24/12/13 - Baking with Baileys: Death by Buttercream

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My Baileys recipe series is back!  And this time, it's a bit decadent and very tasty.  What's better than a big chocolatey cake at Christmas?  A big chocolatey cake with alcoholic icing.  Oh yes, my friends.  Brace yourselves.  It's delicious, so simple and basically two amazing things about Christmas rolled into one.  Perfection.

Use any chocolate cake recipe you like.  I used a Devil's Food Cake recipe that I found in a random book in our kitchen, and it turned out to be more than a little demonic.  The mixture was lovely and thick, but somehow the finished product was a little less impressive than I'd hoped.  So pick your favourite fail-safe.

Although it tasted fine, this crumbling portion in the photo above was a bit of a disappointment and the cakes could have done with a little more height.  Ah well, I never pretended to be a great baker.  And I'm fairly certain that the piece-de-resistance of this recipe makes up for a few structural flaws in the cake.

The icing is where the magic happens; a simple buttercream base of icing sugar and room temperature butter combined with cocoa powder, vanilla essence and a few spoons of Baileys.  The result is rich and luscious, mildly alcoholic and totally delicious.  I don't know what kind of measurements I did for this as I always improvise icing mixtures, but I'm fairly certain I use one teaspoon of vanilla and maybe three dessert-spoon servings of cocoa powder and a decent glug of Baileys.  Other than that, just add whatever you need to get it to your desired taste and texture.

Adding liquid means that you have to balance it out with rather a lot of icing sugar and it's a rather inexact science, so of course there will be some left over which - top baking tip - you should just eat with a spoon.  Look how hard you've worked, you deserve it.

The finished product is certainly a festive treat and will earn you brownie points from anyone you share it with.  I took this bad boy into work and was told that should I ever leave for alternative employment, I would still be expected to be the team's resident cake supplier.  So that's a fairly ringing endorsement!

What's your favourite total overindulgence?  This might be mine!  Let me know in the comments.

22/12/13 - Film review: Catching Fire

This is probably a welcome break from the overload of Christmas posts I've been inundating you with recently!  Festive programming will resume soon.

For a little while, I didn't think I'd actually get to see the second Hunger Games film in the cinema.  Most of the people I would normally see it with have been otherwise occupied with being in different parts of the country (or world) or general busy-ness, and it's been in the cinemas for a while so I thought I was running out of chances.  So when my lovely friend Luke suggested going when he returned home for Christmas, I jumped at the chance!

In the few days before seeing Catching Fire, I decided to give the book a speedy reread.  As the last time I read it was when it first came out, it turned out I'd forgotten the majority of the major plot points.  So when I settled down in the cinema on Friday night with a hundred pages left unread, I at least had a few ideas of what to expect.  Luke, however, didn't...but we both agreed that the film was brilliant no matter which perspective you watched it from.  I'm going to try and keep this review fairly spoiler-free, but it'll be tough!  All I really want to do is go through the film in minute detail and analysis every aspect, but I doubt anyone would be interested in that.

While The Hunger Games was the closest book-to-film adaptation I have ever seen, Catching Fire had definitely been tweaked a bit more for the big screen but that didn't detract at all from my overall experience.  The first two thirds of the novel are much more about the political situation in Panem following Katniss and Peeta's remarkable performance in the seventy fourth Hunger Games, whereas this element of the story was slightly reduced in order to give more screen-time to the action of the arena.  We also see much more of President Snow and Head Gamemaker Plutarch Heavensbee than in the book, as the film isn't bound to Katniss's perspective in the same way.  Visually, the film is incredible; from the breath-taking costumes and impressive special effects, it's a real treat for the senses.

