Sunday, 31 May 2015

Storecupboard stock check challenge

I seem to have spent a ton of money on food in May, so reckon I need to spend June eating the contents of the cupboards, fridge and freezer.

Perhaps it was a reaction to finishing Live Below the Line, or becoming all sociable and having people to stay, or maybe the lure of 25% off offers and discount vouchers tempting me to stock up on wine.

On the plus side, I do now have quite a lot of food lurking in my cupboards, and almost overflowing from the freezer.

So I think it's about time we actually ate some of the food we already have, rather than buying loads more. We will need some extra fresh stuff, like fruit, veg and milk, so I'm intending to use a Morrisons voucher for £6 off when spending £40, and the challenge will be to see how long we can then stagger through June.

I therefore spent a chunk of this morning doing a stock check, and making a list of all the food in the house.

It's something I do from time to time, to work out what gaps need filling, and perhaps more importantly what needs using up. Forgotten ingredients will inspire me to try recipes we haven't eaten for ages, or search for recipes where I'm lacking inspiration.

If you're strapped for cash, a stock check will help you work out meals based on what you have, so you only need to buy top up ingredients.

I potter around making three different lists at the same time:
1) the food I have
2) meal ideas based on that food
3) shopping list for any extra ingredients needed

I find that if I don't make a note of meal ideas or missing stuff while I'm rootling around in the kitchen, then I forget it all by the end. Once I've got the list of food in the house, I can then look up any extra recipes and do a proper meal plan. That's the theory, anyway...

When doing a stock take, I go through the kitchen shelf by shelf, putting the food on a tray and then replacing it once I've written it on the list. I do the same thing for the fridge and freezer, shutting the door while I do each shelf or drawer to keep the cold in. It's a good chance to wipe down the shelves, removing any spills or sticky patches as I go along (golden syrup, I'm looking at you).

In the process I discover leftovers that need using up, and leftovers that are now so far gone they can only go in the bin. It reminded me to freeze ingredients like short-dated cream that won't get used before they go over.

I also discovered the missing jar of mango chutney (but only after buying a replacement) and marvelled at how I'd ended up with quite so many tins of tomatoes, porridge oats and different kinds of flour. If you're on a tight budget, a regular stock take will help avoid buying duplicates of food you already have.

So just in case anyone else is also curious about the contents of kitchen cupboards (and I'm willing to acknowledge it might be a small field), I took some photos of my own kitchen on the last day of May.

This will be easy, I thought. I only have one food cupboard:

Main food cupboard

Bottom left has oil, vinegar and assorted bottles of flavouring (condiments?)
Bottom right is a carb-fest of pasta, noodles, rice, cous cous and so on.

Middle left is tin city and middle right is baking ingredients like flour and sugar.

The top almost unreachable shelves have dried stuff like lentils, split peas and nuts on the left and fancy baking stuff on the right. Cake sprinkles and cooking chocolate are stashed in the silver tin, in a an attempt to stop the younger generation mountaineering up the worktop in search of sweets.

Plus the fridge freezer:

The "big fridge". Just don't tell it about the mahoosive American ones.

Dairy products and berries at the top (again the logic is all about keeping small children away from the food they covet the most), then herbs, cooked meat and cheese in the middle, veg and leftovers on the bottom shelf, salad veg in the drawers and bottles of water in the slidey bit at the bottom.
Milk, fruit juice, butter and assorted jars live in the door.

The freezer

Top flap down section: ice packs and processed food like pizza, fishfingers, ice cream and ice pops
Top drawer is frozen veg, frozen fruit and boxes of long forgotten leftovers. Some bread rolls have snuck in there too.
Middle drawer is bread in a myriad of forms
Bottom drawer is meat, fish and cheese.

But then there's the little under the counter fridge:

The small fridge which handily has squash next to beer, and gin next to milk

It's mostly drinks, plus any extra leftovers and veg that won't fit in the big fridge. There's even some yogurt cheese in process on the shelf above the veg drawer.

And then there's the stash of herbs and spices of varying ages and origins:

Economic decline in one set of spices.

Live Below the Line definitely made me realise that if you can afford to invest in some herbs, spices and other flavours, you can make basic ingredients taste a million times better.

