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27th Nov 2009

Puppy Power

Jane: Just had one of the best birthdays ever, thanks to the arrival of George the puppy! I've wanted a dog for years, in fact Mal and I used to joke about our future wannabe hound 'Lyle the lurcher' (named in honour of singer Lyle Lovett). But it was never the right time. Until now. And George, hurrah!, is a lurcher (basically a sight hound crossed with something else): he’s part Saluki-greyhound-lurcher-Collie, so Gawd knows what he’ll turn out like. 

Weirdly, as you can see, he looks more like an Alsatian in terms of colouring and muzzle, so we may have been sold a pup…

I’m sitting in my office writing this while he is fast asleep in his basket by my feet – sweet! The children think he’s fab (happily even taking part in the prolific pooper-scooping) and Maudie and I will be going to training classes in the New Year.

Yep, we’re all in love, L-U-V. Long live King George!

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26th Oct 2009

Coffin Cakes

Edie: I wanted to make some little coffin-shaped cakes for Halloween (and eat them!). So me and my mum made a big sponge cake that we put black colouring in to make it look coffin-coloured, and cooked it in a big rectangular tin. When it came out it was green and grey not black and looked like it was covered in mould – we thought that was quite spooky for Halloween. 

Then we drew a coffin-shaped template out of cardboard, and cut it out. I put the template on the cake, got a knife and cut around it six times to make six coffins. (There was quite a lot of cake left over, but we ate it!)

Next we made some black glacé icing (which did turn out black) and spooned it over the top of the coffins, so it dripped down the sides. They did actually look like coffins.

Then we wrote on them with coloured icing tubes – things like ‘RIP’, ‘Vampire – do not open!’, and ‘Fang lives here’. Once they were finished, we ate them. They tasted spookily great!

I think these would make a good gift for trick or treaters on Halloween.

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18th Oct 2009

Halloween Treats

Jane: Here’s a funky way to dispense treats to trick ‘n’ treaters this Halloween – fill up a miniature witches’ broomstick with sweets. The brooms take just a minute to make: all you need is some brown paper, liquorice roots for the handles – they look wobbly and knobbly and very authentic (you can buy them in health food shops) – or just use twigs instead, some chocs or sweets, and a bit of raffia or thread to tie the broomstick together. 

Cut out some large circles on the brown paper, at least 26 cm in diameter. Pop a few sweets in the middle of the circle.

Then grab the edges of the paper and gather them together at the top. Shake the sweets down and push on a table to give the broomstick a flat bottom, so it will stand upright. Stick one end of a liquorice root in the centre of the gathered paper, about 2-3 cm deep, then secure around the paper and root with a bit of raffia or thread.


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26th Apr 2009

Beehive Style

Edie: On Saturday night my parents went out to a 1950s party. My mum did her hair really curly and I wanted to have a go with a different style too. So the next day we set up a hair salon in the front room. My mum got out all her hair things that she was going to use to give me a beehive hairstyle.

You will need:
Comb and brush
Hair pins (we used kirby grips and bun pins)
Hair doughnut
Styling lotion
Hair spray

This is me with nothing done to my hair, before we started.

To make the beehive, my mum put styling lotion in first, then she made a parting across the top of my head from ear to ear. She pinned the front half out of the way, and backcombed the other half so it was really bushy. She twisted it upwards, pinning it in place on the back of my head, leaving a little pony tail sticking out of the top. She then pinned the doughnut on top of my head to cover the little pony tail bit.

She backcombed the front half of my hair next. She did this a lot, so it stood up nicely. Then she twisted this upwards and backwards over the doughnut, tucking it in with hair pins so it stood up high. Then she sprayed loads of smelly hairspray over the whole thing.

I was desperate to see the finished product, so ran upstairs to the bathroom mirror to have a look. I felt a lot different and was really amazed. I thought I looked really grown up and from the olden days. It was a lovely feeling, but I didn’t dare go out of the house.

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13th Feb 2009

Long Valentines

Tamsin: When we think of Valentine cards the images that come to mind are pinks, reds, hearts, lace and sentimental verses. Well, this has not always been the case. In Victorian times you may have been sent 'Long' or 'Rough' Valentine cards whose sentiments were rather different.  The verses speak for themselves:
You're a curious sort of noodle
Half human and half poodle.
Do you think a girl can see
Any thing to love in thee

To a fat old croaker who is never well:
Your health is always trailing
Your heart always failing
You're going into a consumption quite
The consumption of gin both day and night

Oh! that any man should be
Such an animal as thee.
Nothing that ever fed on grass,
Was more like thee, - all as! - all as!

In the past cards were sometimes sent between women friends but not many were sent from women to men.
All photos are the copyright of the Cambridge & County Folk Museum.

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21st Dec 2008

Carol Singing

Tamsin: We have been carol singing round our local neighbourhood for about nine years.  The rendition of Jingle Bells is just as loud as it was in the beginning but now has a deep bass to it as the boys' voices turn into men’s. Carol singing has firmly become a family and friends' tradition (one friend rang me in October to get the date so she could make sure she was not having to work). 

 The best day of the week to sing is Sunday. We have tried various other days but found that this is the one when most people are in and there are only a few cars around which means we can take over the whole road.

We have a self-made booklet with all the song words in and take lanterns or bicycle lights to read them by. There is a mixture of the traditional carols with more ‘fun’ Christmas songs.  I have a love of the ancient ones such as ‘The Boar's Head’ and ‘Wassail, Wassail, All Over the Town’. 

The evening begins with a hotdog and warming drinks to lubricate the vocal cords. We then pile out into the street and gradually sing our way down it.  We always start with ‘Jingle Bells’ and end with ‘Winter Wonderland’ as we stride back home. Once in the warm, where our toes and fingers begin to defrost, we ladle out mulled wine and delve into a table of sweet treats.

We always raise money for a small local charity, this year Red2Green, and usually make about £100. That is a nice reward but there is nothing as rewarding as singing out in the cold, at the top of your voice with a group of friends. It really is the beginning of the festive season for me.
This year I was lucky enough to have the nephew of a friend - Oram Dannreuther – who is a fashion photographer in France and happened to have a new camera that he wanted to try out.  What better way for him to be introduced to the English carol singing tradition than coming along as our ‘official’ photographer to give me a lovely record of this event.  
I can only encourage others to try it in their neighbourhood but be warned – once begun it is hard not to make carol singing a tradition of your Christmas.

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17th Dec 2008

Snowball Truffles

Jane: Easy, delicious white chocolate truffles made by my friend Sue – pack them into Christmas bags or decorated boxes and they make a fantastic home-made present for teachers, relatives, as a house party gift etc. 

25g unsalted butter
Small tub double cream
Few drops vanilla extract
225g good-quality white chocolate, finely chopped
50g desiccated coconut or icing sugar for rolling

In a pan, melt the butter and double cream together gently, then add the vanilla. Add the white chocolate pieces and beat to a smooth paste. Leave the mixture to cool in the fridge for two to three hours, stirring occasionally to ensure it is smooth. Once it’s set enough, roll into little balls and coat with desiccated coconut or icing sugar. Place in a bag or box, and store in the fridge until needed. Will keep for several days.

