Dad selfie

Birthday week

Forty four.

FORTY FOUR!

So in honour of this momentous number, I decided that I should have a birthday week (what? it’s a thing) of fun, celebrations, yummy food and seeing the people I love.  7 happy days to celebrate.  Here are some of the things that have happened so far.  My Disreputable Dad’s first ever selfie – at 78! (above)…

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bookmakers-co-uk-ladies-day

Styling Ladies Day at the Grand National

The Grand National is fast approaching, which means it will soon be Ladies Day: my favourite time of year to do some serious fashiony people watching and gaze (sometimes in wonder and – let’s face it – sometimes in horror) at the outfits on display.  Sadly I won’t be attending but the lovely chaps at Bookmakers asked me how I would have styled my day and – anything for a bit of online window shopping – I was happy to oblige!

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Flapjacks

Weekend baking: fabulous fruity flapjacks

So, amazingly, Charlie has stuck to his rash ‘I’m not eating chocolate any more’ decision with incredibly amounts of willpower, even as we’ve been tucking into all sorts of treats we’ve been sent.  He’s not even been eating his previous post-school staple of chocolate brownies.  He is, however, still eating other treats, so I’m not overly worried that this is one of those mad teenage diets.

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Scarlett necklace

Scarlett Jewellery – perfect for Mothers’ Day

Scarlett Jewellery

Something personalised always makes a gift extra special, which goes down well with Mums.  Scarlett Jewellery is handmade in the UK and was founded by fellow mum, designer Sarah Fenton in 1998.   I had a chat with Sarah and she listened really hard when I was telling her what I would love for Mothers’ Day (basically something featuring ALL my family).  The result (with many of her suggestions) was this gorgeous necklace (above).

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Guinness cupcake with ganache

Ginger Guinness cupcakes for St Patrick’s Day

Regular English Mum readers will know that Ireland means a lot to us all here at English Towers.  In fact, it’s the reason why this little part of the interwebz even exists.  Long, long ago (eight whole years to be precise) we set off on a new adventure to the Emerald Isle and spent many happy years living first in Dublin, then later Meath and finally beautiful county Cavan.

Mr English is of Irish descent and the boys are proud of their heritage. Charlie can even wow you with a bit of Gaeilge if you ask nicely (although it’s mostly swears) so when Paddy’s Day approaches, it instills in us all a mixture of nostalgia and longing for places and friends left behind.

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Heli

How not to miss a flight

As you know, I’m big on building memories.  My motto for this year (my hashtag, even – how New Media of me) is #snapshotsnotstuff (unfortunate, as it has the word ‘snot’ in the middle).  As part of this, I want the boys to grab every opportunity, get out there and see the world, have wonderful new experiences and do new things.  All this came very much into play recently when Sam and his study partner were planning their big A level Media project.  For this, they basically have to produce a documentary.  When throwing around ideas, one of them that kept recurring was a documentary about North Sea helicopter pilots (the job Mr English does).  My reaction was why not?  If we could get the company’s permission, persuade the school, sort out the insurance, etc, etc…   At first, it seemed like it was never going to happen, but Mr English was brilliant, sorting things at his end, and the school were very supportive (imagine giving your very expensive camera to an 18 year old to take on a flight to Aberdeen) and very soon, the filming weekend was upon us.

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Source: http://www.pinterest.com/pin/159596380519079357/

Moments in time

I’m a huge believer in living life to the full.  I’ve written before about how important I think it is to build memories: snapshots we can look back on and treasure.  Years from now, we’re not going to remember the handbag we spent our birthday money on, or the fabulous jumper we spent a month’s salary to buy – what we will remember is holding hands watching a perfect sunset or an evening laughing with friends.

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Ready? 1, 2, 3...

Stormy weather: saving the contorted willow

So as the storms battered the country, the dog and I sat next to the fire with a hot chocolate (me) and a biscuit (her) and listened to the rain lashing the window.  We both jumped, though, when suddenly there was groaning and moaning and the sound of someone tapping on the windows.

Luckily, Freddie Krueger wasn’t in Buckinghamshire, but unluckily, it meant that our beautiful contorted willow was leaning further and further towards the house – its twisted fingers reaching out to tap on the window and let me know that all wasn’t well.  It’s a beautiful tree.  In the summer, it weeps in its very own wonky, bendy way, across the front of the house.  Plus, it’s Ninja Cat’s favourite place for sitting whilst looking through the window at us with her ‘I want to kill you’ face on.

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Cheerleaders

Cheerleaders. And the story of the tomato sauce swear.

I wonder if it’s a symptom of being self employed, but every so often I get such a feeling of impending panic, of everything being overwhelming and worrying and out of control.  This stressy feeling seems to build up gradually (much like my ironing pile) until something trivial will completely tip me over the edge and I’ll end up having a total meltdown.  This time a very minor disagreement about how much of their wages the boys are saving turned into tears, door slamming and sulking in my bedroom while the male members of the house rolled their eyes and went about their business.  For my friend Laura it was a row about soup that tipped her over the edge.  It seems to be a bit of a ‘straw that broke the camel’s back’ situation.

Anyone else?

Or maybe it’s just me.

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Mismatched and marvellous – my new Emma Bridgewater teapot

So I think I told you a while back about my latest obsession about all things mismatched in the crockery cupboard. I’ve been adding to my collection with a few bits – always making sure they’ve got a touch of blue to keep everything together.  My goal is to slowly Ebay off all my matching plates and cups and end up with a completely mismatching collection.  I think that could take a while, to be honest.  Then recently, the lovely people at Emma Bridgewater sent me this AMAZING starry skies teapot:

Emma Bridgewater teapot

Emma Bridgewater Starry Skies teapot

It’s been a bit of a lifechanger since it arrived actually and suddenly everyone’s really keen to make the tea (unheard of in this house).

