Thursday, 16 December 2010

Nigella's Christmas Puddini BonBons

My plan this weekend is to make these.

Oh my lord aren't they beautiful? This is a picture I took last year and looking back at it makes me a bit excited about what lies ahead this weekend. I also thought I'd post the recipe before the weekend so if anyone wants to make them, they can give it a go.

I shall be making these to hand out as little presents for everyone in the office on Monday. I have a lovely wicker basket which will contain little bags of 5, decorated with ribbon.

Now in the picture there are roughly 70 bonbons and I cannot remember how many batches I made. Probably 2.

For a batch you will need:
125g plain or dark chocolate
350g christmas pudding (either leftover, or cooked and cooled)
60ml sherry
2tbsp golden syrup
100g white chocolate (though I'm pretty sure I used 1 100g bar to cover all of those babies)
tub of glacé cherries
tub of angelica

The only expensive thing in this is the sherry, and I will be using the bottle I bought last year - so it really is a good investment. I only wish I'd bought brandy last year as well as I could have done with some of that in my cupboard! (Please don't skip the sherry, it really does make all the difference). I used cheap christmas pudding (80p for 454g!) because lets face it, you're not eating it on its own.

First of all, line a tray (or plates) with baking paper, foil or cling film. Ensure it can fit in the fridge.

Melt the chocolate in a bowl over a pan of boiling water. As this is gently melting, crumble the pudding in a large bowl and mix in the sherry and golden syrup. (I learnt a tip of Kirstie & Phil's Perfect Christmas - lightly grease a measuring spoon with a little oil and the syrup should just pour off). Add the chocolate once it has melted, and stir again so all the pudding is covered.

Now take out small amounts of mixture and roll into a ball. Keep a cold tap running and once you feel your hands getting warm and the mixture is sticking, run your hands under the cold water. This should cool your hands down enough to get a few more done without melting all the chocolate (a tip I learnt when learning how to make the perfect crumble at Jamie Oliver's Recipease).

You'll need to make sure you keep the ball the same size. About the size of an average chocolate. These things are seriously rich, so don't make them any bigger or you'll struggle to eat them!

Arrange on the lined tray or plate and pop in the fridge while you sort out the decoration. Melt the white chocolate and keep on a low heat whilst you prepare the cherries and angelica. Count the bonbons and cut the cherries into enough pieces to pop one on each. Cut double the amount of angelica.

The next bit is the tricky bit and requires some patience, but it's oh so worth it and really is the wow factor about these beauties.

With a teaspoon, drizzle the melted white chocolate on the top of the bonbons. The key is to not make this too perfect - the dribbles of chocolate down the side make the 'sauce' look more 'realistic'. Whilst the chocolate is still liquid, add one bit of cherry and two bits of angelica on either side. Unfortunately, you really do have to do one bonbon at a time or the white chocolate hardens and the cherry and angelica don't stick. This will take a long time - so I recommend popping on the radio and enjoying it.

Once you've finished - keep the chocolates in the fridge. They are absolutely ideal as gifts, wrapped in a clear bag and tied with ribbon, or put in a little box. I think that out of everything I've ever made - these have gotten the best response. I really wish I could hand them out as gifts every year to the same people, but I would rather not be predictable.

If you have the time this weekend - make these. You will not be disappointed - I promise you!

(Note: I will be making my own gluten-free version using gluten-free pudding so all you avoiding gluten can do the same and not miss out!)

Wednesday, 15 December 2010

Light Christmas Lunch - Courgette (Zucchini) and Watercress Soup

I find (like many others out there) that during the festive season, I tend to eat a lot. Lots of chocolates and nuts, crisps and dips, 3 course meals and plenty of tipple.

My parents and sister came to visit last weekend and I ate so much that as soon as they left, I clutched my tummy and fell to the sofa and couldn't even think about food... until an hour later when I dipped into the Quality Street.

So while it's all very well to indulge a little over the Christmas period, you may want to settle down with something light for lunch (or indeed, later on in the evening after scoffing away most of the day).

This soup is one of my favourites. It's from Sophie Dahl's Voluptuous Delights and has only 4 ingredients. An onion, courgette (zucchini), watercress (I use a 75g bag), and 1 litre of chicken stock. All of which are incredibly cheap. I think this soup comes in at under 50p per head! (serves 3-4)

In a large pan, gently heat an onion until soft. Cut the courgette into small chunks and add to the onion, along with the stock. Simmer gently for 10 minutes, then add the watercress. Simmer for another 5 minutes, turn off the heat, and puree with a hand blender. Season with black pepper and salt (if you wish - I find it perfect without). Sophie's recipe calls for a tiny amount of single cream but to be honest I can hardly taste the difference without it.

It's deliciously bright green and tastes utterly divine. Perfectly light and full of goodness to help you feel not-so-guilty for munching on treats throughout the day.


Monday, 6 December 2010

Christmas Decorations in a Room With No Fireplace

It's a bit of a pickle, really. All our lives we see glorious images of stockings hanging over an open fire and a garland over the mantle. But it isn't the reality for those who live in small apartments. Tiny living rooms with a TV as the point of focus can make it a bit tricky to decorate for this time of year. So I have tried to come up with a few ideas.

Our decorated living room. Matt was admiring the snow out of the window and there was a sense of joy and peacefulness that I had to capture in that moment.

For those of you who struggling to find space to put a tree, why not try a slim pop-up artificial tree? We bought ours last year and it's small enough to store easily, and fits perfectly in a corner, not causing too much disruption to the layout of the room.

A festive red plant is a great way to introduce Christmas colours and can replace any other old plant of vase of flowers. I love the Poinsettia and I have mine sitting on the new coffee table!

A huge bowl full of baubles is a great way to add decoration without hanging some from rented walls. I bought 2 glass bowls I found in the sale and filled one with baubles and another with a huge tin of Quality Street. Having chocolates available in a pretty bowl is a big part of Christmas for me, and is a wonderful little treat when guests are around. And the bowls can be used for deserts or for potpourri at other times in the year.