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15th Dec 2008

Xmas Biscuit Lollypops

Jane: This is the week when we all run around trying to find fresh inspiration for Christmas gifts to give the teachers before term breaks up on Friday. Last weekend I read a newspaper article talking to teachers about the thorny subject of getting 30 naff Christmas gifts from their class -  they cheerfully said they appreciate home-made stuff a lot more than mugs or plaques saying toe-curling things like ‘world’s best teacher’. Which is great, because home-made it’s going to be. 

This year, as well as the bath bombs, we’re mostly going to be giving Christmas biscuit lollypops. They look fantastic, taste delicious, are easy to make in bulk, and the children can unleash their creative side while decorating them, which makes them very personal.

You need good, buttery-tasting cookies which also hold their shape while cooking: we used a recipe from Nigella’s Domestic Goddess (see below) but any old favourite you know that creates solid cookies will do. Cut out the biscuits a little thicker than normal – about three-quarters to one centimetre thick – using Christmas cutter shapes like trees, stars, Santa’s boots, reindeers, bells etc. Before putting the biscuits in the oven, push a small but solid wooden stick (cut-off kebab skewers work well – cocktail sticks are a bit too flimsy and traditional lollipop sticks too big) through the middle of the biscuit, then cook for a couple of minutes longer than usual.

When they’re cool, the children can get to work with the decorating – we used bought, brightly coloured icing pens because they’re easy, but you can make your own icing if you prefer. Then leave the biscuits to dry. They look great wrapped in cellophane with a ribbon and a little handwritten tag, proving it’s not just the thought but also the effort that counts.

Good-shaped Cookie Recipe 
This makes 30 or so biscuits

175g unsalted butter
200g caster sugar
2 large eggs
1 tsp vanilla extract
400g plain flour
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp salt

Cream the butter and sugar until pale and fluffy, beat in eggs and vanilla extract. Mix the flour, baking powder and salt in another bowl, then add the dry ingredients to the butter mixture, mixing well to make a dough. Divide dough into two balls, wrap each in cling-film and place in the fridge for at least an hour (you can freeze one half for use later).
Roll out on a floured board to about ¾ to 1 centimetre thick, and cut out in seasonal shapes. Place a wooden stick carefully into each biscuit, then lay on a baking sheet covered with lightly floured greaseproof paper, and cook at 180ºC for about 10 to 14 minutes. When cool, decorate as above.

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6th Dec 2008

Hanging Santa

Jane: I was digging around my parents’ Christmas decoration box recently and came across an old, homemade Hanging Santa. He was always a real family favourite, strung up from a hook in the middle of the hall corridor so he kicked everyone in the eye every time they passed (funny how no one thought of putting him anywhere more convenient). Twenty years on, he was looking a little ragged around the edges, so I decided to make him afresh for Xmas 2008. And here he is, looking very sparkly and chipper, raring to go for some chimney action come the 25th. 

Hanging Santa is easy to make, once you’ve cut out the shapes, but he does take a bit of faffing-around time to let paint dry etc. All you need (that famous phrase) is a piece of white cardboard, some zany metallic card for decoration (or use cotton wool instead), black and red paints, glue, a needle and white thread.

First draw and cut out the shapes from the white cardboard: a big circular body; four boots (you stick two sides together); four triangular arms (ditto); one moustache; two large circular eyes; four small pupils; two belt buckles; one hat with a pompom shape on top; two small circles for the nose; and two half moon collars.


Then get out the paints: paint the boots, buckles, four pupils and arms black. Paint the hat red on both sides. Paint the body half red, and paint a black belt line, on both sides. Paint a black edge around the moustache, on both sides. 

Once all this has dried, take your zany metallic card and cut out four tops for the boots, stick on with glue. Cut out two metallic circles to fit the collars. Stick a black pupil on to each side of the two eyes. Stick the two red noses on top of the moustache, one each side.

Cut out two metallic circular pompoms for the hat. Thread a double piece of thread through the original pompom, tie fast – this will be the thread your Santa hangs from. Then stick the zany metallic pompoms over each side to cover. 

Now you can build the Santa. Stick a boot on each side of the body, fitting them together neatly as shown. Repeat on the other side. Do the same with the arms. Stick a buckle on each side of the body over the belt line.

Then stick the two plain collars together over the body. Using a needle and thread, make a hole in the centre of the collar (where it overlaps the body) and tie fast one end of the thread. With the other end of the thread, make a hole in the bottom of the moustache, and tie fast at the required length. Stick the two metallic collars on top of the plain collar, one on each side of the body, to cover the thread hole.  

In the centre of the red nose, make another hole with the needle and thread and tie fast. Attach the other end of the thread to the middle brim of the hat (about 1cm in). Tie fast at required length. Now hang the two eyes from the hat brim with thread, and tie fast. Stick over two lengths of metallic card on the hat brim, to cover the holes.

And there you have him – a Hanging Santa. Okay, mine looks like a gormless Homer Simpson (it’s the moustache) though he’s still rather cute, breezing around happily on the wall. 

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24th Nov 2008

Bath Bombs

Jane: I’ve just finished a couple of months’ whopping workload and lifted my head to see…snow! A few flakes anyway, fluttering down yesterday, and more on the way according to the weather people. So we decided to spend the freezing weekend inside, lighting a big log fire, doing Stir-up Sunday pud-making and thinking of new present ideas to make for Christmas. One of them was Bath Bombs, inspired by the belief that at Christmastime you can’t go wrong with a bit of pampering and a lot of fizz. 

The bombs are quick and easy to make – though take 12 hours to dry – and look very seasonal made in the shapes of Christmas trees and hearts, then wrapped in cellophane and ribbons. They’re exciting to use too: when you drop one in your bath it fizzes and twirls like a Catherine wheel, releasing its skin-soothing oils and fragrance for a good soak.
All you need are a couple of packets of citric acid (from chemists), bicarbonate of soda and vegetable oil (we used sunflower but almond and olive are lovely on the skin). We added some dried lavender flowers (or you can use any fragrant essential oil you like) and a bit of colouring too.
In a dry glass bowl, measure out 1 part citric acid to 2 parts bicarbonate of soda. Stir gently but thoroughly with a metal spoon – the mix is quite potent and can make you sneeze so stand back while stirring.

We added in the lavender flowers next, stripped from their stalks, or stir in a few drops of essential oil if using. Then add in half teaspoonfuls of oil one at a time, stirring really well, until you get a clumpy but not wet mixture. You can also add a few drops of colouring here – we used green food colouring but be careful not to put in too much as the mixture can start fizzing, which you want to avoid at all costs.

Then spoon the bomb mixture into seasonal cookie cutter shapes, placed on a baking tray covered with greaseproof paper. Press the mixture down hard, then leave overnight to dry.

Next day, push the bombs carefully out of the moulds. Lay them on a small piece of cardboard covered with silver foil or wrapping paper, then fold over a cellophane sheet and tie with ribbon and a label.

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30th Oct 2008

Pink Devils

Jane: The ghostly meringue banshees went down so well with trick or treaters last Halloween that I thought I'd make a similar version on a devilish theme this year. The devil meringue had to be red, with diabolical horns, a fiendish mouth and an evil expression (sadly, I knew cloven hoofs and a devil's fork were way too ambitious for the medium of meringue). In the end, even 'red' turned into a bit of challenge. I made the meringue as normal (for instructions see meringue banshees) and at the last minute added my red food colouring.  


