Wednesday 18 December 2013

Christmas Glow

A Christmas moon glowing in the blue of today's early morning sky. It was even better yesterday - a perfect, creamy golden sphere with three skeins of cloud lying across it in quite even stripes - only snag was I didn't have my camera with me.

It was still pretty good this morning though.

Spiced apple juice, sparkling in a pan, waiting to be poured into these:

I like spiced apple juice very much - I think it's just as good as mulled wine, quite honestly. Good if you want something seasonal but non-alcoholic.

To make it, just tip a litre (or two) of clear apple juice into a pan. Add some cloves, a cinnamon stick, a star anise and some fresh ginger, peeled and sliced as thick as pound coins, and heat gently until hot, but not boiling. That's it. I don't think it needs any extra sugar. Pour into heat-proof glasses or mugs when it's had time for the spices to infuse the juice nicely. If you make it the day before, it's even better so leave any leftovers to infuse even longer (if there are any, that is!)

Some winter twigs in a jug twinkling with white fairy lights and some clear glass ornaments - Christmassy but not the full multicolour version yet - partly because my tree is still outside in the rain and I have had no time to bring it in. 

And partly because I've needed a bit of instant Christmas glow this evening and it's fitted the bill nicely. Technical advice however will need to be sought, as the arrangement is slightly precarious - perhaps my bright idea of wedging the twigs in the jug with pine cones was not very well thought-through. The whole thing wobbles slightly alarmingly, if nudged!

Nobody must either touch it, or even breathe near it for the time being! Looking is fine though and its quiet, understated stillness is just what I need right now.

Wishing you too, a peaceful Christmas glow in whatever you are busy with.

E x

Wednesday 11 December 2013


The eleventh day of the twelfth month of the thirteenth year of the century - oddly pleasing when dates fall out like that.

Eleven "little coat squares" I've hooked up from Lucy of Attic 24's version of Sidsel J Høivik's pattern in odd moments just to see how they look.

Experimenting with different colour combinations. I have a thrifty little plan for these that is not dissimilar to Lucy's own coat-upcycling (which you can read about here if you haven't already). A good back-burner project that is keeping me sane in the busyness of this season, without siphoning off time I don't have.

Twelve bottles of blackberry gin, decanted this week from their maturing jars in the larder, and strained through clean muslin into bottles, to give away as Christmas presents.

It's a beautiful colour and tastes - well, of blackberries! It has a good flavour now but may well improve, as these things do, over time.

Thirteen lovely balls of Aran weight yarn, a few new ones, but mostly ones from my stash, waiting to be made into an infinity scarf like Astri's here, or possibly a cowl in the happy oasis that awaits after Christmas Day when work is finished, visits have been made and things slow down for a bit.

I find I am wearing a cowl or scarf almost all the time, as the weather gets colder and I try to continue to resist turning the heating on all day. I really like having a project to look forward to starting After Christmas - on no account must it be started beforehand. Tides me over the unsettlement of the New Year. Anyone else find this?

This is the calm version of 11/12/13 - I don't think you'd enjoy the other version which is a bit stressed and frantic - lists of "to dos" as long as my arm, domestic frazzlement (a technical term that those of you with teenagers, who live by last with commensurately vague notions of finalising any kind of arrangements, will know what I mean by) and a work agenda that makes me wonder whether I have a streak of insanity in me for agreeing to. Add to the mix, managing to fall headlong off a five foot bank, into the road yesterday and the consequent bruises and stiffness that make me realise once and for all, I am No Longer Young and it's not quite such a serene scenario! I prefer the calm version, myself!

Now where's my hooky and yes, perhaps a tiny taste of the blackberry gin, just to see if it's still OK!

All is calm! 
On one level, anyway - I hope it's going to permeate the other levels now!

Wishing you all a happy and serene 11/12/13

E x

Saturday 7 December 2013

St Nicholas Cookies And Hooky Cookie Jars

Yesterday was the Feast of St Nicholas. Celebrated more in continental Europe than in the UK, with present-giving and the distribution of sweets and cookies, he's obviously a saint worth cultivating! And although he has given rise to some, lurid, apocryphal stories, such as the one about resurrecting three unfortunate children from a butcher's pickling tub, (a chilling tale, immortalised in the old French carol - "Ils étaient trois petits enfants, qui s'en allaient glaner aux champs."), and travelling about in his modern day incarnation, complete with sleigh, red-nosed reindeer and elves, he was a genuine historical figure who lived in the 3rd C AD. Fortunately, the ghastly butcher's pickling tub seems to be pure fiction, but the tradition about his provision of money, in secret, to a family, impelled, by financial need, to consider selling their three daughters into prostitution, is thought to have some basis in fact.

