Welcome to my Country Days Blog!

I’ve lived in Devon for over 30 years and while I spend most of my time working in my studio, or in front of a TV camera or on an exhibition stand, country living does give me some time and space… to think about my next project!

A crafter in the country is never bored – nature is a huge treasure trove! Beachcombing, walking on Dartmoor, or rummaging about in hedgerows (while Richard pretends not to notice) produces all sorts of goodies. Shells, feathers, wildflowers, leaves – natural things are so often the ‘light bulb moment’ that gives me an idea for something new!

I have hundreds – actually, make that thousands ­– of ideas and projects from crafts to cookery to flowers that I thought I could share with you through a weekly country-inspired blog.

I love hearing from fellow crafters and swapping ideas and useful hints and tips, so do please feedback your comments on my blog, I’m sure it will be a lot of fun!

Caramel apple cake

This week it is decidedly nippy and, therefore, cake weather! This caramel apple cake is a lovely light but rich cake, if such a thing is possible, and is perfect to have with a nice cup of tea on a cold afternoon. I know, because I did after we’d taken the photo!

To make the cake:

  • 500g Flour
  • 2tsp baking Powder
  • 1tsp bicarbonate of soda
  • 2tsp cinnamon
  • 1tsp ground all spice
  • 1tsp ground cloves
  • 300g butter (room temp)
  • 500g caster sugar
  • 2 large eggs
  • 500g apple sauce (2 small shop bought jars if you must, or homemade)
  1. Line 3 x 8 inch tins and preheat oven to 180º (160º fan oven).
  2. Mix flour, baking powder, bicarbonate and spice in one bowl and put to one side.
  3. Cream butter and sugar, then gradually add eggs, then fold in flour mixture until combined.
  4. Finally add the apple sauce until just combined.
  5. Pour mixture into your 3 tins and pop in the oven for about 40 minutes.
  6. Remove from oven and allow to cool completely before decorating.

Cream cheese frosting

  • 120g cream cheese (I used Philadelphia, but a low fat option can be used)
  • 120g butter (room temperature)
  • 250g Icing sugar (more or less can be added depending on how sweet you want it)
  • 1tsp vanilla extract

Combine all in a bowl using an electric mixture until smooth.

Caramel sauce

  • 120g light brown sugar
  • 120g butter
  • 100ml full cream milk or double cream

Melt the sugar and butter in a sauce pan for about 5 minutes, being careful not to burn the sauce, then stir in milk or cream and stir until a smooth consistency is achieved, about 2 minutes.

Finally, layer your cake with the frosting then cover completely (as I have done) or you could add more frosting between layers and just cover the top of the cake. Now comes the best bit… pour over the caramel sauce! Yum yum…!

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Beautiful shell boxes

Decorating boxes with shells has been a popular craft for centuries… possibly as long as humans have admire shells! I am a huge fan of Mary Delaney, who was born in 1700 but managed during her lifetime to create some of the most beautiful craft pieces I have ever seen. Mary loved decorating with shells but also created many paper decoupage works depicting flowers, so that gets several of my favourite crafts in one hit!

The boxes in the picture were actually made by my mother. As a young child we always collected tiny shells and treasures whenever we were on a beach and to this day (she was 84 this week), she has a big collection of beautiful shells in the bathroom and some tucked away in her craft room.

I believe to get the best effect when decorating objects with shells, the trick is to use smaller shells and arrange them artistically as opposed to sticking big blobby shells on randomly. Here you can see why you need tweezers to work on intricate patterns like these. Another crucial thing is a good glue that will dry clear – I use Pinflair Glue Gel but there are other makes that are just as good.

Inevitably you will get some unsightly gaps between the shells, no matter how you tweak and twist, shells simply won’t fit together like Lego! The way we have got round this is to gently sprinkle a little sand between the shells before the glue is dry. This stays in keeping with the theme but gives a neutral filler that is easy to find and quick to drizzle over your finished design!

Both of these boxes were ‘found’ items at either a car boot or a local giftware shop, so it’s worth keeping your eyes open for objects that would lend themselves to this lovely form of decoration.

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A picturesque landscape…

As we drive out of our village towards the motorway for another of our trips to TV land, we get a lovely view of the high tors of Dartmoor in the distance. For quite a few weeks in January, the tors were covered in snow, as was much of the moorland area and the communities within it.

