Saturday, 29 November 2014

Oh Christmas Tree, Oh Christmas Tree...!

There is always huge debate this time of year as to when everyone can and can't put up their Christmas trees - I don't mind how early or late people do it, for me I'd have it up all year round!

Mr Strong knows that there is nothing better at cheering me up than a little Christmas spirit - I adore this time of year! I like our tree to be up by 1st December, and then if I'm honest, by the end of Boxing Day, or perhaps the day after, I like to take everything down! For me, the lead up to Christmas is magical, spending time with family on Christmas Day and Boxing Day is the best, but usually after that I like to get ready for the freshness that comes with the New Year. That's not to say I get bored of Christmas - I genuinely love it all, but once we've celebrated Christmas Day, it feels wrong to have it up for much longer!

Our new tree is lovely, and as my birthday is in December too, it doesn't feel like my birthday until the tree is up. This year I turn 30 (Eeekkk!) and the tree was bought in the sales last year as my 30th birthday present - it's so worth it! Erin in particular is very switched on to Christmas this year, turning 4 just a few days before Christmas. Having got the tree up, with the lights on she just kept repeating "Wow, I LOVE it! I love the tree! Santa is going to LOVE it!" over and over, running around in a little frenzy. Even Caleb said "Wow" - I think this is technically his first word!lol!

Only 1 more day to go until our Kindness Elves arrive - I think I'm prepared!!! Stay tuned, December's focus will mainly be what we get up to with our Elves!

Tuesday, 25 November 2014

Printable Nativity Scene - Christmas Craft

It's my last week this Sunday leading the youngest group in kids work at church and I get the best teaching week - The Christmas Story!

It's so important not to let the story lose it's magic - yes I said it in the same sentence - nativity and magic!

The magical qualities of Christmas shouldn't be only for non-religious festivities, the true meaning of Christmas is the most magical of all. The journey, the circumstances in which Mary finds herself about to give birth, the arrival of the three wise men who have been following the star in eager anticipation of the birth of the King. The angel, an actual angel! Imagine being one of those shepherds - doing your normal shift with the sheep... and a angel appears, would you consider that maybe you were dreaming, or someone had slipped something in your drink earlier?! You would be stunned!!!

If it was today, and all these things happen, just imagine the hype that would be around. There would be camera crews on stand by, people would be talking about it, there would be a load of collectable mugs, T Shirts, "Keep Calm, Mary's had the baby" merchandise everywhere. I think it's so easy to take for granted the miracle element of it all, for it to become another children's story we roll out every year.

I found this brilliant free printable at Design Dazzle of the nativity scene (you just seen to sign up to their mailing list to get the PDF access, takes about 2 minutes!). Get some straw, an old shoe box, and make yourself a nativity scene - one the kids can actually play with, tell the story from Luke 2 and enjoy an interactive story time.

I am challenged this year, not only because the children are now older and can grasp some understanding of it, but that the magic of Christmas should not only be that Santa is coming on Christmas Eve. It's Jesus' birthday, that's an exciting time too!

Sunday, 23 November 2014

Christmas Chutney (Homemade Gifts)

I have grown up enjoying the chutney that my Nana used to make regularly, and it used to be the only one I liked. Every now and then we'd get a new jar, and it was delicious! Homemade jams and chutneys have always sounded like such a good idea but I've never attempted it myself. One of my best friends recently treated me to a night out at a cooking demonstration where they made a REALLY tasty chutney and made it look very simple - so I thought I'd finally have a go.

I spent a while researching how to seal jars at home, and have chosen the method below which suited me for what I wanted. It isn't the only way of doing it, but as the chutney's are for gifts I wanted to make sure they would be sealed safely!

