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Friday, 19 December 2014

Homemade Christmas Crackers


   I love Christmas crackers. They look so pretty, they make a wonderful bang (unless you have animals, then that bang isn't as easy to enjoy), and they're a wonderful part of Christmas dinner. But they always contain the same rubbish. At least, over here they do. Nail clippers, whistles, Kinder Egg-style toys, tape measures and so on. The only thing I've ever considered useful are those tiny screwdriver sets. So we stopped buying Christmas crackers because they were always the same, unless you buy the expensive duluxe ones - and I mean duluxe, I mean like £30 or more for 6, otherwise you just end up with the same rubbish but a little better made.
   I've rather missed Christmas crackers, though, so this year I decided to make some myself. I'd done it before a few years ago but had nothing to put in it except the jokes and hats that came with the set - in fact I'm not even sure there were hats... And while I admit that I didn't have much of any use to put in them this year, at least there are things in them that we'll actually want...


   Chocolate.
   I bought a set of 12 Kraft crackers and a packet with 12 snaps, foil hats and jokes (which, with my stupid sense of humour, were actually funny), all easily found in craft shops, and then went and gathered up small sets of chocolates. 10 ferrero rocher, 12 Kinder maxi, 4 mousse snowmen, 16 celebrations and a bag of chocolates wrapped as Christmas puddings. I also found some thin wire with ivy leaves on which I thought would be a great addition, but I only bought one coil after deciding to remove the second from my cart. I wish I'd bought two! Using a small amount for each cracker I managed to get 8 out of the 12 with the ivy, and the rest had to have silver and red gift ribbon instead. They still looked good but if I'd had more ivy I could have given each cracker more!

To make crackers, you need:
A cracker-making kit or crackers, snaps, foil hats
Ribbon/decorative wire/twine
Stuff to fill them with
Stuff to decorate the crackers
optional cheesy Christmas jokes.



   I used a copperplate nib and white Winsor & Newton ink to decorate mine. They look lovely in person but in all honesty I think a little more decoration wouldn't have hurt, though I'm not sure what. Perhaps some 'Merry Christmas' scrawled in silver ink. The crackers seal with slot-tabs which you can see in the picture above, and they hold perfectly, but it also means it's easy enough to take apart so I might just do that and add a little more decoration.



   It took a while to scrawl over 12 of them, believe it or not, but I've got some confidence in the pen so it could have been worse. What I wasn't so confident about, though, was the scrawling itself. I see so many wonderful pieces across the internet but I can't seem to come up with a consistent flow.
   I closed the tabs, and after struggling to position everything into the middle of the cracker (the hat was a smidge too long, and the mousse snowmen only just fit), I realised it would be easier to undo the tab at one end, and not only close the tab at the other end but also close the opening before filling. So I faffed a bit with the first cracker, but the rest went a little quicker.



   As I said, unfortunately I didn't have enough lovely ivy wire to cover all the crackers, but the red and silver ribbon doesn't work too bad. In fact I almost prefer it since it's a little louder than the ivy and takes attention away from the lack of detail. But sometimes understated is good. It's not as if you need to add more glitter to Christmas than there already is!
   They'd be great with an understated Christmas - or a Christmas with all the effort, great impact, but still neutral and tidy. My chocolate pine cone cakes will go down a treat with these!


Tuesday, 16 December 2014

Last Purchasing Date for UK Orders

   That's tomorrow, folks! Wednesday the 17th is the last day for orders within the UK to arrive guaranteed by Christmas! Orders placed in Peaches and Pebbles after this date will be fulfilled as quickly as possible and may still arrive in time, but is it worth the risk? My last post run will be Monday the 22nd of December, and I always ship first class, but be aware that Royal Mail's deadline dates are the 18th for 2nd class and the 20th for 1st!

   I've added a next day delivery upgrade listing for UK customers to my shop. The info regarding this shipping upgrade is as follows:

UK ONLY!

