Friday 20 September 2013

Sea-Ripple Ahoy!

My sea-ripple blanket has cast its anchor and is happily afloat!

It has taken a long time to complete - over a year. In the meantime there have been fits and starts in the making of it but finally it's left the harbour of my work-basket and its waves now undulate freely across the bed.

I like it very much - it evokes exactly the memories and feel of the sea that I wanted it to, from the pale, feathery colours of the shallows lapping against the shore to the more mysteriously intense depths further out. 

There are some dark bands of indigo and midnight echoing the deep ocean where the sunlight does not fall and the water is almost, but not quite, black. 

And there are some vivid splashes of turquoise and aqua echoing where the opposite is true and the sun turns the water in a shallow lagoon to an azure jewel.

There are memories here of geographically different seas - the greyer, slatier blues of northern waters and the deep royal and turquoise blues of seas further south; evocations of childhood seaside holidays with sand and ice cream and of student trips to the Mediterranean where beaches were interspersed with archaeological sites as well as more recent seaward forays. I like that and never thought it would be such a powerful evoker of the past when I began it. Funny how these things go. 

If you're interested in the technical details, I used Lucy of Attic 24's beautiful Neat Ripple Pattern
and the yarn is the following 23 colours of Debbie Bliss Baby Cashmerino.

Silver 012
Pale blue 202
Pale green 003
Duck egg 026
Teal blue 203
Kingfisher 059
Spearmint 040
Chalk blue 073
Spruce 031
Aqua blue 046
Delphinium 070
Blue 032
Baby blue 204
Mid blue 071
Grey blue 055
Graphite 057
Bluebell 057
Lavender 033
Ultramarine 075
Midnight 008
Ecru 101
Indigo 207
Denim 027

I repeated the run of all the colours three times and then did six stripes of a fourth run as it wasn't quite big enough without. It measures 145 cm wide and 180 cm long - big enough to be a practical bed-covering but not so big as to make it impossible to handle in the wash (I hope!).

I used about two and a half balls of each colour so it's not exactly been a frugal project but fortunately I already had quite a number of the colours in my stash and so I didn't have to buy it all from scratch, all at once. It's always a dilemma as to how much to spend on yarn for a big project like this but in the end I'm glad I didn't spoil the ship for a happ'orth of tar. An awful lot of time and work has gone into it and the feel of the result is as important to me as the look.

I haven't added a border; partly because I am lazy; partly because I think it's OK without and partly because I like the idea that there's something symbolic about the waves not being contained. 

Now that this blanket is out to sea, I ought to feel my blanket-making urge is satisfied but my blanket-making hook is strangely fidgety! We'll see where it goes! 

Wishing you all a ripplingly good weekend!

E x

Friday 13 September 2013

Early Autumn Satisfactions

The weather has changed abruptly here in the UK. Last week it was still summer. Now it isn't. It's not  fully-fledged autumn but there's been a definite shift of gear. Some years, summer drifts lazily and imperceptibly into autumn and the shift is much more gradual, other years, like this one, it is startlingly definite. The change has come so abruptly and sharply it's made me adjust my focus rather abruptly and sharply too. Not in a bad way. Actually in rather a good one.

There are particular satisfactions that frequent the early weeks of autumn that sometimes get missed if summer lingers longer.

One, is the rain. I love rain in early autumn because it has a character all its own. It's not the disappointing downpour that can, all too often in the UK, blight a summer's day that might have been a hot and cloudless blue. Nor is it the freezing shawl of a wet winter's day in January when the cold damp gets into your bones and it's almost impossible to get warm. Nor is it the sharply chilly showers of Spring that may be good for the garden but are unfriendly enough to deter being out for long without winter waterproofs. Rain at this time of year has a softness to it. Behind it, is still a curtain of residual warmth, that makes the rain feel gentle on the skin and pleasant to be out in.

The landscape is still wearing its late summer garb; the colours glow in the wet and the horizon wears a soft veil of mist, or drizzle, that is very appealing.

The addition of glassy raindrops makes everything beautiful, even ordinary blades of grass.

I particularly love going to sleep against the sound of rain falling at this time of year - actually I love going to sleep against the sound of the rain at any time of year - and I always open the window a bit wider, to hear it properly in the darkness. Waking up to rain is never the same; I don't know why. But falling asleep to the sound of it, is one of life's great small gifts.

