Wednesday, 12 May 2010

Special guest blog : Amelia Highfield

Thrifty: If you say that someone is thrifty, you are praising them for saving money, not buying unnecessary things, and not wasting things.

If a friend was asked to describe me in three words I am pretty sure thrifty would be one of them. I like to save money. I am not ashamed. I am proud. However, let me get one thing straight I am not a Scrooge. I am more Blue Peter than Ebenezer.

I happily make lavish 6 egg white pavlova piled with cream and berries (then secretly enjoy using up 6 egg yolks for an egg custard tart) I plan my car journey to reduce my fuel consumption and use comparison websites before I buy anything online. I use yesterdays roast chicken in my sandwiches, then make a stock with the bones and turn it into nutritious vegetable soup. Is that so bad?

My ultimate thrifty hobby is baking. Baking is cheap, cheaper than you think. Cakes cost pennies to make and let’s face it, nothing beats a homemade cake. Homemade cakes are cute and comforting. They make people smile and feel loved. The basic ingredients such as flour, sugar and eggs go a long way. Within an hour and for £2 you can whip up a Victoria Sponge to feed all the family.

However, I ‘m not saying you can’t glam them up with expensive bits and bobs. Maybe some ground almonds added to your basic sponge mix to add flavour and texture or a slab of 70% cocoa chocolate melted with some silky smooth double cream to cover your profiteroles (only if you’re feeling extravagant)

Anyway, I’ll quit my babble give you a recipe for my Marvellously Moreish Banana and Dark Chocolate Muffins. At only 12p each what’s not to love?

Before you start

· Read the whole recipe before you begin.

· Always weigh the ingredients.

· Heat the oven to the correct temperature.

· Oil your tin and line it with greaseproof paper.

· Use a timer.

Moreish Banana and Dark Chocolate Muffins

This recipe makes 12 regular muffins or 8 large muffins.

250g Plain Flour

1 tsp Baking Powder

½ tsp Bicarbonate of Soda

100g Sugar

125ml Sunflower Oil

2 Large Eggs

3 Big Overripe Bananas, mashed

150g Dark Cooking Chocolate, chunked (or milk/white chocolate if you prefer) I sometimes use Crunchies. The honeycomb explodes into a caramel mass!


1. Preheat the oven to 200C

2. Line a muffin tray with 12 paper cases

3. Sieve together the flour, baking powder and bicarbonate of soda. Add the sugar.

4. In a separate bowl mix the oil, eggs and mashed banana together.

5. Lightly combine the wet ingredients to the dry. Do not over mix.

6. Finally stir in the chocolate chunks.

7. Fill the cases with the mix and bake for 20 minutes.

8. Remove from the oven and serve warm or cold.

Amelia Bakes offers a wide range of cakes and mouth-watering treats for any occasion, For more information, visit the Amelia Bakes fakebook page:

Friday, 16 April 2010


After the earlier suggestion of one of our followers, I've decided to encourage you to try volunteering.

In a doom and gloom recession, volunteer work is not only a great way to make your CV stand out, but a fantastic method for making contacts in your profession of choice.

As a animal lover I spent several blissful months volunteering at Shepreth Wildlife Park outside of Cambridge. The people were absolutely lovely, I toned up loads from all the hard work and really felt like I had helped improve the day-to-day lives of animals. There's nothing as happy as a well-fed pygmy goat.

But, secretly, the best thing was the perks no-one had told me about. Shepreth is home to two tame wolves which members of the public can pay to have a cuddle with. As a volunteer I got to go into their enclosure several times, and went home covered in wolf paw-prints and glowing with pleasure.

Feeding the lemurs was another definite high point, as the furry creatures climb on your shoulders to get the best bits (banana) and will let you stroke their soft fur and furry tails for as long as you keep the fruit coming. Bliss.

I know a lot of my friends have volunteered abroad, which not only makes you feel great, but can be a good way to keep travel costs down. I volunteered at a wildlife orphanage in South Africa, which was hard work and long hours, but meant I got cheap accommodation and a chance to go on some breath taking safaris which I never could have afforded otherwise. Cuddling a baby lion made the hard work all seem worth it.

Now I write copy for the RSPB, fund raise for the Wildlife Trust and write several free wildlife articles for various websites. Whilst this takes a sizeable chunk out of my free time, I never regret it. I've met some wonderful people with the same passion for wildlife, and I will continue with it all for as long as I can.

