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Review: the John Lewis hamper – the gift that keeps on giving

The John Lewis hamper

 

One of the best gifts we received over the Christmas period was a fabulous hamper from John Lewis.  It arrived in a massive traditional wicker hamper and unpacking it was such good fun.  We all dived in and found different things we loved.  Obviously Mr English and I went for the wines (some really decent ones, actually – remember we used the fabulous Bordeaux on our cheese and wine tasting evening) – there was also a really good bottle of ruby port and some rather fantastic fizz too.

Over Christmas, having lots of guests means that nibbles are always welcome and the hamper contained loads of nuts, crisps and other nibbly bits.  The New York Deli hot chilli nuts were a fave, as were the amazing Fire Cracker rice puff – so moreish!  The hamper also had amazing Olives et Al spiced nuts, olives and cheesy biscuits. Perfect with drinks over the festive period.

The boys were delighted to see loads of biscuits and chocolates too, as well as a gorgeous cake AND a Christmas pudding, and we’ve STILL got loads of jams and preserves left, as well as a lovely bottle of balsamic vinegar.

All in all, there was something for everyone and it really was the gift that keeps on giving – well into the New Year in fact!

Check out all John Lewis gifts just here.  And remember, some of their amazing hampers are now on sale!

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?’

English Mum’s Big Christmas Bakeoff – the entries

Ah I’ve absolutely loved looking through all the amazing bakeoff entries. Now it’s down to our lovely judge Catriona to choose a winner to receive all those lovely Yeo Valley goodies. Good luck everyone!

Joanna Arthur's mince pies

Joanna Arthur’s mince pies

Rich Tipsy fruity Yule log by Ah Har Ashley

Rich Tipsy fruity Yule log by Ah Har Ashley

Lisa Ann Tebbutt's Christmas cake

Lisa Ann Tebbutt’s Christmas cake

Lexy Law's chocolate yule log

Lexy Law’s chocolate yule log

Sara Friend's giant cupcake

Sara Friend’s giant cupcake

Peggy Falbos chocolate fudge cake with white chocolate mascarpone mousse topped with a chocolate meringue

Peggy Falbo’s chocolate fudge cake with white chocolate mascarpone mousse topped with a chocolate meringue

Natalie Zindani's Christmas cupcakes

Natalie Zindani’s Christmas cupcakes

Lynn Savage's After Eight cupcakes

Lynn Savage’s After Eight cupcakes

Katharine Bourne-Francis' enormous choux bun

Katharine Bourne-Francis’ enormous choux bun

Lorraine's Christmas cranberry, orange and white chocolate cake

Lorraine’s Christmas cranberry, orange and white chocolate cake

Kim Holgate's apricot and brandy Christmas cake

Kim Holgate’s apricot and brandy Christmas cake

Lianne O'Malley's igloo cake

Lianne O’Malley’s igloo cake

Little Lydia (and the Christmas cake!) from Kristin Burdsall

Little Lydia (and the Christmas cake!) from Kristin Burdsall

Liz Jarvis's Christmas shortbread cookies

Liz Jarvis’s Christmas shortbread cookies

Hazel Smithies' Christmas cake

Hazel Smithies’ Christmas cake

Haward family's chocolate Christmas cottage cake

Haward family’s chocolate Christmas cottage cake

Gill Saunders (and family) snowman cake pops

Gill Saunders (and family) snowman cake pops

Fiona Haward's stained glass window biscuits

Fiona Haward’s stained glass window biscuits

Emma Ellams' victoria sponge

Emma Ellams’ victoria sponge

Becky Shorting's Christmas cookies

Becky Shorting’s Christmas cookies

Becky Thorn's Christmas tree cakes

Becky Thorn’s Christmas tree cakes

Becky Thorn's gingerbread stars

Becky Thorn’s gingerbread stars

Chocolate carrot nutty cake by Victoria Ashley

Chocolate carrot nutty cake by Victoria Ashley

Christine (@afamilyday)'s reindeer

Christine (@afamilyday)’s reindeer

Adele Knight Christmas cupcakes

Adele Knight Christmas cupcakes

How to make mince pies – step by step

Tree mince pie small

So Mr English is home and the Christmas preparations can begin in earnest.  His favouritest thing in the whole world at Christmas time is a home made mince pie.   If you’ve only ever bought them, you’re missing a trick – they’re very easy and they make the whole house smell divine.  I love scenting the pastry with the zest and juice of a clementine, or you could try a teaspoon of cinnamon too, or just leave it plain – it’s your pie.  Here’s what you’ll need:

200g cold butter

400g plain flour

1 tbsp caster sugar

Pinch salt

1 egg

1 clementine or tangerine, zest and juice (optional)

Cold water and a tablespoon (have them ready)

First, then, cut your butter into little cubes and pop it into the food processor with the flour, sugar and a pinch of salt:

Butter small

Mix gently until it resembles breadcrumbs:

Breadcrumby

Now add the egg and the clementine juice and zest and let it continue stirring gently until the mixture just comes together.   Add a couple of tablespoons of cold water as it’s coming together so you end up with a nice, soft dough.  Obviously you can do this by hand if you don’t have a food processor.

Form the dough gently into two balls, clingfilm them and put them into the fridge for 20 mins.  Don’t leave them too long – rock hard pastry is not the easiest thing to handle.  One ball should make 12 pies.

Preheat the oven to 190 degrees/gas 5 and get ready to mess with your mincemeat.  Now, don’t get me wrong – normal mincemeat in a jar is fine, but let’s face it, there’s not much in life that can’t be improved with a bit of alcohol (trust me, it’s not time that’s a great healer, it’s booze), so splosh some in: I’m loving Pedro Ximenez at the moment, but anything will do: port, cherry brandy, Cointreau - whatever you have to pep it up.  I also add a handful of dried cranberries because I like the colour.  I’m also partial to a glacé cherry or two.  But don’t bother if you don’t want to.

So now, just roll the pastry out and use a cutter to make circles.  Pop the circles gently into a muffin tin and put a scant teaspoon of your boozy mincemeat in each one.  Don’t overfill or they’ll ooze everywhere and be very difficult to get out of the tin (sorry for the blurry picture – sticky hands) :

Pies

Now you can either cut out another slightly smaller circle to use as a lid, or just cut out something festive like a star or a tree, and pop on the top.  Now, pass the whole kit and caboodle onto the Eggy Wash Department (you’ll need a small, willing child for this – just use a little lightly beaten egg to paint over the pies and add a sprinkle of sugar):

Bake for about 10 – 15 minutes and that’s it, you made pies!  Give yourself a quick round of applause, then serve with more booze in the shape of some warm, mulled wine, or a lovely cup of tea.  And now you’ve got into the swing of it, try mixing it up.  The tree ones at the top were made in a deep-fill muffin pan with a plain cutter.  Or try topping your pies with sponge mixture like my festive pastry cakey pies.

star mince pies

Christmas shopping tips for Gatwick and a pupster update

Lyra 4 months

So little Lyra is just four months old now and growing fast.  Since our last update she’s really cracked the house training thing and actually whines at the back door now to go out.  Trouble is, if we don’t know she’s there, she’ll still piddle on the doormat, but hey, pretty impressive for four months.  She adores the boys and showers them with kisses every time she sees them (and a few nibbles – we’re STILL working on that).

