Trees and Traditions

Tuesday 11 December 2018

I'm sure you know by now that we love our traditions in our house.

Especially those that involve Christmas.

Traditionally we wait until the second weekend in December before putting up our tree. This year that worked out particularly well as James was home from Stornoway for the weekend and so he could also help us out. He has a smiliar OCD attention to detail when it comes to adding the lights as I do and so it's good to have his help!

Early on Saturday morning he and I went out to choose the tree, while everybody else was still at home in their jammies. James chose the tree for me, then we took it home and left it out on the back patio for the branches to settle down once out of the netting.

Saturday was a busy day, with me organising everything we needed for the Piano Recital I was hosting for my piano pupils to perform at that evening. I spent a large part of the afternoon baking mince pies, cupcakes and peppermint bark for the recital. We also had to get along to the Village Hall early enough to set everything up, so there was no time for decorating the tree in the afternoon.

The recital was a lovely event and I was so proud of how every one of my pupils performed. We started the evening with hot chocolate and home baking, then the performances followed on. I think I might even make it a new Christmas tradition

We were back home from the recital in enough time to have some of the evening left for decorating our tree.

Opening the decorations boxes is always so exciting and everybody loves to go through the box talking about their favourite decorations.

Fraser kept himself busy while we put the lights on the tree.

I say 'we', but what I really mean is 'James'. He put the lights on while I held up the roll of lights and followed him backwards and forwards holding them for him.

Lights and tinsel on, ready for the mismatched ornaments to be added.

These are a couple of new decorations that I made this year. A yellow one for Fraser and a blue one for Ally.

It gets more than a little messy once everything is in full swing!

Our tradition is that the youngest puts the star on the top of the tree, usually helped by the oldest these days.

Isn't it pretty? 

Another of our December traditions is to have a little activity advent calendar. Every day contains a small activity, nothing too big as December is busy enough. Some of our activities have been/will be:
- write to Santa
- write out Christmas cards
- bake gingerbread men
- make paper chains
- a treasure hunt
- snowman pancake breakfast
- have supper under the tree
- Christmas Bingo
- Reindeer Game (like Beetle Drive)
- Christmas Movie Night (this one appears more than once!)
- Family Games Night
- Make marshmallow snowmen
- put up the tree
-go to the big boys' school concert

The treasure hunt is always just little random clues I make up and we hide around the house. The treasure is always some new Christmas jammies for the younger boys. The older boys tend not to wear jammies so there is no point in buying them some Christmas ones! 

I thought I might think of a different prize this year but for a few weeks Ally had been saying that he really hoped we would do the treasure hunt this year and that the prize would be new jammies. So I stuck with the tradition that he loved.

We had the treasure hunt at the weekend. Fraser and Ally loved racing around the house solving the clues, and they loved their treasure when they found it.

Do you have any Christmas tree/advent traditions that you do every year? I'd love to hear what they are if you do!

Mince Pies {Gluten & Dairy Free}

Wednesday 5 December 2018

Today's Christmas free-from recipe is another Christmas staple - mince pies. 

These are a current favourite of 5 year old Fraser's, who could easily tuck away at least 3 of these in a sitting.

For years gluten free pastry seemed to be my kryptonite. I love working with 'normal' pastry, and it's so simple to put together, but whenever I tried making a free from pastry I could never make one that would roll out without crumbling. I'm pretty sure if you've ever tried making a free from pastry then you will know the issues!

But then I stumbled across a magic ingredient which instantly perfected my gluten free pastry.

And meant that now my free from pastry could roll out like this...

That's quite a change in texture and rollability from a free from pastry without the xanthan gum.

Now I happily make free from pastry, without any of the crumbly frustrations of before.

You can find xanthan gum in the free from sections of most supermarkets (although I'm sure that the Stornoway Tesco is one of the stores that doesn't have it - the Coop does though!) If you are struggling to find it, I got the tub above from Amazon and it's lasted for ages.

I always make my own mincemeat for putting in my pies. I'm just not overly keen on the spiciness of shop bought versions. Like the Christmas Pudding recipe I shared yesterday, it really isn't as labour intensive to make your own as you might think. I don't think you can go wrong with the recipe from Nigella's How to be a Domestic Goddess. I've used it for years! If you are using shop bought mincemeat don't forget to double check that it is free from.

So for your free from pastry you will need:

8oz gluten free plain flour
2 tablespoons icing sugar
1 tsp xanthan gum
4oz dairy free margarine
1 egg yolk
2-4 tbsp cold water

12 bun tray
circle cutter
star cutter


- Put the flour, icing sugar and xanthan gum into a food processor and mix together quickly. If you don't have a food processor then just mix together in a bowl.

- Add the margarine and blitz until all the margarine is blended in and it looks like fine breadcrumbs. Or use your hands and do it the old fashioned way, rubbing the margarine into the flour with your fingers.

