Friday, 30 November 2012

Christmas Elving #3: Cornflour Clay Decorations

This should actually be entitled 'When crafts go bad' or 'Why the sleep-deprived should not be left in charge of ovens'.

I came across this cornflour clay recipe on Pinterest and thought I'd use it to make some Christmas decorations and hand/footprints of Baby I.

You will need:

1/2 cup Cornstarch (UK Cornflour)
1 cup Baking Soda (UK Bicarbonate of Soda)
3/4 cup Water

Combine all the ingredients in a saucepan and mix well. Put over a low heat and stir until it has thickened (the original recipe states it should be like smooth mashed potato - I found I needed it a bit thicker than this). Make the mixture into a rough ball and put in a bowl. Cover with a damp cloth and leave to cool.

Once cool, you can either seal the dough in a plastic bag and keep in the fridge until you need it (I've had some in the fridge for about a week and it's still fine) or you can use it straight away.

Preheat the oven to 175 degrees (Gas 4). Line your baking tray with grease proof paper (I forgot to do this...).  Roll out the clay on a smooth surface lightly dusted with cornflour and use biscuit cutters to cut out your shapes. Use a straw to make the hanging holes at the top of each decoration. The decorations need about 1 hour to cook, and need to be turned over half way through.

All sounds pretty easy? Yeah.... I flipped them over after the first 30 mins in the oven. And then promptly forgot about them. Whoops. The decorations were now more toasted than bright white.

Suffice to say, I'll be making a second batch of these, using greaseproof paper, and setting many alarms to remind me to get them out of the oven! I'm hoping I can rescue the first batch with a coat of paint to cover the crispy bits. I'll be making some more decorations for our tree, plus some handprint tree decorations for the Grandmas to coo over!

Thursday, 29 November 2012

Baby Play: Sensory bottles

A few weeks ago I made Baby I some sensory bottles after finding lots of lovely examples on Pinterest. The Imagination Tree has some great examples and has given me lots of inspiration for future play activities we can do when she is a bit older!

I wanted to make bottles that would be exciting to look at but also interesting to shake or roll because of the way the objects moved or the sound they created. As everything is safely inside the bottle, I could add in small things that ordinarily Baby I would not be allowed near.

Luckily I'm a bit of a hoarder so had some plastic bottles stashed away that were fit for the job, and I then ransacked my craft supplies (being a teacher, I've got a LOT of random bits that I could use!). After giving the bottles a good scrub and getting rid of any sticky bits on the outside (hot, soapy water and a palette knife normally does the trick), I filled each bottle and then glue-gunned the lids in place to ensure they won't budge.

The bottle fillings I went for were:

*Water, glycerin, glitter and sequin stars - The glycerin makes the water gloopier and helps spread the glitter through the mixture.

*Pasta twirls - this is a noisy bottle! (Just make sure the bottle is completely dry before putting the pasta in - I found a hairdryer did the trick).

*Pom poms and marbles - I originally just filled this one with pom poms, but they needed something heavier in with them to move them around and stop them clumping together, so I added the marbles. They have the added benefit of making a pleasingly clanky noise when shaken.

*Lentils - these are in a small screw lid tub (I think it originally contained body butter) which is the perfect size for little hands to hold.

These bottles have been a hit with Baby I - she loves staring at the swirling, glittery water, shaking the pasta and lentils, and rolling the pom pom bottle when she's sitting up. Because they're not too heavy, she can lift them easily, and the bottle necks act as a useful handle.

I'm currently in the process of making some travel sized versions of these that will be easier to cart round in the change bag. I'd also like to make some larger bottles that will be good for rolling around the floor - I'm thinking a mix of glycerin, water, glitter, beads, and chopped up metallic pipe cleaners could be a good recipe!

Next on the toy list for Baby I:
*Texture Book
*Bag of fabrics
*Treasure Basket

Edited to add: If you're struggling to get the sticky glue off the bottles, get some nail varnish remover pads (normal nail varnish remover doesn't seem to work, I think it's the oiliness of the pads that's key) and give them a rub - comes off really easily! Wish I'd known that before I spent ages scrubbing bottles!

Tuesday, 27 November 2012

Christmas Elving #2: Mulled Syrup

I had a moment of panic over the weekend: It's how many days until Christmas?! Argh! Time seems to be running away with me, and although I have lists galore and a Pinterest board full of lovely things, my pile of gifts to give is worryingly small.

I'm trying to make a concerted effort to get a wriggle on and make some of these deliciously beautiful things I've been planning. With today so grey and dull, and a baby sleeping peacefully, it was the perfect time to get cracking.

I busied myself with making Mulled Syrup - the original recipe can be found here. The house has been full of a wonderfully Christmassy fragrance - the tang of oranges, the warmth of ginger and the sweetness of cinnamon wafting from the kitchen.

