Saturday, December 22, 2012

Going Christmas Crackers!

Christmas Cracker Centerpiece

Crepe paper, sticky back plastic, wire coat hangers! My mum would dread these words when I was a kid, especially if they came on the heels of an episode of Blue Peter. Remember Blue Peter? 
My favorite TV show growing up, and it’s still going strong over 50 years since it started. For those of you that have not heard of Blue Peter it first broadcast in 1958 and is the world's longest-running children's television program. It started at a time when there was very little in the way of children’s TV in the UK and took a magazine/entertainment format. There were always lots of entertaining segments but the show was famous for its arts & crafts or "makes" – my personal favorite, my mum’s least favorite!

So years ago, after watching an episode, I decided to try and make the Blue Peter 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.

Christmas Table
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 :)

Make 2 like this.
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 to the right.

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.

Staple into tubes
You will have 2 pieces like this
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. 

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.
Making it look like a cracker!

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! You can now decorate it as you like! Your centerpiece is ready! Fill it with sweets or little gifts and your guests are sure to be impressed.

The finished cracker with one tube slotted inside the other
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!

This is a bigger one I made.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

The Joy of Christmas Pudding

If you come to my house on Christmas Day you can expect a very traditional English Christmas. As much as I like to embrace the culture of where I am living, there are some traditions from home that are essential to remember, especially at Christmas.  From crackers (which, thank goodness, are more readily available in the US now), to wearing the paper hat that comes out of the cracker at the dinner table, no matter how silly you look, to the turkey (yes, I know Thanksgiving was only a month ago, but turkey is the tradition), to sprouts and parsnips. And, of course, no Christmas would be complete without the Christmas pudding. (Not sure what kind of pudding I'm talking about, you can read my blog all about puddings

As the steaming pudding is turned out onto a plate, all heads turn as brandy is poured over the fruity dome and lit with a match. The kids love this spectacle as the flames dance around the pudding then slowly subside. The wonderful, once-a-year flavors of the fermented fruit, spices, beer and brandy cannot be beat. Especially when you dollop piping hot brandy sauce over it! 

The Recipe

I haven’t made my own pudding in quite some time, going for the store bought variety instead. But my mum was visiting us in November and I thought it was time we should give it a crack. The pudding is traditionally made about five weeks before Christmas on “Stir Up Sunday” when the family gathers and each person takes a turn making stir the pudding whilst making a wish. We were a bit ahead of this schedule, but that’s the great thing with the pudding is that it can be made well in advance so that the flavors can truly develop. Taking my dog-eared Delia Smith’s Christmas book (my go-to for the whole Christmas meal, in fact), we got started. 

All the Ingredients
The most difficult part of the process seemed to be gathering the ingredients. All the fruits, spices, beer and brandy should make a sweet, dense pudding. Historically the pudding should have at least 13 ingredients (to represent Christ and his 12 disciples). As with mince pies (, the Christmas pudding originally had meat in as was made as a way to preserve the meat over the winter with the fruit acting as the preserving agent. Over the last century or so it has evolved into the sweet desert it is today. We found most of the ingredients for the more modern version at the local supermarket, but I had trouble finding the suet traditionally used in the recipe (I could have ordered some Atora suet on Amazon, but the shipping cost would have made for one very expensive pudding!). I did some research online and there were several forums that agreed that you could put a stick of butter in the freezer and then grate it into the mixture in place of the suet. Apparently the melting properties of butter and suet are different and the suet produces a different texture. Oh well, as they say, “the proof of the pudding is in the eating”, so I’ll have to get back to you on that one on Boxing Day!

Taking a Turn to Stir
With a large bowl and a sturdy wooden spoon we got to work weighing all the different items that would go into the pudding. We used a can of Guinness for the stout and sloshed in some brandy to finish it all off. One by one we then took turns giving the mixture a stir and made a wish! Then, as tradition also dictates, we put a coin in the mixture; the myth being that whoever finds the coin on Christmas day will be bestowed with wealth and happiness. What a joy to share this tradition with three generations of our family.

Ready to Steam
So that was it – pretty simple really. Now just to pour it into the bowl, make a nice lid out of greaseproof paper and foil and steam it – for 8 hours! 
That is what actually takes all the time. All afternoon and evening we had the wonderful aroma of the steaming pudding wafting through the house; really gets you in the festive spirit.
The pudding is now safely stored in a cool part of the basement, ready to be unveiled and set fire to on Christmas day! Let’s hope the American guests like it!

Friday, November 2, 2012

Remember, Remember the Fifth of November . . .

