Tuesday, 30 October 2012

Halloween butternut squash & pecan muffins

As a family we've never been big on Halloween. I come from a generation before it really started to catch on in the UK. About 30 years ago, inspired by American TV shows and films, I tried trick or treating with a couple of friends. The reaction was not good and one lady was particularly unimpressed: "You should be ashamed of yourself going round the streets beggin'. I'll be tellin' your mother!"

Needless to say, that was my first and last attempt. I didn't go trick or treating again until Chickpea was small and we stuck to close friends and neighbours. Of course, she loved it and particularly enjoyed dressing up as a witch in a black bin bag or as a cat with alice band ears and a clip on tail. The last time we trick or treated was probably 10 years ago.

However, we do consider ourselves a Halloween friendly household and I love to see the little ones out in their costumes. This year I decided it was time to embrace Halloween and celebrate with some baking (any excuse!). Pumpkin was the obvious choice so I looked round my books and magazines for inspiration. These muffins are the result and have been created by taking elements from several different recipes.

I really enjoyed making them and hope you do too.

Butternut squash and pecan muffins

Makes 12

150g butter
225g caster sugar
2 eggs
225g self-raising flour
1 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon grated nutmeg
150ml sour cream
125g grated butternut squash
75g pecans, chopped

1. Preheat the oven to 180C/160 Fan/350F/Gas 4
2. Cream the butter and sugar until light and fluffy.
3. Add the eggs one at a time, mixing well after each addition.
4. Sift or mix together the flour, bicarbonate of soda and spices.
5. Add the grated squash to the sour cream.
6. Fold in the flour mix and sour cream mix alternately into the butter mix until just combined.
7. Fold in the pecans.
8. Spoon into the paper cases and bake for 15-20 minutes until well-risen and firm. Put onto a wire rack to cool.

They're delicious plain as shown here. However, this is Halloween so some decoration was called for. I chose to make a butter and cream cheese topping to decorate.

Maple butter and cream cheese topping
100g cream cheese
50g butter
1.5 tablespoons maple syrup
250g icing sugar

1. Beat the cream cheese and butter together until smooth.
2. Add the maple syrup and icing sugar and again beat until smooth.
3. Add a generous swirl to each muffn and decorate with sprinkles and sweets.

Sunday, 28 October 2012

42nd Street

Yesterday it was time for my Dad to redeem his 70th birthday present. His birthday was actually a few months ago so he's had to wait a while. However, when I bought the tickets for 42nd Street, I knew it was the perfect gift: Dad loves going to musicals. It's also something he likes to share with me and Chickpea as we love it too. Mum can take it or leave it so chose not to accompany us this time.

Knowing it was a musical full of sequins and glitz, it seemed appropriate to wear a few myself. As we got on the train in bright sunshine, Chickpea said I was sending sparkles around the carriage like a walking disco ball!

We took an early train in case there were delays but also so that we could enjoy a pre-performance coffee and cake. Carrot cake and a latte for me and Dad. Pumpkin spice latte and an apple fritter doughnut for Chickpea.

Then it was time to make our way to the theatre. Excitement was building as we approached and joined the crowds. We made our way to our seats in the second row of the Circle. The atmosphere was buzzing. The lights dim, the orchestra strikes up, and the curtain starts to rise.

How I wish I could have shared some images from the performance but photography wasn't allowed so you'll have to make do with this from the programme. Maybe you can sing along with us though - you'll be surprised how many of the songs you recognise: Keep young and beautiful, I only have eyes for you, We're in the money, Lullaby of Broadway, and of course,  42nd Street. The songs have been going round in my head ever since.

The costumes didn't disappoint either - lots of sequins and shimmer. My favourites though were the colourful '30s outfits in the rehearsal scene at the beginning: shorts, tanks tops and halternecks in ice cream colours. And the shoes, oh the shoes!

Of course those shoes were put to good use for some wonderful tap dancing. The floor in the row where we sat vibrated as people in the audience just couldn't help tapping their feet along with the dance numbers. On the way home, me and Chickpea would randomly break into (very bad) tap dancing - the urge was irresistible! It makes me wish I'd kept up the lessons. I still have the shoes though so, you never know, I might take it up again one day.

You'll probably have gathered that we had a brilliant time. More importantly, Dad had a brilliant time and really enjoyed his birthday treat. Hope you enjoyed your weekend too.

