Saturday, 21 December 2013

#Christmas - miscellany

Every year we find that as soon as we start lighting the advent candle, time speeds up daily, maybe aided by the fact that the days are getting shorter here, literally. There's suddenly rather a lot to do in a short time, and whenever I think about trying to put together a coherent blog post, I can only find incoherence! So here are some random Christmas fragments from a fragmented Christmas mind.
  • Why is it so difficult to burn exactly a day's worth of the Advent candle at a time? We either get a few days behind or leave it alight too long...

  • I had been feeling a little frugal smugness that I purchased Christmas cards in the January sales, and managed not to lose them in the intervening months; but both children ploughed through my collection of half price but tasteful cards, writing them for all their classmates...Note to self: pursue same strategy of buying cards in January but buy a lorry load. 
  • Son has gone crazy for making little Christmas gift boxes out of old Christmas cards. We learnt to make these sweet no-glue boxes at a Christmas zero waste stall. They're really simple to make but Son can remember how to make them much better than I can! For a really good tutorial click here

  • This year we've been enjoying lots of traditional carols at the various Christmas concerts we've been to, but it's always refreshing to discover a carol that you haven't heard before.

  • We've found a solution to our Christmas dinner dilemma. Having rehomed four hens from the British Hen Welfare Trust, we were concerned about what we would put on our plates this Christmas. 

I was all for a vegetarian alternative, but this met with protestation from some family members. As a compromise we've found a small free range Turkey from Lidl that falls within our budget.

How's your Christmas coming along?

Tuesday, 10 December 2013

#Christmas - the books

Another of our favourite seasonal traditions is retrieving the bag of Christmas books from the loft. They come down for a few weeks but go back up under the eaves with the Christmas decorations come twelfth night. Strictly speaking we are all too old for picture books now, but that doesn't stop us all, (45 year olds included), from enjoying the old favourites as much as the more grown up books that are starting to creep into our festive collection.

In no particular order here are our current top ten (if you are interested in getting hold of any of the books you can click on the title for a link to purchasing the book, cheaply where possible from Green Metropolis or eBay, or as a last resort, Amazon):

Father Christmas Raymond Briggs. Illustrations only, with a few speech bubbles, this book is takes the form of a comic strip. We love this grumpy Father Christmas! "Blooming Christmas here again!"

Product Details

The Jolly Christmas Postman Janet and Allan Ahlberg. The jolly postman visits various fairytale characters at Christmas delivering letters and goodies which are included in the book, so there are all sorts of puzzles and mini books and a beautiful unfolding peep-show, which makes this a truly interactive book. The text takes the form of rhyming verse. 

Christmas Farmyard Tales Heather Amery and Stephen Cartwright. Not my favourite book but my kids have always loved lifting all the flaps and hunting for Ginger the kitten who hides on each page.

Lucy and Tom's Christmas Shirley Hughes. I'm a huge Shirley Hughes fan, and adore this book which allows us to accompany Lucy and Tom as they prepare for Christmas. I love the part at the end of Christmas day where Tom has got rather excited and cross and he and Grandpa go for a walk together "just the two of them", as the sun goes down, to calm down.

Barefoot Books come into their own where festivals from all cultures are concerned. The following three books are all published by Barefoot:

The Miracle of the First Poinsettia, A Mexican Christmas story by Joanne Oppenheim, is " a miracle story that reminds us of the true spirit of giving".

While the Bear Sleeps Caitlin Matthews. Winter Tales and Traditions. I have learnt much from this book which takes the reader around the world telling traditional stories and providing information about winter customs. Beautifully illustrated.

Babushka Sandra Ann Horn. A retelling of the traditional Babushka tale.

A Child's Christmas in Wales Dylan Thomas. "Dylan Thomas's magical account of his own childhood and a Christmas Day in a small Welsh town is vividly brought to life by Edward Ardizonne's wonderful illustrations". This is one book in our collection that I would like to upgrade one day to a larger hardback version, in order to enjoy the illustrations even more. As you'd imagine the writing and description of Christmas is poetic and evocative. Who can forget the section on Christmas day where, "The dog was sick. Aunt Dosie had to have three aspirins, but Aunt Hannah, who liked port, stood in the middle of the snowbound back yard, singing like a big-bosomed thrush."


