Friday, 10 March 2017

Tweed (again) and Russian Apple Streusel Cake

Both the Scots and the Russians have got the art of surviving and thriving in a long, cold winter down to a fine art, although of course, Russia's cold makes Scotland's look like amateursville.

I broke from my moorings to go to Russia for the first time in November last year. It's where I discovered just how perfect Scottish tweed is for wearing in seriously cold weather. Those tweed skirts I made - I lived in them all day, every day.

This is the only pic I have in evidence - taken in Elisaeev's Food Hall -  an enchanting food emporium in St Petersburg - a bit like London's Harrods Food Hall or the 6th Floor of KaDeWe in Berlin but on a much smaller, more intimate scale. If you are ever in St Petersburg, make a beeline for this place - it's delightful. You can't see the detail of the skirt I'm wearing terribly well - but it's the dark green lovat tweed one, worn over boots and under a quilted jacket - perfect for going between snow and ice outside and well-heated interiors inside, without freezing or sweltering.

Despite temperatures in St Petersburg in November of -16 C or so, I can honestly say I was never cold. I am not sure how I would have fared in January or February when temperatures drop a lot further but I am optimistic that the tweed would have held up.

February in Oxfordshire in southern England can't compete but it has nevertheless been quite cold and my goodness, my tweedy blanket has come into its own. I finished my tweedy patchwork and it's been in use ever since keeping me beautifully, but never stiflingly, warm - that wonderful breathability of wool that is so user-friendly. I say "finished" but that's not strictly true from a purist perspective. I finished the patchwork and then couldn't decide about the backing so I left it unlined and if you turn it back, yes, you can see all the seam allowances. But the fact is that you don't turn it back in normal use and I prefer the lightness of it, as it is. I also have an eye on cleaning it, at some future point. Anne suggested that tweed fabric can actually be hand-washed using Eucalan, avoiding the need to dry-clean at all. If I do that, I don't want the extra weight of any lining fabric pulling the tweed out of shape as it will be quite heavy enough on its own, once wet. If it shrinks a little, I shan't worry - plenty of scope to lose an inch or so, should it come to that.

I am going to wash a sample before I immerse my tweed skirts in water as, obviously, with a fitted garment there isn't the scope to accommodate shrinkage but the blanket is different.

I finished the edge with a traditional blanket edging in old-fashioned blanket stitch and, well, it looks like a proper blanket!

It is a proper blanket!

Made almost entirely out of scraps, as per my previous post.

I made a crochet flower square cushion last year and, serendipitously, the colours go beautifully with it, I think.

So, onto the Russian cake. I loved Russia. At every level. So different from Western Europe although, of course, after the dismantling of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, many more western influences pervade it. But it is still very different. Wonderfully so, I thought.

I spent a good deal of time last year learning the basics of the language - the cyrillic alphabet and script - printed cyrillic is quite different from handwritten which makes things extra complicated for a beginner - and getting outside the rudiments of Russian grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation (which has quite a few peculiar vagaries to entrap the unwary novice). Not easy. Learning a language from scratch in one's fifties, from a book and a CD, is a very different proposition from learning a language as a child, or teenager, at school, in a class, with a teacher on hand to help and, most importantly of all, to correct, I realise. But I was very proud of learning enough Russian to be able to read and communicate effectively in the normal sort of tourist contexts - buying things in shops and markets, asking the way to places, understanding and asking about menus etc etc because although a certain amount of English is spoken in the main tourist spots, it's nowhere near universal.

I haven't written about my trip on this blog but there will probably be the odd allusion to it now and again such as with this cake which was something I ate in the café at The Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg. This is a pic of the original. 120 roubles (about £1.60) for a slice of "песочный пирог" ("pesochnyie pirog").

It's basically a sort of apple and sour cream streusel cake. The Russians are keen on streusel type cakes. In fact they're keen on homemade cakes, full-stop. The phrase "домашняя выпечка" ("domashnyaya vyipechka") at the top right of the blackboard sign above, was proudly repeated in many places - it means "homemade baking".  Russian baking can clearly give any other baking a very serious run for its money. One of the reasons why this particular Mrs Tittlemouse found herself at home in Russia, perhaps! Anyway, I had this cake several times - if you go to the Hermitage Museum yourself, you'll understand why - one visit is simply not enough to take in what's there - in terms of art, I mean, not cake!

