Monday, 29 October 2012

"Everything is a Present"

My blog is on half term holiday for a few days, but in the meantime here's a video that was forwarded to me recently. You may have read about Alice Sommer Herz or seen the TV programme when it came out, but what an amazing lady she is, and how we can all learn from her.

Video from KarmaTube

"Hatred eats the soul of the hater, not the hated." Alice Sommer Herz

Friday, 26 October 2012

Food Waste Friday - Carrots, Treacle Tart and ways of using up breadcrumbs

Yes, it's my nemesis - carrots again! I've moved on from the times of mouldy carrots to cooking too many, and not getting creative with the leftovers, so chicken food they were.

One of the side effects of all our focus on food waste this year has been the gradual accumulation of an enormous bag of breadcrumbs in the freezer. In this house bread usually gets eaten up pretty quickly, but stale loaf end crusts are a regular occurence. The really dry ones get soaked and given to the chickens. The not so dry ones are blitzed and added to a breadcrumb bag in the freezer. And very rarely, they feature on Food Waste Friday.

It's all very well feeling virtuous about not wasting bread, but if I'm not actually using up those breadcrumbs, then I'm just hoarding food waste! I'm a self confessed hoarder but keeping a ton of breadcrumbs 'because they might come in useful one day' is a step too far, even for me.

So last week I set about using them up.

Treacle Tart.

And this week I made another treacle tart. Not my favourite thing in all the world, but the recipe I used (see below), from one of my favourite frugal cook books, turns out quite lemony and not as sweet as a bought treacle tart.

Two treacle tarts has made but a small dent in my sack of breadcrumbs, and it's hardly the healthiest use of breadcrumbs, so I started thinking that I should really get more creative.

Here are some ways I've used breadcrumbs in the past:
How do you use up breadcrumbs?

Treacle Tart Recipe (from How to feed your family a healthy, balanced diet with very little money... by Gill Holcombe)

Serves 4 - 6

Short crust pastry (made with 150g plain flour and 75g butter or margarine)
125g breadcrumbs
6 tbsp golden syrup
2tbsp black treacle ( I didn't have any so I left this out)
25g butter
1 lemon, juice and rind
60ml milk

  • Roll pastry to fit bottom of 15cm tin. Save the trimmings to cut into thin strips for the lattice on top of the tart.
  • Melt the syrup, treacle, butter and lemon juice together in a pan.
  • Fill the pastry with breadcrumbs and slowly pour over the liquid so all the breadcrumbs are covered.
  • Use the strips to make a lattice pattern and glaze with milk.
  • Bake in the oven (Gas Mark 4 or 180 degrees C) for 20 - 25 minutes.

Food Waste Friday was dreamt up by, to encourage people to use up food instead of waste it. This week you can find Food Waste Friday hosted by 
Simply Being Mum.

Monday, 22 October 2012

Produce a Bayeux Tapestry replica? No problem (thanks to the Scrapstore)!

When Daughter left primary school in July, there was a part of me that was inwardly jumping up and down excitedly and punching the air. No more Easter bonnets or costumes to make at short notice! (I am still psychologically scarred from Easter 2010 when we had to turn around an Aztec costume, a 'famous historical person' costume and two lots of 'spring mufti', alongside egg decorating and making an 'egg-vention', in the space of four days. The children just wouldn't accept my argument that an Easter bunny outfit could legitimately count as a 'famous historical person' and 'spring mufti').

There may well be no Easter bonnets or historical dressing up days at secondary school, but I hadn't bargained on homeworks like 'Produce a scene from the Bayeux tapestry by next week (extra marks for not just drawing it).' I shouldn't grumble really - this kind of 'doing' homework is right up Dyslexic Daughter's street. And all that bonnet and costume-making has taught us a few things; most notably that it's best to stick with a simple idea. Tapestry and sewing are all very well, but not when you've only got seven days! My other rule is that these kind of projects should not involve spending a lot of money.

Daughter came up with a collage idea, but realised that apart from some backing fabric and a shiny scarf that could be used for chainmail, we were lacking both resources, and the time to go out and search for them. How could she get the project done and keep to the minimal spend rule?

