Thursday, 27 November 2014

Wishlist: Gifts for her (me)



It's my birthday next week. Not a biggie, but a birthday all the same. I disapprove of Christmas beginning before the birthday is out the way, but the older I get the more I realise it's impossible to hold back the festive tidal wave until I've decided I'm ready.

Much as I love surprises, my family has a tradition of asking for and adhering to wishlists. And so here is mine. I imagine it may also serve as inspiration for Christmas gifts for ladies of a similar age who appreciate the finer things in life - and we all have those, right?

Left to right:
1. Hexagon hoop earrings, £44
2. Hand knit hat, £22.78
3. Fair Isle mittens, £18.95
4. Violet Blonde perfume, £50
5. Vintage style brooch, £19.95
6. Glass and brass jewellery boxes, from £20
7. Multi jacquard scarf, £25.99
8. Honeycomb throw, £59.99
9. Turntable, £100
10. Bicycle bell, £15.95
11. Snowflake socks, £6


More wishlist inspiration over on this Pinterest board.

What do you want for Christmas this year?




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Tuesday, 25 November 2014

Recipe: Vegetarian Pad Thai



Thailand: home of tropical beaches, temples and totally delicious food. From hot green curry to street food, I'm pretty partial to a Thai meal. In this house, we are all about the noodles. Nine times out of ten when we go out to eat it's for noodles, and my very favourite is Pad Thai. I often convince myself we have to go out or get takeaway as it's just not possible to make a decent Pad Thai at home, but turns out that's not true.

The following is adapted from a Ken Hom recipe, and is just the right combination of hot, sweet, sour and salty - the classic Thai flavours.

Vegetarian Pad Thai - serves 2-4

Ingredients:
225g/8oz flat dried rice noodles
50g/2oz shallots
100g/4oz onions
3 spring onions
3 fresh red chillies
2 tbsp groundnut oil
3 tbsp coarsely chopped garlic
3 tbsp light soy sauce
1 tbsp Shaoxing rice wine
2 tbsp lime juice
1 tbsp light soy sauce
salt
freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1 tbsp sugar
2 tbsp vegetarian oyster sauce
225g/8oz fresh bean sprouts
handful fresh coriander sprigs
4 tbsp coarsely chopped roasted peanuts for garnish

1. Cook the noodles according to the instructions on the packet. Drain.
2. Peel and slice the shallots and onion. Chop the spring onions into 2cm chunks. Seed and finely chop the chillies.
3. Heat a wok and add the oil. When it is very hot and slightly smoking, add the shallots, onion, spring onions, chillies and garlic, and stir-fry for one minute.
4. Add the rice noodles, soy sauce, rice wine, lime juice, soy sauce, pepper, sugar and vegetarian oyster sauce, and continue to stir-fry for two minutes, combining the ingredients well.
5. Add the bean sprouts and continue to stir-fry for four minutes.
6. Finally, add the coriander and stir-fry briskly for 30 seconds.
7. Divide between plates and sprinkle with the peanuts to serve.

Although it's somewhere I've always wanted to go, I have never visited Thailand. The food is a massive draw, obviously, as are the beaches, markets and beautiful scenery. And the thought of warm weather right now is particularly appealing. First Choice fly tourists to this amazing foodie destination - it's top of my list.

Thanks to First Choice for helping to bring you this post.
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Monday, 24 November 2014

Advent calendars for adults



Why should the kids have all the fun? With a December birthday, one of my favourite childhood memories was getting to open my advent calendar AND my birthday presents, all on the same day. Last year I made the kids this DIY advent calendar, and even the cat had her own from the vet. But it's been years since I had my own advent calendar.

This year, the kids have been sent an enormous box of Christmas confectionary to be drip-fed throughout the month, and I think this might be the year I treat myself to one. With so many to choose from it can be a tricky decision, but I've managed to get it down to this shortlist of four.

Clockwise, from top left:
1. Carluccio's chocolate calendar, £11.95
2. Masters of Malt Botanicals ginvent calendar, £124.95
3. Moomin advent calendar, around £30 (including postage)
4. Liberty beauty advent calendar, £149

Clearly I don't have hundreds to spend on whimsical trinkets, and the Moomins would be nicked by the kids, so it'll probably be the Carluccio's number for me.

Do you have a grown-up advent calendar? Or is it strictly kids-only round yours?
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Thursday, 20 November 2014

Wreath-making in November






Christmas isn’t usually allowed to start until after my birthday, which falls at the beginning of December. But some rules are meant to be broken, especially when beauty, bloggers and breakfast are involved.

