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Cooking Home

Making a giant cake for the local area’s street party

When the Queen celebrated her Golden Jubilee in 2002 I made a large long cake for a street party in our road, with the position and number of each house iced on it.

In 2011 a friend and I made a huge celebratory cake when we had a bumper street party for the royal wedding.

It therefore seemed an idea to offer to make a giant cake this year for our local residents’ association street party, particularly as there was the Platinum Jubilee to celebrate.

My first step was to talk to one of the organisers to ask if they would like a ‘giant’ cake – ‘yes’ was the answer. So in late April I started baking using a standard Victoria sponge recipe. Over a few weeks I made six sponge cakes, each one in a large roasting tin (4 eggs per cake). The first question was whether I had space in our chest freezer for each cake as it was made. It’s surprising how much volume the six cakes took up, and of course to avoid bending or cracking the sponge they had to freeze on a flat surface.

The shape and size of the finished cake was dependent on the design on top of it. As the party was for a group of seven local streets I decided on a map with each street named. I wanted to get the street names sorted well in advance of drawing the actual map on the cake so bought rolled fondant and wrote the names in cocoa flavoured icing a few days before the event (enough time to see if writing in icing was still something I could do!).

It was then that I discovered my assorted icing tubes and nozzles were not really up to the job although I managed as the photo below shows. Thanks to Amazon, in 24 hours I had a new set of icing equipment ready for the actual map.

Google maps was a good starting point to give me the road layout and I produced an enlarged version on paper. For what seems a relatively simple task there was a surprising amount of measuring and calculating (size of the board that the cake would sit on, size of the finished cake based on the dimensions of the ‘roasting tin’ cakes, and the size of the map when drawn on the giant cake). The next rather hazy photo shows part of the paper map.

Blocking together the six cakes, as in the next photo (taken two days before the party) gave me the right shape for the cake.

I stuck the separate cakes together with ‘butter’ cream (made with sunflower margarine as I kept to dairy free throughout). Whipping together the margarine and icing sugar was too easy producing a fairly soft mix and I wondered whether it would set properly.

Luckily the following day it was quite firm enough for the next stage which was to cover the cake with white water icing. After a short time, the white icing was dry enough to pipe on the basic road pattern.

Then I added the street names.

As you can see below, I doubled up the lines indicating the streets, and framed the map with chocolate chips. I also decided to add a ‘baby marshmallow’ palisade round the outer edge of the cake which involved lightly painting the edge of the cake with boiled water so the marshmallows would stick. I added a random collection (the whole packet) of dolly mixtures in a convenient space at the ‘south’ end of the cake which children might enjoy. They did!

These sweets and decorations were part of a collection that I had great fun buying. The photo below was taken after the party, a reminder of what I used.

The next stage was to complete the decorating…. Again I lightly painted each area with boiled water before adding the sprinkles, choc chips etc so they stuck onto the cake.

It was impossible to make a map look like a pretty cake (no home-made marzipan roses, crystallised flowers etc). In the end I realised that what it most resembled was a land-use survey map! Not a problem luckily.

Before driving the extremely short distance to the street where the party was to be held I added an ingredients list, which you can only just see at the bottom of the photo below, and covered the cake with cling film.

Just before 3pm I whisked off the cling film and the cake was cut, as part of the party’s opening ceremony, by the oldest resident.

It went down well with the partygoers throughout the afternoon. People chose where they wanted me to cut them a piece. Can I have a piece from my street? That’s where my garden is – please may I have a piece from there? What’s happened to my house – someone else has eaten it! Please can I have a piece with chocolate on top?

By about 5.30pm most of the cake had gone.

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Cooking Home Outdoors

Platinum Jubilee weekend

The Queen has been on the throne for 70 years, the longest reigning European monarch, and a unique situation, unlikely to be repeated. She became Queen in February 1952 when her father died (and she was on an African safari). Her coronation was on June 2nd 1953. She celebrates her ‘official’ birthday on June 2nd although her birthday is April 21st and she was 96 this year, 2022.

This year bank holidays were rearranged (late May bank holiday moved to Thursday 2nd and an extra day added on Friday 3rd) to give a 4 day weekend from 2nd to the 5th of June.  Over these days there were large national events organised in London that were televised. Also many communities had street parties and other gatherings. Many of our neighbours were away seeing friends and family or taking advantage of the long weekend to go on holiday so there was nothing laid on here, although our bunting gave a celebratory feel to things.

