Thursday, 17 January 2019

Post-Christmas Post

I think Bill's kids might 'getting' my Christmas tree.  Years ago Sarah brought back a large, heavy bauble of cracked glass from a school trip she took to Victoria, Canada. 

This year Simon made these wooden and glitter shapes himself. I wasn't altogether certain at the time what all the shapes were but now I've taken down the tree and put them together for their photo, I figured out most of them. I think they are quite pretty. I wrote his initials and '2018' on each one so that in future they will 'know their place' in the tree's history. I may replace the threads with some sturdier string or ribbon to keep them from getting tangled on the tree.

Holly, robin, fox, reindeer, Christmas bow/bauble and a ?
Six-year-old Charlotte gave me my present from her, explaining she had 'made it especially' for me. Helen confirmed this, saying they'd had to stay up the night before so she could finish it in time. I thanked Charlotte profusely but I must have had a perplexed expression. Helen suggested I could use it perhaps as a coaster, but I had another idea. I pulled an icicle thread off the three, laced it through the holes and hung it on the tree. Martin apparently was moved by this, saying it was awfully thoughtful of me. 

When I took the tree down the icicle snapped, no great surprise. I threaded a red ribbon in its place after testing that I could write on the ribbon: Charlotte 2018. 

My tree feels even more 'complete' to me now and I know I will enjoy putting on those decorations next Christmas.

Wednesday, 9 January 2019

Five Things: 9 Jan 19

Looking back through old drafts of posts, I see many topics that grabbed my attention, I just didn't manage to write about them. Most are well covered elsewhere.

5 things (because five is my lucky number):

1 Pearlies - An old Threads magazine made mention of the Pearlie Kings and Queens which mystified me. It turns out they are a part of London's history and culture and you can find them (of course) on Wikipedia. This website is a particularly good read, capturing their history and their ethos. I had no idea they were depicted as Mary Poppins' back up band in the supercalifragilisticexpialidocious number. All those dots on the characters' clothing are meant to be buttons.

2 World Travel - Jada Yuan got a travel writing job with the New York Times a year ago - hers one of about 13,000 applications. She has visited and written about 52 locations all over the globe. I'm not that fussed about travel on that scale but I found her article  summarising her experience quite interesting. In particular her biggest take away lesson: "That people are fundamentally good around the world."

3 Under 3 years for 2.6 million - I blogged in the past about a financial advisor whose ethics gave me chills. I later learned he was sentenced to 5 years for fraudulent activity that took place over 7 years and scammed 41 people out of a total of 2.6 million. He led his clients to believe they were investing in a property in India but in fact he was gambling the cash away. He is out now, having served over 2 (which means less than 3) years at Kirklevington Grange, similar to what I remember as 'work release' prisons in the US.

4 AOC video - Not sure I can find the original of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez dancing back in her Boston University days, but while the music changes, the video remains the same. It fills me with hope. I can't get over how young and innocent they all look!

5 - If you love old books and history (particularly US history) and particularly FREE stuff, let me point you in the direction of the Archive website. I've found genealogical information here, a relatively modern sewing text book and my current favourite: The Book of the Home by H. C. Davidson, published 1900 which outlines the duties of the master and the mistress. 

Tynemouth Priory, just because...
NB: I just realised I put 2018 on my date in the title...tsk tsk.

Wednesday, 2 January 2019

100 Years of Food - 2018

This is the final post in this series about a Centenary celebration event held at the Northumberland Federation of the Women's Institute back in September 2018 (can I string these things out or what?).

Sue and Dorothy figured that the phrase 'Eat the Rainbow' is the biggest 'fad' of today, that is being more aware of the nutritional value in food and of the public health push for '5 a Day'. 

She made us a lovely vegetable salad with 'oak leaf' lettuce she had grown herself (green at the base but red on the tips), spinach leaves, water cress, chopped fennel, raw julienne-cut beetroot, baby corn, French breakfast radishes (mild), asparagus (cooked 2 minutes then plunged into ice water), orange and yellow bell peppers and "bell drop" cherry tomatoes. The dressing was made with pomegranate in two parts walnut oil to one part white vinegar, salt & pepper. On top of the salad were pan fried skinless salmon steaks.

