Thoughts Upon Endings and Beginnings

Yesterday was ‘freedom day’ as it was billed here in England. It didn’t feel much different for me. I am choosing to live in much the same way as before I had the choice not to. I don’t quite understand the rationale behind lifting restrictions when our cases are rocketing so rapidly. The government have said that as restrictions are lifted, it will cause further increases in cases of covid. Apart from not wanting to catch it myself, I want to know that as far as possible I have not done anything to put anybody else at risk.

I know that we must each make our own choices, and I am not judging those who choose differently (to a point anyway, nothing will convince me that the films of crammed nightclubs with people squashed in like sardines is anything other than irresponsible) instead I am trying to remember that all of us have lived through extraordinary and often harrowing times. 

You’d think the lifting of restrictions meant that it is all over…but it feels that it is very far from that. So what should be the beginning of the end doesn’t really feel like it to me.

Today was also the last day of term for Jessica…and not only the last day of term but her last day of infants; when she returns in September she will be in Year 3 and Juniors…how can this be?!

I always feel emotional at the end of term and even more so at the end of the school year. Every year we have been lucky enough to have a teacher we have been sad to leave behind. I keep reminding myself that it is the end of the school year but also the start of the summer holidays, and then that lovely New Year feeling awaits us in September.

I have been chain reading the Chief Inspector Gamache series by Louise Penny, and have just one more to read before I reach the end – although happily there is a new one being published in the autumn. They are set in a small Canadian village called Three Pines, and heavens I could just move there! It sounds so delightful and having read fifteen of the books almost back to back, I feel like the bistro and bookstore are just around the corner, and that I know Armand, Jean-Guy, Myrna, Clara, and Ruth. 

It feels strange coming to the end of the series, although I am glad to know that there will be more to come.

Alice is turning there on Saturday which feels like the end of early childhood too…suddenly she is more of a preschooler than a toddler! I think she is close to being ready to learn to use a potty or toilet too, so the end of another era is on the horizon.

Now I sit and think about it it does all really feel like endings and beginnings. Thankfully the main fabric stays the same…family and friends, tea and books, writing letters, crochet, garden flowers, homemade cake in the cake tins, vintage cups and saucers….

Wherever you are I hope you are safe and well, and remain that way.

Love

Mini

Xxx

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Viola Shortbread Biscuits

At last, at last, over the past few months, and increasing in the last few weeks, I have my cooking and baking spark back again. For so long it felt like I was going through the motions, wading through treacle, and it sapped what little energy I had. But happily I have really bounced back.

I recently borrowed a Mary Berry book from the library which led me to making homemade bourbons and sultana flapjacks. It was lovely sending Carl and Jessica off camping with tins of home baking. I love having something homemade to offer people now that we may have the occasional visitor again.

Mum sent me an idea on pinterest for pansy topped shortbread biscuits. When I read the method, I could not believe how easy it was, and decided to give them a try. Mum kindly brought me some violas from her garden (we realised that pansies would be too big) and this was the result…

I think they look beautiful, and all you do is press your violas between kitchen paper in a heavy book while you make and bake your shortbread. I used a recipe from Alice Through The Year which you can find on her website, but it would work with any shortbread recipe. Once you have taken the shortbread biscuits out of the oven, gently press a pressed Viola onto each biscuit. You do it while they are hot, and the heat from the biscuit bonds the Viola to it. It really is as simple as that!

I sprinkled a little caster sugar over them to finish them off, but you don’t have to.

Now that charity shops are open again I am going to keep my eye open for cake or biscuit tins, so I can give tins of these as gifts and have the tin be part of the gift.

Candle Ends and Breakfast Cake

Half term starts early for us, as we have a non-pupil day today. I had my second covid vaccination on Wednesday, and whilst I am very glad to have had it, I am definitely feeling the effects more this time, and am glad of a slower day.

