Category Archives: Miscellaneous

It’s a wrap: how to do **all** your Christmas shopping in twelve hours (or less)

Ditch the seasonal stress and become an oasis of calm and festive cheer this Christmas!

I’m every woman. No, really, I am. I’m a wife, I’m a mother, I’m in charge of cooking, cleaning, ironing, ensuring homework gets done, lunches are made, bags are packed, I’m responsible for running the varied family timetable to precision with all its different—and frequently overlapping—activities day in and out. Oh, and did I mention I work? Plus we have pets. So, you see, I am every woman.

Don’t get me wrong, I love Christmas; but it does stress me out. It’s a logistical nightmare. Presents, activities, present wrapping, food shopping, keeping the kids (and the relatives) entertained in the run-up to the Big Day, let alone when they’re all together… It’s hard work. Time is of the essence if, like me, you haven’t got enough hours in the day even before the Christmas madness truly hits.

But over the past few years, I have perfected the system for taking the stress out of Christmas, at least where the logistics of present organising and wrapping are concerned. This year, I set a personal record of getting it all done in a total of twelve hours over two days. And if I can do it, so can you.

Here’s how.

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Your goal: a tower of presents ready and wrapped for festive jollification

Day 1: Preparation and Online Bonanza

1. Make a list of lucky gift recipients (15 minutes)

I know it’s obvious, but a list has to be your starting point. Without a plan, this whole operation won’t work. Make an honest and exhaustive list; put everyone on it who you will want to shower with gifts. Kids, husband or wife, parents, grandparents, brothers and sisters, nephews and nieces, aunties, uncles, friends, long lost relatives in outer Mongolia, the old lady up the road who always takes in your parcels. Leave no one out.

2. Brainstorm (45 minutes)

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Wearing your best St Nick’s hat…

Once you’ve got your list, populate it with ideas. The children will have given you a wish list—transfer all the items on your list mercilessly. (This doesn’t mean you have to get all of it, but at least you won’t forget any of it!) Think of things your husband would like, your parents-in-law, your own parents… No holds barred. Allow yourself to be creative.

At the end of this stage, your list must show ideas for everyone, however small or general the idea may be. For example, for the lady down the road who always takes in your parcel, “a nice Poinsettia” will be a good placeholder until you get shopping. For your five-year-old glitter-obsessed niece, “glitter art” will be a perfect reminder of what to look out for. You get the idea.

3. Go online (2 hours maximum)

Now you’ve got ideas brimming over, go online and go crazy, especially for the Big Things. A well-known search engine will pull up for your convenient comparison all manner of online retailers with their respective prices if you simply type in what you are looking for. When you see something that suits your budget, pounce. Buy it, and have it delivered to your house wherever possible. Don’t spend hours dithering and ensuring you get the absolutely best possible deal to the last penny; there simply isn’t time.

Right. Well done. You’ve got the big pieces in place. Cross them off your list and breathe. You are done for today.

Day 2—Real life shopping

This is crucial final stage of your new grand master plan. You need to set aside a day to bite the bullet and Get It Done. Also, you want to think of the one store that will satisfy at least ninety percent of your outstanding shopping needs. In my case, that store is a local independent art and toy shop that also sells magazines, calendars, knick-knacks, stationery, and haberdashery. It’s a veritable treasure trove, and the prices aren’t too different from online retailers. (I know. I checked).

4. Go shopping crazy (2 hours)

So, pick one shop, and go for it. Grab a basket or a trolley and pile in items from your list, but also other items that inspire you. The beauty of going into a small(-ish) store with a varied but manageable stock is that you get loads of new ideas. The important thing is to put things in your basket when you see them, even if you’re not quite sure how you might use them. What’s in your basket, you don’t have to hold in your head. Simple.

