Thursday 31 March 2011

Me and My Machines

Well, I have the official answer for the question I sort of asked yesterday. It takes two people approximately three hours to laminate 200 A4 sheets, plus numerous cups of tea and lots of natter. Mostly from me. Sometimes I just need to be told to shut up be quiet - but my friend was nice and put up with me with very good grace. Now we are almost ready for the PTA Easter Egg Hunt 2011. Bring on Monday.

'Monday?' you gasp. Yes, Monday the 4th of April for an Easter egg hunt indeed. If you live in another country you might be shocked to hear this (I know I was and I live here!) but my children - and their classmates - only have eight days of school in April. Yes, eight, that is it! Next Friday is a teacher's training day, which leads to the weekend (obviously) and then into end of term holidays. Easter happens before those holidays are done so they are not due back until the 26th of April.

It gets better than that though. It does! Friday the 29th of April is 'the Royal Wedding' which has been made a national holiday. And if all that has tired them out then the first Monday in May is a bank holiday so they have four days off to recover from those three days of school at the end of April. I am hoping and praying for good weather because we are not going anywhere. Please, please let them be able to play outside.

And this is what 200 laminated bits look like -

It will be me, my scissors and those babies tonight.

Just in case you are worried I failed to get any sewing time in today, I didn't just get to play with a laminating machine for hours on end. I got to play with my sewing machine too. I put my head down and concentrated. No mean task for me at times. I squared off, cut endless strips of borders in various fabrics and I sewed and ironed like a little trooper. Tomorrow I am going to sew all sixteen of these squares together. Not necessarily in the order shown below. I haven't completely made my mind up yet and every time I walk past that array on the dining room carpet I change some of them around. Eventually I am sure to come back to the original order.

I have also pretty well finished two more crocheted baby blankets. Well, one was finished ages ago. Only I ran out of yarn right near the end and was annoyed and decided I wasn't sure if I even liked the thing. A friend assures me it is very nice and I have the hump with it but I am still holding a grudge. I shall have to redo the final row of stitches and get over myself. The other blanket I love. About half an hour should provide enough time to finish it. That will be me tonight - crochet hook, blanket and tv remote. How very exciting! She says without a tinge of dry sarcastic wit. How envious of me people must be. Not really, but it keeps me happy - and out of trouble which is far more important.


Wednesday 30 March 2011

Nothing Wrong With a Little Rain

To quote the Cat in the Hat -

The sun did not shine
It was too wet to play
So we I sat in the house
All that cold, cold wet day

It was a shame really, because it meant that I had to sit in the house and sew, and crochet, (after accomplishing the necessary stuff) and not have one ounce of guilt because I wasn't ignoring a beautiful day. Ha! Sometimes you just have to love rainy days.

About the necessary stuff I had to accomplish. I went to the grocery store with two things in mind that I definitely needed. Two. That was it. So why did I come out with £80 worth of groceries and then realise once I was unpacking all that stuff at home that I forgot one of my two items?! I know I am not the only fool person who does that, but it doesn't make me feel any better when I am looking for the yogurt to marinade the chicken in. I got round having to go back out into the rain though. I cannibalised one of John's fruit corner yogurts and helped myself to the yogurt, leaving that corner of fruit intact. Wasteful? Probably. But it fulfilled my needs. Dinner was sorted and I could get on with the really important stuff. Sewing. Woohoo!

And it has been a fruitful day. I managed to accomplish this -

That mess of squares translates to twelve fussy cuts that got their charm square (5" square piece of fabric for the non-quilters reading me) cut and sewn on. Then all those have their plain white border. Additionally, four squares are complete with their contrasting colour border. I'm well on the way to a quilt top now.

The great thing about winging it and making it up as you go along is I had (what I thought was) a really good idea while piecing today. Something different to do when I am putting all those squares together. Just a little thing, but the idea made my brain go 'yes!' so, for me, it is a good idea. For you? Well, you can judge for yourself - when the quilt top is done because I have absolutely no intention of telling you what on earth I am dreaming up now. And, actually, it is a very very small thing. And I am easily pleased. So don't get yourselves too excited.

