Thursday, 16 February 2017

A Little Bit of Stitching

When I came across these tiny miniature embroidery hoops, I wanted them immediately.  Because as we all know, when stuff comes in miniature, it's usually much more adorable.  A bit of internet research revealed that these hoops are in fact made and sold by Sonia Lyne of Dandelyne, an Australia based indie business specialising in all things tiny and stitchy.

I was eager to try my hand at a little bit of embroidery on such a dinky scale, and so I ordered a few hoops in different sizes. They came in good time, the hoops wrapped up with everything I needed to assemble them, and I picked up a few threads ready to start.

I sketched out a couple of designs I liked, keeping it simple as I wasn't sure how much clarity I would be able to achieve in a small space.  I needn't have worried.  I cut up a cloth bag into little squares, traced my design onto the material and set about stitching.  

It turned out to be a lot of fun!  I don't know about you but I don't normally manage to achieve a whole embroidery project of an evening.  It's a little bit addictive actually and I made one or two for Christmas presents, mounting little hoops onto keyrings.

I stitched a larger one for myself, turning it into a necklace; it was easy as all the components to put the necklace together were included in the kit, all I had to do was pick my design.  I opted for a camera, because, y'know, cameras, and I embroidered my little heart out. Hurrah! I've worn my new necklace quite a bit; the students at school have passed comment, and I like that it's something a little bit unusual, handcrafted and unique that I can wear.

I have a couple of hoops left for other projects, and while I don't have anything in mind at the moment, whenever inspiration strikes, or I fancy a speedy round of embroidery of an evening, I know that they are there, ready and waiting.


Kisses xxx

P.S. I haven't done any embroidery in a long time and these little projects have inspired me to embark on a larger project. I LOVE to make things.

Tuesday, 14 February 2017

Contiki and the Light Fantastic

Matt and I had booked onto a Contiki tour for New Zealand.  It was a company I had never travelled with before, and we met our group in Christchurch the evening before we were due to set off. It seemed like a HUGE bunch, over 40 of us, and I was initially a little apprehensive.
However, in for a penny, in for a pound. Jeff the motel guy had recommended going to see the Botanic Gardens while we were in Christchurch, as there was a big light trail on that you could follow in the dark.  Matt and I wanted to go and so we invited some of the group along to explore.
Which turned out to be a great move!

We all strolled towards the park and had a lovely time, getting to know each other a bit, and it was nice to be able to match a few faces and names. The light trail was wonderful (and made it feel even more like Christmas).

Wandering along through the dark, tree-lined avenues, it was romantic and twinkly. The cold turned our breath into cloud, lights jumped in myriad reflections in still lakes, changing colours. The dark, watery mirrors were may favourite, producing spectacular effects.

The trees were dripping ribbons of fairy lights, looped, tangled and entwined in welcoming branches. I got lost in the beauty of it all, just me and my camera in the crowd, drinking it in.

Then, awkwardly, I did get lost in the dark, realising suddenly that I couldn’t spot any of the people I’d arrived with. Fortunately I was able to text Matt who was still with the group and they all waited for me to unlose myself, which was very thoughtful.

Once we’d had our fill of the lights, and the cold was starting to nip at our fingers and toes, we all piled into a bar and had dinner together. It was good fun, and we eventually turned in feeling very happy to be starting the tour with such a lovely crowd.

Kisses xxx
P.S. As get stuck into half term, I'm looking forward to some more adventures; travelling to Finland this week!

Thursday, 9 February 2017

The Adventure of the Pastry Sleepover


This is the story of an epic baking adventure; a pastry endeavour  of monumental proportions. Proceed, gentle reader, to hear the tale of the Pastry Sleepover.
One of the goals to accomplish on my list of life ambitions is to make Danish pastries. This ambition came about from watching the Great British Bake Off and thinking that making Danishes seemed like awfully good fun as long as you don't have to do it in three hours in a warm tent.

