Saturday, 30 October 2010

How Much Stuff?!

There are some strange things about being responsible for a house. I still feel like I'm playing at "being an adult" and there are some things I haven't quite got used to yet. Mostly, it's the things like repair work and decorating, but arguably the strangest experience was last year when we came to renew our home insurance.

Up until then we'd had an "unlimited" contents policy, but our premium shot through the roof, so we started shopping around... and realised we could get a substantially better deal if we worked out how much cover we actually needed.

Being a geeky kind of couple, we went around the house with our laptops, putting everything we owned into spreadsheets with an estimate of the cost. But - and this was the scary part - we realized we needed to list the cost of buying everything new and at full price.

I almost never pay full price for anything. I buy things when they're on sale, I scour the internet for the best deal, and if there isn't a discount on a specific product then I'll wait until there's a voucher for the shop I want to use. I have loyalty cards for everywhere, and cashback on my credit card. I reuse whatever I can, and make a lot of things myself. But if (heaven forbid) my house burnt down, I'd want to be able to replace everything, straight away, no faffing.

My buying habits have two strange side-effects when it comes to pricing up the house. One is that my spreadsheet is full of numbers that are, in many cases, much higher than what I actually spent - leading to a terrifyingly high figure, far above what I would have expected. But the other is that my shopping habits lend themselves to stockpiling: I'll buy a year's worth of coffee or lentils or soup. A few packets in the cupboard probably wouldn't need to feature for insurance estimates, but we have a pantry packed floor-to-ceiling with mostly-organic food and drinks, and the prices quickly add up. (The other day I spent over £100 on tea because my favourite brand was at an insanely good price, with a long use-by date...)

And soon, of course, we're going to have to do it all again for our next renewal... thank God we saved the spreadsheets!

This isn't my house - just somewhere I once stayed - but we're redecorating so pics of my living room will have to wait!

Thursday, 28 October 2010

Easy Dumplings

It's getting damn cold.

On Sunday evening I offered to make a "light" soup for supper (since we'd already eaten a full Sunday lunch) and ended up making a gorgeous stew with dumplings... oops.

I always loved dumplings as a kid, but for some reason I've never really made them as an adult. A friend recently served some to us which reminded me that they exist, so it was a good time to try it out for myself.

An Easy Dumpling Recipe

150g self-raising flour
75g butter
salt, pepper & dried herbs (to taste)
approx. 50ml water

  1. Pop the butter in the freezer for a few minutes.
  2. Mix the salt, pepper and herbs into the flour, in a large bowl.
  3. Grate the butter into the flour, then rub in to make "breadcrumbs".
  4. Add a little water at a time until the dough sticks together.
  5. Divide into six portions and roll each into a ball.
  6. Place dumplings on the top of a soup or stew, put a lid on the pan, and simmer for thirty minutes. Keep an eye on it; you may need to add a little more water to your soup as the dough absorbs liquid.

Come back next week for the stew recipe!

Note: my husband fancied having his dumplings a little less light-and-fluffy, so I made another batch later with 3:1 self-raising to plain flour.

Tuesday, 26 October 2010

Autumn Walk in Leersum

In Holland, between visiting Utrecht and Amsterdam, we also stayed in a small town called Leersum. The town itself is surrounded by great forests with marked walking paths, lakes, and gentle hills (steep by Dutch standards!).

We took a picnic of sandwiches and salad, and enjoyed meandering along the woodland paths, stopping much too often to take photographs of striking fly agaric toadstools in varying states of decay. The coloured posts marking out the different routes were difficult to spot in places, but on the plus side, that meant they weren't intruding into the beauty of the landscape. The heavens opened for a few minutes and soaked us to the skin - but since the sun came out once the rain had blown over, we dried out again quickly enough.

It was a beautiful area, and we'll definitely go back.