As we don’t have to be out of the door for the school run, I decided to make a breakfast which takes a bit more time than I usually have. I baked an apple scone ring – I have shared the recipe here a few times over the years, and it suddenly came to mind that as I learnt to make it at secondary school, I have been making this from time to time over a span of some 25 years now. Time feels like it is telescoping somehow… I will have been married for 14 years this year, and it is so our 20th anniversary of getting together… I don’t understand where time has gone!

I love lightning a candle at mealtimes, especially breakfast time. I think it sets a nice tone for the day. We have quiet music playing (Elizabeth Mitchell features a lot) and it feels good. However when I tried to light the stubby end of my beeswax candle this morning, it kept going out. I haven’t bought a new one yet (I get them from Myriad Natural Toys, the dinner candle when I am feeling poor and the pillar candle when funds are more abundant!) so I rummaged out this little candle instead. It is a scented one, which I usually avoid at mealtimes, but this one is the Inspiritus scent from St Eval, and it smells like church incense to me and I love it. It is the end of a candle again though, but it did mange to keep burning through breakfast time.

And so starts another day, and another half term break from school. I cannot fathom how this will be Jessica’s last half term as an infant, and that next week she will be seven!

Now for the rest of my cup of tea before taking the girls out to get some baking provisions in…

Days of Dandelions and Daisies

Beauty matters, doesn’t it? Not as in feminine ‘beauty’ which society seems to equate with cosmetics and such things, but beauty as in the natural world around us, music, art, the gurgling laugh of a baby.

It is a truth so intrinsic to me that I struggle to articulate why it matters…but matter it does. I am reading Sarah Clarkson’s new book on Beauty and she is giving me much to think about.

There is so much beauty around us that sometimes it is easy to forget it is even there. Having small children is such a gift because in helping them discover beauty, you rediscover it for yourself.

Once Alice and I have walked Jessica to school, we walk home again. It takes twice as long because we go at Alice’s pace. She loves to splash in a particular puddle at school before we leave. She puts so much effort into her jump, and manages to get only an inch or two high. She is delighted though! ‘Splash!’ she calls out excitedly, almost inevitably followed a few moments later by ‘all soggy Mummy!’

Seeing her dandelion hair bouncing and the sheer delight on her face is a joy. She finds beauty in the splashing of the puddle, and I find beauty in watching her.

Then on our walk home we go past a house with a border of big pebbles that she loves to pick up and put back down again. Further on is a low wall with lines of moss growing between the bricks like little green caterpillars which she loves to stroke.

If we aren’t going to the shop on the way home we walk along the field that takes us to a little bridge over a stream. So many birds make their home in the trees there that it is always alive with birdsong. Best of all for Alice though are the dandelions.

She loves to pick them, exclaiming ‘I did it!’ as she presents them to me. To start with she called them ‘yellow ones’ but now she knows that they are ‘daaaaandeleeeons’

Now she is starting to recognize daisies too. I love that my girls know their flowers. Jessica can point out snowdrops and daffodils, muscari, tulips, buttercups and more. I think that it is easier to notice things when we can name them. Naming them seems to say somehow that they are important to us. Again, I find it slightly hard to explain why it is important, but it is.

All this beauty is around us, and all we need do is notice it. So that is what I want for my girls, the gift of noticing, knowing, and naming. These days of Dandelions and Daisies are so precious to me.

Sunday Drizzle Cake

A drizzly grey Sunday calls out for a quiet afternoon of baking. My spirits needed a bit of a lift as this morning we passed on a lot of our baby things to go to a new home. When we had Alice, the doctors said that it would be dangerous for me to have any more children, and while knowing something is sensible is one thing, reconciling your heart to it is another. I am pleased to have passed on our things to help someone else out, but I must admit that I was sad to see them go.

So, grey drizzling skies, slightly weepy eyes, and feeling slightly blue, I headed into the kitchen to bake myself better.

A grey day seemed to call for the sunshine of lemons, so I decided to make a lemon drizzle cake. I used a recipe from Jane’s Patisserie which is free on her blog. Everything of hers that I have made so far has turned out really well, so do visit her and try out some of her recipes.