The sudden drop in temperature does mean the wistful putting away of summer dresses but fortunately it also welcomes the getting out of blankets and quilts to layer on beds and reminds me to turn my attention from hooking small, knick-knacky, (I hope I didn't hear anyone say, "useless"!!) things like bottle-covers, bags and toadstools ...

... to larger-scale, eminently Useful blankets and throws. My sea-ripple, begun, I am ashamed to say, over a year ago and ruthlessly frogged in January this year, is now reaching the last few happy rows of completion. And will then be used in earnest.

Happy Days!

And coming to the end of one blanket project, means the possibility of starting another! Happy Days again! Because, as we all know, a girl can never have too many hooky blankets in her cupboards. Particularly a girl, in a house which is dependent on oil-fired central heating, which last year cost an eye-watering amount of money to run and which I have sworn to reduce drastically this year. This means No Heating At All Until We Are Into October and over the winter it will be restricted to operation only for a certain number of hours a day. This gives a new incentive to blanket-hooking - keeps you warm in the making, as will the result, when finished. Wins on all scores. The new heating régime means not just that Mrs T, over the coming months, will mostly to be found under a wholly or half-hooked blanket, but that H, who likes to wander around the house, in the depths of winter as in summer, either in his pyjamas or in a short-sleeved T-shirt atop his jeans, and with bare feet in either case, is going to have to change his ways! A jumper or fleece perhaps? "What's that?!" A pair of socks? "You must be joking!"

But of course even though the mood of the weather has changed, it's not cold yet. Time enough for those who feel actually to wear some warm clothing is treading on some kind of alien territory, to come round to the idea!

In the meantime, it's reminded me to book the chimney-sweep which I don't usually manage to think of until he's booked up for the autumn and order a stack of logs, still going at reduced summer prices with plenty of time for them to dry out before needing to burn them.

The evenings, for the first time, are now dark enough to make lighting a candle or two appealing and a friendly enhancement to the supper table which, instead of summery salads and ice cream, is beginning to see autumnal jacket potatoes, baked long in a hot oven, so that the outsides are properly crunchy, bubbling fish pies with pillows of mashed potato and my old childhood favourite, ground rice pudding. Ground rice seems to be less universally available than it was but it's worth hunting out. Whitworths make it. If you don't like the normal lumpy texture of a rice pudding but happily eat smooth porridge, this nursery pudding is blissful. It has the smoothness of semolina but tastes much nicer. My mother used to make it for me a lot when I was a child and I still love it. You can add a spoonful of jam, extra brown sugar or may be a swirl of thin cream, but I like it just as it is.

For two reasonably generous servings, use 1 pint of milk (any type - I use semi-skimmed), 1 1/2 oz of ground rice and 1 oz soft brown muscovado sugar. (You can use a bit more rice if you like it thicker but I like it quite runny.) Put this all in a non-stick pan and heat gently, stirring, as you bring it to the boil. Turn the heat down and simmer gently for a few minutes to let it thicken. Pour into a pretty bowl and eat with a specially nice spoon. Had a bad day at work? Everything a bit stressful at home? Worries preying on your mind? A bowl of this in a quiet corner at the end of the day is extraordinarily comforting.

You can bake it in the oven, if you like, once the mixture has come to the boil - 20 minutes or so in a greased, oven-proof dish at 170 C, but this gives it a "skin" and I usually prefer it simply done on the hob and eaten straightaway, hot from the pan.

Small satisfactions but an enjoyable part of preparing to adjust happily to the turn of the year.

Wishing you lots of your own early Autumn satisfactions!

E x

Friday 6 September 2013

Hedgerow Hooking and Cooking (But No Dyeing)

This is the time of year when I realise all the things that I have not managed to do this year and, now that it's September, I probably won't get round to doing. In the past, I used to find this thought process quite worrying and could get myself rather stressed about trying to make good the various omissions that, I felt, were glaring at me and reminding me I'd "let the side down". Not sure whether this reflects some kind of guilt-complex or a puritanical, work-ethic gone mad - probably both! As I've got older, I've come to realise that this is a mistake. I like having projects a-buzzing in my head and it's inevitable that some will come good and others will fall by the wayside.  Sic vita. And all is not lost, if some things have to happen a bit later than I'd originally planned, or perhaps never materialise at all.