Sunday, 24 October 2010

Scandinavian Humour

When we were in Denmark this summer, some Danish friends showed us this little comedy clip made by a Norwegian TV company. It made us both laugh so hard that we've been showing it to loads of our friends, and it suddenly occurred to me that my blog readers might also be interested and entertained by this.

It's interesting to note that the Danish language has a fairly complicated number system and also, compared to Norwegian and Swedish, it has the least obvious correlation between spelling and pronunciation.

I've never done video embedding before, so fingers crossed this will work for everyone... if not, let me know for next time, but meanwhile the video is on YouTube at


Friday, 22 October 2010

Diamonds in Amsterdam

One of the coolest things we saw in Amsterdam was the workshop at Coster Diamonds.

This wasn't something on my "must see" list before we arrived - but then, I may have mentioned that I tend to have very short "must see" lists. I prefer to nosy around, relax, and play things by ear.

In any case, we were passing through Amsterdam's museum quarter when we saw a big sign advertising free entry to the workshop - and we already had a Netherlands Museum Card which would give us access to the Diamond Museum next door. An afternoon of sparkly fun beckoned.

Diamond polishing in Amsterdam

Coster Diamonds is a real, working diamond workshop. They're set up for tourists, of course, and apparently they do employ guides - but the guy who stopped his work to talk us through the process was a man in his seventies who'd been working in the diamond industry since he was apprenticed at 14. Incredible stuff. He showed us the different facets and angles, explained the order of cutting and grinding to make the classic "brilliant cut" shape, and gave us an overview of the different grades of diamonds (something I learnt a little bit about when we were shopping for my engagement ring). It was great fun to watch the diamond polishers at work - they must have great eyesight and fantastic co-ordination. I just know that if you let me near a grinding machine with a precious diamond... well, at least diamond particles are still useful for sandpaper!

After a good look around the workshop we went out through the shop (which starts with insanely expensive jewellery and finishes with tourist tat for a couple of Euros) and to the museum next door. If you don't have the museum card, I'd probably skip the museum, simply because the workshop is free, and was much more interesting (to me) thanks to its practical focus. But you'd be a bit crazy to visit the Netherlands and not buy a museum card, in which case, the museum's exhibit on famous diamond thefts is worth climbing a couple of flights of stairs for.

Wednesday, 20 October 2010

A Quick Baby Gift

A couple of our friends have just welcomed their new baby boy into the world. I'd been thinking about what to make for him (assuming I would knit something), but when we were out shopping and saw a really great quality baby sheet at a massive discount, I couldn't resist. Still, I wanted to make it a more personal present.

I know lots of you are mothers or expecting or know someone who is, so I thought I'd share this quick and easy way to personalise a sheet or blanket.

I used a couple of rulers to keep the letters straight, and wrote his name in (blue) dressmaker's chalk first. Then I picked out an appropriate shade of embroidery cotton (deep blue, in this case, to complement the pale blue of the sheet) and stitched carefully over the name. The top section of this sheet is double-thickness, so I was able to stitch on the front without putting the needle all the way through to the back, which hopefully makes it less likely that tiny fingers will pull the stitches out.

It only took me a couple of hours, and now I just have to iron it and wrap it. I'll probably still knit something, too - any recommendations for baby patterns you've used and loved?

Monday, 18 October 2010

Make Your Own Mincemeat

Is it too early to be thinking about Christmas?

You may lament the fact that the shops are full of tinsel and baubles as soon as we hit autumn, but you've probably already made your Christmas cake - and if you have your own apple harvest (or a few apples left over from something else), here's another way to prepare for Christmas.

If you make a batch of homemade mincemeat now, you can have mince pies that are the envy of your friends when December rolls around. This recipe doesn't contain any suet, so it's a little more healthy than the traditional version, but that does mean it won't last quite as long. Still, it's only two months till Christmas, and you wouldn't expect to have any left over, would you...? (Not when mince pies are so easy to make.)

You can afford to be flexible with the fruits you include - what I used was pretty much dictated by what was in the cupboard. The cherries in particular were an experiment, since my husband loves glace cherries in anything, but it seems to work nicely.

Mincemeat Recipe
Fills 4-5 jam jars

6 large cooking apples
1kg raisins
100g mixed peel
100g glace cherries, halved
2tbsp sugar
2/3 cup brandy
1/3 cup rum
2tbsp lemon juice
2tsp cinnamon powder
1tsp ground ginger
1/2tsp ground cloves
1/2 a nutmeg, grated
  1. Chop the apples finely (about raisin-sized so all your pieces are similar sizes).
  2. Combine all the ingredients in a large pan.
  3. Simmer over a low heat for 2 hours.
  4. While the mixture is still hot, decant into sterilised jars and store until you need it (the flavours should mature over the following weeks).

Mincemeat ingredients simmering

Rachel Cotterill on Punk Domestics

Saturday, 16 October 2010

Little Tokyo, Leeds

Finding great food in a city you don't know can be a hit-and-miss experience, so when we wanted to get some dinner in Leeds, I was happy to hand over the decision to an old friend of Andy's.

He and his wife were singing in one of the Light Night events, performing the same pieces three times at different venues, so we had half an hour to grab something to eat before they were due to start their next performance. There was some talk of going to Wagamama, and then we arrived at Little Tokyo instead. And as much as I enjoy Wagamama, I'm so glad we did!

We checked before we sat down that they'd be able to serve us quickly enough, and then we just had to make a speedy decision from the huge menu card. Usually this is easy enough for me, in a land of limited vegetarian options, but this time there was so much choice that I didn't even read half of the menu. In the end we all went for bento boxes: tempura vegetables, rice, salad, fruit, and a choice of main dish. I had mine with "tofu steak", and Andy went for duck with mango.

The tofu was in a thick, savoury sauce, the tempura batter was perfectly light and crispy, and everything was clearly very fresh. It was a little bit pricey, but since I was much too full to even contemplate dessert, I think it was good value. We'd love to go back - it's just a shame it's so far from home!

Thursday, 14 October 2010

Vegetarian Shepherd's Pie Recipe

I was always confused about the difference between shepherd's pie and cottage pie: similar looking, potato-topped pies with some kind of meat underneath. Growing up as a vegetarian, the fact that one is lamb and one is beef was pretty irrelevant to me. Still, for some reason, I've always called my version "Shepherd's Pie."

One of my favourite things about the days drawing in is the excuse to make comfort food... and this is the ultimate comfort food for an autumn evening. It's allergy-friendly, too. Just leave off the cheese if you're feeding vegans.

Vegetarian Shepherd's Pie
Serves 4

1 large onion
3 cloves garlic
1 large carrot
1 large courgette
3 large mushrooms
2 tins lentils
1 tin tomatoes
1tbsp tomato puree
seasonings to taste (I use pepper & chilli)
3 large potatoes
1tbsp butter
100g cheddar cheese (or similar hard cheese)
  1. Finely chop the onion, garlic, carrot & courgette, and sautee in a little oil until the vegetables are soft.

  2. Meanwhile, dice the potatoes and steam or boil until soft.

  3. Roughly chop the mushrooms and add to the onion mixture. Add the lentils, tinned tomato, tomato puree, and seasonings, and simmer for half an hour over a low heat. (I used pre-cooked lentils this time; if you want to use dried lentils, add a little boiling water, and be prepared to cook the mixture for longer.)

  4. When most of the liquid has evaporated, tip the vegetable/lentil mixture into the bottom of a glass casserole dish.

  5. Mash the potatoes with the butter, and arrange on top of the vegetable/lentil mixture. Grate the cheese and sprinkle on top.

  6. Bake at 170°C for 30 minutes.

Tuesday, 12 October 2010

One Thousand Cranes

On Friday I went to Leeds to see an art installation by an old school friend. I've known Kirsty since I was eleven. We hadn't seen each other in over ten years, but what's a decade between friends? So Andy and I arrived just after lunch, and immediately launched into helping with last-minute preparations.

The installation itself consisted of one thousand origami cranes, each illuminated with an LED, and suspended from the roof of an old prison tunnel. Kirsty has blogged about the development of her idea, and the process of pitching it to the annual Leeds Light Night event, at Night of a Thousand Cranes. I'm so impressed with her dedication to making this happen (it's her first art exhibition) and with the enchanting end result. You get a surprising amount of light from 1,000 LEDs!

Sunday, 10 October 2010

Scenes from Utrecht

We really liked Utrecht. I was expecting to like it (it has canals) but I was expecting to like Amsterdam, too, and I liked Utrecht more. I'm not quite sure why, but it was quieter (fewer people), and more spacious (wider canals and broader streets), and more compact (easy to walk from one end of the city to the other), and these are all things that I approve of.

Friday, 8 October 2010

Digital Books, Sharing & Signing

So. I have a Kindle. I've officially joined the age of electronic books, and for a variety of reasons, I like it.

I really do think digital books are going to win, in the end. They're much more convenient, you can carry a lifetime's reading material in your pocket, and you can add a new book to your collection with a couple of clicks.

But it's got me thinking about a number of things. When paper books are relegated to an antiquarian curiosity (you may think that's never going to happen - but it won't seem such an alien concept to our children) there are several things that will stop making sense.

Physical bookshops are already losing the race against the online stores... but what about libraries? I love libraries, and more than that, I think they're a vital resource for increasing literacy across the population. Not everyone can afford to buy all the books they want to read - certainly, as a child, I couldn't have afforded to support my voracious habits from my pocket money. Out-of-copyright books are available for free, but what about the modern classics? Someone needs to work this one out. Our library already buys subscriptions to a variety of online journals and other resources, which library card holders can log in and use. I think there needs to be some way of extending this to cover electronic books. If I allow my mind to wander I can imagine the Amazon Library - no risk of going overdue, because when your borrowed licence expires, the book can simply disappear back into the ether from which it came.

And what of second hand books - picked up for pennies in charity shops, and loaned out to friends. I have a pile of books on my bedside table that I've borrowed from friends... but how can they lend me their ebooks?

Borrowed books, and my Kindle

If I've bought a book on my Kindle, I don't even know how to lend it to my husband without giving him the device. Lending and reselling books, while it doesn't make money for the author, is surely a great form of word-of-mouth advertising. But I'm not sure how it will work in the electronic age.

Book signings will also require some ingenuity. If I turn up to a signing with my Kindle, do you think an author would happily inscribe the case? Would I even want them to...? Yet an electronic signature just won't have the same sentimental value (and can be easily forged).

What do you think? What will the reader's world look like in ten - or fifty - years?

Wednesday, 6 October 2010

Indonesian Food in The Netherlands

When I mentioned I was going to Holland, and asked for tips from anyone who wanted to share, one of my friends came back to me with the suggestion that I should keep an eye out for Indonesian food. The rijsttafel, or rice table, is a uniquely Dutch way of eating Indonesian dishes, so obviously something to look out for.

We found a small Chinese-and-Indonesian restaurant, De Grote Muur, in the town of Leersum. Since they offered a vegetarian rijsttafel, it seemed like the perfect opportunity.

The dishes were served as a three course meal: first a sweet and spicy tomato soup, then rice and main dishes, followed up by lychees.

The main dishes included a couple of different sets of stir-fried vegetables, an omlette dish with sweet-and-sour sauce, and banana fritters (which I encouraged Andy to eat). It was a lot of food, but delicious, and we managed to work our way through it all.

Neither Andy or I were particularly fond of the lychees we've had in the past, so we were wondering if we'd really manage to finish our dessert, but these ones were surprisingly nice. I think they must have been fresh rather than tinned.

