day.

I'm not sure who was more excited--my husband and I or our kids.  I think he was the first to go out in it (at like seven in the morning with his coat on over pajamas).  Miriam thought that, since there was so much snow outside and she wasn't going to school, it must be Christmas.  She was quite disappointed when she realized that Father Christmas hadn't come to fill her stocking during the night.  We had to explain that it was Christmas time, but not Christmas day.  Anya kept looking out the window and pointing out everything that was covered in snow.  Her monologue went something like this: "Snow-car!  Snow-tree!  Snow-bike!  Mummy, snow!  Snow-grass!  Snow-road!  Daddy, look snow! Snow-car!". 

We enjoyed going out to play in the snow.  While Jared was lying down on the ground making a snow angel, the girls took advantage of his vulnerable position and started pelting him with snowballs.  They really liked making tracks through the snow (and looking at the tracks left by a fox, birds, and other wildlife).  It was a lot of fun, and was made even better because we kept going inside for a mug of home-made hot chocolate to warm up.

Almost all of the snow has melted now, and we probably won't have snow on Christmas day (although I'm keeping my fingers crossed), but it was a lot of fun and made us feel very festive.  So Merry Christmas everybody!  As the song says, "May your days be merry and bright, and may all your Christmases be white."

Tuesday, 23 November 2010

Super Easy Dinner Idea


Sometimes you need a dinner idea that is quick and easy to make, but also warm and delicious.  Here's a meal perfect for when you don't have a lot of time to prepare.

Instructions:

1. Roll out puff pastry onto a greased baking sheet.  (I used pre-made and pre-rolled pastry, so all I had to do was pull it out of the box.)

2. Leaving a little room around the edges for a nice crust, cover the pastry with whatever toppings you want.  We added chopped sun-dried tomatoes and cherry tomatoes, sliced mushrooms, and caramelized red onions.

3. Bake in pre-heated oven according to instructions for the pastry (usually about 15 minutes).

4. After removing from oven, add any extra toppings (we added rocket/arugula leaves and shredded mozzarella).

5. Serve hot and enjoy.  We really liked it with a spinach side salad.

In unrelated topics, I'm excited for Thanksgiving.  Pictures and recipes will--hopefully--be added soon.

Also, thank you so much to Ginger Bread House for sending me the book "Random Acts of Heroic Love."  It arrived just in time for Remembrance Day.

Monday, 1 November 2010

Happy Halloween!

I hope that everyone had a fantastic Halloween!

We had a lot of fun for Halloween, especially with our pumpkins.  Unfortunately we didn't have any pumpkins in the garden this year, but we bought them from a local farm.  We've been driving by fields full of pumpkins lately and it really added to the Halloween feeling.  I'm also reading Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein" for the first time, and so feel really full of Halloween Spirit.  (The book was a gift, so thanks Anne!)
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My husband, Jared, brought home some of his woodcarving tools for us to use on our pumpkins.  The two of us stayed up one night watching "Practical Magic" on TV and carving our pumpkins.  It was a fun date at home, and I'm really happy with the results.  Both of our pumpkins ended up more autumnal than Halloweeny, but I really like the look of them.  Instead of carving all the way through, we just hollowed them out and carved thinner sections so that the light still shines through a layer of pumpkin.

Jared carved the one with the owl; mine has oak leaves and acorns.
The idea of our two-year-old helping to carve a pumpkin is more than a little terrifying, so we let them color on their pumpkins instead.  They had a lot of fun picking out their pumpkins and then drawing on them.

Anya's is on the left with a cat face; Miriam's is the one on the right with "a funny face".
We were left with TONS of good pumpkin.  We put the seeds in a pan with a little olive oil, salt, chili flakes, and pepper, and roasted them.  Yum! 

We used some of the pumpkin to make pumpkin soup on Halloween.  I didn't follow an exact recipe, but here's the basic steps for our pumpkin soup.

1. In a large pan with a splash of olive oil and a knob of butter, cook the roughly chopped vegetables on medium heat.  I used: one large zip-lock bag full of pumpkin, about 4 potatoes, 1/3 of a swede, 2 cloves garlic, 2 small shallots, 1 red onion, 4 carrots, and 1/2 of a yellow pepper.  Stir regularly.

2. When the vegetables start to soften and the pan is getting dry, add vegetable stock (about 8 cups, but you can add more or less depending on how thick you want your soup to be).  Let simmer for about 1/2 hour with the lid on the pan.

3. Puree the soup.  (I use my little hand blender, but you could do it in a food processor or blender if you don't have one.) 