Candles are also by far my favourtie way of creating a great atmosphere. Tea lights in a variety of holders scattered around the room create yet another twinkle and they work even better in small rooms (I think, anyway). These can be picked up for around a pound and work a treat at dinner parties and other occasions - so really another cheap but great investment.

The Noel sign on the bookshelf was bought on eBay last year and spray painted silver. It cost just a couple of pounds and sits quite boldly in a place that is already crowded with colour.

Finally, add baubles to doornobs and handles of cabinets. It's the simple touches that make all the difference.

Friday, 3 December 2010

A Long Awaited Present to Myself

There has been a new addition to my livingroom.

In our previous flat, I wanted a coffee table so much but as Matt hates them (and I wanted to keep him happy) I didn't get one. When we moved, we had an even bigger room and I begged him to let me have one. I showed him some to see which one he'd prefer and we came to a middle-ground.

I could get a coffee table if it had storage. That was it was really practical. This was the one he agreed on and it took me 8 months to finally get around to buying it. Because it cost a little bit more than I would have liked to spend. So I saved and finally bought it. And it looks beautiful.

It stores guest bedding at the moment (and has given Matt back the drawer in our room that I stole from him to store it all) so he's happy. And no doubt it'll store some extra Christmas decorations, blankets and throws.

It took me so long to get this chest, but I'm really happy I waited to get something I loved, instead of buying something cheaper that would 'just do'. It's the little things that make me happy.

I would stronly recommend to anyone that they should wait and get wonderful gems of furniture, instead of getting the cheapest and quickest thing available at the time. It's false economy really, because you'll only want to get rid of it when something better comes along, and it won't make you smile every time you look at it.

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

Hello December!

What more could the 1st of December bring than snow?

It’s just properly hit us here this morning and I couldn’t ask for a more perfect start to December.

Tonight, I shall be warming up the mulled wine, eating chocolate coins and unpacking all the Christmas decorations.

I have been incredibly strict with myself this year and have only bought a glass dish (on sale) for holding chocolates (it isn’t Christmas without a glut of Quality Street) and fabric for my homemade wreath which I shall be making tonight.

My street is beautiful here right now – the old houses look warm and cosy under the thin blanket of snow and I’m so happy we chose this place to live. Nothing brightens up my day more than entering a beautiful street when I walk to and from my home. I guess being choosy about my street really did pay off.

Happy December and have fun getting those decorations looking gorgeous!

Saturday, 27 November 2010

A Long Hallway Table

Remember when I showed you my hallway? I had just found a huge table that would fit in it. Well, it arrived I was at the office. "Bloody hell this table is huge!" was the text I received from Matt. At first, he wasn't convinced by the table. Hell, even I was a little unsure when I saw the unsightly thing in our hallway - but I knew I could see the potential.

Still - it's pretty ugly.

We'd already chosen the paint as I had already created my display case so I got to work painting two layers of primer and followed it with two layers of 'Aladdin'. I picked up some inexpensive dust sheets to protect my floor - way cheaper than thicker sheets and much larger than bin bags. It took well over a day to get the finished result - and I got very impatient - but it looks a million times better!

I really love how the mini cabinet creates an added feature. And you get a little glimpse of the decorative paper inside when you walk past!

It's definitely livened up the hallway and I hope it will continue to grow with decorative objects as the months pass.

This is the first time I've ever painted a piece of furniture - and I'm so pleased with the results. It's so easy - and I still have loads of paint left over so I can create matching items.

Don't dismiss an item of furniture on first glance - just think of the possibilities!

Tuesday, 23 November 2010

Being Nice to your Landlord (And Playing Detective)

When we viewed this flat 8 months ago, there was one small obvious flaw. And that flaw was on our living room wall.

A huge damp patch creeping down from the ceiling. I was told by the agent that it had happened just recently and that the problem had just been fixed (there was scaffolding outside the house so I believed her). In a couple of months, the wall would dry out and it would be re-painted and that would be that.

Perfect. I thought.

2 months later we had the wall painted. A few weeks after that, the mark came through again. This, I was told, was because the cause of the problem hadn’t gone away and no matter how much we painted it, that mark would come back.
I decided to do some investigating and in the summer, I popped round to the flats next door to see if they had a problem, too. Both the flats next to mine (on the same level and below) had damp problems on that wall and it all started to appear once a fire escape had been installed a year ago. I went out onto the fire escape and took some pictures of the mould on the wall.

The source had been rotten leaves that had been removed the week before by our neighbour’s landlord in a desperate bid to fix his own walls.

But this was good news. Their landlord obviously cared enough to get the problem fixed so I took his number and sent an email of my findings.

Hi Pauline,

I’ve been speaking to people in the flats next door to see if they’ve been affected by the damp on the wall. I’ve had the same story from both of them – that it started about a year ago and has something to do with the fire escape.

Apparently their landlord removed a lot of gunk from the fire escape and drains last week but isn’t sure if that is what has caused the problem. The couple in Flat K (ground floor and directly next to ours) are moving out in 2 weeks so I imagine he’ll want to try and fix the problem before getting new tenants in.

I’ve attached pictures of our wall, the wall directly next to ours in Flat K, next door, and the outside adjoining wall of both properties (13 pictures in total).

I got the mobile number of their landlord, Steve, 07*********, in case you think it’s a good idea to talk to him about it and possibly work together in fixing the problem?

I’ll give you a call to talk to you about it in more detail, but thought it was worth giving you as much information as possible.

Best regards,

A nice email, I think. One that isn’t demanding or accusing and tries to be the nicest as possible when asking for work that will come at an expense to the recipient.

Contractors were soon sent out to take a closer look at the problem and I was told the best thing to do would be to re-plaster the entire wall. First they’d paint over it once more to prove that there is no other option and get to work on the wall in the New Year.

Today, the painter is here – giving me a bright new wall just in time for guests to arrive in December. I’ve been patient and polite and now my flat is becoming perfect.

If you have any problems with your rented property, be as nice as you can and you’re more likely to get help. Also – make sure you’re only making valid requests for work and can back up your reason to have it done. But it has worked with me and I am very happy. Bring on the wall!

Monday, 22 November 2010

CD Rack turned Ornamental Display Case

When Matthew re-arranged his room, he brought out a CD rack that has been hiding in there for the past 7 months.