Makes: 12 x 7oz Jars of Chutney (I used normal jam jars with screw top lids, bought new)

  • 1 Kg Fresh Figs - washed, trimmed and cut into 12 pieces per fig
  • 1kg Plums - washed, stoned and halved
  • 200g Raisins
  • 500ml Red Wine Vinegar
  • 3 Red Onions, finely chopped (If they are large onions, use only 2)
  • 4 Tsp Salt
  • 2 Tsp Chinese Five Spice
  • 2 Tsp Paprika
  • 700g Dark Muscavado Sugar
  • 12 x 7oz Jars (or similar depending on quantity you want in each jar)
  • Large pan, doesn't have to be a preserving pan.
  • Kraft Tags or Similar
  • Wax disks to fit inside the top of your jar (I didn't use but see below - I used a water bath)
  • Large Roasting Tray
Note: Fresh figs are out of season by October so they are a little pricey now. I would suggest (and I will do the same) making your chutney in the summer when they are cheaper. Next year I will try and adapt the recipe for dried figs as they are significantly cheaper. Best made in advance, as chutney develops in flavour over time.

I've been told it will keep for a year at least if sealed properly and airtight. I have recommended on our gift tags that they are used within a year, and once opened refrigerated and consumed within 2 weeks. I have kept a jar for testing to make sure they are ok before giving as gifts (purely because this is my first time and I want to be sure!).

Note about sterilizing and sealing the jars: I researched the best way that I felt I could do at home, and have included this in the method so you don't need to think about timings of doing two things at once. If you have done this before at home and have any tips or a different way of doing it that works for you that is fine, and I'd love to hear them! I found this blog post the most useful after hours of searching and finding lots of different methods!

  1. Place all the fruits into the large pan.
  2. Add the vinegar, salt and spices.
  3. Bring to the boil making sure you stir continuously to prevent it burning.
  4. Turn the heat down to simmer and cook for 10 minutes (without lid), or until the fruits have softened.
  5. Sterilising the jars and lids: Whilst waiting, wash your jars and lids. Place the lids in a saucepan so they are upside down and covered with at least 1 inch of water. Place your wet clean jars in your roasting tray and fill the tray with enough water to cover about 1cm of the tray.
  6. Once the chutney fruits have softened, add the sugar and keep stirring until it is all dissolved.
  7. Turn up the heat and bring to the boil.
  8. Cook the chutney until it is thick, so that when you run a spoon through it there remains a channel. This took just over 1 hour although the original recipe said it was much less. 
  9. Sterilising the jars and lids: Whilst you are waiting for your chutney to thicken, put your tray of jars into a cold oven. Turn the oven on to 120°C (Fan) and leave in the oven for 30 mins (I left mine in for the whole hour of the chutney thickening and they were fine!). For the lids, bring the pan to the boil and leave on a gentle boil for 30 mins. I also sterilized a metal spoon  and some metal tongues in the lid pan so that I could use them for grabbing the lids and putting the chutney into the jars.
  10. Once the chutney is at the desired thickness, and whilst hot, pour into hot sterilised jars and screw on the lid, making sure you don't touch the inside of the jar or lid. Make sure you screw your lid on "hand tight" - i.e. tight enough to do it up but not with all your strength!
  11. Allow to cool for at least 12 hours and don't touch the lids or press the tops!
  12. The hot chutney should create a vacuum in your jar as it cools. Once they are cool you can test the jar by pressing the top of the lid, if it moves, your seal has failed. If it doesn't move then it's safe to be stored away until opened.
Troubleshooting - has my jar sealed!?

I made the mistake of not screwing the lids on tight enough, so when I tightened them I wasn't sure the seal was still intact as a couple you could press down on. As they were for gifts I decided to use the water bath method to make extra sure they would be sealed. I knew they would be ok as the vinegar and sugar content is high enough for it to be preserved but I didn't want to take any risks. I put them in cold water in a large pan and covered with 2 inches of water, brought to the boil and gently boiled for 15 mins. I then left them in the pan to cool overnight and tested the seals the next day. They were fine (and I had peace of mind!) so are now in the garage ready to be gift wrapped.

Wax disks: I was told afterwards that they would probably have been ok if I had put a wax disk on the top of the chutney inside the lid making sure there were no air bubble. I'll be doing this next time although the water bath method was simple enough.

