Friday, 23 December 2011

merry lone star Christmas!

This year, we'll spend Christmas eve packing our suitcases. (Swimming things? Check. Baby monitor? Check. Camera and Flip? Check.) 
On Christmas morning at about 5.30am, we'll be bundling our sleepy boy into the car and driving to the airport. We're flying to Dallas first (about 9hrs) then on to Austin, where my Dad lives.
We won't be opening our stockings on Christmas morning this year! In fact we already did that at my mum's last Sunday, with my brother and his family. (Mine included: embroidery scissors, bias binding, chocolate marzipan, tangerine.)
{Ty Wilkins: source}
I LOVE Austin. I can't wait to: exchange gifts with my Dad and his wife; see the Christmas lights on 37th St; visit Central Market; ride the train at Zilker Park; swim in my Dad's plunge pool; see my little one chase my Dad's chickens; eat my Dad's homemade bread; eat tacos at TacoXpress... (and I might do "mommy & me yoga" - that would be sooo Austin!)
Taco Xpress on S. Lamar
Wish us luck with the Christmas day travelling adventure! I hope to post the occasional update while we're away. In the meantime I wish everyone a very merry, joyful and delightfully happy Christmas!
{lights on 37th St: source}

Wednesday, 21 December 2011

green things make me happy

It's raining, it's pouring, and I wish I'd have more time for snoring last night... the little one had me up from 4am and I'm feeling pretty cold and grey and grouchy. So it's time to turn to some things that make me smile...
sweet, pretty bracelet made from a vintage scarf, thanks to Lo of Printed Peaks
velvet-soft chai tea-scented handmade lip balm, thanks to Autumn Balm Botanicals
roses still flowering in my garden in late December, thanks to mother nature
lovely green rain artwork, thanks (again) to Ashlie
refreshing herbal tea thanks to Good Earth
big green-eyed owl planter who keeps me company at work, thanks to retrokitsch.

Thanks everyone, I feel much better!

Monday, 19 December 2011

iced spice biscuits

I've been making these biscuits since I was a child (I think they'd be "cookies" in US terms). I usually make them at Christmas time. They are really easy to make, keep their shapes well, store well and are delicious too! This year I enlisted my toddler to help cut out the shapes. The ingredients list is so easy to remember:
  • 250g (8oz) plain flour
  • 125g (4 oz) butter
  • 125g (4 oz) brown sugar
  • 1 beaten egg
  • teaspoon each of: ground cinnamon, ground cloves, ground nutmeg (you could also add ginger)
  • pinch of salt
  • For the icing: 125g icing sugar, 1-2 tablespoons hot water
oven setting: 190C (175C fan) / 375F / gas mark 5
grease a couple of baking trays before getting started; cream together the butter and sugar with a wooden spoon. I tried doing this with an electric beater this year but frankly thought it didn't help much! Beat in the egg a little at a time.
Sift in the flour, salt and spices. Actually I never bother sifting my flour, I must say.
Mix everything together into a ball of firm dough. It feels as though there is not enough liquid and it will never combine - just keep going, it will! Sprinkle flour onto a table and a rolling pin, then roll the dough to about 1/2cm (1/4inch) thickness. Cut out the shapes and gather up any leftover dough to re-roll and cut out. This dough withstands repeated rolling out very well - making it perfect for cooking with children!
 Put the biscuits on the trays and bake them on a high oven shelf. I prefer to bake them in several batches as I find it gives me more control. Although my original recipe states 15min cooking time, I find that with my electric fan oven it takes 10min at most, so just keep checking the first batch to work out what's right for your oven. they are ready when golden brown all round the edges.
Put the biscuits on a wire rack to cool. Mix the icing sugar and hot water together, being really carefully not to add too much hot water. Then spoon the icing onto the biscuits and spread it out with the back of your spoon. Gloop! If I had little silver decorative balls, I'd probably add some at this point. Sometimes I like to leave some un-iced as they are also yummy plain.
Leave to cool and set, then put into airtight boxes and leave over night to let the icing harden. Then they are ready to give away... or just eat! I don't know how long they keep for as they tend to go quickly... but I know they're fine for at least 4 days in an airtight tin. Probably a week would be fine! 

Friday, 16 December 2011

sloe gin

How do you describe a taste? This is a question my friend Ashlie had me thinking about recently (visit her blog if you're in the mood for some inspiration!) If I had to describe the taste of sloe gin, I'd say: it starts off fresh as a frosty morning, with a pink, fruity tang, then grows into a sweet, warm and cosy feeling that spreads through your body.
Hmmm, that kind of makes me sound like an alcoholic. I'm not, I promise - far from it! But I do love sloe gin. One sip is all you need really, and it's the perfect tipple for snowy winter evenings by the fire.
I should really be posting this in the Autumn, which is the time for gathering your sloes from the hedgerows, steeping them in gin and sugar and then pouring them into pretty bottles in time for Christmas. But the truth is I made this 2 years ago, in 2009, and there it sat in a cupboard with the sloes still huddling at the bottom of the old bottle and jar I used, until now!

