Christmas planning…

I know we all want the ‘perfect’ Christmas – the elusive nirvana of a huge gathering of happy relatives where nothing ever goes wrong… Everyone adores their presents, they praise the lightness of my gently warmed mince pies, the mulled wine is irresistible and yes, nobody gets too tipsy…

I could go on – my cards are all beautifully made and not one person forgotten, the presents are wrapped as if by a professional and my hair and make up are flawless as can be seen in all the rose-tinted photographs of the event…

OK back to reality! I will overheat the mince pies and only the dog will appreciate them, my naturally inclined to frizz hair will do just that as jets of steam shoot out of the oven as I check the turkey – and I just know I will forget a present or a card!

So why not join me in some clever forward planning this year – and let’s catch all those little ‘fails’ before they happen.

1.     I will have a stock of Christmas cards sitting in the letter rack ready to be addressed and sent when the inevitable “Oh no, I forgot them!” card arrives through the door!

2.     Buy something small but lovely for a male and a female gift, so that if someone arrives unannounced you have something that might work – if not – have them yourself as a treat after Christmas!

3.     Use a portable kitchen timer – I have one that you hang round your neck – then you can’t get chatting with someone in the sitting room while the mince pies harden to stone in the oven!

4.     Frizzy hair – well any of you that struggle with frizz will have your own best cures – but mine is strong hairspray – apply way more hairspray than you are used to using and then the oven can try and do its worst and there’s a good chance you will survive!

5.     Try and remember that nobody has a picture perfect family or Christmas and if yours brings happiness and is pretty OK – then you have worked your own little bit of Christmas magic!

If you have any ‘top tips’ to help us all get through the festive period – please share!

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Scenting pinecones

Now is definitely one of my favourite times of year for scavenging and trawling the local paths and woods. Pine cones are of IMMENSE use to a crafter and can be used so many different ways, but my particular favourite is to use them as a Christmas pot pourri.

The fibrous material that makes up a pine cone is also, fortuitously, really good at retaining scents. So I capitalise on this ability and have a lovely big basket or bowl of pine cones near the open fire, or around in the kitchen throughout the dark wintery season.

The first and most important task is to dry out the pine cones – take great care as small bugs seem to lurk and these need to be removed. Start by shaking each cone well, outside on a sheet of newspaper. Tap it and give it a good shake – some people wash them in a very dilute bleach solution, again to eradicate any bugs – I usually just shake them a bit and then the drying process sorts out bugs as you will see. However the bleaching technique can be used to vary the colours of the cones in your collection if you’d like some lighter ones.

Once you are happy they are well shaken, bring them indoors and arrange on a wire cake rack, over a baking sheet and put in a very low oven (sort of thing that would be perfect for an Aga if you have one!) and leave for 4-5 hours. This should dry them nicely – if they were sopping wet then you might need a little longer – just check them and see.

Then decide what fragrance you want – either a bought pot pourri oil (like a refresher oil) or your own mixture of essential oils. Drop some oil onto each cone, stick them in a sealable plastic bag and leave for 24 hours or more. Then bring out of the bag and arrange in your chosen container. The scent can then be topped up by dropping oil onto the cones and shuffling them around in their container.

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My book recommendations…

There are literally millions of books out there to choose from and if, like me, you are constantly on the look for new titles and recommendations, I thought it might be interesting for you all to have a look at some of my favourites from this year. Maybe you could suggest some of yours too?

I have a very wide taste in the types of books I enjoy reading – I am not good at reading horror (baby that I am!) but I have loved some fantasy and magic related themes… my suggestions there would be; ‘The Hollows’ series by Amanda Hocking and ‘The Dresden Files’ series by Jim Butcher. Both are amazing series that kept me enthralled and rank among my all-time favourites.

However if you are thinking “Oh no – hate magic but love romance” well, I read a lot of those too! How about trying ‘Long Time Coming’ by Edie Claire or historical romance like Glenna McReynolds ‘Chalice and the Blade’.

Jojo Moyes is a very powerful writer and it’s worth trying “Me Before You” – a really strong book, and my daughter has just finished ‘The Girl You left behind’ also by Jojo Moyes, so I am hoping there will be a copy winging its way over!

Another author that I have to recommend is Debbie Maccomber. I adore gentle series about people I have ‘met’ in other books and got to know and, although Debbie’s books are based in America which might not be everyone’s choice, I find them wonderfully comfortable and have read every one in the series.

A huge favourite of both Richard’s and mine is the Shardlake series by C.J. Sansom, we listen to the audio version on our long drives to do TV shows and it makes the time fly past! Finally I have to give a mention to one of my main romantic author favourites and that would be Katie Fforde – her best (I think!) is “Going Dutch”.

So – what are your recommendations? Do you read on a Kindle, or prefer the good old traditional book? Or do you, like us, enjoy audio books too?

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My Lethal Christmas Pudding!

As you all know, I am a bit of a Christmas-aholic! I am already thinking of presents, some decorative ideas and, of course, the Christmas pudding! I always make mine in October so it is suitably steeped, so I thought you might like my recipe now so it gives you plenty of time…!

Joanna’s Lethal Christmas Pudding

The Christmas pudding carried into the dining room with flames licking around its base is a very traditional and exciting climax to the Christmas meal. Using Calvados instead of normal brandy has worked well for years, including one year at a friend’s house when she was rather too generous with the Calvados and it refused to be put out!

