Make yourself a merry little Christmas…

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Join me at my house for a cup of tea, a glass of wine, a slice of cake and a little light crafting and cooking. I’ll show you how to make some simple and irresistible Christmas presents, such as marigold soap and rose milk bath, scented sugars, pine cone firelighters, seedy crackers and chilli vodka. I’ll also demonstrate some easy decorations like dried orange and pine cone garlands, so your home smells as good as it looks this Christmas.

WHEN? NOVEMBER 9  – Sold Out
      or NOVEMBER 30 – Sold Out  
      2.30-4.30pm

HOW MUCH? £30, includes refreshments and a copy of my book, Gifts from the Garden: 100 Gorgeous Homegrown Presents
You can book from the PayPal link in the right hand column, or email me for further details.

Don we now our gay apparel. Or not.

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My nephew Angus with Barney Candy Striper.

Last Thursday was one of my favourite days of the year: Stoke Newington dog walkers’ Christmas party. The morning when a few dozen people and dogs gather by the ponds in Clissold Park at our normal dog-walking hour of nine-ish, and – for one day only – our paper cups are filled with mulled wine rather than coffee. Christmas cake and mince pies and biscuits and brownies are scattered across the picnic table in a haphazard selection of foil and Tupperware. I always bring my chorizo sausage rolls. I get up early to make them so they’re still warm. I reckon that should stand me in good stead with Santa and the Baby Jesus.

Barney even had a special outfit. I made it for our Church Street Christmas carols and mulled wine evening last week. There was a Most Festive Dog competition and I hoped dressing him up as a parcel would distract from his eternally-serious terrier face. It didn’t. He was trounced by his pal Roxie, a smiley Staffie who in the summer won Most Regal Dog (headscarf, pearls, tiara) at our Jubilee street party. We now call her Roxie Two Time and she may be the most famous dog in Stoke Newington, possibly the world.

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Roxie and Willie, in Jubilee finery.

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Roxie, Most Festive Dog.

So being a thrifty sort who believes firmly in cost per wear, I thought Barney could don his splendid bit of doggy couture for the dog walkers’ party. (Aside: More correctly, haute glueture as it is, I believe, a fine example of all the good things that can happen when you bring together felt, ribbon and glue gun.) He wore it for approximately 30 seconds before I had to admit that given the dripping, sloshing, gushing rain it would only weigh him down in the inevitable flood and he would be swept away to Finsbury Park and beyond. So he went nude, which is his favourite state.

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Pah! Rain.

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Stoicism, N16.

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Dorie and Taz.

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Karen’s homemade chocolates

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I always take a batch of Doggie Breath Bones too.

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Intrepid Lexie.

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Barney, nude.

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Barney, with Nero, a slightly larger dog.

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Composition: Damp leaves, damp dog.

Are we there yet?

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Here we are on Day 800 of our Christmas preparations and I feel like I’m on first name terms with every single piece of dried fruit in my larder. But this mincemeat really is worth the tiny bit of effort involved in making it. It will see you through an Office Hero quantity of mince pies and if you have any left, you could try this Mincemeat Crumble Tart which makes a nice alternative to a traditional pudding on Christmas Day for those of you who don’t care for it. I know you’re out there.

While we’re on the subject of puddings and fruity things, I’m a bit furious at Morrisons for their Christmas advert which features a little boy sneaking some Christmas pud to his dog under the table. Unless you want this Christmas to live on in family memory as the one where Timmy accidentally killed Rover, this is a really bad idea. Raisins, currants and sultanas can be highly toxic to dogs and ingesting them can lead to renal failure and death. Not very festive.

I know this because a couple of years ago, I had a box filled with Christmas puddings sitting in the corner of my dining room ready to do a taste test for a magazine feature. Our dog Barney got into the box, into one of the puds and was halfway through it before I discovered the crummy little buggar. Cue a trip to the vet’s, charcoal tablets, three days on a drip and a bill of ‘nice little holiday somewhere warm’ proportions. So don’t be as silly as Morrisons and do keep all of the pud, cake and pies for yourself.

