Hang A Shining Star…

What do you believe in?IMG_8622I believe in raincoats and woolly jumpers.

IMG_8629I believe in getting things done quickly because there are seventeen loads of laundry to be done after this tree is decorated.

IMG_8641 I believe in putting the glass ornaments near the top.

IMG_8638 I believe in little helpers.

IMG_8625 and big helpers.

IMG_8645

 

I believe in real trees and coloured fairy lights.IMG_8653

I believe in rasher sandwiches. I’m not sure why but they have become associated with the smell of pine. IMG_8649

I believe in Frank.IMG_8657

I believe in little Robins telling Santa who should be on the good list.IMG_8661

and angelsIMG_8660

and Santy.IMG_8651IMG_8667IMG_8669IMG_8670IMG_8671IMG_8672IMG_8673IMG_8663I believe.

 

Tidings Of Comfort And Joy.

IMG_8578Met Eireann have issued another weather-warning for the weekend. I have plans to baton down the hatches and immerse myself in mitten-knitting.IMG_8460All is calm today so I took my chance to soak up more sunshine, dilute as it is, while I still could.

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The birds were twittering in the most cheerful fashion.

IMG_8022I saw a Young Scientist project last year that fascinated me.

IMG_8203 Students analysed the correlation between the traditional music of an area and the song of native birds in that region.

IMG_8215They did some hard sums and demonstrated a common thread between the music of countries lying along the migratory paths of various birds (read more here).

IMG_8448It would seem that  the birds taught us to sing.

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I’ve been doing my nut trying to get decent shots of these little birds.IMG_8570They just don’t stop fluttering around for even a second.

IMG_8580I have dozens of photos of empty branches.

IMG_8556Some are more camera-shy than others.

IMG_8558Or,  are clearly toying with me.

IMG_8557Who’s a pretty boy, then?

Mr. Drake here lifted his head and gave me a look that said, ‘Excuse me, we are trying to get some sleep here’.IMG_8574

And then went back to sleep. Cute couple, huh?IMG_8573

It’s amazing to me how much more you notice when you carry a camera in your pocket.IMG_8566

I’ve spotted a crab apple tree, mental note for next year’s jelly.IMG_8561

And look!IMG_8592

Are these teasel? I think they are. I have grown some from seed this autumn but they are still only a few inches high. I’ve been like an excited child  watching the goldfinches on the Verbena this year and I’ve read that teasel is equally magnetic to small birds.

What do you think? Spray them gold? Silver? Fake snow?

For now they are looking very dramatic on the hall table. IMG_8599

Notice the photos of my family posing with a dozen strange men. IMG_8602

That’s Husband on the left;IMG_8603might go some way to explaining his aversion to coloured jeans.

This is my Small Girl heading out, on her Daddy’s arm, for her first night on the town. Never, in the history of theatre, has any person, big or small, enjoyed a performance quite as much as this girl enjoyed  Beauty And The Beast at the Cork Opera House.  She cheered and boo-ed and bellowed, ‘He’s behind you!‘ as if her little life depended on it. She made me cry from pure joy and at the end she turned to Husband and said, ‘they were real humans Daddy, wasn’t that amazing?’.IMG_8541

Joy. Pure, pure joy.

Wishing a sprinkling of that joy to you this weekend.

 

A Solstice Cake.

Some days are so dark and miserable there is nothing you can do but find a warm place and wait it out.IMG_8413

I want to tell you about the perfect cake for dark days.

This is more than a cake. In fact, it’s hardly a cake at all. It’s dark, almost threatening, in appearance and deeply satisfying, almost bitter, in the eating. The cake hits those tastebuds right at the back of your cheeks while the snowy icing is in perfect contrast.

The cake in question is Nigella Lawson’s Gingerbread Cake from The Domestic Goddess. There is a version of it, with American measurements, here.

