Monday, 2 March 2015

Elegant Economy: baking

A new month, a new series... I'm looking forward to this very much. Having pondered long and hard I realised there would be a definite crossover with other series - both current and past - and that's just fine by me. There may be the odd foray into Precious Things territory, and there'll most definitely be Food Memories involved too. Hurrah for that I say. Just one little disclaimer before we begin. This series isn't me finger-wagging or saying what I think people should do. It's me saying what I do. I'd be very keen to hear how you do things - or your parents or grandparents, for that matter. Shared wisdom is truly valuable (and incredibly interesting).

So, without further ado: elegant economy and the world of baking.

I remember growing up in a house where there was a weekly 'baking day'. Often it would be when the oven was already switched on for something else. It was all about being resourceful, getting as much out of that few hours of heat consumption as you could. Cakes would be baked in battered old tins lined with saved bread wrappers. Cut to size, they were as good as 'proper' greaseproof paper. We'd have sponges sandwiched together with raspberry jam, iced and sprinkled with dessicated coconut. Little lemon curd tarts. 'Flatcake' - rich pastry dough and raisins baked into a round and eaten thickly buttered.

My mum brought us up alone. In the very early days she lived above a cake shop and paid the rent by working downstairs. She'd tell me how, whenever she met up with her friend in a cafe, she'd skip putting the sugar in her coffee and instead take a couple of sachets home for the jar.

These days I can imagine it's only the very old (or eccentric) who do things like that. Back then though, people were thrifty and careful. I remember as a child the strikes which resulted in the water being cut off; we'd have bowls and pans filled to the brim ready in advance and they'd cover the kitchen surfaces... 

Back to the present. I do have a tendency to use the oven sensibly. Might as well utilise both shelves if it's going on. And I'm careful with what I buy too. Once upon a time it was cheaper to cook, bake, sew and knit your own. Now, not so much. In our throwaway society we expect food to be ever cheaper, for our clothing to cost just a few pounds. And baking can be a costly business. Granted, nothing tastes as nice as home made. But once you've factored in the cost of heating the oven and buying all those ingredients, is it worth it?

For me, yes. There are some things I don't compromise on - vanilla extract (not essence), butter (not margarine), *free range eggs. But I've found that the Germanic supermarkets (Aldi and Lidl) do some good basics at reasonable prices. Let's face it, ground almonds are ground almonds. Ditto the flaked variety. And caster sugar.

*For me, this is non-negotiable. There's a shop nearby which sells local free-range eggs for £1.10 per half-dozen, and they're large and brown with the most wonderful orangey yolks.

So: it comes down to what's known as Shopping Around. And let's save Having The Time for another post...

Baking's also a good way of using things up. I do hate throwing food away; indeed, it very rarely happens here. I endeavour to get things eaten by their use-by date. Anything stale (or which Joe leaves) goes to the birds. Or is bagged up for the ducks.

I baked banana bread at the weekend. Toddlers are notoriously faddy, and what they love one day they refuse to eat the next. I'm not the biggest fan of bananas, particularly when they've reached that over-ripe stage. Once the skins go brown they're perfect for baking with (or blitzing into a smoothie). Same with old apples - they get cooked down and used in cakes too.

Much of what you have for baking lasts for ages anyway: nuts, dried fruit, spices and so on. I just make sure everything's kept in airtight containers. Nobody likes flour weevils.

In terms of economising - well, sometimes it's OK to push the boat out. I love to make a fancy birthday cake or a special something using indulgent ingredients. But most of the time it's pretty simple and often things taste all the better for it. Basic Madeira cake or shortbread, chicken pie or jam tarts are pretty hard to beat. And fad-proof too...

So, there you have it. I could go on ad infinitum but I won't. Better to perhaps revisit this particular subject than to write War and Peace all in one post. I would love to hear your memories or thoughts on baking and the role of elegant economy in your kitchens. Happy baking.

Friday, 27 February 2015


Whew! What a week: getting stuck in the snow on Sunday whilst traversing the West Yorkshire moors; mortgage applications (and much finger-crossing); crazy weather; crazy toddler; visits to friends; cooking and baking and shopping and... 

Anyway. It looks set to be quite a busy weekend too, but in a good way. Lunch at a local Italian restaurant for a family birthday will definitely be the highlight. I love Italian food.

It's been bitterly cold around here. I complained equally as bitterly to the letting agent (here earlier for their regular inspection to ensure we haven't trashed the place) about what a freezing house this is. Still, if everything goes to plan we'll have our very own little nest again soon.

