Tag Archives: Christmas

Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night

Phew. The halls are decked, the presents wrapped, the sugar cookies made and iced and consumed in obscene quantities. My coffee-filter wreath is actually hanging – rather than being trampled in a corner by Henry – and my finger-knitted garland is f-i-i-inally finished and up – rather than being sucked surreptitiously in a corner by Henry. We’ve watched Home Alone and Elf, and have The Muppet Christmas Carol scheduled for tomorrow once my sister arrives. We’ve listened to so much Bing Crosby our ears are ringing with him. So it’s ok, Christmas: feel free to come on by.

I’ll be taking a little break from the blog over the holidays, but see you in the new year. Wishing you the very best of Christmasses: good food, good company, long nights and late mornings and much love. Enjoy!

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PS:

sugar cookie recipe (it’s a keeper) at the bottom of the page here

finger knitting tutorial (easy peasy, finger hurty) here

joy of the season (please watch, especially for intense Christmas cello face) here

Cakery Bakery: Mince pie pinwheels

This afternoon I took a big, deep breath. Because we’re almost there: Tim’s last day of work before the Christmas break was today, and we have a quiet, lovely weekend planned before next week’s festivities. This evening, with Henry in bed and Tim out with friends, I thought I’d watch You’ve Got Mail and bake. So I made these.

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(courtesy of Becky from the Butterfly Buns blog, who inherited it from Lorraine Pascale: see her step-by-step here.)

If you stop and think about it, this is the most insanely amazing Christmas idea since The Muppet Christmas Carol. I love mince pies, but haven’t yet dared to make any, mostly because mince pie pastry is a delicate art. It’s easy to make a bad mince pie. But it’s impossible to make a bad one of these.

There are two ingredients: a jar of mincemeat and store-bought puff pastry. You can buy it ready-rolled or roll it yourself; either’s fine. Once the pastry is rolled out, cut out squares of roughly 10 x 10 cm with a sharp knife or pastry cutter. I guestimated, and ended up with squares of varying sizes, but it doesn’t matter.

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Once you have your squares, make a 3-4cm cut diagonally from each corner into the middle. It looks a bit like this.

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Apologies for horrendous photographs. The blog does not forgive late night baking. It thinks I should get more sleep.

Then put a spoonful of mincemeat in the middle of each square. Take one corner of each side and fold it into the middle, making a kind of pinwheel effect. By which I mean, this:

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I found that my pastry corners didn’t want to stick on top of each other, so I brushed the ends of each with a little beaten egg, and that did the trick. Finally, cut out little stars from your leftover pastry, and stick on top with more beaten egg.

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The recipe recommends brushing the whole thing with egg before it goes in the oven, but I tend to prefer my puff pastry lighter and less crispy, so I didn’t. After fifteen minutes in the oven at 200C, and after a sprinkling of icing sugar, they looked wonderful.

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Be aware that mincemeat welds itself to baking trays like a raisiny barnacle, so make sure to use baking paper to save yourself flying pastry crumbs.

And that is IT. My block of puff pastry made a great stacked plateful, and it hardly took any time at all. Wish I’d known about these before Christmas party season – much easier than baking a cake, and beautifully festive. The only question is whether I can get through all thirty before Timothy gets home.

Deliciousness: Oh, lovely. Light and quickly snaffled. They are best warm, I think, but remember that mincemeat comes out of the oven as hot as the sun, so wait a little while. Oh my GOODNESS would they be intense with clotted cream.

Complexity: As Becky says, this isn’t baking but assembly. Would be great to make with kids on a Christmassy Saturday afternoon.

Washing-up pile: A rolling pin, a knife and a baking tray. I can get behind that.

Casualties: My REM cycle. Again.

Christmas Cakery Bakery: the Hummingbird Bakery’s sweet and salty chocolate cake

Whoa, wait, hang on a minute. Christmas is in how many days? I haven’t done a thing.

