Saturday, 28 January 2012

The Crumblin' Cookie Coffee Bean Mosaic

”mosaic”/3 months.
150 hours.
55000 coffee beans.

Here is my latest 'artistic' endeavour - the Crumblin' Cookie, Leicester coffee bean mosaic! This is the project I've been hinting at that has kept me from blogging, cooking, crocheting and basically anything spare time related since last October! 

I designed the mosaic to try and summarize what I think about the Crumblin' Cookie as a venue - it really is a great place to hang out, to meet friends, to feel part of a community. I hope that the design gives that sense of fun. I also love that they are so supportive of local talent, upcoming artists and performers and local producers. I hope that in some small way this will bring more attention to the Crumblin' Cookie. 


It is made using three types of coffee beans - green, medium roast and dark roast. The mosaic in its entirety measures nearly 5 metres by about 60cm. It is all stuck down with exterior purpose glue and then varnished with yacht varnish, so hopefully it will be resistant to the elements!

Today I went down to finish off the mosaic. As it had been made in two parts, the central seam and the screw holes needed covering. It was a cold and terrifying job. I hope I don't have to go that high up on a ladder again for a while! Sending out a press release in advance worked out well - East Midlands Today came down and filmed a segment first thing and then later a photographer from the Leicester Mercury came to cover the story. It was lovely to hear such nice reactions from passers by in the street as well, a couple of people said it looks 'beautiful'!

So another crazy artwork is done. And this one will hopefully be around for a while. What next?
Morrighan seemed to like sitting on my back throughout

Monday, 23 January 2012

REVIEW: Zizzi Cichetti Hour!

Tonight we were two of 16000 lucky individuals to have bagged a unique code for the Zizzi Cichetti hour. I really enjoy Zizzi's menu and there were quite a few thing on the new Cichetti menu that I was keen to try so I was pretty made up to get the code. Thanks very much to the lovely Zizzi Twitter account who were the ones I got the tip off from!

All across the country this evening, branches of Zizzi across the country opened their doors to hungry blaggers looking for free booze and free scram. And we were not disappointed. On entering we were given a free glass of the nommy Prosecco. Well, in fairness, it was more like half a glass of Prosecco, but it was free so I am given to believe that beggars can't be choosers. The Boy and I did debate the merits of returning to the entrance to try and claim the other half of our 'free glass' at one point, but we thought better of it. I do enjoy the Veneto house Prosecco at Zizzi, it's really light and quite dry and very fresh - especially with the creamy, rich dishes that I tend to pick.

But hang on, I hear you cry, what the Dickens was this 'Cichetti' that you were trying? Well, for want of a better description, the Spanish have tapas, the Greeks have mezze and now, apparently, the Italians have cichetti! They are small 'tasty little bites of Italy' by all accounts. At the time of writing, you can get 3 dishes for £12 or 5 for £18, so they work out a very similar price to a tapas menu elsewhere. At this evening's tasting extravaganza, we were all stood up while two very hard working waitresses brought round various platters of samples for us all to try. 

I'm a bit gutted that we didn't get to try a little bit of everything. After our japes in Matera last Easter, I was really keen to taste the Steak Tagliata, as this was essentially the absolute best thing I ate over in Southern Italy. Had Zizzi proved to me tonight that their version was anywhere near as good, I would be OK with paying the £1.95 supplement for it, even for a small portion. However, clearly, they weren't handing their steak out and I don't know if now I'd be prepared to take the risk... We'll see! That is a small gripe though, as is remembering we saw some King Prawns going round when we arrived, but we didn't get in the room in time and seemingly that was it - gutted! But anyway, let us stop looking and the past with regret and look back at all the things we did get to try!

The Boy loves calamari
Randomly, at intervals we got to try calamari, prosciutto on focaccia and some Primavera pizza - all of which very much got my seal of approval (I chuffing love cold meats especially) but they aren't on the Cichetti menu, so for the purposes of this post I say nothing other than they were all scrummy and I was glad they brought them round.

