Tag Archives: Christmas

Faux Christmas trees

I have been writing, professionally, for 23 years. During that time I have learned that two things are so emotive, I don’t write about them anymore:

Breastfeeding.

Anti-wrinkle creams.

I suspect this will be an equally divisive topic.

Last Christmas, I went to my friend Louise’s house. Louise lives in a beautiful house and she had, in the entrance hall, a beautiful Christmas tree. It was only on closer inspection, that I realised it wasn’t real. “Do you think it looks okay?” she asked. “I think it looks fabulous,” I replied.

I went straight home and bought one, after doing some sums – ours cost £318 last year, before Brexit and before the pound fell, like a snowflake from the sky. That’s not an inconsiderable amount of money to sink into a Christmas tree but given we were spending £40-£50 a year on one, I wish we had bought one ten years ago.

Coincidentally, my other friend Sandra, had bought one the week before – but it hadn’t really sunk in – and she said it had made her “truly happy”. Now, Sandra isn’t the sort of person to find happiness in Christmas foliage, usually. So I knew I was onto a good thing.

My partner took a bit of persuading because, every Christmas, we go somewhere in the Suffolk countryside and choose a tree. I say we, but they all look pretty good to me and he spends AGES choosing one and I find the whole selection process really stressful, and cold. Really bloody cold. I just don’t know why I find it stressful, but I do. Anyway, we bought one, he loves it. My children, after becoming hysterical at the thought (they thought it would be really fake looking) also love it. I grew up with a faux (okay, we called it fake back then) Christmas tree which is still going strong from when it was purchased by my parents – in 1963.

When I told a few people that we were venturing into fake Christmas tree territory, they went nuts. As if we were telling them something awful. “I don’t know who you are anymore,” joked (?) my friend Jo.

Here is the case for a fakey faux Christmas tree:

No more going out to buy one and spending £40 plus on one, or whatever it is they cost. No more jostling with people for the tree that looks great.

No more cutting down live trees.

You can put it up from 1st December and no risk of leaf fall.

No more vacuuming up pine needles.

Okay, no more real tree smell but you know, you can get that in a SPRAY from Jo Malone or The White Company (you can actually get very good pine smelly things which you hang on the branches, I got some from the supermarket which cost a couple of pounds and they were, incredibly, rather good).

We got one which comes with lights IN IT. No more untangling the lights, risking electrocution and finding that none of them work anymore.

It looks good all the way through Christmas, no more sad Christmas tree.

I am not trying to convince you, but if you are thinking of going faux, then take the plunge! We love ours and are putting it up as soon as the clocks chime midnight on November.

I’m mentioning all this now cos we got ours from Balsam Hill – also where my friends got theirs from – and the quality is superb. And there’s a sale on. We got one with a not-too-huge bottom to it (I love that you can choose the width, from a narrow tree if you don’t have much room to a more full-bottomed one). Go for the most realistic ones. I know they’re not cheap, but once you’ve bought one you have it. We got the Vermont White Spruce with ‘candelight’ lights which give a warmer glow.

The pictures were of our tree last year (forgive the scaffolding outside, we were having building works done) – I tried to take a picture of it looking as ‘real’ as possible, not with any funny filters on or anything (not, ha ha, ‘spruced’ up). And here is one of the branches close up:

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You’ll see we go for a white and silver theme…

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Big beautiful bags that are brilliant for tidying up, storage, and car travel.

Years ago, I worked, briefly, in the Evening Standard fashion department. When we weren’t ordering champagne off the stationery list (really), and drinking it on a Friday night, we were working hard. I used to write features about Chrissie Hynde’s fringe and we would look out over the atrium at who was coming and going. Late into the afternoon, as the sun was starting to set over Kensington, the fashion editors and stylists would come back from their shoots with tales of who had done what and the shots they had got (or not). And they would be wielding these enormous chequered laundry bags stuffed with clothes that, for some reason, held some fascination for me (the bags not the clothes, I was utterly sick of them by that time).

Earlier this year, as I struggled to fit our duvets (Brinkhaus silk and wool filled brilliant), sheets and pillows (Ringsted Dun, excellent) into a suitable receptacle for going camping (we camp in luxurious style), I thought of those bags again. Weren’t they huge? Couldn’t they accommodate everything? And so I looked them up.

