Category Archives: Presents

Possibly the best phone ever for older people. Plus how to really crack down on spam/phishing callers.

I don’t really get spam/phishing calls. At least, not yet. This is possibly because I’ve never been in the phone directory, I have a landline that is, primarily there for my internet, and I am very tech savvy at blocking such calls on my mobile if I get them.

However, whenever I was round at my mum and dad’s their phone would regularly ring with phishing/spam calls. They would be annoying, and of course I registered them for the Telephone Preference Service but it didn’t seem to make much difference. Some of the calls were simply annoying “do you want double glazing” etc. Some so obviously scam calls as to be not a threat. But all meant my mum had to stop what she was doing and go and answer the phone.

The obvious thing is to to get an answerphone and screen calls. But here’s the thing. Getting a separate, mechanical answering machine that works with an existing phone and is not hugely expensive, is virtually impossible – I’ve tried. You can get integrated answering machines, with cordless phones, but this would mean a change of phone for my mum, which is okay, but the phones that come with integrated answer-machines tend to have small fiddly numbers; and my mum likes a corded phone so it can’t get lost/run out of charge.

BT’s Call Minder, which you access via your handset and is ‘remote’ is an option, but she didn’t like that as it’s too confusing for her. So an answer machine or an answering service wasn’t really an option. And anyway, a very sophisticated caller, such as she eventually came across, would have not been put off by such a device and they would have left a message, lending credibility to their call.

(Anyway I think even a fairly simple answering machine would have been frustrating for my mum to master and why make her feel crap about not being able to do something when she is so good at so many other things?)

Because, one day, my mum got a call of a very different kind. Very sophisticated, believable and distressing; I won’t go into the details here but, thankfully, at the last minute my mum pulled a blinder (you can take the girl out of Naples but…) and a very serious crisis was averted. (We reported it to Action Fraud.) But it got me thinking just how vulnerable some people are and I realised that something needed to be done. When I started telling people what had happened to my mum, the stories that came out were terrifying. I learned that someone I knew, with graduate parents (English their first language, quite unlike my mum), had been scammed of £5K.  Then another similar story, and so it went on.

My mum is not tech savvy. If you need to feed fifteen people with one stick of celery and a tomato, she’s your woman. Her vigour, energy, hospitality and inventiveness is gob-smacking, but she is a technophobe. So whatever I did had to be low-tech at her end and the tech burden had to be mine alone.  I also needed something I could monitor and tweak remotely. It was no use asking her to press button 1 to stop the last caller calling her again. She needed a phone, pretty much like her old phone, with buttons to press to dial someone.

This is what I did. It’s in two parts – the remote part and the actual phone.

First, BT launched something called BT Call Protect earlier this year. I knew about this but again though it would not work for my mum, but, with her permission I took over control of her account. It’s free, but you have to be a  BT customer (your phone service may offer something similar) and how it works is that, once activated, it has a pre-set list of known spam numbers, these are automatically blocked. But there’s more.

You can see who’s calling via the website or a phone app, and you can VIP these numbers – and name them so you recognise them again when you next log on – or block them. So now my mum only has to make a rough note of the time someone called if it was a bad call and I can, via my computer or the BT app, forever more block that number.

You can also set it so that it blocks all, eg. with-held or international calls. And of course if you fall out with someone, you can put them from the VIP list to the Blocked list. Imagine the power.

With VIP numbers you can control which times someone can call you, so that, eg, you don’t get disturbed at night, or so that they can ring you 24/7 – you decide. Useful if you have a relative who keeps different hours to you or you don’t want to be disturbed at night.

All of this I can do remotely for her and with her knowledge.

If you block a number, it goes to junk voicemail (which you access via pressing 1572 on the handset although, see below, I eventually got my mum Call Minder so I access this for her now) so there’s s safety net there in case it does turn out to be genuine (there was one casualty which was a long-lost friend from Rome, but, thanks to this I was able to get her message and let her know and what’s more, VIP her number for future calls).