Ragu e Polenta 
A big thumbs up from both of us here, but that was mainly for the crunchy cubes of deliciously fried polenta. The ragu topping was fine, but not particularly mind blowing. However, as a combination, this was really enjoyable. I was very surprised to see that this was the taster that most people in the room were refusing.

Bruschetta ai Funghi
One of my top dishes of the evening. Yes, bruschetta is simple - but the mascarpone sauce was creamy divine heaven. Lovely chunky mushrooms and crisp ciabatta gave a lovely texture, so overall I was much more impressed with this than I was expecting.

Arancini ai Funghi
Little deep fried risotto balls served with a tomato dip. This was the one I was most looking forward to trying as during my last Zizzi visit I turned this down as a starter and opted for the gnocchi instead (which I do not regret, the gnocchi with gorgonzola is divine!) I wasn't disappointed - it was just as you expect, crispy on the outside and risotto-y on the inside! However, my husband and I agreed it was a little underseasoned - both the risotto balls and the tomato sauce dip - so it came across as a little bland. Perhaps more sharpness from parmesan would help in addition to the mozzarella? We were trying to imagine what it would be like simply as a risotto, without the novelty of being deep fried, and we concluded it would be no great shakes unfortunately.

One of our favourites was the spicy n'Duja sausage and rocket mini calzone. I was lucky to also try the vegetarian version and this was fine, but didn't pack the flavour punch of the meat version. I think I'd definitely recommend this Cichetti if you want to be sure you've got one dish that will at least fill you up a bit! Lovely stringy cheese, great pizza dough, a very enjoyable experience once the filling had cooled to slightly less than molten lava levels.

Spiedini di Pollo
Spiedini di Pollo 
Essentially chicken and peppers on a stick. Did exactly what it said on the tin, the chicken was moist and enjoyable and the peppers were clearly very fresh and flavoursome. However, I didn't get a hint of the rosemary and lemon described on the menu, I would have sworn blind that the two ingredients were oven baked plain! It was very nice, but I hope that speaks more for the quality of the main ingredients than everything else!

So there you have it! A very enjoyable experience on our part, as you can see. Hopefully they'll do another night so we can try the aubergine, the steak, the meatballs and the Zucca al Forna.... Nom nom. Could be wishful thinking on my part though, and I will certainly raise a glass to Zizzi's Cichetti Hour this evening. They were gracious and generous hosts.

Sunday, 22 January 2012

REVIEW: M&A Arts and Crafts, Wigston

I stumbled across a new local seller on Ebay last weekend, a local arts and crafts supplier. I was excited because they actually have a shop that I can visit too and their prices are really reasonable. I checked whether it would be OK to pop over and collect any Ebay wins and they said of course, so I bid on a few items.

My first win was a pad of two colour A4 paper - the most perfect paper for origami that I have ever had! This came to the princely sum of 1p! The second item I won was a wipe off fabric pen, for marking hems and such like. I am hoping to get back into sewing this year, now the Big Project is nearly over the sewing machine will still be coming out.This set me back by six of your English pence.

I hopped on a couple of buses and found my way to the shop really easily. The address is 47 Bell Street, Wigston - so it is on one of what I consider to be the two main shopping streets in the village. At the moment they are advertising a sale as they are about to close for refurbishment, but when I asked about this inside they said when this actually occurred would depend on what stock they shift. I hope they don't refurbish to be honest, because I love my craft shops to be a bit of an Aladdin's Cave for me to explore, and that's exactly how this place is at the moment.

They cover all manner of hobbies and art supplies in the shop - pretty much anything you want will be there. Off the top of my head, I remember looking at knitting/crochet supplies, yarn, sewing materials, glass painting, watercolours and other paints, decoupage and papercraft, school supplies, craft kits like those foil scrapey things, fimo modelling clay, table easels, handmade paper and general pens/stationery etc. Plenty to keep you occupied! You'll get a friendly welcome if you go to the shop and I recommend you keep an eye on their Ebay page to grab yourself a bargain. And in case you're wondering, of course I succumbed and bought more than just my 7p wins!!


