Sprouts: yum

My top five Christmas dinner hacks

So you might be one of those people that LOVES cooking for people at Christmas (like me) or you might be one who dreads it every year.  Either way, the best way to get through that dinner is to cheat as much as possible.  Here are my top five Christmas dinner hacks to give you more time with your family and friends, and less time at the oven and sink on the big day.

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The Snow Leopard martini

Christmas cocktail fun: the Snow Leopard Conservation Martini

A friend of mine’s got a bit of a thing for premium drinkies and, knowing I feel the same, sent me a bottle of this lovely stuff: Snow Leopard vodka.  This uber cool super-premium vodka was created by Stephen Sparrow, a passionate conservationist and ex-drinks industry expert, who heard about the plight of the Snow Leopards during a trip to the Himalayas.  There are just 5000 of these beautiful big cats left in the wild and Stephen created the Snow Leopard Trust UK with a goal to raise a million dollars a year to save them.

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Rough puff mince pies

Rough puff pastry mince pies

The thing about home baking is that it should be a joy.  My favourite times are spent in my kitchen – pinny on (Cath Kidston, a treasured present from my friend Taralara), oven on, flour everywhere, radio playing, people popping in and out for a chat or a quick taste – it’s my therapy. I’d go mad without it.  Someone once told me that you should never bake when you’re miserable – nothing goes right – cakes don’t rise, things don’t taste right… it’s because the baking picks up on your mood, and I completely believe that’s true.

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One pot garlic chicken

Pot roasted garlic chicken – and win a Berndes casserole dish!

If you’ve been in Tesco recently, you’ll have seen that they’re currently running a sticker promotion  where you can save up to 70% on exclusive Berndes cookware products (collect one sticker for every £20 you spend – once you’ve collected five stickers you can use them to buy the discounted cookware.  Tesco very kindly send me one of the casseroles to try. They’re wonderfully chunky and heavy – perfect for soups, stews and casseroles.  I tried my hand at a little one-pot cooking:

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Ox cheek Jalfrezi

Braised, spicy Jalfrezi ox cheeks with Schwartz Flavour Shots

My store cupboard is really important to me.  As well as the basics like salt, pepper, oil and stock cubes, I like to have lots of different seasoning mixes and dried herbs and spices, especially at this time of year when it’s more difficult to pop into the garden for a handful of parsley or coriander.  Products from the lovely chaps at Schwartz feature heavily in my kitchen – I like dried coriander in my winter curries, and we’re all completely addicted to the Perfect Shake seasoning blend for chips (if you haven’t discovered this yet, grab some now, it’s awesome).

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Bobbi Brown at Macy's UTC

The UK does Macy’s – the new Macy’s at UTC Sarasota

So next on our wonderful trip to Florida, we hopped back into our amazing Mustang and headed down to Sarasota, to the brand new Mall at University Town Centre (UTC for short).  The brand new Macy’s there is utterly fantastic, and very state of the art.  We joined store manager Kerry Yelle for a tour of the store.  She’s understandably pretty proud of the place and pointed out several really cool features that are unique to this ‘smart store’.  The lighting, for example, has been designed to be sustainable and the lamps don’t need replacing, plus the changing rooms have lights that only come on when you enter, to save energy.

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Christmas tree biscuits 2

Christmas tree biscuits #bakeitforward

So have you seen the Waitrose Christmas advert?  We love the story of little Ellie, the reluctant baker, who ends up mastering the art of gingerbread baking for her school fete.

Waitrose have challenged me to get involved with their #bakeitforward campaign, to spread a little love and Christmas cheer to some people I really care about by baking them a special treat.  I love decorating biscuits, it’s so Christmassy – so here are my cute little chocolate Christmas tree biscuits.  This dough is perfect for cutting out shapes as it doesn’t spread in the oven – it’s really easy to make too.

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Fog Head Pinot Noir

The autumn wine round up

We have very weird wine habits in this house.  When Mr English is home we really splash out and try a few nice wines, but when I’m at home on my own when he’s working, I tend to have a glass of a supermarket red on the go and I don’t think there’s any shame in that.  I often read my friend Helen’s blog: Knackered Mother’s Wine Club for inspiration as she’ll regularly recommend a good bottle or two.

