Sunday, 27 October 2013

Little Helpers

The Pub
Not too long ago, I was sat in our local with four of my closest and dearest friends catching up with the recent gossip when they asked me how the wedding plans were going. I mentioned the cross-stitching and how even though I enjoy doing it, each one was taking a fair bit of time. The lovely Jenny then suggested something that has since provided many delightful, memorable and (even if they don't think so) helpful evenings with my girls. She thought it would be a good idea if we organised an evening that week to all get together and have a cross-stitching session. She was right.

The First Session
If I remember rightly, it was actually the next evening that the five of us congregated in my bedroom to begin our first 'Wedding Crafts Night'. I had a piece of Aida cut out ready for each of them, along with a needle. Now the first 10-20 minutes were used to teach each of them the process of cross stitching:
- Fold the aida twice to find the centre point
- Decide on the pattern you want to follow (I suggested either the ladybird or the bee as these were the easiest)
- Find the centre point of the pattern to start from and see which colour embroidery thread is needed
- Cut a length from the skein of embroidery thread and from that length, pull two strands away from it
- Thread these two strands through the needle and start your first stitch through the centre point
- Follow the pattern to stitch your first line and work this process until finished

I was quite impressed at how quickly everybody picked it up and they all seemed to get quite into it as well. There was something really satisfying about hosting a night for your wedding that your friends genuinely enjoyed and helped towards.

After the First Session

The above image is a clear indicator of how our evenings tended to go from then on. In fact after the first night, it wasn't too long before the girls were asking when the next session would be! Each night we would be round somebody else's house. It was lovely to have a change of scenery. One night we would be watching a film whilst stitching, the other listening to music, the other watching a favourite box-set together. The bee image to the left shows Josie's handy-work before she had to jet off and travel the world (lucky thing!).

For me, one of the most charming things about having my friends help out is that each piece ended up slightly different and... lets say unique! For instance, the photo above shows the start of Jenny's and Natasha's ladybird patterns. As you can see, the spaces for the ladybirds are a lot smaller on one pattern that the other! But I love this. It really shows off the whole 'homemade' and 'handmade' touch that I insisted on having for the jam jar toppers. The fact I know they are different because my friends (who have never really cross-stitched before) helped out, makes me so happy to present them as gifts on my wedding day.
Both Tash and Jen have gone back to continue their studies for the time being, but when they are back down... these unfinished patterns will be waiting for them!

This is just a quick snapshot of me unpicking Kathleen's bee. There was a few times this happened... that, and re-threading her needle or de-tangling her thread! Considering she is not the most arty-farty person on the planet, I must credit her for how well she has done and (whether she believes it or not) how much help she has been.
There was a few times where she would say "now Zoe, my bee's antenna is going to be doing something a bit different" or "one of his legs might be a bit fatter than it should be". To this I would simply reply "it doesn't matter, it makes it unique" which I think is what is important on something like this.

The photographs above show Kathleen's bee progress along with the ladybirds she also finished. The butterfly and the second bee is the lovely Hazi's work. During this entire process, she has been a little cross stitching superstar. In fact, I got her her own embroidery hoop and cuts of thread so she could take it home with her!
Hazi has also left to go travelling now, but has made a great effort to finish another butterfly before she left - which is the hardest pattern may I point out.

Whether they think so or not, my girls have been a great help and I can not thank them enough. I just wish I'd asked them sooner!!! 
I would also like to thank my beautiful chief bridesmaid Ruth for all of her help with the planning and the process so far. And I hope she knows I will be bringing the cross stitching down to her next time I visit! I know she's a handy one when it comes to crafts and textiles. 

What I Have Learnt From the Last Couple of Months
 - Don't be scared to ask for help - chances are your friends will enjoy helping towards the big day.
 - Time really does fly when you are having fun - there were so many times we looked at the clock and it was midnight before we knew it!
 - I really do appreciate the little differences between two people's work.
 - Without getting too soppy - I have the loveliest bunch of friends a girl could ask for.

I hope you have enjoyed reading through this slightly more personalised post. I also hope I have inspired you to start crafting with your nearest and dearest. It makes for a great social night if nothing else!

Keep watching this space,

Monday, 14 October 2013

Spread The Love

In my very first post, I explained to you all that we are going to be giving the ladies home-made jam for their wedding favours. As promised, that is just what me and my mum have achieved and this post is going to talk you through our process.

Now I think it's worth mentioning that my mum did most of the work on the actual jam making and so she should take the credit. However, I did point the camera and take the notes... (I also did some of the stirring!).

When making jam it is useful to get your hands on a preserving book - especially if you are looking to try out different jams and preserves. However if you are just looking for the one recipe, try t'internet! The book that we went by is The Preserving Book by Lynda Brown. The steps within this book are simple enough to follow, it has pictures (which is always lovely) and it is choc-full of all different kinds of recipes for jams and preserves.