Storing: Having searched around it seems that a chutney's flavour develops over time, and they are best made 4-6 weeks in advance. They will keep for at least a year with enough sugar and vinegar content, as long as they are in a cool place (although a lot of online advance says they will keep for many years!), Once opened they need to be refrigerated and will keep for up to 4 weeks.

Saturday, 22 November 2014

Vanilla & Mixed Spice Christmas Biscuits

Along with the theme of homemade gifts, here is a biscuit recipe that I have made for Christmas presents this year. I am planning on wrapping these in cellophane bags like the clay decorations (I made sure I bought food grade bags) but I'll be doing that much closer to Christmas.

We made these a few years ago and I put them in Kilner Jars with some nice ribbon and tags, we also kept them as vanilla biscuits but iced them. This is a really versatile recipe, and I have adapted it today to give them a Christmas flavour. They are more a shortbread than a cookie biscuit, but they freeze well so I make them in advance and get out in December - no rushing around in December for us! I love being able to enjoy December - my Christmas cards are always posted out on the 1st, the Christmas shopping is pretty much finished and I can just enjoy it!

Makes: Approx 35-45 biscuits (about 2.5 inch square depending on the thickness)

Note: If you are just making these for yourselves rather than as gifts then you'll only want half the recipe! You also need to make and chill the dough before you can bake them.

Suitable for freezing

  • 500g Unsalted Butter (room temperature and cubed)
  • 360g Caster Sugar
  • 700g Plain Flour
  • 4 Tbsp Milk
  • 4 Tsp Vanilla Extract
  • 4 Tsp Ground Mixed Spice

  1. In a large bowl add the butter, flour and sugar, and rub until it is a breadcrumb consistency.
  2. Add the spice and mix well.
  3. Add the vanilla extract and the milk, mixing well again.
  4. Bring together into a ball and knead with your hands a little until it form a soft dough.
  5. Wrap in clingfilm or a covered bowl and chill for 30 mins in the fridge. (The first batch I forgot and left them in the fridge for an hour, but they were fine!)
  6. Remove from fridge and unwrap, kneading a few times to make the dough smooth.
  7. Roll out on a lightly floured surface until the dough is about 1cm thick (if like me you want more biscuits then you can do them a little thinner than this, but obviously reduce the baking time later on).
  8. Preheat your oven to 180°C (Fan Oven) or Gas Mark 4.
  9. Cut out your biscuits with your chosen cutter (These are lovely for snowflakes - our original vanilla version were iced snowflakes!) and place onto a tray lined with greaseproof or baking paper. Make sure they are a couple of cm's apart, they don't spread much though.
  10. Optional: If you want to emboss a message in them, do it now.
  11. Chill for 5-20 mins in the fridge (crucial as they will spread if you don't chill the butter in the biscuits - trust me, my first batch were terrible! My second batch I had to bake in two sittings so my first were chilled for 5 mins, and the second remained in the fridge until the first had finished baking).
  12.  Bake for 15-20 mins depending on the thickness - towards the end a minute can make the difference between crunchy and burnt so keep an eye on them!
  13. Leave to cool for a few minutes then transfer to a cooling rack.
  14. Enjoy!

These should keep in an airtight container for about 2 weeks but ours have never lasted that long (they've been eaten!).

They are also suitable for freezing and I have left them in the freezer for about a month before and they've been fine. Make sure you put them in a freezable and airtight container, lining with clingfilm or greaseproof paper, and covering with either of those again between layers. My containers usually have about 4 or 5 layers of biscuits in! They will defrost overnight at room temperature and can then be finished if icing or packaged ready to be given away.

You can also leave out the mixed spice and just have plain vanilla biscuits which a really nice!

Once I've wrapped and labelled ours I'll update this recipe with a picture of the final gift for you to see!

Friday, 21 November 2014

Kindness Elves Part 2: What activities to do?!

So, a few posts ago I talked about the idea of Kindness Elves and we are now approaching the time when they will be coming to stay in our house! In fact, it's only about a week away!!

