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!

A summer tea party…

It’s so sad that the popularity of afternoon tea has gone down massively over the years. It’s a great way of entertaining people as cakes, pastries and scones can all be made well in advance and are all far less expensive than a dinner party! Here are a couple of ideas for summer tea parties that you might like to try – let’s keep the tradition alive!

Squirrel Cake

This is a recipe of my mother’s and, although there are no nuts in the cake mixture it nevertheless tastes very nutty and delicious! It is also economical to make.

To make a 17.5cm (7in) cake, you will need:

  • 100g (4oz) margarine
  • 100g (4oz) sugar
  • 100g (4oz) self-raising flour
  • 2 large eggs, beaten
  • 15ml (1 tbsp) cold water
  • 10g (2 tsp) instant coffee granules

For the Squirrel’s Cream:

  • 425ml (3/4 pint) double cream
  • 45ml (3 tbsp) Tia Maria liqueur
  • 45ml (3 tbsp) chopped hazelnuts, plus extra for decoration

Grease and line two 17.5cm (7in) sponge tins. Cream together the margarine and sugar until white and creamy. Add the beaten eggs a little at a time and beat well (no cheating with an electric mixer – the results are much better by hand!). Using a metal spoon, fold in the sifted flour and add the cold water until a soft consistency is reached. At the very last moment fold in instant coffee granules.

Spoon the mixture into the two sandwich tins and spread evenly with a palette knife. Bake in a pre-heated oven at 190ºC (375ºF), gas mark 5, for about 20 minutes. Remove from the oven when they are cooked and turn out onto a wire rack to cool. When cold, sandwich the two cakes together with the Squirrel’s Cream (see below).

Squirrel’s Cream

Whip the cream and add a little sugar if you wish. Fold in the Tia Maria and the hazelnuts. Use as a filling and decoration on the top of the cake. Sprinkle the top of the cake with extra hazelnuts

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Lemon & Mint Cooler

Old-fashioned lemonade is delicious and much better for you than the commercially available varieties, so do try some.

You will need:

  • 2.5 litres (4 ¼ pints) water
  • Juice of 8 lemons
  • 75g (3oz) castor sugar
  • Large handful of mint leaves
  • Extra mint leaves for garnishing

Chop the mint leaves coarsely and place in a large bowl with the sugar. Pound the two ingredients together well so that the sugar takes up the flavour of the mint leaves. Heat the water to boiling point and pour over the mint and sugar. Add the lemon juice and leave to cool.

When cooled, carefully strain it through a fine sieve and chill in the fridge. Serve in the prettiest glasses you can find, garnish with ice, slivers of lemon and sprigs of mint.

 

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Visiting Amish country…

We have just returned from America – primarily to attend the CHA craft/trade show but also to take a few days break. This time we decided to do a road trip with our friends Randy and Cheryl from Michigan and we headed out to Amish country in Indiana.

I am fascinated by the Amish, I admire their courage in trying to live yesterday’s life in today’s world and their tenacity to stand out and be different. Having said that I won’t be turning Amish any time soon as I love my computer, phone, electricity and female emancipation! I love being able to get into my mini and zoom off whenever and wherever I like, picturesque though these horse and buggies are.

The Amish people are gentle and friendly towards tourists and I was even able to have dinner one day in an Amish home and spend a lot of time exploring the real meaning of being Amish. One of the huge highlights for me was mooching around in Amish quilt stores and craft shops… oh their quilting! Some even extend their quilting to the garden and you can see here a patchwork piece made from flowers – some lovely ideas and inspiration to be found.

The other obvious passion the Amish have is home baking – mmm, the pies and the cookies, the sweets and the home made bread – so good for the diet Joanna (ok not..) A frequent item on their menu is home made bread spread with a peanut butter, marshmallow and honey mix… oo-err low calorie or what!

I came home with a lot of interesting spice mixes and my mind buzzing with ideas for recipes and quilting themes… and a really different view of how life can be lived.