All quilters know that maths is a very important part of knowing what to cut. Simple maths, but maths none-the-less. I get it wrong a lot - despite being pretty good at maths. But I did learn something when I made up these blocks. What I learned is this - it doesn't matter what size the fussy cut in the middle of the charm square is, the end result when you have cut and sewn on the square will measure 4"x5" (if you use the traditional 1/4" seam allowance). Duh - now that I have sewn them it all makes sense but there is not a hope in hell I could have told you that before I started.

So tomorrow this stack -

- will be complete with borders and ready to start sewing together. Keeping in mind that I have about 200 pieces of A4 paper to laminate tomorrow. That won't take more than a moment - will it? Nah, I'll have plenty of time for me. I have faith (she says with all fingers and toes crossed).


Tuesday 29 March 2011

Soil Beneath My Fingernails

I bet you all think that I forgot all about my pots languishing outside, waiting in vain for me to put some seeds in them. Forlornly propped up against the wall, potting soil drying out and the tumble weeds starting to gather. Poor, sad little things.

Well, you are wrong. Because I was so excited about the European Market last Friday I forgot to tell you that we swung by the garden centre on the way home. Now eight little pots grace my window sill in the utility room, seeds exactly one quarter of an inch below the surface waiting to spring into life (I hope fervently). Now you won't hear anything about them until I have tender little green shoots of tomato plants coming forth to be fruitful. Fingers crossed.

That's my beastie in the background.
I also went out and properly assessed the state of my herb garden. Planted at the beginning of last summer when we moved to this house. I am afraid to report that the long hard winter we had here this year has had some casualties.

Nothing short of a miracle is going to save my baby bay tree. Next garden centre visit will involve a new one I do believe. Same can be said for my Greek oregano. That baby was not prepared for snow, I think. My thyme, chives, sage and normal, bog standard oregano should make it through another year though.

I suppose I am going to have to mention the dreaded word - weeds. No hard winter has ever managed to put a dent in those. How on earth do I get a dandelion out of hard, gravelly soil when it has taken root right beside my oregano without damaging the herb and still successfully killing the nasty, invasive thing? If anyone knows, please, please tell me.

I have done some sewing too today. But you will have to wait and see what I have accomplished on a later post. I am going to make dinner and see how progress is being made on the Royal Wedding homework. Exciting!


Monday 28 March 2011

Making It Up As I Go Along

I didn't think I was going to get much done today. This morning got sucked up by the humdrum and the necessary. By the time I got back to the house it was well past lunchtime. So then I decided to prioritise. I love doing that because it meant that I didn't bother with housework and concentrated on sewing instead. A girl has to do what a girl has to do!

Once I got going I was on a roll. I looked at the fabrics I got out the other day and now I knew what I was going to do with them - sort of maybe. Needless to say I didn't have a pattern, or a drawing, or anything sensible to work with. But I had an idea. Good enough for me to start cutting fabric.

First came the fussy cutting -

So that I had lots of little rectangles from the fabric -

I matched these up to a selection of blue, pink and red charm squares -

Sewed -

Added a plain border -

Then a contrasting border of pink, blue or red -

And that is how far I have got today. But since I didn't think I was going to get anything crafty done at all I am well and truly pleased. I can happily ignore the hoovering and all that other stuff. It will still be there tomorrow - unfortunately!


Sunday 27 March 2011

That Chinese Pork Thing

As promised, here is my recipe for what we had for dinner last night. You must understand, I am not a precise cook. I play with recipes. I add things. I take things away. Feel free to do the same with what I show you here. Cooking is all about your own taste buds and no one else's. If you like the way you make something then, Woohoo!, go for it.

This Chinese Pork Thing is actually called Sung Choi Bao of Pork, Ginger and Mushrooms according to the recipe that I originally started out with. It is great food if you are entertaining informally. It is sit around the table and help yourself food while laughing and enjoying life. This is not food to make for yourself. It is for family, for friends, for sharing.

