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!

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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Chickens and eggs…

My blogs about chickens always seem to be popular – what is it about hens that makes them so appealing? Look in any gift shop and there are ornaments, cards and pictures of chickens everywhere! Is it their fluffiness? Their perceived ‘homeliness’? Or their clucky motherly nature?

Any of you who have hens will know, it’s all those things and more – their fun characters, their daft habits and their lovely noises. Years ago when Julia, my Hen Pal, first had hens, she made the mistake of putting a newly planted half-barrel garden tub inside their run to make it look pretty!

However hens, it seems, don’t appreciate beautiful tubs of annual plants… on returning home, she found four hens closely packed in the tub having a whale of a time! Clucking and ‘pocking’ merrily, they had thrown all the plants out and proceeded to enjoy a luxurious dirt bath of epic proportions, gossiping and chucking dirt at each other in the best ‘hen party’ tradition. Once she’d stopped laughing and grabbed a camera, she managed to catch two of them still in the tub! Their luxury bathing tub remained, but Julia didn’t bother to re-plant it!

Eggs too are a popular image, but what is the shape of a chicken egg? It’s not round and it’s not oval either. Apparently, to be technically correct it’s an asymmetrical mix of oval and tapered, with one end bigger than the other which helps them fit together quite snugly in the nest, with only small air spaces between them. This means the eggs radiate their heat onto each other, and keep each other warm. And of course, you can fit more eggs into the nest. And finally, let’s not forget another reason that eggs are tapered – so that they can get pushed out of the hen more easily!

I wish I had a friend with ducks too – the local farm sells duck eggs sometimes – they’re amazing if you have never tried them, we had a duck egg omelette last week and it was just delicious. However keeping ducks on our stream with a small but manically bouncy spaniel is just never going to go well!

 

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Raspberry easel card

Easel cards have been really popular for the last year or two – and I can understand why – they really do show off all the work you put into the design and aren’t too hard to make.

The cover of this card is made using a design from our Fun and Games decoupage set. The mice are cooling off under the rose of the watering can – so sweet!

The backing papers have been printed from our House Mouse Inserts CD.

The basic card measures 150mm square. The cover is made by layering some raspberry pink card with some backing paper and then adding the finished decoupage image at an angle. The sentiment is also on the sheet and the embellishments have been cut from backing paper.

Make a plain square base card and fold halfway across the front, then attach this cover to the base of the folded front only. This creates the easel effect.

Inside the card, you layer more backing paper over the raspberry pink card and then create the “bumper” – or stop – that enables the easel card to stand up. The little image of the mice is layered and then stuck to the card with foam tape.

In this case we have used inserts to create the backing papers – it’s always worth having a flick through any inserts on one of our CDs as there are lots of extra ideas for designs hidden in there!

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Autumn leaves…

The drop in temperature this week confirms that Autumn has definitely arrived. Crisp Autumn days can be absolutely gorgeous and the beauty of Autumn leaves always makes me feel… well, what? Nostalgic? Romantic? Sad? All of those things I suppose, but there’s also a peaceful, ‘snuggly’ feel and the promise of wood smoke and conkers and fireworks… and then Christmas – one of my favourite times of year!! And then the cycle starts all over again…

But why do leaves change colour so dramatically before they fall? Leaves contain chemical pigments, like chlorophyll, that makes leaves green and help in the process of photosynthesis. The leaves also contain the chemical carotene which has a yellow colouring.

Carotene is in the leaves all year, but is hidden by the green of the chlorophyll. As autumn approaches and temperatures, especially those at night, begin to drop sharply, the chlorophyll breaks down and reveals the other pigments within the leaf (such as the carotene) that aren’t affected by the cooler temperatures… and hey presto, the beautiful reds and golds we love start to appear.

Autumn leaves are very beautiful and a joy to press. If you don’t have the time or patience to press them conventionally, you can always try ironing them between sheets of blotting paper. Iron them on a low to medium setting and then get creative!

A friend of mine wanted to replace the glass panel in her Victorian-era front door. She couldn’t find any etched glass to her taste, so she pressed some leaves, bought two panels of glass to the correct size and ‘sandwiched’ the leaves in between sealing the sandwich with some clear silicon sealant, the sort you can buy in any hardware store.

Once dry, she put her ‘double glazed’ panel in place and careful tacked the beading back. The leaves have been replaced once over the years, I believe, as they do fade in the sunlight, but it’s an unusual idea and one that has earned a lot of compliments!

I’d love to hear your ideas for Autumn leaves. Do you press them or simply mulch them to put back into your garden? Quite often, I’ll collect the brightest, plus a few conkers and cob nuts and put them in a bowl on the table just to admire such lovely natural beauty…

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Pear and bramble pie

Now is the time of mist and mellow fruitfulness… We have a pear and an apple tree in our garden, plus blackberries that ramble over the back fence. We therefore try all possible combinations in pies, and I actually prefer pear and blackberry to the more usual apple and blackberry mixture.

You will need:

 

  • 675g (11/2lb) self raising flour
  • 450g (1lb) white vegetable fat
  • 6-8 Conference pears
  • 450g (1lb) blackberries
  • 45g (3 tbsp) Demerara sugar
  • Water

 

Serves 8-10 people

Peel, core and slice the pears. Cook them gently in enough water to cover, with 30g of the (2 tbsp) of the sugar – it is important to cook them gently to keep their shape. Leave them to cool. Cook the blackberries with a little water and the remaining 15g (1 tbsp) of sugar and leave to cool. It is better to keep the pears and blackberries separate – it makes no difference to the taste but does improve the finished look of the filling.

Make the pastry by rubbing the fat into the flour until it resembles breadcrumbs, then add about a cupful of water to form a soft dough. Divide the dough in half and gently roll out the first half on a very well floured board. Lift the pastry by folding it over the rolling pin and line a greased 30cm (12 inch) dish with it. The pie is easiest served if the dish has straight sides. Mould the pastry round the edges of the dish and trim off any excess.

Drain the pears and blackberries (save some of the juice), still keeping them separate. Cover the base of the pie with the pear slices and then cover them with the blackberries. Spoon a little of the juice over the fruit and discard the rest. Roll out the other half of the pastry and, having moistened the edges of the bottom layer of pastry with water, place the pastry over the pie to make a lid. Press gently around the edges and trim off any excess. Brush the top of the pie with milk, or a mixture of milk and egg yolk, the use any scraps of pastry to decorate the top of the pie with leaves, apples or any other design you like. Bake in a pre-heated oven at 200ºC (400ºF), gas Mark 6 for 25-30 minutes or until the pastry is cooked and golden brown

 

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