Upgrade to Royal Mail's Guaranteed Next Day Delivery - guaranteed by 1pm. Please note that this is the day AFTER the product has been shipped, not the day after the product has been purchased.

Purchasing this listing with your product/s will get you priority service, however, meaning that I will give your order priority in fulfilling.

This listing is only available until Sunday the 21st. After this date, next day delivery will no longer be available as I am not shipping after Tuesday the 23rd.


   This listing can be added to any order to upgrade the shipping; the cost of the listing joined with the shipping costs on the other listing covers this shipping method.





A Very Pinteresting Christmas - Again!

   Another post of Christmas baking suggestions found on pinterest (and perhaps one of my own), for both cakes and sweets. Each of the tutorials I've listed below I have either tried or intend to try, and they all have wonderfully unique looks that will easily get Christmas dinner guests or party-goers talking. Each pin has a clear and concise recipe - you can't go wrong!



   This patterned arctic roll cake is to die for! Look at that fabulous design! And it's so easy, too! Just as is shown by La Receta de la Felicidad, pipe a design onto parchment paper and spread a cake mixture over the top! It works in the same sort of way as chocolate transfer sheets do - so easy, and so effective! Plus, I love arctic roll! It's perfect for either summer or winter!



   These gingerbread cheesecake bites would be wonderful for a small coffee (or in my case that would be hot chocolate) get-together this Christmas. They're so small and so simple, Rebecca's recipe on The Cherry On Top, adapted from Created By Diane the recipe suggesting pre-made gingerbread dough and where to find it to make it that little bit easier. I struggle with gingerbread myself - well, that goes for all biscuits and cookies, really - so the fact that they've made it around a premade dough is perfect for me! I can taste them already!



   Tiny gingerbread houses instead of dunking biscuits. You can't get more festive than this! Despite Cake Time being a Polish blog, this recipe is in English and the free gingerbread template is relatively straight forward once you compare it to the picture of the finished piece. I'd love to try this, but as I've mentioned above, I'm a nightmare when it comes to biscuits so there's no way the dough would keep its shape once it came out of the oven. Even if the dough was premade and essentially fool-proof. But that doesn't mean I won't try!!



   Pinecone Christmas cakes! The size of an actual pinecone and consisting of just chocolate cake, chocolate frosting, broken biscuits and powdered sugar. And they're not as awkward to eat as you'd think! This Christmas recipe is actually mine, but surely I'm allowed to add it to my list, right? As with the mousse-filled houses shown above, this requires a silicone mould as well. Of Easter eggs. Easy to find on ebay and amazon, though!



   A Berry Pavlova Christmas wreath! How fabulous! The colours are exquisite, and Gillian of My Square Frying pan has given some valuable tips through trial and error alongside her recipe. Not enough bloggers do this, which can be a nuisance as, if they get lucky on their first go, or a complete nightmare in the kitchen like myself has a go, I'm not going to know what to do when things inevitably go wry. But with advice such as not taking the pavlova out of the oven until it's completely cooled (which can understandably take a while and for someone as impatient as me, this tip is invaluable), she's made it much easier for others to try themselves.



   These homemade holiday lollipops from Just A Taste look amazing! So festive and so simple! If you've ever made hard candy, this is a cinch. Kind of. All right, if you've made hard candy successfully several times then this is a cinch. It's a very temperamental thing to make, but when it works, it works so well! These would be great for adults as well as kiddies - I know I'd be happy to be given one! They'd look lovely all displayed together, too!



   Another winter candy piece, if you can manage the lollies above, then this is the next step! Sprinkle Bakes shows you how to make these amazing twisted candy icicles with minimal ingredients and a microwave! Brilliant! I'd love to try these myself if my most recent attempt at hard candy hadn't gone so badly, but maybe if I'm feeling brave! They look incredible, but I think we can all agree that it's the incredible colour that delivers half of that impact! Just look at it! It's actually my favourite colour!