The bunting goes up at the back of the house………….

And here it is in the front.

Although Trooping the Colour (the Queen’s Birthday Parade) is an annual event, this year was the first time we watched it on television. It was spectacular, with the Prince of Wales (Prince Charles, Duke of Cornwall) in the lead followed by the Duke of Cambridge (Prince William) and the Princess Royal (Princess Anne) riding behind all in full military dress, looking very splendid. The Queen was absent for the parade. There was a procession of carriages for other members of the Royal family, with the Duchesses of Cornwall and Cambridge together with Prince George, Princess Charlotte and Prince Louis. The children were facing backwards (good thing they didn’t suffer from motion sickness!) and were given a lot of press coverage as it was one of their first royal occasions.

At the end of the morning we saw the Queen on the balcony of Buckingham Palace first with her cousin, 86 year old Duke of Kent, and then with the ‘working members’ of the royal family. They watched a terrific fly past including not only the Red Arrows but also 15 Typhoons making a 70 formation. https://www.gbnews.uk/news/raf-typhoons-delight-queen-by-flying-in-70-formation-for-platinum-jubilee-which-they-kept-a-secret/308920

In the evening beacons were lit throughout the country at dusk, 9.45pm.

I cycled to Castle Hill to see the Cambridge beacon being lit. There was a piper playing before and while it was burning. Patrick watched the TV coverage which included beacon lighting on Unst (Shetland) with ‘Vikings’ who threw their burning brands into the fire.

On Friday June 3rd there was a service of thanksgiving at St Paul’s Cathedral attended by thousands of key workers as well as celebrities and a large number of royals. Again, the Prince of Wales stood in for the Queen who was reported as having experienced ‘some discomfort’ (tired maybe) after her busy ‘official birthday’ the day before. There were many superb aspects to the service from the building itself and the music to the religious ceremonial and the Archbishop of York’s sermon. He stood in for the Archbishop of Canterbury who had a combination of covid and pneumonia (not a good mix of illnesses). https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-61681066

The media made a great drama of the attendance of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, Prince Harry and his wife Megan. It was great to see them there – crossing the Atlantic with two very young children is no joke what with jet lag etc, for a short visit to London.

In the afternoon I decorated a jubilee cake. It was a Mary Berry recipe with a rich sponge (including less flour, more ground almonds and several eggs) topped by butter icing and fruit.

We started it for pudding when we had supper in the garden.

Jim came round and we kicked off with pink prosecco.

Saturday 4th was ‘normal’ if having the roof of the bike/’cow’ shed totally replaced can be counted as that. At the end of the day I took a load of rotten timbers to the tip – much improved by the help I was given by the people who work there.

In the evening we watched the concert that took place outside Buckingham Palace. It started with a brilliant film ‘when Paddington Bear came to tea with the Queen’ and they tapped the rhythm on their teacups of ‘We will rock you’ as the first song started. The music was not my style although it was chosen to appeal to a wide range of the population and included old pop songs as well as new. The best part of the evening show was the high tech ‘lumière’, projected onto and above Buckingham Palace and on several occasions accompanied by videos. Both Prince William and Prince Charles made speeches, focussing on the environment and a positive future, and thanks to the Queen, respectively.

On the afternoon of Sunday June 5th there was a Jubilee pageant following a 3km route starting at Whitehall and leading up the Mall and round the Queen Victoria monument in front of Buckingham Palace and on to St James’s Park. It was made up of four parts, military marching, horses and bands first, then a trip through the decades since 1952, followed by street theatre and dance and ending with a tribute to the monarch. There was a huge variety of acts with many celebrities involved (Dames in Jags was one – with Dame Pru Leith’s jag breaking down and needing a push!). 

By the end of Saturday the jubilee cake had been eaten and I made a traditional Victoria sponge which we had on Sunday.

At the end of the pageant there was another balcony appearance when the ‘family succession’ joined the Queen. I took a photo from the television.

True to form the weekend was not completely dry, it rained on Sunday, and it was so cold that I lit the wood burner (in June!!).

On Monday morning the first thing to do was take down the bunting. It was very wet so I hung it up in the top bedroom to dry.

We’ve now put away the bunting, and are looking forward to our own street party for the local community at midsummer.

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Cooking Home

Making trifle (or how to end up with a delicious pudding without getting each stage right!)