Wiltshire Scrapstore to the rescue!

Lacock Abbey

You may know Lacock in Wiltshire as a picture postcard village, home to an historical Abbey managed by the National Trust that provided the setting for Professor Snape's potion class in the film Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone. We, however, also love Lacock for being home to a children's and community charity, the Wiltshire Scrapstore: "The Scrapstore is an Aladdin's cave of unusual materials. There are various Scrapstores based around the country, each servicing a particular community area.  We cover Wiltshire (excluding Swindon) and the surrounding area.  We have one of the largest, busiest Scrapstores in the country, full of 'scrap' material donated by industry, that would otherwise have gone to landfill, to meet the needs of our 3000+ members." 

The Scapstore's retail outlet - craft kits, art and craft materials, recycled gifts etc

We've attended their holiday workshops, bought recycled gifts in their shop, and in a Bayeux Tapestry emergency situation, we've discovered they have an online shop! Phewee! Felt, fabric crayons, slivers of silvery card and PVA glue were all ordered on the Sunday, and hand delivered the next day. (We might have spent a little bit more than intended, but at least we're well equipped and won't get caught out when the next crafty homework comes along!) You too can avail yourself of their online operation for all sorts of art and craft materials, very reasonably priced, although if you're not like us and don't live within a few miles of Lacock, you'll probably have to rely on Royal Mail for your delivery. Or why not check out what your local Scrapstore offers?

Oh and if you're wondering, here's Daughter's version of Harold with the arrow! Scrapstore, we couldn't have done it without you! I completely agree with customer Sam (age unspecified) who features on the website testimonial page, "I think this shop is apserlootly amazing!"

Saturday, 20 October 2012

Food Waste Friday - What is it with prunes?

This week the food waste situation was very respectable, apart from throwing out last week's yogurt failure (I decided it was so awful it wasn't worth wasting more good ingredients to try and rescue it) so I turned my attention to the store cupboards and the freezer.

Our attempts to brighten up breakfast time have continued, especially now the mornings are darker and colder. Tinned grapefruit is a breakfast item enjoyed by all of us, so why not introduce tinned prunes to the breakfast menu? Optimistically, I bought two tins. You probably won't be surprised to find that this wasn't a popular move.  I couldn't even make myself like them, let alone the kids.

The second tin of prunes has been sitting sadly in the cupboard and looking at me disappointedly when I pass them by in favour of the baked beans or tinned tomatoes. This week, with my eye on stuff that's been sitting around for a while, it was their turn.

At the end of the summer holiday, my treat for traipsing round the shops in search of school uniform, was the purchase of Delia's Frugal Food. In recent years, my cookery books have been severely culled to just the all-time favourites that fit on top of the fridge*. If you're a cookery book in my house, you have to earn your keep, and at the moment Delia's justifying the space; her fishcakes, leek, carrot and potato pie, cauliflower, egg and celery au gratin and chickpea cutlets have all been a hit. I fully expected her date, prune and walnut cake to meet with similar success.

To use up the whole tin of prunes (half a tin of prunes in the fridge would be surefire food waste next week), I doubled the cake mix quantities. Those fruity loaves look yummy, yes?

The adults in the house certainly think so! And Delia thinks so: "This is a nice nutty wholemal cake, delicious cut in thick slices and spread with butter." The prunes are so well mixed in as to be invisible, and completely undetectable by taste. Not so to the children and their Thursday guests (the ones who are infamous for eating anything that's put in front of them with great gusto, including spaghetti with ketchup). Son is always fond of reminding us of a fact he once read on the side of a fromage frais pot; that adults have half the number of taste buds that children do, and that is why we will eat yucky stuff and he won't. Is prune loaf yet more evidence to support his case?

You will have to make it one day and decide for yourselves!

Date, Prune and Walnut Cake (makes one loaf)

  • 75g dried prunes, soaked overnight (or ready-to-eat pitted prunes). I used tinned prunes and removed the stones.
  • 100g butter, plus a little extra
  • 175g soft brown sugar
  • 2 large eggs, lightly beaten
  • 110g wholemeal flour
  • 110g plain flour
  • A pinch of salt. (I didn't add this)
  • 1 level teaspoon of baking powder
  • 75g pitted dates
  • 110g walnuts, roughly chopped (I used less)
  • 3 - 4 tbsp semi-skimmed milk
Preheat the oven to 180 degrees C/Gas Mark 4.