We wondered about giving it to someone, and as we were talking about it, I said “and see, you’ve already sanded it down so it’d be perfect for someone to paint and…. no, wait - I want it!

I thought back to a post I’d read over at Cherry Menlove when she painted a pigeon hole, and hung it up on a wall in her hallway to display trinkets and sorts and I thought that was definitely something I could do.

I briefly wondered where I could hang it, and then a very clever idea came to mind – instead of adding yet more holes to the walls, I could display it on the new table in the hall! That thing is so big that it really needs something huge to be put on it – and this would be perfect.

So with a weekend of painting ahead of me, I started to get a bit excited. On Friday night I went to Wickes to choose some paint and we decided on 'Aladdin' - a deep purple colour - for the table, and I got some plain white for the CD case. But halfway through painting the case white I decided I didn't like it and cracked open the purple.

Once that was dry, I measured the squares and cut out pretty wrapping paper to decorate the insides with (£1 a roll - bargain). I chose two similar prints in different colours and glued them in place. Then decorated the shelves with some tiny ornaments.

Over Christmas this will be beautifully decorated with all things festive and after that I'll try and find little bits and bobs to display. Trying not to be too girly, of course, as Matthew still wants the hall to look a bit masculine for when his clients walk down there to his studio - although I don't think I've quite mastered that as currently there are 3 fairies and some stones.

Now just to get the table painted! Stay tuned!

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

The Hallway

My hallway is long. Very long. Over 7m long, in fact, and I have spent 6 months having no idea what to do with it.

Ideally, I'd like to have the walls covered in photographs but as I'm in rented accommodation, I don't think my landlord would be too happy with that amount of holes in the wall. Because of this, I've left it empty.

Which is a shame, really. Because it really is a large part of the flat, and one which is used multiple times daily to go from one end to the other. But because it's so long (and made to look even longer with my mirror at the end) it needs something huge to fill it, and I've never been able to find anything big enough (and which doesn't cost over £100) that would look right... until yesterday.

Spiral Charity Shop - where I got my chair - is the best place to find cheap furniture and I went looking without actually imagining I would find something. But I found a table that would be perfect. 190cmX36cm - narrow enough that it won't stand out too much and long enough that it will look as though it was meant to be there.

I may not get the table delivered for another week but I am desperate to get started on it (painting it up nice and decorating it for the festive season) so I wanted to show you a 'before' shot and give you a glimpse of the empty hallway before I start on my new makeover.

Oooh I'm excited!

Monday, 15 November 2010

Ever Growing Collection of Spider Plants

For my birthday my friend and colleague, Courtney, gave me a Spider Plant. It sits happily on my desk, next to another little plant I have that doesn’t quite know whether or not it wants to live or die.

I was very happy with my gift. Very, very happy, in fact. I like a bit of greenery next to me in the office. But one day I noticed that something was sprouting out of the middle. It looked like a weed of sorts and when I mentioned it I was told “no, that’s for the babies!”


What I didn’t really know, or understand, about spider plants was their ability to breed. I got this plant 2 months ago and already has it sprouted 4 babies.

Can you see them there? Hello babies!

The biggest one will need to be potted soon and the others will follow shortly after, but I’m amazed at just how purse-friendly these plants are!

Soon I will have 5 plants and 4 of them will have to be taken home where they will then, no doubt, breed like the other one. I will have plants coming out of my ears and I didn’t even buy the first one my self!

Great gifts that really do keep on giving, excellent decoration, and perfect for selling if you have too many to cope with.

But I think this is the best news – I water this plant about once a week. It needs a “treat ‘em mean, keep ‘em keen” approach and that is fine by me!

Sunday, 14 November 2010

Healthy (gluten-free!) Eating

For 2 weeks I haven't done a food shop. I've been utterly terrible. One week Matthew was working away and I didn't have anyone to help me lug it back to I just didn't bother and last week we were at Matthew's parents for Bonfire Night so I didn't do it then.

Needless to say, we ate our freezer bare and yesterday we found ourselves without any food.

Off to the shops then!

But not before coming up with a shopping list, which I had to squeeze in between tidying up, getting ready, and making my paper baubles.

I'm finding the whole gluten free thing relatively easy to be honest. I can eat meat, veg and dairy - so that's pretty simple. Now I'm trying to introduce new grains into my diet to substitute flour and I've been quite happy with the results. One of my current favourite things is the M&S 'Super Wholefood Shaker Salad' consisting of Quinoa, Wild Rice, Edamame Beans, Butternut Squash and Green Lentils in a olive oil and lemon dressing. Beautiful - and something I am going to try and make myself once I get myself down to Taj to get some edamame beans (they don't stock them in Tesco).

Anyway, this week I have decided to be pretty healthy and have come up with a decent meal plan for the week!

Nigella's Praised Chicken with Brown Rice
Potato and Haloumi Bake
Salmon with Brown Rice & Veg
Quinoa salad (with leftover chicken instead of beetroot and srping onions - I'm using what I've got)
Pork Chops, Mash and Apple Sauce
Chicken Curry with Rice

Which is not bad going really. No pasta, no pastry. I am going to make an Apple Pie with gluten-free flour - but I'll see how that goes.

Sophie Dahl's cookbook is full of lots of recipes that don't contain gluten - she seems to be a bit of a health buff so I'm enjoying the rewards of her good eating habits. And the same can be said of Cook Yourself Thin - so it looks like I will be embracing all my heathy cookbooks to avoid lots of gluten-based recipes.

But for now - off to go and make an Apple Pie (fingers crossed!)

*update: Apple Pie was a success*

Saturday, 13 November 2010

Twig Christmas Tree with Paper Baubles

Okay, so Christmas doesn't really start here until December 1st but I have decided to be brave and make a decoration in mid-November.

But I figured if I made it early, I could post it here and hopefully some other people could have time to make it.

The best thing about this decoration was that it cost me nothing. Nada. A big zero. Not one single penny spent.

I saw this idea in a copy of Country Living magazine (the UK version, I believe there is also a Country Living magazine in the US - it's not that one) but unfortunately it isn't on their website so I may as well write up my own tutorial.

