Friday, 28 October 2011

An autumn shawl

I finished my baktus shawl earlier this week and haven't really taken it off since.  I am working my way through all the cream, green and brown coloured clothes in my wardrobe, which look so delicious topped off with a little autumn-coloured shawl.

Autumn baktus shawl

I love this pattern, I love this yarn, and I love the finished item.  So darn satisfying when that happens.

The pattern is this one, for a little shawl or a big scarf, called a baktus.  It was simplicity itself to make, and caused me no stress at all other than a frustration that I couldn't knit faster and get it done sooner.

Autumn baktus shawl

The yarn I used is a 4 ply sock yarn called Superba Safari by Rico.  I am addicted to sock yarns and would knit everything out of them if I could.  I bought this one while I was in Switzerland last year, purely for its beautiful brown and green shades.  You can also buy it online from quite a few UK yarn shops if you have a rummage.

I do love shawls, and they are one of the best reasons to enjoy this cool, blustery time of year.  Most of the time I wrap myself up in a big, red and blue striped, Cath Kidston shawl, but sometimes I wear a pashmina - I have a pale blue one and a pale pink one.  Now I've got the option of my autumn baktus as well, and that makes me very happy.

Other shawl love at the moment consists of:
And I've finished my autumn shawl just at the right time.  The cherry tree in the garden is dropping rich golden coloured leaves which match my new shawl, and I am off to Kew this weekend in search of even more autumn colour.  Wearing the shawl, obviously.

Cherry tree in autumn colours

Baktus shawl

    Friday, 21 October 2011

    Ten things

    • I went to Southwark yesterday, and with half an hour to spare before my meeting I stood by the river and watched the world go by.
    • Southwark Bridge
      St Paul's Cathedral in the sunshine
    • C turned twelve yesterday, and although he technically has another year to go, it feels like we have a teenager in the house now.  I feel ill-equipped to mother a teenager.  It reminds me of that moment twelve years and one day ago, when the midwives who had delivered him left about an hour after the birth, and I sat on my bed shouting silently after them "Don't go!  I don't know anything about babies!  I DON'T KNOW WHAT I'M DOING!"
    • My Toast armwarmers featured on the Mollie Makes blog this morning, which was a lovely surprise.  But just look at the gloves at the top of the post!  I am going to make myself some more Toast and then embroider them - so lovely.
    • O turns nine tomorrow.  The birthday cake she has asked for is Death by Chocolate with a chocolate buttercream filling and a chocolate ganache topping.  With chocolate sprinkles.
    • The hens have started laying again - about bloody time as they've all been moulting, or broody, or both, since July.  And just in time too, as the Death by Chocolate cake requires a whopping 5 eggs.
    • I am continuing to try new versions of old favourites.  Today I made Sarah Raven's minestrone from her Garden Cookbook.  It uses red cabbage and red wine in place of the usual white wine and savoy cabbage.  I absolutely love how it tastes, but it looks a bit unnervingly purple.
    • Making minestrone
    • I want to make this ploughman's loaf.  The recipe is from Mary-Anne Boerman, who was one of the finalists on this year's Great British Bake Off.  I love that programme, and am mourning its passing for another year.
    • I am greatly enjoying The Archers spin-off show on Radio 4 Extra - Ambridge Extra.  I am so pleased the BBC decided to make a second series because I love hearing more of the younger characters, and revealing internal monologues that you don't get on the main show.
    • I am reading the new Ottobre children's pattern magazine, which dropped heavily onto the hall carpet yesterday.  I knew just from the thud that there was something exciting in the post.  I love the boys' blue shirt you can see in the fourth picture down, and O is excited that there is a pattern for a flannel-lined kimono dressing gown which will fit her.  I am enjoying dithering over which new Anna Maria Horner flannel should be purchased.
    • I found this beautiful necklace via the wonderful website Bookshelf Porn.  Don't be alarmed by the name - it is a website which posts daily photos of bookshelves you wish you owned.  Go forth and rummage - you'll love it.

    Wednesday, 19 October 2011

    I heart pies

    I love pies with all my heart.  Pies make me happy.  There is no casserole or stew in the world that couldn't be improved with a lid of some sort.  I love crumbles, cobblers and crunchy breadcrumb toppings to pies, but a proper pie has a pastry top.  I think my love of pies might really be a love of pastry.

    Most of the time I end up making two pies at once because I always make more pastry than I need for the main event.  I find it easier to have plenty of pastry and deal with leftovers than work with a parsimonious amount of pastry.