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Crochet cushion

The last time I wrote about this cushion it was a pile of undoings. The undoings have become trimmings. And the cushion is complete!

But let’s start at the very beginning.

The pattern is from the book Cute and Easy Crochet by Nicki Trench. I love this book. As soon as I picked it up there were lots of projects I wanted to try and I’ve already bought the yarn for a couple of them.

Finding the yarn for this one proved more difficult than I thought. The inspiration for my colour choice was this cushion from Next. I wanted the same rich, bright, vibrant colours.

I found some brands which had the vibrancy but not the colours I needed. Others were out of my price range.

Then I discovered King Cole Bamboo Cotton in Abakhan and we had a winner. There’s not a huge colour range but it had all the shades I was looking for. These are the ones I chose:

Blush Pink 520, Yellow 523, Peacock 531, Green 533, Fuchsia 536, Violet 537

I’ve been thrilled with this yarn: it crochets beautifully, is soft to the touch and has a lovely drape.

The pattern was simple to follow though I varied it by continuing the repeat in the later rows rather than following the pattern strictly.

I also varied the pattern by changing the edge. The recommended double crochet edging seemed too narrow and I wanted it to stand out more. So, I did a half treble instead.

 The original pattern also described the pad being fully enclosed in the cover. However, I wanted to be able to remove it for washing so worked out a way to make an opening for a zip. I crocheted around until all that was left was enough space for the zip. Then I crocheted a row on both the outer and inner loops of the opening, and used the inner row to attach the zip. It took a couple of gos to work out the best way to attach the zip so that the opening lies as flat as possible (though it does still flap open).

And here's the finished cushion. Ta-dah!

And here it is again with the bird cushion which inspired it. I really enjoyed making it and I think I'm now ready for something more challenging. Watch this space!

Sunday, 21 October 2012

Day off

I had a day off this week. We were supposed to be going for a check-up at the dentist but it was cancelled - for the 3rd time! To be fair to my dentist, I've been going to see her for at least 20 years and she's never cancelled in all that time so I think she's just having an unlucky spell. I considered cancelling my leave for, oh, at least a nano-second, before deciding to take it anyway. We quickly settled on the cinema and food as a good way to spend the day. We were almost foiled at the last minute as my plumber rang just before we were due to leave to remind me my boiler needed servicing and could he come that afternoon? Aagh! Luckily, my lovely Dad stepped in and said he would wait in for the plumber. Phew! Quick, out of the house before anything else can stop us.

Having looked through the listings, we settled on Looper, which had received good reviews in the papers. It turned out to be a great choice. A bit violent in parts but a good storyline: interesting and intriguing. We mostly go to see rom-coms but also like sci-fi and fantasy. I was surprised how many other people were in the cinema on a weekday but it could have been the Orange Wednesday effect.

For food, our restaurant of choice was Chiquito. It was my first visit but Chickpea has been before with her boyfriend.

We both had the BBQ pulled pork and melted cheese quesadillas with green rice. The quesadillas were fine but, to be honest, the rice was bland. I ended up mixing mine with the salsa which came with the complimentary tortilla chips.

Of course, we also managed to fit in a bit of retail therapy as the cinema is on a retail park. The Frizz-Ease is a regular purchase and a vain attempt to tame my manic curls. The daylight bulb will help me with evening crafting. I'm also hoping it might help with evening photography. Since the evenings have got darker, I only seem to have weekends to take photos for the blog which is very limiting and frustrating. Finally, the dog treats and cat toy are early Christmas present purchases for friends with pets.

I don't think I've had a day off since my leave in August and was really ready for it. I don't know if it's work or the darker mornings but I've been feeling very tired lately. And now Chickpea isn't in full-time education, I don't have half-terms to look forward to. Wouldn't it be great if all workplaces had them though - maybe we should start a campaign! In the meantime, I'll have to try to fit in another day off in a few weeks - if nothing else it'll soon be time for proper Christmas shopping!

Sunday, 14 October 2012

Decorating biscuits II

Having baked the biscuits the day before, it was now time to decorate them. I used the The Contemporary Cake Decorating Bible as inspiration for the different techniques.

I gathered various decorating ingredients though didn't end up using them all. The Writing Icing tasted a bit weird (well, it was out of date!) and the cherries just didn't work.