We’ve also attended our first puppy class (‘HEEL!’)  during which I went through about a kilo of sausage, but did succeed in completing a successful recall exercise and getting her to sit.  Woohoo!

Work wise it’s been really busy.  I’m really sad that my partnership with the Sunday Times Ultimate Cookbook has now finished.  You can find all the posts here if you want to catch up.  The dinner party one is particularly fab.  Chocolate nemesis baby!

I’ve also been working with London Gatwick Airport to provide families with Christmas shopping tips – here’s the finished article – I’m pretty proud of it, got to be honest!

A Cost and Time Efficient Christmas: Shopping Tips for Busy Mums

As a busy wife and mum to two, Becky Wiggins (aka English Mum) shares her advice for getting ahead of the impending Christmas present buying panic:

First things first: make a plan: grab a pen and paper (old school!), write a list of people you need to buy for and have a think about your budget per person.  Then stick to it!  Consider cash as that helps avoid overspend. Keep the list handy so you can note down any gift ideas next to each person if you think of any.

Take time to sit down with your kids and write letters to Santa.  It’s a lovely tradition and will give you great insight into the sort of presents they’re after – even if your budget won’t really stretch to a pony this year (again).

If you’d prefer to cram it all into one mammoth shopping day, start early.  If you can, pick a midweek day and stick to your list.  Oh, and it goes without saying to try and pick a date before Christmas Eve.

If you are shopping early, be on top of the present hiding.  There’s nothing worse than gifts being discovered before the big day – be creative: use empty suitcases, boxes in the garage or even high kitchen cupboards!

If you’re travelling before Christmas, use airport waiting time to make the most of the favourable prices vs the high street and the fabulous shops all under one roof.  Gatwick in particular has a good line up having just opened a raft of stores including a new Harrods Department Store, Aspinal of London, Hugo Boss, Mango, Superdry and Ernest Jones (plus Zara, Victoria’s Secret, Fat Face, Snow + Rock and Ted Baker arriving early December). They also offer a voucher passport with a range of special offers and a free ‘Shop Fly and Collect service, meaning you can go to town on buying big gifts or stocking fillers. You simply leave shopping bags at the airport and pick them up on your return!

Whilst abroad, consider buying a few gifts to bring home: local wines, soaps, pastries and cheese (if you don’t mind stinking out your suitcase) make wonderful presents, especially if you’re not certain on people’s tastes.  Just step away from the castanets.

If you’re buying for teenagers, gift vouchers are your friend.  In the run up to Christmas, I add a gift voucher into my shopping basket every week.  It spreads the load and no teen will sneer at iTunes or Top Shop vouchers.

Get baking: there’s no rule that says you have to buy your presents.  Home made presents show that you’ve really thought about the recipient, so bake an extra couple of Christmas cakes, knock up a batch of boozy mince pies or make chocolates, lemon curd or chutney.

Think quality rather than quantity.  We’ve cut down on the amount of silly stocking fillers that cost money and were discarded by Boxing Day.  Favourite shower gels, shampoos and chocolate bars are all great stocking fillers that you can stock up on in the weeks leading up to Christmas.

Have a couple of small emergency presents handy: wrap a nice box of chocolates or a scented candle just in case guests arrive at the door bearing gifts.  There’s nothing more awkward than receiving an unexpected gift so be prepared with a backup.  On the plus side, if you don’t give them away you get a surprise extra pressie for yourself.

And finally, give your children a small budget to buy something for each other (or for you) – it’s lovely for them to experience the joy of present giving!

In other news, Sam has got his first uni offer – much excitement! – and Charlie is working hard towards his GCSEs and going to multiple gigs in London.  This pleases me as I’ve always been a fan of spending money on experiences over material things.

Latest Instagrams have included this little beauty..  Emiliana Novas Gran Reserva which smells exactly like black jelly babies and is absolutely delicious.

Next up, I’m working on the brand new Big Christmas Bakeoff and some wine and cheese matches as well as loads of new wine recommendations. Watch this space!!

My Christmas food TV planner 2013

Christmas wine (image via Sunsetlily on Flickr)

If you’re anything like me, the best bit of the build up to Christmas is all the lovely food shows on the telly.   I have all the Nigella Christmas shows recorded and love having them playing in the background while I’m working.  I also like all the programmes on Good Food (look out for Rachel Allen’s Christmas Cake Diaries) and Food Network UK (especially Barefoot Contessa – I love the way she says ‘budderrrrr’). If you’re going to be setting your TV box to record this Christmas, here are a few you shouldn’t miss.  I’ve arranged them in date order – hopefully that’s more convenient than by channel:

Food Network: Rosemary Shrager’s Classic Christmas: Saturday 14th December, midday

Not sure if this is new (I think so) but it does look good.

BBC2: Tom Kerridge Cooks Christmas: Monday 16th December, 8.30pm

Following on from his amazing Proper Pub Food, Tom turns his considerable skills to Christmas dinner.  Only half an hour?  But we LOVE Tom Kerridge!!

BBC2: The Great British Bakeoff Christmas Special: Tuesday 17th December, 8pm

Not a huge bakeoff fan, but I do love Mary Berry.  Definitely worth a watch.

BBC2: Food and Drink Christmas Special: Wednesday 18th December, 8pm

Apparently they’re bringing Food and Drink back for a new series next year.  Mary Berry features in this one too.

BBC2: The 12 Drinks of Christmas: Thursday 19th December, 9pm

Alexander Armstrong and Giles Coren are brothers-in-law, apparently.  This is their countdown to the best drinks of the festive season.

Channel 4: Gordon Ramsay’s Festive Home Cooking, starts: Friday 20th December, 8pm

If you missed his original Home Cooking series, you should try and find it on catch up.  It’s fabulous.  Really looking forward to this.

ITV: Let’s do Christmas… with Gino and Mel (daily), starts Sunday 15th December, ends Christmas Eve.

Mr English loves Gino and Mel.  They have a great 0n-screen relationship and do have a great giggle.  I thought Gino was doing a Christmas spesh too, but I can’t find it anywhere.

And for after Christmas, there’s Jamie’s Festive Feast on 30th December at 8pm on Channel 4.

If anyone’s got any that I’ve missed, please do let me know and I’ll add them in!

 

 

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 big Christmas gift guide – pressies for mums

Debenhams Flowers

So every year I do these gift guides, and half the time I’m thinking about the boys, or about what my Mum would like, or what would be wonderful for Mr English, but as I’m searching, I often see something and think ‘ooh, I like that’.  I started to note them down, just so I could write a Christmas list, and here they are, my ‘that will do nicely’ list for Christmas 2013, interspersed with some lovely things that I’ve been sent.

Don’t forget flowers if you’re considering Christmas pressies for mums.  I adore receiving flowers.  Debenhams sent me these absolutely beautiful Christmas flowers called ‘Cinnamon Spice‘.  They had soft, velvety red roses, cute gerberas, bright red berries, lots of beautiful-smelling red roses and the festive addition of some cinnamon sticks too.  The flowers smelt divine and lasted for ages. (£29.99).  If you use this discount code: XMASBLOG, you’ll get £5 off all Christmas gifts too (expires 21.12.13).

