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!

Feeding our feathered friends in winter

The arrival of ‘proper’ winter weather has seen the usual flurry of wild bird activity in our garden. I see robins fluffed up like pompoms and black birds looking huge – thank goodness they have such great insulation in their feathers. But it’s important we look after our garden birds throughout the winter months, especially now as so many of them are under threat.

Garden birds need extra nourishment to keep them warm, just as we do and, as I know you are all so keen on cooking and ‘making’, I thought you’d love to have a go at making your own winter bird feeders!

All you need is vegetable suet, or lard, bird seed mix and empty yogurt pots.

Mix one part suet to two parts seed, transfer to a saucepan and gently heat until the fat melts.

Next, make a small hole in the bottom of each pot and thread some twine through to tie the feeder to a tree branch. Pour the mixture into the pots – do this on a tray or baking sheet so if any fat leaks through the hole it won’t damage anything. Set overnight in the fridge, then simply remove the pot and hang up outside.

Don’t forget their water in winter. I keep a stock of old plastic post and cartons from packaging that I fill with water and weight down with a stone to ensure they always have fresh unfrozen water.

Finally, hygiene is very important – when a large number of birds are attracted into an area to feed, the danger of disease increases. Prevention is always better than a cure, and is the best thing you can do to help the birds.

The RSPB has lots of useful information about bird feeding and advice on how to keep everything clean. Click here to find out what they suggest

http://www.rspb.org.uk/advice/helpingbirds/feeding/hygiene.aspx

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Caramelised red onion chutney

I do enjoy caramelised red onions, they make a change from traditional chutney and can liven up anything from a cheese sandwich to a sautéed duck breast! This recipe is easy and the result is delicious.  If you’ve time on your hands and enjoy preserving, I’m sure a few jars of this would go down very well as presents – hand-made preserves are always so much nicer than shop bought.

My mother has been the stalwart chutney and marmalade maker in the family to date – but this recipe is a quick and easy that all of us make from time to time! Between my sister and mother and myself we have a fair few ‘easy present’ recipes and I will pop a few into the  blog next year for inspiration for you!

You will need:

  • 6 medium red onions
  • 2 medium shallots
  • 1 medium white onion
  • 2 red chillies (deseeded and chopped)
  • 100g raisins
  • 250ml balsamic vinegar
  • 50ml red wine vinegar
  • 220g dark brown sugar
  • 2 fresh bay leaves
  • 1 large spring of rosemary (leaves picked and chopped)
  • Olive oil

Peel and Chop all the onions to chutney sized pieces, place in a large pan with the olive oil, bay leaves and rosemary and cook for about 20 minutes.

Add the rest of the ingredients to the pan and simmer for about one hour.

Put into sterilised jars and seal. This can be left for 4-6 weeks for the flavour to develop, or you can eat right away.

Makes four standard sized jars.

 

 

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Cute Christmas cupcakes

We loved these so much, we thought you’d like an ‘extra’ cupcake blog this week! These are such lovely designs by another Jo who runs our accounts department. The ear muffs are great fun and sure to be popular with young and old alike!

For the cake:

  • 100g butter, softened
  • 150g self-raising flour
  • 150g caster sugar
  • 3tbsp milk
  • 2 large eggs
  • ½ tsp vanilla extract

Preheat oven to 180ºc (160ºc fan). Line a 12-hole standard muffin tin with with Christmas paper cases.

Put all the ingredients into a large bowl and mix until combined.

Divide mixture evenly between paper cases and bake for 25 minutes. Once cooked, leave to cool completely before decorating.

For the butter cream:

  • 110g butter, softened
  • 200g icing sugar

Combine butter and icing sugar together until you achieve a smooth mix. Put a generous spoonful onto each cupcake and leave until a crust has formed (about 1/2hrs), then smooth with a warm palette knife, cover with fondant/regal icing of your choice.

Jo has made: 

  • Snowmen with carrot noses, woolly hats and ear muffs
  • Cute little penguins
  • Yummy looking Christmas puddings – using chocolate flavoured fondant
  • Holly and berries using red fondant.

