Tuesday, 24 December 2013

#ShareAdvent Day 24: Family Traditions

I'm not necessarily one for lots of nostalgia, but there's something about Christmas, and there's something about Christmas food that throws that idea out of the window. Every family does it differently; every family has their own dishes they like to have on the table.

I love Christmas food √† la family Frances - the chocolate coins in shoes on 6 December and salami and plain crisps as a pre-Christmas-lunch snack  (both instigated from my father's German side and the latter carried on today as it's just too delicious a combination); the smell of homemade mince pies even though I won't eat them, and homemade cheese straws and sausage rolls, both of which I will eat plenty of.

The one dish I have never come across anywhere else, though, is Noel Cakes. Christmas Eve as a child was often spent in the kitchen, rolling red marzipan into vague berry shapes while my mother cut out holly leaves from green marzipan and 'Nine Lessons and Carols' played on the radio. I never realised other people don't have these cakes until one year at junior school when a class discussion on Christmas food resulted in a teacher telling me that she'd never heard of them and they couldn't be real. I was very confused - I'd eaten a LOT of these to date so they had to exist.

So, to put an end to that madness, here are Noel Cakes:


NOEL CAKES (makes approx 24)

Ingredients
  • 4 oz butter
  • 4 oz caster sugar
  • 2 eggs
  • 6 oz plain flour
  • 4 oz ground almonds
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • milk as necessary

Method
  1. Preheat oven to around Gas Mark 4/ 180 C/ 350 F.
  2. Cream together butter and sugar until light and creamy.
  3. Beat in the egg a little at a time.
  4. Add the flour, ground almonds and baking powder.
  5. Add milk a little at a time until a 'dropping consistency' is obtained. The mixture should fall off the spoon fairly easily but not be runny.
  6.  Pour the mixture into muffin tins, half filling each cup.
  7. Bake for approx 10-15 minutes until the tops are slightly springy to the touch. Because of the ground almonds, the cakes don't really change colour or rise.
  8. Leave to cool on a cooling rack.
Ice with white glace icing (sieved icing sugar mixed with a little water for a thickish paste) and leave to set a little before adding coloured marzipan or sugarpaste holly leaves and berries.



Any spare undecorated cakes can be decorated with blue icing and a yellow marzipan/sugarpaste star for 6 January - voilà, Epiphany Cakes.

Monday, 23 December 2013

#ShareAdvent Day 23: "There's no place like home..."

I'm too, too excited about this post. After two or so years of looking, and 44 house viewings this year alone, we're moving to our forever house in January:



This is our new front door. The photo isn't great because I took it on Tuesday night when we'd just picked up the keys after two days of chasing estate agents and being on the phone to our solicitor (who I'm not sure we can ever thank enough!), but I was eager to take a few photos despite the darkness and rain! If you've read Alan's recent posts  you'll know all about the fun we had trying to get to completion.

So - we have the keys, the moving van is booked and this is going to be our home, we're hoping, for as many years as possible. We'll put a few photos up as we move in, get curtains, paint walls and buy some more furniture, but for now, here's a taster:



There has to be one room which is the heart of the home - and for us, it will undoubtedly be the kitchen. We're planning to put a big table and chairs in the middle, and a comfy sofa in the left hand corner (just off camera to the left), hopefully to make this a room where people come and stay for hours.


There's no place like home - roll on 6 January...





Sunday, 22 December 2013

2013: A Year of Change

About a year ago I wrote a round-up of 2012. Whenever I've read it since, it takes me right back there, to those moments, so I thought it might be nice to write a round up of 2013 too (apologies for the length!). It's been a year of ups and downs, of strong emotions and of meeting strangers who become friends. A year of change, but of feeling that everything this year has happened in order to be a foundation for the future.

January

When I left off, I was waiting to hear about whether I would be staying at my old firm upon qualification. As many of you will know from my angsty interview tweets, I didn't stay. It makes January a little tough, but I don't regret it. I still don't.

The first of my wedding dress fittings - slight anxiety about whether the dress will look how I want it to by May.

February

I finish my training contract and leave - to what, who knows?

A week's holiday in the sunshine of St Lucia - we climb the Gros Piton, but also spend plenty of time on the beach, reading - a new book courtesy of Any Other Woman's #AOWBookSwap and the lovely Lorna of The Lala Diaries who sends me "Life: An Unexploded Diagram" by Mal Peet. Well worth a read.