The mixture turned a light pink. I added some more colouring, it turned a slightly darker pink. I could see that if I added the 2 or 3 teaspoonfuls needed to make the mixture a deep and bloody red, the meringue would be so sloppy it wouldn't hold the devil shape. So the devil became pink (hope he didn't mind). 
On a sheet of greaseproof paper, I whirled spoonfuls of pink meringue to try and create a devil shape. The floppy mixture wouldn't quite hold and kept squidging out sideways, getting fatter and fatter as I added more for height. Still, fat devils can be fiendish too. I shaped two crescent horns using a straw, whirled some eyes, and drew a long downturned mouth. Then I shoved the little monster in the oven to crisp up. I had a peek about an hour in and the devil was frothing red blood (the colouring) from the gash of his mouth – marvellously gruesome. I left overnight hoping the blood would solidify creating a truly scary sight. 
In the end, there was just a dribble of blood, but the devil looked rather splendid as though he'd been on a three-day eating and drinking orgy, his horns slightly bashed and with a rueful but still devilish expression on his face. 

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27th Oct 2008

Devilish Cakes

Tamsin: We decided this year to theme our Halloween around Devils. A devil must have horns, sinister eyes, a mean mouth and red skin. For our cupcakes all this had to be achieved with a selection of sweets from the newsagents which unfortunately excluded liquorice (the smell is enough to make me feel rather woozy). This was a bit of a handicap due to the lack of other black sweets around, so we decided purple ones would be a fine substitute.

A large teaspoon of artificial red food colouring went into the sponge mixture before baking and at least another large teaspoon into the icing to cover the 12 cup cakes. 

Carla, Sara and I began to experiment with the variety of sweets we had managed to find.

The best horns turned out to be Fruit Polos that we ‘sawed’ in half. The only problem was our packet only contained three purple ones, and it was rather too easy to create fruit splinters rather than horns when cutting them.

Tic-tacs made good eyes and a tube of black icing was best for the wicked eyebrows.

The cakes would make good trick and treat gifts but the best fun is creating the different devil faces. If you need to entertain some devilish kids, decorating these could keep them amused for quite a while.

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22nd Oct 2008

Balloon Monsters

Jane: As a gruesome welcome to trick or treaters this year, we wanted to try out something new and a bit different – some gorgeously gassy grotesques. The idea of three expanding Halloween balloon monsters lined up in a row, wobbling and burping horribly before our eyes, seemed very enticing. So Edie drew some monstrous mouths, eyes and noses – enough for three faces (see below) – and cut them out. We found three small bottles, some orange balloons, and got out the bicarbonate of soda and vinegar ready for the old explosion trick

First we filled the balloons with a very big teaspoonful of bicarb using a funnel (flow it in gently, otherwise it can get stuck in the neck). Then we filled the three bottles one-third full with vinegar.

We attached the neck of the balloons over the bottles, making sure to pull the plastic down as far as we could and being careful to flop the balloon over to one side so no bicarb falls in to the bottle.

Then we stuck the eyes, mouths and noses upside down on the balloons, with a small separate piece of blu-tack on each bit.

Then came the exciting bit – we turned up the balloons so the bicarb fell into the vinegar, and the balloons began to expand with the carbon dioxide produced. The faces stretched and grimaced, and started flopping madly on their wobbly necks. The bottles were made of plastic – not quite heavy enough to support the weight of the balloons – so they all fell over and crashed. It was messy, very messy! But also very good (and a little bit scientific) fun.

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17th Mar 2008

The Madness of Easter Bonnets

It is thrilling to come across an unexpected remnant of times gone by. I happened to stumble on one whilst walking through a country market on my way to the cinema the other day. There in full multi-coloured glory was a fake flower stall selling garishly decorated Easter bonnets.

Easter bonnets came out of the tradition of wearing new clothes on certain days of the year to give good luck. Easter Sunday was one of those days, and Easter bonnets decorated with ribbons, flowers, lace and other assortments were paraded in church then shown off afterwards in the Easter Day Procession. 

Sadly, this tradition is rarely kept now so I was delighted to see the stall full of forgotten treasures – a place where modern ideas of 'taste' had not penetrated. I spoke to the delightful old man running the stall who said he wanted to revive the parades that used to take place in the surrounding towns. He was going into old people’s homes to make hats with the elderly residents who remembered decorating bonnets as an essential part of Easter. It was lovely to come across someone who was freely giving something back to others – another tradition that sometimes seems to be fading.

Well, I had to buy one! A delightful arrangement of birds, flowers and (in the words of the stall holder) wasps! I will use it to inspire our Easter bonnet creations which – though I haven't told anyone about this yet – we're going to be making on Easter Sunday out of newspaper and decorating with whatever we can find in the garden. A time limit will be put on this activity and, just like in old times, we'll then parade them in front of each other.

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13th Feb 2008

Four Jars of Love!

Tamsin: With all the empty jars I have and no jam at this time of year to fill them up, I thought we could use a few for Valentine’s Day and fill them with little snippets of ‘love’ for each member of the family. I had forgotten though that expressing ‘love’ is not always easy and takes quite a lot of hard work in our family, but I ploughed on with my idea. I cut out an optimistic 50 red hearts and then called everyone to write something on each one for each member of the family. Every heart contained the end to the sentence ‘I love...’ thinking of a trait, action, feeling etc. Mike, emotionally deprived from his 1960s' upbringing, squirmed for 15 minutes and managed to write one for each person. Carla relished the opportunity, having no qualms about expression, but from her giggles I am unsure what we can expect. Joe in his teenage ‘life is so exhausting and my head is so heavy’ state wrote a couple before yawning and settling down to a book. I scribbled away as if it was an exam I had to pass, making sure I'd given equal weight to each member of the family so no favouritism was shown.
We now have four jars filled with ‘?’ – which will be revealed on the 14th.

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12th Feb 2008

Valentine's Wreaths

Jane: Wandering around snowy New England over the weekend, I saw these heart-shaped Valentine’s wreaths on people’s front doors. What a cute idea. These ones were very pink and red and glittery, and would be easy to make one with greenery from the garden with some red berries, ribbons and little heart motifs…

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22nd Jan 2008

Burns Supper

Carolynda: Next Friday night, 25th January, is Burns Night and haggises are trembling in the cool counters, knowing that their short lives will soon be ended by frightful boilings and stabbings. Scots at home and abroad are sharpening their sgian-dubhs for the ritual sacrifice of this 'great chieftain o’ the pudding race' in the name of Scotland's most famous poet's birthday and general excuse for a knees-up, airing of the tartans and downing of whisky. We’ve recovered from the rigours of Christmas and Hogmanay and are ready to face the onslaught of a Burns Supper, the annual feasting on haggis, neeps and tatties, washed down with lashings of the 'amber nectar' (or 'eau de vie' as whisky is affectionately known here). Scots gather to address the haggis in old Scots dialect and tuck into this particularly national dish, in celebration of the life and works of Robert Burns, Scotland’s greatest poet.

Years back I hosted a Burns Night for friends (including Jane) at my house in London, where we had a supper followed by Scottish country dancing and even improvised sword-dancing around the bread knives! As a Scot who returned to Scotland four years ago after spending half my adult life in the south of England, I am sure it is the itinerant Scots, in far-flung corners of the globe, who embrace Burns Night with the greatest fervour. My mother-in-law speaks proudly and fondly of the great times had in Malawi during the fifties, sixties and seventies, when the tartans were dusted down and haggises were flown in to the skirl of pipes and toasted with whisky galore!

