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If you're a long time reader you'll know that I find it hard to resist a good bit of kitsch and Valentines Day has to be the kitchiest holiday out there. My husband and I don't really make a big deal of it as it's very close to his birthday, is my sister's birthday and is a month after our officially being a couple anniversary but you better believe that I use it as a reason to treat us to a good dinner and a few nice drinkies - any excuse eh!

My love for the cocktail has had a bit of a renaissance over the last few months, mainly I think because our booze cabinet got a lot of new additions over the holiday season and that sparked back up my love of drink creating (and taste testing, hic). After learning about iconic brand Luxardo's exclusive first venture into gin with drink experts 31 Dover I knew that I just had to use this ruby red cherry infused delight in a Valentines drink. Luckily I also stumbled upon 31 Dover's champagne selection and it became obvious - a twist on the classic French 75 was the way to go.

The Luxardo Sour Cherry Gin* is an absolute treat, not at all syrupy like a liqueur but with the true juniper bite of a good gin and a slightly spicey warming range of botanicals behind it that finishes in juicy cherry with a pronounced sour zing. It's gorgeous as is over ice and it works a treat with a softer tonic that lets the cherry sing, but I know it will be finding it's way into many a cocktail over the next few weeks.

Thanks to my Mum my champagne of choice is usually a bottle of Moët & Chandon Brut Impérial* as its what I always remember her drinking, but go for whatever you fancy and can afford. I'm also a big fan of Pol Roger and Veuve Clicquot.

Please do feel free to serve this drink in a flute as is the norm, I just much prefer drinking out of a coupe or champagne saucer and so I do. As we're in blood orange season I simply had to use them here but feel free to use normal orange if you can't find it or if you like things really sour go for lemon juice instead.


French Kiss 75
Makes 1 (because Valentines Day is a great excuse for celebrating self love too)

Ingredients
25ml Luxardo Sour Cherry Gin
15ml freshly squeezed blood orange juice
10ml simple syrup (I make my own using this recipe but you can buy it)
Moët & Chandon Brut Impérial to top
Orange zest twist or cocktail cherry to garnish

Method
Put the cherry gin, simple syrup and blood orange juice into a shaker with some ice and shake vigorously, then strain into your glass. Top up with Moët and finish with a strip of orange peel or a cocktail cherry if you wish - I forego this and just squeeze the zest strip over the drink to release the scented oils so I can drink it quicker, ha!



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*This post contains items that were gifted but all opinions are 100% honest and my own. For more information head to my disclaimer page.

During the colder months when my cottage is toasty warm from the central heating I just love to make (and eat) fresh bread. For some reason I never really feel like making loaves in the Summer and favour flat breads and pittas but when it's chilly outside filling my home with the smell of baking  bread is my favourite thing to do, plus it makes my husband very very happy as he is a true bread fiend! 

I always seem to make olive oil enriched breads and this is no exception - it's basically my favourite foccacia recipe baked into a loaf with added layers of deliciousness that make it a meal in its own right. Because it's a soft and slightly sticky dough it can seem a bit of a faff to stretch it out to make the three layers but it's honestly worth it and feel free to experiment with your fillings, I'm a bit addicted to the smoked shredded beetroot that Tesco have started selling so I always use that, also because it removes the need for me to grate the 'troots myself which I hate doing. The subtle vinegariness also works wonderfully with the creamy soft cheese and my husband loves to eat the finished loaf with wafer thin slices of parma ham. I like it as is served as part of a picking board with olives and marinated veg like artichoke hearts and roasted pepper slices, a big bunch of fresh fresh basil leaves and a selection of salamis and cured meats.


Beetroot and Cream Cheese Bread
Makes one large loaf

Ingredients
420ml warm water (not hot or boiling)
2 1/2 tsp active dry yeast (I use Saf Levure)
1 tbsp sugar
600g plain flour
1 tbsp salt
120ml olive oil
150g grated cooked beetroot with the juice squeezed out (I use this smoked shredded stuff)
150g cream cheese at room temperature
1 tsp garlic granules
black pepper

Method
I use my stand mixer to make bread but there's no reason you can't do it by hand.  Put your warm water into a bowl and add the year and sugar, then set aside for ten minutes for the yeast to activate - you'll know it has because it will start to foam. If you're yeast doesn't start to foam after ten minutes it likely means that it is old and so you need a new tub.