All you will need to create this totally free masterpiece (assuming you have the following things - which you should have) is:

Scrapbook paper
Paper clips
A thick needle
Twigs from the garden
Silver spray paint (optional)
Pliers (optional, but will hurt your fingers less)
A plant pot/Vase
A rubber band (optional)
Tissue paper (again, optional)

First pick some branches from a tree in your garden. I chose some that were thin and had lots of twigs sprouting all over the place. Spray paint these silver, if you wish. I think it gives it a more festive look, but to be honest, the twigs are just there to display the baubles so it's not a disaster if you don't have spray paint.

While the paint is drying, start on the baubles. Cut out some scrapbook paper into strips 1cm wide and 10cm long. You'll need approximately 15 strips per bauble. Straighten out a paper clip and using a thick needle, make a hole in each end of the paper strips (I did these in groups of 3 which made the process a lot quicker). Then thread the strips of paper onto one end of the paper clip like so:

Using the pliers (or your fingers!) bend the tip of the paper clip into a loop to keep the paper from falling off. Then thread the opposite end of the paper onto the opposite side of the paper clip like this:

You'll have to make sure you hold onto the paper as it won't want to stay bent and will try and pop off the end. Once you have all the pieces of paper in place, loop the end of the paper clip again. Make sure the loop is big enough to thread over a branch as this is what you'll use to hang your baubles!

Repeat this process again and again until you have your desired amount of baubles.

By now your twigs should be dry so arrange them together and tie the bottom with a rubber band. I did this so that it looked more like a tree and would stay more secure. My plant pot, however, is much wider than the base of the twigs so I held it in place with some dark green tissue paper stuffed into the pot. You may have a thin plant pot/vase so this part won't be necessary - but I do like the look of the tissue paper in the pot!

Once you are happy with the twigs, start decorating with baubles! I also added a couple of mini bead chains and I plan to add a few more. You could also attach beads to the base of the bauble to create an even prettier effect, but I do not have any so until I get some they will have to do being bare. Still, I think they look pretty sweet!

I have decided to display this tree over on the craft table, which, as you can see, has become filled with stuff!

Which means even more projects will be coming this way, such as making a new table cloth, decorating my embroidery hoops, knitting a scarf and making homemade christmas presents. Stay tuned, and please let me know if you make this!

Thursday, 11 November 2010

The Swedish World of Dreams

"Ikea" is one of those words that creates one of two reactions; excitement or irritation.

You either love Ikea, or you hate it. The grand scale, the mass of shoppers and the sheer amount of stuff packed into one store. For some, this creates a lump in the throat. And for others like me – it fills the air with a glow of wondrous possibilities.

I believe there is a difference between those who love Ikea, and those who do not. The answer: taste.

You may assume that Ikea is for those who do not have taste, but I find the contrary to be true. Those without taste see a warehouse full of cheap tat. Those who do have taste are able to see past some of the junk and find the real treasures. Cheap yet beautiful items full of promise, waiting to be given a home.

I believe it’s not what is put in a house that makes it beautiful. It’s about finding items that compliment each other, regardless of their price, age and quality.

A good 70% of my furniture is from Ikea. The other 30% would be if there was a store nearby but unfortunately I have to travel to get there and for the time being I do not have a car. Instead, I have to wait for the same time to roll around each year before I can have an excuse to go... and this special time is Christmas.

My main justification (not to myself, but to those who I have to beg to take me) is that jars for Christmas presents are a fraction of the cost at Ikea than they are anywhere else. 99p for a 1ltr mason jar is beyond a good deal and I jump at it – they are perfect for Christmas Muffin Mixes, which make a beautiful homemade gift.

But while I am there I spend most of my time scanning the rooms for inspiration. This trip, I took 36 pictures of rooms that looked as though they could inspire me in some way.

From blocks of colour paint as the perfect background to hang pictures…

To ideas on how to decorate my shelves for the festive season…

And a kitchen I can only dream of owning.

The ideas that can be found in an Ikea showroom are sure to inspire anyone who wants to improve the interior of their home.

I left the store having spent just under £17 and I am amazed even I managed that. By telling myself “I do not need this” I overcame the desire to buy teapots and cushions and spent as little as possible on things I really did need.. and some tea lights that were on offer – 200 for £2.80 (I couldn’t help myself).

I can not understand why anyone would hate Ikea… but then I cannot understand why some people choose not to do all they can to live in a beautiful home.

Each to their own, but if you’re anything like me – go give yourself a little Christmas inspiration treat and pop down to Ikea for some Swedish festive fun.

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

Sparkly Things

There is a shop that I walk by each and every week when I go food shopping. It is a shop called Cristabel and it is full of pretty things.

I had a bit of a nosey the other week and was in awe as I walked around the tiny shop, admiring all the beautiful pieces of jewellery and miniature glass bottles draped in crystals and clear beads.

I picked up one of these bottles and looked at the price tag. £20? For a teeny tiny bottle? I don't care how pretty is it - I am not paying that for something I could make myself.

So I will. But for now, I have taken inspiration from the way everything was presented in that shop and have re-vamped my vanity area appropriately.

My new necklaces are now on display - perfect for not only looking pretty, but so that they don't tangle. A new case to store all my make-up now matches the space and perfume bottles add a bit more sparkle. Eventually I would like to hang a few necklaces on the wall, as it would be more practical to be able to see all of the mirror when I'm putting my make-up on, but for the moment that necklace is my favourite and I generally am always wearing it whenever I need to freshen up!

This has brightened up this corner of my bedroom so much. It was definitely needed. And it makes sure I clear up after myself as everywhere has a place to go! Definitely much better than walking into my bedroom and finding a chest of drawers cluttered with my face.

Monday, 18 October 2010

My Twist on Lancashire Hotpot

2 years ago I attended Matthew’s family firework party. His large family fill his grandmother’s house and they all come together once a year to catch up and have a good time. It was the kind of gathering I am not familiar with as our family is very small. Instead, on Bonfire Night my family would go to a local pub/park/anywhere with a bonfire and stand outside in the cold with our hats and scarves on and enjoy the flames dance in front of us.
But there was one thing about this family gathering that was even more unfamiliar to me: the food. There was no hotpot in sight. Not a single bowl of mashed carrot and swede or bright purple beetroot and not a single slice of parkin. What kind of fireworks party is this?

