Tuesday, 15 December 2015

Festive Shortbread - A Wonderful Homemade Gift

At Christmas whilst browsing the seasonal aisle of the supermarket I am always looking for excuses to buy the beautiful tins of festive shortbread.  I adore shortbread but for some reason I seem to forget this for about 11 months of the year, then go into a shortbread frenzy come Christmas.  Another thing I seem to easily forget is just how easy shortbread is to make and really if I'm going to eat it I ought to make the effort to bake it myself.

Shop bought shortbread is absolutely delicious, but homemade is in a completely different league.  If you've never made it yourself this is an ideal place to dip a toe in to home baking and if you can bear to part with it you can turn it into a lovely gift.  I put a slightly festive spin on my shortbread by pressing a Christmas tree into each biscuit using a sugarcraft cutter and I'm so happy with how it came out.

To get a similar effect roll your shortbread dough out to about 5mm thickness and use a large scone cutter to get your biscuits cut out.  Press a festive shape into the top of each biscuit before transferring the biscuits to a baking tray and popping them in the oven.  They won't spread too much so the imprint remains quite strong and distinct.  If you haven't got a suitable sugarcraft cutter just use a knife to draw a shape.  Totally unique that way and it gives you free reign on the design!

If you decide to make some festive shortbread please do share your pictures with me on twitter.  I'd love to see them.  Normal Kitchen on Twitter

Wednesday, 26 August 2015

Soda Bread With Cheese and Balsamic Onions

If my twitter feed is anything to go by roughly half the country could be found baking bread in the days immediately following the broadcast of week 3 of the Great British Bake Off.  Now in our house there is a pretty clear delineation between the things I am responsible for making – cakes, biscuits, chilli, the bed – and the things Mr Normal Kitchen takes charge of – seafood risotto, cottage pie and bread.

I’ve made bread several times in the past but since meeting Mr NK this has definitely become something I leave in his domain.  He loves doing it and has gradually perfected his technique with his usual grim, unswaying determination.  I sort of miss making it a bit though because I’d like to grow my skills here in the same way as any other baking I do.  After watching Bake Off this week I was again reminded that I have bread experimentation bursting to get out so I decided I was just going to do it.  Mr NK was just going to have to deal with it!

I’ve never made a soda bread before and this seemed a great place to start.  It’s quick, I already have all the ingredients ready to go, it’s new to me AND….. Mr NK has never made one!  I pondered for a bit on what flavours to add and decided on one of my favourite combinations – balsamic onions and cheese.  This was loosely what Alvin did, although with a different cheese (I just used cheddar as there’s always some in the fridge) and without the prosciutto.  His got high praise from the big scary bear (Paul Hollywood) so I decided to follow his recipe.

 The recipe comes together very quickly, especially once you’ve got the balsamic onions prep out of the way.  I also made my own buttermilk with milk and lemon juice as I haven’t found it very easy to source in the past and this substitute seems to work perfectly well.

I was pretty speedy adding the buttermilk as the dough seemed quite dry and I should have been a little more patient here.  I found bringing it together with a knife and with my hands gave very different results in terms of how things would combine and therefore the texture of the dough.  I recommend just getting stuck in with your hands and making a decision on adding the final bit of liquid after this.  I didn’t wait and got a very, very sticky dough.  A bit of flour on the work surface made it ok to handle but I’m pretty sure it was slightly wetter than it should have been.

That said, it came out beautifully so maybe this was just right!  We started slicing into it when it was still pretty warm from the oven and ate it soaked in extra virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegar.  It was heavenly.  The flavours were very subtle in mine though so I’d definitely add more next time.  Probably some garlic and perhaps fresh basil.  A stronger cheese like Alvin’s.  Oooh the options are so motivating.

The texture of the bread was wonderful.  Very moist and I did actually wonder briefly if it was underbaked.  I think this was just the effect of the cheese as the dough appeared to be cooked through and I got that nice hollow sound when I knock knocked on the bottom of the loaf.  Next time I need to make sure that when I slash the top of the loaf I cut deeper and down the sides.  This will help ensure it’s completely baked in the middle and give it more space to expand.  Mine is fine but there’s room for improvement here.

I’d call my first foray into soda bread a success and definitely something I plan to do again soon.  Hurray for finally baking bread J

Tuesday, 21 April 2015

The 'Birthday' Top - Liberty Version of New Look 6891

Time for some more sewing shenanigans today.  I've just finished another (massive!) project that I'm dying to share with you but I don't have any photos yet so you'll have to make do with another one from the archives.  Right after I finished my first New Look 6891 I knew that I wanted to make another.  I was so pleased with how much more polished it looked than my skirt but knew that there was still much to improve on and I felt that using the same pattern again would help me focus on my finish rather than getting to grips with a new pattern.