But back to the business of cake in hand... The Russian word for "streusel", rather endearingly, is "песочный" (pesochnyie), which means "sandy", perfectly describing the rubbly texture of the topping. This version with apples and sour cream (sour cream is ubiquitous in both savoury and sweet dishes in Russia) was to die for. It looked relatively simple to recreate but tracking down a suitable "рецепт" / recipe was less easy, partly because my Russian is still barely past tourist level and I wanted a genuine Russian recipe. There are some American (very good) versions of sour cream apple cake around but none quite captured the charm of my rubbly Russian one. Until persistence and my own trial and error paid off, that is.

So here is my recipe for "песочный яблочный пирог" ("pesochnyie yablochnyie pirog") or "Apple Streusel Cake". It's pretty darn close to the one I ate in the Hermitage café, I have to say and very good. One of the (for me anyway) felicitous characteristics of Russian baking, is its tendency to be ingeniously creative with essentially simple and straightforward components. You don't need to have in stock, (or go out and buy), an army of strange and esoteric ingredients to bake Russian-style and I am getting a bit tired of all the goji berry / chia seed / no-wheat / no-dairy / no-sugar recipes that are popping up everywhere with righteous, if not self-righteous, claims to being "clean cuisine" implying that other less esoteric cooking is slightly contaminated or worse. (Sorry - rant over!) Mooving on...!

For my Russian Apple Streusel cake you need
300 g white self-raising flour
100g caster sugar + 2 tbsps for the filling
1/4 tsp cinnamon
1/4 tsp salt
225 g cold unsalted butter
2 small eggs (I used bantam eggs as my bantams have just started laying again after the winter - about time too, you may hear me say! Bantam eggs are small and usually I double up for any given egg quantity in a recipe but they're just right for this)
300 ml sour cream
2 tbsps semolina
6-7 apples - I used 7 small ones (an eating variety not Bramleys)

Put the flour, 100g sugar, cinnamon and salt in the food processor and whizz to aerate it. Add the cold butter cut into cubes and whizz in short bursts to incorporate it into the flour mixture. It should look like breadcrumbs. Remove about a third of the mixture by spooning it out into a pudding basin. If you weighed accurately, you are talking about removing just over 200g (208g to be precise).

Break one of your eggs into the remaining mixture and whizz briefly to make a dough.

Line a 25 cm square tin with baking parchment and press the dough into the bottom as evenly as you can with your fingers. Chill both the dough and the reserved mixture in the fridge (or you could freeze if you wanted to).

When the dough has had a few hours in the cold, remove it and your basin of reserved mixture from the fridge and preheat the oven to 180 C.

Mix the sour cream, semolina, remaining 2 tbsps sugar and your final egg in a large bowl. Peel, core and finely chop the apples into small pieces or thin slices. I prefer chunks because that's how I had the cake in Russia. Add to the sour cream mixture.

Fold the apple through gently and then pile on top of your chilled dough base. Pop in the oven for 30 minutes.

Now remove the cake from the oven and scatter your reserved sandy, rubbly mixture over the top to make the streusel topping.

Return to the oven and bake for another 20 -25 minutes or so until the top of the пирог /cake is crisp and golden.

Cool in the tin, on a wire rack and then chill further in the fridge before cutting into squares or slices and eating. A light dusting of icing sugar, in honour of the Russian snows of its place of origin, is not gilding the lily, I feel!

Needs nothing with it other than perhaps a glass of "чёрный чай" ("chornyie chai") black tea, Russian-style.

Enjoy! Or, as the Russians say, "приатнога аппетита!" ("priyatnava appetita") "Bon appétit!"

E x

Saturday, 4 February 2017

Of Tweed and Tablet

So... the tweed first. A few years ago I picked up a small bundle of fat quarters of Jamiesons Shetland tweed fabric at the Knitting And Stitching Show. I wasn't sure what to do with them - it was just an impulse fabric purchase. They were plain - one a very dark, lovat green, and the other a soft beige, both quite austere but with that lovely hint of different colours flecking here and there that is characteristic of tweed fabric.

