Thursday, 20 November 2014

Black Hits the High Street

Just what is it with the black colour? Walking through the local shopping centre almost every morning, on the way to school, I am amazed to see the endless rows of mannequins in black. The black is everywhere. Did all the High Street shops' designers attend the same seminar, where they got an impression that black should dominate the festive scene? I wonder.

Marks & Spencer's black fairy

I don't know if that's our local phenomenon, as I haven't been anywhere else recently, or is it a global fashion's focus on black?!

Magic & Sparkle or Gothic tales?

I do love black outfits, they all have a part to play in many celebrations and festive occasions. But when the palette shifts to one colour, it becomes a bit overwhelming.

There are some gorgeous black outfits, but where are all the patterned, bright, sparkly dresses and trouser sets?

Dorothy Perkins
I wander in bewilderment. It looks like a scene from The Godfather.

Phase Eight

Phase Eight

Thankfully Monsoon adds a bit of colour with red and navy blue.


What do you think I have chosen as a Christmas outfit for myself?
A black layered chiffon blouse from La Redoute (now where that winking smilie when you need one?!).
What are you planning to wear this Christmas?

Hearty Treat from Adagio teas giveaway(12 days of Christmas) c/d 5 December 2014

"There is nothing so capital as a cup of tea for settling the Disheveled Nerves of Fair Ladies" (Joan Bassington-French, Christmas at the Tittletons)

All the pre-Christmas hassle could be quite an unsettling experience, and what could be better to calm one's nerves than a comforting cup of tea. Today's giveaway prize is a real treat for all tea lovers: one of my lucky blog winners will win a Hearty Treat loose tea from Adagio teas. This delightful set consists of three seasonal gourmet teas - Gingerbread tea, Chestnut tea and Candy Apple tea. This collection includes premium black tea from Sri Lanka flavoured with chestnut, candy apple and gingerbread. Now doesn't it sound exciting?
It comes in pretty tins, each tin contains 113g of tea, yielding 50 cups. What a lovely gift!

If you are looking for gifts for tea lovers and/or making your own food hampers for Christmas, why don't you browse an amazing range of teas at Adagio teas. To help you decide which tea you might like, read my review Adagio Teas.

For a chance to win this lovely collection of festive teas from Adagio teas, please fill in the Rafflecopter gadget.

Only the first step is mandatory: all you need is answer the question by leaving a comment (if you login as Anonymous, please leave you Twitter name or Facebook name, so that I could identify you, I do not suggest leaving the email address in the comment)
All the other steps are optional, you don't have to do them all. All it takes to win is just one entry. 
Only one entry per person is allowed (however, you can tweet daily to increase your chances). 
The giveaway is open to the UK residents only. Once the Rafflecopter picks the winners, I will check if they have done what was requested. I will contact the winners, if they do not reply within 7 days, the prize will be allocated to another person. I will pass on the winner's details to Adagio teas who will dispatch the prizes. Please note - due to the nature of the prize, it will have to be dispatched in good time before Christmas, hence the shorter time limit for getting back to me. 
The giveaway ends on 5 December 2014 midnight (night from the 4th to the 5th).

Good luck!

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Figgy's Christmas pudding giveaway (12 days of Christmas) c/d 4 December 2014

Christmas is just 35 days away. Have you started your Christmas shopping? Or are you one of those wonderfully-organised people who've done all their gifts-shopping already? So far I've got a few stocking fillers and a couple of advent calendars for my boys, but nothing major.
Do you enjoy entering Advent competitions? They always put me in a festive mood. Today I'm starting a series of foodie giveaways for my blog readers, and hope you will enjoy entering them.
Each day a new prize will be revealed, and each giveaway will run until 4 December 2014.

To celebrate the first day of my giveaway spree, I am delighted to offer a super prize for my lovely blog readers - a medium sized Figgy's Christmas pudding (I have reviewed it recently, read my review to find out how we rated it  - Figgy's Christmas Pudding).

This delicious pudding is made with such ingredients as Californian raisins, sultanas, breadcrumbs, carrots, vegetable suet, Demerara, golden syrup, free range egg, Hanlons Port Stout, English Bramley apples, 10-year-old Somerset Cider Brandy, glace cherries, ground almonds, orange juice, lemon juice, mixed peel, zest, spices and more.

Now you have a chance to win one just in time for Christmas. And if you can't wait, you can buy one at Figgy's.
To be in with a chance of winning, please fill in a Rafflecopter gadget.