Plus we keep cereal, jam and fruit handy for breakfast time:

Shedloads of oats. Ideas other than porridge, pancakes and flapjack gratefully received.

and then we also keep the tea and coffee in the cupboard above the kettle, near the mugs: 

Tins of teabags ahoy. And coffee, if you're that way inclined.

and actually I do keep a few jars on the mantelpiece:

Giant couscous, raisins, vanilla sugar, spaghetti that's too tall for the cupboard

And of course the potatoes and onions normally live in cloth bags under the counter where it's dark and cool:

Letting the potatoes and onions see the light of day

Then just when I thought I'd finally finished, I remembered the other food hidden in the cleaning cupboard, like crisps and spare boxes of cereal bought on offer

The secret stash of crisps, biscuits and the cereal with highly desirable monster magnets.

So all in all, looks like we do have quite a lot of food to feed a family of four.
What do your cupboard looks like? Along Mother Hubbard lines, or enough to stock a small supermarket?

Next step: meal plan and shopping list.

The Live Below the Line campaign continues until 30 June, if you might consider supporting my efforts to feed myself on £1 a day for 5 days from 26 to 30 April by donating to Unicef, the world's leading organisation for children.
This is the link to my fundraising page:

Tuesday, 26 May 2015

Easy peasy lemon, raspberry and ginger cheesecake, 30p a portion

Last year when I was doing Live Below the Line I went to a cookery demonstration.  Boy was that bad timing.

Everyone else got to tuck in to fabulous food while I was trying to hide my cheap and cheerful cheese slice sandwiches. However hard you try, feeding yourself on £1 a day for 5 days does not stretch to roast lamb, four cheese quiche and chocolate, almond and pear crumble.

Anyway, the lady doing the demo recommended a lemon and ginger cheesecake recipe by Mary Berry as both incredibly easy and very delicious.

Now I don’t normally make many puddings. I love baking, but can’t be faffed with fancy puddings and rely on fruit, yogurt and ice cream instead.

But I tend to like recipes by St Mary of Berry as simple, practical and unpretentious, with great advice on what can be prepared ahead.

So I decided to give the cheesecake a whirl for a family birthday lunch. The birthday celebrations were the same day as the amazing Hadleigh Show,  which meant I was keen to do as much cooking beforehand as possible, so I could spend more time reliving the 1950s at a country fair.

I doubled the ingredients for the cheesecake base, as I was using a bigger 23cm tin rather than the 20cm tin in the recipe.

I also gave the ingredients a budget spin. Mary Berry’s recipe doesn’t actually specify Sainsbury’s Basics lemon curd, although I’m sure this is just an oversight…


6 ingredients, 1 fab cheesecake

200g ginger biscuits (300g for 25p from Aldi)
100g butter (250g for 85p from Aldi), plus a bit of butter or margarine to grease the tin
2 x 250g tubs mascarpone (Two 250g pots cost £2.18 from Aldi)
325g lemon curd (411g jar for 25p from Sainsbury’s Basics)
Juice of one small lemon (3 for 75p from Aldi. You could also use a decent shot of lemon juice from a bottle or squeezy plastic lemon, which would be cheaper still)
100g raspberries or other berries to decorate (350g frozen raspberries for £2.20 from Sainsbury’s)

The shopping list cost nearly £6.50 to buy, but the amounts used in the recipe came to £3.75 for a hefty 1.2kg cheesecake. 
This serves 8 to 12 people depending on enthusiasm for cheesecake and greed, so around 30p to 45p a head.

Take a deep breath before trying to wrestle the round base back into the sides of the tin...

Start by preparing a springform tin (you know, the kind with a metal buckle on the side and a loose bottom). Put the tin on a bit of greaseproof paper and draw round it, so you can cut a circle of greaseproof paper that fits the bottom.

Ta da greased tin, all ready for cheesecake

I grease the bottom and sides of the tin, then put the greaseproof paper in, then grease that. I'm sure at least part of this is overkill but I really, really didn't want the finished cheesecake to get stuck.

Ginger biscuits in a bag.

Weigh out your ginger biscuits. I only allowed for part of a packet when costing the recipe, but who am I kidding? With two children and a husband loose in the kitchen, once the packet is open, none of those ginger snaps are going to escape alive.

Biscuits, bashed.
Bashing biscuits.