Lori of Wild and Grizzly organised the most charming of mornings, held at the Mockingbird Cafe in Bristol. It’s a very beautiful new space - all scrubbed tables, industrial lighting, vintage knick-knacks and vases of flowers. Plus, they played Dolly Parton and Elvis which makes them officially my kinda people. Sun shone through the big glass windows as we drank coffee, ate amazing buttermilk biscuits with egg and bacon, and got to work putting together our Christmas wreaths, supplied by Laura Ashley.

I’m so happy with my wreath. I chose to stick with just a few of my favourite bits and pieces - pine cones, glittered acorns, red berries and a plume of white and brown feathers.

It’s always a pleasure to get together with fellow bloggers and their sweet kiddos. Seven of us chatted and gossiped, laughed and wreathed (is that a verb?). My fellow makers were Lori of Wild and Grizzly, Fritha of Tigerlilly Quinn, Adele of Circus Queen, Jessica of Along Came Cherry, Laura of Cardboard Cities, and Laura of Side Street Style.

I may have to revisit my no-Christmas-until-December rule after all - since the wreath-making, I have succumbed to my first mince pie of the year. It’s all downhill from here.
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Sunday, 16 November 2014

Lady pirate boots: an update


Remember these? They're the lady pirate boots I was banging on about a few weeks back. Well, in a slightly obsessive fashion, I tracked them down. They were sold in Anthropologie icona few seasons back, and are by a brand called Holding Horses. Eventually, I found a pair on eBay.com, located in America, and the owner agreed to ship them to me. Excitement overload!

The most beautiful piratical footwear set sail across the ocean, arriving at my door last week. Turns out lady pirates have small feet - these turned out to be a size 6. My treacherous feet are a size 7. Excitement overboard.

Enough with the dubious seafaring nonsense. The point of this post is that I now have a pair of the lovely boots pictured above FOR SALE! Drop me a line if you think your feet would be a good match and I can send pics galore.

I also have a pair of replacement boots - these ones pictured below, from Esprit. I'm sure we will set sail on adventures a-plenty, me and these rugged lovelies.









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Thursday, 13 November 2014

Five reads for November




1. Swamplandia!

Female wrestlers fighting alligators? Hell yeah! This book is something else - 'in the Florida Everglades, gator-park Swamplandia! is in trouble. Its star performer, the great beauty and champion alligator-wrestler Hilola Bigtree, has succumbed to cancer, and Ava, her resourceful but terrified 13-year-old daughter, is left in charge with her two siblings. But Ava's sister has embarked on a romantic relationship with a ghost, her brother has defected to a rival theme park, and her father is AWOL.'

Peculiar subject matter meets exquisite writing.

2. Be Awesome: Modern Life for Modern Ladies

After reading this piece by Hadley Freeman in the Guardian, I wanted more. Be Awesome is one of those books I wish I'd read when I was younger. Much of it isn't new, but I like the way she writes and it's a very easy read. Sometimes that's all I need.

3. Life After Life

I forget who recommended this book to me, but I have no doubt it was one of my most well-read and learned friends. I love the premise of Life After Life: What if you had the chance to live your life again and again, until you finally got it right? What if there were second chances? And third chances? In fact an infinite number of chances to live your life? Would you eventually be able to save the world from its own inevitable destiny? And would you even want to?

All the questions!

4. The Happiness Project

The Happiness Project is 'one person’s year-long attempt to discover what leads to true contentment. Drawing at once on cutting-edge science, classical philosophy, and real-world applicability, Gretchen Rubin has written an engaging, eminently relatable chronicle of transformation.' I do love a bit of thorough research, although I'm slightly concerned this might be a bit on the New Age side for me. We'll see.

5. Imperfect Home

A new book by Mark and Sally Bailey, owners of one of my all-time favourite shops (and just in time for my birthday!). The subject is one close to my heart - I really dig the way they leave visible the layers, history and imperfection that most people would decorate over. And I pretty much love everything they do, so this book has me yearning for a return visit to their beautiful store.

What are your November reads?
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Tuesday, 11 November 2014

My favourite room



Back in the summer, I wrote for a piece for the home issue of Lionheart magazine. Super duper editor Hels also asked me about my favourite room in the house, and I picked the bathroom.

I have a real thing for bathrooms that don't have any of that seashell, blue water-themed jazz - just a simple and serene space that just so happens to have a bath and a loo and a basin etc. Recently, Viakal challenged me to make it even more relaxing by sending over a hamper of luxury goodies. It worked.

Gone are the greying flannels and towels, replaced with fluffy white ones from The White Company. Banished is the scrappy bar of soap; instead we're washing hands with the most delicious hand wash from Diptyque, made with lavender honey, rosemary and lemon oil. And, for a final touch of luxury, a Diptyque Baies scented candle. I'm keeping that one for baths taken alone with the door firmly locked, small people fast asleep. The biggest luxury of them all.




