Thursday, 24 December 2015

Christmas Eve

Our Christmas tree

It's Christmas Eve, and both children are in bed, with one stocking laid out on the bed, and one hanging from the bedroom mantelpiece.

I didn't think we had many Christmas traditions, but realised that perhaps we do have some. 
Our meal on Christmas Eve has become a big piece of gammon, glazed in marmalade this year, and accompanied by red cabbage and mashed potato for the adults, and baguette, carrot sticks, cucumber and cherry tomatoes for the children (Philistines). 

I made a few mince pies while listening to the carols from Kings, and also made the now traditional dash to nearby shops for the last few outstanding items (this year celery, fresh thyme, Baileys for my sister and one last present). 

I dug out the couple of really beautiful Christmas books given to the children, so we could look again at the illustrated carols and read "The Night Before Christmas". They also got to watch a DVD with their cousins, all sitting on the sofa in a row in their pyjamas - a couple of years ago it was Arthur Christmas, this year we went for Elf.

My daughter was keen to leave out supplies for Father Christmas, and had very definite ideas about which fireplace would be the point of entry. I even had to move the fireguard, as she was most worried Father Christmas might get trapped behind it. We laid a plate on the hearth with a mince pie for Father Christmas, a carrot for Rudolph and a shot glass of ginger wine. 

Our Christmas tree presides over it all. The tree is not elegant. It does not have a theme, or a colour scheme. It is decorated in a haphazard way by the whole family, although I do sometimes reposition more fragile or precious ornaments further along branches or higher up, once the children are occupied with hanging other baubles. 

Instead, the decorations have accumulated over time, and come out each year to be greeted with nostalgia and reminiscences. The assortment is a funny mixture of old and new, bought and home made, restrained and flashy, chosen when away on holiday or given to us. 

Each one brings memories when unwrapped. The silver bell from my childhood tree, which is older than I am. A roll call of decorations from places we've visited, from exotic destinations pre childen to family holidays in Norfolk. Decorations from gallery shops and grandparents. The last couple of glass baubles from the box I bought for the first tree with my now husband, and the virtually indestructible silver baubles acquired when Woolworths was closing down. My daughter's snowflake crystal, grown at school last year, and my son's salt-dough circle, spattered with paint.

Tonight I can pause, before the frenzy of food and presents sweeps us through tomorrow. 
So Merry Christmas to everyone, to you and your friends and family.

Tuesday, 22 December 2015

More than 50 last minute children's stocking fillers for £2 or less

Cute Christmas pencils from Tiger - the kind of stocking present I love

Just zooming out to go to the panto, a festive tradition on my daughter's birthday, but thought I'd post this in case it's a help for anyone stuck for last minute stocking fillers.

I do love stockings, but it's is amazing how the cost of all those small presents adds up.

Mirror Online asked me to write a piece about cheap and cheerful stocking presents, so I put together this Pinterest board with ideas that all cost £2 or under:

As delivery times would be too tight by now, I focused on high street stores - so more Tiger than Tiffanys, with diversions via Poundland, The Works, Superdrug and the supermarkets.

Here's the link to the article in full on the Mirror website:

Good luck! (And apologies to anyone of a nervous disposition for the image below).

Foul bouncing, flashing slime eyeball for £2.50 from Hawkins Bazaar
 - one of my children's favourite ever stocking presents

Sunday, 20 December 2015

Making cranberry sauce for Christmas

Cranberry sauce, ready to be wrapped up and given away.

I may not like all the traditional Christmas foods, as blogged yesterday, but I do love cranberry sauce with turkey, with ham, with chicken, with cheese, in fact with pretty much everything.

In the maelstrom of Christmas and birthday prep that consumes our household in December, I am even prepared to make my own cranberry sauce.

The bonus is that if you decant it into jars, and gussy them up with cloth covers, ribbon and suitable labels, they can even make presents for your nearest and dearest. It helps if you hoard empty jam jars during the year, to press into action as needed.

I think presents like cranberry sauce are great for people who already have too much stuff, and want something that will get put to get use, rather than cluttering up their home.