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My first job of 2014: laser tattoo removal

Tattoo

So.. out with the old and in with the new and all that.  In my case, it’s going to be off with the old as I’ve finally decided to get rid of my hideous tattoo.  I’ve hated it almost since I had it done –  about twenty years ago.  It was supposed to be an abstract, Celtic design, but it’s always looked more like a wonky fat lady with a very small head whenever I look at it.  Every holiday when I pop on a bikini, it makes me so miserable. It’s just not me at all and now I’m a mum of teenagers it seems even worse, for some reason.  I really hate it.

I always thought laser removal was really expensive, but recently saw something on the TV which made me think about it again so I gave it a Google and lo! It’s a lot cheaper than I thought.  I found a clinic in Milton Keynes reassuringly called ‘Disappear‘ and started up an email conversation with a very lovely therapist called Melissa.  She was pretty positive she could help me (black is easier to get rid of, pastel colours nearly impossible), so arranged to visit her at her clinic for a consultation.  There was a reassuring amount of medical questions and paperwork, and then we did a couple of practice zaps.

Today I went for my first treatment.  I’m not going to lie, it’s unpleasant.  It feels kind of like being pinged with a hot elastic band, and then there are a couple of seconds of stinging afterwards.  Melissa uses cryo-somethingorother which blows cold air onto you while she’s working, and that really takes the edge off.  Still, if I can tolerate it, then anyone can.  She thinks I’ll need maybe four sessions (it’s not an exact science) and they have to be about eight weeks apart.  I’ve got after care instructions and should start to see proper results within a couple of weeks.  I am BEYOND excited.

Here’s my before pic.  Can I just point out that it is IMPOSSIBLE to take a picture of the small of your back without contorting yourself into incredibly weird positions?  You’re welcome.

Melissa also does non-surgical facelifts – maybe I’ll treat myself after I’ve had this done.  New Year, new me!

The whippet update: five months and counting

How you doin
Honestly, I cannot tell you just how much joy this little bony bundle has bought us.  Everyone bangs on about the wonders of dog ownership, but for me, it’s been a revelation.  And not just, to quote Nora Ephron, because ‘when your children are teenagers, it’s important to have a dog so that someone in the house is happy to see you’.

Firstly, she’s got me up and about.  No more lying in bed all weekend, wasting the day away.  Now we’re up and out, gasping a little in the brisk air, but dazzled by frosty fields glittering in the winter sunshine and exchanging a smile and occasionally a few words with like minded passers by.

And she’s such fun – oh, she makes us smile all the time: answering back with a cheeky woof when asked if she wouldn’t mind getting off the back of the sofa (it’s a prime street-viewing spot and she’s so nosy); making a nest of all her toys, fresh and warm out of the tumble drier after a much-needed wash 0r smothering the boys in kisses when they return to her after being out all day…

Lyra cuddle

Of course, it’s not all roses, but we’re out of the woods house-training wise now, and she doesn’t chew too much stuff (although the bobble on my woolly hat got a bit of a hammering recently) but hey, the good things outweigh the bad.

And don’t get me started on how USEFUL pupsters are.  Here she is opening my post…

Lyra post

See?  So helpful.  What did we ever do without her?

January: what I’m loving now

What I'm loving now Kerastase Elixir Ultime Masque (£28.50) I love being blonde but my hair is quite fine and does get a bit frazzled.  My lovely hairdresser, Sean, has made me promise that I’ll use this religiously AND commit to massaging my scalp for one minute every time I wash my hair to increase blood flow and nourish all the new hair I’ve got coming through.  The masque is quite pricey (currently on spesh at Gorgeous shop for £20.52!) but you only use a tiny amount and it’s really rich.  It smells sublime and leaves my hair soft and shiny.

Red Fox Bottle O’Butter We discovered this amazing stuff years ago on holiday in St Lucia, so I was delighted to see that it’s now being hailed as a ‘cult’ product.  I buy it on Ebay for about £3.50 for a massive bottle which last for ages.  It smells like Caramac, is a great all over body lotion, brilliant as an after sun and makes your skin feel amazingly soft.  Stockpile it!

L’Oreal Paris Revitalift Laser Renew Precision Eye Cream (£19.99) I love this light eye cream. It’s wonderful at de-crinkling and doesn’t feel at all greasy.  I use it night and morning and swear it keeps the crows’ feet away.

Radical Skincare Age Defying Exfoliating Pads (£45) These little moist pads are the easiest beauty treat I’ve ever used.  Just literally wipe them around your face after cleansing at night.  They leave your face feeling tingly clean and fresh and have serious exfoliating, wrinkle busting power.  Each pad contains age defying AHAs and despite having only used them for a couple of weeks, I honestly believe the texture of my skin has improved, and I’m convinced the skin just under my chin feels tighter too.  Highly recommended.

Dior Addict Lip Glow £22.50 I’m not really a lipstick girl, but sometimes feel that lipbalm isn’t really enough.  This super-glam Lip Glow apparently shows up as a slightly different colour on everyone, but with me it just seems to enhance my natural lip colour and leave my lips really soft.  I love it.

New Year wine, a lazy loaf and a clementine drizzle cake

Nigel Slater's lazy loaf

I love the time after Christmas when we have a few lazy days before everyone goes back to school and work.  We had a quiet New Year with Gary Barlow (not literally, I’m not THAT lucky).  Sam’s girlfriend has American parents and had us popping a piece of fruit into our mouths on every bong on the countdown to midnight – I think it’s a Spanish tradition, but it’s hilarious and by the last bong everyone’s cheeks were bulging and we were all drooling and laughing.