Plum and apple mincemeat

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This recipe comes from River Cottage Handbook No. 2 Preserves, by Pam ‘The Jam’ Corbin. Pam’s recipe is unusual as it contains no suet. I like this as I think it gives the mincemeat a fresher, cleaner more lively flavour. Pam uses Russet apples but I didn’t have any of these kicking about so used Blenheim Orange instead. This is one of my favourite apples, great for eating and cooking, so grab some if you can find them.

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Makes 4 x 450g jars

1kg plums 
Finely-grated zest and juice of 2-3 oranges (200ml juice)
500g russet apples, peeled, cored and chopped into 1cm cubes 
200g each currants, raisins and sultanas 
100g orange marmalade 
250g Demerara sugar 
½ tsp ground cloves 
2tsp ground ginger 
½ nutmeg, grated 
50ml ginger cordial or wine (optional) 
100g chopped walnuts 
50ml brandy or sloe gin

Wash the plums, halve them and remove the stones. Put them into a saucepan with the orange juice and cook gently until tender. This could take as little as 15 minutes but may take longer if your plums are not very ripe. Blend into a purée in a blender or liquidiser, or press through a sieve. You should have about 700ml plum purée.

Put the purée into a large bowl with the rest of the ingredients, apart from the brandy or gin. Mix thoroughly, cover and leave for 12 hours.

Preheat the oven to 130˚C/250˚F/Gas mark ½. Put the mincemeat in a large baking dish and bake, uncovered for 2 – 2 ½ hours until thickened. Stir in the brandy or gin (it will bubble up and steam quite a bit), then spoon into warm, sterilised jars, making sure there aren’t any air pockets. Seal and store in a dry, dark, cool place until ready to use. It will keep for up to 12 months.

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Please Support the Blue Cross Big Neutering Campaign

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A couple of years ago, I was walking Barney in Clissold Park when I saw a young woman, hugely pregnant, crying on a bench as her spaniel leapt and yapped around her. It turned out she was terrified of how she’d cope with a lively young dog who ran off all of the time when she had a baby to take care of too. I asked her if she’d thought of having the dog neutered as he might calm down a bit. ‘Oh no, she said. ‘My husband won’t hear of it.’

So here the poor woman was, dragging a randy, roamy dog around the park because her husband’s fragile sense of masculinity rested entirely on the entirety of his dog. Which he didn’t walk.

He’s one of many. I meet people all the time who don’t spay and neuter their pets because the thought of it makes them squeamish, or because they think they should have ‘just one litter’ or some other self-indulgent nonsense. I’ve also lost count of the number of dogs I’ve seen abandoned in the park, either old and frail or younger dogs who’ve started to lose their puppy-cuteness and amiability. My friend Louise Glazebrook  is a dog behaviourist and trainer who is constantly trying to find homes for abandoned dogs who somehow find their way to her doorstep when there’s no room in the shelters. As there increasingly isn’t.

The animal charity Blue Cross has seen a 40% increase in the number of stray and abandoned pets they have taken in since 2010. I know that this isn’t something you might expect to read about on my blog, with its confection of recipes and ribbon, but it’s something I feel passionate about so I hope you’ll indulge me. The Blue Cross has launched their Big Neutering Campaign to encourage pet owners to neuter their pets.

Kim Hamilton, chief executive of Blue Cross, explains: ‘The tragedy is that somewhere along the line pets have become the latest throwaway commodity. For many, their pets are part of the family but there are simply too many pets and not enough of these good homes to go round. While charities like Blue Cross will always be there to give needy pets a healthy, happy future we must reverse this trend so pets are not disposed of like rubbish and neutering your pet is the norm.’