After an hour or so, take stock of what you have and allocate items to the people on your list. (You remembered to bring your list, right?) Write down who might like what; this is important because in four hours, you might not remember who’s supposed to have the Tattoo Art. You’ll find that some of the New Things You Found Along The Way will fill some amazing gaps on your list. And if there are any items in your basket that on reflection you don’t want after, you can put them back on your way out.

Continue browsing until you’ve got everything and everyone covered. If you’re finding that to be impossible, keep going until no more than three or four items/people remain unaccounted for. Your goal at this stage is to Get The Bulk Of The Presents That You Didn’t Order Online, but remember, two hours is the max. Then: Brace yourself and pay.

5. Have a break. Lunch, or a nice slice of cake (30 minutes)

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Ginger bread latte… yum!

Retire to an eatery and take stock. Work out where you can get the remainder of the presents that you need. For example, this year, I frequented a local bookstore. If you have to resort to multiple mini-buys, think strategically about where the shops are and write out the order in which you want to visit them. Ideally, this will be working your way back towards the car park or, in my case, the bus stop. Then: ready, steady, go!

6.Get the rest of your presents (1 to 2 hours max!!)

7. Go home

Wahoo! Home-time. You’ll be filled with the “oh wow, I did it” glow, and the sense of relief will be overwhelming. But calm yourself, the day’s not done yet.

8. Make a strong cup of tea or coffee and put the Christmas music on

If you don’t have to drive again today, you might also treat yourself to a mug of mulled wine. This is important because next you will…

9. Wrap the presents (1 to 2 hours)

Yes. You must wrap the presents. I know, I know. You’ve worked hard, you’re tired, your feet hurt, you just want to chill. The wrapping can wait.

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Critical tools…

Not! No no no no no. Give yourself a pep talk and get on with it. Of course you’ve bought wrapping paper, labels, and ribbons. (Add them to your list now). So: just do it. This is the final frontier. Belt out the Christmas tunes as you go and munch on some mince pies for sustenance.

Watch the pile of festive goodies grow as you work, and feel the magic seep through your bones as you realise you are on the homestretch. You’ve done it. You’ve conquered Christmas. Hooray! Now all you need to do is hide the presents, and then you can put your feet up. Tomorrow, you’ll be the smug one ambling to the school gates and going to work in a state of unprecedented, zen-like calm. You are the Festive Goddess. You are in control. Everything else is a doddle.

And why does this work? The secret is all in the prep work. The list, and the ideas, and the grand plan for shopping.

Well done you, and Merry Christmas!

Psssst…. Don’t forget to come back and tell me how you got on!

Lighting the first candle… Happy Advent!

Unbelievably so, perhaps, given the date and the (ridiculously) mild weather, but yes, it is that time of year again when the Advent Wreath comes out, and each Sunday a candle is lit during the last four weeks before Christmas. Today is the first Sunday of Advent, so here is the first candle. Hooray! #FeelingFestive

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Are you doing anything special today?

Six hours. One bread. Three Cakes. Two hands, one oven. #BakeOffImpossible?

Do you ever manage to land yourself in your own personal hell whilst trying to extract yourself from a different kind of own personal hell? Ha! You’re just like me.

Last Monday, I was supposed to join my husband and my sons on a nine-mile hike around the Lincolnshire Wolds in the name of some Scouting badge or other. I’d gamely agreed to come along. It was meant to be a family “walk”, and heck, a nine-mile walk is worth a couple of sessions of aerobic exercise, right?

So I thought, until the Bad Weather hit the week before. It suddenly occurred to me that nine miles trawling through muddy fields in the company of grumpy, sodden and cold kids (this was a Scout group event, not just our family!) might not be such a grand way of spending a public holiday. At the end of the day, I’m a bit of a chicken when it comes to hiking. All right, I ‘fess up. I don’t care much for hiking. I’m not the most outdoorsy kinda girl.