We enjoy trifle up to a point. Traditionally it is a Christmas dessert – perfect for an influx of family and friends. This year I decided that Sunday lunch on 5th December would be a good day to have trifle, especially as we are having a ‘pretend Christmas dinner’ ie roast chicken and all the trimmings, so what better than individual trifles to follow. But I was missing two key ingredients, sponge for the base and amaretti biscuits for a layer near the top.

Before I set off to the nearby super-market I made the custard. This consisted of heating half a pint of milk with an ounce or two of sugar, then thickening it slightly with regular custard powder and bringing to the boil resulting in single cream consistency. To thicken further I decided to add two beaten eggs, after removing from the heat. At that stage all was well but further very delicate heating led to a minor disaster – thick on the bottom of the pan (is this scrambled egg? – not quite) and runny on top. However I decided to hope for the best and sieved the custard into a clean bowl expecting it to solidify firmly while I popped to the shops. Alas it didn’t. I should know better as I am a dab hand with baked egg custard but rarely succeed with pan heated egg custard. However the taste was fine – not the traditional custard powder flavour (which Patrick doesn’t like), nor raw egg.

Once back from shopping I broke up the madeleines (sponge for the base) into 6 individual bowls.

And then added sherry.

I pressed the crumbled cake well down so the sherry was thoroughly soaked up from the bottom. Then the custard went onto the top and luckily the quantity was exactly right and it looked as though it would be fairly well absorbed from the top by the madeleines.

A trifle traditionally has several layers often including fruit and/or jam. I decided this was the moment to use up one of the tins of fruit that I had bought pre Brexit when we were threatened with huge shortages of fresh fruit, salad and vegetables. The use-by was 2020 – but I have no concerns about that as tinned produce keeps incredibly well unless the tin is damaged. So I opened a tin of mangoes and chopped them up to make the next layer.

I have not used jelly (neither packet nor made with gelatine) in trifles for decades so wasn’t going to start now even though a traditional trifle is meant to have a good ‘solid’ jelly layer.

Another of my purchases was amaretti.

They went on top of the custard. There were 6 of the mini biscuits for each trifle which is generous (and bumpy) compared with the normal arrangement of crumbled amaretti making a fairly flat layer. Then I whipped about a quarter of a pint of cream for the next layer.

Because of the relatively uneven surface made by the amaretti I decided that roughly smoothing out the cream was the best I could do. But the finished effect, each trifle topped with a glace cherry, looked ok. Other decorations can be far more elaborate for example almonds, split, cut into mini sticks and toasted, are good stuck vertically into the cream, with 1 cm long spines of crystallised angelica adding a touch of colour. In the 1950s silver balls were arranged on top of trifles (must be done at the last minute) and raspberries and strawberries are also good for decoration.

Then into the fridge to wait until lunch tomorrow. By then the layers will have merged a bit more and the amaretti may not be quite as brittle (crunchy) as they are straight out of the packet.

Looking at the photo these trifles look more like Belgian buns than desserts – but I can guarantee they won’t taste like buns!

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Cooking Home

Making Christmas cakes at the end of October

Homemade Christmas cakes keep so well that I find the best time to make them has always been half term, at the end of October or the start of November. There’s a bit of a breather then from the usual schedule of activities which is good as the cake making process is surprisingly time consuming.

I have combined two recipes, the ancient one that I found in a newspaper years ago and my mother’s ‘rich fruit cake’. This is so we finish with a cake that cuts into slices that are reasonably firm. The flavour of the cakes made from the ‘ancient’ recipe was delicious but, without the addition of features of my mother’s recipe, the slices fell into a mound of loose crumbs – not really a problem but better to be able to cut pieces that people can eat easily.  

After finding the list of ingredients I review the store cupboard to see whether I have enough dried fruit, eggs, flour, spices etc. I always have to buy brandy as I don’t keep a traditional ‘cooking’ bottle of brandy (with ‘medicinal’ uses on the side). By the end of the previous festive season all the brandy has been used up in Christmas cakes (cooking and adding spoonfuls to soak in during storage), brandy butter, upgrading shop bought mincemeat for mince pies and, if there is any left then Patrick has a glass or so, to save it from ‘going flat’! 

Cooking Christmas cakes has been a tradition of mine for over 40 years and I remember there was a time when I set aside £10 from the family budget to cover the cost of ingredients. Now the cost is higher – but still very reasonable given the finished cakes – rich and fruity with enough booze to ‘make you hesitate about driving after eating a slice’ as a son once said.