They are really cheap and if you travel by car, I honestly can’t think of a much better way to transport clothes and the like. But, don’t buy too cheap. The really cheap chequered ones of yore can mark the stuff you put in them (the dye is not stable). Then I found these utterly brilliant Jumbo bags from Dot Com Gift Shop. I know it’s slightly mad to rave about a bag but there you go – they are just great: reasonably priced at five Black Jacks under a fiver, good quality, I love the designs (check out the Christmas one which I intend to fill with Christmas presents and not attempt to hide, at all) which are jolly and sweet. You can use them to temporarily tidy stuff away, for storage (although only in safe, stable environment, if you want long term storage that resists damp, wet and all but the  most resistant rodent, you need these Ultimate boxes from Lakeland, which are superb for storing things in the garage/shed, but are not cheap.

And, best of all, and not like boxes, when you’re done with these bags, they fold up really small to be put away.

Sorry about the picture. I’m in the middle of building work and I really can’t be bothered to find mine and stuff them full of stuff to photograph them, so I just nicked it off the DGGS website, I’m reckoning they won’t mind. Plus it tells you that they are made out of recycled plastic bottles!

 

Perfect trousers, not just for Christmas

It isn’t madly often I can recommend trousers but here is why these are good:

They come in various colours. I like this choice even though, of course, I stick to black and navy. (I may tip toe into taupe in the new year, who knows, I do live in the country now.)

They are slim fit, skinny I guess, without being unflattering. But you can tuck them into boots which I wear every day because, have I mentioned, I live in the country. I got these after seeing a picture of me wearing normal trousers with a wind behind me and realised I didn’t need that much fabric around my legs.

They have a gentle stretch which means you can eat over Christmas, still look good, but without feeling as if your trousers have given you gastric band surgery.

However, they have a proper waistband. This is terrifically important over any holiday season. Never wear elasticated trousers long term. And here‘s why.

They are not fucking hipsters. God I hate hipsters. I hate watching women pulling up their fucking hipster trousers because they are falling down. And that’s just me, watching my own reflection. Yet they are not so high waisted that they make you feel like you are in an ad for  incontinence pads. You know the ones.

They are the perfect waist-band height, I think

Anyway, I think they are optimum trousers for this winter. For Christmas, for beyond Christmas. They are corduroy, which I like, they are also apparently slightly thermal (‘heat tech’). I can’t say I have noticed, but I haven’t been cold. When I bought them they were on offer at half price, but sadly they’ve gone back up to £29.90 now.

Stollen

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Stollen was, like panettone and panforte, one of those things that appeared at Christmas that really wasn’t very nice. Of course, that was back in the days before I realised you could make, almost, anything yourself (I’ve still not been brave enough to try panettone, because to make it properly takes three days and involves hanging it upside down).

My friend Lisa Durbin, posted some pictures of the stollen she was making and they looked so delicious, I asked and she passed on her recipe. And yesterday, really quite late in the day, I decided to give it a go.

I have a few notes to add, which is that the marzipan stipulated seemed a bit mean to me to begin with, so for one of the loaves I doubled the amount from 50g for each loaf to 100g. As I was doing this, my partner walked into the kitchen and he reminded me that, actually, with marzipan in cooking more is not necessarily a good thing. So, suitably chastened, I went back to Lisa’s recommendation of 50g for each loaf for the others. I haven’t tasted the turbo marzipan one yet but the one with ‘just’ 50g held out his theory and Lisa’s recipe.

After making this stollen, ahem, a couple of times, I’ve settled on 75g per stollen as perfect for me.

I found 45mins too long in my oven. I cooked mine for 25 mins.

This stollen really doesn’t keep. If you don’t freeze it EAT IT on day of purchase. It won’t be so good again after that.

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I also didn’t roll mine out on a floured surface, instead rolling out between two sheets of Magic Carpet type stuff (reusable baking parchment). It’s up to you if you make your  loaves more stout and thick or long and thin. Experiment.  As per picture above, you’ll see mine are quite flat.

I ate half of one, about 20mins out of the oven, whilst watching Masters of Sex. So the two things are now, indelibly, etched in my mind. At that temperature, just warm, the stollen are frangible and seriously delicious. If you can eat it at this temperature, at least once, do so.

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Otherwise they are really not difficult to make (although if I give you one as a present then, yes, of course they are really difficult) and you get four loaves so it’s a good result vs effort. You could easily freeze some Lisa tells me (before you add the icing sugar) for another day. Or just eat them all in a stollen frenzy. You can also leave them for the final prove (the one that takes 45 mins in Lisa’s recipe) overnight in the oven, waking up to freshly cooked stollen (well, for YOU to wake up to freshly baked stollen, someone else had to get up first to bake it, but the idea is there, yes?)