Fortunately Mary Berry has come up with a recipe with is both delicious and fabulously quick and easy - always a winning combination.

Mary Berry calls it "scarlet confit" which sounds a bit pretentious, but it's worth overlooking the name.

I have tweaked the quantities in the original recipe to suit the 300g boxes of cranberries on sale, so you don't get left with random excess cranberries rolling around the place.


These quantities made about 1kg of cranberry sauce, which filled 2 and a half normal jam jars. 
Note to self: I should start hoarding smaller jars.

7 ingredients for cranberry confit


600g fresh or frozen cranberries (Morrisons is doing 300g boxes at just £1 a pop)
300g granulated sugar
Zest and juice from 1 orange.
75ml cider vinegar. I reckon vinegar keeps just fine for years, if it's in a dark cupboard rather than stuck on a windowsill, so don't be afraid to invest in some cider vinegar
75ml port
Large pinch of cinnamon
Large pinch of mixed spice


Bung everything into a saucepan. Bring up to the boil and then simmer gently for 10 to 15 minutes. Don't worry if it looks a bit runny, as it will get thicker as it cools.

Before: bung all the ingredients in a pan

I use a potato masher to squash some of the remaining cranberries, as I prefer a smoother cranberry sauce, but hey you could go mad and leave some of them whole.

After: mashing cranberries to make smoother sauce

Decant into super clean jam jars. Give away if you can bear to. Will last for ages in the fridge, due to the preserving powers of all that sugar and booze.

Cranberry sauce from a previous year, on a previous work top.

Where do you stand on cranberry sauce? Wouldn't be Christmas without it, or not very keen? 
Do you like making the stuff, or prefer to grab a jar from the supermarket shelf?

Saturday, 19 December 2015

Mirror Online: I ditched the Christmas foods we hated, and saved £50

The Christmas pudding I have grudgingly bought for other people.

Mirror Online asked for suggestions for Christmas themed articles, so I pitched an idea about saving money on Christmas food, all about planning ahead, shopping around and not buying too much.

Turned out they already cut-price Christmas dinner covered, but the editor really liked my throwaway reference to cutting out the food we didn't actually like.

So here's a link to my article about how we ditched the Christmas foods we hated, and saved more than £50, in which I reveal the true depth of my hatred for Christmas pudding (and nuts in shells, and dates, and enormous, huge, all consuming turkeys):

It was fun to write, so hopefully it will be vaguely fun to read as well.

Any traditional foods that you really don't like, and either choke down to be festive, or choose to avoid?

Tuesday, 15 December 2015

Bargain best ever brownie with a secret ingredient

Brownietastic. Don't worry if it looks bobbly, it still tastes great.

I don't cook many puddings, mainly because of the risk that I will scoff the lot.
This means that when I do, I like them to be good ones.

This particular chocolate brownie recipe is a real winner because it uses cheap and cheerful ingredients with no nuts, so gets devoured by all generations, including any nut-hating children.

I've tried the recipe loads of times, both with brand name ingredients and value range substitutes, and it still tastes great. I can heartily recommend serving it warm with ice cream, to really appreciate the melting chocolate deliciousness.

The mystery ingredient came about when I was feeling smug about buying a bargain Terry's dark chocolate orange for my sister well ahead of Christmas, and stashed it out of reach on top of our tall fridge freezer.

Then one morning I came down to find a chair pushed up against the fridge, a trail of cardboard box, plastic packaging and foil leading to the TV, and my five-year-old ensconced on the sofa with a guilty expression smeared in chocolate. Turns out my sister is not the only chocolate orange fan in the family.

I removed the remains, but could hardly wrap up a half-eaten chocolate orange as a Christmas present. Instead, I decided to substitute chocolate orange for part of the dark chocolate in the brownie I was baking for friends due for lunch that day.

The end result was fantastic. I thought the original chocolate brownie recipe was great, but the chocolate orange version was even better.

So whether you stick to a standard version, or snap up a chocolate orange on offer in the run up to Christmas, do give this recipe a whirl.