The children will receive a letter from Santa on the 1st December, which is when the elves will be hidden somewhere having arrived for their stay. They'll then be found every day in December with a little activity card, and a praise token giving them a "well done" for the previous days activity (obviously they won't get one on 1st December). They'll also get a chocolate coin each every day - I may change my mind on that, we'll see how it goes!

Here are Cedar and Spruce, our Kindness Elves with a set of cards.

In December we'll be posted updates on what we're doing every day. Our activities are basic, having 3 children under 4 years old I'm not expecting Caleb (Age 1) to be getting involved but Lara (Age 2.5) and Erin (almost 4) will be. This year our focus is being kind in the simplest form - mostly making our friends and family happy. That's something they can grasp, and our activities reflect that. As they get older things will become more complex and involved. We touch on being thankful, and being kind to others, and the focus for us from a Christian point of view is that God likes us to be kind to others. Christmas time should be full of joy, of giving (not receiving, although it is nice!) and full of thinking of others - mix it with some fun and activities and I think we're on to a winner!

If you'd like to have a go and aren't sure what to do with your elves, here are some printable resources which I've designed for us. You are more than welcome to use them! (They are intended for personal use only.)

1st December Letter
Activity Cards
Praise Tokens
Christmas Eve Letter

I'm looking forward to trying this out this year! I hope you'll have fun reading about what we get up to!!

Homemade No-Bake Clay Decorations (Child Friendly Craft)

Homemade decorations can have mixed reviews, sometimes they are a lovely idea but let's face it, running through our minds are "what an earth am I going to DO with this!?" Other times, if done with a little thought and a few finishing touches, they can be really wonderful.

Christmas is expensive for most people, and as the years pass by the budgets increase. This year, having just sorted ourselves out financially after a number of years working hard to become debt free, I decided it was time to re visit homemade gifts.

This year, there will be homemade chutney, biscuits (stay tuned for those) and clay decorations to go with a small gift in an attempt to be sensible this year. But mostly - I LOVE making things for people! I love crafting, making, baking, cooking, and I really love homemade things. Not only do I reap the enjoyment of making them, but this year, so have the children, and it's been a really fun thing to do on rainy Sunday afternoons!

You will need:

Cellophane Gift Bags or Cellophane on a roll
2kg of Air Drying White Clay (available online or at craft shops)
Snowflake cutter (or cutter of your choice)
9m Ribbon for hanging (Snowflakes only)
Curling Ribbon for gift bags
Kraft Labels or Tags
Glitter Paint and Paint Brush (optional)
Rolling Pin
Greaseproof or Baking Paper
Sharp knife (handprints only)

Makes: Out of this we made 24 snowflake decorations, and 9 handprint keepsakes. The number of bags and tags you will need will depend on how many you want per gift. If you want to hang your handprints too, then you will need probably another 2m of ribbon.

Note: These take a few days to dry out so ideally start to make them a couple of weeks before you need them!

How to:

1. Firstly, roll out your clay until it is the thickness you want - we did ours quite chunky so they were about 1cm thick.

2. Cut out your shape of choice (we used snowflakes) and place onto greaseproof paper lined trays (or plates, whatever you have).

3. We also made handprint keepsakes of all the children, 3 of each child. Get them to press their hands into the clay, and then cut around the print with a sharp knife (once their hand has been removed from the clay!). Again, once done place onto lined trays.

4. Using the end of the paintbrush or a pen / pencil, create a hole in the middle of the shape for hanging. It's up to you whether you put a hole on the handprint keepsakes.

5. Leave on the trays out of reach of little hands (or big hands if you have curious adults!) for about 5 days to completely dry out. They need to be in a dry place, we put ours on the top of the wardrobes and they dried out at room temperature.

6. Once they are dry, you can paint them if you like. We used glitter paint to give a little sparkle when the Christmas Tree lights catch them. Leave to dry - they dry quite quickly but I left them for a day to be sure! You can see in the pictures the difference between the painted ones and the ones yet to be done.

7. Cut a length or ribbon enough to hang with, and knot it at the top. If you haven't made the hole quite big enough you can make it bigger by gently pushing a pencil through the back.

