Wednesday, 30 November 2016

December - Advent and the start of Winter

Hello and welcome to December in all her gaudy glory!  Despite being buried in the middle of winter, December arrives like the brightest star promising festivity and colour to bring cheer to the darkest month of the year.
I love all the pretty magazines showing perfectly decorated homes with brightly lit and nicely co-ordinated Christmas trees.  My house looks like the bad taste fairy turned up and cursed us – and I wouldn’t have it any other way!  My treasure chest of assorted Christmas Tree Tat holds so many happy and precious memories; the sad looking pipe-cleaner fairy that saw better days more than twenty years ago and dates from when I was about 7 or 8 years old; the tatty tin foil poinsettia that came off a Christmas cracker in the mid-80’s that my Grandmother gave to me saying “here you are, you can put this on your tree”.  That was the last Christmas she saw and I’ve faithfully brought it out every year since, it always reminds me of her and never fails to make me smile.  There have been new ones added to the collection over the years, from various holidays we’ve had or to commemorate various events.  Holly pops has several of her own now too.

That’s the thing with Christmas, the past and present mingle as we make new memories and add new traditions to the ones we hold dear.   A current favourite at HH Towers is the Advent treat of a mid-afternoon cuppa and a mince pie, which gets upgraded to a slice of cake from Christmas Day onwards.  December is such a terribly civilised month, mid afternoon cups of tea and pretty bone china!  Last Christmas I treated myself to a Royal Albert Christmas cup, saucer and plate set, there is nothing like doing it in style!

December’s evening walks are a pure joy too, with the pretty twinkly lights brightening up the windows of the homes we pass along the way.  I love those walks most of all.

In the kitchen we're busy making the last of the goodies that will see us through to Christmas and then into the New Year.  This little housewife doesn't expect to have to lift a finger to do anything more than some foraging in the freezer, gentle re-heating or vague assembling of ingredients!  With enough forethought and careful shopping this is easily achieved and we get to have a holiday too.  The Christmas cake is being nurtured like a newborn, not quite four-hourly feeds but not far off it either!  It'll be marzipanned in the second week of the month and then iced and decorated a few days before Christmas.  Waiting to cut into that is always torture!

I can never forget the first ever Christmas cake I made, when I was aged 11 at school.  We'd carefully made our cakes and had to leave them at school to finish baking, our teacher was going to go back up later that evening to get them out (I know, what on earth was she thinking!) - she went home, fell asleep and they all burned.  We marzipanned and iced them, stuck little plastic figurines and fir trees in them - but they were burned beyond redemption.  I cried bitter tears over that cake - that was 41 years ago now, but I remember it vividly!

When I was younger (and far less wise) I used to polish and scrub the house to a sheen in the run-up to Christmas.  My kitchen floor always had a new mat too, for some obscure reason!  Those days are now long gone and I aim for a general sense of order and a good helping of Christmas cheer rather than surgical clean; a good dust and polish before the Bad Taste Fairy arrives and a lick and a polish until she comes back to restore order is plenty!

Christmas is a time to enjoy yourself, to be around the people you love and to do the things that make you happy.  Having a perfectly decorated home, enough food to feed advancing armies and enough drink to float entire navies are nice to have, but absolutely not essential and if they stress you out and take you away from spending time with your family - are they really worth doing?  Now I'm a bit older, life has beaten me around a bit and I'm a lot wiser I realise that the things that really matter at Christmas absolutely cannot be bought.  The things that matter most to me are the little routines and traditions that make me happy and remind me of happy times with people who are no longer here in body, but very much here in spirit.  All the diamonds in the world can't match the pleasure I get from digging out the old Christmas decorations and sitting down with a mince pie and a snowball while watching It's A Wonderful Life!

This year for Christmas, I wish you the most precious gift of all - happiness, peace and a lifetime of happy memories.

Monday, 14 November 2016

Sprouts and Bacon with Stilton

I came up with this lovely 'recipe' last Christmas as a way of using up the last of the Brussels sprouts and cooked ham. 

Using a tub of cheese sauce makes this a real convenience.  You could make it as a side dish to a roast dinner too - a sort of cauliflower cheese meets sprouts and bacon!  If you can find the purple sprouts as well as the green, this would make a real showstopper.

You could make the cheese sauce from scratch, or open a tub of supermarket cheese sauce - the Tesco Finest cheese sauce gets top marks from me.

Then simply slice the sprouts, chop the bacon or ham and combine with the cheese sauce, season to taste and fork in some crumbed Stilton before turning into a baking dish. Pop in a hot oven and cook until, bubbling.

Wednesday, 2 November 2016

November - Gunpowder, Treason and Plot

Remember, remember the fifth of November – gunpowder, treason and plot ....  So begins firework season.  Back in the day it was two or three days at the most, then it was a week – these days it stretches to three or four weeks meaning those of us with nervous pets spend early November under house arrest.  When I was little our neighbours used to pool together and build a big bonfire and share the fireworks among us all.  It used to be much more fun, all the adults and the children together enjoying themselves and then tucking into hot dogs and mugs of warming soup.  It all seems to be so sad these days with families holed up in their own gardens, it’s not the community celebration that it used to be.

Hopefully November will bring us the first frost and some properly chilly if not downright cold nights.  Ladies of a certain age love these cold nights, husbands not so much but that’s what spare bedrooms are for!

November is also when the serious Christmas planning kicks off with list upon list being drawn up – it’s like a military operation!  Cards, letters, gifts, broad menu planning and shopping lists form the backbone of the HH Towers Christmas

On the home front, November is probably the busiest month of my year.  The freezer gets a big clear out to make space for the Christmas baking – sausage rolls, cheese scones and the several dozen mince pies it will take to see us through Advent!  I take a ‘little and often’ approach to baking so that I’m not tied to the kitchen and sick of the sight of pastry before the month ends!  !  I usually get the pickled cabbage, onions and beetroot bottled up in November, ready to be opened at Christmas.  These days I make my Christmas cake on the last Sunday in November, Stir-Up Sunday.  I love the feeling of connectedness that comes from knowing that others are similarly occupied in their homes with their own preparations for the big day.  I like to give the homestead and good clean through in November too, so that by Christmas everything looks shipshape and shiny ready for Santa’s visit! 

Sausages in Guinness

Now that the clocks have gone back to GMT, the nights are drawing in significantly and sunshine is in very short supply.  On sunny days I still like to sit outside with a cuppa ...... and a blanket!  Our late afternoon walks are now a gloomy torchlit affair, but the welcoming glow of the lamplit windows we pass along our way makes up for it.  The welcoming glow of my own kitchen window as we return home is the best of the lot!

The best thing about November nights for me, are my cheeky night time treat of a warming mug of Ovaltine.  It takes me right back to my childhood, sitting in front of our open fire in my brushed nylon nightie and cardi (it was a 70’s thing!) with my fluffy slippers on and Dad banking the fire up to see us through the night.  Happy memories!

Cranberry Meringue Pie

Aside from the big Christmas bake off, we’re moving into casserole and stew season now - we need some serious comfort food to get us through these dark days!  We can even start thinking about steamed sponge puddings – nothing could be easier to make but they do need some time steaming on the hob.  By the end of November my favourite ingredient will be hitting the shelves – cranberries.  I just love the cheery red berries and use them in as many things as I can because they’re only available for such a short time.