Pondering what I might do with them, I got it into my head that the fabric would make beautiful winter skirts. Of course, that wasn't possible with the very small amounts I had, but Jamiesons were very helpful when I 'phoned their mill and I ordered enough fabric, to make two winter skirts. Slightly nervous, because I had no experience of sewing wool fabrics and wondering how sensible it would be to make something that would need dry-cleaning, I cut and sewed two very simple A-line skirts using the pattern I drew out to make my denim skirt replacement, some years ago. They needed lining, of course, but the pattern was so simple, it wasn't complicated. I just added on a waistband to the original pattern to make affixing the lining easier. I've worn those skirts so much over the subsequent winters it's not true.

The skirts are delicious to wear - because of the warmth of the wool fabric and the easy flow that the lining fabric gives them. I have brushed out the occasional spot of mud and had them dry-cleaned minimally. They look as good as the day they were made. Wool is actually a very forgiving fabric with naturally dirt-repelling characteristics so the skirts have turned out much more user-friendly than I feared. I wouldn't wear them to do anything particularly mucky but for ordinary wear they've been great.

Some of my other winter garments have not held up so well and this year I thought I'd make another couple to replace some skirts that had really got beyond wearing. I duly ordered some samples and chose a plain grey and a subtle dark purple and black check. Not very bright or cheerful, I grant you, but I've found the neutrality of plain and dark is by far more versatile than anything more lively.

I have to wear a lot of black or dark clothes for work and although none of these skirts are actually black, they work very well with it and I've found their soft, nuanced tones very cooperative in going along with a brighter scarf or flamboyant earrings, if I want to jolly things up. So they may be plain but I know I will wear them. A lot. They're warm as toast when it's really cold and they are breathable enough to be comfortable when it's not quite so raw.

In the aftermath of my skirt-making, there were, of course a lot of scraps. The fabric is not cheap and I really wanted to find a good use for them. I made a hot water bottle cover for one friend and a scarf lined with Liberty lawn for another, a while back.

But with these two new skirts, the bag of leftovers was still bulging. Sewing one of the skirt hems, I was struck by just how cosy it was with the skirt lying on my lap and so I thought I might cut the leftovers into squares and make a patchwork blanket with them.

A blanket made solely from my left-over scraps was going to be very sombre. I did wonder about appliquéing some felt shapes in brighter colours onto some of the squares. But in the end I purchased some very small amounts of lighter and brighter Harris tweed from here to mix in some more cheerful colours.

Although the website indicates the minimum length you can order is a metre, in fact, if you 'phone them, they are happy to send as little as a quarter of a metre which was great for my purposes. I think they glow beautifully against the plainer fabrics and although it isn't quite going to be an entirely scrap project, I am hoping the result will be beautiful and frugal enough to be very satisfying.

I haven't quite decided on the assembly process. Whether to use the second method in Kristin's post here and overlap the edges to avoid bulky seam allowances or whether to sew the squares together in the normal way, in which case the blanket will need to be backed. If I go that way, I'll use squares patched together from old shirts, for the backing, I think.

Have you sewn any patchwork with thicker fabrics, like these? I'd be interested to know what you'd advise, if so.

And I'll post about my tweedy progress in due course!

Now for tablet. This is a chequered tale of trial, error and tragedy as well as eventual (sort of) triumph. I am not talking here about your iPad or similar gizmo. I am talking about that peculiarly Scottish confection which is akin to fudge but different. Although made of similar ingredients, tablet, sometimes called "butter tablet" but often just "tablet", is grainy and almost sandy in texture, where fudge is smoother and creamier although some artisan fudges have a texture not dissimilar to tablet. If you are lucky enough to come across this sort of fudge on sale, snap it up, though in my experience, it tends only to be sold in small, expensively priced bags, probably because it's been made by hand. There is nothing to beat real Scottish tablet but it's difficult to obtain outside Scotland. Living a long way south of the border I thought I would make some. I used this recipe which seemed both clear and reasonably simple.

I mean, how hard can it be? It's just sugar, butter and milk (both ordinary and condensed) and a bit of vanilla essence, boiled up, beaten and poured into a tin to set.

Well, it just shows how wrong you can be. It turns out to be a rather trickier customer than I anticipated. I am always just a little bit suspicious of recipes, I come across, which tell me they "turn out perfectly every time" and some of the Scottish tablet recipes I found had that weasel phrase in there. The hidden subtext seems to be that there is a hinterland of exasperated experience with recipes, for whatever it is, that have not turned out perfectly every time. And that tells you something.