Bung the biscuits into a plastic bag, then bash away with a rolling pin until they are entirely crushed. There may well be a way of doing this with a food processor, but it won't be anywhere near so much fun. 
Top tip: use a reasonably thick plastic bag because otherwise the ginger snaps will make a break for freedom all over your worktop. 

Biscuit crumbs mixed with butter. Best not think about the calories.

Melt the butter in a saucepan, add the biscuit crumbs and mix it all together. Then empty the mix into the bottom of your tin and try and make it vaguely level.

The lemon never stood a chance.

If you're using the juice from a lemon, I recommend grating the zest (skin) first, so you can use the zest to add lemon flavour to other recipes. 

Put both tubs of mascarpone in a bowl. Yes all of it.
Mix in the lemon curd and lemon juice

Put the mascarpone, lemon curd and lemon juice into a mixing bowl and stir it round until it is all smooth.

Dump the mascarpone mix onto the biscuit base.
Level it, then cover with cling film

Empty the mascarpone mix onto the biscuit base and spread it out, trying to make it smooth and flat. Then cover the tin with cling film and leave it in the fridge to set. Mary Berry suggests leaving it for between 4 hours and 24 hours to firm up. I left it overnight.

Slice round the sides to release

The next morning, I used a knife to slice round the edge, to seprate the cheesecake from the sides of the tin.

To get the cheesecake out of the tin, start by balancing it on top of any random tin from your cupboard. Release the buckle carefully, and then you can drop the sides of the tin down onto the worktop, leaving the metal base and cheesecake behind.

Cheesecake on one side, tin and greaseproof paper on the other.

Mary Berry blithely says "remove the cheesecake from the tin, peel off the baking parchment and arrange on a platter".

I think this is the only tricky bit of the recipe, trying to insert a knife between the metal tin and the greaseproof paper so you can lift the cheesecake and paper onto a platter, and then wriggling the knife between the greaseproof paper and the cheesecake base itself, so you can slide out the paper leaving just the cheesecake in all its glory.

I left some frozen raspberries on a plate to defrost, and only put them on top of the cheesecake just before serving, so they wouldn't go all soggy and stain the top. If the raspberries do leak some juice, try tipping the cheesecake one way and the other, so the juice covers the top and it looks slightly more like you did it on purpose.

I whisked the cheesecake through for people to eat before I thought about taking a photo of the finished product, but it went down very well with children and grandparents alike.

Remaining cheesecake.

We polished off about three quarters of a cheesecake between six, and the photos shows what was left (but not for long).

The Live Below the Line campaign continues until 30 June, if you might consider supporting my efforts to feed myself on £1 a day for 5 days from 26 to 30 April by donating to Unicef, the world's leading organisation for children.
This is the link to my fundraising page:

Thursday, 21 May 2015

Wisteria envy

Wisteria. Lots of it. Just not ours.

Strange as it might seem from reading this blog, life does continue in between annual Live Below the Line challenges.

When we lived in London, we had a tiny back yard and were grateful for it, after years of living in flats with no outside space. 

Our garden in London. Even the estate agent found it hard to make it look big.

One of the major benefits of moving to the country last year was getting a much bigger garden. As one friend put it, we moved "from having no garden to three gardens".

The only drawback is that my gardening knowledge is limited to admiring glances, being dragged round National Trust properties as a child and having a very enthusiastic gardener for a mother, even if she does live in a different country which is not entirely convenient for help with the odd spot of weeding.

However, I do have good intentions, and have discovered that I would definitely rather be pottering around pulling things up outside than doing housework inside. 

We have battled to remove enormous amounts of ivy and a tenacious vine, but that still leaves another vine, wisteria and assorted roses clambering up the house, into the gutters, under the tiles and making a concerted grab for the chimneys. 

I can only reach up a certain height to prune even on our ladder, with the strange effect of relative neatness below and explosive growth above, so we were forced to call in reinforcements. 

Andy the gardener fettled all the climbers in a couple of visits in March, but did mention that cutting back the wisteria so late in the year would mean it flowered later too. 

So now I get wisteria envy every time I walk down the street, because the wisteria over the road looks fantastically ebullient like this:

Amazing wisteria over the road...

whereas ours looks like this:

Hmmmm. Could try harder.

I'm sure I don't need to worry though. 
Wisteria grows quite so enthusiastically that like cockroaches I reckon it would survive nuclear bombardment to sprout anew. 