I believe that I have tweaked the recipe just enough to merit giving you my version of it. I dare to believe that I have improved the work of the Goddess (it was a fluke, I didn’t have syrup or lemons or unsalted butter and I was just too lazy to blend the bicarb, my way works).

Line a roasting tray (30 x 20 cm). Preheat oven to 170 ºC.

Melt 150g butter (salted works fine for me), 125g dark muscavado sugar, 200g honey (Nigella uses golden syrup), 200g black treacle, an inch of finely grated fresh ginger, a teaspoon of cinnamon and a teaspoon of mixed spice all together in a saucepan.IMG_8347

Look at that.IMG_8349

How often can you see your reflection in a cake batter? This stuff has magical powers, I tell you.

Sieve 300g plain flour and a heaped teaspoon of bicarbonate of soda into a mixing bowl.

Mix 250mls of milk and 2 eggs in a jug.

Add everything to the mixing bowl and stir it up.IMG_8350

The bicarbonate of soda starts to work immediately making the mixture look almost alive. IMG_8351

Scrape it into the tray and bake it for 45-55 minutes.

While that is cooling, mix 175g of icing sugar, the zest of 1 lime and enough lime juice to make a thick icing.IMG_8360

I used one and a half limes.IMG_8362

(Nigella uses lemon but I prefer the lime)

Cajole the gooey icing to the edges of the cake and then kill time while you wait for it to set. Inhale the warm ginger and fresh lime smells and know that something very good is just about to happen.IMG_8363

Fold some laundry.IMG_8366

Put guilt to one side. Put the kettle on. IMG_8368

It doesn’t look all that enticing, does it? Trust me. This is a cake for the darkest of days. A solstice cake. It seems spare, not overly indulgent, but it reminds you that there are good things in the world.IMG_8374

This is a cake to make you feel grateful.

I went to bed, after eating a tranche of this cake, to the sound of torrential rain pelting the Velux windows. It sounded as if God was making popcorn.

I opened my eyes in the dark wee hours and took a minute or two to figure out what woke me up. The quiet. Absolute quiet.

IMG_8450This morning, the son shone (briefly).

IMG_8485I grabbed the astonished dog and made a break for it.

IMG_8486Such relief.

IMG_8488Light.

IMG_8520Light and dark.

IMG_8489Mud.

IMG_8534Heron.

IMG_8477Hips.

IMG_8509Holly.

IMG_8532Ivy.

IMG_8504Little Robin Redbreast.

December and I may be friends after all.

 

I’m tagging along with Emma’s blog hop on Silverpebble. If your days need brightening this is the place to go.

Below is the linky thingy for joining in.

 

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The Kitchen Table.

The world is looking pretty bleak from where I sit.IMG_8435

I listened to the news this morning as I mopped up porridge and spilled milk. The first headline reported families, not far from here, being rescued from their flooded homes by the Civil Defence. That put a few gripes of mine into perspective.IMG_8430

The second report was of children drowned. More children drowned. There is no perspective from which that can be accepted.

I lit a candle. I know; that’s no help to anyone but me.

I sat at the kitchen table and began another pair of mittens.IMG_8415

My Goodness, these mittens are addictive.IMG_8416

This is the third pair. IMG_8417

They take just enough concentration to still the wittering in my head. And, oh, that dusky pink is so relaxing it should be on prescription.

Small Girl came home from playschool and took her place beside me. We passed a quiet hour knitting and colouring-in and talking. She asked what a halo is and I was stumped. What exactly is a halo?IMG_8414

The teenagers stopped by to report on Christmas tests and make toast.

Santa letters were finalised.IMG_8346

Middle Girl wanted to make a Venetian mask for a school project.

Small Girl wanted to make one too, naturally.

Out came the cereal boxes and lollipop sticks and feathers and paint and brushes and glitter and little shiny hearts.IMG_8421

They glued and glittered merrily and even shared (!) the feathers.IMG_8424

Their works of art are drying while I write this.IMG_8425

In a minute I will go back out there and cook a fairly healthy, reasonably tasty dinner. I’ll call, ‘Dinner’s ready’ and no-one will come because they are watching The Jungle Book in the front room.