- In a cup mix the egg yolk with 2 tbsp of the cold water. Add this to the food processor while it is running (or add to your bowl and mix together with a knife) and watch for it all coming together into a ball of dough. You may have enough liquid for it to come together into a dough or you may have to add a tbsp or two more of the water. Don't let it get too soggy, you are looking for something that comes together in a bowl and will be rollable. If you are making it in the food processor it will come together in a matter of seconds.

- Wrap the dough up in cling film or a plastic bag and put it into the fridge to rest for around half and hour.

- Remove from the fridge, dust your work surface with some gluten free flour, put your ball of pastry down, sprinkle more flour on top and roll out until it is round about 1cm thick. I've never actually thought about how thick it should be. Not too thick, but then not so thin that it will break when you pick it up. Maybe look at my pictures above for a guideline if you aren't too sure!

- Cut out circles of the pastry and place into a 12 bun tin. Keep rolling and cutting out circles and also some smaller stars for the toppings.

- Add about a teaspoon full of mincemeat into each circle and top with a star. 

- Bake at 180C for around 20 mins. I find that gluten free pastry doesn't brown up as much as an ordinary pastry so watch that you don't over cook them.

- Let them cool and then dust with a generous sprinkling of icing sugar.

- These are so amazing when eaten still warm from the oven. The pastry is super light and melt in the mouth when they are warm. 

One of our favourite December evening suppers is warm mince pies with some warm Winter Punch - we love the Belvoir Fruit Farms Winter Punch.

Christmas Pudding Recipe {Gluten Free, Dairy Free & Nut Free}

Tuesday 4 December 2018

Traditionally you are supposed to make up your Christmas pudding on the last weekend in November, but although I love keeping many traditions I don't think I've ever managed to get my pud made on that weekend, despite my best intentions earlier on in the month! 

This year I thought it was really going to be the year that I managed it, especially since I made my Christmas Cake way back in September, but once again it is December before I find myself making it. Still, there is no harm in making the pudding later than tradition dictates. One year I was even as late as the week before Christmas when I made it and I don't think there was any adverse effect on the flavour or texture of the pudding. 

I do like to get it done and out of the way as early as possible though, since there is so much going on in December. And the purists do say that getting it made early means it has time to mature and increase in richness.

I've been making our Christmas Pudding gluten, dairy and nut free for quite a number of years now, and the recipe I use is a combination of bits and pieces from other recipes I have used in the past. Most Christmas Pudding recipes use suet, but suet isn't gluten free (at least I haven't found any that is) and so I use margarine rubbed into the flour as the fat in my recipe.

This recipe works equally well if you have no need of free from ingredients and use 'normal' ones instead.

And if you are wondering why bother making your own Christmas Pudding when there are so many available to buy (although have you tried finding a decent gluten & dairy & nut free one?), then I will say that a homemade one is much more superior in every way. It is incredibly simple to make, with no skills involved other than mixing everything together, and the only time consuming part is the 5 hours that you need to give it to steam. But that's hardly labour intensive!

 Not only does it taste great, it's also much much bigger, and you can bask in the domestic-goddess type glow of satisfaction when you see it flaming on the table on Christmas Day.

You will need:
250g mixed dried fruit
50g dried cranberries
150g prunes, chopped
200ml brandy, or alcohol of your choice
100g Gluten-Free Plain Flour
125g wheat-free breadcrumbs (about 4/5 slices of bread, blitzed in a blender)
100g dairy free margarine
150g brown sugar
1tsp ground cinnamon
1/2tsp ground cloves
1 tsp baking powder
zest of 1 lemon
zest of 1 orange
1 cooking apple, peeled and grated
3 beaten eggs

~ Put the dried fruit, cranberries and prunes in a bowl, pour over your chosen alcohol, mix well, cover and leave to soak overnight.
~ Add the flour and margarine to a bowl and rub the margarine into the flour until it resembles fine breadcrumbs.
~ Add the rest of the ingredients into the flour/margarine mix and mix together with a wooden spoon before adding your soaked fruits and any leftover liquid, then mix well again.
~ Traditionally every member of the family is supposed to take a turn mixing the pudding, and according to Nigella you were supposed to mix from East to West in honour of the Wise Men!
~ Once everything is well mixed, which really doesn't take long at all, tip the mixture into a greased 3 pint bowl or pudding basin.
~ Cover with greaseproof paper with a crease in it to let the mixture expand, tied with string. Or the lid if you have a proper pudding basin!

~ Put the pudding in the top of a steamer and steam away gently for 5 hours (yes, really). I tend to make mine just before dinner and then let it simmer away until later in the evening.

~ Let the pudding cool and then keep it somewhere safe until Christmas.