I've always loved the style of meal where you get several dishes to share, and the rijsttafel was no exception. I'm surprised the concept hasn't reached England yet.

Monday, 4 October 2010

Appelgebak (Dutch Apple Cake), First Draft

In a number of Dutch cafes, we enjoyed large slices of something known as appelgebak. We still have a lot of apples on the trees in our garden, so I thought it would be nice to try and recreate it at home.

Unfortunately, Google had other ideas: the recipes I've found online (even in Dutch) bear almost no relation to the cake/pie/crumble crossover that we enjoyed.

Still. I'm not the sort of girl to let a little thing like "no recipe" put me off, am I?

This isn't going to be a traditional recipe post, because the recipe isn't ready yet. Nevertheless, so many of you have commented that you always cook from a recipe (especially when it comes to baking), that I thought you might be interested to watch a recipe evolution in progress. With that in mind, I'm sharing my first draft - an unedited manuscript, if you will. And I'll come with updates as I work on it later.

I started by thinking about the samples we'd eaten. The three key parts were a pastry crust, an apple filling, and a crumble topping.

The pastry wasn't quite like any I'd had before - it was actually somewhere between pastry and cake in texture. This was going to be the challenge to reproduce.

The apple filling was quite simple: apples, raisins, cinnamon. And crumble topping is always straightforward.

How to make the pastry, though...?

I started with regular shortcut pastry proportions of butter and flour (2 parts flour to one part butter), and added a little soft brown sugar. Then, to make it more cake-like, I beat up an egg and threw that in before adding the water. I made a wet mixture - softer than pastry, gloopy but not sloppy - and pressed it into the dish. Then I layered in the sliced apples (using the apple pieces to build a wall, to stop the sides of the not-quite-pastry from falling down) with sugar and cinnamon, and added the crumble topping. I baked it for about half an hour at 170°C.

The ingredient proportions were:
75g butter
150g plain flour
35g soft brown sugar
1 egg
100ml water

3 apples
3tsp soft brown sugar
lots of cinnamon

More butter, flour, sugar and cinnamon to make the crumble topping (I didn't measure these, but I will next time, if I feel I'm getting close to the final recipe).

The result was tasty, but I want to try and make it more authentic for next time. I should have used a deeper dish, and the crumble layer could have been about four times thicker. I need to remember the raisins, add more cinnamon, and probably pre-cook the apple mixture. And I have to edge my experimental cake-pastry slightly more towards the pastry end of the spectrum.

This is a work in progress. Watch this space...

Saturday, 2 October 2010

Utrecht Railway Museum

Train at Utrecht railway museum

Flicking through the Utrecht section of our Netherlands guidebook, the railway museum caught the attention of both me and my husband.

We've been to railway museums in countries as obscure as Mongolia, and they always seem to have something different to get excited about. So it's saying something to say that this is (currently) my favourite train museum.

It's housed in and alongside an old station, with various old trains gathered on the tracks inside a huge, warehouse-like space. Oh, and one in the air, so you can walk underneath and admire the engineering (impressive even if you're not into that kind of thing).

Utrecht railway museum

The things that lift this museum above the average are the special exhibits, which have been constructed with a huge amount of both imagination and attention to detail. Highlights inlcuded a full-size model of the historical town, designed to encapsulate the time when the first train ran in Holland; scale models of some very innovative bridge designs; an Orient Express carriage and dining car; and a (gentle) rollercoaster ride through some scenes from train history.

Utrecht railway museum

Utrecht railway museum

Plus, we got a great deal on coffee and incredible appelgebak (a kind of apple pie, which I'm going to try and recreate at home this afternoon) in the lovely cafe.

If you enjoy trains even a fraction as much as we do, you'd love this museum. Admission is expensive, but you can buy a whole-year Dutch museum pass for about 45 Euros, which makes it all a bit more affordable. I think it'd be a great place for kids, too.

With thanks to my husband, who was mostly in charge of the camera whilst we were visiting the museum.

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