Mon Beau Sapin – Blog Advent (15)

Grabbing a few quick minutes to blog this evening before some very lovely former colleagues turn up for food, drink, and hopefully some special memories (ahem!).  Since I’ve been tidying ahead of their arrival, I thought I’d show you this year’s Christmas tree.  Here he is – isn’t he grand?

The Christmas Tree

I’m very pleased with how he’s turned out – and that he fit! Is it just me or do they always look much smaller when you’re choosing them than when you get them home?  Every so often I consider choosing a smaller one, but then where would I put all my beautiful decorations?

The title of the post, incidentally, refers to the French language version of ‘Oh Christmas Tree’, to the same tune – I grew up with the francophone version, and have always preferred the lyrics.  They seem less contrived, somehow!

Only ‘ten sleeps’ ’till Christmas now.  Hasn’t it all come around fast? The advent candle is more than half way burnt down!  Hope all your Christmas plans are coming along nicely!

Advent - day 15

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Very Fishy – in a change from our scheduled programming, a complaint to Morrisons – Blog Advent (14)

I was really excited to find that the fish counter at our local Morrisons had two beautiful arctic char, and some very lovely looking rainbow trout.  I’ve been hoping I’d be able to find some to cure and smoke to add to my family Christmas ‘hampers’ (sorry, this is a spoiler for those of you who’ll be getting them).  Because I was buying two char and three trout, to save a little time I asked the fishmonger to fillet them for me.  This took an age, but I didn’t think much of it – I felt a bit sorry for the bloke, to be honest, since it was a bit of a big job!  Eventually they reappeared, heat-sealed into Morrisons’ white plastic fish-pouches, and I got on with the rest of my shopping.  The char was expensive – just over £10 for the two fish, but since it’s a rare and very special little fish, I figured that’s OK.

Ruined arctic char fillets

I opened the char this evening and nearly wanted to cry.  I’ve never seen such a mess.  I’m not a chef and have no formal training in this sort of thing, but I can – and *have* – filleted fish better than this.  Anyone can see that this is a total, utter, ghastly mess.  I spent 45 minutes trying to tidy up these fillets in the hope of saving them, but in the end I had to give up. They were uneven, still had all their ribs and fins attached, weren’t even split down the midline – one piece had a centimetre of flesh (nearly half an inch) still attached to the *other* side of the dorsal fin!  Great chunks of fish were missing, too.

They look like they’ve been filleted with a blunt bread-knife. The cut surface is completely macerated, with the layers of muscle ripped apart.  And one of the pieces, you can see, has a nasty blood clot within the flesh, which was connected to a cystic structure is the muscle – I don’t know exactly what this is, but I suspect it probably ought to have been grounds for rejecting the fillet or possibly even the whole fish.

As for the trout, well… see for yourselves.  Just more of the same.

Badly filleted rainbow trout  What a sad mess

I’m so angry and disappointed about this, mostly because it’s such a f*cking waste of beautiful fresh fish.  For goodness sake, Morrisons, is it too much to ask for you arrange to have fishmongers on your fish counters who can actually fillet a salmonid without making a complete dog’s dinner of it?  They’re about as simple a fish to fillet as it comes, after all!  I’d politely suggest they start with a sharp knife, and see how they go from there…

I’ll be taking it all back tomorrow.

Right, rant over.  I was going to share my decorated Christmas cake with you all tonight – perhaps tomorrow, eh?

Advent - day 14

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It’s Christmas Party Time – Blog Advent (13)

Just a really short blog this evening – I’m off in a few minutes to my work Christmas Party, another great tradition of the festive season on which it’s probably best not to dwell!

But the tree is in, and all decorated!  I’m thrilled with this, it really feels like Christmas is on the way now!

Advent - day 13

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Oh, Crumbs! – homemade breadcrumbs for your Christmas cooking – Blog Advent (12)

I hate wasting my home-baked sourdough.  Of course, I try to make sure it all gets eaten when it’s at its best, but sometimes life interferes with your best laid plans, and you’re going away for the weekend with a third of a loaf still sat on the side, or the last roll in the batch is looking a bit dry to be appetising.  So when it looks like there’s some good bread about to go to waste, I chuck it in a bag in the freezer.