In truth, the real problem would be if the list of the things I wanted to do were to dwindle away and there was nothing left to complete. So, in a funny sort of way, it's reassuring that there are things I've planned on doing this year that haven't happened, and probably won't happen. This is what I tell myself anyway.

Among this year's no-shows are my plans to grow some dye plants, harvest them and dabble in a bit of home-dyeing. It started well - I bought a nice little packet of woad seeds and another of madder. Annie of Knitsofacto and I did a little dye-seed swap - I sent her some of the woad and madder seeds and she very kindly sent me some coreopsis, bronze fennel and purple basil seeds. But thereafter, I am afraid, my dyeing momentum stalled. Partly, it was the slightly worrying small print on the woad and madder seed packets, that warned you to be careful not to let either plant have too much latitude, or they would launch a take-over bid for the entire garden and, in future, like the insurgents in Afghanistan, become almost impossible to eradicate. Madder, it seems, also takes about four years to reach a point at which you can harvest it, so, producing a version of the dye, once used to dye British soldiers', eponymous "red coats", this year, was never going to fly.

Then there was my research into harvesting and using woad. Beautiful though the blue dye from woad is, extracting and using the stuff looked like one heck of a business. A stinky, smelly business too, as to my consternation, I discovered that the traditional method of dyeing with woad, uses a fermented vat of stale urine! The home woad-dyer is advised to keep such a vat "in a warm place, but outside, as it may smell"! You don't say! When I cautiously mentioned the possibility of setting such a vat up in the greenhouse here, the reaction was, shall we say, caustic and aggressively hostile! But my heart wasn't totally in fighting my corner on this one, as the sheer, noisome reality of the idea of a pong-along vat, roasting all summer, only yards from the back door, giving off fumes, not just to scare the postman*, but gas him, and us, in the process, sank in. Perhaps, on second thoughts, no woad-dyeing, this year! The coreopsis, bronze fennel and purple basil are much less noxious but I just haven't had time this summer to turn them into dye. Hopefully, next year I will though, as I still have some unplanted seeds.

*See Jane of Plain Jane's witty comment on my last post about having hung up a fermenting marrow that had this effect on her unsuspecting postie!

So, no happy dye-pots have bubbled on my hob this summer. But, sometimes a failed plan can trigger a happy, related alternative. My friend, Christiane, gave me some wonderful yarn that she had dyed herself for my birthday, including, coincidentally, some yarn dyed with madder.

Each skein has a beautiful label printed in curly, turquoise letters giving the name of the dye-plant used, and the date of the dye batch. The plants have enchanting French names that I didn't know: "garance", "millepertuis" and "achillée millefeuille". A little look in my Larousse deciphered these as: "madder", "St John's Wort" and "yarrow" respectively. The names sound much more musical in French than their English counterparts, don't they? There is also yarn dyed with "noix vertes" - "green walnut" and "écorces" - "bark". Together they make a soft natural palette of bleached, pale green, taupe, caramel, mink and russet bronze.

So after my own dyeing plans died, I turned my thoughts to using Christiane's beautiful hand-dyed results instead.

What to make though? Something autumnal, I felt would be appropriate; perhaps an autumn tea cosy? The more I thought about the idea, the more I liked it and seeing the hedgerows, thick with colourful fruits and berries, gave me another idea too. I would hook up an autumn tea cosy in the soft, natural colours of Christiane's hand-dyed yarn and top it with bright, hooky berries and fruits, nestling among a bunch of hooky leaves. A perfect end-of-summer / September project.

Want to see the results? Here they are! I say "they" because having made one tea cosy, I found there was enough yarn for a repeat. The second is a birthday present for my mother.

The tea cosies are made from Nicki Trench's tea cosy pattern in Cute And Easy Crochet although I've adapted it slightly, to make a button fastening as this makes the cosies easier to take on and off the tea pot. The blackberries come from the same book - they are the raspberries in Nicki's hooky pavlova pattern, just hooked up in blackberry, rather than raspberry, colours. The hawthorn berries are adapted from the holly berries in Lesley Stanfield's 100 Flowers To Knit And Crochet.

