Chestnuts and paper chains

Dear Claire


I’m roasting chestnuts as I write – no better tradition at this time of year, when December is almost  upon us, the lights are twinkling in the windows and the snow is flurrying. I do miss the chestnut sellers on English street corners and their little blackened paper bags of steaming hot chestnuts. But since I can’t hop across the Atlantic anytime soon, this is my simple go-to recipe at home:

Preheat oven to 200C/400F

Carefully cut an x on the flat side of each nut, using a sharp paring knife

Lay the chestnuts, x-side up, in a single layer on a baking sheet

Roast for about 30 minutes

Cool, peel and enjoy

While I’m reminiscing, I’ve also been browsing through a book called Simply Tradition. It’s written by a friend of mine, Kierste Wade, whose children play violin with J. She writes a wonderful, inspirational blog, too, called Simply Kierste. In both places she has a lovely holiday idea for families – a Christmas Kindness Countdown Chain. I remember making paper chains with my grandmother when I was a child, and Kierste’s idea is all about turning this into a family advent tradition where you write down ideas for helping others on the strips of paper, and then add a strip to the chain each day as you put your ideas into action.


Simple and meaningful. Just what the season should be all about.

Chestnuts are ready! I hope you can enjoy some too this holiday season.

Much love,

A delicious recipe for hot spiced apple juice

Dear Sam,


Hello again! I’m back because I wanted to share a quick recipe with you which I tried at the Neighbours’ Lunch that I was telling you about last time.  It’s perfect for this time of year and I thought it might come in handy during your Thanksgiving celebrations.

Warming mulled apple drink

Pour a 1 litre (1 quart) carton of apple juice (or, in the U.S, cider) into a large saucepan and add a cinnamon stick, broken into pieces, a quarter teaspoon of cloves, 2 star anise and 3 – 4 slices of fresh orange and lemon.

Then add 3 thin slices of fresh ginger root. Cover and heat gently until the mixture starts to steam, then leave for 15 minutes to infuse, tasting regularly until you are happy with the flavour.

If extra sweetness is needed, add brown sugar to taste.  Remove the fruit and spices with a slotted spoon and serve, garnished with slices of apple.

mulled apple juice
Serve in warmed glasses or mugs. You can sprinkle extra cinnamon on top.

If you try it out, do let me know what you think!  As you know, over here, we have Bonfire Night coming up on November 5th, and this would be a good recipe to serve at a firework party as it’s a handy alternative to mulled wine.

Much love,



Banana bread – an easy recipe to try at home

Dear Sam,


Hearing about your day in the fresh air and your trip to the farmers’ market inspired me to get out to our local market this week, too. Amongst the various stalls is one which sells fruit and veg; I’m always intrigued by a selection they have of produce which is a bit wonky or slightly past its best. Rather than letting all this good food go to waste, it’s sold off at bargain prices and is perfect for cooking up soups, pasta sauces or fruit puddings. I often pick up some battered bananas to make a breakfast favourite of ours, banana bread, and I thought I’d share the recipe with you this time. In fact, I always think about you when I make it, as the recipe is adapted from a National Trust cookbook you gave me about 30 years ago! Here it is:

Banana bread – delicious and simple to make



125g butter or soft margarine

125g caster sugar

225g mashed bananas – perfect if they have gone spotty

1 egg, beaten lightly

200 g plain flour

Quarter teaspoon bicarbonate of soda

1 heaped teaspoon baking powder

Quarter teaspoon vanilla essence


4oz or 1 stick butter 

1/2 cup superfine sugar

8oz overripe bananas, mashed 

1 large egg, beaten lightly

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

1/4 teaspoon baking soda

1 teaspoon baking powder

1/4 teaspoon vanilla essence

spotty bananas
Overripe bananas are particularly good for this recipe

Preheat oven 180 C, 350 F, gas mark 4

Grease and line a 450g/1lb loaf tin.

Cream together the sugar and butter until they are pale and light and fluffy in texture. 