What to do? I hit upon the glorious idea of providing “field support” by being the “base” who stays at home and takes emergency distress calls. Every field activity needs a base. Better still, to sweeten my husband’s and sons’ disappointment at my lack of participation, I offered to bake a cake for the post-hike BBQ. That turned out to have been a good idea until the one cake turned into two, then three, and oh, could I make a bread too, please?

Sure, says me. No problem. (Anything to get out of a hike, right?). Problem is, I hate baking. That may come as a surprise to you, considering how many foodie posts I’ve shared here, but I find baking really stressful. And most of the time, my gorgeous creations crumble to dust–literally–when they come out of the oven. You can see now where the concept of substituting one personal hell with another came from.

Nonetheless, I was committed. I agreed to make one tear-and-shear bread, one German marble cake with extra choc chips (older son’s choice), one Thuringian crumble cake (younger son’s choice), and one Guglhupf (hub’s choice). Madness!

Evidently, with only two hands, a few hours, and one oven, this required a plan. Being an organised person, I drew up a plan the night before, staggering all make cakes, rising, proo”f”ing (I am an author, after all), cooling and all that. A perfect plan. See for yourself….

BakeOff Impossible: The Plan

BakeOff Impossible: The Plan

Except on Monday morning, my perfect plan was already obsolete before I started because it had occurred to me in the night that the marble cake would have to bake and cool completely before I could cover it in chocolate, and I would need to allow enough time for the chocolate to cool and set.

Here’s how the day went… in pictures.

8:oo am: Mise en place. Get everything ready, set the butter out to soften, and all will be just fine and dandy.

Ingredients at the ready, except for the chocolate powder, which I forgot to put out but still managed to use in liberal amounts.

Ingredients at the ready, except for the chocolate powder, which I forgot to put out but still managed to use in liberal amounts.

8:30 am: Make and bake the marble cake: Instead of making it last, I whipped up my double choc chip German marble cake first and shoved it (gently) in the oven before addressing myself to the rest of The Plan.

Choc chip marble cake, ready to bake way before plan.

Choc chip marble cake, ready to bake way before plan.

9:15 am: On to the bread: Thankfully, the breadmaker would do half the work for me. Bread safely deposited in breadmaker, not requiring any more attention for the next two-and-a-half hours, by which time everything else will be almost done. Yeah, right…

Thank goodness for breadmakers! Easy, peasy.

Thank goodness for breadmakers! Easy, peasy.

9:30 am: Thuringian crumble next. This one needs to rise twice; once in a bowl, and once rolled out. It’s very important to plan for this, you see. Hence my Grand Plan. It may not look like much in the bowl, but it turns into quite a lot later on…

Yeast based base, as it were. Looks more like bread dough at this stage but will be delicious.

Yeast-based base, as it were. Looks more like bread dough at this stage but will be delicious.

And here are the crumbles-to-be. No yeast here, just loooooots of butter. And sugar. And some flour.

And here are the crumbles-to-be. No yeast here, just loooooots of butter. And sugar. And some flour.

9:33 am: Marble cake is ready! Woohoo! One (almost) down, three to go…

Proud cake mama!

Proud cake mama!

9:45 am: Where was I? Where’s my head? Oh My Word, what’s happened to my kitchen? Did you know I hate mess? That’s one of the reasons I don’t like baking. Look at the state of it! But I keep ploughing on. There’s not much point in tidying up in between cakes, now, is there. And I had an alien visitor too…

Not my usual state of being...

Not my usual state of being…

E.T. was here. I think he wanted to go home... And I swear I had  nothing to do with the writing. It just appeared. Honest. It freaked me out a bit!

E.T. was here. I think he wanted to go home… And I swear I had nothing to do with the writing. It just appeared. Honest. It freaked me out a bit!

11:30 am. Struggling Ever So Slightly. OK, quite a lot. What on earth possessed me to make a GuglhupfWhile the Thuringian crumble is rising in the sun room which, owing to Bank Holiday weather, suddenly no longer has any sun, I am tackling the Guglhupf. Technically, this is a triple rising cake. Step one: Mix the yeast with the warm cream and see what happens.