Friend of the blog Liz pinged me shortly after I published the list to suggest we join forces and attempt to climb pastry mountain together and so one chilly weekend in January found me tripping merrily over to her flat to take over the big table and to get our patisserie on.

Never ones to do things by halves, or any other fraction for that matter, we decided to make not only Danish pastries but also croissants. So that was two batches of fiddly, buttery, laminated pastry without Mel and Sue to help us. But we had all day and all night as Liz had invited me to stay over. So we were more than ready to scale the lofty heights of peak pastry (and recline on the plump pillows of team #sleepover - hashtag or it didn't happen).

Liz is a pretty experienced baker and it was she that found the recipes we used. We were keen to have a good old whack of flavour in the little Danishes, and for the croissants, we wanted something traditional and properly French-tasting. Omnomnom. With whatsapps dinging backwards and forwards during the week regarding flavour, and general buttery excitement, we settled on the following two recipes, linked here:

Apple and Cinnamon Danish Pastries

Paul Hollywood's Croissants

We began before lunch, clearing an epic space and carefully rolling the rug to safety to avoid the inevitable dusting of flour and treading of dough into the weave. The windows drenched the room with that lovely golden winter sunlight that comes out at this time of year, making everything cheerful but reminding you that it’s nice to be indoors out of the cold.  It was a day full of promise.

And butter.

Both recipes had multiple stages, and both required the concoction of a dough enriched with yeast and sugar, and even eggs. We used Liz's kitchen gadget with attachable dough hook to complete the initial kneading stage (fancy!) and then popped our creation into the fridge to rest for an hour. Croissants we're underway.

We decided to divide and conquer to get the danishes underway. Liz was feeling in the mood for dough; she's a keen bread baker and has lots of experience in that arena. So she took on the Danish pastry and I set about creating the creme patissiere. (Patisserie? Patissiere?) I'm not really sure how to pronounce this, let alone make it, so I opted for the over-familiar confidence of the expression "creme pat" and read the instructions carefully three times. This convinced me that the inevitable product of my labours was sure to be scrambled eggs curdled unpleasantly with cream.

I eschewed throwing caution to the winds in exchange for holding on to caution very tightly with both hands and set about gently heating the milk and cream with oodles of vanilla.

And it worked. Introducing the egg yolks produced no scrambled malice. Heating the creme pat very slowly over a low heat produced no lumps, and I caught it at just the right moment, whisking frantically as it thickened into a custardy dream.

Ladies and gentleman: I CAN MAKE CREME PAT!

I felt like I could achieve anything. I could even learn how to say it.

It was pure bake-off wish fulfilment.

With the creme pat cooling and two doughs chilling, it was time to pound some butter into submission. Liz took on the butter for the danishes, and I faced off with the butter for the croissants. We flattened the life out of them and by the time chilling was over, we were both in possession of smooth buttery sheets.

Convincing the dough to roll out was an entirely different matter. The croissant dough in particular proved elastic, and disinclined to stretch into a rectangle 60cm long and 20 cm wide. Liz suggested letting it rest between bouts of wrestling however, and this seemed to do the trick. Plus the end stuck to the table a little bit.

Finally, we were able to lay our buttery sheets into our dough, fold it into three layers and begin the lamination.

Each dough needed repeatedly rolling out and folding up to exponentially increase the layers of butter. Apparently this is called a turn. The croissants called for an hour's chilling between each turn, whereas the danishes, being a tad more practical and interested in progress, were happy with 15 minutes in the freezer. This time it was the Danish dough that made a nuisance of itself, resisting being rolled out, but Liz put it in its place and it was forced to submit.

We knocked together the apple and cinnamon filling for the danishes, and soaked sultanas in orange juice and zest for the topping and everything was on track. The danishes had had all their turns and the dough was in the fridge doing a final, longer prove. The croissants had had one turn with two more to go, at hourly intervals. It was late afternoon and all there was to do was make like the pastry and chill.

