So it’s 1st December, which means I can finally start to mention Christmas without people throwing things (who am I kidding? I’ve been doing it for weeks already). I’m a complete Christmas-a-holic, and absolutely adore a Christmas advert too. I still cry EVERY TIME that single tear rolls down the face of the Man in the Moon, and every time Mog the Forgetful Cat accidentally ruins Christmas, I well up all over again.
The Christmas shopping has begun in earnest, so I was delighted to discover a gorgeous new website that’s going to be verrrry handy indeed. Join up and tell Lyst your favourite shops and brands, and you can see them all in one place. Once you’re logged in, you choose which brands and shops you want to follow, save items to buy later and even flag items so Lyst will let you know when they’re on sale – genius! There are items from designer brands like JBrand, Gucci and Michael Kors and retailers like Zara, Selfridges, Asos, Topshop, John Lewis and The Outnet. The lovely people at Lyst asked me to choose a few of my faves, so I’ve chosen carefully, just in case Mr E is reading…
IT’S NEARLY HERE! If you’re hosting Christmas lunch/dinner this year, here is everything you need to do, including lots of tips to make it stress free and ensure you spend your precious time with your family and friends, and not too much chained to the oven! Remember, don’t panic, and just think of it as a roast dinner on a slightly larger scale.
Before you start, grab a cuppa and have a read through:
Lovely Asda sent me a very festive hamper this weekend: not chocolates, or chutney, no, the best kind: MEAT!
Of course, not everyone wants to eat a traditional roast turkey at Christmas, and Asda’s Extra Special range has some stunning alternatives, including an Extra Special rack of venison, and a unique six bird roast, with British turkey, skinless duck fillet, chicken breast, wild pheasant, partridge and pigeon. The thought of these ‘bird within a bird’ roasts sometimes puts me off (how do you cut off the skin and inedible bits of each bird?) but Asda’s chefs have worked hard to create a dish with all the nice edible bits. It’s covered in a lattice of oak smoked streaky bacon and all you need to do is shove it in the oven. It serves 10 and costs £40 – in store now.
I couldn’t finish off my gift guides without giving a little nod to our furry friends. It’s been a bit sad at English Towers since little Ninja passed away. I miss being attacked on the stairs, and slowly but surely the random white hairs are appearing less and less on everything I iron. Soon I won’t be cursing as I pick them off every item of clothing – and what will I do then?
I think teenagers are some of the most difficult people to buy pressies for (difficult all round, but that’s for another day haha). Thinking creatively about their presents, aside from the never ending list of PS4/Xbox related things occupies quite a lot of my time before Christmas, so I thought I’d share a couple of lovely present ideas with you.
There’s something delightfully festive about a Harrods Hamper. Seeing as we’re all getting into the Christmas spirit here at English Towers, I was very excited when Harrods offered us the chance to try one out. We chose ‘The Sloane‘, and it arrived (you can track your order online, and it arrives within 3-5 working days) well protected and carefully packaged. The hamper, a glossy square dark brown cane basket with a faux leather embossed lid is huge – rather over huge, if I’m honest, for its contents, which I’d probably describe as all the ingredients for the poshest afternoon tea you’ve had in your entire existence.
I’m no wine expert, but we’re starting to know what we like and what we don’t. Here are a few things we’ve tried recently, plus a couple of recommendations for the festive season. Cheers!
Christmas is my busiest (and favourite) time of year. I’m never happier than when I’m pootling about in the kitchen, doing a bit of work, a bit of cooking, cup of tea on the go, fairy lights twinkling… And this is why I didn’t go with the boys to buy the tree.
So have you seen the Waitrose Christmas advert? We love the story of little Ellie, the reluctant baker, who ends up mastering the art of gingerbread baking for her school fete.
Waitrose have challenged me to get involved with their #bakeitforward campaign, to spread a little love and Christmas cheer to some people I really care about by baking them a special treat. I love decorating biscuits, it’s so Christmassy – so here are my cute little chocolate Christmas tree biscuits. This dough is perfect for cutting out shapes as it doesn’t spread in the oven – it’s really easy to make too.
So tomorrow (23rd November 2014) is stir up Sunday. If you’d like to cook a Christmas pudding this weekend – or if it’s any other date and you’re arriving here from the future, in which case HELLO FUTURE PEOPLE! – here’s my easy peasy step by step way to do it.
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!
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!
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
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:
Mix gently until it resembles breadcrumbs:
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) :
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.
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!!
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!
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