Tuesday, 23 May 2017

Recipe Tuesday: Pilchard Madras

In case you've never come across the term before, "pilchard" is the Cornish name for a large sardine.  In Britain, while fresh sardines are sold as "sardines", "pilchards" are sold canned, usually in a tomato sauce but sometimes in brine.  Like regular cans of sardines - the small flat tins you can buy the world over -  the taste and smell is quite strongly fishy.  Despite this, they're a useful storecupboard item.  They're sold in 14oz/400g tins, currently for £1.09 each.   One can should feed four.

I like to cook them in a Madras curry, which mitigates the fishy flavour.  The original was made in a moment of pure inspiration, several years ago, and now I make it once in the blue moon, when I haven't preplanned dinner and fancy a curry.  That was the case a couple of weeks ago, so I thought I'd share the recipe with you.

Like all my curries, it's a one pot meal, padded with veggies (in this case, the last of the carrots which were half dead in the fridge).  Just add rice (which I have done, below).  For instructions on cooking a "regular" meat Madras, see the notes below the recipe.


Pilchard Madras

Makes 4 generous portions.  Total cost, including rice, £2.41.

Ingredients
1 large onion, chopped (12p)
1-2 cloves of garlic, crushed (5p)
100g-200g  mushrooms, sliced. (35p)
(Or, instead of the above, use a portion of base)
1x400g tin Pilchards in tomato sauce. (£1.09) 
1x400g tin chopped tomatoes (25p)
Additional veg:  e.g. 2-3 large carrots sliced or 1-2 peppers/capsicum, cubed, or a cup of frozen mixed veg (whatever is available) (15p)
1-2 tablespoons vegetable oil (I use rapeseed). (3p)
2 tablespoons lemon or lime juice (from a bottle). (5p)

Spices 1 (20p)
1 teaspoon ground chilli (more if you like heat)
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon ground fenugreek
1 teaspoon ground turmeric
2 whole green cardamom

Spices 2  
1 desertspoon garam marsala
1 desertspoon chopped fenugreek leaves (optional)

Rice
1.5 cups basmati rice or white, long grain rice (12p)
3 cups Boiling water

Method
  1. Combine spices 1 in a small ramekin dish.  Add a tablespoon or two of water to form a thick paste and set aside.  (This will help stop the spices burning.)
  2. Heat your oil in a deep saucepan or large, deep frying pan.  Fry the onion until soft and glassy, stirring occasionally.  Add the mushrooms and, when they have made water and most of their water has evaporated, add the crushed garlic.  Continue frying for 1-2 more minutes.
  3. Make sure you have your tins of tomatoes and pilchards open.  Stir Spice 1 into the onion mix and fry until the aroma rises. 
  4. Quickly add your tins of tomatoes and pilchards, breaking up the pilchards with your wooden spoon/spatula as they land in the pan.  Stir in well.
  5. Add your optional veggies.  Bring to the boil, stirring all the time, then turn down to a simmer.  Stir occasionally.
  6. At this point, put the kettle on to boil for the rice.  When the kettle has boiled, measure out your rice and pour it into a saucepan with a tight-fitting lid.  Cover the rice with twice the volume of boiling water.  Bring the saucepan back to the boil, cover with the lid and boil for 2 minutes.  Switch off the power and leave it to situndisturbed for 15 minutes, or until the rice is cooked and all the water is absorbed.
  7. Immediately after you have switched off the rice, stir Spices 2 into your curry.  Simmer until the rice is done, stir in the lemon or lime juice and  serve.

Notes:-
  • To cook a regular meat Madras, add a step between step 1 and step 1 above. Heat 1 tablespoon of oil/cooking fat and brown 1lb/500g of cubed beef/lamb/chicken/pork.  Remove the browned meat to a plate, then proceed with steps 2, 3 and 4, returning the meat to the pan at step 4.  In step 5, simmer the meat mixture for an hour or until it is cooked and can be cut with a fork, stirring occasionally and adding extra water if it gets too dry.  Once the meat is tender, proceed with the remainder of the recipe  
  • I buy my spices in 500g bags from the Asian section of the supermarket or from Asian shops like Wing Yip and store them in old Douwe Egberts coffee jars. This is the cheapest way to buy them. Given how long they last, etc, I reckon 20p is a fair assessment of the cost of all the spices listed.
  • When you are feeling flush, buy big bunches of fresh fenugreek and coriander.  Wash them, chop them and freeze them loosely packed into the largest ziplock bags you can find. (You want to be able to break up the herbs when frozen.).  When you need fresh herbs to finish off a curry, add a spoonful/lump or two straight from the freezer. 
  • All the prices above are based on the cheapest option from Tesco.  Yes, you can get tins of chopped tomatoes for 25p, but only when they're on a 4 for £1 offer, when I usually stock up.