While obviously JLaw was incredible as she always is and Josh Hutcherson did himself very proud (and made me question whether my blanket statement of 'I don't fancy blondes' could maybe have an exception), there were a few absolute stand-out performances within the supporting cast.  Elizabeth Banks gave a stunning portrayal of a conflicted Effie Trinket, giving the character much more depth than the previous film and possibly even the book.  She also managed to look fabulous in the ridiculous Capitol outfits, which I'm debating replicating for my next fancy dress costume!  Jena Malone - who I recognised and had to Google when I got home, does anyone remember the film 'Saved!' starring Mandy Moore? - gave an incredible performance as District 7's female tribute Johanna Mason.  Although she wasn't exactly a central character, she really made an impression...I won't say any more, but keep an eye out for her.  Stanley Tucci was brilliant as ever, and I really enjoyed Sam Claflin who plays Finnick and is English incidentally (oh Wikipedia, what would we do without you?).

I could ramble for hours, discussing the finer points of the plot and the moral issues this series presents, but I won't because no one wants that.  Suffice to say, any film which leads me to debate, as a vegetarian, whether I'd find it easier to eat meat or kill another human being should the situation arise is a good'un in my eyes.  It sort of made me wish I'd written my third year dissertation on dystopian YA literature, as there's just so much to say about why The Hunger Games series has made such an impact.  Rereading the book in particular made me come over all geeky in my need to endlessly dissect each aspect.

I was really impressed by basically every element of it; it'll make you laugh, get a bit teary-eyed (more than once, in my case) and clutch desperately at the arm of the person sat next to you with your heart in your mouth.  I can't wait for the next installment and to add this to my DVD collection.  

Have you seen Catching Fire?  How did you think it compared to the book?  Let me know in the comments!

21/12/13 - Christmas Books

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When I was little, I knew Christmas was on its way for one main reason; the Christmas books came out.  A stash of about twenty which often told very similar stories, beautifully illustrated picture books that we would all settle down as a family to read in an evening.  Even when I got maybe a bit too old to be read to, I would enjoy listening to my parents read all our old favourites to my little brother.  Now that we're both basically adults, its a tradition that has fallen a little by the wayside but not one that I will ever truly forget.

So this post is going to be a bit nostalgic as I introduce you to a few of my favourite festive reads.  Some are classics, some are new loves but all are part of what makes a perfect Christmas for me.  And yes, I know I'm a bit old for some of them.  So sue me.

Let It Snow by John Green, Maureen Johnson and Lauren Myracle
This is a more recent addition to my Christmas stash, but it's one that I have reread every year since I got it.  Consisting of 'three holiday romances', it's an incredibly heart-warming book.  The three stories are set in the same town during the same chaotic snowstorm and adorable festive japes ensue.  

A Letter to Father Christmas by Rose Impey and Sue Porter
This was my absolute favourite of our Christmas books when I was a child.  I'm not sure why or how it would actually stand up to adult criticism, but it holds a special place in my heart and always will.  It's the story of Charlotte who loves writing lists, coping her mother's handwriting despite not being able to read yet, but what will happen when her present list for Father Christmas gets mixed up with a shopping list?  What happens, in fact, is a really lovely festive story which reminds us that everyone deserves a happy Christmas, even lonely animals.

The Snowman by Raymond Briggs
This is an absolute classic and I imagine a stalwart of most homes at Christmas...in Britain, at least.  I don't know if its quite as popular around the world.  The illustrations are gorgeous and reading it rather than watching the film means that you're spared from listening to that sickly sweet Aled Jones song.  Everybody wins.  There won't be a year where this doesn't feature in my Christmas celebrations.

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens
Another classic and one that I'm ashamed to say that I didn't actually read until my first year of university.  Everyone knows the story, even if it's just from watching that Muppets Christmas film, and the actual book is a very quick little tale with an uplifting message so it's perfect for an annual reread.  You can buy some gorgeous hardback editions as well, which look absolutely stunning.

Christmas by Dick Bruna

I only bought this book in the past week, which might seem odd.  "Hannah," I can hear you asking.  "Why would a 21-year-old want a picture book of the nativity?"  Well, I am replying, Dick Bruna (some of you may know him at the creator of Miffy) was my favourite author/illustrator when I was little.  We even had a VHS of his animated illustrations which I can find evidence of nowhere on the Internet...do any of you lot remember it?  Let me know!  Anyway, I saw this and just couldn't resist buying it.  It's a lovely book and a nice taste of my childhood.