So shopping for ingredients complete, the next stage is to skin and chop almonds, weigh out all the fruit, flour and spices, butter and sugar and check the number of eggs needed. I usually make a huge quantity of cake mix, enough for several cakes. The photo below shows three bowls of ingredients and also the tins that I greased, lined and wrapped in brown paper (to ensure that, during the long slow cooking stage the cakes did not burn at the edges). This year I prepared all this the day before I planned to bake the cakes.

So on day two I beat the 12 eggs for the four cakes I was making. Then I went on to beat together the sugar and butter – you can see that in the photo below, with the beaten eggs in the bowl nearest the egg rack.

The quantities were so huge that I needed a very large bowl to stir them all together. So I scrubbed out the washing up bowl and used that as you can see below. First to go into the washing up bowl was the fruit with flour etc stirred in to avoid the fruit sinking. In fact for Christmas cakes it is a case of ‘cake mixture sticking loads of fruit together’ rather than ‘some fruit in a cake mixture’.  The wet ingredients went in second and then it was a case of mixing it all together.

Patrick helped out this year. You can see he is stirring away gallantly so the mixture is fully combined and ready for the last stage, adding brandy.

I forgot to take any pictures of adding the brandy, then filling the tins, but in the photo below the cakes are safely in the oven. Even though cooking takes place at a fairly low temperature, there is still a risk that the top of each cake will dry out and become too dark so this year I covered each one with a sheet of greaseproof paper with a hole in the middle.

During the baking stage I checked the cakes a few times and after several hours they were ready – a skewer came out clean when I stuck it into the centre of each cake. And here they are, below, straight out of the oven.

Once the cakes had cooled slightly I took them out of their tins and unwrapped the greaseproof paper. They were then ready to cool on the wire racks where they sat for a couple of hours to reach room temperature.

I will probably feed the cakes with more brandy over the next 4 or 5 weeks. Then I will cover them with marzipan and icing in December. For the moment they are well wrapped up and stored in airtight tins.

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Home Leisure

Zooming OR how to be sociable and busy when going out isn’t convenient

This blog is the first of mine with no illustrations. After a year of using virtual meetings I doubt very much whether anyone needs to see screen-shots of how to schedule a zoom meeting or yet another screenful of participants’ faces in their individual rectangles.

I first heard of zoom in April 2020 when a friend told me that it was a possible way for her daughter to continue her music teaching. This was a total surprise to me for a variety of reasons. Firstly, how do you play music with other people online? And secondly what is zoom anyway? Is it another version of skype or what?

In no time at all we were all trying it out.

But there were so many things to learn. Do you need to pay? What does ‘turn on original sound’ mean? How do you avoid having one person (the one who made a noise, maybe you even) filling up your screen when you want to see all the people in the zoom call? Don’t all speak at once – raise a hand. Use chat, etc. etc.

Here are a few familiar scenarios: ‘you’re muted’, ‘we can’t see you’, ‘you’ve frozen’, ‘you’re sharing your screen’, ‘you’re still not sharing your screen’, ‘sorry, I was distracted and forgot to let you in’. In some groups faffing about with unfamiliar buttons can cause a big delay but I have been in other zoom calls that have run incredibly smoothly. It depends partly on the confidence and skill of the person running the meeting and also on their ability to manage (or even sweep aside) the problems that others are experiencing.

At the start I printed out an article from The Times that explained the basics of all the online meeting platforms. The zoom section told me about background view (messy kitchen with washing up in sight versus neat study lined with erudite books!), angle of the screen and distance from it etc. It also provided details on setting up a (free) account, then scheduling meetings. So in theory all was set for a successful first meeting. But two thirds of my life passed without using computers at all so getting zoom right first time was not instinctive. It is incredibly impressive how many over 65 year olds are now totally competent zoom users when previously many of them failed with simple operations such as accessing emails on their phone.

My two sisters were also learning to use zoom so it was possible to test it with them before something more time critical was scheduled. They also helped when I decided to change to zooming on my iPad after a long spell of only using my laptop. Most importantly, at an early stage they pointed out that they could barely hear me when I used my laptop (admittedly it is 8 years old now), so IT savvy son Jim immediately lent me a hand held mic. I now have a fully functioning system with a choice of (hand free) mics depending on whether it is just me (headphones) or Patrick joins me and we both participate.

That’s enough background….

So what do I use zoom for? First and foremost, I do not sit and listen to lectures and talks, although I could as there are plenty available. My two main uses of zoom have been to keep in contact with people who I’ve not been able to meet and to play and sing in music groups.