Saturday, 22 April 2017

New Blogger App

This is the first post/first attempt at a post from a new Blogger app.  Google appear to have abandoned their IOS blog users and haven't updated their app for several years.  After much reading of reviews, I settled on Blog Touch Pro.  It wasn't free and, at £4.99, it wasn't cheap, but it does look much more like the Blogger web interface than the Blogger app did.   And I can add photos, etc, which I can't do using the the Blogger web interface via Safari.   Here's one from Lucky, taken a couple of weeks back when I was commuting out to the far reaches of Oxfordshire:

 


I think he was being a little optimistic with his range estimate - he usually does about 500 miles before screaming "Thirsty!".  (After 120.8 miles, I'd expect him to claim a range of about 400 miles.)


- Pam (Now to see how this posts.)

Tuesday, 18 April 2017

Recipe Tuesday: Bread and Cheese Pudding

One of the websites I frequent is MoneySavingExpert.  A couple of weeks ago, their weekly newsletter had a give-away/competition:  win a copy of somebody's new cookbook full of £1 meals.  Sounds great!  Just the sort of cookbook that I'd enjoy reading and stealing ideas from.  Until I read the small print on the blurb at the back of the book....  Each portion of food costs £1.  Then I saw red.

Let me spell it out to you.  Since your average recipe makes four portions of a meal, that means each recipe actually cost £4.  Not £1.

It was a book of £4 dinners, not £1 dinners.  On the basis of this book, any fool can make a beef chilli, using supermarket standard ingredients and have spent less than £1 per portion.  Hell, I can do it using beef from my (expensive) Kosher butcher and have cash left over.  Talk about misleading marketing!  Some poor person, who is struggling to make ends meet, will buy that book based on the title and the fact that it was mentioned in MSE's newsletter.  Instead of getting something that will actually help them save money, they'll just get a cookbook full of all the recipes that don't involve roast dinners.

So in the spirt of "beat them at their own game", I have decided to publish a series of very cheap-to-cook recipes, tagging them as <£2dinners.   Here is the first.  The cost of each item is in brackets after its listing. All items are supermarket cheapest, "value" own-brand.

Bread and Cheese Pudding.

Serves 4.  Total cost £1.89

Ingredients

Four slices of bread, cut in half diagonally (5p)
325g can sweet corn kernels, drained (35p)
200g can tuna, drained (65p)
2 eggs (12p each = 24p)
250ml milk (25p)
75g mature cheddar cheese, grated (35p)

Method

  1. Preheat oven to 200C.
  2. Layer the bread, tuna and sweet corn  in a lasagne dish, so that the bread points stick up and each slice of bread has some tuna and corn between it and the next one.
  3. Scatter over the grated cheese.
  4. In a measuring jug, combine the eggs and the milk and whisk until well combined.  Add a grind or two of black pepper.
  5. Pour the egg mixture over the bread.
  6. Bake for 30-40 minutes, or until the cheese is melted and the egg mixture has set.

Yummy!



(As an aside, Blogger's reluctance to update their App is really beginning to wind me up.   I'm writing this on my iPad, via the web browser.  Uploading the photo for today's post was a nightmare.)

Monday, 10 April 2017

I am a LUCKY car!

It's Pam's car here, Lucky, borrowing the blog.  I've been trying to get onto it for ages  but the Blogger app no longer works on iPads or iPhones and Pam hasn't gone anywhere near Blogger on a PC for ages.

Anyway, I just wanted to share why I'm a Lucky car.  It's not just that Pam calls me "Lucky" (a play on the first two digits of my registration number), or that she takes good care of me - she even pats my "nose" (the Skoda badge on the top of my grill) - it's because of this:




Yes, that's right:  all the eights.  A very lucky number to the Chinese.  Having made it to 88,888 miles, that makes me a very lucky car!

- Lucky



Sunday, 9 April 2017

Update on the last post

It turns out that a production company were filming in the next street:  Philip K Dick's Electric Dreams.  (On the second night of filming, DH and I went and had a nosy.)

- Pam

Tuesday, 14 March 2017

Lit up like daylight

I am trying to figure out why my backgarden is lit up like daylight at 7pm in early spring.  Just take a look.



Love the forsythia.

Someone down the street has an industrial light up.  One of those big, spotlight things...



It can't be the crane hire place round the corner - the angle is wrong.  Meanwhile, the neighbours over the back fence have this dangling above them.  Why???


I'm completely bemused.

- Pam

Sunday, 12 March 2017

Spilling the Secret Sauce - Knitting in the Round

You may have noticed that I've updated the right sidebar.  At some point soon, I'll do a show and tell of my latest knitting but, right now, I'm about a third of my way through knitting the body of, Young And Pretty, from A Stitich in Time - Vol 1, Jane Waller's and Susan Crawford's amazing compendium of vintage patterns*.



Here's a link to the pattern's Ravelry page:  http://www.ravelry.com/patterns/library/young-and-pretty   I'm probably going to leave off the ruffle, which is knitted separately and sewn on afterwards.  It's too girly.  This project wasn't even on my radar but the next-in-queue didn't get gauge (I couldn't face the maths that night) and the yarn for the one behind that bled everywhere**.



Not only did I get blue hands, it stained the rug on the couch!





I haven't quite figured out how to get that off.... (I'm hoping it'll just wash out but have been procrastinating, so haven't thrust the rug into the washer.)