Butter a 13cm x 23cm loaf tin well. Chop the prunes into largish pieces. Cream the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add the eggs a little at a time. Fold the sifted flour, salt and baking powder into the creamed mixture. Now add the prunes, dates and walnuts, followed by the milk, and mix them in. (I mixed the whole lot in the food processor). Spread it out evenly.

Bake for 1 hour, or until a skewer comes out clean. Let the cake cool for a minute or two, then turn it out.

* The other cookery book in the photo is another frugal favourite. This week I also baked a treacle tart using a recipe from this book, to use up my breadcrumb mountain from the freezer. I'll post the recipe soon!

Food Waste Friday was dreamt up by, to encourage people to use up food instead of waste it.

Thursday, 18 October 2012

Say it with flowers? No thanks - a washing line will do me fine!

Thirteen years ago this week, we tied the knot.

Twelve years ago this week, we were 11 days into our parenting journey.

Our baby, not yet two weeks old, was recovering from her second major operation. Not surprisingly, I don't recall that we had much of a first wedding anniversary celebration.

Maybe that set the tone for succeeding anniversaries. October is always a thankful time - full of thankfulness for a family life that so easily might not have been - but we've never made much of the wedding anniversary. No flamboyant romantic gestures, no flowers, no cards, no gifts and no surprises.

Perhaps it's because in the context of October 2000's events those things seem unimportant or maybe it's because we prefer the everyday romantic gestures.

 This week that includes:

  • The gift of a new £1 washing line to replace my broken rotary washing line.

  • A crazy paving refurbishment project (still crazy after all these years!)
  • Taking the time to drink a cup of tea together after work, instead of rushing headlong into the chores.

  • Date nights every night - candle-lit evening meals. OK, I am cheating a little on this one - the kids are there too!
But you get my drift. I'm sure that where romance is concerned, "What you do every day matters more than what you do once in a while." (Gretchen Rubin).

As if my washing line wasn't enough, we received a couple of cards, one of which included a great example of re-use/upcycling - spot how that card has been cut and given a new back!

And my clever children have found that unbeknownst to me, Fry's Peppermint Cream and Fry's Orange Cream is sold at the newsagents at the top of the road, and spent their pocket money on us accordingly! 

A wedding anniversary that includes a washing line, crazy paving and Fry's Peppermint Cream! What more could a girl ask for?

Monday, 15 October 2012

Peppermint Creams are for life, not just for Christmas (and the results of the chocolate giveaway!)

Firstly, the results of the National Chocolate Week giveaway are in!

One of my favourite chocolate bars, which I contributed to our Chocolate Week event at work, is Fry's Chocolate Cream, a dark chocolate bar with a fondant centre. There is something about the ratio of dark chocolate to fondant that is just perfect!

If you have taken any interest in previous giveaways on this blog, you will know that one reader has been particularly lucky, so just in case Claire won AGAIN, I took the precaution of purchasing two packs. Two lucky winners were therefore drawn from the hat by my able assistants!

Mrs Armstrong and Sue, (sorry Claire!) please email your addresses to and the chocolate will be on its way to you this week!

Lili, who was not a winner this time (sorry Lili!), asked for the recipe I used for my own peppermint creams. I hope this is some consolation! 

Earlier this summer, when we were going to some friends for a meal, I realised we had nothing to take with us, and only twenty minutes before we left the house. Yes, these peppermint creams were really completed in under twenty minutes! And between my family, and the friends, we consumed just about the whole lot at the end of the meal! Peppermint creams are definitely for any time not just for Christmas time.

The recipe I used:

1 free range egg white
1 teaspoon peppermint essence
425g icing sugar
175g dark chocolate

Mix the egg white, peppermint and icing sugar to a paste. I found that the paste wouldn't behave itself and roll out nicely, so I made little balls and flattened them. Hence the different sized peppermint creams in the photo! I like to think this adds to the 'genuine, homemade' look!