~ On Christmas day it will need steamed again for 3 hours. To save on hob space I usually cook my potatoes in the bottom of the steamer for part of that time.
~ Run a knife around the edge of the bowl before putting a plate over the bowl and turning it upside down and gently shake the pudding out.
~ Heat a ladle full of brandy over the gas hob (or in a pan) and then light when it is warm enough.
~ Quickly pour it over the pudding and take it to the table while everyone 'Ooohs' in wonder.

September - Enjoying Autumn

Thursday 11 October 2018

Autumn has always been my favourite, especially September. 

I'm sure when I was younger it was because September is my birthday month though.

I love every season when it begins - the build up to Christmas at the start of winter as well as the first few snows (snow in March/April is a little less exciting); the new plant growth, getting out into the garden again and promise of warmer longer days at the start of Spring; and the long stretches of daylight and eternal optimism of a sunny summer when summer begins.

But I think autumn is my favourite season of all.

It's hard not to love the beauty of the trees as they change their colours, and we love getting outdoors and walking in the woods more in the autumn than we do at any other time of the year.

The boys have been collecting conkers every time we go our for a walk since the start of September.

Our nearby woods have some very old apple trees tucked away in a little known section of the woods, so there are plenty of apples waiting to picked and not very many people picking them. This year has apparently been a very good year for apples and we have been collecting a big bag full every week throughout the month of September.

As I said, September is my birthday month and this year I got some lovey home made cards from David...


(you know that's a 1 and not a 7, right?😂)

And from Fraser... 

Grown up birthdays on school days are fairly ordinary days, but the boys were all up extra early so that I could open my presents before school.

My husband Andy was working away down south until late at night so wasn't with us for dinner, but I made my favourite dinner of homemade Lasagne (a gluten and dairy free one)

And Calum made a beautiful free from Victoria Sponge for my cake. It really was lovely and light.

We video called James, who is still working in Stornoway, so that he could also join in singing Happy Birthday.

Every September I take down my summer crochet wreath and hang up my autumn one.

We've found plenty uses for all the apples we've been picking. 

As well as having apple crumble for pudding every Sunday (one of Calum's favourite puddings), I made a batch of Apple & Raisin Chutney and a double batch of mincemeat.

Storm Ali, in the middle of September, brought some really strong winds to our area and there were a lot of trees and branches came down. There were also some champion puddles left behind afterwards too.

Conker hunting never seems to lose it's attraction with the boys.

I love the light in the late afternoon on an autumn day.

More apple baking, some Apple and Cinnamon muffins (and my new to me charity shop china)

More autumnal walks. We have so many great woodland walks all around where we live.

Look at all those brambles below! We've also been picking lots of these, and adding them to our apple crumbles.

Evidence of my bramble picking!

Fraser loves the swings!

At the end of a particularly long walk little legs sometimes need some extra help.

I do love the long hours of daylight in the summertime, but I also love the nights drawing in in September and the chance to light all the candles and have a cosy evening in.

I got a little ahead of the game this year, and one Saturday when we were having a quiet around the house kind of day I got our Christmas cakes baked. A larger free from one for us and a smaller not free from one for my in-laws.

Even more apple baking, at the suggestion of one of my American Instagram friends, was some Apple Butter made in the slow cooker. I think this must be a bigger thing in the US than here as I hadn't really heard of it, but it turned out lovely.

This is a Mary Berry recipe that I adapted to be dairy and gluten free. It's an apple and cinnamon cake, with a layer of grated apple in the middle, and it was really, really good!

Fraser and Ally have been sending some letters to James, with drawings they have done for them, so he drew a couple in return and posted them to them. They were so happy to receive letters in the post and to see what was in them.

Even more outdoor fun.

I bought these mini squash in Aldi with the intention of using them for cooking, but then I thought they looked so pretty that for now I'm using them as an autumnal decoration on our fireplace.

We saw the first frosts of the year a few mornings this month, earlier than I seem to remember them in the last few years.

Thankfully I still had Fraser's mittens at the very bottom of my bag, where they had been since last spring, so that he wasn't too chilly taking his brothers to school.

I rescued some of our sunflowers from the garden that had been almost flattened by Storm Ali and brought them inside. I think they complement my autumn squash quite well!

At the end of September we had the delight of James coming down for a weekend visit. Ally and Fraser were particularly pleased to see him again after about 7 weeks since he left.

Fraser decorated this chocolate cake for him coming home.

And one final thing I've been loving about September is harvesting and eating our home grown carrots. I hadn't tried growing carrots before and am delighted with how well they worked. We planted some ordinary orange ones and some heritage carrots that are yellow or purple. It's a simple pleasure, but the taste of a home grown carrot that's been pulled up and cooked straight away is so much more superior than a shop bought one.

We still have plenty left in the ground to last us for a good few more weeks and I don't think I could ever tire of digging up home grown veg for eating, even if it does need scrubbed more than the veg from the supermarket!