Lovely golden breadcrumbsBreadcrumbs are such a useful store cupboard staple.  At Christmas especially, they go into stuffings, and Christmas puddings, as a crunchy topping for fish pie…  I’m going to need some in a few days when I make my batch of Christmas sausages.  And the shop bought kind contain all sorts of preservatives, stabilisers, and even, believe it or not, yellow food dye for that ‘golden’ crumb!  Yuck!

It’s so easy to make your own.  Slice up your bread into normal-thickness slices (about 1cm / half an inch) before you put it in the freezer.  Once you have enough for a batch, get them out of the freezer and lay them out on a baking sheet.  Put them in a low oven at about 125 – 150 C.  After about an hour, get them out and carefully break them up as much as you can (don’t burn your fingers!), before returning them to the oven until they’re thoroughly dry and crispy.

Bread after dryingThey’ll take on a little colour around the edges, but don’t let them burn!  I’ve seen advice to cut the crusts off and not use end pieces for breadcrumbs, because they’ll tend to take on more colour during the drying process and you don’t want this.  Since that’s most of what I usually have left over, I’ve just ignored this advice, with no ill-effect that I can detect!  Once they’re completely dry, take them out of the oven and wait for them to cool fully.

Breaking up the crumbI’ve made the mistake of trying to put these straight in my food processor – they’re really quite hard and it doesn’t work very well!  You might be able to get away with it if your breadcrumbs are being made from ‘white fluff’ commercial sliced bread, but with real sourdough there’s quite a lot of substance to your bread, and the pieces just seem to bounce around the bowl.  Start by transferring the crusty chunks in batches into a large freezer bag, and crunching them up with a heavy rolling pin (a heavy skillet or saucepan would work well, too!).

In the food processorYou could just keep crushing the crumbs by hand until you get the finish you want, but if you’re lazy, like me, and have access to a food processor, then you can transfer the chunks to that once they’re all well under a cm in size, and then process them until they’re the texture you’re after.  I’ve left some bigger pieces in here for texture (if I want finer crumbs later I can always sift them through a collander before use), but you can keep going until it’s the consistency of sand if you prefer.

Now just transfer your breadcrumbs to an airtight container, where they should happily store at room temperature for at least a couple of weeks – this is assuming you’ve dried them properly – moisture is your enemy!  If you want to keep them longer, put them into to a sealed bag and store in the freezer, where they should be fine for 2 – 3 months.  If in doubt, watch out for any signs of mould or musty smells.  If they do start to go off, Hubby – who was my glamorous assistant this evening – asked me to remind you that they’ll still do fine for ground bait for any fisherman or woman in your family!

It’s the 12th of December today, which means we’re now half way through my Blog Advent challenge!  I’m exhausted, but really enjoying it too!  Thank you all so much for reading along so far – I hope I can come up with another dozen days worth!

Advent - day 12

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Get Stuffed – filled glass bauble decorations – Blog Advent (11)

Just a quick decoration ideas blog this evening – a lovely personal way to brighten up plain glass Christmas baubles.

Filled baubles

These are a handful I made this evening, using some feathers I gathered up from my hens earlier in the year when they were moulting, as well as some left over metallic skeleton leaves from last year’s Christmas crackers.  Last year, I made a few with shredded up knitting wool – the little tutorial I wrote then goes through the basic process, so I won’t repeat myself.

Glass bauble with feathers  Metallic skeleton leaves  Chicken feathers

The rather scary surgical-looking forceps in the image above aren’t compulsory, but are a very useful tool for feeding feathers and leaves through the small opening to the bauble, and arranging them inside if necessary.  I picked these up in a pack of mixed instruments for a couple of quid from a craft supplier on eBay, they’ve come in very handy for one thing and another!  But if you haven’t got anything like that, a pair of tweezers will work almost as well.  Do get real glass baubles – they’re much more attractive that the plastic ones and usually much easier to break into, too!

You could use anything you like, of course – pretty sand from a favourite holiday beach, little shells, glitter, or artificial snow with some small Christmas decorations might make an interesting seasonal twist?  I’m really looking forward to getting the tree up on Thursday to see how they work with all my other decorations!