Bubble, bubble. Toil and trouble. Ha!

Bubble, bubble. Toil and trouble. Ha!

I thought I was off to a good start there, but things got tricky when it came to mixing the rest of the dough. I won’t go into detail, but I had splatters on the wall, in my hair, on the floor, on the window…. and I am a Really Careful Mixer. Only I don’t have a KitchenAid. Just me and my handmixer.

There seems to be an awful lot of dried and glace fruit here. I just hope the dough rises around it, as advertised!

There seems to be an awful lot of dried and glace fruit here. I just hope the dough rises around it, as advertised!

So off the cake goes to rise in the sun room, right next to the Thuringian Crumble. #FingersCrossed

12:30 pm: The bread dough is ready. The bread dough is READY? I haven’t even had a chance to have lunch yet! And this is when it truly fell apart, if only for a few moments. Two cakes failing to rise in the too cold sun room. One tear-and-share bread needing to be shaped and put somewhere to rise. No lunch had. Not even a sit-down. Heart pounding from too much coffee. I am NEVER going on Bake Off, ever. Not me, thank you very much.

Desperate measures. Improvised proofing ovens. Obviously I can't bake anything in one oven whilst something is proofing in the other because the temp would go through the roof. *Tears at hair*

Desperate measures. Improvised proofing ovens. Obviously I can’t bake anything in one oven whilst something is proofing in the other because the temp would go through the roof. *Tears at hair*

1 pm: Panic Stations. Nothing has risen to plan. Something needs to get baking, or the whole plan goes to pot. Improvise, Nicky, improvise. Keep calm. All right. Regroup. Bread needs to bake first. Then crumble. That gives the Guglhupf one more hour to rise, pretty please. Third and final rise is supposed to happen in the tin, so in the tin the dough goes. Good luck!

Rise. RISE!

Rise. RISE!

1:20 pm: There’s light. The bread is out. And it looks like it should. Two down, two to go.

One tear-and-share bread. A very forgiving recipe that never fails and always delights!

One tear-and-share bread. A very forgiving recipe that never fails and always delights!

1:50 pm: The crumble is out. Slightly less professional looking than I’d hoped, but very tasty. Three down, one to go. And still there’s no more rise in the Hupf. I’ll have to take my chances. Feeling a bit calmer though. And the kitchen has been returned to normal. Nobody warned me this would be So Much Work!

Yum! I wish I could share the sweet scent of buttery chocolaty crumbles!

Yum! I wish I could share the sweet scent of buttery chocolaty crumbles!

2 pm: While the Hupf is baking (she hopes), the marble cake is getting its finishing touch. Mmmm chocolate. Yes, I am licking the bowl. I deserve it. I need it.

One finished cake. If I'd had more chocolate, I'd have covered it completely, but this will do.

One finished cake. If I’d had more chocolate, I’d have covered it completely, but this will do.

3 pm: The Guglfhupf is out. For better or worse, it’s done. It feels heavy and dense. I just hope it’s edible.

One Guglhupf, slightly smaller than anticipated.

One Guglhupf, slightly smaller than anticipated.

4 pm: My completed spread. I DID IT!

A nice dusting of icing sugar will cover up many a sin.

A nice dusting of icing sugar will cover up many a sin.

Six hours. One bread. Three cakes. Mission accomplished!

Six hours. One bread. Three cakes. Mission accomplished!

Wow. I am all done, and all done in. So much baking. So much tidying! Here’s hoping I have an appreciative audience at the post-hike BBQ!

Postscript. The proof the of the cake is in the eating. And my Hupf turned out to be perfectly yummy. Maybe it didn’t need to rise as much as I thought. Maybe it did all the rising it needed. Who cares? It was lovely, according the the hiking Scouts and accompanying adults.

Almost perfect.

Almost perfect.

