Saturday, December 20, 2014

Christmas Cracker Centerpiece

Christmas Cracker Centerpiece
Many years ago, after watching an episode of the children’s show Blue Peter, I decided to try and make my own Christmas cracker centerpiece. Christmas crackers are a mainstay of a traditional English Christmas dinner; a tradition dating back to Victorian times.

Apparently, a London sweetmaker, named Tom Smith, first made crackers in about 1850. He had seen the French ‘bon bon’ sweets (almonds wrapped in pretty paper), and one night, while he was sitting in front of his log fire, he became very interested by the sparks and cracks coming from the fire. Suddenly, he thought what a fun idea it would be, if his sweets and toys could be opened with a crack when their fancy wrappers were pulled in half. And so crackers were born.
A cracker is placed at every setting on the Christmas dinner table. Available in many colors and sizes, the paper tubes are always filled with a joke, a little gift and a paper party hat! As family & friends sit down for the wonderful feast, the first order of business is to pull these crackers.
Each person grabs one end of the cracker with a neighbor at the table grabbing another and then pull! The popper inside “cracks” as the paper rips apart and the contents of the cracker spill out. We then read the corny jokes and put the paper crowns on our heads – no excuses. We all look silly together, but that’s part of the tradition.
So back to the centerpiece: All those years ago I said to my mum, “I want to make the big Christmas cracker!” I found the cardboard, probably bought some crepe paper at W.H. Smith, and got to work. Unfortunately my mum didn’t have the backstage elves like on Blue Peter where the presenters would miraculously pull a finished “make” from under the table and say, “here’s one I made earlier.”
But we muddled through and produced the centerpiece – and I loved it! The small crackers were still at each place setting and my homemade centerpiece adorned the center of the table filled with little treats for everyone.
As projects go this one isn’t too difficult. As my original creation no longer existed, a few years ago I decided to recreate the cracker for my family.
Here’s one I made earlier :)
The cracker is made up of 2 tubes that fit together. Get some sturdy cardboard – a couple of empty cereal boxes work. It’s up to you how big you make it, so cut 2 larger rectangular pieces of card for the middle pieces and 2 smaller rectangular pieces of card for the ends. They should be the same width but different depths. You should have 2 set ups like this picture below.
Make 2 like this.
Find some strong wrapping paper or foil paper and cut 2 large pieces big enough to lay a large and a small piece of card on each one. Lay the pieces of card on as shown in the picture. Glue the card onto the paper and fold the excess pieces from the side over onto the card like wrapping a gift. Do this with the other 2 pieces of card.
Fold excess paper over
Now make tubes out of the two pieces you have created. I use a stapler for this. Make sure one tube is narrower than the other, so that it will fit into the larger one.
Staple the tubes
Remember it will be filled with sweets or little gifts and you will want to pull it open and have the contents be a surprise for your guests.
You will have 2 tubes like this
Cinch the paper

One half of the cracke
Where there is just paper in the two tubes between the two pieces of card use string or gift ribbon to cinch them to create the cracker look. 

Finished cracker

You can now decorate it as you like, as shown in the picture at the the top of the post. Your centerpiece is ready! Fill it with sweets or little gifts and your guests are sure to be impressed.
Fill the cracker with yummy treats

Have fun going crackers! Please let me know if you have any success making one! I would love to see your results. If you send me a photo I will post it in a blog in the New Year.

Email with your photo.
Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays & Best Wishes!

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Irish Apple Cake

Apple picking is one of the things I most look forward to about the fall in New England. It is a family tradition for us, and we are lucky here in Eastern Massachusetts as there are many local orchards to visit. The crisp, juicy apples right from the tree are so delicious and, of course, the baking options are endless!

I was given this Irish apple cake recipe from a friend and it really is so quick and easy to make with fantastic results. The hardest part is peeling and cutting the apples! As you mix up the ingredients it doesn’t look much like a cake as it’s rather stodgy and the apples don’t seem to mix in, but the apple chunks sink into the batter as it bakes and the finished product is moist and delicious.

The recipe calls for nuts, but as my daughter and I are allergic to tree nuts I leave them out and it seems to make no difference at all to the recipe. Serve with vanilla ice cream or heavy (double) cream for a real treat!

