Tuesday 30 October 2012

Hooky and Stitchy Christmas Preparations

It's got to that happy time of year again when I begin to think about making Christmas presents for friends and family. Near enough to Christmas to feel a little fabric-purchasing and pencilling in of plans is in order but not near enough to feel under too much pressure from the limited amount of time available to execute any of said projects. I love making things to give at Christmas - just so much nicer than buying stuff and although making gifts is not free, you don't have to spend vast sums of money to get the raw materials from which to conjure up some really nice things. The trick is always to try and find something to make that is not only nice but will also be useful. (No apple or spud cosies, Mrs T!) I try not to give things that are in the totally useless category because if the recipient isn't as into homemade stuff as me, it can fall rather flat. So the annual challenge is to find things that are relatively simple and quick to make, attractive and also useful.

What to make? My ideas, so far, include the following:

Some patchwork blank book covers, made out of Liberty fabric scraps, like one I made back in the summer. I've done the patchwork - it just needs sewing into book covers.

A crochet purse or two, lined in pretty fabric, using the pattern in Nicki Trench's book "Cute And Easy Crochet" as a starting point. The pattern, as given, seemed to come out rather small - big enough for a lipstick or a few coins but not much more - so I've adapted it and made a couple of prototype, bigger ones which I think would be more versatile for the user - lipstick and coins! Or for crochet hooks or sewing things perhaps, or even pens and pencils.

Nicki Trench's book also has a pattern for making soft, crocheted balls. I adapted the pattern (again!) - do you ever just follow instructions as they are given, Mrs T?! - and made a trio of these in bright colours and different sizes for a friend's new baby.

The pattern could easily convert from baby playthings to Christmas tree decorations, methinks!

Some pyjama trousers for H (and may be his cousins of similar age, if I crack on with it) in wild and wacky fabrics - not my own idea this one, Angela's daughter made these last Christmas for her older brothers and Angela posted about them here back in January. I think it's a brilliant idea and I've kept it at the back of my mind ever since. It's no longer easy to make anything that is acceptable to H, now that he's a teenager but pyjama trousers offer a less restricted canvas of limitation than any other garment.

Thanks to Angela's expert advice, they will have pockets, even though the pattern did not originally allow for pockets. They are needed however, for the stowage of usual teenage loot - headphones, coins, chocolate and that note that was supposed to go into school three months ago and H swore blind I'd never given him! And as pyjamas seem to be the garment of choice over anything else at home, at least they will be worn!

I'm intending to dye some plain white T-shirts to go with them. The fabrics I've chosen are certainly eye-catching and, as I said to Angela, not the kind of thing you want to confront first thing in the morning, if you are feeling fragile!

You see what I mean?! Lucky perhaps that H tends not to rise much before midday in the holidays! They were purchased for next to nothing, from an unassuming fabric shop, that turned out to be a real Aladdin's cave of goodies. I discovered it unexpectedly, in a slightly seedy back street, behind the main shopping centre in Reading and I will be going back. I could hardly believe these fabrics cost only £3.95 per metre so the cost of each pair is under £10 - pretty nifty purchasing, for a change, Mrs T!

The pyjamas are already in production, although not finished. They have not been totally straightforward. Sewing trousers of any kind is a perilous business, in my book. To begin with, identifying a suitable pattern was not easy and leaving on one side the pocket issue, once cut, they were heading to come out very baggy. I know one wants pyjamas to be loose, but there's loose and then there's enough fabric to hoist sail for the Bahamas! H is that age when children's patterns / sizes are inadequate but adult men's sizing is a little on the large side, especially breadth-wise. I've made the Small size from the unisex pattern and altered the legs to make them, not just narrower, but longer, as H is now easily pushing 6' and I don't want the Simple Simon look with the trousers finishing half way down his calf!

(It's safe to post my plans, by the way, this week because H is safely away in Greece on a week's school Classics trip of which I am frankly envious! He's in Athens today exploring the Agora and Acropolis in temperatures of around 26-27℃, lucky thing!)

But I digress. What else? A couple of Christmas / winter aprons. A quandrary here re fabric choice. While people are happy to potter round the kitchen in December or early January, decked out in a pinnie covered with snowmen, reindeer, holly or what-have-you, I wonder whether these motifs may be a bit limiting and not work so well, come the later days of February? On the other hand, it's nice to do Christmas cooking in a specifically Christmassy apron. What do you think?

Crocheted fingerless gloves - although these can be tricky if you don't know the correct hand size I've found.

A bit of patchwork, made from my fabric scrap stash, to be turned into something useful such as a bag or cushion cover.

Or even a Christmas stocking if I can think of a suitable recipient who doesn't already have one. I've already made a stocking for most of my nearest and dearest.

I also love the idea of a patchwork Christmassy / wintry lap quilt but this may be a bit ambitious as my patchwork tends to be very simple and my sewing machine does not have the requisite "walking foot" for proper quilting. If anyone has a patent, simple pattern they can point me to I'd love to look it up and see whether I could manage it - I discovered in my fabric stash lots of little bits and pieces of Christmassy fabric left over from various projects that I've squirrelled away over the years which it would be nice (and frugal to boot) to use up in something like this.