Anyway, I know my limitations and not having made this before I thought it would be prudent to use my thermo-spatula which is basically a handy silicone spoon with a sugar thermometer insert - bringing the mixture to the boil and the boiling it until it reached 115 C before beating with a wooden spoon and pouring into the tin. This I dutifully did but instead of lovely, set sandy tablet, the tin contained a lava flow of a viscosity that if tipped up would have made a steady, inexorable break for the wild blue yonder. D suggested we might eat it out of the tin with a spoon. A good idea to deploy at the end of a really bad day perhaps but not exactly an ideal solution. The following day I tipped the whole lot back into the pan and this time used the fahrenheit scale to measure the temperature because it turns out that the "soft ball" stage, which is what you are after, is actually 240 F which is nearer to 116 C than 115 C, so the mixture had not been quite hot enough.

I duly reheated it, beat it again and poured into the pan. Bingo! It set! It was slightly darker than if I hadn't had to reboil it, but never mind; it tasted very good and the texture was right.

My father-in-law has been in hospital, still is, in fact, and as my mother-in-law loves all things fudgy, and has been quite down, I took her some. It went down a storm. My brother-in-law hoovered a bag of it and my father-in-law, once permitted to eat anything, also made short work of some. "Would I make some more?", my mother-in-law asked. "Yes, of course", I said, thinking that now I had sussed this temperature thing it would be plain sailing.

Well, it wasn't. I got the mixture to 240F, I beat the heck out of it, poured it into its tin, left it to set and when I came back, well, it hadn't. It was more set than the first version but again it was behaving more like molten lava than sandstone. Cursing somewhat, (OK, quite a lot), I tipped the lava back in the pan and reboiled it, but this time, perhaps because it had been hotter to begin with, the mixture darkened ominously and began to catch and burn. I removed it from the heat, beat it like a mad thing and transferred it back into the tin where it sat, like that coarse rubble that the county council plug pot-holes with, before putting tarmac on top. I tasted a small piece cautiously. Was that the deep aromatic note of vanilla, underlying the sweetness, or was it er, just carbon? Sadly, I had to face the fact that it had more in common with the cinder bucket than fragrant vanilla orchids. And the texture had gone most peculiar to boot. It wasn't lava, but you couldn't cut it into pieces without it totally disintegrating. It was, in other words, a culinary disaster.

With one more tin of condensed milk in the larder, (let's hear it for hoarding!) I braced myself for a final go and this time made sure I did things rather more slowly. Tablet does not like to be hurried either at the heating stage, or the beating one, I gather.

Still the darn thing did not set properly. It came to the correct temperature; I beat it vigorously for a whole eighteen minutes until it was so thick it would barely pour our of the pan, spread it hopefully in my tin and crossed my fingers. H, home for the weekend from uni, tasted a bit and gave it the thumbs up but the texture was oozy and creamy, not sandy and crumbly. You can see in the pic below that although the knife has marked the tablet into squares, the mixture is oozing forth to fill in the gaps already.

Finally victory was achieved by carefully warming the mixture back in a pan just until it was runny enough to whisk and then I whisked it with an electric whisk for five minutes and poured it out again. I am pleased to report that the stuff has now set as it should. You can see in the pic that now the marked out squares stay separate as they're meant to.

And are in an acceptable condition to be given away.

But I don't really understand why it didn't set the first time.

Does anyone out there have any experience of making this and any advice to give? All the recipes indicate that I am going well up to the upper end of cooking times and beating time and I am stirring as vigorously as I can with my wooden spoon. Some recipes do suggest using an electric whisk straight up for the beating but I have been nervous to deploy the electric whisk in a thick sugar mixture that's sitting at 240 F on account of risking serious burns. I may simply have to overcome that, if I'm going to make it again.

On the plus side, success, when it does come, is satisfying. If you have a sweet tooth, you will love it. Yes, of course, it's rich and too many pieces will not be good for your heart or your figure but a small piece now and again is not going to do you any harm and in fact I believe it might cheer your day as it has cheered ours collectively over a difficult couple of weeks. I think it would make the perfect small something to tuck in your pocket, twisted in a square of greaseproof paper, when you go out on a grey and wet February afternoon, for a winter's walk, or at the end of a long day, with may be a wee dram of another Scottish delicacy to go with it. But failing the whisky, I find it goes beautifully with a cup of tea.

If you are a born and bred Scottish lass, making tablet is probably instinctive but for us lesser mortals, it seems to be a bit of an arcane mystery. Any light anyone can shed on what I am doing wrong would be most gratefully received.