    This morning I made C the giant mince pie he requested for his twelfth birthday tomorrow.  I used the orange-scented pastry that Nigella makes for mince pies in her Feast book - it has a very subtle orange flavour and is not too rich, but flakes beautifully.  I added a peeled and diced bramley apple to the giant jar of mincemeat I had (leftover from last Christmas - mincemeat keeps wonderfully, tucked away at the back of a dark shelf).  C loves apples, and a chopped apple stirred in made the mincemeat go further - you need a great deal of filling for a pie this big.

    I decided not to go with a proper lid.  When I make small ones at Christmas I always top them with a star, and I thought stars would look rather nice on a birthday pie too.  I cut out the letters for C's name and added them to the stars to make it extra celebratory.

    Cam's birthday mince pie
    C's giant mince pie, for his 12th birthday

    Because the stars on the top didn't use much pastry I had plenty left over.  Often I turn small amounts of leftover pastry into jam tarts (for sweet pastry) or cheese straws (for savoury pastry) but there was enough left today for a whole other pie.  I chopped up another couple of bramleys, tossed the pieces with brown sugar and allspice, and made an apple pie which we can have for tea tonight.  The apple pie was topped with a hedgehog just because I have a sweet hedgehog cutter from Ikea that I like using.

    Apple pie with gratuitous hedgehog motif
    Apple pie, with gratuitous hedgehog motif

    So the birthday boy gets pie on birthday eve and pie on his birthday.  He likes pie too.

    Pie notes
    • I always brush the top of my pies with milk, not beaten egg.  This is because I can always think of better things to do with an egg than use it to glaze a pie (and have half a floury beaten egg left over - what a waste!).  Milk ends up giving a very similar burnished result, although admitedly a slightly less shiny one.
    • Get a silicone pastry brush.  For years I used a bristle one that looked lovely but left bristles over the tops of my pies.  Not a good look.
    • Mostly I use shortcrust pastry for pies, and I make it in my mixer.  I mix two parts strong white bread flour to one part fat (which is usually 50:50 butter and trex) then add liquid once the flour and fat look like breadcrumbs.  Liquid is usually water, but can be milk or egg.  For C's mince pie the liquid was orange juice.
    • Life's too short to get really het up over how neat a pie looks.  If it is patched and slightly raggedy it will still taste great.
    • If I'm making pasties rather than pies or tarts I use rough-puff pastry.  The best instructions I've found for rough-puff are in Hugh F-W's River Cottage Every Day book.
    • If you use metal pie and tart tins you never have to blind bake the pastry.
    • I am hoping that somebody who loves me might buy me this t-shirt for Christmas.
    • I currently have the Pieminister cookbook out of the library.  It is a glorious book with pies arranged according to season.  I've tried their curried chicken and squash pie recipe which was stunning. 
    • This Hairy Bikers' Perfect Pies book was out last week and is also on my reserve list at the library.  I have great hopes for it, as the pie recipes in their Mums Know Best books are already real favourites in our family.

      Two pies for the birthday boy

      Sunday, 16 October 2011

      A thank you cushion

      I haven't done much sewing reccently, and I've missed it.  I spent a couple of hours this afternoon cutting and piecing this cushion, and marvelled at how calming the whole process of sewing is for me.  I am very methodical when I sew, and I enjoy that.  I could do with being more methodical and less flighty in other things I do.

      Purple & blue cushion

      The cushion is a thank you present for a friend who has helped me out with some childcare this autumn.  Those sorts of friends really are the best, aren't they?

      Thursday, 13 October 2011

      Autumn birthdays and autumn knitting

      Next week there are four birthdays in five days: son, daughter, brother and nephew.  I am running between the Post Office and the sorting office.  Birthday baking has begun.

      Brownies and buns for a birthday
      Brownies and buns for a birthday

      These are chocolate brownies and fairy cakes - fresh out of the oven and waiting for decoration.  The house smells good. 

      C has asked for a giant mince pie for his birthday cake.  He loves mince pies more than anything else, but I refuse to make them out of season - they are just too Christmassy to have at any other time of year.  However, the birthday rules in our house state that the birthday person is allowed to have any cake they want.  So I have agreed to make a giant mince pie because I think birthday rules should outrank seasonality rules.

      The other thing I am busy with at the moment is clearing a backlog of knitting projects.  I desperately want to wear this baktus scarf I started ages ago, with autumn in mind.  Last night I stayed up late so that I could get to the turning point and start decreasing. 