We’ve opened some really lovely wine over the festive period.  At midnight, we toasted 2014 a delicious Wolf Blass Sparkling Chardonnay Pinot Noir (on spesh at Asda at £5.75 at the moment I notice – SNAP IT UP!).  We also opened the front door to let the old year out and the new year in – think that one’s Irish.  My own favourite wine of the season was the Cune Crianza Rioja 2010  – an absolute beaut with that hint of vanilla that I seem really drawn to.  Again, on spesh at the moment I think.

Mr English is very keen on Pinot Noir.  His favourite of the season was the Californian Clos du Bois Pinot Noir (Majestic, £9.99 if you buy two American wines).  There’s something herbal about it (which doesn’t sound nice, but is) but it’s still full of really ripe fruit.  Yum.

The Big Bro recommended a splash-out Amarone, perfect for Christmas.  I’ve got this one on my wish list from Majestic: Amarone Classico ‘Vigneti di Roccolo’ 2010 Cantina Negrar.   It’s a pricey one at £23 but comes down to £18 if you buy two fine wines.  One for when the coffers have been replenished.

Baking-wise, I’m loving Nigel Slater’s wonderful lazy loaf.  It’s a soda bread, but because it’s baked in a cast iron casserole, it develops a wonderful chewy crust.  Delicious, and barely 30 minutes to make – with no kneading.  I also used up the last of the Christmas clementines with a clementine drizzle cake.  Exactly the same as lemon drizzle cake:

Clementine Drizzle Cake

3 eggs

Same weight (about 175g) of caster sugar, butter and self raising flour

Juice and zest of a couple of clementines.

So just weigh the eggs in their shells, then weigh out the rest of the ingredients to the same weight.

Beat the butter until soft, then add in the sugar and beat until light coloured and creamy.  Add the zest and juice of the clementines to the eggs and give them a quick whisk with a fork.  Add them a dribble at a time to the butter/sugar mix.

Stir in the flour, then dollop the mixture into a buttered cake tin and bake at 180 degrees/gas 4 for about 30 minutes until springy to the touch or until a knife point comes out clean.

Mix the juice of a final clementine with a  couple of teaspoons of sugar and drizzle over the warm cake.  Delicious.

Clementine drizzle cake

 

In pupster news, she’s settling in really well, has made a best friend at puppy classes (a cute and ridiculously soft Vizsla called Ellie) and thinks having everyone at home over Christmas is wonderful!

 

Cute

On test: the Honda CR-V 1.6 i-DTEC SE 2WD Manual

Picking up the Christmas tree

Picking up the Christmas tree

If you remember, earlier on this year we toured Brittany with a Honda CR-V 2.2i-Dtec EX 4WD .  We loved the car, so when Honda offered us a go in their very eco-friendly 1.6 i-DTEC model we jumped at the chance.  We basically whooshed around for a whole week, using the car for everyday driving: school runs, shopping etc, sailing past petrol stations and feeling really smug.

About not being Jeremy Clarkson

I know I’ve already done this gag, but this is very much a family review and won’t contain anything about rack ratios (snigger) or wheel bases, but I know people google these things when they’re choosing a car, so hopefully this will be helpful if you’re considering a change.

First impressions

We love the look of the CR-V.  It’s enormous inside and even Sam with his massive lanky legs can sit in the back in comfort.   The 1.6 i-DTEC has less bells and whistles than the high spec EX version we had last time, but there are still enough brilliant gadgets to keep everyone happy.  We were also pretty gobsmacked to find on delivery that the screen showed a potential mileage of 650 miles.  Apparently you can get up to 800 miles out of one tank which I guess means you could end up filling up about once a month – fabulous for all those petrol station phobics like me.

The best bits

I particularly love the rear video parking screen.  It makes reversing into spaces so easy, and the beeper means you can edge up to the next car (or anything else) knowing that you’re not going to clonk it.

The boot is huge (589 litres, whatever that means) and the 60/40 rear seats fold down with a single pull.  So our first trip was off to the Christmas tree farm…

I also headed up the M1 to pick Mr English up from the airport and found the large wing mirrors and fantastic visibility right into the boot meant it was really easy to drive on the motorway.

The eco function that we liked so much on the EX still features on the SE – you can turn it off if you want, but it’s a great way of driving economically and I don’t find it distracting at all.

I loved driving the Honda – it’s smooth and easy to drive (although I found the 6 gears confusing at first, and spent miles sailing along in fifth), and although it’s not super-speedy, it was fine for everyday driving around town and on the motorway.

The boys loved the sound system – you can connect your phone by USB or AUX cable, but the best bit was connecting by BlueTooth.  I had no idea I was even connected on one journey (my phone was in the boot) when suddenly the music stopped and a voice informed me that I had a text message from Sam: ‘okay cheers Mam smiley face ex ex‘ which made me laugh – dead handy if you’re ever tempted to look at your phone while you’re driving.  It will reply for you too!

What we didn’t like

The BlueTooth connection didn’t like my Windows phone and continually connected and disconnected.  The keyfob only unlocks the drivers door, unless you click it twice, which is brilliant for safety if you’re driving alone because you know no lunatic is going to leap into the passenger seat or steal your handbag, but to let anyone else in you then have to push a button on the driver’s door.  I constantly forgot to unlock it when the kids got in the car, leaving them yanking at locked doors outside the school.  Still, you soon get used to it and apart from that, we really couldn’t find anything to complain about.