While the yeast is activating mix the flour and salt and make a well in the middle, then when the yeasty water is nice and foamy add it to the flour along with the olive oil and mix until combined. Now turn up the speed on your mixer (if using one) and knead the dough for 5-6 minutes until its soft and smooth.

Lightly oil another bowl then form your dough into a ball and drop into the oiled bowl, turning over so both sides have an oily coating. Cover the bowl with cling and place somewhere warm to rise until it has doubled in size - the warmer the place you put it the quicker it will rise. Near the end of your rising time put the cream cheese into a small bowl and stir in the garlic granules and a few grinds of black pepper, then pop to one side and oil your loaf tin - mine is 12" x 4.5" in size.

Gently punch down the risen dough and divide into three. Put a third of the dough into your oiled tin and press out with your finger tips top cover the base of the tin, then spoon over half of the cream cheese and spread it over the dough and finish by evenly sprinkling over half the grated beetroot. Stretch out another third of the dough a little and put on into the tin, again spreading out to the edges of the tin and repeat the cream cheese spreading and beetroot sprinkling before covering with the final third of the dough. Cover with cling film and put back in a warm spot to rise for another hour while preheating your oven to 220 C / gas 7.

When the prepared loaf has rested and risen for another hour take off the cling film and drizzle a little more olive oil over the top along with a sprinkle of sea salt flakes, then bake in the preheated oven or 30-40 minutes until golden on top and cooked all the way through. It will sound a hollowish when you tap the underside, although not as hollow as a plain loaf as it has the baked in filling.

Allow to cool and serve in thick slices, drizzling with a little olive oil and sprinkling with chopped chives if you so desire.


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Blue Monday is nearly upon us, what is apparently the most depressing day of the year. As someone who suffers from clinical depression I can't really comment on the truth in this and some say it's a PR stunt, but even if so we can use it for good if we take it as an opportunity to properly address our stress levels, workload, social life and more and hopefully recognise and acknowledge that we all need a break every now and again. I'd be lying if I said I didn't get annoyed by the chirping of duvet days and self care days being the cure for depression because that just isn't true, but I can't deny that when I'm feeling run down and 'sad' a day or evening where I can push work completely out of my mind is a great tonic.

I've put together a little list of some of the things that I consider to be my cosy time treats, the kind of goodies that either I don't have very often or that just seem special and fill me with a feeling of warmth and joy. Granted mine may be very different to yours, so why not make a list of the things that you would include in your perfect cosy day at home?

CANDLES


After meeting some of the Aromatize team at a conference last year they've become my favourite place to grab candles, wax melts and essential oils to burn at home. I'm a very scent oriented person (my perfume collection testifies to this) and so making my home smell comfy and luxurious is really important when I want to relax. Here are three of my current favourites:


BATHING TREATS


I'm definitely a shower girl most of the time, but I do believe that reading in the bath by candlelight is one of life's pleasures. Whether you'll be enjoying a glass of vino or a hot chocolate while in the tub, a lovely smelling soak that makes your skin super soft is a must and these are some of my faves:


READING MATERIAL


Is there anything more world transporting and relaxing than reading a good book? My fictional tastes are pretty much entirely for stories set pre-1960, in particular anything that is wonderfully descriptive about the fashions, foods and differing cultural norms of those times. The odd biography will also grace my bookshelf but I confess that my largest collection is of cookbooks which I love to snuggle in with and read like most people would a story - Nigella Lawson and Nigel Slater's books are fabulous for this as they talk so nostalgically about food and how it is more than just fuel. Three of my top picks are as follows:


DELICIOUSNESS

Obviously from this little selection you can tell that I am very in tune with my sweet tooth, but honestly another of my favourite homebody meals is a big selection platter of delicious nibbles. Cured meats, pickled veggies, cheeses, breads, fruit - a real mix to be picked at while watching a film or flicking through a favourite magazine. If you too like a bit of the sweet stuff though, you can't go wrong with these beauties:


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*This post contains items that were gifted for review. For more information head to my disclaimer page.