#BakeOffImpossible: Complete

Easter lunch, French style: Le Pâté de Pâques

Happy Easter! This year, the Wells family was overwhelmed by the happy memories of last year’s Easter holidays spent in France with some very good friends. We had a fabulous time back then, and we felt a little sad not being able to be there this year. But hey, if the prophet won’t come to the mountain, the mountain will move… or something like that. So we imported a little piece of France to our very own home, and I’m not only talking about brie, baguette, and wine. I’m talking a traditional French Easter lunch, the Pâté de Pâques. Our cooking was experimental and slapdash if truth be told, but the results were stunning and were gobbled up by adults and children alike. Here’s how we did it.

T Minus One Day. Hard boil four eggs.

One. Mush up (with your bare hands, if you fancy) the meat. This involves a pound of minced beef, a lesser quantity of pork sausage meat, liberal amounts of rosemary, thyme, coriander, parsley, salt, pepper and any other seasoning you might fancy. Oh, and you also need to mix together and mush in with the meat two eggs and about 60g of creme fraiche (or cream, if you fancy it really rich!).

Meat, herbs, and egg mixture...

Meat, herbs, and egg mixture…

TwoReady the pastry. And yes, you can use the shop bought stuff. You don’t think I got up at six to make the puff pastry from scratch? Psssst…. I got two handy packs of ready-rolled puff pastry.

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Three. Lay out the “Pâté” in two long strips. Spread the meat mixture on the pastry, then distribute your eggs in a line, top with meat mixture, and finish off with another layer of puff pastry. Remember to make the top strip of pastry slightly wider than the bottom strip. Paint the edges of the pastry with milk to make a good seal when you squish the edges together. Brush with egg yolk.

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...and cover with the rest of the puff pastry.

…and cover with the rest of the puff pastry.

Four. Add a touch of Titanic. Make a few slits across the top and add rolled up tubes of baking paper as a “chimney” to allow excess steam to escape while cooking.

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...and chimneys.

…and chimneys.

Five. Bake. Put your French Easter lunch in a pre-heated oven at 200 degrees (Celsius) for 30 to 40 minutes. Remember to turn the tray around once or twice if your oven cooks slightly unevenly like ours.

ET VOILA!

ET VOILA!

Six. Enjoy with a crisp green salad and a nice glass of white.

Hmmmm I would like to eat all of that...

Hmmmm I would like to eat all of that…

... but I'll start with a more modest helping and a nice big salad. Delicious!!

… but I’ll start with a more modest helping and a nice big salad. Delicious!!

Happy Easter! Have you got a favourite “foreign” dish or tradition that you like to carry out at Easter?

Gallery

Announcing A New Arrival – Impossible Depths

This gallery contains 5 photos.

Originally posted on coralmccallum:
A Leap Day act of faith but Book Baby 2 aka Impossible Depths has made its debut on Amazon worldwide. EEK! I still can’t quite believe it’s real. Can’t get me head round the fact that…

Fourteen Things I Didn’t Know About Scotland Before the October Holidays

Travel broadens the mind, they say. Travelling certainly provides an education, quite literally ‘on the go.’ And what’s that adage about ‘travel yourself interesting’? Well, the Wells Family went north for the recent October half term holidays, and we had the most brilliant time. We started in Inverness, worked our way west towards Fort William, had a pit stop on the Isle of Mull, then drove across to Stirling, and finished the week in Edinburgh. It was epic. And here are fourteen things I didn’t know about Scotland before this trip…

ONE.
Scotland was born south of the equator.

TWO.
Everything to the north of the Great Glen Fault (which, roughly speaking,  runs from Inverness to Fort William) is sliding southwards little by little all the time, or so we were told. Or maybe that’s just a myth to entertain the Sassenachs?

THREE.
It really is heart-breakingly beautiful up in the mountains.

View of Ben Nevis

View of Ben Nevis

FOUR.
Scottish people have a sentimental if entirely irrational attachment to the myth of Nessie.