The verdict

This is our second Honda CR-V and we absolutely love them.  If we had the budget to move up from our somewhat ancient BMW X5, it would be the first on my list – it’s an excellent all-round family car with bags of room and frankly amazing fuel economy.  It’s incredibly practical for families with all the handy gadgets, storage spaces and cup holders (and that massive boot), it’s built in the UK and because its emissions are below 120g/km* of CO2 (nope, no idea either), the road tax is only £30 A YEAR!

I’ve added it to my Christmas list for next year, so let’s hope Santa is feeling generous.  I’d like the white orchid pearl colour please!

 The vehicle we tested was the Honda CR-V1.6 i-DTEC SE 2WD Manual, OTR £24,660 or £25,160 with the pearlescent paint.

Massive thanks to Honda (UK) for their generosity, patience and time.  You can find more information on the Honda CR-V here.

A 2013 roundup: one wedding, a few ships, beaches, restaurants and lots of cake

The last night on deck

With the boys on the deck of the Disney Magic

So we started January 2013 with a bit of excitement after my Dad’s Christmas Day proposal to his partner (by the way, the Dodgy Centre of Gravity reared its ugly head again after our cheese and wine tasting night when he’d had a few too many and fell over putting his shoes on at the end of the night).

In February, I travelled down to beautiful Blagdon to meet up with my Yeo Valley chums and have a nosey around their wonderful new HQ, and went on the adventure of a lifetime with my five bestest chums when we sailed the Caribbean on the frankly fantastic Liberty of the Seas (we’re Royal Mums, ambassadors for the Royal Caribbean brand and we take our job VERY seriously).  As you know, I’m big on spending your time and money enjoying experiences that you can cherish, rather than stuff, and this was right up there, believe me.  I came back with aching ribs from all the laughing (the horse riding through the surf in Jamaica might have added to that a bit, but oh, riding through an azure sea is one of my most treasured memories).  I also felt incredibly lucky to have shared an incredible experience with such incredible friends.  I love you guys.

Myself and my fellow cruise buddies with the Captain (Laura, Erica, Liz, Karin, Me, Capt Per, Tara)

Myself and my fellow cruise buddies with the Captain of the Liberty of the Seas (Laura, Erica, Liz, Karin, Me, Capt Per, Tara)

The ladies chillin' on deck with a cocktail

The ladies chillin’ on deck with a cocktail

The Liberty of the Seas at Labadee

The Liberty of the Seas at Labadee

April saw birthdays galore.   Charlie turned 15:

Charlie with his cake

Charlie’s 15th birthday

And Sam celebrated his 18th with karting, a party at home and a pretty epic double chocolate curly wurly cake

The gang at Rogue Racing

Sam’s friends at Rogue Racing for his 18th birthday party

 

Painstaking Curly Wurly application

Sam painstakingly adding the Curly Wurlies to his birthday cake

Then there was my Disreputable Dad’s wedding

De brevren on the dance floor

De brevren hogging the dance floor at their Grandad’s wedding

The boys with their beautiful cousin, Turtle

The boys with their beautiful cousin, Turtle, at my Dad’s wedding

In May, I headed out to the Cote d’Azur to experience the gorgeous Chateau Saint Martin in Vence:

Cocktails on the terrace before lunch

Cocktails on the terrace at Chateau Saint Martin, Vence

and then in June, we reviewed the Funky Fiat 500 and spent a wonderful family weekend at The Grove hotel with an exciting visit to the Warner Bros Studio Tour thrown in…

Gardens at The Grove

Gardens at The Grove

 

The boys on the Knight Bus at the Warner Bros Studio Tour

The boys on the Knight Bus at the Warner Bros Studio Tour

July was beautifully sunny and we spent a wonderful day aboard the Independence of the Seas.  The boys adored the FlowRider and it was lovely to meet up with all my besties and their families:

On deck

On the deck of the Independence of the Seas

I also spent a lovely weekend with my friend Erica doing an amazing foodie tour of Edinburgh.  Foodinburgh 2014 is already in the early planning stages!

Stockbridge Market, Edinburgh

Red velvet cake at Mimi's Bakehouse

Red velvet cake at Mimi’s Bakehouse

August was MENTAL with nearly three weeks of it spent abroad, in beautiful Brittany

Catching a glace with the fam in Brittany

Catching a glace with the fam in Brittany

and then with the boys on the INCREDIBLE Disney Magic – a real trip of a lifetime:

Minnie Mouse

With Minnie on the Disney Magic

 

'Jazz hands!' Charlie meets Stitch

‘Jazz hands!’ Charlie meets Stitch

We even managed to squeeze in a day in Barcelona with wonderful friends after desembarking:

Hotel Miramar, Barcelona

At Hotel Miramar in Barcelona with the boys

In September, Mr English and I squeezed in a quick weekend at Nutfield Priory

Terrace at Nutfield Priory

A sunny spot on the terrace at Nutfield Priory

and then in October, we headed off on an immersive wine cruise of Europe on the really quite gorgeous Celebrity Infinity…

Mr English

Mr English on the deck of the Celebrity Infinity in Bilbao

and then all that travelling squealed to an abrupt halt.  Because this little dude came along…

Little Boo

Our new little pupster

In November, Glam C and I went to Hogwarts Christmas at the Warner Bros Studio Tour:

With beautiful, snowy Hogwarts

With beautiful, snowy Hogwarts

and before we knew it, it was freezing, wet December then… bloody January again! (to quote Flanders and Swann).  We had a wonderful Christmas lunch at the Chequers Inn at Weston Turville: a seven course Christmas extravaganza with some amazing wine that really was festive, fun and very relaxing.  My favourite course was this stonking turbot with a huge crevette:

Turbot and crevette

Turbot and crevette

So here’s to 2014.  What’s on the agenda for this year, then?  More travel, certainly, more time spent with family and friends, loads of exams for the boys, more eating, more cooking, more relaxing, walking in the woods with our gorgeous new pupster and… who knows? My wishlist still includes Las Vegas (Britney, b*tch!), Australia and Thailand.