Silent Sunday

The Croquettish Fairy

Fear not, my Big Project - the one that has been keeping me away from blogging for the last three months - is nearly complete. In one week I will be posting the final write up on that little artwork, so keep an eye out. In the meantime, since the bulk of the work has been completed I've had a lot more time to get back to my old favourites - crocheting and crafting.

On Friday it was The Boy's birthday and we have been making a long weekend out of the celebration. Today I decided it was time to make him his celebratory cakes. I've been following the online debate regarding single serving cakes with interest. There seem to be a number online commentators who have watched the decline of the great British fairy cake in recent years with absolute horror - my favourite quote being that 'Cupcakes are the bastard cousin of the fairy cake'. In essence, fairy cakes are smaller, and tend to be much more simply decorated, with a simple glace icing rather than a 7 foot thick layer of buttercream. On this basis I have realised that I fall down firmly on the British fairy side. I like a cupcake, but only for the first bite or two, after that I feel a bit sick.

Plus my mum was an expert fairy cake maker and I got a beautiful batch every year for my birthday, with half a glace cherry on top as was the style of the time. I still have never managed to perfect my icing into a circular blob on the top the way she could get it. I guess it's all about where you're brought up though. I read the US Bookworm's Travels blog with interest:
"The UK doesn’t really have good cupcakes 
(or “fairy cakes”, as they are sometimes called here). 
Despite the cute name, they are generally heavy, dry, crumbly, and have poor frosting."
After spluttering with rage for a brief moment, I thought about it from her point of view. If you're expecting an 800 calorie, full fat extravaganza, a fairy cake probably doesn't cut it. I don't agree that they're heavy or dry though.
As you may guess then, I offered to make The Boy some fairy cakes for his birthday. That's the kind of wife I am. It is quite possibly me who wanted cake the most, but I let him pick the exciting twist. He asked for a plain sponge, but with some crunchy bits for texture, including some dark chocolate. So I created them using the following recipe:
85g butter
85g unrefined sugar
1 egg
85g self raising flour
1/2 teaspoon of baking powder
splash of milk
handful of chopped nuts
small splash of orange flower water
About 50g of dark chocolate, smashed up with a rolling pin.

These quantities may not be exact in terms of being reproduce-able, but that's what I used. Let's face it, fairy cakes aren't difficult so I'm sure you'll manage if you want to give it a go. After 15 minutes in a 180'C oven, I left them to cool and then iced them with an unrefined icing sugar glace icing and set to with the silver balls and hundreds and thousands. If nothing else, it has been a chance to use my new cake stand (£3.33 from Tesco Direct - what a chuffing bargain).

While the oven was on, I decided to have a go at some baked croquettes as well, to use up some of the big lump of reduced Camembert The Boy picked up from Mr T's the other day. Again, this doesn't have proper quantities because I made it up. It contained:

3 medium-large potatoes
A big lump of camembert
A small splodge of butter
1 egg
salt, pepper, cayenne and paprika
4 cream crackers, put in a bag and smashed with a rolling pin.

They were pretty yummy and are easy to make - boil your potatoes, drain and leave for a minute for the excess water to evaporate. Mash up with the other ingredients, minus the crackers. Put the cracker crumbs in a bowl and put blobs of the croquette mix into the crackers to coat. I put them on greaseproof paper on a baking sheet to make sure they didn't stick. After about half an hour in the 180'C oven, they were ready. I served them with the last bit of leftover chilli from yesterday mixed with a tin of baked beans, some extra kidney beans and some added cayenne. It was very nom.

And in case you were wondering, I have sampled one of the fairy cakes and they are neither heavy, nor dry. Quite the reverse in fact.

Wednesday, 18 January 2012

REVIEW: Zaggora Flares: The New HotPants?