My miniature daffodils are blooming away happily in the front window and look like little yellow stars with the sun shining behind them. We've had gusty winds and hail showers and the snow's gone. It's brightened up a lot this afternoon so hopefully we'll get some weekend walks in and spot more signs of spring coming.

Of course, you may have noticed I made another change to the blog's appearance. Truth is, I've been after that little rabbit for a while but could never get it quite right. I was informed that saving images as PNGs rather than JPEGs can correct the sort of problem I was having. Who knew? Not me, evidently. I did consider using my own photo for the circular image (another thing I've recently got the hang of) but, well - like I said. I wanted the bunny. 

Thank you for your response regarding my proposed new series. I'm hoping to publish my first post on Monday. It seems the logical day to do it: being organised at the start of the week, getting things done. Ties in well with the whole Elegant Economy thing, of running an orderly and efficient household. I can dream... But seriously, I do have so many post ideas already they're popping up like February crocuses coming through the ground. Must be a good sign.

And finally: tonight we're having fish and chips. It doesn't get much better than that, does it?

Have a wonderful weekend.

Tuesday, 24 February 2015

Elegant Economy

Lately I've been going through a bit of a sleepless phase. It happens. I drop off easily enough but wake in the early hours, mind racing, trying to will myself (unsuccessfully) back to sleep. It isn't usually worrying stuff that keeps me awake. Just random thoughts, plans, ideas. Sometimes I'm thinking about the minutae of daily life. Others I'm plotting blog posts.

A while ago I read Cranford. I'd already watched the series on DVD and I loved the book just as much. And if you visited the blog back then, you may recall I was quite taken with the idea of 'elegant economy' as practised by Misses Matty and Deborah. The very phrase makes thriftiness sound so appealing. Ever since then I've been toying with the idea of a long-term series of posts inspired by it.

I'm thinking household wisdom, the odd little tale here and there, things that (for me) work and those that don't. Domestic details, housekeeping. Food, garden, laundry, cleaning, budgeting (or lack of). Making a home without spending a fortune.

I've been scribbling away in my notebook. It'll be a nice series, I think - and I do like a bit of structure here and there. My current 'regular' posts on a particular theme - Food Memories and Midweek Miscellany - should sit well with my latest project. I'd love to know what you think...

And that is all for now. A brief post, but the little one is upstairs making a dreadful racket opening and closing drawers from his cot. I suspect he's awake. And that his cot needs moving.

Saturday, 21 February 2015

The week that was

Of course, I didn't write my usual Midweek Miscellany this time around as I posted on Thursday for the Colour Collective. I have a Thing for not posting on consecutive days (unless something earth-shattering happens and to be honest that's pretty unlikely around here).

So instead, the week in review. 

I'm still enjoying seeking out those little signs that spring is coming. They're necessary; the weather has reverted to moody grey skies, horizontally-falling rain and the odd hail shower. You know when they're coming because the house gets ever darker before the heavens finally open. So, it's cheering to see all these beautiful hellebores and catkins and snowdrops. Soon there'll be euphorbia (one of my favourites).

In addition to hellebore worshipping, I've been admiring the little clumps of purple crocus which have recently sprung up next to the gate. And inhaling the scent from the hyacinths which are now blooming away on the table. They're fascinating to look at close-up: an irridescent pale blue in places, inky indigo in others. They remind me of bluebells.

I had a morning off on Tuesday; Joe's grandparents stayed with him and I tripped off, footloose and fancy free, to the library. I booked a computer and did a bit of this and that then browsed the shelves and spotted the above book. I'm such a sucker for the whole lovely-photography-and-lifestyle type of tome. But it's also brand new. There's something about being the first to borrow a library book. Especially when you're used to those from the children's section which are invariably torn, creased and stained with goodness knows what.

In other news... well, as I mentioned previously we went to Unicorn Grocery and I got rather excitable and spent quite a lot of money on wonderfully wholesome things (and the jute bags to put them in; jute bags are to Unicorn what tealights are to Ikea). I did well to stay away from the herbal tea section though. We came back with nut butter (cashew - my favourite) and rice pasta and noodles, beetroot and frilly lettuces, snacky things, gnocchi, a little gourd just because, polenta... The polenta was really good sliced and fried on the griddle pan then served with roasted tomato and red pepper sauce.

Of course, the clean living couldn't last and on Sunday I baked two Madeira cakes: one for home and one to take to a friend's new place as a house warming gift.

Which brings me neatly to our current situation. We've just had an offer accepted on the 'fixer upper' house. I've had a few sleepless nights which I'm putting down to a mixture of trepidation and giddiness. The house was much cheaper than the similar one a few doors down (our first choice - we offered on that but the owners were trying to get some kind of bidding war going) so we can get work done, stay put here while that happens and in the meantime cross our fingers and hope all goes smoothly.