The biscuits were given a thin glaze of boiled apricot jam so that the icing would stick. The first biscuits had quite a thick layer of icing but I got better at rolling it more thinly. After several frustrating incidents, I also got better at putting down more icing sugar so that the icing didn't stick to the board!

These butterflies were decorated using small metal cutters but the small flower was a plunger cutter.

With the large cupcakes, I did some piping using an ancient syringe contraption of my Mum's. It was really hard work pressing down the plunger and my thumb was still numb several days later!

The pink pattern on the left cupcake was made using one of the small plastic candle holders used for birthday cakes.

The idea for the button on the bottom left cupcake came from the book. The top part of the middle biscuit had a combination of piping and icing with hundreds and thousands kneaded into it.

I found it harder to come up with ideas for the teapots than the other shapes but was pleased with the results. The flower teapot has been the favourite biscuit of the friends I've shown.

And a last look at them all together. I'm really proud of my first attempt at biscuit decorating! And the added bonus is that they tasted great too! Definitely something to try again in the future.

PS You may have noticed that the star biscuits in my previous post haven't made an appearance. They barely made it past the decorating stage before being consumed for research purposes.

Thursday, 11 October 2012

Decorating biscuits I

Ever since I saw the decorated biscuits made by Miranda in the first series of Great British Bake Off, I've fancied having a go. Embarrassingly, I've realised that was two years ago!

Then, over Easter, I bought a copy of The Contemporary Cake Decorating Bible by Lindy Smith. It's packed with techniques and ideas for both cakes and biscuits and was just what I'd been looking for. Yet, I still never seemed to find time to put any of the ideas into practice.

Finally, a few weeks ago, everything fell in to place and, at last, it was time.

Ingredients were gathered.

Cutters were assembled.

Biscuit dough was rolled, shapes were cut, and into the oven they went.

Beautiful golden biscuits emerged and were left to cool overnight ready for the best bit: decorating!

To be continued...

Friday, 5 October 2012

Day in the city

On a warm and sunny September Saturday, I headed into Manchester to meet up with Bernie and Rachel. As I made my way across the city, I came across these Morris Dancers in St Ann's Square. There must have been some kind of morris dancing event that day as I'd already passed one group and another was waiting to perform.

The costumes of this group were particularly colourful - great hats! I stood and watched for a few minutes, enjoying the music and dancing. Further on in the square were second-hand stalls with some selling upcycled furniture. I love how, in the city, there are unexpected delights as you stumble across street performers, small markets and other events. Not that I'm a city girl but I do like to visit.

We were in the city to see the Faces and Voices exhibition at the John Rylands Library, which is part of the University of Manchester. The Library was founded in 1898 by Enriqueta Rylands in memory of her husband, and houses the University's special collections. It took 10 years to build and cost over £500,000. Mrs Rylands involved herself in all aspects of the building work whilst gathering amazing collections of early printed books and manuscripts. I'm full of admiration for this woman and what she achieved at a time when women weren't even allowed the vote.

From the outside, with its gothic architecture, the Library looks more like a cathedral. And that impression carries on inside with vaulted ceilings and corridors. This view is over the main staircase.

There are also stained glass windows like this one, the Theology window.

What most visitors come to see though is the Historic Reading Room. This photo doesn't really convey just how beautiful and impressive it is.

How about this one? Inside each of the alcoves are separate reading areas lined with leather-bound books. Can you imagine a lovelier place to study? The light glows off the wood and it has that wonderful old book smell.

Back downstairs we marvelled at the exhibition of papyrus fragments and tomb portraits, all dating from before 642AD. It was hard to believe we were looking at something so old.

On our way out we noticed this automaton by Keith Newstead. Put in your donation and away it goes. The Victorian lady lifts a cup of tea to her lips and places it back down. She repeats this a couple of times and then...

We all jumped and laughed in surprise! As a way to encourage donations it's very clever because, of course, we fed in coins over and over so we could watch the dragon again.

But our day wasn't ended there. The Opera House theatre was celebrating its centenary and was having an open day. There were backstage tours, performances, drama workshops and face painting. I couldn't resist trying on one of the costumes in the dressing rooms.

It was pretty heavy with the boning in the corset but had a fantastic full skirt just right for twirling. So I did! Along with doing various dramatic poses!

Finally, it was off to browse the shops and have a coffee before saying our goodbyes. The three of us really enjoyed our day out. Hope you did too.