What are you favourite Christmas reads, current and nostalgic alike?  Let me know in the comments!

18/12/13 - Say 'Cheeeeeeese'!

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There's a chill in the air and the nights have officially drawn in (it's starting to get dark at quarter to four, what is that?), and you know what that means...comfort food is an absolute must.  Now is not the time for diets and calorie-counting, and the other night I treated my family to the perfect decadent treat for those cold evenings.  You can never go wrong with cheese, especially at Christmas, so why not have a meal which is essentially entirely that?  Cue the luxury of a baked Camembert, served with a homemade red onion relish and some lovely crusty bread.

Now this is clearly crazily easy even for the most novice of cooks, but I'll run you through the way I do things anyway.  Preheat your oven to like, gas mark 6.  Maybe.  I'm not good with temperatures.  Just get your oven nice and toasty.  Grab a couple of cheesy wheels (I went for two 250g servings between four, but I'm fairly certain one each wouldn't have gone amiss), unwrap them and make little incisions into both sides.  I was lacking in rosemary sprigs so I had to suffice with sliding little slivers of freshly cut garlic into the holes, but go as crazy as you like with the seasoning.  Wrap them up in foil, leaving the top a little open and pop them back into the bottom half of the boxes they came in.  I topped them off with a few teaspoons of white wine before closing the foil over, sliding them onto a baking tray and whacking them into your oven.  Leave for about twenty minutes or until they're gooey and delightful inside.  Cheese: done.

I served mine with a slightly improvised sticky balsamic onion concoction.  I roughly chopped three big-ish onions and popped them into a hot pan with quite a lot more butter than was probably strictly necessary - this is definitely not a healthy recipe!  Keep stirring until the onions have softened, then add a few glugs of balsamic vinegar, season with salt and pepper to your tastes, and make sure to move them around a bit so they don't stick and burn.  Basically just keep an eye on them until the vinegar has reduced off a bit and you're left with a lovely rich onion-y mixture of joy.  

The one thing I don't think I got quite right was only buying one load of bread.  This was £1 from Asda, a soft crusty white with lots of little chilli flakes which made a great addition to the other elements of the meal.  As delicious as Camembert is, a whole big wheel can be a little rich on its own so mixing up the flavours you combine with it is a good idea.  I wrapped it in foil and let it warm in the oven alongside the cheese for about fifteen minutes.

Serve and enjoy!  

Once the food was all set out, there was little time for photography as we all heartily dug in!  I just about managed to get the little snapshot below before this chunk of bread found its way rather quickly into my mouth, along with a lot more of the same.  It's not a meal that I have very often for various reasons so it means that it's always a treat!

What's your favourite luxury meal?  Let me know in the comments!

17/12/13 - It's beginning to smell a lot like Christmas...

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It's a huge cliche, particularly within the blogging community, but I love me a good scented candle.  They make a room feel cosier and smell delicious, which was particularly useful in a student house that was often pervaded by various slightly funky aromas.  Now that I'm back at home, it's not a habit I'm keen to break.  I just can't get enough of them!  And a new season welcomes a chance to mix it up a little.  Generally, I tend to lean towards fresh citrus scents (one of my favourites being Yankee Candle's Vanilla Lime) but they seem slightly inappropriate for this time of year.  So I thought I'd write a little bit about my little foray into festive candles.

On a slightly stressful Christmas shopping trip, I took a few moment's refuge in the little Yankee Candle shop on Liverpool's main shopping street and accidentally left with a couple of additions to my collection.  I often have trouble finding wintery scents that I really like as they tend to be overrun with cinnamon, which I'm not a huge fan of.  Much as I love Christmas spices, I prefer to be able to smell something other than just cinnamon.  Instead, I decided to experiment with some sweeter candles than I would normally opt for.  Christmas tends to be the only time of year that I can properly stomach my room smelling so strongly of baked goods - much as I appreciate them in small doses, all the cupcake and cookie scents around are just a bit too much for me.  But in a bit of a departure for me, I went for Honey & Spice and Salted Caramel as a nod to something a bit more festive.