Think of it as a Chinese equivalent to tacos. You get your meat, some sauce and the wrapping. Serve a few things on the side if you like. I often supplement the meal with some spring rolls, (Bought! I may love to cook but even I am not always tied to the cooker.) or prawn toasts, or those wonderful barbeque pork steamed buns you can buy from the freezer section if you are lucky enough to have an oriental supermarket handy.

Okay, enough waffling on. Here is the recipe -

Finely chop an onion, some mushrooms and a small tin of water chestnuts. Do not put them in a food processor because this is a dish that you want to have the different textures - especially the water chestnuts as they retain their wonderful crunch even when cooked. Grate a good size nob of ginger and crush several cloves of garlic. This is one of those areas that is subjective because I love dishes that have a real punch of flavour but if you prefer things to be a little more subtle feel free to tone it down.

Pour a tablespoon of vegetable oil in a saute pan, or other wide bottomed pan, and cook all the chopped vegetables gently for about five minutes. Add your ground pork -

- to the pan and brown it. Get soy sauce, oyster flavoured sauce, chili sauce and Chinese cooking wine. (I use a combination of both dark and light soy sauce - not shown in photo.)

Notice the clever use of angle in the photo so you can't see the state of the kitchen counter behind.
Add to the browned meat and vegetable mixture in approximately these amounts:

3 tbsp of cooking wine
1 1/2 tbsp of oyster flavoured sauce
1 tbsp of each soy sauce
good squirt of chili sauce (again subject to your preferences)

Simmer the contents of the pan gently for about 15 minutes. Meanwhile start chopping again!

Grate a carrot. Finely chop some cabbage. Really finely chop some fresh chili. Slice some spring onions finely and shred some coriander (cilantro).

If you have prepared this dish for guests and are not going to be eating it for a while then put all the fresh veg in a bowl, cover and refrigerate. Cover and chill the meat mixture. When ready to serve reheat the meat, stir in the fresh veg and cook briefly until all of it is hot but you haven't started actively cooking the freshly added veg. A drizzle of sesame oil stirred in at the last moment is very nice too.

Serve it in a big help yourself bowl with lots of big iceberg lettuce leaves. And, yes, that is the correct lettuce for this dish. I know many people deride the humble iceberg now that there are so many more salad greens available these days but for this dish it is exactly what you want. Crisp, crunchy and a delightful contrast to the spicy, hot meat that you are going to wrap in it. Each person puts a little hoisin sauce onto a lettuce leaf, spoons in some of the meat and then wraps it up and enjoys.

If you want to add another crunch to the table then serve up a big bowl of prawn crackers with this. Put some meat on one of the crackers instead of in the lettuce for another twist on the theme.

By the way, I love the new squeezy bottle of hoisin I picked up at the Chinese supermarket on Friday. Works great for this dish.

In the words of my two mini monsters last night, 'Mummy, you have to make this more often.'

If you have leftovers they go nicely wrapped in a tortilla with some lettuce, hoisin and cucumber strips. Makes for a great change in their packed lunches.

It's easy. It's tasty. It's different. If you try making it I hope you enjoy it.


Saturday 26 March 2011

I Have Seen the Light

I started working on a new baby blanket at the beginning of the week using some new bamboo yarn. This time it is a 80% bamboo and 20% cotton blend. Let me tell you, if you have never felt this stuff for yourself, it is as soft as the proverbial baby's bottom. This stuff is so luscious I want to unravel all seven balls and roll around in it like a puppy. Like all previous bamboo yarns I have worked with it splits with a great - but unwanted - efficiency. If I didn't like the feel of it so much I wouldn't use it. But then I get my hands on some new balls and just can't help myself.

So there I was, happily hooking my evenings away and I got this far -

- and was decidedly less happy with myself. I tried and tried to convince myself that it was okay but even I am not that much of an fool optimist. No, it would not do. I hate when that happens. So unravel it I did. Now it looks like this -

Can't you see the difference? I can.