"Remember, remember the Fifth of November. Gunpowder, treason and plot!" How could we forget? Growing up in England, November 5th, or Bonfire Night, was a major highlight of the year for me. Back in the 70s and 80s (yes, I’m showing my age, I know) Halloween celebrations were practically non-existent. If we were wearing a costume it was a swimming costume (that’s what they are called in England. I still get a funny look here if I say swimming costume instead of swimsuit). We might “dress up” for a fancy dress party, which was more likely to be on New Year’s Eve or a friend might have a fancy dress birthday party. I don’t think I ever saw a real pumpkin until I left England! But that was o.k. because we had Bonfire Night.

The Houses of Parliament
First, a little history: The Bonfire Night celebration, also known as Guy Fawkes night, dates back to 1605. Guy Fawkes was a member of the Gunpowder Plot that intended to blow up the Houses of Parliament, kill King James I and replace him with a catholic head of state. On November 5th 1605 Guy Fawkes was discovered guarding the gunpowder in the cellar of the parliament building that would blow up the king. To celebrate of the King’s survival the population was allowed to build bonfires. And so a centuries-long tradition began. 

Guy Fawkes
I lived in a cul-de-sac with a long back garden for the first eleven years of my life. The whole street came together to build a huge bonfire about 10 feet high. The bonfire would be ready several days before November 5th and our excitement mounted as we would sneak peaks at the awesome pyre. All the neighborhood kids would build an effigy of Guy Fawkes made of old clothes stuffed with newspapers or straw. We wheeled him around the neighborhood shouting “Penny for the Guy”! I’m not sure we were ever very successful in our money-collecting scheme but we sure had fun trying. And then, as darkness fell, we all congregated in our back garden to watch our dads light the bonfire. As the flames lit the night sky, the “Guy” was thrown on the burning fire to loud cheers. 

Catherine Wheel

And then there were the fireworks! For obvious reasons we did not celebrate July 4th in England, so there was no reason for mid-summer firework displays. Even New Year’s Eve consisted of only a few sparklers. The big fireworks display was saved for November 5th. Back in those days we were able to hold private firework displays in our own backyard. Our parents sent rocket after rocket flying into the dark sky, set umpteen Catherine Wheels spinning on the garden fence, sparks flying in all directions, and handed out sparklers to all the kids. 

Treacle Toffee
And if all that wasn’t enough excitement, there was the food. Sounds weird but I loved the jacket potatoes that we ate walking around. They also made great hand warmers! Auntie Babs, a favorite neighbor, made the most delicious treacle toffee. The dark, sweet, sugary slab melted in my mouth as I watched the fireworks explode around me. Parkin was another favorite; a molasses cake, soft and juicy like a gingerbread. Perfect to be eaten out of a gloved hand.  There were no plates, nothing fancy, just a baking tray passed around. I think the simplicity of it all was part of the joy of the night and lends a sweetness to the memories.

Nowadays, I hear things are different. Bonfire nights are bigger and are more likely to be organized by the town and you may have to pay to get in! Professionals put on the fireworks displays. And from what I have seen and heard on Facebook this week Halloween is certainly gaining in popularity. I saw pictures of kids in England in “costumes”, lots of face make-up and many carved pumpkins. Trick or treating seems to be more the norm now too. Times really have changed. But I hold dear to my fond memories of chilly nights standing in front of a blazing bonfire, colorful fireworks dancing in the sky and sweet treacle toffee melting in my mouth.

Have a great November 5th,

Monday, September 3, 2012

Back-to-School in England and America!

My Primary School in Cheshire, England.
How quaint!
It still feels like summer in Massachusetts - the sun is shining, the sky is blue and the weather is lovely and warm. But back to school the kids must go. It always seems to come around too quickly. My entire elementary (or primary) and secondary education was in England, but as my kids were born in America my only experience as a parent has been in the American – Massachusetts, to be precise – school system. As my son and daughter progress through the system though, I am often left asking questions about how things work here. I find myself looking back at my own school years and realize they were different in many ways. 

The lovely village where I went to
school. I was even married in that church!
First of all, in England, the kids go to school for one year longer than in the US. I toddled off to reception class at age 4, would you believe? Today the pupils then go reception class through to year 13. (Grades K-12 in the US). Things have changed somewhat though from when my generation was at school in England. We went to primary school until we were 11, then on to secondary school for first form to fifth form culminating with O’Levels (nationwide standardized exams) at the end of the fifth year. O’Levels no longer exist. My nephew informs me that they are now GCSE’s taken at the end of year 11. So confusing! For those taking A’Levels we then went to the lower 6th and upper 6th. This is now year 12 and 13. For A’Levels we had reduced our course load down to three classes (French, German and economics for me!) I have to say that I like the fact that in the American system, the students don’t have to narrow down their subjects as soon as we did in England. Until recently English students could leave school after O’Levels and go out into the world aged 16! In 2008, a new law, that will take effect in 2015, was introduced in England stating all students must stay in some form of education or training until they are 18.