Each and every year, these foods were the staple of Bonfire night. Hot and comforting – the perfect food to warm you up whilst you stand in the crisp, cold night. I mentioned the lack of ‘traditional’ food when I stared at the buffet table and saw lasagne and curry and I was laughed at. “You’re in the South now!”

So, as you do, I googled the traditional dishes that Lancashire has to offer and found that these meals were made due to their relatively low cost – perfect for serving at large events. With the North of England being one of the poorer areas of the country, our traditions have been formed by those who had no other choice but to budget.

And I quite like that a meal I associate with Autumn is one that costs next to nothing. A perfect homely pick-me-up that I can serve to the masses and not feel the pinch. And one that I can whip up for an evening meal and freeze the leftovers.

While this is not a traditional Lancashire Hotpot, it is a variation that is even cheaper and can be prepared with minimal effort (giving you time to play with the kids or sit down and watch a bit of telly while it’s cooking).

500g minced beef or lamb
1 large onion
2-3 large carrots (or more smaller ones)
5(ish) large potatoes
Worcestershire Sauce
Tin of baked beans
Peas (just chuck them in)
Beef gravy granules

Fry the onion and meat in a large deep pan (if not using lean meat, drain off most of the fat once it is cooked). Add the vegetables (you can use more veg if you have it – I think it might be nice with parsnips or mushrooms) and pour hot water into the pan until it covers everything. Add enough gravy granules to make a thin gravy (however you prefer), season to taste and turn the heat down to a simmer. It should take 1-2 hours to reduce and the vegetables will be lovely and tender. Once there is not a lot of liquid, add the tin of baked beans and stir to heat through. Splash in as much Worcester sauce as you like (or whatever sauce you wish – if you like a bit of heat add some tobasco) and give it a good stir. Chop up some parsley if you have any fresh stuff lying about (I wouldn’t go running to the shops to buy any especially for this) and add them to the pot.

Serve in pasta-style bowls for a really comfy dinner.

This dish is amazing on it’s own, but if you want to add a bit more on the veg front, it’s even better with pickled beetroot. Matthew isn’t a fan, but I really am and it’s gorgeous! Or add some carrot and swede mash (you can never get too much carrot in an Autumn dish, I think!)

Saturday, 16 October 2010

Decorate With Shelves

It can be hard to make rented accommodation reflect your personality. You can’t add wallpaper, or paint and you can’t rip out those awful tiles in the kitchen or pull up the carpet and replace it with something of a better quality.

You can, however, put up pictures and paintings and fill bookcases full of colour. You can try and match kitchen appliances to the colour of the tiles, or (if they are truly hideous) cover them with stickers as I did in my student flat. You can lay down a giant rug if the carpet is getting thin and if you ask really, really nicely, you might even get away with putting up a few shelves.

My landlord is super nice. It’s worth getting on your landlords good books as the better they think of you, the more likely they’ll agree to things like this. I make regular contact with my landlord to keep her updated on bits of things; the progress on the damp patch in the living room, what I should do if I needed to adopt a cat (long story) and when I’m going on holiday for two weeks. Regular polite contact shows that I’m a good tenant who wants to keep the property in good working order, and is willing to talk about problems instead of hiding behind them. It also helps that my rent is paid without fail every month.

By emailing my landlord, I have written proof of any changes that I might have done so they can’t be used against me when I finally leave. I will want my deposit back in full!

So, back to the original topic: my shelves. The walls in my flat are massive. 3 metres high and empty. Giant canvases are great for huge spaces but I wanted something a little different in my bedroom. To be honest, I saw this picture on your wishcake and fell in love a little bit – so I decided to make one for myself.

I bought two mega cheap i-need-some-help-if-i’m-going-to-look-pretty shelves from Argos. Less than £10 for two, and I had some black and white paint handy to jazz them up a little. Once painted they looked so much better than plain pine (yuck – so cheap looking) and I put them up! All by myself!

This is my bedroom before. Nice enough, but lacking in something.

And after! Complete with a new bedside lamp for reading and the shelf. Which just adds something to the room, doesn't it?

Here is a bit more of a close-up.

And even more close up

This shelf was decorated with some picture frames which I had hanging around in a drawer. I added some fancy wrapping paper and instant pictures achieved! The lotus candle stick (which I doubt will ever be used as a candle stick) and the ‘Dream’ lettering were bought in the sale at Cargo Home and the pebbles were a Christmas Gift from Matt’s mum which I hadn’t been able to find a place for.. until now!

The white shelf in the dining area isn't completely finished yet. It's up, but not really home to anything. It might play home to my herbs now that the sunshine is disappearing. We'll see.

Friday, 15 October 2010

How To Make Me Happy

If you could ask me what one thing makes me beam with happiness these days, I wouldn’t say “walks along the beach” or “buying new clothes for the winter” or even “sitting in a wonderful café that sells gluten free cakes that I can eat until I explode”. Although all of those things would make me very happy, none make me happier than when I hear these words:

“Oh wow, this place is gorgeous!”

You see, Matt has a fair few people round every now and again who he records in his studio and most of them have never stepped foot in this place. And let’s face it; most people who come round are either students or young professionals living with friends in shared houses.

So not only do we live in a beautiful flat, but we’re the same age as them! Probably with the same amount of money as them, too, but we spend it in all the right places. I’ve heard some say “Bloody hell, you two must be doing well for yourselves!” and last night the girl who came round even said “so I take it this place came furnished then?” Nope! This was all me, baby!

As much as Matthew likes the place, he’s not as enthusiastic as others are. Probably because he’s gradually seen it improve over the 6 and a half months that we’ve lived here. And possibly because he’s a boy. So when a stranger compliments my home, I am over the moon. My hard work has paid off and we actually live in a place that other people are envious of.

Hello beautiful front room. I think you’re looking even happier with your new chair and lamp.