Since I did this my mum’s spam calls have dropped to: zero. So far.

Then there’s the phone. It was long overdue that she be able to see who is ringing her. I also wanted her to be able to access important numbers really easily.

I’ve mentioned before that I got a mobile phone for my aunt from Action on Hearing Loss (formerly RNID) so I turned to them for a phone for my mum and found this one.

It is really excellent and here’s why:

It has a caller display which lots of phones do (although they tend to be cordless) but with this one, you can tilt it up for maximum visibility and also change the contrast* – it displays the number and, if you’ve input the person into the phone’s phone book, their name will also show. (You need a subscription to a Caller Display service for this to work.)

*Someone visually impaired would still struggle to see this however, so look at the RNIB’s shop for phones for them.

The call buttons are large and illuminate when you pick up the phone.

There are four photo-buttons so you can either put people’s photos or write their name in LARGE TYPE. You programme these so that you can simply press them to dial someone but not only that: THEY ILLUMINATE WHEN THAT PERSON RINGS. Which is really like Thunderbirds!

I programmed as many numbers in as I could for my mum, no mean feat when you consider the size of our family. This you have to do with the phone in front of you but once done no further teccy-input necessary.

The phone plugs in and also needs 4 AAA batteries as back up. This it needs for the illumination/phone box storage features. It is otherwise a corded phone.

Although you can use the phone book to ring people – i.e. without having to manually press the number-keys, my mum doesn’t do this as she likes to use the number keys to ring people. There’s a volume control and also a boost in case someone is hard of hearing. So it’s packed with really useful features, but otherwise it’s a normal low-tech phone.

So now, as an added safe-guard, if my mum doesn’t recognise a number, she doesn’t have to pick it up. I’ve also put Call Minder on her line so that if she doesn’t pick up a call and it’s genuine, the people calling have the option of leaving her a message.  I control this remotely for her by ringing into it once a day (you have to set a PIN on the actual phone, but once you’ve done this you can ring in remotely). I can also hear if any spam callers who have called and left a message or not left a message.

There are other options available for protecting vulnerable relatives, such as True Call Blocker, which has rave reviews and Fuss Free Phones, which sound like a great idea but would have involved too many changes for my mum.

Some other option may work for you. This is so far what’s worked for us. I did a lot of research to come to these conclusions and what is the point of it if it doesn’t also benefit others?

 

Advertisements

Hinza bags

I love a bag, and these are great. They are Hinza bags, which were designed in the 1950s in Sweden.

They are basically a trug in the shape of a bag. Completely impractical in lots of ways:

The strap digs into your arm if you have carry it in the crook of your arm.

A total pick pocket’s delight as everything is easily accessible.

No interior pockets so everything is chucked in together.

But also totally brilliant in lots of ways:

Because they are the same colour in, as out, you can easily see everything in your bag.

Everything is somehow easier to find as it’s chucked in together and no zips or flaps to undo.

You can sit on a beach and know they won’t get a soggy bottom.

You hose them down if they get dirty.

Really easy to carry in your hands.

They sit where you put them.

You can just chuck everything in.

They are really jolly. This matters.

They come in two sizes and lots of different colours. I got mine (the small) from Hus and Hem, which is a fabulous Scandi website and it cost £18. The service was amazing. I had barely pressed ‘confirm order’ and it arrived. But you can also get from little independents. I saw some in Burnett & Company, a lovely interiors shop in Aldeburgh, last week. (46 High Street, IP15 5AB.)

 

Sonia’s Swiss crescent biscuits

Growing up, my mum made friends with a woman called Sonia, who worked in the dry cleaner’s kinda opposite our flats. The dry cleaning would be wrapped in this lovely navy blue paper, the like of which we seemed to have at home for years afterwards (I guess she gave us some).

We didn’t have a car, growing up, but we used to go out with Sonia and her husband, who drove a red VW Beetle. We would go to the airport and watch the planes take off, in the days when this was still possible. We also went to Windsor castle. I loved our trips out as they were the only car-trips out we had as children. (This isn’t meant to sound sad, we went to Italy a lot and I had a great childhood.)