If I had more time I'd consider knitting another very simple scarf like the one I made earlier in the year but I know my limitations so this may be a tad ambitious, given the time available.

Not  a bad start but if anyone has got any additional / alternative suggestions to add, I'd love to hear them, if you're willing to share. Of course, if inspiration fails, there's always the mug cosy!

Thursday 25 October 2012

Cosy Crochet

There are times when creativity takes us in sensible and useful directions. There are times when it takes us in not-so-sensible, but still practical or at least decorative directions. And then there are times when it takes us in not-so-sensible and really-not-very-useful directions!

I had one of these moments recently when I took it into my head that what I wanted, no, correction, what I needed to make was this:

"Er, why?", I hear you ask. "Well, just because...!"

In my defence, I would plead, "It woz the cute apple button wot dunnit!" and this item is not totally without practical function. I know, I know, "I am pedalling hard under the table!" but truly an apple cosy will keep an apple in a lunch box beautifully - instead of emerging bruised and brown after a few hours of being tumbled around, it will emerge intact and perfect (in my mind's eye anyway!) And set the apple cosy against that inviting, but totally impractical item, the serial mug cosy, for which you can buy whole bookfuls of patterns, and it's streets ahead. And before you ask, yes, I am drawn to crocheted mug cosies too, but the thought of unavoidable trickles of tea or milky coffee wending their way down the side of the mug into said mug cosies, whilst in use, has, (so far, anyway), stayed my hand and my hook but resistance is crumbling and it's only a matter of time before I suspect I will have given in!

"Moooving on" as my son would say! Well, one thing led to another and a conversation with a friend in which my compulsion for making an apple cosy met with a certain amount of derision and chortling, led to the suggestion, initially, let's not deny it, a facetious one, of making a potato cosy! OK, I know it's crazy but when the full palindromic force of  a "Jacket Potato Jacket" dawned on me there was no going back! And for those among you tempted to park the "Jacket Potato Jacket" alongside the "apple cosy" or even the siren voice of the "mug cosy" in terms of usefulness, allow me to disabuse you! This patent item keeps jacket potatoes properly hot if you want to dish them up and keep them a-while before serving without expending a single amp of non-renewable energy; for bonfire night they will be a Godsend - they will keep your hands warm as well as offering you traditional sustenance! What's not to like? In addition they are dead simple to make and don't even require a proper pattern. I know, because I tried to write one and got muddled and it still turned out OK!

Have a look at these cosy additions to our modern lifestyle and tell me you don't want one!

Actually, don't tell me you don't want one! Let me live in blissful ignorance! But I think the ship of the world which has a tolerant place for the frivolity of creative impulses that are not always first up in the usefully sensible stakes is a happier place for all who sail in her, whether those impulses result in apple, mug or potato cosies! And yes, I know I'm crazy...
but I don't care!

If you want to make one yourself, they're easy peasy and don't take long or much in the way of yarn. They are constructed on a similar principle to the apple cosy for which I tracked down the "Mollie Makes" pattern here. The potato version is just adapted to an oval rather than a round shape. 

Have a cosy day!

Tuesday 2 October 2012

Fall Food

Autumn is here in force - it's chilly, rain-swept and equinoctial winds are hustling the leaves off the trees before they have even changed colour properly. My friend Angela of Collected Yarns in Texas has been longing for rain and cooler temperatures but I would happily have a few days of her heat in the nineties. I think the poor English summer means I have a feeling of having been cheated of my rightful dues in terms of sunshine and warmth.

One of the things that is good, however, about Autumn is the change in mood of what's cooking in the kitchen. Soup again figures prominently. Savoury muffins, golden with cornmeal and with a kick of heat, seem the ideal accompaniment to soups and stews and I find myself hunting out recipes that are aromatically fragrant with head-clearing spices. Flapjack and dark, sticky gingerbread are lining up to elbow out the muffins bursting with summer fruits and the scones and sponges sandwiched with summery jam of recent months.

My shopping list no longer features pomegranates, celery, broccoli, monkey nuts, sunflower seeds and other bird food, as my parrot guest has now returned home, leaving a handful of fluffy, bright green feathers, a wall spattered with ruby-coloured pomegranate juice that won't come off, (even with the vicious application of a scouring pad,) and a gaping hole in the household. I miss him a lot.

Anyway I digress. In place of bird food on my list, is fall food - orange pumpkins, burgundy-skinned onions, bright yellow cornmeal, burnt orange cayenne pepper and paprika, smoky-red, hot chilli powder, soft ochre-coloured ground ginger, earth-toned ground cloves and dark soft brown muscovado sugar, golden syrup and pale-toast-coloured oats.

Some of these ingredients have been turned into Nigella Lawson's Guinness Gingerbread, from her book, "Kitchen".

I only ever buy Guinness to cook with, which is probably a bit of a solecism. But while I certainly wouldn't give you a thank you for a pint, or even half a pint, of the stuff to drink, my goodness, it makes great cake! (and beef casserole incidentally!) Nigella's Guinness Gingerbread is very good indeed - dark, aromatic and surprisingly light-textured. In fact, her book, "Kitchen", all told, is very good indeed - if you don't possess a copy, hie thee to Amazon and order one, or put it on your Christmas list!