The leaves are a slightly bigger adaptation of Lucy of Attic 24's pattern here and the green walnut, sloes, and rose-hips are my own designs.

I am particularly pleased with the rose-hips, with their crinkly tips.

All the fruits and leaves were just made with oddments of leftover yarn, in the appropriate colours. None of them use very much so are perfect for using up odds and ends.

Fun aren't they? And the perfect accompaniment to an autumn-tea-time, toasted muffin with hedgerow jelly.

A couple of people have asked me for my English muffin recipe so here it is.

It's an adaptation of the recipe for English muffins in The King Arthur Flour Baker's Companion and  seems to produce a classic English muffin pretty much like the commercial ones.

What you need:
For the starter:
1 & 1/2 cups strong white flour
1/8 tsp instant dried yeast
3/4 cup water

For the rest of the dough:
1 & 3/4 cups strong wholemeal flour
1 tsp instant dried yeast
2 tbsps cornflour
2 tbsps demerara sugar
2 tsps baking powder
1 tsp salt
a knob of unsalted butter or a pure vegetable margarine (about 1oz)
a scant cup of milk - between 3/4 & a cup

For shaping and finishing the muffins:
a couple of handfuls of cornmeal or polenta

What you do:
You need to begin well ahead of wanting the finished article as the starter is supposed to sit around for at least four hours before using. Mix the starter ingredients in a bowl. Cover with a plate and leave to itself for at least four hours.

Four hours or so later, mix the remaining ingredients, together with the starter, to form a pliable dough which needs energetic kneading for five to ten minutes. I am afraid I cheat and put the whole lot in the bread-maker on the pizza-dough setting, which works a treat and saves a lot of time and effort, but don't let me stop you doing it by hand, if time and inclination lead you that way.

Leave the dough to rise for an hour or so. (If you are using the pizza-dough setting on your bread-maker, just let it finish its programme - mine takes 45 minutes and that's enough) Preheat the oven to 170 C. (Yes, that surprised me too - it seems very low for baking any kind of bread dough but trust me, it works!)

Tip the dough out onto a work surface which you have sprinkled with a handful or two of cornmeal. Press gently into an A4 sort of size rectangle, about an inch deep and sprinkle the top with more cornmeal. The cornmeal gives a lovely authentic crunch to the muffin surfaces.

Now get a 3" diameter biscuit cutter and cut out about 12 muffins. I've played around with making both fewer and more from this dough quantity and I've concluded that 12 is the number to aim for but, of course, you can make more smaller ones, if you prefer. Place on a baking sheet lined with baking parchment.

You can leave the muffins to rise a bit at this stage, if you want to, but Mrs T is impatient and doesn't and I've found they work fine. Bake for about 25 minutes until risen and browned but not overcooked. Cool on a wire rack.

When the muffins have cooled, split and toast them and while still hot from the toaster, grill (or log fire), pile on a spoonful or two of homemade jelly or jam, and eat for a taste of sheer autumn bliss; (ideally with tea, from an autumn-tea-cosy-clad tea-pot!) Any leftover, untoasted muffins freeze beautifully.

The jelly here, if you're interested, is a mixed hedgerow jelly made from crab apples, elderberries and hawthorn berries. More crab apples than the other two. It's a rather vivid, carnelian colour but I promise you that's the genuine article - no added colouring or photoshopping!

They were harvested yesterday, on what looks as though it may have been the last hot, late-summer day of the year here and the jelly tastes exactly like the landscape they came from - sunny, warm, aromatic and mellow.

Elderberries can be a bit much of a good thing in large quantity and when I cautiously bit into a hawthorn berry, it didn't taste all that great, raw on its own, so I kept the proportions heavily weighted in favour of the crab apples, as in only 250g of mixed elder and hawthorn berries to 800 g crab apples. The results indicate that those proportions, for me, work very well - giving just enough aromatic tartness to balance the sweetness but if you want a stronger flavour you might prefer to increase the elder / hawthorn quotient.

So while I have scored nil for dyeing, I am appreciatively enjoying someone else's beautiful hand-dyeing and I have enough hedgerow jellies, of one sort or another, to keep muffins and scones a-topped for months, possibly years!

And if you come to tea here, you know what you'll be getting!

E x