Well, we have a Christmas tree, though it’s getting more undressed by the day (saucy). And I have half a knitted garland for my living room. But no presents and no prep. I need to get a grip. Shake some jingle bells, that sort of thing. And also, make some Christmas food, because nothing says festivity to me like festive baking. I wanted to get stuck in to biscuits and pies and Christmas morning muffins, but first we had a party to attend. Party people want to eat chocolate cake, and that is the truth.

We decided on the Hummingbird Bakery’s sweet and salty chocolate cake, in a moment of heady abandon. If the holidays mean decadence, this is the cake for the season: three layers of chocolate sponge, sandwiched with salty caramel and caramel chocolate frosting. It’s a tiny bit obscene. When I got home from the supermarket I put all of the ingredients on the table and we stood and gaped for a while. How much sugar? How much cream?

Oh, go on then.

Start with salty caramel. You combine syrup, sugar and water, boil it for ten minutes, combine it with lightly salted double cream and sour cream (which has also been boiled) and stir like billy-oh. That’s stage one, and the caramel it makes is delicious. I’m never sure how I feel about salted caramel, by the way, but this isn’t off-puttingly salty, so you’ll be fine.

Then repeat the process exactly, but without the salt, and end up with another bowl of creamy caramel that becomes the frosting, once you’ve added half a ton of chocolate and some butter. You’re supposed to whip and whip with a whisk until the mixture cools. After the chocolate, the frosting turned thick and spatula-friendly, which was exciting. Then after the butter, it suddenly became thinner and silky-smooth. I hoped it would solidify in the fridge (it didn’t), but perhaps it’s supposed to be splashier.

That’s stage two. Stage three is the sponge. And this was the exciting bit, because I got to break in the ancient (let’s say ‘vintage’, that’s trendier) Kenwood mixer I just inherited from a very lovely friend. It’s a thing of beauty. I can’t stop looking at it. And I cannot believe that it’s possible to make up a cake mix with no input from me or my bicep whatsoever. What is this?!

Twenty-five minutes later, and after I’d decided to get rid of one of the cake layers to save time, we were on to the assembly. I was right: the frosting was a pain to keep on, especially sliding over the caramel. But it looked rather spiffy, all the same.

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The verdict, then –

Deliciousness: Do you know, we thought it was only alright. Don’t get me wrong, it was a delicious chocolate cake. The caramel frosting went all fudgy, the sponge was soft, and it was beautifully rich. But we couldn’t taste the caramel, salty or no, which meant that after all that effort we’d just made… a chocolate cake. A very good chocolate cake. But not a life-changer.

Complexity: The most difficult bit was keeping the frosting on the cake. The rest of it was a little more time-consuming than your average effort, but not hard.

Washing-up pile: Approximately twenty-seven. Thousand. Maybe more. It was a lot.

Casualties: Distracted by frosting at a crucial point, Timothy stubbed his toe on the wall halfway through the afternoon. It wasn’t all bad. In throes of agony on the sofa, he asked (through the medium of song) for a spoonful of the caramel stuff as his last request. I was sympathetic, and complied.

Its name is Sprucey

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Our Christmas tree experience this year got off to an inauspicious start.

We all had colds. And we took forever to get going because we went to Sainsbury’s first to get some wellingtons for Henry, and they didn’t have any but they did have a lady giving away Lindt chocolate samples, so we hung around her for far too long looking casual, and then we tracked down some wellies at Next, and then we got going to Yattendon Christmas Tree farm.

It’s at the end of a fifteen minute drive through twisty, woodland roads and little villages. Trees stacked up in every direction in size order. You wander around picking up likely candidates, and bear off your favourite to be wrapped. Afterwards I browse through the ornaments section and pick up our special ornaments for the year. I love it. It’s the most Christmassy start to December I can think of.

Henry, though: Henry had no idea about Christmas trees. All he knew was that we were very cold and surrounded by spiky things for a long time. So he cried, and tripped over his new wellies into piles of mud and cried some more, while we picked up tree after tree that wasn’t quite right. In the end we found one with two heads (we are siamese if you please) and took it away out of sheer desperation.