Divisive as they are, to be honest I was pretty neutral on the subject of brussel sprouts until one Christmas I challenged myself to cook them in a way that my husband Pete would like. I decided to just treat them like I would a cabbage and so I shredded them up with the slicing disk in my food processor, although now I quite enjoy cutting them into slices by hand - weird I know but I find it kind of relaxing as they have a satisfying texture that's nicer to slice than a carrot or my most hated veggies to chop, a butternut squash or a celeriac. Am I rambling? I'm definitely rambling. 

Anyway... my foolproof way of cooking any type of cabbage to create the most delicious side dish is to shred it, fry it with a small sliced onion, a few rashers of bacon and some garlic n a mix of oil and butter, season with salt and pepper and a good few splashes of Hendersons Relish (or Worcester sauce) and then stir through a splash of cream right before serving. The most important thing is to let the mix fry for a good few minutes without letting it scorch so it sort of caramelises together as it deepens the flavour and makes that all important layer of burnished tastiness on the bottom of the pan that the Hendo's will pick up when its added. Without fail I make this for every Christmas dinner because I don't want a family riot on my hands, but I think it's too good for just one day out of the year so like to whip it up regularly throughout sprout season.

This year I had a had some of this magical mixture left even after several leftover sandwiches and dinners but was craving something a little less stodgy, so the thought came to me to add it to a broth to create a soup. It just so happened that when I was putting this together and wishing I had some parmesan to throw over the top I spotted a bag of teeny dried cheese tortellini I had grabbed at my wonderful local Italian shop Vincenzo Pasquale so I threw a few handfuls into the broth too to add that important cheesy element that I felt it was missing. Feel free to add a drizzle of cream when serving if you wish, I do!


Brussel Sprout and Tortellini Soup
Serves 2

Ingredients
small knob of butter and a few drops of olive oil for frying
2-3 rashers bacon, roughly chopped
1 small onion, roughly diced
large clove of garlic, crushed
300g brussel sprouts, sliced
1 tbsp Hendersons Relish or Worcestershire Sauce
750ml good chicken or vegetable stock
100g mini tortellini or cappaletti
2 tbsp double cream
2 spring onions, finely chopped

Method
Fry the bacon in the oil and butter until crisp, then add the onion and garlic and fry for a few more minutes until they've started to soften. Now add the shredded sprouts and stir well, letting it all fry over a medium heat for about 5 minutes stirring every now and again. 
The sprouts will have wilted down some, so now splash in the Henderson's or Worcester sauce with a few tablespoons of the stock and clamp on a lid, leaving it to cook down for another minute or so before giving it another good stir making sure you scrape as much of the richness from the bottom of the pan as possible.
Pour in the rest of the stock and bring to a gentle rolling boil, then add your pasta and cook as directed - dried will take longer than the vacuum packed kind. When the pasta is done spoon the soup into two bowls and sprinkle over the spring onions for a fresh zing, then drizzle over the cream if you're using it.

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This has become a quick and filling lunch for us and I'll be sad when sprout season is over. Do let me know what you think if you give it a try yourself!

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As much as I believe in the power of saying no to something that will make you feel uncomfortable, there are occasions where pushing yourself out of your comfort zone can result in great things and one area where I love to push the bar is with clothes. I spent a really long time in my early twenties only thinking that there were only a handful of clothing combos that suited me and so I stuck to them rigidly, never even trying on a piece that differed even slightly in cut. There was no way you'd ever get me in trousers and oversized things that didn't emphasise my waistline were a big no no. I can't remember what it was that made me give myself a talking to and get away from my uniform of flared dresses and cardigans but the feeling of having a whole other wardrobe full of styles opened up to me was wonderful and I've never looked back.

This look kindly sent to me by JD Williams to me celebrates breaking those mental rules that we impose on ourselves and I absolutely adore it, plus the fact that it is comfortable as hell makes it even better. Being comfortable when out of my comfort zone, ha!

While this Faux Fur Ribbed Tunic Jumper (£39.00*) is typical of an aesthetic that I love with its simple style and decadent detailing in the faux fur cuffs, the high neck and oversized shape which would previously have been no-no's for me are now more things to love! A high neck always seems to shout chic to me ad the relaxed style with the luxurious statement cuffs oozes glamour and gives a really luxe feel. 