Irish Apple Cake


Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F

2 cups sugar
2 large eggs
1 cup oil
2 ½ cups flour
2 tsp baking powder
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp salt

1 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp vanilla

4 cups apples, peeled and diced
6 oz package of butterscotch morsels
1 cup walnuts or pecans (optional)

In a large mixing bowl, cream sugar, eggs, oil and vanilla. 

Add the sifted dry ingredients and stir by hand. Batter will be stiff. Mix in the apples and nuts (if using nuts). Pour into an ungreased 9x13x2 inch pan. Sprinkle with the butterscotch morsels.

Bake at 350 for 50 – 60 minutes.

Serve with cream or ice cream.


Sunday, December 15, 2013

Top 10 Gifts from The Bee's Knees

  Tyrrell Katz London Icon Mugs
This set of 2 bone china mugs from designer Tyrrell Katz is the perfect gift for your favorite Anglophile!

Victoria Eggs Festive Fun Tea Towel and Mug

In the style of a newspaper this wonderful Christmas design combines classic typography and silhouette imagery to list our favourite things that make up a perfect British Christmas. Featuring Father Christmas, Stockings, Baubles, Brussels Sprouts, Fairy Lights, Party Games and the Queen’s Speech.

       Emma Bridgewater Christmas Town Mugs
Lovely litho mugs handmade in Stoke-on-Trent, England featuring the new Christmas Town pattern. The deep red is perfect for the Christmas season.

  Catherine Colebrook Retro Tea Pots & Mugs
These lovely mugs & teapots are beautiful and they are made in the UK (as always) so the quality is wonderful. They are a size that also holds a decent cuppa’s worth rather than a polite sip or two!

Emma Ball UK Tea Towel
Destination Britain! These lovely cotton tea towels are made in England featuring a montage of area Emma has painted in the UK.

Kenneth Turner Candles
Our gorgeous Kenneth Turner luxury candles have become very popular. The fragrances are delicate yet lovely. The candles in glass have a burn time up to 50 hours. All the candles are hand poured in Britain of fragranced mineral (paraffin) wax that is not hazardous to your health, and our wax does not pose any adverse effects to the environment.

 Emma Bridgewater Flower Mugs
Our ever-popular half pint flower mugs from Emma Bridgewater make the perfect gift. Hand made in Stoke-on-Trent, England of Cornish clay you can bring a piece of England into you home.

Our beautiful blue Burleighware is a timeless classic. This British pottery is made in Stoke-on-Trent by hand as it has always been. Start your collection today. We now have accessories to match!

      I’d Rather . . . Mugs from Stubbs
      You are sure to find the right I’d Rather mug for someone on your list from our large selection. A fun gift for everyone!

Tyrrell Katz Pirates & Princess Range
We can even help with the little ones on your list. These adorable mugs, lunch boxes, snack boxes and water bottles are perfect for the kids. They will be ‘The Bee’s Knees’ at school with these in their backpack! Fill the mugs with treats (not included) for a really fun gift.

Monday, July 1, 2013

July 4th Musings

The cover of this Sunday’s Parade magazine asks, “Could you ace America 101?” and inside you can complete their 4th of July quiz. I took a quick glance through and was able to answer a handful of questions, not great, but still way better than I could have done 17 years ago when we moved here.

The Old North Bridge, Concord, MA.
On top of the magnitude of new things you have to learn and absorb as a new expat anywhere, I realized I had no idea about American history as we adjusted to life in the US! And here we had moved to one of the major US historical destinations. People come to Massachusetts to see the Mayflower and Plymouth Rock to see how the first Pilgrims crossed the pond and where they landed. They visit the Old North Bridge in Concord, very near where I live now, which was the site of the first day of battle in the American War of Independence. This is where the battle that Britain would ultimately lose began! And I knew nothing about it! Who knew that The Boston Tea Party had nothing to do with afternoon tea? So we trekked Boston’s famous Freedom Trail and visited all the historic sites along the way to familiarize ourselves with our new home and try to learn about some of these major events in American history.

I had dropped history in school before O’Levels, so perhaps this is why I was so clueless. My nephew tells me that a third of his history GCSE (the new O'Level) was made up of American history! He even came to Washington D.C. and Philadelphia on a school trip. There was none of that back in my day.