Only the first step is mandatory: all you need is answer the question by leaving a comment (if you login as Anonymous, please leave you Twitter name or Facebook name, so that I could identify you, I do not suggest leaving the email address in the comment)
All the other steps are optional, you don't have to do them all. All it takes to win is just one entry. 
Only one entry per person is allowed (however, you can tweet daily to increase your chances). 
The giveaway is open to the UK residents only. Once the Rafflecopter picks the winners, I will check if they have done what was requested. I will contact the winners, if they do not reply within 7 days, the prize will be allocated to another person. I will pass on the winner's details to Figgy's who will dispatch the prizes. Please note - due to the nature of the prize, it will have to be dispatched in good time before Christmas, hence the shorter time limit for getting back to me. 
The giveaway ends on 4 December 2014 midnight (night from the 3rd to the 4th).

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Curd cheese cookies with jam

There are many Russian recipes, using cottage cheese or curd cheese, which is an excellent ingredient for both sweet and savoury baking.  The other day got a big tub of curd cheese in Waitrose deli just for 45p, and since I wanted to bake some Russian-style cookies for a long time, this was a good chance to use the cheese. Curd cheese cookies are lovely with a raspberry or apricot jam, but made with Christmas preserve with mulled wine (a new tasty jam from Mackays) they were elevated to a different level. I say "were" because there is less than a half left already, and there were over 20 earlier this morning.

Curd cheese cookies with jam (makes 20+ cookies)
80g caster sugar
150g butter, softened
a pinch of salt
30g ground almonds
300+g plain flour
270g curd cheese
Mackays Christmas preserve with mulled wine (about 300g, almost a whole jar)
a bit of milk, less than 2tbsp

In a big mixing bowl beat the softened butter with caster sugar and a pinch of salt. Add the ground almonds, flour, curd cheese and mix well. First use a fork, then your hands to knead the dough. It is pliable but quite thick dough. Roll it in a big ball, and place in the fridge for 15 minutes.
Divide the dough ball in half, roll out the dough to 5mm thickness and cut small squares with a knife (about 9x9cm). Place a teaspoon of jam on each square and fold two sides to make an open envelope. Brush a bit of milk over the side where the flap goes over, to "glue" the sides.
Place the cookies on trays covered with the oiled foil or parchment paper and bake in the oven preheated to 200C for about 20 minutes. Check after 15 minutes if the cookies are golden in colour, they might be ready by then,

Take the trays out of the oven, let them cool for about 3 minutes, if you can wait that long. They are delicious hot and cold, with tea or coffee.

I used Mackays Christmas preserve with mulled wine in this recipe, but any good quality raspberry or apricot jam will do. New jam from Mackays is made from strawberries, raspberries, black currants, red currants, red wine among the other ingredients. This festive jam made with whole fruit has a great taste and smells lovely too of mulled wine. It's another fabulous new addition to Mackays' range of scrummy goodies.

These cookies will make a nice foodie gift. They will keep for a few days in a closed container but don't cook them too far in advance.

Disclosure: I received a few jars of new preserves for the purposes of creating a recipe.

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Roast Lamb with Quinces and Marmalade Glaze

If you read my blog even occasionally, you might know that I love culinary challenges and projects. I was delighted to be asked to take part in Mackays Christmas project which challenged the bloggers to create a festive dish, using new preserves from Mackays. To celebrate my husband's birthday last week I cooked a roast leg of lamb for dinner. And though it was technically not a Christmas dish, it is easily adaptable for Christmas, if you are a bit fed up with the traditional turkey.

Roast lamb with quinces and marmalade glaze
a leg of lamb
2 big quinces, quartered
4tsp Mackays Christmas marmalade
40ml brandy
sea salt
1tsp sumac

 Mix the marmalade with brandy and sea salt and pour over the leg of lamb. Cover with the foil and let it marinade for a couple of hours, turning the meat over a couple of times.
Place the tray with the lamb in the oven preheated to 200C and roast for half an hour open. Then cover the meat with the foil, lower the temperature to 180C and cook for two hours.

Add the quartered quinces for the last hour of cooking and sprinkle both the quinces and lamb with sumac. Roasted quinces are excellent with the red meats, and they add a beautiful aroma to an overall dish. The meat was melt-in-the-mouth, very moist and flavourful. The marmalade & brandy glaze added a touch of citrussy sweetness and enriched the gravy.

As a side dish I served a selection of roasted vegetables: a sliced turban pumpkin, 5 little beets (skinned and quartered), a fennel (thinly sliced), several baby carrots, 3 banana shallots (halved lengthways), a handful of baby tomatoes with pomegranate seeds scattered in the last few minutes of roasting. I have used some dried herbs too, cannot remember now if it was Italian mixed herbs or French.

Roasted pumpkins are simply fantastic. I usually first pre-cook the whole pumpkin in the oven for half an hour, then it is easier to slice and remove the seeds. Later the slices go back in the oven for another half hour or so.

I didn't take the picture of sliced lamb with veggies on a dish on the day. The next day I had a bit of lamb with the floral salad. Nasturtium leaves are very tasty, they remind me of rocket. I mixed a handful of nasturtium leaves and flowers, a couple of small marigold flowers and pomegranate seeds.

For the glaze I used a newly launched Christmas marmalade with cranberries from Mackays. This festive marmalade is a pure delight. I love the combination of oranges, cranberries and ginger. Superb on a toast, it is also an excellent ingredient in cooking. I recently used it as a glaze for a gammon steak (will post a recipe separately). If you are making your own Christmas hampers as gifts, this is a great addition to any foodie hamper.

Disclosure: I received four jars of jam and marmalade from Mackays for the purposes of testing and reviewing. All opinions are mine.

Monday, 17 November 2014

Sweet potato cupcakes with bronze crunch

I love vegetables in sweet baking, and have tried many of them: carrots, courgettes, pumpkins, sweet potatoes and squash. I have seen some beautiful chocolate and beet cakes too, but haven't tried the beets in bakes yet. This is the right season for the scrumptious orange-coloured roots, and sweet potatoes are a versatile ingredient in many dishes.

Sweet potato cupcakes
125 g sweet potato, cooked
150g caster sugar
2 medium eggs
30g ground almonds
1tsp baking powder
1tbsp vanilla essence
100g self-raising flour
1tsp cinnamon, ground
100ml Advocaat liqueur
90ml olive oil
for frosting: melted dark chocolate (1 bar) and 1tsp butter
Waitrose Cooks' Homebaking Gloriously Gilded Bronze Crunch

First cook the sweet potatoes, either boil them until soft or roast. Mash with a fork before mixing with the caster sugar, eggs, almonds, baking powder, vanilla, flour, cinnamon, Advocaat and olive oil. Ladle the cake batter into muffin cases inserted in a muffin baking tray. Put the tray in the oven preheated to 180C and bake for 18-20 minutes until well-risen and golden brown (check with a wooden skewer if they are ready).
Melt the dark chocolate with a spoonful of butter in a dish over the boiling water, and frost the bakes.

Sprinkle Bronze crunch to add a touch of glamour. Bronze crunch is basically edible bronze coloured sugar pieces. It looks very Byzantine and a tad decadent, excellent for any forthcoming seasonal parties. I have discovered it in the baking section of the local Waitrose, and it instantly appealed to my sense of glamour.
Expect more sprinkled baked goodies from me in the following weeks.

Saturday, 15 November 2014

Alphablocks Reading Programme

If you are a parent of a preschooler or primary school child, you are familiar with Alphablocks. My younger son Eddie is a big fan of the magazine and TV programme. These cute cheeky little characters help him to learn about phonics and encourage him to start reading. Eddie is enrolled in the Bug Club, a whole school reading programme for primary school children, which combines books and games online.
He absolutely loves the Bug Club, and also enjoys the tasks set in the Alphablocks magazines. One of the latest issues had a set of cards with 3-letter words which he had to trace. He did it with great enthusiasm.
When we found out that the Alphablocks magazine has launched the Alphablocks Reading Programme, which supports the foundation-aged children and helps them to develop and progress with their reading skills, I knew we had to join in. I was right. As soon as the first set of five magazines arrived, Eddie begged me to let him do the tasks.

This clever programme is designed by phonics experts and follows the national curriculum. It consists of 15 Alphablocks Reading Programme magazines and other resources like finger puppets, letter tiles, games and stickers.

We haven't completed all five magazines from the first package yet, but I cannot praise the programme highly enough. It is fun, inspiring and stimulating. When I use the word "we", I mean, I sit with Eddie and explain to him what he has to do, he does all the homework himself. I only motivate and encourage him.

Word Magic Game

My younger son loves tracing the letters, reading simple 3-letter words, colouring and completing all the tasks set in magazines.
Magazine no.1 is exploring letters S, A, T, P, I, N, M, D. You can watch the Alphablocks episodes as you work through the magazine. The animation is short and entertaining.

Eddie is 4 years old, and being a July child, one of the youngest in his class. Quite a few of his class mates are turning 5 already, and at this age one year makes a big difference. To help him with his phonics, we read together and play with finger puppets, letter tiles and stickers.

From the homework Eddie brings from school for the weekend, I see that they are learning exactly the same phonics as the first magazines, so these materials and resources are truly reinforcing what the children learn at school.

We go through the magazines slowly, as there is no need to hurry, Eddie needs to learn at his own pace before moving further. We cut out the reading cards from the pages of the magazines.
Eddie is good at reading separate letters (sounds) but still finds it difficult to read them together as a word. The picture on each card is supposed to help children to read the word. Just the other day Eddie made me smile, when I asked him to read the word on one of the cards.
So he goes: T - I - P.
When I asked him which word he has just read, he replied "A bucket".

Finger puppets are another lovely game of phonics which helps to put simple words together.
The programme is done in such an entertaining manner that children won't even realise that they are doing an educational programme. Eddie thinks it's great fun, and is very happy to do a few tasks every day.

Alphablocks is published by Immediate Media Co, experts in pre-school educational portfolio in the UK.
The complete set of magazines and resources introduces all 26 letters and sounds, in all their blends and combinations, helping children to gain confidence and reading skills.

Stephanie Cooper, editor of Alphablocks magazine says:
"Alphablocks is the only pre-school magazine that supports the way children learn to read. We help children build a solid foundation in phonics taking them on an exciting journey as they progress through learning letter sounds, putting sounds together to make words, building sentences and reading simple stories independently. It's everything parents need to give their little one a head start in reading".

The package costs £39.99 plus postage (though I have seen on Facebook they have a current offer of £10 off the package).

You can find Alphablocks on Facebook and Twitter @AlphablocksARP.

Disclosure: I received the Alphablocks set (part 1) for the purposes of testing and reviewing. All opinions are mine. We'll show the progress as we go along.

Thursday, 13 November 2014

Late nasturtiums and persimmon salad

It's almost mid-November, but amazingly enough I still have some late blossoming nasturtiums and marigolds in my greenhouse. I have planted them among the tomatoes and cucumelons (now the last ones were a big mistake, never again) to keep the slugs away. I had a fabulous crop of tomatoes this year, and it seems to be the only veg which produces great results consistently from one year to another.
Nasturtiums always remind me of my childhood. One of my earliest memories is of our nursery yard with a cheerful carpet of nasturtiums.
They are very pretty to look at, and make a lovely addition to salads too - both flowers and leaves.

I don't have a proper recipe to share, as I didn't take any notes on the exact weight of ingredients, but roughly it was half a big juicy persimmon, sliced, a handful of baby tomatoes, a half of goat's cheese and roasted cubed squash and sweet potato, with a scattering of nasturtiums, drizzled with a dressing made of the olive oil, honey and cider vinegar.

Tomatoes are also the remnants of my crop, there are still a few tomatoes left on the vines in the greenhouse. Khaki or persimmons are from Spain (bought at the local fruit market).

This was a light and very satisfying lunch. I wanted to keep it as a palette of orange, with only the whiteness of the goat's cheese breaking the pattern.

Next year I will be planting the nasturtiums again, for a splash of colour in the garden and on the plate.

Wednesday, 12 November 2014

The Christmas Farm (Limited edition) 1000 piece jigsaw from Ravensburger

In the last week, whenever I went to bed, I had jigsaw puzzle pieces on my mind, and even in my sleep I have been working on a new puzzle from Ravensburger. Let me tell you, The Christmas Farm (limited edition) 1000 piece jigsaw is totally fiendish.

I do enjoy jigsaw puzzles, but when this big colourful box arrived and I opened the bag inside, I was asking myself what have I gotten myself into. Will I ever be able to complete it?
Thankfully, I have an enthusiastic friend Jen who loves puzzles and she promised to help me.

Ravensburger says: "We all know that Santa works hard on Christmas Eve, but what does he do for the rest of the year? This colourful jigsaw puzzle imagines that he lives a low-key life, running a small farm, tending to his animals, growing Christmas trees and offering the occasional sleigh ride across the rolling hills when the weather allows".

Jen and I started sorting the pieces by finding those which have a straight side so that we could build an overall picture frame for our jigsaw. Then, bit by bit, I have been adding to the picture. Some pieces were very tricky, some are easier to spot, and I kept checking the box image for reference, trying to figure out which bit goes where. An absolutely addictive hobby.

The wonderfully colourful and cheerful scene has been illustrated by Devon-based artist Roy Trower.
It is pretty amazing, how much detail you discover when piecing it together.

This superb jigsaw will make a great Christmas gift for any puzzle lover. And what a fab way to get into the Christmas spirit!