As you know, after watching all this astonishing cookery / lecture, we were treated to lunch. In addition to the dishes I've described, we also had two kinds of homemade bread on offer along with with two flavours of butter (lemon and parsley, chive and parmesan). There was enough of each dish to get at least a generous spoonful of each, sometimes more. 

I thought it was excellent value for money and will look forward to any other presentations or feasts they offer.

Wednesday, 26 December 2018

Spice Cake

Last week (OK, last month now) we had our autumn Coastal meeting, a gathering of the WI's that are generally in the area near the coast. It was our turn to provide refreshments. We were asked to provide short bread, mince pies and fruit cake, traditional Christmas fare. Home baked goods were welcome but our President took the view that most of us were too busy and decided to provide store-bought goods. I didn't mind, but decided I would bring my fall back Christmas cake: spice cake.

To my amazement, two ladies from other WIs and a friend from our own asked me for the recipe, going on about how much they liked it. I was sure I'd typed it up for a blog post at some point, but I couldn't find it anywhere. So here is my email to them, sent the next day before I forgot. I try never to say I'll do something and then not do it.

Ladies - 

I'm sending you the spice cake recipe as promised. I hope it makes sense (I don't really follow the recipe). I'm really flattered you liked my cake. I don't consider myself much of a baker but I do enjoy having a go now and then.

Zucchini Spice Cake
Betty Crocker's Cookbook, 1987

2 cups all-purpose flour*
2 cups finely chopped zucchini (about 3 medium)
1 1/4 cups sugar
1 cup chopped nuts
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1/3 cup water
1 1/4 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground cloves
1 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 teaspoon vanilla
3 eggs

Heat oven to 350 F (180 C). Grease and flour rectangular pan 13x9x2 inches. Beat all ingredients on low speed, scraping bowl constantly, until blended, about 1 minute. Beat on medium speed, scraping bowl occasionally, 2 minutes.

Pour into pan.

Bake until wooden pick inserted in center comes out clean, 45-50 minutes. Frost with Cream Cheese Frosting if desired.

15 servings; 265 calories per serving.

*If using self-raising flour, decrease baking soda to 1/2 teaspoon and omit salt.


That's the official recipe, but I've never followed it. I find it is quite a flexible and forgiving cake. For example, I've never made it with zucchini / courgettes, always with pureed fruit. I save my elderly-but-not-spoiled fruit in the freezer and make a large batch of these cakes as Christmas presents. Last night's cake only had one cup of sugar and no nuts. It had two large eggs and a heaping tablespoon of soya flour and a tablespoon of water to substitute for the third egg. I used a 9x9x2 inch pan and cooked the cake in my fan oven for 45 minutes, then for another 10 minutes when the initial toothpick came out wet.

Last night's cake had 1 3/4 cups of pureed cooking apples (fresh from a friend's tree) with the remainder of the 2 cups made up with pureed banana (out of my fruit bowl, not the freezer). I just use a stick blender on finely chopped fruit. I've used every kind of fresh, frozen or tinned fruit over the years. I think it is the spices that make this cake what it is, that and the high moisture content.

In addition to substituting soya flour and water for eggs (some of my cakes have had no eggs at all), you can substitute up to half the fat in most baking recipes with pureed fruit, making them a bit healthier. I never put nuts in my cakes, but sometimes substitute a cup of raisins. Nuts are expensive and not everyone likes them - or raisins for that matter. If I happen to have some fruit juice I have been known to substitute that for the water. These cakes freeze well, though of course warm from the oven is best. I normally sprinkle the top with icing sugar, I don't have much of a sweet tooth myself, but last night's cake was bare as I ran short of time. 

I've never used a mixer for these cakes, I just stir the ingredients with a fork, generally, making sure it's all well mixed. I'm sure that if one followed all the directions to the letter it would be a miraculous creation, but that's not what was served last night.

