Not hot and not cross

I have been considering sweet dough buns for a while – ever since Christmas when I came across a River Cottage recipe for an enriched dough. I couldn’t make it at the time because it called for six eggs and the hens were on strike. With the longer days, eggs are no longer a problem – all four of our ladies are  laying:

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plenty of eggs (if somewhat muddy)

When I returned to the recipe, however, I felt that it was a bit too rich, so I looked for a different version and found a recipe for sweet dough by Ruby Tandoh (a Great British Bake Off finalist a couple of years ago) that looked ideal, although it only uses two eggs. I like the idea of Hot Cross Buns – soft dough with a sticky top and lovely spices. However, in general I find them rather disappointing and, to be honest, I’m not particularly keen on dried fruit. So, inspired by one of Mr Snail’s favourite flavour combinations, I made chocolate orange buns by adding the zest of two oranges and a heap of dark chocolate chips:

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not a raisin in sight!

But I couldn’t leave it there… I mean I’d only used the zest of the oranges, so I really needed to do something with the juice. The answer was clearly orange icing. So, I present to you, chocolate orange iced buns, the perfect spring (or any other season) bread product:

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not hot, not cross

Delicious with a cup of coffee.

 

 

The good soap dish guide

Over the past few years I’ve become a convert to soap – the solid bars, not the liquid. Using it can help significantly cut down on our use of plastic (soap is often sold wrapped in paper or in cardboard boxes and even completely unpackaged) plus it cuts down the unnecessary transportation of water (a large proportion of what’s in all those bottles of shampoo and liquid soap). In addition, it’s easy to find small soap producers who source their ingredients ethically and who do not use palm oil in any of its many forms. A number of people have told me that they cannot use soap at all, but I encourage you to give it a go. I used to find soaps very harsh on my sensitive skin, but these days there are so many options and so many good soap-makers who select their ingredients very carefully that you might be surprised. For example, goats milk soap is very gentle (I use one that also contains Calendula, which is great for sensitive skin) and the Castile soaps form a lotion rather than a lather and therefore have moisturising properties.

The one issue with bar soap, however, is that it does need to be treated with care so that it doesn’t become a soggy mess between uses. Simply keeping your soap in a bowl by the sink or worse still in the shower will just result in you ending up with a bowl of gloop. There are many different solutions – some better than others – so I thought it might be useful to share some examples for those of you considering using soap. The key issue is drainage – you soap will remain in the form of a solid bar and will last much longer if it can dry out between uses, so all soap dishes should be freely draining.

 

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coconut ‘flower’

None of my soap dishes are plastic. The first one I bought was made from a coconut shell on three little dowel legs, with a dozen holes drilled in the bottom. This is a beautiful dish, but there are a couple of issues with it. First of all, it’s round and with only having three legs it overbalances when I put a large new oblong bar in it. However, as you can see, it is the ideal shape for the solid shampoo I use, which comes in round cakes. The second issue is that the holes in the bottom do get clogged up and require cleaning out every few weeks to avoid this simply becoming a coconut shell bowl. Still, a little bit of hot water sorts out that problem. This dish has been in use for several years now and is still going strong.

 

In my search for soap dishes that were suitable for the soap that I normally use, I ordered two types from the company that soap comes from (The All Natural Soap Company). The first is a ridged wooden block, which allows free drainage even when it has got a bit soapy:

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ridged wooden block

This is the perfect size for the bars that I use and I have a couple of these beside the bath. The ridges get clogged after some weeks of use, but a quick scrub with a nail brush and some warm water returns them to a serviceable state.

 

Both the above dishes do dribble a bit, so they need to be placed on a non-permeable surface – sitting them on a small tray or saucer would be ideal, although I simply keep mine on the end of the bath.

I also have a wooden ladder-style soap holder that sits beside the kitchen sink. The soap here is the bar used most frequently and the chances of it becoming soggy are very high, so I chose this design with that in mind.

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kitchen sink soap

I have to keep it in a rectangular dish that needs to be washed out frequently, and this is probably the design that I am least happy with. As you can see, it’s rather suffered from getting wet so frequently, although the soap does stay quite dry.

 

If I had a suitable place to put it, though, my choice would always be a magnetic soap holder. These magic contraptions allow your soap to dry out completely and, as a result, last as long as possible. This is mine above the bathroom sink:

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my favourite

This holder comes with a metal disk with a wavy edge that you embed in the soap so that the magnet in the wall-mounted piece can hold the soap. Of course you need a suitable location to site these, preferably over the sink so that any drips (there won’t be many) are easily wiped away. This is my absolute favourite soap holder.