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No 2 Pound Street Deli Platter

Wine tasting and deli platters at No 2 Pound Street

When Mr English is home, one of our favourite things to do is pop to No 2 Pound Street in Wendover.  It’s a lovely little place – part wine shop/part deli.  They sell an amazing selection of cheese and other lovely bits, and an equally fab selection of wines.  They concentrate on the slightly more unusual, organic, small-producer type wines, so you’ll always find something a bit different in there.  They usually have four or five different wines on offer by the glass, so we pop in for a glass or two and one of their delicious deli platters:

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The beautiful garden at our dream house

My week in food: doughnuts, chocolate pudding and dhal

Happy Sunday!  I hope you’re having a lovely chill-out day wherever you are.  I’ve had a such a lovely week this week, with some AMAZING career news (that sadly I can’t tell you about yet – I know, I hate it when people do that too), and a visit from Sam, home from university for a couple of days (he’s loving it, by the way – London/uni life really seems to suit him). I also had an incredible time at Le Manoir Aux Quat’Saisons – more of this later on in the week.  We’ve also put an offer in on the HOUSE OF OUR DREAMS, but I’m really trying not to get too excited as it’s very early days and we’re still waiting on a mortgage too (but check out the garden – above – how pretty is that?).

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Paul Hollywood's British Baking

Paul Hollywood’s British Baking in the Telegraph

Is everyone else in mourning now the Great British Bake Off is finished?  What on earth are we going to watch now?!  I’ve got to be honest, I prefer the early stages when the baking is more like something you might make at home, rather than the big, lavish showstopper thingies.

Happily, if you’re eager to get your Paul Hollywood fix, I happen to know that the Telegraph have just teamed up with the ol’ silver fox to bring you more than 40 brilliant British recipes this weekend!

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Flapjack and builders' tea

The house update. And flapjacks.

So since our original offer on the House of Bodily Fluids back in July, we really haven’t heard very much.  We didn’t really chase it as I guess we’re not in a massive hurry, but all of a sudden it kind of dawned on us that we hadn’t had any paperwork, and started to chase a bit harder.  Our solicitors, worryingly, had heard nothing at all from their solicitors.  I drove past the house and they hadn’t even STARTED clearing it, and you can imagine what a job that’s going to be.  Then we started to hear rumour that the probate wasn’t going smoothly and there were issues with the man’s business that had to be sorted before the house could be sold… Ugh.

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Frozen cupcake topper

How to make Disney Frozen cupcakes – a masterclass with Chef Jeff

One of my absolute favourite adventures while we were in Walt Disney World was a special, money can’t buy visit to Chef Jeff, Executive Chef at Disney’s beautiful Contemporary Resort, one of my top five Walt Disney World resort hotels.  Chef Jeff and his team are responsible for all the patisserie for the resort, from gorgeous special occasion cakes, to the wonderful cupcakes available in the café.

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Squidgy chocolate brownie cake

A squishy chocolate brownie cake for exam success (mostly)

So it’s been a little frantic here at English Towers.  First we had A level results, and then within a week it was GCSE results. Honestly, I really should have planned my children a little better.

Still, it was all good.  I used the hashtag #noexamswerefailedonthisday on Instagram but in truth, one exam WAS failed.  But hey, it didn’t matter.  Sam got what he needed to head out into the big wide world of university, and Charlie’s off to sixth form.

If there’s one thing I always insist upon, it’s a celebration when someone’s done something brilliant.  As parents, we spend plenty of time enforcing rules, cajoling, counselling (okay, and occasionally moaning), so when something amazing happens,  I always think it redresses the balance a bit to celebrate.  Everyone loves a pat on the back when they do something great, don’t they?

So obviously all this exam success called just such a celebration, and what better celebration is there than a whopping great warm, chocolatey, squishy brownie cake smothered in lashings of chocolate ganache?  None, that’s what…

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