Stir the mashed bananas into the creamed mixture and add the beaten egg. It’s likely to look curdled at this point, but don’t worry, that’s fine.

Fold in the dry, sieved ingredients little by little, then add the vanilla essence. Spoon the mixture into your lined loaf tin and bake in the oven for 45 to 50 minutes. When the banana bread is ready it will spring back when you press it in the centre with your finger.

Let it cool in the tin for around 10 – 15 minutes, then turn it out and put it on a wire rack to become completely cool. Store in an airtight container and it will be fine for 4 – 5 days.

morning coffee
Perfect with a cup of coffee

I love to eat this cut into thick slices spread with a little butter. If you find you like it, it’s worth making two loaves at a time as it freezes very well.

I’ve just checked online and, according to Zero Waste Week an incredible 1.6 million bananas are thrown away in the UK every day! This recipe goes to prove that with a bit of effort, you can turn even the least appealing food into something good. As the saying goes, if life gives you lemons, make lemonade* and I think you could add, if life bruises your bananas, bake banana bread.

Until next time, I will leave you with that profound thought!

Much love,


* or a gin and tonic.



Digital Detox

Give up cell phone

Dear Claire,

Thanks so much for the gingerbread recipe! Not only were the biscuits a hit at home, I made a batch for a church bake sale a couple of weekends ago, in support of a group of students going on a service trip to Philadelphia next month. There were rather a lot of chocolate brownies at that bake sale, too. A good thing it happened before the beginning of Lent!

A different kind of fasting

You might remember that last year I decided to give up clutter for Lent, and I’m doing the same again. I’ve also taken a deep breath and given up something else – having my mobile phone by my bedside at night. I’ve been using my phone as an alarm clock, but have got into the habit as well of checking news and texts and emails immediately before switching the light out, and then again as soon as I wake up. I know it means I’m not transitioning restfully in and out of the day, but there’s something about that mobile phone that is a terrible draw. I’m hearing more and more people say the same, and seeing more and more studies coming out about the potentially addictive nature of all our digital devices. We are the last generation not actually to have grown up with them, and we are only just beginning to understand the impact on our children’s development.

Good tech, bad tech

I don’t want to suggest that I think cell phones are a bad thing – on the contrary, they are a wonderful way to keep in touch with each other, and a platform for some of the brilliant ideas we’ve written about this past year, like Free Rice and Charity Miles. But I’m a believer in all things in moderation, so I decided that this Lent, in the spirit of being more intentional and mindful, I would switch my cell phone back to an old-fashioned alarm clock. It’s not a full-blown ‘digital detox’ (at least one enterprising company here has actually launched a summer camp for adults where technology is completely forbidden) but I do actually feel a difference.

Now, if only I could get my alarm clock to play the lovely wake-up harp sound I have on my phone.

Much love,

“Be kind whenever possible. It is always possible.” Dalai Lama

Dear Sam,

I’m certainly looking forward to Spring, too. Although it hasn’t been anywhere near as cold here in Wales as it has your part of the US, we’ve had plenty of dark, miserable days. It was fascinating to read about all the different things that daffodils can symbolise; I hadn’t heard of the Welsh legend that being the quickest to spot one in flower brings a year of gold, but it certainly cheers me up when I see the first ones blooming. As you can imagine, we go all out for planting them in Wales and I agree with Wordsworth  that en-masse they are quite a sight, although he put it rather better than that!

I wanted to talk to you today about something else that can bring light into a gloomy day – someone being kind.  I think it’s great timing that Random Acts of Kindness Week is in February, starting on Sunday 11th, to be exact.  The Random Acts of Kindness Foundation has lots of great ideas for things to do, including some ways to be kind to oneself, which is also important in the depths of winter.

One of the nicest things I think someone can do for another is to cook something, so I thought I’d share a really quick and easy recipe for some gingerbread biscuits (cookies).  These are also foolproof and popular if you have to contribute to a bake sale or cake stall.