I had a good friend come over on Thursday to sit and chat and do not much of anything as she is recovering from an operation. She is the professional to my amateur in the ranks of crocheting. I showed her my poor first effort and she saw what I did wrong right away. She showed me how to fix it - and it only took me three attempts before I finally caught on. Some days I more resemble a goldfish swimming in circles than a functioning human!

Not only did my friend show me the error of my ways but she gifted me with a crochet book. I never, ever look at these things because they are pure hieroglyphics to me. This one is good though, and I know that because it makes sense to me. How fantastic is that?! And it isn't full of patterns that boggle my mind. It is just a book that explains more crochet stitches than I am ever going to require or attempt in my lifetime. I am set. Only problem is I won't be able to plead ignorance any more.

So what looked like this -

Now looks like this -

Ah, now you see the difference! No big gaping holes where there shouldn't be any. I am quite happy with how it is now and continue on apace but having read the crochet book - really I did! - I now think I would try another way again the next zigzag crochet I do and compare the different methods. To make myself feel a little better, my first effort was actually listed as one of the ways to accomplish the pattern I am doing so I am slightly vindicated. But I would not recommend that method to anyone unless the multiple holes in blanket look was the one they were going for.

On a completely different note - I had a dig through my two freezers looking for some ground pork. I found the pork, and I also found not one, not two, not even three, but four chicken carcasses. They were swiftly removed and whacked into a stock pot with the carrots, celery, onion, etc. Now I am reducing a vat of stock that is making the house smell wonderful. Also steaming up all the windows but that is only because I cleaned all the kitchen windows yesterday and it is sod's law that I would do something within a day to undo my good work.

The pork is going into something I refer to as 'that Chinese pork dish' because I can't ever remember the real name for it. Also because I have bastardised the dish to such an extent that I would probably be ridiculed by anyone who has a purist's love for Chinese food. That being what it is, I like the results I get. It is full of flavour, very moreish and loved by the other three that live here. That's all I am going to tell you about it because I have been taking photos and I am going to blog about it tomorrow. Recipe and all.

Emily devoured almost half of the cheese and onion foccacia that we bought yesterday. She slathered it with Ardennes pate and rhapsodised about the combination. What on earth would I have done with kids who were picky? Poor blighters would have starved to death in this house!


Friday 25 March 2011

One Thing Led to Another

Today I was thinking of talking about this bit of crochet and why I pulled it all out -

But also wanted to mention my impulsive online shop a couple of nights ago which arrived so, so swiftly -

But then I had to think about what to make for dinner. And I decided on prawns. I have a huge bag of wondrously big ones in the freezer that my Mum had brought from her local fish market at Christmas and I keep saving for 'special'. Yeah, and like there have been days that screamed today is a special prawn day. I gave myself a shake and made today special. I browsed through some of my cook books and after much hum-ing and ha-ing I landed on a simple recipe for a Thai curry. Which led to the need for shallots.

John had to go to town for a dentist appointment so I went along to go to the Chinese supermarket. And that was when the day went from good to unexpectedly great. Himself headed off for his appointment and I exited the car park towards the town centre. Before I had gone more than a few steps my nose informed me that there was something different happening around the corner.

Woohoo! There was a European Market in town. These are wondrous occasions because you get all these vendors selling temptations that I am unable to resist. Usually it is a French Market and I come home laden down with cheeses and charcuterie that tends to run to the expensive but I still buy by the bushel load. Today was mostly cooked foods. Tapas and paella, crepes and pastries, kangaroo burgers (not sure where they fell into the Europe remit), Polish stews, Italian breads, and lots more.

Needless to say I had no idea it was on and didn't have my camera with me. So no photos of the humorous Germans with the huge barbeque laden down with the best bratwurst I have ever had. Crispy skinned and full of flavour. We talked to the nice gentlemen and they kindly agreed to sell us a packet of ten sausages so that we can slap them on our barbeque this summer. Yippee!