The Harry Potter gang in Uniform.
As my kids prepare for the first day of school, my 6th grade daughter is faced with the big decision of what to wear on this first day! Denim skirt, shorts, maybe the red capris? And which top will go with that, oh my! But for the majority of British school-goers, back in my day and today, that stress was eliminated by school uniform. Looking back I don’t think I minded the uniform. It was easy, navy blue skirt (length varying according the the style of the given year), white shirt and navy blue, v-neck sweater, even a tie in the early years. We also had a purple blazer with gold trim, which we avioded wearing as the aubergine color was not too flattering! My kids are always fascinated by all the children in England pouring out of schools at the end of the day dressed the same, like a pool of blue ink (many of the uniforms seem to be blue). With the advent of "Harry Potter" many US children think uniforms are quite cool now too. If we ever attend a school event here while my mother is visiting, she always laments the lack of uniform. “They would look so much smarter with uniforms on,” she says.

When my son started kindergarten, I was shocked at the length of the summer holiday. Eleven weeks! I know family and friends in England find the idea of such a long summer shocking! But after 9 years of those lovely, long summers I am very used to it. Like everyone else, I lament the end of the summer. Maybe it’s because the weather is usually better here, or just that feeling that we can all really switch off from school and activities for a good length of time. Although there are times I  wish there were more breaks during the year like in England with their 3 terms, each with a week of half term holiday. Most towns have 2 weeks around Christmas and again around Easter, but only about 6 weeks in the summer.

There are some traditions that are part of the America school system though that I wish we had had when I was at school. I have some photos from school, and the annual class picture, but I love seeing the yearbooks from my American friends. Now in the age of Facebook I have caught up with some friends from high school, but it would be great to have that official record of those high school years.

American High School Graduation.
And what about prom and graduation? It still amazes me how huge graduation is here with the caps, gowns, big ceremony and lots of parties. Parties we did have, but nothing as fun and special as the graduation ceremony. School was basically done with your last A’Level, and that was it except for the excruciating wait for the results until August. And only then did we know if we had made it into our college of choice if our results were good enough! Quite stressfull actually. In America by the time the kids finish the senior year they know exactly where they will be heading in September. We Brits had about two and half nail-biting months of wondering if we would be replanning our whole future come results day! 
A Nerve-Wracking Day.

At the end of the summer all your friends go their separate ways, but the lucky Americans have all their milestone reunions to look forward to in the future. I think I have had one kind of semi-reunion, organized one Christmas break by a friend where we all got together in the pub in our hometown! I know some of my friends don’t relish the idea of reunions as much as others but it is great to have the opprtunity to get together with all those folks from high school again.

Much has changed in the UK since I left so I can’t even claim to be an authority about the current state of the school system in England. I do know that my secondary school is now a housing development! To bad. And as my son enters 10th grade I am starting to find out about SATs, all the different class options and of course the dreaded college application process. But that’s a whole other blog entry!


Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Happy First Birthday to The Bee's Knees!

We are very excited to be celebrating The Bee's Knees British Imports’ first birthday! And to mark this occasion we are introducing our new cupcake mug, designed by Kate Davidson, who created our awesome Bee logo! This year has certainly flown by. It’s hard to believe it’s been 12 months since we hit that “Publish Website” button. What an exciting moment that was, and it has been an exciting year since; from receiving our first order to our busy holiday period. We created our Facebook page, newsletter and blog and we have enjoyed the responses on these mediums. We have introduced new products, product lines and even updated our homepage. And we have drunk many cups of tea and eaten some yummy treats in the process! 

It’s been a great year. We hope that you have also enjoyed all that we have to offer. We would like to thank all those who have placed orders with us and to thank our friends and family for their support as we embarked on this adventure. We would also like to give a shout out to Jonathan at Anglotopia and Melissa at Smitten by Britain; their support and encouragement have been invaluable. We are looking forward to another great year! 

Lucinda & Donna

To see our cupcake mug on the website click here:
What People are saying about The Bee’s Knees:

"I have ordered a few things from The Bee’s Knees and the personal and friendly service have been fantastic. I have ordered a few things as gifts and then end up keeping them for myself…terrible, I know :-) Just means I have to order more :-) Keep up the great work!!"

"One of my favourite online British retailers. Their products and shipping are top notch, and very reasonably priced."

Winner of our giveaway on Smitten by Britain:
"Dear Lucinda and Donna, My Jubilee mug came today. It is beautiful!
Thank you both so much. I think you have a "dream"of a job! Much success."