Both are really nice scents, in my opinion.  The combination of honey and spices helps to balance out the two things I dislike about the individual scents (sickly sweetness vs. crazy cinnamon), and I find it a comforting one to light of an evening after a long day at work.  

There seems to be very little that is 'salted' about the caramel candle, but that doesn't stop it being divine.  It's much sweeter than I tend to opt for but it does smell exactly like a piece of millionaire's shortbread and that can never be a bad thing!

I also nipped into Primark and picked up a couple of an old festive favourite.  I still use the tin from last year's three-wick Firewood Fig as storage for my extensive collection of rings.  Unfortunately, this little jar was the largest size they were offering this year which is a shame as the tin just seemed to last so much longer than the jar does.  Oh well, maybe next year.

I've been having some serious candle envy after watching plenty of YouTube videos which feature Bath and Body Works Christmas candles.  I'm particularly intrigued by the Fresh Balsam scent as nothing smells more like Christmas than pine, but I'm always reluctant to buy things online without having a chance to sniff them first.  If I ever find myself on the other side of the Atlantic, I'll be making a beeline straight for the nearest store to stock up!

What are your favourite festive candle scents?  Let me know in the comments!

17/12/13 - That's A Wrap!

In a bid to avoid the usual last minute rush, I decided to use my one free afternoon this week to make a start on present wrapping.  I've actually had all my Christmas shopping done for a little while, but I like to make something of an event of getting them all wrapped up and ready to go.  It's something I used to begrudge spending time on when I was young and selfish, but now that I'm more mature and can appreciate the joy in giving gifts as well as receiving them, I want them to look their best!

My gift wrap is from Paperchase (£3.50) - they always have some really cute designs.

And of course, you need some appropriately festive entertainment while you're making your gifts look as appealing as possible.  As I keep missing them being on TV, I opted for a rewatch of an old favourite, Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone.  Obviously the whole film is great, but there's nothing quite like spending Christmas at Hogwarts!

I want a Weasley jumper.

And here they are!  I've put a lot more effort into this wrapping job than I normally do, and I'm pretty darn proud of myself for managing all those fiddly bows.  Let's just hope my friends like what's inside these frankly stunning packages.

How are your Christmas shopping and wrapping going?  Let me know in the comments!

16/12/13 - Oh Christmas tree, oh Christmas tree...

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Very little feels more Christmassy than decorating the tree.  It's one of the highlights of December for me, and it definitely cheered me up this weekend amidst some stressful days at work - who'd work in retail at this time of year?!  But Sunday afternoon meant going and choosing a tree (we absolutely always get a real one, my only artificial tree was the tiny one you may remember from my university house) before whacking on my Christmas playlist and having a little boogie during the decorating progress.

Let it never be said that I don't glam up for these festive occasions...

I wish I had the time or inclination to edit these photos up all arty.  It's something I'm determined to experiment with in the New Year, but my geriatric laptop might not cope with it.  We'll see.  

And here is the finished product!  Coming home to the twinkling lights and the smell of pine is what makes having to go to work over the Christmas period worth doing.  I'll be spending all my evenings over the next couple of weeks curled up under this bad boy, feeling cosy and content.

Is your tree up?  Do you favour the artificial, or is the smell of pine too much to resist?  Let me know in the comments!

14/12/13 - Russell Brand's 'Messiah Complex'

Before I kick off, I need to make a couple of preemptive apologies.  Firstly, the photos in this blog post are worse than abysmal.  This is what happens when you forget your camera (bad blogger) and have to choose between a terrible iPod camera and a worse BlackBerry one.  Forgive me.  Secondly, this review has the potential to get a little overly effusive and downright embarrassing.  Continue at your peril.  Right, on with the show...