After my great success with Zaggora HotPants, I was really excited when I found out they had listened to all their customers' feedback and come up with some new products. What could it be, I wondered? Personally, I was hoping for some kind of arm belt that would help with the old Bingo Wings... However, the reality was a close second. Today in the post I received a shiny new pair of Zaggora Flares to test out to my heart's content.
Big up my bad self**

Naturally, as soon as the opportunity arose, I popped them on and here are my initial thoughts. They are a very similar fabric to the original HotPants, I guess that's the fancy Celu-Lite technology aspect. That means that our old friend, the SWOOSSHHH noise is still there. I think I'd feel lost without it now. I find my Flares slightly softer and certainly more comfortable than HotPants. It is clear that over the last 6 months some degree of refinement has taken place with the Zaggora lines and it is all for the good. Most noticeably, all of the seams are flatter, smoother and therefore comfier.

Pulling your full leg Flares on for the first time is a bit of a laugh. There were jokey comments made about a certain 'wet-suitiness' when HotPants came out, but getting yer Flares hoiked up really gears your brain up for experiencing the wonders of the Great Barrier Reef in the imminent future. Once you've managed to calm yourself back down though and return to reality, you'll start feeling that reassuring Zaggora glow - the ever so slight raising of the leg temperature that makes you feel all cocooned and nice. Bear in mind at this stage for every gram of sweat your legs squeeze out, you apparently burn half a calorie*.

So far, so good then. I'm comfortable, I'm supported, I'm already feeling sweaty. I have the odd, but not unpleasant sensation of having slightly sweaty calves. But do they work? Only time will tell. Come back in a fortnight when my Zaggora Flares Two Weeks Challenge is over and I'll let you know how I got on. For some reason, writing that has made me wonder if Americans use the word 'fortnight'. If anyone know, do leave a comment and put me out of my misery.

* Although where the research is to back this up I don't know. I'll be the first to admit that Yahoo! news possibly isn't the most reliable source.

** Please ignore the 'homemade crop top', I was merely demonstrating the Flares for you.

Tuesday, 17 January 2012

Boxing Clever

There I was...
It is now over a year since I have been regularly going to the gym. I've never been one for sport, preferring to milk a bout of glandular fever in high school for two years of absence from PE because they forgot that I was excused for a couple of months to go and do art instead. In more recent years, since starting my Masters degree, I've started becoming conscious that "walking everywhere" may well be a lot more exercise than some people do, but it's probably not enough to balance out my lager consumption - in the grand scheme of things.

I half heartedly went to the uni gym during the year of my Masters, and it wasn't too bad. But I didn't know what I was doing and I can't remember putting much effort into it. A year or two later, with husband moved down with me and new career kicking off, I joined my local Council leisure centre. I liked this because they had a pool and I've always loved swimming. Aqua aerobics became a new favourite and something I miss nowadays. We moved house, I moved gyms and for some reason, it all tailed off again. By this stage I had got down from being a size 12 (my largest) back to near enough a 10. And I thought as I'd aged, my body had changed shape and that was pretty much where I was going to be. Not so!

Last December, I joined a women's only gym and really found my feet with it all. I managed to get in to the habit of going 3 or 4 times a week, until it became second nature. Within a few months it stopped being a case of convincing myself to go to the gym and it just being that thing that I did after work. I discovered Zumba, and LOVED it. The Latino rhythms remind me so much of dodgy clubs in South America, I just can't get enough of it (insert plea for review copies of Zumba-based computer games here).  From Zumba, I expanded into Latin Fit - a similar concept, but based on a non-stop dance routine that is built up over several songs. I also discovered that actually I quite enjoy Legs, Bums and Tums classes. I also found out that one of the fundamental principles of the Universe is that all LBT teachers are complete sadists.