It's safe to say that these Dark Green Meghan Cigarette Trousers (£35.00*) have been a real game changer for me and made me want to fill my shelves with more smart casual pieces. It was the gorgeous deep green colour that initially drew me in but I've always been a fan of an ankle grazer length trouser, always thinking that it wouldn't work for me and make me look stumpy. Although I can't say that they make me look any taller after trying them on I actually adore the shorter length, especially with a flat shoe like a brogue or a trainer. Unfortunately this particular style of snake print leisure shoe has sold out now, but these snakey slip ons are very similar and also on sale, hoorah! The trousers themselves are made from a non-iron stretch fabric and have a hidden stretch waistband that makes them comfortable even when sat down without making them look like a jogger bottom - very clever I feel. 

Are there any styles that you never try because they push you out of your comfort zone? Why not give them a chance this season, you might end up adding to your uniform!









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*This post contains items that were gifted for review. For more information head to my disclaimer page.

As much as I love living in the countryside with it's peaceful greenery I adore a bustling city too. I'm not sure if I could live in one after so long in a tiny village that doesn't even have a shop, but spending a day exploring a city finding little independent shops, wandering around galleries and making pitstops at lovely cafes is one of my favourite things to do when I have some time off.

Birmingham is a city that I have a soft spot for because I've been there so often ever since I was a little girl. My dad was born there so we often went on shopping adventures and to have an amazing balti dinner. It's changed a lot since those days but I still think it's a brilliant place to spend a day or two, so in this post I'm sharing with you some of my favourite spots in the city. If you fancy spending some time there too you can find some great Birmingham hotels here.





I like to start my day out in the city with a bit of am aesthetic treat so my first stop is often a gallery or a museum. I'm a huge fan of the pre-raphaelites so Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery is a favourite of mine with it's galleries dedicated to this decadent style of painting. They also have regularly changing exhibitions and some other great permanent collections like The Staffordshire Hoard and some stunning areas celebrating the city's cultural heritage. You can also treat yourself to tea and cake in the Edwardian Tearoom.

Some other culture spots in the city that I love are:







Every explorer needs a sugar hit to keep them going and there's no better to place to get this than Medicine which just happens to be moments from the museum. It's a gorgeous place with baked goods artistically arranged at the top of the stairs which then opens out into a bright and airy gallery space and dining area. Do yourself a favour and grab a cronut and a coffee and take a few minutes to yourself to recharge, then if you're like me grab another treat to take home with you!

Some more of my fave eating and drinking spots are:

The Button Factory - anything off the robata grill is a banger
The Lost and Found - one of six locations in the UK, my favourite dish is the poppyseed battered hake with spiced chips
The Wilderness - I've not actually been here myself yet but everything I hear is very very good!
Gaijin Sushi - Super fresh sushi in a teeny location just like Japanese sushi bars
Opus - The most amazing fish dishes and more from two Brummie babes






I love bringing a few goodies home from my adventures and I'm a self confessed shop-a-holic so I had to recommend a few great places to spend your hard earned cash. I'm a red wine lover but I don't drink vino on the regular, I like to have it as an occasional treat and get something really good. Wine shops can be pretty intimidating places but Loki Wine is the opposite - the team are always really friendly and love sharing their wealth of knowledge to help you find the perfect bottle. The city centre location also has an impressive spirit selection and a beautiful upstairs floor where you can enjoy wine by the glass or join in on a class to further your booze knowledge. 

Some more places where I like to spend my pocket money are:

Swordfish Records - An institution that my dad has been taking me to all my life
Liquor Store - Great quality clothing and homewares with a hidden speakeasy bar in the basement
Kin Home - I basically want all of the ceramics and glassware in this lovely shop!
The Custard Factory - You can't visit Brum without heading to this gem full of shops, cafes and bars
The Electric Cinema - Why not take in a movie at the UK's oldest working cinema while you're here? I love coming to the Electric for special showings of both new and old cult classic films.
The Bullring - Yes it's chain shops but they have a great selection including more high end offerings and in a modern, spacious setting. They even have the only Morphe location other than London for you make up fans like me.


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*This is a collaborative post - the spending money for this day out was gifted by Hotels.Com but all inclusions were chosen by me and all opinions are my own and 100% honest as always. For more information head to my disclaimer page.