Harrods wine hamperThere’s nothing quite as lush as a Harrods Hamper.  This beauty is £100 and contains six decent bottles including a nice Rioja, a Cape Coral Mourvedre Rosé, Emiliana Novas Cabernet Sauvignon/Merlot and a lovely Chardonnay - the gift that really does keep on giving.  Find the Harrods hamper selection here.

Asda olive oil setAsda have got some lovely foodie gifts this year.  I especially liked this Extra Special olive oil set with Toscano extra virgin olive oil and a ceramic olive oil decanter.  It’s just £6 too.

I’ve really enjoyed Tom Kerridge’s TV series Tom Kerridge’s Proper Pub Food and would really like to eat at the Hand and Flowers, which is actually quite near us.  I’ll settle for the book that accompanies the series for now, though.  I’d also like Raven Girl by Audrey Niffenegger.  I adored The Time Traveler’s Wife and Her Fearful Symmetry, but missed this one for some reason.

Lyra on tartan rugFor the home, I’m loving tartan at the moment (inspired, of course, by my lovely friend Erica up in Edinburgh).  Buyakilt.com have all sorts of beautiful tartan rugs (as well as scarves and even kilts if you fancy going the whole nine yards).  The pupster has got quite fond of our lovely soft Jacob tartan rug (they call it a rug but it’s perfect as a sofa throw –  it washes beautifully on a cool wash) ad there are all sorts of lovely colours to choose from.

Yankee Christmas memoriesI love candles and I’m very spoilt as lovely Yankee Candle always send me their new ones to try.  My favourite this Christmas is Merry Marshmallow which will fill your home with the delicious, warm sweet smell of baking, even if you can’t be bothered to actually bake!  I’d also like the more traditional Christmas Memories scent as well please, Santa!

RevitaliftL’Oreal Paris Revitalift Laser Renew is hands down the best moisturiser I’ve ever used – it’s non-greasy and sinks in really easily.  It also seems to give a really nice base for make-up, plus I like the smell.  Winner winner chicken dinner.

Redken Body Full is a godsend if you have fine hair.  When I had my hair cut recently my stylist used it and my hair felt amazing.  WANT!  (By the way check out the shop I’ve linked to here – it’s owned by a friend of mine from school).

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

 

Win £200 to spend online at Zalando this Christmas (ended)

Silver candle holder

I’d like this pretty silver candle holder, to add a bit of twinkle to our Christmas table.

I’ve just started to have a look online to get ahead with the Christmas shopping.  The trouble is, all I seem to see are things that I’d really like myself!

I’m a huge fan of Zalando – you can get all your shopping done without moving from the sofa and they’ve got everything from gorgeous designer clothes to really original stuff for the house (including lots of lovely things for Christmas).

They’re also, I’m rather proud to say, big fans of English Mum and they’ve given me a fabulous £200 to give away for one of my lucky readers to spend online at Zalando.co.uk.

Sadly, I’m not allowed to win, so, dear Santa, if you’re reading, I’ve been a really good girl this year and if you could see your way to filling my stocking with any of these lovely things, I’d be very grateful.

MICHAEL Michael Kors clutch

…and this gorgeous MICHAEL by Michael Kors leather clutch – perfect for Christmas parties…

To enter, just comment and tell me what you’d like to buy and who it’s for – don’t worry, you can spend it all on yourself if you want, you have my permission.  The winner will be chosen at random and usual English Mum competition rules apply.

This giveaway ends at 9am next Friday, 22nd November 2013.  Remember if you’re a first-time visitor to English mum your comment won’t appear until it’s approved.  Good luck!

and this silky soft AM Design WOLF throw to keep my tootsies toasty.

and this silky soft AM Design WOLF throw to keep my tootsies toasty.

English Mum Christmas

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

******THIS GIVEAWAY IS NOW CLOSED – CONGRATULATIONS TO MELISSA MANNING WHO WON THE £200 VOUCHER! THANKS FOR YOUR ENTRIES******

The Lean on Turkey challenge: turkey and chestnut pilaf

Turkey and chestnut pilaf small

If you’re a regular reader, I’m sure you’ll have seen these Lean on Turkey challenges before.  I’ve done quite a few and I’m delighted that the campaign recently won ‘Best Use of Digital’ at the Chartered Institute of Public Relations Pride Awards.  The campaign supports British turkey farmers to show you how versatile, healthy and tasty turkey can be.  Of course it’s not just for Christmas, but it’s getting to that time of year and Christmas isn’t Christmas without turkey.  The challenge this time was to come up with a creative way to use turkey leftovers.

This pilaf recipe is based on one I use quite a lot, with the addition of some lovely Christmassy spices and some festive chestnuts.   Bart do a lovely mix that’s all ready to go called ‘Pilau’ which is perfect for this, but if you can’t find it, try 1tsp ground cardamom, 1 tsp cumin seeds, 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon, 1 tsp turmeric and a couple of cloves (don’t forget to fish them out before you serve).  It’s a really easy, tasty one pot wonder.  I do hope you’ll give it a go.

Turkey and chestnut pilaf

2 tbsp rapeseed oil

1 onion, finely chopped

Generous pinch of salt

3 tsp Bart pilau spice

1 or 2 bay leaves

Leftover roast turkey, shredded

Chestnuts 200g vacuum packed (reserve a couple for garnish)

1 litre chicken stock (or leftover gravy, diluted)

300g brown or white Basmati rice, well rinsed

To garnish:  crumbled chestnuts and a handful of fresh coriander or parsley

Heat the oil in a heavy-based pan and gently fry the onion until translucent, adding in the salt at this stage.  Add in the spice and bay leaves and cook gently – you’ll start to get a whiff of the lovely aromas.  Throw in the turkey and chestnuts and stir gently until everything is coated in the spices.

Take out the bay leaves and add in the rice and chicken stock (I use a generous amount as we like our pilaf with a bit of ‘sauce’.  If you like your rice drier, keep to about 750ml stock).  Stir well and cover.  Turn the heat right down and leave to cook for about 30 minutes or until all the water has been absorbed and the rice is tender.  Try not to keep lifting the lid as you want to keep all the steam inside.  Fork the pilaf through to fluff up the rice, then keep it covered until you’re ready to serve.  Throw in a handful of frozen peas if you like, for added colour and freshness.

Just before serving, sprinkle over the reserved chestnuts and coriander.

My shopping list:

From the store cupboard:

Salt, bay leaves, stock cube

Purchased:

1 onion, 28p

Bart Pilau spice mix: £4.00 (obviously you’ll get to reuse this)

Chestnuts 200g vacuum packed £2.25

Brown Basmati rice, well rinsed (1kg bag) £2.99

Fresh coriander: 95p

From the freezer:

Frozen peas

Total: £10.19 (slightly over but you can obviously use the rice and spice mix for many more meals)

Cooking time: About 40 minutes including prep and baking time.

For more information on the Lean on Turkey campaign, head to leanonturkey.co.uk

 

 

Review: Prezzo’s Christmas menus

Prezzo ChristmasThis week, we were invited to our local Prezzo to try out the new Christmas menus.  We pop in to Prezzo every so often for pizzas and salads, but I hadn’t really considered it particularly for Christmas.  Someone on Twitter even suggested turkey pizza when I mentioned I was going to Prezzo to try their Christmas menus!