As is the norm with me and recipes, I tweaked the ingredients and quantities, adjusting it to what I had in the cupboards and how I wanted it to taste. A little more heat from chilli and black pepper, a little less allspice (as I had none!) and a final squeeze of orange juice.

Instead of using a mulled wine spice bag and infusing the wine or cider, the syrup and booze is heated together = mulled in record time! (I'm envisaging a mug of cider with a splash of syrup bunged in the microwave until steaming!)

Mulled Syrup:

250g caster or granulated sugar
2 oranges, halved
6 8 cloves
6 whole allspice
2 3 cinnamon sticks
1/4 nutmeg, freshly grated 1/2 tsp ground nutmeg
Small piece ginger, sliced
Small pinch chilli flakes
Cardamom pod (I took this out after about 10 mins as I didn't want it to be too overpowering).
2 black peppercorns

Put all the ingredients into a large saucepan, with 1 litre of water, and slowly bring to a simmer. Make sure all the sugar has been dissolved. Turn down the heat, and simmer for 20 min. Leave in the pan to cool and then strain through a fine sieve (I used a muslin doubled over).

Sterilise your bottles (I found this made 1.5 330ml bottles-worth, but I think I probably reduced it more than the recipe intended) in hot, soapy water and then put in a warm oven to dry. Rewarm the syrup until just hot and then pour into the bottles and seal.

The original recipe advises using 400ml syrup with 750ml red wine or cider, but after reading the comments left on the recipe, I'll be labelling mine as 1 part syrup to 2 parts wine/cider.

I'm looking forward to testing it out before giving it away as presents! I had a swig out of the bottle this morning and it's good! It tastes sweet and spicy, with a warmth that tickles the back of your throat. I think it will be perfect with cider! 

Saturday, 24 November 2012

This week...

A little snippet of my week...

...a stomp across sheep-poo encrusted fields set us up for the week. Nosy parker, a.k.a Baby I, had a lovely time in the sling watching all the sheep and other walkers.
...I'm kicking myself I didn't take a closer look at this sofa in the window of a local antique shop.
...Baby I experienced a ball pit (albeit a tiny one!) for the first time! It tasted good...
...we looked round the museum and art space that has taken up residency where the old city library was situated.
...my brothers descended on us and cooked us fresh pasta with puttanesca sauce. My favourite recipe is Nigel Slater's recipe in the guardian.
...a flock of sparrows followed us along the canal path, flying on in a noisy panic when we got too close.

Tuesday, 20 November 2012

First forays into food

We've jumped straight in to this weaning malarkey and on the menu this week have been sweet potato, melon, apple, pear, and butternut squash, with varying degrees of success and popularity.

She mostly just splats it all onto the highchair tray, wiping it on every available surface (I found apple smeared in her ear earlier on...) and generally not putting it in her mouth. 

The few bits that have ended up being swallowed have resulted in the funniest whole body shivers/judders/shudders I've seen. It must be such an odd sensation to feel solid food instead of milk so I can't blame her really.

We're going for the baby led approach of putting the food in front of her, and letting her dictate how much she will eat. This seems a very natural way to progress to solid food for babies that are breastfed on demand as they have always been able to self-regulate their food intake. We've given her a few purees too - loaded up the spoon, tipped some out onto the tray and then let her take over. She seems very against being spoon fed so hopefully the baby-led method of weaning will work well for her.

Oh and that thing of taking hundreds of photos of your baby's face covered in food? Yeah, that.

I've felt weirdly emotional about starting the whole weaning process. It seems such a big step. For the past 15 months, I've been able to give her everything she needs in order to grow and be healthy. This is by no means the end of her being breastfed - I have no plans to stop now and will continue until the time is right - but this feeling that my baby now needs more than I can give her is a funny one to get used to. These are her first few tentative steps (figuratively speaking...we're not that advanced!) away from me and towards independence. 

It's all exciting though. Messy, but exciting!

Saturday, 17 November 2012

Whole Foods, Cheltenham

Thursday morning, while the cobwebs were still bejewelled and the sky was fog-filled, we took a trip down the motorway to meet a friend and her little one, for coffee and shopping at the new Whole Foods market near Cheltenham. After reading about it on Emma Bradshaw's blog, and seeing a few photos, I was really keen to go and have a mooch around as its locally sourced food ethos sounded right up my street, and it's only a 30 minute drive away. (Although it could be argued that driving half an hour to get there negates any carbon footprint benefits of buying local produce...ah well!)

The shop has only been open for a week so everything looks brand spanking new, and is obviously gaining popularity as, even at 10am, it was filling up with inquisitive shoppers.