I just have to remember last summer, when I could virtually see it growing before, behind, between, above and below the window in my work room. 

Evidence of wisteria taking over the world

Anyway do let me know if you might be remotely interested in progress in the garden, not solely budget recipes and rants about food poverty. Although I do have a fine recipe for cheesecake I was intending to write about too.

Thursday, 14 May 2015

My Mirror Online article: I lived off £1 a day - and even splashed out on marmalade

Live Below the Line: £5 to spend on food for 5 days

Well it's all go around here.

In addition to the article I did for the Sunday Times on 10 May about my experiences on Live Below the Line, I was also asked to write about shopping on a tiny budget for the Money section of Mirror Online.

It went up on the Mirror website on 13 May, and you can read it here, should you be so inclined:

I lived off £1 a day - and even splashed out on marmalade

And if you've already ready the article, and clicked through from the Mirror website, welcome!

Mirror Money Online, just after the article was posted!

It's been very weird seeing my picture, grinning madly and clutching a fiver, plastered on Mirror Online. Thanks very much to my mate Heidi who took the photo. I now have a whole load of frowning selfies on my camera, after running round the house trying to find a plain backdrop that disguised my lack of housework.

It's also been weird seeing the number of "shares" ticking up, as people forward the article link on Facebook or Twitter. Either my mother now has RSI, or that's more than 2,300 people with some interest in shopping on a tiny budget (or pictures of red-faced middle-aged mothers).

If anyone has any questions about Live Below the Line, or budget food, or budgeting, do please ask.
I don't pretend to have all the answers, but I might be able to point you in the right direction.
I'd love to hear your top tips on cutting your food bills too.

I certainly benefited massively from the information shared by other bloggers and websites in trying to feed myself on £1 a day for 5 days on Live Below the Line, to raise funds for Unicef, the world's leading children's organisation, and awareness of the 1.2 billion people living in extreme poverty worldwide.

The Live Below the Line challenge continues right through 30 June, so there's still time to sign up here.
If you can spare anything to donate to Unicef, and their extremely worthwhile work keeping children safe, fed and healthy, including their campaign after the earthquakes in Nepal, here's the link to my fundraising page:

Wednesday, 13 May 2015

How to make Ceri’s yogurt cream cheese

Without Live Below the Line, I would never have tried making cream cheese out of yogurt.

It not only tastes great, but is incredibly easy to do.

The real bonus on a tiny budget was that you don't have to fork out at least 49p or so on value soft cheese, but just 45p to 50p on a big 500g pot of value range natural yogurt.

The yogurt was surprisingly versatile: I used some as a snack with fruit, some to dollop on top of meals like pancakes and chilli, and some to make cream cheese like this for sandwiches.

I got the idea from Ceri over at Natural Kitchen Adventures, at the end of her post here, and made some more yesterday. You can find her whole Live Below the Line Resource pack here, listed under "Ceri's Wholefood Recipes". The yogurt cheese, known as labne, is on page 10.

It really is easy!

Fancy salt grinder from Aldi but any kind of salt would be good. 

This time I started off with 300g natural yogurt in a bowl, and mixed in some salt. Reckon adding black pepper and / or chives would taste great too.

Warning: don't try and wrestle yogurt into muslin without putting bowl underneath first...

I put a bit of butter muslin over a bowl, so I could spoon the yogurt onto the muslin without the material slipping and yogurt spilling all over the place (voice of bitter experience). Ceri sensibly points out that you could use a cheesecloth, a clean tea towel and even a pair of old tights as well.

Ready to twist the elastic band to hold it together

Next, I gathered up the corners of the muslin, and twisted an elastic band round to hold it together. 

Look, the whey has already started dripping out 
Ta dah, future cheese suspended in jar

Stick a skewer, chopstick, handle of a wooden spoon or whatever through the elastic band, and then you can dangle the bag of yogurt down inside a jar, and the skewer/stick/handle will keep it suspended.

Banished to the fridge overnight

If you leave the yogurt overnight in the fridge, liquid from the yogurt (whey) will drip down into the bottom of the jar. 

The morning after - loads of whey at the bottom

Give the material a quick squeeze, if you want to force out more whey and make the cream cheese a bit thicker.

When you open the material, you’ll find a ball of soft cheese just waiting to be spread on sandwiches or whatever you fancy!