This is where patisserie comes into its own. Those golden hours of winter afternoon where pale sunlight streams into the kitchen and everything is flour dusted; hands are clutched excitedly around tea and we talked and laughed  and talked and thought. We caught up of life, goals, aims, our triumphs and disasters and made more tea.

As the chilling progressed and the croissants had another turn, the light faded, and we settled on the sofa to watch Gilmore Girls, an old favourite from university days and still as comforting now.

If you ever want to spend really quality time with a close friend, I recommend a weekend of making pastry.

Eventually, it was time.

The danishes needed to be shaped. We doubled teamed them, Liz cutting out squares with a ruler and revealing the myriad layers encased in the pastry. Check out the lamination on those bad boys! It was exciting! We had to work quickly as even the warmth of our hands made the butter slick and pliable, and we hadn't invested all that effort getting the butter in there to have it all melt out again.

With the pastries pinched and folded, we lined them up on trays for a final prove. Another hour or so. Time for life chat and tea.

Finally, finally, the pastry was ready. We plied them with creme pat, fanned out apple slices slathered in a buttery sauce of sharp lemon and warming cinnamon, painted on a glaze of sticky almond liqueur and scattered over the sultanas, which were plump, soaked with orange.

So far, I was happy to declare that I would do this again.  With a whole day laid aside and a friend to bake with, it was no problem to labour over fiddly steps.  It was enjoyable, there was no pressure, and it was fun to learn a new skill.  So I would bake either of these recipes once more… as long as they turn out well. If they didn’t…

They went in to bake

My goodness they were tasty.

The pastry was crisp and flavoursome, golden underneath and flaky, clearly marked with layer upon layer of buttery goodness. The fillings really made it though: the combination of flavours totally worked and I loved the tang of the orange against the apple, and the sticky sweetness of almond and cinnamon. Inside, the pastry was cooked through but had become almost bread-like. Softer. I think Liz was less taken with this as it's non-traditional for a Danish, but it worked for me. The only thing we agreed we'd change is the raisins: perched on the top of the danishes, as per the recipe, they had caught and charred in the oven, and were occasionally a little bitter. We think they would have been great under the creme pat though.

We made twelve in total, six each and I cannot wait to tuck into the rest of the batch! I've frozen some too, so I'm interested to see if they defrost well.

Menawhile, the croissants had another turn, and were ready for their final prove. Of 8 hours.

Up until this point, we had pretty meticulously followed the recipe. A recipe by one Mr P Hollywood, no less. However, right now, we felt like he was going a little too far. It does not take 8 hours for pastry to chill. Liz's hypothesis was that it would allow the flavour of the pastry to develop and the yeast to do its thing, slowly in the fridge. So we compromised and decided that two hours is basically the same as 8 (or it is if you ask a physicist. If you ask a mathematician it's definitely not the same). With a mere two hours on the clock to go, we left the pastry to its own devices and watched a Royal Night Out, an appropriately amusing film requiring little effort to watch and maximum enjoyment of toffs being a tad awfully squiffy and putting on a jolly good show.


Film over, and it was croissant rolling time. Hurrah! I rolled out the dough, measured it into careful squares and halved them to form triangles. We then stretched, rolled and curved then into the traditional shape. Classic croissant. It’s actually a bit fiddly to get a really tight twist on them, and we improved as we stretched them into submission, but it’s something to practise for next time.

With only two more hours of proving needed (how can there be two more hours?!!!) for the croissants to double in size (they categorically did not, maybe we didn't chill them long enough?) and a quick egg wash, they were. Finally. Ready. To bake.

After they’d been in about 5 minutes, we couldn’t resist doing a patented bake-off peak into the oven.  And peering cautiously through the glass, we were delighted to find that our little beauties had puffed up no end.  They really were going to be croissants!

Like, actual croissants!

Plus the scent of croissants baking is guaranteed to put a smile on the face of pretty much anyone.