Anyway, in the end, I pulled 6 balls of Lidl's finest Crelando Anika sock yarn out of the stash and sifted through my pattern collection - and Ravelry queue -  wondering what to do with it.  I settled on Young and Pretty because I had enough yarn, it didn't need charting - unlike one of my other vintage choices - I hadn't knitted it before and, without the ruffle, it fits into my aesthetic.



As is usual these days, I'm knitting in the round.  No, the pattern wasn't written that way.  It doesn't need to be.  Like many knitters, I hate sewing up seams.  However, it wasn't until early 2011 when I had the "lightbulb" moment, "Why not knit it in the round and skip the seaming?".  (Well, d'uh!)  I don't remember exactly when the penny dropped but I think you can blame Jasmine from the Knitmore Girls podcast for that moment of inspiration.  Ravelry tells me that the first sweater I knitted in this manner is the grey Willow, which I started in March 2011.  (Thank heavens for Ravelry's project pages.).

What amazes me about knitting in the round is that more people don't do it. It's so simple.  I was gobsmacked to discover that someone has written a book(!) detailing the technique like it's rocket science.  No, I don't remember who or the title of the book - it was referenced in a podcast.  It got me angry and I've been stewing over it for ages. I was incensed that something so simple was being presented as "here's MY big idea; MY secret discovery" when it patently isn't.  The thing is:  you don't need to spend good money on a book full of mediocre patterns in order to learn this technique when it could be summed up in five steps. Here is all you need to know.

How to knit a sweater in the round whatever pattern you're knitting

1. Swatch to check your knitting tension against the pattern's quoted gauge, both in the round and flat.

  • Knit a long, half-n-half swatch. Using a circular needle, cast on 20 stitches more than the target gauge.  Work flat in garter stitch for five rows, then knitting in garter stitch for the first 5 and last 5 stitches, commence whatever stitch pattern is quoted in the gauge section of the pattern.  (If it says "25 stitches and 36 rows measured over lace pattern" then work the lace pattern.  If no pattern quoted, work stocking stitch). At the end of your first row, slide the the swatch back to the other end of the needle and work the second row, leaving a large loop of yarn dangling behind your swatch. Repeat for 5 inches, then swap to knitting flat and knit another 4 inches before finishing with 5 rows of garter stitch and casting off.
  • Wash your swatch and let it dry before counting your rows and stitches, firstly over 4 inches of the knitted-in-the-round section and then over the knitted flat section.
  • You may be lucky and discover that both tension sections are the same.  Or you may discover that your tension is very different when you knit in the round to when you knitting flat.  THIS IS IMPORTANT.  Many people have a different tension when they purl to when they knit.  If the latter is true for you, then you will need to use a different needle size for the upper back and upper front of your sweater, because they are worked flat.

2. Read your pattern's instructions thoroughly.  Does it include an extra stitch at either end of the body to give a selvage/space for sewing up? If so, then omit those stitches from your knitting.

3. To start your sweater:
  • Using a circular needle, cast on the stitches for the back, place a marker and then cast on the stitches for the front.  Work 2 rows flat, following the pattern's instructions.
  • Turn and work your third row.  When you get to the last stitch, check your knitting and ensure it isn't twisted.
  • Place a marker and join your knitting, working in the round from this point.  I like to use a dangling row counter for this marker.  It will signify the start of each round, while the other marker gives you the side seam.




4. To divide for the armholes:

  • If you haven't decided which side is the front and which side is the back, do so now.
  • Pattern instructions usually tell you to cast off nn stitches at the start of the first row, work to end, turn, cast off the same number of stitches and work back.  Ignore them.
  • On your first armhole row, do not start by casting off stitches.  Instead, work to nn stitches before the side seam marker, cast off nn-1 stitches.  Swap your seam marker for a length of thread (2-3 inches long) and, over it, cast off that final stitch, by slipping it over the first stitch of the other side and your thread marker.  Tie your thread marker in a loop.  Cast off a further nn stitches.  This forms the base of your first armhole and you have the side seam marked, which will help with placing the sleeve.
  • Work to nn stitches before the end of this side and repeat the above step.
  • Work flat from here on, following the pattern as instructed.  Remember to swap your needle size if necessary to keep your gauge even.
5. Knit your sleeves. 

  • Using magic loop, knit your sleeves two-at-a-time in the round. On a long needle, cast on the first sleeve with one ball of yarn, then cast on the second, using a second ball of yarn. Again, work the first three rows flat before joining and working in the round.  
  • When the time comes to knit the armhole shaping, follow the instructions in the pattern (i.e. cast off nn stitches, work to end, turn cast off nn stitches, work back). To make your life easier later, mark each arm's "seam" with a safety-pin.


And there you have it.  If you use a three-needle bind off for your shoulder seams, then the only sewing you'll need to do is setting in the sleeve caps.  Much easier.

- Pam






* Having dealt with both over the years, I think that while the collection of patterns is Jane's - and comes from her original 1970's edition of the book - all the work involved in the reissued book (resizing, knitting up, layout, etc) was done by Susan.