As you probably know, this is where the Christmas stocking tradition comes from. St Nicholas is said to have placed his secret gifts of money, for the three girls, in their stockings or shoes, that were hung in front of the fire to dry. Although he certainly came down no chimney and Myra, in modern-day Turkey, where he was Bishop, was about as far from the North Pole as you can get, it's nice to remember that good old "Santa" has a genuine pedigree!

I am a day late in posting this but I have been baking some of those spiced St Nicholas cookies that they make so beautifully in Germany and the Netherlands and thought I might share them with you.

They are traditionally called "Speculatius" or "Speculaas" cookies as they should depict the figure or face of St Nicholas on them.

(The word means image, I think, in both German and Dutch.)  They are traditionally made by pressing the dough into specially shaped and carved wooden moulds which are then banged on a work surface to release each shaped piece of dough before baking. I like the sound of these - Mrs T is always up for a bit of robust cooking action! - but didn't know where in the UK, I might obtain such a mould so I made do with getting D to cut out a template from a piece of plasticard, (snaffled from D's cavernous, model-making, resource stash), for me to cut round with a knife, to make a handful of proper  St Nicholas-shaped biscuits and using a star-shaped cutter for the rest of the dough.

Details, as per the traditional pattern used on the Polish version of these, called "pierniki", were added to the bishopy ones with piped royal icing - an activity fraught with cursing, clouds of icing sugar and blobs of icing from the piping container going everywhere, in more or less, three equal proportions. Mrs T and intricate icing do not instinctively mix. Take out the "instinctively", actually. The results are homely and not exactly professional but fun nonetheless and H kindly (and swiftly) ate up the ones whose expressions looked worryingly imbecilic, where the episcopal slippers had mysteriously and alarmingly fused together, or where St Nicholas's crozier had a strange, wilted or bendy appearance!

The recipe for the biscuits came from here, a wonderful website full of stories and traditions about St Nicholas. I've used the German recipe rather than the Dutch one. I found three large eggs were enough for the dough quantities given, so I'd suggest only using the four specified, if your eggs are small. The dough is a really lovely one to work with and the presence of egg means that the cookies keep their cut-out shape nicely without spreading too much in the oven. Makes a lot though so if you don't want too many cookies, I'd make half or two-thirds quantities.

On the same website is a lovely reminiscence of a Belgian lady, now in her eighties, of St Nicholas's Day in Belgium in the 1930s - simple, fun and heart-warming and with a profound thread to it that perhaps seems rather out of place in the modern celebration of this season - moral effort and "Santa's" visiting no longer hunt together much. Ade Bethune's narrative is a beautiful and nostalgic reminder of bygone days and makes one wonder whether we haven't lost something rather precious. You can find it here.

Some of the biscuits are for eating now, some are for packaging up in sturdy jam jars and sending as little presents to friends and family. Not just any old jam jar, though. Jam jars given a colourful, hooky flowery hat.

I know, I know - these hats possibly fall into the category of mug and apple cosies! But I love them! They were so quick and such fun to hook up, I found I couldn't stop making them this week - they have filled in all sorts of odd moments, colourfully and happily, and I like them on the jars very much.

Makes them jolly and Christmassy but not in such a way that they are only suitable for Christmas, if you know what I mean. Jars make good containers for sending biscuits in the post if you pack them carefully and have a good sturdy box to contain them, I've found. Hope it works this year.

As you can see in the top pic, I had what I thought was a happy idea of adding a few silver cake decorating balls to the jars which I thought might lodge among the biscuits in a decorative kind of way. Predictably, of course, they've all pretty much fallen to the bottom. With a bit of luck, the tipping and turning of being in the post might redistribute them!

The pattern for the flowery covers is another of Sue Pinner's from her Granny Square Club (details of how to join here, as per my previous post) but Nicki Trench also has a pattern for jam jar covers in her "Cute And Easy Crochet" which I've used in the past, if you fancy hooking up a few. I prefer Sue's flowery ones, myself.

Even though the dough made loads of cookies, they seem to have disappeared very quickly - some have gone in the post, some have gone to a village Christmas bazaar, some are destined for a work event tomorrow, quite a lot seem just to have been eaten! Only thing to do is make some more to fill my remaining jars!

Wishing you all, a little belatedly, a happy Feast of St Nicholas!

E x

Tuesday 3 December 2013

Lichen Shades Of Pale

One of the things I like about winter is that with the brightness and intense colour of summer and early autumn gone, it invites exploration of more subtle, neutral shades and encourages me to focus on pattern and detail that might otherwise go unremarked. I've found myself sidetracked unexpectedly in these darkening winter days to search out the colours of lichen, bark, moss and ice and the simple yet intricate designs they seem to highlight in everything...