This lawn does like to have a good crease

I also dreamt of making something in a more luxurious fabric and had been eying up pretty much all of the Liberty range.  I tend to be a fairly cautious person so the idea of using such an expensive fabric on a garment I hadn’t made before wouldn’t sit naturally with me.  Now I felt I could give it a whirl with my floaty New Look top.  So on my birthday last year, sulking a little bit because I was away with work, I took myself off to Liberty after work and spent a happy hour choosing between all the gorgeous fabrics.

Having finally settled on the stunning Kaylie Sunshine tana lawn I headed home with my precious 2m beautifully wrapped and nestling in the signature purple Liberty bag.  (You can buy Liberty fabric elsewhere for less money but sometimes you just want that full experience of such an incredible shop and to touch all those beautiful rolls of fabric.  Plus it was my BIRTHDAY!  And no one to share it with, sob.  HA!)

I do like the way this fabric gathers

I made a few changes to my previous version, omitting the tie at the neck but keeping the front as a single piece without the keyhole.  The self binding just goes all the way around.  I figured this fabric was plenty girly enough for me without adding a bow as well.  I’m not into twee styles and this would have been crossing a line for me!  I used the same sleeves (the pattern has several options) despite my dislike of them in the first version; none of the others were very appealing and I hoped that with this lighter fabric they would drape better.

The armhole gathers are much better than my last version

Well they did gather a little better but they still don’t drape the way I’d like and I have to admit that the more I have worn this top the more I have grown to find them really offensive.  They stick out like some sort of superhero shoulder pads and seem to have a ridiculous amount of bulk when worn under a cardigan.  I have to fold the damn things inside the sleeve!  I also find the length a bit weird and out of balance with the poof.  I have lived with them up until now because I really haven’t had enough experience to know how to alter them but as I’m learning more I have my beady eye on the stupid puffy things and one day they are getting REPLACED.  I love this top and I want to really enjoy wearing it, the only sticking point is the sleeves.  I’ve got loads of fabric left over so I plan to rip these ones off and put on something not gathered, not puffy and way more classy.


Otherwise this wasn’t a complicated make and I did the same French side seams as before and also managed to finish the back and shoulder seams with some seam binding.  We’re moving forwards people!  Admittedly I didn’t do a great job of it, especially at the end of the seams but whatever, it’s better than ignoring the need to finish seams altogether :D

I could have done a better job with the seam binding French seams at the side and a simple turned hem

For the armholes I zig zagged the edges as I wasn’t clear on the best way to manage all that gathered fabric.  I can give this a better go when I replace the sleeves though.

I wore this top quite a bit in the warmer weather last summer.  It’s incredibly cool and light and I find it quite easy to pair with other things in my wardrobe.  I have no plans to use this pattern again in the near future though as, much as I like my completed makes, I feel like there are better things out there for me to try and turn into a TNT.  I haven’t mastered the balance between getting enough room in the bust and bringing things back in at the waist, the neckline is a smidge lower than I would like and omg those sleeves.  (Did I mention I hate the sleeves?)

Overall though very happy and ready for my next challenge :)

Tuesday, 7 April 2015

Mr Normal Kitchen's Ultimate Chocolate Brownies

Mr Normal Kitchen is a chocoholic of the first order.  In fact I would go so far as to say that I have never met anyone with quite such an obsession.  He's also a very big fan of salted caramel and hazelnuts and pondering a different baked treat I could make I decided to concoct something that incorporated all of his favourite sweet things.  Oh yes I went there.  Meet salted caramel hazelnut chocolate brownies.

I've tried lots of subtly different ways of making brownies over the years but there's one recipe that stands head and shoulders above the rest.  It gives the perfect balance between the slightly crusty top and the gooey inner that you should be aiming for.  Reliably, every time.  Armed with this, a bag of hazelnuts and the unbeatable Nigella Lawson recipe for salted caramel sauce I made a brownie that has been pronounced the best thing I have ever made for my lovely husband.  It's hard to convey what high praise this is.  He is not an easy man to please.

