Monday, 30 December 2013

chocolate spoons : what are they and how can I make one?

These chocolate spoons were a great hit with everyone this christmas, and I think they'd be a very sweet valentines gift (no pun intended!), or a little extra birthday present (not to mention Mother's Day or Father's Day)!  

The idea is simple - warm up a mug of milk (the hotter the better), take your chocolate spoon, which is a teaspoon with a big lump of chocolate on the end, and stir your milk round and round.  Hey presto - hot chocolate!

They're easy to make, and with a little thought can look very special.  Definitely cooking with children-able, and inexpensive - what more can up you ask for!

Handy tips when working with chocolate

  • While moving the bowl around, make sure no water is going to end up in with the chocolate - if you tip the chocolate into the hearts then water on the bottom may drip in too.
  • If for any reason the mould is wet (if you're making one batch after another for example, so it's just been washed up) it needs to be dried before you pour in the chocolate.  Very fiddly with a tea towel, but I have a solution - pop the empty mould the right way up in the microwave for a minute - this will boil any drops of water left on the mould so it will evaporate, leaving you with a dry mould - am I clever or what!
  • If the chocolate firms up before you're ready, pop it back on top of the saucepan for a minute, and it will loosen back up.

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Tuesday, 24 December 2013

Petal's tree of stars

The tree of stars premise is simple - you gather a collection of different sized five pointed star biscuit cutters,  use your favourite biscuit recipe for the dough, cut out two of each size, bake, and stack.

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For several years now I've made each child a tree of stars to take into school to share with teachers and classmates.  Partly because of the difficult christmas' I remember from childhood I've purposely created traditions for us to share as a family, and this is one that Smiler, Noah, and Petal can take on as their own already, with a bit of help.

Petal (unsurprisingly) leapt at the idea, but we decided I'd stay in the kitchen with her to keep her company, singing along with all the christmas songs.  The tricky part of this exercise is keeping count of how many you've cut of each size - it's more difficult than you might think!

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Monday, 23 December 2013

stars in their eyes - I mean pies...

I know it's mince pie season, but this is a great recipe for all year round.  We're purists I'm afraid, mince pies are only to be eaten from the day we put the decorations up until the day we take them down, but this pastry is amazing, and would be fab for apple pies or jam tarts anytime.

Very quick to make, very easy to roll out and cut (and easily squish-back-together-able, so perfect when your small people are 'helping') and, very importantly, very delicious - soft and crumbly, but not so crumbly that they actually crumble before they get to your mouth.  Tricky to eat in polite company maybe, so best for informal gatherings - your brother and his kids, not your boss and his wife - you know, people you want to share mince pies and silly christmas stories with!

Over the past few years we've tweaked our method to make the best pies we can, and that's what I'd really like to share - plenty of tips to make it as easy (and yummy) as possible.

Clearwell Caves celebrate christmas in style

Clearwell Caves are a popular family attraction in the South West - not just for tourists, but for more local families too.  The show caves are made up of a series of interconnected underground caves and caverns, mined for iron ore in days gone by.  At Christmas time they put on an incredibly elaborate display, telling a story as you travel from one cave to the next, with a quick Father Christmas break part way through.  

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I can barely imagine how long it must take for the story to be put together - there are lit trees, voile and twinkling light streams, hand stitched figures, boards telling the story at each stop - they must prepare all year round!

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This was the story of the perfect christmas tree - a family choose a tree from the forest, but can't dig it up.  Cue lots of innovative ways to get the tree, including grandad harnessing lots of his pigeons and attaching them to the tree; dogs digging at the roots; and a family friend trying to use his hot air balloon to drag it out of the ground.

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Sunday, 22 December 2013

lemon and ginger preserve

I've called it preserve to sound posh - Mr Manley keeps calling it marmalade, which it is really, but just humour me, okay?  This is the marmalade for people that can't make marmalade!  It's technically homemade, and adding in the ginger makes it even more homemade I reckon, and it's a fab christmas gift, or just for taking with you when you go visiting - after all, who doesn't like something yummy on their toast?

It's all in the details - the most important detail being that you get one of those tins full of prepared fruit.  My local (fairly small) supermarket stocks the thick cut orange one, on the shelf next to the ready made thick cut orange marmalade, but if you can't find it locally, check out Lakeland , where they have (thick or thin cut) orange, lemon, and strawberry.  We make a few batches of lemon and ginger each year, which is spread on toast for an extra delicious breakfast, or crumpets, or english muffins.  Plenty of other uses though - you can stir a few tablespoons into some stir fry veg, or to a plain cupcake mixture to add some tang.  It's a firm favorite in our christmas boxes for friends, often being requested partway through the year too!  Each tin makes enough preserve to fill eight of our 'give away' jam jars - 6lbs of preserve.  Yum.

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Thursday, 12 December 2013

chocolate lollies by Smiler

Smiler was adamant that he needed to take something to his school fair that could be sold back to us (as is usual schol fair procedure, right?), and since he's been getting very handy in the kitchen lately, we were (completely unlike us of course) thinking food.  While it would have been easy for me to make and decorate a couple of batches of cupcakes, I wanted Smiler to have the opportunity to really be involved.  Technically there were supposed to be cupcakes too, but I was busy being unconscious when the oven timer was going off, so let's say no more about it.  After taking to Twitter (I'm @abstractLucas) for suggestions, and getting some great advice from Lakeland, we decided chocolate lollies would be perfect.