Very few people who know me now will understand how excited I was to see Russell Brand's latest tour Messiah Complex.  Other than my family, only a couple of my closest friends and the girl I sat with through most of high school Maths can truly appreciate the jittery excitement I've been feeling intermittently since I booked the tickets a good few months ago.  This is because most people either didn't know me or it has been forgotten in the mists of time.  Back when I was probably around fourteen, I was - well, there's no two ways about it - I was obsessed with Russell Brand.  Like, properly obsessed.  I've always had something of an addictive personality, an inherent inability to just like something without immersing myself in it entirely.  With time, I've managed to quell some of my more obsessive urges or at least make them less obvious to the casual observer.  But back then, I was full-on mental.  Russell was my ultimate heartthrob, role model and style icon (there was a lot of eye-liner, it wasn't pretty).  I read his books, watched his stand-up DVDs and had every podcast of his radio programme on my iPod.  So when my brother and I booked tickets, it felt a little bit like all my teenage dreams coming true.

With a combination of his usual lightening-fast delivery, trademark crude sexual humour and just the right amount of political and philosophical debate, Messiah Complex takes on the cult of celebrity and the godlessness of today's culture with Brand's usual flourish.  The thing that struck me most about the show and I think is possibly the number one explanation for the effect Russell Brand has had on me is his infectious enthusiasm.  Passion, in my opinion, is one of the most attractive qualities a person can have and Brand has it by the bucketload.  From the moment he steps onstage (and off it, straight into the waiting and enthusiastic audience), it's clear that there is no place he'd rather be.  He's a born entertainer.  And as he discusses his heroes - namely Gandhi, Che Guevara, Malcolm X and Jesus - and shares his unique view of the world, he's also a born orator.  His command of the audience, his verbosity and incredible stage presence cannot be faulted no matter what your opinions of this controversial man.

I had an absolutely incredible evening.  If I hadn't look fairly rough after coming straight from work and if I didn't have to get up the next day for a pretty important job interview, there is no doubt that I would have waited at the end as Russell gamely smiled for photos and signed autographs.  Sadly, that's a treat that will have to wait for another day.

At the end of the show, Russell bid the audience to think about their own heroes.  The message was clear; it doesn't matter who they are or what they stand for, as long as it's something that you believe in.  His words were "Choose your heroes or society will choose them for you, and they won't be the right ones".  I think it's something really important to consider, especially due to the toxic culture of celebrity that evades today's world.

On that note, which of your teenage heroes would you love to meet?  Let me know in the comments!

11/12/13 - Single Belles: Being Unattached at Christmas

I apologise for the awful pun in the title, but I thought something a bit cheesy would be appropriate - if you don't laugh you'll cry, right?  No, I'm joking.  Although it's not something that I am generally too sore about, I know a lot of people struggle with the concept of being single and that struggle gets multiplied by a hundred when the festive season rolls around.

It's a six-week long nightmare reminiscent of the opening scene of Bridget Jones' Diary.  An endless parade of parties at which your loved-up friends act all coupley and you sit in a corner with a bottle of wine, desperately trying to avoid the mistletoe and the one lone creepy guy hanging out underneath it.  The hoards of family members descend to pry into your personal business, always starting with that much-dreaded question: "So...is there anyone special on the scene?"  While you might want to answer by screaming in their faces before retreating behind the Christmas tree with the contents of your little cousin's selection box, you have to smile and trill just a little too brightly, "Oh you know, no one at the moment" whilst thinking, "No, I'm just as lonely and unloved as I was last time you asked".

Okay, so that's all a little dramatic.  But when all you see is couples bundled up in matching scarves and holding hands whilst they ice-skate romantically along, it's enough to make you want to drown yourself in a vat of eggnog, your corpse sinking quickly, weighed down from consuming a family size tub of Quality Street.  Never fear, fellow singletons!  I am here with a few tips for brightening up the festive season.