Liz juggled the goods with a bit of shelf rotation magic and we really cooked those beauties.  One or two of them could perhaps have done with being whisked out a bit sooner, but overall, we had excellent croissant success.

However, the proof is in the omnomnom and so, weary and yet elated, excited and yet trepidatious, at eleven o’ clock at night some twelve hours after our epic baking adventure commenced… we cut into a croissant.


Glorious buttery steam billowed from the inside, revealing the pillowy softness that I think everyone longs for in a freshly baked croissant, straight from the oven.  The outside was a deep golden colour and crisp, flaking into little shards of goodness.  I could happily have eaten the whole batch right there and then.  So tasty!

We went to bed around midnight, happy. A day very well spent.

Once again, I have frozen some of our little treats for a rainy day and I look forward to pulling them out of the freezer when things seem a bit gloomy and reliving this lovely day, reminiscing about the effort and care and friendship that went into these little pastries, as pale winter sunshine streamed in the windows of a kitchen of the past.  I think that would cheer anyone up.

There was also initially an intention of making almond croissants too, but we never got round to it. So I’ll think about that another day.

Kisses xxx

P.S. Next time we're thinking #macaroonsleepover...

Tuesday, 7 February 2017

Exploring Christchurch, New Zealand

On our trip to New Zealand, Matt and I spent the an enjoyable afternoon pottering around the charming city of Christchurch with a map that Jeff the motel guy had given us, warmly wrapped up in scarves and gloves to ward off the August chill in the air.
It feels strange saying that even now!

We strolled in the winter sunshine through Christchurch. It really is a lovely city; it seems more like a little town. It’s a place that’s easily traversable on foot. There were no high rises obscuring the sky, the tram system chugged along, there was hardly any traffic, and while there was a nip in the air there was also clear blue sky above us. There was personality in the street art that has sprung up to mask earthquake damage. It felt wonderful, relaxed, homely.

First we visited the cathedral which sadly collapsed in the earthquake, and then made our way to the Transitional Cathedral (nicknamed the Cardboard Cathedral) which was put up as a temporary place of worship for the community. We entered the building and were met by friendly volunteers who were rightly proud of the challenges they had overcome. The Transitional Cathedral was built in 18 months by a Japanese architect who had done similar earthquake rehabilitation structures, designed to be rapidly erected, and temporary.  It turns out that it’s actually made of cardboard and plastic sheeting; ‘Cardboard Cathedral’ is more than just a nick name.

Over the entrance, a mosaic of stained glass imitates shattered shards of rose window from original cathedral. The cathedral stands 22m high at its apex, and it’s simply beautiful, light, airy. Peaceful.

Back outside we stopped by the 185 empty chairs memorial, which commemorates the people who died in the earthquake.
The city is still very much scarred from the effects of its recent history.  But the overall feel is relaxed and friendly.  There is a sense of a community that loves its home, and is determined to build up out of disaster.  The re:START mall is a perfect illustration of this: it’s made up of lots of little shops and businesses set up in shipping containers which were established when their former premises collapsed in the earthquake. It seemed like a unique and vibrant response to destruction.

We stopped at the re:START mall for a drink. I had a hot chocolate (with marshmallows) from 'A mouse called bean' and Matt ordered a mocha and made sad eyes until the chap gave him marshmallows too. We sat outside in the sunshine. It was chilly, but nice with hands wrapped firmly round a hot drink. Christmassy, you might say.
Overall, my impression of Christchurch was very positive; it has a laid-back vibe that made me want to linger, try out more of the café culture and explore more of the street art.
Maybe one day I will return. But there's a whole lot more of New Zealand still to come.
Kisses xxx
P.S. I genuinely did feel really Christmassy while I was there.  I never really realised before how much I associate the cold with the festive season!