But then we got it home. And with the extra head facing the wall to watch for burglars it turned out to be the loveliest tree imaginable. We decorated it in the evening, all together – by which I mean that Timothy and I put ornaments on and Henry took them off – and had Christmas music on for the first time this year, and it was delicious. We still haven’t worked out how to stop Henry from stripping the bottom two branches – once he found out they bounced, it was all over, and he kept taking them away to a spot in the corner he thought we couldn’t see – but I am sat upstairs with the smell of Christmas pine drifting over the balcony, and feeling pretty spiffy about it.

Oh, and we made this.  Not that we were keeping count.

The Christmas Ornament Face-Off from Rachel Jeffcoat on Vimeo.

(it needs maximising to watch properly.)

And now I’ve worn the hat, I’m excited. Merry Christmas all! And if you happen to have two heads, then Merry Christmas twice.

And a Partridge in a Pear Tree

Phew, we made it.

On the eleventh date of Christmas, we flew into town to finish our Christmas shopping, and escaped from the rain into Sweeney and Todd’s for lunch. They do excellently meaty pies, but no Johnny Depp.




Even if you’re not a pie person, their dessert menu is enough to make you weep tears of sugary gratitude. Unfortunately their pies were so good we didn’t have room, but next time. NEXT TIME.

And – drum roll please – on the twelfth date of Christmas, it was…Christmas.





It was our first ever Christmas morning at home, and Henry’s first Christmas as well. It felt momentous, and I was anxious that we should tick off all our Christmas traditions and invent new ones that would bind our family together in love and deliciousness forevermore. I’d given myself two new forehead wrinkles worrying about it before I was reminded that all Henry cared about was milk on tap and sackloads of tissue paper to roll around in. Which he did, beautifully.

(Aside: do your Christmas traditions sometimes get a little out of hand? I give you: the Thing That Started Just With Matching Pyjamas And Now Involves Iron-On Transfers And Photoshoots. Where will it go next year? The mind boggles.)

This year we squeezed a trip up North and a two-day family wedding in between the usual festivities of presents, church and cheese-eating. It’s been wonderful, but it has felt like we’ve spent a lot of Christmas in the car. Especially grateful cheers, then, for the twelve moments in December we slowed down, held hands, and reminded each other why things are just brilliant.

And a partridge in a pear tree. The end.

Mobile Day 1: Early to Bed, Early to Rise

It’s 6.19am and I’m wide awake and ready to go: a rare phenomenon that can only ever be explained by jet lag or Christmas morning, and unfortunately the latter is still four days away. However we are now in Mobile, Alabama, perched precariously on the wonderful double-air-bed-atop-two-single-beds combination my lovely mother has set up for us, which is exciting enough to account for my wakefulness.

The journey was long and relatively unspectacular: we arrived at Heathrow in good time, and had a minor panic when we were redirected to the Your Plane Has Been Cancelled, Sorry queue. Our flight clerk talked so much about passport photos and the school The Stig used to attend – nice man, if a bit chatty – that we never did get to find out why we’d been redirected to the queue of fear, but we gathered our flight wasn’t cancelled and got checked in much more quickly than usual, so all’s well, etc.

The plane had to be laboriously de-iced before we set off – I had some sympathy, having given myself frostbite doing the same to our car earlier on – so we had time to watch the whole fabulous final episode of Merlin before we took to the air, and ascended into the clouds with our heads full of dragon lords and touching bromance relationships. Of course, that had time to wear off over the next ten hours, but I did watch 3.5 recent film releases before my eyes started to burn like little angry coals in their sockets, which was entertainment enough.

We arrived in Dallas fizzy with soft drinks (Tim) and staggering with ear pain (me) and got through the surprisingly nice immigration and baggage claim in record time. The man announcing the baggage arrivals delivered his lines in a tone that suggested he was challenging someone to a cage fight. Soon afterwards we discovered that Dallas airport has a monorail system to take you to different gates: the carriages are constructed mostly of windows and the track is high in the air, so the five-minute ride in blazing sunshine felt like a scene from Back to the Future II or something. We loved it so much we wanted to pretend we were at gate C and ride for longer. Instead, we dutifully got off at gate B and sat peacefully for an hour to get our breath back, sipping on an American fruit juice drink whose label, confusingly, said ‘USES NO FRUIT JUICE’.