Cheese from 300g yogurt, with whey in the jug.

I transferred the cheese into a plastic box and used a knife to scrape off any remaining cheese from the muslin. 
As you can see, the 300g of natural yogurt ended up as 125g soft cheese, plus an additional 150ml or so of whey, which Ceri reliably informs us can used for things like soaking porridge oats or whole grains to make them more digestible.

That's lunch sorted then

So I ended up with 125g cream cheese by using natural yogurt that cost about 30p.

Please consider donating to UNICEF to support their work keeping children worldwide safe, fed and healthy, including their response to the earthquakes in Nepal.
This is the link to my fundraising page:

Live Below the Line: still time to take the challenge!

At least on Live Below the Line I had a good reason to be grumpy...

Remember, there’s still time to take the Live Below the Line challenge to feed yourself on £1 a day for 5 days, to raise funds and awareness to combat global poverty.

Feeding myself on £1 a day for just 5 days was hard, but it’s so much harder for the 1.2 billion people worldwide who live in extreme poverty.

I wanted to do something, however small, and raised funds for Unicef, the world’s leading children’s charity. 

The campaign runs until June 30, and you can choose between 30 different charity partners. Sign up here:

If you could spare something to support the incredibly worthwhile work by Unicef, especially in the aftermath of the earthquakes in Nepal, this is the link to my fundraising page:

Sunday, 10 May 2015

My Sunday Times article: Could you eat for just £1 a day?

Me! With a newspaper!

It's out!

The article I wrote about my experiences on Live Below the Line, feeding myself on £1 a day for 5 days, appeared in the Sunday Times today (albeit behind a paywall):

More money saving, less politics, still for Unicef.

Oh oh and comedy moment. Turns out the article was trailed in the main paper. Can safely say this is the first time I've ever been included in a line up with Jeremy Clarkson, Simon Pegg and Sarah Lucas.
Wonder if they'd ever consider doing Live Below the Line?

Can you spot me? Clue: I'm on the only one holding a frying pan
Must confess that I had previously generated some press coverage about doing Live Below the Line - page 56 of the May edition of Hadleigh Community News.

Page 56: left hand page, bottom paras. The glamour!

Where Hadleigh Community News leads, the Sunday Times follows...

I donated the fee for writing the article for the Sunday Times to Unicef, the world's leading children's organisation.
If you'd like to add any further donations the link to my fundraising page is:

Live Below the Line: poverty tourism or worthy cause?

I nearly didn’t take part in Live Below the Line this year.

I’ve taken the challenge twice before, feeding myself on £1 a day for 5 days, raising funds and awareness to combat global poverty.

I wasn’t sure I could pester my friends and family yet again, urging them to donate to Unicef, the world’s biggest children’s organisation. Everyone has their own pet causes – how could I ask them to divert their cash to my choice of charity?

I was actively concerned that as a participant in Live Below the Line I could be accused of hideous poverty tourism, patronising people on limited incomes from my position of privilege, and trivialising an immensely important issue.

Also, as I said in response to a very thought-provoking blog post by Miss South, a food blogger for whom I have immense admiration, I question how much I participate for my own benefit, at a time to suit myself, to a campaign that has very fundamentally changed my views on budgeting and cooking, food waste and inequality, and provided an outlet to talk about them all.

I saw the storm that greeted actress Gwyneth Paltrow’s attempts to live on the equivalent of SNAP, the American food stamp system, feeding her family for a week on $29.
However well-intentioned, her efforts were resented as bad taste, a stunt, a game. Better to make a substantial donation than play at poverty.

I am well aware that my efforts were entirely artificial. Unlike the 1.2 billion people living in extreme poverty, I have a roof over my head, clean water to drink, food to buy and the transport to fetch it, fuel to cook on and the time, skills and equipment to attempt feeding myself on a tiny budget.

Live Below the Line does not – cannot – attempt to replicate the reality of living in poverty. But it can give some glimpses into the soul-destroying struggle for so many to provide food for their families.

In the end, I clenched my teeth and took the Live Below the Line challenge for the third time. It seemed better to do something, however small, than nothing at all.

This year was harder than ever, as I only had £5 to spend not the relative luxury of £10 for two people. I planned, shopped and cooked, then blogged, emailed, tweeted and spammed the hell out of my Facebook friends.