... in these frilled wrist-warmers, hooked in Louisa Harding "Grace" yarn in "Frost"

... in the duck-egg blue lichen adorning the bare branches of my old apple tree

... or in both

The wrist-warmers are made from Sue Pinner's pattern from her Granny Square Pattern Club. (Details of how to join are in Sue's sidebar here, if you'd like to know more) I've made two other pairs for Christmas presents - they look wonderful on your hands as the lacy frills make your fingers look very long and slender - a trick Anne Boleyn knew and capitalised on, all the time!

... in the worn lace edging on an old tablecloth made by my great-grandmother, highlighted by the light from a candle on a gloomy afternoon

... in the broken texture of a unusually shaped, large, shallow basket left over from a work event and destined for the bin, until rescued by me, for new life, as a yarn-basket

... in the fabric I found to line it, which in some lights looks quite grey

... and in others much more turquoise

... in old leaves and grass-blades stitched with frost

... in the homely crinkles and folds of paper that encase my Christmas cake

... in chocolate and orange cupcakes cooling on a wire rack which, despite my general aversion to coloured icing, I find I am very often drawn to ice in lichen shades of pale blue and top with white sugar snowflakes - just because! The recipe is Nigella Lawson's Christmas Cupcakes in "How To Be  A Domestic Goddess" tweaked to omit the coffee, which I replace with a teaspoonful of orange oil or orange zest. I recommend them - they are light, spicy, fragrant and Christmassy without being over-the-top. A permissible Advent foretaste of the glories of the proper Christmas cake to come? I think so!

I find the austerity of this kind of winter palette is somehow very cleansing - perhaps not inappropriate for the first week in Advent when I habitually find I am moved to rethink and reevaluate some of the jumbled, pell-mell tangle of my life. A good primer, if you like, for the soul's canvas, that will hopefully make the deeper, more vivid tones of Christmas jollities glow more brightly, when they come to be applied in the not too distant future. I never used to bother with painting things with a coat of pale primer first before applying colour but I have discovered it makes a big difference. And as with paint on wood, so with space and clearance for the spirit, perhaps. What do you think?

E x

Monday 25 November 2013

Crocheted Christmas Wall-hanging

"On the first day of Christmas my true love sent to me a partridge in a pear tree"

So the first line of the traditional Christmas carol goes.

I don't know quite what anyone would do with the gift of a pear tree containing a roosting partridge, but there you have it! For that matter, I am not sure what anyone would do with quite a number of the gifts in the song! Seven swans a-swimming? Eight maids a-milking?! I suppose the nine ladies dancing, ten lords a-leaping, eleven pipers piping and twelve drummers drumming might make quite a lively and effective entertainment troupe but some of the others might be more trouble than they were worth!

There's a school of thought that holds that the gifts are not quite as random an array as they seem but each has a hidden significance, indicating an aspect of the Christian faith. The idea is that the song may have developed in England, some centuries ago, when Roman Catholicism was persecuted and when to voice overt mnemonics of Roman Catholic belief was frowned on, at best, and personally risky, at worst, although in fact the symbolism is not exclusively Roman Catholic. Anyway the idea that the gifts are not random, but symbolic, appeals to me and gives the song a rather nice, additional dimension even though it may be a spurious theory and the random gifts may well be, despite the charming idea of the symbolism, just that - random.

Whether or not that's the case, the song is charming and it's captured my imagination and fuelled a happy, little, Christmas-hooky project because I got it into my head that it would be rather fun to hook up a little Christmas wall-hanging, a kind of hooky sampler illustrating the first line of the carol. Unlike traditional vintage samplers, worked on linen with fine thread, in cross-stitch or other embroidery stitches, this was never going to have any kind of improving text worked on it; it would just be the image. If the symbolism theory is correct, it would carry its own iconic message of Christmas because the first gift of the partridge in the pear tree is meant to represent Jesus himself. (The unusual pairing of a ground-nesting bird in the branches of a fruit tree, representing the unprecedented combination of the divine and the human, in the Christ-child.)

Unusually for me, I had a very clear idea of what I wanted it to look like in my head, before I started thinking about any kind of pattern I could use or adapt. The only question was whether crochet would lend itself to realising the image I had decided on.

I did some preliminary pencil sketches to see if I could come up with a simple partridge shape that might translate into crochet without too much difficulty and had a little play around with some circles and spirals.

A spiral shape in a soft taupe colour made a satisfactorily plump partridge body and a smaller rust-coloured circle, edged on one side, in the same taupe body colour, made a reasonable head. I added a small mother-of-pearl button as an eye and a small dark brown beak to the head and stitched on a leaf shape worked in grey to the body, for a wing. I now had a birdy that looked quite partridge-esque!

So far, so good! Next up was the tree, the top of which I simply made as a crocheted circle of different greens, adding a scalloped edge to indicate a leafy outline.