You will need:

  • 100g (4oz) currants
  • 175g (6oz) sultanas
  • 175g (6oz) raisins
  • Juice and rind of one orange
  • Juice and rind of one lime
  • 50g (2oz) dark brown sugar
  • 50g (2oz) chopped walnuts
  • 175g (6oz) granary breadcrumbs
  • 5g (1oz) ground allspice
  • 2 large free-range eggs
  • 100g (4oz) melted butter
  • 30ml (2tbsp) brandy
  • 45ml (3 tbsp) port
  • 45ml (3 tbsp) Calvados
  • 150ml (1/4 pint) brandy for adding later
  • 300ml (1/2 pint) Calvados for serving

Combine the grated orange and lime rinds, breadcrumbs, walnuts, allspice and brown sugar with the dried fruits. In a separate bowl, whisk together the orange and lime juice, melted butter, eggs and alcohol. Do not add the large amounts of brandy and Calvados at this stage. Stir the two mixtures together until well combined.

Butter a 1.2 litre (2 pint) pudding basin and pour the mixture over it. Leave to stand for half an hour, then cover with a double layer of well-buttered greaseproof paper and secure it around the basin with string. Take a large piece of muslin and wrap a double thickness around the pudding basin and again, secure with string or tie in a knot at the top.

Half-fill a very large saucepan with water. Place the pudding basin inside, keeping its top clear of water, and steam for between 7-8 hours. The saucepan must never be allowed to boil dry. Once the time is up, remove the pudding and leave it wrapped until it is completely cool, then remove the muslin and greaseproof paper. Using a skewer or knitting needle, make some holes in the top of the pudding and pour over about 75ml (3 fl oz) of the remaining brandy. Wrap the pudding securely in buttered greaseproof paper and aluminium foil and store in a cool place.

Approximately one month later, open the pudding and, using the same skewer technique, pour the remaining 75ml (3 fl oz) of brandy over the pudding and wrap it up again securely. The pudding will keep for up to one year in a cool place. I usually make mine mid-October, so the second dose of brandy has plenty of time to do its work before Christmas.

To serve the pudding, either steam it for about 2-3 hours or microwave it for 5 minutes on high, and then allow it to stand for a further 5 minutes. Remember to remove the aluminium foil first if you are microwaving.

Once the pudding has been reheated, place it on a decorative service dish, warm the 300ml (1/2 pint) of Calvados and pour it over the pudding so that a small puddle accumulates all round the bottom. Place a sprig of holly in the top and set light to the Calvados. Take care – this is not called ‘Lethal Christmas Pudding for the amount of alcohol involved as much as for the spectacular flames of the Calvados! Serve with cream, custard, brand or rum butter… or all of them!

 

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Herbs on the Christmas Tree

Wood smoke, pine, roasting turkey – these are just some of the lovely smells that say ‘Christmas’! Dried herbs blend in very well with more traditional Christmas decorations such as pine cones, nuts and cinnamon sticks and of course they add beautifully to the overall aroma.

Herbs on the Christmas Tree

There’s always room on the Christmas tree to tuck in a herbal arrangement or tiny wreaths of herbal flowers and foliage to add to the natural pine scent of the tree. Decorated pine cones with clusters of herbs and ribbons to hang on the tree, and miniature baskets of dried herbs tied with a festive gold cord, add an unusual touch and fragrance. As there are so many family gatherings at this time of year, why not make some decorations for the tree as a family present?

Miniature sacks

A miniature sack of herbs can be made from a piece of hessian 15×5 cm (6×2 inches) fold it in half along the longer edge and stitch together the two side seams. Turn it right sides out, fill with strong smelling dried herbs and tie with an elastic band. Then decorate the sack with a red or green ribbon, miniature pine cones and some holly.

Stockings filled with herbs

Small socks or stockings can be cut from any cotton material with a festive colour scheme or pattern. Cut out two identical pieces and sew round the edges, leaving the top open. If you sew with a contrasting thread – say holly green on red material – it doesn’t matter if the stitches show as they can be part of the design. Alternatively, you can place the two pieces of material with right sides together and sew with a matching cotton, then very carefully turn the stocking inside out. This is more fiddly, but looks neater. Then fill the stocking with scented dried herbs and stitch across the top. The stocking can then be decorated with festive bits and pieces, such as gold sprayed miniature cones and holly berries.

Little balls of herbs

Small polystyrene spheres 2.5 cm (1 inch) in diameter, can be made into really cute herbal Christmas tree decorations. Cover them in a solution of latex adhesive, watered down slightly so it’s easier to apply. Then, dip the balls into dried lavender or stick herbal flower heads, such as oregano or marjoram, all over the balls and trim with tiny ribbons. A set of balls in shades of misty lavender and greeny-grey, trimmed with narrow pale pink ribbons looks very dainty and unusual.

Christmas swags and garlands

I was just finishing off this blog and I thought – I just can’t resist adding an extra idea – swags! A swag of dried herbs and flowers hung across a mantelpiece or round a doorway is a lovely way of welcoming your guests. Placing unusual herbal foliage or flowers in a festive garland provides extra points of interest.

Cones and berries are a must for a traditional look, whether left ‘au naturel’ or gilded. Small kumquats could be included as they are daintier than oranges. Tartan ribbons and bunches of lavender, bay, holly, rosemary and sage are complemented by sprays of brilliant red roses, cream peonies and pink carnations. Dried flowers can look just as lovely as fresh arrangements and last far longer.

Take care if you fix your swag across a mantelpiece as open fires and dried flowers don’t mix!

Wishing you all a very happy Christmas and a peaceful New Year! Joanna x

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