March

Interviews - some good, some less good. Nothing comes of any of them, although a firm in Bristol invites me to a second interview, which I end up turning down, and then angsting over whether I am doing the right thing.

We start finalising wedding details with various suppliers - it's all taking shape. Another dress fitting - starting to feel more positive about it now.

April

One month to our wedding and things are coming together. We meet our photographer for a wander round the local country park and some pre-wedding photos. It is a beautiful spring day and the daffodils are out in full force.

My hen party, a wonderful afternoon tea at the aptly named Chesterfield Hotel in Mayfair. They bring us extra sandwiches and scones and let me take home the few remaining cakes. This is followed by a night in watching films with my maid of honour, and then a spa day (my maid of honour has been busy!) so the two of us can have a proper catch up.

More interviews and rejections. Do I even want to be a lawyer any more? This is the happiest but also the most frustrating time.

May

Finishing all the details; spending a hilarious evening printing menus and orders of service, making sure we have enough that aren't offcentre/printed upside down/smudged. They look good.

Picking up the cheese. Picking up my dress and the suits. Picking up my mother. My maid of honour arriving. Sending Alan out for wine and snacks so us girls can paint our nails and watch countless episodes of Don't Tell the Bride.

Packing up the car and heading to our hotel and reception venue. Mini-smugness at bagging the bridal suite for two nights instead of one. Friends and family arriving. The 'doh' moment when my father rings from outside our house wondering why there's no-one there. A lovely evening meal with all the early arrivals; feeling a little emotional that all these people are here for us.

OUR WEDDING. The best day. I am beaming with joy just writing this.

A few days down in the Tamar Valley, just the two of us. We survive on cheese, cake, champagne and stories from the day. It rains. We don't care.

Picnic/drinks on Blackheath for my maid of honour's birthday. Relaxing in the chilly sunshine.

June

A party with the family-in-law as Alan's father celebrates a milestone birthday. I enjoy making the birthday cake and catching up from our wedding.

Time to enjoy summer in London - Pride and Prejudice in Regent's Park open air theatre. Magical fairy lights as night falls.

Race for Life with the ladies of Any Other Woman on one of the hottest days of the year (I don't run but provide cakes instead) - a chance to meet new friends, sit in the sunshine and eat burgers.
 
After so many hours of house viewings, we find one we love. We make an offer - it's accepted but we have to wait for them to find somewhere to move to. Fine. We're still excited beyond belief - no more house viewings! Hooray!

Interviews schminterviews. The one part of life that puts a dampener on things sometimes.

July

Interview; job offer, team lunch and first day in the office, all within a week. Panic - what to wear? Will I remember anything? It goes well and I'm enjoying getting back into the swing of things.

The house purchase is all quiet - but the house sale is going ahead so packing begins in earnest. Boxes, boxes, all around. We find somewhere to rent in the meantime.

A break in the form of afternoon tea for the two of us. There is a 'book of tea' to choose from - my kind of place!

August

We move house. The house purchase is quiet until the sellers suddenly say they may ask for more money. Alarm bells should have started ringing, but they are still quiet.

A wonderful weekend full of laughter,cider and a gazebo which nearly takes off in the wind, spent in the garden of my Aunt and Uncle with all my family, a rare chance to catch up with everyone.

A meeting for cake with some of the AOWettes. I'm glad these ladies are in my life.

Our anniversary weekend, spent wandering round Bath in the sunshine. Happy four years together!

September

My birthday and a frankly amazing 'Elmer the Elephant' birthday cake made by Alan. A lovely, quiet day with lots of cake.

We start the house viewings again. Fed up. Will we ever find another house we like?

October

Off to Birmingham for afternoon tea with some of the ladies (and adorable babies) of AOW, this time organised by Hollie of Tulips and Tea . A lovely relaxing afternoon with smart,funny ladies who I feel like I've known for years.

The email from the sellers (via the estate agent!) saying that they are no longer selling their house. Deflation. Tears. Now what? Do we go for the house we saw which was nice enough but which we'd want to sell in three or so years and which definitely isn't our forever house. Do we want to stay in London? We're not so sure anymore, it suddenly seems like the city is no longer for us. But where else?

A chance viewing of a couple of houses in Bishop's Stortford. We like one a lot, and arrange a second viewing. We love it. We make an offer. It's accepted. They want to complete before Christmas, but is this possible. Have we been here before? Trying not to get too excited.