** Luckily, all is not lost.  The Knitmore Girls also have a solution to this problem, a citric acid bath.   http://www.betterthanyarn.com/2014/10/problems-and-solutions.html. I just have to reskein the yarn, having balled it all up and then follow Jasmine's instructions.  I'm kicking myself that I didn't do this beforehand as a matter of course, but I didn't have any citric acid, didn't contemplate that the 15L of vinegar I have lying around the house could do the same job and thought "it'll be fine". (Famous last words.). Hopefully, I won't felt the 100% hand-dyed Gotland in the process.  (In the end, I bought citric acid off Amazon.)

Friday, 10 February 2017

Money talks

I seem to be obsessed by money at the moment.  It's partially because I'm still finding my feet as a contractor - I'm still trying to work out how much money I need to leave in the company to pay the taxman and stay afloat if my contract with the Swedes ends.  Salary-wise, I'm paying myself £12k less than I was earning before BUT my take-home pay has only dropped £200/month. With a bit of rejigging and lower commuting costs, it's doable and leaves me with the same money-to-live-off each month.  (No, I don't understand it either.  While I used to contribute 9% to the corporate pension scheme, that was out of pretax income and doesn't explain the entire change.)

The other reason, I think, is that team I'm in at the moment are all contractors and they're obsessed by investing in shares and in property.   We had quite a discussion yesterday about the economics of rental properties.  I was surprised to discover that, in a group of accountants, I'm the only one who knew that mortgage interest will no longer be tax deductible on a privately owned rental property, thanks to George Osborne's misguided 2015 budget.  (He thought it'd force buy-to-let property owners out of the market, freeing housing stock for owner occupiers.  He is wrong.  The solution is to incorporate and own your rental properties through a company.  Interest will still be tax deductible and the company will pay 20% corporation tax instead of 40% income tax.  Those people who don't incorporate, will just put up the rents they charge, in order to compensate for the decrease in income.)

One topic that hasn't come up yet, is how people are saving.  Not the amount they save*, but the mechanics.  We've talked about car loans and leasing, but not saving.  Well, not yet. At least, for this I have an answer...Oddly, in the last six months, I have been put on the spot twice about the same thing.  Both times by bank people who wanted to know why I have so many savings accounts.  The first time, I was moving my savings operations to a new bank after the UK operations of ING were finally absorbed into Barclays.  (I can't abide Barclay's Bank.  They treated me like dirt when I was a customer of their's when I first came to the UK.).  The second was when I was setting up my business bank account.

Each time, the answer is the same:  "I micro-budget".  The response is usually a puzzled expression, so I elaborate:  "Each account has a purpose and is used for saving for something specific, so if I want to know how much money I've got set aside for my football season ticket, I can just check the account balance".

Usually, that's enough of an explanation and it's as if a lightbulb has light up.  Suddenly, they get it and want to know more. "What sort of thing are you saving for?", they ask.   I tell them that I've got accounts for the car's services and insurance, holidays, Christmas presents, the garden fund, clothing, crafting, etc, etc.

It's like a formalised version of the Sanity Fund, without the wallet card.  Partially, you can blame Anita Bell - the Sanity Fund is all her idea - and partially you can blame a poster on the Motley Fool years ago, who mentioned that they could have up to 10 sub-accounts when you opened an account at ING, which lead to a wider discussion about how people could use their sub-accounts.   Most people used theirs for saving for annual or irregular recurring expenses (such as car maintenance bills), and called the whole ING thing thneir "Freedom Fund".  "I've got $xxx in my Freedom Fund" is not an uncommon statement on the Fool.  (ING used to facilitate this by showing you the total balance of all your accounts, when you logged in.)

Eventually, I discovered that ING had a UK operation and signed up as fast as the pixels would carry me.  They paid the Bank of England base rate of interest, which was better than the majority of instant access accounts at the time.  Sadly, ING was one of the banks caught in the middle of 2008's credit crunch and their international operations were sold off.  I don't remember who bought them in the States, but Barclays bought the British branch and, about 2 years ago, moved all the accounts to their own online platform, which requires a card and card reader and is a pain because you can't just spontaneously check your account balances while at work.  The final straw in my relationship with Barclays this time, was when they reduced the rate on their accounts to below 0.1%, which in no way compensates for the hassle of dealing with their online portal.

Bye-bye Barclays.  The new bank is paying above the Bank of England base rate of 0.25% on an instant access savings account.  They have an easy to access on-line portal.  Their website is logical and easy to navigate (unlike yours).  Sod off.

- Pam






* This being England, you don't discuss salaries or day rates.  We know virtually everything else - what someone paid for the house, the size of the mortgage, etc, -  but not that.  (For once, I can't get this information from the finance system.  The Swedes aren't time-sheet-costed!)

Friday, 13 January 2017

Frugal Friday - five frugal tips that I've used in the last year

Happy New Year!  Did you have a good one?