We came home with -

I LOVE cassoulet. I will happily confit duck legs myself in the process of making myself some cassoulet. Homemade may be better fut some days you want easier (and good) rather than better. These tins sell for about £10 usually in the UK and were only £5 in the market. I am sure that some clever clogs will be able to tell me what they sell for in France - but I am not in France, do not have a trip planned. I was in the market though and I grabbed a couple of tins all for me, me, me. Okay, I will share with the family but I will not invite anyone over.

And here are some of our giant French coconut macaroons purchase. We ate some before the camera could record them. The ones that remain reside by the remains of the marble cake under the dome -

Then we stopped and bought a few nibbles at the stall selling all sorts of olives and other things preserved in brine - the man was very insistent on letting everyone know that no oil was involved in the preserving process so I am passing on the info. All his foods shone like little jewels.

Just so you know, we got sun dried tomatoes, preserved shallots and olives stuffed with peppers and garlic. Finally, we got this cheese and onion focaccia to go with everything. I don't think that the photo even begins to do it justice. Really need smell to be transmitted too.

So I have things to tell you about my crocheting and sewing, but I'm not going to. I have had too good a day. One of those marvellous days where one things leads to another and unexpectedly happy things happen. Just having the sun blazing down another day was just about enough to make me grin like a fool. It was about 17C out there today. No need of a jacket at all. Marvellous!

The world continues to do its thing around us. In the back corner of the garden we now have blossoms -

And the trees are coming to life, soon to be green once again -

Happy, happy me. Such a good day and a bag full of new yarn. How lucky am I?!


Thursday 24 March 2011

Random Acts of Daffodils

We've all heard about Random Acts of Kindness. Those little things, nice things, unexpected things you can do, usually for strangers that makes them happy and, consequently, you happy too. Things like indicating to a driver in an overcrowded car park where you are already parked that you are leaving so they can be ready to get your soon to be vacated space. Helping someone pick up things they have dropped just because you can. Flashing your car lights at someone to indicate that you are allowing space for them to pull out into traffic. Giving up your seat on a bus to someone who needs it more. All those little things that make everyone's days a little bit nicer.

Well, I am in love with random acts of daffodils. Not those daffodils that have been planted with purpose in someone's garden. They are very nice and appreciated, but those little clumps of daffodils that appear in odd places and make you wonder who planted them there and why. Those sunny bobbing daffodil heads brightening up a hedgerow, or a vacant piece of land. There is just something about seeing daffodils in these odd places that makes my day.

Whoever planted those bulbs, thank you.

And now on to some fabric. Here is the new fabric that I got from Etsy a couple of weeks ago. With it are charm squares that I have sorted out that I want to use with the feature fabrics. I am hatching a new quilt in my mind.

This is going to be a major girlie quilt. Couldn't be anything else with these one it -

Ideas are fermenting. Some fussy cutting will have to take place. My hand is itching to get cutting but other things have been taking priority. Never mind.

I forgot to show you the fat quarters I picked up when I was in the quilt shop on Tuesday. It was love at first sight. Well it was for me. Not sure about the fabric. I have no plans for them yet. I just want to sit and adore them.

Maybe I should come up with a project for Easter for these lovelies. Any ideas?

Well, there is dinner to be cooked, children needing attention and life happening all around me so that's it for today.


Wednesday 23 March 2011

Marble Cake

The Chocolate Flapjacks are finished and there will be two extra girls for dinner here tonight. That meant baking. I can go without dessert without a qualm but when the girls have friends around I always like to produce something nice after the main course. It strokes the ego when young voices express their appreciation.

I flipped through my recipe box. Great recipes but it is always my first port of call for baking. Felt jaded about the same old things today. I looked at my cook books - I shall tell you about them at some later date - and I grabbed the very first cook book I ever bought myself off the shelf.

I don't think that it was my first ever cook book. My mum gave me that. A wonderfully useful edition of the Good Housekeeping Cook Book which is a staple here in the UK and has everything you need to know about everything for someone starting out in cooking. It was so good in fact, that my brother nicked it! Can't say that I blame him though as in my life as a nomad he has taken the role as the person who has stored my things for years at a time, repeatedly. A cook book was a small price to pay.