4. Season to taste.  I added a little sea salt, a mixture of cracked peppers, and paprika.  I also tossed in several bay leaves and some sprigs of fresh herbs from my garden, including rosemary and thyme.  ( I removed the sprigs and leaves before serving.)

5. As a final touch, I added about a cup of plain pouring yogurt.


Pumpkin cupcakes



With more of the leftover pumpkin we made pumpkin cupcakes.  They were a big hit on Halloween. 
I used this recipe, but instead of canned pumpkin we baked and pureed fresh pumpkin.  I topped with cream cheese icing (I found that their recipe was a bit too runny, so I added extra icing sugar) and homemade praline.  Delicious.

PS-I had made myself a goal to finish my new professional website by the end of the month, and I did it (barely).  You can check out my new site with information on my day job by clicking here.

Tuesday, 26 October 2010

Thanksgiving Recipes: Pumpkin Pie!

Pumpkin pie is, for me, one of those defining autumn flavors.  Most pumpkin things make me think of Halloween, but pumpkin pie is usually a Thanksgiving standard.  The smell of pumpkin and cinnamon accompanies the scarlets and golds on the trees outside.  It's the kind of thing you smell as you pull your sweaters and gloves out of storage.

We had a pumpkin that we didn't think was going to last until Halloween, so we went ahead and cut it up for cooking with.  I used the first half of the pumpkin to make pumpkin soup (one of my kindergartner's favorites...although she has a lot of favorite foods).  My husband decided to make pumpkin pie with the second half.  Plus we roasted the seeds--very easy, yummy, and nutritious.  Just stick the seeds on a baking sheet, season lightly if desired, spray with a little olive oil, and then bake for about 20 minutes.

We more or less followed this pumpkin pie recipe

To make the pumpkin puree, we cut, skinned and gutted the pumpkin and cut into segments.  Then we sprayed with a little olive oil and sprinkled a little brown sugar on top.  We baked them in a large glass dish for about 40 minutes at 350 F (180 C), until the pumpkin was very soft.  Then he just tipped it out into the food processor.  The pumpkin will probably release some juice as it bakes, so just puree the pieces first, and then add some of the juice back as needed to get the right consistency.

We also used a shortcrust pastry for the shell rather than a pre-made pie shell.


Other than that we followed the recipe, then served with whipped cream and a sprinkling of cinnamon.  The results were fantastic.  I have to admit that, growing up, I only ate one slice of pumpkin pie a year (on Thanksgiving), and even then it was more out of the spirit of the holiday than because I really enjoyed it.  This pumpkin pie, though, was delicious.  I'm definitely looking forward to Thanksgiving and making another one.

Friday, 15 October 2010

Celebrating Harvest Time

This morning I had the pleasure to go see my daughter's harvest festival at school.  She's been practicing her harvest songs all week, so it was fun to get to go see her perform them with the other children.  Next time, though, I'll get there earlier so I can get either a seat in the front two rows (where you can see) or the back row (where you can stand up to see), as most of the time I could only really see other parents.  The kids sounded great though.  I'm proud of her; she's adjusted really well to school and is loving it.

We've also enjoyed harvest time in our own garden.  We've had apples (and apples and apples) and carrots and potatoes and the last of the tomatoes and pattipans (squash).  I also picked the last of the rhubarb for an apple and rhubarb crumble, and some of the salad things have made a recurrence as we haven't had a frost yet.  The girls have really enjoyed helping to dig through the dirt to find the potatoes and helping to pick apples from our trees.

If, like us, you are overflowing with apples right now, here's my apple recipe suggestion: Spiced Apple Cake.  It's delicious and will make your house smell great.
I love this time of year and enjoying all of the fresh autumn flavors.

Saturday, 2 October 2010

The Romsey Show


Some of our goodies from the Romsey Show.

 


































Our family enjoyed a fantastic day out at the Romsey Show held at the Broadlands Estate.   It's kind of like a county fair.  There were animals to see.  The girls loved seeing the cows, especially since many of them had their little calves with them.  We also enjoyed seeing horses, sheep, goats, peacocks, quail, rabbits, and more.  There were plenty of children's activities, and the girls were very excited to go on some of the rides like the spinning teacups.  I particularly enjoyed the large food area with countless stalls of local food.  It would have been easy to spend a fortune, and we did buy a few things. 

Although we stopped and got some delicious treats during the day (including goodies from a local bakery and fresh strawberries), we were all starving when we got home in the evening.  So we used some of the things that we had boughten to make a delicious watercress, leek, and potato soup.  It was easy to do and based on the recipe that the farmer gave us when we bought the fresh local bunches of watercress.