If you're not a nutter you could leave the hazelnuts out and still get an awesome result.  Alternatively I think they'd be great with macadamia nuts instead.  Go wild and do let me know if you try them.

salted caramel hazelnut chocolate brownies Ingredients:

Chocolate brownies
3 1/2oz unsalted butter
6oz caster sugar
2 3/4oz dark muscovado sugar
4 1/2oz dark chocolate
1 tablespoon golden syrup
2 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
3 1/2oz plain flour
2 tablespoons cocoa powder
1/2 teaspoon baking powder

Salted caramel sauce
3oz unsalted butter
2oz soft light brown sugar
2oz caster sugar
2oz golden syrup
125ml double cream
1 teaspoon fleur de sel or sea salt flakes if you can't find it

1 1/2oz hazelnuts

salted caramel hazelnut chocolate brownies1. For the salted caramel sauce melt the butter, sugars and syrup in a medium pan over a medium heat.  Let this simmer for 3 minutes swirling the mixture around from time to time.

2. Add the cream and the fleur de sel (you may prefer to use only half, up to you) and swirl it all around again.  Stir and cook for another minute then remove from the heat and set aside.

3. Now to make the brownies.  Lightly grease and line a 20cm square brownie tin.  (The lining makes it so easy to lift the brownies out for cutting so I advise not to skimp on this element.)

4. Put the butter, sugars, dark chocolate and golden syrup in a large pan and melt gently over a low heat, stirring regularly until all of the ingredients are combined and the sugar grains have melted.  The mixture should be smooth.  Remove from the heat and leave to cool.

5. In a large glass bowl beat together the eggs with the vanilla extract (I use my homemade version, naturally).  Add the cooled chocolate mixture and stir vigorously until everything is combined.

6. Add the flour, cocoa powder and baking powder to the chocolate mixture and fold in gently until you have a smooth, thick mixture.

7. If your hazelnuts are whole then now is the time to take something heavy to them.  Put the hazelnuts in a sandwich bag (one of those slide to seal ones is ideal) and give them a good whack to break them up.  On this occasion I used a cocktail muddler :)  Now add them to your brownie mixture and give it all a good stir.

8. Spoon 1/3 of your brownie mixture into the bottom of your brownie tin and spread it around.  Add a 1/4 of your salted caramel sauce, drizzling it over the brownie and giving it a swirl around if you fancy.

9.  Add another 1/3 of the brownie mixture followed by a 1/4 of the salted caramel, and repeat again so all your brownie mixture is used.  The eagle eyed amongst you will have noticed that you have some sauce left.  Whoo hoo, here's your cooks perks!  You really don't need all of the salted caramel for this recipe so use the leftovers to drizzle over ice cream, dip churros in or just eat it with a spoon.  No judgement here.

10. Back to your brownies!  They're ready to bake now so put them in a pre-heated oven at 180°C fan for 25 - 30 minutes.  When they're done the edges will start to come away from your baking paper lining and they'll be crusty on top with a gorgeous gooey middle.  Be really careful not to touch the caramel when you get them out, it will be bubbling and burn.

11. Leave to cool completely in the tin before cutting into 16 pieces.  Enjoy with no guilt because you and they are awesome.

Monday, 30 March 2015

Creating A Bridal Button Bouquet

 Today is my second wedding anniversary so I thought I would share with you one of my favourite makes ever - my wedding bouquet.  I'm not really that into fresh flowers - I like them don't get me wrong - they're just not something I was particularly fussed about when planning my wedding.  I'm not an especially conventional person and I just pick things I like, whether they're traditional or not so our wedding did end up having a few unexpected turns.  Well unexpected for other people anyway!

My bouquet in action!

I ended up making a button bouquet which quite frankly I would NEVER do again ha ha.  I absolutely love my bouquet to pieces and it is utterly perfect in my eyes but making this was far harder than I expected and if we're being completely honest here (which we are because erm, that's what I do!) no one else is going to think it's perfect.

If you look at the button bouquets for sale from the pros you may well get a bit of a shock at the price.  Well let me tell you I think it's completely justified.  Not only do these things cost far more to put together than I expected (they need A LOT of buttons), getting that rounded shape is clearly a skill only possessed by the chosen few.  This little crafter is not in the chosen gang and neither it seems are a lot of other people who give this a whirl.  The pros offer rescue services for those that have attempted colanders, sieves etc as support!

My bouquet is mostly buttons with a little bit of jewellery that belonged to my Grandma and a few sparkly beads.  It was important to me to try and incorporate subtle references to my grandparents in the wedding as they have all long since died.  For my Grandma that meant being in my bouquet.