For this cake, the cake batter is flavoured with lemon zest, and when it is still warm from the oven you drizzle it with a lemon syrup. Then when it is cool you drizzle it with lemon icing. However, I knew I wanted to use my new culinary rose petals and wanted a covering rather than drizzling of icing, so I made double.

I have to say that I am pleased with how it turned out, and it was really simple to make. When I think about the kind of home I want to create for my family, homemade cake in the tin features pretty highly up the list. I like to think that we could make a hobbit feel at home with our little comforts!

Next on my list of things that I would like to bake is dandelion shortbread. I can see in my mind’s eye a simple shortbread studded with dark chocolate chips and flecked with golden dandelion petals.

Tell me, what is on your baking list, or in your cake tin?

Love, Mimi xxx

A Little Bite Of Bliss

Several years ago now it was one of those summer days that feels more like autumn, a rainy morning in Aldeburgh with dark brooding skies and rain splattering against the windowpane.

I had a little pocket of time all to myself which even then was a rare treat. I had been to the bookshop the day before and after a jolly good browse chosen the first in the Grantchester novels. I slipped it into my handbag, put up my umbrella and sallied forth. When you are in the right mood a rainy day at the seaside can be charming in its own way.

I knew exactly where to go. I walked the long way round to the high street, the way which took me past the choppy sea crashing grumpily against the pebbley shore. The lights from the seafront houses reflected on the wet pavement, and the wind blew spray from the sea under my umbrella and into my face. It is much easier to enjoy a walk like this when you know it is short, and that you will shortly be sitting with a steaming pot of tea.

Five minutes later I was sitting at a table at what was then the Choppings Hill Bakery (it is now the Two Magpies) with a pot of Earl Grey and a Belgian bun. I picked up my new book and enjoyed just a moment of quiet appreciation for the pleasure of anticipation and then started to read.

If you haven’t read the Grantchester novels I can really recommend them. It was between their pages that I first read about Fitzbillies bakery and their famous sticky buns. At the time, not having been to Cambridge, I thought that it was just a place in the book.

Fast forward a few years to last week, and I was listening to the Slightly Foxed podcast while cooking dinner. The episode was about Kettle’s Yard in Cambridge, and touched on Heffer’s bookshop. One of the booksellers talked about the smell of baking drifting in when the bakery next door was making their famous Chelsea buns… and that bakery was Fitzbillies!

I had a quick look at their Instagram page, and in a spur of the moment ordered a box of buns for delivery. I hesitated slightly as if you are only buying 4 as I was the postage makes them quite expensive, but we were at the start of a new housekeeping month so I went ahead.

When they arrived I cut off the white plastic posting packaging to reveal a cardboard box in duck egg blue. Inside sitting on top of the cellophane wrapped buns was a postcard suggesting warming them up in the microwave before eating.

So I made a pot of tea, warmed up my bun and sat down to enjoy it… And enjoy it I did! They are very sticky – deliciously so – sweet and rich and somehow filling but light at the same time.

(The buns were bigger than those in the photo but some of this one ‘accidentally’ came off with another one, and this was the only one left to photograph)

Fitzbillies have been celebrating their 100th anniversary and I can’t think how I hadn’t discovered them until now. I won’t be ordering from them frequently as the postage does make them expensive, but they will certainly be an occasional treat… And I have daydreams of a summer day trip to Cambridge to buy books and buns…

Mrs Claxton Keeps House: Cleaning The Dishwasher

For the first 36 years of my life, dishes were always washed by hand as when I was little it was rare to have a domestic dishwasher, and when I fiest had homes of my own they were rented and had no space for one. I always thought it would be nice but I also rather enjoy the ritual of filling the sink with hot water and washing up liquid, the time spent with busy hands but a quiet mind. I really did not realize how life changing a dishwasher could be!

When we bought this house it came with a built in dishwasher, and it needed a jolly good clean. The house had previously been rented and the last tenants had not left it in the cleanest of conditions. Amongst other things, the filter was full of old fish!