Bargain Best Ever Brownie

Brownie: making magic out of basics ingredients

200g dark chocolate. Substitute half for chocolate orange if you really want to push the boat out.
180g Stork margarine
260g sugar
3 eggs
80g plain flour
50g cocoa powder
200g milk chocolate, chopped up

Cost: £2.53
Based on ingredients from Morrisons as of 15 December 2015:
60p for 2 x 100g Morrisons Savers Dark Chocolate, £2 for 1kg Stork, 55p for 1kg Silver Spoon Granulated Sugar, £2 for 15 mixed weight free range eggs, 45p for 1.5kg Morrisons Savers Plain Flour, £2 for 250g Morrisons Cocoa Powder, 60p for 2 x 100g Morrisons Savers Milk Chocolate.

Pre-heat your oven to 200 degrees C / 180 degrees C if you have a fan oven / gas mark 6.
Line a baking tin or ceramic dish with greaseproof paper. Make sure there's enough sticking up at the sides so you can use it to haul the brownie out once it's cooked.

Bung the Stork in a small saucepan, and put broken up pieces of dark chocolate or chocolate orange on top. Then heat it over a LOW heat, stirring occasionally until the chocolate and Stork have all melted together. Take the pan off the heat and let it cool slightly, so you don't end up with scrambled eggs.

Meanwhile, break the eggs into a clean mixing bowl, add the sugar, and whisk the mixture until it's creamy. Add the chocolate mixture, and combine carefully.

Sieve the flour and cocoa on top, and fold in using a metal spoon rather than bashing all the air out with a wooden spoon.

Then add the chopped up milk chocolate, pour it all into the tin or dish, and bake for about 35 to 40 minutes.

Once you've taken it out, let it cool a little before lifting it out using the greasproof paper. Peel the paper off, cut into chunks depending on appetite and enthusiasm, and serve.

If you're trying to make it look smarter, slice off the edges before taking it to the table. Then go and find a better hiding place for any other chocolate you've bought for Christmas.

Looking angelic with his birthday brownie,
when not half-covered in illicit chocolate

Friday, 11 December 2015

Make do and mend

Mending a much-loved cardigan

In my rock 'n' roll daily life, I have been attempting to rescue one of my favourite cardigans.

It's a vivid greeny blue colour, which somehow manages to go with most things I wear, complete with fetching sparkly buttons.

Thankfully the holes are due to wearing it so much, rather than dastardly moths.

I would hate to throw it away, so I finally got round to darning the holes.It's hardly the most elegant mending, but fingers crossed I can continue wearing my cardigan without it being immediately obvious.

After venturing out in the rain, I also discovered one of my best-beloved boots was leaking. Unfortunately the front of the sole had decided to part company from the rest of the boot.

I only acquired my current pair of boots last year, after a lengthy quest to find black leather knee high boots that would actually fit round my calves. I was not about to embark on a similar quest, so I headed off to the shoemenders. He was able to rescue both boots with new soles and heels. Now I can stride out on the school run in the rain confident my socks will remain dry. The repairs were not cheap, but cost distinctly less than a new pair of boots.

I find it hard to disentangle whether my desire to mend these items is from a sense of thrift, a desire to cut consumption by reusing what I already have, or down to sheer laziness and the reluctance to go shopping for replacements.

Anyone else keen on extending the life of their favourite items of clothing?

Wednesday, 9 December 2015

Storm damage

Morning after the night before: collapse of the climbing rose

My heart goes out to everyone in Cumbria affected by the flooding, it must be unbelievably hideous.

I feel incredibly lucky that so far the only storm damage we've suffered is a climbing rose that made a break for freedom. A couple of weeks ago we were woken during the night by heavy rain and strong winds. The next morning, when I pulled up the blinds, I discovered one of climbing roses had collapsed.

Despite a whole collection of different ropes and wires holding the climber to the wall, the weight of the rainwater on the leaves had managed to snap through all the restraints.

Fortunately the rose had draped itself over a handy yew hedge, so the stem hadn't broken.

Handy hedge to break the rose's fall.

It's a pretty old plant with a thick trunk, which creates a cloud of white flower by our back door every summer. We'd have been sad to see it go. However, it's an enormous plant that reaches well over 10 feet tall, and I was nervous about how to prune it and whether I would be strong enough to haul it back against the wall.