E x

Sunday, 22 January 2017

Hygge - Celebrating the Cold, the Bleak and the Blissful

Hygge, the Danish concept of cosiness in winter seems to have become mainstream in the UK. Books, blogs, magazines, knitting and clothing catalogues are all exhibiting their hyggelig credentials. I really like the philosophy of hygge because rather than simply promoting pulling a metaphorical duvet over your head until the dark, cold winter days are gone (attractive although that sometimes seems, on yet another cold, dark, January morning), its essence actually rests on a subtler message : achieving a healthy balance between discomfort and comfort, bleakness and bliss, activity and rest.

Hygge, it seems, is not just about toasting your toes in hand-knitted socks before a log fire with your hands around a warm mug of frothy, hot chocolate in the light of an obligatory candle. That's only half of it. The toasting your toes bit is only properly hyggelig when you've spent some time outside, walking in the countryside, chopping logs or gardening, (or may be skiiing, if you live in Scandinavia).

It encourages us to get out there in the cold and be active outside, as well as to retreat inside and hunker down with a good book, a steaming mug of tea (and a candle).

The combination is a good recipe for these early months of the year, post-Christmas when it still feels such a long way from warmer, lighter days. January blues are a common phenomenon. I see that the third Monday in January has even acquired Official Depressed Status  and is now being referred to as Blue Monday. Don't worry - we've past it; it was last Monday, not tomorrow!

The other reason I like the philosophy of hygge is that although, like any of these lifestyle recommendations, you can spend a fair bit of money equipping yourself with hyggelig trappings, it is essentially a homely philosophy that makes the most of ordinary things, ordinary contexts, ordinary days and you don't have to spend much at all to bring out the hygge in your life, despite some of the marketing hype that might persuade you otherwise.

Yes, it's cold outside, so, yes, you do need warm clothing and proper footwear if you're going to be outside for long. But they don't have to be new this year nor do they all have to match this season's colour-way.

Yes, it's nice to come in to a warm house after being out but you don't need to install an open fire or a wood stove to be cosy.

Yes, to earn its proper hygge status, what's on the table is ideally homemade, but it doesn't have to be complicated, in fact, for the Danes, it seems, if it's too complicated, it's not hygge. Hurray for simple!

Hygge seems to be as much about doing as spectating - and that appeals to me.

I've been trying to beat the January blues with the active part of hygge, aiming to walk early, every morning for 45 minutes or so and to get out and about at other times too. Nothing chills me down faster than working, hunched for hours over a computer screen, I find, so this, in part, is a functional strategy to keep my circulation active. But it's more than that - I just really love being out and being more active, even when it is bone-chillingly cold and to begin with, not remotely inviting.

There's a very inspiring article from a couple of years back by Alys Fowler, of Gardener's Question Time fame, on the joys of being outside in winter. You can read it here. It buoyed me up just to read it. So if you feel you too need a bit of encouragement to get your boots on, have a look.

But there's no doubt about it, that being outside in sub-zero temperatures (-8 C in Oxfordshire this morning) means something piping hot and inviting on the table when it comes to mealtimes is definitely de rigueur. Soup has always been prominent in my winter cooking repertoire - there's just something so comforting about a bowl of hot homemade soup and this year I've been making it even more than usual.

Here is one that has become my winter favourite this year. It makes a perfect lunch after a winter walk (you can leave the vegetables to roast while you're out) and is cheap and cheerful to boot. Here in the UK, fresh tomatoes are often a bit disappointing, especially in winter. I devised this to try and emulate that intense, tomato flavour you get far more often in the Mediterranean and I am pleased to report it was a blinding success. Sorry, that doesn't sound very modest, does it? But it was! It's a variation on a number of similar roast tomato soup recipes I found and then tweaked to my satisfaction. You may well have one that works equally well but here is my version, for what it's worth.

Roasted Tomato Soup - serves 4-6 

What you need
c 2 kg large tomatoes - plum ones are good but not essential. Last time I used three 500g packs and a small bowl of leftover smaller ones that were beginning to look a bit sad so probably a bit less than 2 kg in total.
2 red peppers
1 onion
good, green olive oil
salt and black pepper
c 1.5 litres homemade vegetable stock or water - I have got into making my own vegetable stock as a regular thing - (very quick and easy in a pressure cooker) but plain water with some salt will be fine if stock-making isn't your thing. If using a commercial, powdered stock, make it up on the dilute side, otherwise it will overpower the fresh intensity of the tomato hit in this soup.