A pendant belonging to my Grandma, you can just see the pendant dangling to the right
One of my Grandma's brooches
I used jewellery wire for the stems which I wouldn't recommend as it isn't rigid enough to hold the weight of the buttons.  I think quite a few people use floristry wire but I was adamant I didn't want green stems.  I thought the silver jewellery wire would be perfect but to get more rigid it would have been too thick and unmanageable for turning through the button holes.  That balance between strength and manoeuvrability eluded me.

I knew another bride getting married in the same month who had bought a brooch bouquet and she helpfully showed me pictures of the underneath of her bouquet to help me understand how the individual stems worked together to get the right shape.  This did help although mine still doesn't have a very smooth appearance.  I didn't mind though.  Very few people knew I was making this and it had quite an impact on the day.

Running repairs after being given an unexpected bear hug and my poor bouquet getting stuck in the middle
For the bridesmaids I bought foam peonies and some bargain Christmas decorative twigs with glass beads that I pulled apart to get the right size and length to sit between the peonies.  Unfortunately I don't have any decent photographs of these so you'll just have to trust me that they looked nice!  I also made a miniature button bouquet for my gorgeous niece who was my flower girl, again pictures appear to be elusive.

These pin heads were exceptionally sparkly although you can't tell from this photograph

All of the bouquet handles were wrapped in ribbon with quilt batting underneath for comfort and then pinned in place with crystal headed pins.  I was so pleased with them all and so glad that I made the effort to do this.

What about you readers?  Did you or would you DIY your bouquet?  What about other aspects of your wedding?  I would love to hear your stories.

Friday, 20 March 2015

Come Fly With Me - New Look 6891 Top

This loose fitting top was my second completed garment and I must admit to being ridiculously pleased with it when it was done.  Of course it still has some foibles but nothing I can’t live with or feel the need to go back and correct.  I sort of like having those things to chart my sewing progress, or at least I hope it’s progress!

I tried French seams for the first time and absolutely love the way they look.  In fact I didn’t find them hard at all which was a surprise, they just take a bit longer but surely it’s worth it to have your seams neatly tucked away.  I’ll caveat that though by saying that I only did the side seams with this technique.  Let’s gloss over the fact that I completely ignored the need to finish the centre back seam, shoulder seams or armholes.  Having disliked the finish I got using a zig zag stitch on my McCalls 3341 skirt seams and without pinking shears or an overlocker in my sewing arsenal I simply just did nothing.  Not cool.

Lovely French seams
Not so lovely back seam - unfinished lol

I did make an alteration to this pattern as I didn’t want to have a centre front seam cutting through my balloons and I also wasn’t a fan of the gap at the top that’s intended by the pattern.  There was absolutely no chance of me attempting any pattern matching so I cut the front as a single piece, remembering to remove the seam allowance.  I can’t actually remember how I did this now but I’m pretty sure I didn’t do it by cutting on the fold which now seems to be a perfectly obvious and easy solution.  No doubt I did something complicated like tracing half, turning over and tracing another half.  Whatever, I still got there.

The gathering at the neck and armholes was another new technique for me and I took my time with this and was very happy with the results.  I used the basting and pulling technique which I think was included in the pattern instructions.  I could improve on my efforts with this I think, particularly in the armholes as my gathers probably weren’t really close enough to the seams so they got a bit uneven once through the sewing machine.

 I promise there is gathering there, not loads but some!

The bias binding and tie at the neck was yet another new technique to me and generally this went pretty well.  I’m already in love with self binding but I might not be when I’ve tried it with a less forgiving fabric ha!  My stitches fell off the binding at times but it’s all secure so who cares.  My machine did struggle a bit towards the ends of the ties so I did get some thread breakage there and my stitches are nowhere near the edge.  I took a bit of a sledgehammer approach and just made sure they were joined together, regardless of good stitch placement.  Again who cares, it’s my second make!

Very happy with my bias binding

The bow is together even if the stitching isn't perfect

There is one thing I don’t like about this top and do care about and that’s the sleeves.  The fabric is a medium weight cotton from My Fabrics and I sort of anticipated that it might not be drapey enough for the sleeves and it wasn’t.  I wanted the balloons pretty badly though so I just ignored that and ploughed on.  They stand a bit proud and I’m not sure it’s going to improve a lot – the cotton has got softer with washing but I think it’s kind of done with that now.  So stiff sleeves it is, ah well.