Hope your cakes turn out well!

NB*-:  Remembering that a friend was counting calories last I saw her, I calculated the number in the cake I made her for Christmas. Half of this recipe plus about a teaspoon of icing sugar came to 1372 calories.

Monday, 24 December 2018

Christmas Card

Feel free to laugh at the poor execution of my crafted Christmas card, it makes me giggle as well. Still, I like my idea and will pursue it in future.

My craft group at Linskill decided that rather than write out a dozen-plus paper cards, we would each make a card and then trade. I had an idea that went something like this:

Years ago, Lucy gave me a basket of odd items and a book wrapped in some sort of red gauzy fabric. It was a book about a dozen uses of stuff like cat litter and aluminium foil (a couple of the odd items). I wanted to stitch a message on the red sheer stuff and have a white (A4/letter size folded in half) paper insert on which to hand write my message. It would be tied together at the fold with a ribbon. 

I envisioned this new style of card where the recipient would untie it, replace the paper insert with a new message and either return the card next year or pass it on to someone else. A slightly more personal touch, save a few trees, less glitter, more recycling. (I'm guilty of glitter selection, liking a bit of glitz at the holidays; I've vowed to do better).

However, I do recognise that one of the central themes of modern Christmas traditions is Conspicuous Consumption and this is so contrary to that principle it will never fly. Still, I enjoyed trying to make this card.

Only I couldn't find the red stuff. It's here somewhere, but in a very 'Safe Place'. So I picked up a bag Meriel had given me. Someone had sewn a bunch of large sheer bags and filled them with contributions of knitted items to our knitting group. Meriel handed out the bags to several of us.

It met the sheer criteria, it already had a seam, and I happened to have two sheets of red paper in my drawer. So that was plan 2.

I made a mock up of triangles and lettering on the computer and pinned that to the inside of the bag. I cut fabric triangles to size and pinned them to the sheer fabric to align with the template underneath. So far so good.

The fabric was very slippery and shiny and in spite of being pinned the triangles shifted a bit, which is why the tree is a bit wonky. So it looks homemade.

That is as far as I got for quite a while. We learned that Bill was going to have a pacemaker (it's a week past the surgery and he's fine - downstairs Hoovering at this very moment), the washing machine broke and had to be replaced, the car broke down and wasn't worth enough to fix, my good friend was in hospital with stomach problems (if they keep in you hospital here it has to be serious), my WI needed attention, we had to do our Christmas shopping...all the usual, and then some.

The day of the craft group meeting, I saw Meriel at the knitting group that morning and told her this card might or might not happen. I also needed to do the quiz I'd promised so the ladies could experience taking a citizenship test (I should write about that some time, eh?).

When I left there (my first excursion in the new-to-us car!) I ran into another friend (and another drove past) and so was delayed getting home - not that I minded.

I figured my silver star was a dog's breakfast because the thread caught on everything. I worked on it until I decided I couldn't make it any better (and certainly not any worse) and then moved on to the words. I would come back and see what else I might do with the star if time allowed (it didn't).

I set out to stitch the lettering with embroidery thread. My initial plan was to do chain stitch with yarn, but that seemed too unwieldy. Turns out it was all unmanageable. The fabric was so sheer as to be invisble, which made placing stitches tricky. I couldn't find anything that would write on this plastic stuff. The best outcome was to lick a white dressmaking pencil (v. hygienic and I don't want to know what is in the pencil), but even then the letters were only visible with a dark backing and if you looked at it sideways to avoid the sheen which was astonishingly blinding. One can't possibly refer to the letters as embroidered - it is more that I scribbled on the fabric using thread.

I moved away from the window to sit underneath a bright lamp, hence the glare. Then I decided I just couldn't see well enough with contacts and reading glasses. My nearly blind eyesight is still the sharpest at a distance of 2 inches, even if it does put me at risk of stabbing myself in the nose. It wasn't possible to keep the background pinned to the fabric and have adequate control of the needle so at that point it all became a bit free-hand, which is why the Merry looks like it had several Christmas sherry's. 

I replaced and removed my contacts several times, I can't remember exactly why - but nothing to do with sherry or any other alcohol. I think alcohol is nearly as incompatible with crafting as it is with driving; I just don't go there.

And the reason there are tension lines that cause the fabric to drape like the skin on an old woman's thighs is because I didn't use an embroidery hoop. And perhaps because I myself was a bit tense, trying to get it done in time. 

So, it got presented in an empty Christmas card box and no doubt the recipient, a member of the Embroiderer's Guild, will be in awe of this creation. I can see Leslie shaking her head with wonder that I would dare put this forward. (Actually she's a really lovely lady and she would just smile, show me her most recent breath-taking project, offer to teach me to make beautiful things and bring me another bag of her scraps).

For all its short comings, I'm happy with my first attempt at an eco-friendly (er) Christmas card. It's no worse than my kindergarten level efforts on Paint.

Happy Christmas everyone - and Best Wishes for 2019!

Wednesday, 19 December 2018

100 Years of Food - 2000s

2000 - Chocolate

I'm pretty sure I'm not the only person who finds it hard to believe the 2000s are 'history'. In fact I still think the 1990s were just a few weeks ago. 

Apparently it was in the 'noughties' that everyone got excited about chocolate. In the old days Brits wanting a bit of chocolate would pick up a bar by Cadbury called Bournville that was only 35% chocolate. Turns out this chocolate bar is named for the village near Birmingham where the Cadbury family first set up business.

I'm hopeless at sweets, having grown up largely without them. If someone says something is like a Mars Bar / Bounty / Snickers, I'm really none the wiser. I have eaten any and all of these at some point, I'm sure, just not often enough to make a memory-dent in my brain. I think I can say with some certainty that I've never heard of a Bournville (I didn't even know how to spell it).

Sue had collected some higher percentage chocolate bars ranging from 70-90% cocoa solids. The dish she made for this era was  a pan of chocolate brownies with prunes (from Green and Black 70%). It was nice enough, but I'm not that fussed about chocolate. so I cut my brownie in half. I brought the other half home for Bill.

Do you remember life before we even considered the percentage of cocoa in our chocolate?

Wednesday, 12 December 2018

100 Years of Food - 1990s

Things got a lot better in the 1990s and the dish they made for this decade is one I would definitely try. Just typing this reminds me I came across in 1995. Britain was a different place then to now. My very first impressions were that the women's shoes were ugly (all black and chunky, they made me wonder if socialism meant ugly shoes); people talked about the US a lot, largely in positive terms - business models, memories of American soldiers handing out candy (mind these were ideas I picked up eavesdropping in public places); the future of the NHS and of the welfare state didn't seem in danger; no one thought anything one way or the other about membership in the European Union, though I do remember when the Euro happened and we stuck with the GBP. Never mind, that was then. This is about September 2018 when I attended a lecture/ meal at the Northumberland Federation of the Women's Institute.

The dish for the 1990s was a Thai stir-fry with prawns (I called them shrimp*). Sue reminded us to 'de-vein' these little creatures. I think along the lines of gutting fish, since that black vein is their digestive tract. I can tell you it is worth the trouble - prawn poo is sandy and muddy tasting yuck. 

Her recipe included lemon grass, red chillies, ginger, lime juice, fish sauce, palm sugar, garlic, and coconut milk. When these are combined they made Red Curry Paste. Sue said used Blue Dragon Curry Paste instead. The stir fry included oil, grated ginger, garlic, spring onion, red pepper, mangetout  (what they call snow peas over here), prawns deveined and cut into strips (!? they must have been pretty large), simmered in coconut milk and served over rice noodles and bean sprouts. It smelled wonderful and tasted even better. 

No photo of the dish itself, but over here on the plate the Thai stir fry is at 6 o'clock. Which just happens to be when I start cooking dinner these days. 

*Turns out there is a difference between prawns and shrimp. They are different species, but they are cooked and taste the same.