Tuesday, 24 March 2009

Fairy houses

To make a fairy house you will need:

  • A walk outside – forest, beach, park and garden are all good. The urban landscape is more of a challenge but not impossible.
  • A small child or two
  • A little bit of time and imagination

All good fairy houses have:

  • A roof
  • A path
  • Beds or chairs
  • A bath
  • Interior d├ęcor

Many fairy houses are much fancier and have things like:

  • Dancing circles
  • Carpets
  • Flagpoles
  • Cups and plates
  • Balconies
  • Chill out rooms
  • Boats

And if you want to turn really pro, take some inspiration from this book. Classics such as The Borrowers and Little Grey Men also make me think of fairy houses.

Monday, 23 March 2009

A short note about shortbread

Each December I buy an M&S tin of shortbread, and I feel that Christmas has started. The tins are enchanting and the all-butter shortbread is luxurious, rich and crumbly – leaving a shower of sugar and golden crumbs behind, no matter how tidy an eater you are. My annual tin of shortbread is the only time in the year I ever buy biscuits from a shop. The children appreciate the rarity of this transaction and treat M&S shortbread with the sort of reverence that in years gone by used to come with an exotic fruit from the other side of the world.

“You bought it in a shop!” one murmurs.
“From M&S!” the other one adds, with shining eyes.
“Look at the beautiful tin!” I say.

And once Christmas is over, the shortbread has been eaten and the tin is in my collection under the worktop, I forget about shortbread until next December.

But this year, the memory of shortbread has lingered….I don’t know why, but it is now March and I rather fancied a piece of shortbread with my morning coffee. I already know that M&S only sells beautiful tins of shortbread at Christmas, because one year I thought it would be a lovely idea to give everybody in my family tins of shortbread for their birthday; and not even my sister, who has a January birthday, got one.

So I’ve made some.

And it turns out that shortbread is possibly the easiest biscuit to make in the world.

The recipe I ended up using is an amalgam of various recipes from Nigella, Rachel Allen and the BBC Good Food magazine. I had a big tub of lavender sugar sitting on my shelf that I had been wondering how to use for a while, and something about the Scottishness of shortbread and the purple of the herb made me think that lavender flavoured shortbread would be a particularly nice idea. I think I had purple heather in mind, not lavender actually, but no matter because it turned out to be an inspired idea anyway.

The lavender adds aroma without being overpowering. This is still plain, simple, shortbread. You could try making them even plainer, with regular caster sugar in place of the lavender sugar; or Good Food magazine had a vanilla variation – use vanilla sugar in place of the lavender sugar.

The List Writer’s Lavender Shortbread

  • 325g plain flour
  • 200g chilled, unsalted butter – chopped into smallish chunks
  • 125g lavender sugar
  • 3 free range egg yolks

Put the flour and the chunks of butter into a food processor. Process until the mixture looks like fine breadcrumbs. Add the sugar and the egg yolks and process again until the mixture comes together as a stiff ball of dough. Unusually for a food processor, this second stage takes quite a while – about 3 minutes in my Magimix machine. If your eggs are BIG, just add two yolks at first – you may not need the third.

Chill the dough in clingfilm in the fridge for about an hour.

Take the dough out and roll it to no less than 1cm thick, on a work surface well dusted with flour. Shortbread should be chunky, not crispy, and you should leave this dough much thicker than you would for normal biscuits. Stamp out shapes and put them on a baking sheet. I got 32 heart-shaped pieces of shortbread out of this much dough.

Bake the shortbread at Gas 7 for 8 to 10 minutes. You do not want to let the shortbread colour – it should be the palest gold – so check after 8 minutes. Take the biscuits out of the oven and leave to cool on the tray for 5 minutes before transferring them to a wire rack. You could dust with extra sugar at this point if you like your biscuits a bit sweeter.

Store in a pretty tin, give as presents to your friends and family, and eat all year round. Yum!

Friday, 20 March 2009

Speedy sewing

My sewing these days is all about the quick projects that I can fit in between knitting sessions. I am on a mission with these socks!

In John Lewis a couple of weeks ago, I found a good simple pattern for trousers for C. The pattern is from Simplicity 3669 for children's pyjamas.
I love this kind of easy, elasticated trousers. In our house we call them 'house trousers' and wear them as a halfway compromise between pyjamas and getting dressed. Sunday mornigns and camping trips in particular, are all about house trousers. What do you call them? I rather like the American phrase lounge pants - but pants are definitely underwear in this house.
There are a few rules for house trousers:
  • the fabric should be loud and jazzy
  • the waist should be at least partly elasticated
  • everybody needs several pairs

Both Boden and the White Company do lovely house trousers, but goodness the price! And I also notice, doing these links, that The White Company have got a fraction of the stock they had a month ago.