Well this is something new my darlings, today I'm talking to you about a take away! The thing is that Chao Chao is not a normal take away and not just because they have tables so you can eat in if you prefer. They really pride themselves on the quality of their ingredients and that absolutely no unnecessary additives like artificial colours or MSG are used as is often the case with oriental take away food, so you can be sure you're getting a delicious and non chemically enhanced meal. After all their mantra is 'Fresher, Greener, Cleaner'.

To enable them to uphold these standards while keeping their operation fast moving and cost effective the meats and other proteins used are all prepared off these premises at a state of the art facility, the same place that prepares and supplies foods to lots of supermarkets and restaurants around the country. Now you might be thinking that actually that doesn't sound great (restaurants do it all in house don't they?) but this is a different situation. Their aim is to offer "Healthier, fresher and better ingredients with an aim to become a leading takeaway chain" with another notch to their belt being that all of their packaging is made with bio-degradable materials.




One thing I have to tell you about is the amazing offers that Chao Chao do - there's a different one each day of the week but most of them involve 25% off which is a really great discount compared to most places. You can find the full list of offers on the menu here and you can order online for delivery or collection.

Its no secret that I can be skeptical, especially when it comes to food promises, so lets get down to it and see what me and my good friend Hollie thought about the food...



First of all we decided to try that take away standard, chicken balls with sweet and sour sauce. I think you can tell from the picture but these weren't your average too heavily battered cubes of bland chicken. The batter was lovely and crisp and just the right thickness so you could taste both it and the chicken it enrobed. Because it was kept seperate from the sauce it wasn't soggy and the freshness of the veg was clear as it was zingy and still nice and al dente crisp. The sauce itself was well balanced with a more apparent sour edge that it should have unlike the gloopy sickly sweet stuff you usually get. Definitely a great version of this stalwart dish.


Green Thai Curry was next and we opted to try it with chicken. Again the freshness could really be tasted in the veg and the chicken had real flavour and I loved the addition of raw chilli and spring onions on top which brightened up the flavour even more. The sauce itself was nice but lacked the depth that I'm used to from my local Thai restaurant (I do think I'm a bit spoiled to have such a good one down the road) however it was still a big jump above what you would get from a regular take away or ready made sauce you would use at home. The mix of veg was great too - I love a sugarsnap pea in a Thai curry!


I'm a big bao fan so was very excited to try the Lemon Grass Beef Bao Buns. The aromatic spiced beef was really rich and delicious, different to anything I've had in a bao before. It was teamed with a coleslaw to cut through the richness and add a little zip of freshness and I must say I was impressed with the buns themselves as the texture and 'pudginess' was bang on. I'll definitely be trying the pork belly version next time.

Another dish that we tried but somehow I failed to get a photo of was Balinese Beef Rendang Curry which is a spicey, fragrant dish made with lemongrass and coconut with the powerful kick of red chilli. I'm a big fan of rendang and I must say this was a really great example of the dish. The meat was super tender with the richness of slow cooking while there was a real zing to the complex sauce that was perfectly offset with the kimchi style salad and rice served alongside.


Next on the list to try were Sticky Char Siu Ribs which I was suprised to see were cooked in a batter which I've not often seen. These were really delicious with the batter adding a crispy bite against the tender meat while helping the coating of char siu sauce stick on nicely to add to the flavour profile. Eating the whole tub to myself would honestly not have been a problem!

We of course also had to try the Korean Sticky Chicken Wings as Hollie is a bit of a wing-a-holic and neither of us were disappointed. Again these had a light battered coating that helped the delicious sticky sweet and sharp sauce stick along with nice shards of fresh chilli and spring onion that livened up each bite. The chicken itself was flavourful and moist, definitely a great choice for the wing lover in your life!


The final dish we tried was one of Chao Chao's new additions Bang Bang Cauliflower. I've had a few versions of this and loved them all as I'm a big cauli fan and this version was no different, fried with a lovely spice blend and served with a great dipping sauce. My only criticism would be that the pieces were a bit too small so you didn't get many florets for dipping, but it was still very pleasurable to eat forkfuls of crispy little cauli bits!

All in all both Hollie and I were very impressed with our meal at Chao Chao. For the price the quality is great and as you can tell by the amount of times I've used the word fresh in this post it really did taste more like a restaurant meal than a take away. If you're in the area do give it a go next time you fancy a quick and super tasty meal!

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*This meal was complimentary in exchange for my review, but all opinions are 100% honest and my own. For more information head to my disclaimer page.