In an effort to get blogging more frequently,   I thought I'd kick off 2017 with an injection of frugality:-
  1. The cheapest liquid soap on the market is Tesco's Everyday Value (own brand) Foam Bath at 50p/litre.  (It was 40p until recently.)  Chemically, it's the same as body wash or liquid soap and virtually the same as shampoo, but it doesn't smell as fancy.  Use it to refill liquid soap dispensers and as a body wash.  You can even use it as a shampoo, if desperate, but it may be a bit harsh on your hair.  One litre goes a long way.
  2.  Love to read and have a smart phone, tablet or Kindle?  There are thousands of free or very cheap books on Amazon.  Join the Bookbub mailing list to receive a daily email of books in your favourite categories, all on sale for £1.99 or less.
  3. My local library has a scheme where you can "borrow" audiobooks for free via an app.  You get access to each book for two weeks.  You do have to prove that you live in the borough first, though.
  4. They have a similar scheme with an online magazine platform that looks similar to Zinio.  Unlike the audiobooks, I haven't tested it.  (I'm drowning in free Kindle books thanks to Bookbub.)
  5. Travelling for work and staying for several days in hotels that provide decent toiletries but only taking carry-on luggage?  Want to save all the free bottles of shampoo/hair conditioner/body wash/lotion?  Get around the airport security rules limiting you to no more than 10 bottles of liquid of less than 100ml each by taking empty 100ml bottles with you and filling them up with the unused contents of the sample-sized bottles provided by the hotel
- Pam

Saturday, 31 December 2016

Housing, slums and other problems

I mentioned in my last post that the kitchen is the workroom of the home.  The thought occurs to me that, maybe, I should explain how I came to that conclusion.  It seems obvious once mentioned, but I only realised when I was watching the BBCs documentary series, The Victorian Slum.

Let me explain... Using a group of volunteers, the BBC recreated life in an East End slum covering the period from 1860 to 1914.  The building they used is derelict, originally part of a fire station. It was the closest they could get to a Victorian "court house", the original type of slum dwelling.  Court houses wrap around a courtyard, hugging the perimeter of the land, with shops and workshops on the ground floor and living spaces on the upper floors.  (There is a surviving example in Liverpool which has been preserved as part of the Museum of Liverpool.)

In Victorian times, families were lucky if they could afford one room to call home.  Housing costs consumed two-thirds of the average weekly wage, with food taking up the other third.  Everyone worked:  the man tramping down to the docks or to the factories, hoping he'd get picked for a day's hard labour; the wife and children doing piecework at home, often making matchboxes or artificial flowers.  Piecework brought with it a double burden since not only did you have to make enough units of sufficient quality to get paid, but you frequently had to purchase the raw materials first. Heaven help you if you were a widow or a single mum, since there were few jobs for women and having children automatically disqualified you from those.  Life was hard.  People frequently went hungry because the first priority was paying the rent.  You were only ever a few days hard work from being out on the street.

The series caught my imagination for a few reasons.  This was the life lived by my great-grandparents and where my grandmother spent part of her childhood.  (My great-aunt was born in the East End.)

The second reason is more telling.  In today's "zero hour contract" world, many people are back to that same hand-to-mouth existence.   The Guardian recently highlighted that there are thousands living in the UK who are technically "in work" so cannot claim benefit but without a guaranteed income who cannot afford to pay for housing.  Worse, they are not alone.  I turned on BBC2 a month ago, catching the tail end of a documentary about the current generation of hidden homeless - the small part of the documentary I watched showed a young mum "sofa surfing" with the father of her child.  She is a student teacher, desperately trying to finish her degree and get a proper job.  He works in maintenance on the London Underground but his monthly take home pay isn't enough to pay for even a modest home and they do not qualify for any state assistance, so rely on the goodwill of family and friends to home them for a few days at a time.

How can this be happening now, fifty years after Cathy Come Home and fifty years after the founding of the housing charity, Shelter?  This should not be happening now! These stories are not unique.  In London, the demand for housing has passed breaking point and property prices are obscene - the average price of a flat is10 times the average salary, while rents have doubled in the 27 years I've been in London.  (Rents were always obscenely high but haven't risen as fast, with a studio flat in Ealing going for £650 per month in 1999.  Now, it'd be around £900 to £1000.).  I cannot find the article to link to, but I remember reading that five out of six recipients of housing benefit is employed.

Salaries have not kept pace with inflation, especially house-price inflation so people cannot afford to buy nor can they now afford to rent.  As far as I can tell, the causes are three fold:-

  1. House building failing to keep up with demand.  This is partially due to difficulties with planning laws/green belt legislation and partially due to nimbyism.
  2. The Right-to-Buy legislation which penalised councils replacing the housing stock they sold with new properties.   The penalties were horrendous.  They were also "encouraged" to pass their remaining council properties to Housing Associations.
  3. When new properties are built, they are often sold off-plan to foreign buyers who are not purchasing them to live in or rent out, but as "investments" to sell later.
I am writing this as a marker in the sand, on the last day of 2016.  I don't have a solution.  Beyond massive wage rises and a huge, state sponsored building program, I can't foresee a way out.

- Pam

Monday, 26 December 2016

Sloe gin truffles and other chocolates

The kitchen really is the workroom of the house.  Nothing brings that home to me more than the last week, where I seem to have been on a production line of chocolate goodies and other meals.  I started the week making chocolate brownies for the choir's Christmas Social, went on to make sloe gin truffles and finished with another round of coconut rough.   Everything smells of chocolate!  With the exception of a few brownies, I haven't been able to face eating any of them.