Anyhoo, I decided this was ridiculous and that I needed to make house trousers myself, so I bought a couple of metres of Amy Butler's Daisy Chain cotton and got stuck in. The trousers were incredibly quick - about an hour and a half from start to finish - and that included tracing the pattern onto greaseproof paper first because I want to make these in several sizes. It also included zigzagging the seam allowance, which wasn't in the instructions but which I think gives a sturdier and more professional finish.

I love them, C loves them, and a pair for O - perhaps with extra ribbon around the ankles - is in the pipeline.

The trousers were so quick that yesterday evening I also made myself a keyring to replace the pretty Cath Kidston one I lost in the Great Key Disaster of last week. The felt is pure wool felt and comes from Myriad Toys - a wonderful new discovery. A quick bit of embroidery and a rummage through the button jar and ribbon box, and I was done. There are SO going to be some more of these made as presents this year.

Back to the socks....

Wednesday, 18 March 2009

Cooperative Correspondence

I am reading an enchanting book: Can any mother help me? By Jenna Bailey.

It is a history of a Cooperative Correspondence Club, or CCC, set up in the mid 1930s by a group of women in response to letter sent into a women’s magazine. The letter was from a young mother, living in rural England, bored and frustrated by domesticity and the loneliness of her life who was yearning for a hobby ‘to stop myself brooding’. Several readers of the magazine got in touch with her to suggest a correspondence club, and the CCC was born.

Each woman (there were about 20 to 25 altogether) submitted an article to the person they had all agreed would be editor. The editor bound the articles all together and added a homemade cover before posting the magazine off to someone in the club along with a list of who the magazine was to be posted to next. Each woman could add notes and comments to any of the articles before posting it on. A new magazine was compiled and sent out every fortnight so there were always several issues in circulation at once. The women wrote about their experiences with their children and their wider families. They also wrote about politics, birth, books they had read, philosophy, sex, economics, funny exploits, health and the cinema. Any and every topic was covered, and some lively debates came out of the articles and comments.

The friendships these women made in the CCC lasted for over fifty years. They were from all over Britain and Ireland and their correspondence club continued until they were old women in their seventies and eighties. Some of them met in person on a regular basis. Many never met, and even kept their identities secret through nom-de-plumes. But they were all friends, and the letters, articles and comments sustained them through the difficult as well as the ordinary and joyous times in their lives.

It struck me last night, that if these women had been born into our era, they would be blogging. I didn’t start my blog because I was lonely or frustrated, but what I get out of blogging and reading other people’s blogs seems to match what the women in the book got out of the CCC. The friendships, the pictures, the sharing of stories from different kinds of women in so many different parts of Britain (and the world), the inspiration, the humour and the unusual viewpoints are all things I love about the blogs I read. Some blogs I follow have authors who were my friends for years beforehand; some bloggers have become new friends. I know I will never meet most of the people who read my blog and yet I feel that I have a friendship with many of them. I know that if we did meet up, we would laugh and chatter with no shyness at all.

This seems to me to be a particularly female phenomenon; this desire to share details of our lives with others and build up friendships through it. Men write blogs too – but the only ones I know of are work blogs – Mark Mardell’s Europe anyone? Are there any men out there writing creatively about their everyday lives and creating friendships across the world with that “Oh! Me too!” feeling? I’ve not found any.

So I think we now have a worldwide Cooperative Correspondence Club – less CCC and more WWW. Although I very often stare at my blog thinking ‘what shall I write next?’ somehow, something always does get written. People read what I write and respond to what I write and so I get to know them. I do the same on other people’s blogs. It sustains me, and I hope I will continue until I am an old lady too.


Friday, 13 March 2009

Coffee and me

I drank my first cup of coffee when I was nearly twenty four years old. I always liked the smell, but never the taste.

The thing that drove me to it in the end was a job interview with KPMG for a graduate trainee position. My interview was an all day one. To get to central London from Norwich, ready to start my interview at 9am, I had woken at 5am. I was a student, and more suited to going to bed at 5am.

At 8:45am I was standing in a board room, dressed in a suit for the first time in my life, with about 20 other candidates and a large table full of freshly brewed coffee in large jugs. It smelt amazing. I clearly remember looking at the jugs and thinking If I am going to get through this day without falling asleep I need some caffeine. And the cups of builders tea and packets of pro plus that had sustained me through University suddenly didn't seem suitable.

So I poured myself a cup of coffee, added a splash of milk, and pretended to the room that I had been drinking it all my life. I loved the coffee and got the job - it was a momentous day.

I drink coffee every day. Not loads - usually just one large cup in the middle of the morning, and occasionally another in the middle of the afternoon. But I am not very nice if I don't have it. I rarely drink anything other than filter coffee or espresso. Cappucinos and lattes don't taste enough of coffee.

I buy my beans from all sorts of places - currently from Abel & Cole, but I love Taylors of Harrogate and Starbucks beans too.