I'm very glad that we were able to call on Andy the gardener, who nipped round a few days later when the wind let up long enough to brave a ladder.

He pruned impressive amounts off the rose (cue another trip to the tip) and reattached it to the wall.

One rose reattached, a lot of pruning later

Fingers crossed the rose survives the rest of the winter. Fingers crossed our roof does too!

Spot the rose in happier times, just to the right of the back door.

Monday, 7 December 2015

Money for nothing: cashback websites

Once upon a time and long, long ago, in those heady days when I had a regular income and no children, I used to do pretty much all my Christmas shopping on one day.

I'd book a day off work and make a list of everyone I needed to get presents for. Then I'd start at one end of Kensington High Street and head down to the other, buying presents, cards and wrapping paper as I went. I didn't allow myself to come home until I had something for everyone. By the end of the day my feet would be exhausted, my brain would be scrambled, my hands would hurt from carrying the bags, and I'd collapse into a cab to get me home. But at least it was DONE.

Nowadays I have less money, work fewer hours and rely on the internet for any shopping outside Hadleigh. Making the most of a smaller budget involves a lot more time and planning and less shopping, but if I'm going to buy anything online, it does mean I can take advantage of cashback websites.

If you haven't come across them before, I'm talking about websites like TopCashback and Quidco.

I'm all in favour of saving money, and to me cashback websites represent money for nothing, because I get money back for buying stuff I would anyway.

Basically if you want to buy something online, go to their website first, check if the retailer is listed, and then click through from their website to the website you want, and you'll get credited with a percentage of the money spent.

Fancy infographic on how cashback websites work, in case my version sounds like gobbledegook

I've earnt pretty small amounts shopping on websites like Boden, the Book People, Baker Ross, Boots, the Body Shop and even retailers that don't begin with a 'B' (eg The White Company, Homebase, House of Fraser, Hotel Chocolat, Sainsbury's and flights from Thomson).
You can also earn significantly larger amounts buying things like car insurance, household insurance and car breakdown cover.

I think you can also sometimes get cashback when buying things in an actual real life shop, by downloading an app, taking a picture of your receipt and sending it in, but my phone is so ancient it can't cope with apps or even picture messages so no joy there.

Both websites are free to join, although you can pay something and then benefit from higher payouts. Personally I prefer to stick to the money for nothing side of things.

The cashback can take several weeks if not months to come through, but then you can choose whether to have it transferred straight to your bank account, or get paid up to 5% more if you take the money as a voucher or gift card for a specific retailer like Boots or Amazon.

But all the little amounts, the 50p here and a couple of quid there, do mount up.
I've been using TopCashback for about 3 years now, and have earned more than £300 in cashback - just from buying stuff I was intending to buy anyway. I still shop around, compare prices and try to buy things in sales, but once I've found a good deal it's great to get an additional fillip of cashback.

One caveat: usually you can't combine a cashback website with a voucher code from elsewhere, so do check how you can save the most. A 10% off voucher code is always going to be a better deal than earning a couple of percent via a cashback website.

And no I haven't been sponsored to do this post, but I thought that cashback websites were worth mentioning at a time when people might be doing more shopping than normal.

However, if you sign up using either of these links, and go on to earn some cashback, they might even bung me a bit of cash at no cost to you:



But if you'd rather not do it that way, you can still find the websites at and

Have you ever used a cashback website? Worth the effort or too much effort?

Saturday, 5 December 2015

The nearest Hadleigh gets to Black Friday

The grand re-opening of the Hadleigh Thrift Shop, mayor and all

We braced ourselves to face the winter weather today, in a trip down the road for the grand re-opening of the Hadleigh Thrift Shop, which has moved all the way to the distinctly bigger ship next door.

It's all go in Hadleigh I tell you - there was a town crier, the mayor, a local councillor, the vicar, the cast of the local am dram panto in full costume, a boiler engineer dressed as the Gruffalo, a whole team of purple-clad majorettes and Jan and John in hi-vi jackets poised to stop the traffic.