Haggis is a mixture of minced lamb offal, beef fat, oatmeal, water, onion, salt, pepper and spices traditionally bound inside a sheep's stomach. Neeps are mashed Scottish turnip (swede to the English) and tatties are mashed potatoes. At a Burns Supper, a starter may be cock-a-leekie soup (chicken and leek broth) or cullen skink ( a delicious smoked fish and cream soup). For pudding there may be sherry trifle, cranachan (a thick creamy mix including toasted oatmeal, whipped cream, rum or vanilla, sugar and fresh berries such as raspberries). Cheese and oatcakes and coffee would follow and whisky would be offered throughout the meal.

So what happens on Burns Night, or colloquially, Nicht? The men put on their kilts and the women dress up with a bit of tartan and we have a Burns Supper, with recitations of Burns' poetry, traditionally including the long poem 'Tam O' Shanter', performance of some of his songs, various toasts to the lassies and the men, followed by a Ceilidh and ending up with 'Auld Lang Syne'. Though sometimes the celebrations are less formal. I remember being with friends in a pub in Aberdeen when a piper unexpectedly came forth from the kitchen, followed by the chef carrying a large haggis on a platter. When the piper finished, the haggis was addressed by a reading of Burns' ‘Address to a Haggis' (‘Fair fa’, your honest sonsie face…’), ceremonially cut open and returned to the kitchen. The piper and the reader were each given a dram of whisky and soon afterwards everyone in the pub was served a plate of haggis, neeps and tatties 'on the house'.

Nowadays we often eat a haggis supper as we can get it all year round and it is something of a family favourite. This week we have eaten a Macsween haggis, one of the good, well-known makes – if you’re worried about the offal, they do a delicious nut and lentil-based vegetarian version. And I see they are now doing cocktail haggises – a good way to introduce wee Sassenachs and Burns Night novices to their first Burns Supper.

Carolynda is an artist and you can see some of her paintings here.

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22nd Dec 2007

The Fun of Christmas Decorations

Tamsin: In the hecticness of Christmas I always try to take a couple of minutes to think of some craft activities to keep the kids occupied in the days between the end of school and Christmas. This mainly means decorations for the tree and house. Keeping the kids’ hands busy will help put to good use some of that over-excited energy that’s building up and up. For this reason I keep to the old family tradition of decorating the house on the 23rd December and the tree on the 24th.

Sometimes the simplest ideas work best. One year the children spent a whole day making hundreds of cut-out snowflakes that we hung on string and used as paper chains. Apart from the large amount of hoovering that had to be done afterwards this was a great excitement-consuming activity. Another simple idea was to get them to draw a motif for each door in the house – snowmen, Father Christmas, Rudolfs and so on were cut out and stuck to each door.

Paper chains and holly and ivy are a must for the house and one of my favourites are the crêpe paper ones. There is something wonderful about repetitively folding paper and ending up with a multi-coloured streamer after one simple pull of the finished folds.

Greenery takes pride of place in my house too, with sprigs of holly and ivy on top of every mirror or picture frame. Usually I make a swag to go around the stair rail, but this year I ran out of energy so with a house full of guests about to view Christmas efforts I twisted tinsel and hung cascading branches of ivy from the banister instead – easily worth the 10 minutes work.

Then there is the Christmas tree. For me the tree is about memories of Christmas past. I am not too fussed what it looks like in the end as long as we all join in the decorating and chat about the stories behind the different decorations as they come out of the boxes. Every year my children choose and buy a new decoration each and I love opening their decoration boxes to find a little bit of their past personalities, wrapped in tissue paper, waiting for me to rediscover – which usually means Carla and her pink glitzy numbers and Joe with his animals. This year they carried on in the same ilk –

Joe - some funky fish

Carla – a very pink swan

But I also love homemade decorations. My mother still has ours. The singing angel, the flying pig made from corks and painted pink, even the tiny medicine bottles that were sprayed gold one year as a substitute for baubles. This year I finally got round to making an idea I’d read about in a book on the traditions of Victorian Christmas – Gilded Walnuts, hollowed out, hiding a tiny treat and hung on the tree or placed in a bowl of nuts at the table.

Then there’s Feather Angels, so delicate yet so quick and simple, the hardest part is tying a knot.

And Beaded Icicles, which I’ve had classes of toddlers making and which look beautiful as the tree lights shine through them.

Enjoy any creativity you manage to do over the festive period – I would love to hear any ideas that went really well because there is always another Christmas next year and just as much excitement to contain.

For other Christmas decorations, try Glass Tree Biscuits, Gingerbread Houses and Christmas Bunches of Baubles (see 18th Dec blog).

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20th Dec 2007

Deck Those Halls...

Jane: The 21st December is the shortest day of the year, and it used to be a huge celebration when people lit fires that burned all day and night, carrying over the flame from one log to another – a tradition we still honour today in a weird kind of way by eating chocolate Yule log. It was also the day when the halls finally got decked with holly and other evergreens, picked because they symbolise the eternal cycle of life. In our road, everyone’s already got their trees, decorations and lights up and they look stunning (if very, very white this year). But I always like to crank up the excitement for the kids by leaving the whole decorating thing until the last minute.

So we’re going out for a greenery walk to bring back swags of red-berried holly, ivy, bay, rosemary and laurel – and then we'll head to the market to find mistletoe and hopefully some eucalyptus boughs with berries, which smell marvellously invigorating (rather like upmarket cough sweets) hung all around the house. It's only then I feel the countdown to Christmas really has begun...

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18th Dec 2007

Christmas Bunch of Baubles

Edie: My sister and I decided to make two big bunches of baubles to hang on our walls. My mum went to John Lewis and bought a box of 100 silver baubles (Jane: reduced to half price – hurry!) and some big fancy baubles too. We got some silver beading wire and started to thread the baubles and stars on to it. Once we had put on lots of baubles, and one coloured one, we twirled the end of the wire and twisted white ribbon on to which we hung our finest bauble so it dangled below.

It was great fun and quite quick and easy to make, though to warn you we got very glittery as the glitter on the balls went all over us. We took down two pictures and hung the decorations up in their place. They look very special in your house at Christmas. And if you put them in your dining room or kitchen, you can stare at them while having your Christmas dinner.

For other homemade Christmas decorations, see our Glass Tree Biscuits, Feather Angels and Secret Gilded Walnuts.


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12th Dec 2007

Crackers and Pullers

Tamsin: Crackers are a wonderful respite in the middle of the Christmas meal – a bit of fun as paper hats are forced on to heads and corny jokes read out. In recent years, I’ve filled my own crackers as there are only so many plastic trinkets one family can take... A few years ago, I put in false ears, eyelashes and noses making for hilarious results round the table and embarrassing photos to place in the album.

Our favourite cracker-filler has been wind-up toys – so far I’ve done snails, sprouts and ladybirds. Once the crackers are pulled, everyone gets down on the floor with their toy and has a race. Along the same lines, I once filled them with small wooden tops which we spun to see whose could keep going longest. It was a knock-out competition with different leagues to take account of the different ages.

Apart from crackers we have another family tradition from Mike’s side of the family – The Puller. This resembles a cracker in so far as you have to pull to get the contents out. After Christmas lunch, each person is given a string to pull. 