Romsey Show Soup:

Ingredients:
big bunch of watercress
knob butter
1 leek
2 potatoes
vegetable stock
salt & pepper
creme fraiche
good cheese

Instructions:

1. Chop all of the vegetables and put them  in a pan with the butter and a splash of olive oil.  Just put it on a medium or low heat.  When the butter is melted and coating the veggies evenly, put the lid on the pan and let it cook until the vegetables are soft.  Stir every few minutes so that it doesn't stick to the pan.

2. Add the vegetable stock.  Leaving the pan uncovered, bring it up to the boil and let it cook for several minutes. 

3. Puree the soup.  (I use my hand-held mixture for this, but if you don't have one you could pour it into a blender or food processer and then return to the pan.)

4. Add a few spoonfuls of the creme fraiche and season to taste.

5. Serve with grated cheese on top (we used a delicious local mature cheddar).  Enjoy.

(This recipe is just a foundation to work from.  You could always add slightly different vegetables depending on what you have on hand, for example, or substitute cream cheese for creme fraiche--or just leave it out entirely.  To make it vegan, just leave out the butter and cook with slightly more oil and a little stock, and then use vegan cheese or omit cheese at the end.)

It was a simple and delicious meal made with all local ingredients.  A delicious end to a fantastic family day.
The vegetables cooking in butter.

A delicious bowl of watercress soup.

Thursday, 23 September 2010

September Secret Post Club


There's a group of bloggers from around the world that form the Secret Post Club.  It's a lot of fun to do because you get to know people from around the world through their blogs and cards, and also you get a gift each month :)  Basically, each month everyone picks a name and sends that person a present. 

This month I received a fabulous gift from the lovely lady who writes the blog Cherished By Me.  She's a mother of five with an adorable blog and recent adventures into the world of high fashion.  She sent me the coolest retro style Union Jack tin.  It's already being used around the house, although my husband keeps mentioning that he'd like to steal it to use for his lunch box...  I have no idea where she found it, but you can see it in the picture.  As if that wasn't cool enough, the tin was filled with delicious dark chocolates from Thorntons!  I would have put them in the picture, but they seem to have evaporated (mysteriously the wrappers are still around my desk). 

Thank you so much for my fab gift!


Cake Pops under construction



For September's Secret Post Club, I was lucky enough to draw the name of Deborah.  I'd never seen her blog Messy Mummy before, but it's a good parenting blog.  It made me want to arrange a play date for our kids.  She mentioned that with two little boys, she likes (and doesn't always get) cute and girly types of things.  I wanted to give her something cute and yummy and fun, so I decided to make some cake pops. 

I made two different types: lavender cakes covered in white chocolate and rose cakes covered in dark chocolate. 

To make the lavender cakes, I baked a lavender cake and let it cool.  To get the recipe, click here.  The rose cakes are actually the exact same recipe, only with rose sugar instead of lavender sugar.  If you don't have rose sugar, you can add a few drops of rose water instead.  Just be carefully not to add to much or else it will taste like soap.

After the cakes had cooled, I made a simple butter cream frosting and added a little pink food coloring.  Then I crumbled up the cakes into bowls and added a little bit of the frosting.  They were then easy to roll into balls.  I stuck the popsicle sticks into the balls at this stage.

Then I melted a bowl of dark chocolate and dipped the rose cakes into the chocolate.  After cooling for a few seconds on wax paper, I rolled them in sprinkles.  Then I left them to cool so that the chocolate would harden.  I repeated the process with the lavender cakes in white chocolate.

I'm hoping that Deborah liked them, because I thought they were cute.

Tuesday, 14 September 2010

Creative Writing Classes at Furzey Gardens



Furzey Gardens, August 2010

I've mentioned how much I love Furzey Gardens before. It's an inspiring place to be, so I'm very excited about this announcement. I'm going to teach some creative writing workshops (and longer courses if there's enough interest) at

Furzey Gardens this autumn.  The first one is on Friday the 15th of October from 10.00-12.00.  The workshops should be of interest to anyone who writes or is interested in writing.  The setting is amazing.  Please don't miss this opportunity.

If you would like to find out more about creative writing classes at Furzey Gardens, please contact me.
If you would like to register for the class, please contact Furzey Gardens.

Thatching at Furzey Gardens, August 2010
 

Monday, 13 September 2010

Our Fine Doodle!


A few months ago I mentioned Fine Doodles (click here for the original post).  It took us a really long time to pick which of our daughter's drawings to have transformed into a Fine Doodle, but we finally chose her self-portrait with a rainbow.  You can see a copy of her original drawing and the Fine Doodle reimagining of it.  Unfortunately, both of these are cropped.  You can see the full size images in the Fine Doodles gallery here, along with other great Fine Doodles.