   Hot chocolate truffle balls, perfect for get-togethers, gifts or cold nights in a blanket. They look wonderful, and there's little doubt that they taste great! Just add hot milk and stir away! It's a very simple chocolate ganache recipe that, when heated in milk, will melt beautifully. I'm planning to make these for a few friends and a million more for myself. If there's one thing I love at Christmas - aside from food, decorations and old British comedy shows - it's hot chocolate. It is simply a must, and the more innovative ways to enjoy hot chocolate, the better.


Sunday, 14 December 2014

Dumbbells & P90X/2 - 2 Weeks Later

   It's been two weeks and it's safe to say I hate it. The P90X-styled workout is just...awful. It's exhausting and so difficult, and I have to give myself a mini pep talk before I begin it every other day. But, as I've always said, if it's not hard, it's no good. You can't expect to lose weight by putting in little effort, and it's that reason that keeps me going. I do two circuits and it takes me a total of 20 minutes to complete, and I'm sweating buckets at the end.
   As for the dumbbells, that's the one I almost look forward to. It's not as much fun as kettlebells, but each movement is certainly different to anything I've done recently which is another good thing that helps to shed weight, using new movements, new muscle combinations and so on. But even though I initially thought it wouldn't be taxing enough using just 1-1.5kg weights (2-3lbs), I was proven wrong. I sweat just as much from 20 minutes of this routine (2 circuits again) as I did from 20 minutes of kettlebells last month.
   The movements were harder than expected as well when I began, but as always happens, I've become a little more adjusted to them and have a clearer idea of what I'm doing. As such, it's gotten a little easier - at least, I'm able to maintain form even if my muscles are screaming by the end of each set, and that's exactly what you want from a workout.


   I know I've said this a lot lately, but I can really feel a difference in my body. Even slimmer, tighter, more angles, more strength, more stamina. I get half way through the workout sometimes and want to give up, call it a day after one circuit, but so far I've managed to push myself through it. Once I force myself to begin the first set of the second circuit, there's no going back. I'm only cheating myself if I do that, and the fact that it's almost Christmas and there's an inordinant amount of chocolate in my house right now waiting to be eaten, I know I have to turn it up a notch as well as eat with very conscious moderation. Though I may have bought a metre-long Wispa bar. It's Christmas, for goodness' sake! There's a duck in the freezer that feeds 6-8 that will be used on just 4 of us! A little indulgence is fine, and I can't let myself not give in at Christmas, but I do have to make sure, as I said, I eat in moderation and turn my workout up a notch.

   I said when I began this month that the P90X was similar to the pilates/cardio routine I did every other day throughout October, and it is. I hate this just as much as that one. It uses very different movements, but they're all full-body, they're all a mix of body weight training and cardio, and they're all super effective. The denser, leaner muscle I've built up through strength training every other day means more energy is needed to power them through the body weight and cardio, which directly translates to calorie burn, so it's really important to do strength training alongside your cardio.

   So, while the only thing that makes this month's workout bearable is watching an episode of Dragon Ball Z while doing it, it is working, and it's exactly what I need this month. I may even repeat this workout or one similar to it this time next year. I am sticking to the 1500 calorie diet that I did back in October, but I admit that it's a little more difficult this time around. However, at the same time, I've become so used to not eating chocolate or sugary things through choice, that eating it is both wonderful and awful. I feel guilty for doing it, even though I know it's fine for me to do it now, and the guilt is made worse by the chocolate tasting soooo good. It's not a good thing to feel guilt over food if it truly is unwarranted. If I'd stuffed my face with chocolate all day, then yes, let the guilt come. But the first chocolate bar for a week? At 200 calories? Uh, no. There's no need for guilt at all and it's hard to remind myself of that. But maybe that's also a good thing as it keeps me from doing it too often.

   *Ahem* yes, the workout. It's great. I hate doing it but when I finish the last circuit I've got the stupidest, tiredest smile on my face, and I feel incredible. And that's what a workout should do.