Thank you to each and every person who has stopped by to have a read, followed me on Instagram, Twitter or Facebook, or just blundered here via Google. I’m immensely grateful.  Wishing you a very happy and restful New Year.  May 2014 bring you peace, happiness and new experiences galore xx

My 2014 mantra

My 2014 mantra

 

Step by step: how to cook a turkey, stuffing and all the trimmings

So it’s that time again.   The pupster woke me up at 7am this morning, and we’re snuggled on the sofa by the twinkling tree (I’ve just put a piece of tinsel back on after she’s nicked it for the fifteenth time), I’ve got a cup of tea in my ‘Happy Christmas’ mug, and a scented candle flickering.

Lyra snuggle

If, like me, your thoughts are turning to your Christmas dinner (whether you’ve cooked it before or not), my best advice to you is just to think of it as a roast dinner on a slightly larger scale.

Rule 1: it’s all in the planning

You’ll have a much calmer Christmas if you spend a little time beforehand planning and preparing, so grab a pen and a piece of paper, and write down a rough plan.  Start at the time you want to serve the dinner (or lunch) and work backwards.  This means that when Christmas day is in full flow, you can quickly refer to your timings and know exactly what you’re doing.

First things first, weigh your turkey and work out the cooking time.  If you’ve gone for a free range turkey it will often look a bit less plump than those ones you see in all the Christmas adverts (check out the pic of my turkey from last year, below).  This is because they lead a more active lifestyle though, which is a good thing.  They will also be full of flavour and really succulent as they’re allowed to mature slowly (and they’re happier, obviously – happy turkey = yummy turkey).  Free range turkeys also take a little less time to took, so check with the retailer for their recommended cooking times.  In general though, my lovely chums Lean on Turkey, have both cooking AND defrosting timings on their website).  As a general rule:

Turkey under 4kg: 20 minutes per kilo, plus a further 70 minutes

Turkey over 4kg: 20 minutes per kilo, plus a further 90 minutes

Remember, if you’re steaming a Christmas pudding on the day, you’ll need to add this to your timetable.

Rule 2:  prepare as much as you can in advance

Potatoes: peel them, cut them into even sized chunks and blanch them for as long as you dare (the softer they are the fluffier the centre will be when you roast them).  Drain, leave to sit until cool and then pop them into a bag and store them in the fridge.  You can also open freeze them on a tray until solid before popping in a sealable freezer bag and chucking them in the freezer (if you freeze them straight into the bag they all fuse together in one big lump).  On the day they can go straight into the hot oil/goose fat from chilled or  frozen.

Parsnips: peel, cut into quarters or whatever you like and pop the in the fridge.  They don’t need blanching, but DO benefit from a nice little squidge of honey and a sprinkling of thyme before roasting for about half an hour.

Carrots: peel and blanch, cool and pop in the fridge. They can just be warmed up in some butter on the day, or just leave them raw and roast them along with the parsnips.

Sprouts: cut a bit off the bottom and take off any scruffy outer leaves.  Blanch until just tender, cool and pop into the fridge.  On the day, fry some pancetta or streaky bacon in lots of butter in a large frying pan, then add in the cooked sprouts and stir fry until they’re piping hot.  A pack of those shrink-wrapped chestnuts go really well in this dish too.

Stuffing: Again, make this in advance.  It will keep happily for a couple of days in the fridge.

Easy apple and red onion stuffing:

(serves 4-6, double up as necessary):

1 tbsp butter

1 red onion, finely chopped

1 dessert apple, grated (don’t bother to peel)

225g pork sausage meat

100g fresh white breadcrumbs

1 tbsp fresh parsley, chopped

1 tbsp fresh sage, chopped

Squeeze of lemon juice

Heat the butter in a frying pan, add the onion and fry gently until soft.  Add the apple and cook until softened.  Remove from the heat, transfer to a bowl and allow to cool.

Stir the sausage meat and breadcrumbs into the onion mixture along with the herbs and lemon juice.  Once well combined, squish it into a buttered oven-proof dish, cool and bung in the fridge.  On the day, it’ll take about 25 minutes (obviously more if you double up).

Free range Kelly Bronze turkey

 

Turkey: Again, do this the day before.  Don’t bother washing it in the sink – the hot oven will kill any germs and you’ll just cover yourself and your sink in all manner of bacteria.  Just unwrap it, take the giblets out (use to make stock or cook for a lucky pet), pluck out any stray feathers (I use fish boning tweezers) and get on with it.

I use one of those massive disposable foil turkey tray things – I know it’s not the most environmentally friendly choice but hey, it’s Christmas.  Just recycle it afterwards.

It’s nice to use a few flavours to enhance the turkey so cut up a couple of  lemons or oranges, squeeze them over the bird and then stick them into the body cavity along with a halved onion and a nice bunch of bay or rosemary or whatever you have and some salt and pepper, then tie the legs together.

For extra moistness and flavour, you can take about half a pack of butter, and mush it up with some of the stuff you’ve used in the cavity – maybe some lemon zest, pepper and a little chopped rosemary or parsley.  Then separate the skin from the breast with your fingertips (you don’t have to be too careful, turkey skin is like leather), then squish the butter all over the breast under the skin.  Now smooth the skin back down, drizzle with a little oil and some salt and pepper.  You can also criss cross the breast with some lovely (outdoor reared please) streaky bacon.