One of the many attractions of this beautiful area are the Dartmoor ponies that roam the moorland alongside grazing cattle and sheep. They are incredibly sweet and you will often see young foals by the road, barely able to stand on their ludicrously long legs, with their hugely round mothers watching protectively nearby.

They are hardy animals and, unless snow cover is very deep and prolonged, they manage to forage quite well. Contrary to what most people think, the ponies on Dartmoor are not truly wild animals. They are all owned by farmers, who let them out on to the commons to graze for most of the year and this is where most visitors to Dartmoor come across them.

They are an integral part of the moorland landscape and are a part of the area’s cultural heritage and important for conservation grazing.

Dartmoor National Park is home to the native breed Dartmoor Pony. But not all the ponies on Dartmoor look the same. Importing other breeds has created various colours and shapes and some of them are absolutely gorgeous – I’ve seen a spotted one, just like a Dalmation!

The ponies live out on the moor all year round. They spend most of the time in small herds of mares with one adult stallion and young ponies. Local farmers who keep ponies get together to clear ponies off their particular common. These round ups are called ‘drifts’ and are held in late September and early October. Once, driving across the moor to Tavistock, we came across a drift, and stopped to watch. What a magical sight it was as all these ponies streamed down across the hillside, crossing the road in front of us, and then down to the collecting pens.

Once in the pens, ponies are separated into groups according to ownership. The health of all the animals is checked, and treatment is given where appropriate. After the drifts pony keepers decide which ponies to sell. The rest are returned to the moor until the following year. And so the cycle continues…

 

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A real Valentine’s ‘sweet heart’!

These sweet little cakes would make a great Valentine themed treat. The mould is available from our website and you just put one on top of another to make little layered cakes – cute don’t you think? The great thing about making an edible present for Valentine’s day is that you both get to eat it!

Chocolate Hearts

To make the cakes:

  • 60g cocoa powder
  • 240ml boiling water
  • 175g all purpose flour
  • 2tsp baking powder
  • 1/4tsp salt
  • 115g butter
  • 200g sugar
  • 2 eggs
  • 1tsp vanilla extract

Preheat oven to 190º C.

  1. Mix cocoa powder into boiling water.
  2. In a separate bowl combine the flour, baking powder and salt.
  3. Cream the butter and sugar, then add the eggs one at a time and finally add vanilla.
  4. Sift the flour mixture into butter, sugar and egg mixture and combine, then add the cocoa mixture and combine.
  5. Spoon into heart cases and then once these are full fill a few ordinary cupcake cases and bake for about 15mins.

Chocolate Fudge Topping

  • 120g dark chocolate
  • 150g butter
  • 160g icing sugar
  • 1tsp vanilla extract
  1. Melt the chocolate in a bowl over simmering water or in a microwave.
  2. Cream the butter, sugar and vanilla.
  3. Combine both mixtures together.
  4. Then pipe or spread over cooled cakes.

These hearts were decorated with pink fondant roses, but if you wanted a simpler feel, you could use chocolate buttons or any other decorations you have.

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Traumatic times for chickens!

Winter is a tricky time for chickens. My Hen Pal, Julia, has been telling me all about their woes! None of her five hens laid an egg from mid-November until mid-January – a combination of short daylight hours, dismal weather and their old age.

Rather sweetly, when we had our first really sunny January day, one of the hens heaved out a very weird offering. When Julia first brought it in at teatime, it was whole, but with a patchy, sandy texture, and a curious bump on one end.

By the following morning, the sub-standard eggshell finish had cracked in the warmth of the house and the whole thing looked rather sorry for itself, as you can see in the photo.

Up on Dartmoor where Julia lives, they had quite a covering of snow for almost a week. The chickens refused to come out of their coop unless a patch of earth had been scraped clear. They would then proceed, cautiously, to come outside and eat, drink and scratch around normally, but staying on the cleared area. One brave one did trot across the snow, but then made a point of showing how cold her feet were!

Strangely, the snow brought on even more eggs, possibly because of the amount of reflected light, and they have been producing one egg a day quite regularly for the rest of January.

Who knows how chickens’ minds work? Well, who’d want to, frankly, but these eggy offerings can be taken as a sign that the days are lengthening and that spring is definitely on the way!

 

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