8. Package up into your bags, depending on how many you want per gift.

9. Write your tags (I used a "Homemade with Love" stamp too). Please make sure they know these are not edible!lol!

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Hello, remember me?!

Hi to all my readers :-)

I know it has been a very long time since I last blogged, and it wasn't the intention to leave it so long, but things have been a real struggle for me in the last couple of months, and I'm only starting to feel like myself again with the arrival of the festivities!

We have been through the hardest few months we've ever experienced, and when I thought it was all calming down, everything went up a gear and unfortunately this blog had to come last on my to do list. Not because I wanted it to, I have so desperately wanted to share what is going on but not been able to find the words. The longer I left it, the harder it has been to know what to say - that's ridiculous I know!

So here I am, having written so many posts in my head but not actually written them on here - I have a lot of catching up to do. There are so many things I've done with the intention of having tutorials, fun Christmas projects etc, but I've just not had the time to write it all down. I will do, and it may be too late for this year but they'll be here for next.

I have only just kept my head above the water with everything at home recently, and as much as I hate to admit it, have had a number of emotional breakdowns when it's all gotten too much. Thank you to our friends who are walking with us through everything.

It's amazing how a longer day for Mr Strong, challenging behaviour from one child, teething from another and frustration on my part for not feeling like I'm doing what I should be or want to for our family, can have such an impact on things. I hold my hand up and say my natural reaction is to pull back, re group (I have learned recently how to pray very hard for things, seemingly constantly as there's nothing else I can do) and re assess everything.

For those of you who know me well, know that I love being with people, but that actually being in my own company re fuels me, and I get myself into a bit of a state if I don't have adequate time to just be me.

A number of times I've wanted to pack our bags and leave Norfolk. Not that it would have solved anything but that's how I felt. What I have learned most, which I thought I already had (obviously not!!) is how to wholly rely on God. And I mean WHOLLY, not leave things, try and cope, try and change them, and THEN pray. No, I mean pray, pray, pray and then let's just pray some more - because I have NO idea what is happening, what the plan is, how this is all going to work out, but by praying I know that there is at least the smallest amount of hope left in me somewhere that God has it all in hand.

Someone asked me this week if it was hard having three children. I don't think anyone has ever asked me that. I've had the unending comments from passers by, "You've got your hands full", "Are they all yours!?" and similar attempts at polite humour. Every time I've heard it, it's ground me down just that little bit more - not because I don't love my children abundantly, not because I regret having our family, but just because like many parents, life just sucks sometimes and is just a little more than one person can handle. So my answer to the question was "Yes, it is really hard, but it's ok". It's ok because I am no different to any other parent, whether they have one, two, three or more children. I am tired. I would like to go to the bathroom without an audience. I would like to stop having to tell my children to not jump of the sofa's. I would like to go and buy a new pair of shoes because shoes don't make you feel overweight!lol! I would LOVE to go and sit on the beach and just listen to the waves crashing on the sand, in peace and quiet......

But right now I can't do that, and I am learning that God's plan is so much better, even when it feels like you just want to double check He's not got distracted and left you to make a cup of tea!

Life right now is hard. I am not saying that to receive sympathy, this is just me being honest!

So, as the next few weeks come around, I will be turning 30, Erin will be turning 4 (where did that go!?) and we have the MOST wonderful time of the year approaching! Oh how I am thankful for so many things this year!

Throughout December we'll be having a visit from our Kindness Elves, each day we'll post what we've done. At the end there will be a printable for you to use or adapt if you want to have a go next year. We have made some home made Christmas Tree decorations, I've made my first ever home made chutney and there'll be some biscuits too - all home made gifts with recipes and tutorials.

Christmas is my favourite time of the year - it represents family, spending time together, being thankful and giving generously to others. Most of all, it signifies the birth of Jesus, who has given us life, eternal life for anyone who comes knocking. He never said it would be easy, but it's all worth it to be shaped and refined to become more like Him.

Looking forward to being back!