Christmas is coming….

In fact it feels like Christmas has been coming ever since we blew out the tea lights in the pumpkins and handed out the last of the sweets on Halloween.  Is it me, or is it getting earlier every year? And is it me, or does every single retailer have a gushy Christmas TV ad now? But that’s another story.

It might sound like I’m being a bit bah humbug but far from it actually.  I confess, I’ve been listening to Christmas music in the car ever since I found a dedicated radio station. The kids are apoplectic with excitement about opening the first door on their advent calendars tomorrow morning and I’m just as excited as they are about getting the Christmas tree up and decorating the house the minute the clock strikes December.

One of the things I’m especially excited about is having a proper fireplace to decorate for the first time ever. In fact, I might have spent a slightly disproportionate amount of time examining Christmas garlands everywhere I go. Pre-lit, not lit, snowy, glittery, with holly berries? The choice is endless.

So, having done a huge trawl of the internet for mantlepiece decorating ideas, I thought I’d share some of my favourites with you, in case you also need a spot of inspiration.  My favourite find this year is the pom pom garlands.  If I can get my hands on one in time, you’ll definitely be seeing that in my house somewhere.

Watch this space to see the final look after our festive decorating bonanza this weekend and happy decorating yourself. Please share your pictures, I love seeing other people’s decor.

My first recipe – healthy (but tasty) carrot muffins.

Those of you that know me, will know that I was until recently a pretty awful baker. Rather than making cakes from sponge, I seemed to make them from lead or cement and couldn’t for the life of me turn out anything presentable (which is astonishing given how much I love cakes!)

The turning point was when my husband bought me a Kitchen Aid stand mixer. Firstly, I felt compelled to use it (yes, they’re ridiculously expensive. I’m pretty sure other mixers from different brands would also do a great job) so I had to learn a bit more about the art and science of baking.  Secondly, it taught me that there is a big difference between whacking together some butter and sugar in a bowl for two minutes and beating it properly to form a base for a really good sponge.  Lord knows, I’ve even been brave enough to make meringues since owning it, and they were my biggest disaster ever before – I wept, they wept, it was a mess. Now, the Kitchen Aid is my third pride and joy, right after my two kids. I love it and am forever looking for a good excuse to use it.

Today, I had a good excuse.  My lovely friend and her family are temporarily moving into my neighbourhood while they embark upon a huge building project (I hope she’ll let me share some of that too).  Now, if we can’t show some solidarity after our last 12 months, who can?!  And what better way to spread the love than with cake? But being only Monday, it seemed like I needed to try and strike a balance between indulgence and healthy eating. Far too early in the week to be falling off wagons.

I’ve been meaning for ages to cut down on sugar, both in life in general and in baking.  I have a massive family history of diabetes, and had it myself in both pregnancies so I know this beast is coming for me.  But does cutting down on sugar have to mean cutting down on treats.  No, it turns out. I started out by adapting a recipe I had for carrot muffins, dialling up the good stuff (carrots and fruit) and dialling down the bad stuff (sugar).  Since these muffins don’t use a butter and sugar base, I thought there was a good chance I could get away with less sugar. In actual fact, with just 75g of sugar spread between 12 muffins, that’s a little over a teaspoon per muffin. Not bad going for cakes, and big ones at that.

So here it is, my first ever recipe.  Please try it, it’s super easy and a great treat for kids (they won’t even know they’re quite healthy!)

Low sugar carrot muffins

75g light muscovado sugar

175ml sunflower oil

3 large eggs, lightly beaten

175g grated carrots

50g raisins

5 organic dried apricots

Grated zest of one orange

175g self-raising flour

1 tsp bicarbonate of soda

2 tsp ground cinnamon

Preheat the oven to 180 (mine is a fan oven, it worked well on this temperature). Fill a muffin tin with 12 cake cases.

In a bowl, place the sugar, oil and eggs and mix until well combined. Then add in the carrots, orange zest, raisins and apricots.

I wanted to add a recommendation here for my Microplane. I battled for years with cheap zesters only to find most of the zest stuck inside them and they were impossible to wash. This is brilliantly easy to use.

You could make this with just raisins, but my kids had eaten most of ours, so I added what I had, which was 50g and then topped up with the sweet, squishy apricots. I imagine dates would also work well – same sweet, sticky texture.

I grated my carrots in a food processor, but there are always chunks left over. Just chuck them in, they’ll be fine

Mix the flour with the bicarbonate of soda and cinnamon and sift all of this into the bowl with the carrot mixture.

My other vital bit of kit is my weighing scales.  You can see they weigh and measure in lots of different denominations and you can ‘zero’ them so you can keep adding ingredients to the same bowl, rather than having to weigh things out in lots of bowls.  Less washing up = winning!

Lightly mix until just combined – muffins can be a bit lumpy in texture and should not be overworked. The batter you have will be a soft, dropping consistency.  Divide the batter between your cake cases – I put about 1.5 tablespoons in each case and then used the last bit to top them all up and make them even.

Bake for approx. 20-25 minutes, until nicely risen and brown. Use a skewer to check if they’re baked in the middle – as soon as it comes out clean, take them out. Leave to cool in the tin for around 10 minutes (so they don’t collapse sideways) and then remove to a wire rack (or even just a plate to be honest).

Packaged up and ready to be delivered (with a few kept back for the kids).

Most importantly, do a quality control check with a nice cuppa before serving to anyone else.

Actually good enough to eat! Light and fluffy, great orange flavour and just sweet enough (for a Monday!)