We almost missed the second flight after Tim had an unfortunately-timed nosebleed in the gents’, but got on it just in time and landed in Mobile (now thoroughly deaf, in my case) an hour later. My family were waiting for us. The minute I see my mother, even after a 19-month absence, it feels like she never left – she looks and sounds exactly the same, and seeing her is like coming home in the oldest and truest sense I can imagine. It was wonderful, even if I couldn’t really hear what anyone was saying.

Somewhat worryingly, we were assigned to Rob’s car on the drive back home, but despite all the wrongness of seeing my littlest brother behind the wheel of a car, especially considering his slightly erratic driving, we got back to the house without incident. And the house! We last saw it two years ago, crowded with random furniture and with dark wooden panelling on the walls, but since then it’s been completely transformed. Every room is light and pretty and comfortable, and everything matches, and it all seems so much more lived-in than it did before. There’s a huge Christmas tree in the hall and another in the lounge, and big wreaths on the double front doors, so it’s all very festive.  They’ve even done their best with the boys’ room, despite it being crammed with such random items as a real human skull, a glowing-eyed panda robot and the scariest ceramic clown I’ve ever had the misfortune to sleep beside.

James has a day off today, and Rob doesn’t have to report to Chikfilet until 4pm, so we’re going to go to the mall later in the morning before picking up my sister from the airport at 3pm. The weather looks clear-skied and relatively warm – no ice-scraping required in any case – so I may not even need a scarf today. And with that, I’d better get up: I’m in dire need of a shower, and the ceramic clown keeps pulling unsettling faces at me from the corner.

Christmas is coming/ The girl is going mad

I’ve had one, perfect, Christmassy moment since the beginning of December: walking down a frosty Broad Street to start my present shopping, and hearing the Salvation Army playing their brass-band version of ‘O Come, All Ye Faithful’. I’ve no idea why the Salvation Army only employ brass players, nor what they do for the rest of the year, but hearing them in the distance makes all my Christmases past come crashing in my head at once.

Apart from that, I’ve been struggling to remember we’re close to Christmas at all. I have the misfortune of working in an industry that crams all its important deadlines into the last month of the year, and so a week after the end of November I realise how much work I need to fit into a dwindling number of days. After that comes the panic, and the weeping, and soon after, the benumbed despair.

I’m exaggerating, but as my pile of proofreading increases even as the space to do it in disappears, I do feel very like one of those Indiana Jones-style heroes trapped in a corridor with the ceiling slowly descending to the floor and no way out. Like at the end of The Mummy, remember? I even have my own version of those little stinging scarab beetles: in the midst of my travail, an email so ridiculous that the only proper response is outraged diatribe pops into my inbox. Today, for example, I’m desperately checking that the 100+ author names on a journal’s back cover appear correctly, when I get an email from our HR department. Apparently my 2010 performance review is due soon, and I haven’t filled in my performance objectives for 2009 yet. You may think it would occur to Mr Jones that three days before the final print deadlines of the year might not be an especially choice moment to email people about their performance objectives, but then you obviously don’t understand the supreme importance of performance objectives. Please go into the corner and feel ashamed of yourself. That’s better.

 Here’s my performance objective, Mr Jones: I aim to keep my hours of unpaid overtime this week under six. No: nine. Let’s not be too ambitious. Now go away.

When I reach this level of crabbiness (Level Shylock) I know I need a holiday. Luckily, I’m about to have one: two weeks in the US being looked after by my lovely mother. If I can get things together enough to turn up at the airport at the correct time and board the plane, I’ll come back a new woman. Or at least dial down the misanthropy to a more acceptable Level Batman.

Does he look like a people-person to you?

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