Saturday, 28 December 2013

Sweet Things

I've been talking about making gifts for friends and family for years and this year instead of just talking about making them, I actually set to and drew up a plan and made some gifts for some of my hubby's family, making sweets was sort of his idea after we'd found a book by Annie Rigg entitled "Sweet Things" in a book shop a few months ago. We went through it looking for ideas, and in the end we drew up a list of 4 items to make, Cherry Brandy Fudge, Chocolate & Stem Ginger Fudge, Turkish Delight and Chocolate Peppermint Creams.

We collected together items we needed like a sugar thermometer, moulds, packaging items and of course the basic ingredients which included enough sugar to sink a ship. The downside was all the items we'd chosen to make had to be made as close to Christmas Day as possible due to shelf life. Not to be deterred we decided that the weekend before Xmas eve was perfect, we tackled the fudge first, the Cherry Brandy Fudge came out perfect, but despite reheating and whipping the chocolate & stem ginger fudge to within an inch of its life, we couldn't get it to set despite following the recipe to the letter. We ended up with a product that had the consistency of chocolate spread, which was a real shame as it tasted heavenly, its on the list to perfect for next year!

Cherry Brandy Fudge

This recipe makes about 40-50 pieces of fudge depending on how big you cut the pieces.

Sunflower oil for greasing
100g (3½oz) dried cherries
3-4tbsp cherry brandy
½ a vanilla pod
450g (1lb) caster sugar
50g (1¾oz) golden syrup
2tbsp liquid glucose
170ml (6fl oz) evaporated milk
170ml (6floz) full-cream milk
50g (1¾oz) unsalted butter

Grease the base and sides of an 18cm x 18cm (7in x 7in) baking tin with oil and line with a sheet of baking parchment. Place the dried cherries in a saucepan and add the cherry brandy. Cut the vanilla pod to expose the seeds and add to the dried cherries. Set the pan over a low heat for about 3 minutes to warm the brandy but don’t boil. Remove from the heat and leave to cool.

To make the fudge, tip the remaining ingredients and the brandied vanilla pod into a saucepan and set over a low heat to melt the butter and dissolve the sugar. Pop the sugar thermometer into the pan and raise the heat to bring the mixture to the boil – as it reaches the required temperature, it will turn a rich caramel. Stirring frequently, continue to cook on a steady low-medium heat until the fudge registers 114°C (237°F) on the sugar thermometer.

Slide the pan off the heat and plunge the base into a sink of cold water for 20 seconds to stop the cooking. Using a fork, remove the vanilla pod and leave the fudge to cool for 3 minutes. Beat with a rubber spatula for 3 minutes until it thickens. Add the brandied cherries, then spoon into the prepared tin. Leave to cool completely then cover with clingfilm and leave overnight before cutting into squares.

Next we turned our hands to making chocolate peppermint creams, this recipe isn't from Sweet Things its from a magazine from a few years ago. N.B. you can also make chocolate peppermint creams using beaten egg whites, which is the way I always made them when I was younger, but these days a lot of people worry about eating raw egg whites, so the recipe given below is a safe alternative.

Chocolate Peppermint Creams

450g Icing Sugar, sifted
125ml Condensed Milk
4 Teaspoons Peppermint Extract
Green Food Colouring
200g Plain Chocolate (70% Cocoa or greater)

Sieve the icing sugar into a mixing bowl, then add the condensed milk, peppermint extract and a few drops o
f green food colouring and mix thoroughly until you get a smooth but firm 'dough' and the colouring is blended in evenly, use a wooden spoon to begin and then use your hands to knead the peppermint 'dough'.

When the dough is ready, roll it out on a clean surface that has been dusted with icing sugar to about 4-5mm in thickness and use a small cookie cutter or a milk bottle top to cut shapes or rounds. You can also take a piece of dough about the size of a large marble and roll it in your hand and the squash it flat with the back of a fork to give texture.

Leave the peppermint disks to dry out over night, next day, melt the chocolate in a glass bowl over a pan of hot water, once melted, dip each of the peppermint creams in the chocolate to half cover and put on to greaseproof paper while the chocolate sets. Once the chocolate has set firmly, pack into bags or boxes.

Turkish Delight

The recipe we followed from the Sweet Things book was for a traditional Turkish Delight based on cornflour and sugar, the texture was lovely and it tasted divine, but we noticed that it went 'sweaty' very quickly. In this You-Tube video it shows keeping the delight in a large amount of icing sugar, which would work, but it doesn't look very attractive. The cornflour recipe contains no gelatine though, making it suitable for vegetarians.

