christmas: making and baking

baking plansTime to dust off a favourite cookery book – Linda Collister’s Christmas Treats to Make and GiveThe girls are still in full baking mode (both Martha and Bea have been to GB Bake-off themed birthday parties in the last fortnight, and their cousin is threatening Matilda with something similar along the lines of Come Dine With Me), so I thought it would be a good idea to channel their enthusiasm and get them to bake some Christmas presents.

For my part, I am planning to make a few treats from Diana Henry’s excellent Salt Sugar Smoke. I have already raided Ikea’s kitchen department and have a large stash of jars at the ready, along with some really lovely labels (also from the Swedish giant). Just need to brave the high street in search of the ingredients…

a wreath* lecture

I love walking around our neighbourhood in the run-up to Christmas. Day by day the windows acquire decorations and twinkling trees. Some of these appear as early as the 1st of December, others spring up on Christmas Eve. In some cases the front gardens are decked out with fairy lights as well. But it’s the front doors that I’m most interested in.

Wreaths seem to increase in popularity each year. Where once perhaps only a few doors would carry a wreath, now almost every door is resplendent with a Christmassy creation. I like the mix of shop-bought, homemade, natural, fake, gaudy, tasteful, chic and vulgar that can be found in this one neighbourhood. On a cold, bleak afternoon, a dutiful wander with the dog is improved immeasurably with a little wreath-spotting.

The girls think I’m mad to photograph them, and they are quite embarrassed when I stop to take out my camera (oh, god mum! come on, let’s go…). Even Sybil does a passable imitation of cringing shame as she tugs at the lead, ears flat trying to pull me on.

I have now amassed quite a nice library of wreath portraits. These are by no means the cream of the crop, but they are what I managed to snap over the past week or two.

This last wreath is my own rather shambolic affair, cobbled together just half an hour before our neighbours all came round for Christmas drinks on Tuesday evening. My plan had been to weave some pretty lengths of ivy, complete with flower heads and berries into an old ring of hazel twigs which I use each year as a base. But when the moment came to make my festive creation, I realised a) I had no idea where I’d put the ring after last year’s outing and b) we had no ivy – we’d cut it all back in the summer when we terraced the garden. Not to be defeated, I trudged out into the rain-sodden garden and gathered what I could – some hazel twigs, again, and lots of soggy dead sedum heads. It’s not as pretty or perfect as the other wreaths I’ve admired, but I like it all the same.

Time to go and wrap some presents now. Happy Christmas everyone!

*Slightly pointless pun on the Reith Lectures.

scrappy decorations – thank you mary!

On Monday morning, along with a number of packages from the likes of Amazon, I received a rather special parcel. It was from Mary as part of our scrappy decorations swap, and although I knew it was on its way, I had no idea what it would contain, all of which was rather exciting – a bit like having a Christmas stocking again.

Inside I found lots of lovely decorations and some wonderful treats. First out was a
flock of birds which look so good in the kitchen, they won’t be making the flight
upstairs to the tree, not this year anyway.

Next came some felt baubles which I love – they look fabulous on the tree and I think I might even have a go at making some more myself. And last, but by no means least, on the decorations-front anyway, two little houses made from scraps of fabric, which you can see to the left on Mary’s banner. Mary is far better at sewing than I am, as you’ll see if you take a look at her blog, and as well as all the decorations she also sent us some lovely handmade accessories – a bag and cloth-covered notebook for me and hair toggles covered in vintage fabric for the girls, which they adore.

Thank you SO much Mary and Happy Christmas!

And thank you to Ali at Very Berry Handmade for organising the swap. 

and we’re off…

Phew! The school term is over and we are now galloping towards the 25th. It’s not as though the date comes as any sort of surprise, yet every year I feel slightly caught out by Christmas. Anyway, having had the requisite seasonal bout of Bah! Humbug, a trapped nerve in my shoulder and the three-way bicker-fest that heralds the start of all our holidays… seasonal cheer has finally entered the household, and at last we have a tree. All we need now are some decorations. Yesterday evening biscuits were baked using this recipe, which I wheel out every year, and wonder why I don’t use at other times.

And this morning we sat and iced them. And someone tested them. Quite thoroughly as it turns out. And now I am wondering whether we might not need a second batch.

This afternoon, once the scattered siblings have regrouped, we will hang the biscuits  on the tree and I will feel ready for the drink that at any other time of year dare not speak its name: advocaat. I’m not even sure that I like it that much, but for some reason it seems to suit the business of decorating the Christmas tree. In fact I’d say that the way in which my thoughts turn to this sticky, custardy gloop as soon as I start fiddling about with fairy lights and baubles is Pavlovian.

busy, busy …

To say that this week has been a little hectic would be quite an understatement. But in amongst the craziness fun has been had. Back in October I agreed to participate in a scrap fabric Christmas decorations swap organised by Very Berry Handmade. It seemed like a fine idea, especially as I was in quilt mode at the time and scraps of fabric were scattered around the house.

But – and I think you can probably see where this is heading – fast forward two months and with Christmas just around the corner, maddening last minute requests pouring in daily (She says we’ve got to wear black leggings and Christmassy top), not to mention my having agreed to coordinate a big end of term event at the girls’ school, my plans for a little low-key sewing project morphed into a caffeine-fueled sewing frenzy.

I’m nearly there and it has been fun to do, just not quite as relaxed as I had hoped.

Meanwhile, out in the garden, the dog, as ever, has been hard at work. It turns out that I had disturbed Sybil’s stash of bones when I planted some of my daffs. Silly me. It’s taken me a week to work this out. A week of cursing the dog and re-planting the bulbs, only to find that, under cover of darkness – she’s quite canny when it comes to this sort of thing – she has dug them all up again. I’ve given up with that particular spot. It’s hers. The bulbs have been re-homed. And this weekend I must tackle the last three packs of bulbs – some tulips, which should be fine, and some alliums, which may well fail as a result of being left too long in their box. Who knows. We’ll find out next year.