Alan picks up some horrible lung infection/cold/unknown virus thing, and cannot stop coughing. It's heartwrenching to see him not being well. Lots of hugs and lemsip.

November

New Zealand, our honeymoon. A fortnight of amazing. A fortnight of us together, cruising the roads surrounded by mountains, rivers, volcanoes and vineyards. A fortnight of knowing more than ever that I have the best husband. Sorry. It's true. I got him.

The house purchase is steaming ahead. Can we feel hopeful yet?

Alan's birthday - a weekend of curry and the Science Museum to celebrate. Solar system birthday cake.

December

Decorating the tree and making gingerbread biscuits - beginnning to feel Christmassy, but not quite settled and it doesn't always feel quite as festive as it should. An evening catching up with friends over mulled wine brings more festive cheer.

A reminder that strangers can become friends, even when you first meet them online - beautifully thoughtful gifts received via #ODSS13 (organised by Olive Dragonfly) and lots of heartwarming blog posts, photos and tweets from people participating in #ShareAdvent (organised by Skin and Blister Blog, who incidentally is also my Secret Santa and has sent me such a thoughtful cake-related gift!).

A stressful couple of days as the sellers are still packing on the day we are supposed to complete but finally, the house is ours, we have the keys and we own our first home together. The more time we spend there, the more we love it. We will be moving to our forever house at the beginning of 2014, and I can't wait.

A wonderful Christmas to you all - and here's to 2014.


Wednesday, 18 December 2013

Making a House a Home - Getting in the Door

We finally picked up the keys to our new house at 7:45pm last night (thanks to a kindly local estate agent who was willing to drive them over out of hours).

We were due to get them by 1pm on Monday and had taken time off work in anticipation, arriving in the area early to be nearby when we got "the call".

At 1pm we were told a moving van had turned up late and that they needed another hour. Fair enough.

At 3pm we were told the van they had been sent was too small, that another was being sent, but that we were definitely getting in before 5pm (which is the time when the solicitor's office closed, making completion impossible). Annoying, but ok - we'll sit here singing Christmas Carols to pass the time ...

At 5pm we were sat in our car at the top of their road clearly able to see that they were nowhere near finishing packing.

Deflated, we arranged to return first thing Tuesday morning to collect the keys and race to work (Frances having used up her final available day's holiday) and asked our solicitor to request that they reimburse us for our incurred expenses.

So we were there at first light to meet the poor estate agent who had agreed to come over especially early to let us confirm that the property had been property vacated. Apparently they had finally moved out by ... 1am.

A quick check confirmed that all was in order, we placed the call to our solicitor to have her release the money and confirm completion ... only to be told that they were refusing to reimburse us a penny for Monday. (Even if you ignore the value of the wasted day off work, we had incurred additional legal fees, and spent a fortune on petrol, parking and train fares due to their error.)

We asked our solicitor to push back and there followed an hour and a half of confusion, frustration and anger until, at 10:30am, we found out that the seller's solicitor had actually been unable to get in touch with them all morning (they were asleep after their late night!) so we raced off to work desperately hoping that people there would forgive us for missing most of the morning.

Everything was resolved during the day and we finally completed at 4pm, collecting the keys when we could get there after work.

The joy is only matched by the relief that the process is over and we can begin building our new life here in earnest.

Thursday, 12 December 2013

Day 3 #ShareAdvent - Dance Like There's Nobody Watching...

So, I've kind of skipped Day 2, which was 'Write and Send a Letter'. I didn't mean to, I do have a letter I want to write, and even emails I must reply to. But Mondays are not ideal for properly thoughtful letter writing, so I'm postponing that one. It'll be back. And if it's not, someone please shout at me.

Day 3 - Dance Like There's Nobody Watching. This is an easy one for me this year. I don't think there's ever been a better day for doing that than our wedding day. The entire day, I was so happy and excited, I forgot all eyes were on us.

Photo by Ross Holkham Photography

Our first dance was to 'I Hope You Dance' by Lee Ann Womack. The lyrics to this song are some of the most beautiful I know. I haven't mastered the ins and outs of posting videos on here, but I do really recommend you give it a listen.



We danced pretty much the whole night. It was magical.



Yes, I originally posted this post on 3 December. I deleted it by accident. So here it is again...

 

Day 12 of #ShareAdvent


Day 12? Already?! I did suspect I was going to end up skipping a few, but I also had some ideas for some of the days I've ended up missing, so I may go back to them later. Or, you know, turn them into 'Happy January' posts or something.
 