Last night I finally poured it into pretty bottles to give away, and had a little taste myself (seriously scrumptious - perhaps I should always leave it a couple of years to mature?!) It was just what I needed as a homemade present to give to our lovely neighbours - with whom we picked the sloes one day when we went to walk their dogs with them!

Here's the recipe (to stow away for next Autumn), taken verbatim - becuase I love his style - from Richard Mabey's wonderful book, with which I am occasionally a little obsessed, Food for Free:

"The best time to pick sloes is immediately after the first frost, when the skins have softened and 'bletted' and have become more permeable. Sloe gin made at this time will, providentially, just be ready in time for Christmas.

Pick about 500g (1lb) of the marble-sized berries (do use a glove as the spines are stiff and sharp). If they have not been through a first frost, pierce the skin of each with a skewer, to help the gin and juices mingle more easily. 

Mix the sloes with half their weight of sugar, and then half fill the bottles with this mixture. Pour gin into the bottles until they are nearly full, and seal tightly. Store for at least two months, and shake occasionally to help dissolve and disperse the sugar. The result is a brilliant, deep pink liqueur, sour-sweet and refreshing"

I'm wondering: are sloes (also known as Blackthorn) a British thing?

Thursday, 15 December 2011

once upon a time...

I found these vintage children's books in a wonderful local bookshop called The Haunted Bookshop. I can't help but be charmed by the old-fashioned illustrations and quaint language ("chums"). It makes me feel nostalgic, but not for my own childhood: these are the books my parents' generation read as children. I love the sense that leafing through them connects me with another age.
I have decided to give some as Christmas presents to my nephew and niece, friends' children, and my son, in the hope that they too will find pleasure in peeking into childhoods of yesteryear. And some things don't change: naughty kittens and other cute animals, teddies, magic, friendship, and trains - all topics still adored by little ones.
I remember my mum telling me about Bill and Ben, the Flowerpot Men. I love that in this story they discover a Bush Baby!
My toddler is obsessed with trains and will love the story of Andy Pandy's train ride into the countryside. He'll also enjoy pointing out the teddy and shouting "nounou"! ("nounours" is French for teddy).
Of course, giving these books a new lease of life in the hands of the next generation is also about avoiding buying new things this Christmas, as part of my Careful Christmas Project (which is going pretty well, by the way!)

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

make some mini cakes!

butternut squash mini cakes
I made these for a festive gathering with friends on Sunday. They are perfect for taking to parties, and so quick to make that they are great for last-minuters/folks with small children etc. You can play around with the ingredients: try grated courgette with fresh mint and parmesan!
If you don't have little silicone mini-cake molds you can use muffin cases (it is basically a muffin recipe, really). I always have too much mixture for my 6 mini cake cases so end up making some muffin-shaped ones as well.


1/2 butternut squash, cooked & diced (roasted in a little oil or butter until soft)
100g lardons or chopped bacon (optional - veggies can just leave out or replace with goat's cheese)
75g grated mature cheddar cheese (or gruyère, or other flavoursome hard cheese)
handful of finely chopped fresh parsley (or frozen)
70ml milk
70ml olive oil
125g plain flour
2 eggs
1tsp baking powder
1tsp bicarbonate of soda
salt & pepper, to taste
handful of sunflower seeds


- pre-heat oven to 200C (170C fan) / 400F / gas mark 6
- lightly beat the eggs, oil and milk in a large bowl
- very gently add the squash, grated cheese, lardons (if using), and parsley;
- season (I skip salt if using lardons/bacon) & very gently mix in the flour, baking powder and bicarb (a good idea to mix these together in another bowl first);
- be careful not to stir too much - keep the mixture nice and lumpy so it rises well.
- transfer to cases and sprinkle sunflower seeds (or pumpkin seeds) over the top. Try to do this quite quickly so that the baking powder can hit that hot oven while it's at its peak!
- cook for 20 minutes, or until they are nice and golden
- leave to cool on a rack before turning out of cases
- TIP: cut into slices they make pretty canapés!

I hope this gives you some recipe inspiration: I'm linking it up with Polkadot Pretties today!