Then the day after I started Live Below the Line, the earthquake struck Nepal.
With more than 8,000 people dead, many more injured and infrastructure destroyed, donating to Unicef’s work in the aftermath suddenly became much more immediate rather than a theoretical good cause.

I have been incredibly touched by the response from people I contacted about my efforts on Live Below the Line, and not just when I was over-emotional on Day 4 with my blood sugar levels all over the place.

Donors to my fund-raising page come from the whole spectrum of my life – family, school, university, work, voluntary committees, the school gates, friends of friends, bloggers and even some complete strangers.

Thanks to their generosity, plus the fee for an article I was asked to write about my experiences on Live Below the Line for the Sunday Times (out today, 10 May), my fund-raising total has now passed beyond £1,000.

In the end, that’s more than a thousand reasons why I’m just going to have to take accusations of poverty tourism on the chin.

Live Below the Line never ceases to make me immensely grateful that for me, due to an accident of birth, feeding myself on £1 a day is temporary.

But for nearly 20% of the global population, living in extreme poverty is their reality, every single day.

Please consider donating to UNICEF to support their much more worthwhile work keeping children worldwide safe, fed and healthy, including their response to the earthquake in Nepal.
This is the link to my fundraising page:

And if you want to participate yourself, the Live Below the Line challenge runs right through until the end of June:

Saturday, 9 May 2015

Why I donated to a food bank the day after the election

Yesterday, I woke up and saw the general election results.

After dropping my children at school, the first thing I did was to go to our local Co-op, buy some food and put it in the collection box for our nearest food bank. I fear it will be needed.

Food bank collection point - add to it if you can..

With plans for further benefit cuts and the roll out of Universal Credit, the queues at food banks will only get longer.

The appalling rise in demand for food banks was one of the major reasons I got involved in the Live Below the Line campaign two years ago, feeding myself on £1 a day for 5 days to raise funds and awareness about poverty.

I desperately wanted to do something (however small) to help the 1.2 billion people worldwide living in extreme, unimaginable poverty.

Closer to home, I was shocked that in 2012/13 almost 350,000 people in crisis were given three days’ emergency food by Trussell Trust food banks. The UK is one of the richest nations in the world – how was it possible that so many people were going hungry?

Today, I find it even more horrifying that visits to food banks have more than TRIPLED. During the last year, nearly 1,085,000 people have received three days’ emergency food from the Trussell Trust.

Let’s not forget, you can’t just rock up at a food bank because you fancy a freebie.

You have to be referred by a “frontline care professional” like a doctor, social worker, teacher or health visitor. Someone else has to recognise that your circumstances are so serious that you and your family will go hungry without an emergency food package.

The triple whammy of the economic downturn, rising food prices and benefit changes has hit many people hard, and left them struggling to feed themselves. When you’re on a low income, reduced working hours and unexpected bills can cause a crisis.

Don’t assume behind a computer, in the comfort of your own home, that it couldn’t happen to you.

Redundancy, unemployment, accident, illness or family circumstances can devastate family finances without warning. Nearly a third of households have so little savings that they would not be able to pay their mortgage if they lost their job, according to research by HSBC, the bank.

Trussell Trust Chief Executive David McAuley described many people as “living on a financial knife edge” where “one small change in circumstances or a ‘life shock’ can force them into a crisis where they cannot afford to eat”.

Don’t assume that state benefits would scoop you up in a safety net.

Nearly half of referrals to Trussell Trust foodbanks (44%) are due to benefit delays or benefit changes. The UK's Faculty of Health has raised concerns that "the welfare system is increasingly failing to provide a robust last line of defence against hunger". With austerity measures, benefit cuts and sanctions proposed by the new Government, the problem is only likely to get worse.

So yesterday, I put some extra items to my shopping basket, and added them to the food bank collection point. It was only a tenner, but it might help stop someone, somewhere, going to bed hungry.

For more information about the Trussell Trust:
East of England Co-op on food poverty:
Better still, read anything by A Girl Called Jack about food banks, for someone who really knows what she is talking and campaigning about:

If you would like to support my Live Below the Line fund raising for UNICEF, it can make a real difference to keeping children worldwide safe, fed and healthy, including UNICEF’s current work in the aftermath of the earthquake in Nepal.
Here’s the link to my fundraising page: