Friday, 30 November 2012

Stourhead House for Christmas Inspiration

Andy was downloading an app for the National Trust when he saw that the grand Palladian house at Stourhead was decorated for the holidays and would I like to go see it?  Ummm.. yeah!

It's a bit of a drive from our house, so we arrived at the estate at lunch time.  That gave us the perfect excuse to have a bite to eat in the Spread Eagle Inn, a charming pub smack in the middle of the Stourhead Estate.

We settled into a corner near the open fire and enjoyed delicious fish pies and a huge pot of tea.  Fortified against the cold, we trudged up the hill to the great mansion.

We were greeted at the door by two friendly National Trust volunteers who gave us a brief introduction to the house.  

Now, I am not going to pretend to be able to tell you about all the furniture and art in this grand house.  I'll let the photos speak for themselves.  But if you visit Stourhead, you will find National Trust stewards who will bring the house to life with their knowledge. 

Each room contained a Christmas tree and at least one mouse.  Visiting children are encouraged to participate in a Mouse Hunt.  I was too old to participate so I really don't know much about it but after a while I was searching for mice too!

This is Santa's room.  He visits Stourhead before Christmas so children can have a chat with him.  No doubt they tell him what they would like for Christmas.  

Grand as these room are, you can find ideas for decorating your home for the holidays.  I loved this arrangement of pine, holly and hydrangea flowers.

This mantel piece filled with ivy and fruit looked lovely and could be adapted to suit any home, large or small.

But this Renaissance Organ Case.... well, it's Stourhead through and through! 

Click on this link for Stourhead's opening times and dates the Christmas rooms are open to the public:

Thursday, 29 November 2012

And So It Begins

I know, it's too early to decorate the house for Christmas.  I hear it almost every day, 'Christmas starts earlier every year, Bah Humbug!'   But when the hubby offers to get the Christmas decorations down from the attic, I jump at the chance to see all of our treasured ornaments.  It's almost like Christmas morning when you open the decoration boxes and see all the lovely things carefully wrapped in tissue paper.  It won't hurt to put up a little garland, will it?

I am a big fan of garland.   We don't have a banister or a mantelpiece, much to my regret.  But we have bookcases and a dresser which provide me with ample opportunities to indulge my garland fetish. 

Minimalism isn't my style, especially at Christmas, so we are having double decker garland.  It starts with a pine bough garland with the individual branches opened out to accommodate the second layer of garland.

The second layer is a very sparkly silver and gold number.  Andy calls it the 'Tart's Boudoir' look.

I think the combined sparkle and traditional evergreen look rather nice.  

When they are popped on top of the dresser and secretary desk they look rather sedate and understated.  Well, understated for Christmas!  And so it begins.  It really is too early to decorate the tree, isn't it?

Wednesday, 28 November 2012

River Cottage Canteen - Plymouth

For lunch today, we had a bit of a splurge!   As a treat, we went to the River Cottage Canteen in Plymouth.   

Housed in the old Royal William Victualling Yard , the Canteen feels historic and modern at the same time.   

Dining at either of the River Cottage Canteens is always casual and comfortable, but with the sea views and ships passing outside the window, this location seems positively tranquil. 

The decor is shabby chic, make do and mend, up-cycled.... you know what I mean. Take a look at the snug!

And on the menu today....

I had the ham in mustard cream with a mountain of mashed potatoes!

The open kitchen means you can watch the chef as he prepares your meal.  I always find that fascinating. There is a deli counter if you don't have time to sit down to a meal or just want to take something tasty home for later. 

Since we were making a day of it, we indulged our sweet tooth and had dessert.  This was my creme brulee.   

Victualling yards were the food preparation and storage depots for the Royal Navy. It seems appropriate that the River Cottage Canteen is there.  I feel very well fed!  

Monday, 26 November 2012

Honey Spiced Stars

It's that time of year.  Time to start thinking about Christmas baking. When I was a little girl, my mom and I would bake and decorate cookies for Christmas.  We always made sugar cookies, dozens of them! 

Sugar cookies are delicious, but Christmas is suppose to smell like cinnamon and spice.  That's why I am going to show you this simple recipe for Honey Spiced Stars.  

This recipe is perfect for baking with children.  The dough is easy to make, easy to cut out and can be made with just a few store cupboard ingredients.  

Here's the recipe:

150 grams (1 cup) plain flour
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
1/4 teaspoon mixed spice
75 grams (1/3 cup) butter - diced
3 Tablespoons clear honey

In a large mixing bowl, sift together the flour and spices.  Add the butter and with your fingers or a pastry cutter rub the butter into the flour mixture.  When the flour and butter mixture looks like bread crumbs, stir in the honey to make a soft dough.  Wrap the dough in plastic wrap and chill for at least 30 minutes.

Place the chilled dough between two pieces of plastic wrap and roll it out to 1/4 inch thickness.   Dip your cookie cutter in a bit of flour before cutting the cookie shapes.   Place the cookie shapes on a baking sheet lined with baking paper.  If you want to use the cookies as decorations now is the time to make a hole for ribbon or twine.  

Bake in a pre-heated oven at 180C/350F for about 10 minutes or until the edges of the cookies are lightly browned.  Cool on a wire rack before decorating.  

Royal Icing is best for cookie ornaments but the decorating possibilities are endless!  Best of all, it really does smell like Christmas!

Thursday, 22 November 2012

Smoked Cheddar Homity Pie

When I lived in the States, if someone said pie it usually meant the sweet, dessert treat.  Here in Britain, pie is often a main course dish... think chicken and leek or pork pie.  The great Cornish Pasty is really a pie folded in half! 

Historically, pies were used as  cooking vessels.  Made of a simple paste of water and flour, the contents of the pie were consumed and the pastry was discarded.  The idea of throwing away pastry upsets me no end.   I love pie crust and will shamelessly gobble up any bit of left over pastry, especially if it has been sprinkled with sugar and cinnamon before baking.


During the Second World War, vegetable pies were baked to make the most of meagre food rations.  One of the most popular and enduring of those WWII recipes is Homity Pie.  Traditionally made of potatoes, leeks and cheese, Homity Pie is filling and delicious, real comfort food perfect for an Autumn day.  

So today, I thought I'd bake my first ever Homity Pie.  I decided on using my smallest pie dish since this was my first attempt.  I gathered up the few ingredients required.  But I had one tiny problem... I only had Smoked Cheddar Cheese in the fridge!  So instead of the traditional Homity Pie, we are having a Smoked Cheddar Homity Pie

I know this isn't the official way to make a Homity Pie.  If you want a traditional recipe you can click on this link :  Crank's Homity Pie
But I am going to tell you how I made my Homity Pie.

For a small pie you will need:

Shortcrust pastry
1 onion - finely diced
2 cloves garlic- finely minced
3 medium potatoes - peeled and chopped into small pieces
1 teaspoon dried mixed herbs 
1/2 cup milk
1 Tablespoon butter
1 Tablespoon flour
1 cup shredded cheese
salt and pepper
Smoked Paprika - optional

Line a small pie dish with shortcrust pastry.  Store bought pie crust will do nicely if you don't like making pastry.  Bake blind (empty) for about 10 minutes at 400F/200C. 

While the pastry is baking prepare the vegetables:

Boil the potatoes until they are tender then drain off all the cooking water.

Saute the diced onion in a little oil until it is translucent.  Keep the heat low so the onion doesn't brown.  Just before the onion is cooked, add the minced garlic.  Cook for just a minute or two making sure the garlic doesn't brown. 

Add the cooked potatoes to the onion and garlic.  Remove them from the heat while you make the cheese sauce.  

Use the potato pan to make the sauce, no need to make more washing up!  

Melt 1 tablespoon of butter over a low heat.  Add 1 tablespoon plain flour and whisk together until the flour and butter are combined.  Add 1/2 cup milk and cook over a medium heat, stirring constantly, until very thick.  Add 1 teaspoon dried mixed herbs and salt and pepper to taste.  Remove the pan from the heat and stir in 1/2 cup shredded cheese.

Add the potato and onion mixture to the cheese sauce, stirring to coat the vegetables. Have a taste and check the seasoning.  You may need to add more salt and pepper.  Pour the pie filling into the pie crust. Sprinkle over the remaining grated cheese and dust with smoked paprika if you want to enhance the smokey flavour of the cheese.  Bake for about twenty minutes or until the cheese is bubbly and golden.  

After baking, leave the pie to settle and cool for a few minutes before serving.  Cheese sauce is like molten lava straight from the oven!  Serve with a green salad or seasonal vegetables.  There you have it, Smoked Cheddar Homity Pie fit  for a Land Girl!

Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Oat Bread

One of my guilty pleasures in life is a Wensleydale Cheese and Carrot Chutney sandwich purchased from a certain High Street shop with the initials of M & S.  I am still searching for a recipe for that wonderful chutney but I already have a lovely recipe for Oat Bread.  I am well on my way to constructing my own version the famous M & S sandwich.

Here's what you will need to make a loaf of Oat Bread:

1 1/4 cup warm water
2 1/4 teaspoon dried yeast (one small package)
2 Tablespoons brown sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1 Tablespoon butter - softened
1 cup old fashion oats
1/2 cup whole wheat flour
2 cups white bread flour

In a large bowl, mix together the yeast, sugar, water and oats.  Leave for about five minutes so the yeast can begin to work and the oats can soften. Add the butter and whole wheat flour, stirring to combine. Pour in one cup of white bread flour and the salt, stir until you have a thick sticky dough.  Add another cup of white bread flour and mix until you have a rough dough.  I like to work the last cup of flour in with my hands.

Dust your work surface with flour, turn the dough out on to the floured surface and knead the dough for 10 - 15 minutes.  It will be soft so you will need to add a little more flour to keep the dough from sticking to the work surface.  Try not to add too much or you will make the bread tough.  Grease the inside of your mixing bowl and place the dough back inside it to rise.  Cover the bowl with cling film and leave in a warm place for about an hour or so.  When the dough has doubled in size punch it down and place the dough on your work surface.   Knead for a couple of minutes then form the dough into one large loaf or two smaller ones. 

Place the dough into a buttered loaf tin and leave in a warm place to rise.  (About an hour should do it.) When the dough has doubled in size, brush the top with a little milk and sprinkle over a few more oats.  

Bake in a pre-heated oven, 375F or 190C, for about 35 - 40 minutes.  The bread should be golden brown and sound hollow when you gently thump it.  Remove the bread from the tins and cool on a wire rack.  

Since I don't have any carrot chutney to make a sandwich, I decided to have my Oat Bread with a big bowl of curried squash soup for supper.  It was lovely, if I do say so myself.  

If you know a great sweet carrot chutney recipe, please share it with me.  I would really appreciate it!

Monday, 19 November 2012

Ladies in Lavender - Granny's Cakes

I'm not a fan of the colour purple, but my Granny was.  Actually, she would have called it lilac or lavender... never purple!   When I think of ladies in lavender, I think of fragile, elderly ladies with rouged pink cheeks and walking sticks.  That certainly wasn't Granny!  

This week marks the anniversary of her death in 1997.  So when I baked cakes for Sunday tea  I used lavender cupcake cases and purple frosting for Granny. 

Our family got hit by a double whammy that fateful week in November 1997.  Within 24 hours Granny's youngest sister passed away too.  It was sad to loose them both but I can't help thinking how lovely it was that they made that journey together.  

And I know, if there is Sunday tea where they are now, they would be tucking into lilac frosted cupcakes and gossipping with all the other ladies in lavender!