 A trunk was added from the bottom upwards by chaining a length for the base in dark brown and working decreasing rows of treble (UK) / double (US) crochet stitches for the root-ball,

continuing in narrow straight rows for the trunk itself and then increasing for a few rows to make the branches reaching up into the leaf canopy.

My partridge now had a roost of sorts! No pears as yet, though!

The pears were a little tricky to design at first and I made several initial attempts that ended up looking more like grapefruits!

In the end, a simple circle with a few extra rows worked on top and a woody stalk added to the top of each one, seemed to fit the bill.

Some of the pears are yellow and ripe - probably juicy Williams pears! And some are green and hard - probably Conference ones! I know, I know, how can they be growing on the same tree?! Artistic licence, that's what!

I wanted the background to suggest the colours of a setting or a rising sun in a winter landscape to set off the restrained palette of the bird and tree so I did a rough pencil sketch

and then simply worked it in graduating colourful sunset/ sunrise-coloured stripes of treble (UK) / double (US) crochet with turquoises and blues to indicate a frosty field at the base and the edge of a winter sky at the top.

It's turned out rather effectively, I think. Assembly was nice and straightforward - I just pinned the components onto the background

and used ordinary sewing thread, in colours to match the crochet, to oversew each piece in place.

I then turned over the top of the background to make a channel for a piece of wooden dowelling to be threaded through the top to provide a means to hang it. D was persuaded to drill a hole in each end of the dowelling with a fine drill-bit and all it needed was some string (purple of course!) to hang it up by.


I have actually had this hanging up for several weeks even though it's not yet even Advent because having hung it up, (just to see what it looked like!) I couldn't bear to take it down, but the intention is to keep it as a Christmas hanging that comes out at the beginning of December each year with the Advent candles and calendars and goes away again with the rest of the Christmas decorations at Epiphany.

I thought a photograph of it might make a nice Christmas card too, although I discover I should have thought through the proportions slightly more cannily, if I was intending to do this, as a standard size photograph chops off the top and bottom of the background, unless I have a bit of wall showing which isn't the card I envisaged! Tant pis!

What I particularly like about this little project is that it's stretched my abilities to crochet "off-piste" and experiment in a kind of free-form way, using what I've learnt over the last few years more spontaneously. And when all is said and done, each component is actually pretty simple. It's given me confidence to travel without a pattern sometimes.

I also find the result is very pleasing - it has a warm feel to it - both literally and visually - and a slightly three-dimensional aspect, which makes a cosy addition to the room on a winter's evening. Possibly I should add something to weight the bottom edge down a bit to make it hang a little better but there isn't enough crochet at the base to fold over and make another dowelling channel so I must think how I might best achieve that. Any ideas? All suggestions gratefully received.

If you fancy trying your hand at something similar, I'd encourage you to have a go - it was such a fun and satisfying project. You don't need to worry too much about what yarn or hook you use - just use bits and bobs of yarn left over from other projects, together with the appropriate hook for whatever weight of yarn you happen to have. It doesn't have to be all the same type or weight throughout, although obviously you'll want to make sure each component has a consistency about it and you may want to work the background in a uniform weight of yarn. You can adjust the sizing to suit your design and tension is irrelevant.

For ease and satisfaction of realisation, I'd recommend thinking of an image that can be made up of fairly simple shapes - circles, triangles, strips, squares or rectangles so that it's not too difficult to achieve the design you are after. But actually, even shapes that look initially complicated, like birds, can be broken down to simpler constituent parts so you may find your imagination is the only limit!

If you're intrigued to know what the other gifts are meant to stand for, here's the low-down:
  • two turtle doves - the two parts of the Bible
  • three French hens -  the three gifts brought by the wise men to the baby Jesus 
  • four colley birds - the four Gospels (colley birds is an old-fashioned name for blackbirds)
  • five gold rings - the five books of the Torah (ie the first five books in the Bible)
  • six geese a-laying - the six productive days of Creation, as described in Genesis
  • seven swans a-swimming - the seven acts of mercy deemed to be part of Christian duty 
  • eight maids a-milking - the eight Beatitudes, as listed in Jesus' Sermon on the Mount 
  • nine ladies dancing - the nine fruits of the Spirit, as listed by St Paul
  • ten lords a-leaping - the Ten Commandments
  • eleven pipers piping - the eleven disciples remaining after Judas had betrayed Jesus
  • twelve drummers drumming - the twelve points of Christian belief, as listed in the Apostles' Creed
Several of the gifts seem to have more than one possible symbolism but I've listed the ones that most consistently come up. And as I say, the theory, although charming, may, or may not, have much foundation in historical fact. 

But my hooky partridge makes me smile anyway 
and I hope he brings you a happy smile too!

E x