Now we just need to choose where to hang our new picture up...

Saturday, 4 September 2010

Chopped

We recently visited my parents in the States.  Both of my sisters were in town at the same time as well.  Now, there were a lot of things that we could have done together.  There's one thing, though, that we all love: food.  We watched a fair amount of the Food Network together, and one night we did a great activity: Chopped.  Chopped is a TV show where the competitors are given a basket of ingredients, and they have to use all of the ingredients in one cohesive dish.  (Click here to find out more about Chopped.)

My dad and sister picked the ingredients and acted as judges. 


Our baskets had: feta cheese, sprinkles, sparkling water, whipped cream (the squirty kind in a can), sweet potato, kiwi, grapefruit, peach (doughnut), plum, gluten free crackers, jabanero pepper, and spinach (fresh leaves).  In addition we could use any items in their house/garden.

Rather than just having one dish, we actually cooked both an appetizer and a dessert.  All of the items had to be used, but we could choose which items to use in which dish.
My husband and I (Away Team) competed against my mother and other sister (Home Team). 

Team Home's Menu:
Appetizer: A selection of nibbles, including home-made chutney served on the crackers and stuffed spinach leaves.
Followed by a palate cleanser drink (sparkling water, grapefruit, kiwi, etc.).
Dessert: Mini sweet potato cream pies


Away Team's Menu:
Appetizer: Salad with a grapefruit vinaigrette served on a sweet potato flower
Dessert: Italian Cream Soda (Peach and vanilla flavour) with a plum, apple, and pecan crumble


After careful deliberation, the judges announced the results: both teams scored perfect 100's!  So we tied. 

My dad still maintains that, as judge, he won, as he got to pick ingredients he liked and then eat the food we all made :)

Sunday, 8 August 2010

Looking forward to something special...


A year or so ago, I met a lovely couple through Freecycle.  Recently they found some bog oak when doing some landscaping.  They remembered that my husband is a woodcarver, and kindly offered it to him.  (If you read this, Thank You!)

Bogwood is normally found in Ireland, and it's a rare treasure to find some here.  If you're not familiar with bog oak, the term basically refers to oak trees have been preserved under water and eventually under peat and other wet soil.  It is common for pieces of bog oak to be 3,000 or more years old.  To find out more about bog oak, click here.  Bog oak is very unique and beautiful.

My husband still needs to assess how much of the wood is usable (there are some rotten sections), but there should be some great pieces of bog oak for him to carve and sculpt with.  Looking at these fantastic pieces of wood, I know that the result is going to be something spectacular.  So here's looking forward to something special. 

To see some examples of bog oak sculpture that I really like, click here.



Wednesday, 4 August 2010

Gooseberry Jam



Who doesn't love summertime?  I love long warm evenings sitting on the patio, all of the vibrant colours and flowers, the more relaxed feeling, and especially all of the fantastic fresh produce.  There are so many fantastic fruits and vegetables that are in season during the summer.

I don't remember ever eating gooseberries before moving to Britain.  They're certainly a very British fruit, but I've grown to love them.  It's a bit late for gooseberries really now, but you may still be able to find fresh ones.  I have a gooseberry bush, but unfortunately didn't get any fruit off of it this year. (My gooseberry bush died from the extreme cold this winter and then my toddler repeatedly digging it up during the spring, so we recently bought a small new bush to replace it.  Hopefully we'll have home-grown gooseberries again next summer.)

My family went to a nearby farm to pick our gooseberries.  I love pick-your-own farms, and even if you don't garden yourself, it's really satisfying to pick your own fruit and veg.  I promise it makes it taste better.  I particularly love Ganger Farm.  My husband and I started going there as newlyweds, and we've kept going over the years.  Now our kids love picking (well, mostly eating) fruit there.

Gooseberries are funny little fruits.  The bushes have big, hard thorns, and are--I think--always a bit scrubby looking.  Most people will recommend wearing leather gloves when you pick gooseberries to protect yourself from prickles.  I prefer doing it without the gloves and just being careful.  It makes it easier to maneuver through the bush after the best fruit and to handle the fruit gently.  The fruit itself is green and kind of hairy looking.  Gooseberries taste quite tart on their own, and when ripe have an almost grape-like crunchiness to them.

My favourite way to eat gooseberries is to make gooseberry jam.  These tart little berries make a fantastic jam than you can save to enjoy all year long.  This is my daughter Miriam's favourite jam.