Over the months I have had zoom teas and coffees with friends. We log in and have cake/biscuits and tea/coffee. This is a good relaxing starting point for talking about whatever we like, from books, to families, to walks we have done and so on.

As for my family, zoom has been an excellent way to keep in touch whether with those living far away or locally (when lockdown and/or weather means we can’t meet, even in the garden). One of the highlights was a zoom session on Boxing Day afternoon with 27 members of the family, including 8 children who made intermittent appearances. Henry and his family in Canada were travelling in the car on the way for a day of winter outdoor activities so we could see them bowling along as we all talked. The rest of us in the UK were in our respective homes. We have never had so many of us ‘in one place’ at Christmas.

Now for music – this normally depends on having people in the same room so they can see and hear each other as they play or sing together. When we are all housebound, as we have been during the covid months, this cannot happen.  Over zoom it is possible to hear people, as long as it is one person at a time. So playing or singing together in the normal way is impossible. However it is possible to play duets as a friend and I discovered. One of us plays, unmuted and the other one mutes and plays their part at the same time which creates a feeling of playing in the normal way. The significant difference of course is that the unmuted player cannot hear the other part and has to lead fairly confidently so player two can follow. That is why swapping over works – each person has a chance to lead (unmuted) and to play as though it were the real thing (muted). It takes a bit of practice but after a while it works.

With more than 2 people playing or singing the arrangement has to be different. Basically there has to be a ‘backing track’ to play along with. Now we have had over a year of this all the ‘backing tracks’ are relatively sophisticated. For the madrigal group that I sing with the organiser has perfected her IT skills and has collected a large number of pieces many of which are backed by accompaniments that she has created herself. We mute and sing our own parts as the music plays. It is a golden opportunity to try other parts too. I am normally soprano (top line, often with the tune) but have taken this chance to sing an underneath part, generally alto.

The recorder group that I help to run started with some fairly unsophisticated short zoom sessions. They were short because, with three or more participants, a ‘meeting’ held by someone without a zoom licence is restricted to about 40 minutes. They were unsophisticated as the best ‘backing tracks’ that we had were from choral wiki so we were adapting madrigals etc for recorders to play. However things swiftly changed thanks to two members of the group who became skilled making backing tracks and producing properly written out music for recorder ensemble on their computers. To add to this one of the country’s leading recorder players decided to produce pieces for recorder ensemble on a weekly basis that she conducted and assembled by playing all the parts. There is now a stunning collection that has made playing the recorder via zoom a really enjoyable (albeit different) experience.

There are other groups that I have joined via zoom over the past year. Two of them (a book group and a discussion group on biographies) are part of U3AC, an organisation that quickly took to zoom with a very large number of most successful courses, events, talks etc. Although some people do not like meeting online, there has been a very high level of attendance for many activities such as lectures (which previously involved travelling to the venue then the nightmare of finding parking). If we have to be locked down then it is wonderful to have some way to see and meet the members of each group even though it is virtual not face to face. There have been several initiatives to replace real socialising such as an informal zoom session instead of going to the coffee shop with friends after the ‘biographies’ discussions.

I have also been involved in a weekly discussion group (7-10 members) that focussed on outdoors.  It was a collaborative arrangement where everyone contributed their thoughts and ideas. We all became skilled at screen sharing our presentations as well as photos and videos. A group this size meant that there was time for everyone to speak in the 90 minutes sessions whereas very large groups can be less interactive.

There have been several one-off zoom sessions that I have joined over the year including a talk by the Norfolk Wildlife Trust, a local quiz and a concert. It is a remarkably good way to keep in touch with what is going on and to enjoy a variety of activities that otherwise would be unavailable when venues of all types are closed.

Many people I know have done zoom exercise classes for pilates, yoga, dance etc. My exercise has taken the form of working in the garden and allotment, and when possible some walks – so nothing on zoom. Nor have I used zoom for teaching or playing games with friends online, useful/fun though that can be.

I am very keen for the benefits of zoom to continue after the constraints linked to this coronavirus pandemic have gone. When it is difficult to travel, whether long distances or just locally, zoom can be great. It is also a very good way to interact with people with no risk of any infection, whether a common cold or something more serious. And using zoom to keep in regular ‘visual’ contact with people is a definite improvement on phoning.

So what will happen in future?  Will zooming continue once it is permissible to resume face to face contact? I hope so.