Monday, 6 February 2017

Christchurch Cafe Culture

Our New Zealand adventure finally began following flights to Singapore, then Melbourne and finally Christchurch. The last flight was my favourite: a three hour hop with very friendly NZ flight crew, three seats between the two of us and lots of leg room as we were on the front row.  Also the plane breakfast had hash browns. Correct.
We had racked up a total travel time of over 45 hours. Plus another 11 hours of time travel. Like, whoa.
We hopped on a shuttle bus to the motel which has completely lovely, with an incredibly friendly owner who gave us a map and recommended places to visit and settled us in. The room was huge and amazing; it had a little kitchen, earthquake advice, tea supplies, a hot shower, and warm comfy beds.  Weirdly, the bed came with instructions about how to sleep in it, but given that I discovered and read these having already burrowed into the covers, I found my usual technique of winging it and just getting into bed had worked.
Let’s face it: we were both shattered.  But it was around 3:00pm local time and I refused point blank to let us sleep until the night time.  Jet lag is in the mind, and I was determined that we would defeat it. So we spent our first afternoon in New Zealand tucked up in our beds watching the Rio Olympics opening ceremony. Classy.
We held out for dinner until about 5:30 and then popped out for Indian. We were met with huge portions, excellent naans, and we discovered it really is flipping freezing in winter in New Zealand.  Even though the restaurant was 2 minutes down the road, we really had a wrap up warm to keep the frosty July weather at bay.
This was the start of my Christmas delusion.  It was dark early.  It was very cold.  My breath was misty in the air.  That can only mean one thing: the festive season is nearly upon us.
Feeling full, we staggered home and slept. Whoop!
In fact, we slept for 14 hours. Yikes!
I fell out of bed in a hurry at 11:15 am with half our day in Christchurch gone. Matt was worried we would miss breakfast. I was determined that we wouldn't.

The first order of the day was obviously breakfast. We headed for a place called C1 Espresso which I had found in a free leaflet I picked up at the airport. And it was SO GOOD! Slightly hipster, with leaf tea served in match boxes, and curly fries delivered via pneumatic tubes.
Seriously. A bell goes “ding!” and you pop to the nearest tube to collect your canister of curly fries.

Matt went up to the counter to place our order (of curly fries, naturally) but apparently hadn’t clocked the system, and found himself somewhat confused. They staff told him they would arrive near our table and we could collect them. They also asked him what name to put on them.
He returned to our table, muttering that he didn’t understand why they couldn’t just bring them right to us, instead of to somewhere near us, and why did he have to think up a name for the fries? Jet lag was clearly messing with his brain, but he perked up when I pointed out the zooming tubes of fries zipping about the ceiling, and after a hot chocolate with a marshmallow fish, he was almost back to his old self.

On a side note, marshmallow fish is a thing in New Zealand.  Cool. Bit odd, but cool.

Breakfast was a hit. I had the most wonderful cinnamon porridge with caramelised bananas, which was so warming and wholesome in the wintry weather. I also had hash browns. And pneumatic curly fries. Because I was on holiday and I LOVE IT!!!

C1 Espresso was a fabulous introduction to New Zealand café life. I worked my way through a couple of the teas on offer, enjoying collecting the little match boxes the tea was served in, with a serving for now, and a helping for later. Even popping to the loo was fun as the toilets are behind a secret sliding bookshelf and have Harry Potter Audio book playing.

A return visit was definitely on the cards, and when we fetched up in Christchurch again a couple of weeks later, Matt and I hit C1 espresso again. It was still awesome, I had English Breakfast tea and collected another matchbox with Her Majesty on it, and ordered chocolate beetroot cake. It was a deliciously dense chocolate cake, encased in thick layer of milk chocolate, filled with salted caramel sauce and served with a syringe of raspberry coulis to inject into the centre. I for one love to play with my food and it this was totally legit. And delish.
It didn’t last very long.
Why, oh why, are all my favourite coffee shops thousands of miles away?
Kisses xxx
P.S. Double the travel posts this week; in a couple of days I'm sharing a few thoughts and pictures on some of the sights Christchurch has to offer.  Spoiler though: I really was taken with this little city.