The house-buying process is so nerve-wracking. Anything could go wrong until we've been given the keys. Hasn't stopped me making lots of plans though. Counting my chickens. Jumping the gun. 

Mr Joe has been quite the handful of late. Contrary: tick. Shouty: tick. Unreasonable: tick tick tick. I know he's two, and he's trying to assert himself and test the boundaries and all the rest of it but sometimes!!! To those of you who have more than one: I salute you. Really, I do.

Admittedly, the biggest problem is usually trying to keep a straight face while he's being naughty... 

Of course, you'll notice I've been making a few changes to the appearance of the blog. HTML, CSS and all the rest of it are way beyond my comprehension but I've been receiving some very welcome help. The changes will continue (in a subtle way) until I'm happy, so expect a bit of a 'work in progress' feel to it all for a while.

This has been one of those posts where I jump from one subject to the next, but that's how life is around here and, I suspect, for you too. Keeps things interesting.

Have a great weekend. 

Thursday, 19 February 2015

The Colour Collaborative: February: Precious

I'm very happy to be this month's guest blogger for the Colour Collaborative; I really enjoy thinking about colour in terms of a specific theme or idea. This time around the theme is 'Precious'. Of course, I had a collaboration of my own based around precious things so February's Colour Collective is a good fit.

I suppose it would have been easy to assume all my precious things have been exhausted in terms of blog posts. But no. 'Precious' can apply to anything: objects, memories, people, imaginings... 

The thing I love about colour is that I find myself drawn to the same ones, albeit in different shades, time after time. Mossy greens, grey, lichen... and that seemed to tie in with the whole 'precious' concept. Greens: my collection of inherited 'Anne' books; a volume of Milton's poems (much read and referred to); ceramic decorations from Krakow. And most precious of all: my mum's Green Book.

Sepia shades: little candlesticks bought an age ago from a charity shop; the deer brooch (missing one or two stones but still loved); a collection of antique gloves from an old lady we knew who once owned a dress shop...

Muted pinks and creams: seashells gathered from many holidays both at home and abroad; tattered family photographs, my pile of old linens...

Silver and grey: bits of old 'dress' jewellery (diamante, paste, glass - no diamonds here) which are more precious because they're tarnished and tatty and have tales to tell. And the little crocheted pouch belonged to my paternal grandmother. It was used to hold dance cards.

The way I approached this collaboration was pretty straightforward. I just instinctively went for what I wanted to pick up from around the house and write about; no over-thinking (of course, the arranging bit took a bit of planning but it's exactly the kind of thing I love doing).

And what I realised is that, for me, 'precious' is not about expensive jewellery or valuable antiques. It's about family, sentiment and little things which evoke memories of happy times. Perhaps that's why the colours in this post are actually quite subtle and muted. Gathered finds from nature, old photographs and books have that faded quality about them which says, 'I've been loved and worn and passed down. I have a story.'

That to me is what 'precious' means.

P.S. For the Lynne Truss types (and yes, that would include me): I'm missing a few accents above the letter 'e' here and there but have no idea how to find them using Blogger - sorry!

Don't forget to visit the other Colour Collaborative blogs for more of this month's posts, just click on the links below.

What is The Colour Collaborative?

All creative bloggers make stuff, gather stuff, shape stuff, and share stuff. Mostly they work on their own, but what happens when a group of them work together? Is a creative collaboration greater than the sum of its parts? We think so and we hope you will too. We'll each be offering our own monthly take on a colour related theme, and hoping that in combination our ideas will encourage us, and perhaps you, to think about colour in new ways.

Saturday, 14 February 2015


We're not even halfway through yet, but what with Jay having taken a few days off last week it seems like Sunday already. I tend to lose track of which day it is when the normal routine changes.

So, a bit of a newsy post really; yesterday we went into Manchester for a morning appointment. We stopped off at Unicorn Grocery - more on that in my next post I think (there's a lot to cover). And on Thursday we went for a walk and a wander around Ramsbottom. It was cold but there were signs of spring aplenty as we wandered around the park.

The little snowdrops I cut finally gave up this morning. I had a hellebore in a glass bottle for a day or so but that didn't like the warmth. Still, I placed it between two sheets of paper and put a pile of heavy books on top. I do like pressed flowers.

(Note: for advice on keeping cut hellebores, read what Annie has to say).

Yesterday we went to view two houses. Properties for sale in the village are pretty thin on the ground, and suitable ones are even more scarce. Interestingly the two we went to look at were ten and seven doors up from us. I used to own next door but one to our current house. Am I destined to keep coming back to this street?