How To Make Gooseberry Jam

Before I begin making the jam, I get the jars ready.  You can buy jam jars, or just reuse any glass jar with a metal screw-on lid (preferably the type with the pop down seal).  You can also use Kilner style glass jars.  It just needs to have a good air-tight seal.  Always sterilize jars before using.


When you have your jam jars ready, prepare your fruit.  Wash it well and remove any extra leaves, stems, etc.  If desired, you can top and tail them.  I usually just pinch off the stem. 

Weigh the fruit, then add to a big pan.  Always use a bigger pan then you think you'll need because it will bubble and splash.  (If I followed my own advice on this, I'd save myself a lot of burnt fingers.)  Because gooseberries are quite firm, part cook them first.  Cook on high heat, stirring constantly.  They will start to release juice and break down.  You can use a potato masher to help break them down if you want to speed things along.  Cook just the gooseberries for about ten minutes.

Meanwhile, stick a couple of small plates into the freezer to cool.  They'll later help you to test if the jam is set.

There's a simple truth that you have to accept about jam.  It uses a lot of sugar.  I've tried cutting down on the sugar content, and the results just weren't worth it.  For gooseberry jam, use equal parts fruit and sugar by weight.  This holds true no matter how many gooseberries you have.  So if, for example, you have 1 kg of gooseberries, add 1 kg of sugar.  You can buy fancy jamming sugars, but I just use plain white sugar.

Add the sugar to the fruit and continue to cook on high heat.  Stir constantly.  The sugar should melt and mix in with the fruit.  You can adjust the heat as needed, but it should stay at a rolling boil.  You'll notice a fantastic kind of alchemy as you make gooseberry jam.  You started off with prickly green fruits.  As they cook, though, the gooseberries turn a lovely pink and get a velvety texture.  It becomes really lovely and appetizing.  Cook until it starts to reduce.  How long this takes will depend on how big of a batch of jam you're cooking at once and the heat of your hob.

You can test the jam by putting a spoonful on one of the cold plates.  Run your finger through it.  If it immediately rushes in to fill the gap, it's not ready yet.  If it makes a puckery kind of line through the jam, it's ready.  Don't wait until it's already perfectly set because it will set further after you turn off the heat and jar it.

When it's ready, you can jar it.  I really recommend using a jam funnel.  It will help to keep the edges of the jar clean so that you get a better seal, and just makes the whole process easier.  You want to put the jam into the jars and then put on the lids as quickly as possible.  If it cools too much, the jars won't seal.  You can do it by yourself, but it's definitely easier if you have two people working on this stage.  Your jam will look absolutely beautiful in the jar.

Then you're finished.  Leave the jars to cool and just check that the jars have taken, or sealed, later in the day.  You can make labels to add, and then stick in the cupboard for whenever you want some lovely jam.  This will liven up any piece of toast.

And there you have it: gooseberry jam.  This really is one of my favourite parts of the summer.  It may seem crazy to make your own jam, but it really doesn't take as long as it seems, and the jam is so much better than anything store bought.  It was a really lovely process picking the gooseberries together as a family, and then my husband and I made the jam together after the girls went to bed that evening.

Friday, 23 July 2010

Breaking in my new apron...


I received a fantastic gift this week from another blogger.  SnafflesMummy made me a beautiful apron that I absolutely love.  Thank you!  (Click here to see her cute blog.)

To break in my new apron, I wore it while we worked on a new kitchen project.  My in-laws are involved with a cooperative farm, and they are responsible for the beetroot section of the farm.  They recently harvested their beetroot crop, and gave us a bag of their freshly picked baby beetroot.


We really wanted to pickle some of it so that we could enjoy it throughout the year.

Here's our simple pickled beetroot process:

1. Sterilize storage jars.  Fill with boiling water, then empty and put in the oven on a baking sheet until ready to use.  Keep it on a low temperature.  If you are using jars with seals, soften the seals.

2. Wash the beetroot.  Cut off the leaves, but do not yet top and tail.  Then boil the beetroot for about 30 minutes in heavily salted water.  (Adjust cooking time according to the size of the beets; we had quite small beets.)

3. Remove and drain the beetroot.  Rinse to remove excess salt.  Then top and tail them using a small knife.  This should make them quite easy to peel.  Holding them in your hands, you should be able to just slide the beetroot out of its skin.  Put the prepared beetroot into the storage jars.

4. Bring pickling vinegar to the boil.  When it is boiling, remove from heat and pour directly into the jars over the beetroot.  Put on the lids as quickly as possible so that they seal.

The beetroot pickled like this will keep for years.  It's great to pull out later and slice into salads or cook with.