Nicky, not Nessie. No monster here today.

Nicky, not Nessie. No monster here today.

FIVE.
All the lochs are said to be connected by underground rivers. I find it hard to wrap my brain around this, especially as some lochs are fresh water and some are sea water, but once more, this is what we were told.

SIX.
You can get married on a beach on the Isle of Mull if you’re so minded—even in October.

The bridal party heading to Calgary beach to tie the knot. And no, I have no idea who they are but they were quite happy to let me take a photo!

The bridal party heading to Calgary beach to tie the knot. And no, I have no idea who they are but they were quite happy to let me take a photo!

SEVEN.
Haggis isn’t as horrible as it sounds. In fact, we quite enjoyed it. Thank you, Karen Soutar!

This young man had three helpings and completely shunned the sausages that Karen had so thoughtfully cooked as an alternative!

This young man had three helpings and completely shunned the sausages that Karen had so thoughtfully cooked as an alternative!

EIGHT.
A ride in a mountain gondola beats a rollercoaster ride hands-down in the thrill and stunning views departments.

These 'cages', as the boys dubbed them,...

These ‘cages’, as the boys dubbed them,…

... would take us all the way up there. And they rocked and swayed in the (very gentle) breeze. LOVELY.

… would take us all the way up there. And they rocked and swayed in the (very gentle) breeze. LOVELY.

NINE.
When James Bond retreats to Skyfall, that seminal scene with the car-and-the-view is set at the bottom of Glencoe. Been there, done that!

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We should’ve got out of the car to stare moodily into the distance… #Skyfall

TEN.
The place is awash with distilleries (alas, you’re not allowed to visit with children under nine. No wee drams were being had by any member of the Wells family.)

ELEVEN.
Beer battered scallops are surprisingly yummy. I know. They shouldn’t be, but they are!

Fresh Isle of Mull Scallops. Nom nom nom.

Fresh Isle of Mull Scallops. Nom nom nom.

TWELVE.
Contrary to popular belief and much to the children’s disappointment, you can’t get deep fried Mars bars in every Scottish chippy anymore. In fact, we never managed to find a chippy that sold them. Ho hum, something to keep for another trip…

THIRTEEN.
There’s a lot of German in the Scottish language. Loch being a case in point (literally meaning ‘hole’ in German and pretty much pronounced the same way in both German and Scottish). And ‘kirk’ is another classic. I was surprised at how many ‘kirks’ there were about in Scotland. ‘Kirk’ being an old German word for ‘church.’

FOURTEEN.
The scenery around Loch Linnhe looks exactly how I imagine Alaska or Newfoundland, all shimmering water and lush green hills. Evidently I’ll have to go to Alaska and Newfoundland one day to test this impression…

Simply lovely. Breath taking. So beautiful!

Simply lovely. Breath taking. So beautiful!

And that, as they say, was that. We really enjoyed our trip and didn’t really want to come home. Should I ever win the lottery, we shall be relocating to Mull, and that’s a fact.

 

 

Cover Reveal – The French Retreat

If ever there was a gorgeous cover! Take a look at this stunning cover reveal by the amazing Sue Fortin, and make a note in your diary to grab a copy of this upcoming Christmas novella, out soon! 😀

The Romaniacs

I’m really pleased to be sharing the cover and blurb for my novella The French Retreat which is due to be released on 15th October. I had great fun writing this, so much so, that I aim to write some more in the series. The French Retreat is set in Southern Brittany, an area of France I’m very familiar with as we have a second home there, and it was the inspiration behind the story. I’ll be blogging more about how we restored our cottage and sharing some photos in a couple of weeks time but, for now, I’ll leave you with the cover and blurb. Ta-daa!

The French Retreat

With Christmas on the horizon, losing her job and her home wasn’t on Marcie Grainger’s wish list. In a bid to reassess her life, she heads off to the only place she has ever felt truly content – her brother’s farmhouse retreat in…

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