I like the coffee rituals I have built up:

  • putting the coffee machine on as soon as I get home after dropping C and O at school
  • calling in at Caffe Neros when I get off the tube on a work day
  • choosing which flavour of beans to grind at the weekend
  • packing the aluminium espresso maker when we go camping
  • choosing which mug I want to drink out of

We're in a proper relationship now, me and coffee.

Tuesday, 10 March 2009

10 things

1. I love this article on yesterday’s Magazine section of the BBC website. I commuted both yesterday and today, knitting socks. This is much easier than commuting with my regular needles – nobody got accidentally poked as I finished a row.

2. At the weekend, I received a parcel from Driftwood – my prize from her 200th post giveaway. She has excellent taste in chocolate and ribbon, and the felted flower is just beautiful. Thank you Tess!

3. I made two more of the Oliver + S skirts on Sunday in this summery turquoise and pink print, for O and her cousin. Every time I make them I am delighted with how quick and pretty they are.

4. I am feeling bad that I can’t make something as quick and lovely for C. But I bought a simple pyjama trousers pattern on Saturday, so I am sure I will soon.

5. He wants a bandana like mine (except I call it a headscarf not a bandana) instead of the pyjamas. He thought a black and red gingham would be good, but I can’t say I’ve ever seen black and red gingham.

6. He may get a bandana AND pyjamas. But in a blue Amy Butler print, not black and red gingham.

7. Carrot cake with a lime icing was a suggestion from Garden Girl. She is a genius. Do try it next time you are making a carrot cake.

8. I really want to go and see the V&A exhibition on hats. I love hats and this just looks so cool.

9. I am reading A Ragged Schooling by Robert Roberts. It is an immensely readable and entertaining book that I just lose myself in.

10. Lady Grey tea is even nicer than Earl Grey tea. Try it, I insist.

Friday, 6 March 2009

A simple, quick headscarf

I wanted to make myself a headscarf like these Blythe dolls from Flickr are sporting. A funky, hippyish, 1970s inspired, tied-behind-the-hair-not-under-the-chin-like-the-Queen-at-the-races, headscarf.

I spent far too long trying to remember my GCSE geometry in an attempt to work out how long the sides of the square needed to be to give me a particular measurement diagonally. In the end I gave up, ate some chocolate and emailed G at work, who reminded me that it was Pythagoras that did what I neeeded: A squared plus B squared equals C squared. Helpfully he'd done the actual calculations for me as well, so I didn't have to start wondering whether A, B or C was the diagonal and how the square root formula worked in Excel.

So I cut out a 26" square from a large remnant of Moda fabric I had been hoarding. I hemmed each side with a double quarter inch hem to give me a scarf that measures 25.5" square and a little over 35" on the diagonal.

As I sat down to sew I was listening to Woman's Hour on Radio 4, and in one of those delightfully coincidental moments they had a discussion on headscarves. Perfect!

Wednesday, 4 March 2009

Starting and finishing

I hate starting something and not finishing it. A book to read, a cake to eat, a room to redecorate - I am generally good at seeing something through right to the end. If Magnus Magnusson had not got there first, my catchphrase would have been 'I've started so I'll finish'. I am an expert at plugging away at something until it is done.
But this week I find myself suddenly in a strange, alien world of UFOs - the Un Finished Objects that haunt so many crafters.
I blame knitting, personally. Since I picked up my needles and the Stitch & Bitch book on Boxing Day I have wanted to make so many things. And knitting takes time - especially when you're learning. I can't make a hat in an evening,m no matter how motivated I am. When I finish a mitten, there is its matching twin to make next. Socks are going to lie around half finished for weeks! The seductive yarns out there tempt me into starting new things and adding new projects to my Ravelry list.
This year I've also turned to embroidery. I so much enjoyed the tiny bit of embroidery that I did for my holiday traditions swap that I've bought a couple more hoops and a small selection of Anchor threads. I made some little embroidered chickens for a chicken-loving-friend on her birthday, and I've started on another small flock. Yet to be finished.
I am more used to sewing aprons, book covers, dolls' clothes, skirts and bags that can all be finished in one or two short sewing sessions.
Perhaps I am spreading my enthusiasms too thinly. I want to make more than just one panel for O's strawberry quilt. I want to do some more embroidery - moving on from chickens to flowers. I need to knit myself a second red mitten and finish that first slow, but wondrous, pair of socks. My sister is getting married in exactly one month's time and I want to make her a wedding present...maybe I'm not spreading myself too thin, but I should just get on and do some sewing!
So I've made two lists. And as long as the Things to finish list remains shorter than the Things to start list, I think I will be fine.

Sunday, 1 March 2009

The nonsense list

On holiday and away from the predictability of our day-to-day life, I discovered that my family speak complete nonsense.

Some recent examples:
  • "Had I married Barbie...."
  • "When's it going to be my turn to be the oldest?"
  • "There's a peacock perching on top of the hay bales"
  • "I know. You burp and I'll take the photos."

These sentences made no sense at the time. Even less so now.