Happily I was completely wrong.  The place was absolutely buzzing – our local restaurant is housed in the town’s old Post Office building and it’s got a lovely industrial feel to it, with a huge oven at the centre of the open kitchen.  It was lovely inside – all warm and sparkly, with candles, an open fire and a gentle buzz of conversation.  We were shown to a lovely big table by the fire and got stuck in to the menus (and a very nice bottle of Barbera d’Asti).

There are three menus for Christmas:

The Classic (3 courses for £16.95)

This menu only offers a few choices and you’ll find most things are on the normal Prezzo menu anyway.  We tried the bruschetta starter, which was a really generous portion of flatbread, topped with loads of yellow and red cherry tomato quarters, red onion, fresh basil leaves and a generous drizzle of pesto.  It was really fresh and tasty.

Mains include pizzas, pastas and a Caesar salad and desserts include Charlie’s favourite chocolate profiteroles, filled with chocolate cream and generously drizzled with vanilla sauce.  The choux pastry was light, the filling generous and the vanilla cream sauce REALLY yummy.

Prezzo king prawnsThe Premium (three courses for £19.95)

This menu has more choice.  We ordered one of each of the starters and had an absolutely fantastic time sharing and dipping.  The king prawns served in a rich, garlicky tomato sauce with a generous touch of chilli are utterly delicious, and we ended up dipping the crispy calamari in there too.  Yum.  The pane con cipolla – garlic bread smothered with sweet sour balsamic onions and mozzarella is like a huge pizza – perfect for sharing (and scoffing with those delicious king prawns).

Mains are varied and tasty: we ordered the VIP tre gusti pizza – a massive pizza piled with pepperoni, chicken, pancetta and mozzarella.  Charlie found the amount of fresh rosemary a bit overwhelming and ended up picking it all off – apart from that it was spot on.  We were also tempted by the pene al zafferano (chicken with red chilli, spinach and garlic in saffron sauce) and the fusilli Gorgonzola with chicken, pancetta, and veg in a creamy sauce.  The king prawn risotto looked great too.

Desserts on this menu are nothing short of fabulous.  We fought over the sticky toffee pudding –  a huge slab of the most delicious, sticky softness, and the white chocolate bombe (mascarpone ice cream covered in white chocolate with raspberry sauce) was lush.

The Signature (four courses and a glass of Prosecco for £24.95)

This menu starts off with a small tray of marinated olives and a glass of fizz.  Starters include the most delicious, crispy, soft centred crab cakes (you only get two – we could have eaten ten) and gorgeous gnocchi stuffed with Gorgonzola and walnuts in a tasty, herby tomato sauce.

The mains were the star of the show: panciotti (little pasta parcels similar to ravioli) stuffed with scallop and prawns in a dill sauce, the most deliciously savoury wild boar tortelli in a creamy tomato sauce (slightly let down by being a bit gristly in places but otherwise meaty and satisfying), and a tender roasted duck leg served on a big plate of potatoes and vegetables with tomatoes and a touch of chilli.  The pollo al funghi – a plate of chargrilled chicken with mushrooms and spinach – wasn’t particularly generous, but the marsala sauce was delicious and it’s served with lovely rosemary potatoes for mopping it all up.

Desserts on the signature menu include the white chocolate bombe again and a perfec, rich chocolate orange cheesecake with a crunchy chocolate topping, served with a big dollop of mascarpone.

Service was attentive and friendly, even though the place was busy. We walked out absolutely stuffed (I couldn’t even manage a calzone mince pie and I was really looking forward to it) and imbued with Christmas spirit.  And it’s only November!

Our verdict? Splash out and go for the Signature menu.  The choices are more varied and the dishes are really special.  Christmas menus are available now.  Click here to have a look at the menus.

Thank you to lovely Prezzo for inviting us xx

Why Christmas lights are for life, not just for December

I’m a HUGE Christmas fan – I love everything about it. Storage space is the only boundary that stops my Christmas hoarding going completely out of control, otherwise I’d have cupboards full of special Christmas plates, cups, serving dishes, tablecloths, napkins, candle holders, you name it. My biggest, love though, my dearest amour, are Christmas lights: twinkly, glowy sparkly little beacons of happiness. They’re always the first thing to go up in our house – reams of them strewn across the windowsills and draped across the kitchen, and they’re always the last thing to come down. And oh, how empty and sad the house looks without all my lovely stars.

Recently, though, on Pinterest and other places, I’ve noticed that people use Christmas lights all year round. Take my newest obsession, a beautiful blog called Posie Gets Cozy. This lady has the most beautiful taste, is incredibly creative and clever and takes the most amazing photographs too. This is a room created for her gorgeous little girl:

Image from Posie Gets Cozy via Pinterest http://pinterest.com/pin/248331366925500161/

See? Christmas lights! And not a snowman or a piece of tinsel in sight. That’s it, then, I’m going here to buy some Christmas lights right away, and if an enormous outdoor fairy light reindeer should accidentally fall into my online basket, well, that’s just too bad.

 

Asda’s Christmas in July: what to look out for this Christmas (but hands off the crumpets, they’re all mine)

Crumpets

Christmas tree crumpets and waffle stars

It’s often pointed out to me that I get up to some pretty weird stuff, which is true, but it’s generally for good reason.  In this vein, there’s nothing quite as weird as Asda’s Christmas in July event which I pootled along to yesterday at the beautiful Vinopolis, just by Borough Market.

Asda had decked the whole place out with decorations, fake snow and twinkly lights, and it really did look rather beautiful.  Of course, the big supermarkets have to showcase their stuff early due to magazine publication deadlines, but it also provides nosy people like me the opportunity to pop along and have a look at what’s going to be on the supermarket shelves coming up to Christmas 2013.

Asda have impressed again this year with some top ideas, especially in their Extra Special and Butcher’s Selection ranges.  On the fish counter, I chatted to Jill Skipsey, Asda’s fish counter buyer.  Whole salmons are one of the stars of the Christmas fish selection.  If you’re feeling brave, you can take it home as is, or the in-store fishmongers will fillet it for you.  I also tried some delicious little new starters: Extra Special hot smoked salmon with beetroot and horseradish was particularly delicious.  They’re served in little clear pots, ready to pop straight onto the table.  Also in this range of pots is Extra Special Potted Crab, and another one with smoked salmon.  So easy when you’re busy faffing around with the Christmas dinner.

Talking of Christmas dinner, one of the most important purchases you’ll make is the turkey.  This year, Asda have pushed the boat out with not one but two new free range offerings, one a heritage breed called Slate, which is ready for you to prepare yourself, and the other is already stuffed and layered with British Cherrywood-smoked bacon. They’re also introducing colour coding so you can choose the right size bird for your needs.

As usual, my buddy ‘Asda Jim’ (Head of Meat Quality, Jim Viggars) has made sure that the beef, lamb (yes, it’s not just for Easter – there’s a delicious boned stuffed shoulder on offer with a Christmassy apricot stuffing) and pork on offer is top drawer.  There is a lovely 28 day matured beef rolled sirloin with mushroom stuffing, and a really interesting outdoor bred porchetta belly joint, stuffed with garlic, rosemary and thyme with lovely skin for crispy crackling.