Neutering reduces the risk of some illnesses, makes your dog less likely to roam and fight, and in the case of males, makes them less likely to be a target of aggressive dogs. Please consider it.

Recipes for Summer Rentals: II

2012-06-17 09-33-03-917 Applied slummocking

We slip easily into the holiday routine of slummocking around in pyjamas until late*, hasty individual breakfasts foraged from unfamiliar cabinets, large gin-and-tonics before lunch, books and naps after, followed by little excursions to a village, a monument, a garden, a beach or the bright lights of Skibbereen, then the inevitable slouch towards Campari-and-sodas or stouts in the pub and dinner.

One excursion to Union Hall included a trip to the excellent fishmonger, supplied daily by the town’s own small fishing fleet. If you’re nervous about cooking fish, especially for a crowd, especially if the only frying pan at your disposal is a mean and wretched thing, bake it in a roasting tin on top of all of your vegetables.

*DISCLAIMER I need to exclude my father from the slummocking business. A June baby, according to family legend he was born wearing a light-coloured checked shirt and a good sweater.

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Looking over Sandy Cove

2012-06-21 02-36-45-231 A boy, a dog, a bay

2012-06-21 02-40-37-682 A most delicious stick

One-dish white fish

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You can scale this up or down, depending on the size of the oven and roasting tin at your disposal and the number of people around your table. I used whiting, but pollock or any other white fish would work well too. You can add a handful of black or green olives when you add the fish and mussels if you like.

Enough potatoes for 4 people, scrubbed and cut into wedges
3 red onions, peeled and cut into wedges
Olive oil
Juice and pared zest of 2 lemons (use a vegetable peeler to pare the lemons, making sure you scrape off any white pith)
2 red peppers, cored and cut into thin strips
2 yellow peppers, cored and cut into thin strips
4-6 cloves of garlic, sliced
4 fillets of whiting
A couple of handfuls of cleaned mussels
A handful of parsley, tough stalks removed and chopped
Salt and freshly-ground black pepper

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Preheat the oven to 190ºC/370ºF/Gas mark 5. Scatter the potatoes and onions in a large roasting tin, pour over a glug or two of oil, the zest and juice of one of the lemons and season well with salt and pepper. Toss everything together with your hands and cover tightly with foil. Bake for about 30-40 minutes and remove the foil. If the potatoes are tender (if not, re-cover them and cook for a bit longer), mix with the peppers and garlic and return, uncovered, to the oven and bake until the peppers are soft and the potatoes start to take on some colour, about 25 minutes. Remove from the oven, stir in the parsley, and lay the seasoned fish fillets over the top. Scatter on the mussels, add the remaining lemon zest and juice and cover tightly with a double layer of foil. Return to the oven for about 10 minutes, until the fish is cooked through and the mussels opened. Serve with more lemon wedges on the side.

Today’s holiday reading:

Julia was making flaky pastry. Oliver liked to sit watching her folding in lard, rolling, folding, turning. The quick movements of her strong wrists, powdered with flour, pleased him. Mrs Lippincote’s old mixing-bowl pleased him, too. The creamy glazed earthenware was scribbled over faintly with sepia cracks, and a spiral of indigo wound thickly round it. He was probably the only person who had ever thought it beautiful. Julia stamped out the centres of the vol-au-vent cases and took the baking tray to the oven. She knelt there, sodding and blasting with the heat puffing over her red face, and brought out another tray of pastry. “Risen beautifully,” she told herself. She began to clear up and Oliver returned to his arithmetic book. “Nine and nine is eighteen,” he began to drone. Roddy had said he shouldn’t go to school until the next term, but get his strength up instead, run wild a bit. Oliver simply didn’t know how to run wild, so he sat in the kitchen and watched his mother. And five is twenty-three.