Gingerbread Biscuits



125g unsalted butter

100g caster sugar

3 tablespoons golden syrup

1 medium egg, beaten

300g plain flour

5 teaspoons ground ginger

1 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda


4oz or 1 stick unsalted butter

1/2 cup caster (superfine) sugar 

3 tablespoons golden syrup

1 medium egg, beaten

2 1/4 cups plain flour 

5 teaspoons ground ginger

1 teaspoon baking soda


Preheat the oven to 180 C/350 F/Gas mark 4.

Grease a baking tray or line with baking paper.

In a large bowl, cream the butter and sugar together with a wooden spoon until they are fluffy and light in colour.  Beat in the egg and the syrup. Mix together thoroughly.

Sift the ground ginger, bicarbonate/baking soda and flour into the bowl. Mix into a smooth dough, adding  little more flour if very sticky.  Wrap in cling film/plastic wrap, and chill in the fridge for at least 1 hour.

Roll the dough out to a thickness of 1cm/ 1/2inch and cut out with a pastry cutter. (It’s fun to theme the cutter to the person or occasion. I have one in the shape of Jane Austen’s silhouette, which is great for book clubs or well-read friends!)

Transfer the biscuits to the baking tray, with some space in between as they will spread in the oven.

Bake for 8 to 10 minutes until they are golden brown in colour. Remove from the oven and allow to cool slightly on the tray before transferring to a cooling rack. 

If required, you can decorate the biscuits with fondant or writing icing. Present them in an airtight box or bag to keep them fresh.

gingerbread for bake sale

 Inspired by your sunny daffodils, I looked into the meanings of flowers and discovered that, in Japan, cherry blossom symbolises kindness. No other excuse needed to top this post with a picture that I hope will help brighten your day.

Much love,


Bake Sale Brownies

Dear Sam,

It is very difficult to find the words to respond to some of the things which are happening in the world at the moment, isn’t it? All of us in the UK are still recovering from the incident in London last week; today everyone is talking about the result of yesterday’s election and what that may mean for the future.  I think you are absolutely right that in times like this we need to focus on goodness and kindness and to draw closer to each other not move further apart.

For today’s post I’d planned to share a recipe with you and recent events have made me realise that sometimes getting on with an absorbing, homely task like baking can be a good thing to do when you’re a bit overwhelmed by the news.  Adding some happy music in the background while you work helps, too, I find.

I’ve called the recipe Bake Sale Brownies as it’s my fail-safe option when I need to produce something to be sold at a charity fundraiser or event. I am definitely under the curse of recipes going horribly wrong when you need them to work for an important occasion, so I like to do something I know won’t let me down. Here’s all you need to know if you’d like to give them a try:

125g butter

6 tablespoons cocoa powder

2 eggs

6 tablespoons self-raising flour

1 x 100g bag of choc chips- milk, white or dark

250g sugar


4oz or 1 stick  butter

1/2 cup cocoa powder (not hot chocolate)

2 eggs

2 cups self-raising flour

1 x 3.5oz. bag of choc chips- milk, white or dark

1  1/4 cups sugar


Heat the oven to Gas 4/ 180C/350F.

Grease and line a 20 x 25cm /8in x 10in. baking dish.

Mix the eggs and sugar together.  Melt the butter in a saucepan with the sieved cocoa powder.  Allow to cool slightly, then add to the sugar and egg mixture and stir gently.

Sieve the  flour over the top of the mixture and fold in; do not overmix. Add the chocolate chips, combine well and pour the mixture into the baking dish.

Bake for 35 minutes.  When they come out of the oven, the brownies will be squishy in the centre but will firm up as they cool.  When cold enough, cut into even portions. Decorate, for example with icing (powdered) sugar as shown in picture, or with white chocolate piping in a pattern or wording relevant to the charity event.

You can sell the brownies individually or box them up in sixes for more profit! They freeze well, so you can bake batches ahead of time if you need to make a large quantity. Don’t forget to save a few to enjoy at home with a cup of tea.

Much love,