I don’t stuff the turkey, partly because eating something out of a turkey’s innards puts me off a bit and partly because I think it’s better for the hot air to circulate inside it.  I make the stuffing separately and cook it in a terrine in the oven once the turkey’s resting.  If you want to, though, by all means stuff the neck end just before cooking.

Weigh your turkey (remember if you ARE stuffing, you need to stuff before you weigh) and work out the cooking time.  Write it on your timetable then just cover with foil (don’t bother buying that ridiculously expensive turkey foil – just overlap the normal stuff), then leave it somewhere cool until you need it – a plastic box in the garage as it’s nice and cold in there, but if we have a sudden warm snap you’ll need to pack a bit of ice around it (it needs to be less than 4 degrees).

Rule 3: be organised on the day

First thing, fetch the turkey from its hiding place and allow it to come to room temperature.  There’s really no point in putting a very cold turkey into a hot oven – it’ll take ten minutes to even start cooking.

Preheat the oven for half an hour before you need it, then when your carefully worked out timetable says so, just slosh a bit of water in the bottom of the roasting pan, and stick the turkey on at 190/gas 5 (180/gas 4 for fan ovens), set your timer and go and have a glass of champers.  If you want to, you can baste it every so often, but if you forget, don’t worry at all.  Some people recommend cooking the turkey upside down (on its breast) which does result in really juicy breast meat.  I guess it depends on how large your turkey is and if you’re prepared to wrestle it up the right way for the last half hour or so to crisp up the breast (likewise if you cover yours with foil, take it off for the last half hour.)

To make sure the turkey is done you should be able to wobble a leg easily, and a quick stab with a knife into the thickest part will allow you to collect nice clear juices on a spoon), drain the juices into a pan for the gravy, then cover with foil and forget it while you cook everything else.

Cooking a turkey crown:

Cream some butter in a bowl until very soft, then add the crushed garlic, orange rind, parsley and thyme. Beat well, until thoroughly blended. Gently loosen the neck flap away from the breast and pack the flavoured butter right under the skin — this is best done wearing disposable gloves. Rub well into the flesh of the turkey, then re-cover the skin and secure with a small skewer or sew with fine twine. Finally, cover the top of the crown with the rashers.

Place the turkey crown in the oven and calculate your time — 20 minutes per 450g (1lb) plus 20 minutes. Cover loosely with foil, which should be removed about 40 minutes before the end of the cooking time. The turkey crown will cook much more quickly than a whole turkey, so make sure to keep basting.

Again, to check if it’s cooked, pierce a fine skewer into the chest part of the crown, the juice should run clear. When cooked, cover with foil to rest and keep warm.

Rule 4: free up your oven before you start on the trimmings

Remember, once covered with foil and maybe a couple of tea towels, the turkey will keep warm for AT LEAST an hour, leaving your oven free for all your other accompaniments:

For great roast potatoes

You really don’t need a lake of fat to make them lovely and crispy.  Once you’ve taken the turkey out of the oven, whack the heat up high, then just cover the bottom of the roasting tin completely with oil, goose fat or lard.  Make sure the fat is very hot before you add your frozen (or chilled) potatoes.  Spoon the fat over all the potatoes then put the in your nice hot oven.  The turkey will wait until your potatoes are golden and crispy (40 mins to an hour).

Rule 5: great gravy brings it all together

So that’s it.  You’ve got the last half hour to fiddle with all your little extras.  Skim off the worst of the fat from the stuff left in the roasting tin, then add a tablespoon or two (depending on the amount) of plain flour to the pan juices in a saucepan and stir well, cooking out that ‘raw’ flour taste, before adding plenty of stock (you can never have enough gravy).  Bubble until thick and taste.  If it’s at all bitter, a spoonful or two of cranberry sauce will lift it back up.

Get your veg on, stir fry your sprouts (or whatever you’re doing), and don’t forget to pop cranberry sauce on the table (here’s my favourite recipe).

Skip a starter and serve a lovely cocktail: try a Poinsettia – a slug of Cointreau in the bottom of a champagne glass, then up to about half way with cranberry juice, and top up with fizz. Decorate with a little spiral of orange peel if you have time.

If it goes a bit wrong and something gets burned or forgotten, it’s not the end of the world.  Enjoy the day, pour yourself a drink and remember:  it’s just dinner.

If you want wine advice, look no further than my lovely friend Helen’s 40 festive wines guide, and if you want any extra recipes this Christmas, try my glazed and spiced festive hamcranberry and port sauce,  home made mince pies, maybe a showstopping chocolate bundt cake, or some cute little Christmas tree jaffa cakes.

If you get stuck, drop me an email, but mostly, have a glass of fizz, hug your loved ones, dress up, light a candle, say you love it even if you hate it and please don’t drink and drive.  I need you here to keep me company.  So I’ll just say merry Christmas, from us lot, to you lot.  Have a wonderful, wonderful Christmas. Mwah xx

English Towers tree decorating team face pulling selfie 2013

English Towers tree decorating team face pulling selfie 2013

‘And the Grinch, with his Grinch-feet ice cold in the snow, stood puzzling and puzzling, how could it be so? It came without ribbons. It came without tags. It came without packages, boxes or bags. And he puzzled and puzzled ’till his puzzler was sore. Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn’t before. What if Christmas, he thought, doesn’t come from a store?  What if Christmas, perhaps, means a little bit more?’