You’ll notice that none of my soap holders/dishes are made of breakable materials. That’s because the ceramic one I had got knocked into the sink and smashed. After that I decided I needed to stick to something less fragile.

 

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not plastic – honestly

Of course, you also need something to carry your soap in when you are away from home. I have two plastic soap boxes that I have owned for decades. These function perfectly adequately, although I have to be careful to drain them and leave the lids off as much as possible to allow the soap to dry. However, the lovely folks at All Natural Soap recently asked if I would test out a new soap box for them – they have been looking for a non-plastic version for sometime. When it arrived I was surprised that it did seem to be plastic, but apparently it’s made from natural materials and is biodegradable (they are testing this out currently by burying one in their compost heap and one in the soil). It’s not much different from standard boxes, although it does have some slight ridges in the bottom to help keep the soap dry – if they were deeper they would do the job better. Interestingly I trialled this and found that my soap did not form a soggy mess as long as I drained it well before closing the box, even when left shut for a week… I wonder if it ‘breathes’ a little. They are not yet available on the web site, but it’s nice to know there are non-plastic options out there and I’d certainly recommend this one when it becomes available.

 

So, that’s a quick tour of my soap holders. Do you have a favourite design at home? Do you use bars of soap?

 

Minding the shop

Sandwiches… check; knitting… check; mittens… check; shawl… check; woolly socks… check; thermal undies… check; keys… check.  It’s an odd combination of things to need for work, but I think that covers the most important stuff. And so, yesterday, I set off for my day in charge of Red Apple Yarn.

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a woolly tribute in the shop window

The loss of our friend Pauline has left a hole in our little knitting community. Whilst Red Apple Yarn is owned and run by Jude, it was Pauline who looked after the shop when help was required. Minding the shop this week was already in her diary and no one expected that she would no longer be with us to do it. The Knit Nighters, however, were determined to fill the hole and so we volunteered our services to keep the shop open this week so that Jude didn’t have to close up for her holiday… and yesterday was my day.

I should explain that Red Apple Yarn lives in the old Post Office in Lampeter and it still has many of the original features – wooden doors and window frames, the old counter (now L-shaped rather than running across the room), the wooden panelling and, most importantly when you’re sitting in there all day, a very high ceiling. It’s very difficult to keep warm, and the big, heavy outer door needs to be propped open otherwise no one would dare venture in, but it makes for a chilly work place… hence all the warm clothing.

Despite the temperature, I loved my day there. I settled down to knit and talk about wool. I found chatting to the gents whilst the ladies browsed  a good ploy. Of course a wool shop on a rainy Thursday is not the busiest place in the world*, so I had time to make use of the huge swift that Jude has in the shop and wind a couple of skeins that were too big for my antique one (skeins must have expanded in the last 100 years!). I cast on for my new top-down jumper and drank a lot of tea. I failed to locate the gift vouchers and a specific colour of yarn, but on the whole I think I had happy customers. In addition, I didn’t break the till – which I was slightly intimidated by. So, I’m hoping that I’ll get the chance to help out again in the future… it is a very happy place for me!

-oOo-

* Apparently, however, Sainsbury’s was heaving as people stocked up for the Easter weekend, when no food is available in the UK**

** No, really… we may all starve

Toasty toes

Finally, they are finished…

It has been a bit of a labour of love, including frogging most of the foot of the second one when I realised that I had miscounted my decreases. I won’t be rushing to make another pair from this rather challenging pattern, but they were most welcome today, when I spent the day in a rather chilly place… more about that tomorrow…

 

 

Hanging out to dry

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snap!

There are some things in life that you don’t buy very often… not because they don’t get used, but simply because they don’t wear out very quickly. A particular example is clothes pegs (pins). It’s probably 20 years since I bought any new ones and at the time the problem of plastic waste did not occupy my mind, although I can remember cursing about my old plastic pegs breaking. I think I looked for wooden ones, but couldn’t easily find any and so bought a (plastic) basket of (plastic) pegs from Woolworths. The basket has long since disintegrated and I made a felt peg bag some years ago. Recently, however, there has been an outbreak of exploding pegs. The plastic is finally breaking down and I’ve been cut several times as a peg snaps whilst being squeezed to open it. Some pegs have even snapped whilst in place on the washing line – leading to even more cursing and some essential re-washing.