I have a picture, of us at Windsor castle, me with a right sulk on (I peed on my mum’s lap on the way home, I think I might have done it on purpose, the shame), wearing a very flash red coat and a rabbit fur hat, Sonia and my mum looking really glamorous, but in a totally nonchalant way.

One of the things Sonia used to bring with her were these amazing little hazelnut crescent biscuits. She would have them, layer upon greaseproof-paper layer, in a tin, and as you opened the tin, the smell of them – they were coated with vanilla sugar – would hit you. They were not like any biscuits we could buy, or that my mum made.

Because they were so occasional, they were especially delicious. Sonia also used to bring  a flask of coffee, which I would drink (I was an early caffeine drinker).

When I was seven, my mum and dad opened up a coffee shop on London’s Bayswater Road. I started making cakes and biscuits for my dad’s shop. I started baking. I tried to recreate Sonia’s biscuits but I never could. For some reason I didn’t dare ask her for the recipe, or perhaps I didn’t want to because I didn’t want to make them less special.

Occasionally, these days, I will go to my mum and dad’s house, and Sonia will have been, bringing with her a box of her special biscuits. And just opening the lid of the biscuit tin (she always brings them in a biscuit tin) will transport me back to being a very little girl, sitting in a red VW Beetle, watching planes taking off, treading that fine line between showing my appreciation for her biscuits and eating a fair few, but not toppling over into greed. It’s still a line I struggle with balancing on.

The other day, I saw Sonia and I plucked up the courage to ask her for the recipe. I don’t know why it’s taken me four decades to do so. Amazingly she had it written down (none of that “oh I do it from memory”) and she gave it to me, and, here it is:

250g plain flour

200 butter, unsalted, fridge cold

100g ground hazelnuts (I buy the chopped, toasted version and then grind them, it really makes a difference, but you can use pre-gound hazelnuts or almonds, but it won’t be *quite* as good as if you toast and grind them yourself)

80g icing sugar

5g vanilla sugar (Sonia says you can buy these in little packets but I leave this out and just add a tablespoon of vanilla essence)

Pinch of salt

Caster sugar for after (vanilla sugar if you have it)

In a food processor, pulse the butter and flour until like breadcrumbs. Add the sugar, salt and nuts and then pulse until it comes together in clumps. Don’t over mix. It will work out I promise. Of course you can do this all by hand, but I’m lazy.

If you’ve made it in a processor take it out now and, by hand, bring the mixture together. Chill for 20/30 mins.

Preheat oven to 190C

Take small bits and roll into crescent shapes. I weigh each one to make sure I don’t end up with tiny/huge biscuits, roll into sausage shapes and taper the ends, curve into crescents. If you’re interested, I do them so mine weigh about 21g in raw dough.

Put on a parchment lined trays and cook for 10 mins. Cool and then coat in vanilla caster sugar if you have it, (I put a vanilla pod in a jar of normal caster sugar and just keep it there for, like, ever) normal caster sugar if you don’t.

Then don’t eat four whilst you’re writing a blog post, because that will make you feel really, really sick.

Store in a biscuit tin, each layer interleaved with greaseproof paper.

(Sonia calls these traditional Vienna biscuits but as she’s from Switzerland, I call them Sonia’s Swiss crescent biscuits.)

Prune and almond loaf

This is a magnificent bread recipe, adapted from the equally magnificent Donna Hay magazine that was out this summer.

It’s fantastic when you need something bready, fast, and it is SO delicious. No yeast or proving is necessary. And come on it’s got nuts and prunes in! Good for you..

I’m not going to pretend some of the ingredients are ‘store cupboard’ but aside from the buttermilk, nothing will go off quickly so if you get them in you’ll have something to rustle up over the Christmas period if you (gasp) run out of food, or even if you need to bring something to someone’s house as a little present.