      Corner turned - hallelujah!
      Turning point - yee-hah!

      Baktus scarf - turning the coner
      Half-way through the baktus scarf

      Psychologically I am much keener to finish it now that I know I am over half-way though.
      Then I need to turn my attention to this baby kicking bag for a new neice who is due in February (very exciting, as she comes after three nephews in a row - I only have one neice at the moment).  I knittted kicking bags for my last two nephews (you can read the blog posts here and here) and they proved to be very useful and appreciated gifts.  A kicking bag is such a practical item for a newborn baby.

      Kicking bag for a new baby
      Baby kicking bag for a new neice

      With this red bag I have finished the cabled cuff and now just need to sit down and go round and round in stocking stitch for a few weeks.  Time for some dedicated tv and film watching.  Perhaps accompanied by a slice of birthday cake.

      Tuesday, 11 October 2011

      Local Leyton parks

      Walking through two of Leyton's parks this morning on my way to the library, it still felt more summery than autumnal.  The temperature hit 21 degrees again at lunchtime and only the colour of the leaves on the ground told me that we really, truly are in the middle of autumn.

      Sidmouth Park in Leyton
      Sidmouth Park, Leyton

      Coronation Gardens, Leyton
      Coronation Gardens, Leyton

      Rosebuds in Coronation Gardens, Leyton
      October rosebuds in Coronation Gardens, Leyton
      Walking through the park
      Autumn leaves in Leyton

      I put my sandals away a week or two ago, but I was too hot in these trainers today.  Time to reapply the nail varnish I think.

      Sunday, 9 October 2011


      I find it is much harder to maintain perspective on annoying days, tough days, delightful days and challenging days, now that I am not working.  My working life got me out of the house, doing something different each day and seeing different things in the shops and the streets where I worked.  Being at home all day, sewing, knitting, writing and spending time with the children, has been much more satisfying and fulfilling than work was for me, but it does leave me with a regrettable tendency to navel-gaze.

      The best way to step back, get some perspective on those 'annoyances' that actually barely qualify to be termed 'minor inconveniences', is to spend a day with friends and leave the care of the home and children to your husband for the day.

      I had such a good time with my friends that I didn't take any pictures of the Power of Making exhibition at the V&A (I was too busy freaking out about the cake designed to look like a naked newborn baby, and admiring the knitting needles the size of tent poles).  Nor did I take any pictures while we were window-shopping in the Liberty haberdashery department.

      We marched with purpose through Soho to Gordon's Wine Bar at Charing Cross and I didn't take any photos there either because I was too busy chatting to everybody, drinking a welcome glass or two of wine, and scoffing delicious cheese.

      You might have thought I'd have managed to take some photos at the tapas bar on Goodge Street later that evening, but no.  The patatas bravas needed to be eaten and we were having a wine-fuelled conversation about feminism and motherhood.

      I came home barely able to remember the things that had made me so cross at the start of the day.  And this morning, after a cup of tea which put back some of what all that wine took out, I found that G had not just spent the day doing all the household jobs I normally would have done, but he had also bought me flowers.

      Flowers on my desk from G
      Flowers from G on my desk

      Flowers on the mantelpiece from G
      Flowers from G on the mantelpiece

      I need to get out more.


      With many thanks to Naomi, Sophie, Noni, Cath, Michelle and Liz for the laughs and for giving me back my perspective.

      Thursday, 6 October 2011

      Old faithfuls

      I love trying new recipes, and I also love making old familiar recipes over and over again.  But something I've been very bad at trying is new versions of old favourite dishes.  It seems all wrong to go gallivanting around with new ideas when you've already got a recipe that is well loved, well tested and that you know by heart.

      And yet...whisper it...maybe there could be something even better than that old faithful recipe you've been making forever.

      So over the past month I have been RADICAL and DARING and tried out some new versions of old favourites.

      I had an early success with flapjacks: out went the recipe my Mum gave me when I left home (sorry Ma!) and in came the Peyton & Byrne version.  The Peyton & Byrne recipe has dried fruit in it, and a high butter to syrup ratio, making them less good for your arteries, but kinder on your teeth.  O, who doesn't normally like flapjacks, loved these ones.