Thanks to Viakal for the hamper. 
Contains affiliate links.
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Monday, 10 November 2014

On boundaries and taking care of tender hearts

Boundaries - self protection, therapy, psychotherapy


Take care of this tender heart of mine...

There are times when putting yourself first sounds like the selfish option. Or maybe it's the impractical option, or the just plain impossible option. When I met up with my friend Sam for lunch a few weeks back, she made it clear that she looks after her tender heart (her beautiful words). If she doesn't, who will? It's a good question, one that made me rethink.

We talked a lot about boundaries. In therapy speak, boundaries refer to the limits placed on the relationship between you and your therapist (eg you meet at a specified time and place) and specific boundaries placed on the communications that take place, so you aren't treating your therapist as you would a friend. In real life, it applies just the same. Boundaries refer to any aspect of our interactions with others, including our relationship with ourselves and our environment. It's about self-protection.

Trouble is, redefining those boundaries disrupts the status quo. My therapist uses the metaphor of a dance in which you know the steps and everyone in your life does, too. Changing your steps means you tread on people's feet, or they on yours. Things get uncomfortable, painful even.

Uncomfortable but necessary. Boundaries reflect our core values, our respect for ourselves and our need for safety and protection. They include being able to say no and mean it, or saying yes and meaning it. It's about separateness. It's about privacy.

It got me thinking about where I am in my life right now, and how to apply the idea of boundaries and self-protection as gracefully as possible without resulting in too many broken toes. You'll find no definitive answers here (nor, I suspect, in your own life, not really) but here's what I've learnt so far.

Children


My darlings. Since becoming a single parent, my relationship with my two sons has grown, as has my heart. (Three sizes, perhaps, like The Grinch.) A single parent of either gender has to be everything to their children, right there and then in the moment. But the closeness that brings is worth the pressure. I take the French approach - they have a lot of freedom but there are certain, non-negotiables where I clamp down, hard.

We talk openly and honestly about their lives, their fears, their dreams. If they ask a question, I answer it as honestly as I can, applying my own adult boundaries to their child world where necessary. I give them privacy so they know they are respected and loved as individuals because of (and despite) whoever they choose to be. I'm not saying I get it right all the time, I'm learning as much as they are. But it feels healthy. We have space. We face things head on, we don't look away. It's unbelievably hard at times, but unbelievably rewarding.

Work


The one I find hardest. I have gone from a secure, part-time job to full-time freelance, and it's terrifying and wonderful in equal measure. Only now, I'm the breadwinner, the only one responsible for paying this extortionate rent and all the bills and managing my tax and accounts and setting expectations for what the kids can and cannot have for treat day or Christmas or just because Mummmmmmmm, I realllllllly want it.

If the work comes my way, I have to make room for it. If I'm unwell, I have to soldier on. The buck stops here and there aint no amount of boundaries that can come before earning a crust. Without it, everything crumbles. So I have to be kind to myself and apply what boundaries I can. Get early nights. Eat good, nourishing food that gives me strength and energy. Take the vits. In theory, anyway.

Friendships


The past year has made me seriously reconsider my definition of friendship. Turns out, when the chips are down you do really know who your friends are, and it's definitely not always the ones you thought. If you asked how many close friends I had this time last year, my answer would've been in the tens, possibly the twenties. My life was so settled: I'd been married for ten years to a man I'd known since school, we lived in a beautiful home with our two wonderful children. I was part of a very tight community, whose support was felt most keenly when the kids were babies. The women I regularly bumped into on the school run were my friends. I set up a branch of the Women's Institute. I was part of a much cherished book group. I fought a campaign to get more local school places.. These component parts were pieces of a jigsaw that fitted together so neatly to form my world. Fast forward 12 months and that jigsaw looks like something you'd find left, unsold, at the end of a rainy car boot sale. Incomplete and broken.

Some of these friendships broke because the decision to change the course of my life was unacceptable to those people. Some, I suspect, just didn't know how to respond. Some losses were the result of an unspoken custody battle. Casualties of war.

But the ones that remained are so precious to me it's untrue. The women who were there for me on Easter Sunday when I cried for three hours straight, believing everyone else was happy and I was alone in my pain and sorrow. The ones who carried on texting, kept asking how I was doing even though they knew the answer might be hard to handle, might require energy that they didn't have. The ones who didn't judge. The ones who offered no advice, no words, just their presence and love. The ones I've never even met before but whom I know well through the blogging world.

And the ugly truth of it? Before this happened to me, I was probably one of the former. I'm not sure how I'd have responded if this were happening to a friend, their actions bringing shadows and darkness into my perfectly light world. I can't honestly say I'd definitely have been there for them. But I damn well would be now.