The other end of the string is attached to a wrapped present that’s been hidden in a paper and cardboard construction. The gifts inside the Puller are only small: last year I got chocolate bars, the year before some cheap CDs, and the year before that bath products.

The shape the Puller is made into depends on the shapes of the gifts, but Christmas puds, candles, snowmen and houses are favourites. Mike puts it all together on Christmas Eve.

I always wondered where the tradition of the Puller came from and Mike never knew, except that his great-aunt always bought theirs to Christmas lunch from Harrods! I’ve never seen them in the shops but this year I was doing some research on Victorian Christmas traditions and came across a ‘Snowball Dinner Table for Children’ – a table laid with a glass vase centrepiece filled with cotton wadding, with holly spilling over the top. Hidden in the wadding were gifts for the children attached to ribbons which were pulled at the end of the meal when the candles were lit. It’s a similar idea and obviously a tradition we’ve gradually lost as crackers have become more popular.

I was reminiscing with some friends my age about Christmas when we were growing up in the 70s, and several of them mentioned that their families had a homemade box, often decorated as a house with cotton wool snow, that came down each year from the attic. It was placed at the Christmas table and contained a small gift for each person which was handed out at the end of the meal.
Does anyone else have memories or traditions of small gifts being given at Christmas meals and how they are presented?

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8th Dec 2007

All Presents and Correct

Jane: Christmas isn’t Christmas for me without a panic about presents. In our family, almost everyone has birthdays in November and December (including 21st Dec and Christmas Day itself) – so the idea of just going ‘Christmas shopping’ sounds an incredible luxury. We’re still bogged down in birthdays as the turkey hits the table. As a result, all questions about what the children are going to give relatives/friends/teachers are easy – it’s got to be homemade, otherwise we’d go mad and no doubt bankrupt too.

There are many pluses: most homemade gifts are green or edible or both, they’re funky and fun to make, and have the added bonus of being low-cost – and like the pop group the Swinging Buildings, I’m forever ‘Praying for a Cheaper Christmas’. They’re also personal and endearing, a sure sign that thought, care and attention have been lavished around.
We have a couple of rules: all homemade presents have to be quick, simple, and easy to make in bulk. So this year the children are making dinky little Chocolate Pud Truffles for their teachers, decorated with green and red holly icing on top. They’re a doddle to make and taste really good – they’re basically melted chocolate and cream, so the better quality the chocolate, the more luxe the flavour. In pretty boxes, they look fab. A friend who’s a Year 1 teacher recently said she worries about hand hygiene with her class’s homemade goodies, so this year we’re making a joke of it by putting a label on saying ‘All hands washed thoroughly before these puds were made’.

Last year, Edie made Christmas Star Biscuits in chocolate and vanilla – and a few days later, her teacher raced across to us in M&S to say how much she liked them, which I count a BIG success.

Edie’s friend Amber has perfected a chocolate chip cookie recipe that is simply one of the best I’ve tasted – if I was a teacher, I’d be looking forward to a big plate of these this Christmas (hint, hint...).

Last year Joe made Cherry Shortbread Mice, dipped cherries in chocolate with almond slices for ears and icing noses and eyes – cute, easy and speedy if you have loads of people to make gifts for. It makes you realise that homemade gift-giving is all in the presentation – wrap anything up in a sheet of cellophane and tie with Christmas ribbon and you have a good-looking present.

I remember once reading that books made the best Christmas presents because ‘they’re never fattening, seldom sinful and permanently personal’. The same is true of bookmarks – and they’re easier to make. Brightly coloured personalised bookmarks always go down a treat with the literary of our rellies.

For Jo Malone fans, this year we’re also making Honeycomb Rolled Candles. They take a bit of finicky cutting at first but once you’ve got the hang of it you can churn out lots of them quickly – they look great bunched together, tied with ribbon.

Very young children can have a go decorating plain white candles with bits of coloured wax – if you use miniature cutters they’ll look surprisingly professional even as a centrepiece on the table at Christmas lunch.

For the kids who come round, we’re making Candy Striped Pencils and hanging them on the Christmas tree so they can pick and take one home. And as a thank-you gift for Christmas parties, I’ve stashed away some pots of Herb Jelly, Quince and Ginger Jam and Cranberry Conserve that I cheated and made earlier.
That’s it. We’re knackered and it’s only the 8th December. But give us a couple of days and we’re looking forward to getting going on the Christmas (and birthday) shopping proper.

Tamsin: This year my family is going to be dipping crystallised oranges and peel in chocolate and making boxes. Carla, dipping, Joe, making boxes. Joe has yet to design the container but when he does I'll put it up as you always need a box or two at Christmas.

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6th Dec 2007

And Here It Is… Merry Christmas!

Mal: Now that it’s December the Christmas records (yes, that’s the vinyl) and CDs can be dusted off and come out to play. We have a ban on Christmas music the rest of the year – if anyone so much as starts humming ‘Jingle Bells’ from January to November we jump on them – but come early December, the Christmas-themed tunes are played full blast until the end of the year.

The kids have their favourites: Edie demands The Ronettes’ version of ‘I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus’ and The Beach Boys’ ‘Santa’s Got An Airplane’ on constant replay, unless Maudie can get to the CD player to load Darlene Love’s ‘Marshmallow World’ first.

I’m kind of proud that they’re both fans of Phil Spector’s unique treatment of the Xmas song. For most of the 1970s and 1980s his album ‘A Christmas Gift To You’ was the only holiday-themed record deemed listenable by hip music fans (and that of course included me). It’s packed with his crazy wall-of-sound backing for traditional songs such as ‘Parade of Wooden Soldiers’ and ‘Silent Night’, as well as classic pop songs like ‘Winter Wonderland’ and ‘White Christmas’, making them sound as epic and contemporary today as when he recorded them in 1963.
A great Christmas song needs to be full of either emotion or mad humour. Spike Jones and his City Slickers’ version of ‘Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer’ is the epitome of the wacky fun-filled Xmas song. Likewise Huey ‘Piano’ Smith’s version of ‘Twas The Night Before Xmas’: with its rolling New Orleans piano and deep bass voice, it sounds like the musical accompaniment to a classic Tom & Jerry cartoon.
‘Twas the night before Christmas…’ is the first line of the most famous Christmas poem ever written (in 1823 by Clement Clark Moore), and the inspiration for the first Christmas pop song (1963) to give Santa his route down the chimney. Since then, ‘Up On The House Top’ has been covered by scores of singers, most recently and successfully by Kimberley Locke in 2005, though I prefer the Jackson 5 version from 1970.

In fact, because of my age perhaps, there are a lot of Christmas song recordings from the 1970s that I love. Not the usual Slade and Wizard megahits of the day, but Mud’s ‘Lonely This Christmas’ which is a slight reworking of the Elvis version of ‘Blue Christmas’, and the Partridge Family’s ‘My Christmas Card To You’ being particular favourites. The latter was the only original number on the David Cassidy and Shirley Jones-led TV family’s Christmas album of the same name, a vinyl copy of which – now 36 years old – is still played in our house during December.