Then, I will shout, ‘DINNER!!!’, in the voice that means business, and they will slope in and take their seats. They will talk over each other and interrupt and tease, one will doubtless swing back on his chair and another will probably spill her drink.

Just tonight, I won’t chastise them.

Well, I’ll try not to.

We are lucky people.

 

Mince Pies battle the dark side.

Right.

Got to keep on plodding onwards.

Get back on my little donkey and keep the mixed metaphor show on the road.

You could just give up at this time of year. You could climb under a duvet with a few packets of cream crackers and hibernate until March. There would be no earthly reason to get out of bed or leave the house if it wasn’t for Christmas.

I can’t say that I am planning for Christmas, or getting ready for Christmas or looking forward to Christmas. What I am doing is using Christmas. I am milking Christmas. I am inhaling from it as if it was a helium balloon that might give me a lift, a giggle, any kind of help to get through these dark, leaden days.IMG_8267

The girls get home from school and head straight for the Advent Calendar. IMG_8285

It has been a fixed bright spot in every day. IMG_8283

We’ve cheated a lot.IMG_8284

I’ve made hot chocolate many more times, and with far more indulgence, than the calendar dictated.IMG_8282

The first mince pies were slated for Saturday. They went down a storm (ka-boom). I used the mincemeat that I made here. The pastry recipe has been in my hand-written notes for as long as I can remember.IMG_8289

Wherever I see margerine in a recipe I substitute butter. Life’s too short for margerine. I don’t know who gave me this recipe but I use it every year, exclusively for mince pies, and it is really good:

8 oz plain flour
2 oz icing sugar
5 oz butter in cubes
Yolk of 1 egg
tablespoon of ice-cold water
1/2 teaspoon of lemon juice.

Sieve the flour and sugar together, singing White Christmas as you go.IMG_8291

Rub in the butter with your fingers until you have something that looks like breadcrumbs.IMG_8292

Mix the egg yolk and water and lemon juice together and then use this mixture to bring the pastry together.

 

Press the pastry into a disk shape, wrap in cling film and let it rest in the fridge until you are ready to make the mince pies.IMG_8293

Naturally, I didn’t take a single photo of the fun part; Use a cookie cutter to cut circles big enough to line a bun tray. I like to top mince pies with hearts or stars and let some of the mincemeat peep around the edges.

Bake at 180C until golden (20 minutes-ish).

Small Girl painted the tops with milk. Eggwash would have given a darker colour but I literally did not have the willpower to crack another egg!

This quantity made twelve mince pies plus a ginormous one which Middle Girl made for herself.IMG_8319IMG_8318

Don’t forget to dust with snow.IMG_8321

Add random embellishments as required to make you happy.IMG_8320

It’s the kitsch that make Christmas.

 

Vertigo.

Storm Desmond raked through my weekend and sucked the wind right out of me. The sky is leaden and I can’t quite inflate my lungs.

I took the dog out, planning to push through somehow, but the paths were slippy with mud so it turned into an anxious battle to avoid ending up on my arse in the black.

I can’t find anything to catch hold of.

 

 

A Christmas Scene.

Half of me loves this tradition of ours.IMG_8210

The other half needs tranquilising medication to get through it.IMG_8235

Teenage Son set up two amplifiers at either end of the kitchen so that we could have Wham’s Last Christmas in perfect stereo while we worked.IMG_8231

That was calming. It was!IMG_8236

No really, it was!IMG_8240

Small Girl waltzed around, waving her paint-loaded brush willy-nilly, dispensing custard creams to the needy.IMG_8239

I poured a myself a large glass of red.IMG_8241

Like all the best Christmas activities,

this one ended in tears, recriminations,IMG_8262

and me on my knees with a cleaning rag.IMG_8254

It was worth it.