Advent - day 11

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Warm Fingers Never Felt So Good – mittens from washing machine felt – Blog Advent (10)

A couple of months ago, I shared a bit of a teaser with you about working with washing machine felt, with a simple technique for making a pair of five minute fingerless gloves.

These mittens are slightly more time consuming, but still really really simple and quick, an easy little hand sewing project to do in an evening in front of the TV.  Better still, they’d make a great personal gift!

Machine felt mittens

You’ll need the following –

  • A washing machine felted sweater.  See here for details on the (easy!) process.
  • Some scrap cardboard, a pencil and scissors for the mitten template.  A tailor’s chalk pencil is useful but not essential.
  • Some thick thread for assembling your gloves.  I used some multicoloured scrap knitting yarn in contrasting / coordinating colours.  Knitting yarn, incidentally, makes really really *rubbish* sewing thread, so see if you have something better – embroidery floss would be great, or how about some really thin (3mm) ribbon? Decorative and contrasting is good – I like the effect – but you could go for something to blend into your sweater felt if you prefer.
  • A really chunky hand sewing needle.  I used one intended for use on sacking fabric with a bit of a spade-end, which makes a nice big hole in the thick felt so that the double thickness of thread passes through more easily.

TemplateTo start creating your template, draw around your hand on the cardboard.  This is the time to decide how long you want the cuffs of your mittens.  Also, I suggest you have your fingers in a relaxed position slightly apart, not all cramped together – this should make the mittens more comfy later!

Next, I measured around the knuckles on my hand and compared the measurement to the appropriate part of the flat silhouette drawing on the card.  You’ll find the circumference is more than twice the silhouette measure – your hand has depth! – for me this was about an extra 2cm.  I don’t need a seam allowance for these mittens (more on this later) so I added about 5mm all the way around the hand silhouette.  Smooth the shape off at this stage to make it nice and pleasing.  [Those of you who have ever drawn a glove or mitten patten will spot my deliberate mistake here – if you haven’t, then I suggest you read the rest of the post *before* you go ahead and cut out your template!]

Mark up feltCut out your cardboard pattern, and using tailors chalk if you have it (or anything else that will draw on your felt, if you don’t) mark up four copies onto the felt.  Arrange the cuff end against the waistband of your felted jumper – this way, you get to cheat and use the waistband detail from the jumper for the cuff of your mittens.

Mitten halvesThe great thing about washing machine felt is that you’ve taken a knit fabric that would unravel, and solved this problem.  You can slice it up just as you like and it behaves very much like polar fleece (and actually, if you have some scrap polar fleece – or you’re allergic to wool – it would make a great substitute fabric for this project). Now cut out your four mitten shapes and assemble them in pairs.

I mentioned earlier that I wasn’t including a seam allowance in the template.  This is because the felt is really quite bulky fabric – great for nice warm toasty fingers in your mittens, but it would be really very cumbersome if you had it doubled – or more – at the seams. I’d guessed there must be edge-to-edge stitches, though I hadn’t used them before, and a bit of googling turned up a perfect solution for this project, which is called ‘Old German stitch’.

Old German stitchHopefully this image illustrates it usefully, but briefly, you assemble the two edges to each other, with the thread emerging on top of one edge, passing into the gap, and going into the other piece from below, emerging on top, passing back through the gap, and so on.  This produces an edge to edge seam without overlap which, because the thread crosses through the gap every time, is protected from the problem of the edges overriding which you’d likely get if you used a slip stitch.

Sewing around to thumb, with insert pieceNow, you can start to sew.  I started at the wristband on the little-finger side of the pattern, and worked around progressively until I reached the tip of the thumb.  I’ve mentioned that knitting yarn makes horrible sewing thread.  This particular yarn tended to shred itself, after a while, and had hideous knot-holding properties which made it really challenging to start, finish, and join.  Don’t say I haven’t warned you!

It’s at this point that my rookie pattern-cutting mistake becomes painfully obvious.  The mitten is the perfect size on the palm and fingers, but far far too narrow on the wrist.  A quick bit of wrist and mitten measuring confirmed that at the cuff, we were going to be about 5cm short.  The only solution – other than starting again with a new sweater! – was to add an insert piece – a triangle, 5cm across the short edge, and as tall as the distance from thumb-tip to cuff.  You can see this in the photo just above.