Tuesday, 12 October 2010

Hello Autumn

The summer has died and now I have to remember to pick my coat up when I leave the house in the mornings. I wake up and check the weather forecast to see if rain is scheduled for the day – this way I can decide if I need to wear boots or shoes – essential to planning my outfit.

But there is something so cosy about the Autumn and I am glad it has arrived. Our summer has been a mix of hot and cold, rain and sunshine and at least now I can be happy knowing that I am to expect the rain, instead of being out in it wearing a dress and sandals because two hours earlier I had been baking in the heat.

The thing I love the most about Autumn, aside from the clothes I wear, is the food. As a woman trying to stay slim, it can be difficult living with a fella who likes his carbs and would insist on eating curry each and every day – regardless of the temperature outside. In summer, this can be increasingly difficult as the last thing I wish to eat is a hot, carbohydrate filled meal. But in Autumn and Winter, it is so much easier.

Autumn and Winter are cheap. Gone are the salads and vegetables that must be eaten within 3 days before they spoil, the fruits that cost an arm and a leg and are best eaten fresh. Replacing them are soups and stews, batches of cooking that can then be frozen, filled with all the veg you need to keep you going strong. Frozen and tinned fruit still tastes good when cooked in puddings and crumbles. Spending far too much money on drinks in beer gardens is pushed aside for staying at home, curled up watching TV and spending two thirds less on wine from the supermarket.

I’ve been reading my new Nigella Kitchen book and she has an entire chapter dedicated to store cupboard (and freezer) food so I plan to spend some time giving them a try and checking to see how budget friendly they really are (I imagine they are – she has great recipes for leftover meat that can be thrown in the freezer).

I think it is also the time to take up making chutneys, mincemeat, and sloe gin to enjoy both as the days turn into winter, and to give as Christmas presents to unexpected guests who arrive over the festive period. I have a lot of ideas buzzing around my head of how I'm going to make this a decadent but cheap winter and I hope I can pass some inspiration on to you.

Monday, 11 October 2010

The Reading Nook

I think the key to making small rooms look bigger is to create mini sections within them for different purposes.

In my living room I have my craft area, the dining area, the seating area, and now my very special reading area.

Just over a month ago, this area was empty. This area, and indeed the area where my craft table now is, was where all our leftover bits of stuff were stored. Chairs we needed to get rid of, the ironing board that I didn’t have room for, paintings that hadn’t yet been put on the wall..

Slowly but surely, these things were sold, found a home and hung on the wall and the area had become the empty space you see in that picture. But then the craft table was put up and the charity shop chair had been given a makeover and the empty spaces began to become cosy little nooks within this room. So cosy, in fact, that I felt I just needed one little thing to make it perfect. A floor lamp.

I chose the colour ‘blackcurrant’ because, as Matt rightly pointed out “you always see home magazines with big statement lamps and I think this is more statement than white.” Also, it adds another punch of colour in a white walled, beige carpeted, brown and grey seating filled room.

The lamp isn’t so bright as to fill the entire room with light when it’s on (I like dim light as it’s cosy, and I never put the main light on) but bright enough to fill the chair with light, making it an excellent spot to read. Perfect in these darkening evenings.

It has now become my favourite spot to sit and read my cookery books. I think it might also become my spot to listen to the radio on a Saturday morning and start on the scarf that I will so desperately need as the days become colder.

Little reading nook. You have made me livingroom appear that little bit bigger and a lot more comfortable.

Saturday, 9 October 2010

The Second Bedroom

When I moved 300 miles to a brand new area, one of the requirements of a new apartment was that it had two bedrooms.

I do not have any children. No babies or toddlers that require another room to sleep in. Nor do I have a lot of friends visiting who need a proper bed to stay in for the night. In fact, I do not have an extra room that I can decorate and make look pretty because this second bedroom is not my requirement. It is very greatly needed by my other half. You see, my beloved is a musician... and has a lot of... how should I say it..? ...Stuff.

This added room makes us appear so much wealthier than we actually are. Not only does he have a Studio to work from, but the rest of the house stays pristine and less like a college dorm.

His friends and colleagues say I'm very kind to have allowed him to have his Studio but let's face it... can you imagine me allowing him to keep all that in any other room? I think not!

Friday, 8 October 2010

The Craft Nook

The second bedroom in my apartment belongs to Matthew. It is his studio and a room he spends a lot of time in. When we moved into this place we had an agreement – he could have his room however he wanted and I got to decorate the rest.
The bedroom is pretty. The living room has splashes of colour and the kitchen is full of quirky girly items. But it wasn’t enough. I needed a space of my own. A space that Matt didn’t use in the slightest, and a place where I could have all my crafty things sitting happily together.

With our apartment being in an old Victorian mansion, the rooms are a little oddly shaped. We have an ‘entrance’, so to speak, into the living room. A square of nothingness before the living room begins and I found a table that fit perfectly between the door and the wall in that nook.

It has become my craft table. Home to buttons, rolls of paper, scraps of paper, material and thread. I want my collection to grow so that in time, I can make things without having to go out to buy what is needed. This way, I am sure, I’ll be able to cut down on spending even more. That is something I am very excited about.

I did some hunting for my table. It had to be cheap, but couldn’t look cheap. I was willing to spend up to £70 on one, but not any more, as that is what I had saved for it. When I say this table fits perfectly, I mean it fits perfectly. With a single cm between the two walls and the radiator and the door. It was meant to go there, and so with that, I went on a hunt for the right price.

Luckily, the table I had found was a Corona table and quite a lot of them are sold on eBay. It took me a few weeks to see the high and low prices and to know a good deal if I saw one. I called one guy who offered free shipping, but I was just out of his zone and the additional tenner would have made it more expensive than his competitors. But eventually I struck gold. A ‘best offer’ seller, and I put in my bid. £55 and free shipping (which I could even be told of an arrival time so I knew when to be in) – a hands down winner.

It is so worth doing a hunt before buying something that costs a fair whack – every penny really does count.

And after hours of hard work (and very red and sore palms) I had put up the table before Matthew got home and could show him the fruit of my labour. He was impressed. But immediately put his keys on it. No – no keys. You get your mitts off it.