Some of the other ingredients on my list have been turned into the following soup and muffins which are my own recipes. I love this kind of food - it's cheap, entirely good for you and very delicious!

Roasted Pumpkin and Tomato* Soup

I always roast pumpkin before using it, as it intensifies the flavour beautifully. Otherwise it can be a bit bland. It's also an easy way to prepare it. The tomatoes* add a welcome note of sharpness which works really well with the gentler pumpkin and they deepen the colour to something that is the essence of a Flaming Fall. Cheerful and warming for chilly autumn days, such as are now upon us.

*Edited as of 14/10/12 to add that as an alternative to the tomatoes, Anne of Life In Mud Spattered Boots has come up with an even better and more quintessentially autumn alternative - rose hip purée, which works in exactly the same way as the tomatoes do, in cutting the blandness of the pumpkin - I love this idea and have to try it if only for the sheer delight of announcing that what is on the table is Pumpkin and Rosehip Soup! Have a look at Anne's post here for her instructions.

What you need:

I small pumpkin
1 onion, peeled and finely chopped
1 tbsp olive oil
1 large tin of chopped tomatoes
1 l vegetable stock (or boiling water)
freshly ground black pepper (and salt if you want)

What you do:

Preheat the oven to 180 - 190 C. Hack the pumpkin into about six or eight wedges. Using a small sharp knife cut away the seeds and pith from each wedge and place the wedges in a roasting tin.

Roast the wedges for about an hour. Remove and set aside to cool sufficiently to handle without burning your fingers.

Heat the olive oil in a pan and add the onion. Cook gently until well-softened. Now take your pumpkin wedges and peel away the skin which should come away nice and easily. Use a knife to scrape away any flesh stuck to the skin, so you don't miss any. Cut the now beautifully soft and melting pumpkin flesh up roughly and add to the pan along with the tomatoes, stock (or water) and seasoning. Bring to the boil and simmer gently for ten minutes or so in an ordinary pan, or pressure cook under pressure for five minutes. Allow to cool a smidgeon and then whizz to a beautiful, deep, burnt orange-coloured purée in a blender.

Serve with bread or these spiced cornmeal muffins which I love with soup.

The idea for these came from my friend, Victoria in Tennessee, who mentioned that her mother always made cornbread muffins "with a bit of sweet and heat" whenever she was a child and had a cold. She adjusted the amount of heat by eye, depending on how much head-clearing was required. Capsaicin, the hot substance in peppers and chillies is sometimes used in commercial cold cure preparations for its decongestant properties but I'd rather have my capsaicin in cooking than in pills, any day!

The recipe is my own - the conflation of a number of different ones, culled from my cookery books and the Internet and seasoned with Victoria's expert advice. It's a doddle to make and SO good! Thank you, Victoria, so much for the idea - it is now firmly entrenched in my autumn and winter repertoire of recipes.

I began cautiously with the amount of heat and would advise you to proceed similarly - we are after hot and spicy here, not baby furnaces to blow your socks off and the strength and heat of chilli powders do vary quite a bit from brand to brand. 1/2 tsp of ground cayenne pepper or chilli powder will give you a warm glow but not take your head off. Stay in the kitchen and use more if you can stand the heat! Like all muffins and cornbread, they are best eaten fresh and warm from the oven but they freeze beautifully so if you want to make them in advance, or have some left over, just freeze and defrost as required.

Chilli Kickin' Cornmeal Muffins

What you need:

1 cup plain white flour
1cup cornmeal / polenta
1 tsp salt*
2 tsps baking powder
1/2 tsp bicarbonate of soda
1/2 - 3/4 tsp cayenne pepper or chilli powder or a mixture of both
1 cup wholemilk yoghurt
1/4 cup olive oil
2 large hens' (or 4 bantam) eggs
1 tbsp runny honey

*Cornbread, I find, really does need enough salt or it can taste rather bland so, although this is more salt than I would normally use in something like this, I think it needs it. If you normally use quite a bit of salt in your cooking you might even want a tad more.

What you do:

Preheat the oven to 190 - 200 C. Line a muffin tin with muffin papers. I find the mixture makes ten rather than twelve, reasonably-sized but not enormous, muffins, but  you can eke it out to stretch to a dozen if you want to.

Mix the flour, cornmeal / polenta, salt, baking powder, bicarbonate of soda and spice in a big bowl.

Whisk the yoghurt, oil, honey and eggs together in a jug. Pour into the dry ingredients and mix.

Spoon into the waiting muffin cases and bake for about 25 minutes until well-risen and bright, golden yellow.


(And if you have a cold, let that good old capsaicin get to work and clear your head!)

And incidentally, if you love cornbread, then Angela has a delicious version for a single batch recipe rather than individual muffins, on her blog here. It is cooked in a beautiful, timeless, cast-iron skillet and has a crispy crust to die for, sizzled in bacon fat, mmmm - you have been warned!