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