   Once again, I'll update in another 2 weeks at the end of the workout. Though, I say that, I doubt I'll actually finish the workout until the 3rd of January. I'd rather start the first workout of next year's resolution (same resolution as this year, I admit, simply because it worked) in the new year rather than at the end of December, otherwise it doesn't quite feel official. So instead I think I'll probably end up doing this month's workout for 5 weeks rather than 4, in which case the next update will be in three weeks. Still, if it works, it works! I can hardly say I'm wasting my time at this time of the year by prolonging an intense and successful workout by an additional week.


Tuesday, 9 December 2014

Christmas Pine Cone Cakes

   The use of nature in Christmas decorations lately is amazing. Last year or the year before I bought a lovely snowy toadstool tree ornament made out of a pine cone and other garden scraps, and it's one of my favourites. I also love the white woven wood decorations with acorns and tiny pine cones tied to them. I'm a sucker for things like that, and I've always rather liked pine cones and conkers since I was a kid, they're lovely autumn keepsakes.
   But I also like cake. And so, while I'm not entirely sure what sort of gone-off cheese induced the idea to combine the two, I have to say I'm astounded by the results.

   A pinecone cake.


   It's small, I grant you, more like a cupcake or muffin, but my goodness I do love it! And it was stupidly easy. And while I know that 'easy' is a word thrown around a lot in crafting or baking tutorials, many of which turning out to be harder than they looked, this is coming from someone who fails in the kitchen a lot. I can't count the number of projects I've tried for this blog in the past and failed miserably with, so when I get a win, I'm over the moon.
   The cakes are guaranteed to be a winner at Christmas for you, too, and they're the perfect alpine dessert for your Nordic Christmas theme!


You will need:
A silicone easter egg mould*
Cake mix - either home made or a bagged mix**
Butter for greasing
Chocolate frosting or ganache - either home made or store-bought
Bourbon Creams/Chocolate biscuits
Icing piping bag***


*You can pick these up year-round in pound shops or from suppliers on Ebay, which is where I got mine from for about £2.50. They're usually either pink, blue or yellow, but to my knowledge there are no variations to the mould's pattern if you choose different colours.
**If you're using a recipe or box mix you know to be quite light and moist, you'll want to add a little more flour to it to firm it up. This will let it take and keep its shape from the mould much easier. You can experiment by splitting the mix in half and adding flour to one of the bowls and see which works best for you.
***Nozzles and fixtures don't matter for the piping bag, so disposable ones will do well. It's just to allow you to apply the frosting to the cake surface without pushing the cake around or making it fall over like it might if you were to spread it by knife.


Method:

1. First of all, butter/grease your moulds to help release the cake once it's done, then preheat the oven to the temperature specified on your cake mix. I used Wright's Chocolate Fudge Cake and used gas mark 5.


2. Mix up your cake and spoon it into the cavities. I wanted to make sure that the cake would completely fill the mould once risen so I spooned it in quite high. The excess cake can be trimmed away easily later.

3. Put them in the oven for the length of time you would for cupcakes and leave it be. Check back when the timer goes off and if the knife/skewer/toothpick doesn't come out clean, but them back in for 5 minutes. Once they do come out clean, set the cakes aside to cool down.

4. To remove the excess cake, slowly run a knife across the surface of the silicone mould, cutting the cake away gently until it's all level. Once the cakes have cooled - not before or you risk them breaking apart - carefully pull the silicone mat away from the cake, pushing them out from beneath. Some of the cake may not release perfectly, but remember that you'll be covering the whole thing anyway, so it's not a huge issue.


5. Prepare your ganache or frosting and pair up the cakes. Using the ganache/frosting, pipe or spread a little on the back of one piece and press another on top to form an egg. You can trim away more cake from the backs of each piece if you feel they're too big. Place the eggs back in the mould, though obviously only one side will be in a cavity. This will allow the frosting to set a little.


