Tuesday, 6 December 2016

Christmas gift inspiration for the women in your life, whatever their age


These two pictures pretty much sum up our Sunday afternoon at The Madhouse. First we put up the Christmas tree, then I unearthed all the things I've been squirreling away since the summer as Christmas gifts. I got through almost three rolls of wrapping paper but I won in the end ! Some of the things in the pile were products that we had been sent to review or that had caught my eye but I wasn't sure who would be the lucky recipient - I realised that they would appeal just as much to Juliette (aged 11) as Sophie (15) or even me (ahem ... 44), making them the ultimate Christmas gifts for sisters, girlfriends, aunties or even work colleagues in the office secret Santa when you're short on inspiration !

You can't go wrong with nice smellies and beauty products, but these ones from Beauty Kitchen are extra cool because you get to make them yourself. Part craft kit, part science lesson, part pampering treat but 100% fun, whatever your age !

Stuffed inside the Create Your Own Bath Bombs jar (which can easily be recycled after use, to store nail varnish, make up or maybe your loose change for whenever a me-time kitty is needed !) is everything you need to make 300g of fizzy bathtime treats : 2 x bath bomb moulds, citric acid, sodium bicarb, chill me essential oil, cranberry seeds & wild flower seeds. There are detailed instructions and the kit contains 100% natural ingredients. RRP : was £20, now £12.

If you haven't got a bath, or if you just want mistletoe-ready kissable lips, you might prefer the Create Your Own Lip Balms kit, which comes in a can that looks just like a tin of soup and contains the material to make four lip balms : Moisturisinig Cocoa Butter, Moistuising Beeswax, Shimmer Mica Powder, 4 Lip Balm Tins, 4 Lip Balm Labels, mini spatula and instructions. (You need to add sunflower oil.) Just like all the other Beauty Kitchen products, they are 100% natural with no parabens, no sulphates, no synthetic fragrance, no this, no that, no the other ... ! (RRP : was £15, now £10)

If you get in very quick, both of these products can currently be won on the Beauty Kitchen facebook page but the winners will be announced today so don't hang about !

If you have a wannabe pop star in your midst or someone who'd like to get the party started with their friends before a night out, the Lucky Voice Karaoke Kit (RRP £50) is sure to be a big hit. It will transform your home computer into the ultimate karaoke machine, giving you access to thousands of songs or even ready-made playlists. It is also easy to use (no midnight assembling for tired parents here) - simply connect the laptop and speakers to the kit, create an account and get singing.

You can use it on your laptop, play it from your tablet, or sing off your phone. Lucky Voice have created the ultimate karaoke app for iPhone and iPad, which is free to download from the app store with a 14-day free trial which leads to a £1.49/week subscription fee.

After a phenomenally successful year, Pokemon has won over a whole new generation of fans, both old and young. Anyone with a smartphone, tablet or device that is constantly running out of juice will love one of these Pokemon Power Banks (RRP £14.99). It has a 5,000 mAh lithium polymer battery, is suitable to charge all USB devices and has a 50% precharge straight from the box. It also has safe protection against short circuit and temperature-detection software, as well as a 4-LED battery indicator. Available at Asda, Argos, Tesco, HMV, Smyths Toys, Harrods. Hamleys and Dixons.

If you want the perfect feel-good Christmas 'tail', look no further than Fiona Harrison’s debut novel, A Pug Like Percy. Percy is homeless, abandoned by his owner at an animal rescue centre on a cold winter’s night, so when he finds a loving new home with Gail and her family, his deepest wish is that this time, it’s forever. Gail, on the other hand, hopes that Percy will be the little miracle her family so desperately needs to bring happiness back into their home. But as Gail and her husband, Simon, struggle to cope with their young daughter Jenny’s frequent trips to hospital, the strain on the family causes the couple to increasingly communicate through arguments. As Christmas nears and the family reach breaking point, Percy must use all his canine wiles to show them what they could lose. Is Percy the furry friend they’ve all been waiting for?

The story focuses on a young couple coping with their daughter’s dilated cardiomyopathy and it’s a story that brings a sense of hope to any family dealing with sick children, especially in the build up to Christmas. In writing this book, Fiona worked closely with Great Ormond Street, hearing personal stories from families who are dealing with their child’s sickness every day, those for whom the hospital is like a second home, and learning how families and staff try to make like as normal as possible for the child. What Fiona was really keen to portray in the book was that dilated cardiomyopathy is not a death sentence, there is hope, and during the build up to Christmas, this is a really important message for families that will not experience it in the traditional way we imagine. 