The big Christmas gift guide: terrific pressies for teenagers

So next to get the Big Christmas Gift Guide treatment are your gorgeous teenagers.

Onesie

First up are the frankly fantastic All in One Company who hand make their fabulous quality onesies in Northumberland.  They very kindly asked me for Charlie’s measurements and made him a special onesie with his choice of purple camo polar fleece.  He’s absolutely delighted with it because, hey, there’s not another one in the world that’s exactly the same.  You can also give All in One Company gift vouchers so that people can design their very own onesie, and they also have an adorable baby section (check it out – the cuteness!)

ColgateColgate’s new ProClinical A1500 electrical toothbrush is a bit more practical but makes a really cool present (and what teenager doesn’t love looking in the mirror let’s face it).  It’s a really clever gadget with sensors that automatically adjust the speed and cleaning action of the brush depending on how it’s held in the mouth, and cleans using sonic vibration (32,500 strokes per minute!) to really attack that plaque.  It also comes with a spare brush head so more than one person can use it, which is handy.  RRP is £169.99 but it’s on a less than half price offer in Boots at the moment!

SchollScholl have got a really nice ColourPop manicure set which is like the the professional shaping machines you find in salons.  It’s got lots of different filing and shaping heads and is rechargeable too.  The little polishing head is useful if you’re not wearing nail varnish to give your nails a lovely shine.  Nifty.  (RRP £24.99)

Toni & GuyTONI&GUY have got loads of amazing hairdryers and gadgets out in lovely kits this Christmas including Twist and Crimp (RRP £50)  with which apparently – if you’re clever – it’s possible to crimp the underneath of your hair to give it more volume, or go all out 70s and crimp the whole lot, or the Reverse Conical wand for gorgeous casual waves and curls.  We love these as they’re all in beautiful packaging and look really special.

The SnowmanThe Snowman is a Christmas classic (30 years young!) and Build a Bear have bought out a special toy this Christmas, perfect for younger teens with a soft spot for film.   He retails at £18 and is actually really gorgeous – you can buy him online or go into a Build a Bear store for the full stuffing experience!  There’ll be a few adults that would rather like him too, we think!

Diva & Me

Excuse the weird ear-selfie, but if you’re looking for beautiful, unique jeweller – for teenagers or anyone else, frankly – look no further than lovely Diva & Me who sent me these gorgeous 14k gold opalite earrings which literally change colour depending on the light – anything from the darkest purple to very light, almost translucent violet. The gold setting is a delicate ‘hand crocheted’ design – have a look at it close up on the website, it’s absolutely amazing.  I adore them, and I’m really not a jewellery person.

LifeproofLifeproof do AMAZING iPad and iPhone cases that make them completely waterproof, shockproof and even mudproof, rendering their gadget pretty much indestructible.  Once sealed (it does take a bit of time to fit, plus you have to test it, but all the instructions are in the box and the test kit is enclosed),  it is shock proof from two metres with an IP level of 68, whatever that is, and is so waterproof it can actualy be used as an underwater camera.  Brilliant.

Stocking filler wise, I’m always keen to keep away from any sort of useless plastic crap that will be broken by Boxing Day, so we concentrate on anything yummy or useful.  The boys get through tons of the Lynx shower gel and shampoo, especially the Apollo scent, so these are always a winner.  We love all the Cadbury Christmas chocolate, especially the Winter Wonderland bar. Yum! and Kleenex‘s lovely Winter Originals Christmas pocket tissue packs are cute and handy too.

Kleenex Winter Originals

English Mum Christmas

The big Christmas gift guide: creative gifts for cooks

Chocolat

So following on from fab pressies for foodies, this time it’s the turn of the cook in your life.  Don’t immediately discount cookery books as the safe option, there are some fabulous cookbooks out there at this time of year.

The wonderful Eric Lanlard, Master Pâtissier and all-round creative genius has brought out a gorgeous book, perfect for any chocolate lover: Chocolat: Seductive Recipes for Bakes, Desserts, Truffles and Other Treats is stuffed full of every chocolate recipe you could ever want, plus it looks stunning.  The perfect gift.

Sybil Kapoor

The Great British Vegetable Cookbook by Sybil Kapoor is full of really inventive vegetable recipes – both as accompaniments to main meals and as delicious meals in their own right. It’s wonderfully inspirational when you’re planning meals and would make a lovely gift for a veggie or meat eater.

Another of my favourite books of the year is A Good Egg: a year of recipes from an urban hen-keeper - by Genevieve Taylor.  Perfect for anyone who yearns for the simple things – cooking simple, delicious dinners made with produce from your garden and eggs from hens pecking in the yard.  It reminds me of classic Nigella books as it’s a lovely read as well as having some really gorgeous recipes.  A bedside book, I’d call it.  Inspirational.

Breville AuroraI must admit I did once get very cross with Mr English for buying me a breadmaker for Christmas.  It was when we’d first got together and I thought it was the most unromantic gift I’d ever received.  Now, of course, I’d be delighted with a gorgeous appliance and I’ve got my eye on this very pretty pearly Breville Aurora toaster to go with my glossy cream kitchen units.

Denhay Drum

 

 

Next up is cheeeeese!  No Christmas is complete without cheese and this one is really special (and extensively tested by me. You’re welcome).  The Denhay Dorset Drum of cheddar is a real showstopper and packs a bit of punch, flavour wise.  Denhay have now decided to focus all their attention on their bacon, so this is the last time you’ll be able to buy it.  Snap one up online (from £25 + p&p) .