This is the table after all of that effort. As you can see, this was a couple of weeks ago, before the new chair was put in its place. I am now spending my time decorating my area and shall show you when it is complete. That lovely, lovely craft section of my livingroom. Oh how I will pretty you up so.

Tuesday, 5 October 2010

A Much Needed Chair

As the past few weeks have had me concentrating on my new dietary requirements, I have been putting a crafting on a back seat – but this week I am back.

For over a month now I have been hunting for a chair. I saw a beautiful one on the Argos website back in August – half price but currently out of stock. I waited 6 weeks before seeing it reduced again on the website (but still out of stock) so I called to see what the deal was. Apparently it’s no long available and the Argos website made a mistake.

I was a bit annoyed. I searched high and low for a chair and couldn’t find anything under £100. I couldn’t even find a bench for under £50 and this really wasn’t good enough.

Not only do I not have the money to blow on an expensive chair, but its main purpose is only to provide extra seating when guests come over. Although our sofa does fit 4 – it’s a bit of a squeeze and not exactly the most sociable way to sit (all facing the telly).

So I ditched the online shopping and headed to my local furniture charity shop. I wasn’t holding my breath – I have been looking in this shop for months for a suitable chair and can never find anything that fits what I am looking for but this time I struck gold. An old brown chair – easy enough for a novice like me to upholster, and light enough for the other half to carry home! (thanks Matt!) And to make matters even better, it cost me only £10.

Look at it. It’s screaming out for a makeover.

But let me tell you now that I really am a novice. I have never even attempted anything like this before so I just had to guess. And I was also told that I wasn’t allowed to use ‘really girlie fabric’, so with both those things in mind, I got a plain(ish) fabric. That was textured enough to feel like a chair should, plain enough to not annoy the male who also lives with me, coloured enough as to not show bits of dirt that may happen upon it (it has flecks of bright colour running all the way through) and thick enough to not show through any of the previous fabric (I decided to keep the original fabric on there as the cushion was disintegrating inside, and the soft brown fabric also added extra cushioning.)

I couldn’t wait until morning to get some nice pictures in the day light so I spent my Friday night getting down to business with my sewing machine. It worked very, very well.

And it worked first time! It actually fit. I couldn’t believe it and started to annoy Matthew by interrupting him constantly to say *it’s really working!!!*

Because the new fabric was grey, I had to half assemble the chair to tell myself it didn’t look the same as it did before. And I was right.

But it still needed a bit more work and a bit more colour. So as I didn’t have any more fabric to make a bright new cushion I thought I’d just use one I already had.

The result? Ta da!

Okay, so not the most incredible chair you’ve ever seen in your life, and definitely not the most complicated but I quite like that I’ve just proven to myself that you don’t need to be a craft genius to get a new chair for a few quid.

All in all, that chair cost me £18. Less than a fifth of what I could find in the shops, and 10 times more comfortable than a stool. It sits happily in its corner, and I think I might just treat it to a floor lamp and turn it into a little reading area.

So there you have it. A beginner's chair that was really not difficult in the slightest and took a mere 4 hours.

Saturday, 25 September 2010

Going Gluten Free

For 3 weeks I had been feeling terrible. A very painful abdomen, waves of nausea and general discomfort for the majority of the day. It came on gradually, but after three weeks I was leaving work early because I just didn't feel well enough to be there.

I had seen 3 doctors about the pain and one said it was nothing to worry about, the second mentioned the word 'mass' and scared me quite a lot, and the third told me to go and see another doctor at my surgery - a doctor who takes the time to listen and does her best to diagnose.

After an appointment that lasted well over half an hour, and once I had answered a lot of questions she pointed out that my digestive system didn't feel too good, and the fact that my Dad is Coeliac made her think. "Very interesting" she said, and recommended that I go gluten free for a while and see if it helps.

It's been just over a week since that appointment, and I have cut gluten out of my diet. And how do I feel?... Good. Ach, I hate to say it, but I do. I feel much, much better. Damn my father!

There are two killers for me here. Killer number 1 is that gluten free food can be horribly expensive. Killer number 2 is... cake! Oh cake, and biscuits, how I love you! What am I going to do without you in my life?!

But I have ways around this. Having lived with my Dad's diet for nearly 20 years I have learnt a thing or two and the best tip I learnt is to eat naturally gluten free foods. Such as cornflakes and snack-a-jacks. These are eaten by everyone, regardless of a gluten free diet and so are much cheaper. The only thing I should really have to substitute is pasta and the pasta isn't that awful so I'm sure I'll be fine with that.

But I will also have to learn to bake from scratch again. I shall not be defeated! I will need to learn the science behind baking so I know what I need to do to ensure I can fix any mishaps that may pop up along the way. I will use this to make me a stronger and ignite the passion to bake within me...

... and if I do fail I'll just concentrate more on cratfs. See? Not all bad.

In all honesty, though, I have caught this respectively early and so my reactions won't be half as bad as my dads, who is incredibly poorly after having just a sip of ale. I shan't be so bad that I need to stress out the poor hostess who has invited me to a dinner party, or kindly decline going out for a meal because I can't be sure what has been put in the sauce. No, it won't be that bad. If I am good for 99% of the time, the other 1% won't kill me.

Maybe every now and again indulge in a Krispy Kreme?

As for what I'll be posting on here - I am determined to eat like a normal person and so will be posting cheap recipes that maybe just happen to be gluten free, or if I have substituted anything I shall mark where you normal people don't have to!

I'll be looking forward to finding new blogs to read and I think I have already stumbled across a little gem. Straight Into Bed Cakefree and Dried runs an event called "Go Ahead Honey, It's Gluten Free!" (from which I have taken the image at the top of this post!) so I plan to spend a lot of time reading it.

I would love any recommendations. Have a good weekend!

Sunday, 5 September 2010

Show Home Inspiration

I have somewhat of a massive fascination with looking around houses. To be more precise, I have somewhat of a massive fascination with looking around show homes.