The Dark is Rising Susan Cooper. Sue on the Quince Tree blog was listening to the audio book version of this last Christmas, so when I spotted the paperbook in a charity shop earlier this year I snapped it up. We are reading this Puffin classic aloud at the moment and thoroughly enjoying it (even though I for one, am not a great lover of the fantasy genre) - very wintry and an exciting story.

A Christmas Memory Truman Capote. Another blog recommendation from last year, although I can't remember where from. Short and sweet - a good read.

How about you? Any favourite Christmas reads?

Thursday, 5 December 2013

#Christmas - the cake!

Last year I made two Christmas puddings, one of which was consumed and after consultation the other was kept for this Christmas. The consultation wasn't very wide; it extended as far as asking one of my close colleagues whether she thought a homemade Christmas pudding could be saved for an entire year. Chance would have it that she was the very best person to have asked - it turned out that her mother deliberately used to make a Christmas pudding a whole year in advance of it being eaten because she believed figgy puds were all the better for a year's storage. That was good enough for me, so store away I did. Half way through the year I got cold feet about the whole year-long thing (who wants a Christmas ergot outbreak in their house after all, although it should be noted that there is no rye in Delia's Christmas pudding recipe - see here for my pudding blog post last year) and stuck it in the freezer for extra peace of mind.

So that's the Christmas pudding accounted for. With all the time saved by not having to make a Christmas pudding for this year I decided I could either make a Christmas pudding for next year or bake a Christmas cake instead. Until I'm convinced that the longlife Christmas pudding has been a success however, I'm reserving judgment, so plumped for the cake option instead.

Not everyone in the family appreciates rich fruity puddings and cakes, so I wanted a light option and also a recipe that wouldn't break the bank with a list of ingredients as long as your arm. I'm hoping that the recipe goes some way to fitting the bill. (It helps that we have hens to provide the eggs and I already had all the spices). This cake has the advantage of being gluten free so will be suitable for the Coeliac in our family.

It comes from Harry Eastwood's book Red Velvet Chocolate Heartache (which I still have on loan from the aforementioned colleague and love it so much I don't want to give it back!) It's actually Harry's Christmas cupcake recipe and the amount doesn't make for a very tall cake (ours must be about 6cm, which will be plenty for us). If you wanted a bigger cake you could double the ingredients.

The gluten free Christmas Cake

80g sultanas or raisins
120g candied peel (which nobody here likes so I used papaya and crystallised ginger instead. They don't like ginger either but I love it so I'm hoping they won't notice!)
60g glace cherries
60g chopped pecans
4 tbsp brandy (you could dispense with this ingredient; the cheapest brandy we've found round here is in Sainsbury's)
100g dark brown sugar
200g finely grated carrot (it MUST be finely grated for lightness)
zest of 2 lemons (I used one)
100g rice flour               ) You could substitute rice flour and almonds with plain flour if 
50g ground almonds     ) gluten is not an issue.
2tsp baking powder
2 tsp ground ginger 
1 tsp mixed spice
15 scratches nutmeg
1 tsp ground cinnamon

Preheat the oven to 180 deg c, 350 deg f, gas mark 4.
Line an 8 inch cake tin with greaseprrof paper.

Soak the sultanas and peel (read papaya/ginger) in the brandy (if using - could replace with fruit juice if not).

Whisk the eggs and sugar in a large mixing bowl until light coffee coloured and fluffy. Add the grated carrot and lemon zest and whisk until combined.

Fold in the flour, almonds, baking powder and spices along with the cherries and pecans, until they are all mixed. Finally, add the soaked sultanas and peel.

Place in the middle of the oven and bake for 30 - 40 minutes. It will be very runny when it goes into the oven and you might doubt that it will ever firm up, but it does.

The recipe was not designed as long lasting Christmas cake and as it has a high moisture content due to the carrots, like my Christmas pudding, I have erred on the side of caution and popped it in the freezer. I will ice it just before Christmas.

Tuesday, 3 December 2013

Santa comes to town!

Yesterday Santa arrived in our street. It's always an exciting moment and along with the start of advent, signals the beginning of the festive season for us. I blogged about it last year too, here! 

Santa float 2013!

Santa and his helpers park at the top of our road ready to start their evening's fundraising work (for the Lion's Club to pay for Christmas dinners for the people who will be dining alone this Christmas), and he hops aboard a brightly lit float pulled by a tractor, whilst his companions get ready to shake their buckets. 