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Home Outdoors

Using our coppiced hazel

We have a hazel between the shed and the compost. Normally it is a large bushy plant as it has been coppiced at least twice in its lifetime. This year I coppiced it again.

The rather unusual picture below was taken one summer to show the morning glory climbing the tomato plant!  As you can see it was when the hazel was in full leaf, to the right of the shed.

This is what it looks like now.

Seriously hacked down. But it will recover quite soon.

We have kept the stakes to use as supports. They live propped against the shed.

One of our three compost bins disintegrated so when it came to making a new one I took 4 hazel stakes and some wire netting and here it is.

The idea of recording this only happened after I finished the coppicing and the new compost bin had been built. Normally I like to record every stage of destruction/construction, but not this time!

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Cooking Home

How to make Hot Cross Buns

First find the recipe – last used a year ago and very old.

It involves making bun dough first and at that point the spices go in (which I forgot one year and had to add later).

Assemble ingredients and weigh out the flour, adding dried yeast (unlike the recipe which says fresh yeast), salt and spices. I can’t remember whether I put the sugar in at this stage or added it when the butter went in; it wouldn’t make a difference.

Weigh flour       add butter   rub in the butter to form…..a breadcrumb texture

Add warm water/milk mixture and stir in a circular way to start the kneading process

Knead by hand for 7-10 minutes until the dough pulls away from the bowl and is springy. Put in a warm place to rise, covered in cling film. After about an hour or so it should have doubled or trebled its size.

Making the crosses

Flour and butter to make pastry. Only a small amount. Roll out and cut into strips.

Now for assembling the buns

Break down risen dough and add fruit, then knead together. Divide into buns and space out on greased baking trays.

Paint beaten egg on the top of each bun then stick on pastry strips to form crosses

Put buns in a warm place to rise again; as you can see they have risen and will get even bigger once in the oven.  While they cook boil up sugar + water = bun wash.

Here they are out of the oven with bun wash brushed on. And finally – cooling on a wire rack.

Tempting to try one at this stage as they are always best straight out of the oven!                                                                         

These buns do not keep well so eat on the day and freeze spares once cool. When defrosted they are as good as the day they were made.

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Home Outdoors

Improving the terrace

In summer and autumn 2020 our gazebo sat on the terrace just outside the conservatory doors and was a great success, astonishingly. But it covered several, admittedly rather poor quality, flower beds, so a month or two ago we decided it was time to plan some improvements to boost the overall quality of the area.

There were plenty of ideas floating around but eventually we decided to turn some of the flower beds into hard standing using bricks. Without the gazebo these will be perfect for pots, that we hope will be burgeoning with blooms from March onwards – fingers and toes crossed!

This is stage one – a quick drawing and list on a piece of scrap paper.

The terrace looked pretty drab in late January as you can see below so we decided to lay bricks over the area where the bench stands. This includes removing the old tree trunk and the ‘pond in a bowl’, and only keeping plants that climb up the fence.

The first stage was clearing the soil and moving the pond.

Then we brought bricks from the allotment that had been used as paths (now replaced by chippings between rows).

And here are some of the bricks in a pile waiting to be used.

The process of laying the bricks looks like this – below. It is tricky to make sure that the surface is aligned with the existing paving and that it is level and relatively smooth.

It doesn’t take too long to build up the area of hard standing.

And brushing in earth between the bricks is astonishingly effective.

The photo below is the other side of the terrace before any improvements were made.

And here it is with the bricks laid and a space for one of the paving slabs that we found at the other end of the garden.

The slabs are propped up waiting for Jim to move them into position – they are too heavy for me to handle.

One slab is in place below – getting the earth totally level and settled before it goes down is half the battle. I stood on it and rocked the corners – some slack so Jim had to lift the slab for me to add more earth underneath.

And in the picture below it is finished.

And the next photo shows the same on the other side of the terrace, where the bricks and new paving slab are level enough for the seat to stand on them without wobbling – a pretty basic requirement but often harder to achieve than you’d expect!  

Below is the same patch after rearrangement of pots etc to make it all look as nice as possible.

On the other side of the terrace there are more pots – which will look lovely when they are in flower and the wintry looking strawberries are producing fruit (we hope).

Last but not least the ‘pond in a bowl’ is looking better in its new location than it ever did in its old position so I am looking forward to an abundance of aquatic creatures sometime.