My very old wooden pegs (given to me by my mum about 30 years ago) are still going strong, although they probably need soaking in something to get them clean, as I think things may have started growing on them. Unfortunately, there aren’t enough of them. So, a purchase was required. In this case I did not need to do any research because I knew exactly what I wanted. Years ago I read about a company in Scotland that was selling a product called K-pegs – strong metal pegs capable of holding washing on the line in the windiest of conditions. A little bit of hunting around and I found the company (Exquisite Scotland) and placed my order. They arrived a few days later and I have been very impressed. I’ve already tested them out in windy conditions and to secure a heavy mat and I’ve had no failures. There’s no plastic and they are easy to keep clean, so I think I am on to a winner…. and will probably never have to buy another peg again in my life. Oh, and wonderfully they arrived in re-used packaging… a company after my own heart.

My laundry issues did not stop there, however. I also have some plastic ‘smalls’ driers. I really like these because it means that when the inevitable rain comes, all those little things on the washing line can be brought in quickly and with minimum effort. Like the pegs, though, these elderly plastic items were starting to disintegrate. One was thrown out a few years ago and the remaining ones have started losing pegs and arms:

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gradually deteriorating

Replacing these took a little more research, but I found that several metal options are available. In the end I chose a version that does have plastic cables to suspend it, but that is mostly metal. The pegs are good and strong and, although the hook does not grip the washing line, the new K-pegs can be used to secure it.

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lots of pegs

So, I’m now all set for many years of hanging the washing on the line – no matter how windy it is.

Holidaying Hens

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doing their thing at home

Keeping livestock, even on a small scale involves lots of responsibility. When you go away, there are kennels in which to house your dogs and there are catteries for your kitties, but henneries (chickeneries?) are few and far between. Big farms may have staff or helpers, but back gardens do not. In years gone by our neighbours – previous chicken owners themselves – would pop round and care for our four ladies. However, now they are in their nineties (the neighbours not the hens) we think it’s a bit much to ask. So, some dear friends who also keep chickens have taken on the job.

The problem is that said friends live a half hour’s drive away, so calling round twice a day to let chickens out and put them to bed is not an option. And so, every time we go away, so do the chickens. First, they get stuffed into cardboard boxes and then transported by car to their holiday home. Fortunately our friends have a two-part run with two houses, so their flock and ours are kept separate (we don’t want any squabbles). They always continue laying whilst they are away, although the space is more restricted than at home, so they are clearly happy with their alternative accommodation.

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holidaying hens

And there are interesting neighbours to shout at…

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brown hens next door

We have considered installing automatic doors on the coop that have light sensors so that they open in the morning and close at night, which would mean that we could (in theory) leave them unattended for a few days. We are not, however, very comfortable with this idea. Taking care of animals comes with responsibility to attend to their needs and protect them, and leaving them unwatched would mean that we couldn’t be certain of their welfare. So, for now, they go on holidays and we are very grateful to have good friends who will help us out this way.

 

Springing into life 2018

Today is the vernal equinox – the first day of ‘astronomical’ spring. Despite the late snow here in the UK, spring has arrived with glorious sunshine and I have been busy potting up some of the plants that have grown from the seeds I sowed back in January. As with all seed sowing there have been successes and failures – and a minor slug invasion at germination time did for a few of the seedlings. The loofah seeds have not germinated and neither have some of the varieties of chilli, but I have not given up hope yet and I they may eventually appear.

I sowed generous amounts of parsley seed because it is notoriously fickle when it comes to germination. It appears that every single seed, however, has produced a plant, so I will be able to share these with my local friends (a particular pleasure when it comes to gardening). Last year I planted another unreliable germinator – lemon grass. Again, I was swamped with plants and gave lots away. Since it grows to quite a size, I only retained three plants for myself and these have been happy in the limery over the winter. Today they have been transplanted to larger pots and I’m looking forward to fresh, home-grown lemongrass in my cooking for the first time this year.

A few weeks ago, before things in the limery had actively started to grow, I decided to divide some of my carnivores. This was a little nerve-wracking as I’ve never done it before and I was not sure how they would respond. Several weeks down the line, however, I’m happy to report that they seem to be thriving, and there are lots of new pitchers (for the Sarracenias) and sticky leaves (for the Droseras). Several of these plants are destined for a friend who lives locally, so I’m delighted that the operation has been so successful. The tatty old pitchers from last year (or even the year before) look very sad compared to the vigorous new ones. The plants that I didn’t split are also springing back into life and it looks like flies are going to have a very hard time if they come into the limery this year.