Knightor Brut NV from Cornwall

For something really special, how about a bottle of English Knightor Brut NV sparkling wine from Cornish winery Knightor.  We gave it a try and it really is the perfect festive fizz – light, fruity (peachy?) and with lovely, almost creamy bubbles.  You can buy it online, priced £27 from www.knightor.com. Gorgeous.

Experiences make really interesting gifts too.  Why not treat your favourite chef/chefette to a course at Padstow Seafood School. They have a fab range of courses starting at £95 for a half day course. Gift cards are available and can be posted direct with a personalised message (they have no expiry date).   Check out rickstein.com/seafood-school for details.

MoninAnd for little stocking fillers?  Check out Monin’s gorgeous gingerbread syrup (yummy in coffee, but equally good poured over pancakes or even as an ingredient in cakes), or why not wrap up a couple of Very Lazy’s little pots – the  Smoked Chopped Garlic, Smoked Chopped Chillies (our favourite – amazing on pizzas) and Fire-Roasted Sliced Chillies are really interesting and useful – what more could you ask for?!

Very Lazy

 

 

The figgy Christmas pudding 2013. Make a wish!

Christmas pudding

You know me, I pop up all over the interwebs, and at the moment you can find me chatting about Stir Up Sunday on the Yeo Valley website.  Funnily enough, my recipe is the same as theirs in that you’ll need to start a little prep the day before, as the fruit benefits from an overnight soak, but if you don’t have time (or you’ve only just read this bit and were all ready to go), don’t worry – just give it as long as you have.   Now, if you need information, hints, tips, ingredient notes and a step by step guide to making Christmas pudding, please just click here.

This is my updated recipe for 2013.  This year, I’m going back more to how Christmas Pudding used to be, with loads of figs, currants and sultanas, and moving away from the more modern apricot and cherry additions.

I was chatting to our lovely friend (and wine expert) Tom Forrest from Vinopolis on Twitter about what booze to use, and he had some really lovely suggestions.  I’m a huge fan of Pedro Ximenez and Tom recommends a Pedro from the English Whisky Company (£18) or an Aussie Brown Brothers Muscat Liqueur (about £12).   You can also be more traditional and just use brandy, obviously.

Figgy Christmas Pudding

250g dried figs, finely chopped

100g sultanas

100g raisins

50g prunes, finely chopped

1 lemon
100ml black tea

1 cinnamon stick, snapped in half

100ml Pedro Ximenez or other booze

3 eggs, beaten

1 tbsp honey

1 tbsp black treacle

1 Bramley apple, grated

100g self raising flour (or rice flour for gluten free)

100g fresh white breadcrumbs (or again, ground almonds if you need to keep the recipe gluten free)

150g veggie suet

150g dark muscovado sugar

25g almonds, finely chopped

1/2 tsp ground nutmeg

1/2 tsp ground mixed spice

So on to the recipe then:

1. Weigh out the dried fruit, then have a good pick through and get rid of any stems, they’re yucky if you crunch on them.  I let them fall through my fingers into the bowl a handful at a time.  With the larger dried fruit, make sure they’re stoneless and snip them into small pieces.

2. Finely grate the lemon zest, then juice it as well.  Add the zest and juice to the fruit then brew up the tea (one tea bag is fine for that amount of water) and pour it over the fruit, along with the rum.  Add in the cinnamon stick and stir it all up.  Cover with a plate and leave the whole shooting match to steep (make sure it’s not a metal bowl) overnight, stirring occasionally if you remember.

3. The next day, weigh out all the dry ingredients and combine them in a huge bowl.  Don’t forget the spices!  The muscovado sugar can be a bit lumpy so you might need to sift it to break up any lumps.

4. Take the steeped fruit and remove the cinnamon stick pieces.  Add the eggs (give them a quick mix with a fork first), honey, treacle and grated apple (leave the peel on).

5. Stir well, then you can add all that into the dry ingredients.  Give it a really good stir (get everyone to take a turn to stir and make a wish).

6. Now butter a big basin (3 pint/1.7  litre) or two smaller ones and bung in your mixture, pressing it down well and filling as near to the top as you can.

7. Cut out a circle of greaseproof paper, bigger than the top of the basin/s, then add a layer of foil.  Tie the two layers tightly just under the basin rim with string, leaving lots of excess to make a handle.  Now there is some weird way to loop the excess string underneath the basin to make a handle, but I’ve never managed it as I didn’t pay attention at Brownies.  If you want to be extra sure no liquid gets in, add another layer of foil and tie again. Or you can use a basin with a lid, or tie it in a muslin, or use one of those special circular moulds.

And that’s it, you’ve made a Christmas pudding! Pause here a minute to give yourself a quick round of applause.

To steam it, you can use a steamer if you’re posh, but I haven’t got one so I just use a huge saucepan and balance the basin inside it on a circular metal pastry cutter so it isn’t sitting on the bottom of the pan.  This will also stop it burning if you inadvertently let it boil dry.  Add boiling water about halfway up the basin and put the lid on the saucepan.  Steam for 5 hours, making sure you go back every so often to top up the boiling water.

I rewrap it with fresh greaseproof paper and foil, but you don’t have to.  Keep it somewhere cool until Christmas day when it’ll need to steam for about another 2.5 to 3 hours (don’t worry if it gets a bit longer, it won’t ruin it).  Or you could *gasp* just microwave it on Christmas day.  Much easier, but not really traditional!

On Christmas day, just warm some booze gently, then at the last minute, pour it over the pud and set it alight.  A splash of rum or a bit more of that Pedro and a tablespoon of icing sugar in some whipped cream (Yeo Valley Organic of course) would make a welcome addition.

English Mum Christmas