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Peaches and Cream

I just love this rubber stamp – in fact I love the whole range of fruity/kitchen/recipe stamps we have. This particular stamp is from a sheet called Spiced Peaches and has a lovely recipe included as well.

The design idea behind this card is such an easy one for you to have a go with – just using a die cut shape – stamp the image and colour (go Promarkers!) and then soften the edges with some of the Old Paper or other soft beige Distress Ink pads.

While we are talking Distress Ink pads – many of you will have tried to use them with the Inkessentials Blending Tool – which is a good piece of kit, but I have to say I have found the Inkylicious Duster brushes so much easier. The brushes come in a set of three and they have made me a lot keener to use the Distress Inks around the edge of my cards and I agree this can add a lovely texture and effect. Now I feel happy that I can achieve it with no blips I am doing it so much more often!

Soft, pretty cards are always well received, as I am sure this one would be… of course if you were feeling really generous you could make a jar of spiced peaches as a gift to go with the car… or not!

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Busy bees

Spending so much time with flowers over the years, I’m a great respecter of bees. When you’re in your garden, it’s rare not to hear their gentle drone. I would never keep bees and respect them though I do… no way could I have ‘pet’ bees!

The big, slow moving bumble bee doesn’t produce much honey but it is an important pollinator. The smaller honey bee not only pollinates but also toils away to produce honey from the pollen it collects.

I knew bees were vital, but I was surprised when I read that one in three mouthfuls of the food we eat is dependent on pollination – so worrying when we are told that honeybee numbers have fallen by up to 30% in recent years

Honey, and the bees that create it, are both pretty amazing! Honeybees are the only insects to produce food for humans and honey is the only food that includes all the substances necessary to sustain life, including enzymes, vitamins, minerals, and water.

And wow, do ‘worker’ honey bees deserve their name! The average worker bee produces about one twelfth of a teaspoon of honey in her lifetime. She visits 50 to 100 flowers during a collection trip… and as you will have gathered it is the female of the species that does all the work!

Larger than the worker bees, the male honey bees (also called drones), have no stinger and do no work at all. All they do is mate. Now there’s a surprise!! (Sorry all you guys that read the blog……..)

 

 

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Harvesting your herbs…

After all the rain we’ve had, my herbs have grown absolutely HUGE and could do with cutting back. Last week I received an email asking me how best to dry lavender… and I thought – aha, time for a blog on drying herbs!

Cutting back overgrown herbs, leaves you with masses of fragrant and tasty cuttings that are far too good to be thrown away. Drying them is a brilliant way to add flavour to your cooking outside the herb growing season and save money.

Drying herbs

Living plants contain large amounts of water – as much as seven eighths of their weight in many cases – and his has to be removed before they can be stored.

Tie bunches of leaves and flowers loosely together in bundles and hang in a clean, airy, place out of direct sun until brittle enough to break easily between your fingers. A good tip is to hold a bunch together with an elastic band rather than string, then it shrinks as the stalks dry out and stops them dropping on the floor. They usually take about a week to dry if the weather is warm enough.

However… given the summer we are ‘enjoying’ in the UK this year, you may need to use an airing cupboard, shaded greenhouse, warm attic or dry ventilated shed.

Herbs can also be dried in a domestic oven or dehydrator, but you need to keep the temperature at no more than 32ºC/90ºF for the first day or two, after which reduce to 25ºC/75ºF until the process is complete – between three and five days. Turn the material occasionally and complete one batch at a time – don’t be tempted to add fresh material as this will reduce the temperature and raise humidity. I personally prefer the hanging in bunches method AND it looks lovely in the house!

Bunching several herbs together for bouquet garnis is easier before drying then after.

Handy tip: Culinary herbs cut up small and packed in measured amounts with water in ice-cube trays lose little of their flavour when frozen and are ready for almost immediate use!

 

 

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