With a new baby and tired foggy brain, I bought some dishwasher cleaner, winced at how expensive it was, cleaned the filter, and ran a hot cycle. Job done and nothing more to think about…

Except it didn’t sit well with me that bought cleaner was expensive, not great in terms of the chemicals being released into our water system, and the bottle could not be recycled. Making my own cleaner seemed hard though… Until I read how easy it was. I wish I could remember who it was that I got the information from, but my foggy brain cannot recall. It may have been Jen Little Birdie, or Rhiannon of The Vicar’s Wife’s Frugal Life, or Rachel The Country Vicar’s Wife, all on Instagram. Whoever it was, I am so grateful, and am pleased to share it with you.

Before you start, empty your machine and clean the filter in the sink. I tap mine into our food recycling bin then scrub under a hot tap. Replace it, then sprinkle a good handful of bicarbonate of soda in the bottom of the dishwasher. Don’t buy the little drums in the bakery section, buy a big bag, at least a kilogram. You won’t use it all for this but it is much much cheaper, lasts for ages, and can be used in lots of other cleaning recipes.

Next fill a small bowl with about a cup or so of white vinegar. I buy distilled white vinegar in Tesco for 40p for a 500ml bottle but will be buying in bulk next time as again I can use it for a lot of things. Pop your bowl on thwc top rack, then set the hottest cycle your dishwasher does. Don’t put a dishwasher tablet in. Run the cycle, and you are done!

Curiously (but wonderfully) the dishwasher won’t smell of vinegar afterwards, just clean.

So there you have it, a clean dishwasher in less than five minutes of hands on time from you, economical, and much better for the environment.

Adventures Close To Home

Even before covid struck and the various lockdown came into being, we have always preferred taking our adventures closer to home. We do enjoy the occasional visit further away, but we are fortunate to live in a pretty spot, close by to countryside, woods, the coast, and a frontline which can have you in London in under an hour.
Quite some time ago now we visited the most lovely little tearoom which was just over ten minutes away from home, but we would never have come across if somebody hasn’t told us about it.

And so yesterday when Carl and I were given the opportunity to have a couple of hours alone together, we decided to go on another ten minute adventure.

Just ten minutes from home we found ourselves sitting by the canal sharing a cream tea…bliss! I had ticked a blanket into my basket which I was glad of, but I cannot tell you how beautiful it is. I have heard friends mention it so many times but had never been sure exactly where it was. We will definitely find our way back here again. It looks as though there are some lovely walks to go on, and the tearooms are very much worth another visit. I think Jessica and Alice would love to see the canal boats and feed the ducks, and I am looking forward to an outing here with them.

But for yesterday it was so good to have a little pocket of time just me and Carl together. To sit and drink tea and watch the world go by. To read a few more pages of this truly wonderful book. I have found it so illuminating. This is a library copy, but I will be keeping an eye out for a copy in the charity shops as this is one that I will want to read and read again, and underline passages which struck deep chords.

One big theme in the book is about life not being linear as we so.often think it is, and when we have winters of the soul, spirit, or body, this is actually normal.One line stood out to me especially…We may never choose to winter, but we can choose how we winter.

I am looking at this through the lens of depression. I hope one day that I will be better, and most days my medication really helps. However there are days when it is much harder. Realising that until such a time as I am well again I need to find a way to live as well as I can with depression, and that the troughs are as natural as the peaks in life, and in accepting this we can do what we can to prepare for them and buffer ourselves against them has been really beneficial to me.I

I really cannot recommend this book enough. Even if you do notice with depression there is so much to take from it, and it is beautifully written.

Now to make another cup of tea and put some washing away while daydreaming of our next ten minute adventure.

A Saturday In Late February

The golden sun at that point where late afternoon imperceptibly slips into early evening,

Bathing the moss on the old brick wall

Picking out the slender swollen buds of the daffodils

And the snow drops nodding shyly in the breeze.

Fresh air that at last smells of hope.

Walking home

My mind turns to tea in a pot

And luxuriously stretches out like a cat

With the thought of pleasures yet to come.