No shop opening is complete without a town crier and the cast of an am dram panto.

They even wheeled out Griff Rhys Jones as a local Suffolk celebrity, complete with jaunty beard and Father Christmas hat, to uncork the champagne and cut the ribbon.

Griff brought his own basket of goods to donate, urged everyone to use the Thrift Shop for their Christmas shopping, and compared the large crowd of frost bitten shoppers to the nearest Hadleigh gets to Black Friday. I think he was lucky not to be mown down in the stampede to seize sausage rolls and free booze (or maybe that was just me).

Griff Rhys Jones + beard + hat. 

I took my daughter along in full Brownie uniform to help the assembled Brownie and Guide hierachy dole out refreshments, and attempted to stop my son running amok with a balloon in a confined space. Sigh.

I've blogged about the Hadleigh Thrift Shop before, as one of the cornucopia of charity shops in Hadleigh, and the provider of the pie dish and funnel that helped stretch a joint of pork over multiple meals. Long may it continue.

Many congratulations are due to Barbara Boyd, the founder of the Thrift Shop, and all the volunteers and donors who raise money for so many local causes.

Friday, 4 December 2015

Friday is market day

Mountains of fruit and veg.

Hadleigh was originally a market town, and the market place still hosts a market every Friday.

The market was one of the first things we discovered in Hadleigh - we moved out of our old house on a Thursday, and into our new house on Friday, so the market was in full swing as I hurried past to buy something essential (light bulbs? Flash? I no longer remember).

The greengrocers stall, a riot of colourful fruit and veg, was always a stalwart, even if some of the other stalls vary from week to week.

Summer fruit, from back in June

The fish van is one of the regulars, and I have vivid memories of a bargain side of salmon that was one of the first things I attempted cooking in the elderly Aga when we invited people round for a celebration meal.

Man with a (fish) van

However much I like the fishmonger's board,
I still haven't been brave enough to try jellied eels.

The cheerful Cheese & Pie Man is a regular presence most weeks, with unusual pies, sausage rolls and assorted delicious if expensive cheeses with strange names. One of Bob's Knobs proved a perfect birthday present for a fan of both cheese and double entendres.

Plentiful pies...

...and a cornocupia of cheese

I've bought books to support cancer research at the market, got keys copied, a knife sharpened, watched my children get their faces painted and we even acquired a log basket from the basket stall.

French baskets in a Suffolk town. Obviously.

But now the market manager is due to retire, and the greengrocers stall has brown bagged its last fruit and veg and will no longer be setting up every Friday. The brilliantly named Butch and Tina are off to pursue their main source of income elsewhere, according to that august publication, Hadleigh Community News.

Meanwhile the local council have asked for views on how to revitalise the market, and I do hope it survives and thrives.

I'm more than aware that I don't support the market as much as I could, lured away by the convenience and availability at the local supermarkets. But I would still miss the market very much if it dwindled away, as a colourful connection to Hadleigh's past, and I hope part of its living future.

Do you like markets? Which stalls would you like to see on your ideal market?

Update 17 February 2016: Looks like the survey on Hadleigh market had a positive response. A new fruit & veg stall has opened, and there's even a Hadleigh Market Facebook page now, with a wonderful photo of the 1430 market charter and seal, after the original 1252 charter was lost...

Thursday, 3 December 2015

4 winter warming soups for less than 26p a bowl

When Mirror Online asked if I had any ideas for articles based on the colder weather, I wrote about cheap and cheerful winter warming soups. I think soup is a fantastic option when the temperature plummets and the nights draw in - comforting, filling, easy to cook and virtuous if you pack in the veg.

You can read the finished article here and even vote on your favourite.
(This is the full link if needed: )

I chose three soups that I make regularly, carrot & coriander, bacon & lentil and butternut squash & pepper, then added a super speedy version of minestrone as a filling option packed with pasta and beans.

I ended up having to cook all of them in the days before writing the article, to double check the quantities and hence the price per bowl.