A word of warning regarding rosewater, some brands just taste like water with a slight citric acid edge and hardly any rose flavour, as was the case with the rose water we purchased from Tesco. Luckily I had in a bottle of Rose Extract we'd picked up from the Lakeland for making an Indian dessert. When I find a brand of rosewater that is rosier than Tesco I'll update this section, but for now be fore warned!

Next time we make Turkish Delight we're going to use a recipe like this one for making a gelatine based Turkish Delight and see what happens when you come to store gelatine based recipes.The plan is to experiment with recipes and variations over the next 12 months and to improve the sweets, hindsight is a wonderful thing, if we'd had more time we'd have tweaked and played to perfect the recipes. As it stood we gave the gifts warts an' all and explained that it was our first time.

We're both thrilled with the results, and we're inspired to do something similar next year, there were a few minor problems, one small burn from red hot sugar syrup and a little frayed temper from having to do something we'd never done before at the last minute, knowing if it went wrong, we were stuffed! In the end we had some edible goodies to give, our favourites were the Turkish Delight and the Peppermint Creams. The best part of the experience for me was my better half and I worked as a team, we laughed, we danced around the kitchen as we mixed, boiled and decorated.

We enjoyed doing it so much we've vowed that all adults friends and family on both sides are getting homemade gifts in 2014, I'm already halfway through one gift and have a list of other gifts to make, some will be cosmetic, some knitted, some sew, some baked as well as sugared confections, all will be made with love. Some of the best gifts I got given this year were handmade one off's which I truly appreciate and will treasure. Handmade is about the love and effort that goes in to a gift, its about one person giving their time to create something they hope you'll like, my idea of christmas gifts has changed radically and I'm not sure I can go back to the mass produced stuff that everybody gets and gives. The icing on the cake for me was hearing from a friend that myself and a few other friends who make their own gifts have inspired another friend to have a go for next year :)

Wednesday, 18 December 2013

Guilt And The Craft Stash!

Another 'WIP'!
This week I discovered that despite my denial, I'm a serial buyer and hoarder of crafting materials, I got an email inviting me to purchase more wool on 'special offer', but I have a 'stash' of wool, material, cross stitching thread, rubber stamping goodies and enough card making supplies to sink a ship! To add to my list of materials, I have a selection of works in progress known amongst crafter's as WIP's, it really is getting silly now. I discovered the above wizardly bear in a box, all he needs to finish him is a little back stitching and some 'bubbles' coming out of the cauldron, I think it was going to be a birthday card for someone when the first Harry Potter movie came out, a quick google tells me that was in 2001!!! OMG! 12 years and the project still isn't finished?! Before I ordered more wool, it was suggested by my hubby that I look at what I already have in my stash, I was shocked! I'll post some photos at some point of said stash, its scary, least it scared me!

I opened another box and discovered several small festive cross stitch pieces, teddies and angels intended to make cards and gift tags, but they're still in a box and not put to use. There was a bag complete with pattern and all the wool required to make an authentic Dr Who scarf for my hubby, which I promised to make for him ummm 2 years ago! It still hadn't got on the needles! There's a hat that was intended for one of the menfolk of the family that is 2/3rd's complete and wool to make several other hats for the menfolk. A set of bits for making small knitted witches, wizards and snowmen toys and a part knitted pumpkin which was to be stuffed with coffee grounds and cloves to help keep pins sharp and rust free, why did I never finish it? I started knitting what was to be a set of 2 knitted fluffy cushions to give as a gift, 1 is knitted but not sewn up or stuffed, the other sits in a bag waiting to be started.

I have a scarf and hat set that was intended to be a gift for my niece, it's all fluffy and in candy strip colours, which when I started knitting it in 2008 when she was 5 would have been ideal, she is now a 10 year old Tom boy that would go a whiter shade of pale if I presented her with such a girlie looking gift!

The scarf is complete and the hat needed about 20 rows which included the decrease and sewing up and it would have been done! In another box I discovered some designs for homemade yule cards, a set of bags that I'd stitched intending to turn them in to herbal bath bags and tie with ribbon for gifts. All they needed was the herbal filling and tying with the ribbon!?
How hard could it have been to finish that project off? It's not all bad, at the beginning of the year I used up some of the material stash to make a door stop that is filled with rice and lentils for weight and has a bag of lavender sewn in to the top of the bag which releases a sweet aroma when the bag is moved about. I also made a matching draught excluder and a lavender filled heart to hang over the doorknob so when the door is open and closed, the scent is released. These projects were all started and finished on the same day and were put to use that very evening, and have been in use ever since! I knitted several 'ruffle' scarves that were donated to the local Cat's Protection and some scarves out of eyelash yarn that are in my 'present' stash.