Staying on the animal theme, if you want something quirky that is perfect for ramping up the cosiness (or hygge, if you've jumped on the new buzzword !) of your home this winter, with a surprising twist, Pyropets are the answer ! Pyropets are a collection of cute geometric animal shaped candles with metal skeletons hiding inside. The idea came to Icelandic designer Thorunn Arnadottir one Christmas when she saw a forlorn Santa Claus candle with his head half melted away. She wondered how she could elevate this common-place ritual sacrifice into a true theatre of the macabre.

Strike a match and watch Pyropets transform from charming backyard animals to brooding, macabre skeletons with fire in their eyes. Creepy? Just slightly. Delightful? Definitely. You can choose between cats (£24), rabbits (£20), birds (£12) and the perfectly seasonal reindeer (£25), as well as mini versions without skeletons. Just one word of advice - stand them on a large plate to catch the melting wax before lighting them.

Let's hear it for the girls ! Which of your female friends or relatives would like one of these ?

Disclosure : I received the products in order to write an honest review.

Monday, 5 December 2016

How was your lunch today ? Tasty ? Delicious ?

Conversation about food has never been so popular, with almost a third of people (30%) admitting to sharing food pictures on social media. On average, we send at least one food-related text or message to friends and family every single day. New research has revealed that we now think, plan and talk about food for more than 16 hours a week on average (that’s almost six years of our adult lives), putting it on par with the nation’s favourite topic of conversation, the weather. Despite this, when it comes to complimenting the chef, ‘delicious’, ‘tasty’ and ‘nice’ are still top of our vocabulary, with most Britons using only six different words to describe meals each week.

To expand this limited list, Sainsbury’s has recruited linguist Susie Dent to add a little flavour to the nation’s foodie vocabulary, unveiling ‘The Taste Dictionary: 101 ways to describe each mouthful’. The dictionary includes a plethora of words to inspire the nation when describing some of their best-loved foods. I love the sound of ‘neptunian’ (meaning: carrying the strong flavour of the sea), ‘fire-fanged’ (meaning: Having a scorched appearance or taste) and ‘lickerous’ (meaning: sweet and tempting) and will definitely have to try using them out in an upcoming recipe post !

This got me going through some of my most recent recipe posts and deciding which words would be best-suited to them. My Filipino dish, Binagoongan Talong, was both acetous (vinegary in taste) and piscose (fishy in taste), despite being a pork-based recipe.

The decadent Macabella Cheesecake was claggy (clotted and sticky in texture) but decidedly lickerous (sweet and tempting).

Spanish-style Lemon, Rosemary & Paprika Chicken and Potatoes was conflagrant (inducing a peppery or hot sensation) and hogo (Highly flavoured or seasoned, from the French 'haut goût'). Actually, as a dual nationality English/French family, we found this last one totally ridiculous and couldn't figure out how it was supposed to be pronounced, so I could never use it in a serious conversation, because it makes me sound like someone out of Allo Allo !

The Sainsbury’s Taste Dictionary has been created as a limited run of books and is available to download as a PDF. Join the conversation and share your favourite words on Instagram or Twitter using @SainsburysNews and #TasteDictionary. 

Disclosure : I received a shopping voucher to get my creative culinary and linguistic juices flowing !

The final Bake Box for 2016 (and forever *sniff*) (review)

The latest Bake Box has arrived but it is a bit bittersweet this time around because the company have announced that they are ceasing the Bake Box scheme, so this will the last ever Bake Box they send out. Awww. I've had great fun over the past year trying out the recipes and techniques and have come up with some really beautiful creations that I never thought I'd manage to pull off.

The theme of this month's box is perfect for the time of year : Snowflakes and Stars. Oooh I detect a glittering array of festive bakes not far off !

I discovered lots of festive themed bakeware inside the box - some snowflake plunger cutters, a set of star cookie cutters, jolly Santa & snowman cutters and embossers, mini star cases and a silicone star-shaped mould.

We're all really excited about making these festive bakes and I love the fact that there are recipes to suit all levels. The kids will love helping to make and decorate the Snowflake Dreams, Gingerbread Wreath, Fun Festive Biscuits and Star Christmas Cake, but I'll need maximum concentration to pull of the show-stopping Winter Sparkle Cake (everyone out of the kitchen !) and even the Syllabub Star Cups look a bit fiddly. Bake Box always nudges me just outside of my comfort zone though, which is fabulous, because I always come away feeling more confident and acquire new baking skills.