Have you volunteered abroad? Or in England? Let us know your thoughts.

Friday, 9 April 2010

Guerrilla Gardening

Surely the most hippy way to break the law, guerrilla gardening is a movement about reclaiming unused public land to grow crops or wild flowers. Whilst technically illegal, most members of the public seem pretty cool with it - especially when they fancy picking some fresh veg from right outside their doors!

This week I joined the Cambridge group of guerrilla gardeners and had a great time. We worked on a plot opposite the ADC Theatre, and planted lettuces, radishes, strawberries, peas, thyme and native wildflowers. I'm really excited to see them all come up. I will post my full-length feature about the movement as soon as I've written it!

If you are interested in finding out more about the movement, visit

Saturday, 3 April 2010

Seriously sweet Easter Bunnies

Many people think that meringue is difficult to make, but for a cheap and simple easter treat there really is nothing better.

The trick is to know your process; whatever recipe you use, each step must be completed perfectly, in order, to prevent the fiddly little buggers from, well, collapsing.

I'm not a huge fan of meringue, but love to make holiday treats out of the easily shaped gloop, such as Hallowe'en Ghosts and Christmas Snowmen.

These Easter Bunny heads are simple to make, even if it's your first try at meringue, and always go down well at a party.

You'll need:

3 large eggs (or 5 medium)
6oz (170g) of caster sugar
Half a tsp of vanilla extract (or a little extra vanilla flavouring)
Something for decoration (e.g. chocolate buttons, chocolate chips, glace cherries, thin licorice whips, icing...)

  • Pre-heat your oven to 150 degrees Celcius (Gas Mark 3).
  • First, separate the egg whites into a large bowl and discard the yolks. If you don't have an egg divider, you can use a small, clean sieve or the shell of the egg. Make sure the bowl you are using is scrubbed clean, and avoid letting even the tiniest bit of yolk into the whites.
  • Using an electric whisk, beat the whites until they form stiff peaks. If you've got a 2-speed whisk, start off slowly until the whites turn into foam, then up the speed until the peaks stand on their own. You should be able to hold the bowl upside down (and give it a little wiggle) without the mixture moving.
  • Add the caster sugar slowly and fold in with a large metal spoon. Once the mix is stiff and shiny, add your vanilla and fold again.
  • Line two trays with non-stick grease-proof paper. Grease the paper with margarine or easy-spread butter. It seems excessive, but this will help ensure the bunnies don't stick to the paper as the sugars caramelise.
  • Spoon the mixture onto the paper and shape it. You should be able to get about 20 bunny heads out of the ingredients. Turn the oven down to about 110 degrees Celcius (Gas Mark 1/2) and throw in the trays.
Now, timings can be tricky and will depend on how thick your meringues are, but 20 shapes in a batch this size will take around 40-50 minutes at this heat. If you've made 10 large bunnies, be sure to give them extra time (up to 11/2 hours) to dry through. Check that your bunnies have turned crispy (they can be slightly golden), remove from the oven and leave to cool.

If everything's gone to plan, they should come off the paper without a hitch!

While the meringue is cooking, raid your cupboards for decorations. For today's batch, I found a bag of chocolate chips and two tubs of icing (unfortunately, the blue icing exploded, so my bunnies had to go without whiskers) which were perfect for creating their cute little faces.

I used pink icing to define the ears, create the nose and fix on the chocolate chip eyes, but why not try cherry noses or skittles for eyes?

Sweet Tooth Tips:

  • Even the tiniest bit of yolk can kill your mixture. Separate each white into a cup before adding it to the bowl.
  • If in doubt, add less sugar. Too much sugar will caramelise and turn your crispy meringue into sticky goop.
  • There is not enough grease-proofing in the world to prevent you from adding extra. A tiny bit of marg goes a long way.
  • Don't be scared to experiment. Meringue recipes are deceptively simple and there is so much that can go wrong, but the ingredients are so easy to buy that you can keep trying until you get the perfect batch.

Wednesday, 31 March 2010

Best Podcasts

Podcasts are a great way to listen to often extremely interesting content... for free!

If you have an itunes account there is an entire section for podcasts, which will then update automatically when you've subscribed to one.

At the moment I'm addicted to the radio show 'This American Life' - which I believe is the most downloaded podcast in the USA. A cross between journalistic features and autobiography, each show selects a title theme and then tells true-life stories from people who have had fascinating experiences.