Then the real revelation came this summer, when I won a year's free personal training on the Zaggora facebook page. By this point I was doing some form of exercise four or five times a week, most weeks and so avidly entering competitions for new kit and the like, so this was the real Holy Grail of a win. I've learned so much about exercising, how my body works, what I can achieve and it's really impacted on my health and also how effective my exercise is when I'm on my own.

...And here I am!
I may not have changed weight in the last year, but weight and burning calories has stopped being the aim. I can't remember the last time I looked on the calorie read out on the treadmill. And perhaps more importantly, a year ago I would not have dreamed about using a treadmill for anything other than a light, but uphill walk. Now I have seen my body change shape. I have returned to the size 6 and 8 clothes of my teenage years and I have developed GUNS! Yes, guns. It rocks, and I have literally never cared about such things before. I'm not obsessed though - I'll flex them for you, but I've never kissed them. I do not consider Jodie Marsh a role model. Now I am all about the tone, because I know that my body is happy with the overall weight I am, it just needed a rethink about the distribution of muscle and fat.... And all of this exercise has been the overriding factor, I think, in quitting smoking, which continues to go well.

And why am I boxing clever? Because over my last two personal  training sessions I have been learning to box! I'm a lover, not a fighter - but I love it! It destresses me after work and so long as no-one's trying to punch me back then I'm having a good time. As I said to my trainer today "punching things is fun".*

* Only punch things that you are legally allowed to punch. Only punch things when you are wearing amusing big red shiny gloves. If you're not accustomed to punching things, get some advice from a professional, and by that I do not mean the chav Scouser who is lying in a bloodied heap at the back of the pub - he doesn't have the relevant certification.

Monday, 16 January 2012

No smoke without fire

There is no smoke without fire. And I am not on fire. Therefore, I am not smoking.

So there you have it. Since 2nd December 2011, I have been a non-smoker.  Given that the second of December was six weeks and three days ago, I have reasonable confidence that I can now post something on my blog about quitting smoking without looking like a damn fool a short time later. Time will tell on that one, but I am already feeling not like a non-smoker, but like someone who doesn't smoke - someone for whom smoking isn't really an issue worth considering.

I had been thinking of quitting for a while, there were brief occasions where I realised that it genuinely wasn't doing me any good - a short run for the bus would lead to a gasping minute where I thought my lungs would never be able to refill properly again for example. I was starting, particularly after a heavy night out, to get yellowy stains on my fingers, and the cough - oh the cough - the constant throat clearing and goo-spitting, it's just not what you want. And, possibly most importantly, I was aware that about halfway through December it was my first anniversary of being a regular gym-goer. And as this milestone drew closer, I also became aware that I could probably achieve so much more if I didn't smoke.

So how did I do it? By taking crazy brain pills. No cold turkey for me this time, on this, my momentous second attempt at quitting smoking. I've smoked for quite a large proportion of my life and I decided to do something weird for me - bite the bullet and ask for some help. I've seen a number of heavy, long term smokers quit in recent years using the pills, Champix, so I decided to go and see my doctor and give it a go.

It's been a strange journey, for many reasons. Mainly that it was surprisingly quick. You start by taking part doses of the pills, moving up to a full dose after the first week. It is at this point that you are supposed to proper full on stop smoking. I took the first pill with a cold sense of dread that I was committing myself to never smoking again a week later, something which I didn't really think I was prepared to achieve. I've always enjoyed smoking and (partially correctly) I thought I'd miss it. However, after a good solid drinking session and a tonne of cigarettes that evening, I woke up the next day, took my second quarter dose pill and realised I didn't really fancy a smoke. I had a couple of attempts, devoted smoker that I am, and probably made it through about 1.5 roll ups in total. Day 3 and another quarter dose later I decided to have a go on the electric cigarette I had won a few weeks earlier and kept ready for 'my quit'. I took two drags - the second one mainly being inspired by the novelty of it all, and that was it. The rest of the day I didn't really fancy one - and then the next day when I vaguely thought of having a smoke it was just as easy to not bother as to have one.