Check out my reviews of the earlier boxes to see the Spots & StripesTeddy Bears' Picnic, Flower Power and I Love New York Bake Boxes. There was also a Springtime in Paris box that I didn't review. They are all currently available on the Bake Box website, priced at £14.99 (£17.98 including shipping). If you have a keen baker in your midst, they would make an absolutely wonderful Christmas present.

for more information : http://the-bake-box.com/

Disclosure : I received the box for free in order to write an honest review. I'll be sharing my attempts at recreating the bakes over the coming weeks.

Sunday, 4 December 2016

Globecooking recipe : Java Rice (Philippines)

You may remember I showed you this photo in an earlier blogpost, but after sharing the recipes for binagoongan talong and banana ketchup, I'm back to tell you how to make the final part : java rice.

This used one ingredient from the Philippines-themed Kitchen Trotter box - rocou seeds, or annatto, which I had previously discovered in a Vietnam-themed globecooking box and a recipe for bo kho, Vietnamese beef stew. As well as imparting a slightly peppery flavour, it gives the rice a wonderful yellow colour.

Java Rice

ingredients :

1tsp rocou seeds
2tbsp banana ketchup (optional - click through for the recipe)
300g basmati rice
3tbsp melted butter
2tbsp olive oil
2 cloves of garlic
2tbsp soy sauce
salt, pepper

Cook the rice in boiling salted water. To do this the Asian way, soak it in cold water, use your hands to swoosh it around and release as much starch as possible then drain. You can repeat this two or three times if a lot of starch comes out. Then put cold water in the pan to cover the rice with 1-2cm of water above the rice level then pop on a lid, leaving a gap for the steam to escape, and turn on the heat. When the water has completely evaporated, the rice should be ready. If it's still slightly undercooked, completely cover with the lid and leave to continue cooking in its own steam.

While the rice is cooking, heat the oil in a large pan and toss in the rocou seeds. Cook over a low heat for 4-5 minutes until the oil becomes a vivid orange colour then discard the seeds. Cook the crushed garlic cloves in the oil until they are slightly browned. Mix in the melted butter.

 Transfer the cooked rice to the pot with the garlic and oil and give it all a good stir. Add the banana ketchup and soy sauce, stir until the colour is uniform then season to taste with salt and pepper.

This is definitely much more interesting than normal plain rice in terms of taste and colour.

If you fancy trying some more Philippine cuisine, how about turon or sinigang soup?

Madhouse diaries : The Father Christmas Parade

Yesterday was the day that the Christmas festivities kicked off in Dunkirk and to start things off with a bang, there was a Father Christmas Parade at dusk. Just before the sun went down, and after manically driving round trying to find a parking place, we started off at the town hall, which has been embellished with festive red lights for the Christmas season.

 We wound our way through the forest of four hundred Christmas trees that have been set out on the square in front of the town hall, looking at the illuminated displays, including this sparkling postbox for Father Christmas.

There were a handful of wooden chalets dotted around the paths with festive displays in them. They were cute enough but not a patch on the enchanted village that we've had for the last few years, with animated teddy bear displays. We didn't queue up to see Santa today because we had to go and find a spot to watch the parade but we'll be back another day. I definitely want a go on the cool Santa sleigh ride too - a man on a quad bike in a reindeer onesie pulling a fake sleigh around the town !! It's got to be done !

As it was now quite dark, it was very hard to get decent photos because either you left the flash on and they came out really dark like this one, or you turned it off and they came out blurry and unfocused because of the moving lights. You get the idea though !

 The parade opened with some dancing cyborgs !

Hot on their heels were some steel band musicians heralding the arrival of the stilt walkers.

 Their costumes were beautifully made and the lights looked really effective in the deepening gloom.

Some clockwork soldiers, gingerbread men and assorted toys were next to march past.

 The costumes just kept getting bigger and better.

We were at the start of the route and the participants were full of enthusiasm, really playing to the crowd, but I bet by the end, they had severe arm and leg ache !

 There was no guessing what would be appearing next - after the snow queen-esque stilt walkers, there was a brass band with the instruments covered in lights and the players all dressed up as animals !

Then some penguins ...

and snowmen ...

... and a strange locomotive.

 The next part was my favourite - a herd of giant luminescent bears. That didn't sound right so I just went to check - did you know that it's a sloth or a sleuth of bears ? No, neither did I ! 

They look brilliantly realistic but are just made of transparent material over a wicker frame.

 The guys underneath control them with sticks attached to their arms.

 They're really lifelike, especially when they lean out over the crowd in a silent roar !

The squeals of delight and cheers from the crowds announced the main attraction, closing the parade - the man in red, who'd swapped his usual sleigh for a boat !

 Night night Santa - see you soon !