Anyway... The  first one was very lovely. Same as this one in terms of size and era (a fairly roomy Victorian terraced) but much warmer and more modern in terms of decor. We liked it. We put in an offer. It was turned down. We put in another (final) offer. They're thinking about it. Bearing in mind the house only went on the market yesterday they seem - understandably - to be keeping their options open.

The next house was three along. Same size, same era. But it needed a lot more work to bring it up to date. It had a lovely feel, and it reminded me in many ways of this place. The price reflects the need for an update. It's been for sale for a while. We're tempted. As in, we could get the work done while still living our current digs. It may work out cheaper than the first house. There's a lot of thinking to do.

We asked the vendors of the first one to give us their decision by Monday evening. Then we shall see.

Are you wondering if I've forgotten Valentine's Day? Well, no I haven't. 

On Thursday I spotted a sweet little tea set in a charity shop window. It's hand-painted, made in Japan and is either porcelain or china (it's so thin the light comes through it). Anyway, Jay sneaked back and bought it for me. I'm a sucker for lustreware and have a bit of a Thing for Oriental vintage trinkets too.

Those little birds! I'm guessing it's 1920s-1940s. I washed it VERY carefully in warm soapy water. I now need a display cabinet for my treasures, I've decided. Then they can be admired. 

Lucky girl that I am, the tea set was accompanied by a box of Turkish delight. Another of my favourite things.

No fancy meal out for us this evening. Once Joe goes to bed (EARLY) we're having steak - courtesy of the 'posh' butcher - and salad, followed by sticky toffee pudding and fancy ice cream. Joe has already sampled the ice cream. He's been on about me buying him some all week and was well aware that we picked some up this morning. In fact he's more familiar with the contents of the freezer than I am.

The prosecco may be opened a little bit earlier. A small glass before we put him up and then several more generous ones.

Have a great weekend and enjoy your Valentine's Day, however you choose to celebrate it.

Wednesday, 11 February 2015

Midweek miscellany

Wednesday's here again. And it's a short week in a sense as Jay's booked tomorrow and Friday off. Perhaps a long weekend. Actually, both of those things.

Last weekend seems ages ago for some reason. It was a busy one with lots of family activity: canalside walks, steam train adventures, food. Oh, the food. On Saturday we had lunch at a local restaurant and it was wonderful: the panoramic views, the sense of occasion (we rarely eat out) and the pudding. Orange and cardamom bread and butter pudding with vanilla creme anglaise. Heaven on a plate.

In other food news, we have consumed rather a lot of cream. Mushrooms cooked in it. Meatballs in a cream and mustard sauce. Both rich, both delicious. But I'm having a bit of a break now. It seems February's not the best month for dieting either - I'm getting very excited about next week's pancake-based festivities.

Earlier this week Joe and I walked into Ramsbottom. He had a doctor's appointment which resulted in a prescription for antibiotics for an ear infection. These nasty germs do seem to be haunting us at the moment. Still, he's his usual happy self most of the time. He was very pleased that we caught the bus home and even more so that it was a double decker.

While we were out I did that thing where you pick up a few extra provisions: fat sausages from the butcher and a loaf of sourdough from the little supermarket. They had dinky pots of miniature daffodils and very reasonably-priced hydrangea bulbs too so I added some to my basket. Shopping off-list during the week is something I try to avoid but my purchases didn't cost very much so no guilt.

I've been reading in the evenings. I'm currently deep into The Mitfords: Letters Between Six Sisters. But as a little diversion I read The Velveteen Rabbit. I spotted it in the library and had always meant to read it. The illustrations are beautiful. Perhaps a future purchase for Joe.

In other news: I've been asked to be the official photographer at a wedding in August. I've photographed weddings for family before now, just casually-taken snaps. But this is my first 'proper' wedding. It actually sounds like it'll suit me just fine; the bride-to-be is a friend and she wants candid shots rather than posed ones. Better get practising!

The snow has all but gone now. We've been out looking for signs of the coming spring and they're there: buds, shoots. I picked a few snowdrops this afternoon. Ours actually grow in a raised bed behind the garden wall so you don't get to see them unless you're putting the rubbish out. They're fascinating things; they were tightly closed but within minutes of being indoors opened fully. The tiniest jar I could find had lavender harvested from last summer in it, so that's now decanted into a little teacup. It smells gorgeous.

I'd just like to say I really enjoyed reading your comments on my last post. Seems we're all soup-lovers. And Heinz are responsible for a lot of childhood memories!

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