A daytime bath

Another chapter of my book

A letter from a friend

The ink drying and pinning a friendship to the page.

Later, a hot water bottle in bed

A snowdrop in an egg cup vase

One last cup of tea.

A Saturday in late February.

Kitchen Table Crafting

One of the wonderful things that has happened to me in the weeks since I started taking Sertraline is that my creative spark has come back. I knew vaguely that it had gone missing a while ago. I found it hard to finish projects, and even harder to start them. I was just too tired. But something has definitely shifted, and with the coming of spring and the blossoming of nature, creativity has finally been blossoming in me again, and it is so very welcome.

I first noticed it when I was looking through my Easter board on Pinterest and saved posts on Instagram. I found myself drawn to so many ideas, and really wanting to get stuck in. This was right back at the beginning of Lent, and my list of ideas to try grew rather long.

This year I decided not to give anything up for Lent…it seems that this past year we have all given up so many things, and I do believe that we can observe Lent in our hearts without making sacrifices. Having said that, knowing I had the length of Lent to get my Easter crafts done felt rather nice, and a new way to mark it.

Over a pot of tea I sat with my notebook and went through my list of ideas again and whittled it down slightly… But as you will see, it remained somewhat long. I like to give a little Easter token to family and friends. This year I decided that the adults would receive a bath of freshly baked mini egg cookies, and a salt dough Easter wreath.

I used this recipe from Jane’s Patisserie… and my oh my but my oh my are chocolatey and deliciously decadent! So much so that rather than making 4 large cookies from each batch, I made 8 smaller ones instead, and they were truly big enough.

If you make them (do!) weigh the dough into 60g balls. Two small tweaks that I made to the recipe and would recommend: brown your butter then cool before using it, and once you have baked them, squash them down with a spatula or fish slice while they are still warm. Oh, and heed the advice in the recipe to cool on the baking sheet – I misread it the first time and the cookies are so soft they collapse through the gaps on the cooling rack!

The salt dough wreaths were so absorbing and meditative to make; the whole process was satisfying from start to finish. I made small batches of dough, just enough for two wreaths at a time. The dough is equal parts (I usually used a cup each but sometimes a half cup) of plain flour, salt, and water from a just boiled kettle. Add the water slowly as sometimes you need less, other times more. Seeing it come together as a dough and feeling it hot at first and then warm under my hands felt good. When I put the wreaths together, I lightly brushed each piece with water to help them join together, and then baked very low (around 90 oC) and slow (3 hours or more, turning over at least). Once they had cooled I sat and painted them with water colours. I could very happily sit and do this all day!

So, cookies and wreaths for the adults. For the children I had a vision of an egg made from card or mache or similar which would hold a selection of tissue paper wrapped crafts. I found the perfect eggs from the decopatch range on amazon, and painted them robin’s egg blue then stipple them with gold.

Each one was filled with a little knitted chick just the right size for a child’s hand, and filled with a little lavender along with the stuffing. There was also a little set of wooden peg dolls painted to look like a family of chicks, and a felt bunny in a carrot sleeping bag. I managed to fit in a small hollow chocolate egg, but couldn’t quite fit in an envelope of cress seeds, so they had to go by the side.

Now I have a few children of friends who are a little old now to enjoy that kind of gift, so for them I cut out and painted some cardboard hens to sit on a nest made from half an egg box. I filled each space with some shredded green tissue paper and a small chocolate egg.

I almost forgot… I made some of these window transparencies too. You draw your design for the frame onto the black card and cut out, then use a sheet of white kite paper for the backing, and glue on shapes cut from coloured kite paper for the details. You hang them in a window or stick them the the glass with a tiny dab of pva glue, and when the sunlight shines through them they look beautiful.

This has turned into a rather longer than I expected post, so I will come again another day to tell you about our decorated eggs, and to share a few photos from our Easter egg hunt…which involved one last craft….

(For some reason the photos I have added won’t upload… I will try and sort it out in the morning, but will publish for now so I don’t lose my writing)