I was really impressed with the amount of outdoor bred, outdoor reared and free range offerings generally, including in the pork pies and sausage rolls in the chilled party section.

Onto puds, then.  Some special ones to look out for are the spectacular Chosen By You frozen chocolate and Coitreau bombe, a beautiful, glossy dome filled with Cointreau soaked sponge layered with orange liqueur chocolate cream.  It looked amazing.  I also liked the look of the enormous profiterole gateaux: chocolate sponge and whipped cream topped with chocolate covered fresh cream profiteroles.  There are also some lovely individual serving boozy jellies that look beautiful.

Starting to feel slightly full, I moved onto the cheese section.  I was rather wowed by a delicious Extra Special oak smoked Wensleydale, a scrummy nutty, sweet Comté and of course, creamy tangy Stilton.  Asda have also introduced a really good cheese board with Extra Special cheeses: Wookey Hole, Manchego, Bleu d’Auvergne and Cornish Camembert (which I tried and is seriously good).  Great for a pressie, it also contains Extra Special quince jelly.  I think it was around £10 – what a great pressie to take to someone’s house this Christmas (hint hint, relatives…).

For sweeties and stocking fillers, look out for giant candy canes, gingerbread men and jazzies, rocky road snowmen on sticks and a seriously cute Santa beard lolly.

The wines are particularly good this year (the champers has won awards by the bucketload and is under £20) but I’m going to give them a proper test later on in the year and report back to you with full reviews.

And then, stuffed with cheese, mince pies and candy canes, I popped my sunglasses on and wandered back into the sunshine.

Bonkers.

 

Asda Christmas

The yearly thank you card debacle

Thank you cardI’m not a harsh parent, I don’t think (well, English Dad is always telling me I’m too soft), but I do like my children to be polite.  They’re really lucky in that they have a pretty large (and slightly fragmented) family, so they get pressies from all over the place, and even if it’s just a tenner in a card, I do like them to say thanks.

Trouble is, we get later and later, and it causes more and more hassle and nagging (on my part) and annoyance (on theirs) every year.  My nephew and niece, lovely Turtle and Jackson, are a pretty good alarm system for thank you cards.  When theirs drop through the letterbox, regular as clockwork, in about mid-January, it’s my signal to go hell for leather at the ‘HAVE YOU DONE YOUR THANK YOUS YET?’ reminders, generally yelled from the bottom of the stairs in the direction of closed bedroom doors.  And so it goes on.

Them: ‘Lucky I spent my HMV vouchers before they went bust…’

Me: ’That reminds me, have you sent your thank you cards yet’

Them: ‘Sigh, I’ll do them tomorrow…’

or…

Them: ‘This is the t-shirt I got for Christmas’

Me: ‘That reminds me, have you sent your thank you cards yet?’

Them: ‘Sigh, yeah I’ll do them later..’

Frankly, it makes us all a bit stabby.

This year, we’ve negotiated a few ‘modern’ changes, including:

  • If they’re friends with the present giver on Facebook, they can say thank you via Facebook message.  
  • If the person who gave them a present has children for whom we buy presents and that don’t send a thank you, then they’re let off with the verbal thank you (the ‘they don’t thank us so why should we thank them?’ rule).
  • If they opened the present in front of the person and said thank you PROPERLY, then we’ll accept that as enough.
  • With Grandparents and those of the non-electronic variety, it HAS to be a thank you card. It must be written nicely, it must acknowledge what the present was, and it must be done, preferably, before about June.

Sigh.

Am I being old fashioned?  Is the time of the thank you card gone, along with letter writing and licking stamps?

Anyone got any tips or opinions on the matter?

A 2012 roundup – with no resolutions, but a few lessons learned and some good intentions.

Me and Flo

Meeting Flo from Cars at Disney’s Art of Animation resort, Florida.

So how was your Christmas?  Mine was, well, interesting.  A rather over-exuberant Christmas eve, during which we stayed up singing, dancing and drinking until 2am made for a hideously hungover Christmas morning, in which I kept having to abandon my turkey duties to revisit my breakfast (thank goodness for my Mum).  Still, self to blame, and I felt better by the time dinner was on the table.  I got some lovely pressies: loads of scented candles, my favourite Redken shampoo and conditioner, books, DVDs, CDs (ONE DIRECTION, oh yes I did), and a pasta machine from my Mum. I feel really blessed.

So this time last year I was talking about how 2012 was going to be about building memories… snapshots, and not stuff… and I think I managed it.  Oh, there was stuff as well, there’s no doubt, but my year was full of amazing experiences.. plenty of snapshots to add to my collection:

January was the month I gave up booze and took up healthy eating. For a whole month. Never again.  In February, I got together with my wonderful friends for Bloggers on Tour: the West Yorkshire leg, and visited Yeo Valley’s wonderful Holt Farm too.  In March, we were lucky enough to attend the opening of the new Legoland Hotel and meet one of our heroes, Tim Minchin, who turned out to be even lovelier and funnier in person.  I also attended the very glam Tesco Mum of the Year Awards along with several of my friends.  A fabulous day.

In April, the Death Wish Dude and I spent the weekend in Paris, celebrating the 20th Anniversary of Disneyland, and hobnobbing with the likes of, well, Mickey, obviously… and in May I jetted off to both Tenerife, where we joined in with the May festivities and were gobsmacked by the firework wars AND Florida, where my friend Laura and I toured Clearwater, St Pete’s and Florida’s gorgeous space coast, as well as visiting Universal Studios and drinking butter beer at The Wizarding World of Harry Potter.

In June, we celebrated the Jubilee in grand style, and in July I looked after my Dad’s gorgeous garden (and made some lovely raspberry sorbet too).  I grew sweet peas and filled the house with scented blooms. I’ll definitely be doing it again next year.  In August we went Olympic and Paralympic mad – we stayed up until silly o’clock waiting for the Paralympic flame to come through our town, and we cheered on our amazing athletes at the Olympic Stadium.  Amazing memories.  English Mum also turned six.

In September, we got a visit from my cousin Moon (and helped him smuggle sausages through customs), and the Mad Professor started sixth form over again.  October saw us visit Guernsey and beautiful Herm Island, and in November we spent a lovely week in Gran Canaria.  I also had laser eye treatment, something that’s changed my life forever.  Finally in December I was back in Florida for the launch of Walt Disney World’s New Fantasyland… an experience I’ll never forget (more of this very soon) and my little kickboxing Death Wish Dude passed his grading and got his orange belt.

I’ve learned a lot this year too (proving that you’re never too old).  I’ve learned that some people – people that you might have known and looked up to your whole life – are actually not worth looking up to.  This was a shock.  But hey – people should EARN respect, right?

I’ve continued to believe that you should really try not to judge other people.  I’m often saying to the boys that there are maybe things going on behind the scenes that you don’t know about, but hey, even if it’s just as simple as people doing things differently to you, that’s fine.  This goes both ways, what you do is YOUR business.  Do what YOU feel right doing, and don’t listen to anyone else if you don’t want to.

I’ve also learned that it feels fabulous to pay it forward.  I’ve learned that my friends, my true friends, are always there for me (you know who you are) and I’ve learned that all relationships take a bit of effort.

The nicest things this year have been really small, but very important: someone saying ‘thanks so much for that recipe’, or ‘your children are a credit to you’, so I’m definitely going to be going out of my way to give credit where it’s due in 2013.