My sloe gin recipe and sloe gin truffle recipes come from a wonderful website called Sloe.biz.  I've mentioned them before.  Unfortunately, when I went to give the link to some friends earlier in the week - and again, today - I got a 508 error message, "Resource Limit is Reached".  I am not trying to plagiarise someone-else's recipe, but in order to preserve them for posterity, here are my versions of  SloeRanger's Sloe Gin Truffle recipe and Sloe.biz's Sloe Gin recipe.  You have to start with the gin:

Sloe Gin

Buy a litre bottle of gin.  Drink half.  To the remainder in the bottle, add a wine-glass full of castor sugar (approximately 5oz or 150g).  Then add sloes - see note - until the liquid is back to the neck of the bottle.  Put the lid back on and shake violently.  Place bottle in a cool dark place, shake daily for a week then weekly for 3 months.  Gin is ready to drink in 3-4 months but can stay steeping for up to 9 months.  (Apparently it gets musty after that.). When ready, tip the gin into a large jug or bowl - something with a pouring spout, ensuring you get all the sloes out of the bottle.  Recant the gin liquid back into the bottle, straining it and saving the sloes.  It's now ready to drink but will keep for months.

Note - for best effect, the sloes need to be pierced before use.  Alternatively, freeze them overnight because that will split the skins.  You can put them in the gin frozen.

Sloe Gin Truffles

This is best made with sloes that have steeped for 3-4 months, no longer.  To "stone" your sloes, peel them with a knife.  I've tried a cherry stoner and they're usually too small to fit.   Once stoned, the sloe flesh can be frozen for months until you are ready to make truffles. Also, I make multiples of the recipe, since I usually make multiple litres of sloe gin at a time.

Ingredients

25g butter
75ml double cream
225g 70% dark chocolate, broken into pieces
75g stoned sloes, chopped up (I use the blender)
2 tablespoons sloe gin

To finish:  100g 70% dark chocolate

Method

  1. Place the butter and cream in an appropriately sized saucepan, over gentle heat.  Bring slowly to the boil, stirring constantly.  Boil for 1 minute then remove from heat.
  2. Add the chocolate and stir until melted.
  3. Mix in the sloes and the sloe gin.  Be careful with the gin - melted chocolate will seize when exposed to water, so add the gin gradually to stop the mixture splitting and stir like mad.
  4. Tip the mixture into a swiss roll tin and refrigerate for at least 2 hours or until solid.
  5. Line cookie sheets with cling film.
  6. Using a teaspoon, break off pieces of the filling and roll into balls with your hands. (Wear gloves.) Arrange on the cookie sheet and put back in the fridge to chill again for half an hour, minimum.
  7. Suspend a bowl over a saucepan of  water and bring to the boil.  Melt the coating chocolate in that.
  8. Using two desert spoons, roll/dip the truffle balls in the melted chocolate.  Place the coated balls back on the lined cookie sheets and chill.
  9. With any leftover chocolate coating, make coconut rough.
The original recipe says that it makes 40 truffles. 

- Pam

Thursday, 15 December 2016

Stop Catastrophising

I was watching Sylvester have a meltdown in an episode of  Scorpion today, when the thought occurred to me that one of most important life skills to learn is to stop the thought process of catastrophising.  Www.psychcentral.com defines catastrophising as

Catastrophizing is an irrational thought a lot of us have in believing that something is far worse than it actually is. Catastrophizing can generally can take two forms.  The first of these is making a catastrophe out of a situation...  This kind of catastrophizing takes a current situation and gives it a truly negative “spin.”

The second kind of...Catastrophizing occurs when we look to the future and anticipate all the things that are going to go wrong. We then create a reality around those thoughts...Because we believe something will go wrong, we make it go wrong.

In other words, it's the thought process that blows something out of all proportion in your mind until you're thought processes are so consumed by the "disaster" that you cannot think your way through any alternative paths to get to your real desired outcome.   I'll give you an example:  imagine you're in high school and you want to be a doctor.  You get to your final exams, open the chemistry paper and the first question you see is about something you don't know.  What do you do?  You need to average over 80% in each subject in order to get into med school.

Once the initial panic subsides, you may decide to attempt all the questions you can answer.  "Take the easy cans off the shelf, ladies and gents," as one of my lecturers used to say.  (Best piece of exam advice I was every given.  Thank you, David.).  Who knows?  You may salvage enough marks by taking this approach.  Or you can figure out a different way to get into med school, perhaps by starting a science degree first and transferring...

Or you can burst into tears, run screaming out of the exam and throw everything away.  "My life is ruined!  I'm useless!  I'll never be a doctor!  My father will kill me!".   Catastrophising? Absolutely.  And self destructive, since you've guaranteed that you will definitely fail.  And then where will you be?  Labelling yourself as a failure forever?  (Seriously?  This happened.  One of my school teachers tried desperately to calm the girl down and quarantine her so that she could sit the exam paper once she was calm.  Worse - one friend witnessed a classmate commit suicide in similar circumstances.  He stuck pencils up his nose and slammed them down on the desk...).
 