6. Take your biscuits. I used bourbons. Break them apart if they need to be, like bourbons do, and try to scrape the cream off. Not as easy a task as I had hoped, and it posed the first real problem. I had no idea how these biscuits would cut, but I knew they were far from crumbly.
Take a knife and carefully cut the square/rectangular biscuits into small squares. I managed two rows of four from a single layer. I can't say how many pieces you need, but it took half a packet of bourbon creams with Seeg stealing some in between to cover one cake, and there were many pieces that broke and had to be nudged aside. In theory, I should be able to make 3-4 pine cone cakes with a single packet of bourbons, but allowing for errors and theiving boyfriends, I'll say 2 pinecones per pack. Just as well they're only 43p.
   Alternatively, if you can't find any square/rectangular chocolate biscuits, you could make your own small, square chocolate biscuits about 1cm in size with a basic biscuit mixture or recipe. It depends what sort of work you want to put in.


7. An hour or two after having 'glued' your cakes together, you can turn them out of the moulds again and stand them up within the cavities to keep them from falling over. Prepare a surface to pipe upon, be it a turn table (you lucky devil), a plate or so on, and place one of the cakes upright upon it. It probably won't fall over, but if it does, you'll be adding frosting and biscuits around the base very shortly, which will keep it upright.
   Fill a piping bag (I used a disposable one without a nozzle) with frosting/ganache and pipe upwards from the bottom of the cake to the middle. There's no need to cover the actual base of the cake in frosting, that's just making more unnecessary work. The piping doesn't need to be perfect, and it should preferrably be a bit flat rather than round to avoid making the pine cone too fat, so try to pipe at an angle. Alternatively, you can smooth it out with a knife if you like. The frosting will add additional flavour and texture, but it's mostly only there as a glue. Piping only half way up will allow you to hold the cake in place with your hands as you work.


8. Take your biscuit pieces and push the roughest corner of each piece into the icing and have them pointing upwards at an angle. Work your way up until you've covered about a third of the cake, using bigger biscuit pieces as you near the middle if you can (if your biscuit pieces are all the same size then it doesn't really matter), then cover the rest of the cake in frosting and continue to add the biscuits. Use the smallest of the biscuit pieces at the top.



9. You can leave the frosting to set and use another plate to ice each of the others, or you can move it to its final resting place now. I did the latter with a spatula and unsurprisingly found some of the frosting at the bottom come away when I pulled the spatula back out from beneath it, so I'd recommend either using a large surface for all of them and letting them set before moving.
   I found my pinecone looking quite good at this point, if I do say so myself, but I wanted to try adding 'snow' - though I was very concerned I was about to ruin it. I have a habit of 'finishing' things by adding one step too many, and that final step usually makes everything fall apart. Fortunately, this wasn't the case.
   I used powdered/icing sugar and poured some into a sieve over an empty plate. I did this because I didn't want a sudden downpour of icing sugar on the pine cone when I wasn't ready for it, so the downpour went on the plate instead, and I carefully moved the sieve over the pinecone and gave it a gentle tap, then another, and another, until I was satisfied. I think I'll use this method...well, forever. It's the simple things which elude me.


   I'm dead chuffed with the outcome of this. Like I said, so many things go wrong for me in the kitchen! This was also just a test-run for Christmas, as I plan to make several of these when my sister comes over Christmas day. They're a little bit heavier than a normal cupcake, I'd say, and because they're a bit of a hassle to eat, I'm making one for each person.

   Also, how about that wooden cake stand? Eh? Eh? Everyone seems to have one, and for that reason they're overpriced. I got mine from a lumber place that makes play houses and things like that from 'raw' wooden logs, if you know what I mean, and they sell the excess pieces like these, all nicely sanded, on Ebay. I told them what I needed it for and they sprayed it with food-safe sealer for me at no extra cost! Wayhay! Needless to say I already went back for another...


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