It was a slow progress, as it took me over 5 days (and that is with Jen's help) to complete the jigsaw. But I enjoyed it tremendously. I actually was surprised at how much I loved it.
Once the puzzle was finished, I couldn't wait to show it to Jen, and asked her if she wanted to take it home and do it herself. She replied that she was still working on the Monet's jigsaw, but she knew an elderly lady who lives alone and who would very much enjoy the puzzle. Hope the old lady will enjoy it as much as I did.

I wonder now whether I should treat myself to another 1000-piece jigsaw puzzle.
Do you love jigsaws?

Disclosure: I received this jigsaw for the purposes of reviewing. All opinions are mine.

Tuesday, 11 November 2014

New Twinings loose leaf pyramid teas

“And listen--tell your friend to try English Breakfast next time. It's a little more robust. Earl Grey is really more of a 'Sense and Sensibility' kind of tea.
Cab driver to J.D. Jameson” (Julie James, Practice Makes Perfect)

According to that cab driver from Julie James' book, I belong to the Sense and Sensibility category, as I do favour an Earl Grey tea above all, especially first thing in the morning. Then throughout the day I am open to the other types of tea. If you are a teaholic like me, you get excited seeing new varieties of tea in the shops. Twinings has launched a new range of loose leaf pyramid teas, and I was delighted to be asked to test a few samples of the new range.
The new range has attractive colourful packaging, like a collection of bright shawls at an ethnic market.

Each packet comes with 12 teabags. It is quite upmarket (prices vary from from £3.49 to £4.49 per packet).

Samples of the new Twinings range which I received for testing

Moroccan Mint with Rose flavour Green tea is a mint-flavoured green tea. Rose flavour is less pronounced than mint, it is there, at the back of the palate, just a hint of rose. I would have liked a more distinct rose flavour, but overall it is an easy light tea, excellent at the end of a big meal.

Nutty Chocolate Flavour Assam has been inspired by tea and chocolate. It smells of chocolate truffles. When you have a sip, first you get a chocolatey taste, then a slight bitter aftertaste of tea. Aromatic, quite light, it might benefit from a dash of milk to smooth the bitter edge. Ingredients include: black tea, cocoa nibs, hazelnut flavouring.

Bollywood Chai Latte - this is a spicy tongue-tingling, aromatic full-bodied Assam combined with the traditional Indian spices. Ingredients: black tea, almond, spice and honey flavourings. It has a note of sweetness, which works well. I had it unadorned to test the flavours, but it will be great as a proper milky chai.

Jasmine Petals & Pearls Green tea is a delicate mix of green tea as well as jasmine and rose petals. It is exquisitely floral. One of my top choices from the eight new flavours I have tried. I find plain green tea quite boring, but make it flavoured, and I am hooked.

Apple & Elderflower Green tea reminds me of long summer days.  Ingredients include: green tea, apple pieces, apple & elderflower flavourings. Apples and elderflower enhance the green tea, creating a refreshing and light brew.

The Full English Breakfast is a well rounded blend. It has a colour of dark golden amber and a well-rounded taste. Perfect for a wakey-wakey morning cuppa (though I'll stick to my favourite Earl Grey first thing in the morning).

After tasting all the six samples, I was thrilled to find out that our local Waitrose started stocking a new range of Twinings. I had to restrict myself to buying just three of the new varieties. According to some people in my family, I don't need any more tea, as I have enough supply to open my own tea room.

Shelves in Waitrose

Superfruity is a bright burst of colour and berry-licious flavours. It contains a whole compote of ingredients from fruit to vegetables, from berries to flowers. Here you will find hibiscus, rosehips, beetroot, blackcurrant, raspberry & blueberry flavourings, apple, blueberry, orange peel, elderberry and safflower. Zingy, zesty and flavourful, it is an essence of a summer in a cup. Excellent for the late afternoon or evening, when you want to avoid caffeine.

Whenever I find a new variety of Earl Grey, I just have to buy it. Having tried almost all Earl Greys from Twinings, I was curious to discover a Plummy Earl Grey. This is advertised as a light, floral tea, with rich, juicy plum and a dash of star anise. Ingredients include: black tea, star anise, bergamot and plum flavourings. When this tea is brewing, the aroma is unmistakably plummy. This is quite an enjoyable brew but perhaps not the best of the Twinings Earl Grey family. If I had to do a blind test, I would probably not call it an Earl Grey, despite the added bergamot. I think it will be excellent for poaching fruit and using as an ingredient in tea cakes.

Have you tried any of Twinings new teas? Which one is your favourite?

Disclosure: I received six teabags for the purposes of testing and reviewing. All opinions are mine.