 

Gusset, gusset, gusset.

We’ve had the official Grand Opening of the Advent Calendar.

Not a bad start, I thought.IMG_8199I didn’t think that I liked these but, guess what, I do. The dark ones are delicious.

Since last we met, I have had a momentous, I might even go so far as to say transformative, experience. I have learned how to knit in the round. Boy, oh boy, have I being missing out on the craic!

Granted, I was completely befuddled for the first half an hour but this kindly man on YouTube came to my rescue. Five minutes later, I had made my first round and was high as a kite. Honest to God; heart-thumping, head-spinning excited. There really is nothing as fun as learning something new.

I took this shot with my phone to record the moment.photo (4)

The excitement grew alongside the mitten. I sat there, half listening to Monty Don waxing lyrical about the history of the English Garden (the Victorians have alot to answer for) whilst clicking away merrily, flicking needles hither and thither and feeling like a pro. Woohoo!

Even the thumb gusset couldn’t put a dint in my joy. Seriously though, thumb gusset? That needs a new name. Thumb gusset is a phrase I would feel uncomfortable mentioning in polite company.

Thumb gusset.

Gusset. It’s one of those words that you can get through your whole life without ever saying out loud.

Gusset. You read it on packets of knickers in Marks and Spencer and think, ‘Oh yes indeed, I shall go for the cotton gusset at 2 euro extra because that seems like the right thing to do’. You never (Thank God) need to walk up to a counter and ask, ‘what kind of gussets have you got?’.

Anyway, I got past the gusset.

This is a picture of Pride:IMG_8194Small Girl was at home with a bad case of schoolitis so we spent the morning at the kitchen table.

Jigsaws and trifle for Small Girl, knitting and coffee for me. Candles glowing and fairylights twinkling.

This is a picture of Pride and Joy:IMG_8195

I finished them last night watching The Great Pottery Throwdown.

Look… two almost identical mittens!! The thumb is a bit short on one of them (but, observe the neatness of that thumb gusset). IMG_8207

These were supposed to be for Middle Girl to wear while she sings ‘a pair of mittens that were made by your mother‘ at the Christmas show. Unfortunately, I ignored (as I always do) one very important line right at the very start of the pattern. You know the one, in bold print, that tells you to CHECK YOUR GUAGE. Yep, that one. So, instead of mittens to fit a ten-year-old, I have made mittens to fit a four-year-old.

Luckily, I have a four-year-old to hand. And, even better, I have an excuse to begin another pair tonight.

Window Two of the Advent Calendar was opened this morning to many squeals of delight.

I used to love painting the kitchen window for Christmas but the kids have taken over.

I need to start the deep breathing now in preparation for the mess to come this afternoon. Wish me luck!

 

It feels like Christmas, doodle ooh.

Rehearsals have commenced for the National School Nativity Play and Middle Girl tells me that they will be singing It Feels Like Christmas for the finale.

I only had to think about this song  for approximately twenty seconds before welling up. I rarely make it through any school show without a sneaky tear escaping but this song, oh friends, this song will make a holy show of me.

Middle Girl is a good singer. She has a clean and pure voice that short-circuits straight from my ear to my tear ducts. She sang from the altar at her First Communion which resulted in a very shaky video-recording by her mother. Such are the exquisite trials of maternity.

Exquisite trials of maternity?? Blame Middlemarch. It’s rubbing off on me. Well, I’d like to think it is.IMG_8108

If not rubbing off, it is growing on me. This is the very slowest of slow-burners. To be fair, it’s really very good. Reading Middlemarch is like moving in to a new town where you don’t know a soul (and barely speak the language). At first (two hundred pages worth), no-one is going to tell you their gossip or reveal their secrets. Then, by tiny increments you get to know the characters and learn their stories. In exactly the way of small towns, the good stuff is all rumbling along beneath the polite humdrum. I’m hooked.