And on the subject of the garden, the flowers are in short supply so I’m resorting to the tiniest vessels I can find for my Lilliputian posies: old sherry glasses, narrow-necked fizzy drinks bottles, and now these sweet little bottles which someone was chucking out.

Off to the store that I love to hate – Primark  – the only place I can buy a last minute Christmas carols outfit at a price I won’t feel too cross about.


Christmas Eve! How did that happen? The beast of a cake, above, was iced in the nick of time yesterday – just before the cousins arrived. Only half of it remains. There are still lots of things to be done, but most of them are of the low-key relaxing variety: an onion needs to be studded with cloves and then left to simmer in milk, an easy orange and almond cake will be made later on while the girls and their cousins watch a film, and some bottles of wine need to be sloshed into a pan and mulled for drinks with neighbours later. Weirdly, because we are not hosting the day itself this year, there are lots of things missing – no Stilton! No mince pies! Actually, I’m not a great fan of mince pies, but Christmas without Stilton is a sort of crime in my book, so that will need to be rectified. So once again, despite my best efforts, I will be off to the shops on Christmas Eve. Aagh!

And this is the end of my mini-marathon of blogging, the end of advent, the end of the daily post. Phew! Normal service to resume sometime soon. In the meantime, Happy Christmas and have a wonderful 2011. And thank you to all who posted such lovely comments over the last few months, it’s so nice to get feedback from time to time. X


I love all the little rituals that combine to make Christmas what it is. We are not a religious family, so I think the rituals are particularly important as they give the celebration a meaning and a focus beyond frenzied present buying. For me, as for most people, the 25th is about spending time with my family, and showing them how much I love them – which is a good thing, as I have to admit that it’s not always evident.

Without the ritual of the cake, the tree, the decorations, the cards and the carols, a secular Christmas could be a little dull really. That’s not to say that the presents aren’t pretty key to the whole shebang. They certainly are – I love present-buying, and I know the parcels above will be gleefully received. But it’s more that the ritual helps to balance things. And just in case that all sounds far too measured and calm and reasonable, I also find that Christmas is the single most unbloodybelievably stressful time of the year too: there is a clock ticking, there is an immovable deadline, and there are high expectations (oh, and a very naughty puppy). But nothing that a ridiculous drink, such Warnick’s Advocaat (alcoholic custard in a bottle!?) – something that I simply wouldn’t contemplate drinking at any other time of year, won’t fix.

For more Christmas love check out Tara’s gallery, where this week’s theme, the last of the year, was LOVE in all its forms. I’m a day late, so you may have to scroll down to find the links to everyone else.

20 & 21

Oops. Falling behind a little now. I had planned to write a Christmassy post every day in the run-up to the 25th. But I’m slipping. A last-minute invitation to see Boing! at the Bristol Old Vic (book NOW, if you can), happily took up a big chunk of yesterday. Afterwards, the Christmas lights, which are twinkling all over the city, transformed what might have been an exhausting trudge home through the snow into an exhilarating adventure. Each time there was a hint of a whinge, a new set of  lights silenced it.

Today, when I should have iced a cake, lots of children appeared, disappeared, reappeared and so on, all day. So, I didn’t ice the cake and neither did I ice the biscuits which should be hanging in the tree. The children also want to know where all the presents are. Martha, in particular is very concerned about lack of parcels under the tree.


Icing the Christmas cake part 1: Marzipan

I used the marzipan recipe from the brilliant Kettle Broth to Gooseberry Fool, by Jenny Baker. So easy and so delicious. Even if you think you hate marzipan, in fact, especially if you think you hate marzipan, I urge you to try this. It tastes sublime – nothing like the shop-bought stuff. It takes a matter of minutes to make – I do mine by hand, but it can easily be done in the mixer, if you prefer.

350g ground almonds, 225g icing sugar (sifted), 3 egg yolks (save two of the whites for icing which I’ll post on the 21st, which is when I’ll do it), juice of 1 lemon, apricot jam (2-3 tbsp)

Mix ground almonds with the sugar, in a large mixing bowl. In separate bowl beat together the juice of the lemon and the egg yolks. Now pour lemon and eggs into the almond and sugar mixture and combine, first with a wooden spoon and then with your hands. Very quickly it will come together as a slightly sticky pastry – a tiny dusting of either sugar or almonds will make it easier if you’re finding it difficult to handle. Leave it to rest in a ball whilst you prepare the cake for covering.

Take two or three tablespoons of jam and warm them in a pan with a tiny splash of water, and stir until it is runny enough to brush over the cake. Jenny suggests sieving it, but I don’t bother.

Once you have spread the jam evenly over the top and sides of the cake you can roll out your marzipan. Split the ball into two pieces, one roughly twice the size of the other. This will go on the top once you have rolled it out. I often find that it drapes down the sides of the cake too, and then I use the other piece to patch in the gaps. I usually have enough marzipan left over to make tiny sweets. I roll it into small balls which I then dip in some melted chocolate. It is worth making them quite small, Malteser-size say, as once coated in really good dark chocolate, they are very rich, and very moreish. Brilliant as a last-minute present.


The perfect start to the Christmas holiday: snow and a Christmas tree. There was probably only an inch or so of snow, but enough to justify getting the sledge out (or is it a toboggan – what’s the difference?). And there was something ridiculously satisfying about towing the tree home on the sledge. I don’t know why. It’s not as though we’d trudged through snowy woods to cut it down, just over the hill and down the Gloucester Road. Still, it felt good, and the kids absolutely loved it.