When I no longer had that book to rely on I went out and bought the North American equivalent - The Fanny Farmer Cook Book.

As you can see, it is showing it's years. A sign of a well used cook book, say I. What good a pristine cook book that you are afraid to have in the kitchen environment?

So I sat on the floor - as you do - and perused my book, finally landing on this page -

So that's it, today's recipe sorted. A Boston Favourite Cake. Not one to do things by half I went with options two and three listed below the recipe. Marble Cake - always more fun than a regular cake. A richer cake? Well it would be silly not to.

What a faff!!

If you don't have a dishwasher (like I don't) then brace yourself, this one will have your hands in the suds for a good long while after the cake is placed in the oven. Bowl for beating the butter and sugar, and adding the other ingredients. A bowl for the dry ingredients. A measuring jug for the milk. Then another Kitchen Aid bowl for beating the egg whites that have been separated from the yolks - involving yet more (smaller) bowls. Good thing doing dishes doesn't bother me too, too much!

So I beat and I mixed and I folded in. And then I had two batters.

I delicately whacked alternating spoonfuls of batter into the pan, and then drew a skewer through several times -

Cooked, then cooled -

And sampled.

Well, it would be rude of me not to make sure that it was up to par before I served it to anyone else - wouldn't it?! It might be a faff to make but this cake is fantastic. How many people make marble cake any more? Time to change that. Good old fashioned recipe from a book that was first published in 1906.

So cake made, and pasta sauce too. Laundry put away. Quick trip back to the school to remove a (rather large) splinter from Helen's finger - because school aren't allowed to do these things any more. Who makes these rules? Please!! But splinter was duly removed, finger cleansed and plaster applied (band aid for the North Americans amongst you).

Now it is my time to play. Not a lot of time left before school lets out but what time there is is mine. Fabric, here I come.


Tuesday 22 March 2011

Sherbet Pips Finished!

Woohoo! A quick trip out to the quilt shop today to find an appropriate fabric for the binding for my quilt, a mini marathon of hand sewing to finish it and I AM DONE. Not a lot to say other than that. It has been a nose to the grindstone sort of day - in a good way. I am very happy with the finished result. When you are working without a pattern and with new fabric you just have to hope that what you can visualise in your mind will be the same in actuality. For better, or for worse, what I wanted is what I got.

There are nine eight and a half inch squares, each featuring either the girls on swings, the scootering children or the puppies. These are joined by a Moda Solids grey. Surrounded by two inch squares and more grey. The backing is the grey but the stippling is done in a contrasting red thread to add interest and bound in red with a white dot - also from Moda.

Ah, enough of the details. Just have a look at it and I hope you like it.

Nine squares -

Some grey sashing and small squares -

And as a whole -

Finally, on my favourite little bit of fence to photograph things right now -

Oh, and with a look at the binding and how the quilting looks in the red thread on the grey backing -

And that is that. The first quilt I have ever made AND blogged.* (please see below) How nerve wracking to show people and then cross all fingers and toes that they think I have done a half decent job.

Tonight I shall sit and think, 'What next?' I have more Sherbet Pips I could play with. Or the new fabric I ordered from Etsy and finally received. Or the Heather Ross fabrics I splurged on. Or...

Yeah, yeah, I know. You get the drift, but as a quilty sort of person I have to say it is a nice dilemna to have.


*Edit of post: I am really sorry to everyone I have confused. I never thought about my wording in the post until I suddenly had people who didn't know me reading my blog. I did word it poorly and I am in the wrong. This was the first quilt I have ever made and then blogged straight afterwards. Not even sure if that works for wording. I have officially made about 10-12 baby quilts prior to this and made lots of mistakes on them. It was a steep learning curve. I did not blog until two months ago and you probably would not want to see the original bodge job quilts made before that. For anyone who thinks that I somehow managed to get it right first try - I so wish I was that good.

In fact, I am not even clever enough to word things properly at times. Sorry. I will try harder next time.