My progress is being severely hindered by the fact that every time I settle down to read I am distracted by the myriad other things I want/need/ought to be doing. Husband told me this morning that, when he looks into my eyes, he can see my brain spinning. It is! A veritable whirlwind of ideas spinning in my poor, tired head.

I have only three rows left to finish my Merino Wrap. Oooh, I think I stalled at that point because I’m concerned, after outlandish expenditure of money and time, that it won’t be wearable. Eeeeek.

I can’t wait to try knitting a pair of socks. Lucy from Attic24 has (AGAIN !!) infected me with her creative enthusiasm.

Before I can start the socks, it would make me happy if I could knit ‘a pair of mittens that were made by your mother’ (like in that song!) for the Middle Girl. There is just one obstacle; I don’t know how.

Spinning, spinning…..

There was one twinkly, sparkly idea that did get ticked off the list. Did you notice my Christmas banner up top? That was fun!IMG_8139

Be assured that I don’t leave that on my dresser for the entire Christmas. The sultanabun sign is back on my desk and my favourite mixing bowl is home again. The top shelf is, however, still pretty enough to make my heart tuck a little every time I walk into the kitchen.

Spinning…

Can you feel it? It’s here…it feels like Christmas.

 

The Christmas Cabbage.

The Newly-weds’ first Christmas is a mine-field. The dilemma is, not so much whether Bride or Groom will get to spend Christmas with their family as, which family is abandoned and left feeling disappointed.

When Husband and I faced this crisis my descisive (in my opinion) argument was that I simply could not have Christmas without red cabbage. Red cabbage was adopted as a Christmas tradition in our house at some point in the 1980s. I don’t know how or why. If you eat the same thing for two consecutive Christmases it automatically gets promoted to tradition.

In Husband’s home, longstanding tradition dictated an outlandish concoction known as bread sauce. Bread sauce involves some witchcraft of painstakingly studding onions with cloves, brewing said decorated onion in milk and thickening the clovey, oniony milk with breadcrumbs. In Cork, they call the resulting pale and mild mush a festive side dish.

Husband’s decisive (in his opinion) counter argument was that I could bring the red cabbage with me to his house. I did.

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That year, and many more years after, my contribution to the festive feast was a mighty casserole full of red cabbage. The dish circumnavigated the table and exactly one person helped herself to a massive portion. Everyone else politely declined, pleeding the need to save room for the delectable bread sauce. IMG_8125

We have our own family now, our own Christmas dinner and our own ever-growing list of traditions.

The Christmas Cabbage is less a tradition now than a point of dogged insistence. I like the stuff (she said defensively). The sweetness is a decent foil to salty ham and it matches turkey in just the same way that cranberry sauce does. It freezes perfectly, by which I mean that the thawed and reheated product is indistinguishable from the freshly made. Surely, the ideal food for Christmas day is something that you can make in late November!

If you’d like something with exact quantities, there is a Ballymaloe recipe here.

Expend a few calories halving, quartering and thinly slicing the cabbage. My gigantic specimen provided more than I could fit in my biggest pot,IMG_8127and I still had a quarter leftover (never fear, it makes great coleslaw).IMG_8128

I laughed out loud at this point. I was getting slightly hysterical at the prospect of eating all of this by myself. The dog was looking concerned, possibly by my hysteria or maybe by the thought that he would be encouraged to assist me in my endeavour.

I should urge you, a la Nigella, to consider a pair of plastic gloves.IMG_8126The purple tint is not to everyone’s taste.

Beyond the arduous, but satisfying, chopping it gets easy.

Add a roughly equal weight of chopped Bramley (cooking) apple, a cup of water, a splash of red wine (or Balsamic) vinegar, a hefty pinch of salt and a tablespoon of golden syrup. Cover and simmer gently for 30-40 minutes.

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You can see that the volume reduces dramatically. This came as a relief to both me and the dog.

Tempted? Surely you have better things to do on Christmas morning than onion-studding?