The recipe from Lynda Brown's book makes approx 1kg of jam:
  - 1kg of strawberries
  - 6tbsp lemon juice
  - 900g granulated sugar and 5-6tbsp of strong pectin stock OR 900g of jam sugar

We changed the amounts to suit how much jam we needed. 

Step One - Hulling and Halving the Strawberries
Hulling the strawberries quite simply means removing the stalks from the strawberries. Although they look pretty, they do nothing for the jam! Once this has been done, the strawberries will need halving. If you get a particularly big strawberry, it may be worth quartering them. The strawberries do not need to be cut up any smaller or mushed as they will be broken down during the jam-making process. It's also nice to keep a little bit of texture in there.
Tip: We bought the strawberries when they were at their ripest as this is usually best for jam making. They are also cheaper this way too as there is little time left before they go mouldy. The timing was just right as jam can keep for around 9 months and the wedding was about that far away at the time. This is something that you need to take into consideration when planning a preserve - when is it needed for? when should I buy the fruit? Which fruit is in season? How much fruit do I need? We had 20 punnets of strawberries to produce the amount of jam needed.

Step Two - Add Lemon Juice
Once the strawberries have been cut up and transferred into a preserving pan, the lemon juice needs to be added. The reason for this is that acid needs to be present for a gel to form - allowing the jam to set and not be too runny. Lemon juice or citrus fruit is normally added for this to happen.
Tip: Don't worry if you don't have a preserving pan. A heavy-based saucepan or similar will do. We used a big casserole pan - you just need to make sure that during the process, you keep stirring so that it doesn't stick. 

In the Meantime...
Whilst the jam was heating and I had no other notes and photos to take until the next step... I sat out in the garden and made some discs for the jam jars. Wax discs are used to sit on top of the jam once it has been put in the jars. This helps to stop air and bacteria getting to the jam - preventing it from going mouldy. I went for the more cost effective option and made my own out of grease-proof paper. 
I simply drew around the neck of one of the jars and cut them out. It took a while as I had to make around 70 discs! But I had to wait for the jam anyway.

Step Three - Add Sugar
The strawberries need to cook gently until they are soft. Once the fruit has softened, it is time to add the sugar. I don't mean to state the obvious, but it depends on how much jam you are making as to how much sugar you use. For this particular pot-full we added three and a half bags! Once the sugar has been added, keeping the jam heating gently, it needs to be stirred until dissolved. I love the scent of the jam at this stage, it smells gorgeous! 
Tip: When stirring, if it feels gritty along the bottom of the pan, you know the sugar hasn't dissolved.

Step Four - The Rolling Boil
Once the sugar has dissolved, the heat needs to be turned up to allow the jam to boil. Once it has reached what is called a rolling boil, it needs to cook until it reaches the setting point. To test for a set, you need to remove the pan from the heat. 

Step Five - Testing for a Set
There are a few ways to test for a set. The technique we used was to put a teaspoon of boiling jam on a saucer that had been chilling in the fridge. Allow the jam to cool and then push it from one side with your finger. If the jam slightly wrinkles and your finger leaves a trail on the plate, then the jam has set. 

Step Six - Skimming
Using something as a skimmer (like a flat spoon), skim off any surface scum. This is the froth that forms on the top of the jam. The jam then needs to be left to cool slightly so that the berries are distributed evenly throughout the jam and a thin skin forms on the top.

Step 7 - Fill 'em Up!
Then its time to ladle the jam into warm sterilised jars! Jars don't usually come ready sterilised due to handling in factories. There are a few sterilising methods, but the two we used were the oven and the dishwasher.
Oven: Wash the jars and lids in hot water and drain upside down. Then pop them in an oven heated to 140°C/275°F/Gas Mark 1 and leave to sterilise for around half an hour.
Dishwasher: Simply wash the jars and lids on a hot wash.
The main reason we used both methods was because we had over 70 jars and lids to sterilise and needed as much room as possible!
Once the jam has been ladled into the jars, cover it with the wax / grease proof paper discs, seal the jars with the lids and store in a cool dark place. Once opened, you need to keep your jam in the fridge.

Try This For Taste
We deviated from the recipe slightly and added ground black pepper to the strawberry mixture. This brings out the flavour of the strawberries even more... and it really worked (even if I do say so myself). Next time you have a bowl of strawberries, instead of reaching straight for the sugar grab your pepper grinder. Take my word for it, its scrumptious! 

Now all I can do is sit and wait until the big day... and hope that the jam is still as yummy as when I tasted it during the making process! Until then, I shall keep my fingers crossed.

Have a go at making jam, it really is rewarding. I already know what I want to try next!
  - Fig & Vanilla Jam
  - Pumpking & Orange Spiced Jam
  - Spiced Port & Plum Jam

I hope you enjoyed my jam making post... and most of all I hope those of you that get it, enjoy my jam!

Keep watching this space.