Friday, 9 December 2011

I heart lavender (and my mum)

Lately in the evenings I have been making lavender hearts as Christmas presents. It's a lovely relaxing evening activity, immersed in the powdery perfume of lavender and the resiny fragrance of the Christmas tree and surrounded by pretty scraps of fabric and ribbon.
When I came across this book, I loved the idea of using vintage embroidered linen to make lavender bags. I have become a little obsessed with scouring eBay for pretty pieces. I'm going to have to make some miniature versions too because some of my linen scraps are too small for this template.
Lavender bags are very special things for me, because I remember my mother making them when I was a child. My little brother was in a choir that was going on a concert trip to Rome. My mum made batches of fudge and piles of sweet little lavender bags bordered with lace and we took them door to door on a big tray, selling them to make money for his trip! I was fascinated by the process and the pretty fabrics. (One day I'll try out her fudge recipe too).
I loved using vintage materials to make these (I used scraps of new cotton for the backing). I realise that a lot of my spools of thread are in fact 'vintage' because my mum passed on her big stash to me - a wonderful gift!
I have a stock of vintage ribbon that I bought from a local shop. I also like to re-use the ribbons that come inside new dresses to keep them on the hanger in the shop! (Hey Laura from Blue Eyed Night Owl - I love that you do this too!)
See, it looks so pretty as a little bow on the lavender heart I made for my friend! Hoarding things, and the little thrill I get whenever I feel I've got something "for free" is another thing I've inherited from my mum!
What has your mother passed on to you?

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

tree stories

I love getting out the Christmas decorations and putting up the tree - who doesn't? I especially love the way each object holds a story or memory, and the way each year something new is added to the collection.
I bought this gorgeous golden owl (along with some hearts) a few years ago from Posh Graffiti, which is an amazing, British, ethical company sourcing handmade letters and decorations fair-trade from Bali, using sustainable timber (more about their ethics here). I bought it for our first Christmas in our own home.
This funny little fellow was a present from an owl-loving friend many years ago. I kept it for years, waiting to have a place where I could put up a tree.
This pretty blue sparrow is a new addition - a handmade present from sweet Andrea of Paper Sparrow! It arrived in the gorgeous package I mentioned in this post.
This little horse is very special as he is older than I am! He was always on our Christmas tree at home throughout my childhood and my mum passed him on to me. He has a little green friend too, just seen in the photo below.
Behind the owl you can see a home-made decoration, 'noël'. About 3 years ago my husband and I decided to make felt decorations. Neither of us knew how to sew so we just winged it! We had a lot of fun. I still really love all the things we made then, even though I can see everything I did wrong! My husband made the black moon and yellow star just seen in the photo below.
This elaborate green kitty comes from Singapore. We bought him in the airport there while we wandered round in a daze on our long journey back from Australia in 2009. He reminds me of an amazing trip and I reminds me that I've set foot in Singapore, even though we never left the airport.

Tuesday, 6 December 2011

book review: Owl

So, I'm finally getting round to reviewing the book I first mentioned in this post. It took me quite a while to read it (in the meantime I read some other things too), which already tells you something about the book: it's definitely more of an informative read than a gripping page-turner!
northern spotted owl, p.145
However I enjoyed it and would definitely recommend it to owl lovers. Not only is it full of intriguing facts and stories about owls, it also has plenty of lovely colour illustrations of owls, from cave drawings to tribal appliqué.
Wounaan Indian cloth appliqué molita, p.104
Desmond Morris (whose books about human behaviour I was fascinated by as a child) writes in a chatty, lighthearted and straightforward style that is easy to read. He also has occasional bouts of dry humour, which sometimes works and sometimes falls a little flat.

He seems keen to defend owls both from ardent fans (who imagine them to be wise when in fact they are such good hunters that they haven't evolved to be particularly clever) and fearful detractors (who superstitiously associate them with darkness and evil). What is amazing is that both these extreme reactions to owls appear to have existed since the earliest civilisations.
Owl, Skull & Candle, anonymous Dutch or German painting from 17th Century, p.43
Morris clearly admires owls, however, and wants the reader to love them as he does: simply as magnificent birds and expert predators, without the burden of symbolism and myth that seem always to have flourished along with humans' fascination with owls.

He is not interested in owls as 'cute' and does not deign to say much about the proliferation of cute owl designs in conetmporary culture (he looks briefly at owls as sports club emblems etc.)

He does include a very sweet child's drawing of an owl, to show how children, as in some early/tribal images of owls, will often draw the wings around the front so that they are visible (which is also true of a lot of cute owl designs).
'Wise owl, Sad owl, Angry owl' by Matilda, age 10, 2008 (p.8)
Although I was fascinated by the cave engravings (there is a 30,000 year-old great-horned owl etched into a cave in France!) I think my favourite chapter was probably 'Owls and Artists' - I loved reading about Picasso's owl, and how he was "well-aware of the fact that his own face had an owl-like quality"!

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