The fruit and veg section was impressively stocked, with fruit arranged in such precarious stacks I was rather concerned that any over zealous pram steering would result in fruit chaos.

I loved the self service section where you can weigh out quantities of dried foods such as pulses, porridge and popcorn. The nut butter machine was especially intriguing - I'm wishing I'd got some of the cashew nut butter (although, that's a good excuse to return!).

The cheese counter could be sniffed out before you saw it...phwoooarrrrr! The wooden dresser piled with gloriously golden cheeses looked delicious. The charcuterie and meat counters were equally tempting. If I wasn't trying to stick to a pre-planned menu and budget, I would've treated us to steak and homemade potato wedges for tea.

The cake counter was beautiful - macaroons in a rainbow of pastels, and cupcakes topped with huge, ornate flowers.

I liked the fact they had all the producer details on big signs around the store, so you can see how far the products have travelled, whether they're from a local farm or overseas. It definitely makes you think - fruit from 8 miles down the road, or from Thailand...I know which I'd go for.

There were more recognisable brands and 'normal' supermarket items on the shelves than I thought there would be. (I was thinking it was just going to be local meat, cheese, milk, fruit and veg, bread etc). So it would be possible to do a full shop there...if you're feeling flush with cash! For a few local items though, it's perfect. (And maybe even one of those macaroons as a treat...!)

6 months

Dear Baby I,

Oh wow. 6 months! How did we get to half a year old already?! You're rapidly turning into a little girl instead of my tiny baby.

At 6 months you are...

...sitting up! You're still a bit wobbly, especially if you're tired, and you have yet to master sitting and turning to look at someone (that generally results in a faceplant...) but you're so enjoying this new viewpoint on the world.

...more and more inquisitive. You can spend forever fiddling with something - turning it over and over, giving it a scrunch, tasting it, flapping it about - the list goes on! Current favourites in the past few weeks have been the sensory bottles I've made, jingle bells at one of our baby groups, sheer purple fabric, and the silver packaging grandma's parcel came wrapped in!

...hair puller extraordinaire/neck grabber. I'm surprised I'm not bald at the temples and the nape of my neck from all the hair grabbing going on around here. And clutching at my neck with those teeny baby nails - ow! It's all very sweet when you snuggle into me when you're sleepy...but here, have a blanket to clutch instead of me!

...trying out some pilates...well, not really. But you are starting to lift your head off the ground, whilst lifting your legs - good core strength there! I'm assuming this is you trying to sit up on your own?

...ready for food. That's the excitement for this morning - I'm envisaging a baby covered in sweet potato by about 11 o clock!

...making lots of funny facial expressions. Sucking on your bottom lip, making a beaky mouth, and giving a proper pout are all regular Baby I faces at the moment. And each has a particular sound that goes with it - I'm guessing this is the start of speech?

Although there's part of me that misses that tiny, scrunched up newborn phase, I'm so excited about the coming months. You're learning so quickly at the moment. You amaze me every day.

(Oh and I seem to remember writing last month that you hadn't quite mastered pulling socks off yet. Yeah, you can do that now... suffice to say, your socks tend to be a bit soggy on the ends and given half a chance, you wouldn't be wearing any. Monkey).

As I wrote this last night, Children in Need was on the TV. I've watched the shows for the past few years, but this year, watching as a mum, it seemed especially poignant and heartbreaking. I realise how bloody lucky I am to have a healthy, happy baby. To donate to Children in Need, click here.

Sunday, 11 November 2012

Christmas Elving #1: Hearty Ale Chutney

In my bid to have an entirely handmade Christmas this year, I've started cooking up a stash of chutney to give away as presents. I'm trying out some new recipes, and also a few tried-and-tested favourites.

This 'Hearty Ale Chutney' is from the River Cottage Handbook No. 2: Preserves. Good old Hugh F-W and Pam Corbin can always be relied upon for a good chutney.

I've only made this ale chutney once before - but I kicked myself last time for not making more as it's so good and disappears so quickly. Sweet from the root veg, malty from the ale and with a tang from the cider vinegar. Perfect with some face-scrunchingly strong cheddar in a doorstep sandwich.

The preparation for this chutney is rather labour intensive as all the fruit and vegetables need to be chopped into small pieces. However, once it's bubbling away on the hob, it can pretty much be left to its own devices much of the time, with the odd stir here and there.

Onions, swede, carrots, cauliflower, apples, garlic and dates are mixed with tomato puree, demerara and dark muscovado sugar, vinegar, spices and a bottle of traditional ale. I went for a bottle of Tanglefoot (I'm always swayed by the name and label of the ale...advertiser's dream!).

Everything bar the ale is cooked down in water for about an hour until the vegetables are tender and the juices have reduced and thickened.