Three pieces, assembledIf you don’t want to make this as a three-piece pattern, then you should get this wrist circumference incorporated properly into your pattern template in the first place, adding an extra ~2.5cm to the cuff end below the thumb.  Actually, I really like the three part shape, though it was a complete accident.  I think it adds a nice detail, and gives proper ‘depth’ to the thumb construction.

Finished mittensYou’re done at this stage, if you want to be.  I decided I wasn’t bored of hand sewing yet, so I went on to add a row of blanket stitch along the cuff.

These are really great, warm, practical mitts. I’ve been wearing them loads over the past few weeks.  They’re not waterproof, but they’re warm and cozy and have stood up really well so far to plenty of use.

Better still, the world is your oyster in terms of colours (so go on, raid that pile of old sweaters in the back of your wardrobe!) and detailing.  You could even embroider the back of the hands, if you were feeling especially keen!

So, if you want to create a special, warming handmade gift this Christmas, you still have plenty of time to make these.  Go on, you know you want to!

Advent - day 10

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About The Tree – and a bit of a cop-out – Blog Advent (9)

Today, we went to our local independent plant nursery / garden centre and bought our Christmas tree.  It’s still in its net in the garden at the moment, in a bucket of water, so I haven’t got any photos – but buying our tree is one of the real lines in the sand for me, a marker that Christmas is really just around the corner.

We have a real, cut, British-grown tree.  I couldn’t do without a real tree, I’m afraid.  The smell of a real spruce tree in the house is so much part of my Christmas that it doesn’t ‘count’ without it!  Never mind that artificial trees just look… well, sorry, they’re naff.  Even the really expensive classy ones are just wrong, too symmetrical for a start, with none of the natural character and variability.

Last year's treeWhile I’d love to have a tree in a pot, I’ve never managed to keep one looking good for the next year, and I prefer the soft-needled non-drop varieties of tree that don’t seem to appreciate being grown that way.  I gather in some parts of the country you can ‘hire’ a tree in a pot that then gets looked after for you until next year, which sounds perfect, but doesn’t seem to be happening yet in our part of the world!

I’m very pleased with the tree we’ve got this year – it should be a nice height in our living room, reaching almost all the way to our (low!) ceiling, but there’s plenty of space between the branches for the baubles and decorations.  I don’t mind a tree which is a bit ‘bushy’ at the bottom, since a quick snip of the secateurs sorts out that problem and gives you a bonus supply of greenery for your other decorations!

Dave the dogDave is always a bit confused about the appearance of a tree in the house – but takes it all on in the good spirits you’d expect from him!  He’s such a dude!

Sorry – today’s little blog post is a bit of a cop-out, I’m afraid.  I spent my ‘blogging’ time today re-jigging my ‘Handmade Christmas’ index page with more photos and some of the new Blog Advent posts, so do go and have a browse if you haven’t had a look recently!

Advent - day 9

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Can’t See The Tree For The Lights – invisible outdoor decorations – Blog Advent (8)

I know I’ve said I don’t like outdoor decorations much, but I make an exception for simple, fresh, crisp white lights.  I love the solar outdoor fairy lights that have become available over the last few years, for very reasonable prices.  The last couple of years I’ve strung a string through the bare branches of the small apple tree in our garden – but I thought I’d try something different this year!

Light Tree

This outdoor ‘tree’ smothered in light is so simple and very effective!  You need a set of outdoor solar lights – this was a string of 100 lights on a 12m strand, six bamboo canes – mine were old 6ft ones I had lying around from the veg patch this summer, and some string.  You could obviously make a bigger or a smaller tree, depending on your preferences and the lights you have available.

Arrange your canesStart by arranging the bamboo canes in a rough circle.  This is really easy in our lawn this winter because it’s been so wet recently!

Form into teepee shapeNow tie the tops together firmly with some string or wire, whatever you have to hand, so that the canes are in a teepee shape.  You don’t need a garden, of course, you could also create this in a pot planter on a sunny patio or balcony.