DD & A

So that’s it, then.  No resolutions, but  in 2013, I’ll be having fun, paying compliments, adding to those precious snapshots and looking up to people who deserve it – like, for example, my wonderful Disreputable Dad who is perpetually kind, funny, a wonderful Grandad, and a tiny bit naughty, who got engaged on Christmas Day.  *cough BRIDESMAID cough*. Congratulations Dad and my soon to be stepmum (she hates that, sorry)! xx

 

 

English Mum’s guide to Christmas dinner: turkey, tips, terrific stuffing, timings and other things not beginning with t.

Cake - sparklyThe thing about Christmas dinner is that the thought of it is worse than the actual event.

Just think of it as Sunday lunch but on a slightly larger scale – a turkey is very forgiving and will happily rest for a good hour (and probably more), covered in foil and a tea towel or two, so there’s no need to rush anything.  My one recommendation is that you take ten minutes to scribble a rough timetable somewhere (work backwards from the time you want to dish up), so that when you’re a bit sozzled, you can easily refer back to your timings.  Remember if you’re steaming a Christmas pudding as well you’ll need to time that (but they microwave incredibly well too).

And look, I love Nigella, but will I be brining my turkey in about fifteen quid’s worth of citrus fruits, various herbs, spices and maple syrupy water?  Nope.  It’s waaaay too much effort, and cost. I’ll be preparing as much as I can in advance so that I can have a couple of glasses of champers and enjoy a gentle potter in the kitchen on the big day.

As for prep, here are my top tips:

Sprouts: yumPrepare in advance

Get as much as possible done 1 or 2 days in advance.

  • Peel the potatoes, cut them into even sizes and boil for as long as you dare (the softer they are the fluffier the centre will be when you roast them).  Then just drain, leave to sit until cool and then open freeze 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 frozen.
  • With the veg, just peel and prepare all your carrots/sprouts/whatever and bung them in plastic bags.  Don’t freeze them as this will make them a bit soggy, but store them sealed in the fridge until you’re ready, then just pop straight into the boiling water (or steam) on the day.
  • If you like, you can boil your sprouts until just tender, then cool them before popping them in a plastic bag in the fridge.  Then on the day you can just fry some pancetta or 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.

Free range Kelly Bronze turkeyFor the turkey

Again, do this the day before.  Don’t wally about washing it in the sink – the hot oven will kill any germs and you’ll just succeed in covering 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.

Add a few extras:

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.

To stuff or not to stuff?:

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.

Weighing and preparing:

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.  Mine’s going in a plastic box in the garage as it’s nice and cold in there, but if we have a sudden warm snap (heh, yeah right), I’ll pack some ice round it (it needs to be less than 4 degrees).

On the day:

I take my turkey out and let it come to room temp on Christmas morning.  No point in putting a very cold turkey into a hot oven – it’ll take ten minutes to even start cooking.  Then 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.)

Timings:

If you’ve gone for a free range turkey it will often look a bit less plump than those ones you see being plonked on the table in all the Christmas adverts (check out the pic of my turkey from last year, above).  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

Remove the foil for the last 40 or so minutes to brown the top

Do bear in mind that a free range bronze turkey will often take less time to cook.  Double check with your supplier.  Once your turkey is done (you can 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, so a joint this size should take three hours and 40 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.

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 and make sure the fat is very hot before you add your frozen 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).

For great 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).

Bringing it all together

And 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 cook out before adding plenty of stock (you can never have enough gravy).

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).  I also serve roast parsnips with honey or maple syrup, oh and peas for the fussy bugger who only likes peas *sigh*.

If you want 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 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.  Have a wonderful, wonderful Christmas. Mwah xx

Give us a kiss!

 

‘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?’

 

Merry Kitschmas: a top ten of Christmas cookery books

Christmas cookbooksI have a lovely friend, Helen, who I’ve known (electronically) for years and who writes the fabulous website The Foodie Gift Hunter.  She is THE go-to person for gift ideas and, frankly, if you like food it’s a great read even if you’re not searching for a gift.  We both share a penchant for the ridiculous, the kitsch and the corny, plus we also share a love of cook books.  This year, we challenged each other to a little Christmas cook book-off, if you will.  A kind of ‘I’ll show you mine if you show me yours’ of our Christmas cookbook selections.

So without further ado, pop pickers… (and in the style of ‘Fluff’ Freeman), here are my top ten Christmas cookbooks:

A Simply Delicious Christmas by Darina Allen.  Published in the late 80s, I love it not just because its Irishness reminds me of my years spent living in Cavan, but because the original owner of my copy marked her favourite recipes with Novena cards (they’re like little Catholic prayer cards).

Elizabeth David’s Christmas. I have quite a few of Elizabeth David’s books.  Like Rick Stein, I love her writing for the elements of travel (and wisdom) as well as her recipes.  This Christmas compilation by Jill Norman is wonderful.  I love the eccentricity of it all (goose giblet stew, anyone?) but there are some Christmas classics in there too.

the cnristmas cookbook (I love that Amazon have spelled it incorrectly) - by Nanette Newman. Another 80s classic here.  Nanette Newman is so full of warmth – the perfect family Christmas positively oozes from these pages.  This is also a great one to refer to for some lovely oldy fashionedy recipes if you’re going a bit retro at your party: chicken with avocado and grapes, for instance, and an AMAZING cheesecake recipe called Eli’s Cheesecake, which I make throughout the year, not just at Christmas.

Not strictly a Christmas book, but Cooking With Mickey and the Disney Chefs by Pam Brandon gets my vote.  As you know, I’m a bit of a Disney nutcase, and I was lucky enough to have dinner with Pam Brandon at Walt Disney World on a press trip.  I nearly spontaneously combusted when she introduced herself. She writes the Disney Food Blog as well, which is a thing of beauty.  This book contains THE BEST Eggs Benedict recipe I’ve ever tried, perfect for Christmas morning.

Peterson’s Holiday Helper: Festive Pick-me-ups, Calm-me-downs, and Handy Hints to Keep You in Good Spirits by Valerie Peterson is a great fun book which comes out every Christmas at English Towers. It contains great recipes, hilarious tips and great cocktails and is a total giggle to read. Everyone should have one.

Scandinavian Christmas is a new one this year.  Trine Hahnemann’s delightful book contains scrummy Skandi recipes (including some great cookies to make with kids) and is a joy to read.  It would make a great present for any Christmas addict.

Possibly my favourite, just for the sheer joy I get from reading it is Christmas with Paula Deen: Recipes and Stories from My Favorite Holiday.  Completely bonkers and full of her more mental recipe suggestions,   including ‘The Best Damn Blueberry Muffin You’ll Ever Eat’ – you’ll need to stock up on massive amounts of cream cheese and sticks of buddderrrr, and may die of a coronary afterwards, but God you’d die happy.  Merry Christmas Y’all!

The original and best, Merry Kitschmas: The Ultimate Holiday Handbook by Michael D Conway is the book that started my love of Christmas books.  Here’s my original post on the subject.  I still love it, and try to recreate those AMAZING candy cane cocktails every year.