Today's theme is "Maybe Christmas, he thought, doesn't come from a store". I love this.
 
This year in particular, I feel quite disconnected with the whole idea of Yuletide shopping frenzy, the adverts blaring "Find the Perfect Christmas Gift", the "Buy Now and Get Delivered Before December 25th". I never grew up with piles of expensive presents, and I find nowadays that I don't want or expect such piles to emerge now.
 
Christmas, for me, is and for many years has been a lot based on the feelings; the sensations, the remembering. That day when I used to come from school and the house would smell of freshly baking mince pies (not that I actually like eating them - next year, I'm starting my mission to create a recipe that doesn't have mixed peel in it, bleurgh); the day we would go to collect the Christmas tree and then hang ALL the ornaments on it, picking out our favourites and reminiscing about that one my older brother made in playgroup in the 1980s which still goes on the tree to this day. I love listening to Carols from Kings on Christmas Eve and the simple spinetingling beauty of carols sung by people with  genuine musical talent.
 
Some of the things I am most looking forward to this Christmas:
  1. Some festive crafting and baking, just because I can and I want to.
  2. A few days away from the office.
  3. The drive up to Derbyshire on Christmas Eve - carols on the radio and snacks in the car. Traffic shmaffic, it'll be the two of us singing along and heading up the M1.
  4. Catching up with family, eating homecooked Christmassy food and generally not doing an awful lot but making sure to watch the Snowman and Mary Poppins if it's on.
  5. Having time to see friends I don't often get to see, some of whom are new parents this Christmas - hoping for baby cuddles!
  6. Christmas morning at church - a beautiful building, Christmas choral music and a moment to be still.
  7. Picking up the keys to our new house - pre-Christmas, but I can't deny that this will certainly make the festive period particularly special this year. But that's for another post...

Saturday, 7 December 2013

Making a House a Home - It Begins

We've just exchanged contracts on our new house, and fingers crossed we will get it by Christmas and move in early in the new year.

Although the place doesn't need any immediate work doing to it, we already have so many plans and projects in mind.

This will be our first real chance to unleash our creativity on a place, and we are so excited about the potential. We were in our last place for a few years, but two years ago we decided to sell it and from that point onwards we struggled to justify doing anything with it.

The new house is over 100 years old, and on top of the usual redecoration plans there is a chance that we will need to do some renovation projects as well. I'm also rather excited about there being a greenhouse at the bottom of the garden as I've always wanted to attempt to grow vegetables of some sort.

Neither of us have any experience at anything beyond painting a wall, so we have a lot to learn - the results could be ... interesting!

Sunday, 1 December 2013

Welcome to #ShareAdvent

The last time I posted here, it was another season - and what feels like an age ago! We were two months into our marriage,we were in the throes of selling, packing and moving out of our old house. I had been looking for a job for what felt like an eternity.

Now it is nearly Christmas, our first as husband and wife. I have been working for six months, we have moved house and are preparing to do so again via a failed house purchase (their fault) and a sudden decision to try looking at new locations (yes, we're saying goodbye to London). It's been a tough few months, to be honest, but also the happiest and most exciting start to married life that we could hope for. We even got to go to New Zealand. It was the best.

During this last year, I have discovered the beauty of other (much more established and knowledgeable but all very lovely) bloggers and the joy of twitter. Sometimes it has made all the difference to have a network of other women, many of whom I've met, but many more that I haven't (yet - here's to 2014...) but who are in the same situation or who have been there and got out the other side. Ladies, you are an amazing community.

Last year, Anna - the fabulously creatively talented owner of Skin and Blister organised #ShareAdvent, an amazing way for people to share their preparations for Christmas, based on a list of daily themes. I watched from the sidelines, but it was beautiful to see.

This year, I want to join in. I can't promise that I'm going to join in with all the themes, but I'm going to give some of them a go:



Today's theme is "Joy to the World".

My take on this is, I'm afraid, based on cake (I promise they won't all be. Well, I promise to try, anyway).

Alan's birthday is the 28th November, and we always say that Christmas can begin after his birthday ends. Since this year his birthday was a Thursday, I chose this weekend to make his birthday cake. Now, it may be a little tenuous and slightly un-Christmassy, but birthday joy is always helped by cake. And I favour homemade cake.









Happy Birthday to my amazing husband. May the coming advent, and the year ahead, be full of joy.