The chocolate was melted and spooned onto the peppermints and then decorated with some sugar strands. Because I was operating in a hurry, I shoved mine in the freezer for ten minutes to speed up the soldifying process, but you shouldn't need to do that.

If you have any worries about using raw egg white in a recipe, then I found two alternatives on the interweb:

200g icing sugar
3-4 tbsp cold water
1 tsp peppermint essence


500g icing sugar
4 tbsp condensed milk
a few drops peppermint essence

Lili thought the peppermint creams would make a good Christmas present, and I agree. My only problem with this type of homemade Christmas present is my assumption that they need to be made close to Christmas itself, and the mere thought of adding peppermint cream-making to my week-before-Christmas list makes me feel a little bit stressed, even in October! I have tried to find you the definitive answer as to whether they could be made now and frozen, but I can't find an easy answer. The only way is going to be to try it out myself which I promise to do for you and report back later this week! (If anyone has their own experience of freezing peppermint creams, fudge, Christmas cookies etc please let us know in the comments!)

Friday, 12 October 2012

Food Waste Friday - Yogurt-making failures

Lots of my favourite bloggers are successful yogurt makers. One thing that every eco, frugal, thrifty, simple-living, or foodie blogger should do, even if it's only once, is make their own yogurt. 

Frugal Girl does.

Katy at The Non-Consumer Advocate does, following Frugal Girl's instructions.

Lili at Creative Savv does.

Sue at the Quince Tree does.

So why can't I do it!? 

Why does my food waste this week consist of two batches of disastrous yogurt? 

I sooo want to be part of the yogurt making gang!

Earlier this year we were sorting out my late Grandmother's kitchen, and amongst the bits that I brought home with me, was a lovely wide-necked flask that had 'yogurt making' written all over it:

I attempted two batches in the flask, that turned out like a very thin pouring yogurt. Although it could hardly be called a success, we ate, or rather, drank it. My own evaluation is that I probably needed a thermometer, rather than guessing when the milk was ready to go into the thermos with the yogurt starter.

Inspired by some of the bloggers above, who have been writing about their yogurt recently, and ever keen to reduce the amount of food packaging that comes into the house, I thought I'd have another go; this time using a slow-cooker recipe, which I remembered reading about in all the yogurt discussions.

I watched a video on Youtube that seems very popular, and is mentioned in other forums. It's a six-minute video so to save you time, and seeing as it didn't work for me anyway, I'll summarise it for you: 

Heat 4 cups of milk up in the slow cooker for 2.5 hours on a low temperature. Turn the slow cooker off and let it cool for 3 hours, then add half a cup of your yogurt starter and a couple of spoonfuls of milk powder. Wrap the slow cooker in a blanket and let it work its yogurty magic for 8 hours or overnight!

I have to admit, the idea of milk heating up and cooling down for 5 hours before the yogurt starter gets anywhere near it, didn't sit comfortably with all I've ever learnt about food safety. However I followed the instructions exactly. On Wednesday morning I undressed the slow cooker and was greeted with a chilly bowl of milk with yogurt in it.

I wasn't going to feed anyone milk that had been heated and cooled and sat around for an evening and a night, so food waste it was.

Not to be beaten, I tried again yesterday, although I heated up the milk in a pan this time to cut down on the amount of time the milk sits around. This time, the result was a pan full of watery whey, and a small amount of curdled, yogurty, cottage cheesy stuff. Nothing like the Mason jars brim full of gorgeous creamy yogurt that I see on other blogs!

I want my yogurt to look like this! (Image swiped from Creative Savv!)

NOT THIS! Is it curdled milk, is it cheese, is it yogurt?

It doesn't taste like yogurt, but I can't bring myself to throw another batch away? How can I turn this into a food save?

And is there any hope for my yogurt making? Have you tried slow-cooker yogurt making? Should I invest in a food thermometer? I don't really want another piece of kitchen equipment, but is your electric yogurt maker something you couldn't live without? Where am I going wrong?