Still no attempt at pattern matching and I'm just fine with that

This top has seen a fair amount of wear although I wouldn’t say the fit is that great (my fault not the patterns I’m sure).  I paid a lot more attention to the pattern sizing this time and cut based on my bust measurement which I knew would mean taking in at the waist later.  I figured I could just do this once it was on me before I sewed the side seams and I did do this but I found it fiddly without a buddy to help.  (My dress form was a distant dream at the point I made this top.)  And I stabbed myself with pins quite a bit L  Fortunately it’s a loose top so it’s easier to get away with this.

New achievements for my portfolio:

  • Bias binding - both making and attaching
  • French seams
  • Inserting sleeves
  • Gathering
  • Staystitching

Overall a definite win and I’m still totally in love with those balloons!

Sunday, 15 March 2015

My Very First Sewed Garment (As An Adult!) - McCalls 3341 Skirt


 It’s more than a 18 months now since I made my very first garment since taking up sewing again and despite the fact that I’m not a frequent sewer I really do feel I have come a long way in that time.  My portfolio of techniques whilst still small is growing and that’s all I ask of myself really.  When I was deciding what to make all those months ago the idea was mostly born out of the fact that I had seen a dress I loved made from a Russian Dolls fabric.  I am a total sucker for anything with Russian Dolls on it!  Not the cheapest of dresses, I hadn’t taken the plunge to purchase when I began to develop an interest in learning to sew and decided to see if I could find the fabric.

After trawling the internet for quite some time I managed to find the exact same fabric!  Winner.  Next stop finding a pattern to go with it.  As a complete beginner I wanted to start with something I actually thought I could achieve and a line skirts seemed to come up repeatedly in blogs and sites suggesting beginner projects.  I find a line skirts extremely flattering on me so I was very happy to go down that route rather than holding out to make a dress and potentially buggering up with my precious fabric.

I spent ages assessing patterns and trying to get my head around the line drawings that are shown on the packets.  OMG talk about confusion reigns.  To my eyes it was like learning a whole new language, I simply wasn’t used to looking at clothes in that way and found it difficult to visualise those drawings in fabric.  Of course most packets show photos or at least illustrations of finished garments too but I vividly remember thinking that pattern packets were a rather weird concept to get used to.  I mean what the heck are all those numbers on the back?  I was about to learn!

You can just about see the dart and very clearly see the side seam

Eventually I settled on McCalls 3341 and purchased the pattern, fabric and the listed notions including an invisible zip.  Cue extensive research online as to how to insert an invisible zip and a lot of faffing around delaying before I finally started my project.

It took me about a day to make this skirt from start to finish and I slogged at it pretty much non stop.  I cut a size 12 which was based on my RTW size rather than taking any notice at all of the measurements on the pattern.  Rookie mistake!  It sort of worked out OK in the end more from blind luck than any judgement.  If I’d cut according to the pattern guides I should have cut a 16 but that clearly would have been ridiculously huge on me in the end.  I’ve since learned that the so called big four pattern companies are notorious for adding stupid amounts of ease to patterns so in this case that really worked in my favour :D

No attempt at pattern matching whatsoever!  DGAF

Absolutely every single thing I had to do in the construction of this skirt was new to me - understanding pattern markings, understanding grain lines on fabric, laying out the pieces and cutting them, marking and sewing darts, inserting the invisible zip, adding a waist band facing, finishing seams and attempting a blind hem.  Reading that it sounds like A LOT of new things for just one simple project but when each part is broken down it’s not so bad.

I am super proud of this skirt.  It is miles from by no means perfect and I am totally OK with that.  I know if I did the same pattern again now it would be better but ultimately I made something I can wear and I am so not going to beat myself up for being a beginner and producing something that makes me look like one.  It’s been washed, it didn’t fall apart, job done.

A very visible invisible zip

My invisible zip is far from invisible (I had to use a standard zipper foot – there are only so many accessories I’m prepared to buy when I have no idea if my interest in something is fleeting or not), my blind hem is very visible in places, my zig zag stitches on my raw edges look really weird to me – definitely not my preferred finishing method if I had enough experience to have a preferred method yet J

A not quite blind hem - visually impaired hem?
Really not loving those zig zagged edges

Eurgh, just eurgh
I wish I’d known about Craftsy when I made this skirt.  The free tutorials on there are awesome and would have given me a big head start in achieving this skirt.  Having said that there’s a lot to be said for not spending too long researching stuff – sometimes you just have to dive in and learn as you go along.  I’ve noticed lately I’ve spent a lot of time reading sewing blogs, dreaming of patterns I want to buy and generally not doing enough sewing.  Never going to produce new clothes that way!