There’s still more potting up to do and plenty of new seeds to sow later on in the week. I love harvesting, but the promise of abundance at this time of year really does lift my spirits.

Life and death

I haven’t written a proper post for ages and the longer I leave it, the more difficult it is to get going again. It’s not that I don’t have anything to write – quite the opposite. The real problem is deciding what to write about… soap dishes or lovely British wool, clothes pegs or plants,  knitting or crochet, a new home or hens on holiday… I seem to have been so busy the past few weeks. Eventually, I’m sure I’ll get round to telling you about some or all of these things, but in the mean time, here’s a little collection of photographs…

 

My busy weeks ended on a sad note. Quite a significant part of Saturday was spent remembering our lost knitting friend, Pauline Bambrey. The funeral was held at the crematorium in Aberystwyth. If anyone ever writes a ‘good crematorium guide’, this must come out as one of the most beautiful settings. The room where the celebrations are held has a huge window at the end, so those gathering to remember their loved ones look out over the most beautiful view. I don’t think I’ve ever been when there wasn’t a red kite swooping over the wooded valley, and Saturday was no exception. The sheer beauty of the place is always poignant:

And this was the music that the family had chosen to close proceedings…

 

 

For Pauline

We lost a lovely, funny, talented lady last week. Knit Night at Red Apple Yarn will not be the same without her. I can do no better than Jude’s words…

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Last week our friend Pauline died. Our thoughts are with her family, who have been through so much during her illness.

She was a warm and generous person with time for people. We shared the enjoyment in making knitting, collecting wool and sharing a hobby with others. While the shop has been open she has been a rock, encouraging me, listening to my struggles with commerce and buoying me up when things went wrong. I enjoyed her company. I wish I could have protected her from the cancer that ended her life too soon. I would have liked to get on and do all the things we had talked about doing  – visiting the lavender fields and that infamous trip to Shetland in a minibus with all the other ‘mad knitters of Lampeter’.  Every time I pick up needles and start a lace pattern I’ll remember her in my stitches…

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From snow to snails

This has been a glum weekend. We were supposed to be away celebrating a birthday, but we couldn’t get out of Wales…

Usually I would be only too happy to stay at home, but missing spending time with my family, having posh afternoon tea, eating at a lovely brasserie and going to the theatre has put an enormous damper on my mood. Often I cheer myself up with creative activities, but it’s been hard this weekend. I have forced myself to start a new knitting project and to return to yet another long-abandoned crochet project, but progress has been slow and my mood has been low. It’s certainly not been helped by the weather improving, such that two days later, there would be no problem travelling.

Anyway, I have a pair of Nordic socks underway The pattern is Starry Night Socks and I’ve only modified it a little bit! I’m mostly using the wool I bought in Norway a couple of years ago, half of which was used for another pair of socks.

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warm socks now it’s warming up again

The ‘old’ project is a cardigan that I wanted to wear for a wedding 18 months ago! The wedding came and went and the cardigan was not finished. Then I discovered that the pattern was very poor and didn’t properly describe how to align the little flower motifs in the border – there being a point where the flowers up the front simply didn’t line up with the flowers up the back (they are off-set by a third of a flower and it would only get worse when you add the next row and the final third row):

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this is where I stalled – any additional flower would be in the wrong place in relation to one of the existing rows (both correctly placed according to the pattern)

I contacted the designer to get advice and she was unhelpful, basically telling me just to fiddle around with the flower motifs until they fit. I was so fed up that I put it to one side and didn’t pick it up again until a few days ago. By this stage I had decided not to follow the pattern (what there was of it) and instead to do my own thing. Since I was already glum, I started by removing the row of flowers up the front and weaving in all 248 ends that remained, then I added a simple border along the fronts and back of the neck that would be easy to attach other things to. Once these tasks were done, I felt a little better about the project.

As you can see, I left the row of flowers up the centre of the back, but I don’t plan to repeat them for the borders. So, it was a case of playing about with what I actually wanted. Initially I thought about paisley motifs and combining these with some free-form crochet, but then I had an idea: snails! Why not make it a snail of happiness cardigan? I’ve only just started, but I think this sort of thing might make a splendid border:

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a cluster of snails

I can join them as I go and shape the border easily… and it will be both unique and very personal.

So, the weekend is drawing to a close and although I’ve wasted lots of time being sad, I’ve also made some things and I’m feeling happy about a project that, until now, was something of a millstone. I hope you have been having a happier time than me.

 

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