The ale is then added and the mixture turns a deep reddish-brown and it smells delicious.

It's cooked for about another hour and can then be spooned into warm, sterilised jars. It needs to mature for a few weeks before opening - so just in time for Christmas!

 Now I just need to get labelling the jars...

Wednesday, 7 November 2012


A slight delay to November's list post, caused by a happy week staying with the parentals in the West Country, but I've finally sat down in front of the computer.

October has been a month of tiredness.

Any sort of pattern or night time routine that we had been used to went out of the window. We've had lots of 'It's 4 a.m, that must be a good time to start the day?', a smattering of 'It's 3 a.m. Let's get up and play for an hour!', and a sprinkling of "I don't know what time it is, but I'm going to wake up LOTS!' Zzzzzzzzzz.

Anyway, I think (touch wood...) that we might be out of the worst of it now and we might get back to a relative state of normality soon. (Normal?! What's normal?!)

Suffice to say, my evenings of productivity have fallen by the wayside somewhat. Early starts and a fractious, teething baby led me to give in to the sofa's cuddly armed advances more than usual. Fingers crossed I can claim some evenings back and get going on some Christmas crafting before December is upon us.

Here's my October list:

  • Make a texture book full of different fabrics for Baby I as she is loving scratching at everything (mama included...) with her teeny nails - the fabric is washed and cut, the ribbon is chosen...it just needs a quick whizz round on the sewing machine. I'll add it to November's list!
  • Take Baby I swimming regularly Done! Well, doing! We've been going to a Parent and Toddler session at our local swimming pool, and apart from the odd occasion when the water has been a little on the chilly side, I have a very happy, splashy baby on my hands.
  • Go shopping in Bristol and explore the little shops in Clifton Done! A very happy day trip indeed - see here.
  • Buy a highchair in readiness for the messy delights of baby led weaning. Off to IKEA we go! Done! We went to Ikea intending to just buy a highchair...we came away with a car load. Whoops! 
  • Finish reading this book Done! Really interesting, and felt good to give my brain a workout by reading something more taxing than Grazia!
  • Start collecting objects for a baby treasure basket This is an ongoing task, but I've started collecting a few items together. Must keep going!
  • Rifle through my mum's recipe collection in order to make these - haven't managed this yet. It may have to be a December task.

So, November:
  • FINALLY get round to sewing that texture book!
  • Try out some new soup recipes from my River Cottage Veg book. I'm hoping to stock up the freezer with some easy, hot lunches.
  • Visit Jamie's Italian in Birmingham.
  • Take a trip to the newly opened Whole Foods market in Cheltenham. 
  • Get going with weaning, as baby is 6 months in just over a week. Where has that time gone? 
  • Make some dough tree decorations - some to keep, and some to give as presents. I'm liking the look of this recipe.
  • Design some Christmas cards to make/sew/paint - I'm thinking this will require some serious 'pinning' as research...

Tuesday, 6 November 2012

Christmas elving

My Christmas elving is now well under way as I attempt to have a completely handmade Christmas. As a teen, I used to make Christmas cards to send to school pals, and tried my hand at making small presents. (The decorated wine glasses worked well, but the wheat filled heat packs that sparked in the microwave weren't so much a present, more a weapon...).

In the past few years, I've begun making preserves using produce from the garden and have created hampers of delectable deliciousness (or at least, I hope so!) for family and friends. Last year was a bit of a washout homemade-present-wise as the thought of hot vinegar while pregnant made me heave and we moved house just before Christmas, meaning I hadn't grown anything in the garden worth preserving! So this year I am attempting homemade presents with renewed vigour and, even though I know it'll keep me busy until December, I'm really looking forward to it.

One staple of my handmade gifts this year will be a jar of something delicious - chutney, jam, or jelly. I'm sticking with a few old favourites, and attempting some new recipes too.

My go-to book for all things chutney is the River Cottage Preserves book. It's one of their handbooks, and is full of beautiful photographs and a huge range of recipes. I especially like it as lots of the recipes are based on foraged ingredients which appeals to my thrifty side!

So far, I've made Red Onion Marmalade, Hearty Ale Chutney and Apple and Rosehip Jelly (more on those soon) which have filled the house with a pleasing, autumnal-smelling warmth.

I think I'll also be having a go at making these...

Gingerbread Christmas Tree Decorations

Original image from here

Blackberry and Apple Gin

Original image and recipe from here

Orange and Pistachio Stollen Bars

Original image and recipe from here

 Spice Rub

Original image and recipe from here

I'll also be attempting a few hand sewn presents (can't give any more details as the recipients may be reading this!), some jewellery, and some crafted presents for my nephews.

Will you be making any Christmas presents this year?