      Then I decided to try a bigger challenge - meatloaf.  The recipe I've been baking since I was a teenager is one that a neighbour passed on to my Mum in the late 1970s.  My brother and I loved it as children, and my children now love it too.  It has hidden vegetables in it, succulent tender meat, and makes the whole house smell amazing while it bakes.  I felt very emotionally attached to my old recipe and thought that there was very little that could rival it.  But that recipe calls for both beef and pork, so when I only had beef but had already told my children and their friends that they were having meatloaf for tea, I had to look for another recipe.

      I went for the one in the second Hairy Bikers Mum Knows Best book.  I didn't think anything was going to come up to the standard of my inherited recipe, but this new one was a revelation - quicker to make, much less fatty without the additional pork, and just as tasty.  The four children demolished the lot and asked for more.

      And then I decided to mess around with that most sacred of old favourite recipes: fairy cakes.  I read somewhere a while back that if you swap half the quantity of flour for custard powder in your usual recipe then it makes for a more vanillary, creamy sponge  without altering the texture.  And today I tried it. 

      I made autumn buns to use up the last of the unrefined icing sugar I bought in a fit of worthiness a couple of months ago.  Unrefined icing sugar is not a good idea.  It makes a murky, caramel-coloured icing that does not mix well with food colouring.  But the shade of icing is vaguely autumnal so I added some autumn sprinkles and rather liked the end result.

      Autumn buns
      Autumn buns

      And the addition of custard powder to the recipe was agreed by all to be A Very Good Thing.  The buns were light and full of flavour.  There aren't many of them left.

      So what's next?  Is nothing sacred?  I still haven't found the nerve to mess around with my shortbread recipe, but perhaps I should.

      Monday, 3 October 2011

      Me and my car

      Driving in London holds little pleasure.  The roads are congested, slow and full of roadworks, and you burn through expensive, polluting petrol sitting in traffic jams just to go a mile or two down the road.  And at the same time, the much-maligned tube and bus networks are fantasically convenient.  Bikes are now everywhere in London and bike stands to lock your bike to are springing up all over the place - including right outside my local knitting shop, which is costing me dearly.

      I spend much of my life trying to avoid going out in the car. 

      Driving home at Christmas - 2008
      Driving down the Mile End Road in East London, 2007

      The more I walk around London, the more I enjoy walking, and it is slowly dawning on me that everything is closer together than the tube network would lead me to believe.  I drive O the three and a half miles to school in the mornings, but pick her up by tube and on foot in the afternoons.  I am counting down the days (years in reality) until she joins her brother at secondary school and I don't have to use the car every day.

      Cam reading in the car
      C on the way to primary school, 2008.  He has to walk to secondary school now, and moans constantly about it.

      And yet...I really love driving and I love my car.  Just as long as it's not in London.  I relish long road trips, and the sense of adventure that comes with them.  It dawned on me this weekend, as I was zooming up the M11 to spend the day with my sister, that this is largely due to the fact that I treat the car as my own personal karaoke machine.

      Rapeseed fields in Cambridgeshire
      Vivid yellow rapeseed fields in Cambridgeshire, seen from the M11

      French autoroute
      A long, straight autoroute somewhere in central France

      In our family we have the rule that whoever is driving gets to choose the music.  The children can listen to their iPods in the back if they don't like what we've got on.  Which, yes, these days is pretty much all the time.

      Another boring car trip
      O tires of my singing, 2005

      Yesterday I had the windows open (air-con off to preserve petrol) and I was singing at the top of my voice to Lady Antebellum and Caro Emerald.  I was travelling alone, otherwise I would have sung at a more moderate volume.  But I must sing.  Good iPod playlists for the car are ones that have plenty of tunes and not too many high notes.

      Conventional cars are not good for the environment.  They are pointless and annoying in big cities, where public transport is almost always a much better option.  They are beocming eye-wateringly expensive to maintain.  But the convenience, and the sheer delight, of being able to take youself wherever you want to go the minute you decide you want to; and the exhilaration of singing with the windows open (or the top down if you are really lucky) as you bowl down an empty road, means that I am still a long way from falling out of love with my car.

      Cam and Livvy by the car
      C and O by the car, in a field somewhere in Wales, 2006

      Waiting at a Swiss level crossing
      Waiting at a level crossing, in a mountain pass in Switzerland last year.  I drove (and navigated) there and back by myself.

      How about you?  Do you have a car you love?  Do you hate to drive?  Do you have driving playlists on your iPod? Do you avoid long drives or drives in the dark, or do you dream of taking early retirement and taking a road trip across America for a few months in a motorhome?  I'm saving up already.