Save some money.  There's no two ways about it; Christmas is expensive.  Being single means a whole load of people not on your present list - no partner, no in-laws, no brothers/sisters/aunts/uncles/grandparents/family pets [delete as applicable] you've only met once.  Just worry about your own relatives, that's bad enough as it is.  And no travelling to spend festive weekends with people who are essentially strangers to you, no awkward drinks with their friends...really, it's a blessing to be single!

Or you can splurge!  You've just saved all that money on presents.  There's nothing that will get you into a more festive mood than the best of all presents; the self-gift.  New outfit for the office Christmas party?  Yes please!  No spending guilt and you get to look fabulous.  Which leads me onto...

Freedom.  Those loved-up couples won't be looking so smug when you tell them all about your antics under the mistletoe (once the lone creepy guy has been shooed away).  Who doesn't like a cheeky festive guilt-free flirt?  The only people who claim not to are people in committed relationships who aren't allowed to admit that they secretly envy your current single status.  Who knows if Santa's got a hot new 'friend' up his sleeve for you this year?

Yes please!
Don't torture yourself.  I know that Love Actually and The Holiday are amazing festive films but if you're feeling a little tender over your single state, maybe give them a miss until you're feeling a bit better.  Or at least there'll be no one around to see you crying into your mulled wine.  Stick on The Grinch or The Muppets' Christmas Carol; kids films will never let you down when you need a smile on your face.

Fill your time.  'Tis the season to be merry, so dive right in!  Invite your other single friends round to help put up your Christmas decs.  Don silly antlers and flashing Santa hats, stuff yourselves with mince pies and have a boogie to your favourite festive tunes.  It's much more fun and less depressing than doing all that stuff alone...trust me.  On the same note, make the most of being able to spend more time with your family.  There's no question over where you're spending Christmas, so enjoy the chance to just chill out at home.

Smile Bridge, it'll be over soon!
Before you know it, it'll be New Year's Eve and you'll have all the excitement of seeking out a midnight kiss and planning a list of resolutions that you'll probably break before the end of January.  And who will be there to judge you for that?  No one.  The single life is cracking. 

And even if you do find yourself getting a little down?  Don't forget:
And at Christmas, you tell the truth.

Do you have someone special around?  Whether you do or not, I hope everyone has a wonderful festive season, full of love (romantic or otherwise).

05/12/13 - Baking with Bailey's: Cookies

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As promised, this is the first installment in my latest blog series (latest and first can be the same thing, right?  Have I done a blog series before?  Feel free to jog my memory if I'm being dense) and it's a good'un if I do say so myself.  I should issue a warning here: this is a diet-free zone.  If you're counting calories or trying to eat healthily at all, you might want to look away now as the following post may cause you to crack and I don't want to be responsible for any binge-eating.

I used this recipe and found that it didn't even really need much tweaking.  Maybe I was making my portions too small, but these ingredients made nearly twice as many cookies as the recipe said they would...not that that is a bad thing at all.  The mixture was super thick and luxurious, and you could definitely taste the Bailey's.  It was also a really quick and easy recipe, without any crazy ingredients or difficult techniques to master.

Don't try and take photos of the inside of your oven. It disturbs the baking and the resulting photos are totally not worth it.
My final result were much cake-ier than I think they were supposed to be, but that's not a negative quality unless you have your heart set on particularly biscuity cookies.  When these were fresh out of the oven, they were really gooey and sticky with nice big melty chocolate chunks...and they're just as tasty when they're properly cooled.  Most of the alcohol content cooks off in the baking process, but the Irish cream-y taste is still there and really adds something to what could be an overly-sweet chocolate biscuit/cake/thing.  The Bailey's gives it an extra element and a little edge.

Overall, I consider these to be success - they went down well with my family and it's a recipe that I would definitely try again, maybe with smaller quantities of the ingredients if I'm only catering for four!  

Do you have any suggestions for the next Baking With Bailey's post?  Let me know in the comments!