How do you break the cycle?  Psychcentral give some guidance in the link above, but the best advice I've come across was on a blog, here.    It boils down to breaking the cycle.

- Pam

Saturday, 26 November 2016

I'm a contractor - get me out of here

It's two months since I started my new job.  On the plus side:  it's closer to home so my mileage/fuel consumption is considerably less, they're paying me a reasonable rate, the job is (finally) keeping me busy and they are really nice people.  It's also very obvious that the Big-Boss-In-Charge-Of-Everything is not an absolute bastard.  There is considerably less stress floating around than in my previous company.  No stress puppies here.

On the downside, I'm a contractor.  I have no job security and I don't really have a role.  I'm picking up the pieces of things that others in the team haven't had time to do.  It took weeks for me to get busy and I don't know how long it will last.  I have also been battling a series of almost-colds - mainly sore throats - for the last six weeks, which makes me paranoid about getting something more serious because the job could evaporate if I got really ill.  (Yes, I have had this year's flu jab.).  At least my company now has money in it.

Yes, I now own a company.  In the UK, you have to contract through a company - either your own or an employment agency's.  It's the law.  Setting up a company is easy and cheap. The Companies House website will guide you through the process and charge you £12 for the privilege.  (We used to charge £200 for a company when I was in practice.)  Registering the company for corporation tax can be done at the same time.  Even registering the company for payroll taxes is a piece of cake (although I'm still waiting - a month later - for the payment docs so that I can actually pay said taxes).  HMRC even offer free payroll software that reports your numbers automatically to them.  

Setting up a company bank account, on the other hand was a a palaver that I would never want to relive.  It took over a month.  And that was to open an account at a bank with which I have had a 25 year relationship.  (I even own their shares!)   In the old days, you'd rock up to the bank with your company's Certificate of Registration, some ID, have an interview with the manager and that'd be it.  These days, everything is handled  online and by a call centre.  Nowhere on the paperwork is anything that asks you about your prior relationship with the bank; as a result, I had to prove my identity and my residency status twice.  To do that, I had to go into a branch and get them to photocopy my docs before they send them off via their internal post - a process that surprised at least one branch employee.  Why the hell they couldn't just do the vetting and the forms in the first place is beyond me.  It would have saved so much time and effort.

I finally got the bank account set up in time to pay myself my first salary at the end of October, and I'll pay myself again next week.  The payroll docs situation is equally frustrating, because I'm currently relying on guesstimating how much my take home pay should be, with a bit of help from the folks at https://listentotaxman.com .  Included in my calculations is an employee contribution to a pension fund* that equals what I paid in my old job and I'd like to bring that up to £1,000 a month, with the employer's contributions, but until I can run a draft payroll and test everything, I won't know for certain whether that is too much.  As well has having enough left over to actually pay the Taxman, I have to leave sufficient cash in the company to pay myself holiday pay and sick leave (if necessary).  And, of course, keep paying me after the job ends. Yes,  I can't claim unemployment benefits if the job ends, because I'm still an employee of my company.  (Grrr..... I can only go "on the dole" if the company winds up.).

The other reason I'm undecided about whether I like being a contractor is IR35.  IR35 is the Inland Revenue regulation governing "personal service companies" like mine.  The basic principle behind it is that directors of these companies are effectively employees of the companies with which they have a contract so, therefore, they should pay payroll taxes to the same level as if they were directly employed, instead of paying out their earnings via dividends at much lower taxes.  This is my first close contact with IR35 -  it was implemented in the year 2000, so post-dates my time working in the contractor unit at SL.  (Twenty years ago,  I spent a year doing the VAT and accounts for 300-odd computer and engineering contractors.  This was my first job as a trainee accountant.).   I think the rules are quite straightforward but, we'll see if I get tripped up.

In the meantime, I must be the only person in the country who is looking forward to a letter from the Taxman.  Come on HMRC.

- Pam








* UK equivalent of an American 401K or Australian Superannuation.

Wednesday, 28 September 2016

I have a job!

(Greetings from God's own county, Yorkshire, where I'm on holiday and visiting friends.  I may publish some photos with comentary later but, firstly, some good news!)

I have a job and will be starting on Monday.  At least three agencies mentioned one particular engineering company to me, saying they were expanding.  It was serendipity.  Not only had they purchased the highway's maintenance division of one of my earlier employers (WSA) in 2013 but, in a twist of fate, my new boss very nearly became my boss at WSA 10 years ago.  I left WSA in December 2006.  My old boss resigned in April 2007 and my new boss (NB) took that job, working there until he was made redundant.

Actually, I think that is why I got an interview.  NB didn't have a vacancy to fill but he wanted to meet the woman who was responsible for implementing a certain billing system in his old business when he saw it on my CV.  In fact, it was one of the first things he mentioned.  I jokingly apologised, saying "Yes, it was all my fault" before mentioning that while I'd scoped out the parameters, tested the system and parallel run the system, it was RD who had tailored it for us from the original system he'd built for a rail joint venture.  I gave credit where credit was due, which seemed to impress him.