ImageChristmas 2014. I made these mini this year, just cutting bits of the dough off, and rolling it with my fingers around some marzipan. Worked really well and I got about 20 mini loaves out of it. I cooked the mini ones for 15 minutes.

IMG_0388(You’ll note one is missing, it’s very important to test the merchandise before selling.)

 

Chocolate Mulled Wine

I found this recipe, in amongst various things I’d torn out of a magazine one Christmas past. It answered my question: “should I serve hot chocolate or booze (to the grown ups)?” for a Trick or Treating treasure hunt extravaganza that we were staging in our garden (for the children). It came from Delicious magazine and was written by Laura Santini. I really can’t impress on you how very good it is. Even my partner – a wine expert and hater of mulled wine – got all knee-buckly about it.

This apparently serves six but there was four of us and we managed quite nicely…

750ml red wine
1 cinnamon stick
1 large dried red chilli (I didn’t have one so I used some chilli flakes)
1tsp ground spice
5 whole cloves
100g caster sugar
50g Venezuelan Black chocolate, 100% cocoa – grated*

*if you’ve never grated 100% cocoa chocolate, be warned: it’s very brittle/dry and it goes EVERYWHERE. I wouldn’t personally recommend grating it, but instead, scraping it off with a sharp knife.

This is what you do:

Put the wine and spices in a saucepan and warm slowly, over a very low heat. Then, add the sugar and stir until dissolved.

Add the chocolate and warm through. I used one of those Aerolatte whizzer things to homogenize it as it had a tendency to go a bit ‘speckedly’ with the chocolate. You can either then strain and serve, or strain and chill until you need it (it says it’ll keep for two days), then warm it up again and serve.

I really don’t plan to make mulled wine any other way now. And look: 100% cocoa is terrifically good for you, so this is practically a health drink.

 

Cranberry sauce

Cranberries, orange zest and juice and sugar, all you need to make a delicious cranberry sauce

Cranberry sauce isn’t something that is served in Italian households. In fact any sauces, save for those you put on pasta, are rather alien to us. Growing up, we were made to be highly suspicious of sauces, especially opaque ones. “Whatta area dey trying to cover upaa?” my mother would say with, probably, hands on hips. Subsequently, I didn’t try Indian food til I was very grown up and my best friend’s husband, Mark (half Indian) introduced me to it. Accompaniment sauces, such as ketchup, mayonnaise, chutney etc are never on the table, either, in the Italian households I visit. Although in recent years, younger relatives have started using them.

I’ve had this recipe for cranberry sauce for ages. Torn out of a long ago published magazine. I have no idea what attracted me to it, given that cranberry sauce, have I mentioned, didn’t feature on my radar. It may well have been on the same page as a recipe for chocolate biscuits or something. Who knows. What I do know is that when I got me an English husband (almost) and I started moving away from always having Christmases at my parents’ house (sob!), I also started making cranberry sauce.

And this one is fantastic. And so easy.

The beauty is that you use the same amount of sugar as you have cranberries. I’d say from about 250-500g of cranberries, one orange zest/juice is fine. If you start to go above those quantities then you might want to use more orange zest/juice. The packets of cranberries that Waitrose sell come in about 325g, so I use those, and of course 325g of sugar. This makes more than enough for about six people. I’d say 500g cranberries/sugar would make enough for about ten. Obviously it depends on how much you put on your plate. Anyway it’s nice to make extra and have some left over to use for cold cuts over the next few days and weeks – it keeps for months.

So. You take:

The same amount of cranberries as you have sugar, so say 250g cranberries, 250g caster sugar
Grated zest and juice of one orange.

Preheat oven to 170C/gas 3. It’s hard to say how big your dish should be, but about 1 litre for 500g of cranberries?

Put the cranberries in the baking dish, scatter over the sugar, zest and juice. Stir around gently so that the berries are coated. That’s it. Now cover with foil (although I have cooked without foil and it’s been fine!) and cook for 35-40 mins until the berries are tender and bubbling. (What I do is set the timer for 20 mins and then give the berries a gentle stir and check how they’re doing.)

Cool and store in a jar in the fridge. Keeps for weeks if not months.

Here it is finished in the jam jar, ready to go into the fridge.