Christmas would not be Christmas without Martha Stewart telling you how to hand make a personalised gift tag made out of gingerbread.  I have several Martha Stewart Christmas books (I know, right?), but Christmas With Martha Stewart Living is still my favourite. It doesn’t matter that I sit and flick through it whilst drinking a cocktail and eating my way through a box of Celebrations – in my head I’m at my sewing machine, painstakingly making presents for each of my loved ones.

Lastly, but certainly not leastly, is the wondrous Nigella.  This one comes out every year too – her Chocolate Christmas cake has been made many times, and hey, who cares if you need 8 eggs and several hundredweight of specialist items to create the dishes.  It’s Christmas.  No cook should be without Nigella Christmas: Food, Family, Friends, Festivities.

And that’s it.  Around the Christmas tree in my ten favourite books.  Do tell me yours!

Oh and by the way, this post contains affiliate links, which means that if 100,000 of you buy a book via the links, I’ll get about 2p.  Thanks!

English Mum’s Christmas Wine List (according to Knackered Mother) 2012

Christmas wine (image via Sunsetlily on Flickr)

I’m so lucky to have fabulous friends.  I know, I know, lots of people have friends, but not too many people have friends who are wine experts.  I know, right? Still, it comes with its downsides – she makes me spend hundreds on wine y’know.

It’s been a busy year for the gorgeous Helen, who was not only voted Blogger of the Year at the International Wine & Spirit Competitionbut HAS A BOOK OUT THIS YEAR! The Knackered Mother’s Wine Club: Everything you ever needed to know about wine – and much, much more.  And if that’s not enough she also won Red Magazine’s Hot Women Award in the blogger category. PHEW!

Luckily for me, she is vey vey lovely, and has decided that she’s still not too famous to write her lovely annual Christmas wine guide for English Mum.

Over the last few years, I’ve written about the ideal wines to go with traditional Christmas feasts for my mate, the very fabulous English Mum. We’ve done the classic route – Champagne, Chablis, Claret and Port.   And we’ve done the not-so-classic route – Prosecco, Maconnais, New Zealand Pinot Noir and Sauternes.  Then last year, we did more of a food-and-wine-matching thing.  All useful stuff, hopefully.  But what we haven’t done is How Wine Can Save Your Life.  In other words, what wines you can buy as perfect last-minute presents that make you look like a) you know what you are talking about and b) show you really care…

The Husband
So, you could go for classic Bordeaux, but this in fact gives the game away.  You’ve thrown money at it in the hope that you’ll blind him with expensive wine.  There’s a better way: Rhone red.  Something from the Rhone, made with the Syrah grape, delivers power and knowledge and love in a glass.  Now that’s a present.  Go for Hermitage (about £20), or for a slightly cheaper option, Crozes-Hermitage (about £10).

The Mother-in-Law
This is where a bottle of Bailey’s isn’t going to cut it.  (Quick fact: I know the man whose dad invented Bailey’s.  Imagine that! What a legacy).  No, Bailey’s will betray the fact that you really didn’t know what else to buy them.  What you need here is sparkles, possibly pink.  So, either a bottle of Rose Champagne or – more fun but similar in price, about £20 – a bottle of Prosecco and a bottle of Campari.  Then you can bond over Dirty Prosecco (just add a splash of Campari to a glass of Prosecco and marvel at the colour and taste).

The Favourite Auntie
My sister – known to my children as Auntie Alex, obviously – is, according to them, the funniest person they know.  And she’ll be even funnier after a few lugs on what is quite possibly the most delicious sloe gin I’ve tasted this year: Sipsmith’s Sloe Gin (£23, Waitrose). Not only does it taste quite delicious, it is also beautifully packaged. Says I love you like no other gin can.

So, hope that helps and here’s wishing you all a very merry Christmas.

KM x

You can find Helen’s blog, Knackered Mothers” Wine Club, just here

CHRISTMAS FOOD AND WINE

 

As usual Montezuma’s, my favourite chocolate brand, have brought all sorts of deliciousness out for Christmas this year.  I’m particularly taken by these milk chocolate Christmas tree baubles (so pretty, with gorgeous ribbons attached) and their fantastic advent calendars – nothing worse than hideous ‘plastic’ chocolate in your calendar – they look fabulous and festive too.  I’ll also be putting their chunky chocolate snowmen and chocolate snowballs on my list too.

halfwine.com specialises in half bottles of quality wines.  The bottles are 37.5cl which is about one large glass each.  A lovely idea for a gift, and also handy if you’re matching your wines with each course and want to prevent wastage.  the Wirra Wirra Church Block 2010 shown in the picture was absolutely delicious – soft, rich and fruity. It comes part of their winter collection which, at a cost of £35.65 for four bottles: the red, a decent sparkling white, a St Emilion and a good Chardonnay is cracking value.

Joe & Seph’s

Gourmet popcorn makers Joe & Seph’s have bought out two amazing flavours in time for the festive season:  the new mince pie flavour has pieces actually coated with mincemeat and contains brandy infused fruit, caramel and almonds.  The brandy butter flavour is coated in a rich butter and Spanish brandy – it is quite alcoholic tasting though, so one for the adults!  Both flavours are available in lovely gift jars as well as 70g packs.  Really scrummy.

The Kraken is a fabulous black spiced rum (RRP: £22.99) from the States that is now available in some UK supermarkets (I’ve seen it in Waitrose already and, frankly, makes Morgan’s Spiced look like a bit of a sissy girl.  Try it  in this fab cocktail called ‘The Perfect Storm’: 50ml Kraken Black Spiced Rum + 25ml freshly squeezed lime juice + 5ml sugar syrup + 2 dashes Angostura Bitters.  Top up with ginger beer.   Serve with ice in a tall glass and garnish with two squeezed lime wedges.   It comes in a lovely flagon bottle too. Yummers.

Godminster has joined up with famous wine merchants Yapp Brothers to produce this lovely ‘Classic Red’ gift box, containing a 200g Godminster Organic Cheddar, 200g Godminster Smoked Organic Cheddar, a lovely jar of  Godminster Beetroot and Apple Chutney, and a bottle of Yapp Brothers’ Cotes du Ventoux Rouge: Chateau Valcombe 2008, which is a delicious soft red.  Scrummy.  The Classic Red Gift Box is available from www.godminster.com for £40.00 inc postage and packing.

Bakerdays.com send delicious little ‘letterbox cakes’ just three or four portion sized that, as the name suggests, fit through the letterbox.  The cakes come in gorgeous little tins, with all sorts of personalisation, and I can definitely recommend the double chocolate chip cake which is dark, moist and deliciously chocolatey.

 

 Soreen’s Cinnamon and Raisin Loaf

We’re massive malt loaf fans already, but this one is utterly delicious. It’s very moist, as usual, but with extra ‘Christmas Puddingness’ thrown in!  Gorgeous toasted with a splodge of butter too. Nom.   Available from Asda, Tesco and Morrisons nationwide, retailing at RSP £1.29.

Soreen

In which I taste Asda’s Christmas wine selection (not all at once) *hic*

I am loving Asda’s Extra Special range again this year.  Last year, if you remember, I travelled to Leith’s to see (and taste) a little of the Extra Special Christmas range they’d developed in association with Asda, and this year, they sent me a few of their wines to try.  I don’t have an Asda near me, sadly, but I’ll be having a drive to stock up.  Here are my top picks:

Chardonnay La Maison Elyse £7.17 - don’t be put off because it says Chardonnay – hey, it’s what  makes Champagne, remember?  This isn’t oaky AT ALL and is deliciously creamy.  I ate it with salmon and pasta so I reckon it would be a winner with your smoked salmon starter.