Being a wildlife geek I also listen to Radio 4's 'The Best of Natural History', and a gorgeously home-made 'Zoologica' podcast, featuring a guy from the States talking about a different species each week.

Podcasts are great for people with an interest in literature too, with 'The New Yorker' podcast offering contemporary authors reading classic stories previously published in the New Yorker. 'The Moth' is also a brilliant podcast featuring live story telling where participants aren't allowed any notes, giving the events the feel of a stand-up comedy night or poetry reading.

Do you have a never-miss podcast? Please share your recommendations with us.

Friday, 26 March 2010

Earth Hour

The ultimate FREE event is the WWF's Earth Hour - turn off your lights/computers and any other electrical appliances you can bear to part with for one hour, tomorrow Saturday 27th March at 8.30 pm.

Get creative with your dark time - light candles, tell ghost stories, watch the stars or take the excuse to snuggle up in bed, safe in a blanket of self-satisfaction that you are making an environmental stand, along with millions of others world wide.

Thursday, 25 March 2010

How to...bag a souvenir bargain

By Special Guest Blogger Laura Sigsworth

Laura’s Top Tips: Souvenir Hunting

The subtle art of bargaining is an essential skill for travel on the cheap. If you are anything like me, you will have an obsession for acquiring exotic yet useless items while abroad. This is a great time to haul out those bargaining skills, so here are my Top Ten Tips for Souvenir Hunting Abroad:

1.Have patience my pretty. Resist the temptation to nab something as soon as you see it. Most places have a standard selection of tourist fare which ranges vastly in quality. Take your time, scope out the selection, and have a clear idea of what you want when you enter the shopping area so you are not ‘persuaded’ that you really really need that gold plastic camel/ pen holder/snow globe.
2.Location, location, location. Be aware that you are not going to find bargains in hotel and airport shops. Consult your guide book and ask around to find local craft markets where prices are likely to be more flexible.
3. Speak the lingo. If you don’t speak the language, it is useful to learn some key words to use when shopping. Most locals will be delighted that you have made an effort, and this can go a long way to driving the prices down. ‘How much is it’ and ‘too expensive’ are useful, but so are general conversational phrases. If in doubt, ‘I am a student’ is a winner.
4. All the world is a stage. The process of bargaining is much like a charade. Particularly when you do not speak the local language, you will rely on exaggerated facial expressions and maybe some mime. Generally the script is always the same: you ask how much, they name an overblown price. You make a horrified expression and say ‘oh no! Too expensive’. Then you offer a much lower price, generally about 30-40% of the price they named (making sure it is less than you are willing to pay). They look horrified, but name a slightly lower price. At this point it is useful to play the student card. The process continues. If you are still not happy with the price, sometimes pretending to leave will bring it down a bit further.
5. Charm is everything. Confidence, coupled with a winning smile, will get you a long way. The buying process is not one to be rushed over. If you are asked (and if it is safe), stop for a cup of tea and a chat with the vendor. This way you get a bargainous souvenir, and some local insight!
6. Quality, not quantity. Take a good look at what you are buying. Are there any loose threads? Do all the zips work? Is there a ‘Made in China’ sticker on the bottom? If you want locally produced souvenirs, try and make sure that they are locally produced. Tourists are often misled by sales patter which presents plastic as stone and nylon as angora. If you are paying the equivalent of 50p for a cashmere scarf, the chances are that it is not 100% cashmere.
7. Worth not Cost. When bargaining, particularly when you are dealing with a different currency, it is easy to get overly absorbed in reducing the price. This is why it is key to decide what the item is worth to you. In this way, you will not find yourself arguing for hours over 20p. If you really want the item, and you can afford it, pay the asking price. Remember, that 20p is probably worth more to the vendor than it is to you.
8. If you have time... If you are staying in one place for a reasonable length of time, it is often worth having something handmade for you. In Africa, Asia and South America, you can frequently find craftsman and tailors working out of small workshops who are happy to take commissions.
9. Law and order. In many places it is illegal to export items made of coral, shell and other naturally occurring materials, not to mention damaging for the environment. Make sure you are aware of local customs regulations so as not to get in a pickle at the airport.
10. Buy local. Wherever possible, try and buy directly from craftsmen themselves, or from co-operatives or NGO craft organisations. That way you know that the money is not being siphoned off by Big Business.

Most of all.... enjoy!
NB: All of the above is subject to location. I would not suggest that you try these tips in the designer boutiques of St Tropez.