 

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Spiced Christmas cupcakes

Here are some really sparkly spicy Christmas cupcakes guaranteed to be popular with everyone! The pretty poinsettia baking cups make the cakes look so festive… and if you haven’t tried the clever cupcake plunger yet – do give it a go. Easy to use and very effective.

To make the cake:

  • 110g brown sugar
  • 75g plain flour
  • 75g self-raising flour
  • ¼ tsp bicarbonate of soda
  • 1tsp ground ginger
  • ½ tsp ground cinnamon
  • ½ tsp freshly ground nutmeg
  • 100g butter, softened
  • 1 egg
  • 50ml buttermilk (you can use normal milk too)
  • 2 tbsp golden syrup

Preheat oven to 180ºc (160ºc fan). This mix is enough to make six large poinsettia baking cups and six small poinsettia baking cups. 

Put all the dry ingredients into a large bowl and mix until combined. Put all wet ingredients into another large bowl and mix until combined. Then combine both together.

Divide the mixture evenly between baking cups and bake for 25 minutes for the large cakes and 15 minutes for the small cakes. Once cooked, leave to cool completely before decorating.

To make the mincemeat filling:

2tbsp mincemeat, homemade or shop bought.

1-2tbsp Icing sugar

Warm mincemeat and add Icing sugar to sweeten, put to one side to cool. Use a cupcake plunger to cut centres out of large cakes and fill with fruit mince, add as much or a little fruit mince as you like.

(If you want to make your own mincemeat check out my recipe in the filo pastry brandied mincemeat blog)

To make the butter cream:

  • 220g butter, softened
  • 400g icing sugar
  • 1tsp vanilla extract
  • 3-4 tbsp milk

Combine butter, icing sugar, vanilla and enough milk to make the mixture easy to pipe. Fill piping bag and pipe onto cakes, add decorations, here I have added edible silver stars and fondant snowflakes.

 

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A lovely traditional Christmas…?

Most of us strive for a traditional Christmas starting with the advent calendar, making and sending cards, dressing the tree, buying the turkey and some of us even leave out carrots, milk and biscuits for Santa and his reindeer. But how much of it is ‘traditional’? And how long does something need to exist to be classed as ‘traditional’.

The Christmas tree became popular in England after Prince Albert introduced the idea in 1841. He brought a Christmas tree over from Germany and put it in Windsor castle. The royal couple were illustrated in a national newspaper standing in front of it and the ‘tradition’ began…

The turkey appeared on Christmas tables in England in the 16th century and popular history tells of Henry VIII being the first English monarch to have turkey for Christmas. A famous Christmas dinner scene appears in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (1843), where Scrooge sends Bob Cratchitt a large turkey.

Christmas Pudding. For several centuries, a dish called frumenty was part of the traditional Celtic Christmas meal. Frumenty was made primarily from boiled, cracked wheat with almonds, currants sugar and saffron being among a range of ingredients that were added,

Over the years the recipe changed. Eggs, fruit, spice, lumps of meat and dried plums were added. The whole mixture was wrapped in a cloth and boiled… and that is probably how plum pudding began!

Santa Claus, also known as Saint Nicholas, Father Christmas and simply Santa, is a figure with legendary, mythical, historical and folkloric origins who brings gifts to the homes of the good children during the late evening and overnight hours of Christmas Eve.

His red and white outfit was introduced by an American cartoonist Thomas Nast – working for Harper’s Bazaar in the mid/late 1800s and it is around this time that he acquired a sleigh, reindeer and bells! Although many people believe Coca Cola made him red and white this is an urban myth –bishop’s vestments (St Nicholas) had been red for many years before Coca Cola used him in a long running commercial in the 1930s!

The tradition of sending cards at Christmas began here in England in the mid 1800s – an Englishman called Henry Cole wanted to send a note to his friends to wish them Happy Christmas and look how popular making your Christmas cards is now!

It’s always interesting to know where our traditions come from!

 

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