We didn't want to waste the rest of the beetroot that we didn't need for pickling.  So we decided to make a vegetable stock.  All of the washed beetroot leaves got tossed into a big pot with any other extra vegetable bits we had, including some garlic and onion offcuts, pea shells and shoots, carrot peels, some spinach, some bits of pepper, etc.  We also tossed in big sprigs of fresh herbs from the garden, and a handful of peppercorns and coriander seeds.  Add just enough water to cover, and then put on a lid and let simmer for a few hours.  We poured the stock through a colander and then a sieve, and then poured into a storage jar (while still very hot) to seal. 

We ended up with a very rich and earthy stock that will be great to use for gravy.  All of the ingredients were either from the garden, or things that would have otherwise been thrown away.

Tuesday, 13 July 2010

A delicious thing of beauty


Macarons always seemed to be a mythical type of food to me.  I had heard of them in hushed, almost reverent tones from friends who had been to Paris, and seen them make or break aspiring chefs on TV shows.  Macarons are resplendent on the pages of foodie books and magazines.

Until recently, it never occurred to me that I could actually make such a fancy dessert.  However, my husband and I spent a night together making macarons.  It was our first attempt, and I have to admit that I'm pretty proud of it.  So here's our adventure making violet macarons.

First off, you should prepare in advance if you want to make macarons.  One of the most important ingredients is egg whites, and for macarons it's better if they're old.  Separate your eggs a couple of days before making the macarons.  (For more explanation about using old egg whites and more tips for making perfect macarons, click here.)  You'll want to make sure that you have the right ingredients in advance, too.  The possibilities are endless when it comes to macarons, but I loved these violet flavored ones.  Flower flavors tend to be dainty and elegant in a way that pairs really well with macarons.

I basically followed a recipe from the website Tartelette.  Click here for the full recipe and Tarelette post.  The instructions are really clear and easy to follow.  I added purple food coloring to the macaron batter as it looked even prettier and worked perfectly with the violet flavouring.

When you've made the macaron shell batter, use a piping bag to put them out on baking parchment (not just greaseproof paper) or onto a silicone baking sheet.  Then bash up some crystallized violet flowers and sprinkle over the top as desired. 

Remember to let them sit for about half an hour before baking them.  I forgot on one of the batches, and you could definitely tell the difference in the pastry afterwards.  It is worth being patient and getting better results.


Either while the macaron shells are baking or cooling, you can make the butter cream (see photos above).  Now most of the time I make a cheat's butter cream, but for macarons we did the proper filling.  Just like on the Tartelette website, we did both a vanilla  bean and a violet filling.  It always amazes me how opulent fresh vanilla is, and how strongly you can smell it as you cut into a pod.  The violet water turned the most fabulous bright blue colour.  It was amazing how bright it was.

Then the fun part comes: assembling, serving, and eating.  These are an absolute indulgence.  They are both light and rich at the same time.  The flavours and textures really are a delicious thing of beauty.  They are time consuming, but if you have the time, these are a delicious treat.



Thursday, 8 July 2010

Fairies in the Garden


I love Furzey Gardens.  My daughters love it at Furzey, and Miriam especially loves the fairy features around the garden.  She was so excited about finding all of the little fairy homes that my husband decided that some fairies should move to our garden just in time for Miriam's birthday.  On the morning of her 4th birthday, she woke up to find a tiny birthday card for her from the fairies, and discovered that a fairy house had shown up overnight.  It's an adorable, natural little house complete with windows with curtains, a working mailbox, milk waiting by the door, a little well with a bucket, etc.  Miriam is thrilled that there are fairies living in our garden now too, and she often goes to check on them.

Saturday, 3 July 2010

Sneak Preview


Just a quick sneak preview of great things to come. We made macarons and they were perfect. I'm so pleased with how they turned out and I can't wait to blog them for real.

Saturday, 19 June 2010

Geranium Infused Chocolate Covered Pistachios

In keeping with the floral theme of the menu we're planning, we decided to create a unique floral chocolate to serve with after dinner drinks. We had tried chocolate infused with geranium before, and it makes a surprisingly good combination. So we wanted to create something using geranium and chocolate.

We bought some Geranium Dainty Dollops from Montezuma's. These are great little milk chocolates with geranium oil. The chocolate is creamy and just melts on your tongue leaving the geranium aroma to fill your mouth. We thought they could be even better, though, if combined with another texture and taste. We brainstormed, and finally we came up with the perfect combination: geranium, chocolate, and pistachio nuts.