As a twentysomething, I used to bug the hell out of the left-leaning, self-styled rebels I shared a house with by loudly playing the CBS Frank Sinatra album, recorded in his 20s and full of carols. ‘The Sinatra Christmas Album’ (the later Capitol recordings) still sounds pretty good too.
These days there are so many fantastic Christmas song compilations covering every musical genre that you can make a different compilation every year (which I do) and not repeat anything. Only Edie and Maudie demand ‘I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus’ and ‘Marshmallow World’ on every single one. It’s ruining my street cred, but what’s a dad to do?

Here are some other songs that rock our Christmas socks. Please send us your Xmas favourites, we’d love to hear them…

Mal: Barbra Streisand's 'A Christmas Album' and my friend Pete Silverton’s 2004 Christmas compilation CD, full of fantastic and unusual songs (we can send you a tracklist, just ask…).
Jane: The Chieftains’ ‘The Bells of Dublin’ with Elvis Costello, Rickie Lee Jones and Jackson Browne is sublime. Plus I also have a very soft spot for Alma Cogan’s ‘Never Do a Tango with an Eskimo’ (‘No, No, No…’).
Tamsin: I like traditional old carols and two of my favourites are ‘The Boar’s Head Carol’ and ‘Gloucestershire Wassail’. A nice set of such carols can be found on Paul Hillier's 'Carols from the Old and New Worlds'. And ‘Raffi’s Christmas Album’ gets 10-out-of-10 for younger children.
Carla: ‘Last Christmas’ by George Michael.
Maudie: her second favourite is ‘Winter Wonderland’ also by Darlene Love.
Edie: her third favourite is… oops, she doesn’t have one.

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1st Dec 2007

Shoes, sweeties and St Nicholas

Nienke: Every year on 5 December, Dutch children (even those living in Britain) are lucky enough to receive presents from St Nicholas, a bishop dressed traditionally in sumptuous red robes and a beribboned mitre with crucifix. St Nicholas arrives several weeks before the big day, having come all the way from Spain on a steamboat, accompanied by a troop of ‘Black Peters’, his colourfully dressed and antic-loving helpers.
During those weeks, he travels through the country on horseback over the rooftops, stopping off at chimneys to eavesdrop on children’s good and bad behaviour and to send his helpers down with small presents and sweets, to be put in the shoes carefully left out by the fireplaces below. Any children who have not behaved well might run the risk of finding their shoe filled with a bundle of twigs instead: in days gone by, this was the tool with which the Black Peters chastised naughty children.

The small gifts in the shoes are a build-up to the baskets full of presents that arrive on the doorstep on the 5th, accompanied by showers of sweetie-sized ginger nuts thrown into the room by an unknown hand in a long black glove. Often, there is also a proper visit from St Nicholas himself, who calls the children to him one by one to discuss their behaviour and praise their achievements of the past year, reading from notes in his big, red book. He will always ask the children to sing a couple of the old St Nicholas songs they have been taught by their parents and at school.

In families with older children, the celebration takes on a different form. Having prepared traditional foods such as thick pea soup and ‘speculaas’ biscuits, family members sit around the table to exchange ‘surprise-wrapped’ presents each with a funny poem of rhyming couplets. Both packaging and poem are inspired by a theme that lightly mocks a character quirk or funny incident that happened to the person receiving the gift. So for the mother who locked herself out of the house in her pyjamas, you could do the present up as a pair of pyjama trousers, or a big key, and begin to think about a good word that rhymes with ‘embarrassed’.

The historical St Nicholas, bishop of Myra in the 4th century AD, saved many people, especially children, from fates such as starvation, execution after false prosecution, etc – doing his good deeds in secret and expecting nothing in return. He became the patron saint of children, among others, and his kindness and generosity live on today in the way his name day is celebrated in Holland. Having lived in Britain for a long time, Christmas has become our most important festival, but St Nicholas’s Day is very close to our hearts.

Looking for advent calendar ideas? What about advent stars, advent packets or a traditional nativity scene...

If you're thinking of making your own Christmas cards this year, click here for some ideas for grown-ups and children...

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26th Nov 2007

DIY Christmas Cards

Tamsin: December is fast upon us and as usual I am having an internal debate between my rational and irrational self. My rational self is telling me to do the easiest thing and my irrational self can’t allow me to. Something deep inside has to add an extra stress to my life. This extra stress is making 120 Christmas cards in the next two weeks, on top of work, the rest of the Christmas activities and keeping the family running smoothly. Why am I driven to do this?

Part of it comes from my upbringing where hand-made cards were an essential ingredient of birthdays and Christmas. My mother and sisters were all fairly arty and so was I until I hit my teenage years and began to feel drawing was not my thing. From that time on the ritual of ‘hand-made’ became a torture. But the seed was planted and ever since I’ve felt I have to make the effort, whatever the angst. As a grown-up, I’ve also discovered that home-made Christmas cards give me an excuse not to write the ‘round robin’ letter, which I also dread doing. With a home-made card, you feel you’ve added the ‘I care’ element without having to pen hundreds of words. (I hope this is how the recipients of the cards feel too…)

Nowadays, making the Christmas cards is a joint operation with Mike. We vaguely devote a weekend to it in early December and working round the dining room table go into ‘mass production’ mode of stamping, cutting, sticking, signing… I’ve brainwashed my children into creating their own cards and they happily join the production line too.

I offer up some basic ideas here (and for children's cards here) and show you a selection of cards that we and the children have made or been sent to hopefully inspire you. DIY Christmas cards may add a bit of stress to your life but it’s worth it not just for the good family fun you have but also to send the most personal kind of greetings to your lucky friends and relations.

PS: Having a busy life is no excuse. Each year I look forward to receiving a card from a friend who is also the CEO of a multinational company. He and his wife create some of the most imaginative and beautifully engineered cards I’ve ever seen. Don’t know where they get the time but I greatly appreciate that they find it because their annual card is a highlight of our Christmas post.

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20th Nov 2007

Advent Mornings

Tamsin: Advent is the start of Christmastide and a countdown to the days of preparation before the big day. As a child having a birthday around this time, I was always given several Advent calendars by well-meaning relatives – and when you get that many (this was in the days before chocolate in the calendars) the novelty wore off a bit. But now as a mum, I enjoy the ritual of marking each day during the festive period and the few minutes of fun it brings to the hectic December morning schedule between packed lunches, breakfast and finding schoolbooks.

My daughter especially would just like a bog-standard chocolate-let’s-open-it-and-eat-it calendar. But establishing a family tradition goes a long way to dampening any disappointment and there is still much excitement, even after 14 years, when Joe and Carla come down on the first morning of Advent to be greeted with a bowl of tissue-wrapped parcels, numbered for each day, containing the figures and animals needed to build up our traditional nativity scene. This nativity set has been built up over many years, adding a new animal or figure each Christmas. The barn is now overflowing with different beasts – some of which look a bit out of place such as the crocodile (it arrived when my son was in his reptile obsession era) or the spaniel that looks just like my parents’ dog and I feel sure never made it to the manger. Having seen how much fun my children have had over the years, I now send my nephew and nieces a new animal each year to add to their nativity scenes – a nice way for ‘Aunty Tamsin/Tata’ to pop into their lives especially as we live quite far away from each other. This year as ever I had to make the phone call to my sisters to find out what animal I’d given them before and as the years go by the discussion gets longer and longer – I should really keep a list but that would be just too organised.