Cooking different soups in quick succession led to the following revelations:

- Perhaps unsurprisingly, you end up eating a lot of the damn stuff. Sample conversations in our household that week: Day 1 - "What's for dinner tonight?" "Soup". Day 2 - "What's for dinner today"? "Soup. Again. But this time you have a choice of two."  Day 3 - "Any plans for dinner?" "But yes. Remember those soups you've eaten for the last two days? You can have either of those, because there's still some left over. Plus there's now even more choice, with a THIRD exciting soup."
Day 4: "Anything I should take in to work as a packed lunch?" "Three guesses..." etc etc

- Trying to multitask cooking soup first thing in the morning while getting the children ready for school was not my best plan. Think the highlight was hurling a tin of chopped tomatoes into a sieve, rather than the tin of beans I meant to rinse, and watching most of the tomato juice disappear down the sink. Sigh. Good thing I had a spare tin.

- Pretty much all my favourite soups are orange. There was I thinking the recipes were quite varied, but turns out carrots, butternut squash, red peppers and red lentils all end up pretty much the same colour when cooked. Normally, this is not a problem, because I'm more interested in eating them than looking at them. However, faced with the prospect of taking photos to illustrate an article, it became more of an issue. I only realised half way through, and had to resort to using different backgrounds and chucking chopped coriander on top to make them look vaguely different.

- My food photography leaves something to be desired. See the lovely picture of carrot and coriander soup at the top of the article, with elegant coriander leaves on top, artistic plate underneath and bone handled cutlery? Nothing to do with me. You see the photo lower down, the one that's a bit out of focus, with an unappetising bunch of chopped greenery on top? That would be mine. It did taste good though, honestly.

Glamorous stunt soup, selected by the Mirror.

My soup, untouched by the hand of food stylists (or in fact style). 

So who likes soup when the weather turns wintery? And which soups are your favourites?

Wednesday, 2 December 2015

The great advent calendar debate

Paper AND chocolate: a negotiated truce

Where do you stand on advent calendars?

A paper calendar purist?
Open to the appeal of a bit of chocolate every morning, in the teeth of the health police?
Consider the Christmas message best expressed via fiddly bits of plastic, after forking out for a Playmobil or Lego advent calendar?

When I was a child, we were given paper calendars every year and got over-excited by unveiling tiny pictures of sledges and trumpets every morning.

Then calendar envy snuck in, as school friends spoke of the unimaginable luxury of advent calendars with chocolate behind every door.

I seem to remember a lecture from my mother about the expense of chocolate calendars and the value of money. To be fair, she did relent in later life, and even sent me a Cadbury's calendar to hang on my office wall when I first started work. Always great when trying to establish credibility with your colleagues.

So when I had my own children, I decided to start them off on paper calendars, as daily chocolate for a two-year-old didn't seem the best idea.  Granny and Grandpa took up the baton, and take great delight in choosing suitably festive calendars.

However, now my children have reached the grand old age of six and (nearly) eight, demands have escalated beyond the pretty pictures.

Much to my amusement in this topsy turvy world, it turns out it is now distinctly more expensive to buy a paper calendar than a chocolate version. Nowadays, if you want a puritanical paper version, you're looking at forking out a fiver at somewhere like John Lewis.

Yet you can nip into any old pound shop and come away with a Peppa Pig or Spiderman chocolate version for a quid, even if it's a bit of a stretch to find religious significance in a cartoon character. In fact Poundland is currently doing two for £1.50 (possibly because we're already into December).

I cracked in the face of pester power, and splashed out a whole £1.50 each in Sainsbury's for Cadbury's versions, in case there's ever any chance of me nabbing the odd choc (likelihood: pretty much zero). Now of course they're selling for half price.

So now we have the totally tasteful versions:

Charming but chocolate free.

and the terribly tasty versions:

Cadbury's: purveyors of the hard stuff.

and one fine day, to help survive the whole Christmas fandango, I quite fancy one of these for myself: Just for me mwahaha

The "ginvent" calendar. Genius. But unfortunately £115.
And you even have to provide your own tonic.Swizz.

Although realistically I might have more luck making Hurrah for Gin's version for myself. Reckon it should just about fall within my crafting skills.

Hurrah For Gin's advent calendar - success in a box.