We bought salted and roasted pistachio nuts and shelled them, removing as much of the papery inside lining as possible. Then melt the dainty dollops (always double boil chocolate). Put the pistachio nuts into the chocolate, then spread out on greasproof paper and allow to cool. Then enjoy:) The smooth, creamy, sweet chocolate and the crunchy, salty pistachios are perfect together. This is a combination you haven't had before, but once you taste it you'll wonder why not.



Thursday, 17 June 2010

Best Early Summer Starter Ever


My husband and I are planning a small garden dinner party to celebrate our 5th wedding anniversary in a couple of weeks. People keep asking me if I can believe it's really been five years. On one hand, it seems like a milestone type of anniversary, and I think Wow. 5 years already!. Usually, though, I can't believe that it hasn't been longer. We have two beautiful little girls together, and are so close, that when I think of things that happened before then, it's hard to believe that they weren't a part of it. As we're not normally overly social people, we decided it would be fun and throw a little party to celebrate. We're really enjoying planning it together, especially coming up with the menu.

We tested out our appetizer, and I am thrilled with how it turned out. I've decided this is the perfect starter for early summer, especially here where we can get fresh local asparagus. So here it is:

Steamed Asparagus with Poached Quails' Eggs and a Hollandaise Sauce, Garnished with Fresh Dill and Herb Flowers

You should allow four spears of asparagus and two quaills' eggs per person if serving as a starter.


The Asparagus

Buy the best freshest green asparagus spears you can find (local and/or organic if possible). Snap off the bottoms (the cut end will naturally snap off). Steam for about four minutes. They should still be vibrant green. A sharp knife should slice through them easily, but they should still stand up straight if you hold them up.

The Hollandaise

Hollandaise is one of those intimidating sounding French sauces. On chef programmes, you always see them whisking away and talking about all the things that can go wrong with a Hollandaise. Actually, Hollandaise can be pretty easy to make, plus it looks and tastes great. A home-made Hollandaise really adds a wow factor to dishes like this.

To make the Hollandaise, put two egg yolks (room temperature) and 1 Tbsp of lemon juice in your blender. Yes, your blender. It makes a really smooth sauce and is way faster and easier than using a whisk. Blend them until it makes a really smooth mixture. Then, with it still blending, slowly add a 200g of butter (use the real unsalted stuff and melt it first). Blend until it reaches a nice sauce consistency. Your Hollandaise should be smooth and creamy with a pretty yellow colour. Salt and pepper to taste.

The Eggs

I like using quails' eggs because they are so small and dainty. They really add an extra elegance to the dish, and taste perfect with it. If you can't find quails' eggs, though, you can use small chickens' eggs.

They should be poached and then placed on top of the asparagus. To poach the quails' eggs, let them reach room temperature first. Half-fill a large frying pan with water and a dash of vinegar, and bring to the boil. Meanwhile, find some small cups. Crack the eggs into the cups (one each). When the water is boiling steadily, slide the eggs from the cups into the water. Putting them into a cup first and then sliding them in helps them to stay together better, and avoids problems like the eggs sticking to the bottom of the pan. The quails' eggs are so small that they cook really quickly. It will only take a minute or two for them to be ready, so watch them closely. They're ready when the white is solid and cooked, but the yolk is still runny if you cut into it. Use a slotted spoon to take them from the pan so that excess water can drain off.

The Garnish

Not only do the fresh herbs and flowers look great, they really elevate the flavour of the dish as well. Tear up a little fresh dill over the top of the dish. (Dill is really easy to grow, and will grow well in pots--we used fresh dill from the garden.) We're having a floral theme to our party menu, so we're incorporating some type of edible blossoms with each course. We sprinkled just a few fresh herb blossoms (thyme and oregano) over the top of the dish. When you bite into them, you get a strong burst of the herbiness that makes it all taste fresh and summery.

This was possibly the most delicious savoury dish we've ever cooked at home. Delicious.

Friday, 4 June 2010

Birthday Cakes

It seems like there have been a lot of birthdays lately, and so we made several birthday cakes in May. I always think that a cake makes a nice birthday gift that is home-made and yummy.


This cake was a gift for a student of mine for her 14th birthday. She likes doodling, and loves the way that I doodle, so I did some food coloring painting on her cake. The fondant work isn't as nice as I'd like, but she still loved it.

Chocolate Cake Recipe

Ingredients:

1 cup plain flour
1/3 cup cocoa
1/3 cup white sugar
1/3 cup vanilla sugar (if you don't have it, just use normal sugar)
2 Tsp. baking powder
2/3 cup milk (room temperature)
1 egg (room temperature)
1/4 cup butter (room temperature--it should be soft, but not melted)
1 Tbsp vanilla

Instructions:

1. Preheat oven to 350 F (180 C). Grease and flour a medium sized cake tin.

2. Sift in the dry ingredients, then stir lightly. Add the remaining ingredients and mix into a smooth batter.

3. Bake until a knife comes out clean (about 25 minutes).

To decorate:

1. Either make and roll out fondant icing, or roll out pre-made fondant.

2. Heat jam of choice in a saucepan, stirring constantly, until it starts to boil. (I used home-made rosehip and apple jam.)

3. Paint the jam over the cooled cake. I used a silicone pastry brush.

4. While the jam is still hot, lift the fondant over the cake and smooth.

5. Use a small paint brush or point (the point of a wooden skewer works well for details) to paint the cake with food colouring.


My daughter Miriam celebrated her 4th birthday in May! On one hand she seems so big and grown up, and on the other hand it's hard to believe that my little girl is already four. The only thing that she asked for was a pink bike with a pink helmet, so she was very excited to get a bike for her birthday. (We're still working on learning to ride it...unfortunately her little sister gets a bit jealous and tries to climb on with her, so it's hard for Miriam to really ride it. Also, she has a weird tendency to petal backwards.) She enjoyed some other goodies, like new art supplies, as well.

Miriam's favourite food in the world is strawberries. So it wasn't really a surprise that she asked for a strawberry birthday cake shaped like a butterfly.

Strawberry Cake Recipe

Ingredients:

1 1/3 cup flour

1/3 cup sugar

1/3 cup strawberry milk powder (like strawberry nesquick, only I used Asda's brand)

2 Tsp baking powder

2/3 cup milk (room temperature)

1 egg (room temperature)

1/4 cup butter (room temperature)

1 Tbsp vanilla extract

(if desired: add a handful of chopped dried strawberries)

Instructions:

Follow the same instructions as for the chocolate cake above. (Sift dry ingredients, then blend all of the ingredients. Bake in a greased and floured pan at 350F/180C.)

To decorate:

1. Roll out fondant.

2. Boil strawberry jam. (Do not overboil because it will go too thick and sticky. Bring it to boiling point and then remove from heat.)

3. Paint the cake with the jam, and then cover with fondant.

4. Smooth and cut off any extra fondant.

5. Decorate! I cooked this in a butterfly shaped cake mold, so then I just decorated with coloured icing and candles.

Cupcakes

Miriam wanted to bring cupcakes to preschool to share with her friends. Here's a recipe for easy plain cupcakes.

Ingredients:

1 1/3 cup flour

2/3 cup sugar

2 Tsp baking powder

2/3 cup milk

1 egg

1/4 cup butter

1 tbsp vanilla extract

Instructions:

1. Mix all ingredients with an electric mixer to make a smooth batter.

2. Bake in paper or silicone cupcake cases at 350F/180C for about 17 minutes.

3. Decorate. I piped on a simple chocolate butter cream (butter, icing sugar, vanilla extract, a few drops of milk, and cocoa), and then Miriam added pink sprinkles.


All of the cake recipes are variations on my standard cake recipe that can be adapted to pretty much any flavour and always turns out perfectly. To see the full recipe (adapted for lavender cakes), click here.

Happy Birthday to anyone else who's celebrating birthdays right now!

Sunday, 23 May 2010

Wildlife in the Garden

video

I love seeing wildlife into the garden. We try to attract and support local wildlife, and put out birdfood, have a bird bath, etc. We've had a wide variety of birds (including an owl who was fond of sitting on our chimney pot and robins that are so friendly that they'll literally land on your shoe while you're gardening), hedge hogs, mice, a degu (very unexpected in this part of the world, but that's definitely what it was...we think it was an escaped pet.), rabbits, etc.


Right now, we have hundreds of tadpoles living in our paddling pool. It's been exciting seeing them grow from frogspawn into the large tadpoles they are now, and we're looking forward to seeing them turn into frogs. The girls have loved watching them grow and go check on them everyday. (You can hear Anya giggling in the background of the video of the tadpoles. She thinks they're funny, and both the girls like imitating the way they wiggle.)


There are also several frogs who are normally around the paddling pool enjoying the shade and water.



Sunday, 16 May 2010

More artwork

A lot of people have asked to see Jared's artwork, so when I did the last post on his wood carvings, I decided to go ahead and add some photos of his other recent work as well. For the past couple of weeks, he's been in a modelling class at school. He's sculpting a half-life size figure from clay working from a life model. He'd never done anything like this before, but I think he should be pleased with what he's managed to sculpt.

Here are some pictures of his sculpture taken in the studio.