Thursday, 15 November 2012

Putting the Garden to Bed for the Winter

I know that garden experts advise against too much 'tidying up' in the autumn garden but I am the worst sort of gardener, a compulsive one.  I want things pruned and weeded before winter sets in so I spent most of today 'putting the garden to bed'.  I raked leaves, weeded and collected seeds for next year's growing season. 

These are seed pods from the Nigella flowers.  We used to call them 'Love in the Mist'.  I pinched a few seeds from a Nigella plant growing at Powderham Castle.  My Granny used to say that stolen plants grow best.  She was right, I had lots of lovely blue flowers from those few purloined seeds.  

Now I have enough seeds for my garden and lots to share with friends and family.  While emptying  the seeds from the pods I noticed something.  The large round pods didn't contain the most seeds.  It was the smaller, less perfect pods that produced the most seed.

It seemed they had sacrificed their showy flowers to be more productive.  I am sure there is a moral in there somewhere.  That's the great thing about gardening.  It's not just about growing a plant or digging out a weed.  It goes much deeper than that.  

So I've packaged my seeds and put away all the tools.  There will be lots more to do before winter sets in.  But it's nice to make a start and if you'd like some, I've got lots of Nigella seeds to share. 

Tuesday, 13 November 2012

A Thanksgiving Tradition - Parker House Rolls

When I was a kid, I loved Thanksgiving.  It was like a dress rehearsal for Christmas with all the food and family gathering together, just without the presents. 

I'll be the first to admit, it wasn't like a Rockwell painting. Like all families we experienced some spilt drinks, broken glasses, temper tantrums (never from me or my brother- we knew better) and an occasional kitchen drama.  Well, you cook for that many people and a tea towel is bound to be set on fire at some time. 

We had all the traditional Thanksgiving fayre - turkey, stuffing, FOUR kinds of potatoes.  You know, the typical menu.  But what I liked most were my Granny's Parker House Rolls.  She would bake dozens of them for dinner but she always gave me a little paper bag full of rolls just for me to eat.  I didn't have to share them with anyone else.. AT ALL!  Yes I confess, I am a bread-a-holic! 

I live in Britain now so I no longer celebrate Thanksgiving. For some reason, it's not an observed holiday here.  I think the Tea Party at Boston must have had something to do with that, but we can still bake some Parker House Rolls.  If you have never baked bread before, this is a good place to start.  Here is an easy no-knead recipe from the 'Southern Living Cook Book':

1 rounded teaspoon dried yeast
1 cup warm water
3 cups bread flour
1/4 cup sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup shortening
1 large egg - lightly beaten
1/4 cup butter - melted

In a medium sized bowl, stir together the yeast and warm water.  Leave it to one side while you prepare the dry ingredients.

In a large bowl, stir together the flour, sugar and salt. 

Cut in the shortening, until the flour mixture looks 'crumbly'.  I used Trex, it's the U.K. version of Crisco.

Stir in the yeast mixture and the beaten egg.  Mix until the ingredients are just combined.  Do Not Over Mix.   Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and put it into the fridge for 8 hours or overnight.  

When you are ready to make the rolls, simply dust the work surface with flour, roll out the dough to 1/4 inch thick and cut into rounds.  I used my scone-biscuit cutter.  You can even use the rim a drinking glass.  

Brush each round of dough with a bit of the melted butter.  With the dull edge of a table knife, made a crease across the middle of the round. Fold the dough in half to make a 'half moon' shape.  Gently press the round edge of the half moons to seal the dough.  Place the rolls into a greased 13 x 9 inch baking tin. The ends of the rolls should be touching.  

Cover the pan of rolls and put them in a warm place to rise for about 45 minutes or until they have doubled in size.   Bake in a preheated oven, 400F/200C  for about 14 minutes or until the rolls are golden brown.  Brush the tops with the remaining melted butter.  

That's all there is to it.   Parker House Rolls have a nifty little pocket to tuck in that little bit of cold turkey you pinched from the fridge.  I wonder if that's why  they are a traditional Thanksgiving treat?