This loaf, with some nice cheeses and a cheese humidor, would make an excellent gift for a cheese-loving friend. But it’s also good with pate.

Ingredients

125g plain flour (not bread flour)

125g wholemeal plain flour (not bread flour)

1.5 teaspoons of bicarbonate of soda

half a teaspoon of salt

100g whole blanched almonds (not the end of the world if you have them with their skins on) – you could also, if you wanted to, use other nuts such as walnuts or hazelnuts.

85g pitted prunes, chopped up

40g maple syrup – this really adds something to it so try not to substitute it for something else

190g buttermilk (you can use kefir if you make it, instead)

65ml of sweet sherry (one of my readers has said she uses very strong Earl Grey tea for this)

Method

Preheat the oven to 200C. Lightly grease and flour a 2lb loaf tin. (I use this one.) Place the flours, bicarb, salt, almonds* and prunes into a bowl and mix up. Make a well in the middle and add the maple syrup, buttermilk and sherry. You will have a very sticky dough, slop it into the tin, whack it in the oven for about 35-40mins and that’s it. Leave to cool for five mins, turn it out, let it cool and then eat it with joy.

(*The astute amongst you may notice there are nuts on top of my loaf. This is what the original recipe stipulated – that you reserve half the nuts and scatter them atop the dough before it goes into the oven. I’m not sure I would do this again as some of the nuts got a bit too brown, but see how you feel/what sort of effect you want.)

 

One giant Twix (tart). Gluten, dairy, sugar and fat full

I like this tart for bringing to people as a present. I’ve yet to meet a grown up, or child, no matter how posh or spoiled and used to presents, who doesn’t love this (unless of course you hate Twixes). But it also makes a good dessert when you really can’t decide what to make to please everyone. And just a small slice is really enough.

I can’t overstate this. It is pancreas-bustingly sweet. A bit too sweet for me if truth be told, it sets my teeth on edge. I want to play around with the recipe next time to try to resolve this. That said, a small slice (or even cube) is a treat. But, like the Wagon Wheels I made last year which set off a sort of crazy reaction, proceed with caution

The caramel making is a faff, I won’t lie. A thermometer is a must (I can hear you sighing). I have very similar to  these, which is brilliant. You can use it to probe meat with, take the temperature of a child, use it to make confectionery – it’s great because you just have a probe sticking into the hot caramel, with the actual body of the thermometer somewhere out of the way. I stick mine above where I’m working, to the extractor fan hood (it has a magnetic back). Obviously you do need to remember to clean the probe between child and caramel.

Anyway, this recipe was from Delicious magazine some time ago. I made a fundamental change to the timing of the caramel/temperature, because the first time I made it, taking it up to 115C meant the bottom of the caramel burned, so you had burnt/darker bits. It didn’t affect the taste, but it was annoying. I now stop the last bit of the caramel making at 111C – precision is all in caramel making – and it’s fine: chewy, golden and just before it starts to burn. I also changed the way you make the chocolate ganache.

This is what you need:

For the base

225g shortcake biscuits

75g unsalted butter, melted

For the caramel

125ml double cream

90ml condensed milk

125ml golden syrup

110g caster sugar

30g unsalted butter, cut into small pieces

For the chocolate topping

200g good quality milk chocolate (I use Green and Black’s Cooking chocolate at 37% cocoa solids)

75ml double cream

Small knob of butter

 

What you do:

Heat the oven to 170C. Put the biscuits and melted butter in a food processor, then pulse until all amalgamated. Line a loose bottomed tart tin, mine was 35cm x 12cm the biscuit crumbs. You can lightly oil the tin first, if you are of a nervous disposition.

Press the crumbs down and up the sides,  chill for ten minutes then cook it for 15 mins. Let it cool, then put back in the fridge. You’re done with the oven now, so switch it off.

To make the caramel, put the 125ml of double cream in a sauce pan with the condensed milk and heat up very slowly. I do this at the same time I’m making the caramel, cos I’m ‘ard and can multi task. If you do it separately it’s important it’s kept warm-ish as otherwise, if you introduce it to the caramel – such as you will later – cold, it might split.