We usually have a second calendar too. One Advent we had a calendar with a set of books telling the story of ‘A Christmas Carol’ in short pieces, which we read at the breakfast table before hanging them up around the window. We liked it so much we repeated it the next year with the story of ‘The Nutcracker’.

Another year I cut out lots of Advent stars, set them on a plate around a candle and hung one a day, so by Christmas Day there was a ceiling of stars over the breakfast table.

The best cardboard and pictures calendar was a French one (luckily translated) where each day you had to hunt out various objects in the central picture. It was hard even for the adults, especially if you had to find five toy soldiers or six singing robins, and the excitement was often carried over to the evening.

It’s traditional to light red candles (in days gone by red was a colour to ward off witchcraft or evil spirits) and this year I found these miniature ones for us to light and mark off the ‘spiralling’ towards Christmas. I have yet to design the Advent plate they will sit on but I am sure that I’ll slip in some chocolate somewhere, probably in little packets or cones of paper as I did last year with our Advent sweetie packets, just to keep up with my daughter and leave her with fond memories of Advent mornings.

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3rd Nov 2007

Make Your Own Fireworks

Jane: The celebrations come thick and fast at this time of year. No sooner have the spooks of Hallowe’en disappeared than Bonfire Night is upon us. In London, we used to invite another couple of families round and light fireworks for the children in the garden. But it always felt a bit risky and after a Catherine wheel burnt dark holes in a fence post, we gave up the homemade displays and went to a nice, safe municipal one instead. Sparklers were as risky as it got.
So I was a bit stunned to read about people making their own fireworks.

This was in the make-and-mend 30s, when you knitted your own swimsuits (mine is coming along nicely, thank you, see 10th Sept blog), bathing shoes and even canoes. It felt a bit like stumbling across a bomb-making kit on the internet: I flicked through the pages with shock and awe, thanking god for the great modern invention of health and safety. We’d have blown our hands off trying this.
Apparently, the Crusaders brought back ‘pyrotechnic compositions’ from the East in the 13th century, and though Henry VIII was a fan, English fireworks didn’t really get going with a bang (excuse the pun) until the publication of Pyrotechnia by John Babington in 1635.
The ingredients sound like an alchemist’s hit list: saltpetre, sulphur, sulphide of antimony, mealed gunpowder, charcoal, chlorate of potash. To make red ‘stars’ you need carbonate of strontia; for blue, arsenate of copper; and for green, chlorate of baryta. As well as the shellac of course. And sometimes what is called ‘dark fire’ is used to light the charge. Very Voldemort.
Where did the ordinary person pick up these chemicals? Especially since 1894, chlorate of potash and sulphur were considered so dangerous by the Home Office explosives department that they were banned.
Strangely enough, in my handy tome ‘Fireworks’ is followed by a big section on ‘First Aid in Everyday Emergencies’.
I think this is one project we won’t be trying at home…

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25th Oct 2007

Trick or Treating Spiders

Tamsin: As we approach the time of year when witches, ghosts, devils, spirits, kelpies, demons, hobgoblins, skeletons, mummies, banshees, spiders and ghouls stalk our streets, our thoughts turn to concocting fiendish morsels to feed them. Last year we made pumpkin biscuits and the children decorated them with various ghoulish faces, which our trick-or-treaters seemed to like.
This year, we’ve decided to go with a spider theme. We can get as many as 50 local children calling round trick or treating, and we don’t dare to run out of goodies early in the evening.

So I was thinking of creating something simple and easy to make in large quantities, and suitably Hallowe’enish. Remembering a glut of black pipe cleaners at the back of my cupboard I thought of Teacake Spiders, with long pipe cleaner legs and cute icing faces.

The kids are always keen to receive sweets, so I adapted the basic shape to make a Sweetie Spider using a handful of Smarties as the body. Put these leggy spiders all together on a big tray and they look very gruesome.

They’re not quite bloody enough for some Hallowe’eners, though. And so, when the pipe cleaners run out, we’ll bake a batch of cupcakes for an Invasion of the Bug-eyed Spiders. These creepy arachnids are dripping with more blood than an episode of Grey’s Anatomy, with their red icing heads and strawberry shoelaces for legs.

Last year some children who came a-calling sang for their treats, and I remember enjoying it much more than the usual trick or treating (which can sometimes feel more like smash ‘n’ grab) that is common these days. In Scotland where Jane grew up, everyone went guising instead of trick or treating in the 1960s and 70s, and had to do a little performance—singing a song, reciting a poem or even doing a dance—before they got their goodies. The guisers carried homemade pumpkin lanterns, and would be invited into the houses to dunk or ‘dook’ for apples, spearing them with forks held between their teeth. They’d get given sweets, nuts and homemade toffee apples to take away.
It’s a nice-sounding tradition, and one I’d like to bring back. After all it is the time of the year when long dead things awake, isn’t it?
(For other guising goodies, you could try making Meringue Banshees or Hallowe’en Cakes.)


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3rd Oct 2007

Gaia’s Courgette Birthday Cake

Jane: It was my niece Gaia’s 5th birthday and her mum, my sister Joanne, decided to make a tempting but healthy batch cake for the party. That meant introducing one of the mandatory five-a-day veggies (though a dietician I recently talked to suggested nine a day was more like it) into the cake. Carrots were out (five-year-olds can spot them a mile off), so Jo thought to tap into the latest craze – courgette cake. Subtle, green and mysterious.

Actually it’s not so green, more an ordinary Victoria sponge colour with bits in. Jo’s just had a stove and oven put in after years cooking with a Baby Belling and microwave and is enjoying her new culinary freedom: she cobbled together a big batch recipe from various online sources, and decorated it with Smarties and five candles which Gaia blew out beautifully. It was a great cake. Most of the kids gobbled it up though a few headed off towards the chocolate brownie plate instead.

But the big surprise was how much the adults loved it. Mothers came up to Jo afterwards, saying ‘Ooh, its lovely, so moist and delicious.’ Most people think courgettes are dull (though I adore them – especially grilled with oil and lemon juice sprinkled on). But in this recipe you couldn’t taste them at all – just a general yumminess and lightness of flavour that made eating the cake a delight.

The next day Jo was in Crouch End, N8, in an artisan boulanger called Coffee Cake on Broadway Parade. Among the fantastical piles of meringues in the window she saw a single plate of chocolate courgette cake, exquisitely glistening. Like buses, two courgette cakes always seem to come along…

To make Gaia’s courgette cake

180g raisins

750g courgettes

375ml vegetable oil

450g caster sugar

6 large eggs

675g self-raising flour (for a chocolate version, substitute 125g of the flour with cocoa powder)

¾ tsp bicarbonate of soda

¾ tsp baking powder 

Soak the raisins for a few hours until fat and plump. Drain. 

Grease a batch tin 33 by 23 cm, and heat the oven to 180 degrees C, Gas Mark 4. 
Wash the unpeeled courgettes, dry, then grate them finely. Push through a sieve to drain off any excess water. Put to one side. 
Cream the oil and sugar and add the eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition. Add the flour, bicarbonate of soda and baking powder and mix well. Stir in the courgette and raisins. Pour the mixture into the tin and bake for about 45 mins. Check after 40 mins – a metal skewer should come clean, and the cake should be lightly browned. Leave to cool in the tin, then ice.