Or should I stick to baking, and accept that yogurt making is not my thing!?

Lastly, don't forget to enter my National Chocolate Week chocolate giveaway! Click HERE!

Food Waste Friday was dreamt up by, to encourage people to use up food instead of waste it. This week you can find Food Waste Friday hosted by 
Simply Being Mum.

Thursday, 11 October 2012

National Chocolate Week giveaway!

This week's a bumper week. National Dyslexia Week and National Chocolate Week! Honest, I'm not making up the latter!

Homemade chocolate-topped peppermint creams!

Homemade treats in the form of cakes, biscuits and even chocolatey things are great, but I'm not averse to the occasional chocolate bar either. 

Can you guess which one of my all-time favourites I contributed to our Chocolate Week celebration at work?

  • It's one of the first chocolate bars that was ever produced in the UK.
  • It's dairy-free and vegan.
  • It was produced locally to here in the West Country until fairly recently.
  • The famous Quaker family that it's named after were the largest employer in Bristol at the start of World War I.
  • Everyone reminisces about the Five Centre medley variety which ceased production in 1992.

For a bit of fun, as I have a special frugal source for multi-packs of this bar, and it's a very grey, rainy week here that needs cheering up, I'll send one multi-pack of four bars to anyone, anywhere! Just leave a comment with your guess for my chocolate bar, or share your own favourite, by midday Sunday!

Sunday, 7 October 2012

Food Waste Friday on a Sunday - King Alfred style

The Food Waste Friday round-up is a bit late here! A pre-teen birthday got in the way at the tail end of the week...the cooking, the entertaining, the sleepover and all that that entails...

And it brought its own food waste issues.

Homemade pasties were requested for the birthday packed lunch. Great! They used up a couple of potatoes, onions, veggie mince from the freezer and other store cupboard staples.

And a raspberry and cream sponge cake was declared the favourite for the birthday cake.  Couldn't be simpler. Gone are the days of making Postman Pat's van or Pocahontas' wigwam.

However, like another local baking hero, King Alfred the Great, (who burnt his cakes in Somerset after going on the run from the Vikings when they launched an attack on Chippenham, not so far from here), I managed to overcook one of the sponges.

Did I rant and rage? Yes! Did I stab a knife (blunt!) into the cake several times whilst ranting and raging? Yes! Did I consider making another sponge? Yes, until I realised I had just used up all the baking powder! Did I rant and rage some more? Yes!

But Food Waste Friday philosophy won through in the end!

I cut the good sponge in half and scraped the good part from the middle of the burnt sponge onto it to fatten it up.

Smothered in jam, raspberries and cream, you can hardly tell that there has been another baking disaster!

The good food waste news is that apart from the burnt cake, there was only one mouldy courgette to account for this week!

Find out more about King Alfred's baking disaster in a two minute BBC video excerpt with historian Lucy Worsley (link below - sorry I can't work out how to embed the actual video). I like her idea that the folk story could be representative of something more psychological for Alfred - I wonder what the burning of my cake represents for me?!

Food Waste Friday was dreamt up by, to encourage people to use up food instead of waste it. 

Thursday, 4 October 2012

National Poetry Day

If you live in the same county as the poetry capital of the world, Swindon, then you have to celebrate National Poetry Day today, which kicks off a series of poetry events around the UK.

Especially as this year the theme is 'Stars' and both poetry and stars (the night sky kind) get the thumbs up from this blog.

A while back, I wrote about a BBC radio programme on the subject of darkness, and provided a link to a free lunar calendar, kindly provided by Mooncup:

We didn't hear about National Poetry Day until the day afterwards, so we didn't think to write any poetry but I'm sure that if we had, we would have knocked up something like this (!):

Out in the Dark

Out in the dark over the snow
The fallow fawns invisible go
With the fallow doe;
And the winds blow
Fast as the stars are slow.

Stealthily the dark haunts around
And, when the lamp goes, without sound
At a swifter bound
Than the swiftest hound,
Arrives, and all else is drowned;

And star and I and wind and deer,
Are in the dark together, - near,
Yet far, - and fear
Drums on my ear
In that sage company drear.