I've had to move away from the ones who can't be there, both geographically and emotionally. Blinkers on, I focus on the things that matter - my priorities: the kids, work, keeping a steady ship for my immediate family, my loved ones, the people who showed up and extended their hand and held mine. My boundaries are firmly established here.

Relationships


My relationships with my family - my parents and my brother - have been rocked so hard by the past year, and boundary issues have really been in sharp relief. Our old dance is dead. But a new one is forming, and it is - I believe - a healthier, more respectful one. There is work to be done but we are willing.

Determined not to repeat the mistakes of the past, my new relationship - fragile and young and intense - is defined by communication. I have no desire to be with someone who cannot hold my tender heart in his hands and take care of it as well as I can myself. If something is wrong, I am not going to not say it for fear of him loving me less. Strong boundaries in this kind of relationship are perhaps the most necessary of all. A manifesto for a different kind of relationship includes never bottling it up, always being kind, putting the kids first, cherishing each other, whatever the future may bring. One for regular review.

Home


Never before have four walls and a roof been so important to me. Making this house into a home took energy and love, but it has been so worth it. The time it took to make rooms that make me happy when I'm there, working alone, were a necessary investment. They offer comfort and warmth and security to my kids, preventing us from setting adrift. When I don't feel up to being in company, my home is the perfect sanctuary. While I haven't exactly strung garlic around the door, I decide who gets invited in. Actually, I think this has swung a little too far in the other direction, and I've been craving more company in the evenings. There are meals with friends planned, sitting around that table with good food and music and laughter.

Home. A home for tender hearts.



I'm really aware this is quite a different, difficult kind of post for this blog, and would normally invite comments at this point. Instead, I'll just say this: engage if it speaks to you, move on if it doesn't. Apply your own boundaries if you need to. 

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Sunday, 9 November 2014

Written without my glasses: Beryl Reid's creme brûlée recipe


When I was a very small child, my parents made a bit of extra cash letting out the spare room to actors who were in the city for short spells with Bristol Old Vic - it was something a lot of Bristolians did and still do. One memorable guest was Beryl Reid, an English actress well known for her role as Grandma Mole in The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, who must've stayed with us in the early 1980s. According to my parents, Beryl was not happy about the noise my younger brother and I used to make when we woke up, as her life as an actor meant for late nights and late mornings. But she did enjoy eating (and almost certainly drinking) with us from time to time.

My parents are immensely outgoing and love nothing better than an impromptu dinner guest, and I can imagine that playing host to up-and-coming actors was irresistible to them. A fantastic cook, my dad has countless books stuffed with hastily-scribbled recipes documenting his favourite meals of the time, and it was among these I came across the recipe for Beryl's creme brulee.

Scrawled on her own headed notepaper, Beryl has crossed out her name, instead giving the recipe the caveat 'Written without my glasses'. Despite this, the recipe begins well - quantities look ok, the writing is just about legible. Beryl does not pull any punches: she expects the reader to know how to make an egg custard, and writes in a heavily abbreviated fashion. However, around half-way down the page things get a little indecipherable - her hand becomes looser, the instructions more vague. It doesn't instill a cook with the kind of hand-holding security we've come to expect from recipe books today. To bring things up-to-date I've played around with the recipe, filled in the gaps and tested for myself, and have come up with the following fail-safe tribute.

Beryl's Brulee
Serves 2

Ingredients:
1/2 pt (284ml) double cream
1/2 tsp real vanilla extract
2 egg yolks
4 level tbsp caster sugar
4 tbsp demerara sugar

Method:
1. Preheat the oven to 150C/300F/Gas mark 2.
2. Pour the cream into a heavy bottomed pan and set over a medium heat.
3. Whisk the egg yolks together with the caster sugar in a roomy, heatproof bowl, combining well.
4. When the cream has reached a steady simmer, add the vanilla extract.
5. Pour the cream onto the egg/sugar mixture, stirring all the time.
6. Place two ramekins into a large, deep oven tray, and pour half the custard mixture into each.
7. Pour hot water into the oven tray to create a bain marie (water bath) - the water should come half way up the ramekins.
8. Carefully place the tray into the centre of the oven, and cook for 30-35 minutes.
9. Remove the tray from the oven, and the ramekins from the water. Place in the fridge until completely cool.
10. Just before you wish to serve the brulees, switch on the grill. Sprinkle the brulee tops with the demerara sugar, making sure you cover the surface evenly and the sugar goes right to the edge of the dish.
11. Finish the tops under a grill (the Reid way), or with a culinary blowtorch (the modern way) - either way be careful the sugar doesn't burn. As Beryl says, you want a finish that's 'brown, even and shiny'.

I like to serve these dusted with icing sugar and with a few berries on the plate, but pudding purists may like an unadulterated creme brulee. The fun part is cracking through that caramelised top, so all that's really needed is a sharp spoon and a hearty appetite.
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