For the icing:

300g cream cheese

150g to 200g icing sugar

Juice of one to two limes

Smarties to decorate
Beat the cheese until smooth; add 150g sieved sugar, beating well, then the lime juice to taste. You may need to add more sugar to get a spreading consistency. Layer on to the cold cake with a palette knife. Just before serving, decorate with Smarties or other sweets (they will go soggy if you do it earlier). Cut into squares.

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8th May 2007

Maypole Twirls

Somehow we arrived at Bircham Windmill too early (or perhaps too late) for the May Day maypole dancing, so when we got home I made a consolatory maypole cake instead. It's a basic Victoria sponge, the middle sandwiched with cream and red fruity jam, and the top decorated with pink butter icing.

A striped candy stick in the middle of the cake is the maypole, and I cut lengths of thin ribbon and stuck them (using edible glue, though a blob of icing will do) to the top of the candy stick, twirling them out towards the edge of the cake. The children picked some dark pink honeysuckle flowers and white cow parsley and to put around the edge of the plate giving a flowery feel to honour the spirit of the day. It went down consolingly well. It's nice to be back in summer.



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4th May 2007

Mayday Madness

We're now into summer. It's official. The cow parsley's out, the hawthorn and blackthorn are blossoming, gardens and green places are boisterous with birds and bees. May the first was actually the start of this splendid new season, though blink and you may have missed it because nobody's celebrating May Day this year until the bank holiday weekend. And probably not much then, because the old May Day traditions are all dying out.

It's a great shame. In Elizabethan times, May Day was one of the biggest, most boisterous festivals of the year with processions of milkmaids and chimneysweeps gathering on every village green. Even 20 years ago, primary aged children dressed up, elected a May Queen and perhaps a Jack o' the Green, and danced round the school maypole. At university, a big gang of us used to rise at the crack of dawn, bathe our faces in the morning dew (reputedly good for the complexion) and dance round the Castle green, and Tamsin's family always got up at 4am to gather on Norwich's Mousehold Heath and watch the Morris men dance a welcome to the May Day sun (with a slap-up cooked breakfast afterwards).

May Day traditions are incredible fun for the kids. Last year, we dressed up a chair with blossoms, made a blossom crown for the May Queen and raised her aloft from her throne, ruler of all she surveyed. You can make a maypole and dance madly round, twirling ribbons under and over. This year, we'll also be making creamy butter the old-fashioned way, taking it in turns to shake the jar (though you can make it in five minutes with a hand mixer or food processor). Then lathering it on to a beefy May Day breakfast of sausages or bacon and egg in doorsteps of fresh white bread. Yum!



To make around 300g butter and 200ml buttermilk, you'll need:

1 pt (568ml) double cream, at room temperature

Large jar with lid

Fill the jar just over a third full and tightly screw on the lid. Shake the cream up and down. After some time, it will look like whipped cream. Keep shaking until thin streams of buttermilk suddenly separate out leaving a thick, creamy lump of butter.

buttermilk off and keep to use (buttermilk cake is delicious!). Fill the jar with cold water and swirl the butter around to wash. Drain and repeat until water is clear. Put the butter on a board (if you like salted butter, mix in about half to one teaspoon salt per 100g at this stage) and press down, using a wet spatula to get rid of any remaining buttermilk. Wrap in waxed or greaseproof paper and refrigerate.



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8th Apr 2007

The Best-Ever Present

To Scotland on the train with the kids for the Easter hols. We were staying with friends who live in Carnoustie, the small coastal town where this year's Open golf championship is happening and a few miles from St Andrews where I spent four happy (ish) years at university.

The last and only time I dragged the family to my alma mater, I was running round pointing out the places I lived ('Yes, Mum, it's a house, not a terribly nice one either'), the cafe where I drank hot chocolate between morning lectures ('Great, can we have a flapjack now?'), the open-air swimming pool where we used to dive into icy Scottish seawater (Oops, now developed over) to industrial-sized indifference.

But back to Carnoustie. On Saturday a bunch of us went out for an Italian dinner to celebrate Carolynda's big decade birthday. After the meal, her friend Greg handed her a tiny folded piece of paper. She looked quizzical, opened it, and almost fell off her chair. On the piece of paper was written Greg had built artist Carolynda her own website as a showcase for her flower paintings, with moving blocks of colour and Flash images.

This must be one of those 'best-ever' presents, personal, thoughtful and taking much time, effort and inspiration to create. It was also completely unexpected. I've never heard of anyone giving (or getting) a website before and it struck me as the perfect gift for the woman who has everything. Now including her own bit of cyberspace.


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7th Apr 2007

Easter Egg Tree

This Easter, we had the family over and everyone from the age of three to three score and ten painted a blown egg to go on the Easter tree. I sprayed the decorated eggs with gloss varnish which looks better than last year's unvarnished ones.

When the tree comes down, I wrap the blown eggs in tissue paper and place them in a shoebox so that next year I can open it up and bring back the memories of past Easters. It doesn't have to only be Christmas that evokes memories of family gatherings, after all.


This year, like many before, there was a big meal that everyone helped to make and with the weather so good we could eat and drink outside without shivering. Well, without shivering too much anyway. Then to warm us up and to help digestion we got out the family silver and divided ourselves into teams for several egg and spoon races. My nephew, who is only three, was given a net for his egg and he soon got into the competitive spirit. It felt like the start of longer, lighter days when we can relax, enjoy and not think about work or school or what we have to do tomorrow. Not yet, anyway. Next week there's time for that. Hope yours was as enjoyable.


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4th Apr 2007

Egg Camouflage

We did our Easter Egg Hunt this morning using tiny, sparkly foil-wrapped eggs so the ants didn't get to the chocolate before the children did.

We put blue eggs in the hyacinths silvery green ones in the woodpile, and red ones in the stems of the dogwood bush.

Purple eggs nestled among the mauve flowers of ground-hugging violets, and a golden copper-coloured egg was perched on the curved branch of a horse chestnut bud.

Wandering round the garden picking out camouflage spots and trompe l'oeil opportunities in the bright April sun provided much amusement for the grown-ups. Almost as much as finding (or eating?) the eggs gave the kids.


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3rd Apr 2007

Eiffel Eggs

You can successfully smash eggs indoors, though it takes more brainpower than brawn.

We have been playing Eiffel Eggs, a construction challenge that gets good and messy. Every member of the family has to build a tower that will support a raw egg from just two sheets of A4, a pencil and sticky tape. Joe put on some loud music - Costello Music by The Fratellis - to get our creative juices flowing and it seemed to work. The kids came up with some freethinking solutions that temporarily defied the laws of physics: an egg tower held up by thick wodges of sticky tape (eat your heart out, Richard Rogers), a tower with skinny but strong rolled legs and an egg basket at the top; and a high-rise three-legged boat, which quickly tilted over sending the egg to a sticky end.

If you have an engineer in the family, they will be horribly competitive, bandying around terms like 'compressive strength', 'creep' and 'moment of inertia'. We have one, and he built a tower of such height, strength and other tensile superlatives that it dwarfed our wobbly (but picturesque) efforts.

Can anyone reading this build a tower that is higher than this 62cm tour de force (which, the engineer would like us to point out, was constructed using only a single piece of A4 paper). Actually, Carla's beat it at 72cm, but her tube skyscraper was stuck to the table with guy ropes made of sticky tape, which is probably against the rules (if we had written any). We timed how long the tower could hold the egg; if you reach ten seconds, you're doing well.


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