Why are they in the stash? Because I was worried that given as homemade gifts they'd go down like lead balloons! As I look at the array of items part made, its beginning to look more and more like I bottle out at giving my homemade gift because I feel like they're not good enough and something shop bought would be better. I'm not the worlds best knitter, seamstress or stitcher but really what I produce isn't that bad is it? Suck it up women and get these projects finished, if you can't finish projects and use up your craft stash, stop bloody adding to it!

Monday, 16 December 2013

Taking Back Christmas

Tudor Pomander photo © Debs Cook
Oh dear... It's been a while since I blogged on here, lots has been happening in life but I'm making a promise to myself that I'll be adding to this blog more from now on. I've been enjoying watching 'Tudor Monastery Farm' over the past few weeks, I love historical programmes that show you how things used to be, I learn things that I never knew and get to see a glimpse of a time gone by. The more I watch though, I'm left with a sense of loss, this country of ours, the people, we've lost so much, slowly but surely our culture and heritage are being whittled away things we used to celebrate in merry old England are long gone, replaced by a a red and white suited man who was 're-invented' by the Coco Cola company in the 1930's.

I know Christmas has been around for a long time, but the meaning is no longer understood by so many people, its all about what they want, and its almost always material. The spirit is dead, hijacked by the big corporate stores and industries that tell us we need to have this, we're not doing it right if we haven't bought this or that and we're failing to observe Christmas if we don't buy everything they sell us. For me the feeling is now almost non-existent, I remember that excitement as a child and being happy with a few small toys and a pillowcase (my Mum didn't do the stocking thing!) with our presents and tangerines, nuts and a little pack of chocolate coins.

In our house we're 'done' aside from cooking the food on the day, but boy did I struggle to get anything like Christmas spirit this year. I hated writing a swathe of Christmas cards, I yelled "What's the point?' at the wrapping paper, feeling grumpy that all the effort but in to wrapping the ruddy gifts would be torn off in an instant so people can see what they got! Pffft! I wasn't even going to put the tree up or any decorations, in fact I was on the verge on enrolling in the 'Bah Humbug' school of Christmas. Very unlike me, I'm usually there on the 1st December wanting to put decorations up, getting excited about choosing gifts, wrapping and presenting.

Something was wrong, it took me a while to realise what it was but it slapped me in the face when I read a friend of a friend say on facebook - after a discussion voicing a similar christmas apathy to mine - if you don't like it, take back christmas and make it what you want it to be. Basically take the elements that make you happy and build on them, don't do what you're told to, do what you want to! Never a more true series of words did I read, like the bells that ring out at Christmas, those words really resonated!

It's a little too late to do this 100% for this year, and yes I know back in September I said I was going to make all our gifts myself, but I chickened out, I let the self instilled guilt and commercial sweet talk sway me. All our gifts have been bought again, with the exception of some were making this weekend for my husband's family. Will post about it after Dec 25th though, some may read this and it will spoil the surprise ;)

The turkey is history, we're having pork on the 25th, the cranberry sauce is out, instead the pork is being served with homemade crab apple jelly, and orange sauce, something served at Tudor tables which is basically marmalade, red wine and water. I'm also going to make a traditional mince pie, as the Tudor's would with mince beef, suet, spices and dried fruit. Veg is on the menu, but the sprouts are not, there will be no xmas pudding either, neither of us like it so why do we buy it and force ourselves to eat it? Stupidity that's why, which stops now! I'm thinking that we'll have a trifle or a ginger & syrup sponge with custard instead. We've been given a lovely homemade Christmas cake as a gift from my sister-in-law. I know it will be lovely because last years was, my SIL makes almost all of her gifts, last year I got a couple of crocheted hats, one I adore and will be worn with pride until it falls off my head in bits lol!

And next year.... Aside from my young nephews and niece who won't understand why they aren't getting the latest toy or fad that they're in to, EVERYBODY is getting a homemade gift, we've already drawn up a list based on my skills and my hubby's skills. I'm going to attempt to decorate the house in a simpler way using fresh greenery, herbs and spices like they did in times gone by. I'm even thinking of making some traditional gifts from our rich English past and including information on who used it and why as part of the present. I'm going to give the gift of time, and feel happy at what I do, if people don't like it then they can stay on the commercial train to insanity and I'll take a nice trip along memory lane, wrapped in tradition and reveal in the fact that in my own way I'll be taking back Christmas!