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Home Leisure

Books that I have read during 10 months of lockdown

I normally read quite a lot, mainly fiction, whether on kindle or hard copy. I am a member of a monthly book group which keeps me supplied with titles that I would not necessarily have chosen myself which is interesting. Otherwise I read favourite authors and books that come my way via recommendation. Friends quite often lend me books too. So I am never short of something to read. Also we have enough books in our house, collected over the years, to last me for the rest of my life!

Since the first 2020 lockdown I have continued reading and from mid-March 2020 to mid-January 2021 I read 57 books. Of these 9 were chosen by my U3AC book group, all fiction based in a real world context so no sci-fi or fantasy. 10 of the 57 books were non-fiction or mixed (for example Christmas anthologies) and 7 were children’s fiction.

When and where do I read?

It is a total luxury to read during the daytime. Sometimes I manage it especially in the autumn and winter as the days get shorter. It is also something I do on holiday but this year holidays have taken the form of three weekends away during the summer non-lockdown periods so not much reading time in total then.

Usually I read in bed before (or while!) going to sleep. Recently I have read first thing in the morning while drinking a cup of tea before getting up – a good way to start the day. The photo below includes a lovely picture of an albatross, taken by Will when he was in the Falklands. The bedside table is laden with books several of which I have yet to finish such as Clive James’s version of Dante, and Neil MacGregor’s History of the World in 100 objects.

During the daytime the conservatory is a good place to read. There are comfortable chairs there, the place is full of plants so the air is often fragranced with hoya and scented-leaf geraniums, and most importantly, the light is good.

In winter the conservatory is too cold to sit still for any length of time so I retreat to the sitting room. The selfie below (a mirror image – one day I’ll learn how to stop that happening) shows a favourite spot on the sofa, adjoining the piano. Note the lockdown hair – hairdressing salons have been out of bounds off and on for months.

Now for the books……

I keep a record of the books I have read with a comment/note to remind me what each was about. It’s very easy to forget the authors and titles of books I have read and also the subject matter, hence the list!

Book group

Kate Atkinson, A God in Ruins

Patrick Leigh Fermor, The Violins of Saint Jacques

Simon Mawer, The Glass Room (my choice and presentation to the group)

Simon Mawer, Prague Spring

Sue Monk Kidd, The Invention of Wings

Hannah Rothschild, The Improbability of Love

Kamila Shamsie, Home Fire

Olga Tokareczuk, Drive your plow over the bones of the dead

Salley Vickers, Grandmothers

Children’s Fiction

Monica Edwards, Wish for a Pony and There’s No Mistaking Corker

Anne Stafford, Five Proud Riders

These three pony books were ones that I had as a child and the paperback copies are on the tatty side as you’d expect after 65 years!

And at Christmas, regular favourites:

Raymond Briggs, The Snowman, Father Christmas and Father Christmas on Holiday

Shirley Hughes, Lucy and Tom’s Christmas

Non-fiction

John Julius Norwich, An English Christmas

Rosemary Sutcliffe, The Iliad

Ed: Simon Rae, Faber Book of Christmas

Aida Edemariam, The Wife’s Tale

Bill Bryson, The Body – A Guide for Occupants (serious content but really good fun to read!)

F. Mistral, translated by George Wicken, Memoirs

Howard Goodall, Big Bangs (a fascinating read about five major developments in the history of music)

Jan Struther, Try Anything Twice

Mary Anne Ochota, Hidden Histories

Ann Baer, Medieval Woman

Fiction

Here are a few snippets of information about some of the fiction books I have read.

Location is very important to me so I really enjoyed:

Anne Cleeves, Dead Water and Thin Air – two detective stories set in Shetland

Donna Leon, Death at La Fenice

Salley Vickers, Miss Garnett’s Angel (also set in Venice)

Rory Clements, Corpus (a thriller set in Cambridge)

Fiona Valpy, The Skylark’s Secret (1940s and 70s Loch Ewe – the naval base for the Russian convoys)

Classics

Elizabeth Gaskell, North & South, Wives & Daughters. We have dvds of films/TV series of both of these books so I read them before watching the films.

George Eliot, Mill on the Floss. I first read this in an abridged version aged about 9. It is definitely an adults’ book – I have no idea why anyone thought it was suitable for children.

John Galsworthy, Forsyte Sage vols 1, 2 and 3. I bought my paperback copies after the TV series in 1967, with photos of Susan Hampshire and Eric Porter on two of the covers. We didn’t have a television and this was the start of my habit of buying the book of the series I had not seen on TV!