In most respects, it was more of a chat than an interview.  This was a sounding out, similar in many ways with the first interview I had at my most recent employer.  (When they first saw me, they didn't have a job to fill either but they liked me so found me a project.).  I was asked questions about what I'd done and my skills, along the lines of "We may need to do xxx.  Can you do that?".  We also discussed the business and the UK divisions.   We talked about their safety culture and how it intermeshed with the one I'd worked in for nearly 10 years.  I asked about their performance metrics (Yay!  They don't use billability.).  By the time I left their offices, I was sure I had a job if they could figure out how to justify it.  (In fact, as he showed me out, the second interviewer told me that if it was down to him, he'd offer me one on the spot.).

The job offer, when it came through, was for an initial three month contract.  Given that they didn't really have a vacancy, just a lot of tasks that need doing, this makes some sense.  They really want to secure my services for something.  I don't know my job title or what I'll be doing.  They actually wanted me to start on the 12th - even though I had holidays booked for this week (last week of September) - but I had to get my permanent residency visa updated to a biometric one, thanks to new legislation, so my start has been delayed.

Wish me luck on Monday.

- Pam

Sunday, 21 August 2016

Tales of the Unemployed

If we aren't connected on Facebook then, chances are, you won't have heard my latest news.  My job finished on 5th August.  I was "restructured" out of the company.  It wasn't my choice;  I wasn't given much notice; and the business I looked after didn't have any say in the matter.  In fact, I had to break the news to their senior management.  (Being Finance, the line management that determines your fate and the people for whom you are actually working are frequently totally disconnected.)

Dark, God bless him, came down from Manchester to ensure I wasn't alone on my last day, took me out to lunch and made sure my sense of self didn't feel too battered. He is the most wonderful friend.  With his unerring sense of timing, he'd phoned me just after I'd got home on the day my boss broke the news to me and I cried all over him.  

It was the end of a brutal couple of weeks.  Definitely, the hardest part about leaving was saying goodbye to people.    Because I'm me (and conscientious), I wrote handover notes for whomever will pick up the work afterwards, and I made sure my business boss (Our Man in the Middle East) has copies.  I handed over my projects to someone I can trust to look after them properly.  I couldn't just walk out the door, leaving people who depended on me in the lurch.  (My line manager, on the other hand....)

Since then, I've spent the last two weeks licking my wounds and trying to figure out a way forward.  I have never not worked.  The plan of attack has been:-

  1.  Update my CV, which I hadn't done since 2011.  It's been drafted and redrafted, and then summarised.  (The latter was the hardest part, so I enlisting the help of a friend who writes CV's for the National Careers' Service. Thanks Eva.)  
  2. Updated LinkedIn.  At some point over the last few years, they deleted the job details I'd laboriously put up in ?2012, leaving only the headline job titles.
  3. Signed on with the DWP/Job Centre.  No, I don't need the derisory £73 per week they'll be paying me as contribution based Job Seeker's Allowance but this was a point of principle.  I've paid into the system for 27 years, I'm entitled to the money.  Also, I want the NI "stamps" that come with it, which will go towards my state pension.  (I will probably rant about this in another post, later.)
  4. Contacting agencies.  I have contacts at several so have been gradually dropping them all emails.   Two are putting me forward for jobs as I type;  a third, I shall see next week. I spent Friday morning meeting with three recruiters at the one agency, who were really positive about the job market for accountants in the Thames Valley.
  5. Working out how to eek out my payoff.  I've got savings and a reasonable payoff coming to me a the end of the month, but my "hope for the best, plan for the worst" conscience tells me it could take considerably longer than I expect to find a new job that will pay me what I think I'm worth.  I've shut down everything I can think of:  the ISA savings; the share investments; the money being set aside for holidays; Audible subscription, etc.   The only things I'm committed to contributing to are the joint account for the mortgage/household bills and the housekeeping.  I reckon I can eek the payoff out to last a year without having to sell off any shares or raid my existing savings.
  6. Working out what do with the money.   Beyond picking a savings account into which to shove it all for now, this is still at the daydream stage.  Each month, I'll transfer back the minimum I need to pay my share of the household expenses.  As to whatever is left after I get a new job, well, at the moment, I'm tempted to put it all into an FTSE100 tracker.
  7. Spending my profits from the Employee Share Save Scheme.  Under the rules of the scheme, I had to either sell or transfer my shares from the scheme manager when I left the company. I'm currently sitting on a 44% profit so have decided to sell.  As agreed with DH, this profit will be my "mad" money, to spend without inhibition on whatever I fancy.  I'm thinking of spending it on a multi-fuel stove for the lounge, a new "fake Aga" for the kitchen (my beloved stove is 16 and showing its age), and getting my sewing machine serviced.  Probably not what he had in mind, when he suggested I have some mad money, but hey...
  8. Figuring out what to do with my days.  This is actually quite hard.  I don't know how to be "a housewife".   I have never been unemployed.   I've been in continuous employment since 1992.   Even when I didn't have a job before then, I did agency nursing.  Without the Olympics or the European Football Championships to keep me entertained (as they did when I was stuck at home with my foot), day time television is mindblowingly boring.   I've started a daily To Do List, just so that I don't become completely zombified by TV and, instead, actually achieve some things.
- Pam