Smiler and I visited the newly opened Lakeland store at Cribbs Causeway, and meet the wonderful Kim.  Smiler, never one to stand around when there chaos to be caused, grabbed her hand and led her straight to the marshmallows - priorities firmly established there!  Kim was fantastic, chatting away to Smiler, and getting a real kick out of his enthusiasm!  We gathered the rest of the chocolate lolly supplies, then left Kim in peace - well, as much peace as you can find in a shopping centre three weeks before Christmas!

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Break the chocolate into pieces (yes, I used very...erm...inexpensive chocolate) and put those pieces into a bowl that fits on to of one of your saucepans.  I know it seems strange, but just go with it.

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Tuesday, 10 December 2013

An Enchanted Evening : Christmas at Westonbirt Arboretum

Most years we go to Westonbirt Arboretum for their winter event - they create a one way trail, around a mile long, along which lighting and other effects are used to turn an already incredible walk into a magical journey through the dark.

Gorgeous at any time, but especially when the seasons change, we go several times each year.  Though only half of the estate is dog friendly, it's still accessible for Smiler's wheelchair, and there are always plenty of families churning up the mud along with us!  I have vibrant memories of autumn wanderings, with Eli and the kids, around and about the winding paths, wellies on feet, to jump in puddles; coats to ward off the wind ...  hunting sweet chestnuts, piles of leaves of sienna and golden and umber and copper and scarlet and rust ...  basking in the sharp spring sunshine, with buds on branches, and dandelions aplenty ...  many recollections to bring a smile.

The winter trail ...  it's beautiful.  Some of the lighting effects are so bright, so vivid, as to be almost psychedelic - that tree on the right - the colours land there by way of a projector, so as you watch the shapes shift and merge into one another.

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Monday, 9 December 2013

Almond Apple Cake : two ways

Another of those I got some apples reduced from the supermarket because they were bruised and now I need to make something with them before they go yucky - I know, I'll put them in cake recipes.  Didn't someone say something once about necessity being the mother of all inventions?  Well, yellow stickers are the mother of all experimental cooking sessions in my kitchen.

Easy peasy, this one.

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Short Version :

Make cake batter (equal weights marg / sugar / flour / eggs).  Add anything you can find that is almond-ish.  Pour into cake tin, add apple, cook.  Eat.

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Slightly More Thorough Version :          

Ingredients :
  • 250g marg
  • 250g sugar
  • four eggs
  • 250g self raising flour
  • two heaped tablespoon of ground almond
  • teaspoon of almond extract
  • 80g (ish) grated marzipan found hiding at the back of the fridge (much easier to grate if you stick it in the fridge overnight or in the freezer for ten minutes first)
  • four slightly worse for wear apples (hence impromptu experimental cooking session), peeled / cored / sliced
  • flaked almonds (to scatter on the top)

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basic sweet pastry recipe

This is the pastry recipe we use for pretty much everything sweet, including mince pies, but to keep it as clutter-free as possible I've put it here, by itself.

This pastry ticks all the boxes in our house - it's easy, delicious, and crumbles in your mouth.  You can roll it out and use cutters, or if you prefer (or are cooking with small people who would find rolling and cutting a bit tricky) you can squish and flatten and shape with your hands - it's that forgiving!

If you would like to make deep pies, but find it difficult to get them out of the tin without them getting stuck or crumbling into pieces, you might like to find out about the strip method described here (don't worry, nothing to do with taking your clothes off...)

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Ingredients :
225g marg
350g plain flour
100g sugar

{These amounts will make about sixteen pies with lids}

icing sugar to dust over when serving

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Preheat oven to 170°c fan, 180°c non-fan


Marg, flour and sugar into the food processor with the (plastic) dough blade


Blitz it all together, then tip out into a clean work surface

* Squish together, knead briefly, then roll out to about ½cm thick, and cut

Pull the leftovers together and repeat from *


Using a bun tray or muffin tin, line with pastry, fill with mincemeat; jam; syrup and breadcrumbs; or your chosen filling, put a lid on if desired


Put the trays into the oven for 12 minutes - the pastry will stay fairly pale, and is cooked when it is tinged brown around the edges


Leave to cool for five minutes in the tray, then gently ease out onto a wire cooling rack


Dust with icing sugar and serve


Monday, 2 December 2013


Something good happened.  I feel like I should whisper - you know, in case someone is listening, and they make it disappear.  

A few weeks ago I spotted a great t-shirt in Tesco for Smiler - up there on the top right corner.  Woo hoo, I thought, a fantastic christmas present ... but the biggest size in the store was 9/10, and while Smiler is a little on the small side for his age, he's not that dainty!  I checked out the design online, and when that only showed the size choices up to 9/10, I figured this was not going to end happily.  Just in case, I took to twitter to ask their customer services team, but no dice.  I'll blog separately about the complete lack of recognition of the need for stage not age appropriate clothing, but that's not what this post is about.  This post is about what happened next.

Sunday, 1 December 2013

In November

We played in the leaves

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We enjoyed and extremely posh (and extremely yummy) afternoon tea

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