Tolkien, The Father Christmas Letters

Historical and/or political

Hilary Mantel, The Mirror and the Light. I read the first two in the ‘Wolf Hall’ trilogy a few years ago and lockdown was a chance to read the third.

Victoria Hislop, Those who are loved (Civil war in Greece). I enjoy Victoria Hislop’s books partly because they are set in southern Europe in specific political periods.

Sue Monk Kidd, The Invention of Wings (USA, anti-slavery and feminism). I read this for my book group and was fascinated by the fictional representation of the abolitionist sisters Sarah and Angelina Grimké.  

Robert Harris, Pompeii; Archangel. These two historical thrillers are set in 79 AD and modern, 20th century Russia – quite a contrast.

Simon Mawer, Prague Spring and The Glass Room (Czechoslovakia in 1968, and the 1920s-50s) both pf which I read for the first time before my book group chose them. 

Kamila Shamsie, Home Fire (Islamic radicalisation based in London)

Books ‘floating’ in the sitting room to dip into

What to do Today? – an account of zoom based studio activities from April to August 2020. I was involved in one of the ‘studios’, My Outdoors.

Future – a Scottish Book Trust compendium of writings; it is a free book with an introduction by Val McDermid and the first entry is by Annie Sturgeon.

Birds in Norfolk – Andy Brown and James McCallum. This is a gorgeous book beautifully illustrated with James McCallum’s lovely paintings. The text is written by Andy Brown and provides a wealth of information.

Shetland Wool Week 2020 annual. This is a fascinating book all about wool in Shetland and includes a brilliant selection of knitting patterns. The model this year is our daughter-in-law, Jenny Sturgeon.

So this blog is a whistle-stop tour round some of my reading matter in lockdown. Being stuck at home for most of the time has not been that arduous for me because I enjoy doing things myself, like writing this blog, as well as reading.

Categories
Cooking Home

Making Mince Pies

Mince pies are wonderful in November. We often start making and eating them then as the weeks around Christmas are overloaded with other traditional (and substantial) food.

This year Christmas has started really early with lights in people’s gardens, prolific online present buying and other jolly activities which are all part of cheering things up in the middle of the second English lockdown. It is not clear that we will be doing much with family and friends over Christmas as travel restrictions are in place at present. No-one knows if it will be wise (even if it is allowed) to hob nob with all and sundry. Forecasts of another peak after Christmas make a nonsense of anything that allows us to share germs more easily, although people who believe they are immune wouldn’t agree.

Back to mince pies….

The ingredients are so simple – mincemeat from a jar and shortcrust pastry. I make the pastry using these proportions. Fat (butter or marg) 2 : caster sugar 1 : self-raising flour 3. Stir flour and sugar together; rub fat into the dry mix until it resembles breadcrumbs. Mix with small amounts of cold water until it forms a firm ball. Then dust a flat surface with flour and roll out quite thinly. Stamp out large circles of pastry to line the bottom of the pie containers.

This is the first time I have used paper cases – it solves the problem of getting the mince pies out of the tin (especially if they have boiled over slightly and stuck). Each pie needs a decent dollop of mincemeat. The jar I used had ‘booted up’ written on the outside which means I had added more dried fruit and some brandy a while back, to upgrade it.

I normally stamp out slightly smaller circles for the lids. In theory they should be sealed by damping the rim of each lid. I just plonked them onto the mincemeat and gently pressed down round the rim of each mince pie to seal.

They go into a fairly hot oven. You can see the dimples round the edge of each pie where I had sealed it.

While they were cooking I did the washing up! This included the mincemeat jam jar and its lid – I have a huge collection of them waiting for the next lot of home-made jam, jelly or marmalade.

After 15 minutes or so the pies were getting slightly beige/brown on top which means they are done.

The pastry cools quickly but the sticky mincemeat stays very hot for quite a long time – warning for anyone who wants to tuck into one straight out of the oven!

Once I could handle the tins I put the mince pies on a wire rack to cool properly.

At this stage it’s a good idea to give them a dusting of sieved icing sugar, especially if they are going out on a plate to offer to friends and family. Ours were destined to go into a tin ready for us to eat over the next week or so, and icing sugar loses its good looks then.

We both tried them with a cup of tea in front of the fire. The paper cases are doubly convenient – ‘look no plate’!

Mince pies make a good seasonal pudding too.  Patrick and I both like them warmed and served with brandy butter (there’s a new batch in the fridge which we have already tasted).