And so it has been ever since. Gradually, over a few days, I upped the dosage to the full daily amount and at the same time the thoughts and fancies I was having about having 'one last cigarette' were feeling increasingly pointless. Now I just simply do not have any desire to smoke. Weird.

And I know you all want to know about the Champix side effects. Read a little bit around the web and it is terrifying, which is why I haven't googled Champix in recent months. I have had two main side effects - nausea, usually around the morning, was prevelant in the first three or four weeks. I found that eating at the same time as having the morningly brain pill negated this to some extent. It was never so bad that I was actually sick. The second side effect is the fun one. You'll see a lot of people writing about 'weird' or 'vivid' dreams. I'm not sure this is actually the case. I think for some reason Champix gives you the ability to remember your dreams a lot better. I'm certainly more aware of my dreams (although now I am 6 weeks into the programme this is subsiding) - and I wake up in the night a lot more, I think because of my dreams.  I can still remember dreams clearly now that I had before Christmas! For me, this is very odd - I can remember about 4 dreams from my whole life before these last few weeks. I never generally remember any given dream for more than a day or two, if at all. I thought at first that I was having more dreams which were bad or negative or scary in some way, but that isn't the case any more. However, on average I am not waking up as much or remembering as many dreams per night, so I don't think there's anything proven there.

Sunday, 15 January 2012


REVIEW: 3 in 1 Neon Nail Art Pens

I have been chatting to NPW Gifts on Twitter recently. They are a gift website that I haven't come across before, but they do lots of funky things for pretty reasonable prices. I particularly like the focus on products they seem to have which are creative or art based. They have lots of different things which are suitable for adults and children alike. I mean, can any one of you honestly say that you wouldn't want to receive your own balloon animal kit? Exactly.
 They invited me to try their 3 in 1 Neon Nail Art pens, which are available for sale at the time of writing for £7.95 for a pack of two pens. This was handy, because I'd recently bought a black, glittery nail varnish from H&M for the bargain price of £1.99 which would provide the perfect backdrop for neon colours. The H&M nail polish is in 'Kiss Goodnight'.

It also couldn't be a better time to invest in neon nail art pens, since the trend for bold, almost shocking colours shows no sign of disappearing over the next couple of seasons.
 These pens are three in one, because if you unscrew the cap, you get a brush for painting your nails. If you pull the top of the cap off, there is a tiny nib for drawing more detailed designs. The third elements are the subtly colour matched gems in the base of the pen, which can be simply added to wet nail varnish for extra glam sparkles.

Because I've not had chance to practice with the pens yet, I thought I'd keep the design simple, just to get a feel for the effect. I started with a base layer if the 'Kiss Goodnight' varnish. As you'd expect from a £1.99 varnish, it wasn't really thick enough to cover properly in one coat, but two layers did the job admirably. You'll see from the mess I made of the black that I cut my nails properly short for the first time in months the other day, so it's not the neatest job.

Next I added my detail. For some reason I found the orange applied much better than the pink - the pink seemed a little watery and I got some lines running into each other in places. The orange held itself much better. The pens are squeezable, so applying using the drawing nib is relatively simple, although I can imagine it's something you get better at the more you practice. The main issue I found was that the lids on the nibs are so tight (presumably to keep them airtight) that it is a real struggle to get them off without smudging your nails!! I think I would have preferred just a slightly thicker texture as well, which would have allowed for thinner, continuous lines to be applied. However, that said I was pleased with the effect. They are really nice and bright on top of the black background.

I added the gems to the still wet lines of varnish and they stuck fast immediately. It was a little tricky picking them up, but I found emptying some on to the table and licking a finger tip was an effective method of grabbing them without smudging what you'd already done.

All in all, I found the H&M polish to be average, but inoffensive, but the 3 in 1 nail art pens I am pleased with. I see they also do a metallics range for the same price which I'd definitely be interested in buying. I think that getting two pens for £8 is pretty good value and I'd rate these a seven out of ten Extreme Points.

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