From At Mrs Lippincote’s by Elizabeth Taylor, 1945

Parks and dogs and sausage rolls

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I’ve been to grander parties, it’s true. This is a long way from silver trays of canapés in elegant hotels, premier cru in posh houses fragrant with pine Diptyque candles and money, or carefully constructed cocktails in private members’ clubs.
But this is the party I look forward to as soon as I flip the calendar over to December. Every Christmas, those of us who walk our dogs in Clissold Park assemble in the breath-misting morning chill to swap stories, drink, eat.

Rachel put together her camping stove for the mulled wine and the graffiti’d picnic table quickly disappeared beneath foil-wrapped and plastic-boxed Christmas treats, thermoses of coffee, paper napkins and plastic cups.

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It’s a very Stoke Newington affair. Mince pies and Christmas cake sit alongside Phil’s home-smoked cheese, Riccardo and Alastaire Spanish cinnamon cookies and Cat’s spanakopita.
It was -2ºC, so I perked up a cup of Lee’s hot chocolate with a nip of rum from Alastaire’s hip flask. Dogs barked, sniffed, made covert and not-so-covert attempts to raid the table. Toddlers nibbled chocolate brownies as a few feet above their heads, adults discussed favoured routes to Devon and Denmark, snow warnings and the misery of Oxford Street. People swapped cards and invitations, exchanged hugs, kissed.

By 11am I was at my desk, trying to nudge my rum-warmed brain to focus on my last feature of the year. But what I was really thinking was that it would be a good thing for the happiness of the nation if there were more parties where it was entirely acceptable to wear your gardening shoes.

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Polly looks hopeful.


Chorizo sausage rolls

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There are so many sweet offerings at the dog walkers’ Christmas party, I always try to make something savoury to balance the early morning sugar rush. Sausage rolls filled with River Cottage’s  Tupperware chorizo have a fiery kick, appropriate for a morning when ducks skid across thick ice on the pond and walkers swaddled in Gore-tex and wool tread gingerly on frosty pavements.

The chorizo is easy to make – you just squish it all together – but you need to refrigerate it for at least a day for the flavours to develop.

Makes about 30 small sausage rolls

For the chorizo:
750g pork shoulder, coarsely minced
1 tbsp sweet smoked paprika
2 tsp hot smoked paprika
3 garlic cloves, finely chopped
2 tsp fine sea salt
1½ tsp fennel seeds
¼ tsp cayenne pepper
50ml red wine
Freshly ground black pepper

A little oil for frying
3 sheets of ready-roll all-butter puff pastry, about 35cm x 22cm
An egg beaten with a little water


Put all the chorizo ingredients into a bowl and mix thoroughly with your hands, squishing the mix through your fingers to distribute the seasonings evenly. Heat a little oil in a frying pan, break off a walnut-sized piece of the mixture, shape into a tiny patty and fry for a few minutes on each side, until cooked through. Taste to check the seasoning, remembering that the flavours will develop further as the mixture matures.
Cover the mixture and store in the fridge for at least 24 hours before using; this will allow the flavours time to develop. It will keep for about 2 weeks.

When you’re ready to make the sausage rolls, unroll the pastry and give it a gentle going over with a rolling pin to increase its size slightly. Cut it in half lengthways, make the chorizo into a long snakes about 2cm thick and lay them down the middle of the pastry rectangles. Brush one long edge of the pastry lightly with the egg wash, roll the other edge over the top to join and press the edges together firmly. Trim with a sharp knife so you have an even edge (if you like – wonky sausage rolls are also incredibly delicious). Cut them into 4cm pieces and place them on baking sheets lined with baking parchment, keeping them about 2cm apart as they will expand a bit. Chill for about 30 minutes.

Brush the sausage rolls with the egg wash. I also ground some black pepper and sprinkled a bit more sweet paprika over the top but that’s not essential. Place them in a hot oven, 200ºC/400ºF/Gas Mark 6, for 20-25 minutes until the pastry is golden and the pork cooked through. If you can, eat them warm.