Now put the golden syrup and caster sugar in a separate pan with 30ml of cold water, trying hard not to think of the glycaemic index of these two ingredients combined. Heat it gently until the sugar melts, stick the thermometer in, bring to the boil and then bring down to a simmer until the thermometer reads 120C. This may take a while (5-10mins). When making caramel, the temperature rises, then seems to stall, then rises again, then leaps. Be careful here, a caramel solution at 120C is very, very hot. Don’t have small children wondering round. Don’t leave it unattended.

When it reaches 120C, take it off the heat and stir in the chopped butter, then add the still warm cream/condensed milk mixture. Stir stir stir, (take out the tart base from the fridge in its tin), and put the caramel mixture back on the heat and bring back to the boil – this will take a while – until the mixture is at 111C. When it reaches this temperature, pour the caramel into the biscuit crumb lined tray and leave to cool completely. When it’s cool, put in the fridge.

Then, make the chocolate ganache: put a bowl atop a saucepan of simmering water. In this bowl put the milk chocolate, the 75ml of double cream and the knob of butter. Stir until everything has melted. This is the chocolate ganache. You now pour this over the caramel filled tart and as it cools, make wavy patterns, just, you know because.

Leave to set. Keep in fridge. Eat slowly and in small portions. No-one wants diabetes for Christmas.

The Suffolk Flower Farm

Yesterday I went to the Lavenham Farmer’s Market and had a completely wonderful time, as usual. I swear they must pipe oxytocin through the hall there.

As I walked in, I saw a woman walk out with a small posy of really lovely flowers. And I clocked them and thought “wow”. And as soon as I walked in I saw this amazing stand of flowers saying “grown not flown” with the most beautiful garden flowers in bunches, in pots. And, after I’d stared at them all for a while,  I bought a small posy of flowers for £5 (see pic above).

They are lovely and if you live in Newmarket, Sudbury, Cambridge, Bury St Edmunds or Haverhill you can have lovely locally-grown flowers delivered. The company – the Suffolk Flower Farm – also does special occasions and farmer’s markets where you can pick up smaller bunches.

A last minute Christmas present idea: Kumquat chocolate slab

 

This is a really easy, delicious thing to make. Yes you do need a) chocolate and b) kumquats in the house to make this exact one, but the idea is that with a bit of imagination, you have a really easy, original gift to make for someone at the last minute. Perhaps you’ve been invited round to someone’s house and want to take a little gift.

I used kumquats, because that’s what I saw in Martha Stewart Living. This decision also resulted in perhaps my most middle class quest of the year: going in search of them (Sainsbury’s had them). It was worth it because kumquats lend themselves really beautifully to this idea and weren’t madly expensive. A packet that would have made this twice over cost £1.50. Plus they look festive, colourful and this was absolutely delicious: like a grown up, not too sickly, Terry’s Chocolate Orange.

But if you don’t have kumquats, or don’t like them you can put anything on top of the chocolate: slices of stem ginger, roasted hazelnuts, sliced pistachios, what ever takes your fancy, you get the idea.

For this I used a mixture of Green and Black’s milk chocolate and Waitrose Continental 70% cocoa chocolate, because I wanted it to be quite creamy. You want the slab to ‘snap’ when you serve it so don’t go too milky chocolatey, even if you want to serve it to children. To make it really grown up and ‘snappy’, make it out of all 70% cocoa chocolate. I used about 250g of chocolate in total to make this slab, which fed sixteen at after lunch coffee.

Melt in a bowl, over boiling water, then pour onto baking parchment on a baking tray. Scatter over your topping of choice. Put in fridge to set. If giving as a present – and not serving at your own dinner party – then break it up and put it in cellophane bag or if you have food-grade cellophane wrap (naturally, ahem, I do) then you can wrap the whole thing in one piece.

That’s it. So easy and looks so impressive.