I'm visiting my parents at the moment and a new development is being built at the top of their road and to satisfy my curiosity, Matthew and I wandered up there to have a bit of a nosey. I do like to go dressed nicely and look as though I am intending to buy and look around the house believing that I am, in fact, going to buy it. We sat on the sofas (very comfy!) and admired the layout of the bedroom before going up to the attic floor and fantasising about how Matt could turn it into a studio for himself.

The best thing about looking around show homes, though, is the use of design. It's hard to not get enticed by the cleverly missing wardrobes and lack of television in the front room, but occasionally you get to see something that sends ideas whizzing about in your head. That something was some wall art in a bedroom.

The wallpaper was patterned with large images and above the bed a mismatched array of empty frames were hung to display the pictures on the wall. Topped with a ribbon or two, these frames looked absolutely stunning and made me dig into my bag to get out the camera and take a picture. It was a fantastic way to create a feature on an already busy wall, without making it look as though too much was going on.

It's a shame, really, that rented accommodation doesn't allow me to do something like this myself but it is definitely going into the memory bank to be brought out again when I am able to decorate a bedroom as beautifully as this.

Ah, one can only dream...

Monday, 30 August 2010

Banoffee Pie

When guests are coming over, I always like to have a little something ready for them to eat. Sometimes this means I'm up early on a Sunday morning, baking banana bread so it's fresh out of the oven by the time they arrive. Other times it means creating a buffet-style lunch, and in Winter I like to make soups.

But sometimes I don't have the time to get busy in the kitchen. Either because I have too much to do, or it's an almost unexpected arrival and I've not been able to get to the shops to get the ingredients I need. In these cases, I have a very quick and easy Banoffee Pie to make.

Melt 100g butter in a pan. While the butter is melting, put 250g digestive biscuits into a food processor and and blend until finely crushed (note: you can also do this by putting the biscuits into a plastic food bag and crushing them with a rolling pin).

Add the biscuits to the butter and stir until evenly mixed. Put the mixture into a (greased) loose bottomed cake tin and with the back of a spoon, evenly spread out the mixture and create a crust along the sides. Sit in the fridge for about 20 minutes while the mixture firms up, and get started on your whipped cream!

Whip double (or whipping) cream with an electric whisk and fold in some chopped bananas. Once the base is set, remove from the tin, add a 397g tin of carnation caramel (this is for super time saving - for super penny-saving, get a tin of condensed milk and turn to caramel by boiling for 2 hours or so - follow instructions on tin) and top with the whipped cream and banana mixture.

Dust with cocoa powder and leave in the fridge until guests are ready to be treated!

While not the best Banoffee Pie to have ever been made in the history of Banoffee Pies, it's pretty damn tasty! And credit where credit's due, Matthew's friend regularly goes to the restaurant where the Banoffee Pie was created, The Hungry Monk, here in East Sussex, and he said that my pie was very good!

The best thing about this recipe is that it can be made from things already in the house. Biscuits? In the cupboard. Cream? Generally always in the fridge to be used in some form of pasta dish or with cake. Bananas? Yep, nearly always have those, too! And who doesn't have butter?? Just keep some Condensed Milk or Caramel in your store cupboard and you'll be ready to go whenever you hear that guests are popping around to visit.

Who needs to know it barely cost a thing and took you no time at all? Don't let them in on the secret!

Sunday, 29 August 2010

The Lavender Hearts

I always said I'd have Lavender Hearts by the end of summer.. and I do! I've been drying lavender throughout the summer and have quite a nice collection. This is the first batch I've made and although they're not the greatest things I've ever made, I'm still quite proud of them - if only because I have done something I said I would do.

I'm still learning when it comes to sewing-based crafts and I'm looking forward to teaching myself more.

Making these was still super easy, though. I just cut out a heart shape out of an old cereal box, drew around it twice, roughly cut it out 5mm away from the edge to leave room to sew and tightly stitched around the pencil marks. I left a gap at the top to stuff it, turned it inside out, filled with lavender and stitched it from the outside, trying to create the top of the heart, but not really doing it successfully. I tried to give it a bit more detail by adding a button (an idea I stole from other stuffed hearts I've seen in shops) and I liked that result... I will do it more often.

I'm going to make a few more today and tomorrow to give to friends and family. Two hearts are more than enough as Matt already complained when I made the second one. Ah, well! At least it gives me something to do!

Saturday, 28 August 2010

Why I Love Saturday Mornings

Tea, warm croissants, decor magazines and Saturday Kitchen Live. The ultimate relaxing way to start the weekend and put you in a perfectly good mood for the rest of the day.

It's the simple things that make life good.

Friday, 27 August 2010

My Pretty Boots and Why You Should Never Buy Cheap Ones

Pretty boots. Pretty, pretty boots. Oh how I love boots in the winter, for they keep my feet nice and dry and allow me to wear really nice skirts with opaque tights or leggings. These particular boots have been in my list of things I need for a while. And I’ll tell you why.

Do you sometimes ignore your own advice? I do – and I regret it. Maybe not at first – in fact, definitely not at first. At first I am rather pleased at myself and then a few months down the line I feel silly. Why did I not think about this in the long-run?

I often do this when I get faced with the dilemma “save pennies now, or save pennies in the long run?”

Always, always choose long run whenever you can. Or you end up with a problem that rears it’s head umpteen times.

You see, last year I bought some boots. Cheap boots from New Look, but they were nice boots. Comfortable boots. And they cost me approximately £20. Excellent.

But these cheap boots began to break and less than a year after I bought them, the insides began to crease giving me that niggling feeling of a constantly creased sock and no way to correct it. Then he inside heel began to wear out and the plastic of the shoe rubbed against me. The fake leather got torn and the soles were cracked.

I could wear these boots no longer and it couldn’t have happened at a worse time… summer has officially ended and the rain is pouring.

So I went out in search of some good boots. I was willing to spend up to £85 on a pair so long as they were exactly what I wanted. But they weren’t – so I settled on a pair for £40. Which is good as I paid less than half what I was willing to pay, but I am hoping that £40 is enough to last me more than a year or I will be faced with this problem yet again.

False economy is one of my most hated things in the world. Seriously, it’s right up at the top there. If you can, do. Or you will regret it. I really should listen to myself more often.
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