Asda Extra Special Falanghina 2011 £5.00 - I cannot believe this wine is only a fiver… peachy, fruity and rich but still crisp, I LOVED it.  I’ve never had Falanghina before but will be seeking it out.  We had it with halloumi, rocket and pancetta wraps, but I it would be a delightful party wine, to be sipped with friends and nibbles.  Yum scrum.

Asda Extra Special Pinot Grigio 2011 £5.00 - I don’t usually buy Pinot, but we both thought this was delicious, so I’m kind of changing my mind now – light, crisp and appley, but not so acidic that you can’t drink it on its own. Which I did. All of it.

Asda Extra Special Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon 2011 £5.00 - gorgeously fruity, full of ripe berries and – I’m not very good at this, but – chocolate?  Raspberries?  Whatever, it’s delicious and if you come across it, stuff your trolley. You’ll thank me.

Wine Selection Cava Rosado £3.78 – A beautifully soft, crisp and fruity rosé sparkler that’s bursting with lovely strawberry flavours – perfect for all festive celebrations and SUCH a bargain!  I’ll be drinking this on Christmas morning and I’m not even sorry.

Thank you to the lovely team at Asda for sending me the wines. I love you all xx

CHRISTMAS SMELLIES AND GIFTS


This is Nessie thank you cardThank you cards from This is Nessie

Nessie Maclay has a scrummy website with all her lovely designs on really nice quality cards.  My favourites are the personalised Christmas ‘thank you’ cards.  They cost £7.50 per pack of ten and there is plenty of room to write on the front of the cards and the reverse is blank so there is loads of space for your tiddlers (or bigguns) to write or draw pictures. Gorgeous.  I’m also tempted by the personalised correspondence cards at £60 for 100.

Have a Gander's baubles reindeer tea towelLovely Fiona at  ’Have a Gander’  designs tea towels and cards and has two adorable Christmas designs out at the moment.  They are 100% cotton, hand-drawn in Kent and printed in England.   Have a gander (see what I did there?) at their products online at www.haveagander.biz

Persil Warm SpiceNot a gift, but rush out and buy Persil’s Warm Spice washing up liquid – it has the gorgeous Christmassy scents of cinnamon, clove and a dash of warm orange.  If you’re stuck at the sink you might as well enjoy the smell!

Jardins D'Eden candleJardins D’Eden have created a gorgeous limited edition Christmas candle with sweet orange, cinnamon and clove oil and made with 100% natural wax and pure essential oils.  Delicious and with the added benefits of aromatherapy too.  They were really lovely and sent me one of these and the scent has been wafting through English Towers every evening making us feel really Christmassy!  While you’re there, check out their other products too – absolutely lush.

NYRMENFWASH_largeFor the man in your life, why not try the lovely Neals Yard grooming products from Big Green Smile.  My boys both adored this face wash which is fabulously good quality and smells gorgeous too.

 

For those readers who live in Australia there’s a big selection of Toys at Big W.  If you’re shopping for little ones why not avoid the mall altogether? 

A step by step Christmas cookie tree

Waitrose cookie tree kitA while ago Waitrose sent me a cute little gingerbread cookie Christmas tree kit.  I’ve done a similar thing before for the Britmums blog last year so I know it can be a bit fiddly, and I kept putting it off.  Then last night the oldest decided to have a few mates round so I thought I’d crack out the gingerbread as a surprise.

Well as usual it all went a bit Pete Tong as I went upstairs quickly to do something and didn’t hear the oven timer.  The festive chiming of the smoke alarm reminded me that they were still in the oven and I came down to find my little gingerbread stars a bit charred, so I’m afraid I can’t tell you how they tasted!

No matter.  I started again with my own easy shortbread recipe, the old faithful 2/4/6:

2oz/50g caster sugar (I use vanilla sugar)

4oz/100g butter

6oz/150g plain flour

Just melt the butter then mix in the sugar and flour to make a dough.  Wrap in clingfilm and rest for a little while somewhere cool, then roll out.

The kit gives you a cardboard template for different sized stars (you need two of each size) but I’ve got cutters, which are slightly easier.  The stars take literally 10 minutes to bake once you’ve cut them out.  Keep checking on them because – ahem – they burn quite easily.

Next, make up some glacé icing (or the kit contains white fondant icing).  I made mine lime green with some food colouring paste in ‘lemon/lime’.  Ice each star and leave to set.  Then just decorate with more icing and little silver balls and copious amounts of glitter (it IS Christmas), then just stack ‘em up, rotating each biscuit slightly to get your tree shape.

Ours was a bit wonky (‘the leaning tower of tree-sa’, if you will) but hey, it only lasted about two minutes, so no matter.

Do give it a go, it’s terrific fun and would make a wonderful Christmas tradition to recreate year after year (oh and if you do give it a try, do send me a photo!).

 

My top ten ‘don’t panic’ tips for Christmas dinner

Christmas-countdownSo it’s just ten sleeps until the big day, and if you’re starting to have anxiety dreams about being chased naked down the street by a giant turkey (or is that just me?) I’ve got some top tips to help you keep calm and enjoy your Christmas day.  I mean, just because you’re cooking the dinner, it doesn’t mean that your Christmas day should descend into a big sweaty panic attack:

  1. MOST IMPORTANTLY – here is your mantra.  Repeat it to yourself between sips of alcohol if necessary, thoughout the day:  IT’S JUST A BIG ROAST DINNER.
  2. Don’t give yourself extra hassle with a complicated starter.  Either just don’t bother, or make it something really simple like smoked salmon.  You’ll all be stuffed by the end anyway.
  3. Do your preparation early.  Carrots, sprouts, etc can all be prepped and placed into plastic bags in the fridge, ready to be popped into boiling water or steamed on the big day.
  4. In fact, you can actually cook the sprouts until tender, then cool them ready to stir fry in butter with pancetta or streaky bacon on the day.
  5. Do work out roughly how long everything is going to take to cook, then sketch out a brief timetable.  You’ll be happy to be able to refer back to it after a few glasses of fizz.
  6. Don’t rinse the turkey in the sink.  All it does is splatter germs around your kitchen.  The oven temperature will take care of any nasties (oh, but DO remember to take the giblets out!).
  7. Use a big disposable foil tray for the turkey. Nobody wants to spend all afternoon washing up while everyone else is having fun. If you’re feeling environmental guilt, make sure you recycle the foil afterwards.
  8. Christmas pudding doesn’t have to be steamed on the day.   As long as it was cooked thoroughly (ie steamed for the time given on your pud recipe), it can just be microwaved on the day as you’re only reheating.  Nobody will ever know – just sing carols loud enough to muffle the ping.
  9. Don’t worry if your timings aren’t perfect or if you forget something.  A turkey covered in foil with a couple of tea towels on top will rest happily and stay hot for a good hour.  In fact, it will benefit from it.
  10. And lastly, if in doubt, cheat!  There’s no shame in buying ready made bits and bobs to give yourself a helping hand in the kitchen.