Wrapped with lightsFinally, set up your solar lights.  Usually these come with a small photovoltaic cell on a spike – you can install this in the centre of the ‘tree’.  Then, starting at the top, just wind the lights around and around your tree, spreading them out as evenly as you can.  Secure the ends with string if necessary, leave the lights to charge and wait for sunset.

I like it just simple as it is – but you could add some extra ‘tree’ details if you liked, like a star topper or some cheap plastic baubles.  I rather like the fact it almost entirely disappears into the garden during the day, and only becomes a feature after dark.

Advent - day 8

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A Festive Welcome – recycled fabric wreath – Blog Advent (7)

For many years I made a Christmas wreath every year out of spruce, holly and ivy, around a straw wreath-form which had been knocking around for years.  Eventually it fell apart, and instead of buying a new one, I made this – it was made really quickly, and I didn’t expect it to last as well as it has, but it’s now been our front door decoration for four or five years, and looks as good as ever.

Fabric Wreath

It’s another recycled craft, really.  At the base, it’s a wire coat hanger, shaped into a circle with the hook folded over into a triangular hanger for the wreath.  I wrapped this around with the sort of brown packing paper that turns up in all your festive purchases from online retailers at this time if year – just scrunch the paper lengthwise into a sausage shape and wrap it around and around, securing with some sticky tape here and there when you need to.  Use newspaper, if you haven’t got packing paper.  You could even use plastic packing wrap, or bubble wrap – whatever you have to hand, really, as long as it ends up with your coat hanger fairly evenly wrapped.

Now measure the circumference of your wrapped hanger, and get the long measurement from the hook all the way around the outside edge.  Add about an inch for hemming, and this is your fabric requirement.  I was lucky to have some blue and green-based tartan curtain offcuts, but you can use whatever you like.  Fancy a runched-effect?  Use a longer piece of fabric than you need.  If you have a sewing machine to hand, roughly sew your half inch hems on all four sides of your rectangle (I did this really really roughly, with a wide zig-zag stitch!).  If not, then just press them down with an iron to fold them over.

Back view - seamWrap your fabric around your homemade wreath form, starting at the hanger.  Slip-stitch the long seam by hand in as discreet a colour thread as you have. Don’t worry about making this beautiful, though, since it’s going to end up on the back!  Once that’s done, join the two ends of the tube around the hook.  Perhaps ladder stitch this part to make the join as tidy as possible, though if you look at mine I’ve covered the evidence with ribbon!

Really, that’s it – find some pretty Christmas ribbon in a coordinating colour and wrap it around, perhaps add a bow at the top.  Hang it on your door to welcome your festive guests!

Advent - day 7

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Saint Nicholas – Blog Advent (6)

December 6th is St Nicholas Day, a celebration which was a big part of my early childhood and meets with mostly blank looks when I mention it to friends here in the UK.  My early years were spent in rural Switzerland, and my early memories of the Christmas season are very much from that part of the world.  St Nick of course is the pattern for Father Christmas, but in much of Europe his celebration is separated out from Christmas itself.

I recall St Nicholas Day parades, when St Nick, in full regalia, was carried through the town on a horse or donkey-drawn cart, throwing out wonderful gingerbread cakes to the children.  I can almost taste them now!

On the night of December the 5th, children leave their shoes (preferably nicely polished!) out on the step for St Nicholas.  He comes and fills the shoes of the good little children with sweets and small toys and knick-nacks (I remember getting a French knitting loom in the form of a soldier, one year).  There are variations in the tradition, of course, depending on where you are in the world, but generally St Nicholas has a not very nice sidekick, known as ‘Père Fouettard’ (roughly translated, ‘Father Whip’) or Black Peter (with a blacked-up face which is either very un-PC, or has been retro-fixed to describe him as a chimney sweep!), in the part of the world I was in, but he comes with different names and identities in different places.

If you read up on this on Wikipedia, you’ll find it asserted that although St Nick’s nasty sidekick is supposed to bring punishment, or at least make sure that St Nick doesn’t bring gifts to the bad little children, this is some sort of an empty threat, and of course all the children get gifts.  Well, I remember vividly at my Swiss infants’ school (and I’m not so *very* old), that while the rest of us got sweets and chocolates, Black Pete brought only a piece of coal to the ‘bad’ child in the class.  Imagine that, these days?

Advent - day 6

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