We consider ourselves the lucky ones. Not only do we see Santa come down our street, but if we run down the alley by the side of our house we see him go along the neighbouring street too. If we're really alert, we see the float returning back up our street at full speed a couple of hours later - Santa probably slumped in his seat, carols no longer being broadcast, and everyone eager to get back to their cars with buckets hopefully full.

For extra seasonal cheer I've added 'A simple Christmas' button on the tool bar at the top of the blog. If you click on the button you should find links to all the blog posts I've ever written that could possibly be useful at this time of year! Lots of recipes, photos, and Everyday Life on a Shoestring traditions, and even some Christmas jokes.

Monday, 2 December 2013

#Christmas - the shoeboxes

One of my favourite parts of the build up to Christmas is preparing the shoeboxes.

For many years we've filled two shoeboxes each November for Operation Christmas Child - 'the world's largest children's Christmas project'. I'm sure many of you have done the same; you wrap a medium-sized shoebox and fill it with gifts for a child of a certain age (there are guidelines for suggested gifts, which include many practical items such as toothbrushes and soap as well as toys and clothes). The charity who run the project, Samaritan's Purse, then distribute the boxes around the world " children based on need, regardless of their background or religious beliefs. It's an unconditional gift of love."

Finished shoeboxes ready to go, one for a girl, one for a boy.

It's not only the children receiving the boxes that benefit; my own kids have gained so much from making the boxes. They put a lot of thought into selecting the gifts each year, and imagining the child who will open their box. It puts the consumer madness of a UK Christmas into perspective when you are enfolding a simple bar of soap into a soft flannel for an unknown child - an item that we would consider a basic of everyday life but that might be a real luxury for the recipient.

This year we were late in completing our boxes and missed the deadline for getting them to Son's school for collection. Luckily all was not lost and we were able to take our boxes to the depot in Melksham where they get sorted and set off on their journey. The volunteers kindly gave us a sneaky peak behind the scenes.

Boxes being sorted by a team of volunteers. Can you spot ours?
Shoeboxes about to be boxed and palleted.

An amazing 20,000 shoeboxes have set off from Melksham so far, which covers the SN, SP and BA postcodes, and most of them have gone to Bosnia. It's also good to see from the Samaritan's Purse website that boxes have regularly been distributed in the Philippines for many years and that the charity has been very actively involved in the aid effort there after Typhoon Haiyan, "Even though the situation in the Philippines may no longer be making the ‘news headlines’, Samaritan’s Purse is continuing its work to bring relief and provide aid to those in desperate need of water, food, hygiene and medical supplies."

Lastly, it may be too late to prepare a real shoebox for this year, but you can still pack a shoebox online! Click here.

Sunday, 1 December 2013

A Sunday river walk and the Amazon voucher winner!

Firstly many thanks to all of you who joined in the Amazon voucher giveaway. There were 30 commenters, and all eligible entries were allocated a number according to the order in which they commented. Number 15 was drawn, which we had allocated to Jibber Jabber. Congratulations! If you could drop me an email with your email address that would be great Jibber Jabber. I will forward you the voucher codes as soon as I have them from the Agency who are handling the deal.

Another winner in our house is always the river walk. We've been walking the same local walk each month and taking photos to record the changes that we see over the seasons. The walk is about 3-4 miles around a small part of the Bybrook Valley in north Wiltshire, between Ford and Castle Combe.

We had intended to get out in the October half term when we were expecting to see a more spectacular show of autumnal colour than we had seen on our September walk. However last weekend was the first chance we'd had to get out for a longer expedition for a while and we wondered if we would have missed the boat.

Fortunately not!

There were plenty of leaves to scrunch in beneath our feet and stunning hues of orange and yellow above us.

In fact the leaves and the colours were the most remarkable feature of this month's adventure. There was a definite sense of nature quietening down for the winter and fewer other spectacular sights and sounds.

Beech trees 24 November 2013

Beech trees not so long ago in September.

The Chinese Lanterns are still flowering. This time we thought we would give you a wider perspective. Their special spot lies nestled in a narrow bed between the wall and the fence. I wonder if there are any on the other side of the fence for the owner of the garden to enjoy? The postbox in the wall was providing a vibrant scarlet splash on this grey Sunday.

We found some evidence of storm damage from the big storms in October - this tree looked as if it had uprooted in the wind and with a hungry woodburner to feed at home we drooled over the size of those logs.

As for our favourite view looking up the Bybrook Valley? We just caught it before a full cycle of the year and the bleak midwinter returns.

Remember what it looked like earlier in the year...