Chocolate and the essential art of sloth

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I love working from home. I take phone calls with the Gilmore Girls temporarily on mute, check emails while singing along enthusiastically if tunelessly to 42nd Street and type with a dog to warm my feet and a pair of kittens snoozing in my in tray. My one shiver of envy for office workers comes when we have so much snow, trains don’t run, offices close and they get the day off. Frustratingly – as my office is a gentle 60 second stroll from my bed – it would take quite the snow storm to make it impossible for me to clock in.

IMG_2406 This picture was taken by my friend Stephen Morallee.

Ty Snow1 Ty tastes his first snow.

Stephen 1 Stephen trying to take pictures. Thwarted.

Jess scarf Jess, all wrapped up.

I was thinking about this as I walked Barney in the park, my boots crunching through the dazzling layer of crisp snow. Our usual dog walking number was swelled by a few office refuseniks, excited at the prospect of a day off. So – in the spirit of solidarity – I declared a snow day myself. No work, just pottering. If I’m honest, to the naked eye this wouldn’t have looked very different to a normal day. Show tunes, yes, messing about in the kitchen, certainly, but deadline stress, tricky emails and scaling of the accounts mountain so large its about to be granted its own postcode, were banned.

I’d been sent a bag of Trish Deseine’s new milk chocolate buttons to try. I needed to cook them – what they’re intended for – before I ate the whole bag. I flipped through the pages of Trish’s Best of Chocolat (in French, just so you know) which I bought when we were in Agde in the summer and decided the milk chocolate, date and almond cake was a suitable fate for my precious and rapidly diminishing bounty.

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I love Trish Deseine’s food. It’s cosy, sexy, sophisticated and her books are shot through with her natural warmth and humour. She is from Northern Ireland and has lived in France for the past twenty years or so, where she has enjoyed un succès fou showing the French how to create simple and delicious meals which require neither a sous chef nor a trust fund. Luckily for us, she has published several books in English. Try them. You will like.

Chocolate by Trish

Trish’s chocolate is available from Selfridges or by mail order in the UK from Chocolatebytrish.com

Rich chocolate cake with dates and almonds

This flourless chocolate cake has an intense, almost wine-y depth of flavour. It’s grown up, rich, fudgy and, yes, intensely chocolate-y. It keeps very well for a few days too, if you’re the sort of person who can sleep while there’s chocolate cake in a tin on your kitchen shelf.

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DSCN3374 Really, how could it not be good?

Serves 8 to 10 people

250g milk chocolate, Trish’s magic buttons are 38%
3 egg yolks
3 eggs
125g light muscovado sugar
175g ground almonds
100g whole almonds, toasted* and finely chopped
175g unsalted butter, plus a little more for greasing
150g Medjool dates, stoned and chopped, if you can’t get hold of Medjool dates, poach ordinary dates for three minutes in a little water and sugar

Lightly grease a 25cm loose-bottomed cake tin, line it with a circle of baking parchment and butter the parchment. Preheat the oven to 170°C/325°F/Gas Mark 3.

Put the chocolate and butter in a heatproof bowl and melt in a microwave or over a bowl of barely-simmering water (the bottom of the bowl shouldn’t touch the water). Cool slightly.

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In a large bowl, beat together the eggs, egg yolks and sugar until light and creamy – the beaters should leave a ribbon trail across the surface when you lift them out of the batter. Add the ground and chopped almonds and the dates and stir until well combined. Lightly but thoroughly fold in the melted chocolate and butter with a spatula. Pour into the cake tin and bake for about 50 minutes – the centre should still wobble a bit as it will firm up as it cools. Let it cool in the tin before turning it out.

* Place them in an even layer on a baking sheet and bake them at 180°C/350°F/Gas Mark 4 for about 6 minutes. Cook them for a minute or two longer if they still look a bit pale but keep checking them as they can burn very easily.

IMG_2434 I took some of the cake to the park the next day – I’m kind like that. This picture was taken by Stephen Morallee.