What you do
Preheat the oven to 190 C. Wash the tomatoes and peppers. Cut the tomatoes into halves or quarters (depending on their size).
Halve the peppers, remove the stalks and inner cores with their seeds. Chop the flesh. Peel the onion and chop into chunks.
Drizzle some olive oil over the base of a large heavy cast iron casserole with a lid. Pile in the vegetables. Season with a bit of salt and pepper and another good drizzle of olive oil. Not too much oil - or the finished soup will be heavy.
Clap the lid on and put the casserole into the oven for a couple of hours. Remove the lid and roast uncovered for another half hour to 45 minutes to evaporate off some of the juices. Remove from the oven and allow to cool a bit. The vegetables should be meltingly soft and the juices concentrated but still present. This is what it should look like by the end of roasting:

Tip the vegetables and their juices into a mouli* or food mill over a pan and crank the handle. Warning - I may be peculiar here, but I find this Seriously Fun!

Thin the resulting intense, thick, red, purée with c 1.5 litres of stock (or water) - the exact amount of stock you need will depend on how thick your tomato purée is and how thick you want the soup to be. Reheat on the hob.
Eat and survey the frost that remains outside, even though it's midday, with satisfaction!
*If you don't have a mouli or food mill, obviously you can blitz the soup in a liquidiser, food processor or use a stick blender. The snag with these other methods is that you will really then need to sieve the purée to remove the bits of skin and remaining seeds, which is a bit of a faff. If you make soup or fruit purée a lot, I recommend buying a food mill. I didn't have one for ages, bought one some months back and have used it more than I would ever have believed.

Mine is a stainless steel one, as you can see, and it comes with two interchangeable milling discs, a coarse one and a finer one, which is what I generally use. It was quite expensive but it's excellent; I'd thoroughly recommend it, but you can buy much cheaper plastic ones, if you're more of an intermittent soup-maker. Amazon have a range here, if you want to browse some options.

The wonderful thing about the mouli is that it results in so little waste which, from both a nutritional and an economical point of view, is rather good news. See what I mean? This is all the debris that was left:

Cold, after being outside? You bet!
Piping hot soup, fresh off the hob, will do nicely, thank you very much!

E x

PS Thank you for your kind comments on my previous post welcoming me back after my unexpectedly long blogging absence - I appreciate them very much.

Tuesday, 17 January 2017

Ragged Lavender Hearts

I know it's a long time since Mrs Tittlemouse got her act together and posted anything but here I am, with a little creative idea that I thought you might like, if you're still reading, that is, and I can well understand it, if you have moved on to less stagnant waters over the last six months or so! Anyway, here it is. A little tutorial for making frugal, ragged, lavender hearts like this one.

The other day my favourite pair of pyjamas - a brushed cotton Cath Kidston pair, duck-egg blue, spotted with white polka dots - finally gave up the ghost. Recent launderings had flagged up the fact that the main fabric had faded quite a bit and got very thin in places but I crossed my fingers and hoped it would continue to hold out. Sadly, it didn't. I considered mending the large rent that had appeared all of a sudden "and without any invitation" (to quote the original Mrs Tittlemouse) by my right shoulder but regretfully decided the fabric simply wasn't strong enough to take a patch that wouldn't quickly tear away.

The main duck-egg-blue-spotted-with-white-polka-dots fabric of the pyjamas had been delightfully paired with a contrasting duck-egg blue and rose-sprigged print to make the collar, facings and placket on the jacket and the small back pocket on the trousers as well as trimming the sleeve and trouser cuffs. I really wanted to salvage that pretty, rose-sprigged fabric but close inspection revealed there was very little of it to play with. What could I make?

After humming and hawing over various possibilities, I opted for something very small and simple but surprisingly satisfactory - ragged, lavender-filled hearts. I pass it on, in case you too have a pretty brushed cotton nightdress or pair of pyjamas that have seen better days that you can't bear to part with, though, of course, there's nothing to stop you using new fabric, if all your winter nightwear is in good shape!

What you do:
1 Draw out a simple heart-shaped template. Mine is about 12 cm / 4.5" tall and 12 cm / 4.5" wide. Too small and it will be too fiddly to sew and stuff; too large and you'll need more fabric and a lot of lavender to fill it. If you want to use the pattern I drew, I have managed, (I hope), to upload it as a pdf here. Make sure you print it out at 100% scale.