How weak and little is the light,
All the universe of sight,
Love and delight,
Before the might,
If you love it not, of night.

Edward Thomas (1878 - 1917)

Monday, 1 October 2012

Everyday Life On A Shoestring - Unplugged?

As the nights draw in, and the possibilities for outdoor activities become more limited, I'm very aware that all my family need to monitor their screen time. 

On a rainy day, if left unchecked, Son will meander from TV, to Play Station, to games on the PC, and Daughter has just become the proud owner of a cheap-as-chips mobile phone which opens up the opportunity for endless inane 'text' conversations with her friends and hours of trying out different ring tones and downloading music. As a blogger, I can easily slip down the electronic rabbit hole too; hopping from blog to blog to read the latest adventures of my bloggy friends and their friends and their friends' friends and their friends' friends' friends...And that's just the tip of the iceberg!

Such is life in the 21st century, and the benefits for learning, networking and social change are enormous.

However, I wouldn't be doing my job as an advocate of 'frugal simplicity' if I didn't make the case for some balance!

In the course of my work with adolescents, it's a case that's being made by the experts more and more.  Teenage sleep disorders are on the up and digital technology has increased the opportunity for relational aggression (covert bullying), especially amongst girls. In the kids' 'social and emotional skills' programme that I work on, the learning of relaxation techniques and the encouragement of daily 'unplugged' time has become an important aspect. 

As you'll remember I discovered the off-screen (that's the big screen) work of Goldie Hawn, earlier this year. I mentioned her here, and she got her own blog post here! In her book 10 Mindful Minutes, she devotes a short section to 'Technology and the Brain', where she discusses the downfalls of the 'butterfly brain' or diminishing attention span, that modern technologies foster. With the plethora of information that is out there we probably all have a tendency to skim, rather than to attend fully.  

"Technology can cause addiction, burnout, and sleep problems, and people need to reflect on how they use it to ensure it doesn't become a problem". (Dr Nerina Ramlakhan, from the Capio Nightingale Hospital, London in 10 Mindful Minutes).

In all honesty, I can't say that we have a happy balance between the virtual and non-virtual at all times here, but here are some of the ways we try:

  • We cover the computer up with an old cushion cover! Our computer sits in the middle of the home, which is good because the adults can keep an eye on what the children are up to, but that means it has a strong allure. We are walking past it all the time.  Covering it up is a simple thing, but "out of sight" really is "out of mind", and it's a bit of a nuisance to get the cover off which provides obstacle enough sometimes

  • When people are spending too much time in front of a screen, 'snacking' on their gadgets, or there are fights about whose turn it is, then the timer comes out. This sometimes has a reverse psychology effect - being forced to have a half hour block of time makes it less appealing! I know other friends have a 'time-out' operation in place where the computer is programmed to log off after a certain amount of time, but we don't need that here yet.
  • We try and make sure that we all have a healthy balance of activities in the mix; sport, exercise of any sort, reading, music-making. When Son wanted to upgrade his Diabolo juggling sticks in the summer, Husband didn't hesitate to buy them for him, saying, "I don't mind paying for something that will get him outdoors and doing something!" And in those terms, it was a good investment.

  • It's not only Son; we all try to get outside often. As Goldie says, "In logging off, taking our child's hand, and wandering outside to stare dreamily at the clouds or explore the backyard, we encourage creativity and imagination as well as enhance well-being. More and more studies are finding that a return to nature is an efffective and simple antidote to technological addiction and its detrimental consequences. It gives us the mental freedom to recalibrate our senses and refresh our minds."
  • Lastly, the adults try to set a good example. After all, "To authentically teach someone, it's helpful also to be a student of the techniques yourself. Your child will learn best through your example and modeling." (Linda Lantieri, MA, in 10 Mindful Minutes).
Do you 'unplug' enough? How do you keep a handle on your kids screen-time? If you have any top tips I for one, could certainly use them!

And if you'd like to hear more of Goldie Hawn, she was on BBC Radio 4's Desert Island Discs recently, choosing her favourite 8 tracks of music to take to a desert island. Click on the link to hear the programme which is on BBC iplayer until Friday.