Reenactment at the Old North Bridge
As an expat anywhere, especially a new expat, you hear quotes and references and about traditions in sports, in the media and at social gatherings that can leave you with a blank expression. The first summer we were here we went to a Boston Red Sox game, coincidentally against the Yankees. We had no idea of the significance of this! And when everyone stood up in the 7th inning, we thought the game was over. Who has ever heard of a 7th inning stretch? With cricket everyone goes in for tea. Boy, were we green! When asked in a restaurant if we were “all set” as they cleared our “entrĂ©e” plates (that would be main course) we thought they meant are we finished with that course. Next thing the bill appears and my husband and I are both wondering who asked for it! We now know to say, “We may have coffee or dessert”.  And back to the history, I certainly did not know what “the shot heard ‘round the world” was or who Paul Revere was for that matter. I like to know the details so I started reading guidebooks and the newspaper and paying attention to what people were saying and asking if I didn’t know what someone meant. We have even been to the reenactment of that famous battle at the North Bridge on Patriot’s Day – a special public holiday just in Massachusetts.

I had to learn even more details in 2006 when we took the test to become citizens. There was lots of new information there! So, nowadays, I think I can keep up with most things that people are talking about without being thrown a curve ball too often (see, I know what that means now!)

Have a great 4th of July!

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Memories of The Queen's Coronation

2012 was certainly a big year for Queen Elizabeth. When King George VI died on February 6th, 1952 Princess Elizabeth succeeded her father to become Queen Elizabeth II. As only the second British monarch to celebrate a Diamond Jubilee, Britain and The Royal Family celebrated in style last year. And the celebrations continue this year as we celebrate the 60th anniversary of The Queen's Coronation.

Westminster Abbey
The Queen was crowned in Westminster Abbey on June 2nd, 1953. Coronations have taken place at Westminster Abbey since 1066. At the Queen’s request, the entire Coronation ceremony was televised for the very first time so the entire nation could appreciate the importance of this event. My Mum was 16 in 1953 and clearly remembers only one friend’s family at that time owned a television set so many friends and neighbors all convened at that friend’s house to witness history in the making, albeit on a very small black and white TV screen! Mum says her clearest memory is thinking how incredibly heavy the St. Edward’s crown looked on the Queen’s head! My mother-in-law was a little older and working at the Post Office telephone exchange in Southend-on-Sea in Essex on the day of the Coronation. They didn’t get a day off, “After all, we were working for the Queen,” she says, and they listened to it broadcast over the radio. She remembers a festive atmosphere and parties afterwards. Southend (where my husband grew up) is located on the Thames estuary and my mother-in-law does remember seeing many ships and boats moored at the famous Southend Pier from all the dignitaries that would be sailing up to London for the ceremony. Streets were decorated with patriotic bunting where parties were held throughout the country. And so Queen Elizabeth’s reign officially began. 

A Coronation Street Party in 1953

Original Queen's
Coronation Programme
Inside the Programme
I’m sure there were many mementoes of that day and I was thrilled when I recently found an original souvenir programme from The Coronation among some Royal Family books my Mum brought over for me from England. I couldn’t believe I had found such a treasure. The front cover is emblazoned with The Queen’s crest and the inside is filled with black and white photos, details of The Coronation Procession and all who would be taking part, a short history, and the order of ceremony for the Coronation. The programme had cost 2 and 6, or 2 shillings and 6 pence, which I think is about 12 pence in new money or about 18 cents! I wonder what that would cost nowadays.

Souvenir Programmes

Together with the programme from The Queen’s Coronation, I also found an album to commemorate
Original Programme from
King George VI's Coronation 
her father, King George VI’s Coronation from 1937! This one only cost three pence!  It was, however, an album to collect Players cigarette cards. Can you believe it? And I am pleased to say that the album is complete with all the cards still neatly glued in place. I certainly remember celebrating The Queen’s Silver Jubilee in 1977 with street parties, bunting, the works. And I have the souvenir programme from The Silver Jubilee too. I love these wonderful souvenirs and hope to add to the collection this year with a souvenir of The Diamond Coronation celebration. Mum, if you’re reading this, can you get your hands on a souvenir for me? Thanks!