2 Press your fabric pieces and if, like me, you are cutting up worn out clothing, choose a less worn part of the fabric, at least for the outer two of the four hearts you will need for each ragged lavender heart. If again, like me, you are after a fabric only used in very small quantity on the garment, look carefully at where it's deployed to see what you can salvage. Carefully unpick any stitching and lay out what you have. You may need, as I did, to stitch smaller strips together to give you enough to cut from. Just match and stitch together as required, pressing open the seams before laying out for cutting out your hearts.

3 Cut out four hearts for each lavender bag. Two of these can be cut from less good portions of the fabric as they won't be seen. I cut my inner hearts from the rather more plentiful supply of faded main fabric, saving the rose-sprigged ones for the outer hearts. I was quite chuffed to manage to realise three ragged, lavender bags in total like this, although only one, made from the placket on the inside back of the jacket, is free from piecing-together seams, The others all needed some strategic joining together - see 2 above.

4 For each finished lavender bag, place four hearts together with the right side of the top and the bottom heart facing outwards. Pin together.

5 Cut a small piece of ribbon - about 15cm / 6" long - and fold in half lengthways. Insert the raw edges about 2cm / .75" below the edge into the central dip of the heart and pin in place to secure.

6 Using a matching sewing thread, machine stitch all round the heart about .75 cm / a quarter of an inch in from the edge, leaving a gap of approximately 2 cm / .75" on one of the long sides so that you can fill the heart with lavender. Yes, I do mean stitch on the outside with the seam allowances showing! The red-headed pins mark my filling gap in the pics above and below.

7 Fill the heart with dried lavender using a funnel and a spoon to help you. Make sure you spoon the lavender into the centre of the heart ie between the two innermost layers of fabric, leaving two layers on the outside, on both sides, as you can see in the pic below where my scissors are holding open the gap.

 A container is helpful to catch the lavender you will inevitably spill. I rather foolishly decided to do the filling, while sitting up in bed. Let's just say that finding grains of dried lavender in your sheets may smell wonderful but isn't exactly comfortable! If you have dried lavender from the garden, use that, or alternatively you can buy it, by the bagful, from suppliers such as this one. It's expensive if you buy a big bag but remember dried lavender does not weigh much in relation to its volume and you won't need more than around 10g / 0.5oz for each of these.

8 Don't overfill the heart, or it will make it difficult to stitch up the gap. Also, I think a little looseness is nice in lavender bags. Once you have filled the heart adequately, pin the gap shut, to avoid losing any precious florets, and stitch the gap closed, joining up the two ends of the seam left previously. If you've overfilled the heart with lavender, you may not be able to lower the presser foot on your machine properly to stitch the gap closed. Either remove some of the lavender to give yourself a bit more room or alternatively, if you prefer the heart to be more plumply filled, you could switch your foot to a zipper foot to enable you to sew easily.

Neatly tie off the threads and snip the ends so that it looks tidy.

9 Now take a pair of pinking shears and carefully trim the edge of the seam allowance which is left on the outside to give a nice zigzag edge. Be extra careful around the dip of the heart where the hanging ribbon is attached, as you don't want to cut the ribbon by mistake.

10 Hang your heart from a clothes-hanger or place in a drawer and enjoy.

The multiple layers of brushed cotton fabric make these hearts beautifully soft and tactile.

 As well as giving them a nice fluffy edge.

You can obviously make these with brand new fabric but I think you can't beat the softness of something much-laundered and worn. If you don't wear brushed-cotton pyjamas, mens' casual shirts are sometimes made from brushed cotton so a worn out, old one of these would be an alternative hunting ground, although it probably won't have pretty, rosy sprigs on it! But you could always prettify a manly tartan check with some embroidery, or a decorative button or two.

I am wondering what other things one might make with brushed cotton. Other than polishing rags, of course. I see you can make a very attractive rag quilt using brushed cotton squares but I don't have enough fabric for that. Shoe bags are another possibility and it's good for baby accessories.  Any other suggestions? Do let me know if you have any bright ideas - I have quite a lot of pyjama fabric still to play with!

Thank you for still being there, if you're reading this. I wish you a happy 2017 and hope to be back here again soon.

E x